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.

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.

When the internet is over

When the internet is over

“When the Internet is put into storage with the 8-track, things will be different. People will talk about stuff again, or go shopping at a store, or journey to someone’s house to watch a film. Who knows? No one can guess what form it will take, of course, but like Christianity, Wiki-Google’s days are numbered. It is up to us to make sure its time is short.”

– I.F. Svenonius

If you haven’t already, get yourself a copy of Censorship, Now!

 

Getaround Hostile to Sharing, Trust

Getaround

Getaround is a new service that allows people to share their cars. The company installs software that locks and unlocks the doors using their app, enables the car to drive. I have used it twice now, it works well

But Getaround does something truly un-sharing-economy friendly: they force everyone, including car owners, to log in using a Facebook ID. There is no ability to log in using an email address. This goes against any kind of “sharing” that might take place between the car sharers themselves, as Facebook accounts go to a single person. A family, or car co-owners, cannot share their car on Getaround, unless they all use the same Facebook account. Having a Facebook account used by more than one person violates Facebook’s terms of service.

Worse, forcing people to subscribe to other company’s products in order to use their service–and sign the terms of service with another company, especially one with a dubious record of respect for their users–is user hostile behavior.

When asked, Getaround says they are doing this because they don’t want to be responsible for trust and safety themselves–they want to rely on Facebook to do that for them. The makers of Getaround don’t really understand how reputation systems work–reputations can’t move from one system to another. You can be an ax murderer in real life, but if you ship quality products on time, you can maintain an outstanding A++ WOULD BUY AGAIN reputation on eBay or Etsy. Nothing on Facebook determines if someone is a reliable driver, there are no mechanisms for feedback on someone’s honesty or responsibility, cleanliness or consideration of others. And you can make a new Facebook account as easily as you can make a new email address.

You can tell what company’s values are by what they focus on, and what they take the time to build. Getaround doesn’t seem to value user sharing and user reputation. Other sharing services put a higher value on users ability to share and on their users reputation.  AirBnB, for example, allows email logins, and has built their own advanced and thorough reputation system specifically addressed to the needs of their community. Getaround car owners cannot share responsibility for a car on their service and absolve themselves of trust and safety responsibility as to their users reputation.

A better sharing economy service would not do that.

Champerty, Gawker and Peter Thiel

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It’s hard to pick a side in the Gawker-Thiel-Hogan lawsuit, reported today in Forbes. Billionaire Peter Thiel appears to be funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media, but the lawsuit and its outcome are a mere sideshow to the main story which is that this case is a terrifying development for those of us who value a free, democratic media. What is most frightening about this lawsuit is that the press has always played a significant role in defending the small and powerless against the big and powerful. Gawker has played this role in its own tabloid style, but Thiel’s funding of this lawsuit shows how money can protect that power through third-party litigation funding. 

Lawsuits like these can have a chilling effect on the rest of the media industry, said First Amendment expert Peter Scheer, as they may encourage other wealthy individuals to back litigation against media companies that run unflattering stories about them.

“That’s often the purpose of these cases,” said Scheer, the director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Winning is the ultimate chilling effect, but if you can’t win the case, you at least want the editors to think twice before writing another critical story about you.”

Champerty, as third-party litigation funding used to be called (and should probably be called again!) was formerly a crime, but the commercial litigation finance industry has been growing in recent years . It’s most commonly used as a form of speculation, in which “investors” seek potentially lucrative lawsuits, from which they receive a percentage, or as a means of protecting and expanding a company’s business. But the Thiel funding, coming as it does from a billionaire, is not an investment, but the settling of a personal vendetta  against a media company by someone with the money to drive a company to ruin through litigation.

Generally, people avoid frivolous lawsuits because it often exposes them to as much scrutiny as those they sue, so what is significant about this case is that by funding Hogan behind the scenes, Thiel could get his revenge, escape exposure, and influence the outcome of the case. Hogan’s lawyers made decisions against Hogan’s best interests, withdrawing a claim that would have required Gawker’s insurance company to pay damages rather than the company itself–a move that made Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s founder and CEO, suspect that a Silicon Valley millionaire was behind the suit. Gawker Media may or may not survive the suit in which Hogan was handed down a judgement of $140 million, which the publisher has appealed.

My hope is that the high profile of this case will hasten legal reform. The ethical dodginess of this type of funding is well known–after all champerty was once illegal.


Further Reading:

Gawker-Thiel-Hogan lawsuit article on Forbes

Why Denton thought Thiel was behind the lawsuit article on re|code

Arms Race: Law Firms and the Litigation Funding Boom article in American Lawyer

“There has always been discomfort about the role of money in the profession,” says Geoffrey Miller, co-director of New York University School of Law’s Center for Civil Justice. By adding investors to the litigation ecosystem, “are we losing something?” he asks. “Do we degrade our professionalism? Do we create in the public’s mind the sense that law is all about the money?”  Well, yes.

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