I'm a fan and paid-up member of Medium, the long-form online publishing platform and reader network. I should declare that I'm not unbiased: I worked there in 2016 and know a few of the people who work on it, although the team and product have changed considerably over the last few years.
A couple of years ago they began to reverse one of the most alarming trends on the internet - independent artists losing the ability to sustainably create their work - and allowed writers to get paid for their work. It's been a roaring success, and the site is now one of the top 100 in the world. More recently still, they've brought paying publications like the Bold Italic into the fold. Although this is reminscent of a failed strategy from a few years ago that ended up really hurting publications like The Establishment, in the context of the Partner Program and Medium Memberships it makes more sense.
What Medium isn't is a generic blogging or publishing platform. It's narrowed its focus into being more like a magazine that everyone can contribute to (and I'm told that more changes are coming in the New Year). In doing so, it inevitably loses some of its early users - and it adds features like a paywall that may drive some casual readers away.
Ironically, many of the people who complain about Medium are the same people who care about surveillance capitalism. Yet the site is the biggest, boldest experiment in non-surveillance social media on the internet: a business that makes money by asking for money, and has aligned itself with its community in doing so. No, you don't build a wholly self-owned digital identity like you do on the indieweb; no, it's not a place for billions of people to put their every waking thought for free. But in building a magazine that anyone can contribute to, Medium has opened the door to a more diverse community of writers sharing their lived experiences and getting paid for it as part of a business model that promotes value over blind engagement and doesn't need to profile you all over the web.
To say that writers should make their work available for free is the height of privilege - and indeed, usually those voices are well-paid white men who make six figure salaries at technology companies. Our society is richer for having more points of view expressed, but not everyone has the time available to do free work. The net result of Medium's strategy is more writers making a living from their work, and therefore more diverse writers sharing their lived experiences. I'm all for that.
Publishing on Medium does not preclude writing on a personal website that you control. You can do both. But just as there's nothing wrong with publishing a long-form piece in a newspaper or a traditional magazine, there's nothing wrong with publishing it on Medium.
I hear a lot of complaints along the lines of: "isn't a startup just a small business?"
The simple answer is: no. Many small businesses will remain small, often by design. In contrast, a startup is an early stage business that is looking for a way to grow. As Steve Blank famously put it:
A startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.
Both of these clauses are important. Repeatable means that you can offer the same service to many customers. Scalable means you can grow the business to a large size in a way that is not linearly correlated to the resources you spend to provide it. When a startup has found a repeatable, scalable business model, they will have found product / market fit: a large addressible market that is well-served by the product the startup has created. In order to find product / market fit, the startup will need to perform rapid, iterative experiments on both its product and the market it's addressing to fine-tune both simultaneously. That's the game.
It's important to call out what a startup is not: it's not an R&D lab that creates new technology, for example. Instead, a startup may bring a new technology to market as part of serving a need. It's also not a product studio that solely focuses on making elegant software; it's a business that is able to build a great product that serves a skillfully executed strategy.
I believe that for a startup to have a chance of success, it needs to meaningfully change the way something valuable is done. For example, Salesforce dramatically simplified the way sales teams collaborate. Facebook, for all its faults, simplified the way we keep in touch with our commuities. Slack has transformed internal communication. As Ev Williams memorably said on-stage at XOXO: you have to take out steps. Make life easier. It's not enough to just put something online; you have to meaningfully change the process.
For all our talk of startup ethics - and make no mistake, these conversations are vitally important - we can't lose sight of the basics. Make something that people want, in a scalable, repeatable, defensible way, and make their lives better in the process.
This was another tough month, with three hospital visits for my mother. For this and a few other reasons, my anxiety was through the roof, and I often lay awake in bed with my heart racing. As has been true a few times this year, I found it hard to have the mental clarity to pick up a book and dive into it.
Over Thanksgiving I finally found that peace again, and as ever, I find offline reading to be meditative and nurturing.
The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of "jaywalking". Just another example of how deeply warped by capitalism American society really is. "Ultimately, both the word jaywalking and the concept that pedestrians shouldn't walk freely on streets became so deeply entrenched that few people know this history."
New data makes it clear: Nonvoters handed Trump the presidency. Even if you hate the eventual candidate, if you have the ability, please vote in 2020.
Sea-level rise could flood hundreds of millions more than expected. "The new analysis found that about 110 million people are already living on land that falls below daily average high tides today, compared with an estimated 28 million people under the earlier models."
‘I’m gonna lose everything’. "In farm country, mental health experts say they’re seeing more suicides as families endure the worst period for U.S. agriculture in decades. Farm bankruptcies and loan delinquencies are rising, calamitous weather events are ruining crops, and profits are vanishing during Trump’s global trade disputes."
Ambrosia, the Young Blood Transfusion Startup, Is Quietly Back in Business. What could be more emblematic of our current era than a startup that takes blood from young people and transfuses it into the rich? It's not just its superficial ghoulishness: the power dynamics here are chilling.
Climate change deniers’ new battle front attacked. "Mann stressed that individual actions – eating less meat or avoiding air travel – were important in the battle against global warming. However, they should be seen as additional ways to combat global warming rather than as a substitute for policy reform."
The voice from our Nest camera threatened to steal our baby. And apparently these devices are commonly hacked.
Scaling in the presence of errors—don’t ignore them. Scaling is incredibly difficult, and even more so when you're dealing with a codebase that wasn't built with it in mind. Tef writes well, and I wish he was more prolific.
Everyone is admitting what they get paid to work in journalism. "A web producer for Wirecutter, the consumer review site now owned by the New York Times, makes just $45,000, according to the list. An editor at the same site with three years of experience has a salary of only $62,000. For a job based in New York City, that seems barely livable." Yes and: it encourages the otherwise-supported and independently wealthy to get into journalism, creating a demographic skew across the industry that seriously underrepresents working class points of view.
Open Source Code Will Survive the Apocalypse in an Arctic Cave. Enjoy reading through the Elgg and Known source code, future humans. Sorry about the mess.
Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism. My friend Fergus on his autism for the British Psychological Society. "If, as I’ve argued, monotropism provides a common underlying explanation for all the main features of autistic psychology, then autism is not nearly as mysterious as people tend to think. We do not need to rely on theories which explain only a few aspects of autistic cognition, with no convincing explanation for sensory hyper- and hypo-sensitivity, or the intensity of autistic interests."
“The Most Dangerous Town on the Internet” and the Cold War 2.0. "Silicon Valley imperialism also prefers to understand Eastern Europe as more corrupt than itself, playing into Cold War 2.0 mythologies. Yet from the Cambridge Analytica scandal (which revealed that Facebook was just as, if not more, culpable in skewing the 2016 US election results than Russia and its Guccifer 2.0), to ongoing abuses of artificial intelligence, machine learning, exploitation, and data colonialism being employed by Big Tech, global corruption’s technological epicenter is clearly not Romania."
The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of a Virtuoso Coder. A sad story told evocatively; this is more a tale of a community in Ohio than it is about tech.
