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Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy.
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42.

It's my birthday. I was originally going to write one of those reflective pieces along the lines of "here's 42 things I've learned" or "version 42.0" or some Douglas Adams reference, but given everything that's been going on in the world, and my mother's decline in the next room, I just can't.

I believe that the Trump presidency has been a dying gasp of the 20th century. I'm really hopeful that the events of this month are the dying gasp.

If that turns out to be true, there's a lot to look forward to. If not, then there's a lot to be worried about. As of right now, the future is in the balance.

 

Questions on the storming of our Capitol

Hey, where was this insurrection organized?

Where? On a social network, you say? Which one?

Oh wow. I bet the CEO is hurrying to ensure its platform doesn’t undermine democracy!

What’s that? Oh. Oh.

So I bet their employees must be walking out in droves!

What’s that?

I see, I see.

So I bet its users are leaving en masse?

What?

Oh, right. Right, of course not.

.

 

The new age of privacy

I've got less than zero sympathy for companies like Facebook which argue they will be hurt by greater user privacy provisions. If your business model depends on building surveillance infrastructure and aggregating as much information as possible about peoples' private lives, your business does not deserve to survive. Apple's greater privacy provisions aren't anti-competitive; they're pro human rights.

Privacy is a human right. Surveillance has a chilling effect on free speech and freedom of association, which we consider to be fundamental tenets of democracy. Sure, you can make a bunch of money by learning everything you can about an individual and selling access to their attention. But not everything that is profitable should be permissible.

The European GDPR has turned out to be a very useful piece of legislation. It's very difficult for internet services to divide out their infrastructure between European users and everyone else, so in effect, those provisions have typically been applied for every user. The California Consumer Privacy Act has a similar effect, not least because most major internet services are based here. But we need a federal privacy law, and an international understanding that privacy is a human right that must be upheld on the internet as well as everywhere else.

Facebook claims that a reduction in its advertising capabilities will hurt small businesses. It's a disingenuous argument. Facebook has consistently adjusted its newsfeed algorithm to reduce the reach of organic pages; it's now often around 3%, forcing brands to advertise in order to reach their followers. If Facebook didn't depend on targeted advertising for revenue, it wouldn't have had the incentive to adjust its algorithm in this way, and small businesses wouldn't be hurt. Even more importantly, it might have reacted differently to pogroms in Myanmar, election manipulation, and the well-being of its moderators, among other things.

Surveillance capitalism has undermined democracy all over the world, and created a global infrastructure that authoritarian governments could previously only have dreamed of.

It's coming to an end. It's inevitable. GDPR, the CCPA, and emerging privacy legislation all over the world will make this kind of tracking untenable. Apple isn't standing alone here; it's merely a little bit ahead of the curve. This oncoming trend means that architectures and services that protect your privacy aren't just good for users: they're a good investment.

The Wayne Gretzky quote is a cliché at this point, but every technology investor needs to skate where the puck is going. (The really great ones figure out trends that few others have seen.) The puck, in this case, is heading square on for greater privacy. This doesn't necessarily mean a reduction in ad-based businesses: as it turns out, non-tracking ads are generally about as lucrative as personalized ads. I think we'll see a mix. But does mean a reduction in tracking infrastructure, and a major sea change in the way we think about monetizing consumer technology.

Founders love to answer questions about revenue with, "we'll sell the data". It's never been a great answer. But in the new, privacy-enabled internet, selling data won't be as possible. This is good and right. Instead, I'm hopeful that we'll see a return to user-centric architectures and user experiences, and a decline in user-hostile practices like tracking. After all, we're here to build solutions for people, and to improve their lives with technology. Eroding democracy and human rights by making a profit by any means necessary shouldn't be something we aspire to do; it's also something founders who don't care about the well-being of their users shouldn't have the ability to do without severe repercussions.

 

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

 

Engineering vs writing code

Yesterday, as part of a kick-off presentation for the year, I reminded my team: coding is less than half of an engineer's job.

