Asymmetric Intimacy

One of the most novel and under-considered realities of the internet age is the extent to which it has allowed for the creation of heretofore unprecedented types of relationships. Asymmetric intimacy–one of these new types–is about the way that you run across something and think to yourself, “[Person who I’ve never met] would love this.” Or the way that you find yourself reading the words of a person you’ve never said a word to and getting that jolt of someone understands. Or the way that you know that someone who has no idea who you are is really into this television program and probably watching it now. Or the way that you see an object and you think that “[Person I’d love to meet] has one of those”.

Many of those realizations, and a million others like them, would be considered rather creepy to know in any older context. The word “stalker” could reasonably be invoked. Except for the fact that all the information needed to have these thoughts is given freely to anyone on the internet by a large majority of the internet-connected population. This is the new world of asymmetric intimacy.

Today you follow people on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram who don’t follow you back. People who have never even noticed that you took an interest in their relationship status, their random rantings, or mundane photographs. But there you are, getting intimate with those breadcrumbs they’re making public. You lay in bed with this person’s stuff. You use the bathroom while looking at details of strangers’ lives. It’s not technically stalking–you’re only getting the clues they’re making public–but it sure is weird looked at with different eyes. You’ve been amassing an absurd amount of details about their more and less intimate aspects in some of your most private time.

It’s worth saying that it isn’t only the internet that facilitates this type of asymmetric intimacy. Throughout its history celebrity culture (typified by the likes of Entertainment Tonight, People Magazine, and TMZ) has been built around the same basic goal: knowing people you don’t know. But the difference–and somewhat paradoxical part of that as an example–is that celebrity culture frequently gains these glimpses through transgressive means. That is: at best, People Magazine allows me to feel intimate with Tom Hanks by interviewing him and getting him to say novel things about himself. At worst, it allows me to feel intimate with Leonardo DiCaprio by taking photo of him having lunch with his mother or girlfriend or mistress that he’d never want widely distributed.

This need to have outsiders around to document celebrities is lacking from the asymmetric intimacy that the internet enables. We’re thoughtlessly sharing these things freely. Internet-based asymmetric intimacy is so novel because it’s unforced and ubiquitous. These facts are deeply intertwined: if it required coercion it wouldn’t be ubiquitous, and if it wasn’t ubiquitous it would feel forced.

Obviously these traits do lend a slightly different feel to this type of intimacy than one had with its preceding forms. In most forms of internet intimacy one doesn’t gain knowledge that its owner preferred not to share. I don’t know who an internet personality is dating in the way I might with movie stars. Conversely I may get to know that internet person thinks Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is the most brilliantly trashy show on TV, which I’d probably never get to learn about Mr. DiCaprio by reading People.

Another, perhaps more fitting, analogy is that of a 19th century columnist or diarist. Existing on the internet today is somewhat like being a fan of a nineteenth century writer, admiring their work and feeling you know the writer well from what they disclosed of themselves in their works. But this writer would rarely know anything of you who regard them with so much interest.

Obviously this, too, is flawed. Today written words take seconds, not weeks, to go through the process of conception, recording, and dissemination. As a result people can pub­lish such a diver­sity of stuff (essays, notes, quips about the mun­dan­i­ties of their life, pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions, etc) that if someone wants to pay atten­tion, they can get a much fuller pic­ture of who a per­son is than the entire cor­pus of a 19th century author would ever be likely to give.

There’s no scary reality of this asymmetric intimacy I’ll now warn you about. There’s no great positive conclusion I have to make. Instead I just hope you pause, sometimes, while you scroll through Facebook or Twitter and sit for a second with the undeniable thought that “This is weird!”.


Journalism’s Overreporting Problem

Right now, in the United States the presidential campaign season is hitting its stride, and all the big news organizations that are still alive have an abundance of reporters on that beat. Frankly I’m far too lazy to do any real research into this, but I’m confident in saying that every majors new organization has a least one reporter following the race, and that’s at least a dozen reporters too many.

Political horse races are an easy and banal beat. The vast majority of the stories that reporters spend their time covering are the one they’re being horse-fed by the campaigns. These reporters are jumping campaign bus to campaign bus on their way from campaign stop to campaign stop, hopefully pausing once in a while to actually put their ear to the ground and learn what people feel about all the hubbub.

Obviously there are uses to having all these journalists. Sometimes they get to ask the candidates real questions, and sometimes those questions won’t be met with a well-rehearsed dodge. And when those situations arise, it’s nice to think that your reporter will be there to ask really penetrating and valuable questions that shed new light on the story.

But has that happened yet this campaign season? Were all the beat reporters in the White House in the lead up to the Iraq War of 2003 of any value at all in making the country more aware of the war’s foolishly assembled proximate causes? Were that same cluster of reporters any better at asking the hard questions about what would happen after the country’s inevitable victory?

