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Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy.
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School should be free for everyone

I appreciated Fred Wilson's post today about USV's thesis on expanding access to knowledge, wellness, and capital. He also talks about universal basic income as a way to get there. It's a useful lens to think about the future, although perhaps inevitably, I see it a slightly different way.

Despite being a natural born American citizen, I grew up in a European context, went to state schools, and went to university for free. (I was actually part of the last cohort of university students to do so; the year afterwards, universities started to charge a whopping £1300 per year, except in Scotland.) I understand that free college does not entrench existing income disparities; my fellow students came from a very broad range of backgrounds and contexts.

Coming from that context, I don't see government services as monopolies in the business sense. They're services in the civil sense: social infrastructure for all. For example, I'm not sure we would want to have multiple police forces competing for business in a capitalist market (however we feel about our current ones). Or take healthcare: every time I walk into a doctor's office in the US I miss the simplicity and safety of the NHS.

So I go the other way. I strongly believe that private schools shouldn't exist, which is an alien idea to some. Every child should have the same opportunities. Every college should be free. Private schools, and private colleges, entrench existing power networks. Why shouldn't a kid who happened to be born poor, or in the wrong neighborhood, have access to them? It's not like rich people don't have a thousand other ways to convey privilege to their offspring - but at least access to the same institutions would give everyone else a fighting chance.

"School choice" has a racist history, and a racist present. It's not something we should knowingly advocate for without understanding and actively fighting to undermine its foundation in segregation.

Similarly, universal basic income that doesn't sit alongside other mechanisms for economic justice and support is just a way to undermine those kinds of programs. It's not either/or: all schools should be free and everyone should have access to a basic income. College should be available to all and a monthly stipend would have great ROI for the economy. We don't get to absolve ourselves of providing opportunities throughout society by simply cutting a check. In a vacuum, UBI is that most American idea: discrimination in the guise of equity.

With state support, we will still have a great market economy: one where everyone can start a business or participate in one. In fact, it'll be better, because more people will have access to networks and training. Providing social infrastructure isn't an anti-capitalist idea; it's an anti-racist, anti-discrimination one. It allows more people to access the resources they need to participate, rather than disproportionately shutting out people of color and people from poorer backgrounds. And if you don't think that's where we should be heading, I'm not sure we have much to say to each other.

 

We still need to unlock the web

Email newsletters are only succeeding because RSS failed.

I just subscribed to Casey Newton's new tech journalism newsletter, Platformer. I appreciate his journalism, and I'm sure it'll become a regular must-read for me in the same way that Ben Thompson's Stratechery is. The tech industry needs more analytical journalism, and I'm pleased to support it.

There's an interesting platform difference between the two. When you sign up and pay for Stratechery, you can certainly opt in to receiving daily emails - and I'm sure this is how most of his subscribers read his work. But you can also get access to a private RSS feed that you can plug into your reader.

My feed reader is an important part of my morning routine, but it also serves another purpose: to keep regular subscription content out of my inbox. I have enough trouble keeping on top of my email; I'm terrible at it. Adding more messages will not help me. But I also really want to subscribe! So having all my regular subscription content in one place, away from the desolation of my inbox, is useful. (Hundreds of you are reading this post in your inbox. I'm assuming you're all better at email than me! If not, you can always subscribe to my blog via a feed reader.)

In contrast to Stratechery, Platformer uses Substack, which has made starting and subscribing to paid newsletters incredibly easy. As a subscriber, I plug in my email, hit the Apple Pay button, and I'm subscribed. It's kind of a brilliant way to support independent writers. Like RSS feeds, authors don't need to rely on social media for distribution; they have a more direct relationship with the reader. Unlike RSS feeds, it all piles into my horror show inbox.

My feed reader of choice is NewsBlur (together with the beautiful Reeder apps), in part because it allows me to forward email newsletters to an address it provides. Feedbin and a few others do this too. I have a blanket filter that removes every Substack newsletter from my inbox and sends the messages to my feed reader, where they show up alongside the blogs I subscribe to. It works for me: I get to read all of my subscriptions in one place, and leave my inbox for all of those other messages that I'll get to eventually.

