25: Space Mountain

I went to Disneyland with a few friends at the beginning of this year. For those who've never been, Disneyland consists of multiple mini-parks that branch off of "Main Street, U.S.A." It's meant to feel like stumbling out of the real world into various fantasy versions, whether a Western-themed Frontierland or futuristic Tomorrowland: each with their own themed rides, soundtracks, and eateries.

Last year, Disneyland added a new, Star Wars-themed mini-park to the map, called Galaxy's Edge. It was the first park they’d built since 1993, and progress made in the past 25 years is visible in its manufacturing and design. Galaxy's Edge, with its long winding forest path, swaying Moroccan-esque lamps, and dazzling full-replica starships, looks like it belongs at a cosplay convention rather than at Disneyland, whose older parks now seem a bit faded in comparison.

While in Galaxy's Edge, we stood in line for a ride called Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run. With at least a 30 minute wait, the in-line experience is designed to keep riders busy. As the line progressed, we were taken through a spaceport onto the Millennium Falcon itself. Our path was filled with thoughtful details, like an unfinished sabacc game behind a few crates, or Porg nests in the rafters. Upon boarding the starship, we were herded to a loading dock, where an animatronic Hondo Ohnaka gave us our instructions.

I'm not a Star Wars fan, and even I was impressed. The ride's designers had taken great care to satisfy the enthusiastic fans that have made Star Wars so popular for the past near-fifty years. Waiting in line was even more exciting than the ride itself! Entertaining as it was, however, I couldn't help but compare it to our experience waiting in line for Space Mountain the night before.

Of all the rides I'd heard about before going to Disneyland, Space Mountain was by far my most anticipated. Space Mountain isn't the most intense rollercoaster in the world (get outta here, Six Flags!), but it is one of the most well-known.

As we made our way through Tomorrowland to Space Mountain, I was a flutter of excitement. All day, we'd been inundated with colors, lights, sounds, and imagery—and so what I found most remarkable about Space Mountain, when we finally reached the line, was its refusal to pander to my enthusiasm.

Space Mountain, this most iconic of rides, didn't try to coax us with the bells and whistles of its ganglier distant cousin. Instead, it loomed unapologetically in the middle of the park, a silvery-blue alien object dropped into Disneyland like the inscrutable monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

While other rides crammed as much entertainment into their line experience as possible, Space Mountain offered us next to nothing. Waiting in line resembles walking through an airport, a series of clean white hallways that eventually open into to a wide, flat rooftop.

In a park where every inch is spoken for, Space Mountain’s empty rooftop is a rude violation, like spilling water onto the sandy soil of Arrakis. Not only is there nothing to look at, but you’re forced to contemplate this profligate display of austerity as you traipse along the rooftop with all the other hopeful riders.

Millennium Falcon's line experience was designed for its fans. Its designers, breathless and frenetic, worked hard to keep their riders entertained, with plenty of inside references that only a Star Wars fan would appreciate.

Space Mountain, by contrast, casts its withering sphinx glance at the rest of Disneyland's sticky-fingered maximalism. Space Mountain knows why you're there: you want to careen into a sky full of stars. And it knows that’s worth the wait in line, so it doesn’t try to cater to you.

The tradeoff to Millennium Falcon’s "Made by us, for us" philosophy is that when people are encouraged to actively participate in the show, their differences can become that much more apparent. Galaxy's Edge, the park that houses Millennium Falcon, is the only place in Disneyland where you'll suddenly become self-aware that you're wearing a T-shirt and shorts instead of Jedi cosplay.

At the rest of Disneyland's parks, the themes are all different, but each mini-park feels the same in terms of guest behavior and attire. Everyone is wearing Disney clothing: not, say, Toontown- or New Orleans-themed clothing.

The most universal symbol of Disney—a pair of mouse ears—croons with its honey voice that we can smooth away our differences by simply “getting your ears on.” Ears are not an unattainable luxury, but if you put them on, you’ll instantly fit in.

But in Galaxy's Edge, mouse ears suddenly seem a bit gauche. Instead you'll find yourself ogling your neighbor's $200 custom lightsaber (which is a thing you can do there) and feeling a bit envious that you didn't get one yourself.

I guess some people would look at Disneyland’s “mouse ears for all” battle-cry and find the demotion of self-expression depressing. But I found that I didn't mind relinquishing a bit of myself when the vision offered to me was something much grander. Disneyland, from its navigation to its bathrooms to waiting in line, never flinches from its personal standard of excellence. It is, after all, "the happiest place on Earth."

Since returning from Disneyland, I've started seeing these two versions of the world in everything. I thought about it again this past week, as debate fiercely raged on Twitter about what company culture is supposed to offer its employees.

How we choose to spend our days is an important part of one’s identity. Deciding where to work, and what to work on, is also a matter of deciding whose vision you want to buy into.

There's something to be said for the Millennium Falcon way of doing things. For many people in tech, this promise is clearly embodied by Burning Man, a festival of more than 70,000 people in the desert that's entirely organized by volunteers, whose founding principles emphasize the idea of "radical participation." At Burning Man, there are no spectators, only participants. Burning Man is Millennium Falcon.

Unsurprisingly, the company whose employees I'd consider to be most intertwined with Burning Man culture—Google—is also Millennium Falcon. (Embodying this vision, for me, was Google's big marketing push for Android in 2014, built around the slogan, "Be together. Not the same.")

