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Platforms are selling your work to AI vendors with impunity. They need to stop.

Some WordPress source code

404 Media reports that Automattic is planning to sell its data to Midjourney and OpenAI for training generative models:

The exact types of data from each platform going to each company are not spelled out in documentation we’ve reviewed, but internal communications reviewed by 404 Media make clear that deals between Automattic, the platforms’ parent company, and OpenAI and Midjourney are imminent.

Various arms of Automattic made subsequent clarifications. Specifically, it seems like premium versions of WordPress’s online platform, like the WordPress VIP service that powers sites for major newsrooms, will not sell user data to AI platforms.

This feels like a direct example of my point about how the relationship between platforms and users has been redefined. It appears that free versions of hosted Automattic platforms will sell user data by default, while premium versions will not.

Reddit announced a similar deal last week, and in total has made deals worth $203M for its content. WordPress powers over 40% of the web, which, given these numbers, could lead to a significant payday for the company. Much of that is on the self-hosted open source project rather than sites powered by Automattic, but that number gets fuzzier once you consider the Jetpack and Akismet plugins.

From a platform’s perspective it seems like AI companies might look like a godsend. They have an open license to tens or hundreds of millions of users’ content, often going back years — and suddenly, thanks to AI vendors’ need for legal, structured content to train on — the real market value of that content has shot up. It wouldn’t surprise me to see new social platforms emerge that have underlying data models designed specifically in order to sell to AI vendors. Finally, “selling data” is the business model it was always purported to be.

It’s probably no surprise that publishers are a little less keen, although there have been well-publicized deals with Axel Springer and the Associated Press. The deals OpenAI is offering to news companies for their content tend to top out at $5M each, for one thing. But social platforms don’t trade on the content themselves: they’re scalable businesses because they’re building conduits for other peoples’ posts. Their core value is the software and an enormous, engaged user-base. In contrast, publishers’ core value really is the articles, art, audio, images, and video they produce; the hard-reported journalism, the unscalable art, and the slow-burning communities that emerge around those things. Publishing doesn’t scale. The rights to that work should not be given away easily. The incentives between platforms and AI vendors are more or less aligned; the incentives between publishers and AI vendors are not.

I don’t think bloggers and social video producers should give those rights away easily either. They might not be publishing companies with large bodies of work, but the integrity of what they produce still matters.

For WordPress users, it’s kind of a bait and switch.

While writers may be using the free, hosted version of a publishing platform like WordPress, they retain the moral right of authorship:

As defined by the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, an international agreement governing copyright law, moral rights are the rights “to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.”

The hosted version of WordPress contains this sentence about ownership in its TOS:

We don’t own your content, and you retain all ownership rights you have in the content you post to your website.

A reasonable person could therefore infer that their content would not be licensed for an AI vendor. And yet, that seems to be on the cards.

So now what?

If every platform is more and more likely to sell user data to AI platforms over time, the only way to object is to start to use self-hosted indieweb platforms.

But every public website can also be scraped directly by AI vendors, in some cases even if they use the Robots Exclusion Protocol that has been used for decades to prevent search engine bots from indexing unauthorized content. A large platform can sue for violation of content licenses, but individual publishers are unlikely to have the means — unless they gather together and form a collective organization that can fight on their behalf.

If every public website is more and more likely to be scraped by AI vendors over time, the only way to object is to thwart the scrapers. That can be done electronically, but that’s an arms race between open source platforms and well-funded AI vendors. Joining together and organizing collectively is perhaps more effective; organizing for regulations that can actually hold vendors to account would be more effective still.

It’s time for publishers, writers, artists, musicians, and everyone who publishes cultural work for a living (or for themselves) to start working together and pushing back. The rights of the indie website are every bit as important as the rights of organizations like the New York Times that do have the funds to sue. And really, truly, it’s time for legislators to take notice of the untrustworthy, exploitative actions of these vendors and their platform accomplices.

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ASCAP for AI

A musician playing an electric organ

Hunter Walk writes:

The checks being cut to ‘owners’ of training data are creating a huge barrier to entry for challengers. If Google, OpenAI, and other large tech companies can establish a high enough cost, they implicitly prevent future competition. Not very Open.

It’s fair to say that I’ve been very critical of AI vendors and how training data has been gathered without much regard to the well-being of individual creators. But I also agree with Hunter in that establishing mandatory payments for training content creates a barrier to entry that benefits the incumbents. If you need to pay millions of dollars to create an AI model, you won’t disincentivize generative AI models overall, but you will create a situation where only people with millions of dollars can create an AI model. In this situation, the winners are likely Google and Microsoft (in the latter case, via OpenAI), with newcomers unable to break in.

To counteract this anticompetitive situation, Hunter previously suggested a safe harbor scheme:

AI Safe Harbor would also exempt all startups and researchers who have not released public base models yet and/or have fewer than, for example, 100,000 queries/prompts per day. Those folks are just plain ‘safe’ so long as they are acting in good faith.

I would add that they cannot be making revenue above a certain safe threshold, and that they cannot be operating a hosted service (or provide models that are used for a hosted service) with over 100,000 registered users. This way early-stage startups and researchers alike are protected while they experiment with their data.

After that cliff, I think AI model vendors could pay a fee to an ASCAP-like copyright organization that distributes revenue to organizations that have made their content available for training.

If you’re not familiar with ASCAP and BMI, here’s broadly how they work: when a musician joins as a member, the organization tracks when their music is used. That might be in live performances, on the radio, on television, and so on. Those users of the music — production companies, radio stations, etc — pay license fees to the organization, and the organization pays the musicians. The music users get the legal right to use the music, and the musicians get paid.

The model could apply rather directly to AI. Here, rather than one-off deals with the likes of the New York Times, vendors would pay the licensing organization, and all content creators would be compensated based on which material actually made it into a training corpus. The organization would provide tools to make it easy for AI vendors and content creators alike to provide content, report its use in AI models, and audit the composition of existing models.

I’d suggest that model owners could pay on a sliding scale that is dependent on both usage and total revenue. One component increases proportionally with the number of queries performed along a sliding scale at the model level; the other in pricing tiers associated with a vendor’s total gross revenue at the end-user level. So for example, if Microsoft used OpenAI to provide a feature in Bing, OpenAI would pay a fee based on the queries people actually made in Bing, and Microsoft would pay a fee based on its total corporate revenue. Research use would always be free for non-profits and accredited institutions, as long as it was for research or internal use only.

This model runs the risk of becoming a significant revenue stream for online community platforms, which tend to assert rights over the content that people publish to them. In this case, for example, rather than Facebook users receiving royalties for content published to Facebook that was used in an AI model, Facebook itself could take the funds. So there would need to be one more rule: even if a platform like Facebook asserts rights over the content that is published to it, it would need to demonstrate a best effort to return at least 60% of royalties to users whose work was used in AI training data.

Net result:

  • Incumbents don’t enjoy a barrier to entry from copyright payments: new entrants can build with impunity.
  • AI vendors and their users are indemnified from copyright claims against their models.
  • AI vendors don’t have to make individual deals with publishers and content creators.
  • Independent creators are financially incentivized to produce great creative and informational work — including individual creatives like artists and writers who might not otherwise have found a way to financially support their work.
  • The model shifts from one where AI vendors scrape content with no regard to the rights of the creator to one where creators give explicit consent to be included.

The AI horse has left the stable. I don’t think shutting it all down is an option, however vocal critics like myself and others might be. What we’re left with, then, is questions about how to create a healthy ecosystem, how to properly compensate creators, and how to ensure that the rights of an author are respected. This, I think, is one way forward.

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Stop what you're doing and watch Breaking the News

Stills from the documentary, Breaking the News

Breaking the News, the documentary about The 19th, aired on PBS last night and is available to watch for free on YouTube for the next 90 days.

It’s both a film about the news industry and about startups: a team’s journey to show that journalism can and should be published with a more representative lens. It’s also not a puff piece: real, genuine struggles are covered here, which speak to larger conversations about race and gender that everyone needs to be having.

I worked with The 19th for a period that mostly sits directly after this film. My chin — yes, just my chin — shows up for a fraction of a second, but otherwise I’m not in it. My association with it is not why I’m recommending that you watch it.

The 19th is not a perfect workplace, in part because no such workplace exists. It has struggles like any other organization. But there was a thoughtfulness about culture and how work gets done that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. Some of those policies were developed in direct response to workplace cultures that are prevalent in newsrooms, including narrow leadership demographics, hierarchical communication, a focus on work product rather than work process, and lack of goal-setting.

My experience was privileged, in part because of my position in the senior leadership team, but for me it was a breath of fresh air. There aren’t many places where I’ve felt calmer at work. Some of that is because of the early conversations and hard work that were captured on film here.

From the synopsis:

Who decides which stories get told? A scrappy group of women and LGBTQ+ journalists buck the white male-dominated status quo, banding together to launch The 19th*, a digital news startup aiming to combat misinformation. A story of an America in flux, and the voices often left out of the narrative, the documentary Breaking the News shows change doesn’t come easy.

You can watch the whole documentary for free here. And if you haven’t yet, go subscribe to The 19th over on its website.

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Social, I love you, but you’re bringing me down

A big thumbs-down made of people

This weekend I realized that I’m kind of burned out: agitated, stressed about nothing in particular, and peculiarly sleepless. It took a little introspection to figure out what was really going on.

Here’s what I finally decided: I really need to pull back from using social media in particular as much as I do.

A few things brought me here:

  1. The sheer volume of social media sites is intense
  2. Our relationship with social media has been redefined
  3. I want to re-focus on my actual goals

I’d like to talk about them in turn. Some of you might be feeling something similar.

The sheer volume of social media sites is intense

It used to be that I posted and read on Twitter. That’s where my community was; that’s where I kept up to date with what was happening.

Well, we all know what happened there.

In its place, I find myself spending more time on:

  1. Mastodon
  2. Threads
  3. Bluesky
  4. LinkedIn (really!)
  5. Facebook (I know)
  6. Instagram

The backchannel that Twitter offered has become rather more diffuse. Mastodon, Threads, and Bluesky offer pretty much the same thing as each other, with a different set of people. LinkedIn is more professional; I’m unlikely to post anything political there, and I’m a bit more mindful of polluting the feed. My Facebook community is mostly people I miss hanging out with, so I’ll usually post sillier or less professionally relevant stuff there. And Instagram, until recently, was mostly photos of our toddler.

I haven’t been spending a ton of time interacting on any of them; it’s common for almost a full day to go between posts. Regardless, there’s something about moving from app to app to app that feels exhausting. I realized I was experiencing a kind of FOMO — am I missing something important?! — that became an addiction.

Each dopamine hit, each context switch, each draw on my attention pushes me further to the right on the stress curve. Everyone’s different, but this kind of intense data-flood — of the information equivalent of empty calories, no less — makes me feel awful.

Ugh. First step: remove every app from my phone. Second step: drastically restrict how I can access them on the web.

Our relationship with social media has been redefined

At this point we’re all familiar with the adage that if you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold.

It never quite captured the true dynamic, but it was a pithy way to emphasize that we were being profiled in order to optimize ad sales in our direction. Of course, there was never anything to say that we weren’t being profiled or that our data wasn’t being traded even if we were the ostensible customer, but it seemed obvious that data mining for ad sales was more likely to happen on an ad-supported site.

With the advent of generative AI, or more precisely the generative AI bubble, this dynamic can be drawn more starkly. Everything we post can be ingested by a social media platform as training data for its AI engines. Prediction engines are trained on our words, our actions, our images, our audio, and then re-sold. We really are the product now.

I can accept that for posts where I share links to other resources, or a rapid-fire, off-the-cuff remark. Where I absolutely draw the line is allowing an engine to be trained on my child. Just as I’m not inclined to allow him to be fingerprinted or added to a DNA database, I’m not interested in having him be tracked or modeled. I know that this is likely an inevitability, but if it happens, it will happen despite me. I will not be the person who willingly uploads him as training data.

So, when I’m uploading images, you might see a picture of a snowy day, or a funny sign somewhere. You won’t see anything important, or anything representative of what life actually looks like. It’s time to establish an arms-length distance.

There’s something else here, too: while the platforms are certainly profiling and learning from us, they’re still giving us more of what we pause and spend our attention on. In an election year, with two major, ongoing wars, I’m finding that to be particularly stressful.

It’s not that I don’t want to know what’s going on. I read the news; I follow in-depth journalism; I read blogs and opinion pieces on these subjects. Those things aren’t harmful. What is harmful is the endless push for us to align into propaganda broadcasters ourselves, and to accept broad strokes over nuanced discussion and real reflection. This was a problem with Twitter, and it’s a problem with all of today’s platforms.

The short form of microblogging encourages us to be reductive about impossibly important topics that real people are losing their lives over right now. It’s like sports fans yelling about who their preferred team is. In contrast, long-form content — blogging, newsletters, platforms like Medium — leaves space to explore and truly debate. Whereas short-form is too low-resolution to capture the fidelity of the truth, long-form at least has the potential to be more representative of reality.

It’s great for jokes. Less so for war.

I want to re-focus on my actual goals

What do I actually want to achieve?

Well, I’ve got a family that I would like to support and show up for well.

I’ve got a demanding job doing something really important, that I want to make sure I show up well for.

I’ve also got a first draft of a majority of a novel printed out and sitting on my coffee table with pen edits all over it. I’d really like to finish it. It’s taken far longer than I intended or hoped for.

And I want to spend time organizing my thoughts for both my job and my creative work, which also means writing in this space and getting feedback from all of you.

Social media has the weird effect of making you feel like you’ve achieved something — made a post, perhaps received some feedback — without actually having done anything at all. It sits somewhere between marketing and procrastination: a way to lose time into a black hole without anything to really show for it.

So I want to move my center of gravity all the way back to writing for myself. I’ll write here; I’ll continue to write my longer work on paper; I’ll share it when it’s appropriate.

Posting in a space I control isn’t just about the principle anymore. It’s a kind of self-preservation. I want to preserve my attention and my autonomy. I accept that I’m addicted, and I would like to curb that addiction. We all only have so much time to spend; we only have one face to maintain ownership of. Independence is the most productive, least invasive way forward.

 

IndieNews

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A creative process

The silhouette of someone walking above the cloudline.

Over on Threads, Amanda Zamora asks:

I'm plotting away on Agencia Media and some personal writing/reporting this weekend (over a glass of 🍷 and many open tabs). One of the things I love most about building something new is the chance to design for intended outcomes — how to structure time and energy? What helps quiet chaos? Bring focus and creativity? Inspired by Ben Werdmuller’s recent callout about new Mac setups, I want to know about the ways you've built (or rebuilt) your way of working! Apps, workflows, rituals, name 'em 👇

A thing I’ve had to re-learn about building and creating is the importance of boredom in the way I think. I know that some people thrive when moving from thing to thing to thing at high speed, but I need time to reflect and toss ideas around in my head without an imposing deadline: the freedom to be creative without consequence.

The best way I’ve found to do that is to walk.

The work I’m proudest of was done in a context where I could walk for hours on end. When I was building Elgg, I would set off around Oxford, sometimes literally walking from one end of the city to the other and back again. When I was building Known and working for Matter, I roamed the east bay, sometimes walking from Berkeley to the tip of Oakland, or up through Tilden Park. I generally didn’t listen to music or audiobooks; I was alone with my thoughts and the sounds of the city. It helped me to figure out my priorities and consider what I was going to do next. When I came up with something new, it was more often than not in the midst of one of those walks.

When you’re deep into building something that’s your own, and that’s the entirety of what you’re doing (i.e., you don’t have another day job), you have the ability to structure your time however you’d like. Aside from the possible guilt of not working a traditional office day, there’s no reason to do that. Particularly at the beginning stages, I found that using the morning as unstructured reflective time led to better, more creative decision-making.

