Episode One Hundred and Sixty Four: Not Every Node Is Equal; Stop Hitting Yourself

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

11:49pm. A trip out to the coast, the cold, cold pacific underneath your feet, wife and son out camping. An irritatingly only 80-odd percent complete Fez blinking away in front.

1.0 Not Every Node Is Equal

I am still, obviously, thinking about XOXO, the conference put on by the Andys. Tim Maly (hi, Tim!) wrote an excellent piece today called What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Making[1] which you should read. There are a few points that Maly makes, an almost Tetris-like argument that takes principles and then slots together performing some sort of geometrical magic that leaves you reeling a bit at the end. It goes, I think, a bit like this: Conferences or festivals or conventions for artists or creative people or whatever you want to call them always have a Money Track. It might not be explicit, but it’s certainly implicit. It’s something we all have to deal with. It’s not a tech thing, it’s a people-doing-what-they-want-to-do-thing. It’s artists and writers at regional comic cons, it’s zine festivals, it’s music festivals, it’s XOXO-style networked culture festivals.The rhetoric at the moment is that we’re all nodes in a network and that the technology embedded in the network is unlocking our potential to succeed. Not just potential to succeed, but also creating a magnitude more number of *ways* to succeed. Not just one path, but a combinatorial explosion of paths. Maly pulls out Kevin Kelly’s example of the superpower nature of technology in being a force-multiplier for the individual in the Cool Tools/Whole Earth Catalogue, where the latter used to take thirty people a month to produce, and now, Cool Tools “only takes two”. Maly leaves hanging the question as to why the labour that was internalised and now has been externalised – replaced by an API call or to a posting on a proof-reading service and performed by interchangeable human cogs – why that labour doesn’t count anymore. Is it just because you can’t see them? Because they’re not in the room with you? Technology in becoming a force multiplier has, in some instances, in some implementations, also abstracted away the *people* doing the work, in a bid to make the act of commissioning the work easier. In this way, technology isn’t just a force multiplier, it’s also something that abstracts away human labour and makes it easier for you to use, utilise and exploit *human resources*, never mind fancy things like scaleable computing resources.Maly then takes the example of what happened when Golan Levin and Pablo Garcia took a detour into China and showed us the people who were assembling their Neo Lucidas – thousands of units a day, dextrous, fine manipulator and ultimately, human work. Work that Levin nor Garcia could do themselves – not because they weren’t capable of it, but because they were *slow*. Because they wouldn’t do it for a dollar-fifty a day. The room, as Maly points out, goes silent, because this is the context collapse, this is the reality, this is the veil pulled back and the cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable truth holding up their name, smiling at the camera for you. These, you realise, are the people who make your stuff. And as Levin points out, pretty much *everything* in the world is hand-made these days and bears the fingerprints of human labour.Maly says this:”This is an era of networked wealth, going to scale, first mover advantage, positive feedback loops, virtuous cycles, high concentration, and high disparity. These are some of the intolerable conditions of the time we call (with subversive hope) Late Capitalism.”In other words, every node is not equal.Maly goes on: these are wicked networks. They are so stupendously, sublimely complicated that when you pull on the thread, you can’t help but keep going. And there is no way, no way for us to really as human beings fully comprehend these networks now, they are so, so very complicated. And these networks, they are the liminal space between the good intentions and the terrible injustices inflicted upon the world and upon our selves and others.I do not agree – but obviously do not speak for the Andys – when Maly says he thinks the focus of XOXO is “people who make things” because then you have to get into an argument (and, as Maly points out, rightly so) about the semantics and meaning behind “make” and “things”. Independent creators is one thing. Myself, I’m fond of the networkiness of what XOXO focusses on. People involved in Network Culture are everyone from the Kevin Kellys and should also include the people working at, or running, or leading crowdsourced proofreading platforms for cents or dollars. Or original device manufacturers like PCH.Maly is arguing in favour of recognising context collapse when it’s happening and staring it down and doing the difficult, yet uncomfortable work. His point about Chinese Workers being unwelcome at XOXO is uncomfortable and doesn’t let anyone feel good about what they’re doing. Marketers, brand managers and agencies – apart from the one that is a patron – are again, clearly unwelcome if only in a matter of tone.Of course, is this – some sort of realisation and tackling of the realpolitik of the messy production end –  the job of a conference/festival that’s celebrating independent, networked culture work?Maybe, maybe not.But there are a few things that I’d like to see if the Andys do do another XOXO, that I feel are still in the spirit of the independent, creator-led tone set by the founders.Fuck You, Pay Me is the Mike Monteiro expression of this, but there was the regular refrain of Independent Artists Are Worth Paying For. Or, support your artists. Don’t do it through gate-keeping middlemen, don’t do it through rent seekers, try to form direct relationships where possible. We’re all human and in this together, which is why from my point of view it was incredibly valuable and brave of Levin and Garcia to go to China, to visit their factory and actually talk to the people who were producing their independently created work. I do not think that it’s in the credo of XOXO, for example, to exploit those who are on the production end. Fuck You, Pay Me, only works if it works all the way down the chain. And there’s certainly a discussion and an argument and a whole range of positions to be taken on that issue.Secondly: this year, the biggest year that XOXO has been, felt perhaps the most uncomfortable due to its size. One thousand total registrants, seven hundred and fifty conference badge holders, an extra two hundred and fifty festival holders, I think. But across the attendees and the speakers, there was the slight unintentional feeling that the speakers were Friends Of Or Members Of The Andys’ Address Books. Which, to be completely fair to them, they did explicitly say: this was a conference full of people they admired that they wanted to see speak, and some of them were and *are* their friends.  I think The Verge had it right when it described the feel of the conference as pretty much exactly like the waxy.org linkblog: in that it was subject to the same biases and interests. All that I’m saying by that is this: is it important for the Andys to include programming that they normally wouldn’t see, and if that is important, how will they uncover it? I’m optimistic, because there were tremendous strides in terms of gender diversity this year compared to last year, so part of what’s interesting for me is the chance to see more people speak who are *just* making it, and might never get the kind of attention that those who arguably *have* made it. And at the same time, I do wonder if at least the type of people who can afford a $500 ticket and airfare and airbnb or couchsurfing or a hotel to Portland can also afford ticket prices that allow scholarships or bursaries that will let less fortunate people attend.A simpler way of saying the above is possibly just this: the Andys have an enviable network and list of contacts, but I’m sure that they can realise that there’s a whole lot more in what’s *not* in their network than what is. Whilst I’m happy to hear from someone like Leigh Alexander on what it’s been like for her over the past ten years building up a freelance writing career and the difficulties she’s faced, there are perhaps more interesting stories to be told about Jenn Frank and others like her who are significantly less comfortable. In other words: a look at the mix and ratio of those who’ve made it, versus those who’re starting out. As much of XOXO that has been relevant and successful for me have been the bits where I don’t feel alone. That much has been a theme of the conference from the beginning: that the network connects us so we don’t have to feel quite so lonely. Because when we’re less lonely, we build the courage to do the things that we might not otherwise. It is good to hear that the successful struggle in ways similar to our own individual struggles. But perhaps some perspective from the other end might also be interesting.And lastly, this is a personal thing: I love mentoring. I love talking to people. XOXO this year felt big, felt sprawling. I would’ve loved more structured time to talk to people. There’s a wealth of experience at XOXO. Perhaps a third unconference day, allowing people to make their own connections around particular topics or areas of interest might be useful.

