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Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World, by Naomi Klein

A riveting analysis of our moment in history, using the parallel paths of Naomis Klein and Wolf as a device to examine the multiple realities we've constructed for ourselves. Incisive and pointed, I particularly agree with a conclusion that pulls no punches about how to correct our paths and potentially save ourselves. I couldn't recommend it more highly.

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Effective obfuscation

Molly White explores why effective altruism and effective accelerationism are such dangerous ideologies - selfishness disguised as higher-minded philosophies.

"Both ideologies embrace as a given the idea of a super-powerful artificial general intelligence being just around the corner, an assumption that leaves little room for discussion of the many ways that AI is harming real people today. This is no coincidence: when you can convince everyone that AI might turn everyone into paperclips tomorrow, or on the flip side might cure every disease on earth, it’s easy to distract people from today’s issues of ghost labor, algorithmic bias, and erosion of the rights of artists and others."

I strongly agree with the conclusion: let's dispense with these regressive ideologies, and the (wealthy, privileged) people who lead them, and put our weight behind the people who are doing good work actually helping people with real human problems today.

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Support Indigenous People This Weekend

"Every year I invite people who are celebrating the colonial holiday to do something in support of Native people. Amid an overdose crisis and high rates of poverty, illness, and unemployment, Indigenous organizers are doing incredible work to reduce harm and help our peoples thrive. Through mutual aid, cultural work, protest, advocacy, and the sharing of Indigenous lifeways, these organizers are making a profound difference in the lives of Indigenous people in the U.S. If you can and would like to, please join me in supporting one of the following organizations this weekend."

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Nations must go further than current Paris pledges or face global warming of 2.5-2.9°C

"“We know it is still possible to make the 1.5 degree limit a reality. It requires tearing out the poisoned root of the climate crisis: fossil fuels. And it demands a just, equitable renewables transition,” said Antònio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations."

How realistic is that in a world where fossil fuels are so deeply baked into our economies and business models? I'm not saying this in a defensive way: it's hard to not believe we're completely hosed.

It would be one thing if we were all aligned as people, but there are enough powerful interests out there who want to stop what needs to be done in its tracks. Is there any reason to even hold out a glimmer of hope?

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There's no money in free software

An abstract image that's meant to represent open source somehow

Thomas Stringer on compensation in open source:

And then finally, there’s my uninteresting (to me) OSS project. What once resembled passion project is now unrecognizable from a motivation perspective. But the demand is high. There are lots of users, many in a corporate sense using my software to further progress their organization. And the bad news is, I get no money at all from it. So motivation is essentially nonexistent at this point. Where passion is falling short, money could motivate me to routinely work on this product.

I’ve spent over a decade of my life working on open source software as a full-time profession. Like a lot of people who get into open source, it was originally an ideological decision: I wanted the work I was doing to be available to the widest number of people.

(An aside: I use the terms interchangeably, but open source and free software are not the same thing. Open source software is made available in such a way that anyone can use, which often includes as part of a commercial application. Free or libre software is explicitly licensed in such a way to promote software freedom, which is more of an ideological stance that centers on the freedom to use, modify, and re-distribute software while resisting licensing terms that might lock users in to a particular vendor. The open source term was originally coined because some folks thought the free software movement was a little too socialist for their tastes. I have no such qualms, but open source has become the more widely-understood term, so that’s what I use.)

Elgg, my first open source product, was founded for entirely ideological reasons. I’d found myself working in a learning technology department, shoehorned into a converted broom closet with a window that didn’t shut properly in the Edinburgh winter, with an angry PhD candidate who was upset he now had to share the space. I’d been blogging for years at that point, and he was working on learning technology.

What I learned about the learning technology ecosystem shocked me. Predatory companies like Blackboard were charging institutions six or seven-figure sums to run learning management software that everybody hated, from the administrators and educators down to the learners. Lock-in was rife: once an institution had been sold on a product, there was almost no momentum to move. There were open source equivalents for learning management — in particular, something called Moodle — but while they solved the financial problem, they didn’t solve the core usability issues with learning management systems.

