Human consciousness is the most astonishing thing, and most of it happened in deep time, beyond the reach of any writing and most legends. Human experience, in general, is prehistoric. And prehistoric experience was just as full as yours and mine: just as deeply felt, just as intelligent, just as real. What we know of it is mostly from durable artifacts and graves. I’m thinking of the woman found near the Snake River, buried at the end of the ice age with a perfectly crafted and unused stone knife tucked under her head. I’m thinking of the huge conical hats, beaten from single pieces of gold and inscribed with calendars, found north of the Alps. I’m thinking of Grave 8 at Vedbæk, where a woman held her premature baby on the spread wing of a swan. These are snapshot that experts can assemble into larger ideas, but what they tell all of us is that we’ve been people, not just humans, for a very long time.
Monday, April 6th, 2020
Friday, March 20th, 2020
How are you doing? Are you holding up okay?
It’s okay if you’re not. This is a tough time.
It’s very easy to become despondent about the state of the world. If you tend to lean towards pessimism, The Situation certainly seems to be validating your worldview right now.
I’m finding that The Situation is also a kind of Rorschach test. If you’ve always felt that humanity wasn’t deserving of your faith—that “we are the virus”—then there’s plenty happening right now to bolster that opinion. But if you’ve always thought that human beings are fundamentally good and decent, there’s just as much happening to reinforce that viewpoint.
I’ve noticed concentric circles of feelings tied to geography—positive in the centre, and very negative at the edges. What I mean is, if you look at what’s happening in your building and your street, it’s quite amazing how people are pulling together:
Our street (and the guy who runs the nearby corner store) is self-organizing so that everyone’s looking out for each other, checking up on elderly and self-isolating folks, sharing contact details, picking up shopping if necessary, and generally just being good humans.
This goodwill extends just about to the level of city mayorships. But once you look further than that, things turn increasingly sour. At the country level, incompetence and mismanagement seem to be the order of the day. And once you expand out to the whole world, who can blame you for feeling overwhelmed with despair?
But the world is made up of countries, and countries are made up of communities, and these communities are made up of people who are pulling together and helping one another.
Best of all, you can absolutely be part of this wonderful effort. In normal times, civic activism would require you to take action, get out there, and march in the streets. Now you can be a local hero by staying at home.
That’s it. Stay inside, resist the urge to congregate, and chat to your friends and relatives online instead. If you do that, you are being a most excellent human being—the kind that restores your faith in humanity.
I know it feels grim and overwhelming but, again, look at what’s triggering those feelings—is it the national news? International? I know it’s important to stay informed about the big picture—this is a global pandemic, after all—but don’t lose sight of what’s close to hand. Look closer to home and you’ll see the helpers—heck, you are one of the helpers.
On Ev’s blog, Fiona Cameron Lister quotes the president of the Italian Society of Psychiatrists:
Fear of an epidemic is as old as mankind itself. In this case its effect is amplified by incomplete, even false information which has caused public confidence in our institutions to collapse.
She points out that the media are in the business of amplifying the outliers of negative behaviour—panic buying, greed, and worst-case scenarios. But she goes on to say:
It doesn’t take much to start a panic and we are teetering on the brink.
Not to be the “well, actually” guy but …well, actually…
That view of humanity as being poised on the brink of mass panic is the common consensus viewpoint; it even influences public policy. But the data doesn’t support this conclusion. (If you want details, I highly recommend reading Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball.) Thinking of ordinary people as being one emergency away from panicking is itself giving into fear.
I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re feeling misanthropic about your fellow humans right now, try rebalancing your intake. Yes, it’s good to keep yourself informed about national and global events, but make sure to give plenty of attention to the local level too. You may just find your heart warming and your spirits lifting.
After all, you’re a good person, right? And you probably also think of yourself as a fairly ordinary person, right? So if you’re doing the right thing—making small sacrifices and being concerned for your neighbours—then logic dictates that most other people are too.
