When sitting down to put together this week’s round-up, which is coming to you slightly later than usual because of <gestures indeterminately> all this, I decided that I’d only focus on things that are positive; things that might either raise a smile or make you think “oh, interesting!”
The real advantage of going with a launcher like this instead of a more traditional one is simple: distraction reduction and productivity increases. Everything done while using this kind of setup is deliberate. There is no scrolling through pages upon pages of apps. There is no scrolling through Google Discover with story after story that you will probably never read. Instead between 3–7 app shortcuts are present, quick links to clock and calendar, and not much else. This setup requires you as the user to do an inventory of what apps you use the most. It really requires the user to rethink how they use their phone and what apps are the priority.
Cow face pose is the yoga name for that stretch where one hand reaches down your back, and the other hand reaches up. (There’s a corresponding thing you do with your legs, but forget it for now—we’re focusing on shoulders today.) If you can’t reach your hands together, it feels like a challenging or maybe impossible pose.
I was pretty shocked that I couldn’t barely do this with my right hand at the top and my left at the bottom. I was very shocked that I got nowhere near the other way around. It just goes to show that those people who work at home really need to work on back muscles and flexibility.
As someone who a) thinks Dr. Dre was an amazing producer, and b) read Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks to his children roughly 1 million times (enough to be able to, eventually, get through the entire book at a comically high rate of speed w/o any tongue twisting slip-ups), I thought Wes Tank’s video of himself rapping Fox in Socks over Dre’s beats was really fun and surprisingly well done.
One of the highlights of my kids being a bit younger than they are now was to read Dr. Suess to them. Fox in Socks was my absolute tongue-twisting favourite! So this blew me away, and then when I went through to YouTube, the algorithm recommended Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter star) rapping Blackalicious’ Alphabet Aerobics. Whoah.
Google is launching the free version of its Stadia game streaming service today. Anyone with a Gmail address can sign up, and Google is even providing a free two-month trial of Stadia Pro as part of the launch. It comes just two months after Google promised a free tier was imminent, and it will mean anyone can get access to nine titles, including GRID, Destiny 2: The Collection, and Thumper, free of charge.
Tom Warren (The Verge)
This is exactly the news I’ve been waiting for! Excellent.
Practicing simple creative acts on a regular basis can give you a psychological boost, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology. A 2010 review of more than 100 studies of art’s impact on health revealed that pursuits like music, writing, dance, painting, pottery, drawing, and photography improved medical outcomes, mental health, social networks, and positive identity. It was published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Gwen Moran (Fast Company)
I love all of the artists on Twitter and Instagram giving people daily challenges. My family have been following along with some of them!
[R]esearchers at Norway’s Vestre Viken Hospital Trust and the University of Bergen conducted a small study to quantify the auditory experience of dreamers. Why? Because they wanted to “assess the relevance of dreaming as a model for psychosis.” Throughout history, they write, psychologists have considered dreamstates to be a model for psychosis, yet people experiencing psychosis usually suffer from auditory hallucinations far more than visual ones. Basically, what the researchers determined is that the reason so little is known about auditory sensations while dreaming is because, well, nobody asks what people’s dreams sound like.
David Pescovitz (Boing boing)
This makes sense, if you think about it. The advice for doing online video is always that you get the audio right first. It would seem that it’s the same for dreaming: that we pay attention more to what we ‘hear’ than what we ‘see’.
Humans can’t stand being bored. Studies show we’ll do just about anything to avoid it, from compulsive smartphone scrolling right up to giving ourselves electric shocks. And as emotions go, boredom is incredibly good at parting us from our money – we’ll even try to buy our way out of the feeling with distractions like impulse shopping.
Erin Craig (BBC Travel)
The story in this article about a prisoner of war who dreamed up a daring escape is incredible, but does make the point that dreaming big when you’re locked down is a grat idea.
“What did you learn today,” is a fine question to ask. Particularly right this minute, when we have more time and less peace of mind than is usually the norm.
It’s way easier to get someone to watch–a YouTube comic, a Netflix show, a movie–than it is to encourage them to do something. But it’s the doing that allows us to become our best selves, and it’s the doing that creates our future.
It turns out that learning isn’t in nearly as much demand as it could be. Our culture and our systems don’t push us to learn. They push us to conform and to consume instead.
The good news is that each of us, without permission from anyone else, can change that.
A timely, inspirational post from the always readable (and listen-worthy) Seth Godin.
This column has been in the works for some time, but my hope is that launching it during the pandemic will help you leverage a contemplative mindset while you have the time to think about what matters most to you. I hope this column will enrich your life, and equip you to enrich the lives of the people you love and lead.
Arthur C. Brooks (The atlantic)
A really handy way of looking at things, and I’m hoping that further articles in the series are just as good.
Images by Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck (they’re all over Giphy so I just went to the original source and used the hi-res versions)
Mental health, imagination, and post-pandemic futures
I guess, given that this is the third straight week I’ve written on the subject, that this could be considered a blogchain on post-pandemic reality. I’m fine with that, and although there’s no need to read the previous two posts, you might want to do so for background:
In this post I want to talk about the effect of this period of lockdown on our collective mental health and ability to imagine the future.
The caveat is that I don’t inhabit anyone else’s brain than my own, and therefore am extrapolating from one specific example. I’m told that in statistics that’s not recommended.
There are five very broad categories of people during this lockdown. You can imagine it as a spectrum, as there are those who are:
Working from home, and have done for a while
Working from home, and are new to it
Working at their usual place of work
Not working because they are unemployed
Not working because they are ill/retired
It’s fair to say that the lockdown affects these groups in different ways. However, I think that they share quite a lot in common.
For people in all five groups, whatever their current status, they had plans for the future. Let’s look at those out of work first: if you’re ill, your plan is probably to get better; if you’re retired you may have plans to visit the grandkids; or if you’re unemployed the chances are you’re looking forward to getting a job.
