Essays on Technology and Culture

Dismayed Democrats, Don’t Switch Parties, Fix the One You Have. Here’s Why

It sucks to be a Democrat right now. Make no mistake, this past Presidential election was ours to lose, and lose it we did. Under the circumstances, any left-leaning person who wants to jump ship and join a third party, well, I feel you. I’ve been a Democrat my entire life, and I feel the same way. I’m not a Democrat because my parents were, I’m a Democrat because of the two major political parties, they’re the ones who align most with my interests. Except, most notably, where those interests are keeping racist demagogues out of the highest office in the land, it seems.

But before you change your voter registration to the Green Party, Socialist Party, Working Families Party, or Monster Raving Loony Party, think about three things.

1. The Democratic Party Has the Infrastructure We Need to Win

Political parties aren’t just about picking who runs for office, they provide crucial infrastructure in terms of finance and manpower. Winning an election, especially on the national level, requires a lot of resources, and the Democratic Party has them. From ad buys to messaging, from transportation to catering, and, most importantly, fundraising, fundraising, fundraising, the Democratic Party has this all built out and humming pretty darn well.

If all us fed-up Democrats jumped ship for the same third party, we’d be able to take a lot of that infrastructure with us. But you know as well as I do, that ain’t gonna happen. A bunch of folks will sign on to the Green Party, a bunch will sign on to the Socialists, or Working Families, or Natural Law. Even more will just go unaffiliated. This means we’ll go from a large party with significant infrastructure, to a whole bunch of tiny, fractured parties that will be way easier to defeat.

“Well, we’ll just form a coalition!” Sure, you will. Look, I’m a Lefty, and if I know my fellow Lefties, I know we’re absolutely terrible at this coalition thing. It’s gonna turn into a People’s Front of Judea situation, which helps nobody. Even if we’re all squabbling under one big tent, it’s going to be more effective and harder to beat than a bunch of us squabbling from between ten different tents. But there’s more to be concerned about.

2. Numbers and Geography make a National Third Party win Almost Impossible

It’s easy to point at European countries, or Canada (which may as well be European) and the robustness of their multiple-party political systems. And they’re right. One key difference, though, is that there’s a lot more country here than there is over there.

To put it another way, in the UK, there’s roughly 45 million registered electors. In the US, there’s 146 million, more than three times as many. This means, for a third party candidate to get a significant proportion of the national vote, they need way, way more people to vote for them. Libertarian Gary Johnson pulled 4.1 million votes in this election, for 3.2% of the popular vote. If Gary Johnson pulled the same number of votes in the UK, he’d have had 9.1% of the popular vote. That’s a hell of a difference.

This is why third party candidates, when they do get elected to office, succeed more on the state and local level. It’s a hell of a lot easier to win a majority of a small state or district than it is to win a majority of the entire United States. By way of example, Vermont has roughly 450,000 registered voters. To win his Senate seat, Bernie Sanders only had to win over 225,001 of them. (Depending, of course, on turnout.) Way easier than getting elected president, huh?

3. We Can Change the Democratic Party

Remember the Tea Party? Not the one in Boston that helped set off the American Revolution, the one that started around the time of Obama’s first term. They weren’t happy with the Democrats, but they also weren’t happy with the Republicans. So, what they did was take the initiative and moved the Republican party further right. How? They showed up. They voted in off-year election, primaries, local elections, and state elections. They ran for office, starting local, and moving up the chain until they could take the House and make a damn good attempt at the Senate.

In many ways, it’s the Tea Party who we can thank for the Republican Party we have today, and our President-Elect.

(Gee, thanks.)

But the Tea Party serves as a valuable example of what involvement in party politics can do. If the Tea Partiers said, “Screw this, we’re gonna start our own political party… with Blackjack… and Hookers!” we’d be having a very different conversation today. It was a process, but it paid off in Republicans taking control of 31 state legislatures and governorships, as well as a majority in the House of Representatives. This means they get to control redistricting, thumb their noses at demands from the Democrat-led federal government (until Jan. 20th, 2017), and generally fuck shit up with impunity. I mean, look at North Carolina for chrissake.