It's worth imagining another world, where the string and blu tack solution I made for myself is easy for everyone. What if everyone had an easy-to-use place to read their subscription content, away from the hustle and bustle of their regular emails? What if feed subscriptions had become mainstream, and payments had become an integral part of the specification? What if every author had the ability to use the platform that Ben Thompson had to build for himself, allowing each of them to make a living from their work as easily as publishing to the web?

The technology isn't there right now, but could it be?

Every journalist, artist, app builder, musician, author, podcaster, etc, should be able to make money independently on the web. And the web should help them do that.

Of course, RSS feeds haven't failed. The entire podcasting ecosystem heavily depends on them - an $11 billion market, all depending on open feeds. Even for written content, there are millions of people like me who use them every day. People in tech love to talk about the death of Google Reader, but nobody killed RSS.

For a year, I worked with Julien Genestoux, who had previously built the Superfeedr feed subscription and distribution engine, on Unlock, a protocol for independent, decentralized payments on the web. The startup didn't quite work out, but the open source protocol continues to find use. Most importantly, I think the idea (anyone should be able to take payments from their own website without a middleman) is very strong, even if the Ethereum blockchain it depended on turned out to not quite be ready for primetime. Not to mention the ability for payments to supplant harmful targeted advertising.

I believe that Substack, the Stratechery platform, and Patreon's subscription model are all evidence of a need for a decentralized marketplace of content, monetized through easy, recurring payments that don't require a content silo. By using the same feed ecosystem that powers the whole podcasting ecosystem (and my morning content routine), adding a payments layer on top of the RSS specification itself, and then making it insanely easy to read and subscribe, we could empower a new generation of creators, readers, and reader apps.

Some technical work has been done. PodPass is a proposal for an identity layer on top of RSS for podcasts. Work is being done at the W3C on web payments. Identity and payment mechanisms are both crucial parts of providing subscriptions as a first-class layer on the web. But there's a great deal more to do technically - and a huge amount more in terms of building a coherent user experience, particularly around payments.

Here's my final "what if". What if subscription payments were built into the browser or reader, with the vendor itself taking a small cut (in the same way that Apple takes 0.15% of Apple Pay purchases)?

For example: let's say I browse to a website using Mozilla Firefox. That website has some metadata in its HTML which indicates that (1) a feed is available, and (2) there are payment tiers.

Firefox lets me know that I can subscribe to that website's content with an unobtrusive icon or notification. When I click, it shows me the tiers available. When I hit subscribe, Firefox starts to pull feed content in a built-in reader. When it pulls feeds, it identifies me in the HTTP header with a pseudonymous hash code. For the purposes of this conversation, I'm user 123456 (the same combination I have on my luggage).

When I pay, funds are sent directly to the website owner, with a small cut going to Mozilla itself, and another small cut going to WordPress, which powers the site. Funds are transferred behind the scenes in stablecoins (probably), with Mozilla providing a credit card interface to me so I don't have to know or care about crypto. It tells the website owner that I'm user 123456, and that I've paid. The website verifies the payment, and next time a feed is requested for user 123456, it adds in any paid content. Unlock did this provably, using the blockchain: anyone can build an API which verifies independently that user A has access to paid content from user B.

From the user's perspective it looks like this: they can see that a website they're on has content that can be subscribed to. When they hit "subscribe" in the browser, they're prompted to choose a tier if paid tiers exist. And then they can read content and manage their subscriptions in a built-in reader.

For users like me, my existing feed reader can do the same thing: detect paid options, and pay for them if I want. The feed reader vendor gets the cut of the funds.

Cross-device syncing is taken care of by the browser vendor: my Firefox account already keeps my bookmarks and history up to date everywhere I have Firefox installed. Chrome and Safari users have a similar mechanism. Subscriptions would piggyback on these existing accounts.

The end result is a web where any creator can make money from their content and any reader can subscribe to it, without having it further clutter an email inbox that they already resent. Because browsers, feed readers, and content management platforms take a small cut of payments, they're incentivized to innovate around the model and build new products. Browser vendors like Mozilla can stop making most of their money from search engine deals. Nobody is forced to rely on Facebook or Twitter for distribution. Targeted ads die. And the internet is more decentralized and healthier for everyone.

 

We’ve lost an incredible force for good

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a force for good who transformed America for the better. She fought for justice, and particularly the rights of women, for her entire life. She was inspiring and impactful; dedicated and fiercely intelligent; a genuinely good person who single-handed lay became one of the cornerstones of our modern democracy.

