When it came time to reckon with social media’s failings, nobody ran to the “web3” platforms. Nobody asked “can I get paid per message”? Nobody asked about the blockchain. The community of people who’ve been quietly doing this work for years (decades!) ended up being the ones who welcomed everyone over, as always.
Monday, November 7th, 2022
Tuesday, October 11th, 2022
There’s a repeated catchphrase used throughout Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet: ignorance is our ammunition.
There are certainly situations where knowledge is regrettable. The somewhat-silly thought experiment of Roko’s basilisk is one example. Once you have knowledge of it, you can’t un-know it, and so you become complicit.
Or, to use another example, I think it was Jason who told me that if you want to make someone’s life miserable, just teach them about typography. Then they’ll see all the terrible kerning out there in the world and they won’t be able to un-see it.
I sometimes wish I could un-learn all I’ve learned about cryptobollocks (I realise that the term “cryptocurrency” is the more widely-used phrase, but it’s so inaccurate I’d rather use a clearer term).
I sometimes wish I could go back to having the same understanding of cryptobollocks as most people: some weird new-fangled technology thing that has something to do with “the blockchain.”
But I delved too deep. I wanted to figure out why seemingly-smart people were getting breathlessly excited about something that sounds fairly ludicrous. Yet the more I learned, the more ludicrous it became. Bitcoin and its ilk are even worse than the occassional headlines and horror stories would have you believe.
The reason I have such a visceral reaction to crypto projects isn’t just that they’re irresponsibly designed and usually don’t achieve what they promise. It’s also that the thing they promise sounds like a fucking nightmare.
Or, as Simon responded to someone wondering why there was so much crypto hate:
We hate it because we understand it.
I have yet to encounter a crypto project that isn’t a Ponzi scheme. I don’t mean like a Ponzi scheme. I mean they’re literally Ponzi schemes: zero-sum racing to the bottom built entirely on the greater fool theory. The only difference between traditional Ponzi schemes and those built on crypto is that crypto isn’t regulated. Yet.
I recently read The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, a novel with the collapse of a Ponzi scheme at its heart. In the aftermath of the scheme’s collapse, there are inevitable questions like “How could you not know?” The narrator answers that question:
It’s possible to both know and not know something.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
Wednesday, June 1st, 2022
A well-written evisceration of cryptobollocks signed by Bruce Scheier, Tim Bray, Molly White, Cory Doctorow, and more.
If you’re a concerned US computer scientist, technologist or developer, you’ve got till June 10th to add your signature before this is submitted to congress.
Monday, May 30th, 2022
There’s a lot of emphasis put on decision-making: making sure you’re making the right decision; evaluating all the right factors before making a decision. But we rarely talk about revisiting decisions.
I think perhaps there’s a human tendency to treat past decisions as fixed. That’s certainly true when it comes to evaluating technology.
I’ve been guilty of this. I remember once chatting with Mark about something written in PHP—probably something I had written—and I made some remark to the effect of “I know PHP isn’t a great language…” Mark rightly called me on that. The language wasn’t great in the past but it has come on in leaps and bounds. My perception of the language, however, had not updated accordingly.
I try to keep that lesson in mind whenever I’m thinking about languages, tools and frameworks that I’ve investigated in the past but haven’t revisited in a while.
Andy talks about this as the tech tool carousel:
The carousel is like one of those on a game show that shows the prizes that can be won. The tool will sit on there until I think it’s gone through enough maturing to actually be a viable tool for me, the team I’m working with and the clients I’m working for.
Crucially a carousel is circular: tools and technologies come back around for re-evaluation. It’s all too easy to treat technologies as being on a one-way conveyer belt—once they’ve past in front of your eyes and you’ve weighed them up, that’s it; you never return to re-evaluate your decision.
This doesn’t need to be a never-ending process. At some point it becomes clear that some technologies really aren’t worth returning to:
It’s a really useful strategy because some tools stay on the carousel and then I take them off because they did in fact, turn out to be useless after all.
See, for example, anything related to cryptobollocks. It’s been well over a decade and blockchains remain a solution in search of problems. As Molly White put it, it’s not still the early days:
How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains?
Back to the web (the actual un-numbered World Wide Web)…
Nolan Lawson wrote an insightful article recently about how he senses that the balance has shifted away from single page apps. I’ve been sensing the same shift in the zeitgeist. That said, both Nolan and I keep an eye on how browsers are evolving and getting better all the time. If you weren’t aware of changes over the past few years, it would be easy to still think that single page apps offer some unique advantages that in fact no longer hold true. As Nolan wrote in a follow-up post:
My main point was: if the only reason you’re using an SPA is because “it makes navigations faster,” then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that.
For another example, see this recent XKCD cartoon:
Perhaps the best example of a technology that warrants regular re-evaluation is the World Wide Web itself. Over the course of its existence it has been seemingly bettered by other more proprietary technologies.