Again, this is me: everyone is different, and your mileage may vary. I do best when I have a lot of unstructured time; for some people, more structure is necessary. I think the key is to figure out what makes you happy and less stressed, and to get out from behind a screen. But also, walking really does boost creativity, so there’s that.

I recognize there’s a certain privilege inherent here: not everyone lives somewhere walkable, and not everyone feels safe when they’re walking out in the world. The (somewhat) good news is that indoor walking works just as well, if you can afford a low-end treadmill.

So what happens when you get back from a walk with a head full of ideas?

It’s probably no surprise that my other creativity hack is to journal: I want to get those unstructured thoughts, particularly the “what ifs” and “I wishes”, out on the page, together with the most important question, which is “why”. Writing long-form in this way puts me into a more contemplative state, much the same way that writing a blog post like this one helps me refine how I think about a topic. Putting a narrative arc to the thought gives it context and helps me refine what’s actually useful.

The through line here is an embrace of structurelessness; in part that’s just part of my personality, but in part it’s an avoidance of adhering to someone else’s template. If I’m writing items on a to-do list straight away, I’m subject to the design decisions of the to-do list software’s author. If I’m filling in a business model canvas, I’m thinking about the world in the way the canvas authors want me to. I can, and should, do all those things, but I always want to start with a blank page first. A template is someone else’s; a blank page is mine.

Nobody gets to see those thoughts until I’ve gone over them again and turned them into a written prototype. In the same way that authors should never show someone else their first draft, letting someone into an idea too early can deflate it with early criticism. That isn’t to say that understanding your hypotheses and doing research to validate them isn’t important — but I’ve found that I need to keep up the emotional momentum behind an idea if I’m going to see it through, and to do that, I need to keep the illusion that it’s a really good idea just long enough to give it shape.

Of course, when it has shape, I try to get all the expert feedback I can. Everyone needs an editor, and asking the right questions early and learning fast is an obvious accelerant.

So I guess my creative process boils down to:

  • Embrace boredom and unstructured, open space to think creatively
  • Capture those creative thoughts in an untemplated way, through narrative writing
  • Identify my hypotheses and figure out what needs to be researched to back up the idea
  • Ask experts and do that research as needed in order to create a second, more validated draft
  • Get holistic feedback from trusted collaborators on that second draft
  • Iterate 1-2 times
  • Build the smallest, fastest thing I can based on the idea

There are no particular apps involved and no special frameworks. Really, it’s just about giving myself some space to be creative. And maybe that’s the only advice I can give to anyone building something new: give yourself space.

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Three variations on Omelas

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin:

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

The Ones Who Stay and Fight, by N.K. Jemisin:

But this is no awkward dystopia, where all are forced to conform. Adults who refuse to give up their childhood joys wear wings, too, though theirs tend to be more abstractly constructed. (Some are invisible.) And those who follow faiths which forbid the emulation of beasts, or those who simply do not want wings, need not wear them. They are all honored for this choice, as much as the soarers and flutterers themselves—for without contrasts, how does one appreciate the different forms that joy can take?

Why Don’t We Just Kill the Kid in the Omelas Hole, by Isabel J. Kim:

So they broke into the hole in the ground, and they killed the kid, and all the lights went out in Omelas: click, click, click. And the pipes burst and there was a sewage leak and the newscasters said there was a typhoon on the way, so they (a different “they,” these were the “they” in charge, the “they” who lived in the nice houses in Omelas [okay, every house in Omelas was a nice house, but these were Nice Houses]) got another kid and put it in the hole.

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The four phases

A fictional mainframe

This post is part of February’s IndieWeb Carnival, in which Manuel Moreale prompts us to think about the various facets of digital relationships.

Our relationship to digital technology has been through a few different phases.

One: the census

In the first, computers were the realm of government and big business: vast databases that might be about us, but that we could never own or interrogate ourselves. Companies like IBM manufactured room-sized (and then cabinet-sized) machines that took a team of specialized technicians to operate. They were rare and a symbol of top-down power.

Punch cards were invented in the 1880s, and were machine-sortable even then, although not by anything we would recognize as a computer today. In the 1930s, a company called Dehomag, which was a 90%-owned subsidiary of IBM, used its punch card census technology to help the German Nazi party ethnically identify and sort the population. (Thomas Watson, IBM’s CEO at the time, even came to Germany to oversee the operation.)

The first general-purpose digital computer, ENIAC, was first put to use to determine the feasibility of the H bomb. Other mainframe computers were used by the US Navy for codebreaking, and by the US census bureau. By the sixties and seventies, though, they were commonplace in larger corporate offices and in universities for non-military, non-governmental applications.

Two: the desk

Personal computers decentralized computing power and put it in everybody’s hands. There was no overarching, always-on communications network for them to connect to, so every computer had its own copy of software that ran locally on it. There was no phoning home; no surveillance of our data; there were no ad-supported models. If you were lucky enough to have the not-insignificant sum of money needed to buy a computer, you could have one in your home. If you were lucky enough to have money left over for software, you could even do things with it.

The government and large institutions didn’t have a monopoly on computing power; theoretically, anyone could have it. Anyone could write a program, too, and (if you had yet more money to buy a modem) distribute it on bulletin board systems and online services. Your hardware was yours; your software was yours; once you’d paid your money, your relationship with the vendor was over.

For a while, you had a few options to connect with other people:

  • Prodigy, an online service operated as a joint venture between CBS, IBM, and Sears
  • CompuServe, which was owned and run by H&R Block
  • America Online, which was originally a way for Atari 2600 owners to download new games and store high scores
  • Independent bulletin boards, which were usually a single computer connected to a handful of direct phone lines for modems to connect to, run by an enthusiast

(My first after-school job was as a BBS system operator for Daily Information, a local information and classifieds sheet in my hometown.)

In 1992, in addition to bulletin board systems and online services, the internet was made commercially available. Whereas BBSes, AOL, etc were distinct walled gardens, any service that was connected to the internet could reach any other service. It changed everything. (In 1995, my BBS job expanded to running what became one of the first classifieds websites.)

But for a while, the decentralized, private nature of personal computing remained. For most private individuals, connecting to the internet was like visiting a PO box: you’d dial in, would upload and download any email you had pending, browse any websites you needed to, and then log off again. There was no way to constantly monitor people because internet users spent 23 hours of the day disconnected from the network.

Three: the cloud

Broadband, the iPhone, and wifi changed everything. Before the advent of broadband, most people needed to dial in to go online using their phone line. Before the iPhone, cell connections weren’t metered for data, and there was very little bandwidth to go around. Before wifi, a computer needed to physically be connected with a cable to go online.

With broadband and wifi, computers could be connected to the internet 24/7. With the iPhone, everyone had a computer in their pocket, that was permanently connected and could be constantly sending data back to online services — including your location and who was in your address book.

It was incredibly convenient and changed the world in hundreds of ways. The web in particular is a modern marvel; the iPhone is a feat of design and engineering. But what we lost was the decentralized self-ownership of our digital worlds. More than that, we lost an ability to be private that we’d had since the beginning of human civilization. It used to be that nobody needed to know where you were or what you were thinking about; that fundamental truth has gone the way of the dinosaur.

Almost immediately, our relationship to software changed in a few key ways:

  • We could access all of our data from anywhere, on any device.
  • Instead of buying a software package once, we were asked to subscribe to it.
  • Instead of downloading or installing software, the main bulk of it could be run in a server farm somewhere.
  • Every facet of our data was stored in one of these server farms.
  • More data was produced about us as we used our devices — or even as we walked through our cities, shopped at stores, and met with other people — than we created intentionally ourselves.

While computing became infinitely easier to use and the internet became a force that changed global society in ways that I still believe are a net positive, surveilling us also became infinitely easier. Companies wanted to know exactly what we were likely to buy; politicians wanted to know how we might vote; law enforcement wanted to know if we were dangerous. All paid online services to build profiles about us that could be used to sell advertising, could be mined by the right buyer, and could even be used to influence elections.

Four: the farm

Our relationship is now changing again.

Whereas in the cloud era we were surveilled in order to profile us, our data is now being gathered for another set of reasons. We’re used to online services ingesting our words and actions in order to predict our behaviors and influence us in certain directions. We’re used to Target, for example, wanting to know if we’re pregnant so they can be the first to sell us baby gear. We’re not used to those services ingesting our words and actions in order to learn how to be us.

In our new relationship, software isn’t just set up to surveil us to report on us; it’s also set up to be able to do our work. GitHub Copilot learns from software we write so that it can write software automatically. Midjourney builds stunning illustrations and near-photorealistic images. Facebook is learning from the text and photos we upload so it can create its own text and realistic imagery (unlike many models, from data it actually has the license to). Far more than us being profiled, our modes of human expression are now being farmed for the benefit of people who hope to no longer have to hire us for our unique skills.

In the first era, technology was here to catalogue us.

In the second, it was here to empower us.

In the third, it was here to observe us.

In the fourth, it is here to replace us.

We had a very brief window, somewhere between the inception of the homebrew computer club and the introduction of the iPhone, where digital technology heralded distributed empowerment. Even then, empowerment was hardly evenly distributed, and any return to decentralization must be far more equitable than it ever was. But we find ourselves in a world where our true relationship is with power.

Of course, it’s a matter of degrees, and everything is a spectrum: there are plenty of services that don’tuse your data to train generative AI models, and there are plenty that don’t surveil you at all. There are also lots of applications and organizations that are actively designed to protect us from being watched and subjugated. New regulations are being proposed all the time that would guarantee our right to privacy and our right to not be included in training data.

Those might seem like technical decisions, but they’re really about preserving our ownership and autonomy, and returning those things to us when they’ve already been lost. They’re human, democratic decisions that seek to enforce a relationship where we’re in charge. They’re becoming more and more important every day.

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Stripping the web of its humanity

Tiny robot buddies

I tried Arc Search, the new mobile app from the Browser Company. Its central insight is that almost every mobile browsing session starts with a web search; rather than giving you the usual list of results, it prioritizes building a web page for you that contains all the information you asked for. That way, the theory goes, you can see the information you need and be on your way faster. (You can still fall back to a Google search, although given that Google is going down the same path, that might not be as differentiated an experience — or as correct — as you might think.)

Obviously, I searched for myself. (Admit it, you would too.) Here’s what it gave me:

Arc Search displaying a page for

I have a few notes:

  • This is a photo of my friend Tantek Çelik. I have a lot of respect for Tantek, and I think he’s done a lot to consistently work for the open web in a way that most of the rest of us haven’t always been able to. I also miss hanging out with him. But I am not him.
  • I am not the Chief Technology Officer at The 19th. I was, but I haven’t been there for almost a year. Tyler Fisher is the CTO at The 19th, where he’s doing an excellent job.
  • It’s not in the screenshot, but it also claims that I’m a contributor to The 19th. I wish I was a journalist of that calibre, but let’s be clear, I’m a web developer who blogs.

If this was an ordinary web search, you could easily see that pages that describe me as the CTO at The 19th are old, and that the photo is of Tantek. But it’s not an ordinary search at all, and Arc Search has presented the information as factual, without context or attribution, as a very simple website. There are three representative links presented further down the page, but in a way that is disconnected from the facts themselves.

I’m flattered by the comparison to Tantek, and while I’m not that keen on having my job position misrepresented, it’s not catastrophic. In other words, it could be worse. But consider if you weren’t just doing a vanity search, and instead were looking for something that actually mattered.

I’m also troubled by the role of training models themselves. When you remove attribution and display facts in this way, you give the appearance of objectivity without the requirement to actually be objective. It all comes down to which sources it checks and how the model is trained to report back — in other words, the biases of the developers.

If I search for “who should I follow in AI?” I get the usual AI influencers, with no mention of Timnit Gebru or Joy Buolamwini (who would be my first choices). If I ask who to follow in tech, I get Elon Musk. It undoubtedly has a lens through which it sees the world. That’s fine in itself — everyone does — but by removing context, you remove the clues that help you figure out what it is.

Finally, obviously, the sources themselves are automatically browsed by the app but don’t see the benefit of a human visitor. Real people sometimes pay to access content, or donate to support a nonprofit publisher, or watch an ad. Those things can be annoying but pay for the content to be produced in the first place. If we strip them away, there’s no writing, information, or expression for the app to summarize. A world where everyone uses an app like this is a death spiral to an information desert.

I guess what I’m saying is: thanks, I hate it. Give me context; give me nuance; give me the ability to think for myself. We built the world’s most incredible communication and knowledge-sharing medium, rich with diverse perspectives and alternative ideas; let’s not sanitize it through a banal filter that is designed to strip it of its humanity.

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The indieweb is for everyone

Hands joining together

Tantek Çelik has posted a lovely encapsulation of the indieweb:

The is for everyone, everyone who wants to be part of the world-wide-web of interconnected people. The social internet of people, a network of networks of people, connected peer-to-peer in human-scale groups, communities of locality and affinity.

This complements the more technical description on the indieweb homepage:

The IndieWeb is a community of independent and personal websites connected by open standards, based on the principles of: owning your domain and using it as your primary online identity, publishing on your own site first (optionally elsewhere), and owning your content.

I first came across the indieweb movement when I’d just moved to California. Tantek, Kevin Marks, Aaron Parecki, Amber Case, and a band of independent developers and designers were actively working to helping people own their own websites again, at a time when a lot of people were questioning why you wouldn’t just post on Twitter and Facebook. They gathered at IndieWebCamps in Portland, and at Homebrew Website Camp in San Francisco.

One could look at the movement as kind of a throwback to the very early web, which was a tapestry of wildly different sites and ideas, at a time when everybody’s online communications were templated through web services owned by a handful of billion dollar corporations. I’d prefer to think of it as a manifesto for diversity of communications, the freedom to share your knowledge and lived experiences on your own terms, and maintaining the independence of freedom of expression from business interests.

A decade and change later and the web landscape looks very different. It’s now clear to just about everyone that it’s harmful for all of our information to be filtered through a handful of services. From the Cambridge Analytica scandal through Facebook’s culpability in the genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar, it’s clear that allowing private businesses to own and control most of the ways we learn about the world around us is dangerous. And the examples keep piling up, story after story after story.

While these events have highlighted the dangers, the indieweb community has been highlighting the possibilities. The movement itself has grown from strength to strength: IndieWebCamps and Homebrew Website Clubs are now held all over the world. I’ve never made it to one of the European events – to my shame, it’s been years since I’ve even been able to make it to a US event – but the community is thriving and the outcomes have been productive.

Even before the advent of the fediverse, the indieweb community had built tools to allow websites to connect to each other as a kind of independent, decentralized social web. Webmention, in conjunction with lightweight microformats that extended HTML to provide semantic hints about the purpose of content on a website, allowed anyone to reply to any website article using a post on their own site – not just that, but they could RSVP to events, send a “like”, reshare it, or use verbs that don’t have analogies in the traditional social networks. The community also created micropub, a simple API that makes it easy to build tools to help people publish to their websites, and a handful of other technologies that are becoming more and more commonplace.

In the wake of the decline of Twitter, Google’s turn towards an AI-driven erosion of the web, and a splintering of social media, many publishers have realized that they need to build stronger, more direct relationships with their communities, and that they can’t trust social media companies to be the center of gravity of their brands and networks. For them, owning their own website has regained its importance, together with building unique experiences that help differentiate them, and allow them to publish stories on their own terms. These are truly indieweb principles, and serve as validation (if validation were needed) of the indieweb movement’s foundational assumptions.