But then there's the Space Mountain version of organizational culture. Space Mountain, and Disneyland itself, promise a future so exciting that people will happily put their "other selves" aside to bring it to fruition. It requires strong leadership, because you're asking people to submit to your vision of the world, and a good leader takes that responsibility seriously. Apple, the most secretive of big tech companies with arguably the most iconic technology executive in history, is Space Mountain. (When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, they told us they’d "reinvented the phone," a claim about as bold as "the happiest place on Earth.")

Bitcoin is Space Mountain. Ethereum is Millennium Falcon. Clojure is Space Mountain. Rust is Millennium Falcon. (If you've read Working in Public: stadiums, or communities formed around a single creator, are Space Mountain. Federations, or communities made by many contributors for many users, are Millennium Falcon.)

If Galaxy's Edge is any indication, an overemphasis on participation can exacerbate the perceived differences between us, because it's not possible for everyone to bring their whole selves to work without bumping up against someone else's version. I don't think these merge conflicts are necessarily a bad thing. Some companies embrace those conflicts and make active participation part of their core values. Burning Man wouldn't work if nobody pitched in.

That’s one way of doing things. But I can't help but feel enticed by the cool wash of relief offered by the enigmatic Space Mountain: an invitation to stop flooding my brain with more inputs, and instead focus on getting to the stars.

Notes

Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • Going to school, but instead of paying tuition to someone to teach you, getting paid by your readership/audience to learn in public and document your learnings

  • Ways of creating serendipity online - are stadium-style communities particularly well-suited for this? (Specifically in terms of addressing the serendipity q, i.e. meeting ppl outside of your known social circles) I feel like they’re well-primed bc you’re in a high-context situation and also you’re both “watching the stage,” so you have this built-in activity you’re already doing together. Small group chats are block-y, but stadiums can be porous and help naturally facilitate some of that serendipity

  • Games that help us teach virtues to kids. Ex. Telephone teaches kids that what you say isn’t always what’s heard. What are other examples?

  • Companies as Schelling points for impact (again, “great prophet” rather than “great founder” theory). Instead of “it’s a great founder who drove this forward,” it’s more like “this is happening in the world whether we like it or not and you guys happen to be at the center of it”

Links

  • "Bring Back the Bison" (Santi Ruiz): Why we should save the American bison. In addition to the reasons you'd expect, like climate change and economic development, I was particularly intrigued by Santi’s treatment of an unlikely source of support: megafauna nationalists, "a form of meme-friendly esoteric politics [who] dream of rewilding the country." Conservation efforts (and environmentalism more generally) historically draw supporters from across the political spectrum (think John Muir vs. Rachel Carson), so I enjoyed seeing that reflected in digitally-native political culture as well.

  • "Me, Myself and my Multiple Avatars" (Jill Carlson): A short story about living in a future where we're all hiding behind avatars. In addition to being a great read, I just love that Jill did this; I wish more of my peers wrote fiction or explored creative outlets in public (I know, I know, be the change you want to see in the world…)

  • "Formality Considered Harmful: Experiences, Emerging Themes, and Directions" (Frank M. Shipman III and Catherine C. Marshall): This piece argues against overly-opinionated user interfaces that get in the way of non-linear thinking, particularly in unstructured creative work like writing and design. As much as I'd like to use any of the formal note-taking systems out there, I'm always wary of adopting someone else's way of thinking, and this helped me articulate why. (h/t Andy Matuschak, who wonders if building these “non-linear release valves” could actually improve linear output.)

  • "On the use of a life" (Colin Percival): Colin, a mathematician and FreeBSD developer, explains why he spends his days working on Tarsnap, a for-profit online backup service, instead of working in academia.

  • "Recreating the local newspaper in digital form" (Andrew Wilkinson): I try not to link to Twitter threads, but I wish this had been a full post! Andrew describes how he started what became the leading local newspaper in his hometown of Victoria, Canada. I do wonder if there will be a land grab of mini-Jeff Bezoses itching to build their own local news fiefdoms. Feels like someone could spreadsheet the opportunity to find local news areas that are low-competition, high ability to pay from at least some of its residents, and a big enough market of potential subscribers. (Not saying if that’s good or not, just...interesting?)


Millennium Falcon photo: WDWMAGIC
Space Mountain photo: Wikipedia

24: Monasteries

I wrote about the crash of our social markets at the start of the pandemic. While much has been made of the recovery of our financial markets, considerably less public discourse has been allocated to discussing a recovery plan for knowledge.

Knowledge work regards us from high upon Maslow's hierarchy over the crook of its bespectacled nose; it's easy to miss right now, in light of more pressing basic needs (food, income, where to live, daily mood). But the volume and quality of our creative output has undeniably declined this year: a warning that, left unchecked, could lead to civilizational backslide.

There's a passage in the fictional The Memory Police, which I read this month (see “Links” below), where the narrator describes how she and her neighbors passed their days during an extended period of crisis:

A deep stillness was rapidly spreading over the island. The gap grew ever larger between the rates at which old things decayed and disappeared and new ones were created....the restaurants, movie theaters, and parks in town were deserted.