If you’re employed, no matter where you work, then you’re looking forward to any number of things: that promotion, the conference you’re attending in a few months’ time; or even just finishing the project you’re working on.
Instead, you’re stuck at home. And as Christine Grové points out in this article about the longer-term effects of the coronavirus on education, that can have mental health implications — what some term a ‘social recession’:
A social recession can have profound physical, economic and psychological effects. Though we are in uncharted territory, data suggests that quarantine can seriously affect people’s mental health, leading to anger, confusion and post-traumatic stress symptoms. As this pandemic continues, the continuous provision of mental health information is critical. Honest and fast communication about how to reduce isolation and increase connection while physically distancing is essential. Health messages need to also include specific ways to look after your mental health. As governments and health regulatory bodies respond to the impacts of the pandemic, an interdisciplinary expert task force on the short- and long-term mental health effects is urgently needed to address the potential risks and repercussions for children, youth, adults, parents, families and the community.
Thankfully, thanks to an unprecedented government intervention it seems most people in the UK don’t need to worry about being out on the streets. They’re covered in some way. Meanwhile, the Spanish government is apparently planning to roll out basic income, not temporarily, but in a way “that stays forever, that becomes a structural instrument, a permanent instrument”.
We’re all familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as represented as a pyramid, but these days it tends to be represented in sociological research in a more dynamic way, with overlapping needs that can take precedence at any given time.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s great that most people in developed countries are going to be able to have their safety needs met throughout this crisis. What’s not certain is that psychological needs will be met, never mind those around belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
That’s because the short version of the problem with the world pre-pandemic is ‘capitalism’ but the slightly longer and more accurate version is ‘neoliberal capitalism’. That modifier is an important one.
Writing in The Financial Times, author Arundhati Roy writes about India’s response to the coronavirus. She explains how it could be a great leveller:
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Arundhati Roy (The Financial Times)
Normality for too many people in this world is predicated on a logic that enriches a very small number of people while hollowing-out the world for the 99%. This is done through markets and competition being introduced to every area of life, so that ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in life is reduced to an individual’s responsibility.
Under such conditions, neoliberal societies are geared towards short-termism, as evidenced by our woeful response to the dangers of climate change. As Dark Matter Labs put it:
Our underlying structural capacities and incentives are deeply coded to advance short-term thinking and decision-making. This fundamental societal deficit in future-oriented thinking, permeates our psychological, cultural, technological, legal, financial and political infrastructures—amplifying a bias towards the present—resulting in short-sighted and vulnerable subjects, short-term financial investments, waste economies and a growing political fracture between intergenerational relations.
Dark Matter Labs
This is an unprecedented opportunity for societies to change track and to get off the neoliberal rails. One way of doing that is to use tools to think about the potential impact of the changes we’re experiencing. Only then can we think about potential solutions that benefit the many instead of the few.
He gives the example of the majority of people in ‘professional’ occupations now working from home. What are the first, second, and third level impacts? What kind of impacts are they?
Some of these are positive impacts, some negative, and some neutral. Some have individual effects, some are felt at the organisational or societal level. Either way, now is probably a good time to be thinking about a new venture that will both help people and be profitable in the post-pandemic landscape.
One thing we’ve taken for granted over the last couple of decades is that everything is manufactured in China. However, Matt Webb has been reading the runes and thinking about this:
The hegemony of manufacturing in China is assumed. But my feeling is that the threshold between centralised and local is a fine line, and it’s closer than it looks.
I was reading recently about loo paper, because of course I was. Apparently it’s always made close to the place of sale because it’s cheap and not very dense and so disproportionately expensive to ship. So where else are these fine lines, and how quickly could we tip over them?
We no longer live in a world where there are defined groups of people that neatly fit previous pre-conceived media groups. I can remember reading about DINKYs (Dual Income No Kids Yet) back when I was doing Media Studies as a GCSE student. The world has moved on.
But now we’ve got micro-targeted advertising and e-commerce. It’s absurd to stock physical stores with items that probably won’t be bought, just to make a particular size and colour available. And there’s no ABC1 sociodemographic group now, people form their own communities. You can launch a micro-brand on Instagram in an instant (and either keep it niche or scale it to billions). Where’s the requirement for mass anything? The logic collapses.
So maybe the logic supporting centralised supply chains has collapsed too.
There’s many people coming together to think through the implications of the coronavirus and what a post-pandemic landscape could (or should) look like for them and their sector. One I found particularly illuminating was on Subpixel Space, where Toby Shorin had a chat with his friends and shared the result.
I don’t agree with all of the predictions, but a few really jumped out at me. For example:
Media and content brands with membership models will likely do very well, as will games, both indie and platforms like Roblox. We’ll see more brands which do not hold any assets whatsoever, but are simply groupings of individuals giving themselves a name and a presence.
Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Kei Kreutler, Edouard Urcades
I think this is already happening. For example, a few educators banded together to create the (now quite slick-looking) Higher Ed Learning Collective. This started with one guy sitting on his couch creating a Facebook group.
Given all of the digital tools at our disposal, there’s no reason for people to wait in order to experiment, or even to gain financing for their idea. In fact, getting people in on the ground floor is a great way of sharing ownership of the project.
Building brands around shared ownership with customers will probably be increasingly important. Expect to see more crowdfunding, patronage, community, and membership-based go-to-market strategies which make ownership an explicit part of the brand experience. Several crypto-adjacent teams are exploring this territory already.
Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Kei Kreutler, Edouard Urcades
We’ve spent the last decade living most of our social lives online out in the open. That’s becoming less and less tenable now that pretty much everyone is online. We’re collectively looking for smaller spaces to share ideas with people who will read us in the right way.
