Tomorrow & tomorrow & tomorrow

We realize then that it is just the patterns of events in space which are repeating in the building or the town: and nothing else.

Nothing of any importance happens in a building or a town except what is defined within the patterns which repeat themselves.

—Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

At the core of Christopher Alexander’s work is the belief that the shape and character of our spaces cannot help but influence the events that repeat inside them. The characteristics of the built environment don’t explain everything—the enveloping cultural context is a massive force—but they explain a lot.

Over the past 20 years, this is very much what I’ve come to believe about the shape of the things we’ve built online. Software design isn’t the only thing that shapes our behavior, but the idea—which I’ve seen a lot this past few weeks—that interface design/network structure/feature sets don’t actually matter at all is as wrong as the idea that a bedroom with huge unshaded windows will allow for restorative sleep, or an open-plan office will permit a state of flow.

So in my work life, I’m trying to sharpen my sense of how and why the patterns we build on the internet shape the behaviors we enact inside them. But I keep getting sidetracked into the opposite formulation—how repeated behavior shapes our spaces, how rituals turn to hauntings, how buried things keep erupting into the present.

In the early 1980s, British engineer Vic Tandy was working for a company that made medical equipment used in life-support and anesthesia. In a coincidence that changed the course of Tandy’s career, the converted garage that served as the company’s laboratory was—according to some of Tandy’s colleagues and a night cleaner—haunted.

Having dismissed his colleagues’ experiences as nonsense, Tandy himself noticed a few emotional and physical symptoms—depression, cold shivers, growing discomfort—but ignored them until he was working alone in the lab one night:

As he sat at the desk writing he began to feel increasingly uncomfortable. He was sweating but cold and the feeling of depression was noticeable. The cats were moving around and the groans and creaks from what was now a deserted factory were spooky”, but there was also something else. It was as though something was in the room with V.T. […] As he was writing he became aware that he was being watched, and a figure slowly emerged to his left. It was indistinct and on the periphery of his vision but it moved as V.T. would expect a person to. The apparition was grey and made no sound. The hair was standing up on V.T.’s neck and there was a distinct chill in the room. As V.T. recalls, It would not be unreasonable to suggest I was terrified”. V.T. was unable to see any detail and finally built up the courage to turn and face the thing. As he turned the apparition faded and disappeared. There was absolutely no evidence to support what he had seen so he decided he must be cracking up and went home.

The next day, Tandy, a competitive fencer, brought a foil blade into the lab to use the bench vice to cut threads into the blade for attachment to a tang. While clamped in the vice, the blade began frantically vibrating up and down,” which spooked the hell out of him. By moving the vice around the lab, Tandy located a low frequency (~19 HZ) standing wave that was eventually traced to a fan in the air-extraction system. When the fan’s mounting was modified, the standing wave disappeared—as did the lab’s oppressive feeling and sense of ghostly presence.

Tandy and a fellow professor at Coventry University wrote up his experiences and subsequent speculations on the mechanisms of low-frequency hauntings in a short paper for the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research that remains one of the prizes in my collection of obscure PDFs. Tandy went on to conduct large-scale experiments on the physical properties of hauntedness.

I think about the vibrating foil blade every time anyone mentions engagement.

The quasi-McLuhan quotation about shaping the tools that thereafter shape us traces back to Winston Churchill’s case for rebuilding the bombed-out Commons Chamber of Parliament along its original lines. When he he wrote that we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” he was explicitly writing about the shape of the Chamber as a way of maintaining exactly two sharply opposing political parties rather than a left-right gradient, and about concentrating the energy of the deliberating body by making the room a little bit too small, thus forcing its members to squeeze in and hustle for a seat.

It was a characteristically unsubtle speech:

The House has shown itself able to face the possibility of national destruction with classical composure. It can change Governments, and has changed them by heat of passion. It can sustain Governments in long, adverse, disappointing struggles through many dark, grey months and even years until the sun comes out again. I do not know how else this country can be governed other than by the House of Commons playing its part in all its broad freedom in British public life. We have learned—with these so recently confirmed facts around us and before us—not to alter improvidently the physical structures which have enabled so remarkable an organism to carry on its work of banning dictatorships within this island and pursuing and beating into ruin all dictators who have molested us from outside.

I’d known about the Churchill speech for a long time, but WWII isn’t my period and until this year, I’d assumed that the quotation dealt with postwar rebuilding. It’s actually from 1943, the year of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—well after the Blitz, but with the war’s outcomes still unknown. And as much as Churchill goes on at length about the health and vigor of the House over the long term, it’s ultimately a wartime argument: change cannot be risked.

The structures of our network commons have concentrated our responses to the forces already pressing against our livelihoods and children and futures. Within their engagement-optimized interfaces, we’ve built ourselves into a standing wave: Abusive posts became network-wide events that require a response not only from moderating authorities, but from every user.

In this machine, silence transmutes to approval of the worst thing happening; via entirely real human needs for signals of safety and support, continuous attention and engagement become mandatory. Simply bad posts are opportunities for demonstrations of prowess. People we agree with become footholds for demonstrating all the subtle ways in which they don’t quite understand. Sometimes—rarely—these moves result in policy changes, but fight and flight and status display all taste the same to the machine.

