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My favorite movies of 2019

As much as I've made of reading this year - and the novels I've read this year have been one of the most rewarding parts of my life over the last twelve months - I love movies. I really love movies.

For some spectacle films, the act of going to the cinema still has a lot of appeal. To be honest, though, in a world of 50+ inch OLED displays and 4K streaming, it's become pretty hard to beat sitting on the sofa under a blanket with my own refreshments. The content is every bit as heart-stopping; the setting is just that little bit more comfortable. For me, the exception is the Alamo Drafthouse, which is kind of an event in itself, or something like a Dolby or an IMAX theater. I saw a few films in each, but the vast majority were at home. I don't see that changing over time. And for someone with a film habit like mine (even in my low budget student days, I was known to drop $250 on film festival tickets), paying for all these streaming services still represents a discount.

It's first and foremost about the content (whether it's art or not is sometimes debatable, although I always lean towards yes).

Here were my favorite films released this year (in order of release). What were yours?


The Hole in the Ground
Dir: Lee Cronin

One of those claustrophic, quiet little horror films that speaks to deeper insecurities - here about parenting, but also about the vulnerability inherent in any family bond.

Rural Ireland is used well here, and like many good horror movies, local folk myths are spun into quiet nightmares. The writing, direction, and performances are just so: understated but exact, which ratchets up the tension when something truly horrifying happens. And it does.

I vastly prefer intelligent, psychological horror built on human relationships to cheap gore and jump scares. This is that and more.


Captain Marvel
Dir: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Yes, yes, I know. At the end of 2019, I feel absolutely burned-out on superhero movies, and even though Marvel films are at least good-humored and slightly anarchic, I think I'm done with them, too.

But Captain Marvel brought a few things together for me. Most importantly: it shouldn't feel refreshing to see a woman superhero in 2019, but it absolutely does. There's a twist in the middle that immediately washed away my worries that this was going to be a militaristic, gung-ho adventure, and I appreciated the compassionate subversion (and the analogy). And I'm a sucker for nineties nostalgia.

Also, the cat is pretty cool. You'll see.


Dir: Jordan Peele

Get Out was a masterpiece. Here, the societal connotations are less on the nose, but there are undeniable echoes: of Othering, and the way in which the lives of the wealthy are only made possible through the suffering of vulnerable people.

Hung on some remarkable performances, particularly by Lupita Nyong'o, no detail is spared. I appreciated the Lost Boys reference, for sure, but also the resonant imagery pulled from a kaleidoscope of sources, from The Goonies through Ray Bradbury and the Bible. And throughout all of it, Jordan Peele kept my pulse pounding.

Bottom line: Us is a masterpiece too.


Knock Down the House
Dir: Rachel Lears

Everything about this documentary is grassroots: it was funded on Kickstarter and follows four women candidates running for Congress for the first time. None of them are career politicians; all of them are supported by their communities as they reach to do more.

Spoiler alert: one of them is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And she is every bit as impressive as you would expect.

However you feel about their politics (although, to be clear, I couldn't be more of an AOC fan), their stories are inspirational, gripping, and sometimes heartbreaking. I'm hoping for hundreds and hundreds more candidates like them.


Dir: Olivia Wilde

I was a sucker for those John Hughes high school comedies. Booksmart follows in that tradition, while dropping the sexism and male gaze of its eighties forebears. Actually, I take that back: this is way smarter than any of those movies.

I love it for its uncompromising voice and for the brilliance of its leads. Its jokes hit home but are always connected to real emotional subtext. And it's just fun. A lot of fun.

It underperformed at the box office, but that's got more to do with bad decisions by its distributor than anything in the film itself. If I had to pick just my top three movies of the year, this would be on the list somehwere.


Late Night
Dir: Nisha Ganatra

An unpretentious comedy that is unabashedly about whose voices get to be heard, and whose faces get to be seen. It's not completely perfect, but Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson are both a joy, and Kaling's script doesn't always go where you think it will. (Thompson was also excellent in this year's Years and Years on BBC One / HBO, which was easily the best thing I saw on TV.)

It's like a warm hug; a glimpse of the kind of world I'd like to see more glimpses of, while also being a funny and comforting night's entertainment.


I Am Mother
Dir: Grant Sputore

An ambitious parable about parenthood tucked into a science fiction movie about the apocalypse. One twist is obvious from the setup, but it's an act of misdirection: there are many far more important turns that you don't see coming, right up until the final moment of the film.

Some of the setting feels necessarily low budget, but the overarching themes transcend any shortcomings. It's like an episode of Black Mirror that has a lot more to say. And often, a lot more to say than you think it does.


Dir: Ari Aster

The final shot of this movie still lingers with me. Not because it's a frightening image in itself (it's not), but for how uplifting it ultimately is, and what that means.

I'm becoming aware that the films that have really spoken to me this year have often been a certain kind of well-made psychological horror. (Well, except for one horror film. Hang on for that one.) It's not because those are the films I've mostly seen, but the ones that have made this list are set in a kind of rootless uncertainty; that's true of Booksmart too, and some later titles like The Farewell, even if it's expressed in a different way.

There's hokiness here, and a kind of very American xenophobia too, but they're as much here on purpose as the thoughtless awfulness of the protagonist's boyfriend. It's all a cage. But one that, eventually, may burn down.


The Farewell
Dir: Lulu Wang

My sister and I went to see this movie while our mother was in hospital, at a time where we knew we wouldn't be able to see her for five hours or so. I still can't decide if it was the perfect film for that context, or the worst possible.

It's a film about grief, and about grief-to-be, when the person is still with you but you know what has to come next. And in that situation it's about finding the beauty and the humor, and giving that person the gift of love while you take the pain on for yourself.

Awkwafina is perfect, as is almost everyone in the cast. I cried and cried, and when we finally found our way to the hospital, it was with a renewed sense of what was important.


Ready or Not
Dir: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett

I wasn't expecting to freaking love this so much. It was meant to be a cheesy late night watch. But it's kind of perfect.

I can't tell you what happens at the end but I really want to. It's satisfying and gross.

What I can tell you is that although it's kind of a macabre comedy thriller bordering on horror that has a lot to say about the class system. I laughed; I watched through my hands; I rooted for the hunted bride and against the rich dynasty (and selfish husband) chasing her down. And the payoff was delightful.

Also, for bonus points: I think we're all ready for an Andie MacDowell renaissance, right?


Marriage Story
Dir: Noah Baumbach

Both leads have lately passed through the Disney machine (Scarlett Johansson is a core part of the Avengers movies, while Adam Driver is the big bad in the latest Star Wars trilogy). Their acting in this small but ambitious family drama is nothing less than searing: not just potentially both of their best work, but the most immediate, truthful, and heartbreaking acting I saw in any film this year.

It's a beautiful film, both visually and in every other possible way; in turn hard to watch and impossible to look away from. Remarkable, poignant, and unmissable.


A new decade

As arbitrary as they are, these transitions provide a kind of useful punctuation - a spot to stop and breathe.

For me, I think it might be useful to reflect on where I was at the start of the previous decade, where I am now, and where I'd like to be ten years from now.

Ten years ago

I lived in Oxford, as much my hometown as anywhere is, living in the house I'd grown up in long after my family had emigrated to California. Every year, I'd head out for Christmas, saving a little time to hang out in San Francisco.

I'd just had a turbulent year: In April, I had finally left Elgg after working on it for seven years, and had been surprised to find myself at the receiving end of threats from our investors after I tried to start a new social platform with a completely different purpose. This significantly limited my options - all non-infrastructure internet software is at least a little bit social - and although I'm pretty sure I would have won a court decision, my pockets were exponentially less deep than theirs. I returned to my roots and buckled down doing work in local media instead.

