3 stories

Authoritarian structures and the open web


Jesse Kriss wonders whether we’ve been acclimating ourselves to a more authoritarian system for some time, not just through politics, but in our technical and commercial choices. Like, say, whichever social network you might have used to route to this story right now.

We live with our technological and political systems. They are part of the fabric and substance of our everyday existence. That is significant, but it also goes deeper: their embedded values and philosophies are inescapable.

The systems we use everyday can have insidious effects: we internalize them, and they constrain our imaginations. When everything around us mirrors the same structural properties, those positions and impositions become invisible to us-we don’t even realize that they’re there, or that it could be any other way.

This isn’t to say that big systems have to be evil-far from it-but when everything is this way, our democracy, our agency, our freedom, and our imagination are all at risk.

This is by way of introducing a now two-weeks-old open-source project called Altcloud, described as “a web server with some niceties build in so that you can create real applications without any backend code or external services.” It’s probably beyond my talents, but I imagine more than a few Kottke readers could build some cool things with something like that.

Yesterday, I was talking with my friend Audrey Watters, a technology journalist, historian, and education activist. For years, Audrey’s been critical of education technology companies — their data and privacy practices, their close ties to the military and prison-industrial complexes, their historical myopia, and their ideologies about what learning is and what (and who) it is for. And basically, what she’s always done is to try to articulate an antifascist alternative to education technology, knowing that the roots of what we do now lies in the command-and-control models we borrowed from Nazi Germany, American slavery (and the systems that succeeded it), and the most exploitative and totalitarian sides of good old-fashioned liberal capitalism.

In a talk titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump,” she writes:

I’m concerned, in no small part, because students are often unaware of the amount of data that schools and the software companies they contract with know about them. I’m concerned because students are compelled to use software in educational settings. You can’t opt out of the learning management system. You can’t opt out of the student information system. You can’t opt out of required digital textbooks or digital assignments or digital assessments. You can’t opt out of the billing system or the financial aid system. You can’t opt of having your cafeteria purchases, Internet usage, dorm room access, fitness center habits tracked. Your data as a student is scattered across multiple applications and multiple databases, most of which I’d wager are not owned or managed by the school itself but rather outsourced to a third-party provider.

School software (and I’m including K-12 software here alongside higher ed) knows your name, your birth date, your mailing address, your home address, your race or ethnicity, your gender (I should note here that many education technologies still require “male” or “female” and do not allow for alternate gender expressions). It knows your marital status. It knows your student identification number (it might know your Social Security Number). It has a photo of you, so it knows your face. It knows the town and state in which you were born. Your immigration status. Your first language and whether or not that first language is English. It knows your parents’ language at home. It knows your income status - that is, at the K-12 level, if you quality for a free or reduced lunch and at the higher ed level, if you qualify for a Pell Grant. It knows if you are the member of a military family. It knows if you have any special education needs. It knows if you were identified as “gifted and talented.” It knows if you graduated high school or passed a high school equivalency exam. It knows your attendance history - how often you miss class as well as which schools you’ve previously attended. It knows your behavioral history. It knows your criminal history. It knows your participation in sports or other extracurricular activities. It knows your grade level. It knows your major. It knows the courses you’ve taken and the grades you’ve earned. It knows your standardized test scores.

This has always been a problem, but now it’s a problem with a different kind of relevance and a different range of endgames. Data can be destroyed, which hurts us one way, or it can be operationalized and abused, which hurts us in another. Data can also make us complicit, by limiting our range of expectations, encouraging us to accept compromised outcomes and successes and not question too closely what forces are moving behind the scenes. Trust given is not easily revoked; and trust abused is not easily regained.

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50 days ago
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As I’ve written about before, Saturday morning is sacred. In weeks full of meetings, travel, people, and other productive distractions, having four consecutive hours to actually think is precious time – it’s time for writing.

As a nerd afflicted with a decent case of NADD, this time can be problematic. It’s hard for me to focus because there is much interesting in the world to discover. Over the years, I’ve developed a process by which I channel my focus, build mental velocity and find my creativity. This process leads to a state I call Drift.

The Data Shovel

A quick reminder about the nerd mindset. We are naturally interested in everything because the acquisition of new data allows us to better understand the world. See, as system thinkers, we’re trying to build a model that, well, explains everything. To assist in im our discovery of everything, we’ve built ingenious ways of gathering data. Whether it’s a feed reader, a set of bookmark tab groups, Facebook, Twitter, or a news aggregator, we’ve constructed a personal machine that allows us to rapidly consume information. I call mine a data shovel and the shovel is how I start Drifting.

When I sit down on Saturday morning and start digging, I’ve begun starting digging, I’ve started a significant mental exercise that looks like this:

  • Do I care about this item? No? Skip. Yes? Keeping reading.
  • Do I care about this more than the headline? No? Skip. Yes? Keep reading.
  • Do I care more than the first paragraph? No? Skip. Yes? Keep reading.