Maybe for you, it didn’t start on Twitter. Maybe was forums or the blogosphere or Reddit. Maybe it was Facebook with terrible people from high school or TikTok with people who hate you for liking a thing, or not liking it enough. But we built the machines around our weird amygdalas and then we went inside them and now the machine is no longer confined to a stack of software + policy + vibes; we carry it in ourselves. We haunt each new place we enter. We can feel this happening in our bodies, which is why touch grass is so accidentally real.

We shape our structures and afterward our structures shape us, but the we of the first clause and the us of the second are not the same.

The secret heart of every panopticon is not the all-seeing-eye, but the confessional. Like a god, the machine already knows what we’ve done. We confess to reclaim our own voices, or sometimes in search of grace—though in the machine, grace is only available to some people, until we make it available to none. The gears of commercial networks are surveillance systems built on structures that elicit a continuous stream of confessions made public. Confessions in public become testimony; testimony summons congregations. We raise our voices in defiance or affirmation, knowing there will be consequences we don’t understand. The databanks grow.

I started reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series to my kid between Christmas and New Year’s this year. The first two books in the sequence, published in 1964 and 1973, feel like products of the 1960s—there’s a clarity of motion and a starkness of contrast and a residual sweetness in the descriptions of rural landscapes that I recognize from my own childhood spent reading books that were already old then.

The third book, Greenwitch, is another thing altogether. Published in 1974, it’s dreamlike and nightmarish and packed with images I associate more with folk horror than children’s fantasy adventure, down to the Greenwitch, a wicker woman built of living branches and inhabited by a childlike consciousness that is born anew each year to be sacrificed and reunited with the wild magic from which it came. The true line of the book’s plot hinges on the heroine’s instinctive and ultimately world-changing moment of recognition of the entity as not a human, but a person. Plenty of adventures swirl around this moment, but everything that matters is inward, invisible, and relational. (It’s a kind of book that doesn’t get published anymore.)

During a series of action scenes that would, in a more straightforwardly adventurous book, form the plot’s climax, the protagonist of Greenwitch is asleep, unaware of the terrifying events taking place just outside her house. And all those action scenes our girl misses while she’s sleeping are also dreams: They seem to be an entire village’s collective nightmares of terrible incidents of mass violence, some just barely within living memory and some that stretch much further back. The ancient dead arise in a collective dream and take up arms beside the living dreamers, who die and suffer. A ghost ship rises from the sea and sails over the moors, and eventually out of time. The town burns. But the next morning brings apparent normalcy; the stage resets.

Greenwitch offers no lasting resolution for the village’s ghostly violence. At the book’s end, even the Greenwitch entity herself remains trapped in her sacrificial cycle. And unlike the sleeping child heroine, the reader saw everything that happened in the dark, and is left with no assurance that the ghostly standing waves of past violence are not merely waiting to be summoned again.

In the machine, we are always forgetting, chasing the same discourses and panics in circles. Instead of making restitution, we wait for the cycle to erase the screen and carry on as before. Stay long enough and everything rhymes with something that gave you scars, but that everyone else has forgotten. Resolution eludes us online even more than off. But then, the paradox: Nothing stays gone, either. Fast search resuscitates archives without even a bump in load time. Screenshots jump networks and decades; we have the receipts. Somewhere between the continual etch-a-sketch and structurally eidetic memory, the provisional and crucial ties of solidarity recede, always just out of reach.

I logged into Twitter to see if my stupid, painstakingly deleted tweets had been un-deleted: they had been, by the thousands. It’s a little on the nose.

We won’t technologize our way out of the ghost machine. I don’t think we’ll mod our way out, either. Actual trust and real safety do require protection from griefers and villains—and abuses of authority—but that’s table stakes: that’s the floor.

A building or a town becomes alive when every pattern in it is alive: when it allows each person in it, and each plant and animal, and every stream, and bridge, and wall and roof, and every human group and every road, to become alive in its own terms.

And as that happens, the whole town reaches the state that individual people sometimes reach at their best and happiest moments, when they are most free.

—Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Here in my body, I want to be more human in service of a less painfully haunted world. I want ways of being together that let us pay our respects and build different kinds of power. I want to practice being free.

1 June 2023

Books I’m reading

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m doing a bunch of reading-like-a-grad-student* this spring to try to get my head around the current state of online places and ways to be together and work together. A few people asked for a reading list, so I’ve pulled the books together—my stack of papers and articles is pushing 350 items and I don’t have time to winnow it down yet, but I’ll get there. (Also I’m sure I’ve forgotten books, this is literally just what I could gather up in my hands/on my devices.)

This is a snapshot of what I’m looking at, not a set of recommendations. Some of these books are much better than others. (About half of these are rereads.)

books aimed at practitioners (mostly not recently published)

  • Designing Social Interfaces: Principles, Patterns, and Practices for Improving the User Experience, Crumlish and Malone
  • Community Building on the Web : Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities, Amy Jo Kim
  • Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design, Kraut and Resnick
  • Designing for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places, Derek Powazek
  • Online Communities : Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability, Jenny Preece
  • Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities, Wenger, White, and Smith

framework reading

  • Community and Privacy: Toward a New Architecture of Humanism, Chermayeff and Alexander
  • The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander
  • Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown
  • A Pattern Language, Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein
  • Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Elinor Ostrom
  • Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, ed. Hess and Ostrom
  • The Real World of Technology, Ursula Franklin
  • The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map
  • How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
  • Thinking In Systems, Donella Meadows
  • Fields, Factories, and Workshops, Peter Kropotkin

