There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.
Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
Tuesday, November 28th, 2017
It’s fairly light-hearted by the standards of Black Mirror, but all the more chilling for that. It depicts a dysutopia where people rate one another for points that unlock preferential treatment. It’s like a twisted version of the whuffie from Cory Doctorow’s Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. Cory himself points out that reputation economies are a terrible idea.
Nosedive has become a handy shortcut for pointing to the dangers of social media (in the same way that Minority Report was a handy shortcut for gestural interfaces and Her is a handy shortcut for voice interfaces).
“Social media is bad, m’kay?” is an understandable but, I think, fairly shallow reading of Nosedive. The problem isn’t with the apps, it’s with the system. A world in which we desperately need to keep our score up if we want to have any hope of advancing? That’s a nightmare scenario.
The thing is …that system exists today. Credit scores are literally a means of applying a numeric value to human beings.
Nosedive depicts a world where your score determines which seats you get in a restaurant, or which model of car you can rent. Meanwhile, in our world, your score determines whether or not you can get a mortgage.
Nosedive depicts a world in which you know your own score. Meanwhile, in our world, good luck with that:
It is very difficult for a consumer to know in advance whether they have a high enough credit score to be accepted for credit with a given lender. This situation is due to the complexity and structure of credit scoring, which differs from one lender to another.
Lenders need not reveal their credit score head, nor need they reveal the minimum credit score required for the applicant to be accepted. Owing only to this lack of information to the consumer, it is impossible for him or her to know in advance if they will pass a lender’s credit scoring requirements.
Black Mirror has a good track record of exposing what’s unsavoury about our current time and place. On the surface, Nosedive seems to be an exposé on the dangers of going to far with the presentation of self in everyday life. Scratch a little deeper though, and it reveals an even more uncomfortable truth: that we’re living in a world driven by systems even worse than what’s depicted in this dystopia.
Two years ago Douglas Rushkoff had an unpleasant encounter outside his Brooklyn home. Taking out the rubbish on Christmas Eve, he was mugged — held at knife-point by an assailant who took his money, his phone and his bank cards. Shaken, he went back indoors and sent an email to his local residents’ group to warn them about what had happened.
“I got two emails back within the hour,” he says. “Not from people asking if I was OK, but complaining that I’d posted the exact spot where the mugging had taken place — because it might adversely affect their property values.”
Monday, November 27th, 2017
A lovely profile of the lovely In Our Time.
In part because “In Our Time” is unconnected to things that are coming out, things happening right this minute, things being promoted, it feels aligned with the eternal rather than the temporal, and is therefore escapist without being junk.
Anyone remember the site After Our Time?
Saturday, November 11th, 2017
I have to keep reminding myself that I do have some control. I can build The Medium I want. I can cling to what’s good.
Tuesday, October 31st, 2017
Girls on Neopets took what they needed from the site and used the skills acquired there to further develop a burgeoning digital girls’ culture, whether it be in expanding their guild pages into personal sites, teaching others to code, or exchanging those skills for economic gain in Neopets.
I have anecdotal evidence from a few people that Neopets was their introduction to web design and development.
Saturday, October 7th, 2017
A beautiful piece of writing from Virginia Heffernan on how to cope with navigating the overwhelming tsunami of the network.
The trick is to read technology instead of being captured by it—to maintain the whip hand.
Wednesday, October 4th, 2017
If you subtract the flying cars and the jets of flame shooting out of the top of Los Angeles buildings, it’s not a far-off place. It’s fortunes earned off the backs of slaves, and deciding who gets to count as human. It’s impossible tests with impossible questions and impossible answers. It’s having empathy for the right things if you know what’s good for you. It’s death for those who seek freedom.
A thought-provoking first watch of Blade Runner …with an equally provocative interpretation in the comments:
The tragedy is not that they’re just like people and they’re being hunted down; that’s way too simplistic a reading. The tragedy is that they have been deliberately built to not be just like people, and they want to be and don’t know how.
That’s what really struck me about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go: the tragedy is that these people can’t take action. “Run! Leave! Go!” you want to scream at them, but you might as well tell someone “Fly! Why don’t you just fly?”
Monday, October 2nd, 2017
Alan Kay’s initial description of a “Dynabook” written at Xerox PARC in 1972.
Tuesday, September 12th, 2017
Some great ideas here about using metaphors when explaining technical topics.
I really like these four guidelines for good metaphors:
Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017
If research on biases has told us anything, it is that humans make better decisions when we learn to recognize and correct for bias.
Wednesday, August 9th, 2017
An excellent rebuttal of that vile manifestbro, and an informative history lesson to boot.
You can’t cherry-pick a couple of scientific studies you like and use them to justify your arguments against diversity programs, while carefully ignoring the mountains of other scientific studies that show both how and why diversity programs are good, beneficial to all, and worth investing in.
I wish I could be this calm in refuting pseudoscientific bollocks, but I get so worked up by it that I’d probably undermine my own message. I’m glad that Faruk took the time to write this down.
