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Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy. He / him.

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ben@benwerd.com

 

Moving on to my next adventure

I’ve always believed in the power of an open web. It’s hard to remember now, but we came from a world where only a small number of people could publish and be heard. Those people were chosen by an even smaller set of gatekeepers: predominantly white men who got to decide whose voice mattered. The promise of the web - something we have to work and fight for - is that anyone’s voice can find an audience, without gatekeepers or middlemen.

My work has always been mission-driven. I started by co-founding a white-label social networking platform that was used to teach, to train aid workers at non-profits like Oxfam, and for knowledge sharing inside governments. I was CTO of a startup that allowed video footage to be quickly sent back to newsrooms from some of the most connectivity-challenged environments on Earth, empowering reporting from Syria and the top of Everest. I built a way for anyone to own their own social profile. And I was privileged, as the west coast Director of Investments at Matter Ventures, to support diverse entrepreneurs at 73 startups with the potential to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society.



I started as an engineer, then became a product lead, a startup founder, a human-centered designer, a strategic advisor, and an investor.

It was this work that led me to Unlock: a protocol and platform that allows anyone to make money from their work on the web, independently, without having to ask for permission. Its CEO, Julien Genestoux, believes in the same principles of the open web that I do, and the New York based team we built is one of the best I’ve ever worked with.



My mother is terminally ill, and I need to be in the San Francisco Bay Area to support my parents. While he had originally wanted to build an entirely in-person NYC team, Julien was open to my working remotely. Unfortunately, we’ve come to the conclusion that the team really does need to be all in one place, and that it’s time for me to move on. I continue to be a strong believer in Unlock’s mission, and in particular in Julien and the rest of the team. I’m hopeful that I’ll continue to be able to help wherever I can.

So I’m open. I’m looking for a new role, either in San Francisco or remotely, with a team that shares my ambition to use technology in a way that positively impacts society. But I’ll be honest: I’m not sure what that looks like yet, and I’m not willing to rule anything out. Maybe I’ll wind up founding a new venture; maybe I’ll join an existing team that is doing amazing things; maybe I’ll help a company in another industry, like news or education, with their innovation needs; maybe I’ll cross back over the table and join another investment firm. What I do know is that it’s all about the values and mission of the people I’ll be working with, and about making a positive impact in the world.

If you’d like to chat with me, shoot me an email: I’m at ben@benwerd.com. You can also text or Signal me at +1 (510) 283-3321.

 

On vendor lock-in and golden handcuffs

Doug Belshaw wrote a post the other day about the effects of vendor lock-in on wages and retention:

But going one step further, if you’re making more profit through vendor lock-in, you can pay higher wages to your staff. In fact, you might have to do this, because your product isn’t well-liked by end users. People end up mainly joining your company because of the salary and perks.

I think there are some common assumptions here that need to be challenged.

Fundamentally, I don't agree with the idea that ethical ventures are inherently less profitable, or that people who work on them should expect to be paid less. In fact, I think it's important to show that ventures that operate on ethical principles can be every bit as profitable, and that people who work on them can expect to make a good living.

First, I think it's important to call out that people who do ethical jobs do tend to be paid less across society. For example, teachers and nurses don't make salaries that are in any way proportional to the importance of the work they do. It's not by accident that these jobs were historically were often considered to be womens' work. The effects of sexism are endemic and generational, and feminism is an important force for good that benefits everybody. And it's certainly not right or fair that people within the tech industry get paid more (ditto bankers, etc). This could be the subject of another post, or a book, or a lifetime's body of work.

If we zoom in and consider just the tech industry as an ecosystem in and of itself, we can consider some ventures to be more ethical than others. Doug highlights vendor lock-in: the idea that once you purchase a company's service, it is very hard to move away. The service is designed like a trap that lures you in easily, but then keeps you subscribing not because the service itself provides immense value, but because you would lose something important of yours if you left. For example, you might lose data.

I would add (and I suspect Doug would agree) a commitment to privacy, concrete steps to ensure inclusion, opposition to tracking, and a resistance to fake markets. For example, Uber can't be an ethical company because it allows employees to see your data, its treatment of women has been appalling, it has undermined employment rights for the people who drive for it, and it's engaged in predatory pricing.

It's incredibly valid that we should be looking for the services we use and work for to do better. But I would argue that services that don't do those things should not be expected to be less profitable, or to pay their employees less well. In fact, I think it's really important to build ethical businesses that are every bit as profitable as an Uber.

Okay, bad example. Every bit as profitable as a WeWork?

Hmm. As a ... a Docusign?

No? Wow. Okay.

Look, the point is, ethical businesses should be good investments. In fact, because so many unethical businesses have engaged in predatory strategies that depend on being buoyed by investment dollars that aren't guaranteed to continue, they should be better investments. As the economy changes and we begin to see more regulation around privacy and anti-trust, we should see that ethical businesses that earn profit "fairly" are actually more robust investments, in the same way that investing in fossil fuels will be a losing endeavor over time.

We can't expect these businesses to pay their employees less.

People aren't really motivated by money, past a certain threshold; instead, it's about making good progress on meaningful work. But in an employment market like San Francisco, it's also about the salary and benefits you can offer. Potential employees aren't looking for one or the other - they're looking for both. If a company makes a product that really sucks, morale will be through the floor and people will leave in droves, even if they're paying above-market rates. If a company makes an amazing product but the people who work on it can't afford to make rent, they'll leave too.

It's also an inclusion issue. Who can afford to take below-market rates to work on ethical problems? Mostly people who otherwise have strong safety nets and come from wealthier backgrounds - who, it turns out, are disproportionately white. If we care about diversity of our teams, we need to make sure that people who build software get paid well for it.

I'm not necessarily capitalism's greatest cheerleader, but in our current reality, money matters. If we care about an ethical industry that treats people well, we've got to build ethical companies that do well while doing good - and allow their employees to do the same.

 

Pull requests and the templated self

The modern software development process is aruably centered around something called a pull request. Here's a simplified version of how it works:

  • All source code is stored in a source repository (there are many types, but git is the most popular).
  • The main source code that everyone references is stored in a master branch.
  • When a developer wants to make a change, they take a copy of the master branch and work on the copy.
  • When they're finished, they submit their changes using a pull request. This
  • Other developers on the project review the changes, and either request further changes, or accept the review (often with a simple "LG" or "LGTM": "Looks Good To Me").
  • The changes can then be merged in to the master branch. The developer's changed copy is typically deleted; if they want to make more changes, they take a new copy.

This methodology ensures that every change has oversight, and while there's plenty of room for team dysfunction - reviewers wield a lot of power here - it typically makes for more stable code. On GitHub, the dominant platform for hosting code repositories, these kinds of code reviews can be set to be mandatory. It's rare to find an engineering team that doesn't use them.

At this point, it feels like pull requests are just part of the fabric of software development. But they were popularized by GitHub, and its version of the functionality has influenced how they work everywhere.

GitHub, in turn, was acquired by Microsoft for $7.5 billion last year. Microsoft's design decisions now influence how almost all software is made.

It would be easy - and lazy - to accept the pull request as it stands as the most optimal interaction for software development. After all, it seems to more or less work for code. But software is eating the world, and in a world where every aspect of society is influenced in some way by source code, we have a responsibility to examine the processes that are used to make it. We talk a lot, rightly, about the demographics of software teams and the power dynamics of funding, but it's also important to re-examine the core activities involved in building code itself.

The design of the platforms we use matters. The boxes we type into - whether on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere - influence the content we create.

Pull requests, in their current form, encourage teams to take a code-first approach without considering the human impact or social context of their work.

Every software project is built to help someone achieve some kind of goal. Understanding who that is, and how the software will be effective for them, is key to successful software: you can't just build something and hope it will be useful to someone. Maybe it will, and maybe it won't; you're leaving it up to luck. Adopting a human-centered development philosophy allows you to build an effective product (and if you're a startup, find product/market fit) far more quickly and cheaply than you could otherwise.

We also live in a world where the societal implications of the software we build are serious. One of the most eye-opening conversations in my working life was with Chelsea Manning. We were discussing a set of software projects I had been working to support, and I asked her what she thought. Some, she liked; but she pointed out that the technology involved in others could be used to harm. "[This project] could be used to target drones", she pointed out. I hadn't even considered it, and she was right.

A key question to building any software in the modern age is: "In the wrong hands, who could this harm?"

Decades ago, software seemed harmless. In 2019, when facial recognition is used to deport refugees and data provided by online services have been used to jail journalists, understanding who you're building for, and who your software could harm, are vital. These are ideas that need to be incorporated not just into the strategies of our companies and the design processes of our product managers, but the daily development processes of our engineers. These are questions that need to be asked over and over again.

It's no longer enough to build with rough consensus and running code. Empathy and humanity need to be first-class skills for every team - and the tools we use should reflect this.

 

Ban the guns.

If your argument is that people need guns for self-defense, you're horribly misinformed. See the El Paso shooting: 22 people dead, in an open carry state. Or, any forensic pathologist will tell you that owning or carrying a gun just increases the risk that you yourself will be shot with it. The stats back this up.

If your argument is that more guns don't lead to more violence, you're horribly misinformed. Gun violence tracks linearly with gun ownership. Worldwide. In every US state. The more guns that exist, the more murders are committed with them. The stats back this up.

If your argument is that someone with the intent to shoot people will buy a gun by any means necessary, so banning them won't help, you're horribly misinformed. States with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun-related deaths. Controlling the sale of guns directly leads to fewer deaths. The stats back this up.

If your argument is that the second amendment guarantees the limitless right to bear arms, you're horribly misinformed. It was interpreted this way not in 1787, but in 2008, and then only in the context of a single handgun for self-defense as part of a Supreme Court decision. I'd prefer to ban all guns, but sure, keep your handgun.

Buying and selling automatic weapons is indefensible. These are weapons of war, designed to be wielded by trained military servicepeople. We don't need them on our streets. It's not about mental health; it's not about drugs; it's not about videogames. It's not about prayer in schools. It's about limiting access to instruments of death.

 

Here's what I read in July

Books

Border Districts, by Gerald Murnane. A treatise on memories and imagery from the perspective of the end of a man’s life; in particular on the changing meaning of the images we carry with us over time, and the properties thereof. Hypnotic.

A Fire Story, by Brian Fies. An emotionally-written, boldly-drawn graphic novel account of the author losing his Santa Rosa home. It cuts very close for me: the fire came very close to my parents, too. And it's beautifully done.

Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor. This built on the inclusivity of the first story in unexpected ways; the result is a beautifully-written, mind-expanding journey into the meaning of identity with the addictive pace of a thriller.

Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, by Noam Chomsky. Written decades ago but very much applicable today; a searing criticism of the War on Terror and media’s role in manufacturing consent. Inspiring.