Among the new things to be created were small crops of daikon radishes, Chinese cabbages, and watercress that poked their way out of the earth, some sweaters and lap robes made by the ladies who worked at the knitting factory, and a supply of fuel that came by tanker truck from somewhere. Not much else.

It's not just the loss of creation, but also the insidious way in which that loss has been normalized, that I find so concerning. We’re making things, but the things we make don't further our collective knowledge and skills. We're merely treading water while our heads slowly sink beneath the surface, the hot sun winking out of sight.

There is something disturbing about the passivity and lack of introspection with which we've accepted this present state. The flippant "It's hard for me to think right now" remark has become as commonplace as the "I've been busy these days" of yore. It's understandably a coping mechanism in the short term, but long-term damaging for progress.

I was reminded of this passivity during the California fires that have swept—are sweeping—across the Bay Area these past few weeks, negatively impacting our air quality and forcing us to stay indoors. When the same thing happened in 2018, public reaction was completely different, in that, we actually had a reaction. This year, on top of everything else that's going on, it seems we’ve barely batted an eye.

My mom lived in Jakarta for much of my childhood, while I mostly grew up in Pennsylvania. 1998 was a tumultuous year for Indonesia, following the Asian financial crisis that impacted the entire region. In May of 1998, the long-reigning president Suharto resigned, and rioters took to the streets, targeting Chinese-Indonesians, an ethnic minority (like my mother), in particular.

Most of her peers had evacuated Jakarta at that point, but my mom, who worked in finance, stayed and worked. I had only a child's grasp of what was going on, but one image stuck in my head: as rioters took to the streets outside her apartment complex, my mom told us she was sleeping with a backpack of emergency supplies in case anything went wrong. As a kid, I was struck by the dissonance of what it must feel like to show up to work every day while also fearing for one's safety on such a basic level. It seemed absurd and incomprehensible. I thought about it last week while wearing an N95 mask indoors with stinging eyes while trying to meet a work deadline.

We're so obsessively focused on getting through a normal day-to-day that we can't even see how much we've lost. Even now, I'm typing this while trying to figure out which daybed to order for my living room and whether to enroll my new cat in kitten kindergarten. Kaczynski would call these "surrogate activities": hobbies that work toward artificial goals, but are ultimately unsatisfying.

In times of crisis, we imagine ourselves as heroes. In reality, the quotidian outpaces the sublime. When I arrived to Jakarta in June of 1998, a few weeks after the riots had died down, I was surprised by how “normal” a crisis could really seem. We've constructed fragile, tattered lean-to's of surrogate activities to distract ourselves from the raging destruction outside, but if we continue to stay here, there will be nothing left to come back to.

What would it look like to take the preservation of knowledge work more seriously? I think about the monasteries that survived through wars and social upheaval, or Rivendell in Lord of the Rings: the idea of physically removing oneself from the daily machinations of man in pursuit of long-term, clear-eyed thinking. Monasteries in Europe were safe havens for scholarship, preserving manuscripts and texts that were otherwise destroyed in the Middle Ages, which later helped give birth to the Renaissance.

I'm typically critical of the siren song of escapism as a lifestyle, and skeptical of attempts to build utopian kibbutzes, because I think social ecosystems flourish best when they're not in isolation. But in pandemic times, fears of waldenponding seem less applicable. It's not about building a new city or society, but a transient, protected retreat. (Think Recurse Center or Pacific Science Institute, not seasteading.) True to Maslow's hierarchy, it is harder to focus on scholarship while navigating a crisis. It seems valuable to shield these sorts of endeavors from an environment that's increasingly hostile to knowledge work.

P.S. I've been thinking about monasteries because—masochist that I am—I have a new research project I'd like to work on. I’m not able to retreat to a monastery in my current life situation, and I've never done research as a side project before, but I also feel a growing moral imperative to contribute to our crumbling knowledge repositories.

Writing

  • "Not voting as a form of protest": I wrote about voter abstention and why it should be considered a legitimate form of civic engagement. I didn't tweet this one out because I didn't really want to get into touchy territory with strangers, but I figured I'd share it here, where we have a bit more context for each other. (And of course, you're welcome to share it as well; it's not private, just nestled in a dark forest.)

Notes

Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • (from a convo) “Idea laundering” as a concept (like money laundering, but for ideas you don’t want to share under your own name). Could happen via anonymity, pseudonymity (alts), or (most interesting to me) funneling your ideas through other ppl

  • (from a convo) Online communities that are tied to a physical identity (ex. Nextdoor, alumni communities) function differently bc it’s harder to defect and leave. But they’re also not necessarily “high-context” communities in the sense of, say, a small town or meetup group. They’re sort in this in-between limbo space, where drama can be worse bc you intuitively assume shared values based on physical identity, but actually at a certain scale there isn’t that level of context at all. Kind of like the “jury duty” effect? You would expect that 12 randomly-selected San Francisco residents would be somewhat familiar to you in terms of identity/values, but actually they’re shockingly different from what one might’ve guessed

  • I think there’s a diff between “content moderation” and setting expectations for civil interactions, and the latter does, or at least can, fall in the purview of what a platform should be tasked with doing, bc it’s basically what any gov’t does as well (creates and enforces laws that foster a safe, civil society). If we focus on doing more of the expectation-setting stuff well, I wonder if that would help reduce the majority of what is actually concerning to ppl about "harmful" ideas (inciting violence, harassment, etc)

  • Thinking about how so many things from this time will be recorded bc live online events are much easier to record, so ppl do it without thinking / for the sake of it. Wonder if having so many of our activities recorded from this era, that otherwise wouldn’t have been, will have any long-term effects (good or bad)

Links

  • The Memory Police (Yoko Ogawa): A novel about a woman living on an island where memories mysteriously disappear every day. New disappearances on the island are normalized, even as they became more extreme. I inhaled this book pretty quickly. It's hard to elaborate without revealing too much of the plot, but this book is sad and haunting and remarkably relevant, I think, to our day-to-day.