When this is over, I hope we will be proud of how well we loved one another.
Monday, February 3rd, 2020
A global communications network now exists that’s cheap enough or in some cases even free to access, offering a pseudonymous way for people to feel safe enough to share a private experience with complete strangers? I give Facebook and Twitter a bunch of shit for their rhetoric about a global community (no, Facebook’s billions of users are no more a community than the television-watching global community) and creating authentic connection, but I will very happily admit that this, this particular example with people sharing what it is like to be me and learning what is it like to be you is the good.
This is the thing that makes free, open, networked communication brilliant. This is the thing that brings down silos and creates common understanding and humanizes us all, that creates empathy and the first steps towards compassion.
That someone can read about this insight and have a way to react to it and share their perspective and not even know who else might read it, but feel safe in doing so and maybe even with the expectation that this sharing is a net good? That is good. That is what we should strive for.
Saturday, January 25th, 2020
Doomsday vs. the Long Now.
Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020
Portrait of the genius as a young man.
It is fortifying to remember that the very idea of artificial intelligence was conceived by one of the more unquantifiably original minds of the twentieth century. It is hard to imagine a computer being able to do what Alan Turing did.
Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
If a human civilization beyond Earth ever comes into being, this will be unprecedented in any historical context we might care to invoke—unprecedented in recorded history, unprecedented in human history, unprecedented in terrestrial history, and so on. There have been many human civilizations, but all of these civilizations have arisen and developed on the surface of Earth, so that a civilization that arises or develops away from the surface of Earth would be unprecedented and in this sense absolutely novel even if the institutional structure of a spacefaring civilization were the same as the institutional structure of every civilization that has existed on Earth. For this civilizational novelty, some human novelty is a prerequisite, and this human novelty will be expressed in the mythology that motivates and sustains a spacefaring civilization.
A deep dive into deep time:
Record-keeping technologies introduce an asymmetry into history. First language, then written language, then printed books, and so and so forth. Should human history extend as far into the deep future as it now extends into the deep past, the documentary evidence of past beliefs will be a daunting archive, but in an archive so vast there would be a superfluity of resources to trace the development of human mythologies in a way that we cannot now trace them in our past. We are today creating that archive by inventing the technologies that allow us to preserve an ever-greater proportion of our activities in a way that can be transmitted to our posterity.
Tuesday, December 31st, 2019
Every day, millions of people rely on independent websites that are mostly created by regular people, weren’t designed as mobile apps, connect deeply to culture, and aren’t run by the giant tech companies. These are a vision of not just what the web once was, but what it can be again.
This really hits home for me. Anil could be describing The Session here:
They often start as a labor of love from one person, or one small, tightly-knit community. The knowledge or information set that they record is considered obscure or even worthless to outsiders, until it becomes so comprehensive that its collective worth is undeniable.
This is a very important message:
Taken together, these sites are as valuable as any of the giant platforms run by the tech titans.
Tuesday, August 27th, 2019
The Weight of the WWWorld is Up to Us by Patty Toland
A few years ago, a good friend of Patty’s had a medical diagnosis that required everyone to pull together. Another friend shared an article about how not to say the wrong thing. This is ring theory. In a moment of crisis, the person involved is in the centre. You need to understand where you are in this ring structure, and only ever help and comfort inwards and dump concerns and problems outwards.
At the same time, Patty spent time with her family at the beach. Everyone reads the same books together. There was a book about a platoon leader in Vietnam. 80% of the story was literally a litany of stuff—what everyone was carrying. This was peppered with the psychic and emotional loads that they were carrying.
There was a common assertion that slow networks were a third-world challenge. Remember Facebook’s network challenges? They always talked about new markets in India and Africa. The implication is that this isn’t our problem in, say, Omaha or New York.
Pew Research provided updated data this year. The research shows an increase in those trends. Half of the population access the web primarily on mobile. The cost of a broadband subscription is too expensive for many people. Sometimes broadband access simply isn’t available.