the rest

  • Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions that Shape Social Media, Tarleton Gillespie
  • Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky
  • Lurking: How a Person Became a User, Joanne McNeil
  • The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Howard Rheingold
  • The Power of Many: How the Living Web Is Transforming Politics, Business, and Everyday Life, Christian Crumlish
  • The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community, Katie Hafner
  • The Rise of Virtual Communities: In Conversation with Virtual World Pioneers, Amber Atherton
  • Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, Charlton McIllwain
  • The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Astra Taylor
  • Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, Sasha Costanza-Chock
  • In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe
  • New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, James Bridle
  • The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Shoshana Zuboff
  • The Fight for Privacy: Protecting Dignity, Identity, and Love in the Digital Age, Danielle Citron
  • Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture, Andrew Hinton
  • Building Web Reputation Systems, Farmer and Glass
  • Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures, Christina Dunbar-Hester
  • Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, Ruha Benjamin
  • Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, Adam Greenfield
  • Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software, Nadia Eghbal
  • Design for Safety, Eva Penzeymoog
  • Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution, Douglas Schuler
  • Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, Safiya Noble
  • The Cold Start Problem: How to Start and Scale Network Effects, Andrew Chen
  • The Production of Houses, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, all four volumes of The Nature of Order, Alexander and co.
  • The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, Grace Lee Boggs
  • The Religion of Technology, David Noble
  • Routledge Handbook of the Study of the Commons, ed. Hudson, Rosenbloom, and Cole
  • My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, Julien Dibbell

* In honor of the hours I am spending virtuously not playing Tears of the Kingdom, grad-student mode for me rn is pretty much shaking trees, grabbing apples, snatching birds’ eggs, bagging weird emus, and hoarding sticks. In June, we cook. (And kill monsters.)

16 May 2023

Interhooking, interlocking, nonmaterial

This is the first in a series of reading notes I’m posting as I work through a stack of texts on community and sociability. I posted an intro to this series yesterday. You don’t need to read the intro to read this, but if you’re unfamiliar with either Christopher Alexander or adrienne maree brown, you might want to glance over it because I’m going to dive straight in. (The other most useful piece of context is probably that I’m a medium-old internet nerd with an academic background in English lit and a bunch of strong interests in other humanities zones.)

In The Timeless Way of Building (1979), Christopher Alexander laid out much of the theory behind the work he anatomized in A Pattern Language, which was published two years earlier.

In Timeless Way, Alexander writes that:

…each law or pattern is itself a pattern of relationships among still other laws, which are themselves just patterns of relationships again.

For though each pattern is itself apparently composed of smaller things which look like parts, of course, when we look closely at them, we see that these apparent parts” are patterns too.

Consider, for example, the pattern we call a door. This pattern is a relationship among the frame, the hinges, and the door itself: and these parts in turn are made of smaller parts: the frame is made of uprights, a crosspiece, and cover mouldings over joints; the door is made of uprights, crosspieces and panels; the hinge is made of leaves and a pin. Yet any one of these things we call its parts” are themselves in fact also patterns, each one of which may take an almost infinite variety of shapes, and color and exact size—without once losing the essential field of relationships which make it what it is.

The patterns are not just patterns of relationships, but patterns of relationships among other smaller patterns, which themselves have still other patterns hooking them together—and we see finally, that the world is entirely made of all these interhooking, interlocking nonmaterial patterns. (p. 90-91)

This is very 1970s! But also, I think, extremely right and useful: It gets us looking up and down the scale, watching for the way things interlock, or fail to interlock. This, in turn, leads us into the process-centric approach to architecture that Alexander promoted in his later career, when he judged that the pattern-based system he’d been teaching wasn’t actually producing great buildings out in the world.

The Nature of Order, Alexander’s four-volume grand unified theory, comes in at a bit more than 2,000 pages, and although I love it, I’m not going to try to summarize it. Instead, I want to glancingly look at what Alexander calls, near the end of his career, The Fundamental Differentiating Process.” I will horrifically oversimplify this process as:

  • Make a thing (or fix a thing that’s weak) by applying one of a series of 15 transformations designed to differentiate and strengthen both the part and the broader whole,
  • run up and down and across the system looking for trouble,
  • adjust as needed,
  • repeat.

It’s systems design, obviously—and algorithmic, as Dorian Taylor notes—but Alexander’s mode is specifically tied to his sense of the revelation and strengthening of a latent order that unfolds, as in the natural world. Hold onto that thought for a second.

Both in his early focus on patterns and especially in his later emphasis on the 15 transformations, Alexander was working with ideas of bringing latent wholeness and aliveness and goodness into full being by working at every scale at once. I’ve loved this from the moment I first read it.

I especially love this orientation for community/sociability work because it boosts up a sense of each individual piece of the work as both a sub- and a super-pattern, vibrating with potential to help or harm. This is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying, which is probably the right way to feel about community work.

unfolding, emergence, life

To carry on with ruthless oversimplifications, I think the central orientation in adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy is one of opportunistic, flexible, relationship-centered, low-ego interaction that both accepts and influences the unstoppable force of change. It takes Octavia Butler’s Earthseed principles, biomimicry, and a trunkful of other interesting things as a springboard into ways of being in the world that, in brown’s view, allow us to use simple ways of interacting with each other to build toward beautiful complexity.