  • The Yellow Arrow (Victor Pelevin): I’ve been swallowing myself in Japanese fiction and Russian sci-fi right now (please send recs!). Japanese fiction transmits this empty sadness that I find strangely calming, while Russian sci-fi is like your friend at the bar that slaps you on the shoulder after a hard day and slides another shot your way. In The Yellow Arrow, society takes place on a train that's hurtling towards a ruined bridge. They've been there for so long that nobody ever asks why they're on the train anymore. This novella is a brooding, philosophical foil to The Memory Police, a single note drawn across the strings of a cello.(Somehow I can picture it being made into a Wes Anderson film…maybe it's the train thing).

  • "Co-buying property with friends” (Phil Levin): To paraphrase Phil: lots of people want to buy property with friends, but few people actually do. A detailed and practical guide to co-buying property; certainly the most comprehensive resource I've come across.

  • "The Last Message Sent on AIM" (Justin Tan): Short but sweet essay from a software engineer who sent the very last message on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) before it shut down at the end of 2017.

  • "Orthographic media" (Robin Sloan): Robin conceives of social media as orthographic, where all objects appear to be the same size, regardless of their distance from the camera. For example, on your Twitter feed, you’ll see mundane tweets presented at "full size" alongside more serious ones. I like thinking about this concept as a successor to context collapse. Cocoon, a v2 group chat app, has pointed out the design problem presented by the orthographic nature of messaging apps (e.g., seeing all your texts appear alongside your close friend and group chat discussions).

23: Seasons

I wrote four drafts of this newsletter that I'm not going to send to you. Each one is about a completely different topic. None of them are bad, I don't think. I just feel ridiculous writing about anything "serious" right now.

I don't want to talk about design patterns for spatial software, cottagecore memetics, media colonialism, or lateral ergonomics. After each draft, I found myself asking "...why?," and I scratched them out and started over.

While I've been a Very Bad Blogger since starting my job at Substack (I promise there will be a day when I am able to write again), I've always thought of my blog as the place where I write about those kinds of topics more comprehensively, whereas this newsletter is a somewhat more personal place to let my mind wander: halfway between a blog and a journal.

I could pretend that I'm genuinely interested in exploring those other topics with you, but the truth is that that's not really what's occupying my mind these days. And I've always wanted this newsletter to be a place for me to write more freely. So, this month, as with every month, I'll give you what's actually on my mind…

My life these days is filled with sunshine and flowers. I made some lifestyle changes in order to make the days more tolerable. I hiked up my rent and upgraded to a bigger place with a spacious backyard. I put myself on a diet. I bought a car for the first time in my life. It's a convertible. It's fun to drive, but I can't help but wonder whether this is the equivalent of a pandemic midlife crisis.

My weeks are a mushy, meaningless blur of swirling rice in a pot of cold water, watching sunsets off my deck, floating on gymnastics rings in my backyard, careening down San Francisco hills towards the water. I'm over my head high, looking to bury myself in a body high.

A long, long time ago, a friend of mine got plastic surgery. Afterwards, she texted me a photo of her recovering body, covered in a giant bruise from her rib cage to her knees. She said that recovery can feel strangely good: it makes you aware of your body's limitations, where all you can do is wallow. Sometimes it feels good to give yourself up entirely to your circumstances, to feel like there is nothing you can do besides what's right in front of you.

Everyone is leaving the city, if they haven't left already. The streets are empty, the street curbs dotted with moving trucks. My social circles are scattered and broken in a way that they never have been, and hopefully never will be again. My day-to-day is not peaceful, even if it looks like everything I'd previously imagined peace to be. These are wartime circumstances, just wrapped in a filter of something deadly and beautiful.

Right now is indisputably a suspension of life, a hand thrown up to protect one’s face, a year in which nothing really matters except survival. I don't want to pretend like right now is just another set of circumstances to be analyzed. It's not. I want to describe it in a way that's different from how I used to talk, but I don't know how because all I really know how to do is use my words instead of my body.

It's August now, and I have so few memories of doing anything this year. I've had a lot of group chats, FaceTime calls, phone calls, video calls, and even a few trips out of town, but those memories all feel translucent somehow, like I could put my hand right through them.

My lack of memories this year makes it easy for me to remember the four separate occasions that I have seen one of my few good friends who’s still in San Francisco; each of which, upon reflection, now seems to mark the passage of pandemic time like the changing seasons.

Spring: The first time we decided to meet in person, it was April, in a park outdoors. I walked forty-five minutes to get there because I didn't want to take an Uber. My fingers turned white as the sun set and I realized that because everything was closed down, I couldn't go inside anywhere to warm back up.

