Calm Tech Institute

Amber Case just announced her new project, the Calm Tech Institute. It’s got a lofty goal (encouraging and implementing calm technology design principles in various bits of technology that we use, all the way down to creating a service mark for tech that adheres to the principles), and she’s a leading expert on the topic (she’s been talking about this stuff for a long time, and also wrote the book on Calm Technology for O’Reilly). I figure if anyone has the chops to make headway on this subject, it’s probably her. I’ll be keeping an eye on this space, as it’s definitely a worthwhile topic.

Our ultimate goal is to make our “CTI” stamp nearly as ubiquitous as the “UL” stamp became over the last century. You might have noticed it on lightbulbs and other everyday appliances: a very tiny mark placed on 22 billion products each year worldwide! And while it’s found everywhere, many of us probably don’t know the important historical story behind its origin:

But while we depend every day on invisible guidelines which protect us from electric hazards, we have few standards for technology of the 21th century. Consequently, we often encounter products and services that interfere with our time and attention in ways which degrade our well-being.

Amber Case

De-crufting Google Search

Just a quick one, but I know some folks might want to know this: it sounds like Google finally added a way to remove all the AI and other self-insert bullshit from their search results. This post by Ernie Smith over on Tedium explains more, but the TLDR is: at the end of your search query URL, add udm=14. So, for example, if you do a search for Buckaroo Banzai, then go into the URL of the search and update it to https://www.google.com/search?q=buckaroo+banzai&udm=14, all the cruft drops away and you just get links to stuff again. (That may seem like kind of a pain, but as that post points out, there are ways to make your searches insert that automagically, depending on your browser.)

I’ve mostly migrated away from Google search and tend to default to DuckDuckGo, but it’s still good to know. (Personally, I’d love to see a way to customize which tools get turned on or off. Like, I don’t want the AI, and I don’t need the quora answers etc, but it’d be nice to leave the calculator feature turned on. Stuff like that.)

Revisiting the need for Third Places

Over at Vox, Allie Volpe has a piece talking about a perennial topic for me: “If you want to belong, find a third place“. Third spaces and their role in fostering a sense of connection and community I feel is pretty well understood at this point, yet despite the clear value for people (and the community), these sorts of spaces are constantly defunded and deprioritized. The way things are economically, there is a real sense that if you’re not maximizing your profitability (reduce lingering, high customer rotation), you’re not going to make it. (It’s not an entirely unreasonable assumption, unfortunately.) Further, even public spaces (or semi-public — plaza courtyards, malls, et cetera) are set up to actively discourage spending time in them, and then get defunded when people stop using them precisely because the space has become hostile to humans.

It’s all a bit maddening. But the article isn’t all doom and gloom, and points out a number of actions people are taking to identify, use, and encourage third places. I also liked that they pointed out that a good third place is heterogeneous:

As Oldenburg described them, third places are great equalizers, spots where regulars of different backgrounds and perspectives can mingle in a location that is comfortable, unpretentious, and low-cost.

Allie Volpe, “If you want to belong, find a third place

Unpretentious, low cost, and made up of people of different backgrounds and perspectives. Good goal for any space, in my opinion. We’ve been traveling to a lot of different regions and cities around the country, and thinking about it, that describes a lot of the places we’ve liked the most: places where folks live, aren’t caught up in some sort of weird regional exceptionalism, and generally seem more willing to talk to you than to make assumptions. (I realize our experience might not always be what others experience on that front – we’re white and are generally pretty “presentable”, so we might get more of a pass than others.)

Just some food for thought. As we figure out where we want to land after this walkabout wraps up, I think this is probably going to rattle around in the back of my brain, trying to consider where I feel like I could cultivate a third place that I’d enjoy.

Winter is Fading

I’ve been remiss about keeping up with this blog – mea culpa. No real excuses other than being tired a lot, between the traveling and working.

The traveling does continue to be fun, though. We’ve basically done the perimeter of the continental United States – we started in Oregon, then went through Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, up into Ontario and Quebec in Canada, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and we’ll be getting back to Oregon later today.

Obviously we stayed in some of those locations longer than others, and a few were effectively drive-bys just long enough to be able to count them. Still, not a bad range to do over 7 months – 29 states and 2 provinces. And we’re not done – we’re going to spend a few weeks in Portland to see friends and do some preparations, and then we’re heading east again, this time cutting more through the center of the country. (At this point I just need to visit Alaska to have done all 50 states – Simone has more to visit, but is rapidly catching up with this trip.)

Doing the perimeter of the country worked well for us – it meant that as the weather started to get cold in the northeast, we were able to cut south and enjoy far more temperate climes for the winter (though we did still bump into the cold spell here and there, and even snow in both New Mexico and Arizona – you don’t think of the southwest as being snowy, but the northern parts of both states are high enough in elevation that they do actually get a fair bit of snow).