Government Secrets: Why and How A Special Agent-Turned-Whistleblower Uncovered Controversial Border Surveillance Tactics. A reminder again. "“It seemed these people's rights were being infringed on,” Petonak explained. “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution. Everyone has rights. And just because I don't agree with your political stance on something, doesn't mean you don't have the same rights as every other person.”"
Uber plans to start audio-recording rides in the U.S. for safety. I'm of two minds. My knee-jerk reaction was that this is terrible - but having some protection against assault seems like a good idea. In many places, taxis do this automatically. The important thing is that you're told you're being recorded. (Of course, I don't trust Uber to do the right thing with these recordings.)
The Best Parenting Advice Is to Go Live in Europe. Parenting seems so much harder here, and like so many things, I don't understand why people seem to think it's okay.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Facebook would have let Hitler buy ads for 'final solution'. "Baron Cohen also called for internet companies to be held responsible for their content. “It’s time to finally call these companies what they really are – the largest publishers in history. And here’s an idea for them: abide by basic standards and practices just like newspapers, magazines and TV news do every day.”" Here are his words in full.
Weeknight Dinner Around the World. I loved this photo essay: 18 families around the world, sharing what they eat on a typical weeknight. Human and beautiful. (And hunger-inducing.)
Facebook and Google’s pervasive surveillance poses an unprecedented danger to human rights. From Amnesty International. "“We have already seen that Google and Facebook’s vast architecture for advertising is a potent weapon in the wrong hands. Not only can it be misused for political ends, with potentially disastrous consequences for society, but it allows all kinds of new exploitative advertising tactics such as preying on vulnerable people struggling with illness, mental health or addiction. Because these ads are tailored to us as individuals, they are hidden from public scrutiny,” said Kumi Naidoo."
White nationalists are openly operating on Facebook. The company won't act. "A Guardian analysis found longstanding Facebook pages for VDare, a white nationalist website focused on opposition to immigration; the Affirmative Right, a rebranding of Richard Spencer’s blog Alternative Right, which helped launch the “alt-right” movement; and American Free Press, a newsletter founded by the white supremacist Willis Carto, in addition to multiple pages associated with Red Ice TV. Also operating openly on the platform are two Holocaust denial organizations, the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust and the Institute for Historical Review."
Dial Up! "How the Hmong diaspora uses the world’s most boring technology to make something weird and wonderful." This is so cool: underground radio for a diaspora community based on conference call technology.
The California DMV Is Making $50M a Year Selling Drivers’ Personal Information. "They included data broker LexisNexis and consumer credit reporting agency Experian. Motherboard also found DMVs sold information to private investigators, including those who are hired to find out if a spouse is cheating."
My devices are sending and receiving data every two seconds, sometimes even when I sleep. "When I decided to record every time my phone or laptop contacted a server on the internet, I knew I'd get a lot of data, but I honestly didn't think it would reveal nearly 300,000 requests in a single week." What have we built for ourselves?
Amazon’s Ring Planned Neighborhood “Watch Lists” Built on Facial Recognition. "The planning materials envision a seamless system whereby a Ring owner would be automatically alerted when an individual deemed “suspicious” was captured in their camera’s frame, something described as a “suspicious activity prompt.”" What could possibly go wrong?
You can take my Dad’s tweets over my dead body. Twitter will start removing inactive accounts; that includes accounts owned by the deceased. "Big tech companies are good at a lot of things, but what they seem to lack is collective empathy and heart. When humans use the things you build and you stop treating them like humans, but rather like bits and bytes and revenue dollars, you’ve given your soul away. And maybe it’s just me getting older, but I’ve had about enough of it."
Pete Buttigieg Called Me. Here's What Happened. "But Pete Buttigieg listened, which is all you can ask a white man to do." A remarkable piece of writing.
Decolonizing Thanksgiving: A Toolkit for Combatting Racism in Schools. "By taking a decolonizing approach to teaching about Thanksgiving, teachers and families reject the myths of Thanksgiving and harmful stereotypes about Native peoples." Some great resources that all of us can use. I'm excited that these are the kinds of conversations we're having.
What keeps us going. 100 quotes from a cross-section of Americans on where they find meaning in life. I found this fascinating and very often alien: very often less relatable than I expected. But it's a strong portrait of a country in flux, with its anxieties written on its sleeve.
The Social Subsidy of Angel Investing. I think this cuts to the core of what makes fundraising in the Bay Area different, but I also think it's a problem. Angel investing has become a mark of social status. "In San Francisco, it’s angel investing. Other than founding a successful startup yourself, there’s not much higher-status in the Bay Area than backing founders that go on to build Uber or Stripe."
The Power is Running: A Memoir of N30. "On November 30, 1999, tens of thousands of anarchists, indigenous people, ecologists, union organizers, and other foes of tyranny converged in Seattle, Washington from around the world to blockade and shut down the summit of the World Trade Organization. The result was one of the era’s most inspiring victories against global capitalism, demonstrating the effectiveness of direct action and casting light on the machinations of the WTO." A first-hand account of that day.
Why we need to preserve black spaces in Detroit. "Detroiters are not opposed to economic development and revitalization; we're opposed to feeling uninvited in our own home. We're opposed to being told "no" for decades, for everything from mortgages to home improvement loans to development dollars, only to see that once you carve out a few portions where there are fewer of us, the property values suddenly rise."
I find feedback incredibly helpful in my personal and professional life. If you have a couple of minutes, I'd love your frank (and completely anonymous) opinions.
It's based on a feedback exercise I've found useful in person - although then it's not anonymous. I've found that anonymous responses online can sometimes help people to feel more comfortable leaving frank feedback (but at the same time, if you want to leave your name, you obviously can).
How do you get feedback in your life? I'd love to hear your strategies and ideas.
Thanksgiving is a problematic holiday. Colonialism isn't just a ghost that haunts America: it's its skeleton. For many people, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning:
"Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. [...] It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience."
The story of Thanksgiving itself turns out to be more or less true, although the identity of the Wampanoag tribe is often abstracted away in retellings. I found this interview with the historian David J. Silverman to be fascinating:
In the short term, intertribal and even intra-tribal politics is what's driving Native American responses to Europeans. A better way to think about this period is not in terms of Indian-colonial relations, but rather to think of European colonies as just another tribe in a dynamic, highly competitive, intertribal environment.
Traditions are a series of whispers that warp and transform history from generation to generation. Yesterday, we commemorated this complicated inter-tribal alliance by eating a turkey, and celebrating that we were all still here, gathering together.
I'm conscious that we're able to treat this day as a celebration because we're descended from the Europeans who stole land and committed genocide. Perhaps particularly so because we're also descended from Jews who had their land stolen and had genocides committed against them - although it's important to say that the one fact does not give us permission to ignore the other.
So it's complicated, to say the least. But right now, in the wake of hospital stays and surgeries, if I get a chance to sit around the table with my entire nuclear family, and better yet cook for them, I'll take it. I'm grateful that they're all still here, and that I get to be here with them. I'm thankful that my family's values are that we all want a more equal world, and that everyone deserves to have a good life. I'm thankful that my parents have been activists, anti-war organizers, and people with a bias towards action when it comes to making the world better. And I'm thankful for all the people around the world who today still fight for that equality.