Notable Articles

Inside the Secret Border Patrol Facebook Group Where Agents Joke About Migrant Deaths and Post Sexist Memes. This should have been a bigger story in July, although it got some play. It's shocking - but also not surprising. Further proof that today's policies, and the way they are enacted, are rooted in straightforward racism.

He Cyberstalked Teen Girls for Years—Then They Fought Back. A detective story about sextortion and some of the threats teenage girls have to navigate in the internet era.

Google’s Jigsaw Was Supposed to Save the Internet. Behind the Scenes, It Became a Toxic Mess. I don't think any incumbent tech company can or will "save the internet". But these HR problems seem endemic.

The Dominance of the White Male Critic. “It’s 2019 and we are in the middle of a renaissance in black artistic production. And you are telling me the best people to evaluate that are the same ones who basically ignored black artists for decades?”

The Humble Brilliance of Italy’s Moka Coffee Pot. I was scared of these things for years. But they're brilliant, and make outstanding coffee. I can't believe that coffee pods - which are awful on every level - are driving them out of existence.

Tech and the Fake Market tactic. This is vitally important to understand. Really the headline should read "fake marketplaces" - what's described here are services that give the illusion of peer-to-peer marketplaces but actually don't give participants the freedom they would need. The result is a system that benefits the marketplace owner and syphons wealth and value from society.

Revealed: This Is Palantir’s Top-Secret User Manual for Cops. I don't understand how people who work for Palantir can sleep at night. These are people whose work is used to deport and harm entire communities.

U.K. Parliament Workers Face ‘Unacceptable’ Abuse, Report Says. Just one more way that British government is a trash fire. "A study found that sexual harassment was considered a “necessary evil” for young, ambitious workers in the Houses of Parliament and that the atmosphere was “stressful and hostile.”"

A Father, a Daughter, and the Attempt to Change the Census. The amazing story of how Stephanie Hofeller uncovered the evidence of racism that eventually undermined the citizenship question on the census.

With ICE Raids Looming, Immigrants Worry: ‘Every Time Someone Knocks, You Get Scared’. Tragic, visceral, terrifying. Every American citizen is complicit in the horrors that these families are going through.

Transgender Opera Singers Find Their Voices. A fascinating window into the lives of transitioning opera singers and their relationships with their voices.

The Nordic Model May Be the Best Cushion Against Capitalism. Can It Survive Immigration? Spoiler alert: yes. But there sure are a lot of voices in the US who would like to show that the Nordic model doesn't work.

Crab-picking is a treat, if you don’t mind slicing open your fingers while eviscerating a stinking carcass. It's one of my mother's very favorite things in the world - and it's been a part of my entire life.

Sixteen and Evangelical. A completely different universe to my own, in so many ways. This seems like such a common observation: "Looking back on teachings about sexual purity now—the conversations about modesty, about saving oneself for marriage—I am struck that we never, not once, had a conversation about consent. It was reasonable for a boy to suggest that he was “tempted” by a girl wearing skimpy clothes, but the blame was always placed on the girl for dressing that way."

Andrew Yang is promising to revitalize America. His nonprofit tried, too, but couldn’t. Save only for Joe Biden, John Delaney, and maybe Marianne Williamson, I find Andrew Yang to be the least enticing of all the Democratic nominees. I like UBI; I just have a lot of problems with his approach and ideas like replacing 20% of the federal workforce with management consultants. This article underlines some of my worries.

A Teen Girl Found Refuge Online — Then Her Murder Went Viral. Horrifying. And ultimately, yet another story of a man (or in this case, a boy) trying to take ownership of a woman.

Instagram ‘tag cleaners’ are fighting against digital vandalism. Another angle on the story above - what happened on the internet after the murder is a window into the culture that led to it.

The Best Algorithms Struggle to Recognize Black Faces Equally. Which in turn leads to false positives and the potential for serious injustice with people of color once again more at risk than the general population. Technology is sold as infallable and objective, but it's quite the opposite; merely a product of the (mostly white, male, myopic) people who make it.

A Peculiarly Dutch Summer Rite: Children Let Loose in the Night Woods. I love everything about this. I would have loved to do it as a kid. I think modern American parenting is very often about oversubscribing kids to activities and being overprotective. I'm not sure why that is (cars? the fear of others that seems to sit as subtext behind everything?), but I've found it to be a real cultural difference. I feel like this particular activity might be illegal here. But free range parenting, and this kind of trust, seems like it's so much better.

Ilhan Omar: It Is Not Enough to Condemn Trump’s Racism. A fantastic op-ed by a representative who has had to endure far more than she should. "His efforts to pit religious minorities against one another stem from the same playbook. If working Americans are too busy fighting with one another, we will never address the very real and deep problems our country faces — from climate change to soaring inequality to lack of quality affordable health care." I agree.

The Museum is the Master’s House: An Open Letter to Tristram Hunt. On museums, the brutal history of British imperialism, and literal cultural appropriation. British culture is very bad at acknowledging how racist it actually is.

U.S. cybersecurity agency uses pineapple pizza to demonstrate vulnerability to foreign influence. I love this analogy.

You know who was into Karl Marx? No, not AOC. Abraham Lincoln. "“Labor is prior to and independent of capital,” the country’s 16th president said. “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”"

Why We’re Moving Forward With Impeachment. Impeachment scares me. Unfortunately, I don't think being a racist trash fire is probably an impeachable offence (given how many Presidents, even in the modern era, have been overtly racist). And even if it sticks on an obstruction of justice charge, an impeachment - or worse, a failed one - could embolden his base and get him re-elected. Maybe I'm wrong. I hope I am.

Amazon Told Police It Has Partnered With 200 Law Enforcement Agencies. We're building a very unpleasant surveillance society. Willingly, for profit. I continue to boycott Amazon, and I hope you'll join me.

Previously

Here's what I read in June, May, April, March, February, and January.

 

Adding, not echoing

In a lot of ways I'm still getting over spending time in the hospital with my mother. I'm very tired, and concentration comes in fits and starts. I'm certain that I'll remember how she looked when we walked into the recovery room right after her operation, when they weren't sure if she was going to make it, until the day I die. It was a stressful, hard time.

Through this lens, Twitter now feels like opening a box of the ghosts of dead salesman; disembodied heads screeching at the void in order to promote their personal brands. On a day like today, when Boris Johnson has just become Prime Minister and Robert Mueller is testifying before Congress, it's particularly intolerable. Yes, I care about these things, but existentially, I'm tired. All of human experience isn't limited to these conversations. There's so much more.

In some ways, the same goes for technology. My love of tech has always been deeply tied to my love of people. Technology isn't interesting for technology's sake: it's interesting because it elevates the human experiences and lets people do things they couldn't do before. It has the potential to make the world more educated, more inclusive, and more peaceful. It's certainly not interesting because it makes money for people. Building wealth is the emptiest of empty goals, particularly in comparison to building happiness or building community. Every technology project I've ever professionally worked on has been mission-driven for exactly this reason. There are ethics to what I do that I think are important, but there's a limit to the number of times I can talk about building software respectfully or limiting centralization of corporate power.

For the time being, I don't really have anything to add. And I think it's important to be additive, rather than just echo the prevailing conversations. So for a month or so, I'm going to take a hard left turn.

During August, instead of talking about tech or the things that are happening in my life, my site and social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) are going to be entirely driven by creative output. No links to news stories, no links to blog posts on software architecture, politics, etc etc. If I'm making something public, it's because I've written a short story or made new art.

There are two exceptions: I will write as part of my work at Unlock, and I will publish my monthly "here are the books I read" round-up. The rest will be creative.

This isn't what anyone is following me for, I realize, but I consider this recovery time. It's necessary for me to use my brain a little differently, and to breathe. And maybe it'll lead to something new.

 

Doing well while doing good

I've always had a complicated relationship with revenue. Back when we were working on the fully-managed version of Elgg in 2006 or so, competing as a bootstrapped company with Ning and its $100M in funding, we differentiated ourselves by charging for our services so we could be more sustainable. A few years later, Dave Tosh and I laughed at our naïvety: "choose us, because we have a business model!"

The point, of course, is that users didn't care if we had a business model. To them, we were a service that charged money in competition with a service that didn't. Where we had won customers, it was where we had provided something unique that users needed.

It's not that revenue isn't the right path to create a sustainable business. I strongly believe that it is. It aligns services with their users and creates incentives that don't promote surveillance, predatory business practices, or monopoly strategies. The entire web - and the world - would be better if more services were revenue-bound. It's one of the major reasons I've chosen to work at Unlock.

But we have to accept that most users don't care. If there's one thing I've learned from three open source startups, it's that you can't sell on ideology. It's not that they need education on the issues. It's that everyone has things going on in their lives, and you can't expect people to care about the same things as you. There will always be a community of early adopters and enthusiasts that will be on the same page as you, but the only way to truly derisk your venture is to build something that real people actually need.

Back in the Elgg days, we were doing a lot of work with higher education, which was just beginning to discover social media. Educators were integrating Twitter into their classes - sometimes at the grade school level - and encouraging their students to sign up for commercial services. We were appalled by this, for ideological reasons: those services were free, and making money from user data. Making them a required part of a syllabus was akin to forcing students to participate in surveillance. But our pleas, and the pleas of a small number of others, fell on deaf ears.

Over a decade later, that trade-off has become much more obvious. The New York Times reported recently that facial recognition databases have been trained on the user photos uploaded to a range of free services:

The databases are pulled together with images from social networks, photo websites, dating services like OkCupid and cameras placed in restaurants and on college quads. While there is no precise count of the data sets, privacy activists have pinpointed repositories that were built by Microsoft, Stanford University and others, with one holding over 10 million images while another had more than two million.

As reported in the story, at least one database, innocuously trained on CCTV footage from a cafe in San Francisco, was then used for facial recognition technology used by the Chinese military to monitor Uighurs, an oppressed minority group who are being imprisoned in concentration camps. Of course, other facial recognition technology, notably Amazon's Rekognition database, is being used by ICE to target and deport immigrants.

Every educator who made commercial social media a part of their curriculum is culpable in adding their students to this kind of training database. Nobody who studies the space can plausibly claim ignorance of this potential. But the ideological imperative was outweighed by other pragmatic decisions.

These kinds of decisions are made every day. Do you make sure that the chocolate you buy isn't picked by child slaves? It seems like a pretty imperative idea when laid out as a blunt question like this, but I bet you don't. It would be lovely if we could rely on people to make ethical consumer decisions, but generally they won't. So the solution has to be to build ethically and to meet a user's need in the most direct way possible. Build something that people really want, and do it ethically, while not making the ethics the differentiator. You'll capture some early adopters through the ethics of your work, but you'll get the bulk of your customers by serving their self-interest.

Most crucially, if you're building something that has intrinsic value to your users, you can charge money for it and make money in a way that is in line with your values.