But ultimately it’s not about business, or technology, or any one technique or facet of website-building. As Tantek says, it’s about building a social internet of people: a human network of gloriously diverse lived experiences, creative modes of expression, community affinities, and personalities. The internet has always been made of people, but it has not always been people-first. The indieweb reminds us that humanity is the most important thing, and that nobody should own our ability to connect, form relationships, express ourselves, be creative, learn from each other, and embrace our differences and similarities.

I’m deeply glad it exists.

 

Also posted on IndieNews

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The right to see who is spying on us

An eye in the darkness

CNN reports that the NSA has been buying internet data as a way to track Americans without a warrant:

[Oregon Democratic Senator Ron] Wyden, one of Congress’ most vocal privacy advocates, said he spent nearly three years pushing to be able to disclose the NSA practice and only succeeded when he placed a hold on the nomination of Nakasone’s successor for NSA director, Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh. In a similar disclosure in 2021, Wyden revealed that the Defense Intelligence Agency had purchased commercially available smartphone location data without a warrant.

A few different tools are available to highlight software that tracks you across the websites you visit. The Markup’s Blacklight tests any individual website; the EFF’s Privacy Badger claims to protect your browser as you visit websites; Firefox has built-in privacy as standard. For the average user, however, the advantages might not be so obvious: so what if some firm I’ve never heard of sets a cookie in my browser? What does it matter that Google can see me? After all, they already have my search history.

While we can make tracking software visible, it’s harder to understand who the customers of this tracking data actually are. And that matters a lot, because that’s how your data is actually getting used. The companies that run the trackers are middlemen trying to make a profit; they’re interested in tracking you as well as possible. The real question is why you’re being tracked. Who has a use case for your information?

Some of those use cases are relatively benign: box stores trying to understand what they should advertise to you, for example. But those customers also include law enforcement and the security services, who have found that they can discover information that would ordinarily necessitate obtaining a warrant simply by paying a data broker for it.

H.R. 4639, the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, which would ban this practice, was introduced in Congress last year. That’s a start, but it wasn’t voted on, let alone passed. There’s a long legislative road ahead before we see rules barring warrantless surveillance through data brokers.

Even if you feel like you’ve got nothing to hide, consider that this puts you in a privileged group. I like Edward Snowden’s comment on the right to privacy:

Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say. A free press benefits more than just those who read the paper.

For example, consider a pregnant person who is trying to find information about finding an abortion. Those searches — or carrying a cellphone with location services enabled that contains apps which report location in the background while visiting a reproductive health clinic — create a trail of internet traffic that could potentially be obtained by law enforcement in a state that disallows abortions. That information exists, despite claims by Google and others that it would be deleted to avoid this situation:

A year and a half has passed since Google first pledged to delete all location data on users’ visits to abortion clinics with minimal progress. The move would have made it harder for law enforcement to use that information to investigate or prosecute people seeking abortions in states where the procedure has been banned or otherwise limited. Now, a new study shows Google still retains location history data in 50% of cases.

A few years ago, it emerged that a branch of the military was buying data from Muslim prayer apps. Back then, developers admitted that they had no idea who was buying the data:

Some app developers Motherboard spoke to were not aware who their users' location data ends up with, and even if a user examines an app's privacy policy, they may not ultimately realize how many different industries, companies, or government agencies are buying some of their most sensitive data.

While blocking trackers is absolutely a way to protect user privacy, I believe these events point to a need for privacy policies to identify the people and organizations who actively purchase data (both directly and at the data broker level). That means data brokers need to be far more transparent with the websites and software developers they partner with, so that they, in turn, can be more transparent with their users.

It’s clearly not something that would happen without legislation: given the optics and public sentiment around surveillance, who would want to be seen to be purchasing peoples’ private information? But adding sunlight to a mix of privacy protections that also include purchasing restrictions on government and technical restrictions on trackers can only be helpful.

While we certainly should care about how our activity is tracked, we all really care about who has access to our private information. We should have the right to find out.

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The fediverse for media organizations

Many be-suited people holding cellphones

Given all the talk lately of Threads, Mastodon, and ways that people can publish on their own sites, I thought it might be worth revisiting what the fediverse actually is — and why an organization might want to integrate with it.

My focus is on media organizations, but remember that just about every company is, in some sense, a media organization: newsrooms, for sure, but also marketing organizations, engineering teams hoping to hire great talent, non-profits that need to spread their message and make an impact, creatives who want to promote their work, and so on.

Here’s the summary: the fediverse allows media organizations to directly own their relationships with their audiences in a way that they’ve previously only been able to approximate with email newsletters. It gives them full, deep analytics about what their audiences care about in a way that can’t be achieved with newsletters or news aggregators, allows publishers to reach them directly, and will grow to a potential audience of at least 172 million people by the end of the year.

How did I come to those conclusions? I’ll break it down.

Really simple syndication

It all started with syndication feeds. The word “syndication” here is actually misleading: they’re a way to subscribe to the content put out by a publisher, such that if you subscribe to a publisher’s feed in your feed reader, you will receive every article they publish in your reader.

You already know about RSS (Really Simple Syndication), which is one open format for feeds, used by readers like Feedly and Reeder. RSS is also what powers podcasts behind the scenes.

RSS isn’t the only kind of syndication feed, however. For example, if you’re on a Mac or an iPhone, you might use Apple News, which is a feed reader that’s been optimized for a curated set of news publishers. Its underlying technology is not a million miles away from an RSS reader.

Each reader application performs the following steps:

  1. Load the feeds for all the publishers a user has subscribed to, directly from the publishers’ websites
  2. Check for any new articles in each of the feeds that the user hasn’t seen before
  3. Place these articles in an inbox for the user to read

A feed reader is a one-directional broadcast relationship. Once you subscribe to a feed, you will receive newly-published articles from that publisher. What you can’t do is reply to those articles, and there’s also no standard way to re-share them. Syndication feeds are for reading only: you receive articles from the publisher but have no way of sending anything back to them.

It’s worth adding that I’m using “articles” here as a shorthand: feeds can contain any kind of content. A podcast is just a syndication feed that happens to contain audio; a podcast player is a feed reader optimized to play audio. It’s also perfectly possible for a feed to contain video or even interactive applications. It just so happens that most feeds are text and audio, but they don’t have to be that way.

While curated apps like Apple News do let publishers know how many people are reading their content (which is often multiples of the number of people who read the publisher’s website directly), this is almost impossible to achieve with RSS. In most cases, if a publisher is producing a feed, they have no idea how many people are subscribed to it — let alone who they are, what else they’re interested in, and who else they’re subscribed to.

Email newsletters

Publishers don’t know who is subscribing to their RSS feeds, or how effective those feeds are. Meanwhile, while they try and reach their audiences via social media, companies like Meta have long since been intermediating between publishers and their followers, often charging publishers to be seen by more of the people who already opted in to following them.

Increasingly, the response has been to establish email newsletters:

  • Publishers can be reasonably sure that emails will be received by readers
  • They can change email providers without losing email subscriptions
  • Email open rates can usually be measured
  • Email subscribers are more likely to donate or become pad subscribers

It’s considered to be a direct relationship because email providers don’t intermediate. The publisher receives the subscriber’s email details, and the reader knows they’ll receive all of a publisher’s emails.

However, publishers really only know three things about email subscribers:

  1. Their email address
  2. Whether they open their mail
  3. Whether they click on anything in their mail

In particular, they don’t know who those people are, what they’re interested in, and who else they’re subscribed to. Often they’ll run an annual survey to get a stronger sense of that information — primarily so they can figure out how to serve that audience with content tailored for them, but also so they can figure out if they’re reaching a diverse enough audience, and so on. However, publishers are not likely to get any other information about them, save for an occasional email reply from around 2% of the most-engaged subscribers.

What’s different on the fediverse

The fediverse is a decentralized social layer for the whole web. One way to think of it is if the entire web was a social network, with profiles, content, and actions on that content.

It’s the best of the worlds I’ve discussed in the following ways:

  • Publishers know who is subscribing to their content
  • Everyone has a profile, where their other subscriptions can be traversed, so publishers can understand what their readers are interested in
  • It’s incredibly easy for a reader to respond to, or interact with, content, making their opinions and preferences known
  • All of the above happens in a direct, non-intermediated way: content is published on the publisher’s website, and it is subscribed to directly and received by the reader on publication (at least, most of the time; more on this in a moment)

Like pure syndication, the fediverse is essentially based on feeds. Here, rather than just publishers having a feed, everyone gets one.

Not everyone wants to publish articles of their own, but you possibly might want to “like” or re-share something that someone else published. When feeds contain actions as well as content, we call them activity streams. “Ben Werdmuller liked Evan Prodromou’s article” is an example of an activity.

In the above example, it’s not particularly useful for me to like Evan’s article if he doesn’t get to know about it. So in the fediverse, each reader can receive other peoples’ actions to its inbox, even if the user hasn’t subscribed to them. Evan might not subscribe to me, but if I click to “like” one of his articles, my reader will send that activity to his inbox, and he’ll be notified.

There is, of course, much more to it technically behind the scenes. But at its core, the fediverse really is just feeds of content and activities, with a little bit of magic to let people know when people are talking about them. (You might have heard of ActivityPub: this is the protocol used to enable this magic, as well as to help readers find a publisher’s feed to begin with.)

Remember that syndication feeds have a uni-directional relationship: the publisher creates content and the user subscribes and reads. In contrast, fediverse feeds have a bi-directional relationship: the publisher creates content and the user can subscribe, read, like, re-share, quote, and more.

Every fediverse application is just a feed reader that lets you respond to content, perform activities like “liking” and “re-sharing” it, and publish your own.

This means that, yes, Mastodon is, at its core, a feed reader. Threads will also be a feed reader once it fully supports ActivityPub. It just so happens that most of these feeds tend to contain short Twitter-style content right now, but they don’t have to. They can contain articles, audio, video, interactive content — all the same content possibilities as syndication feeds, as well as a range of activities on that content.

Importantly for media companies, whereas a publisher doesn’t really know who might be subscribing to their syndication feeds, a publisher knows exactly who is subscribing to their fediverse feeds. Subscriptions are just another activity that they’re notified about — which allows them to measure growth over time, and even reach out to their individual subscribers directly if they want. Each subscriber has a profile that lists who else they’re following, allowing their interests to be measured in aggregate.

Okay, but who’s going to use it?

The fediverse does not provide identity portability. That is to say, if you have an account on Threads and you want to move to Mastodon, there’s no standard way to move from one to the other. While any application on the fediverse allows users to interact with content produced by any other application on the fediverse, there’s nothing to prevent users from being locked in to any one of these applications. If I build a following on Threads, I can’t move that following to Mastodon.

While that might seem like a bug, it’s a characteristic that can help platforms like Threads feel comfortable supporting the fediverse. It allows their users to read and interact with an expanding world of content, but it’s not an offramp for those users to more easily leave the platform. Finally, although content can be consumed using any fediverse reader, a lot of it will look better on the platform it originated from, so platforms may gain users who discover them through reshared fediverse content.

So the benefits for platforms are:

  • Platforms have a world of content and users they can plug into from day one, so they solve the cold start problem where a platform seems empty before lots of people have joined
  • Users are incentivized to stay on a platform once they’ve joined it
  • Users can discover new platforms through content that’s been shared on the fediverse

The result should be that more platforms support the fediverse over time. Currently the biggest platforms are Mastodon, at 12 million users across many installations across the web. Over the next year it will be joined by Threads, who has over 160 million users. Unlike many of the decentralized social web efforts in the past, the fediverse will have hundreds of millions of users as a baseline.

Publishers who are there and ready when Threads fully plugs in its fediverse connectivity will be at a distinct advantage.

About those direct connections

I mentioned that the fediverse wasn’t intermediated: a publisher can be reasonably sure that a reader will receive its content.

While a publisher’s website can be plugged into the fediverse so that a reader can subscribe directly, whether that reader actually gets to see the content does depend on the platform they’re is using. In particular, it’s reasonable to assume that Threads, which is owned by Meta, is more likely to create intermediation between the publisher and the reader. Meta has form for this: Facebook Page owners famously need to pay to promote posts if they want to be sure their communities can see them. It’s not clear how Threads will monetize, but it’s possible that this sort of content promotion will be part of its strategy.

The good news is that the underlying protocols are open and anybody can build something new on top of them. While Mastodon and Threads are both optimized for short-form content, other platforms already exist: Pixelfed is optimized for photographs, for example, and Lemmy for Reddit-style conversations. It’s highly likely that we’ll see fediverse software that works more closely to Apple News or a traditional feed reader, optimized for longer-form web content. Meta isn’t the only game in town and can’t dictate how the wider fediverse network functions.

How hard is it for a publisher to plug in?

The effort required to connect a website to the fediverse is very low. Publishers that use WordPress as their underlying CMS can add an existing ActivityPub plugin that is also available to hosted WordPress clients. Ghost has indicated that it’s exploring integrating with ActivityPub. Bridgy Fed also helps connects websites to the fediverse. (Known, which my website is built on, has contracted to build ActivityPub support in the first few months of this year.)

This support will only increase over the next year, particularly as Threads gets closer to releasing its full fediverse compatibility. It’ll only become easier and easier to plug in.

So should I, as a publisher, experiment with it?

Yes.

Don’t throw all your eggs into this basket, but the barrier to experimentation is so low, and the potential upside is so high, that it’s absolutely worth your time to experiment.

So should I, as a software developer, experiment with it?

Also yes. As you’ve read, there are lots of opportunities for use cases on the fediverse that haven’t quite been seen to fruition yet. There is a lot of potential here for both new and existing teams to create tools that provide a lot of value to an already-established and growing audience.

More libraries and APIs are becoming available every day to help you build fediverse compatibility. The barrier to entry is only getting lower — so the time to get established is now.

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Running your own site is painful. Hosting Nazis is worse

A stock photograph of someone writing on a laptop

I’ve spent much of my career telling organizations that they should publish in a space that they control, on their own domain name.

My usual argument is that it shields you from major changes in company policy, or even from the platform you’re depending on from going out of business. If you’ve built a media business on a platform knowing that it’s been designed as a place for text-heavy media businesses, but one day it decides it’s going to be more profitable if it becomes a place for 3D immersive video, and your whole audience is locked into that platform, your media business is in trouble.

Publishing on your own site and your own domain name avoids that issue: you have full control over your underlying platform, and because you can change where your domain name points to, you can change your platform without losing any of your audience. In terms of Michael Porter’s Five Forces, this tactic reduces the power of suppliers — the platform that underpins your site — to dictate the terms of your business.

The trouble is, running your own site isn’t easy. If you’re a developer, you probably have the skills and knowledge to select an underlying platform, install it on a server, secure your infrastructure, customize it, and optimize it for discovery and sharing. If you’re a writer, you might not — and even if you are a developer, if you’re trying to start a site from scratch, all that technical administration is time taken away from working on all the stuff that makes your site special. Having a well-running platform for your site is table stakes; the core value of any site is the content itself. As any entrepreneur knows, you should spend as much time as possible on your core value: focusing on the thing that makes you unique and special will give you a better chance of success.

All of this doesn’t mean that the characteristics of a platform aren’t important. They’re very important, and can make or break a media startup, which is why Substack seemed like such a good choice for a great many people. It had everything: integrated payments, a solid recommendation engine that accelerated subscriber growth, support for using your own domain name, customized branding, optimizations for search engines and social sharing, and it just felt really good to use.

On a technical level, Substack was clearly a very good choice for independent writers trying to make a living on their own. It also stood in contrast to Medium, which had similar goals but was firmly optimized around helping people earn a living from individual articles even if they didn’t have a built-in audience (I’ll say more about Medium in a minute). Both were free to get started on, relieving writers from the technical or financial burden of setting up their own platform, but each had a different focus. On Medium, great pieces stood alone, so you could gain an audience for a thought even if you didn’t have a following; on Substack, you could build a following for your ongoing work.