There’s a term called “the homework gap.” Two thirds of teachers assign broadband-dependent homework, while one third of students have no access to broadband.
At most 37% of people have unlimited data. Most people run out of data on a frequent basis.
Speed also varies wildly. 4G doesn’t really mean anything. The data is all over the place.
This shows that network issues are definitely not just a third world challenge.
On the 25th anniversary of the web, Tim Berners-Lee said the web’s potential was only just beginning to be glimpsed. Everyone has a role to play to ensure that the web serves all of humanity. In his contract for the web, Tim outlined what governments, companies, and users need to do. This reminded Patty of ring theory. The user is at the centre. Designers and developers are in the next circle out. Then there’s the circle of companies. Then there are platforms, browsers, and frameworks. Finally there’s the outer circle of governments.
There’s no way for a user to know before clicking a link how big and bloated the page is going to be. Even if they abandon the page load, they’ve still used (and wasted) a lot of data.
Third party scripts—like ads—are really bad at dumping in (to use the ring theory model). The best practices for ads suggest that up to 100 additional HTTP requests is totally acceptable. Unbelievable! It doesn’t matter how performant you’ve made a site when this crap gets piled on top of it.
In 2018, the internet’s data centres alone may already have had the same carbon footprint as all global air travel. This will probably triple in the next seven years. The amount of carbon it takes to train a single AI algorithm is more than the entire life cycle of a car. Then there’s fucking Bitcoin. A single Bitcoin transaction could power 21 US households. It is designed to use—specifically, waste—more and more energy over time.
What should we be doing?
Accessibility should be at the heart of what we build. Plan, test, educate, and advocate. If advocacy doesn’t work, fear can be a motivator. There’s an increase in accessibility lawsuits.
Our websites should be as light as possible. Ask, measure, monitor, and optimise. RequestMap is a great tool for visualising requests. You can see the size and scale of third-party requests. You can also see when images are far, far bigger than they need to be.
Take a critical guide to everything and pare everything down. Set perforance budgets—file size budgets, for example. Optimise images, subset custom fonts, lazyload images and videos, get third-party tools out of the critical path (or out completely), and seek out lighter frameworks.
Push the boundaries. See the amazing work that Adrian Holovaty did with Soundslice. He had to make on-the-fly sheet music generation work on old iPads that musicians like to use. He recommends keeping old devices around to see how poorly your product is working on it.
If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.
Sunday, August 4th, 2019
The lunar landing was not a scientific announcement or a political press conference; it was a performance, a literal space opera, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that brought together the efforts of more than 400,000 people, performed before an audience of some 650 million. It was a victory, as Armstrong immediately recognized, not of Western democratic capitalism over Soviet tyranny, or of America over the rest of the world, but for humanity. It belongs to the United States no more than Michelangelo does to Italy or Machu Picchu to Peru.
Monday, July 15th, 2019
Mike follows up on the changes made by email startup Superhuman after his initial post:
I will say this: if you were skeptical of Superhuman’s commitment to privacy and safety after reading the last article, you should probably be even more skeptical after these changes. The company’s efforts demonstrate a desire to tamp down liability and damage to their brand, but they do not show an understanding of the core problem: you should not build software that surreptitiously collects data on people in a way that would surprise and frighten them.
Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019
A really excellent analysis by Mike of a dark pattern in the Superhuman email app.
That’s right. A running log of every single time you have opened my email, including your location when you opened it. Before we continue, ask yourself if you expect this information to be collected on you and relayed back to your parent, your child, your spouse, your co-worker, a salesperson, an ex, a random stranger, or a stalker every time you read an email.
Exactly! This violates the principle of least surprise. Also, it’s just plain wrong.
Amazingly though, Mike has been getting pushback from guys on Twitter (and it’s always guys) who don’t think this is a big deal.
Anyway, read the whole thing—it’s fair, balanced, and really well written.
Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019
A history of buttons …and the moral panic and outrage that accompanies them.