Nevertheless, I had just given a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School on user-centered design, was consulting with some former television journalists who wanted to save media through entrepreneurship, and I flew out to Washington DC to work with the American Association of Colleges and Universities. All of these events were small hints of what was to come.

My mother was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. We didn't know what lay ahead; for now, it was just a persistent cough.


Eight years ago, my mother phoned me to warn me that I shouldn't be shocked to see her using oxygen tanks over Christmas. It took me approximately thirty seconds to decide that I needed to move to California; practically, it took me five months. I arrived with two suitcases and the assumption that I would be here temporarily. Writing this now, I know I'm here for the long run.

She had given up her career in internet business analysis and become a middle school science teacher. Every day she went to work wearing oxygen on her back, looking a little bit like a Ghostbuster, until she couldn't anymore.

Six years ago, she had a double lung transplant. I was with my parents at their home in the central valley when they got the call, a little after midnight; they drove straight to the hospital, while I drove to Oakland to pick up my sister. I tried to raise my girlfriend on the phone, but couldn't. It was the loneliest two hours of my life.

I have persistent flashbacks of my mother sitting on a gurney outside the double doors leading to anesthesiology, telling me to be patient with my father and to look after him. We spent the night in the hospital, sleeping in the waiting room on makeshift beds made of teal vinyl-covered chairs. It wasn't clear that we would ever see her again. She emerged at 4pm the next day, unable to speak and in unfathomable pain. Eventually, I passed out in the ICU next to her, and the nurses told me to go home.

Pulmonary fibrosis is a symptom, not a disease. Your lungs scar progressively until you can't breathe. There's no cure. We didn't know what caused it, but my grandmother died of it when I was six years old, so we knew it was familial. My aunt was diagnosed too, and had lung transplants, before the side effects of immunosuppression were too much for her. Then my cousin, just a few years older than me, who left us suddenly. It was unimaginably sad.

And it was scary. It hung over all of us. I felt it acutely. A few years earlier, I had asked my girlfriend to marry me; she had deferred for a year before telling me no. Around the same time, I had ripped my life up to move to California. The country I grew up in voted to reject Europeans like me, ensuring (assuming Brexit eventually comes to pass) that I could never go back. The country I lived in elected a populist fascist as President. And it was becoming clear that I might only have a few years left. I felt destabilized and terrified. More than that, I felt worthless. I hadn't been able to build the life I wanted. I was damaged. And soon, I might be gone.

I gained a lot of weight and let my anxiety build. It was rare that I'd sleep through the night. All the while, my mother continued on her adventure, through a rollercoaster of medical crises and procedures. Often, it was like watching someone you love be systematically tortured.

Cutting-edge medical research finally caught up with my family, and we discovered that the pulmonary fibrosis was the symptom of a genetic condition called dyskeratosis congenita. At least, it probably was; we were at the edge of medical science. But the research offered hope, and I took it with both hands.

In particular, a genetic condition could be tested. The genetic counsellor warned that an adverse result could affect our insurance, our ability to buy a house; our entire futures. But my sister and I had Europe as a safety net. We had the privilege of just going back to a place with saner, more compassionate laws. And more importantly, we were told there was a 75% chance that one or both of us would have it. We had to know.

When, a year and a half ago, the genetic test came back showing that neither of us had the genetic variant, we burst into tears in the examination room. We called our parents, who also burst into tears. For my mother, the burden of knowing that she might have passed down her condition was lifted. And suddenly, I had a life ahead of me again. That same week, I had my first therapy session, and I began to rebuild.

In the midst of all of this, I had a professional adventure.

I became the hands-on CTO and first employee of Latakoo, which is still the way that NBC News sends recorded footage back to its newsrooms over commodity internet connections. (It's also the source of my only software patent.) I was the Geek in Residence at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab, serving the world's largest arts festival. I wrote a technical book on HTML5 geolocation. I co-founded Known, found investment, and did right by my investors by going to work as a senior engineer at Medium. I was a heavy participant and sometime organizer in the Indieweb community. My work showed up in the New York Times and in other people's books. I was west coast Director of Investments at Matter, a mission-driven accelerator and venture fund (going to the pub with Chelsea Manning as part of this will always be one of my favorite professional moments). I became VP of Product at Unlock, helping independent creators to make money from their work. And as I write this, I'm Head of Engineering at ForUsAll, which is trying to help people on lower incomes to build retirement savings. I'm far from being even a fraction of a millionaire, but I've had the privilege to do well, and hopefully do some good in the process.

And I've rebuilt a life in California. I have amazing people in my life - many of whom came through the Matter and Indieweb communities, for which I'm endlessly grateful. I still have my amazing friends from the UK, even if we're distant. My family is close and bound by love. It continues to suffer medical hardships. But through it all, I've been lucky.

Ten years from now

So what's next?

Thanks to the last decade's medical adventures, I'm a late bloomer. But I want to have a family, with a strong relationship built on mutual trust and intimacy at its center. If I'm really lucky, my future children will get to meet my parents; if not, I will carry their spirit and do my best to represent the best of who they were. I want a family life drawn from first principles based on creativity and love, rather than one built on established societal expectations: a progressive life created to support us as a partnership, rather than one built to make other people happy by painting by numbers.

My future children will be multi-national, as I am. Many passports, many points of view. And that's just from one side of the partnership. We'll be a mix of cultures, backgrounds, and contexts - ripe soil to grow something new.

I don't have any desire to be wealthy. I do want to be safe and comfortable. That probably means leaving the Bay Area and finding somewhere with a better quality of life to cost of living ratio. Edinburgh is the best place I've ever lived for this, but unless Scotland becomes independent and rejoins the EU, it's not somewhere I could easily go back to. Still, there's a big, wide world out there.

I want to do work that makes the world more equal, more compassionate, and more peaceful. What that means in practice is TBD, but I expect to co-found one more startup - not yet, but eventually. Almost certainly, it'll be bootstrapped and partially open source: a zebra internet / media business built with the goal of indefinite sustainability. If I'm lucky, I'll work with some of my former colleagues to make it happen.

I want to write a book. There is at least one novel in me. There is at least one non-fiction book about people working to make an impact using the internet. Ideally, I want to do this in the next year or two.

I'll also deepen my political volunteering. I began to give heavily to progressive causes, as well as canvass and campaign, over the last decade. My politics continue to be progressive as I get older, and I want to back my opinions with real, on the ground work. The current era demands it.

And I want to build a strong foundation for the rest of my life. I want to do meaningful work as part of living a meaningful life based on happiness and kindness. I want to leave the world better than I found it by showing up as well as I can through emergent strategy. At the end of it all, whether that's a few years from now or fifty, I want to look back without regret and know that I did well by the people whose lives I passed through, as well as people who I'll never meet or know. It's not about wealth; it's not about self-interest; it's about finding meaning through service, and happiness through connection.

It's been a tough decade for me. It has been for many of us. But I'm hopeful for the next one.


The morning after

So, that's it, then.

My prediction is that Brexit will happen as planned in 2020, and that later in the year, unless the progressive movement achieves the impossible, Donald Trump will be re-elected as President.

If you work for a company like Facebook, this is on you. If you could have voted but didn't, this is on you. If you fell for disinformation and shared it, this is on you. If you let the noxious message that nationalism is a viable future for any country go uncriticized, this is on you. If you chose personal gain over care for the most vulnerable people in society, this is on you.

In other words, it's on virtually all of us.