Which is why it was incredibly disappointing when it became clear that the platform actively embraced and funded bigots. First came the transphobes, which a few people made a fuss about, but not enough. (If we rewrote Martin Niemöller’s famous poem for today, trans people would be the first line.) Then, most recently, it became clear that Substack was rife with actual flag-waving Nazis.

As Casey Newton pointed out in Platformer:

To be clear, there are a lot more than six bad publications on Substack: our analysis found dozens of far-right publications advocating for the great replacement theory and other violent ideologies. […] The company’s edgelord branding ensures that the fringes will continue to arrive and set up shop, and its infrastructure creates the possibility that those publications will grow quickly. That’s what matters.

That’s what made it untenable for me and a great many other publishers. Platformer, Garbage Day, Citation Needed, and ParentData are some of the titles that have moved away (or announced that they’re moving away) over the last week, and these are the high-profile tip of a much larger iceberg.

So where should writers go?

Unfortunately, I think a platform that’s completely right as an alternative to Substack doesn’t exist, which I’ll talk about in a moment. Where writers have been going fall into a few buckets:

  • Buttondown, an independent newsletter platform
  • Ghost, a blogging platform with built-in support for newsletters and paid subscriptions (sometimes through Ryan Singel’s excellent Outpost service)
  • WordPress, the blogging platform that powers roughly a third of the web (but has poor support for newsletters and paid subscriptions)
  • Biting the bullet and developing or self-hosting their own thing

My approach, because I’ve always had my own site running on Known, has been to move my newsletter to Buttondown. It’s worked really well for me, but these are all good approaches.

I’ve been a bit surprised to not hear about people moving to Medium, which has been undergoing a quiet transformation under Tony Stubblebine’s leadership over the last year. It’s certainly worth considering: revenue is up, the platform has reorganized itself around publishers and followings, it supports custom domains, writers can take their content and subscribers with them if they choose to leave, and the strategic thrash of the mid-2010s is gone. Tony and his team are genuinely hunkering down and doing the work to support writers.

A big difference with Medium is that the audience’s financial relationship is with the platform rather than a writer. On Substack, you subscribed to outlets like Platformer and Citation Needed individually; on Medium, you’re paying one of two tiers to access the full network. For readers, that’s clearly far better: you’re getting a world of writing for the same flat price. For writers, getting frictionless access to Medium’s aggregate paying userbase may help grow followers; it is clearly true, though, that you can’t bring your paid customer relationships with you if you choose to leave. On Substack, those relationships are made directly with you and depend on you having your own account with Stripe, which means you can leave and keep servicing your subscriptions without asking anyone to re-enter their payment details.

In order to really support independent media startups, particularly individual writers looking to make money from their work on their own, there are three categories of service that I wish existed:

A fully-managed direct relationship platform for writers

Any writer should be able to sign up to a service, configure their platform, and begin selling their writing directly to an audience without worrying about their writing showing up next to, or appearing to endorse, hate speech. It should be beautiful, easy to use, and friction-free.

They should be able to own their relationship with their audience to the point where if they choose to change platforms, they can take their audience with them and seamlessly start writing somewhere else. They should never have to deal with technical configuration: everything should just work. And each writer should be able to gain from network effects as the platform grows, allowing them to gain a following and build revenue more quickly.

That’s almost Medium, aside from the direct relationships. That’s almost Ghost, aside from the network effects. So close!

Indie recommendations

A lot of the focus of the indieweb and of the fediverse has been to provide an independent alternative to social media. I have no criticism of that approach! We need that! But there’s also something I’d like to see that goes beyond it.

I think we’ve assumed that social media is how we learn about new websites and articles. That’s a user experience pattern that has been inherited directly from Twitter and Facebook, which always wanted to be the way people discovered news and information. When I built the first version of Known, I had the idea of owning your own versions of social media platforms in mind.

Long before social networks, personal websites had links to other sites the authors enjoyed. Sometimes it was just called a links page. Blogs called them the blogroll. Substack’s version of this was for an author to recommend other newsletters, so when someone subscribed, they would also be asked if they’d want to subscribe to these other author-endorsed outlets. It was a superb way for writers to rapidly build a following outside of their own established networks.

The following requires some underlying protocol work, but here’s how it would work from the user side:

  • As a user, I want to subscribe to an author.
  • I visit their site and click to subscribe, entering my details.
  • The site shows me a selection of other blogs or newsletters the author recommends.
  • I agree to subscribe to those. (Not as a paying subscriber, but as someone who will receive new content as it is published.)
  • I am instantly fully subscribed, without having to enter any further information on those third party sites.
  • The authors of those sites know that they gained new subscribers that were referred from the recommending site.

The net result: every author can have the freedom and ownership of publishing on their own site, but with the network effects of a closed network.

Of course, even without this infrastructure, any site can already create a links page or a blogroll. I’m actively working on that.

Self-hosting that works like an iPhone

You should be able to pay for server hosting and have access to a fully-managed App Store that, just like an iPhone, lets you install new services with one click and keeps your software up-to-date. Some of those services will be free; some will be paid-for. It should be no more complicated than that, with zero exposure to the underlying server processes and scripts.

Shared hosting still hasn’t really evolved since the nineties: it’s a world of (S)FTP access, dubious control panels that don’t do much to help the user, and appalling user experiences. Virtual hosting is newer and more powerful, but you need to be a very sophisticated user to deal with containers, package managers, and so on. The former are designed for hobbyists; the latter are designed for software engineering teams. A self-hosting environment that’s optimized for non-technical individuals to own their own websites and data does not exist.

In summary

We do need a way to support great writing. It’s how we learn about the world, quite often in a way that helps inform our democratic decisions and the way we see the society around us. A world where everyone is writing for free and independent journalism has no means of financial support is not tenable or desirable, in my opinion.

I also believe that not providing financial support to literal Nazis is non-negotiable. I can’t believe that’s an argument we even have to make. This isn’t ambiguous: Nazis are bad.

The indie web should be a place where independent writers can thrive. I believe it will be. We just need a little bit more infrastructure: network effects, easy payments, removing the need for non-technical people to get involved in technical administration. The Ghost ecosystem in particular has shown us that there’s a great opportunity for this to be done well for writers.

Unlike many open source / indie web folks, I also don’t draw a hard line about hosted services like Medium, given the right features. The important thing for me is that writers can write and be heard. Anything that makes that easier — while not, again, literally funding Nazis — is fantastic in my book. The writing is what matters. Letting people connect and learn from each other — reaching people with ideas — is what the web is all about. The trick is giving them the tools and freedom to do that sustainably, on their own terms.

· Posts

 

45 wishes

The top of a dandelion bulb in the morning light

Previous birthday posts: 44 thoughts about the future, 43 things, 42 / 42 admissions, 41 things.

This post is in partial answer to Matt Mullenweg’s birthday request for everyone to blog, which is a lovely idea in its own right - happy birthday to you, too, Matt.

2024 feels like a good year for wishes.

One.

I wish the form of media was fully separate from its content.

For example: when I’m reading a book in bed, I want it to be text, on a screen (if it has to be a screen) that approximates ink on paper with a small reading light. But when I’m driving, that form is inappropriate: I’ll crash the car. I still want to make progress on my book, though, so wouldn’t it be great if I could flip to the audiobook for the duration of my journey? And then when I’m lying on the sofa later that evening, or sat at my desk, I’d just be able to pick up the book from that point, with a form that made sense for each of those situations. The desk-bound version might have sprawling video illustrations if it made sense for the content; if I’m lying in bed, I just need the text.

This partially exists today, and a lot of the technical prerequisites are in place, but there’s no great way to seamlessly switch between an audiobook and a book (or text and video, etc). It would be convenient; it would remove friction; it would improve accessibility.

Two.

I wish the interiors of homes were modular like computers are modular.

Today, if I want to install a washing machine, I have to make sure that the space is the right size, that I have the right electricity hookup, and that I have water and drainage. If I want to hang a picture, I have to hammer a nail into the wall or put up command strips that are likely to damage the paint when I take them off.

What if, instead of electricity plugs and water hookups and drainage, appliances sat in standard-size cradles that were pre-installed in your home? You would always know that an appliance could fit a given cradle, and that it would be provided with the electricity / water / drainage / air it needed.

What if you could hang pictures on the wall using something like MagSafe? Just hold them up and they’d snap into place, perfectly straight and aligned? What if that same mechanism could power light fittings and wall-mounted thin appliances, which also attached via magnets?

What if houses themselves were modular in this way, so that rooms and functions could easily be added or recombined, and what if these components were mass-produced in a way that lowered their cost?

What if you could attach modular power generation, like solar arrays, wind, and hydro, depending on your location’s characteristics?

Three.

I wish it was easier to bend space.

I don’t mean outer space. I wish I could turn on a portal and walk through and suddenly be in Rome, or Tokyo, or Leamington Spa. Think of it as a personal warp drive to go to the shops.

Sure, you would need to contend with timezone differences. As I write this, it’s 10:30am in Elkins Park, 7:30am in San Francisco, and 4:30pm in Paris. But honestly? I’d find a way to make it work.

One of the most defining features of the United States is its isolation. It’s harder to get to other places from here than it is from most places. Wouldn’t it be amazing to make those distances go away? You might have to resign yourself to open borders, of course, because there’d be no way to do customs and immigration if anyone could warp anywhere. But I bet we could make that work too.

(Would that lead to mass, global surveillance? How would it affect policing? Could you imagine trying to catch a criminal who could be literally anywhere in the world? Would we still need roads? So many questions.)

Four.

I wish for world peace.

If you’re rolling your eyes at me right now: fair. I don’t think most people would have read this far if I’d led with this. But, let’s be real: if you can overcome your cynicism for a moment, it would be pretty cool if there was world peace, no?

The thing is, world peace has all these prerequisites that would also have to be true. If you want world peace, you can’t occupy or exploit someone’s homeland. You can’t plunder their resources. You can’t have colonies or make opportunistic land grabs. You can’t exert your will through authoritarianism. The only way to have lasting peace is for everybody in the world to be able to have a good life, and for it to be generally accepted that this is a good and desirable outcome.

Which, in turn, means that people need to care about the welfare of their fellow humans who happen to live in other countries or lead wildly different lives to them. It implies not just tolerance, but a kind of love for people whose lives will always remain unseen to you. It means an end to nationalism; a sense of kinship with all people, everywhere.

It’s a big ask. And I don’t think we’ll get there. But I don’t think it’s necessarily too much to ask.

Five.

I wish there was a trustworthy, open AI engine that paid sources for their work.

Imagine you have an AI agent that is entirely yours. It tells you what you need to know (and what you might want to know), helps you interpret the world, and takes actions on your behalf. It’s a teacher, entertainer, personal assistant and thought partner.

Imagine that each business can also employ these AI agents, working behind the scenes to make their products and services better. You can interact with them via voice, text, programmatic API, and so on — whatever makes sense for the context they’re employed in.

Each agent starts with a vanilla dataset of genuinely free and open information. Then, let’s say you want to know about current events: you might add a New York Times subscription, and perhaps a subscription to a local newsroom, to your agent. If you’re a trader, you might add Bloomberg data. If you’re a pilot, you might add up to the second weather information and predictions. If you’re a venture capitalist, you might plug in market information and analysis from experts in segments you invest in.

It doesn’t happen through a private ecosystem: there’s an open standard through which AI agents discover and connect to new sources, including a mechanism for subscription payments. No one vendor controls the market; any AI engine can connect to new training data, as long as its owner agrees to the terms and pays any fees.

The journalists at the Times and the local paper, the data room at Bloomberg, the organizations providing the weather sensors and predictions, the analysts: each of these sources get paid on a subscription basis for the data used to augment each individual agent. There’s no exploitation of creators in this system; everyone is paid for their work. And through this system of plugins, users get to use an AI agent that is tailored to their needs and interests.

Six.

I wish everyone had access to healthcare.

“Having access” doesn’t just mean that it exists; it needs to be accessible. You need to be able to walk up and use it, without fear of being turned away, without fear that the financial effects of your care will be adverse, and with full bodily autonomy.

Easy-to-use, inclusive healthcare, free at the point of use. It would save so many lives. And even beyond that, it would remove a cognitive load that many people in America simply live with: a fear that something will go wrong with their health and they will ruin their lives in order to deal with it. Imagine what people could do if they weren’t afraid of having their basic needs met.

Even if you’re lucky enough to not have to worry about money, the act of having to choose health insurance, potentially figure out an HSA, pick a provider, etc, is a hassle that no-one really needs. I certainly don’t. Just make it one, continuous healthcare system.

Seven.

I think I wish we could bend time, too.

Imagine if you could hit pause and create a time bubble for yourself: a weekend temporally alone, with no requirements or restrictions looming over you. You could read a book, or do research, or bend space and go see a beautiful glacier halfway across the world. And then your bubble would end and you’d be back in the temporal world, refreshed or illuminated.

Of course, you’d continue to age in the time bubble, so you’d shorten your effective life — which is to say, the surface area of your life that interacts with everyone else. But your experiential life wouldn’t be any shorter. How you’d use this ability might depend on who you were and what you cared about; someone with loved ones or dependents might be more likely to live a temporally-aligned life, while someone without might live more of their life in a bubble. A monk might disappear into solitude and emerge - poof! - having apparently aged forty years in the blink of an eye.

It would need to be free from abuse. You can easily imagine a factory forcing its entire workforce to live in a time bubble in order to more quickly construct its products, literally working their lives away and being robbed of time with their families in the name of someone else’s profit. It would be murder, in a way.

But if it was entirely up to you? If you just needed a little more time here and there? Magic. I bet it might even make your life longer, despite everything.

Eight.

I wish we could take all the people who want to flood the web with AI-generated content and relegate them to their own mirror internet.

They wouldn’t know. They’d just be happily posting their ersatz thinkpieces at each other, giddily generating their one-sentence-per-paragraph LinkedIn updates and dumping them into the hustlenet, and we’d all be off on the real, human internet, communicating with each other in peace and tranquility.

Nine.

I wish there was a way to help build and fund end-user open source software.

Here’s how my imaginary program would work. There would be a pot of money at the center of it, managed by a foundation or an endowment of some kind, that would be ring-fenced to support software in the public interest. There would be no expectation that these projects would be self-sustaining: the fund would pay for them.

A call for applications would be made every so often. Teams could apply if they’d built an initial version. They would be expected to be able to explain the human impact of that software, and prove that it would be useful to real people. They wouldn’t get funding if they didn’t know who their users were, or hadn’t validated their product with real people.

The fund would pick six projects every cycle (perhaps every year), and guarantee a stipend that would last at least two years to work on that project. If that project continued to make a real human impact after that period, it would be renewed for another two years. In addition to releasing software, projects would be expected to transparently share their thinking, their research, and findings as they went.

Projects related to the fund, and alumni of past projects, would be expected to help each other, contribute to each other’s projects, and share their experiences. There would be a curriculum to help teams get on top of design and user experience, and to communicate effectively. The aim of the whole thing would be to make end-user open source projects more sustainable and more empathy-driven.

Ten.

I wish everyone would blog. Or write, otherwise. Or take photographs or make music or paint or sculpt or do whatever makes sense to tell their stories.

But mostly blog. I love these public journals that everyone can read. I love learning about people and what makes them excited about the world and what they’re worried about.

You should all blog. All of you. I think the world is better when everyone’s voices can be shared and heard. And I want to hear yours.

Eleven.

I wish there was a cure for dyskeratosis congenita, and for every genetic condition.

Literally one in a million people have DC. Unfortunately, I’ve been related to five of them (so far). We lost people we love to an illness that is still barely understood: my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, and two beloved cousins.