Here’s brown:

How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. The patterns of the universe repeat at scale. There is a structural echo that suggests two things: one, that there are shapes and patterns fundamental to our universe, and two, that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale. (Emergent Strategy, p 52)

brown calls this guiding principle fractal. She writes, In the framework of emergence, the whole is a mirror of the parts. Existence is fractal—the health of the cell is the health of the species and the planet.” (p 13)

And here’s how she talks about the way bad patterns of work and behavior refract and replicate across even organizations trying to do good work:

So many of our organizations working for social change are structured in ways that reflect the status quo. We have singular charismatic leaders, top down structures, money-driven programs, destructive methods of engaging conflict, unsustainable work cultures, and little to no impact on the issues at hand. This makes sense; it’s the ­water we’re swimming in. But it creates patterns. Some of the patterns I’ve seen that start small and then become movement wide are:

  • Burn out. Overwork, underpay, unrealistic expectations.
  • Organizational and movement splitting.
  • Personal drama disrupting movements.
  • Mission drift, specifically in the direction of money.
  • Stagnation—an inability to make decisions.

[…] And this may be the most imporant element to understand—that what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system. (p 52-53, emphasis brown’s.)

This rings a full peal for me—on the negative-pattern side, because we’ve all seen organizations suffer from bad behavioral patterns that ripple outward. But more directly, on the positive side, because I have recent and kinda life-changing experience with the way focusing on the little squishy soft stuff changes everything.

treating the small scale as the big thing

Both at the COVID Tracking Project and before that, with the SRCCON conference series I worked on at OpenNews, we tried really hard to get the small scale right. In both cases, we did it because it seemed like the right thing to do—and for CTP, where we were trying to cobble together a national pandemic dataset using only our own hands and brains and those of several hundred remote volunteers, the only thing to do. We didn’t do it anywhere near perfectly in either organization, but we really sweated the human details—not in a luxury amenities or benefits package way, but in recognition of the shared human experiences of being embodied and tired and stressed out.

At SRCCON (a series of live conferences for technology, design, and data folks in newsrooms) that meant things like spacious schedules, genuinely good food, free or low-cost on-site childcare, live human captioning, venues with natural light, scholarships, a code of conduct backed by a safety team and plan, and a lot of other things.

At CTP, getting the small scale right meant welcoming, relationship-based training and orientation, steady encouragement to take time away from the work, and a high-fun/high-camaraderie internal community on Slack to help us all grind through months of wrenching, exacting work.

In particular, we tried to build non-punitive, structural safeguards around the human experience of making mistakes—because it let us assemble the best dataset we could, but also for the well-being of the people doing the work. And our decision to give our people explicit forgiveness and support when they screwed up turned into an essential part of the project’s macro culture; I think our insistence on individual grace, transparency, and quick, careful correction is a big part of what let us run a two-week crisis project for a full year. (There were extremely not-fun things, too, like asking even really helpful people whose working orientations went against the project’s emergent culture to step back or all the way out.)

At both CTP and SRCCON, our work on small-scale interactions seemed to help people inside the big systems work together with not just professionalism or civility but real charity and camaraderie to an extent that I found both consistently surprising and legitimately inspiring. And I’m wildly biased—I think the SRCCON folks were largely an exceptionally great subset of journalism and that our long-term volunteers at CTP were some of the best people anywhere—but I also think that handling a lot of small-scale things with unfeigned care and respect let most of them be at their best even in difficult circumstances.

where I got with these readings

Social platforms and communities and sub-community interactions online are a messy combination of pseudo-place and repeating event, and this can make them difficult to think about clearly. I’m finding it useful to spend time wrangling with the way interpersonal patterns and physical/architectural patterns self-replicate and buzz and either reinforce or dampen each other. Alexander and brown’s adjacent senses of pattern and replicating order have been simultaneously clarifying and complicating for me, in ways that feel fruitful for longer-term work.

next time: space, rituals, patterns

Next post up unless I get distracted again: patterns and events as standing waves, taking as a jumping-off point Alexander’s understanding of repetition:

Of course, the pattern of space, does not cause” the pattern of events.

Neither does the pattern of events cause” the pattern in the space. The total pattern, space and events together, is an element of people’s culture. It is invented by culture, transmitted by culture, and merely anchored in space.

But there is a fundamental inner connection between each pattern of events, and the pattern of space in which it happens. (Timeless Way, p. 92, emphasis Alexander’s)

And probably a lot about ghosts.

Oh and btw, if it looks like I’m poorly rehearsing a fundamental text from your particular field, it’s probably because I haven’t read it and you should send it to me so I can be smarter.

6 May 2023

Patterns, prophets & priests

I’ve been working on communication and community online for a couple of decades, but the past few years have shaken up my understanding of what we’re really doing here. So I’m trying to think in a focused way about how we work and hang out together online and because I’m me, I’ve collected a working library of about 300 articles and papers and 30ish books to get through, most of them fairly technical. Here at the start, though, I’m circling around a set of books that I’m thinking of as framework-level—not all theory, but abstracted out a couple steps from the down-in-it reading about experiments in community and sociability.

One of the clusters of framework texts I’m working with is the series of books by Christopher Alexander and his rotating crew of collaborators in and around the Center for Environmental Structure. These books have been touchstones for me for the past nearly twenty years, and giving myself a little time to loop back through them with my time-altered brain has felt both restorative and important. Right now I’m wrapping up a proper reread of Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building and finding a bunch of connections to another framework text I’m working through, Octavia Butler scholar, facilitator, and doula adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy.