So let's achieve the impossible. Together.

It's going to be about collective action. It's going to be about unity. It's going to be about the quality of life of working people. And it's going to be about building an inclusive movement that incorporates diverse voices.

It's not too late. It must not be: the fascists are in the building.


Big politics day

I'm crossing my fingers, but am not hopeful, that the Conservatives won't have a majority in the UK election today. It's a morally bankrupt party that has strip-mined the country and is steering it to economic ruin, fueled by half-brained jingoism and a nationalistic shame that half the world isn't still under the thumb of its brutal empire.

Nationalism is evil. Patrotism, as Samuel Johnson noted, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I believe in a global world with equal opportunity for all. Membership of a nation, particularly in a world where we can communicate and share with anyone on earth, is utterly arbitrary. Maybe it's because I hold more than one passport and don't feel particularly strongly about any of them, but to me, being proud of your country is like being proud of your T-shirt brand.

Under the Conservatives, people are dying. Institutions are being undone. Vital infrastructure is being sold off. Social protections for the vulnerable are evaporating.

I'm not British, but I sound like I am. That means plenty of people over the years have felt safe sharing their opinions of Europeans with me. To be clear, if Brexit comes to pass, I will not be allowed to live there again. And to be clear, there are many, many closet xenophobes: people who know their views are archaic, and as such don't share them in public, but hold them anyway.

Which also explains the rise of Donald Trump's brand of racist, corrupt politics for the rich. I'm still reeling from his declaring Jewishness as a nationality: an executive action drawn directly from white nationalism. (American Jews are Americans; end of story.) I'm still reeling from the shamelessness of his Republican defenders. I've been listening to the impeachment hearings and the disingenuousness of their arguments is astonishing.

We have people locked in cages in concentration camps on the border. ICE is a modern day SS, violating the human rights and safety of entire communities who should be receiving our support.

I want both Trump and Johnson to go down. But in my heart of hearts, I know they won't. I know we're going to see more of this rancid modern nationalism. And I know there are much darker days to come.

It's a big politics day.


Edited to add: What a blow.


Twitter's Project Bluesky

This morning, Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter would be funding an independent group that would develop an open standard for decentralized social networking, with the expectation that the company would use it.

I've been involved in decentralized social networking since 2004, when I released the first version of Elgg, the open source social networking platform. As I said in an interview with ZDNet in 2006:

I think in the future, networks or meta-networks won't be an issue: the network will be decentralised. What I'd like to see is a set of open protocols that mean you can connect to anyone, anywhere, no matter which site they happen to be using.

I still fundamentally believe in this vision. My second attempt at an open source platform, Known, uses indieweb standards to a user of a Known site to interact with any other user of any other indieweb-compatible site. Decentralization was something I looked at carefully when I was west coast Director of Investments at Matter Ventures. And it was core to the work I did with the Unlock Protocol.

There have been many other attempts. My friend Evan Prodromou created StatusNet and then the ActivityPub protocol; the latter underlies the Mastodon "fediverse" of federated social networking platforms. (Known has committed to also joining the fediverse.)

Twitter's announcement today builds on many of these efforts in spirit, but it goes its own way. I think this is probably right: whereas all of the aforementioned projects were created by hobbyists, Twitter as a company and a worldwide platform has different needs. If the goal is to run over 126 million daily active users on a decentralized platform, and for the associated platform companies to make money in the process, something new is needed.

I don't believe that this new project will come out of lengthy committee deliberations. So while it might rile long-term open standards collaborators, I think this tweet from Twitter's CTO, Parag Agrawal, bodes well:

The key will be rapid iteration in the public interest, repeatedly testing not just the feasibility of such a protocol (whether you can build and maintain it at scale), but also its desirability (user risk) and viability (business risk). In other words, it's not enough to make something work. It also has to be able to win user trust, serve as the foundation of an ecosystem, and allow businesses built on the platform to become valuable. As yet, open standards processes have not shown themselves to be capable of this kind of product development.

To be clear, this kind of leadership can and does still lead to open projects released under open source licenses. That's what Twitter will need to do here.

For Twitter, there are many obvious business benefits as champion of this platform. Particularly in a world where anti-trust reform and regulation of social networks are becoming more prominent topics, getting ahead of the trend and locking in decentralized openness is smart. It could also disrupt other social networking platforms who aren't, or can't be, so forward-thinking.

Building it on a blockchain - not Ethereum, but a new, faster, purpose-built chain - may also make sense as a way to lock in both openness and the ability to build value. One interesting property of blockchains is that nodes typically have to process the whole chain; that means that as the traffic on the new protocol increases, the difficulty of processing the chain increases and the number of entities capable of processing it decreases. The value of being an entry point that processes on behalf of others increases. So there's a business in providing an easy access point for developers. But more importantly, designing the protocol from scratch allows a mutually beneficial business model to be baked in. It's not about hoarding the riches for Twitter: it's about baking an ever-increasing pie that everyone can have a slice of.

There are lots of very reasonable arguments that open communty advocates will make for this being something to be wary of. But while this move is very, very late in community terms (we've been talking about decentralization for decades), it's very early in corporate terms. The time is right for tech companies to make the shift into open protocols, in a way that allows businesses to make money, users to own their data, and a thousand new social networking interfaces to bloom. And I think that's a progressive move for the web.


Photo by Anthony Cantin on Unsplash


About Known

In 2013, my mother had a double lung transplant. The rules for recovery post-transplantation are that you can't have a bridge between you and the hospital; they don't want you to be stuck in traffic if you need emergency attention. So we rented an apartment in the Inner Sunset, where we all sat with Ma while she recovered. My Dad was there all the time as her primary carer, but nonetheless, sometimes I slept overnight on an air mattress.

As her speech returned to her and her energy increased, she told me that she wished she had a place to speak to other people who had been through the same ordeal. But at the same time, she wasn't comfortable sharing that kind of personal information on a platform like Facebook.

She was asleep a lot of the time. So in the evenings and weekends, I started to write that new platform for her. I gave it what I thought was a quirky but friendly name - idno - which spoke to identity and the id, but I also thought sounded friendly in a slightly foreign-to-everyone kind of way.

At the same time, I became involved in the IndieWeb community through Tantek Çelik and Kevin Marks. And I realized that this platform could easily be modified to work with the microformats standards at the root of that movement. I built decentralized replies and commenting into the platform. That summer, I flew to IndieWebCamp Portland, and demonstrated the community's first decentralized event RSVPs. There, I met Erin Richey, and we began to collaborate on designs for the platform.

I had previously met Corey Ford, co-founder of Matter, and it turned out he was looking for startups as part of Matter's third cohort, which would begin in May 2014. Erin and I decided to collaborate (with the encouragement of Corey and Benjamin Evans, now the leader of AirBnb's anti-discrimination team) on turning Idno into a real startup. Here's the real pitch deck we used for our meeting (PDF link). The idea was to follow in WordPress's footsteps by creating a great centralized service as well as an open source, self-hosted platform for people that wanted it. For the business, the self-hosted platform would act as a marketing channel for the service; for the open source community, the business would fund development.

We were accepted into the third cohort, and quickly incorporated so we could take investment. Erin in particular felt that Idno was a crappy name, and undertook her own research on a shortlist of new ones. Her process involved figuring out which names were easily understandable if you just heard the name, and which could be easily spelled, using a battery of Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. Known was the very clear winner.

Everyone's favorite part of building a startup is choosing the logo. Here are a few I built that we rejected:

I think I thought the "kn-own" wordplay was cleverer than it was.

