The Anthrobscene

Through Stewart Brand’s work, beginning with How Buildings Learn (one of my favorite books) and his work with the Long Now Foundation, I learned to look at time differently, and technology differently, and to think about how time is cooked into everything we do today, especially as regards the ephemeral nature of all the time spent on computers and in online media.

I often refer to this diagram from Brand’s book, The Clock of the Long Now when talking about how we think about time and our world:

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So I was interested to learn of Jussi Parikka’s book The Anthrobscene. It is reviewed by Nora Khan, and explained on the Minnesota press site, its publisher:

“Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and e-readers all at one time held the promise of a more environmentally healthy world not dependent on paper and deforestation. The result of our ubiquitous digital lives is, as we see in The Anthrobscene, actually quite the opposite: not ecological health but an environmental wasteland, where media never die. Jussi Parikka critiques corporate and human desires as a geophysical force, analyzing the material side of the earth as essential for the existence of media and introducing the notion of an alternative deep time in which media live on in the layer of toxic waste we will leave behind as our geological legacy.”

— child labor and human trafficking is behind much of the labor providing the ores and minerals used in the making of our machines. The geology behind what we do is usually invisible to us, as so much is. It is important to be reminded. Time and responsibility, indeed.

Heidegger, Journalism vs. Trump, Translations

  • Journalism should stop “feeding the trolls”, as we’d say here in Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump and his flying monkeys are clearly trolls. A great strategy for this has been presented by Jay Rosen on Pressthink of how the press can execute it: report from outside the white house; don’t broadcast live events in order to protect your audience from lies; don’t amplify or repeat lies. Send interns, not top reporters, into press conferences.
  • I’ve been rereading The Question Concerning Technology by Martin Heidegger.  Technology’s essence is not technological: it is a way of looking at the world as if everything is “standing reserve”.Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. A tree is not a tree, it is subordinate to the orderability of cellulose; Humanity is reduced to what is calculable, manipulable, employable. Nature most of all. Viz:

    The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.

    Heidegger’s Black Notebooks were also translated into English a couple years ago, and I will probably never read them, as I’ve left off reading much Heidegger in the past couple decades. Have you read them? Here’s a primer in The New Yorker: Why does it matter if Heidegger was Anti-Semitic? Heidegger was a Nazi. This is especially relevant in the context of technology and the human, for obvious reasons.

  • I was shocked to learn how few books in translation Americans read. If you want to find some good reads, a good place to start is the long list from the National Translation Awards. I’ve got my eye on August, and already have a copy of Dandelions.

Reading & Treecentricity

Playa Giones in Nosara, Costa Rica, was where I spent the last week, and was where I saw so many beautiful plants and animals and trees. Howler monkeys, small but sounding like King Kong, iguanas with frilled collars, green birds with dangling tail feathers, strangler figs strangling their host plants, and Halloween Moon Crabs, my new favorite crustacean. I also read a ton of books, as I always do at the beach. I had brought my Kindle so I didn’t need to haul this ton of books back and forth in my suitcase, but there was a very good bookstore at the Harmony Hotel, so I ended up bringing a lot back. Didn’t think I’d be book shopping in Nosara! I decided to read the books that were on my Kindle which had been sitting unread for a long time, and so:

  • Persuasion by Jane Austen needs no introduction. Her novels seem like straightforward marriage plots, but her snarky wickedness, her summary take-downs of the vain and pretentious, and her warm sympathy for women of independent mind are always a sustaining pleasure.
  • Moonglow was another competent book by Michael Chabon, one of those books existing on the border between fact and fiction. This one is about his grandfather’s life as a soldier, his grandmother’s life as a survivor and their lives together after the Second World War had shaped them. And there is a mystery: the lost history of his grandmother’s childhood.
  • Next on my Kindle’s unread list was Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. Coincidentally it is also about a lost WWIIhistory, that of a boy who at four had been rescued from the Nazis and sent via Kindertransport to Wales. Reading Austerlitz and Moonglow consecutively really helps you see the difference between a journeyman and a master; though their strategies were quite different, their subjects and themes were similar, but the depth of understanding…
  • One thing that is consistently reassuring about books in our world of perpetual commerce is that they’re never trying to sell you anything beyond the book itself. Which is part of the reason I only use my Kindle when I’m traveling. Because at the end of a book, say, Austerlitz, you’re immediately presented with many more books liked by the people who liked the book you just read. Among these I found Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, which I found quite gratifying. It starts out as a fairly standard “relationship” novel, cataloguing scenes between an ingenue writer and a much older tremendously famous and accomplished writer, roman a clef style–Halliday had a relationship with Philip Roth when she was in her 20s and he in his 60s. But it then suddenly turns into Part Two, an Iraqi man being detained and interrogated at immigration services in Heathrow. A coda ties it all together. But it’s a book unlike other books. I am looking forward to future books by Lisa Halliday.
  • Now, back home I am reading an interview with Richard Powers in the LARB, talking about his new book The Overstory, about the lives of trees. We are “plant blind. Adam’s curse. We only see things that look like us.”

“Put a king over us”

The people came to Samuel and said, “Put a king over us, to guide us.”