And at the same time, people were connecting and learning from each other freely on the web. Inevitably, that angry PhD candidate and I started talking as we did our respective work, and I showed him how powerful blogging could be (at the time, there were no really powerful social networks; blogging wassocial media). We both built prototypes, but mine was the one we decided to go with; more of a social networking stack than a learning management system. I stuck it on a spare domain I didn’t have a website provisioned for (part of my family comes from Elgg, a town in Switzerland outside of Zurich), and we decided to build it out.

We could have run it as a fully software-as-a-service business, and I sometimes still wonder if we should have. Instead, after a year of development, we released it under the GNU Public License v3. We were incensed that taxpayer money was being spent in vast numbers for learning software that didn’t even help people learn. Anyone would be able to pick Elgg up to build a learning network with — we called it a learning landscape, which in retrospect was an ambiguous, near-meaningless term — and they would only have to pay if they wanted us to help them do it.

And it took off. Elgg changed some minds about how software should work in higher education, although it didn’t exactly dent Blackboard’s business. It was translated into a few languages, starting with the Northern European ones. But because it was open source, other organizations began to pick it up. Non-profits in South America started to use it to share resources internally; then global non-profits like Oxfam started using it to train their aid workers. People used it to build social networks for their businesses, their hobbies, their communities. And it continued to take off in education, too.

But it didn’t make us any money. I ended up taking a job as the web administrator at the Saïd Business School in Oxford to keep a roof over my head. I’d walk home from work, make dinner, and then sometimes work on Elgg until 1am. There were people here, and they were doing good work, so it felt like something to keep going with.

Of course, if it had been a SaaS platform, I would have been able to dedicate my full-time self to it far earlier. Thousands of miles away, in Palo Alto, Marc Andreessen and Gina Bianchini founded Ning — another social network builder — with millions of dollars in their war chest. In those early days, far more networks were built with Elgg than Ning: they had Silicon Valley money, while we had two developer-founders and a packet of crisps, but we were “winning”.

We weren’t winning. While we’d built an open source community, the continued development of the platform depended on our time and effort — and there was no way to be paid for our work. We did it for the love of it, and traded in huge chunks of our free time to do that. If we’d had children, or less tolerant partners, it wouldn’t have been possible.

A K-12 school district in upstate New York and MIT called us in the same month about helping them with their various projects, which was when I felt able to quit my job and get to work. We consulted with the school district and helped MIT to develop the platform behind OpenCourseWare, although we parted ways with the latter before launch because the work would have radically changed our platform in ways we weren’t comfortable with. The University of Brighton got in touch wanting to build the world’s first social network to roll out at a university campus, and we got to work with them. We were bankrolled.

But we were also working contract to contract and were often weeks or days away from being broke. The open source software had been picked up and used by huge names — Fortune 500 companies, Ivy League universities, global NGOs, even national governments, years later Jimmy Wales told me he’d picked it up and used it — but because it was open source, its own existence was under threat. We communicated as openly as we could in order to spread our message, through blogging, videos, podcasts; whatever we could. But it didn’t always work.

Around this time, Matt Mullenweg was having similar trouble with WordPress. For a while he even sold embedded links — essentially SEO spam — on his website in order to support his work. He was called out for it and the practice stopped. He went back to the drawing board.

One Friday afternoon we were fed up, felt stuck, and didn’t know where to go. There weren’t any contracts coming in. So we decided to go to the gym, run it out, and work on something else for the rest of the day. I had a weird idea that I wanted to play with: a social network where a profile could be anywebsite. (We’d implemented OpenID and FOAF and all of these up-and-coming decentralized social networking protocols, but none were enough to make this a reality.) Because the Elgg framework was flexible and designed for all kinds of social networks, I spent about two hours turning its components into JavaScript widgets you could post anywhere. I drew a stupid logo in MS Paint and called it Explode. A genuinely centralized, non-open-source social network, rough as hell, but in a form factor that nobody hadn’t really seen at that point.

It was on TechCrunch by the following Tuesday.

