Re: the primacy of economics

Tim Harford re-phrasing of the question:

Is it progressive to attack the very existence of mainstream economics?

is answered emphatically “No” by Simon Wren-Lewis in On criticising the existence of mainstream economics. Much of this “no” hinges on the premise that economics is a science, as well as a pretty thorough misunderstanding of the basis of political power. Put another way more briefly in reply to Mr. Harford’s re-phrasing:

yes, we absolutely should abdicate all policy decisions to an exalted priest class

As a practitioner of another art that sometimes has pretensions of science (software “engineering” and design), it’s painful to see others make similar errors. If you’re not making falsifiable predictions and conducting peer-reproducible experiments, you’re not doing science. If your art is dominated by personalities that apply influence via reputational fiat, you’re not involved in a science.

The fact that there are no practical consequences for economists or their theories or recommendations when spectacular failure is manifest only underscores the folly of advocating for economics as a science, nevermind the collateral damage done to actual science in the eyes of the general public.

Mr. Wren-Lewis refers briefly to the postulation that economics is an inexact science, which is supposed to free it from the various expectations of measurement and reproducability. The particulars of this science, not-a-science semantic argument actually aren’t essential; even by the relaxed metric of “is it a mode of collective inquiry that can manufacture knowledge applicable to future circumstances and decisions?”, it seems economics is wanting:

  1. Was the liberalization of trade a net positive for humanity?
  2. Was later globalization a net positive for humanity?
  3. Were American bailouts in the late aughts and their prioritization a net positive?
  4. Was British austerity a net positive?

The answer to all of these questions (and many more) is “Maybe? Economics can’t really tell us.” Economics simply cannot capture the panoply of criteria we might want to use to evaluate any given policy decision, with its narrow (mainstream) charter of tracking metrics like GDP, inflation, labor participation, and so on. Absent a metric for a criterion, economists will gleefully ignore it. Even in “positive” outcomes, economists are left saying “Who do you believe, me or your lying eyes?”

Sure, GDP is up; don’t worry that the drilling has made your water undrinkable. Yes, labor participation is great; don’t worry that the job you have now is worse than the one you had before. Absolutely, inflation is low; don’t worry that your hometown is literally dying off. Indeed, life expectancy is up; don’t worry that getting sick will mean you’ll have to declare bankruptcy.

Maintaining economics as the primary (often sole) basis upon which policy decisions are made is absolutely immoral at this point. What riled me the most about Mr. Wren-Lewis’ post illustrates exactly why:

Now imagine what would happen if there was no mainstream. Instead we had different schools of thought, each with their own models and favoured policies. There would be schools of thought that said austerity was bad, but there would be schools that said the opposite. I cannot see how that strengthens the argument against austerity, but I can see how it weakens it.
This is the mistake that progressives make. They think that by challenging mainstream economics they will somehow make the economic arguments for regressive policies go away. They will not go away. Instead all you have done is thrown away the chance of challenging those arguments on their own ground, using the strength of an objective empirical science.

The most potent exercise of political power is in setting the terms of debate; winning or losing the debates themselves is often inconsequential with regard to the gross direction of policy. By letting economics (and economists) dictate the basis of argument time after time, we have abdicated our self-interest in essential public policy decisions for generations.

Social Security was instituted to counter the suffering of the poor, unemployed, and elderly deeply exacerbated by the Great Depression — not to satisfy the recommendations of an economic model. Likewise, the National Health Service wasn’t motivated by economists, but by decades of disillusionment with an unjust medical establishment concerned with grift more than good medicine, and a sense of duty to care for a nation’s citizenry after years of grinding war. These programs were instituted not because of Science, or a “science”, but because of far greater concerns: a peoples’ moral sense in the face of suffering and injustice.

Meanwhile, nearly every economic recommendation I’ve heard in my lifetime, even from so-called “left” economists, has been geared to calibrate metrics fundamentally unconcerned with externalities that make those metrics absolutely irrelevant in the political sphere. Again, go ask a machinist watching daytime TV about GDP-boosting trade, ask a broke college kid about the S&P breaking records, ask a mother of a sick child about the cost of medicine.

Our best understanding of economics is an essential tool of management and implementation. Succumbing to it as a basis of ideology or debate is unethical political malpractice.

Commercial autonomous vehicles should be taxed


Advanced autonomous vehicle technology is maturing at such a rate that most observers expect it to be ready for commercial deployment in the very near future. Some companies have already begun live trials of semi- and fully-autonomous vehicle platforms on public roads. The general safety and productivity advantages of these developments is undeniable, but little discussion in any public forum has occurred regarding the negative human and social impacts of widespread deployment of commercial autonomous vehicles (CAVs).1

Specifically, commercial trucking, widely cited as the likely first “target” for CAVs2, directly employs 3.5 million drivers, and 4 million more via indirect support industries.3 The successful deployment of CAVs will squeeze these workers’ livelihoods by making drivers far less essential to commercial transport, and then crush them completely once the technology reaches its “final” form. This is not happenstance, or theoretical; it is the primary objective of their deployment.

What I will motivate and discuss here is not whether autonomous vehicles should be developed or deployed; their advantages are too great and too obvious. However, given the well-known history of how the unfettered automation of entire industries has previously devastated entire regions and generations, I believe we must take steps to make the transition to autonomous vehicles one that benefits all of us without irredeemably harming some of us.

Not “just a job”

Driving a truck isn’t just a job…it’s a career with its own culture and communities that supports millions of families across the country. Pay grades nationwide average $40,000 – $50,000 yearly4; this is triple the national hourly minimum wage of $7.25/hour5, and nearly double the poverty level for a family of four6.

This makes truck drivers far more like other well-paid workers whose livelihood has been devastated by automation in the past (auto factory workers come to mind) than less skilled, less well-paid, and more transient roles (e.g. cashiers, which have been getting replaced by self-checkout facilities for years). Further, an unemployed truck driver will have few opportunities to find work that pays similarly: absent other skills, they will be forced into looking for work paying far less than their former profession.

Aside from individuals’ monetary concerns, truck drivers are an essential part of the United States’ character. Driving a truck is the most common job in the country, and as  Planet Money‘s visualization graphically illustrates, it is hardly a localized profession; driving a truck is the most common job in 30 states as of 2015:


Of course, these factors together make truck drivers an obvious target for “improving productivity”.

The Machines are Coming?

This is an overused catchphrase used in news reporting about and editorializing on the latest wave of automation eliminating jobs — often well-paying jobs, these days. While the pieces themselves are usually more nuanced, the catchphrase implies that the automatons approach of their own volition, or perhaps exist and advance as an unyielding force of nature.

No, the machines come because we collectively decide that they should. Sometimes by explicit intentional choice, but often because we passively accept the choices made by others, usually corporate-government entanglements organized to maximize productivity and profit.

For all the reasons why driving a truck is a stable and rewarding career as noted earlier, it is also a plum target for elimination by more efficient, more productive, less costly technology. According to the American Transportation Research Institute, the research arm of the largest trucking industry advocacy group, one third of the cost of every mile driven is attributable to driver wages and benefits.7 Though CAVs will cost more than traditional rigs, eliminating drivers (after first squeezing more miles out of each one thanks to initial, less sophisticated CAVs eliminating many of the human constraints around hours of service) will drive costs down and maximize miles driven and thus profit made per day.

We don’t need to infer this motivation, though: none other than the CEO of Uber (which also owns Otto, a leading developer of CAV technologies that is partnered with Budweiser, conducting live tests of their Level 4 retrofit8) has publicly declared that their ultimate intention is to replace human drivers.

What will the impact of this be? I’m no economist (yay!), but for perspective, the number of potentially-affected commercial truck drivers (remember, 3.5m) is approximately the same as the number of jobs lost in 2008 in the U.S. as a result of the financial services collapse and resulting “Great Recession”, and over 40% of the number of jobs lost throughout the entire recession (8.5m).9 Of course, the deployment of CAVs will take much longer than the duration of the “Great Recession”, but this is cold comfort to the drivers and millions of others that will be affected.

“They should do something”

Depending on your political bent, you might now be expecting or hoping that those in positions of power were thinking long and hard about how the negative impacts of CAVs could be mitigated.

Unfortunately, existing regulation and government oversight of autonomous vehicles is either entirely absent, or singularly focused on safety and liability concerns. I am not aware of, and could not find any references to any existing or proposed regulation to address the significant dislocation in the commercial driver labor market that would surely occur if Level 48 autonomous vehicles were to enter widespread use.10

Peeking at the underbelly of the policy world makes clear that the labor impact of CAVs is thoroughly ignored. A meticulous 2016 200-page report on autonomous vehicles written for policymakers by the RAND Corporation contains a single lonely paragraph to acknowledge the catastrophic impact CAVs will have on drivers’ livelihoods11:

Jobs will also be lost. The act of driving is the source of many reasonably well-paid jobs. Recent immigrants often operate taxicabs or livery services, and municipal bus operations are the source of many union jobs. The commercial transportation sector employs thousands of professional drivers. Just as the invention of the automatic elevator led to the loss of many operator jobs, it is likely that AV technology will eventually lead to the loss of commercial transportation sector jobs at considerable human cost. Ultimately, the lost jobs might be replaced by others, perhaps related to the AV industry, but there may be considerable economic disruption.

It’s particularly painful to see a gross inaccuracy regarding the number of jobs at issue (“thousands” cited in the RAND report, when the number of commercial truck drivers actually tops 3.5 million) coinciding with blind hope and faith in creative destruction yielding economic benefits for others.

While public policymakers sleep on the worker impacts of CAVs, autonomous vehicle vendors are actively arbitraging what little regulation and oversight does exist in order to secure the lowest possible degrees of governmental “interference” in their development and live testing. Uber is again leading the way here, with their recent deployment of autonomous vehicles in San Francisco despite known safety problems, which were rapidly relocated to Arizona when the state of California ordered the vehicles halt testing on public streets while Arizona’s governor opened theirs without restriction. Far from atypical, these tactics are actively encouraged, even by investors in Uber’s competition; for example, Mr. Srinivasan is a Board Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, an investor in Uber competitor Lyft:


The universal sole priority demonstrated by CAV vendors, their investors, the trucking industry, their customers, public agencies, and policymakers is to accelerate and maximize the deployment of CAVs, with the resulting massive profits accruing solely to CAV vendors and owners. Meanwhile, nothing is being done to prepare or protect truck drivers from the disruption being planned for them.

A modest proposal

There are probably dozens of policy proposals that could improve the outlook for truck drivers and those that depend on them. I have one in mind.

The dislocation of millions of truck drivers losing their livelihood will come bearing costs; my fundamental proposal is that these costs should be borne by those that benefit from the deployment of CAVs, and the greatly-improved profit they promise.

There are many personal, familial, and social consequences of job loss that cannot be parcelled and countered by any compensation; but, some are. In order to avoid the widespread social unraveling widely documented as a result of automating other industries, under- and then unemployed truck drivers will need:

  1. unemployment benefits and other transitional assistance
  2. access and admission to suitable education and job training programs
  3. health care and life insurance to ensure their families’ well-being

The objective must be to get those affected by CAVs transitioned into other quality work. Not doing this will mean that millions of truck drivers will likely fall into poverty along with their families, impacting their general welfare for generations. Without public policy addressing the unique threat that CAVs pose to truck drivers’ livelihoods, these needs will either be paid for out of already strained general unemployment funds and low-income assistance programs, or not provided for at all…with tragic consequences for everyone involved.

State motor vehicle registries should create a new registration class for CAVs (Level 4 and above8), with a yearly registration fee commensurate with the estimated costs associated with the benefits necessary to maximize the chances of a dismissed driver landing safely.

Of course, a blanket unchanging registration fee would represent an unreasonable barrier to the eventual (and again, very desirable) widespread deployment of CAVs. This can be addressed by adjusting the special CAV registration fee over time; it could:

  1. be low for the first small percentage of a state’s cumulative registered trucking fleet, so as to encourage the early adoption, testing, and refinement of CAV technologies
  2. treble up sharply for the large middle bulk of a state’s fleet. This will allow the state to build a sizable fund from which to pay benefits to displaced truckers, and should lengthen the horizon of mass deployment, hopefully allowing most truckers and others in supporting industries enough “warning” to exit to better opportunities while they’re still employed.
  3. drop to zero and end special treatment of CAVs for the last portion of a state’s trucking fleet, thus opening the floodgates for the full benefits of CAVs, and maximal profit for their manufacturers and owners thenceforth.


Autonomous vehicles have tremendous promise, and will one day make our roads far safer and more efficient. However, a significant portion of that efficiency is predicated on the elimination of millions of decent-paying jobs that will help a far fewer number build and grow fortunes. We should celebrate the innovation that enables those fortunes, but we must not let those that suffer in its wake to do so alone and unaided. It is incumbent upon us, as members of a just society with history and memory of prior adventures in yielding the fruits of automating once well-paying work solely to the automatons’ creators and owners, to not repeat those prior errors of inaction.


  1. The same can be also said of non-commercial autonomous vehicles: their arrival is universally described as ushering in a utopian future of safer, more efficient, less unpleasant personal transportation. As far as I can tell, there is little to argue with there, compared to the large and specific threat that CAVs pose to a large and essential population of current workers. Thus, the focus here on CAVs and their impact. 
  2. While Uber has publicly declared its intentions to eliminate all of its drivers by introducing autonomous vehicles, the economic impact of doing so — while still painful for those impacted — is far smaller. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are just 234,000 taxicab drivers and chauffeurs are employed in the U.S., each of which earn on average $11.00 / hour. These figures are dwarfed by the economic footprint of commercial truck drivers, which makes them a far more appealing target for improved efficiency measures, so to speak. 
  3. American Trucking Associations, ‘Professional Truck Drivers and the Trucking Industry’, June 2016, 
  4. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ‘Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015: 53-3032 Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers’, 
  5. U.S. Department of Labor, minimum wage topic summary, 
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ‘2015 Poverty Guidelines’, 
  7. American Transportation Research Institute, ‘An Analysis of the Operational Costs of Trucking: A 2014 Update’, 
  8. The different levels of autonomous vehicle capabilities are defined by SAE International Standard J2016, summarized in http://www.partnered with Budweiser, conducting live tests of their Level 4 Level 4 autonomous vehicles (those that are able to negotiate most driving tasks in most conditions without any assistance or attention paid by a human in the cab) will be the first that will significantly affect truck driver employment. Lower levels of vehicle autonomy are thoroughly beneficial to all stakeholders, as they are focused strictly on safety, and require an alert operator at all times. 
  9. The BLS maintains this data (see the Excel/CSV download link at the bottom of the page if you want to tinker with it), or you can refer to for easier reading. 
  10. The threat to the commercial truck driver has been cited in arguments for universal basic income, including 
  11. Anderson et al., ‘ Autonomous Vehicle Technology A Guide for Policymakers’, published by the RAND Corporation, 2016,, page 39. 

RIP Anthony Grimes

As some may have already seen on Twitter or other channels, our friend Anthony Grimes (Raynes in #clojure IRC and elsewhere, @StRaynes on Twitter) has passed away.

The most immediate announcement of this came via Lance Bradley, one of Anthony’s closer friends from the Clojure community:

Anthony’s family set up a fundraiser to help with his final expenses, but people are going well beyond the target set there; in any case, the family would certainly appreciate any help you can offer:

If you don’t know of Anthony, he was a constant inspiration and helping hand in Clojure’s earlier days, especially in #clojure IRC where he tutored and encouraged people daily for years. He was also the creator or a significant contributor to dozens of Clojure projects, some of which I guarantee you still rely upon every day.

Anthony himself wrote about some of his history in the Clojure community, and also happened to recount at length the most significant memory I’ll have of him, when we all helped to get a kind 16-year-old to the first Clojure Conj in 2010:

I have other memories of and about Anthony that I’d like to share, but not now, not yet. Of course, the family will be having a local service for him in their time and way. Because so many people around the world knew, worked with, and called Anthony a friend, I’m hoping we can all have an online/remote memorial (maybe an any-comers Hangout or something). That’s just an idea at the moment, details TBD.

If you’d like to talk a bit about how Anthony influenced or inspired you, please feel free to; maybe on the clone of this blog post I put on the Clojure Google Group, maybe on Twitter (tack on #RIPRaynes maybe), or pop in to #clojure IRC, where Raynes first made us smile and think and learn.

Rest easy, dude.


— Chas

A humane Real Names Policy

I found myself with occasion to tell the same story multiple times in the past couple of days, so it seems appropriate to publish it somewhere for easy reliable reference:

Years ago at a programming language conference, I finally met in person someone I’d interacted with regularly on IRC and Twitter. In those contexts, he used a handle of his choosing, and naturally, everyone referred to him by it.

I noticed that everyone was addressing him by his initials. I played along, but eventually asked him directly — in a minute when others were occupied elsewhere — if the use of his initials was his choice.

You see, my friend was from Elsewhere: the conference was in the U.S., while he and his name are not “American”, nor Western. Many people seem to balk at saying names that they are not already familiar with, either because of pronunciation anxiety, or much less benign reasons. Dale Carnegie is often quoted on this topic, so I might as well follow suit:

Using a person’s name is crucial, especially when meeting those we don’t see very often. Respect and acceptance stem from simple acts such as remembering a person’s name and using it whenever appropriate.

So, I asked, and my initialed friend indicated that he’d prefer it if I used his given name when speaking with him, but that it was apparently tough for some to pronounce. I asked him to say his name a couple of times, I got it right on my second try, and I used his name as he preferred it in every interaction we had thereafter. It wasn’t hard, and he seemed glad that someone was willing to take 60 seconds to show him that respect.

This is simple stuff that is easy to get right and costs nothing.

Some obvious corollaries to the above story:

  • Always address people by the name that they prefer. (Everything else follows from this.)
  • Default to their given name if you know it, but don’t deputize yourself as proxy of whatever faceless bureaucracy stamped their birth certificate.
  • Don’t be so lazy as to let your own bias — cultural, geographical, or linguistic — prevent you from respecting someone else.
  • None of this changes online: if someone has chosen a name for themselves in some context, use it to refer to them. It is especially careless to refer to someone in one channel by the name they use in another.

Someone’s “real name” is whatever they say it is.

I built an app to save my Mom’s life

Republished from

Legend has it that many (most?) people that start a software business, launch an internet site, or create an app in the modern era are looking for a big payday. That may or may not be true, but I know that, when I set out to create what would eventually become HomeHelpStatus, I did so for one reason: I needed to save my Mom’s life.

This sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. As I’ve written before, my Mom has advanced secondary-progressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a degenerative neurological disease that is symptomatically similar to ALS. In my Mom’s case, MS has left her quadriplegic with a host of “secondary” conditions, such as limited respiratory capacity.

As her condition worsened over the years, she became more and more dependent upon her home care workers, which we call PCAs (Personal Care Assistants; other terms like Home Heath Aide [HHA] are used as well). This has mostly worked out well; without their help, my Mom would not be able to live at home.

…a caregiver not showing up for their scheduled visit could result in my Mom’s death.

The problem is, sometimes things happen. People get flat tires on the way to work. Their child is significantly injured, and they can’t come in. Sometimes (thankfully, very rarely) PCAs we’ve trusted have ended up not being reliable, not showing up for work when scheduled for little reason.

This is generally not a serious problem in other healthcare contexts. For example, a nursing home, clinic, or group home will typically be staffed by a multiple people at any given time; one or two people being absent there will be inconvenient, but usually not an emergency. However, in my Mom’s case, she only ever has one PCA scheduled at a time (a constraint understandably enforced by the government agency that thankfully pays for her home care).

So, when someone doesn’t show up when they’re scheduled, my Mom isn’t just inconvenienced: she can’t eat; she can’t drink; she can’t go to the bathroom; she can’t take her medications. This last fact is particularly problematic, as some of her medications must be taken rigorously, at the same time every day, or very bad things can happen. There have been times when a PCA not showing up has resulted in an emergency room visit for my Mom…that is, once a PCA shows up for the next scheduled visit, or me or my Dad discover what’s happened.

Once I drove over to her apartment after calling a dozen times over the course of an hour or two, only to find that the phone cord had accidentally been yanked out of the wall.

As you can imagine, such situations are horrible experiences. And as terrifying as it might be, it’s not hard to think of scenarios where a caregiver not showing up for their scheduled visit could result in my Mom’s death.

Knowing this has for years resulted in a sort of mild, gnawing worry: around the times caregivers were supposed to be arriving, I’d look at the clock and wonder, “Are they going to show up?” I’d debate with myself about whether to call over and confirm. Sometimes I would, and sometimes the phone would just ring and ring. Are they just a little late? Are they busy? Did my Mom send them to the store for something? Or, are they not going to show up at all? Once I drove over to her apartment after calling a dozen times over the course of an hour or two, only to find that the phone cord had accidentally been yanked out of the wall.

Earlier this year, I knew I had to do something, but no obviously good options presented themselves:

  • Caregiver check-in services did exist, but they were built for organizations like home care agencies that had dozens of staff, and cost $1,000’s just to get started. I found nothing suitable for individual and family use.
  • Informal check-in services also exist, but they’re largely intended for families, e.g. so teenagers can let parents know where they are. While we aim to hire trustworthy people, I wanted to know for sure that caregivers were actually at my Mom’s apartment, and not checking in from their phone from wherever. Trust, but verify is an apt proverb.
  • Emergency call services like Lifeline are available, but my Mom simply isn’t able to operate the switches or even blow tubes you can use to trigger them. Also, we don’t need EMT calvary rolling in when a caregiver doesn’t show up; knowing that that’s going to happen actually discourages the use of things like Lifeline.

What I wanted seemed very simple:

  1. A way for caregivers to check in from my Mom’s apartment in a verifiable way (by phone using caller ID or maybe using a mobile app that used GPS to verify presence).
  2. When a caretaker doesn’t arrive within some minutes of when a visit is scheduled, I want to get a text message or phone call so I can do whatever is necessary.

I don’t have to worry anymore about whether she’s being cared for.

Thankfully, being a reasonably competent software developer, I built this. It’s worked wonderfully for my Mom for some months now: when a PCA has very occasionally been running late, I get a text message, and my Dad gets a phone call. PCAs now also check in when they’re departing at the end of their visit, so a nice side benefit is that I now have access to a complete in/out log that I can use to verify their pay (and thus protect the hours of care that my Mom is allotted).

I don’t have to worry anymore about whether she’s being cared for. And, if I do feel a flutter of paranoia, I can just go look at the checkin log in 10 seconds and be reassured. More subtly, my Mom doesn’t worry about what will happen the next time someone is late or doesn’t show up.

But, most importantly, I know my Mom will never be in danger again, when someday a PCA really doesn’t show up again. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not technically boastful, but the code and system that enables this may be the most important I’ve ever written.

Other people, maybe many others, could get the same benefit from it that I and my family have. I know I wish I had had something like this when my grandmother was getting some minor home care some time ago: she remains in good health, but is the sort of person will say “I didn’t want to bother you!” when you find out that the aide didn’t show up the week before, but didn’t call anyone.

So, I’ve done what I can to make it as easy to use as possible; this is what HomeHelpStatus is today. Please pass it along if you know someone that might find it useful.

Living with yaks

A “yak shave” — the performance of a task solely in order to continue one’s “real work” — has traditionally been a pejorative term in the software and programming world. Much like “real life” yak shaves (fixing the garage door so you can get the car out so you can go to the store so you can make dinner, each task discovered only in service of the one it depends on), shaving programming yaks is typically not considered enviable work. It’s all stuff you reluctantly attend to in order to get on with the thing you wanted to do in the first place.

Such a perspective makes taking stock of my professional life an equally grim business: the overwhelming majority of my technical work has been in shearing wooly yaks, some more cleanly than others: vast savannahs of code for extracting data from PDF documents, libraries for authentication and authorization, AWS APIs, byzantine dependency resolution, and teststeststests; then there’s tools everywhere I look, including more REPL guff than you can shake a stick at, contributions to programming languages, and too many little bits of glue code to enumerate in any comprehensible way. (Let’s not speak of yaks kept away from the harsh lights of github and open source in general.) All of this was done in order to do other things. More often than not, I’ve let my hands linger far longer than necessary on those shears, rarely ever moving on to my original plans and projects.

Being busy is the most perfect form of procrastination, so that’s one explanation. I also think the yak-shaving tendency is an affordance of modern programming, with its deep cravasses that are sooooeasy to slip into, only to emerge 15 years later with a lot of experience in SOAP and WS-$WHATEVER. Why did I learn about OpenId in the first place? No one knows. Why do I still remember the Swing APIs with such exactitude that I’m confident I could knock out a moderately-complex Java GUI without looking at docs? Please, let me find blissful forgetfulness.

It’s too easy to gripe and grumble about this, though. We all have this experience of yak shaving, and occasionally regret for the time spent with such noble creatures, but I now think it’s disingenuous to lament. These computers we pound and tap on are things of our own creation: we choose our own legacy through our use and abuse of them.

When I look back on the computering I’ve done, I’m much more forgiving of my follies than I used to be. I can’t say I’ve accomplished what I originally set out for myself; but then, I can’t judge the work that was done too harshly, either. Most of it works well, most of the time, and many have found good use in it. I can’t ask for too much else, and I think I see now that hardly any other programmers (and perhaps, any other creative folk in general) are any different in this respect: we all struggle with whether we did good work yesterday, whether what we’re working on now is what we want to be working on, and whether it’s a stop on our path to something else, or a place where we might rest for a while.

Being at ease with this ennui puts the long years I hopefully have ahead of me in a much more pleasant light. It’s easier to be more thoughtful about the work I plan for, as well as more forgiving of the yaks that lay in wait for me along the way.

I talked about all of that so I could tell you a little story:

While idly twittering recently, a friend asked if I was talking about one of my “pet” yaks (I keep a number of forever projects around the house, their foraging is good for the lawn and they keep critters at bay):

The idea and visual of a World Yak stayed with me. Half-serious as it is (anyone even vaguely familiar with the workings of these stupid machines would recognize the truth in the sentiment), I couldn’t stop giggling about the visual. I eventually commissioned a wonderful artist to bring the meta-yak to life:

meta-yakI don’t know what exactly I’ll do with this burdened animal, but and @metayaks is a fun start.