Defenders of the old journalistic order act as though it’s a catastrophe every time a paper cuts its staff. As though we’re losing some valuable insight into the ways of the world. But the simple reality is that for most of the 20th century reporters served in massively inefficient silos. Every paper, magazine, radio station, and TV channel that wanted a seat at the journalistic table acted as though it existed in a vacuum, and that it was truly vital that they were at the battlefront of every war, at every campaign stop, in every capital where things may happen.

In the well-connected world we currently inhabit the value of reporting for yourself from the campaign trail is massively marginal. Almost no value is realized by having ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, The New York Times, et al following the same campaign in almost the self-same way. What we really could see some benefit from, where these old dinosaurs could really prove the value of their massive staffs, would be to take 10 or 20 reporters currently following every moment of the campaign and disperse them across Washington looking for the under-reported stories. There are certainly important things going on in that town that aren’t sufficiently reported-on for people out here in the world.

The problem that news organizations still don’t have their heads around is the value of truly unique reporting in the networked world. When the paper was the way most people got their news, it was valuable for the paper to focus on the biggest 20 stories in the world and provide up-to-date reports on it. The economics even allowed them to have their own man on each of those scenes. It’s become increasingly clear in the dawn of the 21st century that there’s no room for that model any more.

Perhaps what we need instead is to have a few reporters per issue or candidate. One woman covering Mitt Romney’s campaign will be the one the New York Times gets a progress report from. And when ABC needs a stand-up piece on the front-runner, they go to her. And when Time wants  a longer think-piece about the implications of the Romney campaign, they also go to her. This sort of freelance-reporting seems like a pretty obvious way the journalism business could save money and sacrifice minimal value.

What’s absolutely clear is that shredding the vestigial print-business isn’t the only thing old-school news organizations will need to do in a new world. The sheer volume of people currently dispatched to report on all the latest bleatings of the campaigns drives that point home crystal clear.


Why Gamification Excites Me

It’s worth establishing right off the bat that (A) gamification is a stupid ugly word; that it (B) is misused and abused to mean shallow vague things of very limited value; and (C) neither of those things diminish the power of that idea.

Before I explain to you the immense power behind the incorporation of game-like mechanics into your life, it would help if you were more immediately aware of your life’s perfectibility. So, a few things to consider:

  • Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but have never done?
  • What are the things you consider most important for a person to accomplish in their life? Are you doing them?
  • Is there one giant important goal that you’d love to accomplish in your life but have no idea how you would even begin to do it?
  • Do you find yourself spending your time doing neutral to harmful activities in your life, even when you know there are positive things you could be doing?

OK, enough making you aware of your failings. Now, I want you to suspend for a second all attachment you have to plausibility, practicality, and propriety and just go on an imagination trip with me. Let’s go.

You just got back from work–a place you spend your time in exchange for currency, but don’t feel a strong affection for or sense of purpose in–rather than flipping on the television and tuning out, you decide to investigate this new thing you heard about. Your friend swears that it’s changed her life and you’re curious to know if it’s for real.

You load up this new thing and it faces you with this question: What are three things you’d most like to accomplish in the next 24 hours? After thinking for a few minutes, you tell it that you’d like to do the dishes that have been languishing in your sink, read a chapter of that book you never get around to spending time on, and get to bed before 10PM. It returns you a challenge: “Right now, go spend 10 minutes working on the dishes.  It’s worth 50 points.”

You don’t really know what these points are, but you’re intrigued enough to take it up on the offer. You acknowledge that you’ve accepted the challenge and it offers you a start button, you tap it and start to work on getting the dishwasher loaded. You do, and are considering if it’s worth trying to do some hand-washing. “4:53 remaining,” it tells you. “Do it,” you think. In five minutes, it dings. “Mission accomplished?” it asks. “Yes, but keep going ’til it’s done.” It’ll take just four more minutes. “When you finish, you’ll have earned 120 points,” it tells you.

“120. Huh.” You finish up the dishes, leaving them to air dry. “All done?” it asks. After you tell it so, it asks “What next?” It offers you the option of taking a break, earning more points, or defining some more goal. Feeling on a roll with 120, you tell it you’d like to go read some of that book you never get to. “9 points a page,” it tells you.

You start to read it, but your intransigence in picking up the book was justified. The book is dense and requires more concentration than you can muster right now. You return to your new friend and tell it you only managed to read two pages. “How about a break?” it says. “You can come back whenever you’re ready for more.”

After you’ve eaten and watched your favorite television program, you return. “Did you miss me?” it asks. “You have an hour left before your bedtime, do you want to try to read more?” You respond negatively, to which it offers to ask you a few more questions. You answer a number of questions, like what your favorite kinds of rewards are, what led you to start using it, and what the single most important thing you keep failing at is. “Tired?” it asks.