Flash was better than the web. It had vector graphics, smooth animations, and streaming video when the web had nothing like it. But over time, the web caught up. Flash was the hare. The World Wide Web was the tortoise.
In more recent memory, the role of the hare has been played by native apps.
I remember talking to someone on the Twitter design team who was designing and building for multiple platforms. They were frustrated by the web. It just didn’t feel as fully-featured as iOS or Android. Their frustration was entirely justified …at the time. I wonder if they’ve revisited their judgement since then though.
But developers remain suspicious, still prefering to trust third-party libraries over native browser features. They made a decision about those libraries in the past. They evaluated the state of browser support in the past. I wish they would re-evaluate those decisions.
Alas, inertia is a very powerful force. Sticking with a past decision—even if it’s no longer the best choice—is easier than putting in the effort to re-evaluate everything again.
What’s the phrase? “Strong opinions, weakly held.” We’re very good at the first part and pretty bad at the second.
Just the other day I was chatting with one of my colleagues about an online service that’s available on the web and also as a native app. He was showing me the native app on his phone and said it’s not a great app.
“Why don’t you add the website to your phone?” I asked.
“You know,” he said. “The website’s going to be slow.”
He hadn’t tested this. But years of dealing with crappy websites on his phone in the past had trained him to think of the web as being inherently worse than native apps (even though there was nothing this particular service was doing that required any native functionality).
It has become a truism now. Native apps are better than the web.
And you know what? Once upon a time, that would’ve been true. But it hasn’t been true for quite some time …at least from a technical perspective.
But even if the technologies in browsers have reached parity with native apps, that won’t matter unless we can convince people to revisit their previously-formed beliefs.
The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.
Thursday, May 12th, 2022
I firmly believe that companies first need to identify and research the problem they are trying to solve, and then select the right technology to do it. Those technologies may not be the latest buzzword, and they may not cause venture capitalists to come crawling out of the woodwork, but choosing technologies with that approach tends to be a lot more successful in the long run — at least, assuming the primary goal is to actually solve a problem rather than attract VC money.
Monday, April 25th, 2022
I went to TEDxBrighton on Friday. I didn’t actually realise it was happening until just a couple of days beforehand, but I once I knew, I figured I should take advantage of it being right here in my own town.
All in all, it was a terrific day. The MCing by Adam Pearson was great—just the right mix of enthusiasm and tongue-in-cheek humour. The curation of the line-up worked well too. The day was broken up into four loosely-themed sections. As I’m currently in the process of curating an event myself, I can appreciate how challenging it is.
Each section opened with a musical act. Again, having been involved behind the scenes with many events myself, I was impressed by the audaciousness, just from a logistical perspective. It all went relatively smoothly.
The talks at a TED or TEDx event can be a mixed bag. You can have a scientist on stage distilling years of research into a succint message followed by someone talking nonsense about some pseudo-psychological self-help scheme. But at TEDxBrighton, we lucked out.
A highlight for me was Dr James Mannion talking about implementation science—something that felt directly applicable to design work. Victoria Jenkins was also terrific, and again, her points about inclusive design felt very relevant. And of course I really enjoyed the space-based talks by Melissa Thorpe and Bianca Cefalo. Now that I think about it, just about everyone was great: Katie Vincent, Lewis Wedlock, Dina Nayeri—they all wowed me.
With one exception. There was a talk that was supposed to be about the future of democracy. In reality it quickly veered into DAOs before descending into a pitch for crypto and NFTs. The call to action was literally for everyone in the audience to go out and get a crypto wallet and buy an NFT …using ethereum no less! We were exhorted to use an unbelievably wasteful and energy-intensive proof-of-work technology to get our hands on a receipt for a JPG …from the same stage that would later highlight the work of climate activists like Tommie Eaton. It was really quite disgusting. The fear-based message of the talk was literally about getting in on the scheme before it’s too late. At one point we were told to “do the research.” I’m surprised we weren’t all told that we’re “not going to make it.”
A disgraceful shill for a ponzi scheme would’ve ruined any other event. Fortunately the line-up at TEDxBrighton was so strong that one scam artist couldn’t torpedo the day. Just like crypto itself—and associated bollocks like NFTs and web3—it was infuriating to have to sit through it in the short term, but then it just faded away into insignificance. One desperate peddler of snake oil couldn’t make a dent in an otherwise great day.
Wednesday, March 23rd, 2022
The bottom line is that almost everything NFT advocates want to do on a blockchain can be done more easily and efficiently without one, and the legal infrastructure needed to make NFTs work defeats the point of using a blockchain in the first place.
Sunday, March 20th, 2022
Obviously, no one does this, I recognize this is a very niche endeavor, but the art and craft of maintaining a homepage, with some of your writing and a page that’s about you and whatever else over time, of course always includes addition and deletion, just like a garden — you’re snipping the dead blooms. I do this a lot. I’ll see something really old on my site, and I go, “you know what, I don’t like this anymore,” and I will delete it.