An engineer's role is to engineer solutions. Writing code is certainly a part of that, but as a means to an end rather than a purpose in itself. If an elegant, scalable solution can be engineered without writing code, fantastic. Conversely, if code is written without exploration, reflection, documentation and validation, or if a solution is built to an imagined problem that doesn't really exist, we're in trouble. Communication, exploration, and collaboration are the biggest parts of the job.

Lots of people get into engineering because they love to work on code. The feeling of building something from nothing is exhilarating: I'm far from the first to note that it's similar to how artists manifest work. But that's programming (or hacking); engineering is a discipline unto itself. There's a popular conception of engineering as being a job you take if you don't want to talk to people, or don't like to write, but neither thing is true. The best engineers are highly social and write to a high standard, as well as having great coding skills. That's because engineers rigorously architect systems to meet their requirements; hackers understand the outcome of what they're trying to build, but their process is more artistic.

I think both spirits are worth embracing, but it's important to accept that they may be embodied in different people. Holding onto the joy of hacking is important; I lost it for a while, and it took literally years to get it back. But engineering requires a different kind of diligence and attention to detail. I confess that I don't think I was really, truly an engineer until I went to work for Medium - and maybe I'm still not one. I could certainly build software (Elgg, Known, Latakoo, a bunch of other things), but my process and discovery skills were underdeveloped. Some of the people I met there, and have met since, were not hackers - they built code rigorously and to a high quality, but had never really built something for the joy of it. For others, it was the opposite; some people fell in the middle. The two things sit side by side but are different.

The trick, I think, is to build the right processes such that engineers take bigger risks in their explorations, and hackers use more rigor. The goal is a creative, detail-oriented team that finds the best solution using the full weight of their diverse skills and creativity, and has fun doing it.

 

Building decentralized social media

Back when I was running Elgg, I'd meet someone every few weeks who wanted to build a competitor to Facebook. Inevitably, they would propose to do this by copying all of Facebook's features verbatim, but (for example) without an ad ecosystem or with a different algorithm for surfacing content. All of them were doomed to fail.

These days, I'm more distant from the alternative social networking ecosystem, but it's easy to spot the same ideas. One might propose a decentralized alternative to Facebook that has all of Facebook's features, for example, and assume that people will flock to it because it's not owned by a corporation. You care about privacy and ownership, after all - if others don't, surely it's just a matter of educating them?

Aside from with a relative handful of enthusiasts, these efforts are probably all doomed to fail, too.

The thing is, privacy and ownership are important, and over the last few years we've seen our quiet worries about silos of data owned by single-point-of-failure corporations grow into a global roar about their role in supporting pogroms and undermining democracies. Nonetheless, we've learned pretty conclusively that privacy and autonomy are not virtues for everyone - actually a lesson learned again and again in the 20th century in particular - so if we want these values to be adopted, we must find another way. The stakes around getting this right have never been higher. (It would have been nice to have gotten this right in 2015 or so, but here we are.)

People, in general, want convenience from their technology, not morality. So instead of building a more ethical version of the past, we need to build a more suitable version of the future. It turns out that data silos have left room for plenty of innovation here: how many people send emails to themselves to save a note, or have had trouble AirDropping to an Android phone? Why do I have to download WhatsApp to talk to my friends in the UK? There are lots of tiny inconveniences that would be made better with openness and a user-centered model.

The same is true of online communities. An artists' community has radically different needs to an activism community, yet on the silos they're shoehorned into the same interface and set of features. Communities for people with restricted vision or motion might perhaps be the most obvious example: why should they have to struggle to use interfaces designed for others? Or better put, why can't they have an internet experience designed for them? A federated galaxy of community platforms, tailored for the specific human communities that use them and linked by Google-like sites that facilitate discovery, would be a more functional internet for many people, and would also decentralize the social web. Over time, discovery could be decentralized, too.

Whatever we're building, we never absolve ourselves from the need to understand our users as people and meet their needs. We might have our own values that we want to convey - software as polemic - but we can't simply inject them into the status quo. We've got to use our values, our intuition, and our understanding of the people we're building our software for to build something new that serves its purpose better than anything that has come before it. That, and nothing less, is the job.