You’re in bed at 9:47, and it says you’ve just earned 70 points. Over the next few weeks, you use the thing off and on. You notice that when you’ve been away for a while, it offers you’ve more points for short-term goals. You’ve noticed that sometimes if offers you activities that you’ve never told it you’d like to do, but you enjoy. You kinda wonder why it’s offering them, but they keep giving you points for them, so why not?

After a few months, you’re confronted with the 23,430 points you’ve earned. It asks what you think a good reward would be for 20,000 points. You say that a new shirt would be nice. It asks if you want to pick it out yourself? You do, it offers congratulations on the redemption and it hopes it’s something you’ll enjoy.

A few more months pass, you use it off-and-on, letting it dictate your not-working time pretty fully some days, barely thinking about it on others. You’ve begun to notice, though, that you feel better when you use it more. That it’s got you exercising twice a week, that you’ve already read two books, more than you did all last year. You’ve been thinking more about what you really value, and you’re starting to think that you should find a new job. It asks you some thought-provoking questions when you tell it about this, but it doesn’t solve it for you.

OK, we’re back. I could continue this narrative forever. Out until the point where you have a body like Adonis, the job of your dreams, more money saved than you’ve ever had, reined in your temper, and finally banked a few chapters of what could be the next Great American Novel. That potential exists, I’m sure of it. And if you followed me down that rabbit hole, I think you may have glimpsed it as well.

The potential I see in gamification isn’t that I use StackExchange a little more because I get a few thousands points when I offer an answer the hive-mind likes. That’s the incredibly small-bore version of gamification. That’s not exciting. What’s exciting is an entire new economy when people earn “money” by doing things they have never managed to accomplish in 20 years of “trying to lose weight.” (Speaking of, the alt-text on this XKCD (hover with a mouse) is a great TL;DR version of this post.)

What I envision is not unlike a massively juiced version of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. David Allen’s book had helped thousands of people to be more productive and creative by getting them to a more easeful productivity. What I’m talking about is a way to incorporate prompting, play, and points into an agnostic system that’ll make your life better, and help you to accomplish goals that were never even on your radar without the help of our “game.”

I wouldn’t deny that this isn’t a simple thing I’m proposing, but it’s a thing whose value is abundantly clear to me. Even if we built a system that did only a tenth of the potential the exists within this idea, we’d have a world that was manifestly better in a million little ways. And that, quite simply, is why gamification excites me.


Money as a Game

I’ve been thinking a fair amount lately about the idea of “gamification”–yes, it’s an atrocious word but a useful concept. I’m sure there’s value in thinking about how we can bring the most successful aspects of games into the concrete world of physical people and objects. I know there are many activities I should be doing that I’m not. Many tasks that the right game-like inducements could make automatic, and maybe even enjoyable.

It was while considering this that it crossed my mind that money is the most successful game idea that exists in the culture. Now certainly to say that money originated from the world of games would be, at best, generous. More likely, it’s just flat out wrong. But the thing that’s interesting about money–and the possessions that we understand to be it’s correlates–isn’t how it came to exist but what it represents about human psychology and games.

Before I get too far, I want to be sure to acknowledge that money is hardly a game when you don’t have enough of it. Possessing money represents a tangible ability to to feed, water, shelter, and clothe ourselves and our families in a safe and easy way. But for the majority of people in first world, this is no longer the way it operates. Any country rich and egalitarian enough to assure that none of its citizens go hungry, homeless, or uneducated effectively eliminates the survival value of money. Even outside of such a society, any income above the locally defined poverty line is beyond sheer survival. It is in these situations that it makes sense to talk about money as a game.

One of the most powerful aspects of money as a game is how score-like it is. Just like the score you rack up as you progress through a level in Mario or a game of Tetris, net worth is a concrete signal that you can use to judge whether you’re advancing our falling behind. Very unlike personal relationships, or professional or personal development, money is almost always transparent. You never have to wonder where you stand with money. You can easily identify that you’re $200 richer than you were a week ago, but there’s no easy way for you to know that you’re 200 points better at not being a jerk.

I’d go so far as to contend that a large part of the much-maligned use of money and material wealth to define success is that people can easily identify material progress. Being less of a jerk is so frustratingly unquantifiable that one has to be hugely better at it for people (including yourself) to even recognize that you have any skill at it. But I can clearly tell that you’re a better businessman than me because you own a million dollar home, drive a BMW, and own this whole restaurant we’re sitting in. But without being almost as unassailable as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama, you won’t see how hard I’ve worked to be less of a jerk.

Beyond the ability to know the score with money, it’s got a powerful reward system built into it. If personal development were as easy to score as money, we’d only be halfway there. The other half of money’s advantage is the pleasure that it can offer us. I need a way to get between points A and B: for essentially zero dollars I can walk, for around $200 I can get a bicycle for travel. For around $2000 I can get a beat-up but functional car, for $20,000 a nice new one, and for $200,000 a rare, intricate, and delightful one. This fact has powerful effects on the incentives for the pursuit of money beyond mere score. While we could endlessly discuss the merits of the type of pleasure imparted by say, a new Ferrarri, no one but a fool would reasonably contend that it gives equal pleasure to possess as a simple bicycle.