In the end, we went with this logo that Erin drew:



"It looks like the Circle K," my mother said. Still, we went with it, not least because the K in itself would work well as an icon.

I've written a lot over the years about the Matter process: suffice to say that it changed the way I think about products and startups forever, as well as, in many ways, my entire life.

While the open source community continued to grow, the startup itself didn't work as well as I had hoped, both as a business and as a high-functioning product team in its own right. Over the course of the five month program we chose to double down on individual websites over building communities, and then we decided to start with education as a go-to market. I don't think either of these things were the right decisions for a startup in retrospect, and as we presented at demo day on the stage of the Paley Center in New York, I could see disappointment written on a few faces. Here's that full pitch. If you read the initial pitch deck, you'll know that a lot changed - both for good and bad.

Known was half-acquired by Medium in a way that saw a return for Matter. (Because of Known's social media syndication capabilities, Medium did not want to acquire the software, and did not legally acquire the corporation.) One important role of a founder, which I learned from Evan Prodromou, is to be a good steward of investor value. In this case, it was important to me to also be a good steward of community value, and the deal with Medium allowed the community to continue to exist. Erin became acting CEO of the corporation and continued to work on the project. Eventually, I left Medium and joined Matter as its west coast Director of Investments. The work I did there encompasses the proudest moments of my professional career.

Fast forward to the end of the 2019, and Marcus Povey (a friend and frequent collaborator of mine, who also worked on Elgg) has picked up the community baton. Thanks to him, Known just released version 1.0. The community continues to grow. I just put together a draft roadmap for two further releases: one this summer, and one for the end of the year. These releases are free from any attempt to become a commercial entity or achieve sustainability; they're entirely designed to serve the community. They're all about strengthening the core platform, as well as increasing compatibility with the indieweb and the fediverse.

For me, the collaborative group functionality is still something I think about, but it won't be the focus of Known going forward. I'm considering an entirely new, simpler group platform (third time's a charm). Known is about creating a single stream of social content, in a way that you control, with your design and domain name. Its journey hasn't been a straight line. But I'm excited to see what the next year holds for it.


Get out and talk to people

The Lean Startup has a lot to answer for: a generation of project, startup, and business leaders think they can get the answers they need by running ad experiments, building fake doors, and running A/B tests. Perhaps it's introversion; perhaps it's an over-belief in the power of data. What it certainly leads to is a lack of insight into who your users really are and what their lives look like.

The most important question when you're building a new product or service is why. It's not enough to know that people seem interested in the thing you want to build. Why are they interested? What are the stories behind their frustrations or their curiosity? If you're trying to improve an existing process, why do they do it in the way they do it right now? Why do they need something better?

The trap that most people fall into is to intellectualize an answer to this question. Perhaps they think they're smart and can just make up the answer using a combination of creativity and inference. Or perhaps they've constructed an artificial persona from a few data points - which, in reality, is the exact same thing as making up the answer from creativity and inference. In both cases, any surprising insights you learn about your users actually come from your imagination, rather than reality. But you might think they're real, and use them as the basis of a strategy you have no idea is misinformed.

Most people, particularly when they're starting out, don't have the kinds of participant numbers that would make quantitative research statistically significant. But even with those numbers, surveys and experiments rarely get to the why.

There's no alternative to getting out and talking to people: understanding their lives, and learning the stories behind their work. It's about undertaking a project with humility and understanding that you probably don't know all the answers. It's also about finding the surprising insights that nobody else knows - something you can only figure out by talking to people.

Qualitative research is incredibly powerful. For introverts, it can be uncomfortable - but the results outweigh a little discomfort. Making your project truly human-centered by always going back to the user can help you avoid building the wrong thing, and create genuine innovations that really help people in a way that statistical research (or worse, just building without any understanding) simply can't.


Getting by

A personal update:

I'm learning that I'm in the midst of real depression. In a world where I'm watching members of my family die, the country I live in deteriorate into fascism, the country I grew up in deteriorate in every possible way, and some other things that I don't want to write about here, it can be very difficult to find the points of light. It can, as a result, also be difficult for me to find clarity of focus.

I go to therapy almost every week, I take anxiety medication, and I'm trying to take care of myself. But I feel like, as a human, I need major changes in almost every possible way. I don't know how much of that is real and how much is my brain lying to me. I just know that I would like to be in a different place. It sometimes feels like other people know a magical secret that I don't, and if I could just find the incantation, my world would become better.

I also don't know whether the role of this space is to talk about ethical technology or to talk about my life. I'm trying for both - and, really, anything that interests me - but in practice there's always a balance between what I need to write for my own catharsis, and what other people would like to hear from me. I'm always interested in feedback on that front. Really, on all fronts.


A Medium dilemma

I'm a fan and paid-up member of Medium, the long-form online publishing platform and reader network. I should declare that I'm not unbiased: I worked there in 2016 and know a few of the people who work on it, although the team and product have changed considerably over the last few years.

A couple of years ago they began to reverse one of the most alarming trends on the internet - independent artists losing the ability to sustainably create their work - and allowed writers to get paid for their work. It's been a roaring success, and the site is now one of the top 100 in the world. More recently still, they've brought paying publications like the Bold Italic into the fold. Although this is reminscent of a failed strategy from a few years ago that ended up really hurting publications like The Establishment, in the context of the Partner Program and Medium Memberships it makes more sense.

What Medium isn't is a generic blogging or publishing platform. It's narrowed its focus into being more like a magazine that everyone can contribute to (and I'm told that more changes are coming in the New Year). In doing so, it inevitably loses some of its early users - and it adds features like a paywall that may drive some casual readers away.

Ironically, many of the people who complain about Medium are the same people who care about surveillance capitalism. Yet the site is the biggest, boldest experiment in non-surveillance social media on the internet: a business that makes money by asking for money, and has aligned itself with its community in doing so. No, you don't build a wholly self-owned digital identity like you do on the indieweb; no, it's not a place for billions of people to put their every waking thought for free. But in building a magazine that anyone can contribute to, Medium has opened the door to a more diverse community of writers sharing their lived experiences and getting paid for it as part of a business model that promotes value over blind engagement and doesn't need to profile you all over the web.

To say that writers should make their work available for free is the height of privilege - and indeed, usually those voices are well-paid white men who make six figure salaries at technology companies. Our society is richer for having more points of view expressed, but not everyone has the time available to do free work. The net result of Medium's strategy is more writers making a living from their work, and therefore more diverse writers sharing their lived experiences. I'm all for that.

Publishing on Medium does not preclude writing on a personal website that you control. You can do both. But just as there's nothing wrong with publishing a long-form piece in a newspaper or a traditional magazine, there's nothing wrong with publishing it on Medium.


What is a startup?

I hear a lot of complaints along the lines of: "isn't a startup just a small business?"

The simple answer is: no. Many small businesses will remain small, often by design. In contrast, a startup is an early stage business that is looking for a way to grow. As Steve Blank famously put it:

A startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

Both of these clauses are important. Repeatable means that you can offer the same service to many customers. Scalable means you can grow the business to a large size in a way that is not linearly correlated to the resources you spend to provide it. When a startup has found a repeatable, scalable business model, they will have found product / market fit: a large addressible market that is well-served by the product the startup has created. In order to find product / market fit, the startup will need to perform rapid, iterative experiments on both its product and the market it's addressing to fine-tune both simultaneously. That's the game.

It's important to call out what a startup is not: it's not an R&D lab that creates new technology, for example. Instead, a startup may bring a new technology to market as part of serving a need. It's also not a product studio that solely focuses on making elegant software; it's a business that is able to build a great product that serves a skillfully executed strategy.

