A True Struggle

If the past is a different country, we are all a long way from home. All of our vacations, concerts and conventions have been cancelled. Millions are out of work. Hundreds of thousands are dead. The United States has been in constant civil unrest since George Floyd was murdered by police on May 25th. For comparison, the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination only lasted 4 days.

What’s really infuriating is all the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, chances people in power got to make things right. So many peaceful protests, so much patience. Now all that goodwill has run out, and rightly so. The protesters who burned down that Minneapolis precinct enacted more change in a single week than most organizers can manage in decades. It’s got people worried that things are moving too fast, but we already know the consequences of moving too slowly. We’re living in them right now.

What’s more, I just feel betrayed when friends, teachers, and older relatives sound off on social media about “the rioters” and “the looters”. Like all those lives ruined by the police are acceptable casualties of a just society. Like they don’t matter. Especially sickening is this open letter published Harper’s magazine signed by intellectual magnates such as Malcolm Gladwell and Margaret Atwood. The letter defends the idea of having a “good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences”.

It’s one of those lovely liberal screeds that sounds perfectly reasonable if you remove it from the context of this universe. People don’t have equal access to free speech. There is a difference between an article in Harper’s magazine and a twitter account. The editor they mentioned that was “fired for running controversial pieces” ran an op-ed about how the US government should use military force against civilian protesters. One of the letter’s signatories, J.K. Rowling, has wrote several articles against the very existence of transgendered people, using the same logic that gets them regularly fired, de-homed, and murdered.

It is a chilling love letter to objectivity and the “marketplace of ideas”. People are now dying in the streets because of this so-called civility. People like Diaz Summer, who was killed on the same stretch of road where I used to drive my family on vacation. There have been 66 incidents of protesters being run over since George Floyd was murdered on May 25th. Do you think those drivers are swayed by “exposure, argument, and persuasion”? There is no debating with people like that. Certainly not the police who share memes like “all lives splatter”. Debate is something that takes place between parties who respect each other as equals, not between wannabe murderers and their potential victims. This is a letter is a call to treat real people’s pain like it’s an abstract thought experiment. It’s repulsive.

This is not to say that debating is useless, or that violence is inevitable. We can accept that there will be conflict in this day and age. We can accept that we have limited time and energy, and we don’t have to spend it on people who are going to be willfully ignorant. We focus so much on our relatives who share conservative memes and articles because of something called a Negativity bias. It is a real psychological phenomenon that causes us to focus on unpleasant things like your favourite children’s author going full TERF. I’m willing to bet that if you’re reading this, for every high-school classmate who loudly proclaims they won’t take a COVID vaccine, you have at least 10 friends who are sharing protest news, bail fund donations, and links to social justice petitions. Message them, empower them, like, comment, and subscribe to what they’re sharing. We cannot depend on our leaders, we cannot depend on our elders, and we absolutely cannot depend on so-called liberal intellectuals who can’t stomach a mean comment on twitter. What can depend on, dear readers, is each other.

May the 4th be with you!

Even though I’m known as the “Star Wars” guy in a lot of my social circles, “May the 4th Be With You” always sneaks up on me. Should I have put up decorations? Should I hold a dinner? Should I invite that one relative with the controversial prequel opinions? I never know what to say on May the 4th, but after looking at some of the online discourse, I have some thoughts.

It seems like the final film, Rise of Skywalker, made nobody happy. It didn’t ask a lot the thematic questions that the Last Jedi did. Many characters that we fell in love with were sidelined, their arcs left unfinished. The final conflict was decided by the characters who screamed the loudest. And ultimately, we were reminded that these movies are directed by a bunch of white guys who don’t quite realize the hopes and dreams that these films carry. Hearts were broken. Boxes were ticked. Did I enjoy it? Yes, but I’m a little ashamed of it.