There had been an article or two in the Guardian, but by and large, nobody really cared about the open source social networking platform being used by organizations around the world. They did care about the centralized network. We were approached by investors very quickly, and ultimately took around half a million dollars from Thematic Capital, run by a pair of ex-HSBC executives in London.

They were well-connected, and found us consulting gigs with surprising people. We built a rugby social network with Will Carling (who got us all into carrot juice); I found myself explaining APIs to the English rock star Mike Rutherford from Genesis and Mike and the Mechanics.

The trick was this: while we’d founded the platform using open source as an ideology for good reasons (no lock-in, no abusive pricing), those same things affected our ability to build value into the company. We’d given away the thing that held our core value for free, and were trying to make money on tertiary services that didn’t scale. Every consulting gig involved writing new work-for-hire code — which we were usually then allowed to open source, meaning there were fewer opportunities to make money over time as the open source codebase grew. The more human value the open source codebase had, the lower its financial value was. While most companies become more valuable as more people use their product — as it should be — our company did the opposite. Ultimately, the product wildly succeeded (the platform continues to exist today), but the company behind it did not. We would have made a lot more money if we’d doubled down on Explode instead of continuing to build the open source product.

Make no mistake: there are ways to make open source development pay. Joseph Jacks’ OSS Capital invests in “open core” startups: ones that make their engines open source but then sell the features and services that make these technologies particularly useful to businesses. This usually but not always means developer-centric components that can be used as part of the software development process for other, commercial products. Open Core Ventures is a startup studio for the same idea: whereas OSS Capital funds existing startups, Open Core Ventures finds promising open source projects and founds companies around them.

Matt Mullenweg bounced back from his link ad days by creating a centralized service around catching spammy comments on blogs. Akismet was the first commercial service from his company Automattic, which is now worth billions of dollars. The client library is open source but the engine that makes it work is proprietary; for anything more than personal use, you have to pay.

The idea that people will pay to support a free product is very nice, but largely unrealistic. Most simply won’t. Even if someone in a company is like, “we’re relying on this and if someone doesn’t pay for them to do it, it might go away”, they’re one bloody-minded financial audit away from having to shut it down. There needs to be a defined return on investment that you can only get for paying the money: hosting, extra resources, or more capabilities that the company would otherwise have to spend more money to build themselves. Technical support is frequently cited but also unrealistic: it’s a nice-to-have service, not a painkiller. Even creating new software licenses that are free for personal use but paid for corporations is dicey: who does the enforcement for that licensing?

Not everything has to be a business. It’s obviously totally fine for anyone to create something as a hobby project and give it away. The disconnect comes from wanting to be paid for something you’re giving away without tying in any inherent commercial value.

These days, another open source social networking platform has captured much of the internet’s imagination. Mastodon is deployed across many thousands of communities and has formed the basis of a formidable social media network. It has a very small team that makes its money through crowdfunding: some users choose to support the project for a monthly fee, while other businesses pay to place their logos on its front page like a NASCAR car. It also sells mugs and T-shirts. This allows them to book mostly-recurring revenue, but at rates that are far lower than you’d expect from software with its prominence. It’s a non-profit based in Germany, with a much lower cost of living than Silicon Valley, so hopefully these economics work out. In the US, organizations that build software are often refused non-profit status, so it’s not clear that this would even be possible here anymore. (The Mozilla Foundation pre-dates this rule.) Regardless of non-profit status, crowdfunding enough money to pay for the time taken to build a software library would require it to be wildly popular.

My take is this: if you want to make money building something, sell it. If you want to release your software as open source, release the bit (or a bit) that doesn’t have intrinsic business value. Use that value to pay for the rest. If you need money to eat and put a roof over your head, do what you need to get money. And then if you want to be altruistic, be altruistic with what you can afford to distribute.

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Paternity leave alters the brain — suggesting daddies are made, not born

"The more access dads have to paternity leave, [...] the better able they are to adjust to parenthood, helping also make them more effective co-parents as their children get older."

All the more reason to ensure that everywhere has fantastic parental leave for all parents. The US is one of only seven nations to not have a national paid parental leave policy - something we should all be ashamed of.