Summer: The second time was in May, my first time venturing into a house that was not my own. I took my first Uber ride in three months, with my mask on and windows down. When I arrived, I was greeted by an atmosphere that was warm and convivial and strangely domestic. Everyone flitted in and out of the common spaces; two friends were spending their afternoon doodling on the dining room table. I'd never seen his place so lively before.

Fall: The third time we met, it was in June, meeting up with another friend who'd briefly stopped back in town. We hung out at a nearby park on a sunny day, playing music and drinking White Claw on a picnic blanket. Seeing multiple friends together at once felt like a rare, fleeting luxury.

Winter: The last time we met was this week. This time, he was leaving for an international trip with no return ticket. His spacious home was dead and empty now, because everyone else had finally left the city. I drove to his house in my new car with the top down, feeling like a person that I didn't recognize. We laid out on the deck, blinking in the frigid sunshine, watching the fog roll over Sutro Tower, with long stretches of silence as we sat, uncomfortable and alone with our thoughts.


A mini-update about my book: if you haven't already seen on Twitter, the official launch day got delayed to August 4th due to COVID-related shipping delays, combined with the fact that apparently you all bought too many copies. (Thank you <3) If you pre-ordered a copy, it'll get shipped tomorrow. (If you already have a copy, it's because Amazon mysteriously shipped out ~400 copies early. Consider yourself lucky!)

If I haven't replied to your email, DM, or message, I apologize. I’m very grateful for everyone's support, and I'm doing my best to get through my messages.

Okay, last thing. I don't typically share interviews of myself in here (you already subscribe to this thing, do you really need more of me?), but I recently hopped on the a16z Podcast to talk to Sonal Chokshi about Working in Public. Sonal's known my open source work since the early days, and she immediately "got" the book and its message. I can be sort of guarded about talking about ideas that I hold close to my heart, but I'm happy with the conversation we had here. So if you haven’t bought the book, but you still want a rundown of the main concepts, you can listen here.

Notes

Notes from June and July have been updated. A few highlights:

  • How to virtually simulate a “fidget experience” / walking outside together? Ex. ppl listen to talks better when they have something to fidget with, and similarly going on a walk together gives two ppl something else to passively look at, which makes the conversation richer

  • Maybe 2020 is the year that solipsism died, and that’s what’s so painful about this year. That for so long, it felt like we were increasingly mastering our environment, able to control every aspect of it, finely tune and dial up and down whichever things we did or didn’t like. But this year, it’s all about ceding control back to the collective. You HAVE to take part in this global narrative, whether you like it or not. By comparison, it feels so...crude!

  • There’s an argument to be made that really successful co’s are post-scarcity and therefore actually the best entities to incubate the arts/culture/literature etc (vs. academia)

Links

  • How to Do Nothing (Jenny Odell): This book taunted me all month while I tried to read it. "I don't have time to read!" I'd scream in my head. "But this book is supposed to tell me how to do nothing!" Anyways, don’t be fooled by the title: this isn’t a self-help book, but rather a lovely philosophical meditation by a thoughtful, well-read human being. I didn't agree with everything in it, but I found myself really liking the author as a person (whom I don't know personally). One section I particularly enjoyed was Jenny quietly eviscerating the secessionists and utopian colonists of the world who try to escape from reality, which I didn't quite expect, and again points to the ways that this book avoids many of the typical tropes and pitfalls to make its case.

  • "Come for the Network, Pay for the Tool" (Toby Shorin): The always-excellent Toby Shorin wrote a great piece about paid communities. I'm not sure that I resonate with the concept of "paid communities" as its own taxonomy, rather than "paid" as a means of enabling other community types, but I love seeing more discourse about subscription models for communities, and Toby introduces a bunch of questions that are worth ruminating on.

  • "By the Books" (Mailchimp): I may have mentioned my love of Microsoft Bob aesthetic in here before – especially these days, as I'm craving all things tactile – and so I love this mini-project that Mailchimp put out of books, essays, films, and podcasts, neatly arranged on "bookshelves" that move when you brush your cursor against them.

  • Wanderverse (Sonya Mann): My friend Sonya quit her job to write full-time. I enjoy her thoughts on just about anything, but I particularly enjoy the physical zines she creates, as well as this refreshing new fiction project she's recently embarked on. Her work always reminds me to think with my hands and not just my head.

  • "280" (isosteph): I'm always on the hunt for more cultural artifacts that tell the story of San Francisco in a way that's not typically portrayed by mainstream journalism, and so I enjoyed this piece by isosteph about driving down 280.

22: Working in Public

Last fall, I mentioned a book I'd read called Free Flight, by James Fallows, about our commercial flight system and the future of flight. It was published in June 2001.

“Man,” I thought, when I saw that date. “That's pretty unfortunate. Can you imagine writing and releasing a book about commercial flight three months before 9/11?”

Well anyways, I've got news: I've published a book about online communities, told through the story of open source developers – written just before the stay-at-home pandemic that uprooted how we think about ourselves in digital spaces. It's called Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software, now available for pre-order on Amazon.

This was a major undertaking, bringing together five years of research into open source developers, combined with fresh thoughts about how they mirror the creator economy more broadly. I thought I'd take this issue to share why I wrote this book, why I think it matters, and especially why it matters right now.