Because it’s so rare, it doesn’t achieve the funding that more common conditions receive. Some of its symptoms - pulmonary fibrosis, for example - do receive more attention, because they’re shared with other conditions. But the underlying cause remains niche.

It’s not niche to me.

And there are so many other conditions that have few sufferers overall, but where the impact on individual families is seismic. I wish there were cures. I wish that technology like CRISPR could evolve, perhaps in tandem with AI, to be able to address all of these illnesses, even when they’re rare.

Twelve.

I wish Google Maps, Apple Maps — all of the maps — took my idiosyncratic preferences into account when they drew a route.

When I ask for directions, it’s usually true that I want the roads that provide the fastest route. But sometimes, in a way that’s hard for an algorithm to predict based on logical rules, I don’t.

There’s a main road near me that leads to the Turnpike. I can take another main road to get there, or I can cut down a smaller road that takes me past the Target and the Home Depot. It’s theoretically smaller and slower, but what the mapping apps don’t know is that the route they want to take me on has a really uneven surface. I don’t want to take it; not ever. I want to go the tiny Home Depot / Target road, even though it’s worse on paper.

So, learn from me. App, you know when I ignore your advice and constantly use another road. Take the hint, please.

Because here’s the thing: I’m still relatively new to my area, I don’t always know where I’m going, and sometimes I don’t realize I’m going on the bad road until it’s too late. So I could use a little help.

Thirteen.

I wish AI-generated presenters would embrace their artificiality and really just push the boat out.

If you’re going to have a photorealistic AI newsreader, why on earth would you make them look like any other person? We have people.

The galaxy brain version of this idea is to make them into the perfect newscaster: something that could only be achieved with AI. Give them a bigger, multidimensional mouth for stronger enunciation. Give them large, resonant eyes for enhanced empathy. Give them bunny ears as a deep cut reference. Give them tentacles, because tentacles are cool.

Or perhaps you could have a sentient plasma read the news. Or the visual embodiment of the concept of gravity. Or the collective half-remembering of a song you used to know. The point is, there’s an enormous creative canvas here, and recreating an actual human being that you could have just gone ahead and hired seems like you’re leaving a creative opportunity on the table.

Fourteen.

I wish we had fully-electric, nationwide high speed rail, with satellite internet, sleeper cars, private rooms, cafes and restaurants. Let’s make them cool.

They probably couldn’t beat air travel on speed for longer distances, but they can be more comfortable, and they can let people work en route. There’s no need for them to mimic air travel in the way they do today: the space could be mixed-use, walkable, and luxurious.

Rail travel is already an experience (if you’ve never traveled coast to coast on Amtrak, you should; it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done). But it could be turned up to 11, and the speed could be turned up to 110.

Fifteen.

I wish my mother had met my son.

I wish he had her in his life.

I think about this daily.

Sixteen.

I wish we could find make all of this amazing technology without exploiting other nations, which means without conflict minerals.

We may be able to replace rare earth elements with carbon nanomaterials like graphene, which in turn can be created from raw ingredients like wood ash and even household waste. I think this is an obvious shift that’s coming down the pipe, but I wish we could be there now.

I love my iPhone; I love my electric car; I don’t want people to suffer because I own these things. I don’t want these tools to contribute to inequalities between nations. And I want everyone to be able to own one. (And I bet the relative abundance of these new materials will lead to all kinds of new amazing tech.)

Seventeen.

I wish I could find a way to be the American franchisee / importer for:

  1. Gregg’s the bakers: sort of the UK’s answer to Wawa or Tim Hortons (without the gas station association). This would make a killing in places like NYC, in the same way that Pret has managed to take hold. Call me a maverick, but I think America will appreciate sausage rolls. Even the vegan ones.
  2. Innocent Drinks smoothies. (I guess there would need to be a US version of the Blender, their impressively sustainable factory in Rotterdam.)
  3. I was going to say Caledonian Brewing Company beers, but it turns out they’ve been shut down since I was last in Scotland. I wish the Caledonian Brewing Company was still around. C’mon.

Eighteen.

I wish for real journalism to flourish.

I’m talking about newsrooms that speak truth to power, elevate lived experiences we might not otherwise hear about, and help us understand our world in a way that allows us to make better democratic decisions, yes, but also allows us to know who we are as a country, and understand where we are as a world.

From local police departments who act above the law because they think they’ll avoid scrutiny to governments who make deals and build strategy at the expense of entire communities, more light needs to be shone.

I’m not talking about both-sidesism here — “we went to a Nazi bar and here’s why they think their ideology is great.” — although truth be told, I think this kind of anthropology does have some value as long as you don’t fall into the trap of promoting or whitewashing their ideas or presenting them without the required context, because, at least in theory, if you can understand people, you can understand how to prevent these violent ideologies from rising again. (Too many people believe that Hitler was some kind of freakish aberration and not something that could easily happen again, even in a democratic society. Even now.)

And I’m not talking about industry puff pieces (so much tech industry journalism in particular is horrible, cheerleading stuff that celebrates wealth and power; thank the gods for the Markup, 404 Media, and Platformer) or the kind of local journalism that riles up prejudices and does nothing close to speaking truth to power.

I’m talking about the kind of journalism that shines a light on corruption, prevents peoples’ suffering, and punches up in the public interest. We need more of it. It needs to flourish. Particularly in this moment; particularly this year. In service of democracy and the well-being of the vulnerable and oppressed, in the face of widespread corruption, war, the climate crisis, and the continued rise of toxic nationalism, let a thousand newsrooms bloom.

Nineteen.

I wish I didn’t have to worry about our son’s safety.

As I write this, he’s just turned sixteen months old. He’s tall for his age: in the 99th percentile for height, looking much more like a three-year-old than the barely-a-toddler he really is.

He goes to a Jewish daycare center, and I worry about anti-semitism and what people might do to find belonging in some hateful community or to service a racist notion. Not so long ago, someone threatened the local synagogues and schools and I shot out of my office to go pick him up. The police said it was not a credible threat, but who wants to take that chance?

He also lives in America, a country where people are allowed to keep AR-15s and concealed handguns in support of entirely fictional ideas like defending themselves against a despotic government, and I wonder what someone with a gun might do. Not today, but perhaps some day: a disaffected fellow student at their school, or a misguided friend picking up a weapon that their parent owns.

I wish I didn’t have to think about this every time I drop him off, but I do. I wish I didn’t have to worry about who we know — or who he knows — might have a gun. I wish we didn’t think having these weapons around us was normal. I wish we didn’t continue to normalize them. I wish all of them were gone.

Twenty.

While we’re at it, I wish we didn’t, as a society, love cars that make it impossible to see my son from the driver’s seat.

There’s nothing wrong with small cars (except for the not-insignificant baseline of things that are wrong with all cars). Bigger cars kill more pedestrians and are far more likely to kill children. I wish we could all downsize a little.

But don’t take this the wrong way: my wish is not a criticism of people who have big cars. I know some very lovely people who have them and love them. They just scare me, is all, because I’m worried someone is going to hit my child with one, and rather than pointing fingers at anyone, I’d rather the whole ecosystem of cars was a little smaller.

Twenty-One.

I wish I could take a year off and just tinker.

I’m not sure how that would work in practice. I can’t afford to, for one thing, and I’m lucky enough to actually love my work, so I’d miss it. But it would be lovely to take some downtime and focus on creative projects.

Creative projects, for me, fall into three broad buckets:

  1. Writing
  2. Websites
  3. Software

Writing is exactly what you think: I have a book in progress, and I’d like to finish it. Then I’d like to write another one. I have some stories that I think are worth telling.

Websites are stand-alone projects like Get Blogging! that try to inform, entertain, or provide help.

And software is homegrown products like Known that I think other people might find useful.

What if there was a sort of angel investment agreement where someone gave you a salary for a year and took 40% ownership of whatever you created, with the promise that you’d spend the time actively trying to create things? Depending on who was offering, I’d probably take that.

Twenty-Two.

I wish something like DAOs had taken off.

A Decentralized Autonomous Organization is a leaderless organization managed through software, where decisions are made through voting and voting rights are conferred through ownership of cryptocurrency.

They’re flawed in two key ways:

  1. They confer more power to people who already have it, because your voting share increases with the amount of cryptocurrency you buy. People with more wealth can therefore have more say — and usually do.
  2. They use and depend on cryptocurrency, meaning that votes and ownership are always financial transactions.

While these flaws meant that DAOs were DOA, the idea of a leaderless organization with voting rights that are automatically enforced is interesting to me. What if we removed the financial component and overhauled the voting system to be one-member-per-vote? It might look a lot like a software-enhanced co-operative, and would be useful for everything from mutual aid to global movements to a family co-managing a house, all with enforced democracy and a careful audit trail.

Twenty-Three.

I wish we could move away from GDP as a metric for collective well-being.

Chiefly because it isn’t a metric for human well-being: it’s an imperfect measure of economic output that was designed for wartime conditions.

Amit Kapoor and Bibek Debroy in HBR:

We know now that the story is not so simple – that focusing exclusively on GDP and economic gain to measure development ignores the negative effects of economic growth on society, such as climate change and income inequality. It’s time to acknowledge the limitations of GDP and expand our measure development so that it takes into account a society’s quality of life.

So while we can talk about economic growth and hold it up as a sign of success all we want, it doesn’t at all mean that the average quality of life has gone up, or that we’ve dealt with issues like the climate crisis that will affect the quality of life of future generations.

GDP doesn’t ask if our experience as humans is improving, and it really doesn’t ask if the experience of our worst-off people is improving. I’d love to see us focus more on measuring that, rather than relying on the assumption that if the country is getting richer as a whole, everyone will see the benefit. It’s simply not true. Either we need to admit that we simply don’t create about most people’s lives, or we need to find another measure.

Twenty-Four.

I wish AI copilot for software development worked in a more literate way.

By “literate” I mean literate programming, a defined methodology where you write what you want your program to do in a descriptive, human language first, with snippets of code included almost as illustrations of their written counterparts.

Tools like GitHub Copilot let you write prompts in English, which the system then automatically replaces with an appropriate snippet of source code in the desired language. Like all AI output, it often needs a little editing, but it’s surprisingly magical.

I think AI code generation has the potential to replace software libraries in many cases. When you use a third-party library, you’re importing code that someone else has written to serve a particular function: parsing an RSS feed, say, or sorting an array of variables in a particular way. With code generation, you can prompt the engine to add RSS parsing or array sorting code, and it’ll appear as if by magic. And, unlike a library, that code will be written for you, and may be a better fit for how you want the software you’re writing to work.

There are a few limitations, beyond the usual ones that accompany all generative AI:

  1. While a library author will (hopefully) continuously update their code, your AI-generated code is frozen in aspic. You’ll have to update it yourself. If everyone uses AI for a particular function, it’s also possible that those engines will never update their approach to that particular problem, because there will be no new approaches to train them on.
  2. Your AI-enhanced code is generated prompt by prompt, rather than holistically in the context of the intention behind your whole project.

That second bullet is what I’m getting at here. What if an AI engine could look at a whole literate project in context?

The data engineer Frederick Giasson experimented with this and concluded that Copilot was context-aware within a file (or Jupyter notebook). What if it could take the whole project into account, with an accompanying UI that made specifying your applicable intentions, ethics, and values as well as your logical approach easy? Making these things explicit in the context of a body of source code, in a way that affects how that code is written and logically interpreted, is really interesting to me.

Twenty-Five.

I wish we had a pantheon of really positive science fiction stories to work from: takes where everything has worked out.

Star Trek is a little bit like that, but not really: the Federation is militaristic in nature, and while its participants have been drawn from disparate worlds and contexts, its culture is pretty homogenous. I don’t know that that’s what we should be aiming for.

Most of the science fiction I’ve watched or read over the last few years in particular has been willfully dystopian. Even Doctor Who, which is more fantasy than science fiction to begin with but plays with notions of whimsy and radical inclusion, has both feet set in the aftermath of a great war. The science fiction I’m writing — in part about the idea that the thing that will bring us down in the climate crisis is not the crisis itself but our need to profit from it — crosses that line too.

The problem is, as Charles Stross pointed out in Scientific American recently:

Billionaires who grew up reading science-fiction classics published 30 to 50 years ago are affecting our life today in almost too many ways to list: Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars. Jeff Bezos prefers 1970s plans for giant orbital habitats.  Peter Thiel is funding research into artificial intelligence, life extension and “seasteading.” Mark Zuckerberg has blown $10 billion trying to create the Metaverse from Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash. And Marc Andreessen of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz has published a “techno-optimist manifesto” promoting a bizarre accelerationist philosophy that calls for an unregulated, solely capitalist future of pure technological chaos.

We need to be able to imagine a really great future in order to get there. I think we’ve lost that muscle. We’ve ceded optimism to people who seek to create an adverse future. It’s easy to see how we got here — the world often feels oppressive — but it’s imperative that we re-find the sunlight.

There are positive science fiction movements: solarpunk, for example. I’d love to see more; I’d love to read more. Perhaps write more?

Twenty-Six.

I wish I was better at seeing my friends. Or, at least, keeping up with them.

I’ve never regretted moving to the US — supporting my terminally ill mother was a very good reason — but I’ve missed a lot of people. I made a lot of friends in the twelve years I’ve been here, and moving from California to Pennsylvania was almost the same level of severance, although the pandemic has made us all far more used to hanging out online.

There was a time, when I was much younger, when I could send a text that read:

Pub?

And an hour later I’d be hanging out with friends, having a few drinks (alcoholic and otherwise), talking about anything and everything. I really deeply miss being able to do that.

Twenty-Seven.

I wish for everyone I love to be healthy.

I wish for everyone I love to be happy.

I wish for everyone I love to be here.

Twenty-Eight.

I wish every software development team stopped to ask:

  1. Who, exactly, are we building this for?
  2. Is it the right thing?
  3. Why do they need it?
  4. How do we know?
  5. If we are successful, who will be impacted?
  6. How can we ensure that as many people as possible see the benefits?

There’s an idea that software is somehow outside of the human sphere, a world of discrete logic and objectivity. It’s not, and the more we acknowledge and internalize how human software actually is, the more useful and world-positive it becomes.

You don’t build software for everyone, because that’s the same as building it for no-one. You build it for specific people, serve their needs deeply, and expand from there. How do you know their needs? Because you know them, not as abstracted-away personas or vague market notions, but as real, concrete human beings who you’ve met with and understood.

Building useful software is an exercise in engineering, of course. But more than that, it’s an exercise in empathy, of human relationships, and of community. I wish that was universally acknowledged and built directly into both engineering processes and team cultures by default.

Twenty-Nine.

I wish I’d been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This one seems particularly fixable, right? I’ve lived in the Greater Philadelphia area for a year. One of the best art museums in the country (maybe the world) is downtown. I think art is important; I like art; art makes me happy. I should have been by now.

But, of course, life happens, and there’s always something more important to do. There are chores to do for the baby, and things to do for the house, and admin stuff more generally, and work, and we need groceries, and there are other, closer trips to be had. There are so many things. And before you know it, it’s been a year, and this thing that I knew I wanted to do before I got here remains undone. And then before I know it, it’ll be another year, and another, and I’ll have blinked and life will have flowed all the way through my fingers.

It’s not really about the Philadelphia Museum of Art, of course. But it is about intentionality, and about self-care, and prioritization.

Maybe I’ll go next weekend. Unless something comes up.

Thirty.

I wish I could sing and play guitar.

My cousin Noah wrote these lovely songs for his wife, for his children, for his cousins. Music was such a core part of his life, and it became a core part of the lives of the people closest to him.

I love that spirit, and I wish I could embody that in some way. It’s not about a particular artistry or form; it’s about being able to convey the underlying emotion. In a very real way, it’s about love.

