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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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It's kind of impressive to see Ghost become a real open source alternative to WordPress. Many people have said it couldn't be done - but by focusing on a certain kind of independent creator (adjacent to both Medium and Substack), they've done it. It's a pretty amazing feat.

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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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A reminder that the whole point of open source, federated technologies is that there doesn't have to be one winner. It's not a market where every vendor is trying to be a monopoly. It's about building a bigger, collaborative pie.

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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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I’m genuinely thinking about starting a new blog about my experiences of fatherhood. It would be good on a new domain rather than be a part of my usual tech journaling. Too much?

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I think Tim Burton is exactly the wrong person to remake Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. I'd watch Greta Gerwig's take on it in a heartbeat, though.

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The rebranding of DEI as an "elite" concern is incredible to me. It's literally about including people from oppressed communities.

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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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Every day I walk back from daycare with an empty stroller, its toddler cocoon open like a burst egg sac, and everyone looks at me like I’m either processing some intense grief or I’ve let something terrible out into the world.

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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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Starting Whole30 today in the midst of a fairly chaotic family time. If you have tips or recipes that helped you get through it, I'd love to hear them!

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I feel like I need someone to hold my hand and really explain how to use Obsidian effectively.

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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.

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It's infuriating when I find a blog I want to subscribe to and it doesn't have any kind of feed. Please please please: if you're writing lots of posts on your website, make sure it has RSS or Atom. Thank you.

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Ma used to say that she liked to think of everyone we'd lost sitting on the beach at Sagelots, having a picnic and looking down at us. I like that image too, but I'd like to think of it as more of a party: there are guitars, and people racing boats out on the water, and everybody else chatting and laughing on the shore. It's cocktail hour, and there are drinks for those who want them.

Aunt Peggy was an amazing person. Her presence was a gift. I'll always think of her as being an integral part of our shared favorite place in the world. And I'll miss her a lot.

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OMG Erin got me a Little Free Library for my birthday. I'm genuinely so excited. I can't wait to put it together and fill it with radical literature!

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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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On the same day we hear about Boeing wanting a safety process waiver for the Boeing 737 Max, a window blows out on one en route to California. I’ve already been booking flights to make sure I fly on an Airbus instead, and I think I’ll keep it up. I will not fly on a 737 Max.

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I let my One Medical subscription lapse. What seemed like an almost magically good healthcare service in the beginning became rushed and dehumanizing. I still miss the NHS very much indeed - Americans deserve well-designed universal healthcare.

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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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