 

Please blog

I'd love to see more of you blog.

A friend of mine recently asked me how I write so much: to him, writing was a daunting task involving staring at a blank screen while he overcame his fear of revealing his inner thoughts. I guess, for me, what it comes down to is that I've lost any fear of looking stupid, mostly through enough repetitive practice of absolutely being stupid online.

Writing is a muscle. Imagine running for the first time: that first run is painful, halting. But once you've done it for a week, it's a little bit easier. A month: easier still. And once you've done it for years, it's like second nature. A part of you. I've been blogging since 1998; at this point, it's just a part of me.

Imagine what the internet would be like if everyone shared how they thought about the world, commercial value be damned. I don't buy the idea that only some people have thoughts worth reading (if I did, I wouldn't be writing this, because I'd almost certainly not be among that group). Everyone has something of value to contribute to our cumulative human experience.

What I get in return is that I feel less alone. When you put yourself out there, and are honest, you tend to find like-minded people, or people who have some honest reaction to your ideas. If you put up a wall, the most people can react to is that façade. So it's best to be you. As it happens, every single meaningful career acceleration I've ever had can be connected back to my blogging. More importantly, I've made a bunch of friends.

So, I think you should blog, too. It doesn't matter where. WordPress, Ghost, Medium, Where.as, Micro.blog, Where.as, Substack, a public Notion page - wherever is comfortable for you. (I co-founded a platform called Known, which I happily still use, mostly for the satisfaction of working with something I helped make.)

And then you should tell me about it. And tell the world. I want to read what you think, and the world does too. We're all richer for sharing out human experiences together.

 

Reading in 2021

A couple of years ago, I realized I wasn't reading books anymore. I was reading a ton - mostly stuff on the web - but I hadn't managed to physically open a book and read it cover to cover. I was ashamed, and immediately made a resolution: that year, I would read fifty books.

It was obviously an arbitrary number: more or less one or week, with room for a little bit of slippage. But having that North Star meant that I read more eclectically and adventurously, and although I didn't quite hit fifty, I read an order of magnitude more than I had the previous year, discovering a host of authors in the process. (Incidentally, this effort was also the origin of my reading roundups every month, which I've also found to be useful retrospectives.)

2020 was a mess, and no more needs to be said about that. Most of the books I "read" were audiobooks, via Libro.fm, which largely replaced my podcast listening. It was hard, for most of the year, to bring my brain to a calm enough place to read words on a page at length.

This year, though, I've decided to revive my 50-book goal. I have a different reason: too often, the last thing I look at when I go to bed is a screen. My intention is to build the very normal and common habit of reading a book before going to sleep, instead of, for example, falling down a web rabbithole or checking Twitter. And I miss the eclectic, long-form thinking that can only be found in books.

It's rare that I'm able to get into a business book: these often feel like overlong blog posts that have been padded out for the prestige of having a publication under the author's belt. Some people pride themselves on only reading these, but I think this limitation forces you to miss out on the wealth of human experience. Fiction is more than a diversion; it's an experimental playground for empathy and human thought. It's weird to me that some people have a stigma around it. Conversely, I don't want to lock myself off from reading business books, and there's certainly a lot to learn. I just think that if something could be a blog post, it should be.

My mother is also an avid reader. Largely confined to her bed, she devours books on her Kindle (because the font size can be increased to satisfy her failing eyesight) and on Audible. Sometimes, when she's stuck in dialysis or having a particularly bad day, my sister will FaceTime her and read to her over a call. When she's done, she records her review in one of those hardback notebooks filled with close-lined paper, and moves immediately onto the next one.

I also feel the need to record what I've read, with some kind of a brief review of how I found it. My equivalent of a notebook is Notion, which I already use to keep track of my bookmarks. I've altered my reading database to keep track of books now, too. It's occurred to me to write a Known plugin to keep track of my reading on this website, and maybe I will, but this seemed like the fastest path to getting into a good habit. Notion has good data exports, and an API is finally coming, so I feel confident I can move my data elsewhere if I ever need or want to. Once the Notion API is out, I'm thinking I'll wire it up to Known as a linkblog, so people who are interested enough can follow my reading as I record it.

