15: Modernization

Hello!

I'm just getting back from Indonesia, where I spent part of my childhood. It was my first trip back in twenty years, so I was curious (and a bit nervous!) about what I'd discover when I unearthed this memory lockbox from the soil and cracked it open.

Jakarta's roads are like a system of pneumatic tubes, where everyone zips around in their silver capsule of choice. Nobody seems to go outside at all anymore; the sidewalks are eerily devoid of people. They're all tucked away inside buildings, cars, and motorcycle helmets, making faces that nobody will ever see as they grimace and honk their way through the traffic.

I keep thinking this place is a dystopia, more than any other city I've been to. It's rapidly sinking, there's nothing for tourists to see, and even the government announced they're moving the capital elsewhere. I think about the electric scooters I recently rode in Los Angeles -- another car-heavy city -- and realize that micromobility would be a joke here. You can't walk anywhere, much less ride a bike. Sitting in the backseat of our car in stop-and-go traffic, my mom and I remark somewhat jocularly that this is actually a pleasant experience, getting around like this, but I know it's only because we're shielded from the elements by a reflective hunk of metal. Our comfort indoors is a sign that this city has failed at coaxing its denizens outdoors.

And yet, I felt so comfortable there. Jakarta felt like being nestled into a warm basket of knitting yarn, tangled up in motorcycles and cars and blue glass and red-shingled roofs and humming and buzzing, interspersed with frequent punches of jungle greenery and polite but insistent honking. It felt cozy, even amidst all the chaos. Maybe especially because of the chaos.

Mom and I can't seem to agree on whether Jakarta has gotten better or worse. When I look through the eyes of my childhood self, I'm pleased by how clean and safe it seems. I try to explain why I think it's gotten better by pointing to the absence of things: No more hordes of beggars wandering between cars in the traffic. No more orange becaks zipping through the streets, spewing black smoke. No more men standing ominously by the road who make you pay them to "direct traffic". No more children selling themselves as extra passengers to meet carpooling rules. No more red taxis that rob passengers.

Today, the city seems quieter, sleeker, and more predictable, with fewer game pieces in play. Many of the motorcyclists sport Grab (Uber's Southeast Asian partner) or Gojek (a play on ojek, or motor taxis) jackets. There's a bus and subway system now. All the taxis are Bluebirds now, the safest and most reliable company.

But our strongly divergent reactions to Jakarta makes me wonder how much I can trust my own memory. In the same way that dogs love to roll around in dirt and gobble chicken bones off the street, maybe the warm memories that cling to a child's brain are everything that overloads the senses: the smell of sewage, the rubble of broken glass and ceramic tiles in the park, the howling of stray dogs. Maybe I'm doomed to have a forever innocent, childlike relationship to this place, like my dad, whose eyes shine when he talks about his "first love", Berlin, even while telling me in the same breath about the Russian tanks pointed at his window.

Because then we go to the J.W. Marriott, and they search our car and our bags and make us walk through a metal detector, and my mom reminds me that this place got bombed -- twice -- since we've been here. We have lunch across the street from the Ritz-Carlton, and we realize that got bombed, too. We revisit our old house, the first one we lived at, where we were once robbed, men bursting through the doors with guns and machetes. Now it's been torn down and a big, sturdy-looking mansion is in its place. "This area's shaping up!" I remark brightly, stepping over the cracked speed bump and eyeing the broken basketball court across the street, and I really mean it. I didn't even remember there were paved roads. But then our driver casually remarks that an entire family was killed in their home right around the corner from here, not too long ago, and now I'm not so sure.

Maybe this city is better than the childhood version of me remembers, but it's still objectively bad by any adult's standards. Maybe. I really can't tell, no matter how hard I look at it. I keep trying to see it through the eyes of a complete outsider, or a native like my mom, both for whom this place seems to provoke more troubled emotions. Would I feel the same way about Jakarta if I weren't clouded by nostalgia?

Jakarta is more modern now, but is modernity the same thing as progress? And how can any of us know the difference? I feel increasingly uncertain whether my heuristics -- the absence of bad things -- are signs of progress, rather than just anachronisms, no different than if I were to time travel and reopen the capsule of my life in the 1990s here in the United States. It's easy to demonstrate that our standard of living has improved -- we have iPhones, Google, Uber -- but without the counterfactual, how do we know that our rate of change is beating the market? Maybe these are cosmetic distractions from a social game that doesn't ever fundamentally change.

I don't mean to imply that modernization isn't worth striving for. I'm not pessimistic about the future in any way, but I find myself craving more precise terms, like "improved safety" or "increased access to opportunities", that give us a concrete basis for comparing the past to the present to the future, because memories are so subjective. It's too easy to construct a narrative about how things are getting better or worse, without knowing what those words really mean.

When I wrote briefly about progress in here a few months back, someone responded with the question: "Progress towards what?" Progress is a dangling participle; it needs something to modify to make it meaningful. Without it, progress suggests that we know what the world is "supposed" to look like, but maybe that ideal is an intangible concept, like Gatsby's green light stretching interminably into the distance. Maybe what the world is supposed to look like is exactly as it is right now.

Writing

No new writing this month! I’ve been enjoying a little break.