There will need to be new types of interface and digital social environment to support the continued proliferation of lifestyles. We’ll probably see a flourishing of new, social micro-networks. They will not be for everyone. They will be private in nature, and will support between 20 and 1000 people.
Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Kei Kreutler, Edouard Urcades
Although life may feel a bit boring and repetitive right now, we’re in a period of time where the scale is about to tip. The thing is, we’re not just not sure which way.
Although it’s difficult, especially when we’re feeling anxious, or lonely, or uncertain, now is the time to band together with like-minded people and to create the future we want to inhabit. Let’s be the change we want to see in the world.
But there’s no reason to put too sunny a spin on what’s happening. Research has shown that anticipation can be a linchpin of well-being and that looking ahead produces more intense emotions than retrospection. In a 2012 New York Times article on why people thirst for new experiences, one psychologist told the paper, “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” and another referred to human beings as a “neophilic species.” Of course, the current blankness in the place of what comes next is supposed to be temporary. Even so, lacking an ability to confidently say “see you later” is going to have its effects. Have you noticed the way in which conversations in this era can quickly become recursive? You talk about the virus. Or you talk about what you did together long ago. The interactions don’t always spark and generate as easily as they once did.
Spencer Kornhaber (The Atlantic)
Part of the problem with all of this is that we don’t know how long it’s going to last, so we can’t really make plans. It’s like an extended limbo where you’re supposed to just get on with it, whatever ‘it’ is…
If you’re going after a career moat now, remember that the best skills to go after are the ones that the market will value after the recession ends. You can’t necessarily predict this — the world is complex and the future is uncertain, but you should certainly keep the general idea in mind.
A simpler version of this is to go after complementary skills to your current role. If you’ve been working for a bit, it’s likely that you’ll have a better understanding of your industry than most. So ask yourself: what complementary skills would make you more valuable to the employers in your job market?
Cedric James (Commonplace)
I’m fortunate to have switched from education to edtech at the right time. Elsewhere, James says that “job security is the ability to get your next job, not keep your current one” and that this depends on your network, luck, and having “rare and valuable skills”. Indeed.
This is hard stuff, and acknowledging it comes with a corollary: We, as a society, are not particularly special. Vinsel, the historian at Virginia Tech, cautioned against “digital exceptionalism,” or the idea that everything is different now that the silicon chip has been harnessed for the controlled movement of electrons.
It’s a difficult thing for people to accept, especially those who have spent their lives building those chips or the software they run. “Just on a psychological level,” Vinsel said, “people want to live in an exciting moment. Students want to believe they’re part of a generation that’s going to change the world through digital technology or whatever.”
Aaron Gordon (VICE)
Everyone thinks they live in ‘unprecedented’ times, especially if they work in tech.
But disasters and emergencies do not just throw light on the world as it is. They also rip open the fabric of normality. Through the hole that opens up, we glimpse possibilities of other worlds. Some thinkers who study disasters focus more on all that might go wrong. Others are more optimistic, framing crises not just in terms of what is lost but also what might be gained. Every disaster is different, of course, and it’s never just one or the other: loss and gain always coexist. Only in hindsight will the contours of the new world we’re entering become clear.
Peter C Baker (the Guardian)
An interesting read, outlining the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis, but of course what comes next (CLIMATE CHANGE) is even bigger.
This tendency to rally around even incompetent leaders makes one despair for humanity. The correct response in all cases is contempt and an attempt, if possible, at removal of the corrupt and venal people in charge. Certainly no one should be approving of the terrible jobs they [Cuomo, Trump, Johnson] have done.
All three have or will use their increased power to do horrible things. The Coronavirus bailout bill passed by Congress and approved by Trump is a huge bailout of the rich, with crumbs for the poor and middle class. So little, in fact, that there may be widespread hunger soon. Cuomo is pushing forward with his cuts, and I’m sure Johnson will live down to expectations.
I’m genuinely shocked that the current UK government’s approval ratings are so high. Yes, they’re covering 80% of the salary of those laid-off, but the TUC was pushing for an even higher figure. It’s like we’re congratulating neoliberal idiots for destroying our collectively ability to be able to respond to this crisis effectively.
Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later. It is a lesson Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say.
Nearly two decades later, law enforcement agencies have access to higher-powered surveillance systems, like fine-grained location tracking and facial recognition — technologies that may be repurposed to further political agendas like anti-immigration policies. Civil liberties experts warn that the public has little recourse to challenge these digital exercises of state power.
Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun (The New York Times)
I’ve seen a lot of suggestions around smarpthone tracking to help with the pandemic response. How, exactly, when it’s trivial to spoof your location? It’s just more surveillance by the back door.
Have you ever noticed that when you argue with someone smart, if you manage to debunk their initial reasoning, they just shift to a new, logical-sounding reason?
Reasons are like a salamander’s legs — if you cut one off, another grows in its place.
When you’re dealing with a salamander, you need to get to the heart. Forget about reasoning and focus on what’s causing the emotions. According to [non-violent communication], every negative emotion is the result of an unmet, universal need.
Great advice here, especially for those who work in organisations (or who have clients) who lack emotional intelligence.
When the current crisis is over in terms of infection, the social and economic impact will be felt for a long time. One such hangover is likely to be the shift to online for so much of work and interaction. As the cartoon goes “these meetings could’ve been emails all along”. So let’s jump forward then a few years when online is the norm.
Martin Weller (The Ed Techie)
Some of the examples given in this post gave me a much-needed chuckle.
However, now that many of us are finding we have time on our hands, it could be the opportunity we need to attempt some of the more chronologically demanding narrative video game masterpieces of the last decade.
Keith Stuart (The Guardian)
Well, yes, but what we probably need even more is multiplayer mode. Red Dead Redemption II is on this list, and it’s one of the best games ever made. However, it’s tinged with huge sadness for me as it’s a game I greatly enjoyed playing with the late, great, Dai Barnes.