Wealth also provide a level of the social, cultural, and locational access that many people never see. It is undeniably a qualitatively different experience to be living on $20,000 per year than it is to be living on $2,000,000. Two million will afford you not only the ability to buy free time at will, but also the chance to take that free time in any manner you please. Want to take a few weeks off to see the sights of Kenya with your 10 closest friends? You can. This purchasing of experience is not only wise (research indicates it gives more long-term satisfaction than purchasing things), but is inaccessible to those of lesser means. One wouldn’t even take the time to consider the possibility of an African safari if they and their friends made less than $25,000 per year. This reward mechanic, which is native to money and difficult to imagine importing, is at least as important as it’s scoring value.

Before we finish, it’s worth considering the meta-game of money. There’s a saying much loved by the economics-minded (and damn hard to refute), “You optimize what you measure.” There’s an idea very much in vogue in the last decade “Gross National Happiness.” These are both deeply related to the meta-game.

Because we can only optimize the things we’ve quantified, and we can only quantify rather concrete things, most measures of performance and progress that are used today (and have been used for almost 500 years) to gauge the success of a town, county, or country relate to how well they’ve optimized their money score. This is thus what politicians make their reputation on and what makes countries into magnets. Much of this emphasis on countable measures of development is deeply valid, one clearly is much more likely to have a better, easier, and more enjoyable life in a country with a notably higher GDP per capita. Clearly the Renaissance-era Italian city-states which valued commerce and wealth were better places to live than the backwaters of Scotland. Today, given an even choice, most people would rather be an average citizen of the United States than Chile.

There is much to recommend the use of GDP (or GNP, PPP, etc) numbers. Without them we’d have almost nothing with which to gauge the success of competing countries, methods of leadership, or manners of economic progress. But there is manifestly much they leave out. While China’s a freer place than it was 50 year ago, it’s also true that it’s not the nicest place to live among all it’s economic neighbors. This basic fact is the reason that people are currently infatuated with notions like “Gross National Happiness”. While no one has yet successfully used it this way, it’s possible that if it were ever actually quantified in a universally agreed upon way, GNH could represent a new way for government schemes and governors to be judged that would better represent the whole panoply of things we humans value.

Perhaps there would be great value in striving for such a measure, which would allow people to measure how satisfied they are along all aspects of their life. Certainly a world that sweated GNH points would be qualitatively different than a world obsessed with GDP. But because any attempt to measure GNH would be inherently limited to the factors it decided to value, the notion that it would be an inherently better scoring system deserves skepticism.

And finally, we circle back to this: if you’re looking to create a better achievement scoring system for the world and its people  to judge themselves, you could do a lot worse than emulating the benefits that money has so long provided. If we mean to be serious about this “gamification” business (and not just bullshit it), money seems a good place to start.


Of Chauffers and Operating Systems

In response to some poor writing, Ben Brooks was trying to come up with a good analogy for how computers are like cars. Specifically, how we can use the analogy to understand the difference between Macs and Windows PC. In response, I sent him an email which adds drivers (chauffeurs) into the mix. The crux of it is below.

Let’s posit that blue-eyed people are notoriously bad drivers. They’re randomly slow, they crash the most frequently, and generally are serviceable but unlikeable. Brown-eyed drivers are notoriously dependable, but a little dull, frustrating, and hard to work with. Green-eyed drivers are widely recognized to be the best overall drivers because they’re relatively reliable, as well as fun and enjoyable to work with.

All of this functions rather independently from the car, which can be fast or slow, reliable or prone to failure, etc. Oricchio is right to point out that a blue-eyed driver is going to be as likely to crash, be irritating, etc whether the car is a Hyundai or a BMW, a Chevy, or a Rolls Royce. Similarly brown-eyed drivers (they’re Linux, and outside of your discussion; because there are three basic eye colors I included them) are going to do a dependable but uncharismatic job keeping either a Kia or a Bently on the road.

Green eyed drivers are a little different. If you want a green eyed driver, you have to have a car they approved. And they simply will not ever drive a Kia or Hyundai, as a matter of principle. They believe it’s an inferior experience being driven in one, so they just won’t do it. Sure, you can maybe get them to drive a Chevy (Mac Mini), but mostly they’d prefer to drive something like a BMW, Mercedes, or Acura. This leads people to inevitably complain that green-eyed drivers are super expensive, despite the fact that they’re roughly comparable to other-eye-colored drivers in similar cars.


