I thought I’d share some things that have really opened my eyes recently.
The first is a two-part interview with Vinay Gupta from the Emerge podcast in 2019. I’ve followed Vinay’s work ever since we tried to get Firecloud (a P2P publishing platforming using WebRTC) off the ground in 2013 when I was working at Mozilla. Ten years ahead of the curve, as always.
Working with Vinay absolutely blew my mind, and although we haven’t met up in person for a few years, he’s been changing the world in the meantime. He was the release manager for Ethereum, and he’s currently CEO of Mattereum.
The difference with Vinay, though, is that he’s enlightened. I don’t mean that in a LinkedIn kind of way. I mean that in a studied-under-a-Hindu-guru kind of way. This underpins all of the humanitarian work he does, some of which you can see at myhopeforthe.world
The two episodes on the Emerge podcast are entitled Waking Up in the Monster Factory (Part 1 / Part 2). I guarantee they are worth your time.
The late, great Dai Barnes implored me to watch Curtis’ 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation. I’m only half way through the new documentary series, and it’s having a similar effect as when I watched that. A feeling of waking up, and seeing the world as it really is. It’s kind of counter-conspiracy theory.
The crucial thing for me, and my reason for sharing both of these, is a recognition that there’s no-one coming to save us. But, unlike those people discussed in the 99% Invisible podcast episode The Doom Boom, it’s up to us to figure out how to pull together collectively — instead of hunkering down and just making sure that our immediate family and friends are OK.
I think this is the latest I’ve published my weekly roundup of links. That’s partly because of an epic family walk we did today, but also because of work, and because of the length and quality of the things I bookmarked to come back to…
Most of us are still trapped in the mental coordinates of a world that isn’t waiting for us on the other side. You can see this in the language journalists are still using. The coronavirus is a ‘strategic surprise’ and we’re still very much in the ‘fog of war,’ dealing with the equivalent of an ‘alien invasion’ or an ‘unexpected asteroid strike.’ As I said back in March though, this is not a natural disaster, like an earthquake, a one-off event from which we can rebuild. It’s not a war or a financial crisis either. There are deaths, but no combatants, no physical resources have been destroyed, and there was no initial market crash, although obviously the markets are now reacting.
The crisis is of the entire system we’ve built. In another article, I described this as the bio-political straitjacket. We can’t reopen our economies, because if we do then more people will die. We can’t keep them closed either, because our entire way of life is built on growth, and without it, everything collapses. We can give up our civil liberties, submitting to more surveillance and control, but as Amartya Sen would say, what good is a society if the cost of our health and livelihoods is our hard fought for freedoms?
Gus Hurvey (Future Crunch)
This is an incredible read, and if you click through to anything this week to sit down and consume with your favourite beverage, I highly recommend this one.
There’s nothing radical about the things we’re learning: it’s a matter of emphasis more than content – of centralising what is most important. Now, perhaps, we have an opportunity to rethink the entire basis of education. As local authorities in Scotland point out, outdoor learning could be the best means of getting children back to school, as it permits physical distancing. It lends itself to re-engagement with the living world. But, despite years of research demonstrating its many benefits, the funding for outdoor education and adventure learning has been cut to almost nothing.
George Monbiot (The Guardian)
To some extent, this is Monbiot using a different stick to bang the same drum, but he certainly has a point about the most important things to be teaching our young people as their future begins to look a lot different to ours.
In 1909, following a watershed era of technological progress, but preceding the industrialized massacres of the Somme and Verdun, E.M. Forster imagined, in “The Machine Stops,” a future society in which the entirety of lived experience is administered by a kind of mechanical demiurge. The story is the perfect allegory for the moment, owing not least to its account of a society-wide sudden stop and its eerily prescient description of isolated lives experienced wholly through screens.
Stuart Whatley (The Hedgehog Review)
No, I didn’t know what a ‘demiurge‘ was either. Apparently, it’s “an artisan-like figure responsible for fashioning and maintaining the physical universe”.
This article, which not only quote E.M. Forster, but also Heidegger and Nathaniel Hawthorne, discusses whether we really should be allowing technology to dictate the momentum of society.
The party has no communal chat log. Whilst I can enable edit permissions for those with the party link, shared google docs don’t not allow for chat between anonymous animals. Instead conversations are typed in cells. There are too many animals to keep track of who is who. I stop and type to someone in a nearby cell. My cursor is blue, theirs is orange. I have no idea if they are a close friend or a total stranger. How do you hold yourself and what do you say to someone when personal context is totally stripped away?
[T]o put it another way, people whose working lives can be mediated through technology — conducted from bedrooms and kitchen tables via Teams or Slack, email and video calls — are at much less risk. In fact, our laptops and smartphones might almost be said to be saving our lives. This is an unintended consequence of remote working, but it is certainly a new reality that needs to be confronted and understood.
And many people who can work from a laptop are also less likely to lose their jobs than people who work in the service and hospitality industries, especially those who have well-developed professional networks and high social capital. According to The Economist, this group are having a much better lockdown than most — homeschooling notwithstanding. But then, they probably also had a more comfortable life beforehand.
Rachel Coldicutt (Glimmers)
This post, “a scrapbook of links and questions that explore how civil society might be in a digital world,” is a really interesting look at the physicality of our increasingly-digital world and how the messiness of human life is being ‘cleaned up’ by technology.
Given its potential benefits, telecommuting is an attractive option to many. Studies have shown a substantial number of workers would even agree to a lower salary for a job that would allow them to work from home. The appeal of remote work can be especially strong during times of crisis, but also exists under more normal circumstances.
