"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

Arts, Sciences and Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Reading a bit of trashy sci fi over the past weekend — good "hardboiled cyberpunk" about the encoding of consciousness into data and transferring between physical bodies as a way of managing interstellar exploration — while traveling in Mexico got me thinking about the old "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" argument. I think I came up with some good riffs, and even some navel-gazing about me and my weird mercurial career, so here goes.

It's easy to dismiss outlandish ideas about interstellar travel as flights of fancy, and indeed there are good physics reasons to be skeptical we'll make it beyond the Solar System in any real way in the next few generations. But that also kind of misses the point. The original quote by Arthur C Clark is meant to position us as "people of the past", encountering some awesome technologogy of the future, possibly alien. How can we not react with awe? But what about all that we've learned to take for granted already? There's another threshold which we pass over when fantastically complecated and difficult processes become six or seven-sigma reliable and ubiquitous, things like Big Macs or indoor plumbing. You go from magic to assumed fact of life.

Take for instance the MP3 player going poolside on a carribean beach resort, playing Elvis. Here you have a device manufactured from raw materials that might come from three continents (rare earths, etc), forged into components in a number facilities about 8,000 to 10,000 miles away, assembled and delivered via an international shipping and retail process that is literally hundreds of thousands of people's jobs to operate.

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I've been slammed against the wall. No time to blog, but I've run across a bunch of links that are working through the back of my mind. Collecting them here so I don't forget:

The Locust Economy

The Case For Less

Bitcoin, Energy and the Future of Money

The Moral Limits of Markets

Destructo Salon: Does Matthew Yglesias Enjoy Murder?

And this quote from Atrios:

The full employment fairy will help, if it ever arrives, but I'm just not sure it can when we have a nation of low wage workers and a political class who has no understanding of what that's like.

Imagine what I'll have to say!

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On The Ethics of Knowledge Work

Recently I tried out the service "99 Designs", largely with good results. However, this got some pushback from peers of mine in the web development community, which prompted a good bit of thinking on my part about the various ethics and contingencies of Knowledge work and Digital Labor. So, here goes.

First Principles

I'm sympathetic to the "No Spec" movement, especially when considered in the historical context of design and creative as a profession. To this day, much of the business of design involvs doing the work first, "on spec", and then only getting paid if the client liked it. If you're a fan of Mad Men, you've seen this. Don Draper forces Peggy and the gang to pull an all-nighter in a desperate bid to try and land a big new account. It's a staple of the show.

At its most extreme, the spec work process requires a completely finished product before payment, and a buyer will solicit this from several different individuals or firms, ultimately choosing only one to get paid. Or in the ultimate dick move, choosing nobody and "taking the campaign in-house" — which usually means stealing the best ideas and assets but handling the final execution internally, without paying anyone.

Clearly, this is no bueno: as one of my internet heroes Mike Montiero says, "F-you, pay me".

But, It's Maybe a Little More Complicated

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Things are wired up wrong

Started as a tweet, but I can't fit it into 140 characters.

What makes an idea good, or "compelling"? What makes a person expressing an idea worth listening to?

I've been thinking about "Suck On This", the infamous Tom Friedman statement after "the war was over" in Iraq:

(it gets really great towards the end)

Friedman is a bit of a piñata because he makes all kinds of generally innocuous but-still-ridiculous statements, and has a really ridiculous bio photo. He's an architypical gasbag with a perch on some of the most influential forums for "ideas" that the english-speaking world convenes, which is a shame, but I think what he represented in the video above deserves special attention. It's above and beyond simple buffoonery.

As a nation, we have a dysfunctional political culture, and it's in part due to terrible information inputs. Like we say in my game, "garbage in, garbage out": if your inputs are bad, you can't have quality output. The fact that most congressional offices have a TV in the main area playing 24-hour cable news (or, also, that financial institutions play CNBC) is an enormous problem.

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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:

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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.

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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

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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.

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"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.

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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.

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