But it only happened, ’cause they got involved and did the dirty work of party politics.

We have eighteen months. Let’s start now.

In November 2018, a huge chunk of the Senate, and the entire House of Representatives are up for re-election, along with 36 governorships.

Roughly six months before then is the 2018 primary season, where we vote for who we get to vote for in November.

A lot is made in presidential election years about getting out the vote, phone banking, donating, and supporting your candidates up and down the ballot. Off-year and mid-term elections don’t get the publicity, or the horse-race coverage from national news networks. You might have to pick up your local newspaper to find out what’s going on, assuming it still exists. It’s easy to forget, and easy not to care.

And I’ve seen this first hand. I worked for seven years as an election worker in Philadelphia—specifically as a Machine Inspector. Turnout always varied by election: Presidential elections were huge, mayoral elections were decent. Mid-term and off-year elections got some people, but mid-term and off-year primaries? Let’s just say those were the elections where you drank lots of free church coffee, and caught up on your reading.

Which is a shame, because those elections are as important, if not moreso, than Presidential elections. Today’s candidate for state legislature could be tomorrow’s presidential candidate. If you don’t show up to make sure the right one gets voted in now, what are you going to do a few more elections down the line when you have another set of unexciting Presidential candidates to pick from? If history is any indication, most people will stay home and catch the results in the morning.

Think Nationally, Vote Locally

Quick! Who are your representatives in your state’s legislature?

Mine are Leroy Comre in the NY State Senate, and David I. Weprin in the NY State Assembly.

And yes, I had to look that up. I’m not gonna pretend otherwise. Don’t feel bad if you have to look yours up too.

Your local and state politicians have a huge impact on your life, and they will be the foundation of the deep bench for the Democratic Party moving forward. Without that bench, we’re going to be in deep shit come 2018, let alone 2020.

That’s why we need to start now, get involved in the less glamorous elections, and start building the new Democratic Party from the bottom up. We’ve tried it the other way around, and look where that got us. Theres more that can be done: donating, attending party meetings, writing and calling our representatives, and lobbying—yes, lobbying. But all of these are useless if we also don’t get our butts out to the polling place and shape the party from there as well.

So put your change of registration form away, and let’s make it happen.

What Happens Now?

What happens now?

Writing about technology often means having a bent towards the future, extrapolating trends and thinking of what happens five, ten, twenty years from now. There’s precious little about the now, beyond what short term decisions a company can make to optimize for the five, ten, twenty years we look out upon. Then there’s a new gadget, an upgrade, a Touch Bar or a Surface Studio, and we’re all distracted by the shiny thing and What It Means for the Future.

But right now, none of that seems to matter to me. Computers will change, and how we use them will change, but figuring out the details is unimportant. Someone will figure it out, and it’ll be obvious and simple in hindsight. We’ll all nod our heads and stroke our chins, and go “Of course. It was there all along. How could we have missed it?” The pattern has held, and the pattern will continue to hold.

It’s not boring as much as it is predictable.

What’s on my mind is the unpredictable. What’s unpredictable is the short term. Forget five years from now. What will happen five months from now? Five weeks from now? That has a lot more urgency in my mind, and not a damn bit of it has to do with any new product announcements from any company in the entire space of technology. Even if it came from the mouth of the reanimated corpse of Steve Jobs himself.

All it take is one small event, a butterfly flapping its wings, to change a weather system on the other side of the world. It seems hard to understand, but once the effect is under way, it eventually hits a critical point where you can identify it, extrapolate from it, and plan for the hurricane or typhoon bearing down.

What happens when that small event isn’t so small? What if it’s a seismic shake-up of cataclysmic proportions? What happens when you didn’t see it coming? When you knew, as clearly as you know the sun will rise in the morning, that it wouldn’t happen, that it would be the complete opposite?

This is where I find myself. This is where millions of people, in the United States of America and abroad find themselves. We wake up in a new reality where the very bedrock assumptions we’ve made about how the world works are replaced, and now must build a new understanding starting from first principles. The task is daunting. Almost impossible. Where do we even begin?

We begin with questions.