The ongoing crisis therefore amplifies inequalities when it comes to financial and work-life balance benefits. If there’s a broader future adoption of telecommuting, a likely result of the current situation, that would still mean a large portion of the working population, many of them low-income workers, would be disadvantaged
Georges A. Tanguay & Ugo Lachapelle (The Conversation)
There’s some interesting graphs included in this Canadian study of remote work. While I’ve written plenty about remote work before, I don’t think I’ve really touched on how much it reinforces white, middle-class, male privilege.
The BBC has an article entitled Why are some people better at working from home than others? which suggests that succeeding and/or flourishing in a remote work situation is down to the individual, rather than the context. The truth is, it’s almost always easier to be a man in a work environement — remote, or otherwise. This is something we need to change.
We’ve just released a first look at Unreal Engine 5. One of our goals in this next generation is to achieve photorealism on par with movie CG and real life, and put it within practical reach of development teams of all sizes through highly productive tools and content libraries.
I remember showing my late grandmother FIFA 18 and her not being able to tell the difference between it and the football she watched regularly on the television.
Even if you’re not a gamer, you’ll find this video incredible. It shows how, from early next year, cinematic-quality experiences will be within grasp of even small development teams.
Our pretending we’re not drowning is the proof we have that we might still be worth saving. Our performing stability is one of the few ways that we hope we might navigate the narrow avenues that might still get us out.
A thing, though, about perpetuating misperceptions, about pretending – because you’re busy surviving, because you can’t stop playing the rigged game on the off-chance somehow that you might outsmart it, because you can’t help but feel like your circumstances must somehow be your fault – is that it makes it that much harder for any individual within the group to tell the truth.
Lynn Steger Strong (The Guardian)
Wouldn’t be amazing if we collectively turned to one another, recognised our collective desire not to play ‘the game’ any more, and decided to go after those who have rigged the system against us?
What research shows is that how we walk, our gait mechanics, isn’t as “natural” as we might believe. We learn to walk by observing our parents and the world around us. As we grow up, we embody the patterns we see. These can limit the full potential of our gait. Some of us unconsciouly prevent the pelvis and arms from swinging because of cultural taboos that frown upon having a gait as being, for example, too free.
My late, great, friend Dai Barnes was a barefoot runner. He used to talk a lot about how people walk and run incorrectly, partly because of the ‘unnatural’ cushioning of their feet. This article gives some advice on improving your walking gait, which I tried out today on a long family walk.
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.
A few years ago, when I was at Mozilla, a colleague mentioned a series of books by Bernard Cornwell called The Last Kingdom. It seemed an obvious fit for me, he said, given that my interest in history and that I live in Northumberland. A couple of years later, I got around to reading the series, and loved it. The quote that serves as the title for this article is from the second book in the series: The Pale Horseman.
Another book I read that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy was Ender’s Game, a sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card. I was looking for a quotation about Ender’s access to networks when I came across this one from another one of the author’s novels:
“Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.”
Orson Scott Card
Some people say that you’re the average of the five people with which you surround yourself. In this day and age, ‘surrounding yourself’ isn’t necessarily a physical activity, it’s to do with your interactions, however they occur.
It’s easy to think about the time we spend at home with our nearest and dearest, but what about our networked interactions? For example, I’ve been playing a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2with Dai Barnes recently, so that might count as an example — and so might the time we spend on Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks.
All of this brings us to an article I came across via Aaron Davis. Entitled The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet, Yancey Strickler explains how we’re moving into a different era of interaction. He channels sci-fi author Liu Cixin:
Imagine a dark forest at night. It’s deathly quiet. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. This could lead one to assume that the forest is devoid of life. But of course, it’s not. The dark forest is full of life. It’s quiet because night is when the predators come out. To survive, the animals stay silent.
Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word “privacy” means in the process).
These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.
What Strickler doesn’t go into is the effect that this may have on western democracies. This is something, however, that is covered by an excellent book I read last week called The People vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett. The author explains how even mainstream social networks have become fragmented:
Over the last few years… the nature of political disagreement has changed. It’s gone tribal. It is becoming hyper-partisan, characterised by fierce group loyalty that sometimes approaches leader workshop, a tendency to overlook one’s own failing while exaggerating one’s enemies and a dislike of compromise with opponents.
Bartlett cites the work of cyber-psychologist John Suler, who theorises about why people act differently online:
Suler argues that because we don’t know or see the people we are speaking to (and they don’t know or see us), because communication is instant, seemingly without rules or accountability, and because it all takes place in what feels like an alternative reality, we do things we wouldn’t in real life. Suler calls this ‘toxic disinhibition’. This is what all the articles about ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ miss. The internet doesn’t only create small tribes: it also gives easy access to enemy tribes. I see opposing views to mine online all the time; they rarely change my mind, and more often simply confirm my belief that I am the only sane person in a sea of internet idiots.
We’re witnessing the breakdown of the attempt to create general-purpose social networks. Instead, just like the offline world, we’ll end up with different spaces and areas for different purposes. Here’s a Slack channel to talk with former colleagues; here’s a Telegram group to talk with your family; here’s a Twitter account to share blog posts with your followers.
I’m not so sure this is such a bad thing, to be honest. So long as those spaces aren’t subject to the kind of dark advertising that’s led to political havoc and ramifications over the last few years, I see it as a sort of rebalancing.
Can “Indie” Social Media Save Us?(The New Yorker) — “When you confine your online activities to so-called walled-garden networks, you end up using interfaces that benefit the owners of those networks.”
I was wrong about networks(George Siemens) — “I’ll hold to my mantra that it’s networks all the way down. I need to add a critical caveat: all connections and networks occur within a system.”