Episode One Hundred and Sixty Two: The Difficult Third Album

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

11:03pm on a Monday, the Monday after the three-day XOXO Festival. Very tired.

1.0 The Difficult Third Album

This is the third year I’ve been to XOXO[1], the self-billed “experimental festival celebrating independently-produced art and technology,” put on by Andys McMillan[2] and Baio[3]. I think a good description of XOXO is that it celebrates network culture – that is, culture that only exists *because* of the network. That covers everything from Welcome to Nightvale, to John Gruber’s Daring Fireball from Paul Ford’s writing to data-driven jewellery from Rachel Binx, from Darius Kazemi’s Twitter bots to Anita Sarkeesian’s crowd-funded investigation of tropes used in media depictions of women. Some of these might not be classed as art – at least, not by snooty proper-art-artists – and some of these aren’t necessarily technology-technology, but the one thing that they do have in common is that they are embedded in, and part of, networked culture.

There was a lot to like about this year’s festival. It had a distinctly different feel to last year, though, but the same thread ran through. The Andys have endeavoured to try to produce something that’s trying to open up the Overton Window[4] of possibilities for tech-related conferences: that is, something that’s about the people and the humanity in technology and not solely focussed on the mechanics. Last year was a deeply personal experience: something brimming over in authenticity and sincerity, in honesty and vulnerability that you rarely, if ever, get at conferences like SXSW or TechCrunch Disrupt or a Mashable event. This isn’t technology for technology’s sake, it’s a place to focus on what it’s like to be a human being, a person, creating stuff in a networked world that allows for an explosion in certain kinds of human contact.

So it was interesting this year to see Kevin Kelly, of all people, saying that perhaps there were multiple measures of success. That the California Ideology-esque VC model of a *startup* – ie a business that grows *incredibly quickly* is not the only model or mode of success for what you want to do in life. You might not understand why this is a big deal: Kelly is the closest thing that we have to one of the grandfathers of internet libertarian-esque culture. When someone like Kelly says that perhaps we should look at models other than the VC model of build-fast-and-large, then you’d hope that people elsewhere are going to take notice, too. He illustrated his point well, pretty much using r/K selection theory[6]. Some species “succeed” by having hundreds, thousands of offspring to ensure “success”. Others only produce a few offspring and invest in quality, rather than quantity. Neither of them are wrong. Both of them succeed in the goal of bringing about another generation: they would do, otherwise we wouldn’t see evidence of them as successful reproductive strategies.

Kelly had a compelling argument for the whole “software will eat the world, but everything will be OK” position. Generally, it’s that whilst software will eat the world, we’ve historically been good at coming up with new jobs that aren’t yet eaten by software that we can do whilst the software catches up. This is the sort of position that people like Andy Kessler take, and sometimes to extremes. To me, this all feels well and good if you posit that we have a good enough social security net to allow people to essentially context-switch and, you know, get new jobs when their old ones get eaten.

Kelly’s example was of the enabling and empowering aspects of technology. He talked about how on his own, or through distributed networks and software, one person could create a five pounds-in-weight magazine that would otherwise take thirty people a month to do. Which, you know, is great. But right now, our society’s not constructed in a way that produces people who are empowered to discover what they’re good at, or want to do, and be entrepreneurial about it. We’re mired with an education system and a cultural environment that still fetishises and shows an industrial era of interchangeable human parts that are resources, fulfilling roles in the Organisation. In Kelly’s future, there is no Organisation, there are merely fluid overlays and groups of people, everyone trying to do their own thing, to find their own audience, cobbling together a living.

I can’t necessarily disagree with what Kelly’s saying. My own career is a mess. It’s not even a career. It is a careening from one thing to another. What irks me is when companies like Uber take that software-eating-jobs position and then distort it into a “we’re providing jobs” message. That’s not fulfilment. That’s not helping people succeed. It’s meat-puppetry.

This turned out to be a theme that other speakers would explore too. Gina Trapani would talk about how living and working in New York during 9/11 would change her and her attitude to time so that you coudl trace a line back to that event from what she would later do with lifehacker, and then later with ThinkUp. We would hear a collection of stories about people – individuals, each of them – trying to eke out some sort of meaning and asking the hardest of questions, the ones that can’t be answered for you but can only be done through what’s actually *work*: what is it that you *want to do*?

We’d hear from people lucky enough to already know: people like Golan Levin[8], who by all accounts can’t *help* but educate people and teach them the things he’s learned, even when he’s trying to run a Kickstarter in the Neo Lucida project[9] to prove a teachable moment to his class about how the Old Masters might have “cheated” in using mechanical aids to help the draw.