Notes

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

  • Wish it were easier to try new notetaking apps without transferring everything over. Like some universally recognized format (like HTML, RSS) that I could store all my notes in, and then I could export it and upload it to different notetaking app interfaces until I find one I like

  • Is maintenance just a subcategory of curation? What is the relationship between creator, curator, and maintainer roles wrt a single piece of content (or community)

  • Stoicism is the new David Foster Wallace

  • A Pattern Language, but for elements of social architecture online (e.g. The Comments Section, The News Feed, The Like, The Replies Between Mutuals, etc - the evolution and function of each, when one element is more or less useful to employ than another, etc)

  • An amusement park where you get to play with heavy construction equipment

  • I wonder if "influencers" are actually sort of recursively-defined communities? Ppl (otherwise unassociated with one another) gather around a single point of focus, but the act of them all being there in itself creates a meta-community that then also influences the influencer (in terms of what they put out). It’s not quite collaborative between members like a typical community, it’s something else

Links

Useful articles I’ve read this past month.

  • “Recap of the `funding` experiment” (Feross Aboukhadijeh): I try to avoid including “current events” in here, but this writeup was really good. Feross did an experiment where he ran postinstall ads for one of his projects, StandardJS. The public reaction was predictably mixed, and Feross decided to stop running the ads, but he documented his reasoning and process in this post. I admire that he went for it, despite the pushback, for the sake of moving public discourse forward about how open source developers can and should make a living. Need more experiments like this.

  • “You will probably not understand this” (Sabine Hossenfelder): On the gap between what people in research think they’re saying, versus how people actually receive it. After reading this, I realized that doing research makes me feel like I’m a two year-old who is desperately trying to communicate, but can’t yet form words. Also, I discovered Sabine’s blog through this article, which is a quirky little corner of the internet! Physicists are cool. Here’s a piece she did about why the multiverse is religion, not science.

  • “How Life Sciences Actually Work: Findings of a Year-Long Investigation” (Alexey Guzey): Alexey spent a bunch of time talking to people in life sciences about the state of their field and wrote up his observations. I so love anthropological deep dives like this. Also, props to Alexey for the intellectual honesty in concluding that scientific progress isn’t slowing down, given that the opposite is a popular position right now.

  • “The Twitter Transparency Paradox” (Rick Paulas): Rick muses out loud on the topic of journalists who are active on Twitter, and how it can help or hurt their brands. (Apparently 25% of verified accounts are journalists or publications!) I’m interested in the ongoing “unbundling” of news firms into individual journalists who build their own followings, as I think there are useful parallels between that and open source (there’s a similar transition happening from funding projects -> funding individual developers). Also recommend reading Sonya’s email to Rick, which he cites in the post.

  • “A Party Room and a Prison Cell: Inside the Friends writers’ room” (Saul Austerlitz): An excerpt from a book about how the show Friends was written. Reading this piece made me think about the mythology of (hear me out) Bell Labs, and how we look up to organizations who “do things differently”, aka let creative people run loose, but often find that success hard to replicate in practice. One of the big themes in here is how the head writers of Friends “did things differently”, elevating junior writers and treating them as peers. But you could just as easily read this piece as an exercise in controlled governance (the head writers were solely responsible for the emotional content, leaving junior writers free to write pure comedy).

Books

Relevant books that I’ve read this month.

  • The Art of Community (Spencer Heath MacCallum): I’ve been looking for reading about commercial buildings as microcosmic “cities” and finally found this book, published in 1970, through a friend. Within the first few pages, I wanted to reach across the fifty-year divide and clasp hands with the author. MacCallum asks, “Is a hotel a community?” and proceeds to explore the idea of “proprietary communities”, such as shopping malls, airplanes, and RV parks, where unaffiliated individuals are bound by the contracts they make to the proprietor of an organization. MacCallum argues that sovereignty (or "institutionalized force") is merely an awkward transition between “primitive” and proprietary communities, both of which represent the true best form of social organization. (Unsurprisingly, his grandfather was an ex-Georgist.) I didn’t agree with everything in this book, but it left me with a lot of good questions. It made me think about the ways in which big tech companies are also proprietary communities (consider the recent WIRED piece about Google’s internal culture!). It also gave me some missing vocabulary I’ve needed to express how one-to-many communities are structured differently from many-to-many communities (ex. an open source maintainer is often a sole proprietor who allocates scarce resources, like attention, on behalf of all contributors). I desperately want to talk to someone about this book; it looks like I snagged the last copy on Amazon, but it’s also available via Internet Archive here. Perhaps one day some kind soul will republish this book and give it the love it deserves.

  • Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better (Rob Reich): Philanthropy is sorely lacking on interesting analysis and discourse, so I was excited for this book. After reading it, I felt that we've arrived at similar conclusions (foundations aren't reaching their full potential; we don’t think critically about the role of philanthropy in society; etc), but maybe for different reasons. Reich leans heavily on arguments about equality and redistributive justice, which I’m not as moved by. Regardless, I find his endeavor to develop a political theory around, and rethink the value of, philanthropy to a democratic society to be extremely important. And I strongly share his view that foundations should focus on funding individuals and pre-market opportunities; I think this is where tech philanthropy will differentiate itself long-term. If you’re going to read one chapter from this book, I recommend Chapter 4.

  • The Hike (Drew Magary): Why haven’t I included fiction in here before? I guess I felt like it didn’t fall under the definition of “relevant books”, but I don’t even know what that means anymore, so whatever. Here's some fiction. This book is about a guy who goes on a hike, takes a wrong turn, and ends up on a bizarre journey. It’s like Fight Club meets Castaway meets The Odyssey. A lot of the scenes are violent, which normally I avoid, but I found myself strangely into it here, maybe because the narrative moves so quickly. Also because I’ve kinda been in the mood for some nose-punching sci fi thriller fiction lately (apparently I have some aggression to get out of my system?). Send me recommendations if you have any!