I believe that for a startup to have a chance of success, it needs to meaningfully change the way something valuable is done. For example, Salesforce dramatically simplified the way sales teams collaborate. Facebook, for all its faults, simplified the way we keep in touch with our commuities. Slack has transformed internal communication. As Ev Williams memorably said on-stage at XOXO: you have to take out steps. Make life easier. It's not enough to just put something online; you have to meaningfully change the process.

For all our talk of startup ethics - and make no mistake, these conversations are vitally important - we can't lose sight of the basics. Make something that people want, in a scalable, repeatable, defensible way, and make their lives better in the process.


Here's what I read in November


This was another tough month, with three hospital visits for my mother. For this and a few other reasons, my anxiety was through the roof, and I often lay awake in bed with my heart racing. As has been true a few times this year, I found it hard to have the mental clarity to pick up a book and dive into it.

Over Thanksgiving I finally found that peace again, and as ever, I find offline reading to be meditative and nurturing.

Notable Articles

The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of "jaywalking". Just another example of how deeply warped by capitalism American society really is. "Ultimately, both the word jaywalking and the concept that pedestrians shouldn't walk freely on streets became so deeply entrenched that few people know this history."

New data makes it clear: Nonvoters handed Trump the presidency. Even if you hate the eventual candidate, if you have the ability, please vote in 2020.

Sea-level rise could flood hundreds of millions more than expected. "The new analysis found that about 110 million people are already living on land that falls below daily average high tides today, compared with an estimated 28 million people under the earlier models."

‘I’m gonna lose everything’. "In farm country, mental health experts say they’re seeing more suicides as families endure the worst period for U.S. agriculture in decades. Farm bankruptcies and loan delinquencies are rising, calamitous weather events are ruining crops, and profits are vanishing during Trump’s global trade disputes."

Ambrosia, the Young Blood Transfusion Startup, Is Quietly Back in Business. What could be more emblematic of our current era than a startup that takes blood from young people and transfuses it into the rich? It's not just its superficial ghoulishness: the power dynamics here are chilling.

Climate change deniers’ new battle front attacked. "Mann stressed that individual actions – eating less meat or avoiding air travel – were important in the battle against global warming. However, they should be seen as additional ways to combat global warming rather than as a substitute for policy reform."

The voice from our Nest camera threatened to steal our baby. And apparently these devices are commonly hacked.

Scaling in the presence of errors—don’t ignore them. Scaling is incredibly difficult, and even more so when you're dealing with a codebase that wasn't built with it in mind. Tef writes well, and I wish he was more prolific.

Everyone is admitting what they get paid to work in journalism. "A web producer for Wirecutter, the consumer review site now owned by the New York Times, makes just $45,000, according to the list. An editor at the same site with three years of experience has a salary of only $62,000. For a job based in New York City, that seems barely livable." Yes and: it encourages the otherwise-supported and independently wealthy to get into journalism, creating a demographic skew across the industry that seriously underrepresents working class points of view.

Open Source Code Will Survive the Apocalypse in an Arctic Cave. Enjoy reading through the Elgg and Known source code, future humans. Sorry about the mess.

Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism. My friend Fergus on his autism for the British Psychological Society. "If, as I’ve argued, monotropism provides a common underlying explanation for all the main features of autistic psychology, then autism is not nearly as mysterious as people tend to think. We do not need to rely on theories which explain only a few aspects of autistic cognition, with no convincing explanation for sensory hyper- and hypo-sensitivity, or the intensity of autistic interests."

“The Most Dangerous Town on the Internet” and the Cold War 2.0. "Silicon Valley imperialism also prefers to understand Eastern Europe as more corrupt than itself, playing into Cold War 2.0 mythologies. Yet from the Cambridge Analytica scandal (which revealed that Facebook was just as, if not more, culpable in skewing the 2016 US election results than Russia and its Guccifer 2.0), to ongoing abuses of artificial intelligence, machine learning, exploitation, and data colonialism being employed by Big Tech, global corruption’s technological epicenter is clearly not Romania."

The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of a Virtuoso Coder. A sad story told evocatively; this is more a tale of a community in Ohio than it is about tech.

Government Secrets: Why and How A Special Agent-Turned-Whistleblower Uncovered Controversial Border Surveillance Tactics. A reminder again. "“It seemed these people's rights were being infringed on,” Petonak explained. “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution. Everyone has rights. And just because I don't agree with your political stance on something, doesn't mean you don't have the same rights as every other person.”"

Uber plans to start audio-recording rides in the U.S. for safety. I'm of two minds. My knee-jerk reaction was that this is terrible - but having some protection against assault seems like a good idea. In many places, taxis do this automatically. The important thing is that you're told you're being recorded. (Of course, I don't trust Uber to do the right thing with these recordings.)

The Best Parenting Advice Is to Go Live in Europe. Parenting seems so much harder here, and like so many things, I don't understand why people seem to think it's okay.

Sacha Baron Cohen: Facebook would have let Hitler buy ads for 'final solution'. "Baron Cohen also called for internet companies to be held responsible for their content. “It’s time to finally call these companies what they really are – the largest publishers in history. And here’s an idea for them: abide by basic standards and practices just like newspapers, magazines and TV news do every day.”" Here are his words in full.

Weeknight Dinner Around the World. I loved this photo essay: 18 families around the world, sharing what they eat on a typical weeknight. Human and beautiful. (And hunger-inducing.)

Facebook and Google’s pervasive surveillance poses an unprecedented danger to human rights. From Amnesty International. "“We have already seen that Google and Facebook’s vast architecture for advertising is a potent weapon in the wrong hands. Not only can it be misused for political ends, with potentially disastrous consequences for society, but it allows all kinds of new exploitative advertising tactics such as preying on vulnerable people struggling with illness, mental health or addiction. Because these ads are tailored to us as individuals, they are hidden from public scrutiny,” said Kumi Naidoo."

White nationalists are openly operating on Facebook. The company won't act. "A Guardian analysis found longstanding Facebook pages for VDare, a white nationalist website focused on opposition to immigration; the Affirmative Right, a rebranding of Richard Spencer’s blog Alternative Right, which helped launch the “alt-right” movement; and American Free Press, a newsletter founded by the white supremacist Willis Carto, in addition to multiple pages associated with Red Ice TV. Also operating openly on the platform are two Holocaust denial organizations, the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust and the Institute for Historical Review."

Dial Up! "How the Hmong diaspora uses the world’s most boring technology to make something weird and wonderful." This is so cool: underground radio for a diaspora community based on conference call technology.

The California DMV Is Making $50M a Year Selling Drivers’ Personal Information. "They included data broker LexisNexis and consumer credit reporting agency Experian. Motherboard also found DMVs sold information to private investigators, including those who are hired to find out if a spouse is cheating."

My devices are sending and receiving data every two seconds, sometimes even when I sleep. "When I decided to record every time my phone or laptop contacted a server on the internet, I knew I'd get a lot of data, but I honestly didn't think it would reveal nearly 300,000 requests in a single week." What have we built for ourselves?

Amazon’s Ring Planned Neighborhood “Watch Lists” Built on Facial Recognition. "The planning materials envision a seamless system whereby a Ring owner would be automatically alerted when an individual deemed “suspicious” was captured in their camera’s frame, something described as a “suspicious activity prompt.”" What could possibly go wrong?

You can take my Dad’s tweets over my dead body. Twitter will start removing inactive accounts; that includes accounts owned by the deceased. "Big tech companies are good at a lot of things, but what they seem to lack is collective empathy and heart. When humans use the things you build and you stop treating them like humans, but rather like bits and bytes and revenue dollars, you’ve given your soul away. And maybe it’s just me getting older, but I’ve had about enough of it."