Monday, July 24th, 2017
Putting on a conference
It’s been a few weeks now since Patterns Day and I’m still buzzing from it. I might be biased, but I think it was a great success all ‘round—for attendees, for speakers, and for us at Clearleft organising the event.
I first had the idea for Patterns Day quite a while back. To turn the idea into reality meant running some numbers. Patterns Day wouldn’t have been possible without Alis. She did all the logistical work—the hard stuff—which freed me up to concentrate on the line-up. I started to think about who I could invite to speak, and at the same time, started looking for a venue.
I knew from the start that I wanted it to be one-day single-track conference in Brighton, much like Responsive Day Out. I knew I wouldn’t be able to use the Corn Exchange again—there’s extensive rebuilding going on there this year. I put together a shortlist of Brighton venues and Alis investigated their capacities and costs, but to be honest, I knew that I wanted to have it in the Duke Of York’s. I love that place, and I knew from attending FFconf that it makes for an excellent conference venue.
The seating capacity of the Duke Of York’s is quite a bit less than the Corn Exchange, so I knew the ticket price would have to be higher than that of Responsive Day Out. The Duke Of York’s isn’t cheap to rent for the day either (but worth every penny).
To calculate the ticket price, I had to figure out the overall costs:
- Venue hire,
- A/V hire,
- Printing costs (for name badges, or in this case, stickers),
- Payment provider commission—we use Stripe through the excellent Ti.to,
- Speaker’s travel,
- Speaker’s accommodation,
- Speaker’s dinner the evening before the event,
- Speaker’s payment.
Some conference organisers think they can skimp on that last part. Those conference organisers are wrong. A conference is nothing without its speakers. They are literally the reason why people buy tickets.
Because the speakers make or break a conference, there’s a real temptation to play it safe and only book people who are veterans. But then you’re missing out on a chance to boost someone when they’re just starting out with public speaking. I remember taking a chance on Alla a few years back for Responsive Day Out 3—she had never given a conference talk before. She, of course, gave a superb talk. Now she’s speaking at events all over the world, and I have to admit, it gives me a warm glow inside. When it came time for Patterns Day, Alla had migrated into the “safe bet” category—I knew she’d deliver the perfect closing keynote.
I understand why conference organisers feel like they need to play it safe. From their perspective, they’re already taking on a lot of risk in putting on a conference in the first place. It’s easy to think of yourself as being in a position of vulnerability—”If I don’t sell enough tickets, I’m screwed!” But I think it’s important to realise that you’re also in a position of power, whether you like it or not. If you’re in charge of putting together the line-up of a conference, that’s a big responsibility, not just to the attendees on the day, but to the community as a whole. It’s like that quote by Eliel Saarinen:
Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context. A chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.
Part of that responsibility to the wider community is representation. That’s why I fundamentally disagree with ppk when he says:
The other view would be that there should be 50% woman speakers. Although that sounds great I personally never believed in this argument. It’s based on the general population instead of the population of web developers, and if we’d extend that argument to its logical conclusion then 99.9% of the web development conference speakers should know nothing about web development, since that’s the rough ratio in the general population.
That makes it sound like a conference’s job is to represent the status quo. By that logic, the line-up should include plenty of bad speakers—after all, the majority of web developers aren’t necessarily good speakers. But of course that’s not how conferences work. They don’t represent typical ideas—quite the opposite. What’s the point of having an event that simply reinforces the general consensus? This isn’t Harrison Bergeron. You want a line-up that’s exceptional.
I don’t think conference organisers can shirk this issue and say “It’s out of my hands; I’m just reflecting the way things are.” The whole point of having a conference in the first place is to trigger some kind of change. If you’re not happy with the current make-up of the web community (and I most definitely am not), then a conference is the perfect opportunity to try to demonstrate an alternative. We do it with the subject matter of the talks—”Our code/process/tooling doesn’t have to be this way!”—and I think we should also apply that to the wider context: “Our culture doesn’t have to be this way!”
Passing up that chance isn’t just a missed opportunity, I think it’s also an abdication of responsibility. Believe me, I know that organising a conference is a lot of work, but that’s not a reason to cop out. On the contrary, it’s all the more reason to step up to the plate and try your damnedest to make a difference. Otherwise, why even have a conference?
Whenever the issue of diversity at conferences comes up, there is inevitably someone who says “All I care about is having the best speakers.” But if that were true, shouldn’t your conference (and every other conference) have exactly the same line-up every year?
The truth is that there are all sorts of factors that play into the choice of speakers. I think representation should be a factor, but that’s all it is—one factor of many. Is the subject matter relevant? That’s a factor. Do we already have someone on the line-up covering similar subject matter? That’s a factor. How much will it cost to get this speaker? That’s a factor. Is the speaker travelling from very far away? That’s a factor.
In the case of Patterns Day, I had to factor in the range of topics. I wanted a mixture of big-picture talks as well as hands-on nitty-gritty case studies. I also didn’t want it to be too developer-focused or too design-focused. I was aiming for a good mix of both.