I’m going to post a short(??) series here on those connections, but there’s some stuff I need to get out of my brain first, so this is that.

prophets and priests

I like reading Alexander and brown together in part because they’re so divergent in tone and form. I wrote around this contrast for days, but I think Henry Farrell’s essay this morning on tech-company founders as prophets in the Weberian sense of prophet vs. priest handed me exactly the distinction I’d been flailing around for. (Do read the Crooked Timber post, it’s great—and this, too, for a 15-second orientation.)

Reading Emergent Strategy is a dramatically different experience from working through the Alexander books: brown’s book is brief and delivered on the wing and frequently incantatory, intermingling leadership notes, theory, and poetry; its central dynamic is one of skimming over open water, dipping occasionally down and coming up with an illustrative anecdote. And, full confession, the book has been tricky for me to work with because it operates at a level of abstraction that sometimes reminds me of a very particular kind of learned, citation-heavy, often religious, ultimately charismatic leadership style. The approach itself isn’t objectively good or bad, but I mistrust it in the exact way that ever since I came off a rock face free-climbing at 17, my body locks up at a very specific distance from the ground.

And of course I do, I realized belatedly, reading Henry’s post. The ideas at the core of brown’s Octavia Butler scholarship are themslves a new scripture that Butler’s extremely compelling prophet character, Lauren Oya Olamina, codifies at the founding of her Earthseed religion. It’s prophets all the way down! Not in precisely the Weber sense, because brown is pretty hardcore about proposing rulesets and she’s definitely concerned with everyday life, but the vibe is present—she even talks about her own charismatic qualities in a really self-aware way. I might situate her as a prophet who is committed enough to do priestly things, which: respect.

But I’ve been wrangling a little with why Alexander doesn’t get to me in the same way. I think it’s mostly that in orientation, Alexander was a fundamentally priestly person who had to do some prophet things…which resulted in a huge number of pages of highly detailed explanations, case studies, and process discussions. The man trained as a contractor so he could spend much of his life on building sites, moving stakes and flags and cinderblocks around with his clients and colleagues—and a chunk of the rest of it doing things like coming up with alternative construction management contracts that would allow bureaucratic processes to flow around building projects based on the principles he outlined. And it turns out that reluctant prophets who just want to do priest things are close to my heart.

ANYWAY, now that I’ve done more of the reading around brown’s work—and been dragged backward through the events of the past few years—my sense of Emergent Strategy now is less that it’s a reference work I can’t quite click with and more that it’s a floating world of perceptive field notes and marginalia hovering across and between other things I’m reading and rereading by Octavia Butler (the focus of much of brown’s scholarship), Grace Lee Boggs, and many others. I think this reading is in tune with what brown writes about her own intentions:

I am offering […] a cluster of thoughts in development, observations of existing patterns, and questions of how we apply the brilliance of the world around us to our efforts to coexist in and with this world as humans, particularly for those of us seeking to transform the crises of our time, to turn our legacy towards harmony.

Her work coheres hypertextually and relationally, around and through community, and is as at least as embedded in collective forward movement as the work Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure got up to. And it’s been a joy to realize that many of the ideas at the heart of both Alexander and his colleagues’ work and that of brown and her shimmering cloud of references are not just compatible, but very closely linked.

the big questions

Alexander grappled—as a teacher, in his books, in his buildings—with an elusive but unifying theory of how to make buildings and other built spaces good, whole, and alive in ways that nourish the people inside them, sustain themselves, and improve the environments around them. I am, naturally, permanently fascinated with this work.

Alexander’s most widely read book is, by a wide margin, A Pattern Language—and it’s a great book that I always enjoy returning to. But I find the work he and his colleagues did around it to be the most valuable for what I’m doing now—especially the theory and reasoning and process laid out in A Timeless Way of Building and his later, intensely philosophical work, The Nature of Order. But throughout all his books, I would paraphrase the central question as: How can we make [buildings, systems, communities, towns] which make the people within them more whole and healthy and alive, which sustain themselves without draining or brutalizing anyone or anything else, and which support and improve the world around them?

Which is, or should be, one of the all-time big questions for anyone who builds anything ever.

Alexander, to his credit, never tried to dodge the weight of his beliefs. When pressed in an awkward but interesting short documentary to explain his goal for a particular building project, he glanced at the speaker with an expression of mild frustration and offered only, To make God appear in a field.”

adrienne maree brown is also investigating big mysteries, but from a different angle; she takes it as table stakes that her readers are dedicated to social justice and communal survival. But she’s also done that kind of justice work long enough to recognize that it’s difficult and often heartbreakingly ineffective—and frequently needlessly destructive to the people inside it. (My friends who’ve worked in human rights organizations have testified at length about this phenomenon.) I think the central question for brown is: how can we behave with one another in ways that make those goals achieveable—and our achievements enduring—at every scale, beginning with the way we treat one another as individual souls working toward a common good?

Reading Alexander and brown together, it seems to me that right in the center of the Venn diagram of bungled deadened spaces that make us and the world worse,” and, perverse behavioral patterns and incentives that warp even well-intentioned interactions” is…

the internet

Much of the online work we’ve done in the past couple of decades has failed to achieve any of brown’s or Alexander’s goals.

