Celebrating the Public Domain

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:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=IoATBk-3yn8

In this time of uncertainty, confusion, and division, it’s wonderful to be celebrating creativity and history here today.

Finding Optimism in the Tech Industry

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.

A Better Facebook

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.

Know-How

From Hobbies to Trade Skills to Artistic Expression, developed knowledge and improved craft is the mark of accomplishment — Coding is no different.

– Darius Dunlap

I wish schools still had Shop, and Band, and Art. I believe there is a kind of mental development that’s missing without them. And I believe that these kinds of classes — focused on doing and making — support and expand the skills of reading, writing, arithmetic, problem solving, and other key skills we all want kids to develop.

These days there is a lot of talk about “Learning to Code.” And that would be great, except for this aura of magic around it. Because learning to code is really a lot like learning carpentry, or photography, or learning to cook. The basics are pretty simple, though that is not evident to the uninitiated. And full expertise is a lifetime pursuit. And most of us are content with a modest competence.

Learning to code is easier than it has ever been. Not because it’s become simpler, but because the tools have become better, specifically in that they allow you to do something useful more easily and with less knowledge and skill.

Photography is undergoing and transformation in a similar way. It’s not that the pictures we take with our phones and fancy digital cameras are better than film for the expert photographer, but that these new tools provide immediacy. You can take a picture and instantly see it. You can learn from every photograph taken, right there, right then, and take another and another until you get the photo you want. You take more photos, too. Your photography improves at a pace and in ways that would have required much more patience, organization, focus, and effort a couple decades ago when the turn-around was so much slower.

Deep expertise still takes years, but the basics are more accessible than ever.

It’s the same for coding.

Mastering coding, or more properly Software Engineering and Computer Science, is not something every needs to do. it’s probably not something every could do, even if they tried. It’s a deep field and the complexity of the most advanced techniques are beyond those without an aptitude. At the very highest level, it requires not just superior mathematics and problem solving, but also philosophy and compassion — designing systems requires thinking beyond the immediate technical problem to understand how the system fits into the world and how people are going to use it. The people who can do all of this well are rare.

But for the rest of us, our needs are simpler. We can create something that solves a straightforward problem, using the excellent tools developed over the last several decades, and never have to think about the mathematics of drawing the curve at the corner of our icon or the physics of making our animation look natural, or the details of setting up a server and keeping it reliable and secure.

So “Learning to Code” is a lot like learning to cook. It doesn’t mean we will all become master chefs with Michelin-rated restaurants. But it does mean we can learn to make a good loaf of hand-made bread from natural starter that’s better than what you can get off the shelf at the grocers.

Most importantly, learning to code, like taking shop or joining the band in high school, helps you get better at other things. It helps you solve problems in other domains, and it develops your mind.

Your Online Home

Big companies on the internet make it easy for you to just rely on them for everything you need online. But there’s value in having your own place independent of your Internet Provider (ISP) or other companies.

By having your own internet domain, and the basic services to go with it, you get at least a continuous place where your stuff lives, and where people can find you.

Your Own Domain, Step-by-Step

  1. Find and Purchase a domain name on Hover.com
  2. Setup email on Hover.com or G Suite.
  3. Setup a simple website with Squarespace.com or WordPress.com
  4. Connect other services to your domain.

Basics of setting up your own domain

Most essential is an internet domain of your own and a place to send and receive email. There are many outside services that do this, but I recommend specific companies below. The companies that get my recommendation all have excellent support and reliable service and work well for people who want an independent place of their own on the internet without having to become a web server and email guru.

Find and Purchase a Domain Name

When you buy a domain name, like dariusdunlap.com, you want to work with a reputable company that provides good technical support and an easy-to-understand system for buying and maintaining your domain.

Hover.com

My recommendation is Hover.com. It’s where I maintain all my domain names and the related administration stuff. They also have just about the best service and best technical support of any company I’ve worked with. Call them if you don’t believe me. They even have a concierge service for setting up or moving your domain.

Setup Email

Hover.com also has great email plans that make it simple to have your own email. This is what I use for my personal and business email.

Google also provides great email service in their “Google Apps.” If you like the speed, reliability and great features of gmail, consider using Google Apps for your domain. It’s a great service. As a non-profit, Square Peg Foundation uses Google Apps, including gmail, for free thanks to Google’s generosity. (If you run or are involved with a non-profit, I highly recommend Google’s non-profit programs)

Another service I should mention is Mailroute.net — they provide email filtering against Spam, viruses and scams, plus other services to keep your email secure and reliable. If you use Google for your email then Mailroute is not necessary, but for most other email providers, it’s a nice and reliable addition.

Setup a Simple Website

Lots of services have nice tools for creating your own website. I recommend Squarespace as a simple way to get yourself setup with your own website. You can even try it out without any commitment. For more advances uses, I recommend WordPress. You can use WordPress.com or one of the excellent WordPress hosting providers. I will write more on WordPress in another post.

Connect Other Services

Hover.com makes it easy to Connect various popular services to your domain, including Etsy, Shopify, Squarespace, and About.me. Their Technical Support team is also very helpful if you don’t see your favorite service on their list. Just select “Connect” in your Hover.com Control Panel for your domain.

More Info on getting yourself online

The principles of creating and owning your own presence online are well expressed by my friends at IndieWeb.org. I will be writing more on IndieWeb, Online Services, and the Open Internet in the coming weeks. I’ll also be updating and revising this article over time.

iPhone Changed Everything

iPhone and Tea

10 years ago today, Steve Jobs introduced the world to a new thing — the iPhone. Even if you are familiar with the event, have seen the video, or were there, it may not occur to you how weak the reception was in that room, that day.

With remarkable style, Steve Jobs setup the context masterfully, and then said,

… we’re introducing three revolutionary products….

(Polite clapping and a couple whoops)

Continue reading “iPhone Changed Everything”

Whiplash

My own book research has me reading even more than usual. Last week I received a new book that I had pre-ordered, Whiplash: How to Survive OurFaster Future, by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe. I set aside the several books I’m currently reading and finished this new one in just a few days.

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Hour of Code

Computers are not magical or mysterious. Their amazing abilities are built up from simple ideas. That’s what’s surprising. How did we arrive at today, with these devices in our pocket and a (nearly) global network connecting them, and with software running that allows it all to do so many useful and entertaining things?

Lady Ada, Countess of Lovelace wikipedia, was the first to get it. She understood, before any computers existed, that a machine with a few simple arithmetic abilities could do much more. (Notably, the men who were designing these calculating machines didn’t get it.) It would be about 100 years before the programmable computers she envisioned would be “invented”.

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Advice on Computer and Software Upgrades

Keeping your computer software up-to-date is important for security, and also gets you the latest great features. Computer hardware is better than ever, which also means that a computer stays useful longer than ever and is more reliable because of better chassis, connectors and electronics, and fewer moving parts.

Software

Whether you are using macOS (previously Mac OS X), Windows, or Linux, keeping your computer up-to-date gives you the latest security updates and helps keep your computer reliable and fast. We can quibble over preferences and the track records of software vendors, but keeping your software updated is always the best choice.

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