What’s The Matter With Your

Technology is wonderful, until it isn’t.

I’ve never been an especially technical-minded person, despite my occasional fervent wishes to the contrary; I even took a two-year course at my high school called “technological studies” in the hopes that it would turn the little eager teenage me into a hacker or whatever the 1980s equivalent was, but it basically turned out to be wood shop with added compressed air, somehow.

Perhaps that’s what prevented me from delving deeper into that world at any single point in the three decades that followed. It’s not that I dislike technology — I’m typing this on an iPad, after all, and my work revolves around me being online all the time, so I’m hardly a Luddite — but I’m also not an early adopter anymore; I’ve tried that, only to be exhausted by the inevitable discoveries of bugs and glitches and plain simple ideas that shouldn’t have been brought into the world just yet.

I remember, bizarrely, having a cellphone in the early ‘90s, and just how large and unwieldy it was; I remember it being like a black brick with an antenna you could unscrew, all held in a flimsy black leather and plastic case. More than that, I remember how I felt with it, as if I was ahead of the curve, some kind of smart future me in some way. I wasn’t; I used it to call my family every Sunday instead of wandering to find a payphone to huddle in when it was cold and rainy.

These days, I’m firmly behind the curve. Proudly so, almost, except that I know there’s nothing to be proud of. My phone these days is so old that my carrier couldn’t quite believe there was still one in use, and truth be told, it barely is any more. That’s more than alright with me, though — I’ve firmly entered the “Does it do what I need it to? It does? Great, I don’t care about the other bells and whistles” period of my life, and it’s a very comfortable one.

All of which is a preamble to this: I listen to podcasts on my iPad when I shower. And, yesterday, when I got out the shower and pressed my thumb against the sensor to open the iPad up to switch the podcast off, I got a message saying my thumbprint wasn’t recognized. It said the same again, again, again. Maybe it was the steam in the room, maybe residual dampness of my thumb, but it wouldn’t work.

For others, this would be a moment to consider a neat trick to make it work, or whatever. For me now, it was a sign that technology is only useful until it stops working properly. I keyed in the passcode, resentfully, and grumbled internally about how useless the thumb sensor, and therefore the entire device, actually is.

Never Got Lost On This Road Before

And then, I got sick of the internet.

Being online is an important part of my job, and I mean that in a bigger way than simply Oh, I telecommute and work for publishers based in California even though I’m based in Portland. Literally, a significant part of my job requires me to be online a lot, because the internet — and specifically social media — is where I get a bunch of stories. I have a weekly column for Wired that is explicitly based on things that people are talking about on social media! It’s a place I spend a lot of time.

And, until recently, I’ve been okay with that. More than okay; I enjoyed the back and forth, the constant conversation and discussion and rhythm of the way social media worked, and the strange tense humor that fueled it. I could recognize patterns, and also loved the places where those patterns broke down and something new and unexpected happened, instead. It wasn’t just that I liked the internet, it was that I felt I spoke it’s language and understood it; it felt like my place, for better or worse.

And then it didn’t.

I couldn’t tell you when things changed, only when I realized. It was about three weeks ago and, in the internet’s defense, I was hardly at my best then either; I was recovering from being sick, and feeling pressured to catch up with everything as a result, and feeling quietly surly and stressed as a result. But if that was my mood, it was nothing compared to the internet.

It was the week when Super Tuesday was happening, which was also the week when the US was starting to realize how serious this whole coronavirus thing really was, and I was paying far too much attention to both because, in addition to being interested, it was also literally my job; I knew I’d be writing about both for Wired that week. And I hated it.

All I could see was people being angry at each other and picking fights, making overblown, self-involved statements and then flexing, as if preparing themselves for arguments they were sure were coming; it was the stereotype of the worst of the internet made real, and it was literally everywhere that week — even those who were traditionally calm and open and thoughtful seemed to be crouching, scanning the horizon for potential threats.

It was exhausting, and upsetting. It was disappointing, too, a constant stream of, not you too, you’re better than this…! that wore me down every single day. I knew the answer was to walk away and let this particular fever of nerves and anxiety and anger burn itself out, but I also knew that I couldn’t; I had to keep an eye on things for work. So, I did that, and felt myself slowly but surely get sick of the internet.

I’ll get over it; I don’t feel quite so tired and saddened by everything even now, if I’m honest. But, truth be told, at the time, it felt a little like heartbreak. This was, after all, my place — and then, it wasn’t.

Don’t Call

I hate the phone.

I always used to think I was unusual in this; I had friends, for years, who’d spend all their time on the phone, it felt like. They’d talk to friends and family and come up with new and varied reasons to spend all the time talking and talking and talking, and I was just not a fan.

I would put this down to my time working at a telemarketing company, for a long time. I’d burned out on the phone, I’d tell myself; I’d used it too much on a daily basis for 8-10 hour shifts, and that ruined the idea for me. How else could I explain the exhaustion I felt at the very idea of talking to someone on the phone for any length of time?

The irony being, I actually liked my job; I liked talking to people on the phone in that setting. The weird, unexpected conversations I’d have there! It was consistently new and surprising, even on the worst days; it was like a way of remembering how unusual and unique and special people are, if you just take the time to listen. It was the prospect of doing it outside of work that just made me want to find any other alternative whatsoever.