"When I'm sometimes asked 'When will there be enough (women on the Supreme Court)?' and my answer is: 'When there are nine.' People are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that."

She was an example for all of us. May she have paved the way for many more women to follow.

It's unfortunate that her many accomplishments and her remarkable legacy are overshadowed by our current political situation. Nonetheless, we are forced to consider what will happen now she's gone. Mitch McConnell, ever the ghoulishly ethics-free opportunist, used his statement on Justice Ginsburg's passing to promise a Republican-appointed replacement. Ignoring the obvious hypocrisy of this idea (compare this to his statement on Garland's nomination in 2016), we have to consider what America will look like after decades of not just a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives, but one dominated by this kind of conservative: nationalist verging on fascist, with a desire to undo women's rights and remake the nation to fit an evangelical model.

If you're an American citizen, please check that you're registered to vote - and then make sure you do so. Our democracy can't take four more years of this.

 

The tech bro whitewash

I'm pretty conflicted about The Social Dilemma.

On one hand, anything that contributes to the discourse around the harms knowingly committed in the name of engagement should be applauded. My friend David Jay works at the Center for Humane Technology as their Head of Mobilization, and was involved in this film; I know the people who work there are coming from a genuine place. I think that is admirable.

On the other hand, I'll confess to some pretty hard reservations about tech bros who make their fortune at companies like Facebook and then issue mea culpas. The harmful impact of platforms like Facebook were knowable; I know because I, and people like me, knew them well. In 2004, when Facebook was just graduating from being a way to rate the relative attractiveness of women on campus, I was building decentralized social platforms with community health in mind. There were many people like me who understood that creating a centralized place controlled by a single corporate entity for most of the world would get their information was incredibly problematic. It was and is antithetical to both the web and democracy itself.

So coders have been working on these problems, but this isn't really about software. Crucially, the people who have been at the receiving end of these harms have not been silent. Women - particularly women of color - have been sounding the alarm about these harms for years. That we're listening to men who worked to build these systems of abuse, rather than the people who have been calling out the problems this whole time, says a lot about who and what we value. It's not a problem we can code our way out of.

These conversations are vital. But let's be clear: they have been happening this whole time. If they're new to you, you've been listening to the wrong people. And we should consider whether we want to allow the tech bros who created this problem to whitewash their past.

 

10 things every founder needs to know in 2020

Being a founder is hard! There are so many things you need to stay on top of. Here are 10 things that every founder, investor, and startup employee needs to know in 2020.

ICE is mass-sterilizing women. "When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp," one detainee told Project South.

It's genocide as defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

... and it's nothing new. The US has forcibly sterilized over 70,000 prisoners. In 2017, one Tennessee judge offered repeat offenders reduced jail time if they had surgery to prevent them from procreating. Just fifty years ago, around 25% of Native American women and 35% of Puerto Rican women were forcibly sterilized.

There is a surge of covid-19 cases in ICE camps. "You can either be a survivor or die."

23% of 18 to 39 year olds in the US think the Holocaust is a myth. And almost two-thirds of them aren't aware that 6 million Jews were killed in it.

White supremacist groups are up 55% since 2017. The number of anti-LGBTQ hate groups increased by 43%.

One-third of active duty troops and over half of minority service members have seen white supremacy in the ranks. It rose from 22% the year before.

The FBI has documented that white supremacist groups they investigate often have active links to law enforcement officials. "Since 2000, law enforcement officials with alleged connections to white supremacist groups or far-right militant activities have been exposed in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and elsewhere."

Chad Wolf, who oversees the Department of Homeland Security and therefore ICE, watered down language in a report that warned of the threat from white supremacists. We know this from a whistleblower who was punished for non-compliance: "When Murphy refused to implement the changes as directed, [Deputy Secretary] Cuccinelli and Wolf stopped the report from being finished, the source said."

Changes to immigration won't be fully undone by the next President. "Because of the intense volume and pace of changes the Trump administration enacted while in office, even if we have a new administration, Trump will continue to have had an impact on immigration for years to come."

 

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

 

The trough of sorrow

Every startup goes through the trough of sorrow. I've found it to be a useful way to describe the period that comes after initial enthusiasm and before things start to work out. It turns out it's quite a useful metaphor for non-startup life, too.