If you want to say Rise of Skywalker is a bad movie, I’m not going to disagree with you, but it’s getting to the point where these opinions are taking away from the goodness that was Last Jedi. I enjoyed Rise of Skywalker because I knew there was no way that it could follow the act of the Last Jedi. That movie parodied, deconstructed, and deified that franchise all in one movie. We were lucky to see it. For me, it was like watching Adam West’s Batman punching out Jared Leto’s Joker. All of the characters were experiencing this conflict between the holding on to the past and destroying it for the sake of the future. Rey had to convince Luke that she was worth training. Finn had to decide between running from the resistance and facing his former taskmasters. Poe had to grapple with the responsibilities of his command. They all made mistakes, people died, but by the end, they all grew a little, as characters should.

The next movie was complete cheese-whiz on microwaved buttered popcorn, but that shouldn’t overshadow that inspiration we discovered. Here’s the brilliant thing about Star Wars. We can fix the parts we don’t like. Do you know why? It’s fan fiction. George Lucas wrote it because he couldn’t get the rights to Flash Gordon. Just like how Nintendo created Mario after they couldn’t get the rights to Popeye. We can write our own stories where love triangles aren’t resolved by two of the people being brother and sister. We can have that marriage between a career politician and a high flying dumbass that works. Stories where protagonists don’t have to be white or straight. If you can’t write it, look for it. It may even already out there, and just hasn’t been served up by starving special effects artists yet. Did the Mandalorian have too much machismo for you? Try the Murderbot series! I love them both, but Murderbot has more emotional intelligence. The new novel is coming out tomorrow. We can find those stories that energize us, that make us grow, not by complaining about what we hate, but by celebrating what we love.

The Unfairness of Expression

Hello, everyone. To anybody who doesn’t know, my name is James Strocel. I’m speaking to you from the great COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. It’s April 1st. I’m in my basement, and in the madness of isolation, and the desperation of impending doom, I’ve done the most selfish, unforgivable act. I’ve created a podcast. Vlog. Essay type thing. You are hearing my voice right now. And that’s unfair.

I didn’t want to do this while history was raging around me. I wanted it be my own personal midlife crisis thing, where I figure out how to use a microphone, to talk to the camera, and how to do that thing youtubers do when they smash cut where there’s supposed to be a joke. It started off with a new years resolution after I made a blog post that got over 20 likes from my friends and family. Thank you, everyone, for encouraging my most pretentious impulses. It was then and there I decided tha like some people who bring out guitars at parties, I’m the guy who gets a pen and paper. I program websites for my day job, I love writing, people say they like my writing, but writing doesn’t pay enough to cover my mortgage. But I still love doing it, I love creating things. It’s just an impulse i have.

Even, I can’t escape the feeling of how fundamentally unfair it is that I’m doing this. People are dying, people have lost their jobs, and will lose their homes, and here I am in my house, surrounded by my family, with a job that I can do from home. The internet’s working, the utilities are on. My extended older family members are staying put for the most part. I live in a country with a single payer health care system. My car works. I have all the consoles. Because this happened while I was having a staycation, I got to prepare for the coming shelter in place guidelines.

Really, with all the safety and security in my life, right now. What right do I have to take up people’s time like this? There are many marginalized people out there who are being aggressively not listened to. There’s racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and just outright theft of people’s lives going on. You should be listening to Shelley Moore, or Naomi Klein, or Ijeoma Oluo, or Casey Explosion, people who have a direct connection to injustice, and have a platform to do something about it. What is the point of listening to yet another white guy, playing with his electronics, drunk on the fantasy, that anybody, anywhere, cares what he thinks?

Then again, maybe you’re just here to talk to me. Me specifically. You clicked the link, opened the file, or read the transcript because we know each other, maybe we’re acquaintances, maybe you’ve known me all my life. Maybe like me, you’re just kind of in a holding pattern and you want to do something more with your thoughts and feelings than bake sourdough bread. See, I love writing, writing stuff like this video. I am sharing it because I want to know if it’s any good. If it’s not, I learn and get better. I hope I can do one of these videos a week. I’ll talk about books I’ve read, things I see, things I’m doing. I don’t know if this has any value, but the value of everything now is such an open question. This is how I’m going to wrestle with it. With all of you. See you next time.

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.