California is quite a bit greener than it has been in past visits – even LA was looking pretty lush. This is in large part due to the heavier rain and snow the state has received the past two winters. I’d love to believe that the shift will continue and maybe they’ll finally get out of perpetual drought conditions, but the cynic in me sees it more as building up more tinder for when the wildfires come again. Regardless, I appreciate seeing it right now.

I’ll try to update my gallery soon, but in the meantime, you can sort of see the ongoing travelogue on my Instagram.

Durable Pseudonyms

An interesting piece by Alfred Moore over at The Conversation talking about “Online anonymity: study found ‘stable pseudonyms’ created a more civil environment than real user names“. This hearkens back to a lot of thoughts I had about online identity back in the day – it’s interesting to see newer studies examining the space. The basic gist is that when comparing online discourse using real-life names, pseudonyms, or “durable pseudonyms”, stable pseudonyms led to notably more civil discussion.

Our results suggest that the quality of comments was highest in the middle phase. There was a great improvement after the shift from easy or disposable anonymity to what we call “durable pseudonyms”. But instead of improving further after the shift to the real-name phase, the quality of comments actually got worse – not as bad as in the first phase, but still worse by our measure.

Alfred Moore

This makes sense to me! I couldn’t tell you why a stable pseudonym ends up hitting the sweet spot, but anecdotally, it matches my experiences. There needs to be enough friction to spinning up a new account that folks are reluctant to do it just to talk trash, but not so heavy a process that no one will sign up. Sounds like the study authors are not 100% sure why, either, though they have some hypotheses:

We don’t know exactly what explains our results, but one possibility is that under durable pseudonyms the users orient their comments primarily at their fellow commentators as an audience. They then perhaps develop a concern for their own reputation within that forum, as has been suggested elsewhere.

Alfred Moore

Ello, Goodbye

Andy Baio has a nice, if bittersweet, elegy for ello, a social network that was (ostensibly) built for creatives, “The Quiet Death of Ello’s Big Dreams“. It is, if anything, a testament to the risks of pulling in VC money.

In June 2023, the servers just started returning errors, making nine years of member contributions inaccessible, apparently forever — every post, artwork, song, portfolio, and the community built there was gone in an instant.

How did this happen? What happened between the idealistic manifesto above and the sudden shutdown?

It’s a story so old and familiar, I predicted it shortly after Ello launched.

Andy Baio, “The Quiet Death of Ello’s Big Dreams”

I had an Ello account, joined in the initial rush when it launched, then wandered off. I’d occasionally check in on it, but was never particularly invested. Still, it’s kind of sad to see it just evaporate like that, and I feel for the users who were active on the service and lost everything they’d posted there.

It sort of reinforces the notion to me that the way tech startups are funded these days is just fundamentally broken. There’s this allure of VC money, but inherent to VC funding is this notion of perpetual rapid growth, and of either building an empire or being acquired by one. And if you’re trying to build an empire, that’s fine. But what if you only want a kingdom? Something only as big as you can manage, built to endure, but bigger and more notable than a small mom-and-pop shop. What does funding for that look like?

A few quick links about the web

Some quick links I wanted to capture. First, Joan Westenberg, writing “I miss the internet.” I miss it, too.

The homogeneity of the modern web is disheartening. Every website and platform is just a slight variation on a handful of templates. The eccentricity, the vibrant individuality, and the raw expression that once pulsated across the net all seem to have been replaced by either an inoffensive, user-friendly sameness or an algorithm-endorsed near-genocidal mania of hate speech that is somehow deemed socially acceptable.

Worse still, today’s internet is a place of scrutiny, surveillance, and unprecedented data exploitation. We’ve traded our privacy and autonomy for the convenience and connectivity it provides, and in so doing, have become commodities in an unseen market. In the pursuit of progress and personalization, we have inadvertently sterilized the very essence of the web, transforming it from a shared experience into a solitary echo chamber.

Joan Westenberg, “I miss the internet”

Then Anil Dash wrote a piece for Rolling Stone, and then elaborated on his blog, “The Web Renaissance Takes Off“:

So, while I’m still circumspect and cautious about the very real threats and harms that will come from the worst parts of the major internet platforms, I am more optimistic than I’ve been in a long time about the massive potential of the human internet to come roaring back in a way that we haven’t seen in a generation. More and more, I think of it as “the people’s web”. And like so many things that come from, and by, the power of the people, it’s a movement that can be delayed, or undermined, but increasingly I have come to believe that it cannot possibly be truly stopped.

Anil Dash, “The Web Renaissance Takes Off”

(I appreciate the optimism of it, and remain somewhat hopeful as well.)

Next, from Jason, a post asking “Where have all the websites gone?” Which feels a bit like an elegy for the internet of yesteryear, while calling out something I’ve felt myself: one of the ways the old internet worked was through the curators, and how essential the sharing was.

We used to know how to do this. Not long ago, we were good at separating the signal from noise. Granted, there’s a lot more noise these days, but most of it comes from and is encouraged by the silos we dwell in.