There are lots of drawings of it out there on the internet. Here's my interpretation:

Every new big endeavor comes with an initial rush of enthusiasm. You're elated by the possibilities. This is going to be amazing!

Then reality sets in, and the deep slide. "Oh fuck," you'll ask yourself. "What do I do now?"

And that's when you start to experiment. You have to. The thing you thought would work probably won't. Your initial ideas are probably wrong. The story you told yourself during that initial rush of enthusiasm was just that: a story.

You could stay in this trough of sorrow. Many startups, and many people embarking on creative projects, do just that. They cling too needily to their initial idea, or are ineffective in their experimentation. They run out of steam. Sometimes, when more than one person is involved, they start to fight with each other. (65% of early-stage startups fail because of preventable human dynamics. I would bet that more fail because they run out of hope.)

You've got to be willing to experiment more rapidly than you're probably comfortable with, using real people (not aggregate statistics or sales figures) as the arbiter of what will work. You've got to be willing to make decisions based on horribly imperfect, qualitative data. You've got to be willing to take a leap of faith. And you've got to be more invested in the journey than in the end product.

Then maybe - just maybe - you'll make it.

I've been through the trough of sorrow for virtually every startup I've ever worked at: the two I founded, the two where I was first employee, and the one with a hundred million dollars in the bank. Some made it; some didn't.

I've also been through the trough of sorrow for every creative project I've ever made. For some of them, I was able to persevere and make it work; others, I abandoned.

It's about experimentation, it's about luck, it's about treating yourself and your team well, and it's about being able to let go of your precious ideas. If you treat the endeavor as a fait accompli, or go about it as you might in a large organization where you've already found your feet, you will certainly fail. On the other hand, if you embrace a spirit of creative curiosity, there's everything to play for.

 

On resiliency at work

I use Range every day with my team - so I was delighted to chat with them about resilience at work.

Culture is the most important thing in any team. By a mile. Your collective norms, beliefs, and practices will define how everyone acts and reacts, how safe they feel to be themselves at work, and as a direct result, how high quality the work itself is.

You'll hear about my own journey, and most importantly, how creating a high-performing team means supporting the whole human.

You can read the whole interview here.

 

Crypto-unions and lobster rolls

Happy Labor Day. While the rest of the world celebrates its labor movements on May Day, America chose its date to disassociate with a massacre of labor protesters by police in 1886. A further protest in Chicago's Haymarket Square devolved two days later: a bomb was exploded by an unknown person and killed a police officer, and the cops again indiscriminately opened fire. Ultimately, socialists were blamed, as they always are, and the country succumbed to martial law.

The one country to have not chosen May Day to commemorate what became known as the Haymarket Affair is the one it happened in. The reason we drink beer and eat summer picnic food on Labor Day instead of considering its meaning is not an accident: it was a deliberate choice to bury the past and redirect our energy towards a holiday that celebrates "the dignity of work".

What insane, radical, unworkable idea were the protesters taking to the streets to advocate? It turns out it was the eight hour workday - something we think of as more or less normal today. In the cold light of 2020, it's hard to imagine guns being drawn over a 40-hour workweek.

Of course, that's how it works: what seemed radical then is normal now. What seems radical now will be completely normal in the future. While Labor Day itself is less a celebration of the labor movement and more a commemoration of an attempt to diffuse it, history shows that it tends to resist that diffusion. The march towards equality is not inevitable, but it has been unstoppable.

Unions are an important part of that struggle: a counter-balancing force to corporate power that allows workers to organize together and meaningfully negotiate for better working conditions. While not every union is good, the idea of unions is very good. 65% of Americans continue to support unions, but only 10% are actually a member of one. Meanwhile, the stagnation of worker wages is directly connected to the decline of unions.

I have no doubt that unions have been intentionally scuppered since at least 1974, when the Taft-Hartley Act banned sympathy boycotts and made "right to work" laws possible. But they've also been in need of the kind of change and innovation we've seen in other organizations over the last few decades. What does it mean to have a union for a remote workforce? Or for gig workers? And how does the idea of a union change when everyone is connected by the internet and can communicate instantly with one another?

