Social media has reshaped our culture, and this has convinced us that it is fundamentally appealing. Strip away its most manipulative elements, though, and we may find that it’s less rewarding than it seems.
"Just a reminder that every Facebook privacy scandal you’ve heard about for the past seven years — Cambridge Analytica, passwords stored in plain text, that thing where they were demanding email account passwords, using two-factor phone numbers for user account lookup, the private data sent to Facebook by developers using the company’s SDK, and so on; I could do this all day — was committed while the company was already promising the FTC to not violate users’ privacy."
Excellent quote from David Brooks, speaking with Ezra Klein, on the lies we are told about meaning in life.
Today I’m in San Francisco at The Internet Archive, where they are hosting a “Grand Re-opening of the Public Domain.”
The main stage program is being live-streamed on the YouTube Channel of the Internet Archive:
In this time of uncertainty, confusion, and division, it’s wonderful to be celebrating creativity and history here today.
Until a few years ago, the tech world, and especially the computer systems and software industries, were full of imagination and inspiration. A computer was a ‘bicycle for the mind’ 1, and the internet a ‘town square for the global village’ 2.
Now, instead, we have growth at any cost and an advertising-driven business model that invades our lives and manipulates us to click again for that next dopamine rush.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m hoping, and even betting, that this is a aberration, a temporary derailing of our progress.
Technology itself is not the answer. As always, all progress will come from talented and creative people. But to turn this around takes the right kinds of values, and development of a different kind of vision for a technological future.
Look Where You Want to Go
I’m a skier, and even though my arthritic right knee doesn’t let me take on the mountain like I used to, skiing is still deep inside me. When I was first learning about mindfulness and meditation, I recognized the peaceful focus described by Jon Kabat Zinn and Alan Watts in my solo tracks on steep slopes through the trees. It’s “the zone,” but not in the constrained and restricted mode that sports often evoke, but in an open, free, and spacious awareness. Skiing the trees is different from running gates for time. The perfection is creative. The pathfinding is artistry. It’s a dance.
One thing you don’t do when skiing through the trees is look at the trees. You look at the gaps between the trees — you look where you want to go, not at what you want to avoid. You look beyond the immediate gap in front of you. You see, all at once, all the shapes and possibilities down the whole mountain. You don’t take a direct route, but choose creatively for fun; for variety and for expression.
For years now, the world of Silicon Valley has been dominated by a focus on growth, which brings with it an implied strategy of free products supported by advertising, driving problematic tactics to maximize engagement. Engagement. That’s the term of art for what might also be called click addiction.
Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t be Evil” always struck me as lacking. They are saying, “Don’t hit the tree.” There is an opportunity they have to refine that to focus on building something good, rather than avoiding something bad. There’s no creative energy developed from “don’t hit the tree.”
Google’s official mission statement is better: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But I’d be more impressed if it answered a human question of “why.” But even here they fall down. Look at YouTube, a place where the rabbit hole of video after video will take one to darker and more outrageous places. Maybe if they had some more human focus on improving the world, they would find some way to surface better material on YouTube. Maybe.
Who do You Choose to Be?
When Tim Cook says that “he wouldn’t be in this situation,” he a referring to Facebook but also commenting on this whole ecosystem. Facebook, of course, has well-documented problems as their targeted advertising tools have be used by bad actors to foment division and crank up the rage. But it’s not that different elsewhere. A whole industry exists to glean information about us from our every interaction and then drop targeted advertising in front of us wherever we go online. All of this creates problems for vulnerable individuals and groups to be sure, but also for society as a whole. Tim Cook wouldn’t be in this situation because the business he runs, Apple, doesn’t operate to maximize engagement or even to monopolize a market. The business strategy you choose has consequences.
The key, I think, is to build and generate capability in people. Help them to better do work that’s important. Or at least help them to more easily do the neccessary work so that they can focus more of their energy on the important stuff. Help people be creative. Help people build a community. Help people collaborate. Help people understand and solve difficult problems.