Why You Hate Your Facebook Friends

Friendship–whatever we are to understand that to mean in the age of “friending”–and relationships generally can take place on the internet as well as offline. No one denies that. But few people seem to understand the advantage of internet-originating relationships against the physical-world-originating kind.

To grasp the distinction in a deep way, it helps to understand some of the constraints on relationships. First and foremost, human relationships are constrained by language. Take any two people alive on Earth and throw them into a room. After five minutes no pair that didn’t have at least some vague knowledge of each others language would come out feeling unlike strangers. They may have thought each other nice, friendly, or attractive, but they’d not get deeper than that.

Before the advent of written language, one could only ever feel an emotional connection to someone who lived near them.

After that, the strongest predictors of relationship success are a broad class of less tangible things, like interests, values, and temperament. These broadly amount to the soft stuff that’s made up our lives. Your languages, appearance, and perhaps even some part of your temperament are hard-wired. After that the strongest factors in relationship creation and maintenance are the net overlap of the soft stuff of our lives. This is why you’ll notice that Christians are more likely to be friendly to Christians. People who love basketball are more likely to be friends with people who enjoy sports. People who value curiosity and knowledge-seeking are likely to feel distant from people who write “I don’t read” in the favorite books field on Facebook. You get the picture.

The final factor in friendship compatibility is the one that was for millennia the limiting factor on human friendship: physical proximity. Before the advent of written language, one could only ever feel an emotional connection to someone who lived near them. Before words were mobile, one could only ever feel an emotional connection to someone who had lived near them. And before we could transmit voices over non-physical media, we could only be friends with people who had cause to send us letters at the physical address of our home.

Books allow emotional connection, but it’s almost exclusively a one-way relationships. For a reader in the past to develop a two-way relationship with anyone whose book he might have chanced across would take a good deal of luck and a strong sense of generosity in the author. Short of that, almost no one ever developed a single relationship with anyone with whom he hadn’t at one time shared physical space. This naturally led us to value these place-originating relationships as their only true form, and make us feel the need to excuse anyone who we met by other means through some series of lies and jokes.

But in case my profile of the constraints on friendship didn’t make it clear to you, I view the higher value placed on place-originating (or “real-life”) friendships as wrongheaded. It seems only logical to me that it is better to build your relationships from a pool of people who speak your language and have similar soft-qualities to you, than to attempt to start from a geographically constrained group and then attempt to find soft-quality matches in a face-to-face series of interactions. This is fundamentally what the internet allows: the friendship process to start from a set of commonalities around soft attributes, and then potentially aim for geographic matching. This is the opposite of the standard process, but certainly the one more likely to yield deep and long-lasting relationships.

This is fundamentally what the internet allows: the friendship process to start from a set of commonalities around soft attributes, and then potentially aim for geographic matching.

To get at the nature of this phenomenon, consider Bob. Bob is an atheist who lives in America’s “Bible Belt.” He has a passion for dance, in an area where prevailing opinion states that only “sissies” like it. Bob could almost certainly find some people who match those two (utterly arbitrary) facts about himself if he looked hard enough around the area he happened to be living because of the nature of his employment.

Or Bob could find a few websites that were as passionate about the tango as he is, and get involved in the discussions that take place around them. Bob would easily find people with whom he already shared an interest, and thus would be much more likely to find conditions ripe for friendship. Surely some of these tango enthusiast wouldn’t be atheists, and some of them would just be jerks, but Bob would find many more people with whom he shared interests with than he would by traveling his local bars. He’d probably even be more likely, if the internet-communities he found were well-populated, to find local people who shared those interests.

Surely, Bob could also mix the quests from geography and affinities. Local tango clubs would be much more likely to allow him to find “Bob’s people” than bars, but we shouldn’t forget that not all Bobs like the tango, and not all interests lend themselves to clubs. This is the essential reason that, forced to come down on a side, I’d argue that internet-originating relationships are likely to be deeper and more durable than the proximity-originating kind.

And so, we’re ready to tackle that title. Around a year ago, this sentence was making the rounds:

Twitter makes me like people I’ve never met and Facebook makes me hate people I know in real life

This is, if I may, exactly my point. Twitter is generally a place that people collect an affinity group, a set of people–authors, movie stars, bloggers, software developers–they like and admire. Facebook is mostly a place people use to catalog those with whom they’ve shared physical space over the course of their life. It was, in light of these facts, utterly inevitable that people who saw both groupings would prefer one to the other.


Why No One Reads Your Blog

This site has been available at this web address for nearly four years. Before that, I had a eponymous blog at a different URL for about three years. And during that whole time maybe 100 people actually read anything I’d written with enough attention that they left a substantial response. So I think we can call me an expert in writing blogs that people don’t read.

All this time I’ve had blogs that no one reads, I’ve imagined that a time would come when they would start being my meal ticket (or at least stop being a hole in my pocket). I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person on the internet who’s ever nurtured this hope.