In the end, I must admit that I am guilty of doing exactly what I’ve been railing against. I played it safe. I put together a line-up of speakers that I wanted to see, and that I knew with absolute certainty would deliver great presentations. There were plenty of potential issues for me to get stressed about in the run-up to the event, but the quality of the talks wasn’t one of them. On the one hand, I wish I had taken more chances with the line-up, but honestly, if I could do it over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Because I was trying to keep the ticket price as low as possible—and the venue hire was already a significant cost—I set myself the constraint of only having speakers from within the UK (Jina was the exception—she was going to come anyway as an attendee, so of course I asked her to speak). Knowing that the speaker’s travel costs would be low, I could plug the numbers into an algebraic formula for figuring out the ticket price:
costs ÷ seats = price
Add up all the costs and divide that total by the number of available seats to get the minimum ticket price.
In practice, you probably don’t want to have to sell absolutely every single ticket just to break even, so you set the price for a sales figure lower than 100%—maybe 80%, or 50% if you’re out to make a tidy profit (although if you’re out to make a tidy profit, I don’t think conferences are the right business to be in—ask any conference organiser).
Some conferences factor in money for sponsorship to make the event happen. I prefer to have sponsors literally sponsoring additions to the conference. In the case of Patterns Day, the coffee and pastries were sponsored by Deliveroo, and the videos were sponsored by Amazon. But sponsorship didn’t affect the pricing formula.
The Duke Of York’s has around 280 seats. I factored in about 30 seats for speakers, Clearlefties, and other staff. That left 250 seats available for attendees. But that’s not the number I plugged into the pricing formula. Instead, I chose to put 210 tickets on sale and figured out the ticket price accordingly.
What happened to the remaining 40 seats? The majority of them went to Codebar students and organisers. So if you bought a ticket for Patterns Day, you directly subsidised the opportunity for people under-represented in technology to attend. Thank you.
Speaking personally, I found that having the Codebar crew in attendance really made my day. They’re my heroes, and it meant the world to me that they were able to be there.
Wednesday, July 19th, 2017
The magical and the mundane
The iPhone—and by extension, the smartphone—is a decade old. Ian Bogost has written an interesting piece in The Atlantic charting our changing relationship with the technology.
First, it was like a toy dog:
A device that could be cared for, and conspicuously so.
Then, it was like a cigarette:
A nervous tic, facilitated by a handheld apparatus that releases relief when operated.
Later, it was like a rosary:
Its toy-dog quirks having been tamed, its compulsive nature having been accepted, the iPhone became the magic wand by which all worldly actions could be performed, all possible information acquired.
Finally, it simply becomes …a rectangle.
Abstract, as a shape. Flat, as a surface. But suggestive of so much. A table for community. A door for entry, or for exit. A window for looking out of, or a picture for looking into. A movie screen for distraction, or a cradle for comfort, or a bed for seduction.
Technology tweaks our desire for novelty; but as soon as we get it we’re usually bored. There are no technologies that I can think of that haven’t become mundane.
This is something I touched on in my talk last year at An Event Apart. There’s a thread throughout the talk about Arthur C. Clarke, and of course I quote his third law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
I propose an addendum to that:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic at first.
The magical quickly becomes the mundane. That’s exactly the point that Louis CK is making in the piece that Ben references.
Seven years ago Frank wrote his wonderful essay There Is A Horse In The Apple Store:
I have a term called a “tiny pony.” It is a thing that is exceptional that no one, for whatever reason, notices. Or, conversely, it is an exceptional thing that everyone notices, but quickly grows acclimated to despite the brilliance of it all.
We are surrounded by magical tiny ponies. I mean, just think: right now you are reading some words at a URL on the World Wide Web. Even more magically, I just published some words at my own URL on the World Wide Web. That still blows my mind! I hope I never lose that feeling.
Monday, July 3rd, 2017
Paul has published the slides and transcript of his knock-out talk at Patterns Day. This a must-read: superb stuff!
Design systems are an attempt to add a layer of logic and reasoning over a series decisions made by complex, irrational, emotional human beings. As such, they are subject to individual perspectives, biases, and aspirations.
How does the culture in which they are made effect the resulting design?
If you feel you are being watched, you change your behavior. Big Data is supercharging this effect.
Some interesting ideas, but the tone is so alarming as to render the message meaningless.
As our weaknesses are mapped, we are becoming too transparent. This is breeding a society where self-censorship and risk-aversion are the new normal.
I stopped reading at the point where the danger was compared to climate change.
Monday, June 12th, 2017
- People v. Dronimos
- Writers v. A.I. Rowling
- The Algorithm Defense
Saturday, June 3rd, 2017
This was my favourite talk from this year’s Interaction conference—packed full of insights, and delivered superbly.
It prompted so many thoughts, I found myself asking a question during the Q&A.
Monday, April 10th, 2017
Brewster Kahle outlines his vision for library collaboration in curating and distributing digital works.
Thursday, March 23rd, 2017
That library was a Pandorica of fabulous, interwoven randomness, as rich as plum cake. Push a seed of curiosity in between any two books and it would grow, overnight, into a rainforest hot with monkeys and jaguars and blowpipes and clouds. The room was full, and my head was full. What a magical system to place around a penniless girl.