Pete Buttigieg Called Me. Here's What Happened. "But Pete Buttigieg listened, which is all you can ask a white man to do." A remarkable piece of writing.

Decolonizing Thanksgiving: A Toolkit for Combatting Racism in Schools. "By taking a decolonizing approach to teaching about Thanksgiving, teachers and families reject the myths of Thanksgiving and harmful stereotypes about Native peoples." Some great resources that all of us can use. I'm excited that these are the kinds of conversations we're having.

What keeps us going. 100 quotes from a cross-section of Americans on where they find meaning in life. I found this fascinating and very often alien: very often less relatable than I expected. But it's a strong portrait of a country in flux, with its anxieties written on its sleeve.

The Social Subsidy of Angel Investing. I think this cuts to the core of what makes fundraising in the Bay Area different, but I also think it's a problem. Angel investing has become a mark of social status. "In San Francisco, it’s angel investing. Other than founding a successful startup yourself, there’s not much higher-status in the Bay Area than backing founders that go on to build Uber or Stripe."

The Power is Running: A Memoir of N30. "On November 30, 1999, tens of thousands of anarchists, indigenous people, ecologists, union organizers, and other foes of tyranny converged in Seattle, Washington from around the world to blockade and shut down the summit of the World Trade Organization. The result was one of the era’s most inspiring victories against global capitalism, demonstrating the effectiveness of direct action and casting light on the machinations of the WTO." A first-hand account of that day.

Why we need to preserve black spaces in Detroit. "Detroiters are not opposed to economic development and revitalization; we're opposed to feeling uninvited in our own home. We're opposed to being told "no" for decades, for everything from mortgages to home improvement loans to development dollars, only to see that once you carve out a few portions where there are fewer of us, the property values suddenly rise."


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


Looking for feedback

I find feedback incredibly helpful in my personal and professional life. If you have a couple of minutes, I'd love your frank (and completely anonymous) opinions.

The anonymous form is here.

It's based on a feedback exercise I've found useful in person - although then it's not anonymous. I've found that anonymous responses online can sometimes help people to feel more comfortable leaving frank feedback (but at the same time, if you want to leave your name, you obviously can).

How do you get feedback in your life? I'd love to hear your strategies and ideas.


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash



Thanksgiving is a problematic holiday. Colonialism isn't just a ghost that haunts America: it's its skeleton. For many people, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning:

"Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. [...] It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience."

The story of Thanksgiving itself turns out to be more or less true, although the identity of the Wampanoag tribe is often abstracted away in retellings. I found this interview with the historian David J. Silverman to be fascinating:

In the short term, intertribal and even intra-tribal politics is what's driving Native American responses to Europeans. A better way to think about this period is not in terms of Indian-colonial relations, but rather to think of European colonies as just another tribe in a dynamic, highly competitive, intertribal environment.

Traditions are a series of whispers that warp and transform history from generation to generation. Yesterday, we commemorated this complicated inter-tribal alliance by eating a turkey, and celebrating that we were all still here, gathering together.

I'm conscious that we're able to treat this day as a celebration because we're descended from the Europeans who stole land and committed genocide. Perhaps particularly so because we're also descended from Jews who had their land stolen and had genocides committed against them - although it's important to say that the one fact does not give us permission to ignore the other.

So it's complicated, to say the least. But right now, in the wake of hospital stays and surgeries, if I get a chance to sit around the table with my entire nuclear family, and better yet cook for them, I'll take it. I'm grateful that they're all still here, and that I get to be here with them. I'm thankful that my family's values are that we all want a more equal world, and that everyone deserves to have a good life. I'm thankful that my parents have been activists, anti-war organizers, and people with a bias towards action when it comes to making the world better. And I'm thankful for all the people around the world who today still fight for that equality.


The next big thing? The hybrid cloud.

It's been a couple of decades since Salesforce first brought the idea of enterprise cloud services into the mainstream. Since then, firms have been closing their datacenters, moving away from solutions like Sharepoint, and putting their trust in subscription services that they access through a web browser. Even venerable on-premise tools like Microsoft SharePoint have made their way online.

But to move everything into the cloud is to make the mistake of putting technology before customers. You can't build a product that solves deep organizational problems by simply declaring that the cloud is the future and walking away. You need to actually understand the user holistically, test hypotheses around what you think will solve their problem, and iterate towards a real solution. That includes every aspect of the product, including its technology stack. Our role as technologists is to fight for the user, not to advocate for particular technologies we happen to like. (If those technologies are the best way to solve the user's problem, then great.)

There are cases where the cloud is not the right solution; particularly when security is a consideration, or when users are particularly concerned about their own privacy.

For consumers, we're beginning to see products like the Helm server, which allows you to host your email inside your home. While traditional home servers require a great deal of technical knowledge, you can buy a Helm, plug it in, and get going quickly. You don't need to be a Linux server admin (or pay one). It just works. I'm excited for future iterations of the idea, which I hope will allow you to host your own access-controlled social spaces from your home.

I believe there is a similar need for modular self-hosted software and hardware for businesses that makes it easy to run on-premise applications.

These software applications will be split: the portion that handles user data at rest is hosted on-premise. Meanwhile, a companion API piece sits in the cloud. This way the user receives the best of both worlds: their data is kept safe, and the services surrounding their data are continuously updated and managed for them. This split means that the on-premise software remains relatively thin, keeping updates simple.

Vendors can charge an up-front licensing fee for the on-premise product as well as a recurring subscription for the hosted service. Not every business requires that level of security for their data at rest, or even cares about it; for them, a fully-hosted service is available.

I've got skin in this game already: I designed a product called Hub for Latakoo, a service that allows journalists to quickly send video from the field using commodity internet connections. Hub sits in newsrooms and allows video to be automatically integrated into their content management systems, in the correct format. It's useful for the newsrooms, and lucrative for the company. And I think the model has broad applications elsewhere.

Of course, I didn't invent the hybrid cloud. It's in wide use in larger enterprises, and services like AWS have existing solutions. But these applications are often bespoke. I think there's room to bring it to privacy-minded startups and SMEs - and build a whole new era of privacy-aware business applications in the process.


Love as allyship

I decided a long time ago that the secret to a happy life is finding the right allies.

In some ways, I'm envious of peole who have religion, who can argue that everything happens for a reason, or that there's a plan for them, or that there's at least some underlying force that represents an intention behind the apparent chaos of the universe. For me, it's just chaos: you can do your best to create the right conditions for you to have the life you want, but you're at the mercy of externalities. From the context you happen to randomly have been born into to the health of your family to the opportunities that have been within your grasp, everyone is subject to a different roll of the dice. The universe isn't cruel or kind or wise: it just is.

In the face of this chaos, the only sensible strategy is to work together to try and make the experience of living better for everyone. If we group together, we can mitigate the effects of having been born into poverty, or of having experienced some accident. By helping others, we help ourselves; each of us is inseparable from humanity as a whole. Building community saves lives.

Which isn't to say that we can erase the individual. Communities are made stronger by the diversity of people within them. And the experience of being human is wrapped up in the imperfect emotions, radical creation, and deep-seated needs of individuals. The deepest need of all - this is certainly true for me, but I suspect most of us share this - is love and connection.

Particularly in a world where we're surrounded by voices that ask us to conform to demographic ideals or do what is popular, and societal norms that ask us to take our anxieties and quirks and bury them, loving someone as a complete person is radical enough. But then to voluntarily choose to face the chaos of the world together, having fully accepted each other, is, in turn, a radical act of trust. It's this trust and acceptance that, finally, builds safety and warmth. You can be yourself around these people. You can breathe.