Kati Sipp's excellent site Hack the Union has been expertly covering these kinds of changes for years. I think it's also time for technologists - particularly open source and decentralization advocates - to think about how their skills could be brought to bear in order to create new kinds of transparent unions.

Movements like Occupy Wall Street and modern anti-fascists use a headless, non-hierarchical leadership structure rooted in transparency and consensus, making them harder to infiltrate or eradicate. What if unions learned from them and used tools inspired by Open Collective to organize dues in the open?

Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) were created to take this leaderless approach and apply it to new kinds of businesses. Here, a blockchain is used to keep track of "who" is a member (using pseudonymous tokens instead of real-world identities), who can vote, and items put to a vote. Resources can be allocated based on what the organization decides. Instead of leaders, rules are maintained by code.

While DAOs were built to support a kind of libertarian ideal for business, what if they could be harnessed to support modern unions? The privacy and anonymity of individual members could be maintained while allowing any member to vote. Available resources could be inspected by anybody. There would be little potential for embezzlement and corruption, because of the unbreakable rules governing resource allocation, and membership could be spread organically.

I'm not a blockchain zealot, and there's no hard need for a potential solution for unions to be decentralized in this way. (Crypto-unions are just one suggestion.) What I think is needed is a conversation about how best to organize in the 21st century, so that the labor movement can continue its good work, so that worker rights can improve, and wages can break free of their stagnation. What's needed is a stronger opposite force to corporate power that allows ordinary working people to once again have a voice. The result will be to break more people out of poverty and create a more equal society for all.

In the meantime, enjoy your lobster rolls.

 

Photo from the Kheel Center archive.

 

In support of Miranda

On her podcast, Miranda Pacchiana has opened up about the aftermath of her lawsuit against her brother Adam Savage for sexual abuse.

Miranda is my cousin, and I believe her. I think her statement is an act of bravery; the impact on her has been significant, which she discusses in the episode. I know some of you know Adam, have been employed by him, or have friends and family who do. It's a difficult thing to think about, let alone discuss. All I ask is that you listen to her story.

 

The generational trauma of 2020

I've noticed more blog posts on my feeds talking about mental health, and more tweets talking about anxiety in the face of this year's challenges. I'm certainly feeling it too. This week I've been building a contingency plan for what happens if I have to take a leave of absence from work because of my mother's health, which has been an emotionally difficult task on top of an already emotionally challenging context.

2020 as a whole is a collective trauma. The thing about serious trauma is that it ripples. Its effects are felt in the lives of the people who lived through it; not just as they live through it, but forever. And then it's felt in their children. And finally, in their children.

My father is one of the youngest survivors of the Japanese concentration camps in Indonesia. He and his older siblings were kept alive by my grandmother. As a 12 year old, my aunt snuck out of the camp and swam through the sewers to find food for them to eat. My grandmother would gather snails and secretly cook them. Around them all - my grandmother, my aunts, my toddler father - was death and brutality. People in the camp were routinely tortured and murdered.

My grandmother wailed in her sleep every night until the day she died. The trauma certainly affected her children; my father has suffered from its effects in ways that he only became consciously aware of later in life. In turn, his anxieties affected his children - partially through the effect of his actions, but there is also significant evidence that trauma can be passed down epigenetically. My dad is both younger than most of his siblings and had children later in life, but I've seen the effects of this trauma spread to the fourth and fifth generations in my aunts' branches of the family.

The implications for families that have been split up through draconian immigration policies, or suffered at the hands of trigger-happy police, or been caught by a racist criminal justice system are obvious. The trauma of poverty, too, creates epigenetic changes that span generations. But during this terrible year, more of us than ever before have seen our relatives die or had our homes destroyed at the hands of natural disasters. We've lived under a kind of fear we thought was a thing of the past.

So, no wonder we're all feeling kind of terrible. The thing is, it won't just be for the moment. The impact of 2020 - and, yes, I'm afraid to say, 2021 too - is likely to be with many of us for the rest of our lives. If we're not careful, it'll be with our children, too, and their children.

The good news is that these traumatic effects can be reversed. Exercise, intense learning, and anti-depressants can help. But that implies that we'll all need systemic help: mental wellness support and a far stronger social safety net. Without this support, the hidden effects of the pandemic (and everything else that's happened this year) may be with us for a very long time to come.