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