Instead, we’ve built or accepted…

  • the sprawling social platforms that greased the slide into increasingly dehumanizing politics and summoned the worst imaginable Biblically accurate angels of our nature
  • the rat-king of tech companies, news orgs, and entertainment conglomerates competing against each other to extract our attention and data for onward sale
  • the sacrifices of some human minds to the labor of protecting wealthier people from seeing atrocities in their feeds and some human bodies to the crushing and sometimes deadly labor of making frictionless online orders bloom into take-out and socks and perfect glass phones in our hands

…with, at its center, capital’s unqunchable rapacity and the high-value tech-world scammers feeding it increasingly hollow and absurd confidence games—Theranos one-offs, crypto, the legless metaverse—until nearly every tech corp is joyfully announcing that human interactions and bodies of knowledge can be replaced 1:1 with the hollowest and most absurd of confidence games, large language models pretending to be tools that can be trusted with anything at all.

We did some great things, too, almost all of them related directly to to the starry scatter of individual and small-group (and briefly, movement-sized) human connections that are heartening, strengthening, and good for the whole system. Also Wikipedia and whatever your equivalent of appliance-repair YouTube is, without which I personally would be back to breaking things with screwdrivers and swearing.

For a good chunk of the past 10 or 12 years, it’s felt to me like we were stuck in an age that shoved genuine attention to human-ness and care to the margins. (Margins as in sheltered places, as in idealistic founders who get pushed out after acquisitions, as in think tanks that absorb huge grants without exerting visible influence over the internet as it’s lived, as in the teams who get fired first when the Lay Off Your Smart People Challenge spreads like norovirus though the tech sector, again.)

But now? I’m not sure we’re as stuck as we were even a year ago, though not because of any of the certainties the fully financialized humans trying to make Web 3 happen are selling.

I think things feel wiggly and interesting right now because we really just do not know how things are going to shake out. Which means that maybe people who make things online but don’t have billions of dollars or a seat at the VC table can have more influence over the next generations of online sociability and communal life. But experience suggests that the window of opportunity will slam closed on our fingers as soon as the Duplo blocks of technocapital sort themselves into a sturdier new configuration, so we gotta try to get everyone out while we can.

Which, I suppose, is why I’m here right now. And tomorrow I’ll get on with the reading notes.

alongside this

5 May 2023

Blue skies over Mastodon

a label from White Wave's vegetarian soysage product, featuring a very late-1970's hand-drawn smiling pig with wiggly ears and a garland of flowers. The listed ingredients include okara (soy fiber), nutritional yeast, wheat germ, whole wheat flour, soymilk, safflower oil, and shoyu.

In the early 80s, my mom worked a couple shifts a month at a little small-town food co-op that smelled like nutritional mummy. She brought home things like carob chips and first-generation Soysage, which remains one of the grossest things I have ever eaten. This was also a real boom time for unsalted Legume Surprise and macrobiotically balanced grain mush that tasted like macrame owl.

This food sold reasonably well to a fringe class of Americans, including many who were rightfully worried about pesticides, animal cruelty, and the health effects of a meat-and-potatoes diet, and also a bunch who were just a real specific kind of nerd. And there was a strong current in the community of scorn for people who were lured into eating junk food when they could be eschewing seasonings until they could properly enjoy the glories of gelled millet or whatever.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few months on Mastodon and especially this week, as I hung out observing the pupal stage of Bluesky.

To get the background out of the way: Mastodon is a decentralized social network developed in the open and built on the ActivityPub protocol. It was founded by German software developer Eugen Rochko and is presently a German non-profit company. Bluesky is a social networking app built on the new Authenticated Transfer Protocol for decentralized networks, which is being developed in the open by the Bluesky team. Bluesky launched out of Twitter as a project promoted by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and is presently an independent US-based public benefit company headed by Jay Graber (Dorsey retains a seat on the board).

we are not the same

Things got interesting in the Bluesky closed beta this week when a ton of people got let in while the app was still in an unstable state—no block function, semi-working mute function, problems with enormous threads. Posters ran around threatening noted centrist Matt Yglesias with hammer emojis, etc.

Lots of people joined the Bluesky beta and posted about why it worked better for them than Mastodon did. A big chunk of Mastodon responded with a social immune response intended to both warn people away from Bluesky for a very long list of reasons, including its association with Dorsey, its incompleteness and everything that clearly meant about the intentions of the developers, and that it would split the decentralized network vote. Many, many posts that amounted to, Bluesky obviously won’t ban Nazis, let me repeat an enlightening story about a Nazi bar I’ve heard 400 times.”

Incidentally, when a straightforwardly I’m a Nazi” Nazi showed up in the beta, people used the report function, and the Bluesky team labeled the account and banned it from the Bluesky app and restricted promotion of the account of the person who invited him. This changed exactly none of the tenor of the Nazi conversation on Mastodon, but it happened.

I have a suspicion that a lot of the defensive maneuvering on Mastodon is happening because Mastodon fans know that the network absolutely cannot compete on user friendliness and basic social functionality, so they’re leaning hard into the things it does get right—and then, in some cases, trying to shame people into not even thinking about trying a competing network.

But about that ease of use problem. Let’s rewind for a second.

bouncing off Mastodon

During the big waves of Twitter-to-Mastodon migrations, tons of people joined little local servers with no defederation policy and were instantly overwhelmed with gore and identity-based hate. A lot of those people, understandably, did not stick around, and plenty of them went back to their other social spaces and warned others that Mastodon wasn’t safe. For people who lucked out and landed on a well-moderated instance, finding fun people to follow was hard and actually following each of them often involved three separate steps, depending on which link you happened to click.

