2020: The Year We Look for the Future

The year isn’t two days old and already we are dealing with climate change fires in Australia, half the city of Hong Kong is still protesting after 8 months, and the US is still practicing diplomacy via remote controlled contract killings. The world’s democracies are electing strong men once again to somehow control a changing world. In times like these, there’s only one thing I can do: Look for the future.

I’ve looked to the future my whole life for answers. They were right there in that Usborne book of the future I took out of the elementary school library. I learned that yes, some day Star Wars could be real. For a while, this last decade, I thought I was living in it for a while. We got computers that fit in our pockets, we had access to all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, and we communicated through social networks where everyone, no matter how small or marginalized your identity may be, had a voice. Computer power accelerated exponentially according to Moore’s Law. I just assumed that humanity would get better along with the technology. It didn’t.

It turns out all those wonderful computers, materials, and software were bankrolled by old money trying to “create value”, as it were. The goods and services that we take for granted are being optimized beyond the point of uselessness. Our search results are choked with ads. Our social media feeds are filled with racism and mysogyny because it “drives engagement”. The gig economy that was supposed to liberate workers from the drudgery of 9-5 office jobs instead places them in servitude to giant tech monopolies. The blockchain, the technology that was supposed to automate ownership, is inefficient and deadly to the environment. Bitcoin alone emits 22 million tonnes of carbon every year. In every sector of the economy, the profit motive has ceased to make our world better. The pundits tell us to just not buy from Wal-mart, Amazon, McDonalds, or any other company that’s having a PR team off-day, but what’s the point of voting with your dollars if your wages are being depressed?

To illustrate how much corporations have ruined the web, take this essay posting on my obsolete website from 2005. I’ll have to copy and paste it as a facebook post and twitter thread, because those companies hate it when users follow links off their website. I’ll get buried by the algorithm in favor of some minion meme. So technology, in and of itself, is not the future. Neither are the corporations, or the business of billionaire-making.

Anyway, if that’s not the future, what is? I think we got a few glimpses of it in this last decade. The internet was at its best when it put you in contact with people outside your social circle. I’ve got whole extended found family in Seattle thanks to cheap and easy instant messaging. Anything that stretches the boundaries of your social skills is going to be crucial. It’ll take breaking some rules. Look at that facebook friends list for example. What if you sent any of those friends a message? Or hit that video call button by mistake? Think of how that would change your day. We’ve been duped into thinking that maintaining all these acquaintances is friendship, but there is no real maintaining going on. Only 10% of those contacts post regularly anyway.

The way we relate to ourselves and each other is going to change a lot in this decade. New conflicts are going to erupt. Others are going to be resolved. This is not some half-hearted call for a return to civility. The concept of respect itself is going to be redefined. We cannot simply defer to some abstract idea of objectivity. In the past this was the person in the room who talked the whitest and malest. Marginalized voices will be crucial to this change. Facts may not care about your feelings, but feelings are also facts. There will perspective taking, but also boundaries drawn. I know I’m speaking in vague soothsaying generalities, but we are dealing in the ugly, exciting, and unpredictable world of human contact. Where we are going, we don’t need roads.

And what does that mean for me? 40-year-old James Strocel with his job, family, and mortgage to pay down? At the beginning of the decade, I was having lunch with more people. I’d like to do that again. I want to stop being so precious about my writing. Get out there, say stupid stuff, and pay the price in my twitter mentions. I understand the economics of those platforms, and what they are doing to society, but right now, it’s where the people are. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to talk to more people regularly via text message or signal, my paranoid secure instant messenger of choice. Lots of times I send out texts and get no response other than existential dread in return. I think it means I need to send more memes. It’s going to be a lot of cancelled plans and awkward silences, but I think this is the direction I want to grow. It’s a direction that fills me with that nervous excitement that I felt before, so long ago. It is the future.

It’s Time for a Democratic Social Network

The social blogging site Tumblr announced that on December 17th, 2018 that they would be removing all pornographic content from their site. Anything that has been “flagged” as controversial will be deleted. The content was flagged using a computer program rather than human moderators, which has led to what you might call a scorched earth content policy. Anyone who has used Tumblr knows that this is the end of Tumblr. The site was known as an internet home for creators considered outside the mainstream, including LGBTQ artists and sex workers. It did not build a user base out of religious tracts and home recipes. The site is about to implode in conflagration of capitalist fear and greed.