I spend at least a part of every weekend visiting my parents. Not everyone is lucky enough to have this kind of family, but I'm able to be completely myself with them. I feel safe and accepted. I'm watching them grow old, or in my mother's case slowly succumb to terminal illness, and I see their mutual acceptance, and the lengths to which they will go for each other. I wonder how I'm ever going to build anything remotely like this for myself. But I'm lucky to have seen it, and to know it can exist, and to have the motivation to work for it.

This is what I mean by love as allyship. I'm looking for allies, in every aspect of my life. The world is tough, but people are amazing, and the relationships we build are everything.


One billion dollars

Happy Friday! ForUsAll, where I'm Head of Engineering, now has over a billion dollars of retirement savings under management. We're helping everybody to build a stronger future - not just the people on high salaries who work for well-funded startups or the Fortune 500.

Here's the press release. My background isn't, of course, in financial services, and it's not a space I've traditionally been excited by. But what drives me is helping people and helping to build a more equal world. I couldn't care less about helping rich people to become richer (or, really, helping them in any other way); I care a lot about helping everyone else to be more secure. That's what attracted me to this team, and it's a mission that everyone in the company believes in.

Did I mention we're hiring?



Boycotting the attention economy in December

Last year, on a whim, I left social media on Thanksgiving, and didn't return until January 1st. It led to massive improvements in my mental and physical health, overall happiness, attention span, and engagement with the world.

This year I've been with my mother while she spent months in the hospital, watched the world fall apart in alarming ways, and changed jobs. And I lost many people I care about, all in the space of a month. In a lot of ways, it's been the hardest, most stressful year of my life.

So I've decided to intentionally restart my social media fast this Thanksgiving. It's incredibly late this year, so that means I'm effectively taking the month of December off. That's enough to get a clean break, reset, and breathe.

I will be posting here throughout that time, and continuing to engage on the indieweb.

December also happens to be the most commercial time of the year, when advertising spend is at its highest. In a world where divisiveness and depression are being amplified by these platforms, logging off for the month also feels like a good way to respond financially to their new role in the world.

So I'm asking others: let's log off in December together. Black Friday is already Buy Nothing Day for many of us. Let's make December a month where we disengage from the attention economy - not logging off from the internet, but from the social media platforms that have led to the current era. The independent web, forums, email lists, and other closed discussion groups are fair game (with ad blockers), but let's show Facebook, Twitter, et al how we feel.


Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash


Happy International Men's Day!

AKA the answer to all those people who ask "why isn't there an International Men's Day?" on International Women's Day. Guess what: there is, and it's today.

In the list of identities I carry, being a man isn't something I think about most of the time. Which, of course, is part of the hidden privilege of it: in contrast, women are forced to confront their gender in almost every context, every day. As a straight, white, man, there are comparatively few societal expectations for me. Women earn 79 cents on the dollar, have comparatively few seats of power, occupy fewer board seats, and hold less equity.

But the traditional expectations that do exist are not positive. This is what we mean when we talk about "toxic masculinity": it's not that all masculinity is toxic, but rather that the very traditionally masculine traits are harmful to the people who adhere to them, as well as the people around them. Those traits are things like:

Repressing emotions rather than expressing them.

Embracing competition and self-reliance over collaboration.

Seeking domination rather than equality. And as a part of this, embracing misogyny over treating women as equals.

Valuing aggression over empathy and cooperation.

Men are four times more likely to die from suicide, and traditional gender norms are a large part of the problem. If you're in trouble or suffering from depression and don't feel like you can talk about it or seek treatment, and find aggressive alternative outlets for your condition, you are not going to get better. Similarly, if you don't fall into the cookie cutter definitions of what a man should be and your community doesn't allow you to express your real feelings or identity, you're going to feel incredibly isolated. For everyone, repressing emotions is a fast track to loneliness. And loneliness is directly correlated with suicide.

It used to be that these regressive values were the norm. So I want to spend this International Men's Day thanking the women who have helped changed this state of affairs, as well as the men who refuse to live by them, and who signal that there are other, better definitions of masculinity. This change is saving people's lives. It probably has saved mine. So, thank you.


Photo by Craig McLachlan on Unsplash


Escape from Google

For this month's Linux Format magazine, I was asked to comment for a piece about how Google isn't living up to its "don't be evil" motto. This phrase was removed from Google's code of conduct in 2018, but it's still thought of as being part of the company's DNA.

My opinion is that Google itself shouldn't be singled out in itself - in many ways it is a more ethical big tech company, but it operates as part of a troubled ecosystem. Linux Format's Mayank Sharma asked me a few questions for a quote, but decided to run the conversation almost in its entirety. The magazine made the legal decision to edit out a comment I made about Facebook's role in genocide, so here's the original version from my emails with Mayank. This interview took place after my role with Unlock came to an end, and before my role with ForUsAll began. I speak for myself alone.

You should buy the latest edition of Linux Format on your local newsstand, or from its website.


Q. I am personally not a fan of Google’s business model that’s been the basis of what’s now known as “surveillance capitalism”. What, in your opinion, is Google doing wrong? Is there more to Google's evil than just privacy intrusion?

Let's be clear: Google is participating in the prevailing business model for internet businesses in Silicon Valley. So in that sense, they're not more evil than any other business that seeks to make money through personal data. You could also make the argument that they're not as directly harmful as a company like Facebook, whose data practices have been shown to have undermined democracy in countries like the United States and Britain, and even to have supported genocides in countries like Myanmar.

However, the impact of Google's business is exponentially greater because of its size. From widespread location collection in Google Maps, to the fact that the majority of sites on the internet host Google tracking code, it's very hard to not be tracked and profiled by them in some way. That information has the potential to be cross-referenced, together with offline information like credit card purchases, which it adds together to create a highly targeted profile.

The irony is that targeted advertising - where advertising is highly tuned to the profile that has been created for you through invasive tracking - is not really more effective or lucrative than simple contextual advertising! So Google's real harm may have been to incentivize the creation of a sophisticated worldwide surveillance network, for the sake of surveillance itself. Surveillance has chilling effects on free speech: people who know they're being watched behave and express themselves differently. And that has a real effect on democracy. Not to mention the potential for harm should a government with ill intent seek to harness that surveillance network for its own ends. Should tech companies have built systems that allow the current US administration to track immigrants and deport them? I think the answer is a clear "no" - and the only way to prevent this is for the surveillance apparatus to not exist in the first place.

Q. How do you escape from the clutches of Google? Is self-hosting the only real option?

Privacy is a group inoculation. Even if you self-host, there's nothing to prevent your information from being inadvertently gathered by your friend who hasn't taken the same steps. Not to mention that self-hosting is really hard! At its simplest, you need to know how to use command line tools (or, if you're using shared hosting, be comfortable with FTP). At its hardest, you need to have some server administration skills. For those reasons, I don't think self-hosting is a real solution to the problem in itself. There are lots of other great reasons to self-host: having full control of your web presence and data, if you have the means and the skills, allows you to better represent yourself online.

You can also make ethical technology choices. Use a web browser, like Firefox, that protects you. Choose an email provider, like ProtonMail, that has built-in privacy protections. If you're building a website - or particularly, running a web business - make careful choices about which data you really need to gather, and through which provider. Consider using an open solution like Matomo for your website stats instead of Google Analytics. Support small businesses that are transparently making ethical choices over giant companies that may not be.