A lot of the reasons no one reads your website come down to your expectation that they inevitably will. While it’s easier than ever to be published (have your words widely accessible), that very fact means it’s harder than ever to rise above the din of the published corpus and actually gain a substantial audience willing or able to pay your bills.

This site, unfocused as it is, makes that problem harder. While my lack of focus is strategic–I want to cover many topics because I feel it makes for both better reading and writing–the effective difference between it and the just-starting-out ramblings of most new blogs is nil. The problem with a scattered focus is that on the rare occasion that someone stumbles in from the internet and finds something they like, they’re given little assurance that anything they see in the future will be like that thing they liked. Consequently, most sites that manage to support writers financially are focused niche sites that do one thing and do it at least a little bit well.

Single-authorship is another problem. Once I’ve told everyone I know who might be interested about my site’s existence, my word of mouth growth is just about exhausted. Magazine style sites, which relentlessly publish new authors, have an automatic and constant source of new traffic directed there by people who just saw their contribution published. (This is also the reason interview sites do abnormally well.)

I’d be remiss if I went too far without mentioning quality. While I’m proud of some of the things on this site, I don’t think they’d be published in volume by anyone. And not all of the stuff I’ve published here makes me proud. Certainly plenty of websites are able to persist on bad writing, but it’s despite it that people read them.

More than that, I publish long text-only pieces without any pictures to entice people to read. This may work well for the well-heeled likes of the New Yorker or London Review of Books, but out here on the wilds of the internet, a boring looking site (whose opposite is a visually interesting site, not a busy one) is unlikely to convince many people to stay around long.

I think I first heard it from Austin Kleon (if it was him he probably stole it), but for years echoing around in my heads has been the undeniable–and undesirable–truth that “No one wants to read what you write.” It’s not that they’re jerks. People are just busy and won’t care about things you write without a good reason to.

Old school publishing largely relies on the obstacles to publication as the way to entice people to read. A piece that was published and on an interesting topic is sufficient inducement to get readers in a world of scarcity. In the huge cornucopia of the internet, it rarely is. So if that’s all you’re offering, you’ll probably be writing for yourself (and your twenty closest friends) for the rest of your life.

Which isn’t a problem. There’s much to recommend writing beyond the remote possibility of fame and fortune. But if that’s what you’re looking for, you need to start offering approachable and focused content that people want to look at and have reason to. And if you won’t do that, welcome home to obscurity.


Technology Killed the Record Industry

It’s 1950 and the only media you can consume on your own schedule are printed words and records. You have no accessible way to take control over any other cultural artifacts that you may hold dear. You may have thought Gone with the Wind was an excellent picture–as I’ve been lead to believe people once called movies–but you have to wait for a showing to see it. You may like the radio stylings of Amos and Andy, but when they aren’t on the airwaves you have nothing but your memory to relive that glory. And maybe you’ve even taken a liking to this television thing that’s just breaking onto the scene, but that too is staunchly controlled by others. The only cultural products we can realistically say you have control over are the books and vinyl records you own.

It’s 2010, and in your pocket you have a small device the size of a paleolithic hand axe that contains all the cultural products we mentioned in the previous paragraph. All your music and podcasts–as they’ve taken to calling radio programs today–are MP3s, all your movies and television are MPEGs, and all your book are (probably) EPubs. And all of them are instantly accessible in a device smaller than either a book or record were in 1950. Oh and this thing also has access to some newfangled “internet” thing. There’s even a chance it’ll make phone calls.

This, in short, is why the music industry will never be as large a cultural force as it was in the second half of the twentieth century. Just as people today read far fewer books than we’re led to believe they did in the past, people listen to less recorded music. When other cultural forms become more accessible, ones that previously reigned because of their accessibility are bound to suffer. New things don’t replace old things, they fracture the old market.

Music only became truly portable with the arrival stateside of the Sony Walkman in 1980, but it had a personalizable form before that. The falling price of turntables, as well as the arrival of reasonably priced headphones meant that in 1970 you could reasonably listen to a large selection of music alone in the way you chose.

If we jump forward twenty years, the advent VHS–and far more importantly, the release of motion pictures on them–meant that around 1990 you could reasonably have amassed a personal movie collection. Television also became a little more customizable–by virtue of home recording–but the gymnastics required to amass a meaningful collection by personal recording meant that almost no one did.

No, it took until 2000, when television studios realized that they could make money on more accessible versions of their content that they began releasing their shows on DVDs. Then you could really, for the first time, personalize an array of television programs that you could call your own.

And though it started in 2004, it really took until just about today that people might reasonably be expected to realize that they could easily receive the audio-only programming they loved from the radio in much more controllable podcasts. It’s only once that happened that we had a form identifiable as personalized radio.

