I’m going to start like this today. I’m sitting at my desk. I’ve just taken five, deep, long breaths and I can just feel how tense my chest is. It’s hard to even let go to breathe.
And I am thinking of my family and friends and you, my mutuals, and those people I’d nod to, either in that weird online way, or in real life.
And I am thinking:
May you be well.
May you be safe.
May you be healthy, peaceful and strong.
It’s Wednesday, May 25 2022, in Portland, Oregon and, my god.
I will tie all of these things together in a way that makes sense to me, that I need for me to make sense of things. This isn’t for you, but maybe you can take something from it.
Uziya Garcia, Xavier Javier Lopez, Eliahana Cruz Torres, Jose Flores were just some of the children who were murdered yesterday in school in Texas. They were all around 10 years old. My eldest child is 9.
I made a joke – in the whole ha ha let’s use humor as a defense mechanism, as a way groping for a way to cope – asking what the American word for “the feeling of being tired, hopeless and dispirited, of being full of rage, anger and impotence, of exhaustion and powerlessness”.
There is no word for it, really, I think. There is just the overbearing complex feeling, and a reminder that feelings aren’t atomic, that they mix and swirl together, cluster and disperse. Michael B. Johnson said the word was “adult”. And it’s not that he’s not wrong. It also just fills me with a morass of sadness.
While feelings might go away, though, you never stop being an adult. You never, in theory, stop having responsibility.
There’s people who disagree with what that responsibility is and how to discharge it, of course, and to them I have no words to say other than a venomous, vitriolic scream of a fuck you.
So yesterday, barely an hour after reading the news, I picked up our third grader and gave him that extra big hard squeeze of a hug as he ran over to me at the end of the school day. And I didn’t tell him why and he didn’t ask why, and for that I’m grateful because he shouldn’t have to know. He’s ridiculously privileged in that he doesn’t have to know because there are children who never had that choice. And really, he doesn’t have a choice. We don’t have a choice. We just have different levels of “risk” that we’re able to access, if we’re lucky. We have luck, that’s what we have. Not a choice. And so the anger comes back.
What can I do?
There’s a saying in civic technology – last I remember, it may have originated around or during The Great Healthcare Dot Gov Event1. No one’s coming, it’s up to us. It’s not from civic tech, of course. Just repurposed, borrowed, stolen in the genius sense as a rallying cry.
It’s a cry for responsibility, right? If not me, then who? If not us, then who? There is no one else. There is only us.
I gave a talk about this (“We are the Very Model of Modern Humanist Technologists”) at Foo Camp in 2017 and turned it into an essay, because of course that’s what you do. You Medium things.
I broke down during that foo camp and was pulled back thanks to some very good friends because there’s a way of reading no one’s coming, it’s up to us as no one’s coming, it’s up to me. That peculiar American style model emphasizing personal responsibility, as the weaker companion to personal rights. But the saying doesn’t say that, does it. It says it’s up to us.
I broke down because it was one of those times when you could see the scale of the problem. This time it was education. My kids were younger then, and it was the whole “if I want education to improve for both my children and others, I should get involved”, which, you know, is true. Because if I wanted my city to have a better attitude and a more informed attitude toward, say, surveillance technology, then I should turn up to the community meetings. I should, I should, I should.
And, you know, it’s a lot for one person to do. And my friends reminded me: but not if we do it together.
So sure this is another reminder about the need for connection and community and how we can do things together and all that fluffy bullshit.
But you know what? My anger is back because organizing takes time. Because making connection takes time. And that’s right because there are no shortcuts. In fact, it’s not just right, it’s true and there’s nothing wrong with saying it’s true, once you can point to the true things and you can acknowledge them then, as I like to say in my work, you can make a deliberate choice about what you want to do.
So. Time. Tiredness.
What I could do is participate more. It’s my civic responsibility. That’s in my own time.
What I could do in my work time is be more deliberate about making sure things work so they’re not a complete time suck. Don Moynihan has spoken, written and advocated so eloquently and clearly about administrative burdens and the cost we bear. In 2021, Annie Lowery wrote about administrative burdens in government, calling it The Time Tax.
But those burdens aren’t just in government, they’re everywhere. They’re especially, uniquely egregious in government because government is entrusted – by us! – to help us in through social programs, but also to, you know, live our lives. But they’re not the only source of burden.