But because it's a group inoculation, we need a better vaccine for all of us. More on that in a moment.

Q. Do you think going “back to formula” and adopting open web standards is the way forward?

Google is pretty good at using open web standards! While we should definitely be using open web standards and continuing to build a robust, open, decentralized web, I think the way forward is a human problem more than a technical problem.

First, there needs to be a clear alternative to the Silicon Valley venture capital funding model. People who build software need to be able to put food on the table; it's not a question of not being able to make a profit. But venture capital incentivizes companies to grow exponentially. Actually stopping to take money from consumers is a limit on that growth, so those companies tend to use advertising and data brokerage as revenue models instead. Movements like Zebras Unite see the harm in this and are trying to establish alternative funding models. Teams, including open source projects, need to take concrete steps to become more diverse; because the negative effects of surveillance are disproportionately felt by vulnerable groups, affluent, white, male teams often didn't understand the issues.

We also need to do much more work to make sure open source developers can make a real living from their work, and move away from the "free as in beer" perception of open software. People should choose free and open source software because of the freedoms and reassurances inherent in open development processes and licenses. If they just see it as a cheaper alternative, fewer startups will choose open models, because they can't make money that way, and the traditional VC model will continue. We're seeing more successful open source infrastructure companies, but I'd like to see more end user open source software find its way to real profitability too. For that to happen, we need much stronger support for those companies. I'd love to see more funding opportunities, as well as open source accelerators and advisory programs.

Finally, there has to be regulatory reform in two main areas. 1: We need to reform antitrust rules and prevent these data monopolies from existing in the first place: no company should ever be big enough to establish a global surveillance network. It's absurd. Technology monopolies are harmful, and in a world where software is a part of every part of our lives, we can't afford to hide behind techno-libertarian ideologies where government is always bad. Government can help us establish sensible rules that protect citizens; it's what it exists to do. 2: We need strong privacy legislation. The industry clearly cannot self-police on this front. GDPR is flawed but has had positive effects - particularly in the ways that organizations have changed how they think about privacy. California has new privacy legislation that will take effect in 2020. Every jurisdiction should enact sensible protections that encourage good behavior and punish violations.

Nonetheless, innovation has a strong part to play. I helped to build the Unlock Protocol, which is a decentralized way for creators to independently make money for their work. This stands in contrast to advertising models: here, selling paid memberships becomes a decentralized layer of the web, just like HTML, CSS, or JavaScript. You don't need to go through a middleman, and Unlock doesn't levy any fees. Other providers, open source and otherwise, can roll it into their products. The hope is that using direct revenue - and experimenting around revenue-based business models - will become easier and more lucrative than surveillance-based models. The VC / ad model is by far the easiest for product owners right now, but we can change the ecosystem by lowering barriers to entry to other business models. That way people who are starting new startups and products can find a business model that works best for their users, rather than letting venture capital dictate how they make money.


Again - you can buy the latest edition of Linux Format on your local newsstand, or from its website.


The best way to blog in 2020

I've been blogging - albeit not consistently on the same site - since 1998. That's a long time in internet years, and in human years, and over time I've conditioned out any self-editing impulse I might have. I write, hit publish, and share. Done.

Because I'm fairly prolific, friends and colleagues often ask me what the best way to start is, in two ways:

1. Their writing ethic: how to actually write and feel OK about putting it out there in the world.

2. Their platform: how to sustainably host a website that looks good and reflect on them well.

I'll take those questions in reverse order. But first, let's address something important:

What is blogging?

The short answer is: it's personal and different for everybody.

Here's what it's not: professional article writing. If you want to go through multiple rounds of editing, please do. If you want to write two thousand word epics about your topic of choice, please do. But it's also okay to write up a hundred quick words and post them without thinking twice about it.

When you blog, you're building up a body of work that represents you online. It's a gateway into your thought process more than anything else. So do what moves you - whether that's short thoughts, bookmarks you like, essays, fiction, poetry, photo albums, and so on. You do you. The only thing that's really important is that you keep doing it.

I can tie every single major advance in my career to blogging. It's been hugely important in my personal life, too. I couldn't recommend it more.

Which platform should I choose?

Let's get this out of the way: if you're looking for a platform to blog regularly, it's not Medium.

That's not a knock on Medium. I used to work there, and I still adore the platform. But you should think of it as a huge online magazine that anyone can write articles for. Shorter updates aren't really appropriate there, and pieces stand alone. It's also most effective if you put your work behind the paywall, these days, which might not gel with your blogging goals. You shouldn't feel bad about writing on Medium - but you should have your own site, too.

Don't use something that isn't designed for purpose: you could use Notion, Evernote, etc etc, but you'll run into problems later on, and you'll make life harder for your audience.

Obviously, I write on Known. I wrote it, so I enjoy it, and I can tinker with it if something doesn't make me happy. But unless you really want to configure self-hosting space and tinker with code too, for the moment I don't recommend that you use Known to blog. (Maybe I will again. Watch this space.)

Instead, my recommendation is WordPress. It just is. No, the interface is not perfectly modern. But the ecosystem is giant, there are a lot of options for customizability, and most importantly, there are apps out there that will help you manage your writing and post effectively. If you feel like spending the time and you have the ability, you can self-host. If you don't, you can use their hosted service. You'll know that a lot of the important stuff - feeds, archives, SEO - is taken care of for you.

A close second, for informal, personal sites, is Micro Blog. As they describe it, it's "the blog you will actually use": a simple service that allows you to write updates of any length via the web and native apps. It supports IndieWeb technologies out of the box (like Known does), and is compatible with the ecosystem of apps. And the people behind it are great.

Finally, if you really want something Medium-like, Ghost is a great choice. Like WordPress, you can self-host, or you can pay them to manage it for you.

Whatever you choose, buy your own domain name if you have the means: that way you can repoint your address to a different provider in the future. So if, for example, Ghost goes out of business, you can shrug your shoulders and move to WordPress without having to tell anyone about your new address.

How can I get myself to write?

Like so many things, practice makes perfect.

My recommendation is this: choose a cadence of no less than once a week, and stick to it for two months. Then see how you feel. Don't limit yourself to any particular length, and don't let yourself spend more than an hour on a post. After that hour, you're hitting publish, no matter what.

You quickly learn that, although your posts will be live on the web forever, they're also ephemeral. People move onto the next thing quickly. And - unless you're actually a terrible person - nobody is going to react badly to anything you write. If it's not a post that captures the imagination, folks will move on very quickly. If it is, it's because it's a great post. And you're almost certainly not a terrible person, so you have nothing to lose.

Here's the other thing you should do: comment on or about other people's posts at the same cadence. The internet is a conversation, not a broadcast. Weblogs are social media; you need to interact with what other people are writing.

One last thing: don't blog about your own blogging. No "I just started a blog!" or "it's been a long time since I blogged". Those are apologies of different kinds, and you have nothing to apologize about. Be bold. Put your thoughts down in writing. I believe in you.

It's a mental leap - I know it is - and an act of bravery to put your thoughts in writing. But there's nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

And ... that's it

Over time, your body of work will build, and you'll find that people are interested in surprising topics. This post on equality of outcome vs opportunity has been the most popular thing on my site for a while now, which I never could have planned or anticipated. The power is in being consistent, and keeping your site online for the long term. (I wish I could have told my 1998 self that.)

People email me about things I've written all the time. My posts have led to newspaper and magazine features. They've led to jobs. And most importantly for me, they've led to friends.

If you're starting a blog - and if you don't have one, you should start now! - I want to hear about it. Get started and email me its address. The time to start is now.


Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash