"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

On the Challenge of Becoming Relevant

At the core of my ambition is a hunger to be relevant. This isn't anything special; you can sub out "relevant" for "important" and "important" for "powerful" and everybody wants to rule the world, but I've been thinking about what sort of longer-term career arc I'd like to have, and while I don't ever see myself beating the workahol or ceasing to be an entrepreneur I think it's important to have some notion of what I really want, and to see a way to get that while working at less of a breakneck pace than how I normally roll.

Sustainability is a key for the long haul. Sustainability and fulfillment. In the long run, I'd like to be able to move the world with my words, and have that be more than a hobby.

Specifically, I'd like to develop an independent platform as a pundit to promote and promulgate my own views and Just What Should Be Done in this here 21st Century. That's right, it's simple megalomania.

But seriously, I have had enough exposure to the world of politics to know that opinions matter, and enough experience working with up-and-comers to know that there are millions of hungry minds out there who are looking for something more than what they're currently getting from either the establishment of independent press. I want an audience that's big enough to matter. If at all possible, I'd like it if that were part of how I support myself and my putative family.

Figuring out how to get there from here is no small task. Traditionally if you wanted to be an opinionator of repute, you usually scrapped that together after a successful career in journalism, and/or because some publisher somewhere took a shine to you. In the internet age, the rules are quite a bit different. Here's what I see out there:

Cultural Trends

I'm generally sensing a positive shift in the zeitgeist. There are three movies out this year about the Beat Generation, one of those clusters of hindsight or nostalgia that can catch impressionable minds. That's a good thing in my book — phalocentric as they may have been, the original hipsters (angel-headed) still have a thing or six to teach young minds about freedom. Not sure what the corresponding equivalent would be lending itself to the liberation of young women, but hopefully it too is on the rise.

Also, there's the Obama inauguration, and somewhat more importantly the fact that his administration successfully won a couple negotiations, which I admit was a surprise. It appears that the slow roll of generational demographics that underpinned his electoral victory may coalesce into some kind of new national consensus. It's still a long shot, and I think anyone putting much hope or trust in this administration from the Left is likely to be disappointed, but at the same time it's hard not to notice momentum.

The "Big Mo" is there culturally, no doubt about it. I think we're going to look back at 2004 as a kind of last hurrah for the hugely successful cultural politics that a generation of conservative activists executed in reaction to civil rights, feminism, Lyndon Johnson and hippies. Call it the Buckley brigade. They were able to push a not-very-popular GW Bush over the top with patriotic rhetoric and an intelligent strategy of linking "traditional marriage" constitutional amendments to drive base turnout.

Expect the Unexpected, or why I don't believe in the Singularity

Well, the "Mayan Apocalypse" passed without incident. Given that life is apparently going to go on, I'd like to take a minute to register some thoughts on another end-of-the-world (as we know it) theory popular among technophiles: the Singularity.

At it's most generic, the term "Singularty" refers to a point in the future at which change begins to occur so rapidly it's completely impossible to predict what will happen. It's the equivalent to a black hole's event-horizon, the point at which light can no longer make its way out. After that point, we have no idea.

In that simple context, it's an interesting question to ponder — at what point does our ability to predict the future become so poor as to be essentially worthless? I'd actually argue that the answer to that question is a lot sooner than most Futurologists think, but more on that later.

The problem is that the popular interest in in the Singularity is based on notions of accelerating computing power and the replication of human intelligence or a different kind of "Strong AI" which has the potential to self-evolve. Essentially, some kind of artificial mind takes the drivers seat for technological development, at which point all bets are off because it will move much faster than we can imagine. Maybe we'll be immortal. Maybe we'll become post-human. Maybe SkyNet will kill us all.

It's fun to speculate about such things, and I'm not arguing against futurism or science-fiction. I enjoy both quite a bit. However, I do see a number of somewhat obvious flaws in this increasingly popular gestalt that I feel the need to point out, if only to make way for more interesting or pertinent speculation.

Remember: it's the "End of the World as We Know It", not the End of the World

Do you like what you do?

Since getting engaged I spend more time thinking long-term about the world and my career. I've always had a yen for the big picture, but figuring out how yours truly factors in has taken on more urgency of late.

Some of it comes from explaining "what would you say ya do here" to a pool of putative in-laws who understandably have a number of questions. Part of it is needing to figuring out how I'm gonna cash the existential checks I've written with my existing career moves, to make good on my potential, to pursue the bigger-vision in more than a hand-waving context. A little bit of it is wanting to feel solid in an identity that's separate from the pop-culture caricature of Silicon Valley that's part of the current zeitgeist.

It's not a simple question. I have the most nebulous career and title in the world, "entrepreneur" and "founder". When I talk to people in the start-up game, I often extend the label to be "utility founder", like in baseball where you have a utility infielder; someone who can play shortstop, second base, or first or third in a stretch. The truth is I don't have a single job description. I have several. People in my field tend to get that. Filling multiple positions is par for the course in early-stage companies.

"What's your five year plan?"

Disclaimer: This is not a post about my five year plan. I don't have one. Not my style. It is, however, a post about longer-term thinking — in part brought on by the election, the results of Hurricane sandy, and other things. Longer term for all of us here on Spaceship Earth, and for myself personally. Here goes.

Constructing the infrastructure necessary to manage Earth as a holistic system — meaning long-term habitable for close to ten billion of our fellows — is the largest and most worthwhile public works project imaginable. In addition to being imperative to the survival and prosperity of future generations, it is a heck of a good investment.

The first phase of this process is already underway: we are creating global-scale mechanisms for communication and coordination which will allow us to keep track of the world, and engage in an inclusive dialogue to figure out what to do next. These functions will be vital to realize and manage future phases of the project. That's what I see myself as working on.

There are more nuts and bolts ways to describe it, but broadly speaking I'm working to help humanity move towards a different system of exchanging information, one with significantly lower costs, less "friction", and the ability to include everyone (at least theoretically) as a creator/producer. Basically, making the internet work really well. Historically, shifts that help with the wider creation and sharing of information have been closely correlated with widespread change in other aspects of social organization, generally known as "progress". That's why I'm so into it.

Prepared notes; introduction to a new chapter.

I've felt that I've been living in a somewhat liminal state for the past several years — "liminal" meaning, literally, "the confusion of being in-between things". It's a feeling that strikes most strongly on long introspective plane flights, the physical dislocation of travel, the surreality of international airports, the sense of being above and beyond any particular home, all sharpening this aspect. I have been in transition, into full adulthood/out of young-adulthood, to the state California, through the stomach-dropping section of a career arc, etc. It's been quite a ride.

Sometimes in life the section breaks are clear: birthdays are a big deal early on, you go to different schools, to college, maybe your family relocates, etc. These often turn out to be the important mile-markers they feel like at the time. Sometimes not, but often. Other shifts in the story are more subtle, hard to detect in real-time, emerging only in the clarity of hindsight.

Tonight I have occasion to remark on both varieties.

A little over two and a half years ago, I met a woman. Rina. At the time I was living in the far remote reaches of northern California, behind the Redwood curtain, off a gravel road off a gravel road, at the edge of the grid, plying my trade as a frontiersman of the internet. It'd been a good run, but I was itching for a change, thirsty to get back into more serious and sustained contact with the rest of the world. Rina was living in New York City, metropolis where I came of age and where we'd met cute, and somewhat more distressingly imminently bound for London, which also happens to be the first "real city" I ever set foot in as a free-standing human being, the place that first gave me the bug to get out and see the world. Improbably, against a daunting reef of timezones and what seemed like my better judgment, I decided to pursue her.

Vacationing

I skipped out on the Tough Mudder. I've been having back problems for the past several weeks (e.g. last weekend I could barely get around the house) and it just didn't seem prudent to try and run 10 miles, let alone subject myself to random electroshocks. It still feels like a let-down/cop-out, but I don't need to injure myself to prove anything. Though it still left something to be desired, training over the summer got my metabolism working in the right direction again — something I plan on continuing — and there's always next year, so no great loss.

Also of no great loss was the little place I rented up in Tahoe! Absent the race, it made a good way to start a week's vacation: getting out of the city, taking in some pine-fresh mountain air. Feeling the unique thrill of being on the Nevada side of the state border.

I'm in NYC now for a few days, then off to Moab Utah on Thursday for my friend Molly's wedding and a gathering of good old friends. I'll be mostly off the grid for the duration (no twitter, minimal email, etc), and hope to return to real life on October 1st with refreshed energy and renewed focus.

On Risk

mountain biking

Last Saturday I was in Texas giving a talk at Dallas Drupal Days. The morning after I got up early to go mountain biking with Tom and Dave from Level Ten — the conference anchors; thanks guys! — and their friend Peter, who really set the pace on the ride. It was a lot of fun, and as you can see I had a few brushes with the terrain. Turns out my street biking skills don't translate super well to the offroad context in terms of maneuvering, but I was mostly able to keep up and the road rash (tree rash, actually) was totally superficial.

It got me thinking about risk. I've got a fake tooth stemming from a pretty messy bike wreck in Brooklyn back in 2003, and my chosen mode of transport has gotten me into a number of other other scrapes. I commute daily on the gauntlet of Market street, which is a chunky combination of traffic, potholes and trolly tracks, and enjoy the daily challenge, but the odd moment of jamming between busses aside it doesn't really raise my hackles. By contrast, riding up and down creekbeds and over roots and rocks felt downright dangerous.

The perception of risk is in part about experience; urban street riding is all about tracking multiple changing variables — the timing of the lights, the position and momentum vectors of traffic, the odds that someone is going to open a car door, etc — in the context of relatively flat/even/vanilla landcape, whereas mountain-biking is about maintaining momentum and clean lines of action as the landscape throws challenges at you. Both activities carry risk, but the one I'm used to feels (relatively) safe.

Public Interest at the Planetary Scale

I'm always surprised when I meet someone who shares my fuzzy vision of globally networked democracy as the plausibly positive planetary prospectus.

This idea is out there, in the air. People sense kind of intuitively that easy/instant global communication will probably change the way we govern ourselves, but even in the thought bubble of San Francisco it's not something that seems to get a lot of direct attention.

I recently had a couple of run-ins, one with a future-focused magazine curator in SF and another with a Berkeley PhD turned Goldman Sachs wizard in New York. It got me thinking about why it's so surprising to find these types of connections.

Tech people tend to be lower-level in their interests — debating the bits and bytes of different languages, products, techniques and companies — and the business-end of the change we're living tends to get a lot more media attention than the broader social implications. Not surprising given the cultural context we inhabit, but still kind of a shame.

To the extent that "big picture" ideas get much play on the nerd scene, people seemed more taken by the Singularity, the computation-driven quasi-apocalypse. It's a neat sci-fi diversion — an interesting enough Dark Future, good for a pulpy novel or two — but doesn't strike me as imminently practical model for anticipating or piloting the future. Other big-think doomsayers fixate on Peak Oil, or the collapse of the global economy, etc.

While I'm as big a fan as anyone of Red Dawn disaster fantasies, I don't really believe preparation for total societal collapse is a wise use of resources. Human beings always believe the end of the world is coming, and we tend to be wrong. The future will bring change, no doubt, but the operative question (to me) is not "how can we ride this out in a compound?" but rather "how do we get ourselves to a new Golden Age?"

In Which I Ponder My Career Path a Bit

I'm at the beginning of a shift in my career. For the past two years I've been building a product, creating this thing we call Pantheon — which, if you're curious, you can hear me go on about; nerd alert! — and it's been great. I'm still actively working on that (deployed some code today; booyeah!) but I'm also starting to focus more on public communications. In addition to talking (hopefully at a more measured pace) to interviewers, I'm starting to blog more for work, and get back into doing some public speaking, which is exciting.

And hard! And scary! I was up until 5am with butterflies in my stomach before that keynote in Munich. It's been a while since I've felt like that.

It gets me thinking again about that age-old question, just what would you say you do here? The reality is that I need to let other people who write code full-time rise up. I'm a Founder and at some point I need to get out of the way of the two or four or six people who will do what has been, heretofore, "my job". They may not know all the details as well as I do, or be able to walk the full stack front to back in their sleep, but they'll learn. Plus there will be many of them, which means that they'll be a lot better at coping with the workload than singleton me.

Tags: 

Pages