It’s sobering to think that, in years to come, historians will probably refer to the 75 years between the end of the Second World War and the start of this period we’ve just begun with a single name.
Whatever we end up calling it, one thing is for sure: what comes next can’t be a continuation of what went before. We need a sharp division of life pre- and post-pandemic.
That’s because our societies have been increasingly unequal since 2008, when the global financial crisis meant that the rich consolidated their position while the rest of us paid for the mistakes of bankers and the global elite.
So what can we do about this? What should we be demanding once we’re allowed back out of our houses? What should we organise against?
I’ve been a proponent of Universal Basic Income over the last few years, but, I have to say that the closer it comes to being a reality, the more concerns I have about its implementation. Even if it’s brought in by a left-leaning government, there’s still the danger that it’s subsequently used as a weapon against the poor by a new adminstration.
That’s why I was interested in this section from a book I’m reading at the moment. Writing in Future Histories, Lizzie O’Shea suggests that we need to think beyond UBI to include other approaches:
Alongside this, we need to consider how productive, waged work could be more democratically organized to meet the needs of society rather than individual companies. To this end, one commonly suggested alternative to a basic income is a job guarantee. The idea is that the government offers a job to anyone who wants one and is able to work, in exchange for a minimum wage. Jobs could be created around infrastructure projects, for example, or care work. Government spending on this enlarged public sector world act like a kind of Keynesian expenditure, to stimulate the economy and buffer the population against the volatility of the private labor market. Modeling suggests that this would be more cost-effective than a basic income (often critiqued for being too expensive) and avoid many of the inflationary perils that might accompany basic income proposals. It could also be used to jump-start sections of the economy that are politically important, like green energy, carbon reduction and infrastructure. A job guarantee could help us collectively decide what kind of work is must urgent and necessary and to prioritize that through democratically accountable representatives.
Lizzie O’Shea, Future Histories
Of course, as she points out, there are a number of drawbacks to a job guarantee scheme:
Reinforcement of the connection between productivity and human value
Creation of ‘bullshit jobs’
Could deny people chance to engage in other pursuits (if poorly implemented)
Potential to leave behind prior who cannot work (disability / other health concerns)
Seems didactic and disciplinary
Nevertheless, O’Shea believes that a combination of a job guarantee, UBI, and government-provided services is the way forward:
Ultimately, we need a combination of these programs. We need the liberty offered by a basic income, the sustainability promised by the organization of a job guarantee, and the protection of dignity offered by centrally planned essential services. It is like a New Deal for the age of automation, a ground rent for the digital revolution, in which the benefits of accelerated productive capacity are shared among everyone. From each according to his ability, to each according to their need – a twenty-first-century vision of socialism. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” wrote Thomas Paine in an appendix to Common Sense, just before one of the most revolutionary periods in human history. We have a similar opportunity today.
Lizzie O’Shea, Future Histories
While I don’t disagree that we will continue to need “the protection of dignity offered by centrally planned essential services,” I’m not so sure that giving the state so much power over our lives is a good thing. I think this approach papers over the cracks of neoliberalism, giving billionaires and capitalists a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Instead, I’d like to see a post-pandemic breakup of mega corporations. While a de jure limit on how much one individual or one organisation can be worth is likely to be unworkable, there’s ways we can make de facto limits on this a reality.
People respond to incentives, including how easy or hard it is to do something. I know from experience how easy it is to set up a straightforward limited company in the UK and how difficult it is to set up a co-operative. To get to where we need to be, we need to ensure collective decision-making is the norm within organisations owned by workers. And then these worker-owned organisations need to co-ordinate for the good of everyone.
I’m a huge believer in decentralisation, not just technologically but politically and socially; we don’t need governments, billionaires, or celebrities telling us what to do with our lives. We need to think wider and deeper. My current thinking aligns with this section on libertarian municipalism from the Wikipedia page on the political philosopher Murray Bookchin:
Libertarian Municipalism constitutes the politics of social ecology, a revolutionary effort in which freedom is given institutional form in public assemblies that become decision-making bodies.
…or, in other words:
The overriding problem is to change the structure of society so that people gain power. The best arena to do that is the municipality—the city, town, and village—where we have an opportunity to create a face-to-face democracy.
Some people think that, in these days of super-fast connections to anyone on the planet, that nation states are dead, and that we should be building communities on the blockchain. I have yet to see a proposal of how this would be workable in practice; everything I’ve seen so far extrapolates naïvely from what’s technically possible to what should be socially desirable.
Yes, we can and should have solidarity with people around the world with whom we work and socialise. But this does not negate the importance of decision-making at a local level. Gaming clans don’t yet do bin collections, and colleagues in a different country can’t fix the corruption riddling your local government.
Ultimately, then, we’re going to need a whole new politics and social contract after the pandemic. I sincerely hope we manage to grasp the nettle and do something radically different. I’m not sure how we’ll all survive if the rich, once again, come out of all this even richer than before.
BONUS: check out this 1978 speech from Murray Bookchin where he calls for utopia, not futurism.
Our stories about where inventiveness comes from, and how the future will be made, overwhelmingly focus on the power of the individual. Such stories appeal to the desire for human perfection (and redemption?) recast in technological language, and they were integral to the way that late-19th-century inventor-entrepreneurs, such as Tesla or Thomas Edison, presented themselves to their publics. They’re still very much part of the narrative of technological entrepreneurism now. Just as Tesla wanted to be seen as a kind of superhero of invention, unbound by conventional restraints, so too do his contemporary admirers at the cutting edge of the tech world. Superheroes resonate within that culture precisely because they embody in themselves the perception of technology as something that belongs to powerful and iconoclastic individuals. They epitomise the idea that technological culture is driven by outsiders. The character of Iron Man makes this very clear: after all, he really is a tech entrepreneur, his superpowers the product of the enhanced body armour he wears.