The strategy centers around Tumblr’s placement in the iOS app store, which has its own arbitrary content rules. Most recently, Tumblr had to deal with a series of programs, or “bots” that were posting child pornography on their site. Even after removing those accounts, they could not get Apple to reinstate their position in the app store, and this latest announcement is a last ditch effort to get back on the iPhone.

Tumblr’s executives are going to whitewash this move for their investors, who are mostly banks and venture capital firms. They are going to make some noises about “leadership” and “tough decisions”, but we the users can see this behaviour and know its true meaning: Capital makes all the decisions on the internet, and it’s time we put a stop to it.

Social Networks have put us all in this weird situation with corporations. We are consumer and product all at the same time. We make a choice of the content we consume with our likes and follows, and that data is a product sold to advertisers who sell us ever more products. Some of those products even help users produce more content, which attracts more consumers, which generates more data to sell, and on it goes.

We know this cycle is profitable, and we are just beginning to see where it leads. I pray that we do something before we actually see where it leads, because holocaust denial and flat earth theories make big money for these companies. Facebook and Twitter are on the cusp of being regulated. They are mini-nations, with the attentions of hundreds of millions of people. But we can’t simply let them be regulated like television and radio, because that would be abandoning the best feature of the internet – the interactivity. Once again, the internet can do better than traditional media. It can be run democratically.

Consider this, have you ever been consulted about the design decisions of any social network? You probably haven’t, and if you knew how social networks were built, you would think that’s insane. Making twitter clones is a rookie trick for most coding “boot camps”. It seems like magic, but all of these social networks have been cobbled together from codebases that are available freely on the internet. Breaking off and starting your own social network is easy enough. Sites like Mastodon and Pillowfort already fill that niche, but what if their design decisions were made democratically? Every network has settings that tailor the user experience for individual users, but what about the decisions that affect multiple users, like budgets, codes of conduct, or the design of the algorithm that shows content?

In the race to become profitable, the large social networks are ignoring the users that made them attractive to capital. This is one of those unique times in technology history where plucky upstarts can take down industry titans. Instead of just transmitting and receiving content, we can change our media into new experiments in governance. Social networks have always provided the illusion of democracy with their voting systems, but we can go much further now. We could have social networks run by representation, user contribution, random lottery, or even cult of personality. Not all of these configurations work, but we already know that letting corporations and advertising run our lives on the internet is not working. We can reshape the future, we just have to try.

Voting, in the City and Elsewhere

I wonder why we are okay with this.

In the town where I live, we have skyrocketing housing prices, rapidly expanding homeless camps, gang violence, and a stadium that lost its NHL farm team. Despite this, the voter turnout for our municipal election was only 35%. So for 65% of the 141,000 people who live here, this is all a perfectly fine outcome. Most of the people voted in were incumbents. It could have been worse, many of the new anti-SOGI trustee candidates did not get in, but other conservative candidates held on to their positions. It just boggles my mind that most people in my hometown could not be moved to take 10 minutes and vote.

I wonder if this is what true privilege looks like. To be so far removed from the decisions governing your life that anything short of a military coup d’etat couldn’t get you out to the polls. Then again, are we so beaten down by the crime and poverty that we just accept it as a part of life?

I’m probably thinking too hard about this. The truth is, city politics is just not exciting enough for most people. The CBC ran episode of “Murdoch Mysteries” instead of the Toronto election results, and the stakes were far higher for that contest.

It just feels lonely more than anything. I like the idea that I have a say in the way government is run. All that boring stuff creates decisions that fundamentally change our lives and that’s exciting. I don’t feel like I can shame people for not voting if they don’t feel represented. God knows I don’t feel represented every time I head to the polls. But if this isn’t working, we need to have better options than just being ruled over by decree.

The Cishet Male Selfie

Why do men hate taking selfies? Messing around on the internet one night, I decided to type this question into google. All I came up with was a bunch of articles talking about how men hate it when women take selfies. It was like I was looking at the patriarchy in clickbait form. Not only were people not asking why men didn’t take selfies, but they were more concerned about men’s opinions of other people who took did selfies. Talk about making it all about you.