By now, the adage that "if you're not the customer, you're the product being sold" is pretty old hat. But it remains the case that everyone has to eat and pay for a roof over their heads, and that businesses need to make a profit. Software isn't made by magical elves who can live without being paid. Nothing is actually free. If a service isn't making enough money up-front, they have to make up the difference through other means, whether it's by placing invasive advertising, selling user datasets, making "data partnerships", or all of the above.

Arguably revenue won't be enough to stop them in itself: where profit can be made, it will be. We need strong legislative consumer protections to prevent this kind of user betrayal. But once the industry has cleaned up its act, sustainable revenue practices will need to be in place to support the services we use every day.

 

Being there

I remember standing in the pulpit of an Oxford church, reading a passage from the New Testament in my 9 year-old voice, while my classmates laughed as I mispronounced the names and stumbled over the places. I had never really read the Bible, although I'd had little pieces of it read to me at school. I was gamely trying, but intention was worthless. I wasn't a part of the club. I didn't go to church every Sunday; I didn't learn Bible stories at home; and worst of all, I didn't believe.

Unlike the US, where separation of church and state is enshrined in law, Britain is still a Christian country. Some of the schools - in fact, for most of my school career, the best schools - are cofunded with the Church of England. Anybody from any faith (or in my case, no faith) can attend for free, just as they can at a secular state school. But make no mistake: hymns will be sung and Bible lessons will be told.

In truth, I found it kind of fun. They're fascinating stories, after all. Somewhere there's footage of me singing in a choir as part of Songs of Praise, the BBC's weekly celebration of Christian faith. I can also report that at my school they took great care to teach us about all major faiths without prejudice, and we visited mosques, synagogues, and temples.

Of course, it was Christianity, rather than any other religion, that we were surrounded with every day. To this day, I can probably recite six or seven childrens' songs about Jesus, and in doing so, recall the smell of the varnished wood in the school hall and the feeling of my crossed legs slowly going numb. I remember coming home and earnestly telling my mother that "the Bible isn't just one book; it's a whole library". There was certainly a division between the kids who went to church in their own time - who were actually a part of the culture imparted by the school - and those of us who were tourists.

I don't believe it did me harm - nor did I actually realize until I was a much older child that people believed these stories were true - but I also don't think these schools should exist. I have nothing against religion or people who believe in it, but I do believe in the American idea that church and state should not mix. Should I have children, I would not bring them up in a religious context at all.

Still, I would make sure they understood religion, and could make their own decisions for themselves when they were older. I came away with a real appreciation for the community that people build through faith. It provides a kind of social glue, and a safety net. I'm not a believer, and I have serious problems with religion's imperative to unquestioningly accept what you're told, but I appreciate and envy those things. I can also see that there's great comfort in the concept of an afterlife.

For me, there's nothing after you die. Consciousness fades to black, your body decomposes, and its component chemicals find its way back into the ground. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust; a transient sentience returned to the whole of the earth except as memories held by the transiently sentient beings whose lives you were lucky enough to touch.

My sister, who is cut from the same ideological cloth but with far greater creativity, turned this idea into a song. Our mother has asked that it be played at her funeral.

For the last month, I've spent a lot of my time at the hospital, at my mother's side. It's serious. I've been privilege to be able to be there and spend time with her; we've all come together to support her, which I think says wonderful things about my immediate family. There have been operations and blood transfusions and scary, touch-and-go moments. And there have been stories and laughter and shared memories.

It's hard for me to think of much else. My concentration is shot. I can feel the cortisol in my limbs. It's been one of the hardest periods of my life.

And I find myself wishing that I believed. For the comforting idea of the afterlife, sure, but also for the community that belief can bring you. A sense of belonging outside of a family structure. A sense that someone is looking out for you.

Those things aren't enough for me to believe in themselves: there's no deity or magic in my worldview. And I'm fully aware that for many people, particularly in vulnerable communities, a church is not at all a comforting space, and organized religion can often be a safe haven for bigotry. So I'm not missing a church as such. But I do feel a need for more connectedness, and for some kind of safety.

Really, I wish I could wave a magic wand and have everyone I love be healthy again, and have life go back to normal, and enjoy their company forever, and go about doing all the things that normal people do. I wish I could call on a supernatural power to fix everything. Instead, all I can do - the very most that's in my power - is be present, try to comfort, and remember.

 

Trump's social media summit and me

Today, President Trump is hosting a social media summit at the White House. Rather than inviting actual social media platforms and experts to have a substantive conversation about the real problems inherent to the medium and how we might fix them, he has chosen to gather a collection of extremists. Among them is a site called Minds - in fact the only social networking platform invited to the summit.

One of the dangers of building an open source networking platform is that anyone can use it for anything. Elgg, an open source social networking platform made by my first startup, was used for all kinds of things: we knew it was going to be a success when non-profits in Colombia began to use it to share between themselves. It's named after the small village in Switzerland that my dad's family comes from - the Werdmuller von Elggs - and I poured my heart and soul into it. Generally, I have been very proud of the things it has been used for: when learned that Oxfam was using it to train aid workers, my heart swelled.

A few years ago, Bill Ottman reached out to me because he was using it as the basis of his new social network, Minds. By that time, Elgg was long in the tooth, and a lot of changes need to be made. (It wouldn't surprise me if, today, most of the Elgg code was gone. And honestly, that would make me feel a little better.) Nonetheless, it helped them get off the ground. Last year, Minds raised a $6M Series A round from one investor, the venture arm of Overstock.com.

Yesterday, Vice reported this:

A previous Motherboard investigation found that miliant neo-Nazi groups connected to Atomwaffen Division—a violent American hate group connected to several murders—was using Minds as a platform for recruiting and spreading propaganda.

To be clear, I don't believe that Bill is a white supremacist. But it's also clear that deliberately lax moderation allows neo-Nazis to thrive on the platform and use it for recruitment. Minds describes itself as a platform for free speech: in other words, within the bounds of US law, anything goes.

Today there are concentration camps on the border. Children are dying. In the midst of this, Trump's approval ratings are at the highest point of his Presidency. This is a dangerous point in history - although, of course, not one without precedent, as groups like Never Again Action are right to point out. "The Jews will not replace us" is a common chant at right-wing marches, based on the idea that immigration is a Jewish conspiracy to replace white people.

My great grandfather fled Ukraine to avoid the White Army, which was burning Jewish villages and enacting mass killings in the region. My grandfather was captured by the Nazis. My dad and his entire immediate family were held in Japanese concentration camps, and my grandmother wailed through her nightmares every single night until the day she died.

This isn't principle; it's personal. It's personal for me, and for my friends who have been doxxed and received death threats for being feminists. It's personal for my friends who have been subject to the rapid increase in hate crimes. It's personal for my trans friends.

There's a word for people who aid Nazis: collaborators. There is nothing virtuous about standing up for the free speech of people who wish to see entire demographics of people murdered. To argue that it's "just speech" is disingenuous: words and stories have enormous power to persuade and to lead. To argue that the best way to defeat speech with more speech is similarly so: it inherently gives both sides a level platform, elevating extremism and giving it more integrity than it deserves. Scratch the surface even briefly and the subtext emerges: if inclusion and equal rights are really so great, the argument goes, surely it can defeat the opposition in debate?

These people, my argument goes, can go fuck themselves.

Recently, the white supremacist social network Gab decided to fork Mastodon, forcing that platform to release a strong statement decrying their values. I believe this was the right move. If Known or Unlock were used for hate, I would do the same. Even though it's a full ten years since I left the Elgg project, I'm finding myself writing this blog post.

I am deeply ashamed to have even a mild association with Minds. I think the free speech argument it uses is deeply flawed. I am also thinking hard about another set of principles: namely, the free software ideals that allowed Gab and Minds to adopt existing platforms in the first place.

In the same way that Minds shrugging its shoulders at the presence of hate on its platform is woefully inadequate, an open source social network shrugging its shoulders at its use by extremists is worthy of disdain. It is not enough, to say the least. If we're talking about abstract principles, the principles of human life, inclusion, and equality obviously override the principle of being able to share and freely distribute source code. Code is never more important than life. Genocide is always a bigger problem than software distribution licenses. Hopefully this is obvious.

While I accept that it runs counter to the stated principles of the free software movement, I believe we need a new set of licenses that explicitly forbid using software to facilitate hate or hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as "an organization that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics", which is in line with the FBI's definition.

I don't want software I write to be used by these groups. Ever. For any reason. I don't want to help them even accidentally, ever again. And I think that principle - the principle of never causing harm or facilitating hate - significantly outweighs every other one.

The saddest thing to me is that this is probably a controversial idea. But I would much rather be a part of the anti-fascist software community than the libertarian free market community if the latter absolves itself of its culpability in the spread of white supremacy.

 

Update: I fixed Bill's name. It's Bill Ottman. Apologies for the earlier error.

 

Here's what I read in June

Books

This is my first post since June 1st - and by that you can probably discern that I had a tough month. My mother has had two extended hospital stays, and my priority is always to be with my family and help however I can. As much as I'd like to remain calm and collected during these times, they're obviously stressful - so even when I had the time to read, I didn't have the mental energy or stillness of mind.

I did, however, manage to get to the end of one book:

Memes to Movements by An Xiao Mina. A thorough exploration of how memes shaped political movements and vice versa. Thought provoking and full of possibilities; I think, against all odds, this book made me excited about the internet again.

I'm heading into the hospital later this morning. I hope we all get to have more peace and health in July.

Notable Articles

Death of the calorie. It turns out there are better ways to measure what we put into our bodies. And it's simply not true that all calories are equal.

The Catastrophist, or: On coming out as trans at 37. "What I believed for too long, and what you might believe too, is that your body is not a gift but an obligation. That it is not who you are but a series of tasks assigned to you by the accident of your birth. This is not true. The best obligations — the only real obligations — are chosen. Your life is your life. It is worth fighting for."

Let’s Hear It for the Average Child. "To the daydreamer and the window-gazer, to the one who startles when called on by the teacher or nudged by a classmate, whose report card invariably praises your good mind but laments your lack of focus: We are grateful for your brown study. Here’s to the wondering reveries of the dreamers and the dawdlers, for the real aha! moments in life are those that cannot be summoned by will." It's me!

What HBO’s “Chernobyl” Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong. Chernobyl is amazing television, and you should see it. But it's like we're still afraid of the Soviet Union, and rather than represent it in a nuanced way, on television it's always a place where people are forced to do things by the barrel of a gun. It's as if our own capitalist society is the only one that people could possibly participate in willingly - which simply isn't true.

Uber’s Path of Destruction. Damning. I don't use Uber and I urge you not to, too.

The Roots of Big Tech Run Disturbingly Deep. I've become an enormous fan of Tim Wu through this year's reading project. In this opinion piece in the New York Times, he and Stuart A Thompson examine the acquisitions made by large tech companies, and ask why the government hasn't challenged a single one of them.