I miss Noah. I wish he was here.

Thirty-One.

I wish we could nudge our rhetoric from “trust experts” to “work with experts”.

The “trust experts” line comes from the pandemic, when skeptics and anti-vaxxers were urged to trust the scientific advice we were being given. In that context, and to that audience, I think it’s obviously right: the level of misinformation was intense, and intensely politicized, which led to real loss of life.

On the other hand, if we’re talking about smart people engaging in their own lines of informed inquiry, I think it’s safe to expand the discourse. Experts are a resource, and their expertise deserves respect. But there can also be edges to their expertise, and engaging with them may expand the knowledge frontier for both of you.

A very concrete example in my own life was my mother’s idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which was rapidly re-labeled to familial pulmonary fibrosis. “Pulmonary fibrosis” is the name for the symptom, not the cause; “idiopathic” means the cause was unknown. We worked with the doctors, and did our own research, read scientific papers, and arrived at the conclusion that it was dyskeratosis congenita, which then informed the hospital’s own line of inquiry. Ultimately, this was proven to be correct, but we might not have arrived at this understanding (at least on the same timeline) if we hadn’t done our own work, and if the experts hadn’t been open to working with us.

Science can be a conversation. I think medicine certainly should be. It has to be one grounded in science and fact, of course: it’s hard to have a conversation with someone who thinks a medicine can make you magnetic or that it’s part of a mass conspiracy. But I think sometimes we can be a little too hard-line in our discourse about who should be listened to and who should not.

Thirty-Two.

I wish civilization was further along than it is.

I’m typing this in my house, which is really four walls in the dirt, themselves made of different kinds of mud and stone. A great deal of heat is escaping through the windows, which are made of liquid sand that have been reshaped into thin, brittle panes.

I have to worry about whether the food I eat is good for me, and who picked it, or how it was gathered or killed. Outside in the drive, there’s a car that runs on condensed million-year-old plants, and there’s a car that runs on electricity. Both cars contain rare elements that were mined in parts of the world that have been subjugated by my part of the world so that the cars and computers and batteries can be made.

We’ve come so far, but there’s so much left to achieve. I wish we were there. I wish all food was good for me and ethically sourced, and that all my useful devices were made of good things that harmed nobody, and that everybody had the ability to own one and nobody wanted for any necessities at all except to further the collective experience of being human.

It seems silly that we have to worry about war and poverty and inequality and exploitation and hatred. We don’t need those things. Some of them were a part of early civilization but that doesn’t means they need to continue for us to succeed. That’s the sunk cost fallacy in action right there. We can build something new. I wish we would. I want to live in the future.

Thirty-Three.

I wish movies would be available on streaming on day one.

You’re probably not going to get me into a theater anytime soon. Don’t get me wrong: I love movies and the theater experience of seeing something in a room with lots of other people. It can be magical. But worrying about the pandemic, and worrying about finding a babysitter, kind of take the shine off.

I want to sit in my living room, under my fluffy blanket, with my own food and my own drinks, in the knowledge that I’m probably not going to get a serious infectious disease and that I can pause the movie if the baby wakes up.

I’d still like the option of going to the theater. Again: theaters are great. But right now, they’re not things that fit in well with my life.

I’m not alone. Just let us stream. We’ll pay.

Thirty-Four.

I wish the internet was exactly the same for everyone in every location, and that every website was equally as fast.

I wish there was full privacy and freedom from tracking built into the platform.

I wish the major conduits for sharing and learning online were collaboratively built rather than privately owned.

I wish the web in particular was about sharing and advancing knowledge, connecting people with each other’s lived experiences, supporting democracy, and improving our collective well-being.

I wish it was owned by everybody and nobody.

I wish everybody had access.

Thirty-Five.

I wish to only work in organizations that value DEI for the rest of my career. Although every organization is different, and the experience of working at them varies, it’s always a good sign.

I wish inclusion was universally seen as the obviously good thing it is, and that it was understood to be a prerequisite for responsibly building any company or institution.

Thirty-Six.

I wish there was software that could take a look at your life and show you different versions of it.

Think about those photography AI tools: things like FaceApp that, with a click of a button, can tell you what you’d look like if you were the opposite gender, or older, or younger, or a little more masculine, a little more feminine, a little better or worse looking. With a click of a button they can make you smile like you mean it, or give you a more expensive haircut.

Imagine you could push a button that said, “show me a version of myself where I was truly happy.” The software would examine your life, think for a little bit, and then give you a complete picture: a photograph of the happiest version of yourself, and a description of all the little details that add up to you. With another button, perhaps it could offer you a diff: here’s all the things that are different. And with a third, here’s how you can get to that version of your life from this one.

You could ask it what your life would look like if you were wealthy, or if you had no money at all, or if you lived alone or had a big family. It could shard you into fragments and possibilities and you could map all the different yous until you found one that looked right.

I wonder if, given the map, you’d actually follow the steps and make it to this other, hypothetical version of yourself, or if you’d stay put, safe in the knowledge that actually, you’re good where you are. I wonder, if you did take those steps and made it there, if you’d actually be in any way happier or more content, or if the knowledge of your original life and what you’d lost would invalidate it all: if those other selves are only valid in their vacuums.

I wish the software existed so we could know what was possible within our own lives. I don’t think I’d want to take the steps and get there. But the perspective? Perspective always changes everything.

Thirty-Seven.

I wish for us to be able to give our son every opportunity, every life experience, every freedom, every possible gesture of love and care.

I would love for him to have broad horizons, a non-conformist attitude, a global outlook, an inclusive heart, and a progressive mind. I would love for him to understand his radical interdependence with every other person rather than wild independence. We’re going to love him whoever he chooses to be. We’re going to show him the world.

Thirty-Eight.

I wish that everybody had the right to full self-determination for their identity.

I wish that the people I know who have had to fight so hard just to be themselves could relax, safe in the knowledge that they were safe from discrimination and harm.

I wish they knew that the identity they worked so hard to establish is how they would be known, without question or argument.

I mean, it’s just common decency.

Thirty-Nine.

I wish our personalities weren’t so siloed.

Just because I encounter someone in a business context, it doesn’t mean I only want to see the business facet of who they are. I want to learn how they think about the world: what kind of art they love, how they’re weird, what they’re proud of.

I feel that way about personal websites a lot: they tend to stick to the same form and topics. They couldbe jumping from topic to topic, exploring what they’re excited by, describing what makes them feel alive. They could be experimenting with form: a graphic novel here, spoken-word poetry there. Everyone’s public persona is the above-water tip of an iceberg of creativity and excitement that we mostly don’t let anybody else see. But that’s the stuff that really makes us human; it’s what makes us interesting and unique.

I know this is complicated for a hundred reasons, not least because it’s easier for people with privilege than people from more vulnerable or underrepresented contexts, but I feel like if we were all more comfortable to share more of ourselves, so much more would be possible. If we were more uninhibited to share our creative ideas with each other, we might see more interesting collaborations; innovations that otherwise would never have been possible. If we increase the surface area of our possible connections, we increase the chances that one of those connections hits home so deeply and meaningfully that it changes our lives.

I want you to feel free to share more of you. I want to feel free to share more of me. Let’s make a pact to give ourselves the freedom to be human, to experiment with form and creativity, to make things that don’t work, to just go for it and see what happens.

I don’t think we can do that if the form of our communications is limited to a small text box owned by some company somewhere, where the user experience has been optimized and averaged-out in order to maximize engagement and revenue. I think we need to own our communications again, stop sanding off our edges or letting people with a profit motive sand our edges off for us. Let’s be weird. Let’s whisper and shout and sing. Let’s try new shit. I wish we could all stop being beige and start being our full selves with each other. I wish we could stop trying to fit ourselves into boxes that other people have made for us. Let’s burn the boxes to the fucking ground.

Forty.

I wish I could undo many things. Just strip them from reality.

I also wish I could re-do many things. As in, have a do-over. Take another run at them and hopefully do better.

And I wish I could re-experience many things. Just live through them again, savoring every second, because I know I’ll never get those moments back, that they are perfect and fleeting and gone.

Forty-One.

I wish to be a better partner. I wish to be a better parent. I wish to be a better person. (I’ll keep working.)

Forty-Two.

I wish for a climate in balance that can support every person and every living thing on the planet.

There are so many prerequisites; so many things that have to radically change. I wish for every single decision and dramatic transformation it’ll take to get there.

Forty-Three.

I wish for mutual respect: for ourselves, for our fellow people, for the world and the ecosystem around us, regardless of proximity or origin.

Forty-Four.

I wish for community. I wish for collective empowerment. I wish for inclusion. I wish for a broad awareness of the interrelatedness of all people and all things.

Forty-Five.

I wish to continue living. I wish to live more: a long life that is vibrant, unique, kinetic, and full of light. I wish that for every single one of us.

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My favorite books I read in 2023

A book, held open in the middle

I don’t want to call these the best books I read last year: I read plenty of other well-written, worthy contenders. But these six titles are the ones that stuck with me and left me thinking about them long after I was done; they were, in that sense, my favorites. Maybe you’ll enjoy them too.

Readme.Txt: A Memoir, by Chelsea Manning

This memoir is one of those historical documents that reveal so much about their era, both in its supertext and in small details that are in themselves revealing. As well as the story of her leaks and their aftermath, Chelsea discusses what it’s like to work in military intelligence in gut-wrenching detail.

Regardless of your opinion of her actions (she’s one of my heroes), this is an important and uncompromisingly personal record of our era.

How High We Go in the Dark, by Sequoia Nagamatsu

This ostensibly science fiction novel is not what I thought it was going to be. An early chapter was so heartbreaking that I thought I would have to abandon the book; it brought up feelings of loss I hadn’t felt since my mother died.

I still don’t know if I appreciate the catharsis, but that’s what this book is: the author conjures how deeply we feel in the face of the worst horrors. It’s poetry, in a way, using science fiction as a particular kind of lens. Artful and devastating.

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

A riveting analysis of the late-stage internet era, using the parallel paths of Naomis Klein and Wolf as a device to examine the multiple realities we've constructed for ourselves.

I particularly agree with a conclusion that pulls no punches about how to correct our paths and potentially save ourselves.

Severance, by Ling Ma

I loved this story about loss, meaning, and what it means to be an immigrant, dressed up as a science fiction novel. As with ‌ How High We Go in the Dark, this is my favorite kind of science fiction: speculation as metaphor in order to talk about something far more human.

But the science fiction is good too, and alarmingly close to the real-life global pandemic that took place a few years after it was written. This is a book about disconnection; its resonance goes far beyond its original meaning.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin

I know, I know — it’s on just about everybody’s list.

But this beautiful novel about work, friendship, love, and identity deserves it. I suppose it's about video games too, but not really; it could just as easily be about any creative act.

I loved Zevin's writing, the melancholy through line, and the characterizations (although they've been maligned in some reviews). For me, the work is only diminished by the knowledge that she used concepts from some real-world games (e.g., Train) without credit. Ultimately it’s tangential to the meaning of the work, but it would have been so easy to fix.

Foundry, by Eliot Peper

A knockabout spy adventure that takes a few unexpected turns and sticks a landing that had me cheering.

It’s truly a lot of fun - I inhaled it in one sitting. It's also deeply researched, in a way where the detail only ever adds to the entertainment. (Without spoiling anything, I'm very familiar with some of the settings and cultural overtones, and they rang completely true.)

There are knowing callbacks to some of Eliot's earlier work (he’s clearly building a world across his novels), but this stands alone, and could be the start of a new series that I would gladly read the hell out of.

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Looking forward to 2024

The word 2024 made out of balloons

Let’s get this out of the way first: 2024 is going to be a hard year across the board. Mass layoffs, another hottest year on record, escalating conflicts with enormous human tolls and flagrant human rights violations in Gaza and Ukraine, not just a declining media but a declining democracy, an oligarchic class that appears to actively reject any policies that might help the vulnerable communities they profit from, and a US general election with wide ramifications that nobody is looking forward to. On a macro level, the time from 2016 to now has felt like hard year after hard year, and I don’t believe it’s going to let up.

I don’t think you can make personal resolutions (or talk about tech or anything else) without acknowledging that context. Sorry to be a downer: 2023 was a difficult year, and 2024 will be too.

I like to make strong resolutions, loosely held. Life comes at you fast, and it’s better to adapt and take care of yourself in the moment than to adhere to a rigid set of intentions. But even if they end up being ultimately unfulfilled (and I always hope they won’t be), they serve as a good North Star for venturing forth into the new year. I won’t be grading myself based on whether I succeed at the end of the year; the exercise of thinking about them is valuable enough.

This last year, I bit off a little more than I could chew, particularly with respect to time management. I really value having clear, unstructured, creative time, and I didn’t leave enough space for that. So I want to pare down my expectations while trying to get healthier and focusing on the things I really care about.

So, here’s how I’m thinking about getting through 2024.

Health

In 2024 I want to increase my fitness and reduce my overall body mass.

For the first half of 2021, I managed to get myself to a point where I was running a 5K almost every day. For some runners, that’s small potatoes; for me, it was enormous. Then my mother died and I stopped caring. (She stopped telling me to go and exercise, too, which is something she did frequently.)

Running is tied up with some complicated feelings for me. I vividly remember running around my high school track on sports day, coming in near-last, my audience of fellow teenagers laughing at the “SPAM” t-shirt I’d chosen from the top of my to-wear pile. To this day, almost thirty years later, I’m scared of running outside. My 5Ks were all undertaken on a treadmill that we no longer own. (A rowing machine makes more sense for this space, so that’s what I have.)

For most of my life, I’ve been a walker: back in Oxford and Edinburgh, I would wander the city after dinner, sometimes for hours. It’s far harder, these days. Life is more complicated, and a baby at home means I can’t go out and wander with impunity. I’m not complaining — but life is different now, and does demand a different approach to exercise.

Finally, my food intake has been fairly poor for the last few years. In San Francisco, I ate out far too often. Here in Elkins Park, I tend to over-eat: having seconds, indulging in snacks, and so on. Let’s just say that the physical results have been unsurprising.

So in 2024, I want to do three things:

  1. When I’m home and not sick, I want to spend at least 30 minutes on the rowing machine every day.
  2. When it’s feasible, I want to spend at least 90 minutes walking every day (including the hour I spend walking to and from daycare every day).
  3. I’ve had great results from the Whole30 diet in the past. I want to spend at least one 30-day period strictly following it. But then I also want to be more careful: no sweet or junk snacks, no seconds, only drinking alcohol rarely.

Stretch goal: I want to try and get comfortable running around the neighborhood (as an acceptable replacement for walking).

The overall intention is to optimize for feeling good in my body, and for improving my body’s longevity. I will not set a weight loss goal or a strict exercise target.

Reading and Learning

In 2024 I just want to keep reading and learning. Putting a number on it is utterly arbitrary but helps me remember that this is something I want to make time for.

In 2021 I read 43 books, mostly because I had a great book-or-two-a-week pace before my mother’s death. I read some books in 2022 but didn’t set a goal. Then, this year, I set a goal of 26 and read 19.

Next year I’m going to go for two books a month. 24 books. It’s a much lower goal than I might have set a few years ago, but, again: life is more complicated now. That’s totally fine and expected, but my goals should be attainable in that light.

As for learning: this last year I participated in Stanford’s Ethics, Technology + Public Policy for Practitioners course. It was transformational, and I can highly recommend it to everyone (it also comes with an enduring community of alumni). I also continued to subscribe to The Novelry, a private course for aspiring novelists that provides 1:1 feedback and coaching as well as a full audit of a completed manuscript on top of its curriculum. Again, I’ve found it to be useful and motivational.