I was first attracted to open source – public code that everybody relies upon – after observing that its developers are creating trillions of dollars in economic value, while giving away their code for free.

The common explanation for this discrepancy is that open source is a volunteer group effort, like Wikipedia. But, digging a little deeper, I found that the cooperative nature of open source was largely overstated. While examples of large-scale collaboration exist, there are also countless projects maintained by individual developers. (Imagine if Wikipedia were mostly written by one person…which is actually not entirely off-base.)

To address this issue, I started with the hypothesis that “more people should contribute to open source.” If maintainers are overworked, more contributors could help alleviate the burden.

But in practice, this didn't seem to be the case. If anything, too many low-quality contributions were often the cause of maintainers' problems!

Meanwhile, as I tried to make sense of these implications, the world went through a populist explosion, driven in part by the 2016 presidential election, which recast our social platforms not as mere entertainment, but de facto governments lacking geographic borders.

The ensuing chaos changed how we interacted with each other online, albeit slowly. We sought relief from our cacophonous hyper-public spaces, looking to higher contextual ground for quieter, cozier corners of the web to nuzzle into.

I eventually realized that what was happening to open source mirrored what was happening to the world writ large, and that these developers – who’d started experiencing these issues a few years before everyone else – had a lot to tell us about where the world was going.

Maggie Appleton’s vision of the web.

Open source has always reflected the broader social trends of our online world. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, open source inspired people looking to understand the nascent “open web.” Both were about maximizing access and participation, where contributors come together in service of a bigger project.

Since 2016, however, we are undeniably moving into a second epoch of the social web, one in which “public” no longer equals “participatory.” This shift requires that we refactor our understanding of online communities.

It seems clear to me that individuals, not just groups, are defining the next generation of the internet. Social platforms don't just connect us to people we already know, but also serve as a stage for us to discover, follow, and interact with creators. In the shift from “friends” to “followers,” these communities became parasocial in nature, centered around individual creators, rather than a distributed crowd.

Kevin Systrom, who co-founded Instagram, said in 2018 that:

Social media is in a pre-Newtonian moment, where we all understand that it works, but not how it works. There are certain rules that govern it and we have to make it our priority to understand the rules, or we cannot control it.

We all get it at this point: something's changed. But what is it, and how do we navigate and operate in this new world? Are there preexisting examples that can help us understand it? This year, as we're increasingly required to rely upon our online spaces for work and play, it's become even more crucial to deeply understand our underlying social infrastructure.

For me, it was open source developers that helped me make sense of the future. They've long experienced the frog-boiling that came with prior social norms of “everybody participates” butting up against the reality of “participation doesn't scale.” And they have to figure it out in a way that other creators don't. An Instagram creator who doesn't look at their DMs might miss a few good ones. But if an open source developer doesn’t read their bug reports, other people's lives are materially impacted, visible in the form of site outages and security breaches flitting through the news headlines.

I wrote this book because I felt there is so much wisdom we can glean from the world of open source. But the only books I could find reflect an expired reality – the early, communitarian version of open source. By shedding light on how modern open source works today, I hope to prompt new ideas about how the rest of our online world is evolving.

Finally, it's impossible to examine the social dynamics of these communities without also considering their economic implications. Online content is an unresolved conundrum since the dawn of the internet. It's extremely difficult to monetize, despite being worth quite a lot to us socially.

To address this, I decided to evaluate the economics of code and content in terms of a reputation-based economy. We’ve historically treated con­tent as a first­-copy cost problem, which intellectual property helps to solve for. But the challenges facing online creators today derive from playing a repeated game, not a single one. It’s not enough to make one good hit: you have to keep making content to stay relevant. Examining who produces content, not just what they produce, can help us understand how to think about the value of online content today.

Okay, that's my spiel. You don't have to be technically-minded to read Working in Public, just someone who's curious about how creators operate today and how our economy might reorient itself around their work. You can pre-order a copy here:

Pre-order on Amazon

Thank you for reading! On to the rest of your regularly scheduled newsletter.


Notes

Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • I'd rather be a memos-driven company culture than a numbers-driven culture. Are these two things at odds? Do they develop in different ways?

  • What would spreadsheets reimagined as a messaging app look like? Not repurposing existing spreadsheet software for messaging, but a messenger app that's spreadsheet-like. Like the same way Discord is messaging reimagined as audio-first, this would be messaging that's…tactile-first?

  • I kinda want to see someone make the argument that terrible healthcare isn't a bug, but a feature of the United States. Like essentially steelman why bad healthcare is quintessentially American, instead of framing it as a crisis

  • "Builder communities" that are oriented around an activity? (making open source software, playing Minecraft, choreographing dance routines, etc) Getting to know ppl by doing something alongside them is often better than milling around and talking. This was true of offline communities already, but can we now use that as a design principle for online communities as well?


Links

  • Snow Country (Yasunari Kawabata): This book was so sad! It's about a doomed romance between a geisha and her wealthy client (more in the genre of “lonely hearts” fiction), so I knew what I was getting into when I read it, but the heavy unspoken dialogue between characters made it especially sting, like sticking my bare hand into a bucket of snow. If that's your thing, have at it.