If an item makes it through the checklist, I’ll either read the entire piece or watch the short video or bookmark for consumption at the end of my shoveling.

The process of consuming all this data gives my mind mental velocity, but it’s not just the rate of consumption that gets me mentally limber, it’s the map I’m constantly building and refining. I’m exercising and developing my Relevancy Engine. I’m instantly evaluating everything I know and comparing this item to that impression. This tells me –quickly – how much I might care about this item.

I’m also adding this new data to my model of everything. Twitter blocked in Turkey? Hungary? Why? How? Isn’t that hard to do? Crimea annexed? I know nothing about Crimea, but it feels like I should. Also, isn’t this how World Wars start? Note to self: go read about how World Wars start. Might be relevant.

It reads exhausting, but I do these relevancy checks and model updates in an instant. Over and over again. The process leaves me in an ideal state of Drift.

Connection and Insight

Drift is both a state and a time. The high volume of information consumption has forced my brain into high gear to process and analyze it. Analysis is the catalyst that opens the door to creativity. Drift is the time that I’m moving from consumption into creation, and writing.

When Drifting from intense data shoveling, I’m in a unique state to write. I’m in a heightened state of questioning, I’m able to make bizarrely useful connections between unrelated topics, and I’m finding insight at an impressive rate. Yes, I am talking about the Zone, but the Zone is a place where you arrive and Drift is how you get there.

I usually have a single article that I’m working on, but come Saturday morning with good solid Drift, I’ll often look at several drafts draft of other articles and see what the Relevancy Engine thinks. How does it decide? The answer is a confusing:

I have no fucking clue.

Intuition is compiled experience and Drift is intuition on steroids. Writing involves long periods of discipline with infrequent, infrequent brilliant flashes of inspiration. Mapping one distant idea to another. Finding the perfect metaphor. Discovering the perfect word that strangely just fits. These magical, slippery mental events are as precious as they are unpredictable.

Drifting into writing won’t help with your discipline, but I believe it will nurture connection and insight because after years of Saturday mornings staring at my mental discoveries on the page, I believe that Drift catalyzes creativity.

Drift Risk

Drift is full of risk. There’s the case where you start shoveling the data and simply become addicted to consumption and never start building. Yup, been there… this morning. How about when I excitedly Drift into an article, but can never channel hard earned potential energy into the piece? Yeah, turns out writing is more work than magic.

As with many of the nerd tendencies I’ve documented over the years, you accept that there is a modicum of risk pushing your brain to a mental fringe, but it’s fringe where you’ll find the unexpected expected and that’s why I Drift.

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1075 days ago
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1102 days ago
Drift is an interesting name for this state of mind but I prefer Diving. Same tendencies though...
Waterloo, Canada

Popular Wedding Traditions Explained

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CEE_006Women scream when their friends get engaged to keep the demon trapped inside her diamond from getting out.

Brides traditionally wear veils over their heads during the ceremony in order to keep their faces from flying off.

It is considered bad luck for the groom to die before the wedding day.

After ceremonially “giving the bride away,” the father of the bride customarily selects a replacement daughter from among the wedding guests, raising her as his own until she is old enough to leave the nest.

The engagement ring is generally worn on the fourth finger of the left hand; only after the wedding is concluded will the groom begin to slowly encase the rest of the bride’s body in pure metal.

The flower girl strews petals along the floor of the wedding chapel as a sign of disrespect to the church’s custodial staff; general a girl is chosen for her bad temper and class snobbery.

Traditionally, the groom carries the bride over the threshold of their new home as her legs begin to wither and disappear almost immediately after the ceremony.

After the wedding, the bride takes her husband’s name. Her husband will be forced in turn to take the name of a stranger, who will then go nameless.

Typically the bride is the only person at a wedding to wear white because she is a ghost.

Read more Popular Wedding Traditions Explained at The Toast.

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1075 days ago
1078 days ago
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1073 days ago
Some of these may actually be true..
Taipei, Taiwan
1071 days ago
I'm really not sure how to take this one, Chris. Is there something we should know?
1071 days ago
All of these are fake, just satirizing strange traditions. Nothing else to take from this other than I thought it was funny!
1077 days ago
Finally it all makes sense.
New York, NY
1078 days ago
"After ceremonially “giving the bride away,” the father of the bride customarily selects a replacement daughter from among the wedding guests, raising her as his own until she is old enough to leave the nest."
1078 days ago
"The flower girl strews petals along the floor of the wedding chapel as a sign of disrespect to the church’s custodial staff; general a girl is chosen for her bad temper and class snobbery."

100% what I thought being a flower girl was about, at age 5.
Portland, OR
1078 days ago
The bride and groom's families are kept separate to prevent any new romances blossoming fully formed on the spot and usurping the current wedding.
Atlanta, Georgia
1078 days ago
That should be saved for the afterparty.