These are my questions. What happens now? What happens to me? To the people I love? My friends, and my family? What do we need to do just to survive long enough to understand what has happened? How can you rebuild, when you don’t even have stable ground to use for a foundation? This is uncharted territory. So far off the map, that the damn map is only good as a firestarter.

This is not my world. This is not my country. These are not my people walking the halls of government, dancing in the streets, looking for the next suspicious looking person to beat down for their differences. Yesterday was different. Now, I wake up a stranger in a strange land, and the first thing on my mind is survival. Survival for myself, for the ones I love most, and—time permitting—those other lost and confused members of my tribe. These woods are dangerous, and we have no idea how far we must go before we reach civilization.

How do we survive?

I don’t want it to be this way. I want to carry as many people as I can with me. I want to be strong, be the leader, and say that I know what to do, I know where to go, and that I can take you there, no matter who you are, whether you’re in my tribe, or not. I want to extend the olive branch to the other side, and find out they’re just like me. In time, perhaps I will be able to do some of that, but for now, I need to find my footing in this new world. I need to survive long enough to make peace.

And bear in mind, we’re talking about a group where one of the leaders thinks it’s okay to electrocute me until I’m straight. They may be as afraid of me as I am of them, at least deep inside, but right now, they’re the ones with the big sticks, and I am the asthmatic fat kid with the glasses. My one defense is that maybe they’ll find another target. But there’s enough of them it seems that there is no escape from the pain.

The dream of every bullied child, I expect, is that one day the tables will be turned. That it will be them who has the power over their bully, maybe not physical power, but certainly power nonetheless. The dream is not necessarily to wield that power as a cudgel, nor is it to use that power to forgive. It is only to know that the balance has shifted, and for your tormenter to know it too. The rest comes down to our personality.

Will we become what we hated?

Empathy is a skill. It is honed through practice. You can empathize with your tormenter, but only the most skilled at empathy will be able to do so while they’re being stretched out on the rack. Do you feel you have that level of empathy? Meditate on it, practice empathy, and goodness, and mindfulness in your daily life. Maybe you’ve got it down, but I think the rest of us—myself included—need a lot more work at it. Lord knows we’ll get plenty of opportunities to practice in the next four years.

But we developed empathy for a reason. It is essential to our survival. We build our groups, our tribes, our families on empathy. Empathy ends wars. To look at another human being and have even the tiniest sense of how they must feel, and to feel it too, this is the greatest gift of human consciousness. We fracture, and we other, when we turn off our empathy.

Or, perhaps, when we fracture and we other, our empathy is turned off for us. The jury is still out on this. Freud called it the Narcissism of Minor Differences. Whatever mysterious mutation in our synapses that allows us to bring others into our tribes can also be used to create arbitrary dividing lines on the smallest of differences. Everything from skin color to religion, from gender to weight, from preferred entertainment activity to which side of some arbitrary line on a map you were born on. You don’t so much pick a side in these divisions as have it picked for you. The consequences of it will rule your entire life, and woe betide you should you ever dare to change sides.

Which puts us to where we are today.

Our minds, our empathy, our common humanity can be hacked by the clever among us. They can create new divisions where none existed, or stoke up the enmity that had burned out between divisions. They create new tribes, blinding their members to some of the minor differences in order to sick them upon another, arbitrary tribe who until the attack begins, never knew they were a tribe to begin with.

History is ripe with these demagogues. It is also ripe with leaders who use those same mental tricks to do the opposite: to bind fractured communities together, to build new, stronger tribes where a mess had been before. The latter is so, so much harder to pull off, because despite what the optimists among us believe, our tendency is towards smaller groups that are hostile to outsiders: “Let ’em all to go Hell, except Cave 76!”

We fracture. We heal. But how do we get from the former to the latter? Beats the hell out of me. That’s why I’m up at one in the morning, typing this out when I should be sleeping. That’s why I’m worried about survival for myself, and those I care most deeply about. Because I am afraid. I’m afraid, I’m in the dark, and the wolves are howling. I’m afraid because I don’t know what comes next. I ask questions because I have no answers, and all the answers offered up aren’t any good.

Yes, dawn will come. The light will return, and things will be okay. In time. How much time? I don’t know. How bad will things get before then? I don’t know. Will we pass the point where there is no return? I don’t know. What will I do until then? I don’t know. That’s the problem.