‘I Can No Longer Continue to Live Here’. The experience of Honduran women is an international tragedy. It's important to understand why they're coming to the US border. We should be giving them asylum. Instead, of course, we're putting them in concentration camps.

Dissent in Nazi Germany. We rarely hear about peaceful protests in Nazi Germany, but they existed. It's shocking to me how many people don't understand that Hitler came to power through a democratic process. It's vital to understand if we have any hope of understanding the present dark moment.

Farming while black. "The truth, however, makes no one happy: 1.) Conservatives refuse to acknowledge racism, 2.) Liberals refuse to confront racism unless it carries a flag, 3.) As a result, what success I’ve had in life is owed mostly to an ability to make White people very, very comfortable."

The I in We. WeWork - or rather, the We Company - is going to catastrophically implode. Here's why.

The World of Online Dating for Socialists. It's too easy to make a joke about praxis here. But I found this fascinating. "Red Yenta isn’t the first socialist dating site to crop up on ye olde internet (a similar platform called OkComrade had a glorious, but brief run in 2014 before becoming defunct), but it is, as far as I can tell, the only one whose interface doesn’t look like a Trojan virus-encrusted Geocities page."

The IMF Confirms That 'Trickle-Down' Economics Is, Indeed, a Joke. I didn't know that, like meritocracy, trickle-down economics was literally coined as a joke. That it doesn't work is obvious, but why do conservatives spin satire into reality so easily? Don't answer that.

Alphabet-Owned Jigsaw Bought a Russian Troll Campaign as an Experiment. I actually thought about doing the same. They're cheap as hell; we have to assume that just about everyone is doing it. (Not just the Russians, and not just using troll farms in Russia. Social media is fully gamed.)

Right-wing publications launder an anti-journalist smear campaign. Quillette, which itself launders hateful rhetoric and makes it look like reasonable discussion (albeit for people who aren't willing to engage in critical thought), published work by a right-wing troll that formed the basis of a kill list of left-wing journalists.

To protect and slur. "Inside hate groups on Facebook, police officers trade racist memes, conspiracy theories and Islamophobia." No surprise, but excellent work by Reveal.

The Time I Went On A Lesbian Cruise And It Blew Up My Entire Life. This is a controversial piece because of the transphobia present on the cruise, and to some extent the lack of criticism of it in the piece itself. So read it through that lens - but I found it a fascinating window into a world I'll never get to see.

The Best Way To Save People From Suicide. Bad headline. But I've known too many people who have died through suicide. I want to be able to better help.

Bodies in Seats. Important reading for anyone in the tech industry - and anyone who spends a lot of time using its products. This is a terrifying portrait of life in a Facebook moderation site. From what I know of other big sites, life isn't much better there, either. So I consider this to be a systemic problem. The tech industry is very good at creating a shiny face that makes us think everything works by magic. Typically, it works through low-paid workers in bad conditions - and a lot of them.

What It’s Actually Like to Be on House Hunters—Twice. My guilty pleasure is all fake. I mean, I kind of assumed.

What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane. Ultimately, a very sad, very human story.

‘Never again’ means nothing if Holocaust analogies are always off limits. How clearly can we say this? We have concentration camps at the southern border. And the analogies are strong. No, they're not death camps. But that doesn't mean we can't draw parallels.

Balancing the Ledger on Juneteenth. "In 2019, Juneteenth will be celebrated as emancipation was in the old days: with calls for reparations." As it should. I support reparations.

Why Should We Care About Faux Free-Speech Warriors? Because the Koch Brothers Are Paying Their Bills. Peterson, Shapiro, giant swathes of the Intellectual Dark Web? Koch funded, as it turns out. The idea is to counteract left-wing thought in universities - systematically, as a concerted effort.

Hideous Men. A remarkably written account, not just of an assault at the hands of Donald Trump, but of a series of abusers. Frightening, not just because of the brutality of these people, but because these people are everywhere, and it's impossible to draw a line. All of us men can do better - even if we think we don't participate, we need to do far better at calling it out and dismantling the systems that allow this to happen.

Hackers are stealing years of call records from hacked cell networks. "At least 10 cell networks have been hacked over the past seven years." And at the same time, the Trump administration is considering a ban on end-to-end encryption.

Previously

Here's what I read in May, April, March, February, and January.

 

Here's what I read in May

Books

The Spirit of Science Fiction, by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer. A lyrical stream of a book, conjuring adolescence in all its cusping possibilities and emerging sexuality. Slight but evocative, often blurring the line between prose and poetry.

Air Vol. 1: Letters From Lost Countries, by G Willow Wilson and MK Perker. My first graphic novel this year (I've been wanting to read something by G Willow Wilson for a while). It starts with a human mystery but quickly unfurls into an existential adventure that upends reality itself. Upon finishing, I immediately ordered the other volumes.

Team Human, by Douglas Rushkoff. I'm a huge fan of Doug; I once had the privilege of speaking to his class, and Known was mentioned in his book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. This is a manifesto for reclaiming civilization and embracing our humanity; a compelling vision rooted in empathy and compassion. A point of light and hope for the future. Emergent Strategy is a good companion read.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. I will be thinking about this book for the rest of my life. A vivid portrait of the horrors many Americans are forced to live through every day, and the people who profit from it. A national tragedy, made real through masterful narrative.

Bluets, by Maggie Nelson. A meditation on loss and longing that builds like a painting, its yearning expressed through discussions of color and light. Beautifully written; heartbreakingly felt.

The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, by Brooke Gladstone. Facts are not the same as truth; the latter has power, and can be fabricated by totalitarian leaders and gaslighters with a blanket of lies. A meditation on the Rashomon of modern life.

Notable Articles

Want to see what one digital future for newspapers looks like? Look at The Guardian, which isn’t losing money anymore. The Guardian's experiment with patronage has been a roaring success, and points to the fact that many people who subscribe to newspapers do so because they want the journalism to exist in the world, not because of any sense of exclusivity.

Silicon Valley is awash in Chinese and Saudi cash — and no one is paying attention (except Trump). A quiet secret about Venture Capital firms is that they often take money from regimes that have dubious human rights records. A question I have: when much of a VC fund is linked to a government, and the fund has a voting seat on the board of a company, and that company (for example) operates a giant surveillance apparatus, how independently can we trust the fund to make decisions?

'Wide-open potential for abuse': States are ground zero in the fight against child marriage. 17 states have no minimum age of marriage. That it isn't a political slam dunk to end child marriage is yet another thing that blows my mind about America.

AirPods Are a Tragedy. I depend on mine, but this exploration of the environmental impact has made me rethink (again) my technology purchases. If we really believe in making positive environmental steps, we've got to make better decisions. I'll stop buying AirPods, but I wish there was a clearer, more positive alternative for phones, laptops, etc.

'I see any dinosaur, I buy it': at home with the embattled owner of the Flintstone house. I see this house all the time from the 280. Visiting it is on my bucket list. The current owner kind of seems like a badass.

Three Feet From God: An Oral History of Nirvana ‘Unplugged’. This was one of the most influential albums on me as a teenager. It's a beautiful set, recorded live six months before Kurt Cobain's untimely death. The performance of Lead Belly's Where Did You Sleep Last Night is particularly affecting. It's neat to read the behind the scenes story.

What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right. A portrait of the male resentment and coercive outside factors that these hateful movements thrive on. It's like a cult. But the piece offers a glimmer of hope at the end.

The Problem With Supplements. There should certainly be stronger oversight over the supplement industry, and there are major potential ill effects. The argument isn't that all supplements are bad - it's that they're not necessarily good, either, and many are harmful, particularly without a doctor's supervision. Adelle Davis has a lot to answer for.

Is Conference Room Air Making You Dumber? The argument being made here is much more far-reaching than conference rooms. Indoor air quality is not regulated or monitored to anywhere near the same degree as outdoor air, but it may have a stronger effect on our health.

It's Time to Break Up Facebook. Chris Hughes, an estranged Facebook co-founder, repeats many of the arguments made in Tim Wu's The Curse of Bigness. I'm very happy to see these arguments being made in a more public way, both by Hughes and politicians like Elizabeth Warren. I strongly agree that reformed anti-trust legislation will have an outsized positive impact on both the technology industry and inequality overall.

Strong Opinions Loosely Held Might be the Worst Idea in Tech. It's an approach that often leads to bluster and doesn't work well with introverts. Let's all just be more comfortable with saying "I don't know; let's find out".

The tyranny of ideas. Once a creator becomes known for an idea, how can they move beyond it?

Why I (Still) Love Tech: In Defense of a Difficult Industry. I'm holding onto my love by the finest of fine threads. I'd love to share Paul Ford's enthusiasm, and maybe I kind of do, but my love of tech was never about the computers themselves or transhumanism, and was always about the potential to connect people. For me as a teenager, and thereafter, the potential to be really seen. It's hard to be enthusiastic about that knowing what we know now about power, abuse and inequality. Still, the whisper of a hint of that old potential is still there. Maybe we can turn this ship around.

The Racist Origins of America’s Tech Industry. It's all to do with counting and tracking people - from the US census, through IBM's involvement in the Holocaust. Just as Nazi propaganda techniques paved the way for modern marketing, racist tracking techniques made the way for modern surveillance.

The Criminalization of Women’s Bodies Is All About Conservative Male Power. "The goal of the wave of anti-abortion laws in America is to put female sexuality under strict and brutal state control." More than sexuality, it's about enforcing patriarchy. "We live in a society that is comfortable letting men get away with sexual violence, but determined not to let women get away with consensual sex. This is why there are vast swathes of society who are comfortable giving vast executive and judicial power to men credibly accused of sexual assault—as long as those same men promise to confiscate women’s power to sexually self-determine."

Why America Can’t Solve Homelessness. "The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that punishing homeless people makes it harder for them to find housing and get work. Nonetheless, the most common demands from urban voters are for politicians to increase arrests, close down soup kitchens and impose entry requirements and drug tests in shelters." Why can't we be more compassionate? Better informed? As I learned by reading Evicted this month, it's because poverty is hugely profitable.

What Actually Happens When a Country Bans Abortion. "Romania’s prohibition of the procedure was disproportionately felt by low-income women and disadvantaged groups, which abortion-rights advocates in the United States fear would happen if the Alabama law came into force. As a last resort, many Romanian women turned to home and back-alley abortions, and by 1989, an estimated 10,000 women had died as a result of unsafe procedures. The real number of deaths might have been much higher, as women who sought abortions and those who helped them faced years of imprisonment if caught. Maternal mortality skyrocketed, doubling between 1965 and 1989."