  • The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane: Literary Journalist (Amy Mattson Lauters): A pleasant collection of essays by Rose Wilder Lane, who co-wrote the Little House on the Prairie books and also helped define the early libertarian movement. I love this early 20th century, down-home cozy version of American libertarianism, where everyone's preaching self-reliance and homeschooled education. I enjoyed these both for the first-hand historical perspective and Rose’s energetic writing style (her travel essays are great!).

  • “Party in a Shared Google Doc” (Marie Foulston): The title says it all. Marie also shares a link to the Google Doc, so you can see exactly how the party played out. Lots of fun inspiration in here.

  • “Dear Cynthia” (Marcin Wichary): Marcin tells the story of tracking down the photographer of an image that he wanted to use in his book. Reading Marcin's writing is like looking at a Richard Serra: it's process art. He's writing a book about keyboards, and I don't even care about keyboards! But I care about how much Marcin cares about keyboards; his obsessions are infectious to be around.

  • “Sidebar: Mutual Hostilities”: A side project I've thought about is creating an anthology of internet-first philosophies and the seminal works of prominent bloggers associated with each one. I'm not sure I have the stamina for it, but I did like reading this piece examining the relationship between rationalists ("amateur philosophers" who refined their thinking on online forums) and professional philosophers. I've often wondered what professional philosophers think of internet-first philosophers, and vice versa, if they think anything at all.

21: Out of Body

As we've transferred our collective consciousness to the stratosphere, a spaceship veering hastily out of Earth's orbit in a fiery blaze, I've found some strange comfort in the transformed stillness that remains in our physical world.

Our brains have fled to higher celestial ground, while our bodies have been reduced to sims. We're all still physically here, standing on this idyllic beach, jogging along the peaceful water at sunset, lying on the grass in the sunshine, but our minds live elsewhere. I'm an NPC now, and I kind of like it.

I thought I knew what it meant to be an NPC, that soothing state where dialogue is limited to whatever a game developer could've programmed into you. But the NPCs in my life — neighbors, shopkeepers, passersby — were still capable of toeing the transgressive line, and that was always the danger. In my old life, I'd flee cafes and bars when the baristas and bartenders started asking personal questions, rerouted my daily walks and bus routes when my companions got too familiar. [1]

But now, everyone's really an NPC. We're outright forbidden to get close to people we don't know, and strangely this seems to have made everybody much kinder. Perhaps there's a relief in knowing nothing more is expected of us, except to be polite and maintain our 3 feet of distance and smile demurely with our half-covered faces. (I'm assuming, of course, that everyone's as curmudgeonly as I am.) There is no possible timeline where we progress beyond pleasantries anymore, and this feels nice for a change.

Meanwhile, my soul, liberated from its body, is having a party on the internet. If internet friends are like moon-people, we've all slingshotted ourselves into space. My physical world may have been pleasantly lobotomized — rolling green hills, quiet creaking marinas, and the occasional very dull trip to the grocery store — but my online world has become infinitely more rich and interesting.

Online Town, Netflix Party, Discord, ham radio, 3-D printable gifts sent as CAD files, networked printers (the messages printing themselves out like on a Ouija board), meeting up on Figma, meeting up on Mario Party, meeting up on Animal Crossing, meeting up on Minecraft, meeting up on World of Warcraft. My lack of physical presence isn't a limitation, it's a liberation. Doused by a chemical accident, we've discovered we can morph into silver puddles and reappear wherever we please.

I don't need my body anymore. I'm enjoying learning how to interact using a new, proprioceptive set of senses. Yes, it's tactile, but I'm not really touching you. Yes, it's visual, but I'm not really seeing you. A phone call feels more intimate than a Zoom call. Doing activities together feels more intimate than talking. The best online interactions I've had don't try to recreate the past, but start with the premise of disembodiment.

(Are we in purgatory? Maybe we're having a near-death experience, the kind that happens when your heart rate’s plummeted and the doctors are trying to revive you. The experience only lasts fifteen seconds in the real world, but when you're the one who's dying, it stretches into a glorious eternity.)

Weirdly, Twitter feels like the most boring place I could be right now. It feels too Old World, like trudging to an office building when I've just arrived in the disco afterlife. I'd rather be a spooky spirit ghost haunting the radio waves with my friends, exploring the backwaters of the internet, gleefully playing pranks and dissolving into fits of giggles.

Back in February, a friend mused in our Messenger group: “What if we made our own custom group chat app to hang out on?” The idea struck me as quaint, but unnecessary: after all, everyone knows there are only so many messaging apps to choose from, and most of them are made by Facebook.

Fast-forward two months, and I've hung out on at least three different chat apps that my friends have built for fun. Who knows whether it’ll last; weren't we supposed to be getting more “efficient”, whatever that means? But now, it's the homegrown apps, the suboptimal apps, the janky apps, that give us the texture and variety we're craving, while the sleek apps, the Made by Facebook apps, the 99.9%-uptime apps, feel like chipped plastic, hard and hollow and unappealing.

Maybe our hearts are flatlining right now, but until we’re all revived, I’m enjoying this strange fun interlude. It feels like 2013 again.

[1] Before we had video games, Jane Jacobs called this “sidewalk life” which is probably a nicer way of saying NPCs, but I don't find the term NPC offensive, because I'm just as much an NPC in other people's lives as they are in mine. To me, it's about having a mutual respect for personal space, which is basically required in a densely-populated urban area. In other words, NPC-ing one's environment is an adaptive behavior, not reflective of a lack of regard for humanity.