It’s really not until you have full control over something that you’re able to fully engage with it. I’m sure some–likely older people–will disagree with that statement, but the personal power over the way people define themselves that recorded music had until VHS cassettes arrived is certainly never coming back. And though I wouldn’t deny the potential effects that piracy has had on the music industry’s profits, its problem is far far deeper than that.

200 years ago you were able to assert complete control over materials issued in the printed word. 50 years ago you were able to assert complete control over two universally recognized types of culture. Today you can easily control five–and if we’re willing to count video games, six–unique and interesting types of cultural products. (This is obviously to say nothing of the new things constantly arriving on the internet.)

This possibility for control and deep interaction has remarkable social and cultural impact. In the 1970s, one of the primary ways people would define themselves to each other was their taste in music. Most people knew music, and if they didn’t know your favorites you could play or lend them your records. But if you loved a movie made in 1963, and you were listing it as a favorite to a friend who hadn’t seen it in 1972, it would likely have taken them years to find a way to see it.

This is no longer true. Today a simple trip onto Netflix and they can either stream it in seconds, or receive it on video disc in days. Like records in the 1970, you can show it to them yourself or lend them your disc. Also like the ’70s, they can probably even go buy it in at least one brick-and-mortar store that stocks it. And if none of them do, they can certainly buy it on the internet. This is a revolution that allows people to have deeper ongoing conversations about all manner of cultural products. They’re no longer limited to just music and books.

The quintessential example of this is the enduring popularity of the television show The Wire. Though most of the show’s run happened in relative obscurity on a channel a modest number of US households receive, the show gained some prominence and much critical acclaim as it ended. Since then–when it stopped being available in its original medium of distribution–its popularity and profile has grown. This would have been unfathomable in that half century of the music industry’s cultural dominance.

In 1980, I’d venture that 90% of young people would profess to have a favorite album. Today, I’d venture that 50% might. And this isn’t due merely to the ease with which we can free ourselves from the imposed construct of the album, but also because young people are as able to spend their free time and money becoming movie buffs, television buffs, podcast buffs, video game buffs, as they are to be book or music buffs. This fracturing is the essential problem facing the music industry, and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.


The Future of Cars

I claim no expertise on anything that this piece talks about. Almost anything I say on this topic could be laughably wrong or foolish. I decided to do it anyway.

Some people think cars in the future will look massively different–three-wheeled, pod-shaped, etc–I do not. I think predictions like that are generally a mistake. Before I explain that though, let me tell you why the cars of the future are probably going to electric.

The question of what will make cars move in the future was a pretty hot topic five years ago, when everyone seemed convinced that hydrogen was the solution. I think all that fervor died down because hydrogen is a gas at room temperature and thus hard to contain (and when contained, prone to explosions). It took a while, but we now realize we won’t solve that problem soon.

Two fuels still enjoy some place is the public imagination: biodiesel and ethanol. They both have a huge drawback: neither is ready to be the primary thing propelling cars forward. While I think both have the potential to move some cars in the future, I expect they’ll stay pretty firmly in liquefied natural gas territory. (LNG fuels many small municipal fleets,  it never has and probably never will be the primary fuel used by the public at large.) Here’s why.

Biodiesel’s fun. Who doesn’t want their car exhaust to smell like french fries? The big issue is, excess cooking grease could, at best, fuel 1% of the cars currently in existence. We’re promised algae-based diesel, but no one has yet produced it at commercial scale. This is, in short, the hydrogen problem. (That is: we’ll be ready within five ten twenty etc years.)

Ethanol, dispensing with the particular issues of the corn-based stuff, has the primary issue of competing directly with our food and libation supply. All corn, sugarcane, potatoes, and whatever else we might make into alcohol to run our cars takes away from our ability to eat or drink those agriculture products. Simply, there is no way we can today grow enough of edible crops to feed the world and run our auto fleet. “Cellulosic ethanol” promises to take the parts of plants we currently consider waste and turn that into alcohol. But it, like algae-derived biodiesel and safely stored hydrogen, is currently vaporware.

And so we’re left with the one thing we know we could make with today’s technology: the electrified car fleet. Unlike the other technologies discussed, electricity is currently created from diversified sources at huge volumes. And while the gripe that much of that production is from dirty, finite resources shouldn’t be ignored, our electricity generation has gotten cleaner and more renewable through the century we’ve been doing it. And as the diversity and renewability our energy production increased, we’d automatically make our existing car fleet cleaner and more reliable. This is not true any other technology under consideration.

The real question, then, is how will we fuel up our cars with this electricity? And I think the solution is so painfully obvious that I’m astounded I’ve been hearing so much recently about all manner of businesses trying different design and distribution plans for vehicle recharging stations. Swappable batteries (a compliment, not replacement for home-charging stations) are the future. They have to be.

If I have a Tesla today and I want to drive across America today with any speed, I need to get another car. While the Tesla does have impressive aerodynamics and top speed, the four hour stops to charge up would slow the trip to a crawl.