Why Losing Our Newspapers Is Breaking Our Politics. "As local newspapers disappear, citizens increasingly rely on national sources of political information, which emphasizes competition and conflict between the parties. Local newspapers, by contrast, serve as a central source of shared information, setting a common agenda. Readers of local newspapers feel more attached to their communities. Unless something is done, our politics will likely become ever more contentious and partisan as the media landscape consolidates and nationalizes."

Inside the World of Racist Science Fiction. This is fascinating to me: for me, science fiction is all about extrapolating what humanity can be, both for good and ill. I guess that's true of racists, too, and they have a parallel set of literature where dystopias are characterised by unity and racial diversity. It doesn't sound great, and I have no desire to read any of it. It's worth noting, though, that some mainstream science fiction authors also harbored unpleasant views: Robert Heinlein, for example, became increasingly right-wing as he got older.

The 15 Year Layover. Merhan Nasseri is the real-life counterpart to, and inspiration for, Tom Hanks's character in The Terminal. Trapped in Charles de Gaulle airport, partially by beaucracy and partially by his desire to control his identity, he has managed to survive through a mixture of intelligence and the kindness of others. But it's also an inadvertent commentary on the ridiculousness of borders as they stand. Why should he be trapped this way? Why should arbitrary rules mean someone should spend over a decade sleeping on benches in a shopping mall? It makes no sense.

How Many Bones Would You Break to Get Laid? I'll admit I'm fascinated by incels. Their worldview is based on an unacknowledged misogyny; what they think is a bedrock of scientific understanding is actually just illogical sexism dressed up as reason. I don't sympathize with them in the slightest, but I think they probably need help. Particularly in the cases described here, where their disorder brings them to the point of getting plastic surgery to try and become more attractive. Perhaps if they tried to be empathetic, three dimensional people?

For the record: Jonathan Freedland on his sister’s farewell Desert Island Discs. A journalist's gift to his dying sister, and the role the resulting self-recorded radio show played in her goodbye.

W3C TAG Ethical Web Principles. For the first time, real humanist ethics are represented in the W3C platform. This is a huge step forward - I agree with everything here, even if I wish it went just a little bit further.

Previously

Here's what I read in April, March, February, and January.

 

Gratitude

A friend of mine takes time at the end of every Sunday to write down three to five things she's grateful for, based on these tips for keeping a gratitude journal. Then she mails them to her friends as part of an ongoing thread. For her, it's part of building a habit of seeing the world through a grateful lens; for me, it's a lovely reminder, every single week. I asked her if she minded if I stole her idea months ago, but I've never quite managed to get it together to do it. I think I'm a bit scared of asking my friends if they want to receive it - but, of course, that shouldn't stop me from writing it.

I used to see phrases like "gratitude practice" and roll my eyes automatically. It somehow seems like the most Californian thing ever: why do you need to practice to be grateful? But after a few really hard years, I see why making gratitude a habit is important - in itself, but also as a good foundation for mental health. I now see my eye rolls as immature reactions in a world where mental healthcare is not as highly valued as it should be.

I don't think I'll continue to post updates in this forum, but since we're here: these are some things I've been grateful for over the last week.

1: Reconnections. I was in New York City last week, and although I never get to see everyone I want to, and I was considerably less organized than I wish I'd been, I got to hang out with a lot of old friends. Most of them reached out to me, because it was a work trip and I didn't quite have it together to reach out to them. All of them are people I wish I could be around all the time, but one symptom of my anxiety is that I worry about imposing my presence on other people. That these people who I care about thought of me, and that I got to spend time with them, made me incredibly happy.

2: Family. My sister is currently disabled and in chronic pain, and needed to leave both her job and her home a while back. My parents are suffering ill health. I feel priviliged to be able to give my sister somewhere to live (and spend most days with her); equally, to be able to drive up and see my parents regularly. I'm also just grateful for who they are: empathetic, compassionate people who care very deeply about fairness and very little about individual gain. If I can be more like them, I'll be a better person.

3: Reading time. The arbitrary goal I set myself to read a book a week this year has been one of the nicest things I've ever done for myself. So far, they've universally been books on paper: time away from the screen,  notifications, and distractions. It feels like meditation, and I've learned so much. I had convinced myself that reading long-form pieces on the internet was a similar experience, but it is not.

4: Working at the office. The experience of actually being in the same room and time zone as people I work with was completely lovely. It's a whole different energy. I've learned over time that being around people energizes me, and these are smart, kind people. I'm grateful to know them.

5: Up and to the right. I've been depressed, in the true sense of that word, and it feels like there's finally light at the end of the tunnel. In particular, I feel like I have a lot more energy: even when I'm tired, it feels like there's a fire inside me that I thought had gone out for good. I still have a lot of work to do to rid myself of the negative self-talk and low self-esteem I've built up over years, but broadly, I feel like a different person. I was living with a layer of despair that informed how I thought about myself, and how I thought about the world. The sediment had built up over years, and I feel like I'm shaking it off. The world feels possibility-driven again.

 

Pro-choice is pro-freedom

A woman has the right to choose what to do with her own body. This should be obvious to anyone who cares about freedom.

It's ironic to me (but not surprising) that the people who are most in favor of subjugating women are also the people who advocate most strongly for what they consider to be Core American Freedoms. Your ability to own a gun should be unrestricted in a country where more children are killed by firearms than police officers or soldiers from any army. You should be able to discriminate against people whose love looks different to yours because you think your religion gives you the right to be a bigot. You should be able to use rhetoric that implies violence against whole demographics of people, who themselves have been subjected to violence for generations from people just like you, because you say you believe in freedom of speech, even while your speech silences whole communities and your calls of anti right wing bias are not functionally different to the people a generation ago who complained they couldn't use the N word anymore. But bodily autonomy for half of the population? A step too far.

Abortion legislation is sweeping conservative states like a virus. As many people have rightly pointed out, if it had anything to do with care for children, these same people would be providing parental care, better child healthcare, and programs to alleviate child poverty. They might not be actively creating concentration camps for asylum seekers at the border that separate children from their parents with no plan or means to reunite them later.

Instead, it's about pandering to a small, conservative base of voters, who don't just want to subjugate women, but also to re-establish segregation and "make America great again" by returning it to the dark days of white supremacy and hierarchical patriarchy. When Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, set about opposing desegregation by building a new kind of religious conservatism in the 1970s, he wrote: "The new political philosophy must be defined by us in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition [...] When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation."

In reality, no moral high ground can be claimed by a movement whose actions will result in the deaths of women, disproportionately affecting those from vulnerable communities, let alone one so steeped in the horrors of racism and slavery.

But nobody is off the hook. Rape culture - the logical conclusion of patriarchy and its inherent dehumanization of women - reaches into every aspect of society. Many men, including on the left, believe that they have the right to dictate what their partners do with their bodies. The logic is that the father of an unborn child should have some right to decide whether the mother carries that child to term. I disagree, in the strongest possible terms: no man has the right to decide what a woman does with her body, period. It's possible that a woman will grant a man the privilege of participating in the conversation. But it's never ultimately his choice. For it to be anything else, we would have to conclude that a man has partial ownership of his partner's body. This is not and cannot be the case.

The current viral sweep of abortion bans is designed to lead us to a re-evaluation of Roe vs Wade at the Supreme Court, before a roster of judges that has artificially been curated to lean conservatively, as part of a judicial system that has been radically remade for this purpose, but which has always perpetuated systemic prejudice. I would like to think that it won't prevail, and women will still have autonomy over their bodies (hopefully more autonomy than they do now) a decade from now. But I can't predict. This is an issue of pivotal importance, potentially putting life and death in the balance for generations of women, and yet it's just one thing out of many that can be described this way. In the current moment, brutality has found a kaleidoscope of ways to express itself.

Hope seems hard to come by.

But it can be found. I find hope in the many messages from people who are willing to put up women fleeing these regressive states and assist them in finding the healthcare they need, up to and including putting up the money and posing as family members. I find hope in feminism, and activism. I find hope in the past: knowing that abortion rights were hard-won, I believe that if they are lost, they can be won again. I find hope in politicians like Elizabeth Warren, who released a plan to finally encode abortion protections into federal law.

I find hope in dissenting voices. That's why I'm writing this piece to begin with: as a white, cis, straight man, I think it's important to speak up. Silence is tacit support. I donate what I can to organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and support politicians like Warren, but those things are baseline: they're nowhere near enough in themselves. Neither is simply voting, although it is crucial. There needs to be a unanimous show of support for women, and against the cynical bigotry of this political moment. We need to take to the streets, we need to take this to Washington, and we need to show that the moral majority are the people who believe in a women's right to choose.

Things to do right now:

Here's a list of local, grassroots organizations in states affected by abortion bans. If you have the means, they need your money.

A national day of action is planned on Tuesday, May 21st. RSVP to a local march near you here.

Support democratic candidates who will fight for reproductive rights.

 

Always punch up

“Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.” - Molly Ivins

Comedians debate about punching up vs punching down - the idea that making fun of people more powerful than you is more equitous than making fun of people with less power and agency. Some argue that this rule is unnecessarily restrictive, but they're often the same people who complain that people can't be racist or sexist anymore.

Anyway, I'm not a comedian, and I've taken the idea to heart.

In technology, we often talk about disruption. In the Clay Christiansen sense that most people refer to it, disruptive innovation "describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors."

Internet companies have disrupted incumbents again and again. The question is: who is worth disrupting?

I think "always punch up" has a place here, too. When you're building a new platform, your targets should be the slow, inefficient mega-corporations further up the food chain. By punching up here, you're probably removing gatekeepers and democratizing a part of the market that had been previously locked up by one or two established players. Conversely, if your technology disrupts, say, public transport or the social welfare system, you're punching down: your platform negatively affects people with less power than you. Rather than democratizing, you're locking up an important resource that was previously owned by the people.

It's a simple test that you can rinse and repeat. Disrupting small, independent bookstores? Punching down. Disrupting WalMart? Punching up. Food co-operatives? Down. Monsanto? Up.

Of course, it's all relative to your own power and agency, which changes over time depending on how successful you are. White, male Stanford graduates from wealthy families have a different power equation than people of color who have had to overcome generational inequalities, for example. Someone emerging from poverty by creating an alternative to the neighborhood bookstore is punching up, but if Amazon did the exact same thing, they'd be punching down.

One could argue that it's an unnecessarily combatative metaphor, and it probably is. Life and business should be much more about collaboration than "punching" in any direction. In my defense, I've co-opted the idea rather than inventing it. Nonetheless, I find it a useful yardstick for which opportunities to take, which ideas are worth pursuing, and which ventures are likely to run into ethical trouble in the future.

 

The next wave of startups: smaller, scrappier, and making money

I think we're about to see a resurgence in smaller, more capital efficient startups. This new breed of company will be a startup by definition - a company that is still figuring out what it is, and how to best serve its customers - but won't necessarily be funded by venture capital. Correspondingly, it will have less of a financial cushion to sit on while it's figuring things out, and will need to start taking revenue earlier.