It's been a couple of decades since Salesforce first brought the idea of enterprise cloud services into the mainstream. Since then, firms have been closing their datacenters, moving away from solutions like Sharepoint, and putting their trust in subscription services that they access through a web browser. Even venerable on-premise tools like Microsoft SharePoint have made their way online.
But to move everything into the cloud is to make the mistake of putting technology before customers. You can't build a product that solves deep organizational problems by simply declaring that the cloud is the future and walking away. You need to actually understand the user holistically, test hypotheses around what you think will solve their problem, and iterate towards a real solution. That includes every aspect of the product, including its technology stack. Our role as technologists is to fight for the user, not to advocate for particular technologies we happen to like. (If those technologies are the best way to solve the user's problem, then great.)
There are cases where the cloud is not the right solution; particularly when security is a consideration, or when users are particularly concerned about their own privacy.
For consumers, we're beginning to see products like the Helm server, which allows you to host your email inside your home. While traditional home servers require a great deal of technical knowledge, you can buy a Helm, plug it in, and get going quickly. You don't need to be a Linux server admin (or pay one). It just works. I'm excited for future iterations of the idea, which I hope will allow you to host your own access-controlled social spaces from your home.
I believe there is a similar need for modular self-hosted software and hardware for businesses that makes it easy to run on-premise applications.
These software applications will be split: the portion that handles user data at rest is hosted on-premise. Meanwhile, a companion API piece sits in the cloud. This way the user receives the best of both worlds: their data is kept safe, and the services surrounding their data are continuously updated and managed for them. This split means that the on-premise software remains relatively thin, keeping updates simple.
Vendors can charge an up-front licensing fee for the on-premise product as well as a recurring subscription for the hosted service. Not every business requires that level of security for their data at rest, or even cares about it; for them, a fully-hosted service is available.
I've got skin in this game already: I designed a product called Hub for Latakoo, a service that allows journalists to quickly send video from the field using commodity internet connections. Hub sits in newsrooms and allows video to be automatically integrated into their content management systems, in the correct format. It's useful for the newsrooms, and lucrative for the company. And I think the model has broad applications elsewhere.
Of course, I didn't invent the hybrid cloud. It's in wide use in larger enterprises, and services like AWS have existing solutions. But these applications are often bespoke. I think there's room to bring it to privacy-minded startups and SMEs - and build a whole new era of privacy-aware business applications in the process.
I decided a long time ago that the secret to a happy life is finding the right allies.
In some ways, I'm envious of peole who have religion, who can argue that everything happens for a reason, or that there's a plan for them, or that there's at least some underlying force that represents an intention behind the apparent chaos of the universe. For me, it's just chaos: you can do your best to create the right conditions for you to have the life you want, but you're at the mercy of externalities. From the context you happen to randomly have been born into to the health of your family to the opportunities that have been within your grasp, everyone is subject to a different roll of the dice. The universe isn't cruel or kind or wise: it just is.
In the face of this chaos, the only sensible strategy is to work together to try and make the experience of living better for everyone. If we group together, we can mitigate the effects of having been born into poverty, or of having experienced some accident. By helping others, we help ourselves; each of us is inseparable from humanity as a whole. Building community saves lives.
Which isn't to say that we can erase the individual. Communities are made stronger by the diversity of people within them. And the experience of being human is wrapped up in the imperfect emotions, radical creation, and deep-seated needs of individuals. The deepest need of all - this is certainly true for me, but I suspect most of us share this - is love and connection.
Particularly in a world where we're surrounded by voices that ask us to conform to demographic ideals or do what is popular, and societal norms that ask us to take our anxieties and quirks and bury them, loving someone as a complete person is radical enough. But then to voluntarily choose to face the chaos of the world together, having fully accepted each other, is, in turn, a radical act of trust. It's this trust and acceptance that, finally, builds safety and warmth. You can be yourself around these people. You can breathe.
I spend at least a part of every weekend visiting my parents. Not everyone is lucky enough to have this kind of family, but I'm able to be completely myself with them. I feel safe and accepted. I'm watching them grow old, or in my mother's case slowly succumb to terminal illness, and I see their mutual acceptance, and the lengths to which they will go for each other. I wonder how I'm ever going to build anything remotely like this for myself. But I'm lucky to have seen it, and to know it can exist, and to have the motivation to work for it.
This is what I mean by love as allyship. I'm looking for allies, in every aspect of my life. The world is tough, but people are amazing, and the relationships we build are everything.
Happy Friday! ForUsAll, where I'm Head of Engineering, now has over a billion dollars of retirement savings under management. We're helping everybody to build a stronger future - not just the people on high salaries who work for well-funded startups or the Fortune 500.
Here's the press release. My background isn't, of course, in financial services, and it's not a space I've traditionally been excited by. But what drives me is helping people and helping to build a more equal world. I couldn't care less about helping rich people to become richer (or, really, helping them in any other way); I care a lot about helping everyone else to be more secure. That's what attracted me to this team, and it's a mission that everyone in the company believes in.
Last year, on a whim, I left social media on Thanksgiving, and didn't return until January 1st. It led to massive improvements in my mental and physical health, overall happiness, attention span, and engagement with the world.
This year I've been with my mother while she spent months in the hospital, watched the world fall apart in alarming ways, and changed jobs. And I lost many people I care about, all in the space of a month. In a lot of ways, it's been the hardest, most stressful year of my life.
So I've decided to intentionally restart my social media fast this Thanksgiving. It's incredibly late this year, so that means I'm effectively taking the month of December off. That's enough to get a clean break, reset, and breathe.
I will be posting here throughout that time, and continuing to engage on the indieweb.
December also happens to be the most commercial time of the year, when advertising spend is at its highest. In a world where divisiveness and depression are being amplified by these platforms, logging off for the month also feels like a good way to respond financially to their new role in the world.
So I'm asking others: let's log off in December together. Black Friday is already Buy Nothing Day for many of us. Let's make December a month where we disengage from the attention economy - not logging off from the internet, but from the social media platforms that have led to the current era. The independent web, forums, email lists, and other closed discussion groups are fair game (with ad blockers), but let's show Facebook, Twitter, et al how we feel.
AKA the answer to all those people who ask "why isn't there an International Men's Day?" on International Women's Day. Guess what: there is, and it's today.
In the list of identities I carry, being a man isn't something I think about most of the time. Which, of course, is part of the hidden privilege of it: in contrast, women are forced to confront their gender in almost every context, every day. As a straight, white, man, there are comparatively few societal expectations for me. Women earn 79 cents on the dollar, have comparatively few seats of power, occupy fewer board seats, and hold less equity.
But the traditional expectations that do exist are not positive. This is what we mean when we talk about "toxic masculinity": it's not that all masculinity is toxic, but rather that the very traditionally masculine traits are harmful to the people who adhere to them, as well as the people around them. Those traits are things like:
Repressing emotions rather than expressing them.