A funny thing that's changed about writing these newsletters in the past two months is that when I sit down to write, I always feel like I'm chronicling the end of a phase. Writing these updates feels like trying to describe a state that's receding from me, like painting a sky full of stars that are already dead. I don't expect my "out-of-body" state will ring true in another week or two; I already feel my soul being recalled to its physical form again.

Phase 0 (March) was total mind annihilation. Phase 1 (April) was the lone astronaut, floating in a sea of wreckage. Now I'm putting away the video games and the baking supplies, slowly shedding my quarantine clothing. I'm not sure what Phase 2 (May) looks like yet, but when I try to imagine the road ahead, my vision is filled with flowers.


Since we're all lonely astronauts right now, dreaming of our loved ones and our former lives, I thought I'd share a little snippet from Chronic City. One of the main characters, Janice, is a glamorous astronaut trapped in space, waiting to come home. Everything we know about her comes from the letters she writes to her boyfriend, Chase, who lives in New York City:

"Inside [the spaceship] we've managed to kid ourselves that we exist…Oh, the lie of weightlessness! We only feel we're floating because we're forever falling, as in an elevator with no bottom floor to impact. And so, inside the elevator, the human party continues oblivious, the riders flirt and complain and mix zero-G cocktails, or chase bewildered zero-G leaf-cutter bees."

Notes

Notes from the past two months have been updated. Frankly, going through my recent notes was a little horrifying: I’d been mostly making lists of things (I guess this is a habit I fall into when I'm stressed?), as well as pandemic thoughts that were so specific to a particular day or week that they feel too irrelevant to share now. These past couple of months have felt compressible to everyone, I suppose, but this is my way of saying I haven’t had a whole lot going on in my head recently.

Anyways...a few highlights:

  • I think I find information suicide (is there a better term for this that’s not so depressing? identity switching?) interesting for the same reasons that other people find longevity interesting. Why shouldn’t I be able to start a new game under the same body? There’s some parallel to longevity here bc the answer is “biology dictates our social norms”...and in both cases it's about challenging whether that biologically-driven life trajectory is something we have to cater to after all. Like if longevity is pitched as a failure of the imagination to think beyond our physical bodies and beyond death, I feel like there is also a failure of imagination to think about how else our physical bodies can be creatively repurposed during our current 80-year time span

  • A new hire bringing in their favorite tools for the job is like a new spouse moving into your house with their favorite stuff. “Nesting” at their new employer

Books

I read whatever spoke to me on my bookshelf last month. This trio of books feels very Phase 1 Quarantine to me, a triptych of dark and lovely tales that helped me gulp past my fears and stare directly into the vantablack of a world coming apart.

  • Industrial Society and Its Future (Ted Kaczynski): I always enjoy reading a good manifesto, because the term "manifesto" seems to give people cover to say whatever it is they're really thinking. Kaczynski’s thesis about over-reliance on systems is way more interesting to contemplate today; his work also provides a nice foil to pmarca's “IT'S TIME TO BUILD” essay. I think Kaczynski would say there’s a fundamental question pmarca didn’t address, which is: But why should we build? In Kaczynski’s view, it’s not that this machine failed us, as pmarca claims, but all machines that will always fail, so long as we continue to build.

  • The Call of Cthulu & Other Stories (H.P. Lovecraft): The horror, the horror! Just kidding, that was Kurtz of course, but I'd like to think Lovecraft and Joseph Conrad would've been friends, creeping their bony fingers around the ugly edges of humanity. Reading these stories feels like screaming into a pillow (“The Beast in the Cave” is my favorite), which is deliciously good at a time like this.

  • The Machine Stops (E.M. Forester): David Laing (who’s great) recommended this novella last month, and I quite enjoyed it. It’s about a world that looks remarkably like ours right now, with everybody living in isolated pods, connected only by The Machine, which works just fine until, well, the machine stops. This felt so on-the-nose to current events that I almost felt guilty reading it. I also like thinking of it as the literary companion to Kaczynski’s work, a bit of agitprop commissioned by his tree-emoji followers: “Is this the world you want? Is it?!”

Links

  • “Spatial Software” (John Palmer): John explores how software can use “spatial interfaces” to provide its users with new ways of thinking and interacting. I'm grateful to this essay because it was the first thing I read post-COVID that helped me find the plot again (to use Venkatesh’s term).

  • “Holy Water” (Joan Didion): Joan's ode to water, and our ability to control it, is a beautiful, deeply Californian essay. It popped back into my head early last month while I was praising the dry goods in my home, holding a bag of flour—sold out in stores—with renewed wonder.

  • “PSST...” (Helen Tseng): A fun little "care package" with magical mystic flair, dedicated to re-grounding its reader in the local and physical. I love stumbling upon quirky projects like these; I also recommend checking out Helen's beautiful personal website!

  • “World Of Warcraft vs. COVID-19” (Nikhil Krishnan): I recently discovered Nikhil's writing on the healthcare industry, which is funny and irreverent and approachable all at the same time. In this post, he writes about a 2005 “pandemic” in World of Warcraft, when an infectious spell that drained a player’s health started spreading through their pets.

Loading more posts…