Iwan Rhys Morus (Aeon)
A really interesting read about the link between individualism, superheroes, technology, and innovation.
Blogging was then diffused into social media, but now social media is so tribal and algo-regulated that anybody with a real message today needs their own property. At the same time, professional institutions are increasingly suffocated by older, rent-seeking incumbents and politically-correct upstarts using moralism as a career strategy. In such a context, blogging — if it is intelligent, courageous, and consistent — is currently one of the most reliable methods for intellectually sophisticated individuals to accrue social and cultural capital outside of institutions. (Youtube for the videographic, Instagram for the photographic, podcasting for the loquacious, but writing and therefore blogging for the most intellectually sophisticated.)
Justin Murphy (Other LIfe)
I’ve been blogging since around 2004, so for sixteen years, and through all of my career to date. It’s the best and most enjoyable thing about ‘work’.
NASA expected its probe, dubbed “the mole,” to dig its way through sand-like terrain. But because the Martian soil clumped together, the whole apparatus got stuck in place.
Programming InSight’s robotic arm to land down on the mole was a risky, last-resort maneuver, PopSci reports, because it risked damaging fragile power and communication lines that attached nearby. Thankfully, engineers spent a few months practicing in simulations before they made a real attempt.
Dan Robitzski (Futurism)
The idea of NASA engineers sending a signal to a distant probe to get it to hit itself, in the midst of a crisis on earth, made me chuckle this week.
Don’t turn your office into a generic TV backdrop. Video is boring enough. The more you remove from the frame, the less visual data you are providing about who you are, where you live, how you work, and what you care about. If you were watching a remote interview with, say, Bong Joon-ho (the South Korean director of Parasite) would you want him sitting on a blank set with a ficus plant? Of course not. You would want to see him in his real office or studio. What are the posters on his wall? The books on his shelf? Who are his influences?
Douglas Rushkoff (OneZero)
Useful advice in this post from Douglas Rushkoff. I appreciate his reflection that, “every pixel is a chance to share information about your process and proclivities.”
On Twitter, people are finding ways to use the Zoom Rooms custom background feature to slap an image of themselves in their frames. You can record a short, looping video as your background, or take a photo of yourself looking particularly attentive, depending on the level of believability you’re going for. Zoom says it isn’t using any kind of video or audio analysis to track attention, so this is mostly for your human coworkers and boss’ sake. With one of these images on your background, you’re free to leave your seat and go make a sandwich while your boss thinks you’re still there paying attention:
Samantha Cole (Vice)
As an amusing counterpoint to the above article, I find it funny that people are using video backgrounds in this way!
There are lots of virtual event tools out there, like Google Hangouts, YouTube Live, Vimeo Live. For this guide I’ll delve into how to use Zoom specifically. However, a lot of the best practices explored here are broadly applicable to other tools. My goal is that reading this document will give you all the tools you need to be able to set up a meeting and host it on Zoom (or other platforms) in fun and interactive ways.
Alexa Kutler (Google Docs)
This is an incredible 28-page document that explains how to set up Zoom meetings for success. Highly recommended!
Elements of Asia’s bio-surveillance revolution may not be as far off as citizens of Western democracies assume. On 24 March an emergency bill, which would relax limits on urgent surveillance warrants, went before the House of Lords. In any case, Britain’s existing Investigatory Powers Act already allows the state to seize mobile data if national security justifies it. In another sign that a new era in data rights is dawning, the EU is reviewing its recent white paper on AI regulation and delaying a review of online privacy rules. Researchers in both Britain (Oxford) and the US (MIT) are developing virus-tracking apps inviting citizens to provide movement data voluntarily. How desperate would the search for “needles in haystacks” have to get for governments to make such submissions compulsory? Israel’s draconian new regulations – which allegedly include tapping phone cameras and microphones – show how far down this road even broadly Western democracies might go to save lives and economies.
Jeremy Cliffe (New Statesman)
We need urgent and immediate action around the current criss. But we also need safeguards and failsafes so that we don’t end up with post-pandemic authoritarian regimes.
Soon enough, as hospitals around the world overflow with coronavirus patients, exhausting doctors, nurses, orderlies, custodians, medical supplies, ventilators and hospital cash accounts, doctors will have to make moral choices about who lives or dies. We should not supersede their judgment based on a false choice. Economic depression will come, regardless of how many we let die. The question is how long and devastating it will be.
Siva Vaidhyanathan (The Guardian)
Not exactly a fun read, but the truth is the world’s economy is shafted no matter which way we look at it. And as I tweeted the other day, there’s no real thing that exists, objectively speaking called ‘the economy’ which is separate from human relationships.
Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’” says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.
We are, I would suggest, in a period of collective shock due to the pandemic. Of course, some people are better at dealing with these kinds of things than others. I’m not medically trained, but I’m pretty sure some of this comes down to genetics; it’s probably something to do with the production of cortisol.
It might a little simplistic to separate people into those who are good in a crisis and those who aren’t. It’s got to be more complex than that. What if some people, despite their genetic predisposition, have performed some deliberate practice in terms of how they react to events and other things around them?
I often say to my kids that it’s not your actions that mark you out as a person, but your reactions. After all, anyone can put on a ‘mask’ and affect an air of nonchalance and sophistication. But that mask can slip in a crisis. To mix metaphors, people lose control when they reach the end of their tether, and are at their most emotionally vulnerable and unguarded when things go wrong. This is when we see their true colours.
A few years ago, when I joined Moodle, I flew to Australia and we did some management bonding stuff and exercises. One of them was about the way that you operate in normal circumstances, and the way that you operate under pressure. Like most people, I tended to get more authoritarian in a crisis.