But most of us don’t. Most of us don’t get a chance to figure it out, or for whatever psychological or environmental reason have a block.

For me, one of the surprise outstanding talks was from Hank Green[10]. Now, I have a bad internal bias against vloggers. For whatever reason, I just don’t get them. Which is a particularly unfair thing, as it’s more a reaction to the medium than it is the person. But at the same time, I’m quite happy to say that I don’t “get” Ze Frank, for example. This happened last year when I didn’t know the slightest about Mike Rugnetta[11], and his talk[12] was the one that blew me away and did something weird to my brain. But I digress.

Hank’s thing was treading the well-worn path of telling you to fuck your dreams because, hey, your dreams are unrealistic. Well, they’re not unrealistic. But they’re just suggestions. And that you don’t owe any obligation to your former self: they literally don’t exist anymore. But this is the hard part: if you’re trying to work out what it is that you *want* to do, then you kind of have to try a whole bunch of things out. Our education system and culture and economy isn’t set up to do that. We aren’t set up to let people a/b test a whole bunch of vocations or careers. We haven’t built up a society that enables and empowers people to work out what’s best, because hey, we’ve got bills to pay all the time. And if you haven’t noticed, all of this technology that empowers people and enables new forms of success *costs money*.

XOXO for me has always been about the human side of technology. It’s been a space to get away from growth hacking and APIs and arguments about whether you should be using Ruby or Python or Go, where there are earnest discussions about vim versus emacs. It’s been more about why you want to make what you want to make, rather than how you want to make it. So by definition, the better parts for me have been the more authentic, the more vulnerable, the more sincere, because that’s a side that we rarely address in technology. That unless you’re talking about a conference for machine learners – not the ones coding the machine learning – then technology is a human artifact made by people who put blood, sweat and tears into the damn things.

I have so many friends whom I respect, who are insanely talented at what they do. And yet I’m finding increasing evidence that it’s the *majority* of them, not the minority, that are still incredibly insecure about themselves. I make jokes about this myself. I tweet, semi-facetiously, that over 1,500 people subscribe to this newsletter and they can’t all be wrong. I mean, they’ve – you’ve – decided to get what I write, and I’m just splurging this stuff out. When I’m rubber-duck debugging my internal mental state with my therapist, I say to her: well, how can I disagree with 1,500 people, most of whom I’ve never met? When I’m making clear to most of those readers that all they’re getting is the random noise from a bunch of neurons that’s spewing out words onto a page. There is literally nothing that distinguishes me here, and yet they decide that it’s still worth following. So she looks at me, expectantly, waiting for me to finish the train of thought and get to where she’s trying to get me: so, what, I have inherent worth?

There was a conversation I had over lunch with Greg Borenstein – you should try his tinyletter[13], too, if only because he’s almost comically smart – that spilled over into conversations with other people. That I don’t want to live in a world that’s been eaten by software. At least, not yet. Because software is binary, and we’re fuzzy and that we’re so, so not very good at capturing nuance. We just don’t fit in database records right now, NOSQL or not. A good example, and I’m totally stealing this from a conversation I had with Manar Hussain[14], is that, generally speaking, our legal systems are set up on the premise that it was either impossible, or incredibly expensive, to Pokemon-style catch everyone. Society is built around catching *most* people. But hey, we can nearly do that now. Or we can definitely do it for some things. Algorithms and our best “artificial” intelligence aren’t fuzzy and don’t do-what-I-mean and set their own goals and go fetch a mug instead of a glass or anything else that can be used as a drinking container when I say “get me a glass” and there aren’t any glasses.

So, this is what XOXO does, or at least tries to do, for me. It tries to be the other voice, pushing that window slightly in the other direction, and reminds us that we’re the people who’re making stuff. That it’s *people* who are making stuff, and invariably for other people. Sure, it sounds a bit group-huggy at times, and especially so from the outside. But it’s doing a valuable thing.

[1] http://2014.xoxofest.com
[2] Andy McMillan
[3] Andy Baio
[4] Overton Window – Wikipedia
[5] Kevin Kelly – kk.org
[6] r/K selectors – Wikipedia
[7] Gina Trapani
[8] Golan Levin
[9] Neo Lucida
[10] Hank Green
[11] Mike Rugnetta
[12] Mike Rugnetta, Idea Channel – XOXO Festival (2013)
[13] Smithereens – Greg Borenstein
[14] Manar Hussain

Normal service resumes tomorrow.

(I’ve always wanted to write that).