I'm also going to post on Goodreads. Although it's getting long in the tooth, and it's controversially retiring its API, it's where a lot of people share their reading and discover new books. So I'll be using that for the time being, mostly so I can discover new titles to read from my friends. Although Goodreads is owned by Amazon, I buy all my books using Bookshop, to avoid giving them any serious money (and to support local booksellers). For now, I'm telling myself that this is an acceptable compromise.

The books themselves? Mostly on paper. My Kindle has been unused for years, and I'm honestly not sure if it even works anymore. And I like the feel of reading a paper book. I realize how selfish this is: billions of trees are cut down to make books, and the environmental impact is non-trivial. The environmental impact of an e-reader is also non-trivial, but as long as you don't upgrade it every year and read 30-40 books a year, you break even. So although one of my goals is to get away from ending each day looking at a screen, I think I need to find a non-DRM encumbered reader with an e-ink screen that I can keep for years, and switch to that. If you're using one, I'd love to hear your recommendations.

Of course, the most important question is: what are you reading? What books have stood out to you that you think I should check out? In all these layers of technology - as with the internet itself - the only things that really matter are the words and ideas, and the authors behind them. I'd love to hear your recommendations.

 

 Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: December 2020

This is my monthly roundup of the tech and media I consumed and found interesting. Here's my list for the final month of the hell-year.

Books

Intimations, by Zadie Smith. Six personal, revealing essays about living in the pandemic. Real; insightful; human.

The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury. A classic, of course, but new to me. I love the way he melds a very folksy, warm linguistic approach with mind-bending, often horrifying ideas.

Streaming

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Anchored by two astonishing performances, this does feel like a filmed play rather than a movie in itself, but is no worse for it. Chadwick Boseman is remarkable; Viola Davis's complete transformation even more so.

Soul. Just about as good a movie as Pixar has ever made - which is to say, it's very good indeed. I'm not sure what kids get out of it, but the themes of parenting and what it means to really live come through loud and clear.

Notable Articles

Business

Corporate Reporting in the Era of Artificial Intelligence. “Company managers specifically consider machine readers, as well as humans, when preparing disclosures.” An interesting new world, where human-readable articles are actually designed for artificial intelligence readers, approaches. SEO was our first toe-dip. Now it's maybe just Robot Reader Optimization?

Investing in Moov: Open Source Financial Services Building Blocks. I really like this approach. Open source + a modular structure will empower just about everyone in the financial services ecosystem, and in turn makes Moov a good investment.

How This CEO Creates an Internal Culture With a “Crazy Focus” on Good Storytelling. "When we have communication issues within the company or with our customers and prospects, it all comes back to the fact that we didn't spend enough time trying to understand the story." I love everything about this.

Death of an Open Source Business Model. I've spent a huge amount of my career - well over a decade - on open source businesses. This all rings true to me, and is an important reminder (unfortunately).

Big Tech risks big fines, and even break-up, under Europe's new content and antitrust rules. I’m not against it.

The Making of a Dumpster Fire. Now this is marketing.

Czech Startup Founders Turn Billionaires Without VC Help. I like this a lot. I use JetBrains personally, but had no idea that this was how the company was built. Inspiring.

Culture

Andrew Bird’s Cozy Melancholy. Andrew Bird is the absolute best.

Why Is Publishing So White?. “There’s a correlation between the number of people of color who work in publishing and the number of books that are published by authors of color.” Which is shown clearly in this very revealing, well-presented data.

Whatever Happened to ______ ?. “There are studies showing that some men “feel insecure” — to put it mildly, and possibly euphemistically — when a woman earns more than her male spouse. What those articles aren’t saying is that a woman’s life may be in danger if she outpaces a male partner in her chosen career, tipping the scales away from tattered patriarchal mythology.” A sad, beautifully-written account of one such story in the arts.

every tv show I have binge-watched since march: part one. “My conclusion is that Buffy is a television show about a beautiful young queer witch named Willow trying and failing to leave her toxic hometown friend group, and the ways in which being unable to let go of the people we loved in our youth who are no longer able to have healthy relationships with us can warp us and turn us evil.”