For Facebook, for Twitter, for Google and their subsidiary YouTube, and probably for Uber and others, this may be the only way for them to survive long-term. This may seem a silly thing to say when these are among the top companies in the world. But each of these companies thrive when people use them, and one barrier to people using them is the trust gap that’s developing.
Outrage and division can only work as an engagement driver for so long, before people tire of it and withdraw. I’m already advising friends and family to improve their online experience by blocking purveyors of outrage and by turning off notifications for all but the most necessary updates. But these simple steps of self-defense may not be enough.
I propose that the only way for these companies to fix this trust gap is to refocus on serving the needs of people and communities. For some it may already be too late.
But I also think that just as some of the most creative and useful advances on the internet came out of the years following the collapse of the first Internet Bubble, frustration with today’s algorithmic advertising wasteland and its outrage-driven engagement algorithms is generating fascinating work on privacy and security and new tools and new models for communities and advocacy. In these, if not in the big tech companies, I find some optimism.
I think of this as my personal theme for 2019: Speak Up.
It applies to so many things, including writing more here and on the Square Peg Foundation website.
But it also applies in daily life. In work life. In personal connections with friends and family. In public interactions with strangers and neighbors.
By speaking up we also learn. Especially when writing. Because writing makes you consider not just your words, but your ideas, and how they fit together. But also in public speaking, because it’s another format where you are trying to get across ideas clearly, and striving for that clarity also refines your ideas.
All of us let too much slide. We don’t say enough — don’t do enough. We can step in and take a stand, lend a hand, or even just ask a question that illuminates a problem. We can provide relief to someone bearing a burden, or simply let a person know that they are heard. Sometimes all we need to do is hold space for someone as they grieve, or as they vent their frustration.
We can also do much through our own behavior. People, especially kids, learn from our example. They see and understand, more than we credit. But part of the behavior that we should model is to speak up, with kindness, more often.
Speak Up isn’t about talking. Sometimes it’s about listening. Sometimes it’s about doing. It’s always about striving to be better.
Technology has changed our world so much in the last 100 years that it’s a bit of a cliché to say it. My grandparents grew up in Bodie, California, where three generations of Dolans, McDonnells and Bells lived for several decades. People who visit the mining ghost town of Bodie, a California State Park, today will see a glimpse of the difficult conditions in that beautiful and desolate place. My family were mechanics, miners, engineers, and assayers. Most of them worked on the technology of mining.
A few years ago, my grandmother gave me her dad’s Trautwine Engineering manual. Leafing through this little tome, you get a feeling for the level of engineering and technology of the day. It’s signed inside by my great-grandfather, “Harry F. Dolan, Bodie, CA. Green Creek Power Plant, Feb. 1., 1913.”
A little over 50 years later, we would be taking men to the moon, and using everyday technology that would have been fantasy in my great-grandfather’s day. I was a small child and marveled, as all kids did then, at the space program and the astronauts.
But nobody around me in my childhood knew what was going on, not too far away, in an area that would become known as Silicon Valley. A small group of researchers were working on computers and thinking about what might be possible with them someday. Their ideas continue to directly shape computing and communications technology today. They built a system demonstrating their ideas, and on December 9th, 1968, fifty years ago today, they demonstrated the system in what has become known as The Mother of All Demos.
In the late ‘60’s, there were plenty of visionaries talking about what computers and technology would do in the future. Some of them had pretty good ideas, and some of them were right about what might happen. But Doug Englebart and his colleagues built something and showed us.
The demonstration of the system was itself a wonder of the time. The computers were down in Menlo Park at SRI (Stanford Research Institute), and a half-dozen people were working to keep the demonstration working. There are times when Engelbart pauses the demonstration to describe what’s happening and some detail about how it’s working, and we know now that he was stalling for time while his team re-establish the connection to the computers, or otherwise fix some problem while Engelbart filled time.
It is worth taking a moment to think about what computer technology was like and what it meant to create this system and demonstrate it before a live audience. This was five years before Bob Metcalf invented Ethernet, and six years before Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf released the original spec for TCP/IP, the foundation technology that today we call the internet.
The system that Doug Englebart demonstrated in 1968 started as an advanced computing project funded by ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency. The ideas presented would become the basis for new ways of interacting with computers.