It’s a lot of hassle for a gamble on a network that might not end up being what you need.

Over on Bluesky, by contrast, once you’re in the beta, it’s super easy to sign up, find people, follow them, and participate in conversations. I’m seeing a lot of the people I’ve missed the most since I stopped using Twitter in like 2018, which is a delight, but I’m also not really posting because it’s a chaos machine and it’s still way too early for me to know if I really want to contribute there.

The thing is, networks can recover from even big initial fuckups. Mastodon developers could have made a project of interviewing people who wanted to leave Twitter and then building their needs as a roadmap. Writers and designers could make a great brief visual + textual guide to a few fun, tightly moderated instances to join, with pros and cons and a comparison of moderation and defederation policies, and slap that on the front page of Join Mastodon. Or the team could have taken any of dozens of other suggestions for streamlining. None of that happened.

You can recover from bad product design choices by changing things, but you do have to change things. Neither did the Mastodon core developers take swift action to—well, do much of anything.

Editing on May 1 2023 to add: Eugen Rochko published a new blog post today that discusses immediate changes to the mobile sign-up flow, which should help with both the initial barrier and, maybe more importantly, the initial safety problem of people ending up on bad instances because they didn’t know any better. (Inevitably, lots of Mastodon users think this change is a terrible idea, but I’m not getting into that.)

In what I think is a positive sign, Rochko also wrote:

We’re always listening to the community and we’re excited to bring you some of the most requested features, such as quote posts, improved content and profile search, and groups. We’re also continuously working on improving content and profile discovery, onboarding, and of course our extensive set of moderation tools, as well as removing friction from decentralized features. Keep a lookout for these updates soon.

I’m adding this new context here because I think it kind of leapfrogs some of what I wrote in this post, and I’m leaving the rest of the post intact as a discussion of how things had been going until now. But I’m generally optimistic about these statements, and I hope they mean we’ll see more changes for the good. (end edit)

unfriendly design feeds insular culture

I—a nerd—actually really like Mastodon most of the time, but I would like it so much more and feel like it was doing a lot more good in the world if it were more welcoming and easier to use. When I raise these points on Mastodon, I get a steady stream of replies telling me that everything I’m whining about is actually great, that valuing a pleasant UI over the abstraction of federation is shallow and disqualifying, and that people who find Mastodon difficult don’t belong anyway, so I should go join Spoutible” or whatever.

And of course this stuff shows up in much worse ways for at least some Black and brown people on Mastodon.

I hate it that I can’t in good conscience encourage Black friends to get on Mastodon, because I know they’re going to be continuously chided by white people if they mention race or criticize anything at all about Mastodon itself. I hate that a difficult sign-up process keeps out lazy people with bad culture” is a thing in so many Mastodon conversations. (Fun fact, if you hold this idea up to your ear, you can hear them say sheeple.”)

I have absolutely zero fortune-telling to offer re: Bluesky. The AT protocol approach is enough of a tweak on existing models that I think it’s pretty much impossible to tell how it’s all going to play out when the technical abstractions meet actual users at scale—most of all, because it remains to be seen whether or how much the team will accept feedback on things that aren’t working (and for whom). In what seems to me like a moderately good sign, late on Saturday, Bluesky CEO Jay Graber posted:

At the very beginning of bluesky I said the tech would be straightforward to build, but moderation, and designing decentralized moderation, would be hard. It is. I talked with a bunch of people about it at our meetup today, but need to get the chance to sit down and write—so, logging off, see you tomorrow, and I hope we can get more of your proposed approaches implemented soon.

Maybe they’ll figure it out, maybe they won’t, but I would love to see even half the kicked-anthill energy being spent hating a closed beta app directed toward making Mastodon better for more people.

the strongest path forward for Mastodon advocates

I haven’t mentioned the simplest and IMO best critique of Bluesky and most other big platforms, which is that they emerged out of venture-capital galaxy brain, which has the moral sense of an AI chatbot. After the past decade or so on Twitter, I won’t touch anything Jack Dorsey has touched” is a reasonable reaction. I will only put my social labor into platforms that can never benefit billionaires” is fair.

But the missing step, to me, is when people with principled objections to other platforms are unwilling or unable to make the alternatives of their choosing more welcoming to more people. And there are absolutely people trying to do the work, but they’re dependent on the choke-point of what Mastodon-the-company decides is valuable. (Almost like something…centralized?)

One of the big things I’ve come to believe in my couple of decades working on internet stuff is that great product design is always holistic: Always working in relation to a whole system of interconnected parts, never concerned only with atomic decisions. And this perspective just straight-up cannot emerge from a piecemeal, GitHub-issues approach to fixing problems. This is the main reason it’s vanishingly rare to see good product design in open source.

Great product design is also grounded in user research and a commitment to ongoing evaluation and iteration. For something like a decentralized social network, it also requires letting people from many distinct communities help steer the ship—and building ways to work toward consensus in some areas and accept both conflict and compromise in others. And great design at mass scale requires the core team to value mass adoption and push back—hard and loudly—against the idea that inconvenience is good because it filters out undesirables.