 

Samuel  said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.  Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

 

But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.  Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

 

When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

1 Samuel 8

Online Communities Gone Bad (and getting them back on track)

After my appearance on the podcast Masters of Scale, a lot of people have written to me for advice on managing their communities. Here’s one request and my response, which I posted with permission, in the interest of making the internet a more civilized place.

Things had gotten so bad in this founder’s community, that even employees were thinking of leaving. The team felt hamstrung by their users. He explains:

When we first started our community I was in there posting every day setting the tone. Over the years as the company scaled I chose to spend time on other things beside posting in the forum. Gradually over time things got bad…then really bad…now horrible. 5-10 members of the community have started berating everyone in between posting useful content. Do you have any principles or experiences I can draw upon to think about how to solve this?

Yes, I wrote back, this community has run amok. A garden needs both fertilizer and weedkiller. But most of all it needs a gardener. Go back in and participate as much as before. Community manage with a heavy hand. Promote good people, respond to them.  Make them shine. Build good admin tools to silence bad actors.

You have to take a “iron fist in velvet glove” approach; warn borderline cases, and discuss their behavior with them. Often they can be rehabilitated. But for those who will not change: ruthlessly delete the accounts of abusive people, irrespective of their contributions. Keeping 5-10 bad people have undoubtedly lost you dozens, even hundreds, that you don’t even know about. They’ve stifled other people who are still participating and darkened the atmosphere of the whole community.

Community management is art, not science. There is no black and white when dealing with people. Choose your community team carefully, and find people with good instincts. Have all members of the team participate in the community. And be present there yourself.

Announcing Yes VC

After 8 amazing years investing with my brilliant colleagues, the fun, funny and genius investors at Founder Collective, and after Jyri’s two years working with the great, brilliant, soulful and amazing team at True Ventures, we — Jyri Engeström and Caterina Fake– are busting loose, breaking out, getting down and starting up our very own fund, yes indeed, it’s Yes VC.

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We’re doing Pre-Seed, as it’s called these days, and Seed investing — investing in great, visionary, early stage companies. We’ll be raising up to $50 million. We’ve got some amazing LPs already and are seeking a few more. We’ll invest in about 20–30 companies over the next several years. We’ll roll in our investments in OrchidSpell and Gaze. And we’ll be continuing to look for world-changing companies like the ones we’ve invested in in the past, like EtsyKickstarterStack Overflow, and Cloudera. We’ve made over 40 investments as angel investors and with our respective firms, but it’s just a start. The opportunities we’ve missed because of not being able to put in bigger checks, and follow on, were giving us a feeling of No.

Years ago, I gave an interview on Inc. magazine about the struggles of getting my first company off the ground, as an unknown and fledgling entrepreneur, and the amazing breakthrough we had, getting into PC Forum, and getting Esther Dyson on board as an investor. At the end of that interview I had said something that later became one of those Pinterest graphics:

“When the world says No No No No No, and you hear a Yes, go towards that Yes as hard as you can.”

I have swum in The Sea of No, which is an inevitable part of the entrepreneurial journey. Sometimes the No means “you’re on the wrong track”. Sometimes the No means: “no one wants this product or service”. Sometimes the No means: “pick something else to work on”. And sometimes the No means, “you’re just not cut out for this”. If you’re a startup that’s only heard Yes, who’s never been rejected, who raised money with no effort, who slid easily into the warm waters of infinite funding, free lunch, foosball and no discipline, you either got it just right–which almost never happens!–or it’s a cause for concern. But when The Beach of Yes appears on the horizon of The Sea of No, where you, the spent swimmer, has been struggling to stay afloat, you might just be–finally, finally, finally–on The True Path.

So. We’re excited about this. Major changes are afoot in the workings of the internet and in society and culture at large. Suppressed voices are finally being heard. We are looking at the end of cars. And though we once believed the internet was about the equitable distribution of power, we have lived through a massive consolidation of power. If people like you don’t get involved in disrupting the new power and building the future, rapacious trolls, megacorps and mercenaries will have their way with all of us.

Is the internet once again reinventing itself as a free and open place where users own their words, and voices and identities? Will we be able to live free of businesses that lure us in to harvest and sell our data? Is it safe to wade back into the water? Is now the time to enter the fray? We think so, yes.

All the things we love–humanity, community, possibility, opportunity–are once again ascendant. Let’s make the future, let’s do great things.

Yes? Yes.

David Bull & Ukiyo-e

Through my online pal Gripper’s Findery post, I learned of the YouTube channel of David Bull, who practices the traditional art of Ukiyo-e. I grew up in a house full of Japanese woodblock prints, and, as an artist and as an early member of the Etsy team, I have a love of the handcrafted. One of the best things the internet has done is made it possible for people like David to make a living practicing ancient arts.

David runs a YouTube channel, which has videos of him and his team carving the wood blocks, painstakingly laying down each color, talking about new editions from his collaborator, Jed Henry, and telling stories about his experiences meeting elderly masters of the art in his friendly, impassioned and charming way.

I sent away for one of the prints, which I received today. It is gorgeous.

David Bull Print 2

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