Embracing competition and self-reliance over collaboration.
Seeking domination rather than equality. And as a part of this, embracing misogyny over treating women as equals.
Valuing aggression over empathy and cooperation.
Men are four times more likely to die from suicide, and traditional gender norms are a large part of the problem. If you're in trouble or suffering from depression and don't feel like you can talk about it or seek treatment, and find aggressive alternative outlets for your condition, you are not going to get better. Similarly, if you don't fall into the cookie cutter definitions of what a man should be and your community doesn't allow you to express your real feelings or identity, you're going to feel incredibly isolated. For everyone, repressing emotions is a fast track to loneliness. And loneliness is directly correlated with suicide.
It used to be that these regressive values were the norm. So I want to spend this International Men's Day thanking the women who have helped changed this state of affairs, as well as the men who refuse to live by them, and who signal that there are other, better definitions of masculinity. This change is saving people's lives. It probably has saved mine. So, thank you.
For this month's Linux Format magazine, I was asked to comment for a piece about how Google isn't living up to its "don't be evil" motto. This phrase was removed from Google's code of conduct in 2018, but it's still thought of as being part of the company's DNA.
My opinion is that Google itself shouldn't be singled out in itself - in many ways it is a more ethical big tech company, but it operates as part of a troubled ecosystem. Linux Format's Mayank Sharma asked me a few questions for a quote, but decided to run the conversation almost in its entirety. The magazine made the legal decision to edit out a comment I made about Facebook's role in genocide, so here's the original version from my emails with Mayank. This interview took place after my role with Unlock came to an end, and before my role with ForUsAll began. I speak for myself alone.
You should buy the latest edition of Linux Format on your local newsstand, or from its website.
Q. I am personally not a fan of Google’s business model that’s been the basis of what’s now known as “surveillance capitalism”. What, in your opinion, is Google doing wrong? Is there more to Google's evil than just privacy intrusion?
Let's be clear: Google is participating in the prevailing business model for internet businesses in Silicon Valley. So in that sense, they're not more evil than any other business that seeks to make money through personal data. You could also make the argument that they're not as directly harmful as a company like Facebook, whose data practices have been shown to have undermined democracy in countries like the United States and Britain, and even to have supported genocides in countries like Myanmar.
However, the impact of Google's business is exponentially greater because of its size. From widespread location collection in Google Maps, to the fact that the majority of sites on the internet host Google tracking code, it's very hard to not be tracked and profiled by them in some way. That information has the potential to be cross-referenced, together with offline information like credit card purchases, which it adds together to create a highly targeted profile.
The irony is that targeted advertising - where advertising is highly tuned to the profile that has been created for you through invasive tracking - is not really more effective or lucrative than simple contextual advertising! So Google's real harm may have been to incentivize the creation of a sophisticated worldwide surveillance network, for the sake of surveillance itself. Surveillance has chilling effects on free speech: people who know they're being watched behave and express themselves differently. And that has a real effect on democracy. Not to mention the potential for harm should a government with ill intent seek to harness that surveillance network for its own ends. Should tech companies have built systems that allow the current US administration to track immigrants and deport them? I think the answer is a clear "no" - and the only way to prevent this is for the surveillance apparatus to not exist in the first place.
Q. How do you escape from the clutches of Google? Is self-hosting the only real option?
Privacy is a group inoculation. Even if you self-host, there's nothing to prevent your information from being inadvertently gathered by your friend who hasn't taken the same steps. Not to mention that self-hosting is really hard! At its simplest, you need to know how to use command line tools (or, if you're using shared hosting, be comfortable with FTP). At its hardest, you need to have some server administration skills. For those reasons, I don't think self-hosting is a real solution to the problem in itself. There are lots of other great reasons to self-host: having full control of your web presence and data, if you have the means and the skills, allows you to better represent yourself online.
You can also make ethical technology choices. Use a web browser, like Firefox, that protects you. Choose an email provider, like ProtonMail, that has built-in privacy protections. If you're building a website - or particularly, running a web business - make careful choices about which data you really need to gather, and through which provider. Consider using an open solution like Matomo for your website stats instead of Google Analytics. Support small businesses that are transparently making ethical choices over giant companies that may not be.
But because it's a group inoculation, we need a better vaccine for all of us. More on that in a moment.
Q. Do you think going “back to formula” and adopting open web standards is the way forward?
Google is pretty good at using open web standards! While we should definitely be using open web standards and continuing to build a robust, open, decentralized web, I think the way forward is a human problem more than a technical problem.
First, there needs to be a clear alternative to the Silicon Valley venture capital funding model. People who build software need to be able to put food on the table; it's not a question of not being able to make a profit. But venture capital incentivizes companies to grow exponentially. Actually stopping to take money from consumers is a limit on that growth, so those companies tend to use advertising and data brokerage as revenue models instead. Movements like Zebras Unite see the harm in this and are trying to establish alternative funding models. Teams, including open source projects, need to take concrete steps to become more diverse; because the negative effects of surveillance are disproportionately felt by vulnerable groups, affluent, white, male teams often didn't understand the issues.
We also need to do much more work to make sure open source developers can make a real living from their work, and move away from the "free as in beer" perception of open software. People should choose free and open source software because of the freedoms and reassurances inherent in open development processes and licenses. If they just see it as a cheaper alternative, fewer startups will choose open models, because they can't make money that way, and the traditional VC model will continue. We're seeing more successful open source infrastructure companies, but I'd like to see more end user open source software find its way to real profitability too. For that to happen, we need much stronger support for those companies. I'd love to see more funding opportunities, as well as open source accelerators and advisory programs.
Finally, there has to be regulatory reform in two main areas. 1: We need to reform antitrust rules and prevent these data monopolies from existing in the first place: no company should ever be big enough to establish a global surveillance network. It's absurd. Technology monopolies are harmful, and in a world where software is a part of every part of our lives, we can't afford to hide behind techno-libertarian ideologies where government is always bad. Government can help us establish sensible rules that protect citizens; it's what it exists to do. 2: We need strong privacy legislation. The industry clearly cannot self-police on this front. GDPR is flawed but has had positive effects - particularly in the ways that organizations have changed how they think about privacy. California has new privacy legislation that will take effect in 2020. Every jurisdiction should enact sensible protections that encourage good behavior and punish violations.
Again - you can buy the latest edition of Linux Format on your local newsstand, or from its website.
I've been blogging - albeit not consistently on the same site - since 1998. That's a long time in internet years, and in human years, and over time I've conditioned out any self-editing impulse I might have. I write, hit publish, and share. Done.
Because I'm fairly prolific, friends and colleagues often ask me what the best way to start is, in two ways:
1. Their writing ethic: how to actually write and feel OK about putting it out there in the world.
2. Their platform: how to sustainably host a website that looks good and reflect on them well.
I'll take those questions in reverse order. But first, let's address something important:
What is blogging?
The short answer is: it's personal and different for everybody.