What we’re seeing in this crisis, I think, are people’s true colours. The things they’re talking about the most and wanting to protect are the equivalent of them item they’d pull from a burning building. What do they want to protect from the coronavirus? Is it the economy? Is it their family? Is it freedom of speech?
It’s an interesting suggestion for a thought experiment. Before we go any further, though, I want to preface this by saying these are the ramblings of an incoherent fool. Don’t make any investment decisions, buy any new clothes, or sever any relationships based on what I’ve got to say. After all, at this point, I’m mostly for rhetorical effect.
The first and obvious thing that I think will happen as a result of the pandemic is that people will get sick and some will die. Pretty much everyone on earth will either lose someone close to them or know someone who has. Death, as it has done for much of human history, will stalk us, and be something we are forced to both confront and talk about.
This may not seem like a very cheerful and hopeful place to start, but, actually, not being afraid to die seems to be the first step in living a fulfilling life. As I’ve said before, quoting it is the child within us that trembles before death. Coming to terms with that fact that you and the people you love are going to die at some point is just accepting the obvious.
If we don’t act like we’re going to live forever, if we confront our mortal condition, then it forces us to make some choices, both individually and as a society. How do we care for people who are sick and dying? How should we support those who are out of work? What kind of education do we want for our kids?
I forsee a lot of basic questions being re-asked and many assumptions re-evaluated in the light of the pandemic. Individually, in communities, and as societies, we’ll look back and wonder why it was that companies making billions of dollars when everything was fine were all of a sudden unable to meet their financial obligations when things weren’t going so well. We’ll realise that, at root, the neoliberalist form of capitalism we’ve been drinking like kool-aid actually takes from the many and gives to the few.
Before the pandemic, we had dead metaphors for both socialism and “pulling together in times of adversity”. Socialism has been unfairly caricatured as, and equated with, the totalitarian communist experiment in Russia. Meanwhile, neoliberals have done a great job at equating adversity with austerity, invoking memories of life during WWII. Keep Calm and Carry On.
This is why, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, despite the giant strides and inroads into our collective consciousness, made by the Occupy movement, it ultimately failed. When it came down to brass tacks, we were frightened that destroying our current version of capitalism would mean we’d be left with totalitarian communism: queuing for food, spying on your neighbours, and suchlike.
So instead we invoked the only “pulling together in times of adversity” meme we knew: austerity. Unfortunately, that played straight into the hands of those who were happy to hollow out civic society for financial gain.
Post-pandemic, as we’re rebuilding society, I think that not only will there be fewer old people (grim, but true) but the overall shock will move the Overton Window further to left than it has been previously. Those who remain are likely to be much more receptive to the kind of socialism that would make things like Universal Basic Income and radically decarbonising the planet into a reality.
Making predictions about politics is a lot easier than making predictions about technology. That’s for a number of reasons, including how quickly the latter moves compared to the former, and also because of the compound effect that different technologies can have on society.
For example, look at the huge changes in the last decade around smartphones now being something that people spend several hours using each day. A decade ago we were concerned about people’s access to any form of internet-enabled device. Now, we just assume that everyone’s gone one which they can use to connect during the pandemic.
What concerns me is that the past decade has seen not only the hollowing-out of civic society in western democracies, but also our capitulation to venture capital-backed apps that make our lives easier. The reason? They’re all centralised.
I’m certainly not denying that some of this is going to make our life much easier short-term. Being on lockdown and still being able to have Amazon deliver almost anything to me is incredible. As is streaming all of the things via Netflix, etc. But, ultimately, caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care.
Right now, we relying on centralised technologies. Everywhere I look, people are using a apps, tools, and platforms that could go down at any time. Remember the Twitter fail whale?
What happens when that scenario happens with Zoom? Or Microsoft Teams? Or Slack, or any kind of service that relies on the one organisation having their shit together for an extended period of time during a pandemic?
I think we’re going to see outages or other degradations in service. I’m hoping that this will encourage people to experiment with other, decentralised platforms, rather than leap from the frying pan of one failed centralised service into the fire another.
In terms of education, I don’t think it’s that difficult to predict what comes next. While I could be spectacularly wrong, the longer kids are kept at home and away from school, the more online teaching and learning has to become something mainstream.
Then, when it’s time to go back to school, some kids won’t. They and their parents will realise that they don’t need to, or that they are happier, or have learned more staying at home. Not all, by any means, but a significant majority. And because everyone has been in the same boat, parents will have peer support in doing so.
The longer the pandemic lockdown goes on, the more educational institutions will have to think about the logistics and feasibility of online testing. I’d like to think that competency-based learning and stackable digital credentials like Open Badges will become the norm.
Further out, as young people affected by the pandemic lockdown enter the job market, I’d hope that they would reject the traditional CV or resume as something that represents their experiences. Instead, although it’s more time-consuming to look at, I’d hope for portfolio-based approaches (with verified digital credentials) to become standard.
Education isn’t just about, or even mainly about, getting a job. So what about the impact of the pandemic on learners? On teachers? Well, if I’m being optimistic and hopeful, I’d say that it shows that things can be done differently at scale.
In the same way that climate change-causing emissions dropped dramatically in China and other countries during the enforced coronavirus lockdown, so we can get rid of the things we know are harmful in education.
High-stakes testing? We don’t need it. Kids being taught in classes of 30+ by a low-paid teacher? Get over it. Segregation between rich and poor through private education? Reject it.
All of this depends on how we respond to the ‘shock and awe’ of both the pandemic and its response. We’re living during a crisis when it’s almost certainly necessary to bring in the kind of authoritarian measures we’d reject at any other time. While we need to move quickly, we still need to subject legislation and new social norms to some kind of scrutiny.
