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Where I'm coming from

The silhouette of a man walking downhill

I’m paralyzed by the world. We seem to be at a kind of crossroads.

There’s so much to be appalled by, so much to be worried about, and I worry that not saying something might be considered to be acquiescence or approval.

So, in this moment, I thought I’d actually take a step back and explain what my worldview actually is. It’s perhaps overly ambitious, but I want to declare I think is important, and what drives me to say the sorts of things I do. And, yes, these same factors also drive the decisions I make about where I work and how I build software.

As always, I would like to read yours.

My view on the world — as is true of yours, and of everybody’s — is a function of my lived experiences, and the lived experiences of the people I care about.

It’s not about leading the world; it’s about living in a peaceful one

I was born in the Netherlands, grew up in England, spent time in Austria, went to school in Scotland, and have been in the United States since my early thirties. My dad is Swiss-Dutch-Indonesian; my mother was American on one side and Ukrainian on the other. They met in Berkeley in the early seventies and were heavily active in various progressive causes as activists. My dad in particular, who was drafted into the US Army after his family moved to America as a teenager, organized Vietnam War protests in the Bay Area, and was often harassed by the police.

My parents intentionally left the US to raise me. The closest thing I have to a hometown is Oxford, famous for its universities, where academic families are constantly coming through. My peers at school came from all over the world — including from behind the iron curtain — and experiencing the different smells and tastes of peoples’ homes was completely normal.

At the same time, I was a third culture kid for almost all of my childhood and early adulthood, and identified with no national identity. I never felt any real ties to any particular geographic place for its own sake. I was raised an atheist and have never felt religious ties (even though, as a child in England, I went to a Church of England school where we were made to pray every day). What I did identify with, very strongly, was family.

My dad is one of the youngest concentration camp survivors: he spent his early years in a Japanese-run camp in Indonesia, which still colors the way he sees the world. His mother had nightmares every single night for the rest of her life; I will remember hearing her screams though the walls forever. His father, who I never got to meet, was a resistance leader who was forced to dig his own grave multiple times. I’ve heard stories about the camps and what happened afterwards for my entire life. Even when they returned to the Netherlands, Indo people like my dad’s family were an ethnic minority and treated poorly. They eventually moved to California, thanks to a local sponsor, where they ran a gas station on highway 12 in Sebastopol. My uncle was severely beaten up for daring to serve Black people. The gas station itself was routinely shot at — once killing the family dog — simply because it was run by immigrants.

My great grandfather escaped Ukraine twice. His village was destroyed by the White Army as part of vicious Pogroms. When he emigrated to the US, he secularized, changing his name in the process in order to sound less Jewish. Eventually he became the General Manager of the Pennsylvania Joint Board of the Amalgamated Shirt Workers. I’ve previously posted excerpts from my grandfather’s obituary that discuss that experience as well as my grandfather’s experience as a Jewish POW in Germany during WWII.

My grandfather, by the way, ended up translating Crime and Punishment into English, and taught in the Slavic and Eurasian Studies and History departments at the University of Texas at Austin for forty years. He met Albert Einstein, had coffee with Sylvia Plath, discussed philosophy with Hannah Arendt, and never quite realized his dream of being a poet. In the end, he married into an institutional American family: my great grandfather was a WWI test pilot and eventually became a diplomat who negotiated the US withdrawal from Haiti. (This fact of my family history is, I want to be clear, not an endorsement of the US’s behavior overseas, including in Haiti.)

So, all of this is to say: I have no interest in patriotism, let alone nationalism. It’s not a value I hold, and I’m not excited by any country having a leadership position in the world. I find flag-waving to be petty. What I care about are values: the democracy, inclusion, and co-operation that can lead to a lasting peace. I’m repelled by military strength, because I’ve seen what various militaries did to my family. I’m repelled by anti-immigrant sentiment, because I come from refugees and immigrants. I don’t like the idea of assimilation, because I’ve seen the richness inherent in lots of cultures. Forced assimilation — which is usually into a conquering culture — is tantamount to subjugation.

National exceptionalism — American exceptionalism, or European exceptionalism, come to that — is ridiculous on its face. Cold wars and imperialist foreign policies are things to avoid, not things to perpetuate. No country is the “best”, and even the idea of “a best country” is narrow-minded. No religion is the “best”; please enjoy practicing yours, but please don’t impose it on anyone else. There are definitely people who think McCarthy’s witch hunt against communism was right in spirit, even if they condemn the historical event itself — let’s just say they and I harbor some very different ideas about what an open, democratic society should look like.

Nations aren’t what’s important. Principles are. Specifically, the principles of openness, inclusion, fairness, peace, equity, and democracy.