My prediction is based on a few things. Firstly, venture capital has been shielded by the "what if" stories told about a few mega-unicorns that seem to be getting more and more valuable. Those mega-unicorns - companies like Uber - are now finally finding liquidity, and the rubber will meet the road. Uber's IPO isn't likely to go as well as some investors might have hoped, and that's nothing compared to WeWork, which has also filed to go public. Stories about growth will give way to market realities, and the serious losses incurred by these companies will be felt in the returns of every venture capital fund that invested in them.

Secondly, we're hearing some noises about antitrust reform - from both sides of the political aisle. It remains to be seen if Elizabeth Warren's proposal to break up big tech companies bears fruit, but it's likely that there will be some changes here. Venture capital depends on companies that grow incredibly quickly and own a market - or, to put it another way, companies that tend towards monopoly. If they are disallowed from becoming monopolies, their growth potential is limited, and the amount of money that will be readily invested is correspondingly reduced.

Thirdly, some LPs - the people who put money into venture capital funds - are slowing down or being blocked from investing at all. Investors from Saudi Arabia are, rightly, now being turned away in the wake of the Kashogghi scandal (although its human rights record was indefensible long before). China's economy is also slowing down. This, together with knock-on effects from my previous two points, may affect LP enthusiasm, and it might start to get harder to raise a VC fund as investors look to other markets.

Finally, we're beginning to see more viable alternatives to VC, both for ethical reasons and because it's becoming more apparent that not all startups have the right growth profile. Alternative funding sources tend to be revenue-bound, and these necessarily mean lower investment amounts. Because these deals tend to promise to return a fixed multiple of the initial investment amount, startups need to be careful: if the multiple is 5X (which is pretty standard for these deals), taking a $10M check becomes harder to argue for. Nobody wants to commit to paying out $50M if they can avoid it.

All of which means that time to revenue will need to be reduced, and burn rate (the amount of money you spend beyond the money you take in) will need to shrink significantly. Correspondingly, services and tools that allow you to hit revenue milestones quickly (vs, say, user growth hacking) will become much more valuable parts of the ecosystem than they are today. Similarly, reducing burn by letting teams build revenue-generating software more quickly and with fewer engineers will be key. I'd expect Microsoft to be in front of this very quickly. Finally, remote teams who aren't located in the usual, high-rent cities will become more commenplace, and tools to manage those teams will become more necessary.

There's a common fallacy that startups should ape Twitter's early strategy - which is to say, grow really fast and figure out a business model later. It's a bad idea: most entrepreneurs aren't Ev Williams and don't have his resources or investor goodwill. This has always been true, but figuring out a business model early will become even more imperative in the future. For example, most founders don't think about performing revenue experiments - something we're trying to make easier with Unlock - until much later in their lives. It's something that I'd argue founders should now be thinking about in week one.

In some ways, it's a return to an era of tech that I honestly enjoyed more: one that isn't so much about making billions of dollars as people getting ventures off the ground to become viable businesses that produce cool software. Even if my predictions turn out to be wrong (and they may well), I think we're seeing a swing of the pendulum back to smaller businesses, and a tech world that's much more about possibilities than it is about being a financial vehicle for billionaires. I, for one, welcome this with open arms.

 

Here's what I read in April

Books

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E Butler. It's tempting to try and read Butler's entire bibliography this year. Her work is amazing. In turns profoundly affecting and utterly terrifying, this novel feels like a glimpse of the near future rather than far-flung speculation. Visceral and poignant. I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Journey to Armenia by Osip Mandelstam, translated into English by Sidney Monas (my grandfather). A beautiful portrait of a specific time and place; the writing is breathtaking, even if the observations are firmly set in an imperialist era. I lost my grandfather last month, and I could hear his voice in the writing, too.

The Curse of Bigness, by Tim Wu. I should have read this months ago; it was recommended to me last year as part of a project I wish life hadn't gotten in the way of. A concise and powerful argument for antitrust reform as a path to a more equitable democracy. It cemented my opinion that it’s one of the most important things we can do.

Notable Articles

The Attention Economy to the Addiction Economy. "Short term optimization and focusing on attention will hurt the internet over the long term." I couldn't agree more, and I'm glad Mozilla is fighting the good fight.

The Day the Dinosaurs Died. "“We have the whole KT event preserved in these sediments,” DePalma said. “With this deposit, we can chart what happened the day the Cretaceous died.”" Absolutely amazing.

“The Big Error Was That She Was Caught”: The Untold Story Behind the Mysterious Disappearance of Fan Bingbing, the World’s Biggest Movie Star. A fascinating account of a story I've been peripherally aware of.

Bussed out: How America moves its homeless. "Each year, US cities give thousands of homeless people one-way bus tickets out of town. An 18-month nationwide investigation by the Guardian reveals, for the first time, what really happens at journey’s end." This should be a national tragedy. Beautifully reported, and best read on desktop.

The Hidden Air Pollution in Our Homes. Outside air pollution is regulated; indoor air quality is not. But the particles in our homes can have a severe impact on our hearts and lungs. I've become more and more aware of lung health in particular.

How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World. An impressively-told account of the Murdoch empire, the impact it's undeniably had, and its future.

Facebook Wants a Faux Regulator for Internet Speech. It Won’t Happen. The kicker is in the final paragraph. "In the future, American speech — at least online — may be governed by Europe." I agree. GDPR has already forced a rearchitecture of popular services all over the world, despite only having European jurisdiction. And that's a great thing for everybody.

Privileged. Utah Jazz basketball player on white privilege and his racial awakening. The conclusions he comes to should be conclusions for a lot of us.

We Need a More Ethical Web. I trust Daniel Applequist's opinions on many things, and he's right on here. "It’s time for web platform makers to enlarge this ethical framework to include human rights, dignity and personal agency. We need to put human rights at the core of the web platform. And we need to promote ethical thinking across the web industry to reinforce this approach." Damn straight.

The Death of the Hippies. Joe Samberg - Andy's dad - photographed the decline of the hippie scene on Berkeley's Telegraph Ave, just a few miles away from where I write this now. Drugs were a way to discredit both the anti-war movement and the black power movement, a deliberate and cynical government strategy, and unfortunately, they worked.

How PragerU Is Winning The Right-Wing Culture War Without Donald Trump. "It took two months for Prager University, one of the biggest, most influential and yet least understood forces in online media, to mold a conservative." I've come across PragerU's videos, often reshared by conservative family members on Facebook. They're easily debunked, but I'm not a receptive audience. There's no equivalent on the left.

Bret Easton Ellis Thinks You’re Overreacting to Donald Trump. I'm not shocked that he's as vapid and superficial as his work.

Climate Chaos Is Coming — and the Pinkertons Are Ready. If you're not familiar with the Pinkertons, they were Abraham Lincoln's private security during the Civil War, and were later hired to infiltrate unions and break up labor protests. They expect business to boom during the climate crisis.

15 Months of Fresh Hell Inside Facebook. As always, an excellent example of a company that could benefit from antitrust reform.

Capitalism in crisis: U.S. billionaires worry about the survival of the system that made them rich. "“So, what should we do?” her colleague asked. “Is he saying we shouldn’t go into banking or consulting?”"

‘Liz Was a Diehard Conservative’. It's early days, but Elizabeth Warren is my preferred choice for Democratic nominee (and the only candidate I'm donating to regularly, although I've also given to Bernie Sanders). This profile only deepens my respect.

The Black Feminists Who Saw the Alt-Right Threat Coming. An underreported story about a group of black women who discovered a disinformation campaign that was arguably the precursor of both GamerGate and the tactics used in the 2016 election.

I Used to Work for Google. I Am a Conscientious Objector. "Direct action from tech workers has been undeniably effective. Human rights organizations must therefore continue to advocate the legal protection of whistle-blowers and conscientious objectors, including protecting the organizing required for an effective collective action. Further, the broader civil society could increase the frequency of whistle-blowing by creating a dedicated legal defense fund."

Why Won’t Twitter Treat White Supremacy Like ISIS? Because It Would Mean Banning Some Republican Politicians Too. This is a telling story on so many levels: one reason Twitter can't ban white supremacists is that the dragnet would also ban prominent Republicans.

Here’s what happened inside The Markup. An evolving account of what happened to a publication that should have shined a data-driven investigative journalism spotlight on the societal impact of the tech industry.

The Narrative Experiment That Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I still haven't seen Endgame, but I unashamedly love these movies. It's never been done before: 22 movies all building on the same story. Even James Bond (which I like a lot less because of its jingoism and sexism, but technically has more titles, at 26) hasn't attempted this kind of interwoven narrative.

Jack Dorsey’s TED Interview and the End of an Era. "The struggle to maintain Twitter is a double referendum: first, on the sustainability of scale; second, on the pervasive belief in Silicon Valley that technology can be neutral and should be treated as such. This idea, that systems will find their own equilibrium, echoes the libertarian spirit that has long animated the Valley and fails to account for actual power imbalances that exist in the real world. In 2019, it also suggests a certain lack of vision or imagination about what social technologies can, or should, be."

Tony Slattery: ‘I had a very happy time until I went slightly barmy’. I used to love Whose Line Is It Anyway, and Slattery was omnipresent there and across the pantheon of British comedy panel shows. Even as a teenager, I could tell he was drunk. This is a sad story, but also one of survival.

The largest study involving transgender people is providing long-sought insights about their health. "The research could also reveal some of the basic biology underlying differences among sexes. Tantalizing hints are already beginning to emerge about the respective roles of hormones and genetics in gender identity. And findings are beginning to clarify the medical and psychological impacts of transitioning."

A Terrorist Tried to Kill Me Because I Am a Jew. I Will Never Back Down. "I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish."

The Case for Doing Nothing. "More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense." I'm very pro-niksen.

Previously

Here's what I read in March, February, and January.

 

Nobody talks about the fear

I wouldn't have founded my first startup without socialized medicine. Although my background was squarely middle class, I didn't come from wealth, and I didn't have a safety net to fall back on. If I'd had to pay hundreds of pounds a month for healthcare on top of my basic living expenses, or if I'd known that an accident could have led to lifelong financial catastrophy, there's no way I would have quit my salaried position to start a company.

Of course, I didn't have that risk, because I lived in a country with a safety net. It was also a country where I could get the computer science degree that has enabled my career for free, meaning I've only ever had the barest whisper of student debt. And where going to the doctor was something I could do any time something was wrong with me, without having to care about how much it would cost.

I didn't understand how privileged I was to not be afraid of those things until I moved to the United States.

What boggles my mind is that this is often used as a legitimate argument for not having a safety net. The need for health insurance in particular means that millions of people remain in the relative safety of their jobs, rather than stepping out and doing something on their own, or looking for something new. Because most workers either don't have significant savings or can't risk them, they're effectively trapped into working for wealthy employers, who have leverage over them as a result.