Empathy and optimism

When talking with others over the past year or so, I’ve occasionally mentioned how I’ve been “working on my empathy”. This usually prompts confused, awkward moments, but I’ve meant it wholeheartedly. The most basic way I’ve found so far to describe what this means is I’ve been attempting to be as mindful as possible in my interactions with others, and in my apprehension of their stories and personal testimony. My objective isn’t just to comprehend what I’m reading, watching, or being told, but to do my best to re-experience, at least as much as is possible within my own head.

(Amusing, telling anecdote: after watching an “original series” Star Trek episode [or maybe it was an early movie?] featuring Spock successfully suppressing his baser human and Vulcan impulses, I said to my mother, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be like that?” She told me years later that my posing that rhetorical question worried her deeply for some time afterwards.)

Far from some kind of wispy daydreaming exercise, this is a laborious process. Since our phenomenology is apparently automatic (“System 1” thinking, in Kahneman’s terminology), assessing the uncountable set of signals and flashes that makes me feel like me is effortless, an instant-on flow state. Working on appreciating others’ experience as more than an abstract intellectualization of circumstances demands the careful, conscious construction of a completely different mindset, replacing as much of the sinewy underpinnings of my own identity as much as possible, and allowing myself to slip into the result like a bath filled with ice water.

Working on being empathetic in the way I’ve described is intense (how could it not be?), but one of its more surprising effects on my day-to-day life has been how it’s challenged my bias towards optimism. This bias has many roots; an impartial list might include the doctrine of American exceptionalism that I’ve been steeped in all my life; pop culture history of western society and technology that usually generalizes into a vector of ever-improving conditions for humanity at large; and my engineering and creative profession that is premised on the notion of individuals and small collectives being able to affect significant, tangible positive change.

There is truth in these influences, but each is a narrative better suited to providing comfort than actual enlightenment, like a fluffy, cozy blanket, so frail that the smallest poke or stretch yields a hole. The American project has always been fraught, its history pocked as it is with us repeatedly, collectively falling short of its promise. The postwar narrative of societal progress largely marks time on the backs of people overcoming adversity, usually spending far too little time on the fact that those adversaries should have been their brethren. The software engineering world I inhabit traditionally espouses a strictly technocratic problem-solving approach, fabulously appropriate when one’s objective is to build a bridge, but yielding catastrophic (yet ironically, invisible) consequences when applied to qualitative effect.

I knew all of this before, in the same way that I had previously coldly intellectualized others’ experiences. But the more I “worked on my empathy”, the less I could wave at the footnotes to my optimistic bias as incidental, temporary hiccups on the way to The Future, akin to having to break a few eggs in order to make an omelet.

In hindsight, this isn’t surprising: being as fortunate as I am, being empathic inherently requires trying to inhabit the stories of people that are or have been less so. Getting even a hint of the experience of people that have been failed by the American ideal (whether on its shores or abroad), people that are or have been treated as sub-human by their neighbours, people that have been ignored or personally injured by well-meaning but narrow-minded technologists…this made me question deeply those beliefs that previously sustained me so reliably. It seemed my optimism was a false idol, and I was despondent for a while.

What broke the malaise was my returning to the stories of people that embodied an eyes-wide-open sort of optimism, and trying to capture some of what made them push forward. Martin Luther King, Jr. remains front-of-mind for me, especially his last speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis on April 3, 1968 (multipart video), popularly remembered as ending with King prophesising his assassination the next day. Much of the speech is occupied with the particulars of that time and place, but some other passages spoke to me. In particular, King talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan, emphasizing the exercise of empathy in performing good works:

He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.

And later:

And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”

But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight.

Here Dr. King is imploring Memphis’ black community to stand together, and not just pass on by those among them that needed aid. I found the fact that he felt the need to do this remarkable; a modern reader or listener might think that, in that time and place, poor blacks would do anything to support each other, but doing so was itself an act of protest, carrying risk to prospects and body. In the scheme of things, Dr. King’s plea here was both critically important and an incredibly modest goal relative to his broader cause, but he agitated for it with all the vigor and determination he exhibited when discussing his grandest visions of peace and equality among races. His solemn, unyielding commitment to an unlikely cause even when facing his own demise overwhelmed me.

Now when I think of “real” optimism, I think of projects that demand a compassionate perspective, and recognition of those most different than I as my kin. It is our flawed human nature that such projects are more likely to fail than they are to succeed, their objectives so lofty and their opponents so tawdry and powerful that simply having an opportunity to work another day is a step forward: the Good Samaritan may just as well have been betrayed by the man on the road, who could have been luring him for ill cause, just as Dr. King was ultimately betrayed by his neighbours even while he worked towards ensuring that his country fulfilled the ideals it set out to live up to centuries prior.

We live in brighter times today, and so it is harder to see the stars. Maybe this is why I was lulled into adopting a triumphant, up-and-to-the-right flavour of optimism, a just-so Schoolhouse Rock tune of potential and incessant progress that is easy to bop to but impossible to build upon without maintaining an improbable naiveté. By working on my empathy, I feel like I have finally learned what optimism looks and feels like, and simultaneously gained the tools to practice it, too.

My Mom has Multiple Sclerosis, and needs a new wheelchair van

My mom has been battling secondary-progressive Multiple Sclerosis over the last 30 years (I’ve written about her a bit before). Over that time, she went back to school in her 30’s and graduated from the University of Massachusetts, worked as a substitute teacher and home health aide, and raised a son throughout. Unfortunately, she’s been quadriplegic for the last several years; despite this, she lives at home with the help of family and a number of personal heath aides, and maintains an independence and level of energy inspiring to everyone around her, even managing to continue pursuing her greatest passion, writing, now about her day-to-day experience living with MS.

Her current wheelchair van is shown in the photos below. While it’s never been much to look at, it has over the last 10 years been essential in allowing my Mom to go about living her life to the fullest: enjoying concerts and movies, going shopping for food and clothes, seeing doctors of all sorts, and visiting family, especially her mother and her new grandchildren (twin girls, if you hadn’t heard :-)).

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The van was already very used when it was purchased, but my father (a skilled auto mechanic) has thankfully been able to keep it in reasonable running condition. It’s at the end of its road now, though: it needs a new transmission (it can’t go in reverse anymore!), the air conditioning has failed (a serious thing during the summer for someone with MS), and the body has rusted beyond any hope of repair.

