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.

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?

Cultural differences in web design

Over at sabrinas.space, Sabrina Cruz has a great breakdown of how web design differs between western and Japanese sites, written in support of their video on the same topic. Well researched, and they even go into details on how they collected their data. Good stuff.

While the rest of the world’s smart phone adoption began with the iPhone, Japan was years ahead – but alone. This article points out:

[Japanese cellphones had] e-mail capabilities in 1999, camera phones in 2000, third-generation networks in 2001, full music downloads in 2002, electronic payments in 2004 and digital TV in 2005.

The result was that Japan’s smart phone culture evolved separately from the rest of the world. There was less emphasis on large pictures and text was more acceptable since it had been the norm since the early days.

sabrinas.space

Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s fascinating to see how this sort of stuff differs in different cultures and regions. Makes you wonder what sort of further shifts in technology will influence design in the future (looking at you, Vision Pro).

Check Check

The slow train wreck that is Elon’s Twitter continues to both entertain and dismay. Damion Schubert has a solid summary of the latest mess (blue-check/verification shenanigans), and why it’s yet another example of a tone-deaf cock-up by the owner. I particularly liked this gem from his post:

The problem is that status isn’t why the blue checkmark was important . And because he didn’t understand it, now the status associated with the blue checkmark is roughly as desirable to wear as a dead fish found in the anus of a rotting skunk.

Damion Schubert, “It’s Not About Status, Elon. Only Now It Is.

Other “delightful” recent shenanigans include:

I’ve not been talking much about this tire fire lately, partly because I haven’t been blogging much at all, but also because it’s the sort of thing that you probably either a) don’t care about, or b) are already following along and are aware. But still, sometimes it’s useful just to touch base. It’s not frequent that you get to see as major a service as Twitter actively implode. It feels kind of like if you were able to get an accelerated, bird’s eye view of the fall of Rome.

More on Mastodon

Over at Ars Technica, Ben Klemens has an article diving into Mastodon and federation. It’s a good explainer if you’re curious about the standards underpinning the services.

The idea of an open web where actors use common standards to communicate is as old as, well, the web. “The dreams of the ’90s are alive in the Fediverse,” Lemmer-Webber told me.

In the late ’00s, there were more than enough siloed, incompatible networking and sharing systems like Boxee, Flickr, Brightkite, Last.fm, Flux, Ma.gnolia, Windows Live, Foursquare, Facebook, and many others we loved, hated, forgot about, or wish we could forget about. Various independent efforts to standardize interoperation across silos generally coalesced into the Activity Streams v1 standard.

Both the original Activity Streams standard, and the current W3C Activity Streams 2.0 standard used by Mastodon and friends, offer a grammar for expressing things a user might do, like “create a post” or “like👍 a post with a given ID” or “request to befriend a certain user.” The vocabulary one would use with this grammar is split into its own sub-standard, the Activity Vocabulary.

Surprising no one, I’m very in favor of moving back towards decentralization, open standards, and interoperability. Getting a few more high visibility projects would be a great step in the right direction.

Now, Now

Fun little concept, the “now” page. From their about page:

Most websites have a link that says “about”. It goes to a page that tells you something about the background of this person or business. For short, people just call it an “about page”.

Most websites have a link that says “contact”. It goes to a page that tells you how to contact this person or business. For short, people just call it a “contact page”.

So a website with a link that says “now” goes to a page that tells you what this person is focused on at this point in their life. For short, we call it a “now page”.

Maybe I should put together one of those. And of course, the name reminds me of the classic “when will then be now” scene from Spaceballs:

How to Enjoy the Internet

Via Neil Gaiman’s tumblr, Ezra at ghostonly has an excellent post explaining some simple steps you can take to get back to enjoying yourself on the internet. It’s a good list.

#4 – Learn to say, “It’s none of my business.”

Don’t understand someone’s desire to use neo pronouns? None of your business. Can’t understand why someone is a furry? None of your business. Curious about how someone who talks about being poor can have a Starbucks in that last selfie they posted? None of your damn business.

[…]

If you have genuine questions from a place of good faith (i.e. what inspired you to use neopronouns?/what do you pronouns mean to you?) Go for it. But if you’re only asking questions to draw negative attention to someone or make them feel bad or to other them, you’re just being a nosy asshole.

Minding your own business is also good for you because – and I mean this genuinely – feeling entitled and superior is fucking exhausting. I know, because I’ve been 20 before. You will have a way better time online if you just stop caring about shit that doesn’t concern you.

Go read it, I agree with the whole damn thing.

Same Old Playbook

Over at the Verge, Adi Robertson has an article calling out some of Zuckerberg’s recent comments about an “open” ecosystem for VR being wrong and misguided on multiple levels. The comments in question include such bangers as:

In PCs, I think you’d say that Windows during the ’90s and 2000s especially was really the primary ecosystem in computing. The open ecosystem was winning.

Mark Zuckerberg

Which, uh, no. Windows was not an open ecosystem. Microsoft in general wasn’t an open ecosystem. Anyone who ever had to try and open a Word document in some other tool at the time can tell you that. They’re doing a lot better these days, but that’s after both legal and economic pressure to do so.

Microsoft was so far from meaningfully open that it was almost broken up by regulators. It was so notoriously domineering that we got a whole movie about a Bill Gates stand-in who murders programmers. If anything, it’s the kind of reference point that I personally might avoid if I were fighting antitrust suits across multiple continents! To the extent Microsoft is open, it’s partly thanks to years of intense legal pressure that Meta is only beginning to face.

Adi Robertson

(I did think it was weird they called Netscape a “startup”, and that particular line I think could have been phrased better – Internet Explorer may be a joke now, but it a) wasn’t then, and b) wasn’t decades old.)

What the article (and Zuck’s comments) really drive home to me, though, is that they’re basically running by the same playbook they did for Facebook. Which is to say, talk up how things will be interoperable, encourage folks to buy in, and then once they’ve captured a good chunk of the market, close the doors. You offer enough partnerships and deals with other services that it looks like you’re playing nice with others, but at the cost of an actually open ecosystem, and at the cost of actual interoperability. The little guys get screwed first, but again, once they have enough of the market, no one is safe. It doesn’t take much — shutter an API or tweak an algorithm, and suddenly you’ve ruined the ability for others to function. (This has happened repeatedly, such as shutting off third party access so content has to be created in-house; deprioritizing/burying non-FB links to content; dictating an algorithmic pivot to prioritizing video content, then back again; charging pages to “promote” content if they want their content visible to subscribers… the list goes on and on.)

I’ve already commented on the fact that I don’t think VR is ready for widespread mainstream adoption. I do think some of the work they’ve done with the Oculus and Quest is interesting. But there’s no way in hell I want FB/Meta anywhere near the levers of control for the development of a “metaverse platform”.