[1] What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Making – Tim Maly

2.0 Stop Hitting Yourself

At dinner with friends tonight, talking about the Inevitable Life Crisis, the one that is diagnosable by two easy questions. First, are you over thirty years old? Second, did you grow up with the internet? Congratulations, you have no idea what it is that you’re doing or what you want to do, and you are paralysed with lack of decision and choice.Part of the self-diagnosed problem is this: for those of us who *did* grow up with the internet, making things on it and living on it, we kind of did everything ourselves. A jack of all trades, master of none was, at the time, building a frontier in a new space, and if you specialised, well, you weren’t able to make a thing that did stuff on the internet. But here we are, a good twenty years later, and it turns out that there are specialities. Maybe? Or maybe the skills forged in being able to keep everything in your head are still good, relevant ones. But they’re certainly not ones that companies are looking for.

Or, perhaps this: those of us working in areas highly affected by technology have chosen to work in areas that are constantly disrupting themselves. If you work with software, your profession is constantly eating itself in a way that no other industry or vocation is, and it’s doing it more quickly each iteration. Perhaps, then, the problem isn’t to work *with software*, but to pick a domain and to stick with it until it’s solved. Done. End of job.

After all, here I am, just a boy, standing in front of a precipice and a fourth career.

12:35am. Notes, as ever, are welcome. Just hit reply to get that new email window and mash away with that keyboard.