It’s the uncertainty that kills me.

I need solid ground beneath my feet. I need clear vision. I have none of these, just fear, and unease, and the very real sense that things are only going to get worse before they get better, because that’s how it always happens.

For any of that to change, I need to know one very important thing.

What happens now?


Sometimes, the words aren’t there.

Sometimes, the words are there, but they’re not the ones considered appropriate for the situation. They’re four-letter words, or compounds and derivatives thereof, often beginning with the letter F. Those words convey emotion, important and powerful emotion. Those words are cathartic.

They don’t make for a good essay.

Right now, the four-letter invectives I’m summoning are aimed at legislation—signed into law in Indiana, and heading to the governor’s desk in Arkansas—that makes it legal for business owners to discriminate against people for their sexual orientation. More than legal—protected.

Thankfully, the backlash has been swift, and serious, from Tim Cook’s inspiring Op Ed in The Washington Post, to the Front Page of The Indianapolis Star.

Yet, I’m still having trouble finding polite words. I don’t know why polite words are necessary right now.


I’ve not kept my own sexuality much of a secret among people I know. I came out publicly as bisexual after Tim Cook’s announcement of his homosexuality in October. If the leader of one of the biggest companies in the world can be openly gay, a schmuck like me can be openly bisexual. After all, visibility matters. There was a time, before and after I realized my sexual orientation, when I didn’t really see the point. I thought the battle had been won, and the end of the war was in sight.

Laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act are proof of why visibility matters. Would the horrible humans who drafted this legislation, who voted for it, and signed it into law had even considered assenting to it if someone they knew—a friend, a family member, their child—were gay?

I can’t speak for any of them, but I’m the the answer for some would be yes. Some people are just that hateful.

But others, I’m certain, would change their minds if they knew that someone close to them would be a victim of legalized hatred and discrimination for something they have no control over.

We have to do something. Speaking out only is the start. Boycotts are only a start.

The only thing that’ll keep this terrible nonsense, and future horrors like the (thankfully failed) Kentucky bill that offered a bounty for outing transgendered individuals, is to vote the hateful, spiteful bigots out of office, and keep new ones from being voted in. It has to happen at the state, local, and federal levels.

I have friends online and off who are of devout faith. They know who I am, and my orientation, and even if their religion doesn’t like it, they’ve treated me as I treat them—with kindness and respect. With love. If only the people in government who claim to be of faith, who claim to speak for people of faith would treat us all the same way. Maybe then we in the LGBT community wouldn’t have to exhaust ourselves in fighting to be seen as the human beings we are.

Maybe I had the words after all.

False Transparency

Following the shooting death of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, there was a push for body camera on police officers. The idea being that cameras on cops would reduce the potential for police brutality, and help officers behave. There may still be merit to this, as pilot programs for police body cameras show a decline in both the use of force, and complaints. However, it seems that data comes from a sum total of five studies, according to a piece in The Atlantic.

A few days ago, here in New York City, a Staten Island grand jury chose not to prosecute an NYPD officer accused of killing a non-violent offender, with an illegal chokehold. Unlike the Ferguson shooting, where all there was to go by was eyewitness testimony, the death of Eric Garner was caught on video. Even with the entire incident, from initial contact, to death, to the arrival of an ambulance all on video, the Staten Island grand jury opted not to prosecute. Grand juries often elect to prosecute, that is, unless they’re dealing with a police officer.

The principle behind body cameras on police, is that the officers will know they’re being watched—never mind the the cameras are worn on their bodies, meaning everyone but the officer is the one being watched—and as such, behave more ethically. It’s the same basic attitude behind other attempts to bring transparency to public organizations. The idea that enough people will have their eyes on what police officers, politicians, and any other organization that relies on the public trust will be enough to convince them to behave ethically only works if there are consequences for violating that trust. And if they can be caught doing so. Cameras can “malfunction,” video files can be lost in a crash. For other public servants, they can just dump enough data that even the most civically minded hacker can’t sort through and analyze it. Even adding a CAPTCHA before allowing a person access to data can be enough friction to shut down citizen watchdogs.