Employer-provided health insurance creates a chilling effect on entrepreneurship. It also reduces incentives for employers - particularly of the low-income employees who are the most trapped and are in the most need - to compete for workers by offering higher wages, better working conditions, and more meaningful work. It's bad for everybody except for the wealthy employers themselves.

As Aaron E Carroll wrote in the New York Times:

One effect of this system is job lock. People become dependent on their employment for their health insurance, and they are loath to leave their jobs, even when doing so might make their lives better. They are afraid that market exchange coverage might not be as good as what they have (and they’re most likely right). They’re afraid if they retire, Medicare won’t be as good (they’re right, too). They’re afraid that if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, they might not be able to find affordable insurance at all.

I felt the difference. It was visceral, and it's hard to completely articulate: no matter which choice I made, I knew I would never slip through the cracks. Even if I fell into poverty, it would not be a death sentence. In the US, that's only the domain of the very privileged. Everyone has to make a monthly payment - whether provided by them or their employer - that could mean the difference between their life and death. It's bonded labor that keeps workers from rising above their stations. And it's an omnipresent fear that underpins almost every aspect of American life. You've have to compete; work hard; always be productive. Because you know what will happen if you don't.

American society has fear running through it. It informs every decision. It's internalized as a fact of life and a part of the natural order of things. And it manifests everywhere. It's what's bringing American life expectancy down year on year. And it has effects on mental health and happiness that we've only begun to scratch the surface of.

The people who talk about these things in terms of abstract economic arguments have missed that everyone should also get to be human. Everyone deserves a decent life, no matter who they are. Nobody should fall through the cracks of society because of chance or a bad decision. And everyone should have the right to live without fear.

People talk about a social safety net out here like it's some mythical beast that couldn't possibly truly exist. It exists. And speaking as someone who had free healthcare, had free education, who lived under the protection of a compassionate, democratic system, let me tell you: these things are great, and I couldn't have existed without them.

 

Fixing the financial dilemma at the heart of our broken tech industry

I was recently forwarded Jeffrey Zeldman's piece on A List Apart, Nothing Fails Like Success, on the impact of venture capital on startup business models. At the end, he questions whether the indieweb is a possible answer to the predicament we find ourselves in.

I feel uniquely positioned to answer, because I've been a venture capitalist (at mission-driven accelerator Matter Ventures) and have literally started an indieweb startup, Known. I've also bootstrapped a startup and worked at one that raised hundreds of millions of venture capital dollars.

He's correctly identified a major problem inherent to startup funding in the modern age. It's certainly true that venture capital depends on moonshots - and they have to. To break this down, we need to briefly explain how a VC fund works.

Why VCs need moonshots

You can think of venture capital funds as purely financial instruments: investors (limited partners, or LPs) put money into them, and expect to get more money back. Because the risk inherent in these funds is high (most startups fail), LPs expect more of a return than they would from a more traditional investment fund. In fact, venture capital funds often aim to triple an LP's investment. The venture capitalists managing the fund usually make money by taking 2% of total LP investments as a management fee, and then 20% of any profits. To ensure there is alignment, LPs often require that the managing partner of a venture capital fund puts in 1-4% of the fund total from their own money.

Investments made by VC funds come in two forms. The first is as an equity purchase: they are buying shares in a startup at a defined price. This makes the most sense when a company obviously has some potential and has grown beyond its embryonic stage. It's important to consider valuation here: when investors buy a type of share in a company at a particular price, the company takes on a valuation that assumes every share of that type in that company is worth that price.

The only way equity investors make money is if their shares are sold at a higher price.

The second is as debt: if a startup is too young, it's hard to know what its potential is. In particular, there's a strong chance that it will pivot to find a different customer base or to provide a different product. Two examples are Slack, which was originally a game, and Instagram, which was originally a Foursquare competitor. While both became enormous companies in their own right (Slack is about to IPO and Instagram was bought by Facebook for $715 million), buying shares in those companies in those early days would have given them a valuation based on those early versions of those products. Slack would have been valued as if it was a game, and Instagram as if it was a Foursquare competitors. So instead, early stage investors use debt that turns into equity at a certain value when the startup is ready to sell shares.

The only way these early stage convertible debt investors make money is if more investors come along later to buy shares in the company, which automatically turns their convertible debt into shares. Then they need to be able to sell their shares.

To compound matters, you can't just sell shares in a private company. To make a return on their shares, investors need the company to either be sold at a good price to another company, or to IPO and turn into a public company, at which point their shares can be publicly tradeable on the stock market. Both of these are referred to as an exit event.

90% of startups fail. The entire profit model of a venture capital fund therefore depends on the outliers: those 10% of startups that buck the trend and manage to not just survive, but grow very quickly and reach an exit event. To make their economics work, venture capitalists are hoping for each individual investment to make them a 30-40X return on their investment. Most will disappear without a trace; the ones that don't need to make up the difference.

Finally, funds have a fixed time period; usually, they last 10 years. The first 3-5 years might be spent making initial investments, with the remainder of time devoted to making follow-on investments in companies that look like they're winning. It would be ideal if the successful startups found their way to a high-worth exit event in a timely manner, so that VCs can return funds to their LPs, make their profits, and show good results so they can raise new funds.

All of this means that VCs are very careful. The stereotype of them being bold risk-takers is almost entirely untrue: they're very risk averse, and often look to replicate patterns that have worked for them in the past in finding very high-growth companies that have provided a rapid return on their investments. Unfortunately, they fall into common biases in the process, and this is why there is a bias towards white, male founders who look a little bit like Mark Zuckerberg. (More on this later.)

Why startups need VCs

The short version is that everyone needs to eat and put a roof over their heads, and the money has to come from somewhere.

Let's discuss startups that intentionally want to play the high-growth VC game, and then startups that don't.

If you intentionally want to take the high-growth route, you need to make your startup grow in value as quickly as possible. Value is not directly correlated with revenue: for example, a web service with hundreds of millions of users who compulsively check it every day can be said to be valuable even if it isn't making a dime. A direct business model can be added later: maybe you want to serve advertising to them, or perhaps they're inadvertently creating a database of insights that can be sold to third parties. That rapidly-growing database could make the service a valuable purchase by another company later on. Or maybe the business model can be applied when the service hits critical mass, and the business has the potential to reach IPO.

Revenue has a cooling effect on growth. If you ask your users to pay, it's a simple fact that most won't. So if your service comes with a price - unless it's a high-ticket enterprise service where a single customer could represent a six or seven figure monthly sum - it's less likely that you'll hit the growth milestones that will entice more investors to come in at a higher valuation, or that you'll hit an exit event.

So if you're hoping to entice venture capital investors, it's probably not a good idea to take revenue at first; instead, you'll want to concentrate on growth. And if you're growing fast, you may need to operate for years with a larger and larger userbase, and therefore with a larger and larger team. Which means you need to raise more and more money from venture capital investors, as well as experiment with non-interruptive revenue models like targeted advertising. It's self-fulfilling.

If you don't want to take the high-growth route, you need to be thinking about revenue from day one. It's highly unlikely that you'll build a startup that covers your costs in the first month - or even in the first year. In fact, most startups don't begin to cover their costs until over three years after they start.

This effect is compounded in areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, which used to be the place where innovation could happen. It's still a special place, and there's certainly still a critical mass of people who have built innovative technology, and scaled innovative technology. (The two are different, by the way: research into new technology doesn't typically happen inside a startup. Instead, startups bring new technology to market. This should probably be the subject of another post.)

But the San Francisco Bay Area is now too expensive to live in if you're not either independently wealthy or drawing a six figure salary. There are so many wonderful stories about ventures being created in Palo Alto garages - but to buy a home with a large garage in Palo Alto would now cost you between three and four million dollars. In San Francisco itself, a family earning $118,000 a year is considered to be low income. The rule of thumb for an early-stage startup is that you should budget for $10,000 per team member per month - and that still puts you into the low income bracket.

Given these costs, who could possibly live there and forgoe a real salary for three years?

For most startup founders in Silicon Valley, investment is necessary. Without investment, there would be very few Silicon Valley startups (and the ones that did still exist would be run by the very wealthy).

Because startup founders need investment to create their companies, and because venture capital is the prevailing form of startup investment, most startups are created to be high-growth venture capital investments.

There are non-financial reasons to take investment. A good investor is like a co-founder: they have amassed enough knowledge about startups, and a big enough contact book, that they can add meaningful value to a venture before they've added any money at all. Investors build reputation through the advice, hard work, and connections they put in. They can also be social proof: new investors will look at the capitalization table of a business to understand who has already bought in. Beyond fundraising, consider the number of articles in the tech press announcing that a famous investor has joined this or that startup. It's a sign that the startup is real and worth paying attention to. All of these factors lessen the risk in a venture.

Because these startups are typically Delaware C Corporations, whose company documents do not make mission or ethics a core part of their founding bylaws, their founders have a primary, fiduciary duty to their shareholders: the investors that put money into them. Although it can be argued that being an unethical company can have detrimental effects in the marketplace and degrade a company's valuation (I've certainly made this argument many times), founders are obligated to do what they can to be good stewards of investor value. They have to continue to grow, and they have to continue to build value - often, as Zeldman noted in his piece, at any cost.

The same is true of the venture capitalists. There are many thoughtful, ethical VCs. But they have a fiduciary duty to their limited partners, who, after all, are their investors.

Is the indieweb the answer?

It depends.

For consumers - those of us who use web services - picking indieweb solutions, and independent solutions more generally, may free us from some of the worst effects of the growth-at-any-cost model. Certainly, every business, and I would argue every adult, should own their own website. Having a web presence that you control has profoundly positive effects in business, work, and life. For example, artists and musicians who own their own website rather than primarily operate a Facebook page have a far greater ability to build deeper relationships with their fans. In my case, almost every job I've ever had can be traced directly back to my blog.

Furthermore, the technologies being developed by the indieweb community - decentralized website-to-website social networking - show that we don't need large centralized growth machines to communicate with each other. Over time, if these technologies become more popular and widely-supported, the effect may be to lessen the importance of those platforms.

Nonetheless, for the startup ecosystem, I don't think the indieweb is a direct solution. At least, not yet. At its core, this is a social problem, and indieweb is a technical solution. Ownership over our digital identities is vitally important, but it is not the key to unlocking a new tech industry. In particular, indieweb doesn't solve the financial dilemma at the core of the problem.

Zeldman looks to Micro.blog as a potential answer. It's a great company that could point to what a more general solution could look like, but not specifically because it works with the indieweb. Instead, it's worth examining how it's financially structured. Rather than a unicorn, it's a zebra.