I feel privileged and happy that I got to take time off when my little one was younger, and that I get to spend the walk to and from daycare with him almost every day. It's a pleasure and I'm certain it's helped create a stronger bond between us. Why would I want to forgo it?

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Give OpenAI's Board Some Time. The Future of AI Could Hinge on It

Written before the news broke about Sam Altman moving to Microsoft, this remains a nuanced, intelligent take.

"My understanding is that some members of the board genuinely felt Altman was dishonest and unreliable in his communications with them, sources tell me. Some members of the board believe that they couldn’t oversee the company because they couldn’t believe what Altman was saying."

I think a lot of people have been quick to judge the board's actions as stupid this weekend, but we still don't know what the driving factors were. There's no doubt that their PR was bad and the way they carried out their actions were unstrategic. But there was something more at play.

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I love the movies, but I think I'm done with blockbusters

We saw the latest Mission Impossible last night - one of the most expensive movies ever made, with a leading man who famously still does at least most of his own stunts, which promised amazing set piece after set piece after set piece.

Halfway through, I realized I was really bored. It's not that the visuals weren't amazing - they were immaculate - but there was nothing else to it. An empty shell of a movie that barely had a coherent plot and couldn't bring itself to make me feel much of anything at all. I'm really glad I didn't brave the theater for it, even though it was clearly designed to be watched on a big screen.

On the other hand, a few weeks ago we saw Talk to Me, the low-budget horror. It was superb: well-acted and tightly-written, with similarly immaculate visuals but produced for orders of magnitude less money. The cast and crew were relative unknowns, but it was perfect. No need to brave a theater to watch; it was just as good (maybe better) at home.

The former was considered a box office disappointment; the latter was considered to be a big success. I hope we get to see more well-crafted films by emerging filmmakers that don't ask us to risk getting coronavirus in some sticky-floored, overpriced box. Movies are amazing, but the way we watch them has lots of room to evolve, and with it, the economics of which films get made.

Franchises, retreads, and soulless popcorn fests are exhausting. Give me something new, in a place where I feel comfortable.

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Is My Toddler a Stochastic Parrot?

A beautifully written and executed visual essay about AI, parenting, what it means to be intelligent, and the fundamental essence of being human.

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The average AI criticism has gotten lazy, and that's dangerous

This is a good critique of some of the less analytical AI criticism, some of which I've undoubtedly been guilty of myself.

"The fork in the road is this: we can dismiss “AI.” We can call it useless, we can dismiss its output as nonsense, we can continue murmuring all the catechisms of the least informed critique of the technology. While we do that, we risk allowing OpenAI to make Microsoft, AT&T and Standard Oil look like lemonade stands."

The point is not that AI as a technology is a genie that needs to be put back into the bottle. It can't be. The point is that it can be made more ethically, equity can be more distributed, and we can mitigate the societal harms that will absolutely be committed at the hands of people using existing models.

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Origin Stories: Plantations, Computers, and Industrial Control

"The blueprint for modern digital computing was codesigned by Charles Babbage, a vocal champion for the concerns of the emerging industrial capitalist class who condemned organized workers and viewed democracy and capitalism as incompatible."

"Babbage documented his ideas on labor discipline in his famous volume On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, published a year before Britain moved to abolish West Indian slavery. His work built on that of Adam Smith, extolling methods for labor division, surveillance, and rationalization that have roots on the plantation."

File this - all of this - under "things about the industry I've worked in for 25 years that I absolutely didn't know". How can we build on a better foundation?

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The Guardian Deletes Osama Bin Laden's 'Letter to America' Because It Went Viral on TikTok

I'm pretty shocked that people are sharing Osama bin Laden's letter because they agree with it. Mostly because it is absolutely rife with antisemitic tropes.

This is one of the most dangerous aspects of the place we're in: the conflict in Gaza is leading to people unironically internalizing straight antisemitism. Which is really hard because what's happening in Gaza is awful - but anti-semitism is not at all the right lesson to be drawn from it. Of course it's not.

