Essays on Technology and Culture

Neither Revolution Nor Restoration

Silicon Valley strives to “revolutionize” and “disrupt”, but are their many “revolutions” and “disruptions” actually all that significant? Were they absolutely inevitable? Were they necessary? And are people happy to perpetually accomodate these new technologies?

I’d say no on all counts. And I certainly wouldn’t consider a vast majority of technological innovations revolutionary.

J.D. Bentley – “Restoration vs Revolution”

There’s a popular image of Silicon Valley as a place where the future is made. After all, it birthed the microprocessor, the personal computer, the GUI, and the iPhone. The problem is that all but the last of those children of the Valley happened during the 60s to the 80s. Since then, it’s coasted on its reputation, and the occasional good idea—if not a “good” idea, at least a commercially successful one. With the rise of Startup Culture over the past few years, that image of Silicon Valley is being replaced by one of young people creating new companies that raise obscene amounts of Venture Capital funding to be bought out by Google, Facebook, or Apple. They’re not making microprocessors or iPhones, they’re making silly apps that get huge user growth, and promoting them with “disruption” or “revolution.”

No wonder tech news has become either boring, or an outrage factory.

This is why Silicon Valley is such an uninteresting place. Its culture is one of future worship without purpose, ever driven by the idea of the next development without any regard for whether or not it’s worth being developed. Silicon Valley is in the business of validating delusions while earning as much money as possible, even if its product is detrimental to the various communities who use it.

Here’s where J.D. and I differ. I don’t think the Valley worships the future, so much as they worship the investment cycle. The culture’s not about the idea of the “next development” as much as it’s about making a big win for your investors. This explains the “sharing economy” startups that hire contract workers for abysmal pay, so they can drive their numbers up and raise their valuation. You can’t tell me that Homejoy doesn’t know that charging $25/hr for cleaning a house isn’t a sustainable model. What looks like “future worship” is little more than marketing spin to get VCs to open their checkbooks, and customers to give up their data.

There are people using technology to solve real problems and do interesting things. Whatever your opinion is on Elon Musk, Tesla is creating real “disruption” in the automotive industry by making electric cars that people actually want to drive, unless you’re the sort of asshole who likes rolling coal. Which is why you have established business interests trying to keep them from selling cars. That’s disruption, not the crap Uber is pulling. [1]

That said, it’s a mistake to think you can solve a problem, or make people’s lives better by just throwing an app, or a piece of hardware at it. I don’t know if the rise of “[s]mall businesses who use traditional methods and local resources, who want to make quality products from the best materials.” is as much a frustrated reaction to technology not living up to its marketing spin as it is a rediscovery of our abilities to do things by ourselves. If it’s the latter, then it’s a rise enabled by technology that allows us to share knowledge of skills. Plug any skill you want to learn into YouTube, and you’ll come across someone willing to teach it. And this includes making real things, not just apps.

If that’s the real revolution, then it’s something we can credit, in part, to Silicon Valley, albeit the Silicon Valley of the late–80s and early–90s. If you want to talk about a technology people have been happy to adopt, I’d put the Internet at the top of that list. We can haggle on the pros and cons of that happy adoption, especially around the omnipresence of it in our pockets, but there have been quite a few positive outcomes. Though “revolution” might be the wrong word to describe this—as might be “restoration.” “Renaissance” might be correct, in the sense of a rebirth or renewal of some old ways of doing things, aided by technology. If so, it’s something I’m excited to be a part of.

  1. As an urban dweller, I’d like to see a startup try to improve public transit, not put more people in cars, but I don’t think there’s any money in it.  ↩

The Untitled Sanspoint Podcast Project

It’s barely been more than a month since I officially cancelled Crush On Radio, my long-running, low-listner show about music. It’s been a lot longer since I sat behind a microphone to record one. I never intended to completely quit podcasting, just to focus on where my bread and butter was: this very site. In the back of my head, I’ve been thinking about a podcast that relates to the stuff I write about here. If I were to do such a show, I knew I’d have to do something easy. No guests, minimal editing, and short. A good example is the Birch Bark Podcast, by Matt Birchler. A conversation on Twitter around the so-called “Podcasting Renaissance” left me thinking that’s space for more short shows.

Once all the ideas came together, the only thing left was to do it.

So I did.

The Untitled Sanspoint Podcast Project is a weekly podcast, about technology and culture. It’s fifteen minutes or less, and features only me, talking about what’s caught my attention. It also will feature a plug for something cool. New episodes will be released every Monday, but Episode 1 is available now, for your listening pleasure. It’s not on iTunes yet, but should be shortly. (Edit: It’s now on iTunes!) In the interim, you can subscribe by dropping this link in your podcast client of choice.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the show. You can shoot me an @-reply on Twitter, or use my Contact page. I’m super excited to be back in the podcasting seat.

The Bubble of Self

I have a super power—the uncanny ability to be in someone’s way without realizing it. When it happens, and it happens at least daily, I get out of the way as best I can, flush with embarrassment, and apologize. Maybe it’s a symptom of Attention Deficit Disorder, or maybe it’s something else. Either way, it’s exacerbated by wearing headphones in public. I just end up stuck in a bubble of my self, lost to what’s around me, and it’s something I can slip into at a moment’s notice. I’m not the only one, either. Some of us are better than others at avoiding it, but day in and day out, we spend a big chunk of our time caught in our bubble of self.