The obvious solution is that all cars in the future should run on massive swappable rechargeables made to a commodity standard–think rechargeable AAs, but a lot bigger–that are sold charged at every single one of those places we today call “gas stations.” Your car would house somewhere between 6 and 60 of these rechargeable under it’s hood (remember, electric cars have small motors at the wheels, not huge engines under the hood), depending on it’s weight, size, and desired travel distance. When you needed more power without the time to recharge, you’d pull up to a “gas station” and swap them out. (They would then charge those that came out of your car, and pass them on to the next person in need.)

Convenience and accessibility in refueling aren’t the only reasons cars would look much the same as they do now. There’s also the practical argument that the basic shape used industry-wide today has pretty excellent safety and creature comfort advantages over anything different anyone has dreamed up. Lacking a good reason for something to change, a futurecaster is sure to go wrong by predicting that it will.

While I’m sure I could go on with more details that the future is likely to prove incorrect, I’ll stop. I gave you a pretty good blueprint for getting rich (or poor) in the next 40 years, and that’s enough for today.


“The Wire” and the Future of Reporting

I have today two different pieces  essentially covering the same ground from slightly different angles. I was too attached to each to delete it and unable to figure out a way and to combine them, so you’re getting two for the price of one this 15th. The companion to this is “An Overwrought Historical Analogy about the Future of Writing“. I won’t be offended if you don’t read both.

Having just finished the fifth season of the The Wire, in which the show’s creator’s dissatisfaction with the present state of newspapers shines through, their future has been on my mind. And while David Simon appears to think that the medium’s primary problem is soulless corporations strangling their ability to chase a story while they desperately try to be profitable, his case if hardly convincing.

His Baltimore Sun newsroom has an ever-present crowd of people who don’t appear to be doing, well, much of anything. The fact that all these people are drawing a paycheck without pounding the pavement in any capacity seems as good an argument against the medium as it could be for it. One of the greatest contribution that this crowd of non-reporters seems to make is when they memorably inform a young reporter that unless 500 people have just emptied their bowels, they can’t really be said to have been evacuated. A funny bit, perhaps, but a meaningful contribution to Baltimore’s understanding of itself? Not so much.

The primary sin of former newspaperman like Simon is to know the way news and opinion have been gathered for the last 150 years and confuse that with the best way to gather it. Surely there are virtues of the method he shows; one of the men sitting in the Sun‘s newsroom not reporting much of anything notices a reporter’s blatant and harmful dishonesty. There is undeniably a sort of rigorous peer-review that grows out of close working and competition in a newsroom. But, in Simon’s telling, the lying reporter is never publicly revealed. He wins a Pulitzer instead.

Do you remember pamphlets? The primary method of political debate and reporting for the 150 years before newspapers took over that role? Just the same, we shouldn’t be shocked if people in 150 years no newspapers as nothing more than a historical curiosity.

To protest the fall of newspapers (and magazines) as a hazard for comprehension of the world and its foibles is to conflate the medium with the message and the method with the result. The fact that we’ve grown used to the medium of newspapers (or magazines, or books) doesn’t mean that those media were the best for delivering the content they contain. And it certainly doesn’t mean that all their odd characteristic are integral to their job.

Consider Wikileaks, which has, by publishing bare documents leaked to it by dissidents around the world, broken nearly as many stories per year as a newspaper staffed with 30 times the people. Previously it may have been the case that such dissidents had to hunt down a newspaper reporter and hand off their controversial evidence; today, with a scanner and an email the whole world can see what you wanted to make public.

I’m not saying that Wikileaks is purely commendable or the future of reporting, but it is a distinct model that has a real potential to be different, and in certain ways better, than the media that people are so loudly worrying about the decline of. One of it’s biggest advantages is efficiency: Wikileaks only “publishes” when it has new news, and then only in the quantity of copies requested. Compared to massive inefficiency inherent in the newspaper model, this is definitely a more future-friendly way of working.

One can easily imagine newspapers being replaced by reporting collectives. Rather than existing in a framework of publishers and editors and subscription servicers, reporters wanting to discover and share the reality of their city could simply get together, uncover the details, and their publish peer-reviewed articles on the internet. I’m not the first person to envision such a thing (I think I got it from Jesse Darland), but I don’t think that means anything about it’s potential transformative power.

Lone-wolf self-publishing, essentially what I do here, is equivalent, only a reporter/writer need only worry about covering their own costs. Surly some would worry about the lack of someone looking over the writer’s shoulder, but the internet’s shown itself to be  the best medium ever invented for calling people on bullshit.

Surely there are problems with each of the three models I’ve suggested. And surely someone at some newspaper has already come up with laundry list of issues they foresee. But their model has never been perfect, and in an era of constantly falling advertising revenues and a wealth of new available publishing paradigms, the inefficiencies that have always been a part of their model are simply unsustainable.