This kind of thing makes me more than a little fearful of what the next few years hold.

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AI outperforms conventional weather forecasting for the first time: Google study

This feels like a good use for AI: taking in more data points, understanding their interactions, and producing far more accurate weather forecasts.

We're already used to some amount of unreliability in weather forecasts, so when the model gets it wrong - as this did with the intensification of Hurricane Otis - we're already somewhat prepared.

Once the model is sophisticated enough to truly model global weather, I'm curious about outcomes for climate science, too.

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World behind on almost every policy required to cut carbon emissions, research finds | Climate crisis

"Coal must be phased out seven times faster than is now happening, deforestation must be reduced four times faster, and public transport around the world built out six times faster than at present, if the world is to avoid the worst impacts of climate breakdown, new research has found."

Well, this is heartening.

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A Coder Considers the Waning Days of the Craft

I feel this myself, but I don't think it means that coding is going away, exactly. Some kinds of coding are less manual, in the same way we don't write in assembler anymore. But there will always be a place for code.

Lately I've been feeling like AI replaces software libraries more than it replaces mainline code. In the old days, if you needed a function, you would find a library that did it for you. Now you might ask AI to write the function - and it's likely a better fit than a library would have been.

I don't know what this means for code improvements over time. People tend libraries; they upgrade their code. AI doesn't make similar improvements - or at least, it's not clear that it does. And it's not obvious to me that AI can keep improving if more and more code out in the world is already AI-generated. Does the way we code stagnate?

Anyway, the other day I asked ChatGPT to break down how a function worked in a language I don't code in, and it was incredibly useful. There's no doubt in my mind that it speeds us up at the very least. And maybe manual coding will be relegated to building blocks and fundamentals.

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In the face of human rights abuses

I want to write something on Israel / Palestine, and I've tried about six times to gather my thoughts, but there's so much to the situation, and there are so many people who will take you to task no matter where you stand, that it's hard. I think it's important to stand up for human rights at times like this, but I'm struggling to be coherent in the way the situation demands.

Right now it boils down to this: Stop killing children. Stop sieging hospitals. Turn on the power. Let aid flow in. But while there are real human rights violations in progress, it's also absolutely true that there is some anti-semitism in play; some of it unsubtle, and some a contiguous part of the quiet xenophobia that sits under the skin of American and European society. There are a lot of people who don't like Jews and are enjoying the excuse.

And it's also true that the attack conducted by Hamas was abhorrent and inexcusable.

And it's also true that Palestinians have been described as animals, in the most dehumanizing, Islamophobic language imaginable.

It's anti-semitic to conflate Israel with all Jews, or to suggest that Jews are a monolith, just as it's racist to do the same with Palestinians. Criticism of Israeli policy is not inherently anti-semitism, and shutting down those discussions is anti-democratic.

I find the calls to shut up about human rights abuses (on all sides) profoundly depressing. People are being killed. It's not some abstract game of chess. It's relentless death and suffering.

This demand to sit along pre-defined ideological lines rather than stand for the principle of human life and equality for all keeps me up at night. The idea that we either have to stand for Netanyahu or Hamas, or align ourselves with American interests or the interests of any nation, is obviously ridiculous.

Say no.

Stand for life. Stand for peace. Stand for not killing children, for fuck's sake.

The information warfare has been turned up to 11 in this conflict, and it must stop.

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I've Been To Over 20 Homeschool Conferences. The Things I've Witnessed At Them Shocked Me.

I read this the other day and haven't stopped thinking about it.

Mostly I worry about the children who have to grow up in this kind of environment. To my mind it's tantamount to child abuse.

What happens to them later? Do they stay inside this restrictive framework, or do they rebel? I'm genuinely curious to know how successful it is. It's not obvious to me that children will respond to it - unless they then go their whole lives never encountering an alternative point of view.

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We need solidarity across creative industries

I strongly believe in this:

"Artists and writers must have solidarity across creative industries: if you wouldn’t feel comfortable with your own work being replaced by algogen, then you shouldn’t use generated content of other creative mediums."

