It’s trite to say that technological literacy is a must-have skill for the 21st Century, but this is one of the things that really concerns me as a parent. I worry about my kids growing up surrounded by technology that they can’t hack, can’t fix, and basically operates as a black box. Glowing screens with big juicy icons that deliver the goods, right up until they don’t. And then what?
A gap is definitely emerging. One can observe a growing divide between people who have a general understanding of how computers, phones, and the internet work, are able to reason about this, make inferences and educated guesses, and those who sink below the event horizon where as Arthur C Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
This is dangerous, for a whole bunch of reasons.
First of all because without broad technical literacy this gap will deepen, harden, and there are good odds we’ll develop into a world of haves and have-nots. This is how you end up with the dystopian “HYPER REALITY” outcome:
Further, once you start assigning magical (or spiritual) value to the work of technology, you create a tremendous risk of obfuscating the human agent behind various decisions. People already have a tendency to believe or trust things a computer tells them, but algorithms are not “math” - they’re a series of particular human decisions on how to use particular bits of math to produce a particular outcome.
This is a bit of a callback to classico Outlandish Josh posting. I’m pulling up stories from the early aughts, but hopefully it’s fun and you stick with it; I promise there’s a contemporary tie-in at the end.
Twenty years ago when I was working in politics full time, I was also going out to the Oregon Country Fair in the summers. It’s one of the older and better hippie festivals. In 2004 I helped organize a voter registration drive there, and happened to get a chance to meet and chat with S-tier guru legend Stephen Gaskin. In spite of this also being in the shall we say spicier era of my blogging career, I never wrote this particular anecdote down.
The Oregon Country Fair is a massive hippie festival held every summer in a beautiful wooded area outside Eugene where I grew up. There are around 1000 different stalls that get set up along a massive figure-eight path, and over 30,000 people attend.
The real deal is you need to have a job there to be able to be a part of the action. It’s open to the public from like 10am to 6pm, and tens of thousands of people will come and it’s a big hairy Height Asbury/Dead show parking lot scene in the woods. Crafts and food. Music and art. Then they sweep out the public and the 5,000-ish people who are running the event, who have a booth there, or are otherwise connected enough to make the cut as “Fair Family,” who are camped out for the weekend have the place to themselves. They (we) have a giant fucking party. Which is tremendous fun.
I'm back with my first blog post in years to make what I hope is a novel case for supporting Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic Primary. The "Silicon Valley" or "Startup" take. I've got a lot of thoughts, but I don't see a ton of people expressing the techie/entrepreneur rationale for supporting Sen. Sanders, so that's the case I'm gonna make.
Support the Startup Economy
TL;DR - no policy would create more startups in the next ten years than establishing universal health care and eliminating student debt.
The economy around startups isn't what it should be. I'm from this world, and I honestly believe in the upsides of innovation and creativity that come from entrepreneurialism. But in spite of all cool things that have been built, all the new millionaires and billionaires, and the increasingly prominent role tech plays in our culture, the startup ecosystem is unhealthy.
The data tells us that fewer new businesses are forming in the US than prior to the great recession. While VC funds hover around all-time highs, those eye-popping numbers are driven more by big pools of finance going into late-stage deals vs forming new companies. There are still plenty of great exits, but a lot of that is just mergers and acquisitions into existing Big Tech behemoths. In other words, the action is more scale and consolidation than creativity and innovation.
What a gutpunch. It's shades of 2004 (more on that later), but also worse for so many reasons.
Complex systems don't fail due to a single cause. They're always running in some sort of degraded mode — there is no perfect union — and catastrophic failures have multiple vectors, often cascading. Assigning blame after the fact can easily turn into an exercise in emotional release, the desire to identify a specific "root cause." Even in hindsight, this is more often storytelling and internal politics than anything else.
Still, without retrospectives, we cannot hope to improve.
I don't think it's productive to try and blame voters, or even non-voters. Where does that really lead in a democracy? This kind of thinking is always tempting, and carries a bitter tautological truth that a democracy delivers the government people "deserve," but it must also be rejected out of hand. It is a poisonous form of fatalistic elitism, a surrender. No.
I also don't really think it's right to blame Lena Dunham, Martin Sheen, or any other celebrity figurehead, even if you think their participation was counterproductive. They're amateurs, and maybe they're annoying or insufferable or distracting, but voting is the least we can do, and they were trying.
The other weekend I wrote about the Trump Phenomena, and its connection to social media supplanting traditional media gatekeepers. An old colleague of mine shared it into his network on Facebook, breaking my filter bubble, and resulting in a spirited response from a Trump supporter, which was awesome:
[Outlandish Josh's] devotion to the First Amendment is really ankle deep. He likes free speech as long as the speaker agrees. Everything else, he's ok with suppressing...
What it comes down to is, "We can't rely on the establishment to silence people who don't agree with us anymore, so we'll just have to do it ourselves."
One of the things I appreciate about Trump is that he's forcing the liberal brownshirts to show their true colors.
Liberal Brownshirt! Amazing. It got me thinking about what I really mean by "stick a big fat stake into the heart of some of the most malignant political ideas that stalk the land." More to the point, how does this dialectic thing actually work, and what if anything does it have to do with free speech?
At the same time, there's also some Internet drama I'm casually following around a programming get together called LambdaConf, and whether or not a particular speaker should be invited to speak or not due to the fact that he's a foundational figure for a noxious bloom of reactionary thought known as "The Dark Enlightenment". I'll explain the details later.
The phrase "Filter Bubble" was coined by Eli Pariser, founder of MoveOn, the first effective left wing online organization, and a man who knows a bit about how the internet can influence political thought. Pariser was most concerned with the pernicious impacts of systemic personalization (e.g. weighted Google Search results or algorithmic timelines), but I believe what Clay is referring to is the result of Social Media becoming a primary news source.
He's right. The Trump phenomena will be studied and professionalized in the same way the political establishment digested Howard Dean's use of online outreach to build grassroots support and raise small-dollar donations. The benefits of the internet aren't without hazards. This is one of them.
More and more Americans get their news from Facebook and Twitter, a trend that is going to continue to increase. What Trump is exploiting has nothing to do with pernicious personalization algorithms, but rather the fundamental result of what happens when news is curated by social network rather than newspaper editors. Once you're getting your news via what is effectively word of mouth, a few things happen:
It's difficult to talk (write) about class. Part of the difficulty comes because it's generally a verboten subject in the ostensibly classless utopia we inhabit here in Estados Unidos. We don't have a well-oiled vocabulary to deploy, or much history to draw on in framing the discussion. But let's be honest, most of the difficulty comes from the fact that any such discussion quickly becomes one that is self-implicating and/or divisive.
Here's me trying to get around that. I've given up on trying to write the One True Blog Post with my thoughts, so in the spirit of getting back in the groove of writing and posting I'm just going to start chipping away.
As per the previous post, I want to "get back on that bloggy horse". For now I'm going to try honoring that by publishing something every week. At the moment my head is all over the place, so it's kind of a bit of a roundup of a few disparate topics.
The throwback energy of "New Clues"
Responses to responses to the Charlie Hedbo attack
Two weeks ago at DrupalCon Amsterdam, Dries Buytaert gave his traditional State of Drupal, or "Driesnote", presentation, outlining his thoughts on scaling open source communities. I thought it was one of his best presentations to-date: addressing a pressing concern within the community with both a philosophical outlook and some specific proposals to start a wider discussion. It's a pressing topic, and I wanted to add my own two cents before my thoughts became too stale.