This period in history provides us with a huge opportunity. When I was a History teacher, one of my favourite things to teach kids was about revolutions; about times when people took things into their own hands. There’s the obvious examples, for sure, like 1789 and the French Revolution.
But perhaps my absolute favourite was for them to discover what happened after the Black Death ravaged Europe in particular in the 14th century. Unable to find enough workers to work their land, lords had to pay peasants several times what they could have previously expected. In fact, it led to the end of the entire feudal system.
We have the power to achieve something similar here. Except instead of serfdom, the thing we can escape from his neoliberal capitalism, the idea that the poor should suffer for the enrichment of the elite. We can and should structure our society so that never happens again.
In other words, never waste a crisis. What are you doing to help the revolution? Remember, when it comes down to it, power is always taken, never freely given.
My writing epiphany — which arrived decades into my writing career — was that even though there were days when the writing felt unbearably awful, and some when it felt like I was mainlining some kind of powdered genius and sweating it out through my fingertips, there was no relation between the way I felt about the words I was writing and their objective quality, assessed in the cold light of day at a safe distance from the day I wrote them. The biggest predictor of how I felt about my writing was how I felt about me. If I was stressed, underslept, insecure, sad, hungry or hungover, my writing felt terrible. If I was brimming over with joy, the writing felt brilliant.
Cory Doctorow (CBC)
Such great advice in here from the prolific Cory Doctorow. Not only is he a great writer, he’s a great speaker, too. I think both come from practice and clarity of thought.
This is a site that specialises in important and interesting news that is updated regularly, but not on an hour-by-hour (or even daily) basis. A wonderful antidote to staring at your social media feed for updates!
There’s actually a mountain of compelling evidence that the single most important ingredient for healthy, high-performing teams is simple: it’s trust. When Google famously crunched the data on hundreds of high-performing teams, they were surprised to find that one variable mattered more than any other: “emotional safety.” Also known as: “psychological security.” Also known as: trust.
I used to work with Matt at Mozilla, and he’s a pretty great person to work alongside. He’s got a book coming out this year, and Laura (another former Mozilla colleague, but also a current co-op colleague!) drew my attention to this.
I Illustrated National Parks In America Based On Their Worst Review And I Hope They Will Make You Laugh (16 Pics)
I’m an illustrator and I have always had a personal goal to draw all 62 US National Parks, but I wanted to find a unique twist for the project. When I found that there are one-star reviews for every single park, the idea for Subpar Parks was born. For each park, I hand-letter a line from the one-star reviews alongside my illustration of each park as my way of putting a fun and beautiful twist on the negativity.
Amber Share (Bored Panda)
I love this, especially as the illustrations are so beautiful and the comments so banal.
We know, for instance, that smartphone use is associated with depression in teens. Smartphone use certainly could be the culprit, but it’s also possible the story is more complicated; perhaps the causal relationship works the other way around, and depression drives teenagers to spend more time on their devices. Or, perhaps other details about their life—say, their family background or level of physical activity—affect both their mental health and their screen time. In short: Human behavior is messy, and measuring that behavior is even messier.
Jane C. Hu (Slate)
This, via Ian O’Byrne, is a useful read for anyone who deals with kids, especially teenagers.
For months, writers have been showering us with multiple, ongoing series of articles, all focused on different dimensions of open organizational theory and practice. That’s led to to a real embarrassment of riches—so many great pieces, so little time to catch them all.
So let’s take moment to reflect. If you missed one (or several) now’s your chance to catch up.
Bryan Behrenshausen (Opensource.com)
I’ve already shared some of the articles in this roundup, but I encourage you to check out the rest, and subscribe to opensource.com. It’s a great source of information and guidance.
Capitalism has always transformed people into latent resources, whether as labor to exploit for making products or as consumers to devour those products. But now, online services make ordinary people enact both roles: Twitter or Instagram followers for conversion into scrap income for an influencer side hustle; Facebook likes transformed into News Feed-delivery refinements; Tinder swipes that avoid the nuisance of the casual encounters that previously fueled urban delight. Every profile pic becomes a passerby—no need for an encounter, even.
Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)
An amazing piece of writing, in which Ian Bogost not only surveys previous experiences with ‘strangers’ but applies it to the internet. As he points out, there is a huge convenience factor in not knowing who made your sandwich. I’ve pointed out before that capitalism is all about scale, and at the end of the day, caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care.
We desire quality moments and to make quality memories. It’s tempting to think that we can create quality time just by designating it so, such as via a vacation. That generally ends up backfiring due to our raised expectations being let down by reality. If we expect that our vacation is going to be perfect, any single mistake ruins the experience
In contrast, you are likely to get a positive surprise when you have low expectations, which is likely the case during a “normal day”. It’s hard to match perfection, and easy to beat normal. Because of this, it’s more likely quality moments come out of chance
If you can’t engineer quality time, and it’s more a matter of random events, it follows that you want to increase how often such events happen. You can’t increase the probability, but you can increase the duration for such events to occur. Put another way, you want to increase quantity of time, and not engineer quality time.
Leon Lin (Avoid boring people)
There’s a lot of other interesting-but-irrelevant things in this newsletter, so scroll to the bottom for the juicy bit. I’ve quoted the most pertinent point, which I definitely agree with. There’s wisdom in Gramsci’s quotation about having “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”.
The prodigal tech bro doesn’t want structural change. He is reassurance, not revolution. He’s invested in the status quo, if we can only restore the founders’ purity of intent. Sure, we got some things wrong, he says, but that’s because we were over-optimistic / moved too fast / have a growth mindset. Just put the engineers back in charge / refocus on the original mission / get marketing out of the c-suite. Government “needs to step up”, but just enough to level the playing field / tweak the incentives. Because the prodigal techbro is a moderate, centrist, regular guy. Dammit, he’s a Democrat. Those others who said years ago what he’s telling you right now? They’re troublemakers, disgruntled outsiders obsessed with scandal and grievance. He gets why you ignored them. Hey, he did, too. He knows you want to fix this stuff. But it’s complicated. It needs nuance. He knows you’ll listen to him. Dude, he’s just like you…
Maria Farrell (The Conversationalist)
Now that we’re experiencing something of a ‘techlash’ it’s unsurprising that those who created surveillance capitalism have had a ‘road to Damascus’ experience. That doesn’t mean, as Maria Farrell points out, that we should all of a sudden consider them to be moral authorities.
