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Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy.
He / him.

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben@benwerd.com

 

What matters

You probably know this David Foster Wallace joke:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

When you're in the depths of your context, whatever that happens to be, it can be hard to even see the rules you’re unconsciously abiding by. I think it’s worth stopping, every so often, and particularly after a year like the one we’ve collectively had, to ask: what matters?

I think there are two traps in life. (There are certainly more, but let’s go with two for the purposes of this piece. Two traps is already a lot of traps.) The first is that you find yourself on a metaphorical treadmill, working really hard but not for any really good reason that gets you to anywhere in particular. The second is that you have a fixed goal in mind and are so fixated on getting there that you miss out on all the beauty and possibilities inherent to the journey. In other words: blinkered-ness and inflexibility.

Naming the decisions we make and understanding why we make them allows us to make better ones. For example, taking care of my parents is a choice - I could up and move to Singapore, say - but it’s only one on a technicality. I may have autonomy, but not in a way that I’d feel good about. Leaving the Bay Area and not being there for my family feels like the wrong thing to do. As much as I’d love to travel more and live somewhere else (which, in a vacuum, I really would), if I consciously weigh the two things against each other, staying here wins.

If I’m naming things and making conscious choices, understanding how much of myself I give to other people - and how much of my life is truly proactively under my control, vs. a reaction to external demands or desires - is an important exercise. I want to have a job, and I want to both spend time with and take care of people I love. But I also want to be my own, autonomous person, and give myself enough breathing space to live and grow.

Those conscious choices just scratch the surface. We all unconsciously give a lot of ourselves in response to external pressures. Consumer culture - the advertising, media, and word-of-mouth values we’re all exposed to hundreds of times a day - also has designs on us. It wants us to fit into a pigeonhole, follow a fashion, modify our bodies, get rich, become something we’re not. The message is that fitting ourselves into these templates will improve us somehow. For advertising, it’s a reflection of someone’s desire to convince you to buy their product; for media, it’s their desire to capture your attention; for everyone else, it’s their desire to feel better about themselves. People who are brave enough to truly be themselves are a threat to people who are not.

In the tech industry, a lot of people feel like they’ve constantly got to be in hustle mode: a particular kind of working all the time that is imposed through a mix of entrepreneurship porn and peer pressure. I’ve long since washed my hands of this side of tech culture, but it’s something I definitely was part of for a little while, and I continue to see it in others. I made choices that were detrimental to me in the name of the work I was doing (without realizing that, by harming me, these choices were also detrimental to that work). I meet and talk to a lot of people who still want to hustle hard because they’re under the impression they will somehow going to get rich quick. For a lot of people, there really isn’t a tangible goal: they hustle to the point of exhaustion and contort their personas into accepted forms simply because they think they’re expected to.

That same impulse is why immigrants are pressured to assimilate, or why people self-asserting their own gender identity is a threat to so many people. Assimilation takes the fear out of accepting someone from a culture a person doesn’t understand. Traditional gender identity and roles are well-understood; not just culturally accepted but culturally indoctrinated, prescribed, and sold to. It’s in a lot of peoples’ interests for us to conform to them, so there’s pressure to do that. But assimilation requires letting go of a key piece of who we are; adopting a traditional gender rather than expressing our true selves requires denying who we are. In some cases, the unfair expectations placed on us differ wildly: Black women are held to a different, more stringent standard to white women, who are held to a different standard again to white men.

Let’s ask again: what matters?

Everyone deserves to be accepted for the completeness of who they are. Acceptance matters; trust matters; respect matters; equity matters. A professional relationship is in peril if the parties involved don’t accept each other as people, or if they don’t accept the relationship itself. A romantic relationship is in peril if the same things are true. If we’re constantly judging each other, or holding each other to unfair or inconsistent standards, our respect for and acceptance of each other is drastically undermined.

It’s a universal but largely unspoken need: I want to be my full, weird, unbridled self, and I want to be accepted and loved for it. I want the people around me to be accepted and loved for who they are. I want the injustices of the past - the intentional and unconscious choices communities have made for centuries - to be named and redressed, so that everyone can be themselves.

The inclusive, nonconformist future is here, but isn’t evenly distributed yet. I don’t want to live in a place with a homogenous culture; I don’t want my community to be assimilated and sanitized to some out-of-date standard. I want everyone to be themselves. Life is so much richer when you can build community with people from a galaxy of contexts, ethnicities, and cultures; a spectrum of sexualities and genders; a rainbow of people who can all create and share and love and collaborate and grow with each other without losing their sense of self or the pressure to give up pieces of their identities. A culture that, above all, gives people the metaphorical and literal space to live.

To me, that’s what matters. Being accepted and loved for who I am, warts and all; accepting and loving the people I’m connected to for who they are, warts and all. Allowing people to really be themselves and rejecting conformity. And it leads to conscious choices: where to live, where to work, who to be connected to, and what to do next. Rejecting the cultural pressure to conform to traditional values and embracing the new and radical means finding the places, organizations, and people who do the same.

That’s what I think a good life looks like. I think it’s important to consciously know, and to name it. It’s what I want.

 

The Green New Deal

I'm terrified for the future and not sure where to begin.