They’re what happens when I have a conversation with a bank. They’re what happens when a health insurance claim gets denied. They’re what happens when you want to cancel your New York Times subscription (how middle class of you). They’re the time it takes to fill out the form entitling you to the meagre proceeds of a class action filed on your behalf so you can get thirty dollars thanks to whichever gas company outright defrauding or stealing money from you if you used a debit card. They’re my wife calling the Department of Motor Vehicles in Missouri so we can get a replacement title, which requires filling out a paper form, which is complicated, but the wait time is several hours because there are over 150 people ahead of her in the queue, and in Missouri of course the licensing offices have been privatized and are operated under franchise license(!).
The time. It all adds up. It adds up every single day. Every week, every month. It adds up in a way that, say, older generation X and boomers might not understand because, to be honest, they also ask their children for help with it sometimes. Or they’re retired and can spend the day going through paperwork on their dining table (again, how middle class of them).
You want me to show up and you want me to organize. I need childcare. I need accessible public meetings, so thanks to a pandemic that killed over a million people in America, community meetings are finally, spottily, and hopefully will continue to be, available online because remember: the point is so that the community can participate. Come on, at least hold planning meetings at a time when people can take part? Or when more people can take part?
I thought we were better than this but obviously in many cases we are not. And I get that it’s not your fault. I get that there are forces and environmental constraints and that it is systemic and yes, all of those things about the horror of essentially unchecked capitalism and inequality and inequity. But I suppose the thing about us is that we can imagine better than this, because if we couldn’t how terrible would that be?
We made it better but we made it so much worse. We made it so we could order pretty much anything and get it any time for an unreasonably low price and do you know one of the reasons why that price is so low? Because we also didn’t value our time. Because we externalized a bunch of costs. Because you order something from Amazon, say, and it’s the wrong thing or you need to talk to them and, well, good luck. Good fucking goddamn luck. The New York Times is surviving and in some respects thriving because its digital subscribers are off the charts (let’s not think about the winner-takes-all mentality and environment of the internet, which means: what happens to the other wonderful, valuable newspapers that also need funding?) and yet one reason for that is retention, which is: how hard it is for you to cancel.
I am appreciative of all we’ve gained. I am also tired because of all the costs we didn’t measure, the tiny papercuts because who is there to advocate for our time but ourselves? It is nobody’s responsibility but then it is our responsibility. Nobody is going to coordinate across every interaction in our lives to say hey: this shouldn’t take as long.
Well. There’s one body that could. One body to whom we delegate responsibility and authority to govern on our behalf. To legislate and enforce.
But then of course that body takes time to participate. And we are back to the circle of administrative burdens there because our final backstop of accountability is aggressively smacking itself into a brick wall, on purpose, in many cases, out of sheer cruel and unkind ideology that believes and is happy to say out loud: some of us are better than you. We are deserving and you are not. We have rights and you do not. You have responsibility and consequences but we do not.
I’m not going to say design thinking is going to save this or even move the fucking needle. Design thinking, it turns out, with our capacity for growth and reflection is “problematic” to say the least, which to cut the euphemism is to say that it whether on purpose or not, design thinking enforces white supremacy, a way to comfortable keep with the status quo, the inequitable, inexorable status quo.
The arc of the moral universe may be long but it doesn’t bend toward justice without the application of effort, of force, and there has to be the capacity to apply force and Jesus Christ am I tired.
These techniques to frustrate us, that sap our time, that externalize costs so that they are invisibly born by us and unmeasured, they’re not just dark patterns, they’re not deceptive design patterns in the service of profit or manipulation, they also sap at our capacity to relate to each other, to form connection and to grow together. As a society. To learn more about each other and to support each other.
That’s why I feel tired.
I don’t have a solution, because I am tired too and did you miss the part where I said this was systemic?
Every single place I look there is a cost, every single place there is Something That Should Be Done, or Something That Could Be Done and it is not like crafting needles from haystacks, it feels like looking out into the night sky and seeing every single one of those stars and imagining the work and effort it took for them to get there.
And yet things do get done every day. I don’t know how to do this better, I don’t have the capacity for self-reflection and for deeper thought today, and tomorrow will be another day and who knows what it will bring.
I remember these five things though:
It’s Wednesday, May 25, 2022 and another day ending in Y.
Today, just like every other day, may you be well, may you be safe, and may you be healthy and peaceful2.
And god damn it babies, you’ve got to be kind3. You’re adults now.
I’m shattered. How are you?
And now, in usual programming, an analogy: what’s the equivalent of the k-t event, the purported giant asteroid that caused the mass extinction event, and that what sort of Event would cause mass extinction in, say, the software development ecosystem, wiping out all of those companies that make software ↩
There are better loving kindness meditations, but this is the one I have right now. ↩