By looking at the subtexts behind complaints about buttons, whether historically or in the present moment, it becomes clear that manufacturers, designers and users alike must pay attention to why buttons persistently engender critiques. Such negativity tends to involve one of three primary themes: fears over deskilling; frustration about lack of user agency/control; or anger due to perceptions of unequal power relations.
Wednesday, January 16th, 2019
I love this idea of comparing human colour choices to those of a computer:
I decided to do two things: the top three most used colours of the photo decided by “a computer” and my hand picked choices. This method ended up revealing a couple of things about me.
I also love that this was the biggest obstacle to finding representative imagery:
I wanted this to be an exciting task but instead I only found repeated photos of my cat.
Thursday, October 4th, 2018
This is a rather beautiful piece of writing by Tom (especially the William Gibson bit at the end). This got me right in the feels:
Web 2.0 really, truly, is over. The public APIs, feeds to be consumed in a platform of your choice, services that had value beyond their own walls, mashups that merged content and services into new things… have all been replaced with heavyweight websites to ensure a consistent, single experience, no out-of-context content, and maximising the views of advertising. That’s it: back to single-serving websites for single-serving use cases.
A shame. A thing I had always loved about the internet was its juxtapositions, the way it supported so many use-cases all at once. At its heart, a fundamental one: it was a medium which you could both read and write to. From that flow others: it’s not only work and play that coexisted on it, but the real and the fictional; the useful and the useless; the human and the machine.
Wednesday, June 27th, 2018
Between the utopian and dystopian, which vision of the future seems more likely to you? Which vision seems more true to how we currently live with technology, in the form of our smartphones and social media apps?
Saturday, May 26th, 2018
I wish there was a place where I could read the story of a person. Everybody’s journey is so different and beautiful; each one leads to who we are. It would be the anti-LinkedIn. And because you wouldn’t “engage with brands”, it would be the anti-Facebook, too. Instead, it would be a record of the beauty and diversity of humanity, and a thing to point to when someone asks, “who are you?”
Wednesday, May 9th, 2018
I can’t recall the last time I was so creeped out by a technology as I am by Google Duplex—the
AI that can make reservations over the phone by pretending to be a human.
I’m not sure what’s disturbing me more: the technology itself, or the excited reaction of tech bros who can’t wait to try it.
Thing is …when these people talk about being excited to try it, I’m pretty sure they are only thinking of trying it as a caller, not a callee. They aren’t imagining that they could possibly be one of the people on the other end of one of those calls.
The visionaries of technology—Douglas Engelbart, J.C.R Licklider—have always recognised the potential for computers to augment humanity, to be bicycles for the mind. I think they would be horrified to see the increasing trend of using humans to augment computers.
Thursday, May 3rd, 2018
The nature of human nature is that it changes. It can not, therefore, serve as a stable basis for evaluating the impact of technology. Yet the assumption that it doesn’t change serves a useful purpose. Treating human nature as something static, pure and essential elevates the speaker into a position of power. Claiming to tell us who we are, they tell us how we should be.
Friday, March 30th, 2018
On moving from silos to your own website:
Over the last year, especially, it has seemed much more like “blog to write, tweet to fight.” Moreover, the way that our writing and personal data has been used by social media companies has become more obviously problematic—not that it wasn’t problematic to begin with.
Which is why it’s once again a good time to blog, especially on one’s own domain.
But on the other hand…
It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site.
That’s true …which is why brid.gy is such an incredibly powerful service for, well, bridging the gap between your own personal site and the silos, allowing for that feeling of ambient humanity.
Friday, March 9th, 2018
We hoped for a bicycle for the mind; we got a Lazy Boy recliner for the mind.
Nicky Case on how Douglas Engelbart’s vision for human-computer augmentation has taken a turn from creation to consumption.
When you create a Human+AI team, the hard part isn’t the “AI”. It isn’t even the “Human”.
It’s the “+”.