Here's what it's not: professional article writing. If you want to go through multiple rounds of editing, please do. If you want to write two thousand word epics about your topic of choice, please do. But it's also okay to write up a hundred quick words and post them without thinking twice about it.
When you blog, you're building up a body of work that represents you online. It's a gateway into your thought process more than anything else. So do what moves you - whether that's short thoughts, bookmarks you like, essays, fiction, poetry, photo albums, and so on. You do you. The only thing that's really important is that you keep doing it.
I can tie every single major advance in my career to blogging. It's been hugely important in my personal life, too. I couldn't recommend it more.
Which platform should I choose?
Let's get this out of the way: if you're looking for a platform to blog regularly, it's not Medium.
That's not a knock on Medium. I used to work there, and I still adore the platform. But you should think of it as a huge online magazine that anyone can write articles for. Shorter updates aren't really appropriate there, and pieces stand alone. It's also most effective if you put your work behind the paywall, these days, which might not gel with your blogging goals. You shouldn't feel bad about writing on Medium - but you should have your own site, too.
Don't use something that isn't designed for purpose: you could use Notion, Evernote, etc etc, but you'll run into problems later on, and you'll make life harder for your audience.
Obviously, I write on Known. I wrote it, so I enjoy it, and I can tinker with it if something doesn't make me happy. But unless you really want to configure self-hosting space and tinker with code too, for the moment I don't recommend that you use Known to blog. (Maybe I will again. Watch this space.)
Instead, my recommendation is WordPress. It just is. No, the interface is not perfectly modern. But the ecosystem is giant, there are a lot of options for customizability, and most importantly, there are apps out there that will help you manage your writing and post effectively. If you feel like spending the time and you have the ability, you can self-host. If you don't, you can use their hosted service. You'll know that a lot of the important stuff - feeds, archives, SEO - is taken care of for you.
A close second, for informal, personal sites, is Micro Blog. As they describe it, it's "the blog you will actually use": a simple service that allows you to write updates of any length via the web and native apps. It supports IndieWeb technologies out of the box (like Known does), and is compatible with the ecosystem of apps. And the people behind it are great.
Finally, if you really want something Medium-like, Ghost is a great choice. Like WordPress, you can self-host, or you can pay them to manage it for you.
Whatever you choose, buy your own domain name if you have the means: that way you can repoint your address to a different provider in the future. So if, for example, Ghost goes out of business, you can shrug your shoulders and move to WordPress without having to tell anyone about your new address.
How can I get myself to write?
Like so many things, practice makes perfect.
My recommendation is this: choose a cadence of no less than once a week, and stick to it for two months. Then see how you feel. Don't limit yourself to any particular length, and don't let yourself spend more than an hour on a post. After that hour, you're hitting publish, no matter what.
You quickly learn that, although your posts will be live on the web forever, they're also ephemeral. People move onto the next thing quickly. And - unless you're actually a terrible person - nobody is going to react badly to anything you write. If it's not a post that captures the imagination, folks will move on very quickly. If it is, it's because it's a great post. And you're almost certainly not a terrible person, so you have nothing to lose.
Here's the other thing you should do: comment on or about other people's posts at the same cadence. The internet is a conversation, not a broadcast. Weblogs are social media; you need to interact with what other people are writing.
One last thing: don't blog about your own blogging. No "I just started a blog!" or "it's been a long time since I blogged". Those are apologies of different kinds, and you have nothing to apologize about. Be bold. Put your thoughts down in writing. I believe in you.
It's a mental leap - I know it is - and an act of bravery to put your thoughts in writing. But there's nothing to lose and a lot to gain.
And ... that's it
Over time, your body of work will build, and you'll find that people are interested in surprising topics. This post on equality of outcome vs opportunity has been the most popular thing on my site for a while now, which I never could have planned or anticipated. The power is in being consistent, and keeping your site online for the long term. (I wish I could have told my 1998 self that.)
People email me about things I've written all the time. My posts have led to newspaper and magazine features. They've led to jobs. And most importantly for me, they've led to friends.
If you're starting a blog - and if you don't have one, you should start now! - I want to hear about it. Get started and email me its address. The time to start is now.
The other day, I had a check in with a friend who's raising money in Edinburgh, Scotland. I lived there for about a decade, and I miss the friends I made there, as well as its anarchic, artistic spirit. Also, sometimes I torture myself by looking at the cost of rent there, which is sometimes an eighth to a fifth of the equivalent cost in San Francisco.
I strongly suspect that one day I'll make it back there, for its quality of life, for the friends I already have there, and because it's probably the most progressive place I've ever lived.
A senior engineer's salary there is often the equivalent of $60,000-80,000. For that, they can live a great life. It's also at least $100,000 less than a senior engineer's salary in San Francisco, who will have a roughly equivalent quality of life. For a startup, those costs add up quickly: if you're raising money to give yourself 18 months of runway, you need to ask for a significantly lower amount. The irony is that this lower amount might not fit into the financial plan of an institutional investor, which has made assumptions about check size and value growth that are rooted in the Bay Area. But angel investors have different assumptions and can be more agile.
This lower cost environment, together with fewer preconceptions for what the tech industry should look like, also allows for different business models. I keep seeing articles about "how to make money from open source", and my reaction is always the same: there is no way this will make enough money to live in Silicon Valley. And I do believe that to make it work here, you have to be independently wealthy or raise venture capital dollars. But, of course, there are many other places in the world, and it's getting easier all the time to build something elsewhere.
The trick is to avoid the consultant-thinkers: the people with PowerPoints filled with bullet points who have learned everything they know from business books. (Which is to say: they have very little real-world experience and are cargo culting innovation.) The further I get from Silicon Valley, the more of them I seem to encounter. Similarly, you need to avoid the cynics who tell you that you should give up and just get a real job - something I had a hard time with when I founded a statup in Edinburgh in 2004.
But that attitude has changed, and more resources are available to global founders. It's still true that San Francisco has the greatest concentration of people who know what they're doing in this space - but that's a blessing and a curse. Being more decoupled to VC peer pressure and narrowing ideas of "best practices" might be a good thing. If you can think scrappily, build the culture and business model that works for you from first principles using a human-centered approach, and don't mind the driving, horizontal rain, I'm beginning to think that places like Scotland are now a great place to start. There's no need to spend outrageous sums to found a company - and there are places where your runway can be significantly longer for the same amount of money and you can live a better life on a lower income.
The climate crisis is the single biggest challenge we need to face as a civilization. It's also one of the first that we need to face holistically: the entire world coming together to save our collective selves. So far, we're doing horribly.
There's been some criticism that the stories we've heard from scientists and the media so far have been too alarmist. On the contrary, I don't think they're anywhere near alarming enough. And a lot of that comes down to how these stories are framed.
I've spent a lot of my time advising founders about how to get their message across. They live in their industries every day, and they know every nuance and every implication. So when they start to tell stories about the products they've built with their blood, sweat, and tears, it's often not real or concrete enough. They make the assumption that because they understand the implications and see the problem, everyone will. A lot of pitch coaching comes down to helping them tell the story in a way that will allow others to feel the problem.