Media

Mapping Black Media. “We’re offering a map and directory of nearly 300 community media outlets across the U.S. that primarily serve Black communities across the diaspora.”

Substack launches an RSS reader to organize all your newsletter subscriptions. Yes! I welcome new RSS readers with open arms.

A contentious local election revealed an information gap. High school reporters stepped up to fill it.. One of those heartwarming stories that is actually kind of dystopian - local news is vital for democracy - but still, I’m a big fan of this.

'I figured I'd give it a year': Arthur Sulzberger Jr on how the New York Times turned around. “Paul Goldberger, a longtime Times architecture critic and one of the paper’s wisest observers, said the most relevant description of Sulzberger Jr’s philosophy could be found in an Italian novel, The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.””

True equity means ownership. "For far too long, newsroom leaders have been wringing their hands over how to serve Black and brown communities. How many diversity initiatives, recruitment efforts, and implicit-bias trainings do we have to endure without the follow-through?"

Why on Earth Is Someone Stealing Unpublished Book Manuscripts?. “Whoever the thief is, he or she knows how publishing works, and has mapped out the connections between authors and the constellation of agents, publishers and editors who would have access to their material.” Kind of fascinating as a mystery.

Politics

Trump administration officials passed when Pfizer offered months ago to sell the U.S. more vaccine doses.. "Before Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine was proved highly successful in clinical trials last month, the company offered the Trump administration the chance to lock in supplies beyond the 100 million doses the pharmaceutical maker agreed to sell the government as part of a $1.95 billion deal months ago."

Rejecting Opposition From Judiciary, House Passes Bill to Make PACER Free. "The U.S. House on Tuesday passed bipartisan legislation that would make PACER free for the public, handing a win to transparency advocates despite the federal judiciary’s opposition to the bill." Thinking of Aaron Swartz.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping: The Full(est Possible) Story. If you dig into it, the story gets no less remarkable and crazy.

Society

'Juno' Star Elliot Page Announces He Is Transgender. "Hi friends, I want to share with you that I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot. I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life."

New report reveals alleged horrors of sex testings in international sports. Absolutely horrifying story, including forced operations.

'Nobody knows': Experts baffled by mystery illness in India. Extremely troubling.

The pandemic was already testing me. Then a man covered in Nazi tattoos showed up in my ER. “We all saw. The symbols of hate on his body outwardly and proudly announced his views. We all knew what he thought of us. How he valued our lives. But our job was to value his.”

Sharrows, the bicycle infrastructure that doesn’t work and nobody wants. I grew up cycling, and really wish I could feel safe doing it here. I just don't. I've known one person who sadly died in a cycling incident, and many more who have been seriously hurt. We need to take back our cities from cars.

How one woman is building the future for Google in Silicon Valley. I’d say it’s the other way around: one woman is building the future of Silicon Valley on behalf of Google. I’m excited to see this come to fruition, although I wish this kind of thing could be government-driven.

Texas Wedding Photographers Have Seen Some $#!+. "The photographer who got sick after shooting the COVID-positive groom said her experiences throughout the pandemic have left her a little depressed. She recalled one conversation from that wedding, before she left the reception. “I have children,” she told a bridesmaid, “What if my children die?” The bridesmaid responded, “I understand, but this is her wedding day.”"

Tax cuts for rich don't 'trickle down,' study of 18 countries finds. "Large tax cuts for the rich lead to higher income inequality and don't fuel economic growth or cut unemployment, a new paper by academics from the London School of Economics and King's College London says." Ya don't say.

Preindustrial workers worked fewer hours than today's. “Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed. Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure. When capitalism raised their incomes, it also took away their time. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that working hours in the mid-nineteenth century constitute the most prodigious work effort in the entire history of humankind.”

The Life in The Simpsons Is No Longer Attainable. “The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence.” Just an absolute punch in the gut.