But that’s care. Both adding things and deleting things. Basically the sense of looking at something and saying, “is this good? Is this right? Can I make it better? What does this need right now?” Those are all expressions of care. And I think both the relentless abandonment of stuff that doesn’t have a billion users by tech companies, and the relentless accretion of garbage on the blockchain, I think they’re both kind of the antithesis, honestly, of care.
Wednesday, February 16th, 2022
This is a great talk from Laura that clearly explains what web3 actually is. It pairs nicely with Molly White’s wb3 is going just great (speaking of which, Casey Newton interviewed Molly White about the site recently).
Wednesday, January 26th, 2022
At its very core, the rules of the web are different than those of “real” markets. The idea that ownership fundamentally means that nobody else can have the same thing you have just doesn’t apply here. This is a world where anything can easily be copied a million times and distributed around the globe in a second. If that were possible in the real world, we’d call it Utopia.
Sunday, January 16th, 2022
If you’re interested in so-called web3, you should definitely follow Molly White.
How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains? How many people must be scammed for all they’re worth while technologists talk about just beginning to think about building safeguards into their platforms? How long must the laymen, who are so eagerly hustled into blockchain-based projects that promise to make them millionaires, be scolded as though it is their fault when they are scammed as if they should be capable of auditing smart contracts themselves?
The more you think about it, the more “it’s early days!” begins to sound like the desperate protestations of people with too much money sunk into a pyramid scheme, hoping they can bag a few more suckers and get out with their cash before the whole thing comes crashing down.
Tuesday, January 11th, 2022
Occasionally, I wonder whether I’ve got it all wrong. Is my age, my technical unsophistication, or my fond remembrance of an internet unencumbered by commerce blinding me to the opportunities that crypto offers me? But then I read something terrible and I recant my doubts, meditate for a while and get on with my life.
Monday, January 10th, 2022
Blockchain technologies have somehow managed to land in the worst of both worlds—decentralized but not really, immutable but not really.
A great analysis of the system of smoke and mirrors that constitutes so-called web3:
Instead of being at the mercy of the “big tech” companies like Amazon and Google that monopolize the traditional way of doing things on the web, you are now at the mercy of a few other tech companies that are rapidly monopolizing the blockchain way of doing things.
Saturday, January 8th, 2022
A balanced, even-handed look at actually using so-called web3 technology. It turns out that even if you leave the ethical and environmental concerns aside, the technological underpinning are, um, troublesome to say the least.
Thursday, January 6th, 2022
A very even-handed and level-headed assessment by Laurie, who has far more patience than me when it comes to this shit.
The term “web3” is a transparent attempt to associate technologies diametrically opposed to the web with its success; an effort to launder the reputation of systems that have most effectively served as vehicles for money laundering, fraud, and the acceleration of ransomware using the good name of a system that I help maintain.
Perhaps this play to appropriate the value of the web is what it smells like: a desperate move by bag-holders to lure in a new tranche of suckers, allowing them to clear speculative positions. Or perhaps it’s honest confusion. Technically speaking, whatever it is, it isn’t the web or any iteration of it.
Wednesday, January 5th, 2022
Web3 is like a combination of pyramid schemes, scientology and Tamagotchi. There’s the fact that ultimately anything you do on blockchains costs you real money and that once you’ve paid that, you’re one of the people who need to get the next cohort of buyers onboard or lose your money. There’s believing that you’re joining a movement that’s in the know, with all kinds of interesting words and sci-fi stuff that normies just don’t understand. And there’s your portfolio, your pretty JPGs, wallets, apps and everything you spent so much time on understanding and maintaining. Good luck avoiding sunk cost fallacy there.
Monday, January 3rd, 2022
Ethereum is only decentralized in the way that doesn’t matter — you’re free to join the decentralized system, under the condition that you act in the exact same way as every other actor in that system.
Thursday, December 23rd, 2021
Much of the energy behind crypto arises from the very strong need that some people feel to operate outside of a state, and therefore outside of any sort of democratic communal overview. The idea that Ayn Rand, that Nietzsche-for-Teenagers toxin, should have had her whacky ideas enshrined in a philosophy about money is what is terrifying to me.
Tuesday, December 7th, 2021
The underlying technology of cryptocurrency is based on a world without trust. Its most ardent proponents want to demolish institutions and abolish regulation, reducing the world to a numbers game which they believe they can win. If the wildest fantasies of cryptocurrency enthusiasts were to come true, if all the environmental and technical objections were to fall away, the result would be financial capitalism with all the brakes taken off.
The promotion of cryptocurrencies is at best irresponsible, an advertisement for an unregulated casino. At worst it is an environmental disaster, a predatory pyramid scheme, and a commitment to an ideology of greed and distrust. I believe the only ethical response is to reject it in all its forms.