This doesn’t mean that I think Mastodon should necessarily implement full-text search or the whole set of interlocking patterns that constitute Twitter-style quote posts. But particularly given the third-party pressure on both search and quote posts, I think it’s way past time to do full-scale user research and design work on ways to integrate some kinds of search and quotation in some places and in ways that preserve privacy, safety, and autonomy. And to handle the whole nested doll of problems related to sign-up, discovery, and following, for starters.

while I’m opinionating

I feel enormous empathy for tiny teams doing high-pressure work. I think Rochko and his team have pulled off great work over the past six years, and I think the tendency to assume the worst motivations for every action maintainers take is a great example of the way that treating open-source projects like merchants and behaving like enraged customers is gross and destructive. But I also think the best way out of the overloaded-maintainer nightmare is to:

  • communicate transparently—and mostly not in unfindable replies to random people,
  • to make alliances with people who have capacities you lack, like user research and distributed deliberation, and
  • to devolve power whenever you can.

I recognize that that last piece is incredibly difficult to do when you feel like your singular human judgment is at the core of something huge, because judgment doesn’t necessarily scale. But my big hope for Mastodon is that the core maintainers find a way to do it in the very near future—or that other organizations step up to fund and shepherd forks of the project.


If we want more people to enjoy what we believe are the benefits of something like Mastodon, it’s on us to make it delicious and convenient and multi-textured and fun instead of trying to shame people into eating their soysage and unsalted soup.

I hope all of that is actually possible for Mastodon, because a lot of great people very much want it to become a more welcoming place. But the longer Mastodon stays in Linux-on-the-desktop mode, the more likely those people are to take their energy somewhere where it’s valued.

30 April 2023

Matches, pebbles, hair, salt

Grief is weird in the nineteenth-century sense, uncanny and otherworldly; it eats words and turns up every card blank. Two years ago, I left the most meaningful and by far the most wrenching job I’ve ever had. I wrote about it before we wound down, and afterward said almost nothing.

Now I find myself having things to think again, and maybe write. First going back a little, then moving on.

The COVID Tracking Project started with a question about how many covid tests the US was doing in early 2020. This question was in service of a much larger one: What is happening to us?

To answer the first question and then the second, we built an organization to compile, contextualize, and disseminate a daily national pandemic dataset for the United States, running on almost entirely volunteer labor. It was a frankly unhinged thing to do, but then it worked. And then we had to keep doing it because so many organizations and people depended on it, so we did it not for the two or three weeks we’d planned on, but for a full year.

Nothing we did compared to front-line medical work, but it was also just untenable: barely doable in the technical sense, subject to immense pressures from every side, painfully exacting when no one’s brain was working well, and built on scattershot datasets that became fractally more complex over time.

With our faces pressed against the glass of all that data, we started to get a feel for the underlying patterns though which case numbers turned to hospitalizations, and then, some weeks later, to death counts. We weren’t any of us special Cassandras, just people confronting the stark mathematics of disease progression, fatality rates, and time. I think most of us shared the sense that if we could work harder, communicate more clearly, warn louder, we might be able to prevent some of the suffering we could see coming every time cases ticked up Also that if we ever seriously fucked up in a way that shook confidence in our work, we’d be responsible for not preventing that suffering. People were dying by the tens of thousands, and some of them, inevitably, were people we knew and loved.

And all the while, the federal government—the people who should have been doing the work to begin with—flailed and bit itself and hid its own best reports from the public. So our hundreds of volunteers and eventually paid core staff worked ridiculous hours, changed their lives, quit jobs, moved cross-country, and put degrees on hold. (I was the project’s managing editor and co-lead of the full org with Alexis Madrigal, and the only way I can describe what happened to me is that I was consumed.)

But while all that was happening, something else was running alongside: Our bare-bones work offered a severe kind of clarity and purpose, and the culture of gratitude, pragmatic support, and unabashed love we built inside the project kept us alive. It was grotesquely imperfect, but it worked well enough that a couple hundred core people kept showing up long past the point when any rational actor would have stopped.

after the waves wash out, what remains?

I came into the tracking project believing that there were better ways to work together than most of us experience, that most people want a chance to do good work, and that treating every human with unfeigned care and fully demonstrated respect isn’t a nice-to-have, but the thing itself. I came out of the project with those truths written in fire on my bones.

For the past two years, I’ve put my energy into my family, my damaged health, and my other work, and spent some time feeling my way through a whole tire-fire of unresolved anger and grief over what did happen to us in that first terrible year. The internet dropped clean off my list of things to care about. But then the world changed again and I got back some of that Le Guinean sense that the locked-up technological present was maybe more malleable than I’d thought. I started tracing the threads of work and sociability and community back through my two decades of work in tech and journalism. Shapes began to emerge, though less in the mode of a designer at a drawing board and more like a Miyazaki outtake of something getting winched up, rusted and dripping, from the water.

So: New website. New writing. What is happening to us?

I was rereading the old OSS Simple Sabotage Field Manual this week and was struck by this bit (emphasis all mine):

Use materials which appear to be innocent. A knife or a nail file can be carried normally on your person; either is a multi-purpose instrument for creating damage. Matches, pebbles, hair, salt, nails, and dozens of other destructive agents can be carried or kept in your living quarters without exciting any suspicion whatever.

Hair! It’s one jar of teeth short of folk magic.

I’ve been thinking about how the things we carry with us online—hopes and habits and norms and assumptions and histories—sabotage our ways of working and being together. But I’ve come to suspect that with careful examination, some of them can also serve as instruments of liberation and maybe communion, whether that means breaking the old machines or building new and better things of our own. So that’s what I’ll be writing about here.

8 April 2023