The original video of the Mother of All Demos has been assembled into a set of three videos, about 30 minutes each, by the Doug Engelbart Institute. They are viewable on YouTube:
For more information about Doug Engelbart, and the Mother of All Demos, the Doug Engelbart Institute is a fantastic resource.
If you are interested in more about the history of Silicon Valley and modern computing, I recommend Fire in the Valley, by Michael Swaine and Paul Freiberger. They recently released an updated Third Edition. It’s my favorite history of Silicon Valley and computing.
I find I’m repeating myself, but it is important.
Use a Password Manager – I recommend 1Password.
It will make your online life simpler and easier, and you get better security, too.
It makes your life easier, because you will have your passwords with you whether you are on your computer, or your phone, or a tablet. It will make your life simpler by remembering your passwords automatically and filling them in for you whenever and wherever you need.
The improved security is largely a function of this simplicity and ease-of-use. Because it’s easy and simple, you will use 1Password to create good strong passwords automatically for you — passwords that are far more complex than anything you would ever make up, let alone try to type. They also have great features like Family Plans and sharing passwords in your family or team.
The only downside is getting started. It’s not that hard, but there are some ways of thinking about things that seem at first a bit odd and maybe even confusing.
That’s why I’m happy to hear that the folks at The Sweet Setup have created a course on 1Password. These are people who do really great courses on how to use some of my favorite apps, and they are one of my trusted sites for reviews. (They are not paying me for this endorsement, and I don’t think they even know me)
Their course will also be on sale for a special low price of $23 for the first few days.
So pick up a copy of 1Password, if you haven’t already. And [See Below!] for a link to the new course over at The Sweet Setup, or go there now and sign up for their newsletter so that you get notified directly of this and other course releases and articles. They also have posted an article describing the course.
Here’s the Link to the new course on 1Password:
Oh, and there’s this! From The Sweet Setup:
BONUS: We have partnered with the folks at 1Password to offer you an extended, 90-day free trial of 1Password for Families (a $9.98 value). After you purchase the course, you’ll get a special link from us to use in order to sign up for 1Password with your extended trial.
Yet another reason to try the course, and 1Password!
Simple Steps to get the shit out of your newsfeed
I’ve done a bit of cleanup on Facebook in the last few days, and with great success. All I did was “Hide all from …” for a handful of pages on Facebook. In the iOS app, it’s two clicks: the … on the upper right of the post and then “Hide all from…” Once I started, I was truly surprised how few it took before my Facebook feed was noticeably better.
I have a big pile of friends. My life has taken me many places and connected me to many people and though I have not kept up with all of them as well as I might, Facebook has helped. It has reconnected me with many wonderful people and I love it for that.
But there’s some stuff that’s shared that diminishes the rich experience of connecting with my friends and family.
A lot of that stuff comes from just a few “pages” on Facebook that seem to exist just to drive people apart. Well, maybe some exist just to make money, but their formula is to create “memes” that play on divisions and drive “us vs them” attitudes.
Important: Many of the pages that I’ve blocked express ideas that I agree with, mostly. But I still don’t want them in my Facebook feed. Because it’s easy to fall into the trap of letting yourself get riled up by stupid shit that you agree with. This is very important, because I see this hurting a lot of my friends and family. They are constantly looking at and sometimes sharing stuff that turns the ratchet on their anxiety, anger, frustration, or even hatred.
What I’m not going to do is give you a list of the stuff I’ve blocked. I am giving this idea to you and hope that you also will do a little cleanup of your Facebook. Do it for yourself. The good stuff, the fascinating stuff, the important stuff will still find you. And you’ll enjoy Facebook more and also enjoy more all those wonderful people in your life, wherever they are.
On this beautiful Christmas morning, I want to recommend a gift you can give to yourself, this course.
My friend Anne Firth Murray teaches this course (and others) at Stanford University and now it’s available as an online course through Coursera. Although it officially starts today, I’m already well into it and can attest to its quality and power.
We can all use some of the connection and kindness in the love described in this course. I hope you get as much out of this course as I am.