Similarly, I'm not sure climate scientists - and more importantly, the media - are telling the story in a way that will make people feel the problem enough. It's why activists like Greta Thunberg and Extiction Rebellion are so needed and so effective: these people and groups make it clear that the problem is immense, and that it will affect real people all over the world.
For example, I read a story today that reported that a one-meter sea level rise by 2300 is now inevitable. That's actually really terrible news, but it's impossible to get a handle on it from the story. What does a one-meter sea level rise really mean? And isn't 2300 literally after the entire timeline from Star Trek? (TOS, not TNG, you pedants.) It seems so far away and like something we could deal with maybe two or three generations from now.
But people will die. It might seem ghoulish to make that into drama, but honestly, that's how the message will get across. These stories sound hyperbolic exactly because the human cost is going to be unfathomably high. Their incomprehensible scale doesn't mean they're wrong. 30 years from now, 300 million people's homes will be washed away. 80 years from now, it's half a billion. And these are median estimates that only consider how many homes will be flooded. It doesn't even begin to consider thee number of people who will deal with lethal heat, or the effect on the food chain. When you put these things together, there are some credible predictions of the end of human civilization within three decades.
It's fine to report the scientific detail. We need facts and data. But let's put it in context, and assume that most people haven't been paying attention. We need to show that the threat is real and credible; that it will directly impact them; and that it will lead to war and famine that will likely exist very soon indeed.
We live in a consumerist society where everything is presented in terms of products. So, let's talk products. Tim Burton's Batman was released 30 years ago. So was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And, yes, Star Trek: The Next Generation is thirty-two years old. In less time than that, it could all be over.
Last month, I drew a new picture every day as part of Inktober, responding to daily word prompts.
In response to the word Ash, I drew a response to Brexit:
In response to the word Mindless, I drew a self-portait of sorts:
And in response to Frozen, I drew a heart.
I'm not an artist by any means, and each of these sketches took no more than 40 minutes, but I'm proud of my work - even if, on reflection, it's a little dark. It's not what anyone on the internet really expects from me, I don't think, but there's a side of me that is delighted to have spent the time every day to do this work. Specifically, the side of me that used to wake up early to draw comics every day before school. That version of Ben has been starved of oxygen in favor of the productivity bias of modern life. Spending a little time on definitively unproductive, expressionate work was like giving my creative side CPR.
Inktober is over now, because, well, it's not October. So I've shifted to NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month, wherein you try to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. You can keep track of how I'm doing on my NaNoWriMo profile.
Spoiler alert: this isn't my first NaNoWriMo. But I haven't actually succeeded to write a 50,000 word story since 2012. That time round, I actually built my own web-based system to let me write on any machine, that also shared it publicly as soon as I hit "save". Ever since then, I've been using some combination of Word, Google Docs, or even flat text files in a git repository (hey, I'm still a developer).
This time round I've been using Novlr, and I love it. I've mostly been writing on my home laptop, but it's exactly the right level of distraction-free writing environment + organization + statistics. It backs up to both Google Drive and Dropbox, although I was pretty disappointed to discover that those backups are in PDF format, making it unnecessarily hard to do anything with my exported novel. Still, it exports in ODT and DOCX formats, even if it's a mystery to me why the backups don't default to those. And the environment is so well-designed that I'm feeling on top of my work.
Should I share my novel publicly as I go? I'm not sure. But the hour to ninety minutes I spend working on it every day feels gloriously like the kind of me time I haven't always been able to pull together this year.
My only question is, what will be my creative project next month? Any ideas?
Save More Tomorrow, by Shlomo Benartzi. A behavioral finance approach to helping people save more. The book fails to deal with what I think are some glaring income inequality and societal context issues, but I found it interesting as a human-centered approach to finance.
Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore. My first re-read this year. So much of this comes down to getting over yourself and meeting people where they're at. What I've learned: don't try to cross the chasm before you get to the chasm.
Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan. Summary: be clear, be human, and find common ground through empathy and radical clarity. I'm on board.
I am seriously ready to read some non-business books again.
The awkward questions about slavery from tourists in US South. It's shocking but not surprising to me that the culture of slavery is still woven so deeply into the fabric of the American south. ""Slavery was not that bad - it's probably the number one thing we hear," says plantation tour guide Olivia Williams." Nothing less than glossing over crimes against humanity.
How to Succeed When You’re Marginalized or Discriminated Against at Work. "Some of the best methods to manage our workloads and our careers can be locked off to marginalized people, mostly because of the way we’re perceived by other people." Tools to hack your workplace only work for the privileged.
Why It’s So Hard for Startups to Create Wealth in Europe. There's a subtext here: they're trying to operate like US startups. Europe requires a different approach - and undoubtedly has both a higher floor and a lower ceiling.
Why We Need a Working-Class Media. A dirty secret is that so many people who work in media come from upper middle class backgrounds, and their lenses are calibrated accordingly. What would the media look like if it was set up to benefit the working class?
Afghan Town’s First Female Mayor Awaits Her Assassination. "Zarifa Ghafari, who at 26 became one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors, has said that she fully expects to be assassinated." The bravery of this woman is incredible.
Revealed: Google made large contributions to climate change deniers. Because the people who don't mind killing the planet also want tech to stay deregulated.
The female price of male pleasure. "The world is disturbingly comfortable with the fact that women sometimes leave a sexual encounter in tears. [...] Research shows that 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and "large proportions" don't tell their partners when sex hurts."
Five Years of Tech Diversity Reports - and Little Progress. "It’s been five years since Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft first released diversity reports, revealing the companies’ workforces were overwhelmingly white or Asian men. Five years since Facebook first acknowledged it had “more work to do—a lot more,” and CEO Tim Cook wrote Apple employees a letter promising the company would be “as innovative in advancing diversity as we are in developing products.”" And very little progress has been made.
“It’s a Gold Rush Town”: How Artists Survive in San Francisco. Interviews with people who are still here and still surviving. I'm grateful to know artists in this area, and I'm ashamed of how hard my industry has made it for them.
Booker Prize 2019: What Happened? It turns out - this will shock you - that literary prizes may not be entirely merit based.
Death is a good way to gauge who we think deserves to live. "People die violent deaths in both the US and Nigeria – why do I fear it there and not here? Where people have little power, they become more vulnerable. [...] As I have seen it defined, structural power – or the lack thereof – is most easily measured by the probability of a person dying in unnatural circumstances, such as the shocking, yet not unforeseeable deaths of Joshua Brown, Botham Jean, and countless others."
Media amnesia and the Facebook News Tab. The media industry needs to stop believing Facebook! It is not their friends. It is not anybody's friend.
What’s Left of Condé Nast. "Condé Nast’s future is now being charted by [Anna] Wintour’s new boss, Roger Lynch, the former CEO of Pandora, the music-streaming service he ran until it was sold to SiriusXM in February."
50 years ago today, the internet was born in Room 3420. It's crazy to think of the internet as being fifty years old. And of course, it's gone through many transformations since its inception, not least in the early nineties when commercial access became available.