What matters is that everyone can live a good life, wherever they are, whoever they are, and however they identify, free from threat of violence or exploitation. Ideological or national superiority aren’t useful values. What matters is the experience of being a human, everywhere. What matters is avoiding the killing and horror of war. What matters is honoring the beautiful diversity of the world.

A strong operating system for all

I was only half-joking when I compared governments to operating systems. While they certainly don’t map perfectly to actual software operating systems, I do think they provide a very similar purpose: to create a bedrock of services and infrastructure in order to ensure society runs smoothly.

What does “society runs smoothly” really mean? I’ll return to my definition above. What matters is that everyone can live a good life, wherever they are, whoever they are, and however they identify, free from threat of violence or exploitation. Freedom of expression, association, and to pursue one’s best interests are important here: what John Locke called the pursuit of happiness. To ensure the safety of that pursuit, I think John Locke’s version of a social contract — the idea that we surrender a little personal liberty in order to make evolving common agreements in the best interests of everyone — is important.

I can’t be a libertarian because I see the importance of the trade-offs here. One role of the operating system is to prevent the vulnerable from exploitation: public goods like universal healthcare, public education, and integrated public transit ensure that people who are not wealthy have the opportunity to build a great life. One of the most visceral reactions I’ve ever had in my life was discovering Ayn Rand, and then, to my horror, discovering that beyond just getting into her novels, some people actually believed in her ideology of everyone for themselves.

Healthy communities are an important part of all of our well-being. Once again: every person deserves to live a good life. We all live in a complex, interconnected network of people, and what happens to someone else also affects us. Caring for the whole network is also in our own best interests. It can’t be everyone for themselves.

It’s hopefully obvious from my definition, but I don’t think GDP (or money at all) is a great way to measure a society, either. It doesn’t say much about what an ordinary person’s experience actually is. It doesn’t measure human well-being, and that’s how we should be thinking about how well we’re doing. I’m less interested in is the stock market going up? than is being poor a death sentence? as a question — and I don’t think the first necessarily leads to a reduction in the second. More and more people agree.

One important function of the social operating system is welfare, which ensures that people don’t fall though the cracks. There are others, some of which I’ve already mentioned: education, transit, and healthcare.

I couldn’t have founded my first startup if I hadn’t had the benefit of the excellent National Health Service. Millions of PR dollars have been spent in the US to paint social infrastructure as being a bad thing, but I never once had to worry about going to the doctor under universal healthcare. I didn’t have to worry about losing health insurance when I quit my job. I could just do it. Say what you want about free markets, but I think that freedom of optionality — having broad choices regardless of income or personal net worth — comes closer to real personal freedom than a world without that kind of social infrastructure.

Here in the United States, it doesn’t come automatically: you need people to fight for you. I’ve lost five members of my family to an incurable genetic disease. One of them was my mother, who I helped care for over the course of a decade — which was, in fact, the reason I moved to the US to begin with. She was a teacher, and the great medical care she received was only possible because of the incredible negotiating power of her teacher’s union. While there should have simply been universal healthcare to look after her, their incredible negotiating power literally lengthened her life by eight years. Unions can be amazing institutions; while not every union is great, the concept of them is. And in a world without the social infrastructure to care for the vulnerable, they are vital.

This should be the purpose of the law, too: to prevent harm and exploitation, particularly of the vulnerable, in service of maintaining the ability to have a good quality of life. But the law itself, alongside tradition and the twin ideas of unity and stability, often does the opposite. It has often used as a way to maintain a status quo where vulnerable people are exploited for other peoples’ benefit.

This runs deep: some of the earliest police forces in America were slave patrols. A law that only benefits the powerful or upholds an unjust status quo is, in itself, unjust. Unity that depends on adherence to the values of the powerful (and on the silence or silencing of the vulnerable) is a sham. Stability based on prioritizing the needs of an in-group to the exclusion of others is definitionally fascism. A claim that moderate values are more reasonable only makes sense to people who don’t need more radical change in order to achieve equity.

Being awake to those injustices is not a binary: it’s not something you either are or not. It’s an ongoing, uncomfortable process of education and coming to terms. There are lots of ways to deal with and redress them, the comparative merits of which are up for discussion. What’s clear to me, though, is that dismissing their existence outright, and painting them with a reductionist brush in order to rob them of importance, is in itself a perpetuation of those injustices.

When people started talking about being “woke” and taking to the streets to demand restorative justice, I was relieved and excited. This is what moving forward looks like. In contrast, I see people harping on about the harms of “woke-ism” as being part of the dying gasps of the twentieth century: that adherence to tradition and unity and stability in service of the same old inequalities. Change is good; particularly here.