The Journalist and the Pharma Bro. “Why did Christie Smythe upend her life and stability for Martin Shkreli, one of the least-liked men in the world?” And she still seems to be neck-deep in his gravitational pull.

Technology

Web Conversations With the Year 2000. It’s funny because it’s true. I thought we’d be in such a different place.

Web Conversation From the Other Side. A more serious rewrite of Paul Ford’s other piece. Both are worth reading side by side.

Command Line Interface Guidelines. “These are what we consider to be the fundamental principles of good CLI design.” Well-researched and smartly presented.

How our data encodes systematic racism. “What is the difference between overpolicing in minority neighborhoods and the bias of the algorithm that sent officers there? What is the difference between a segregated school system and a discriminatory grading algorithm? Between a doctor who doesn’t listen and an algorithm that denies you a hospital bed?”

Social Networking 2.0. A vital piece about the future of the internet. It’s surreal seeing pieces in the more mainstream / less radical tech business sphere talking about things many of us were advocating over ten years ago. But I’m glad we got here.

Firefox Was Always Enough. I agree with all of this. I'm a die-hard Firefox user, for all the reasons that make Mozilla great, and none of the reasons that have caused it problems.

Wildfire smoke is loaded with microbes. Is that dangerous?. I worry about this: having been evacuated for a wildfire, and helping to care for a parent who had to have a lung transplant, this is a confluence of worries. (Filing this under “technology” because I don’t have a “science” category. I should fix this for next month.)

Zoom helped China suppress U.S. calls about Tiananmen, prosecutors allege. Horrendous.

Inside the Whale: An Interview with an Anonymous Amazonian. "Jeff loves Prime Video because it gives him access to the social scene in LA and New York. He’s newly divorced and the richest man in the world. Prime Video is a loss leader for Jeff’s sex life."

Creating Decentralized Social Media Alternatives to Facebook and Twitter. A reasonable overview, although it necessarily skips out on some detail. This is where I’ve spent much of my career, and honestly, I’m eager to go back. The time is right.

Inside India’s booming dark data economy. “Thanks to lax privacy laws and high consumer demand, details on everything from how you shop to who you date are all for sale.”

Taking a Fresh Look at APIs Across All the United States Federal Agencies. Super-interesting!

 

2020 in review

I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t write a reflective look back on this year.

This was a year of unprecedented deaths, racist police brutality, political turmoil, and the sheer misery of people all over the world losing their loved ones and finding their families torn apart. If we felt less than that, it was because of our privilege, not because it wasn't there.

I've got nothing glib to say; no "top 5 learnings"; nothing to soften the blow. It's been a terrible year, certainly, but I'd go further: it's been catastrophic, in the truest sense of that word.

I do have one hope for 2021, and it's this: I hope we don't pretend this never happened and carry on as before. When the pandemic is over - which it will, technically be, although its aftermath will continue for generations - I hope we continue to cut through the performative bullshit that was the hallmark of modern life in the before times, and that we all care about each other just a little bit more.

If there's one thing a world crippled by a highly infectious disease should have taught us, it's that we're all connected. How we treat each other matters. The quality of life of everyone matters. If we can internalize that lesson, deeply and truly, then maybe we can avoid the worst of this when it inevitably happens again. And it will certainly make for a better world for all of us.

 

Writing bingo

My friend Carrie Tian, who works for Mailchimp, wrote aboout how their seasonal reading bingo board inspired her to create one for writing. I really love this: one of my goals for 2021 is to write a great deal more, building on the progress I made this year, and this feels like a great way to push me outside of my comfort zone.

She was kind enough to share a template, so here's mine:

Each of these squares is designed to push me a little bit. Each column has a slightly different theme:

1: Short stories in different styles and genres

2: Non-fiction essays that go a little deeper, sometimes into uncomfortable topics

3: Different media (audio, code, visual arts, multi-part email)

4-5: Novel, with some explorations into style and expression

Like Carrie, I'm doing blackout bingo and attempting to fill every square in 2021. As ever, I'll update this space with my progress.