But why even bother with all of that work, when you know that you won’t even be held accountable when there’s incontrovertible evidence of your action spreading all over the Internet?

Technological solutions to societal problems are often a band-aid applied to a festering cyst. It’s a surface treatment that ignores the underlying issue. Or, as Douglas Adams said, “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” When trying to put a stop to corruption, it’s easy to both under- and overestimate the ingenuity of complete assholes, to say nothing about the complacency of common individuals with no stake in the game. Of course, changing the expectations we have of public servants, is harder than just throwing money at hardware that provides false transparency. No wonder we’re so much more willing to do the latter.

Technology’s War on Women

The biggest problem in technology isn’t buggy Apple software, government and corporate spying, or the venture capital bubble. It’s the systematic and aggressive disenfranchisement of half of the world’s population from the technology world. It’s the ongoing, increasingly violent and visible war on women in technology. Compared to that, a buggy iOS update is nothing. This is not a new war, but it’s had a few flare-ups in recent months. The most visible, of course, is Gamergate, a systematic harassment of women gamers and game journalists under the ostensible banner of “corruption” in games journalism. The war on women in technology extends far beyond such things, covering the gamut from hacked celebrity nude photos to women quitting–or being forced out of—their jobs by the culture in tech companies.

Why is this such a problem? If you have to ask that question, you may be too far gone already. So much of the promises of technology are egalitarian. The Valley likes to promote itself in the guise of a meritocracy. GitHub, considered the new résumé for coders, described itself as a “United Meritocracy” until sexism and harassment in its workplace was revealed. Meanwhile, startups founded by women get less than 5% of all venture capital funding. In established technology companies, there is a gigantic gender imbalance, and it’s not getting better.

Certainly not with a vocal and obnoxious contingent of powerful men in technology using their influence to shut down women. Just a few days ago, legendary hacker Kevin Mitnick attempted to harass a woman out of her job when she spoke up about the harassment that forced another woman developer off Twitter. Sexual harassment of women is endemic at technology conferences. This sort of behavior is unacceptable in any context, and certainly not in an industry that prides itself on the empty rhetoric of “meritocracy.” Even those few technology organizations that recognize the problem and seek to fix it are accused of racism and bias by clueless white men in technology.

This problem isn’t just something women face. It’s a problem experienced by gays and lesbians, by trans and genderqueer individuals, and by minorities in technology. It needs to end. Many men, too many men, don’t see this as their problem. This is the fundamental issue behind the infamous #NotAllMen hashtag. When you say “Not All Men,” what you mean is “I’m not contributing to the problem, therefore it is not a problem.” As long as it is men who are disenfranchising women, men sending rape threats, and publishing personal information about their “targets” for having the temerity to just be female and exist in a public space, it is our problem. We created it. To sit idly by as people like us make the lives of women and other groups a living hell is shameful. If you’re upset by being lumped in with the angry masses of misogynist men, stand up against them—don’t just blithely wash your hands of it.

But, what can we do? Aside from doing our best to shut down those in our midsts who contribute to the problem, and to amplify the voices of women and other marginalized groups, I’m lost. I’ve been thinking about how to approach this issue in my writing for weeks. Part of why it’s taken me so long to publish anything is that I’m worried both that I wouldn’t add anything of value, and that my voice, like that of so many white male “allies” would be amplified to the detriment of important work women and other activists for the technologically marginalized are doing. When a male technology CEO publishes a book about the struggles of women in technology, he gets praised. Meanwhile, activists in the trenches, of all stripes, are ignored once again. I don’t want that to happen here.

There are plenty of women making their voices heard. At the forefront is Shanley Kane’s Model View Culture, with contributors across the gender and racial spectrum contributing insightful criticism of technology. Brianna Wu, of game studio Giant Space Kat is essential to follow, as is Randi Harper, a DevOps engineer, and OSS contributor (the one whom Mitnick tried to get fired). Creatrix Tiara has led the charge against Ello and how social media fails the marginalized. This is just a sampling, and there are plenty more women, trans*, and minorities who are fighting the good fight in technology. Follow them, read them, and learn. Then, take action.