The cishet male selfie is rare beast out in the wild internet. They don’t post photos of themselves in an outfit saying, “I feel handsome today”. Guys night out remains undocumented. It’s like we’ve selectively airbrushed ourselves off the internet. Why?

Since we live in a patriarchy, we men tend to denigrate anything that women are into. See the backlash against the Twilight novels and the Netflix She-ra reboot. We also have traditional values against vanity and being focused on personal appearance, going all the way back to the Narcissus myth in Ancient Greece. Being too obsessed with anything is bad to be sure, but what’s wrong with simply regarding your own self-image? What is wrong with trying to control it, if only for a brief moment?

In 2014, the #365FeministSelfie campaign was launched by Veronica Arreolla. It challenged the media stereotypes surrounding selfies. It encouraged women to take control of their own self image, use these photographs as expressions of their authentic selves and their bodily autonomy. Now you’d think men, with all our exhortations about individualism and self-sufficiency would be all about that, but not so much!

I think what really puts men off of taking selfies is the vulnerability of it all. Not only are you putting up an image of yourself for all to see, critique, and photoshop into compromising positions, but you are admitting to an aspect of your humanity. You dared to regard yourself. We men are all about policing each other’s humanity. Ever since we are children, if you admit to loving people, having fears, even having things that make you angry, that one emotion patriarchy allows you to have, that information can be weaponized against you. You are a target for ridicule, isolation, and worse.

Why do we accept this? If we value our freedom, our autonomy, why do we put up with our own erasure? When you get right down to it, a lot of Patriarchy is made up of social scripts that we follow simply without thinking. When we break those scripts, the illusion breaks down and we have to consider our place in society. When we do that, we look back on the old script and realize what it cost us emotionally to maintain it. We feel the freedom. And if you want to feel that freedom too, post that outfit if you’re enjoying how you look today, capture that post-workout flush on your cheeks at the gym, or just find your good side.

ArenaNet, Cultivated Consumer Identity, and The Loud Vocal Minority

It surprises me how much I continue to lie to myself about the games industry. Take ArenaNet for example. I’m not a Guild Wars player, but they had a writer named Jessica Price on their team. She is known on Twitter for talking about sexism in the tech industry, which is a tough gig if you’re not a white male. I could look at that arrangement and think, you know, the video games industry has its problems, but there are islands of free thought where workplace diversity is appreciated and strong employee opinions were at least tolerated.

This lovely vision was dashed out of existence when ArenaNet fired her over a disagreement with a twitch streamer on twitter. A developer who had worked there for 12 years was also fired for defending her. If it wasn’t obvious before, the games industry, and by extension the entire tech industry at large displays a shocking disregard for the dignity of their employees. This all could have been solved by a simple apology, but ArenaNet caved to a harassment campaign and set the worst possible precedent.

The Guild Wars players that were hurt by Jessica’s posts are gloating right now. It’s like they expect every game developer to do double duty as a customer service punching bag. One post on a community forum said, “they’ll know we got their hands around their throat and we can squeeze any time we like”

What’s even more chilling is how viciously they defend the company’s “right” to fire people. This is the voice of beaten people. They’ve gotten so used to so-called “right to work” laws and contract jobs that they resent anybody who has it slightly better than they do.

It all just makes my heart sink. The worst part is that this overbearing hyperconsumer behavior is actively cultivated by the game companies. They want people to invest their entire identities into these games. They want the kind of fans that will harass, steal, and kill for their products. That’s why they’re willing to throw employees under the bus for these customers.

After all, that’s where they get the most revenue, right? Those are the whales, the hardcore fans, the 5% of the audience that pays for other 95%. It makes sense that they cater to their most profitable customer base. Or does it? ArenaNet now has to deal with a fanbase that thinks it can strongarm anything they want from the company. The Guildwars IP is going to stagnate, since any changes are going to be met with the same kind of force they saw here. And every game developer out there is going to know what kind of loyalty they can expect from ArenaNet.

The firings at ArenaNet do not make any sense from a moral or business standpoint, as if those 2 things are separate. Game developers should not wait for ArenaNet or any other company to learn this lesson. The industry is long overdue for a union, and organizations like Game Workers Unite are stepping up to the plate. Consumers don’t have to wait either. We have to speak out against this kind of toxic behavior, and if we don’t, the loud vocal minority is here to stay.