On top of it being an ethical affront across the board, I don't believe AI can ever create the kind of art that I think is particularly valuable: subversive, provocative, pushing envelopes. It's fundamentally limited by its technical shortcomings. It'll always be, in the most literal sense, average.

But all art is valuable and all artists are valuable. They've already been in a vulnerable position forever; these kinds of products and policies punch down on people who already struggle to live and yet literally help us figure out what it means to be human.

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Top consultancy undermining climate change fight: whistleblowers

Management consultants are to blame, for sure, but so are politicians for taking the bait. We know that there's big oil and gas money pushing against real solutions to climate change - anyone who's in that space needs to be vigilant against it.

One aspect of this might, perhaps, have been to not allow the talks to take place in one of the world's largest oil-producing nations. But here we are.

None of this is to say that McKinsey is off the hook for this kind of behavior. If this is happening, it's right to name and shame them. It's just: there are a lot of other people who should take some blame, too.

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‘It is a beast that needs to be tamed’: leading novelists on how AI could rewrite the future

This runs the gamut, but generally sits where I am: AI itself is not the threat. How it might be used in service of a profit motive is the threat.

Harry Josephine Giles worries about the digital enclosure movement - making private aspects of life that were once public - and I agree. That isn't just limited to AI; it's where we seem to be at the intersection of business and society.

Nick Harkaway: "In the end, this is a sideshow. The sectors where these systems will really have an impact are those for which they’re perfectly suited, like drug development and biotech, where they will act as accelerators, compounding the post-Covid moonshot environment and ambushing us with radical possibilities over time. I don’t look at this moment and wonder if writers will still exist in 2050. I ask myself what real new things I’ll need words and ideas for as they pass me in the street."

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Matt Mullenweg on Tumblr's downsizing

This is a great post from Matt: in response to a leak, he re-posted the full leaked content and added transparent context. Exactly how it should be done.

I wish, like many, that this wasn't the reality for Tumblr. But it's likely that it's too set in another era of the web, and it was too neglected by its previous owners. Automattic is a great company that makes sense as an acquirer, and they spent $100M to try and turn it around. That they ultimately couldn't is not an indictment of them.

Kudos also for not letting go of the team, and simply finding other places for them to go in the org - again, exactly how it should be done, even if it almost never is.

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Meet Nightshade—A Tool Empowering Artists to Fight Back Against AI

While empowering artists is obviously a good thing, this feels like an unwinnable arms race to me. Sure, Nightshade can produce incorrect results in image generators, but this will be mitigated, leading to another tool, leading to another mitigation, and so on.

For now, this may be a productive kind of activism that draws attention to the plight of artists at the hands of AI. Ultimately, though, real agreements will need to be reached.

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Advertisers Don’t Want Sites Like Jezebel to Exist

I just don't think advertising is an appropriate way to support this kind of journalism - or, potentially, any kind. This is more evidence, but it's also worth knowing that the private equity firm that owns G/O Media has not been a good steward.

Non-profits and worker-owned co-operatives aren't just more aligned ways to run this kind of organization, but I strongly suspect they last longer, too.

There is, of course, always the possibility that advertising is an excuse, and the owners didn't want to support a feminist publication.

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We're sorry we created the Torment Nexus

"Speaking as a science fiction writer, I'd like to offer a heartfelt apology for my part in the silicon valley oligarchy's rise to power. And I'd like to examine the toxic role of science fiction in providing justifications for the craziness."

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How Will Journalists Survive Digital Media’s Decline? Forget Scale.

On models for journalism:

"I wonder if the big problem is that we focused on scale when we should have been focused on nailing down the audience. If we focused on millions when we should have focused on building ourselves a liveable wage. And if we put too much of an emphasis on global at the cost of local."

Yes! This! Exactly! News was seduced by the exponential VC model that should have been limited to certain kinds of hardware and software. And in the process - as well as through some legacy ivory tower thinking - it chose not to dig deep and figure out exactly who it was serving.

I still say modern newsrooms should use the word "community" instead of "audience". It's a two-way relationship. And building relationships does not scale.

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