Essays on Technology and Culture

Couchsurfing: What VC Touches, It Destroys

What happened shocked me. Days passed. Then a week. Not a single request, Despite 179 positive references and 42 vouches, no one wanted to stay with me. I asked my long-time Couchsurfing friends in the city and found it was the same for them. Sparse requests, and those that came, poorly-written, often from empty profiles. For others, guests who never showed up, messages that were never responded to. The site had changed…

I knew the situation was bad, but this was unexpected. The heart of Couchsurfing – hosting and surfing – was disappearing, and in the very same city where the site has its headquarters.

Lost Roots: The Failure of For-Profit Couchsurfing | BootsnAll

Internet services live and die by their users. Make them happy, give them something great, and give them the opportunity to give you money, and you have a business. Couchsurfing could have been a small, sustainable business, but the promise of big riches caused the company and its founders to lose sight of who and what they were.

Not everything needs to have a billion dollar valuation and an L-shaped growth curve. Moderate success is still success.

Easy Security Is Insecure, Good Security Is Hard

The Justice Department did decide to back off, handing Zimmermann and his fellow pro-cryptography activists, or “cypherpunks,” what appeared to be an overwhelming political and legal victory. But it turned out to be somewhat hollow: the government had given up partly because it realized that encryption wasn’t going mainstream at all.

The main reason for this is as sad as it is simple: encrypting e-mail is just hard.

The Daunting Challenge of Secure E-mail : The New Yorker

Cracking the problem of making it easy for ordinary people to encrypt their data and make their digital lives secure is one thing. Convincing ordinary people that encrypting their data and making their digital lives secure is something else entirely. Until someone accomplishes both of those, no progress will occur in this area, at all.

All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines

Psychologists have found that when we work with computers, we often fall victim to two cognitive ailments—complacency and bias—that can undercut our performance and lead to mistakes. Automation complacency occurs when a computer lulls us into a false sense of security. Confident that the machine will work flawlessly and handle any problem that crops up, we allow our attention to drift. We become disengaged from our work, and our awareness of what’s going on around us fades. Automation bias occurs when we place too much faith in the accuracy of the information coming through our monitors. Our trust in the software becomes so strong that we ignore or discount other information sources, including our own eyes and ears. When a computer provides incorrect or insufficient data, we remain oblivious to the error.

“All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines” – Nicholas Carr

Far too often, people think that using technology to improve our work means having technology do the work for us. Yet, what makes some of the best things out there so incredible is the human element. Algorithms can only go so far. The biggest risk, however, comes in the bit of Nicholas Carr’s piece I excerpted. Computers are still so new and tend to work so well that we are far too easily lulled into complacency that the machine will get it right. This means that when the machine doesn’t get it right, we end up in deep trouble, very quickly, as the example that starts off the piece will tell you.

How Designers Destroyed the World

You are directly responsible for what you put into the world. Yet every day designers all over the world work on projects without giving any thought or consideration to the impact that work has on the world around them. This needs to change.

Webstock ’13: Mike Monteiro – How Designers Destroyed the World on Vimeo:

Mike Monteiro, fellow Philly boy, crystallizes some thoughts and concerns that have been going through my own mind lately. Though I’m not a designer by trade, all of us who have skills and talents should be thinking to ourselves about the impact of what we do on the world around us. The Internet has this incredible ability to puncture our bubbles and connect us with people. We can no longer afford, as a species, to think only of ourselves or our “business plan.”

Take forty minutes and listen to Mike. He is a wise man.

Teach a Man to Code…

McConlogue described his plan on Medium in two parts. In the first post, McConlogue explained that he would offer a choice to the “unjustly homeless” man he passed daily. “Without disrespecting him,” McConlogue would give the man either $100 in cash, or supplies and tutoring so that he might learn how to code for the web.

Jack Dickey – “The Internet Cannot Save You”

The idea that taking a homeless person and teaching them to code as if that alone will bring them into the echelon of the Middle Class/Creative Class is misguided on so many levels. It’s a textbook example of a technology-focused culture that has its priorities in the wrong place. Not everyone should learn to code, and the world needs more than just programmers. There’s more pressing problems facing the world that a web-based startup, or Internet connectivity simply can not solve, and homelessness is one of them.

The quote at the end of the article should drive the point home, but I don’t think the target audience will get it.