So, my mom needs a new wheelchair van. To make this possible, we have set up a fundraising page, aiming to raise $10,000:

We hit our fundraising goal! Read the updates below…

Brand-new wheelchair-accessible vans often top $30,000, but we don’t need anything so fancy. We’re looking to purchase a new-used van in good shape that will last for a long while. We don’t have a particular van in mind yet (though we have been keeping an eye out), so the exact cost is not entirely clear yet. If any funds are left over after purchasing a van, they’ll be used to defray the costs of insurance, taxes, and repairs over the coming years.

(It kills me that I can’t simply take care of this myself without such a public appeal; while my wife and I will absolutely be helping her with this purchase, the realities of recently having bought a house and having twins makes doing so on our own impossible at the moment.)

I, my family, and my mom will be grateful for any little bit you can spare to help!

Update 2015-03-22

My mom’s birthday was a few days ago, but we all gathered to celebrate today. She knew about the fundraiser before, but didn’t know how far we had gotten until this afternoon (60% toward our goal!). She wanted to record a few words to pass along to everyone that had helped so far, whether by giving generously, or sharing the fundraiser via Twitter, Facebook, and other channels:

Update 2015-03-25

In just four days, we’ve reached the goal for our fundraiser! It will be hard to sufficiently thank everyone that helped, either by donating, or by sharing the effort with others on Twitter, Facebook, etc. I’m incredibly grateful to the various communities that pitched in, moreso than I can readily express at the moment. Of course, my mom is similarly amazed, and looking forward to being able to get around far more easily and comfortably!

We will be shutting down the fundraiser properly later today, pending tying up a few loose ends with the site that’s hosting it. We’ll also be periodically putting out updates, especially once we have found and acquired a suitable van.

Thank you so, so much. <3

Distributed Systems and the End of the API (meta)

I just published a written distillation of my talk at PhillyETE 2013, Distributed Systems and the End of the API, over at the “writings” blog for the Quilt Project.

Take a look, especially if you are interested in distributed systems, CRDTs, the general suckage of how APIs work, or if you’re curious about what this Quilt thing is all about. (Spoiler / hint: the talk+post isn’t strictly about Quilt, but is very strongly related.) My inspiration for writing up the content of the talk comes largely from Michael Bernstein’s writeup of his RICON West 2013 talk, Distributed Systems Archaeology. Giving talks can be a compelling way to spread information and evangelize different (and hopefully better!) ways of thinking about problems, but depending on slide decks and video dumps is a poor way for people to discover and access that information. Giving it a proper home that is easily searchable and accessible to all (despite visual-, aural-, attention-, or time-related disadvantages) seems to be a total win, especially if one is hoping to have a lasting impact.

My apologies for the piece being so long (~7,250 words). I really didn’t want to disturb the single narrative, and so resisted splitting it up onto parts. Hopefully the length does not detract from the message. It’s very clear that my biggest failing as a writer remains my verbosity, something I’ll be watching closer than usual for the rest of the year. It would not hurt to work on more tightly-scoped, concise pieces, if only to be able to put some bounds on the time spent on the writing itself.

Theorizing the Web, an experience

Last week, I attended Theorizing the Web (TtW). I can say without hesitation that it was one of the most challenging, enlightening, and useful conference experiences I’ve ever had.  I’d like to provide a summary account of my experience, and maybe offer some (early, I’m still processing) personal takeaways that might be relevant to you, especially if you are involved professionally in building the software and technology that is part of what is theorized at TtW.

The first thing you need to know is that TtW is not a technology conference. Before I characterize it positively though, it’s worth considering the conference’s own statement:

Theorizing the Web is an inter- and non-disciplinary annual conference that brings together scholars, journalists, artists, activists, and commentators to ask big questions about the interrelationships between the Web and society.

While there were a few technologists in attendance, even fewer were presenting.  As it said on the tin, TtW was fundamentally about the social, media, art, legal, and political aspects and impacts of the internet and related technologies.

Before I enumerate some of my highlights of TtW, I want to offer some context of my own, a thread that mostly winds around:

Why did I go?

As a guy that creates software professionally, I have historically been fundamentally unconcerned with how what I build interacts with and is informed by the non-technical, those obfuscated social and political and higher-order economic forces and undercurrents that define how we interact and relate to each other.  In the typical engineer (and business owner) role, I have generally sought to optimize strictly for utility.  It’s not that what I’ve built has necessarily been to the social, political, or economic detriment of others; it’s that I’ve very rarely thought of how what I build defines and is defined by those forces.

In hindsight, that I developed this blind spot is surprising to me.  I received a fundamentally non-technical education at very liberal liberal arts college in New England, and so was aware of these topics to some degree in an academic setting and very personally, having come from a working-class family of little means compared to my peers. (I vividly recall being gobsmacked by the casual just-so way in which some other students talked about the Benz and Beamers their parents sent them off to school with.)  Further, I have always been politically active and consider myself to be socially and culturally aware (though, don’t we all?).

Nevertheless, that academic background clearly did not insulate me from the inuring socialization in a engineering culture. Part of the process of being “professionalized” within the software business and engineering practice was being trained in the often explicit denial of the political and social nature of our work. The manifestations of this are seen everyday online and in in-person dialogue, including adopting a live-and-let-live stance with regard to blatantly exploitative internet businesses and technology; minimizing the impact and importance of non-technical collaborators whom we rely upon or non-technical work we do ourselves in order to succeed; and dismissing by default any technical decision that is not made on strictly technical grounds.

To summarize, I’ve recently had two (related) realizations:

  • I find myself working within a community whose collective discourse is one where technical optimality is paramount and prioritized, even when non-technical concerns are known.
  • I personally have historically not given due consideration to how what I build is affected by its (and my) social, political, and economic context, or how what I build in turn affects others.

These things dawned on me over an extended period of time as I contemplated the full scope of Quilt (my current project).  While it is a software project with a technical footprint — it will manifest as code and libraries and tools and services — my objectives are fundamentally non-technical, and rooted in non-technical impacts of existing software and technology.  Considering that prior to this realization, I thought Quilt was a purely technical response to set of purely technical problems, this was a cognitive break on the order of nothing else I’d experienced before.  The obvious conclusion was that, to be successful, I must purposefully locate Quilt with respect to those powerful undercurrents that dictate the human condition. What I wanted to do was defined in large part by exigent sociological, economic, political, and legal forces, and the product of that work would hopefully have an impact on them in turn.

Once internalized, it was clear that my context and professional history guaranteed that I was not yet properly equipped to thoughtfully approach these questions.  So, just as I’ve been pushing myself to bone up on certain scholarly corners of technical domains, I started seeking out ways to become more aware of and attuned to the non-technical influences on and impacts of my work.