Indeed, for a widely-applicable solution, I believe we have to look to the zebras - and we have to be ready to open the door to some new voices.

A zebra?

It's highly likely that Silicon Valley will stop being the go-to location for early-stage startups. The exodus is already in progress, with more and more founders and investors looking outside the Bay Area to places with a significantly lower cost of living. Ironically, even though the cost of living in the Bay Area is tightly interrelated with the wealth generated by venture capital funded companies, VC investors are also looking outside the area - the high cost of living makes their investment dollars less effective, and their investments riskier. Firms like Andreessen Horowitz have transformed their structures in order to move away from pure VC and invest in other kinds of assets. The crypto boom was related to this shift: investors needed somewhere else to put their money.

But there's no need to move into radically different markets, or to shift funds away from supporting entrepreneurs who have the potential to improve the human experience. Other types of startup investment are possible, including revenue-based financing, where founders repay investors as a percentage of income. Other types of legal company structure are also possible, including the Public Benefit Corporation, where ethics and mission are encoded into the company's bylaws. And as I mentioned in Why open?, there is also space for other kinds of organizations to build software and create innovative products.

The solution isn't going to come from tech insiders, who are somewhat locked into this ecosystem, and don't feel the full weight of its detrimental effects. But recall that venture capitalists largely pattern match their investments: they look to invest in people who have similar characteristics to founders who have made them money in the past. This compounds existing biases that have developed over generations. As a result, people who aren't straight, white men are much less likely to have received investment.

Entire demographics of people have effectively been locked out of venture capital. They are no less skilled, no less visionary, and their startups have no less potential to grow, except that they may have a harder time raising money, due to this same bias - a vicious circle. In many ways they have more grit and determination, because they face far greater odds. And I strongly believe that these people hold the keys to the future of the technology industry, from ideas through execution through funding. The next generation of technology companies will not be founded by the same old faces.

I've written before about Zebras Unite, which calls for a more ethical and inclusive movement to counter existing startup and venture capital culture. It's founded by women, who have built a movement of thousands of founders across six continents. The idea is that rather than building unicorns - venture capital companies that rapidly grow to be worth over a billion dollars - startups should be building zebras instead: inclusive, revenue-based companies that grow carefully and make a positive impact on the society around them. The result is more stable, world-positive companies. They're better startups. And of course, unlike unicorns, zebras are actually real.

It's not enough to wish it into existence, and it's not enough to have a few aligned investors here and there. Zebras Unite doesn't just imagine new kinds of funding; it brings investors and founders together to make concrete steps towards bringing them into existence. There are existing threads - including the funding models pioneered by Indie.VC, Tiny Seed Fund, and Earnest Capital - that can and must be brought together into an ecosystem. They need to be joined by many more, including angel and institutional investors. Arguably, indieweb should be among the ideas being pulled together here: for many use cases it will be a useful philosophy.

If we are to fix the tech industry, we need to acknowledge the financial realities. I've heard arguments like "all software should be free and open source" that don't address the fact that software is expensive to make and everyone involved needs to be paid well. (It's fine for software to be free and open source, but this is irrelevant to the issue!) I've also heard arguments like "startups shouldn't take investment", which similarly don't reflect the costs or the value of the skills involved. Imagine what kinds of platforms we'd see if only independently wealthy people could make software. It would probably be worse than the situation we find ourselves in now.

So instead, we need new kinds of investment that are lucrative for investors but bring everyone involved in the startup stack - founders, users, customers, investors - into alignment. As software becomes more and more ingrained in society, this becomes more and more of a moral imperative - and an imperative for the technology industry if it's going to survive. That's not a technical problem, and it's not something that's going to come from Silicon Valley, which has made venture capital integral to its foundations. It's going to take new ideas, new geographic centers for innovation, and new voices. And as the Bay Area becomes more and more expensive - putting greater and greater limits on who can start companies within its confines - I believe it's going to happen in the next few years.

So yes: the zebras. My money's on them. More generally, my money is on the innovative founders who haven't been able to work within the venture capital system, who also understand that their ventures sit within a wider societal context. My money's on them because even though they've been shut out of the current system, they're joining forces and collaborating to help make a tech industry that works for them. If you're an investor or have skin in the startup game of any kind, I think yours should be, too.

 

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

 

A bias towards action when faced with a fascist

I woke up this morning to news that the President's advisers met to discuss heightened military involvement at the border, including tent cities for migrants that would be run by the military itself.

These are concentration camps by definition: a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard.

My dad spent some of the first years of his life in such a camp with his family. But even if you don't have direct experience with these atrocities - even if you don't viscerally remember your grandmother's wailing from the nightmares she suffered from every night - intellectually you've got to know that this is something that can't stand. And while it feels like it's one more thing on top of a long list of things that won't stand, it's also a leveling up of the threat. They want us to feel fatigue. They want us to feel like all of this is normal now. And we can't feel that way.

But what can we do?

I mean, we can vote, of course. We can take to the streets. And we should do those things.

In fact, if we do build and run concentration camps, we should bring the country to a standstill.

In my working life, I've operated and advised startups and other businesses. One of the core pieces of advice that it's important for any business owner to internalize is to have a bias towards action. It's potentially possible to talk and research and theorize forever, but that is death. What you have to do more than anything is get out there and execute on your vision, set yourself to learn continuously from how people interact with you, and constantly change based on that feedback, even if the information you receive is imperfect.

At its worst, Twitter can be an outrage trap. It is a useful source of information, and a good way to find like-minded people. But the outrage that is poured into social media is effectively thrown into a void. Servers have a location called /dev/null; redirect the output of a program to that location and you'll never hear from it again. Social media, when not paired with action, is /dev/null.

But we know when it is paired with action - for the women's march, for Black Lives Matter, for protests against illegal surveillance, for the school walkouts, for SOPA and PIPA - it can be effective. All of those movements transcended activist communities and became more or less mainstream. Say you want about the pussy hats, they're a part of the mainstream national consciousness now. That's an incredibly impressive feat for a protest movement.

If the US builds concentration camps at the border, every one of us should strike. Whether we lock human beings up in camps should not be a partisan issue. Everyone with an ounce of dignity, or an ounce of historical understanding, should walk out of work. Every website should be blanked out. Every store should be shut. Every American should be resolute until those camps are closed. And we need to let our government know that this is how we will act if they are opened.

I don't think we quite have the platforms to support this kind of organization. And I'm sure that we'll somehow see camps spun to be a positive thing by the government and its sympathetic media, as has happened every single time they have been used in the past. But that this is even on the table should be a national shame, regardless of political affiliation. And if this is a country that genuinely believes in freedom and liberty - an idea that unfortunately seems ludicrous given our current political situation and climate - we need to use our constitutionally guaranteed rights to show those in power how we feel.

 

Why open?

I've been building open source platforms for my entire career. It has not made me rich. Nonetheless, I'm more committed than ever to openness as an ideology, strategy, and organized response.

It took me years to realize that the startups I founded were more acts of resistance than they were ways to make money from a perceived opportunity. Elgg, my first, was entirely created because my co-founder and I believed that educational technology exploited institutions that served the public good; we open sourced it because we were appalled by the license fees these business commanded of taxpayer-funded organizations. It wasn't so much "we could make millions of dollars" as "you're looking at the million you never made".

The same pattern has continued since. Known was originally created as a way to support communities outside of the centrally-controlled Facebook ecosystem. I found work at Latakoo and Matter, two organizations anchored (albeit in different ways) in supporting the future of media in an uncertain time. And Unlock is a payments layer for the web without central control.

I'm here to tell you that running an open source project is not a path to glory. One of the important lessons we taught startups at Matter is that first-mover advantage is a myth: it's usually the second or third mover in a market that learns from the first mover in order to find success. In open source, that's particularly true, because the second and third movers can literally take your software and commercialize it. You spend money on R&D, and they can immediately turn around and use it for free.

Crypto-based projects like Unlock have a way of getting around this: the second and third movers theoretically increase the value of tokens held by the first mover, so everybody wins. There's also a growing movement to compensate the developers of open source libraries that are used as the building blocks of for-profit products and services. Still, in general, open source is not for the profit-minded.

But not everything needs to turn a profit; there is a core and growing need for software that is entirely built for the public good. Particularly now.

I'm comfortable with the idea of end-user open source platforms sitting in opposition to monopolies. In education, government, and anywhere primarily supported by public funding, it makes sense to use software that doesn't lock you in or quietly convert public funds into private equity. And as software becomes more and more ingrained into every aspect of society, we need to be asking questions about the effects of lock-in and ecosystem ownership.

I'm beginning to think of open source as operating like a union. In labor unions, corporate power is offset by organizing workers into a counterbalancing force. One worker would have a hard time counterbalancing a corporation's power, but if all the workers band together, they can influence decision-making and negotiate for better working conditions. Similarly, in the open source movement, developers all act together to build products that counterbalance the impact of high-growth platforms in order to create a better ecosystem.

(I'm pretty sure Eric Raymond, who originally coined "open source" because he felt the free software movement was associated with communism, would hate this framing. Too bad.)

I knew Elgg was going to be a success when non-profits in Colombia started to use it to share resources with each other. If it had been a centralized, subscription-only platform, and if all the available social software had been centralized, subcription-only platforms, they never would have been able to do this. But because there was an open source platform available, they could take it, run it on their own servers, and customize it for their own needs, including translating it into Spanish. In turn, other Spanish-language users could take their work and use it for their own advantage.

And, yes, some people who weren't me made a lot of money from Elgg. But for me, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. It was used to train aid workers by NGOs around the world, and by schools who otherwise didn't have the funds to run a platform of their own. That's meaningful. No, it wasn't a VC-scale business, and it didn't achieve significant recurring revenue. But that's not in any way to say that it didn't have value.

Not everything that has value has to be a high-growth business - and not being suitable for VC funding is not a value judgment. We're in an era where the impact of venture capital scale is being examined, and it's the best time in decades to find other models. If you're building something to serve people, it's important to think about how you can do so sustainably, but there are lots of different ways to do this. From the Zebra movement to the Shuttleworth Foundation, there are opportunities to find sustainability in a way that's right for the thing you're trying to create, with world-positive values.

Communities can build open source; startups can absolutely build open source; I think there's a huge part for public media and higher educational institutions to play that they as yet haven't quite lived up to. For organizations that already serve the public good, collaborating on software that serves their needs should be a no-brainer.

More than anything, I think there's value in standing in opposition to the status quo. Open source is a bottom-up, worker-led movement. The means and outputs of production are available to everybody. I think that's beautiful - and, in a world where every aspect of our lives has been packaged and monopolized for profit, a powerful force for good.

 

It was brought to my attention that the illustration I used for this piece was an image that traditionally is used as a symbol for racial equality. My misappropriation was unintentional, but nonetheless harmful. I'm very sorry for this thoughtless mistake.