And I’m not going to lie, those little screens in our pocket don’t help at all. You don’t need a little screen in your pocket, and a pair of speakers in your ears to get lost in your bubble of self, but they’re not making it easier to avoid it. Case in point: the inspiration to write this came during a morning commute on the subway, while a pair of men watched a loud, and profane stand-up comedy bit on their pocket screen, without headphones. I can be certain the only two people on the train who wanted to hear some random stand-up comedy were those two men, and yet they were inflicting it on the rest of the passengers. If they’d thought, even for a moment, about the fifty other people in the car, they might have opted to put on headphones, or at least wait until later.

Most of our obliviousness isn’t that high-profile. It’s just a good example of bad behavior caused by our bubbles. The only solution is to actively try to pierce our own bubbles, and be aware of the world we’re in. It’s something that is hard to do, but is made easier with practice. Call it a form of mindfulness, or whatever you’d like, but without that practice, without that effort, we can easily slip back within our bubbles, and damn the world around it. Piercing that bubble, just being aware of the people around you, and how much—or how little—you may be affecting them goes a long way towards empathy and other skills that make us better human beings.

Patrick Rhone – A Time for Things

That list of things is a wish list, a someday-maybe list, but it is not a task list until you commit a time for those things getting done. Those are things you hope to do — not things you are going to do.

Patrick Rhone – “A Time for Things”

Important stuff. It’s not enough to have a system for your things to do. You need to commit to doing them. Without it, even the best organized system falls apart.

Another Task Management Journey

A few weeks ago, I bemoaned the state of my personal data. While I’ve only made inroads on that front since then, thinking about my data problem, and how to solve it, gave me cause to look at my task management system, and the piles of crap and cruft that have built up within. Part of the problem I have with task management, along with notes and bookmarks, is my desire for a universal solution. I want something I can load in all my personal projects, my work projects, my day job projects, my writing… and I’d settled a while back on OmniFocus, the 800-pound Gorilla of Task Management.

OmniFocus is a fine piece of software, and well worth the price. However, it wasn’t working the way I needed. The problems I had with OmniFocus as a task management system were as follows:

  1. My day job forces me to use Windows, so the only way to view my OmniFocus data at work is to either lug my iPad in, or use my iPhone. Neither of these are elegant, easy, or look great in front of the boss.
  2. So much of my day job work is cranking out widgets. A task comes in (by email), and often needs to be done that day. if I’m not already working on something, I tackle it immediately. There are some projects that are longer in duration and scope, but not many. Either way, the pain in the butt of entering those tasks into OmniFocus, even with MailDrop, is too much.
  3. OmniFocus is absolutely crap for creative tasks that don’t have well-defined “Next Actions.” Something like “Write blog post” is too vague, “Write 500 words” is too specific. It’s a pain in the butt, and no good for tracking my progress on many creative tasks.

Then, Nick Wynja turned me on to Trello. I’d used Trello (very) briefly while working for The Startup, and it didn’t click with me. Something about the UI, the multi-dimensional scrolling piles of lists, and the general visual chaos of the office Trello boards left me scrambling for another solution (OmniFocus, natch). With Nick’s praise, I decided to give it another try, and after a day or two of experimentation, I found Trello to be perfect for my day job, and pretty good for tracking my writing.

I use Trello like a simple Kanban board. At the day job, I keep one list of cards for Future tasks, and stuff I’m waiting on. I keep another for stuff I need to do today, and another list of whatever is done. When something comes in to my inbox that needs doing, I either create a new card, or just forward the email to Trello. At the end of each day, I archive the cards on the Done list, and add whatever upcoming stuff needs doing to the “Today” list so it’s ready when I get to my desk. For my writing, it’s even simpler: A list of idea cards, a list of works in progress, and a list of what’s done.

What Trello sucked at, at least for me, was letting me manage any other sort of task. This left OmniFocus for just tracking day-to-day todos, and that seemed… excessive. I played around, first with Reminders. When that proved too simplistic, I went back to Things, enticed by the Mac version’s gorgeous Yosemite update, and the iPhone version’s new UI as well. A week and a half of using Things reminded me exactly why I switched away: Things doesn’t work the way I work. I like the ability to view things by project, or by context, and Things just doesn’t have that. The path was clear.

Saturday, I launched OmniFocus, selected everything, and deleted it all. I grabbed my notebook and pen, pulled up the “Trigger List”, and scribbled away all the stuff I need and want to do. I came up with new contexts, and I set them up. I loaded all my tasks, projects, and (non-day job) professional obligations into OmniFocus, built them out, and now I’m starting with a clean slate. Whatever was important carried over, but that’s because it was still on my mind. The majority of stuff I thought I needed to do vanished into the digital ether, and if any of it should become important again, I’ll know about it.

There’s a lesson I’m opting to take away from this experience. It’s never a bad idea to audit yourself. Thinking about the tools I use, and how I use them, gave me insight into where I was falling down, and helped me put together something better suited for what I do and how I think. I’ve been trying to cram square pegs into round holes when it comes to just keeping track of what I need to do. It’s true, one should never focus on the tools over the work, but it was worth the disruption to figure out what works best for me. We’ll see if this sticks, of course.