Attending Theorizing the Web was just the latest chapter in that effort: here was a gathering of mostly non-technical academics, educators, activists, and other commentators talking about how people are using, benefiting from, coping with, and being victimized by internet technologies and their applications. I wanted to gain their perspectives for exactly the reasons why I suspect many of my peers might discount them.

With that out of the way, on to some highlights and related thoughts.  There was much, much more to take in at TtW than I can or will make mention of here. Residuals of the streaming process are available for viewing now; it looks like each session is going to eventually be published on the TtW YouTube channel.

People are dying online

Though I was enthusiastic about TtW in principle, there’s always a degree of apprehension upon stepping into a new conference.  Thankfully, the very first session I attended put any unease I had to rest. “Small Data: Big Trends in the Little Ns” was a collection of four talks by investigators who decided that the best way to usefully study their subjects was by direct interview, observation, or analysis of data from very small cohorts.  The point here is not to gather statistically significant findings; rather, my read of the methodologies discussed by the speakers were aimed to allow for the development of a narrative around the particular social experiences being studied.

(I personally draw a connection between these sorts of inquiry and the use of inductive or intuitional reasoning of issues in mathematics or programming vs. the use of mathematical formalisms. Social narratives and inductive methods — at least in my experience — yield personal understanding, whereas statistical social inquiry and formal proofs often do not.)

Anyway: two of the presentations were particularly impactful for me, and both of them were centered on death and how expressions of grief manifest in online fora.  Molly Kalan focused on Facebook memorials (including pages of the deceased themselves, maintained and retained online as one might maintain a grave or shrine), while Timothy Recuber presented a curation of suicide “notes” left online.

The most intellectually fascinating part of Molly’s presentation for me was her discovery that there was an implicit social hierarchy that affected how people expressed their grief online.  That is, if someone “closer” to the deceased publishes a long, heartfelt eulogy, people that are less close (say, a work acquaintance vs. a close friend, or a cousin vs. the deceased’s mother) will try to calibrate their expressions of grief online to be shorter, less forceful, and essentially deferential to the closer party.  Even more interesting, when this hierarchy is violated (e.g. when a cousin publishes a more intense eulogy or memorial than a widow), both parties involved as well as third-party observers reported discomfort with the transgression.

Now, totally aside from the intellectual stimulation, the raw stuff of Molly’s presentation were examples of memorials from Facebook as well as individual stories of grief.  This was sobering and emotional, but that simply set the stage for Timothy’s study of online suicide “notes”.

Of course, once people were able to write things online and have them viewed by others, it was inevitable that such capabilities would be used by some to leave suicide notes rather than “classic” notepad, typewriter, and other printed methods.  But, I was unprepared for one of the centerpiece cases in Timothy’s study, that of Martin Manley’s suicide note.  Martin, an accomplished sportswriter and statistician, killed himself with a handgun on his 60th birthday. But, before doing so, he published his suicide “note”: a dedicated website containing dozens of pages of autobiographical detail, apologies and farewells to loved ones, extensive discourse on his rationale for suicide, and various social and political commentary.  Timothy’s presentation of Martin’s “note” took me totally by surprise; combined with the previous discussion about memorials, I had a very hard time keeping it together. At least I wasn’t the only one in the room that was so affected!

There’s a Mitch Albom quote on one page in Martin’s “note” that I think appropriately sums up the presentations on death and online memorializations:

Death ends a life, not a relationship.

While memorials have traditionally been fundamentally token reminders of loved ones lost, newer mediums make it possible for memorials to be ongoing, continuing relationships with the departed, in dynamic (and thus, sometimes uncanny and disturbing) ways. As such media are likely to become more and more sophisticated, it seems that the above quote will become less and less metaphorical as time passes.

I managed to snag Molly for a couple of minutes to ask her if the subjects in her interviews seemed aware of the potentially (inevitably) ephemeral nature of the memorials they were creating, given that Facebook is the steward of the data underlying those precious eulogies and memories. Her answer was that while some people did want to retain a personal copy of parts of loved ones’ memorials, basically none of her subjects appreciated the fact that those cherished artifacts were retained at Facebook’s discretion (and therefore, at the discretion of its investors, the market’s, etc).  To them, Facebook provides permanence.

This is particularly ironic given that Martin Manley’s note — the publishing of which he arranged through one of Yahoo’s services andpre-paid for for five years, in contrast to the free, advertising-supported model of Facebook — was taken down by Yahoo as violating their terms of service. I find this to be a unconscionable action coming from a company that, via its Tumblr unit, happily serves up hardcore porn, images and narratives of self-abuse, and virulent hate speech to all comers without restriction. Thankfully, Martin’s site’s content was captured by a number of different groups, and lives on at various mirrors, to which I have linked previously.

You don’t have to be “real” to have an impact

Later on the first day, I really enjoyed Molly Sauters‘ deconstruction of the saga of Amina Arraf, the purported author of the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, which rose to some acclaim and awareness as civil unrest in Syria accelerated in early 2011.  This, despite the fact that Amina was fictional; the author of the persona the blog was a male American student at the University of Edinburgh, who was found out only after writing on the blog (using a second fabricated persona) that Amina had been abducted by Syrian security personnel.  This prompted waves of online activism and a U.S. State Department investigation (because Amina was ostensibly a U.S. citizen living in Damascus).

Aside from the bizarre tale — and without going into the absurdities of straight white Western guys impersonating lesbian women living in the Middle East — Molly presented a fascinating characterization of the Amina persona as a digital “bridge figure”, a media presentation of “the other” (in this case, someone that is both gay and of Arab descent) that can establish a rapport with people in another context.  In particular, the claim is that Amina was perfectly positioned to appeal to Western, politically conscious liberals, which is borne out by the uproar among mainstream and social media calling for her release.

Of course, identity is a fluid and fragile thing, especially online, and hoaxes are not new. However, the story of Amina is notable as an example of “civic fiction” (a new term coined by Molly, apparently) in that, rather than actually being a bridge figure, she was really just a mirror.  Because she was fabricated by someone from the same context that she was created to appeal to, her story could only reflect the expectations, misgivings, and aspirations of her audience, i.e. those of an educated fundamentally Western woman struggling for democracy in a repressive regime.  This shared context is what ended up making the Amina story so appealing to Western journalists and media outlets, as her author was effectively trained by saturation in the media environment they constructed, and thus able to produce a narrative using the same tropes and patterns.