I’ll keep up The Novelry (until I finish this book) but I’m probably not going to take another course, in the name of keeping my time sane.

Writing

I’m going to finish the damn book. And I’m going to do that by prioritizing it rather than leaving it as a thing that happens if I have enough time. It gets an hour a day until it’s done — end of story (until the story has ended).

Work

For the last few years the focus of my work has been to build empathetic, inclusive technology teams that can serve a well-defined mission. It’s been rewarding, but I’ve realized that I’m hungering for a little bit more, and for the impact of this work to be more outward-facing than inward-facing.

Building great team cultures is important, but it’s inward-looking by nature. The impact is on the happiness of the team, the way the team works, and how it relates to the rest of the organization it sits inside. I don’t want to give up doing that — I think it’s a prerequisite for doing good work, and I love supporting engineers. But I also want to renew my focus on being externally impactful.

Back in the Elgg days, I’d often discover that a non-profit was using the platform to share resources, or that someone had used it to create a site that allowed people with a social mission to accelerate what they were doing. We also got to push the web forward in important ways, for example by prototyping the first open format for data exchange between social networks. That was, frankly, exhilarating. Even now, I still learn from time to time about organizations or social movements that were able to use Elgg to become more efficient or help themselves organize or learn. Quite selfishly, I want to have that sort of impact again.

I don’t know what that looks like yet. I think it involves publishing more code, stories, and case studies at a bare minimum. But it’s enough for me to know that this is something I want to do.

Authenticity and Accountability

I haven’t always lived up to my own expectations or ideals. Sitting with that knowledge is uncomfortable. In particular, in a period of around a year after my mother’s death, I sometimes behaved in a way that makes me shudder today.

It’s all complicated, but owning that I made those decisions, without pathologizing or diminishing their effects, is important and is work that is only partially done. I need to be able to move on from that part of my life, which means completing that work, and doing it based on my own sense of ethics and equity.

And with that: I’m a people-pleaser, sometimes to the point of codependency, and it’s only been recently that I’ve understood why that is harmful. So I need to work on that, too.

All of those things will allow me to share more freely, show up better in all of my communities as myself rather than the person I think people want me to be, and move forward with real purpose.

The World

As I mentioned, it’s going to be a difficult year. In this kind of context, I think one of the imperatives is to loudly advocate for the world you actually want to inhabit.

That means being clear and uncompromising about what my values and positions actually are, and living in a way that is true to those values.

I will not support platforms that financially support Nazis or white supremacy. I’ve already cleared my newsletter from Substack and discontinued my X/Twitter account; I will watch carefully to see if other platforms I use contravene this principle.

I will not support colonial or nationalist policies or the people who espouse them. For example, I am clear that I do not support Israel’s ongoing actions in Gaza (and that it is not anti-semitic for me to say so). I am clear that I am not interested in “American interests”; instead, I am interested in global well-being.

I will always support peace over war.

I will continue to advocate for social infrastructure like socialized healthcare, integrated public transit, and welfare, and speak out against libertarianism and conservatism that seeks to undermine those needs.

I will continue to support and amplify diversity, inclusion, and distributed equity.

I will continue to support the right to vote, and democracy itself, as a fundamental human right.

I will be mindful of the environment in the midst of what is not just climate change but a climate crisis.

I will always advocate for community over individualism and care for vulnerable people over a person’s selfish interests. But I will also always advocate for individual self-expression, the ability to be an entrepreneur, and the opportunity to financially (or otherwise) succeed, as long as community and care obligations are met, and as long as opportunities are equal and equitable.

And not only is there nothing wrong with loudly saying so, not loudly proclaiming what you believe is acquiescence to the status quo.

In summary

I want to:

  1. Be physically and mentally healthier
  2. Be more externally impactful in my work
  3. Finish my book
  4. Show up more authentically in my communities
  5. Stand up for what I believe in

What are your goals for 2024?

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Looking back at 2058

Farmers with cybernetic backpacks

2058 was many things: the hottest year in recorded history, a year when civil rights protests made national news in the face of deepening inequality, and where conflicts and the climate crisis turned millions of people into refugees around the globe.

But it was also a year marked by rapid technological change. While the traditional internet has long been split into siloed national networks divided by starkly different local legislation and restrictive private ownership of the underlying backbone, the decentralized airnet has grown from an illicit activist project designed to overcome these divisions as a way to organize for global peace into a legitimate network that’s beginning to be noticed by commercial interest. It helps that the network is designed to swiftly route around damage like surveillance: a truly peer-to-peer architecture rather than the hub-and-spoke “faux-deration” model of yore.

Some of these nascent services carry the names of their long-departed internet forebears: the likes of AirBay and, yes, AirBnb play on our nostalgia for the bygone internet era. It’s been argued that these services are a way to embrace, extend, and extinguish the airnet from a network designed for global peace into a neutered continuation of the status quo, but most users appreciate the new services. Even critics who believed the airnet was a way to undermine the cold civil war effort have found it harder to avoid the lure of airhubs by the likes of The New York Times and ESPN.

Illicit graphene printing is also rife. Of course, use of the printers without a license was banned globally some years ago, but because any graphene printer (with enough ink) can print the components for another whole printer, it’s been hard to regulate. The ink itself can be synthesized from kelp and ash, which has created a new black market industry around the eastern Pacific coast and in areas like northern Scotland. Recipes for equipment like window solar arrays and air-gen panels are becoming more common, particularly with in the light of the failure of many local electricity grids, and this decentralized approach to power generation has also led to the growth of more airnet hubs — which, of course, was the reason for the bans in the first place, because of the security threat that decentralized power and information presents. (Who is to say that the technology couldn’t be used to build a terrorist power plant?) Nonetheless, while there are no official figures for obvious reasons, anecdotal evidence suggests that growth shows no signs of stopping.

Which brings us to the cold war itself. From an admittedly-privileged position in the Democratic States, it’s been fascinating to watch the Free States continue to iterate their underlying models. Each state, of course, continues to have a CEO and Board of Directors drawn from investors and highly-prized advisors. While the investors are known — firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Elon Musk’s Capital Punishment — the Limited Partners remain private. It’s not clear who, exactly, is backing the firms that put money into Free States like TenSC, but each one is experimenting with a different model of governance that you could imagine other nations picking up and learning from. In particular, Bama’s reliance on Proof of Effort blockchains that pay wired-up migrant farmworkers based on a combination of exertion and produce has been drawing some attention from elsewhere, particularly for its use of children.

Without visiting, it’s hard to know which stories about these states are true, and which have been embellished in order to create a desired impression. Still, based on the first-hand accounts that have been published to onion airhubs, the culture has been one of enforced techno-optimism, which is to say, rigid, ruthless discrimination conducted with a bleach-white smile. Disappointing but not surprising.

Because governance and religion are both conducted almost universally through AI agents, warfare has been relatively straightforward: the Democratic States have seeded training data that benefits our interests; a fact wrong here, a piece of advice wrong there. Algorithmic propaganda has grown an entire industry of malware prompt engineering, but even without Democratic interference, the Free States have been trending towards decline, with food lines growing longer and fuel getting scarcer. Lifestyles depend on goods long-since frowned upon in the Democratic States — tobacco, alcohol, meat — which are becoming scarcer in the face of diminishing resources. The consensus is that it’s only a matter of time before they implode and rejoin the Union. (I wonder if we’ll keep Proof of Effort and all the rest of it?)

Entertainment this year was an improvement, largely due to the Certified Human movement. I enjoyed watching TV shows that had been written by real people; although the linear storytelling took a little getting used to, the imperfections reminded me of watching the grain dance on real film, before algorithmic upscaling made every image lifelessly flawless. Doctor Who — still the best show ever made — is wonderful in its 95th year, and I enjoyed the Barbie remake. I could have done without the all-synthetic Expendables remake, but what can you do. Some people still love watching mindless action, even if every single star is dead.

What should we look forward to in 2059? Hopefully some reclamation of the abandoned nations now that climate tech is beginning to make them relivable, and perhaps a new treaty with President Thunberg that will make travel possible again. We can hope. Some people say that Mark Zuckerberg will return from exile, but we’ll see.

In the meantime, onwards. Happy New Year! I’ll raise a glass of gr8 juice to you all.

 

Image by ChatGPT.

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Leaving the Nazi bar

Newsletter subscribers might be surprised to see a slightly new design. I’ve moved away from Substack and back to Buttondown, an indie mailing list service. Every email will be free from now on; paid subscribers will be refunded in full.

Why? Here’s the New York Times with the story:

Under pressure from critics who say Substack is profiting from newsletters that promote hate speech and racism, the company’s founders said Thursday that they would not ban Nazi symbols and extremist rhetoric from the platform.

[…] “We believe that supporting individual rights and civil liberties while subjecting ideas to open discourse is the best way to strip bad ideas of their power,” he said.

I take a slightly different view.

My take is this: if a Nazi is removed from a service, their right to free speech has not been infringed. They have the ability to publish on the web or to join a service where their content is tolerated. That kind of speech is simply not allowed in that particular place.

Think of the web as a series of living rooms. If you’re in my living room, I have the right to kick you out if you start being abusive to me or other people in the room. I get to set the rules in my space so that other people can feel safe to be there. Different people have different values, so their living rooms might have different rules. But I get to set mine.

I also get to decide which rooms I want to be in, and which rooms I want to invite other people into. I don’t have any interest in hanging out in a room with Nazis, and I certainly don’t have any interest in inviting my friends to hang out there with me. If I find that the owner of the living room allows people who make me or my friends feel unsafe — or, as is true in this case, pays them to hang out there, and makes money from their presence — I can use the law of two feet to leave.

Which is what I’ve done. And if you’re still on Substack, I encourage you to do the same.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael B Tager’s Nazi bar story, which I’ll copy and paste in full below (now that he’s left X/Twitter and the original source is lost to time):

I was at a shitty crustpunk bar once getting an after-work beer. One of those shitholes where the bartenders clearly hate you.

So the bartender and I were ignoring one another when someone sits next to me and he immediately says, “no. get out.”

And the dude next to me says, “hey i’m not doing anything, i’m a paying customer.”

and the bartender reaches under the counter for a bat or something and says, “out. now.” and the dude leaves, kind of yelling. And he was dressed in a punk uniform, I noticed

Anyway, I asked what that was about and the bartender was like, “you didn’t see his vest but it was all nazi shit. Iron crosses and stuff. You get to recognize them.”

And i was like, ohok and he continues. “you have to nip it in the bud immediately. These guys come in and it’s always a nice, polite one. And you serve them because you don’t want to cause a scene. And then they become a regular and after awhile they bring a friend. And that dude is cool too.

And then THEY bring friends and the friends bring friends and they stop being cool and then you realize, oh shit, this is a Nazi bar now. And it’s too late because they’re entrenched and if you try to kick them out, they cause a PROBLEM. So you have to shut them down.”

And i was like, “oh damn.”

and he said “yeah, you have to ignore their reasonable arguments because their end goal is to be terrible, awful people.”

And then he went back to ignoring me. But I haven’t forgotten that at all.

Let’s avoid frequenting Nazi bars.

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X and the Digital Services Act

Elon Musk, pictured at TED.

The EU has opened up an investigation into Elon Musk’s X:

X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, may have broken the European Union’s tough new Digital Services Act rules, regulators said as they announced the opening of a formal investigation today. A key concern of the investigation is “the dissemination of illegal content in the context of Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel,” the European Commission says.

What actually counts as illegal content under the Digital Services Act isn’t completely clear-cut:

What constitutes illegal content is defined in other laws either at EU level or at national level – for example terrorist content or child sexual abuse material or illegal hate speech is defined at EU level. Where a content is illegal only in a given Member State, as a general rule it should only be removed in the territory where it is illegal.

So, for example, what is considered illegal in Germany under the DSA isn’t necessarily illegal in Ireland or Poland. Service providers therefore have to keep a matrix of content rules for each EU member state, and remove any given piece of content only in the jurisdictions where it is illegal.

In addition to policing illegal content, seventeen named Very Large Online Platforms (X, Meta, YouTube, TikTok, the Apple App Store, and so on) and the two largest search engines also need to assess their impact on four broad categories of what the legislation calls systemic risk:

  • “The sale of products or services prohibited by Union or national law, including dangerous or counterfeit products, or illegally-traded animals”
  • “The actual or foreseeable impact of the service on the exercise of fundamental rights, as protected by the Charter, including but not limited to human dignity, freedom of expression and of information, including media freedom and pluralism, the right to private life, data protection, the right to non-discrimination, the rights of the child and consumer protection”
  • “The actual or foreseeable negative effects on democratic processes, civic discourse and electoral processes, as well as public security”
  • “Concerns relating to the design, functioning or use, including through manipulation, of very large online platforms and of very large online search engines with an actual or foreseeable negative effect on the protection of public health, minors and serious negative consequences to a person's physical and mental well-being, or on gender-based violence”

When assessing these risks, those platforms are required to consider their content and advertising algorithms, content moderation policies, terms and conditions, and data policies.

So the EU’s investigation into X isn’t just around X distributing illegal content (which it potentially is, given the proliferation of straight-up Nazi content that is illegal in at least one member country). It’s also around whether X is doing enough — and, reading between the lines, whether it’s even actively trying — to mitigate those systemic harms.

It’s also explicitly around whether the new blue checks are deceptive, given that they purport to verify a user as authentic when, in reality, anyone can pay to obtain one. (If you’re wondering if this really is deceptive, just ask Eli Lilly.)

Finally, X hasn’t allowed researchers access to the platform for auditing purposes, violating a principle of transparency which is enshrined by the Digital Services Act. Following changes to the platform, access to data for research purposes has been severely curtailed:

Social media researchers have canceled, suspended or changed more than 100 studies about X, formerly Twitter, as a result of actions taken by Elon Musk that limit access to the social media platform, nearly a dozen interviews and a survey of planned projects show. […] A majority of survey respondents fear being sued by X over their findings or use of data. The worry follows X's July lawsuit against the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) after it published critical reports about the platform's content moderation.

Regardless of how you feel about Elon Musk and X — as regular readers know, I have my own strong feelings — I’m struck by the level of compliance required by the Act, and how I might think about that if I ran X.

If I was in Musk’s place, I think these things would be true:

  • Blue checks would indicate a verified identity only. They might be paid-for, but it would not be possible to obtain one without verifying your ID. The same rule would apply for every user. (Currently, my account has a blue checkmark, but I can assure you that I don’t pay for X.)
  • Researchers from accredited institutions would have access to all public data via a free research license.
  • I would be careful not to personally promote or favor any political viewpoint.
  • The accounts of previous rule violators like Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones would have remained banned.

I honestly don’t know how I would adhere to the illegal content rule, though. The level of human content moderation required to keep illegal content out of various jurisdictions seems very high, almost to the point of making running a service like X prohibitive.

Of course, this isn’t unique to the EU. Any country has the ability to mark content as illegal if a platform does business there. It just so happens that the EU has the strongest codification of that idea, which is going to be onerous to comply with for many companies.

Which maybe it should be. I don’t know that we gain much by having giant social platforms that seek to serve all of humanity across all nations, owned by a single private company. It’s almost impossible for a company to serve all markets well with trust and safety teams that understand local nuances, and when you underserve a market, bad things happen — as they did when Facebook under-invested in content safety in Myanmar, leading to the genocide of the Rohingya. It’s not at all that I think these platforms should be able to run as some kind of global free market with no rules; that kind of cavalier approach leads to real and sometimes widespread harms.

Instead, I think an approach where the social web is made out of smaller, more local communities, where owners and moderators are aware of local issues, may prove to be safer and more resilient. A federated social web can allow members of these communities to interact with each other, but everyone’s discourse won’t be owned by the same Delaware C Corporation. In this world, everyone’s conversations can take place on locally-owned platforms that have appropriate rules and features for their locality. It’s a more sustainable, distributed, multi-polar approach to social media.