I get the feeling that, between film and TV shows on Netflix, Amazon deliveries, and social interaction on Twitter and Mastodon, beyond close friends and family, no-one would even realise if I’d been quarantined.
Writing in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost points out that Every Place Is the Same Now, because you go to every place with your personal screen, a digital portal to the wider world.
Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?
Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)
If you’re a knowledge worker, someone who deals with ideas and virtual objects rather than things in ‘meatspace’, then there is nothing tying you to a particular geographical place. This may be liberating, but it’s also quite… weird.
It’s easy but disorienting, and it makes the home into a very strange space. Until the 20th century, one had to leave the house for almost anything: to work, to eat or shop, to entertain yourself, to see other people. For decades, a family might have a single radio, then a few radios and a single television set. The possibilities available outside the home were far greater than those within its walls. But now, it’s not merely possible to do almost anything from home—it’s also the easiest option. Our forebears’ problem has been inverted: Now home is a prison of convenience that we need special help to escape.
Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)
I’ve worked from home for the last eight years, and now can’t imagine going back to working any other way. Granted, I get to travel pretty much every month, but that 95% being-at-home statistic still includes my multi-day international trips.
I haven’t watched it recently, but in 2009 a film called Surrogates starring Bruce Willis foreshadowed the kind of world we’re creating. Here’s the synopsis via IMDB:
People are living their lives remotely from the safety of their own homes via robotic surrogates — sexy, physically perfect mechanical representations of themselves. It’s an ideal world where crime, pain, fear and consequences don’t exist. When the first murder in years jolts this utopia, FBI agent Greer discovers a vast conspiracy behind the surrogate phenomenon and must abandon his own surrogate, risking his life to unravel the mystery.
If we replace the word ‘robotic’ with ‘virtual’ in this plot summary, then it’s a close approximation to the world in which some of us now live. Facetuned Instagram selfies project a perfect life. We construct our own narratives and then believe the story we have concocted. Everything is amazing but no-one’s happy.
Even Zoom, the videoconferencing software I use most days for work, has an option to smooth out wrinkles, change your background, and make everything look a bit more sparkly. Our offline lives can be gloriously mundane, but online, thanks to various digital effects, we can make them look glorious. And why wouldn’t we?
I think we’ll see people and businesses optimising for how they look and sound online, including recruitment. The ability to communicate effectively at a distance with people who you may never meet in person is a skill that’s going to be in high demand, if it isn’t already.
Remote working may be a trend, but one which is stubbornly resisted by some bosses who are convinced they have to keep a close eye on employees to get any work out of them.
However, when those bosses are forced to implement remote working policies to keep their businesses afloat, and nothing bad happens as a result, this attitude can, and probably will, change. Remote working, when done properly, is not only more cost-effective for businesses, but often leads to higher productivity and self-reported worker happiness.
Being ‘good in the room‘ is fine, and I’m sure it will always be highly prized, but I also see confident, open working practices as something that’s rising in perceived value. Chairing successful online meetings is at least as important as chairing ones offline, for example. We need to think of ways of being able recognise these remote working skills, as it’s not something in which you can receive a diploma.
For workers, of course, there are so many benefits of working from home that I’m not even sure where to start. Your health, relationships, and happiness are just three things that are likely to dramatically improve when you start working remotely.
For example, let’s just take the commute. This dominates the lives of non-remote workers, usually taking an hour or more out of a their day — every day. Commuting is tiring and inconvenient, but people are currently willing to put up with long commutes to afford a decently-sized house, or to live in a nicer area.
So, let’s imagine that because of the current pandemic (which some are calling the world’s biggest remote-working experiment) businesses decide that having their workers being based from home has multi-faceted benefits. What happens next?
Well, if a large percentage (say we got up to ~50%) of the working population started working remotely over the next few months and years, this would have a knock-on effect. We’d see changes in:
…to name but a few. I think it would be a huge net benefit for society, and hopefully allow for much greater civic engagement and democratic participation.
I’ll conclude with a quotation from Nafeez Ahmed’s excellent (long!) post on what he’s calling a global phase shift. Medium says it’s a 30-minute read, but I reckon it’s about half that.
Ahmed points out in stark detail the crisis, potential future scenarios, and the opportunity we’ve got. I particularly appreciate his focus on the complete futility of what he calls “a raw, ‘fend for yourself’ approach”. We must work together to solve the world’s problems.
The coronavirus outbreak is, ultimately, a lesson in not just the inherent systemic fragilities in industrial civilization, but also the limits of its underlying paradigm. This is a paradigm premised on a specific theory of human nature, the neoclassical view of Homo-Economicus, human beings as dislocated units which compete with each other to maximise their material self-gratification through endless consumption and production. That paradigm and its values have brought us so far in our journey as a species, but they have long outlasted their usefulness and now threaten to undermine our societies, and even our survival as a species.
Getting through coronavirus will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values. It is high time to recognize that such ethical values are not simply human constructs, products of socialization. They are cognitive categories which reflect patterns of behaviour in individuals and organizations that have an evolutionary, adaptive function. In the global phase shift, systems which fail to incorporate these values into their structures will eventually die.
Just as crises can be manufactured by totalitarian regimes to seize power and control populations, perhaps natural crises can be used to make us collectively realise we need to pull together?