One of the last things Molly claimed was that even though Amina was a fabricated persona, she did “political work”.  I suspect that this term has particular semantics in political science or theory, but I interpreted it to mean that, despite the abhorrence of the impersonation (especially of someone in an “at-risk” or disenfranchised demographic), the fiction of Amina served its audience’s purpose in providing a bridge figure (despite her actually being a mirror), and was a genuine political actor (manifested in many ways, including by contributing to the narrative of the Syrian uprising and the coalescing of various activist communities when efforts to locate her after her arrest began).  The irony is that the power to do that work was granted by a media apparatus that blindly passed the Amina story along to the same audience from whence her creator came, instead of doing its purported job of mediating sources and identifying the fact (or, deception in this case) of the figure in question.

While reading further on this story, I came across a related, very pointed quote from Louise Carolin that I think is relevant in other social advocacy contexts:

[the first rule of being an ally is] don’t try to speak for the people you’re trying to support

The fungibility of identity was a recurring theme throughout the conference, and has been something I’ve bumped up against personally and professionally over and over. I still remember pining to play Alter Ego on my Commodore-64 (a game that offered the ability to simulate living another life, with different circumstances and decisions than your own), the impact that _why had (and still has) on friends of mine, and so on. I likewise remain fascinated by the Amina case study, how her persona was constructed, how the rest of the world largely accepted it until forced to do otherwise, and what all of this implies for identity on smaller stages and in different types of social spaces.

Stacks as States

On Saturday, Jay Springett gave a presentation that was framed with a question: why can Mark Zuckerberg call Barack Obama on the phone?  The punchline was that various “stacks” (i.e. sets of infrastructure that are housed within particular centrally-controlled, cross-national organizational silos, e.g. Facebook, Google, Twitter) are themselves sovereign, via exactly the same mechanisms true nation-states are.  While nations generally are defined by the lands and other natural resources they control, the network and computational sorts of “stacks” have equivalent corollaries in data, information architecture, computational infrastructure, citizenry in the form of dependent users, and effective international recognition on this basis as states themselves.  If you buy into this characterization, then it’s very clear why the executives of major centralized data and computation silos effectively have diplomatic relationships with heads of state: Obama doesn’t see Zuckerberg et al. as citizens of the United States, or even of the controlling parties of large corporations. They are peers.

Taken this way, revelations around the activities of the NSA and other Five Eyes agencies are even more plausible and “understandable” than they were before: these agencies also view these centralized silos as states (or, at the very least, as state-like actors), and thus the same signals intelligence activities that any spy agency might deploy against another nation is perfectly well applicable to any of the large “stacks”. That these silos happen to be incorporated and domiciled within U.S. borders may imply certain legal technicalities, but such things don’t change the fundamental ways in which these organizations are viewed and related to by “real” nations, and thus the calculus used by intelligence agency personnel when making operational decisions.

Jay provided a very compelling presentation as to the plausibility of this sort of characterization of the geopolitical nature of the centralized sources of information and computation that we rely upon today.  Additional resources he cites as good ways to further understand the political nature of infrastructure include Roads to Power and Seeing like a State.

I was personally very glad to have stumbled across Jay’s presentation, as it provided a set of starting points — and most importantly, a related vocabulary — towards a developing a deeper set of questions around the controlling structures around these stacks of infrastructure, and what individuals and communities can do to assert their own agency with regard to their own infrastructure.  Jay’s own #stacktivism concept (an activism-focused term and set of resources for starting to understand the social implications of infrastructure) is one of these.

In closing

A number of thought-bombs were lobbed in the closing “keynote” panel on “Race and Social Media”.  One of the first came early from Lisa Nakamura:

While social content spaces are often intended as socially agnostic, they never are in practice.

I believe this is a specialization of the distinction I drew above between technical and non-technical concerns.  When we build communications software, tools, and platforms, many of the features we consider and implement aren’t simply “cool” and useful, equally accessible and positive for all of the parties that are affected by them: they often define the shape of conversations and interactions, in ways big and small, obvious and subtextual. Easy examples include things like the ability to publicly tag others in photos, and even the simple option to declare one’s relationship status (chosen from a predefined set of possible types of relationships).

The most powerful shared moment of the entire conference in my opinion (despite my tearing up earlier the prior day) was at the end of the keynote, when Latoya Peterson gave a very compelling summation of the grounding roles of empathy and tolerance in a connected global culture:

It is a very very large world, and we need to exist in it together. What matters is that you love and trust people enough to want to be in the same space with them.  I don’t know shit about trans history or trans rights, but I love Mattie Bryce and I love Naomi Clark and I love all the fabulous trans game designers that I have met through being a gamer, and I want a world with them in it.  That is it, I don’t need to know anything else.  I need to understand what they need to be happy and what they need to be free, and then we work towards that together.

This got a thundering standing ovation from the audience, and rightly so.  Carrying that basic sentiment/intuition through each of our interactions and relationships with people with whom we have little shared context would surely make for a better world.


There’s so much more at TtW that fascinated, inspired, and touched me; I could go on and on, but the morning grows brighter, and work beckons.

So far, I have a couple of “takeaways” from TtW that are directly relevant to my own work and context.  These are not so much things that I learned directly, but perhaps some suspicions and half-thoughts that the conference either confirmed (which worries me re: bias, now looking for contrary indicators!) or helped me to conjugate more fully:

  • Likely as a convenient shorthand, people often talk about the extremes of particular aspects of system design: centralized and decentralized; ad-supported and user-paid; point-to-point and aggregated; tolerant and intolerant; anonymity and authenticated identity.  I am more and more convinced that these are extremes within a multidimensional space that must be large and complex enough to encompass all of human endeavour.
  • A common thread through many presentations was an acknowledgement of the power that things like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. have in terms of shaping how people work with information and construct or choose the cultures of which they are a part.  More generally, ideology and technology inform and define each other; to remix Lisa Nakamura’s assertion regarding social content spaces, technology is often intended to be ideologically agnostic, but never is in practice.
  • Despite this awareness, there was an implicit (and sometimes very explicit) fatalism at TtW regarding the centralization of that power, that the economics and politics behind the current generation of networked social services are so powerful that the models they’ve developed are not only the only ones that will ever be considered viable, but that perhaps we have passed a point where opting out of such models will be considered socially, economically, or even legally unacceptable.  As someone that is very interested in building things that enable the disaggregation of computing systems and communication platforms (again, see the Quilt Project), I found this fatalism somewhat disheartening (though perhaps not without merit, esp. given the case compellingly made by Jay Springett that I mentioned earlier).Ironically, it may be exactly that fatalism among those that have thought most deeply about the issues around the centralization of power and infrastructure that may make addressing their root causes more difficult.
  • While thinking about these sorts of things while walking around Brooklyn in between sessions, I tweeted this:williamsburg-tweet-1
    Screenshot from 2014-04-29 10:38:59

I hope you enjoyed my write-up of Theorizing the Web, 2014. Maybe I’ll see some of you there, next year.