The Digital Services Act is onerous, and I think it probably needs to be. The right for companies to do business doesn’t outweigh the right of people to be free from harm and abuse. Whether X has the ability to keep running under its rules shouldn’t be the yardstick: the yardstick should be the rules needed to protect discourse, allow vulnerable groups to communicate safely, and to protect people from harm overall.

 

Image by James Duncan Davidson, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

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Spider moments

When I was eleven years old, my family relocated to the outskirts of Durham, North Carolina for a little while while my dad taught at Duke. We home-swapped with an abortion doctor, and our temporary home was sometimes pelted with eggs. My parents asked us not to play in the rooms of the house where the windows faced the road.

I attended an elementary school straight out of an American TV show. It was all stuff I’d never seen before: the desks and chairs were those all-in-one units, all aligned in rows. There was an American flag in the classroom. The cafeteria served unrecognizable pizza, Sloppy Joes, a pulled pork concoction that resembled tuna more than anything else, and ice cream cones that had been thawed and refrozen so many times that they were chewy.

I always feel like a fish out of water, but Durham made me feel like I’d launched out of the fishbowl, hit escape velocity, and found myself in another galaxy. It was all little things, though, mostly without consequence. I refused to stand to pledge allegiance to the flag, but nobody really batted an eyelid. Everyone was really into fishing for some reason, and the first time I tried it my fishing pole ended up in a tree. Camo gear was really popular, as if everyone thought they were on some kind of battlefront. Everyone was obsessed with New Kids on the Block. And the local animals were a little more dangerous than I, coming from a place that had exactly zero venomous creatures, understood.

Generally, I think spiders are our friends; an important, benign part of our ecosystem. I’d always just picked them up and moved them if they showed up inside. Some people are irrationally afraid of them, but I’ve never been one.

So when everyone seemed terrified of a spider hanging out on a fence at school, I thought they were really silly. Which is why I walked up to the fence, lay my hand on it, and let the spider crawl on me for a while.

It was only later that I understood how dangerous a black widow spider actually is — particularly to an eleven year old. It was one of the most profoundly stupid things I ever did as a kid.

There’s no real lesson here, except perhaps to stop and listen to other people who might know more than you, even if you think you’re being silly. But I do sometimes think about what might have happened if the spider hadn’t taken kindly to me. It was one of those points where, had my luck run a little bit differently, absolutely everything could have changed.

Spider moments, let’s call them. Life is full of them. And all we can do is try to be a little less stupid and a little more prepared.

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A pre-Christmas novel update

I’d been doing pretty well on my manuscript until I realized I needed to make a major plot revision. That’s been a tough thing to go back and re-edit for. For a few months I was paralyzed between just rewriting the whole thing or diving into extensive re-edits.

I chose to go back and re-edit. At this point in the year, I’m almost all the way through. It’s not a particularly environmentally friendly process, but here’s what worked for me:

  1. Print out each chapter in turn
  2. Read through it on paper
  3. Make notes on it with a Sharpie
  4. Go back into Ulysses and make changes
  5. Re-read it on paper again
  6. Make any necessary edits that I catch on the second pass

It’s been good. I caught a few other mistakes and inconsistencies this way — and deleted more words than I’ve added, which I don’t think is a bad sign — and I think this is a process that’ll work for me when I come to do my actual edit.

I’d lost a little momentum, but I’m hoping that I can catch up the draft by Christmas, and then re-embark on writing the rest of the story. I think the change strengthens my story considerably, and I’m pretty excited about where it’s going next.

The topics I play with in the novel won’t be a surprise to anyone who’s read my posts for a while, but the ideas and the story hopefully will be. I’m looking forward to sharing it with some beta readers sometime next year, once I’ve completed the draft and gone through the thematic and line-by-line edits.

And then who knows? Finding an agent and courting publishers isn’t a million miles away from raising money as a startup founder, but I’m not allowing myself to consider that stage in proceedings until I have a fully-baked product that I feel like is worth sharing. So for now: on with the work.

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What should I do with my Twitter

I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with my Twitter/X account. I don’t want to leave it dormant, because the current policy is to reclaim usernames from accounts that don’t post, which creates a risk that someone will come along and claim to be me later on. (I’d canceled my account but revived it for this reason.) I also don’t want to post, because the current owner is a dumpster fire of noxious ideas, down to and including reinstating the account of Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones.

I have automatic posting set up for my bookmarks to other places, and for a while I’ve been posting them to Twitter, too. But I don’t think this is the right approach; it’s still actual, ongoing use of the network.

So for now, I have a timed post that publishes every day, which reads as follows:

In protest of Elon Musk's policies, actions, and promotion of white supremacist figures and rhetoric, I won't post here anymore.

You can find me on:

Threads: https://threads.net/@ben.werdmuller
Mastodon: https://werd.social/@ben
My website: https://werd.io

You should leave too.

A little bit of a nudge to jump ship, as well as a signpost to where we can connect elsewhere.

What do you think? What have you done?

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Predictions for journalism 2024

A newspaper coming off the press

I participated in this year’s NiemanLab Predictions for Journalism. My prediction is about AI flooding the web with spammy, bland content — and the techniques newsrooms will need to use to connect with their communities:

Newsrooms that commit to AI-driven storytelling as a way to cut costs while increasing output will be lost in a sea of similarly bland content and spammy marketing. Newsrooms that cling to traditional SEO and social media tactics will find that they become less and less effective in the face of more and more noise.

In contrast, the newsrooms that survive the flooding of the web are going to be the ones that report deeply, commit to diverse representation, invest in investigative journalism in the public interest, and choose to meet their communities where they’re at by doing things that don’t scale to engage them.

Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, Dana Lacey predicts that publishers will embrace open source:

[Publishers] will finally see open source software as a competitive advantage, and the cheapest way to keep up with the pace of innovation. They’ll explore ways to use open source technology to combat disinformation, personalize content, and reach new audiences by tapping into global expertise.

Andrew Losowsky invites newsrooms to learn from influencers as a way of building trust:

Journalism has to rebuild itself around the real needs of our communities. To do this effectively, we first need to show up for them. We need to be more approachable and present, to ask and answer ongoing questions, to encourage and engage in discussions around what and how we cover, to show up for our communities in good times as well as bad, to reward and encourage loyalty, to create near-seamless access to our work, and to provide real, demonstrable value with everything we make. In other words, learn from influencers through the lens of engaged journalism.

Sisi Wei discusses “news mirages” — news that looks trustworthy but isn’t news at all:

Rapid developments in AI (and the billions in funding being poured into it) are making it easier and easier for bad actors to conjure these mirages using text, audio, photo, and video, using quantity to overwhelm the little oases of quality information communities manage to access.

[…] In 2024, journalists must double-down on finding, publishing, and distributing quality independent information to fill the void. It’s not enough to only dispel the illusions created by news mirages. If we only debunk misinformation without publishing quality information of our own, we have only shifted a news mirage back into a news desert.

Upasna Gautam calls for newsrooms to learn how to build product in a more agile way (which they frankly should have a long time ago):

Central to an agile environment is the core concept of iterative development cycles. These succinct sprints, spanning two to four weeks, liberate development teams from the constraints of traditional waterfall methodologies. They empower teams not just to deliver software but to orchestrate incremental improvements, enabling swift adaptation to emerging trends and seamless integration of user feedback.

Amethyst J. Davis bluntly calls for the PressForward funding initiative to prove itself to the Black press:

How are the neediest of newsrooms supposed to trust Press Forward when public and private funders involved have already tried to lock us out? We all have stories.

I know so many Black-centered newsroom leaders who’ve expressed doubt about Press Forward behind the scenes. They’ve been told they should keep their comments quiet because they’ll lose out on critical dollars.

The whole list is a check on the pulse of how the news industry is thinking. I love it, and feel very privileged to contribute. You can check it out here.

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Being a humanist technologist

An abstract image of a semi-closed laptop in a dark room

I was very taken by Robin Berjon’s description of technologists:

Someone needs to navigate the digital world (for a business, a project, any institution) without blind deference to vertical experts, and without monkeying dumb Silicon Valley tropes or giving credence to breathless LinkedIn thoughtleadering.

The full post is a solid description of the sort of generalist who can write code and understands product principles but can also gather multidisciplinary threads together in order to help an organization understand and navigate technology more holistically. I see myself in it, and I see a lot of other people I’ve worked with. I’d love to see a dedicated position for this kind of person, because, selfishly, it’s exactly the kind of thing I do.

The closest I’ve probably come is as a founder, where you have to be a generalist; a CTO at a non-technical organization, where you necessarily have to understand technology holistically to build and advise on strategy; and as a Director of Investments, where you invest based on your understanding of these trends. It’s not surprising, then, that those are my favorite jobs over my career.

It also brought up something else for me. It’s never been obvious that I’d fit well into a larger tech company. My interactions in those environments have left me with an understanding that their cultures are largely logical and analytical. That’s not a criticism any way; you’d probably expect that from a largely engineering-based organization. But it’s also not quite how my brain works, and I’ve been unhappy when I’ve tried to force myself to be that person.

Myers-Briggs is astrology for business and should never, ever be used to hire or assess a team member. Still, I’ve found it to be a useful way to think about my own traits, alongside other tests I’ve taken along the way (the CliftonStrengths test, Dimensional, and so on). Consistently, by every measure, I land more on the feeling-perceiving line: some version of INFP. My experience of the world is in line with this: I’m interested in abstract ideas and human impacts more than details and logical intricacies.

Don’t get me wrong: I can code productively, and have built entire companies by doing so. But I’m not motivated by the code or the fundamental problems themselves. My motivation is always human. That inevitably means I’ve become more of a technical generalist than a deep expert on any particular technical topic; more or less the kind of person Robin described.

I was originally more drawn to coding as self-expression than coding as formal engineering. It took years for me to understand the difference, but there’s a gulf in approaches. An expressive coder will often get to great results but is nowhere near as disciplined. I had to forcibly retrain myself to be comfortable with style guidelines, code review, and all the belts and braces that make great engineering teams really successful. They’re really important, but as someone who wanted to short-cut to the human impact, it took me a little while to come around.

It’s not just me, by the way: often mission-driven teams are lean towards creative coders rather than engineers. I’ve found that, when I’ve come across a team that’s grown around creative coding rather than engineering, it’s taken a lot of time, effort, and practice to reframe the job and grow those skills.

I’ve learned how to help teams do that. I’ve also become good at supporting engineers as three-dimensional human beings, and intuitively understanding their needs. I’m also good at finding the needs of people we’re trying to help, and wrangling some of the existential problems that lie at the heart of building a productive team culture. Being successful, for me, has been about accepting my INFP-ness rather than trying to shoehorn myself into another shape — and partnering with great, detail-oriented engineers who I can deeply support.

Long before Robin’s post, I was describing myself as a “humanist technologist”. I eventually took it off my profiles because I don’t think anyone but me knew what it meant. Here’s another attempt:

  • Humanist: someone who is motivated to improve personal and social conditions
  • Technologist: a generalist whose expertise spans engineering, product, and policy, who can use multidisciplinary skills in order to help organizations to navigate technology issues and build a strategy

A humanist technologist, then, is someone who uses multidisciplinary skills to help organizations use or understand technology in order to improve personal and social conditions.

  • We’re not primarily engineers, but we can read, write, architect, and evaluate code.
  • We’re not primarily product managers, but we can navigate trends, human needs, and organizational priorities in order to set goals and build plans.
  • We can develop and communicate strong policy positions based on our understanding of the technology, business, and human sides of a problem.
  • We can rally a community and help galvanize our colleagues around a solution that makes a human impact.

I think it’s a better description of what I do. I think I’ll return it to my profile; I wish there was a way to make the description more mainstream. If nothing else, it will serve as a reminder that there’s plenty of room for people in technology who are motivated by people more than the technology itself, and that they should feel welcome.

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A fistful of Matters

Matter - coaching, consulting & training for executives and entrepreneurs. Plus managing 74 accelerator investments from 2012-2018.

Matter - an iOS app designed to help you capture the best moments in your life, collect and reflect on your memories of good experiences, understand how those experiences affect you on a molecular level, and use your best memories to shape the life you want.

Matter - team recognition and rewards, all in Slack or Microsoft Teams.

Matter - pulls everything you want to read into one beautiful place.

Matter - a global healthcare startup incubator, community nexus and corporate innovation accelerator headquartered in Chicago.

Matter - an innovation company pioneering technology solutions for capturing, harvesting and recycling microplastics.

Matter - one protocol to connect compatible devices and systems with one another.

Matter - strengthen your investments with granular ESG data.

Mttr - a singular place for making sense of the world, collectively, and participating in productive discourse.

Matter - a new venture fund backed by Kleiner Perkins and TSMC.

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Doing it all

A family's hands

I’ve been struggling a little bit to re-find my creative rhythm and balance it with the needs of having and supporting a family.

My day — every day — looks like this:

  • Woken up by baby
  • Get baby ready for daycare (breakfast, clothes, etc)
  • Walk to daycare and back
  • Eat breakfast
  • Work
  • Walk back to daycare and back to retrieve baby
  • Play with baby
  • Make and have dinner
  • Put baby to bed
  • Post-baby exhaustion time / other household work

That last bullet point in my day is where I could be doing more to work on creative projects. By that time, though, I’m usually wiped out by the day: I’m not going to produce anything close to good work. It’s a great time to read and reflect, but less so to produce anything new, because by that time I’ve spent my entire day producing.

This is in contrast to my twenties, when I’d return from work and be able to spend at least a few hours working on creative projects. That’s how my startups were initially built, and really how I learned to do anything of value.

Now, obviously, my baby is incredibly important. Spending time with him is non-negotiable: anything that reduces that contact time is something I’ll regret later in life. Raising our child takes priority, by some distance, over any other work I’ll ever do.

But I’m also pretty sure other people have figured this out.

There are novelists, artists, creative coders, and startup entrepreneurs who have all found time for their other pursuits in the midst of having a family and doing it well. I feel, though, that I haven’t yet cracked the code.

It’s also occurred to me that if I was simply less exhausted, I’d be able to do more. That likely comes down to some combination of mental and physical fitness. The latter is easy to pinpoint: if I do more exercise, I’ll likely feel better and more energetic. (Baby’s first year of daycare has also meant that everybody gets sick every two weeks, which has not been helpful.) The former has been harder to come by; life has been a lot for the last few years at least, partially because of external factors, and partially because of bad decisions of my own making.

I’m hardly alone. One of the hidden aspects of privilege is access to time. Consider the act of taking him to daycare: we pay a little over $1,800 a month for our fifteen month old to be cared for as part of a small class during the day. In turn, that allows us to work during the day and make money. But imagine if we couldn’t afford an extra $1,800 a month to begin with. (Most people can’t.) Some extended families are able to provide care — the old “it takes a village” maxim — but that care has traditionally created a disproportionate burden for women, and it is more likely to be undertaken in lower income families.

The average age of a successful startup founder is older than you might think: 45 years old. But a lot of founders are younger, in part because they have more time and fewer commitments. When older founders do have time, it’s either because they’re paying for childcare, or their partner is taking the brunt of the childcare work (and probably housework, and so on), or both. This feels like an inclusion problem to solve! Stronger childcare support overall — perhaps like Canada’s new $10 a day childcare system — would free up lots more diverse entrepreneurs and artists to be able to build and create.

I’m comparatively lucky, and my issues are more prosaic. I’m just tired. But for absolutely everyone, more help would probably not go amiss.

If you have a young family and you are managing to spend time on creative work, I’d love to learn from you. Leave your strategies in the comments?

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