I have a young, teenage cousin who has apparently been having panic attacks; not because of school or generalized anxiety, but because he has a real sense that the world will have disintegrated in his lifetime. The signs of climate change and our less than inadequate response to it are all around us.

I'm not scared because it's happening. We have to act swiftly, but I believe we can act. I'm scared because I don't think we will.

There are three distinct groups that I think are problematic. The first are the people directly making money from outdated technologies like fossil fuels, who will sabotage attempts to move us to more intelligent, renewable energy. The second are the people who refuse to believe that climate change exists, or who spread the lie that it's nothing to worry about. And the third are the people who are so addicted to capital that they can't imagine solving the problem outside of the markets.

I'm a proponent of the Green New Deal, which advocates a program of divestment from fossil fuels, government investments in renewable energy, and robust creation of public jobs to create sustainable infrastructure. Its comparison to the original New Deal is apt; the challenge we face is easily comparable to the devastating context of a world war.

It's a sensible and much-needed solution, but it's under attack from conservatives and centrists alike. Even Joe Biden said he didn't support it during the Presidential debates. The reason is simply that it upsets existing structures of power. A Green New Deal necessitates, in part, a redistribution of equity.

As Naomi Klein wrote recently, that doesn't go down well with free marketeers, despite the horrors we've seen in places like Texas:

The horrors currently unfolding in Texas expose both the reality of the climate crisis and the extreme vulnerability of fossil fuel infrastructure in the face of that crisis. So of course the Green New Deal finds itself under fierce attack.

Another cousin, the writer Jonathan Neale, has published a new book, Fight the Fire, which describes the Green New Deal in accessible terms. In some ways it's the antithesis of the market-driven approach espoused by businessmen like Bill Gates; it's also a realistic approach, endorsed by climate scientists and academics around the world. You can download it for free from The Ecologist (no registration required). It's worth reading - particularly if you're a skeptic, or looking for a way to share these ideas.

There are still a lot of reasons to hope. The activist Greta Thunberg is one of my heroes: both for her rhetoric and her ability to galvanize an entire generation. In a lot of ways, my young cousin's reaction is also positive; it shows an awareness of the problem, and is certainly more realistic than those who seek to gloss over it.

But we have to act; we have to act now; and we've got to do a lot more than just wait for the market to respond. The invisible hand of the market will see us all killed.

 

The task ahead

As you drive down any highway in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can see them under overpasses and bridges: small conglomerates of tents, surrounded by increasingly-complex infrastructure for electricity and water. Not so much shantytowns as distributed shanty-hamlets: communities of people huddling together and conserving resources as best they can.

The feeding frenzy for GameStop stock, Dogecoin, and all the rest of them shouldn't come as a surprise. People are desperate. All over the country, they're willing to grasp at any straw if it looks like it might lead to a rent check or a paid bill. It's not greed; it's survival.

There are people here in the Bay Area, as there are everywhere, who just want the homeless to go away. Perhaps misled by the great lie of the American dream - that anyone can achieve anything, if they just try hard enough - they seem to think that people who have landed on hard times are bad people, and they should simply be cleared away in the night as if they were piles of old leaves. But there's no safety net in American society, and almost all of the hundreds of millions of people who live here are just a few missed paychecks away from the same fate. Some of the inhabitants of those highway-side tents are the victims of generational injustices of one kind or another; some are just unlucky. For every person visibly struggling, there are nine more that we can't see, doing what they can to make ends meet.

Crime is rising. Who's surprised? People do what they have to.

As I write this, I can see the silhouette of the Salesforce Tower looming over San Francisco. You can see it from most of the city; from the condos downtown, and from the homeless shelters. At its top, a great screen shows video at night - waves crashing, for example, or dancers - like something out of a Blade Runner future. There is enormous wealth here, as in many cities. And there is enormous suffering.

Most of the great CEOs - the billionaires - have a philanthropic vehicle they use to give back. Non-profit organizations are dependent on these wealthy benefactors to support them, and in the absence of real safety, these organizations are what passes for a net. The help that gets provided is, in large part, a function of what the rich are interested in. I'm aware of at least one billionaire who very quietly gives to causes that support the creation of a real welfare system for people who slip through the cracks, but it remains very few. For the most part, the cruel netless trapeze act of American life is perpetuated.

When I first arrived in California, a decade ago, I was advised by a family friend to keep my politics to myself. My parents had met at Berkeley and been activists; my father, a veteran, organized protests against the Vietnam War. But things had changed, and libertarian politics were prevailing. It was better to keep your head down.

But I think keeping your head down is the same thing an endorsement. It's collaboration with a system that's killing people.

We've managed to remove a fascist from office, which feels like a very low baseline for a functional democracy. Those people living in tents shouldn't be there - not because they should be cleared away, but because everyone should have safe housing. Those people desperate to make ends meet shouldn't be staking their futures on Robinhood investments - not because they should be blocked from doing so, but because they shouldn't be desperate to begin with. Those organizations on the ground shouldn't be beholden to billionaire donors to help people in need - not because they shouldn't ask for the money, but because there should be plenty of public funding to help.

There's so much work to do. This is a cruel society, made crueler by the aftermath of a dystopian government and a still-raging global pandemic. It's hard to know where to even start. But we can create, and we deserve to have, a better country than the one we inhabit.