Slave markets found on Instagram and other apps. And the companies behind them are doing the bare minimum to fix it.
I'm into my eighth week as Head of Engineering at ForUsAll. The dust is still settling around me, but I thought I'd take a moment to explain why I decided to make this move and why it fits in with the personal mission that's guided my work so far.
If you visit the ForUsAll website, it'll tell you about affordable 401k retirement plans. There's a deeper story here: ForUsAll is a financial wellness startup, which hopes to help everyone build a stronger financial base. In a world where there's an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, and where almost nobody has enough money to have a safe retirement or to buy a house, that's important. Most financial products are aimed at people on higher incomes, or who work for Fortune 500 companies. Just about everyone else is underserved. And just setting aside the money for more than hand to mouth expenses can be really hard.
ForUsAll is a Series B company that is still evolving. Right now, providing easier retirement savings is a good place to start. By making it more affordable for small businesses to provide retirement benefits, we make those benefits more accessible to a wider set of people. Because those benefits often include matching contributions from employers, we help people to save a little bit more. And with every paycheck we sent a "you got paid" email that helps people to manage their finances with clarity - and helps more people participate in their retirement savings plan.
It's my first fintech company, but behind the scenes the principles are similar to best-practice engineering work I did at companies like Medium. It's all about building something that scales, is easily maintainable, has an excellent CI/CD pipeline, and treats personal data with an abundance of care, caution, and hardened information security. (The piece that goes a little bit above and beyond is that then we get externally audited to make sure we're doing the right things.)
It's also the most diverse engineering team I've ever had the pleasure of working on. I feel privileged to be serving these incredible individuals, and to be helping to grow an empathetic, inclusive culture.
You should join us.
I'm still looking for a few people to join me at our office in downtown San Francisco. The downside is you'll need to work in close proximity to me; the upsides are a healthy set of startup perks and the satisfaction of doing work that really matters. In particular, I'm looking for:
If that's you, you should apply - and/or send me an email. I'd love to chat about the roles, or about any aspect of this work.
The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers. An analysis of bestselling narratives using NLP, sentiment analysis, and machine learning - but really a discussion of the art of narrative, backed by data. Fascinating.
Lanny, by Max Porter. A tense mystery woven from an impressionist tapestry of exceptionally well-observed rural British life; experimental and spiritual, while also pulse-poundingly real. I couldn’t put it down.
No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, by Greta Thunberg. A collection of her compelling, frank, calls to action that makes clear how powerful she is. We need her uncompromising voice.
gods with a little g, by Tupelo Hassman. Its irreverence hooked me; then it reeled me in and took me, my laughter and sobbing facets of its revealed truth. I wish I could write like this. I wish I could read like this forever. Beautiful.
Can You Write a Novel as a Group? An interesting exploration of writing groups - which, like startups and just about any other group of people I can think of, often fall apart because of preventable human dynamics.
Another Network is Possible. I agree that Indymedia could and should have shown the way. There's still time.
Young people may download news apps, but they spend very little time with them. "No news app (with the exception of Reddit) was within the top 25 apps used by respondents."
I Broke The Official Jeremy Renner App By Posting The Word "Porno" On It. "The second thing you will find upon installing the app—if you have not already installed the official Jeremy Renner app, please feel free to take this parenthetical as an opportunity to do so—is that every push notification you receive through the app looks as though it is coming directly from Mr. Renner himself." What happened next is both terrible and delicious.
MIT Media Lab founder: Taking Jeffrey Epstein’s money was justified. Nicholas Negroponte could not have been more wrong here. And it's a sad indictment of him, the institution he founded, and prevalent attitudes at every institution and ... just about everywhere else. There's so much work to do.
A Shocking Number of Americans Want to 'Just Let Them All Burn'. "The impulse to share hateful rumors "are associated with 'chaotic' motivations to 'burn down' the entire established democratic 'cosmos'... This extreme discontent is associated with motivations to share hostile political rumors, not because such rumors are viewed to be true but because they are believed to mobilize the audience against disliked elites.""
That Assault Weapon Ban? It Really Did Work. Let's stop beating around the bush and reinstate an effective ban.
The Space Crone. Ursula K LeGuin's full, beautiful essay about ageing, the menopause, and facing the unknown.
‘You understand that you might have to shoot a student?’ The realities of arming teachers.
How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. The story has moved on, but let's not let this drop.
How to prepare yourself for a good end of life. "In the past three years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who have witnessed good deaths and hard ones, and I consulted top experts in end-of-life medicine. This is what I learned about how to get the best from our imperfect health care system and how to prepare for a good end of life." Unfortunately very relevant to my interests right now.
Report reveals play-by-play of first U.S. grid cyberattack. "A first-of-its-kind cyberattack on the U.S. grid created blind spots at a grid control center and several small power generation sites in the western United States, according to a document posted yesterday from the North American Electric Reliability Corp."
Running Restaurants in San Francisco Made Me Rethink Everything I Thought I Knew About Success. "Looking back to when I first started out in the restaurant industry, I had defined success as becoming established, having your restaurants, and being a pillar in your community. Now, success merely means surviving."
‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence. "More than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell spoke to me or provided documents for this article, opening up—for the first time at an institution so intimately associated with the Falwell family—about what they’ve experienced and why they don’t think he’s the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement." I don't think it's meaningful different to the rest of the Christian conservative movement, though, to be honest.
I Was Caroline Calloway. An inside story about exploitation and influencer culture.
The rise of anti-trans “radical” feminists, explained. "The key to understanding why a self-proclaimed radical feminist group would side with conservatives arguing for the right to force cisgender women into skirts at work is to understand who TERFs are and what they’ve been up to for the past 50 years. Because now, under the Trump administration and a conservative-majority Supreme Court, their alliance with these far-right groups could have lasting, widespread consequences for trans civil rights — and for the rights of women in general." I've got nothing nice to say about TERFs.
Jennifer Gunter: ‘Women are being told lies about their bodies’. "When one of Goop’s “medical experts” wrote that Gunter was “strangely confident” in her thoughts on jade eggs, she replied: “I am not strangely confident about vaginal health; I am appropriately confident because I am the expert.” Many of her statements end with similar mic drops. It is a rare moment when a gynaecologist becomes an international celebrity, and it comes on a wave of misinformation, fear and continued attacks on the bodily autonomy of women. One Goop fan called Gunter the “vaginal Antichrist”."
How Paris got a taste for second-hand style from Africa. "Unloved cast-offs sent to Togo's markets by charity shops in Europe are given a second life by a canny vintage dealer in Paris."
How To Lose A Third Of A Million Dollars Without Really Trying. A cautionary tale from the publishing industry, which is likely similar to the music industry, and elsewhere in the arts.
Revealed: catastrophic effects of working as a Facebook moderator. "A group of current and former contractors who worked for years at the social network’s Berlin-based moderation centres has reported witnessing colleagues become “addicted” to graphic content and hoarding ever more extreme examples for a personal collection. They also said others were pushed towards the far right by the amount of hate speech and fake news they read every day."