Somewhere between the late 2000’s aggregator sites and the contemporary For You Page, we lost our ability to curate the web. Worse still, we’ve outsourced our discovery to corporate algorithms. Most of us did it in exchange for an endless content feed. By most, I mean upwards of 90% who don’t make content on a platform as understood by the 90/9/1 rule. And that’s okay! Or, at least, it makes total sense to me. Who wouldn’t want a steady stream of dopamine shots?

Jason, “Where have all the websites gone?”

Worth a read. I like seeing the direction the discourse has been going lately.

Finally, Giles Turnbull issues a challenge to creators and developers: let’s put effort into creating a sea of new tools for the indie web, and let’s make them easy to install and use:

We need more self-hosted platforms for personal publishing that aren’t WordPress. And don’t point me to Hugo or Netlify or Eleventy or all those things – all of them are great, but none of them are simple enough. We need web publishing tools that do not require users to open the Terminal at all. And we need lots of them. 

We need a whole galaxy of options.

[…]

It’s not that I hate WordPress. I don’t use it, personally, but I don’t hate it. I can see the benefits of using it. It’s a great tool. 

But it needs more competition. People coming fresh to web publishing should have more options.

Giles Turnbull, “Let’s make the indie web easier”

I do use WordPress, and I still agree with the sentiment – the competition is useful to keep all platforms on their toes, and now may be a fantastic opportunity to go back to first principles and see what a tool for putting things on the internet should look like now.

The Internet is Worse Than Ever

If you’re not familiar with Kurzgesagt, they’re a Youtube channel that does well researched, informative videos about a broad range of topics. In this case, it’s about the impact of social media on society, and clarifies some information about social filter bubbles and social sorting.

I suppose it’s unsurprising to say that I agree with their thoughts on how to improve the situation – move out of the “digital town square” and get back to smaller communities. It’s healthier for society, it’s healthier for you. This also all puts me in mind of a recent article in Garbage Day, which was discussing that the internet has actually gotten smaller, with a subset of creators making an outsized portion of the content you see day-to-day. In short, social consolidation leads to a reversion to the same sort of “broadcasting” mentality of older media. Social media serves as a channel for this sort of broadcasted content, and if you want to get back to a broader, weirder, more diverse range of content, the answer is to get back to a broader, weirder, more diverse range of online communities.

That’s a trade-off, economically speaking: if you make it big in a centralized outlet, you stand to make a lot of money – smaller communities inherently have less money to offer. But, that presumes you’ll manage to rise to the top of the creator heap – it’s far more likely that you’ll fall somewhere in the long tail of a pareto distribution. In a more distributed, fractured internet, the peak is lower, but you have more opportunity to get a slice of that sum, so you might actually end up making about the same (or more). It’s hard to say.

That’s a bit of a digression, though. Go watch the video, it’s only ~11 minutes long, and let me know what you think.

Thoughts on Aloneness

Not my thoughts, for once, but some put together by Craig Mod has he prepares to walk the width of Tokyo (found via Kottke). A lot of what he wrote resonated. I’ve said before that there’s a difference between loneliness and being alone, and between solitude and isolation. While we may differ on definitions (the type of aloneness he describes I’d describe as loneliness), he definitely gets it.

Aloneness sucks. It’s insidious and becomes habitual. It’s rapacious. It saps the spirit. It twists a peaceful dude all truculent and paranoid. It renders decision making oddly cumbersome. It’s more difficult to feel elevated as a human when swaddled in aloneness. Self-worth plummets as aloneness rises.

And aloneness as a default is tremendously difficult for some folks to understand.

For many, being surrounded by big families or long-term partners is so normalized, that to empathize with someone who is deep in aloneness (which I distinguish from solitude or quietude, more volitional and opted-into states) is akin to imagining what it’s like to fart your way to the moon.

Craig Mod

And then later:

I still feel a deep and terrifying aloneness — mostly when when I’m worn down. But now I can slightly detach myself from it, tell myself that we’ve felt this before, that we’ve come out of it, and believe in that pending emergence. If I admit to a friend that I’m experiencing these grueling bouts of crushing aloneness, I often get responses like: How can you feel alone?! You have so many people in your corner and support and love and friends! This is a terrible response. (But I know well meaning!) Aloneness and depression go hand in hand, and for someone not depressed, the idea of your body weighing ten thousand pounds, of wearing that lead cloak, of not being able to get out of bed in the morning, is unthinkable, unfathomable. So, too, with that sense of aloneness. How can you feel alone? How can you feel so isolated and hopeless?

Craig Mod

This is something that I think is important to note: when we say stuff like this, we’re not trying to brush things off as “oh, you wouldn’t understand” — that’s really not the point. The point is that, like so many lived experiences, the reality of the experience is hard to articulate in a way that actually gives enough context for someone who hasn’t experienced it. It’s hard to grok something that is as abstract and arbitrary as feelings and experiences that are almost entirely inside someone else’s head.

Thanks for sharing, Craig. I hope your walk goes really well.