Change can also be easy. Using a preferred pronoun costs you nothing except for letting go of a tradition. The tradition, in other words, gets in the way of someone’s chosen identity being recognized. Same-sex marriage costs you nothing except for letting go of a tradition. The tradition once again gets in the way of someone being able to realize their needs. Your religious beliefs might forbid same-sex marriage; then simply don’t get same-sex married. Practice your own religion to your heart’s content, but don’t enforce your traditions on anyone else. Refer to someone as they would like to be referred; treat everybody with respect. It seems foundational. A fear of change or adherence to a tradition should not be a barrier to making the world more just or treating our fellow humans with respect.

Let’s return again to the core idea: every person deserves to live a good life. Of course, who we consider to be a “person” is important. Thomas Jefferson incorporated Locke’s version of a social contract into the Declaration of Independence, even going so far as to say that “all men are created equal,” but he famously kept slaves. These days, we might ask about our spheres of concern: do we care about people in our families? Our neighborhoods? Our towns and cities? Our churches? Our ethnicities? Our value structures? Our states? Our countries? Our regions? The world? How do we relate to people outside of those spheres?

For reasons I’ve tried to explain above, I’d love it if we considered the world to be what we care about; the welfare of a person in Gaza is just as important as the welfare of a person next door, even if we might not share a religion or care for the regime they live under. In fact, depending on their context, their welfare might be more important, because they need more help to bring them to that reasonable standard of living, free from violence and exploitation.

Because our definitions of what a good life is vary, and because no government can possibly claim to represent or understand the complete set of needs and lived experiences in its populace, participative democracy is the only equitable model for government. What’s important here: everyone can vote without hindrance, votes are fair, anyone can become a representative, decisions are actually made at the ballot box rather than in court, and there is real choice. (If there’s a candidate whose values you hate, do what you can to persuade your fellow voters to vote for someone else. That’s what democracy is.)

Those principles are core. It might surprise you to learn that I’m not inherently against the idea of billionaires, and certainly not against the idea of starting businesses and finding success in doing so. But it must be done without exploiting other people and preventing them from being able to live a good life. It must be done without perpetuating injustices, for example by eroding workers’ rights, forcing a minimum wage that is too low to live well on, lobbying for unequal laws, or fighting against their ability to negotiate for better working conditions. Can it be done without those things? I don’t know. But if it can’t, then it shouldn’t happen.

So what does this have to do with the internet?

I see the web as a platform as being rooted in the kind of internationalism I believe in. The internet itself is a physical manifestation of the idea that we are all connected.

Anyone can publish, anywhere, and be read by anyone, anywhere. That’s amazing! Anyone can start a business and find users all over the world. That’s also amazing! It’s the most borderless, open platform we’ve ever created. The potential to learn about the lives of people we would never otherwise meet, in places we would never otherwise visit, is colossal. We can share ideas and, even more importantly, build empathy globally. I couldn’t be more excited about that. That’s what keeps me building.

It’s easier to dehumanize someone you don’t know. The internet has the potential to allow everybody to become knowable. I see that as a route to peace, and to a better world where exploitation can no longer happen in the shadows.

What I’m not enthused by is the idea that the internet is here as an exercise in furthering any one country’s interests: that one nation’s worldview should trump another’s. At its best, it’s an international commons: an overtly progressive space by design.

I support the indieweb and the fediverse because those technologies harness for the benefit of the public, rather than for the profit and entrenched power of a tiny few. I see silos and centralized services as being anti-democracy, because the whims of a monarch-like figure can have a profound impact on which information we’re allowed to see. We’ve seen that most obviously recently with Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, but it was previously also true of Facebook, and of every large service that aimed to intermediate peoples’ connections with each other. If one entity controls what we see and can learn about, they will abuse it, always.

I’m imperfect. Of course I am. I’ve made terrible mistakes and, from time to time, I’ve hurt people. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try.

I’ve built open source platforms for organizing educational institutions and non-profits; I’ve supported newsrooms that help to create a more informed voting population; I’ve worked in newsrooms that help speak truth to power. It’s not because I love social networking in itself, or because I want to get rich by building software.

It’s because I remember the sound of my Oma having nightmares through the walls. I see the nationalists and isolationists as trying to divide people into in-groups and out-groups. I see hoarding wealth as akin to building walls. I see conservatism as being a way to preserve the kind of bigotry that can grow and explode into the kinds of hatred that swallow whole families. Quixotic as it might be, I see connecting people as a way to help prevent it all from ever happening again.

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