I have a dream that the powerful take the climate crisis seriously. The time for their fairytales is over. Greta Thunberg is a superhero.
How Slack Got Ahead in Diversity. "For one thing, the company has, since 2015, proactively sought out candidates from outside traditional programmer pipelines like Stanford and MIT, recruiting through all-women’s coding camps like Hackbright, as well as programs that focus on training black and Latino programmers such as Code2040." And in doing so, is outperforming other tech companies. I'm watching this closely. These are things we should all be doing.
Trump: My Crimes Can’t Be Investigated While I’m President. Let's see about that.
Silicon Valley Goes to Therapy. "Silicon Valley is approaching its anxiety the way it knows best. So now there is on-demand therapy. Therapy metrics. Therapy R.O.I. Matching therapists with clients using the tools of online dating." Confession: I used a therapy startup to find the therapist I've been seeing for the last year, and it's been a very positive experience for me.
‘Racist’ Home Office passport system couldn’t recognise black man’s lips. "The Race Equality Foundation said it believes the system was not tested properly to see if it would work for black or ethnic minority people, calling it ‘technological or digital racism’." It's worth considering how many other systems have not been tested in this way, and what the impact of false positives could be on a person's life.
Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns. "What if the banking, asset-management, and insurance industries moved away from fossil fuels?"
This is your phone on feminism. "Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true."
Maria Ressa: “Facebook Broke Democracy in Many Countries around the World, Including in Mine”. "More than at any other time, political leaders have to define the values they stand for. And they have to come together and let go of the rivalries and the bitterness and the alliances of the past. I think that our opposition politicians [in the Philippines] could’ve done a better job if they understood both the role of democracy and if they stopped looking at it as a game of politics. I see the same with the Democratic Party of the United States; they’re going to self-implode before they even get to elections."
NY Fed: Minimum wage hikes didn't kill jobs. Increasing the minimum wage actually improved job numbers for lower-paid workers. An important finding to counter a common conservative talking point.
Looking back at the Snowden revelations. From a cryptographic perspective. "It might very well be that the NSA has lost a significant portion of its capability since Snowden."
A New Theory of Obesity. "“Ultraprocessed” foods seem to trigger neural signals that make us want more and more calories, unlike other foods in the Western diet."
Building a Mystery: An Oral History of Lilith Fair. "In the mid-1990s, female musicians topped the charts and sold out shows, but were told over and over again that no one would pay to see more than one woman onstage. Sarah McLachlan set out to prove them wrong."
You can’t be ‘impartial’ about racism – an open letter to the BBC on the Naga Munchetty ruling. "The BBC has upheld a complaint against its Breakfast presenter. As British broadcasters and journalists of colour, we demand it reconsiders."
1. I've joined ForUsAll as Head of Engineering. It's a financial wellness company whose mission is to build a better financial future for everyone. That's important - particularly in a country with no real safety net, no real pension system, and a terrifying gap between the rich and poor. We're starting with retirement savings, and I'm particularly motivated to help people on lower incomes build a stronger future.
2. I'm immediately hiring for two roles. The first is a Front End Engineer who codes in React with Redux and also has a strong understanding and respect for web standards. The second is a DevOps Engineer who can help build and orchestrate our infrastructure, as well as help us with both Continuous Integration and Deployment. Both roles are based on-premise in downtown San Francisco, and come with the major downside that you'll need to work side by side with me every day.
Right now the engineering team is about 50% women, and I want to continue to build an intersectionally diverse group of people who genuinely care about the work they're doing. If that's you, or you know someone, reach out!
I think of the internet industry in generations. First, we had the early days of the commercial internet, when Gopher was still a thing and Windows users launched Trumpet Winsock and waited for their modem screech before they connected with the world. Then, the Netscape era; a world dominated by Yahoo and the early days of the social web. There were the corporate years between the dotcom crash and the Great Recession, powered by banner ads. And then, the iPhone and everything that came next.
We have some contenders for the next great wave - blockchain, intelligent assistants - but no definites, yet. Blockchain is still lost in its own consensus and the myth that technology built before a specific human need can still change the world. (Thank you, Unlock, for keeping real humans in mind.) Intelligent assistants have been caught by the business models of their corporate parents and are simultaneously too closed and too freaky to become real platforms. So instead, this has been the era when startups retreated into the enterprise world and made money through bringing data insights - and data-driven influence - to business interests.
When I say data, let me be clear: I mean our data. Some businesses call it Personally Identifiable Information, or PII. But it's the intimate details of our lives, taken in aggregate. Our beliefs, predictions about our intentions, and a granular record of our past actions are stored in schemas that people who have never met us believe can build a psychometric profile which will accurately foretell our future actions.
It's an inherently asymmetric state of affairs: while these companies aggregate millions or billions of profiles that predict how we'll act, we don't have a hope of profiling them. Profiling requires near-constant surveillance and combining thousands of different data sources in sophisticated ways, which can then be abused by governments or political parties that want to influence our political decisions. We don't have a hope of surveilling them.
Corporate power has traditionally been counterbalanced by a few different measures. The first is government, which is supposed to look out for the well-being of its citizens. Let's set that one to the side and hopefully come back to it sometime in the future. Another is unions: when employers had outsized influence over the lives of their employees, the labor movement organized itself in order to create better routes for advocacy. The result of the original labor movements was that we were introduced to innovations like the weekend and the eight hour day. In the modern era, they continue to advocate for stronger benefits and better pay. Not every union is great, but the idea of unions is important and generally good.
I believe the next great wave on the internet is agency. Or to put it differently: I believe the tech industry is finally finding a soul.
As individuals, our privacy has been violated, our data has been aggregated, and we've been reduced to faceless consumers at best, chum for the enterprise data machine at worst. Social media makes us unhappy and destabilizes the communities we live in. Freedom of speech - which is essential for democracy to function - is being undermined by the chilling effect of constant surveillance. (To be clear, this is different to "freedom of speech" in the Gab and Breitbart sense, which is the modern equivalent of armchair racists complaining that they can't use the N-word anymore.) Crucially, the startups that have been growing as fast as possible without regard for human well-being are beginning to fail, and fail hard. Meanwhile, the influence of high net worth negative influences like the Kochs, the Mercers, and pervasive creeps like Jeffrey Epstein are beginning to fade.
The top down trends (the influence of hateful money, the financial fortunes of some of the fastest growing startups) are combining with the bottom up trends (our own dissatisfaction with technology, a growing unease with giant tech companies) to create the conditions for more ethical startups to emerge and thrive. We're worried about the climate crisis; we're worried about our own health; we're worried about what the hell has happened to our politics; we're worried about our futures and the futures of our families and friends.
These are trends that companies like Apple have already identified and capitalized on, but we're still only at the beginning stages. The ventures that emerge will be more ethical, will protect our health, will give us agency over our data, and will once again empower us by counterbalancing corporate aggregation. This isn't a technical development - it's a social one. But I'm convinced these innovations will change the world.