Now, of course, I know that’s not true — I just share a dislike of the phone that almost everyone I know does, these days, or so it feels. It’s at once comforting, because, hey, I’m not alone, and also slightly depressing, as if I’ve lost some little moment of uniqueness. I am a contrary person, sadly.

All of this comes to mind as I end a week where I’ve spent far, far too long on the phone. As much as I dislike the phone in general, having to use it for work every day of the week is somehow even worse than usual.

A Luxury Good

Life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.

Not only are screens themselves cheap to make, but they also make things cheaper. Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass.

The rich do not live like this. The rich have grown afraid of screens. They want their children to play with blocks, and tech-free private schools are booming. Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction — living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email — has become a status symbol.

All of this has led to a curious new reality: Human contact is becoming a luxury good.

From here.

Zeroes And Ones Will See You Through

I’ve had this website for years now; it was a weird side site at first, somewhere personal for me to write things for fun — remember fun? —  while I also had a theoretical “work site,” since taken over by a German squatter for some mysterious reason. And it was fun; a place to just ramble and dissemble without the audience I’d built up on Twitter or the pressure (or focus) of one of my professional outlets.

Then, years later than everyone else, I discovered Tumblr, and more or less migrated there for both the ease of the platform and also the social side of things — it felt like an inviting cross between this site and Twitter, and who wouldn’t want that? I more or less abandoned this site, unintentionally; I rarely had enough time to write something up for here, and Tumblr seemed more appreciative of shorter posts.

Cut to now, post-Tumblr becoming a wasteland and also somewhere obsessed with wrongfully declaring everything porn. My Tumblr love feels, if anything, more misguided than my Twitter addiction, and I find myself upset at the missed opportunity to make more of this site, which I own and control. There’s something to that last part, especially; I feel like the “Don’t use someone else’s platform, that way you don’t control your content” conversation repeats itself every couple of years or so, but I’m finally listening.

(The number of people who left Tumblr and talked about downloading all their content and posting it elsewhere was fascinating to me; I imported all my Tumblr posts to this site and am slowly working through that, curating the stuff worth keeping and deleting the rest.)

So, I’m here again, still rambling and dissembling, but on my own terms. Is this what anyone else wants to read? I doubt it, but it doesn’t really matter — it’s something that feels good to be doing once again, and something that makes me feel in control of my digital life even in a small way. That’s enough.

“You Do It in Secret”

I look at it like this: we have access to all of information, and yet we’re still separated. I find it fascinating, that people hide behind false names – that’s the only way a lot of young people can communicate with each other. I believe it’s to do with advertising: people are presented as gods and goddesses, beautiful and perfect. We’re just not like that. So how do you communicate with others if they are expecting you to be perfect? You do it in secret.

Terry Gilliam, from an interview with the Guardian.

“I Don’t Think I Lose A Print Sale By Selling in eBook”

My own guess, based on watching my sales profile over the years, is that print, eBook and audiobook do not inherently cannibalize each others’ sales — it seems to me that for each there is a class of reader that is “native” to each — that is, there is a group of readers who strongly prefers print over eBook or audio, another group who prefers eBook strongly to the other formats, and a third group (correlated, I imagine, with people who have long commutes) who strongly prefer audiobook. I don’t think I lose a print sale by selling in eBook, or an eBook sale by selling in audio — rather, that selling in each of these formats is allowing me to expand my overall audience. Once again, this is an argument for remaining actively involved in all of the formats rather than throwing one (or more) overboard and putting all my chips on a single format.

From here.

John Scalzi breaks down the sales of his last novel, Redshirts, across formats now that Tor has moved the title from hardcover to paperback in print form, and it’s the kind of thing that’s fascinating for someone like me, who’s unnaturally geeky about this kind of thing. The part about digital and audio and print not cannibalizing the other format’s sales is of particular interest to me, because I’m beginning to suspect that the negative sales velocity that digital brought to analog music and movies just doesn’t exist for either books or comics, perhaps because the latter two are more active pastimes and therefore have more engaged audiences with more specific interests and habits surrounding their preferred format.

The End of A Cycle

This may be the end of the cycle that began with Friendster and Livejournal. Not the end of social media, by any means, obviously. But it feels like this is the point at where the current systems seize up for a bit. Perhaps not even in ways that most people will notice. But social media seems now to be clearly calcifying into Big Media, with Big Media problems like cable-style carriage disputes. Frame the Twitter-Instagram spat in terms of Virginmedia not being able to carry Sky Atlantic in the UK, say (I know there are many more US examples).

From here.

This is at least a month old by now, and I’m still unsure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it has a ring of truth, but I also suspect that social media in general will prove to adapt and reinvent itself faster than being given credit for here; if nothing else, someone else will come up with a hacked/revised version of something that already exists to jumpstart the next generation, surely…?

Take One of These Tablets and See Me in The Morning

Since the rise of the Internet, print media — most notably newspapers — have faced a big problem with younger readers. But according to a new study released today by the Pew Research Center and The Economist Group, when you look specifically at the devices they love — the smartphones in their pockets — young adults rival or even surpass their parents and grandparents as news consumers.

According to the report from Pew’s Project in Excellence in Journalism, 37 percent of smartphone owners between the ages of 18 and 29 get news on their devices daily, along with 40 percent of smartphone owners aged 30 to 49. Those are slightly higher than the equivalent rates for 50-64 (31 percent) and 65-plus (25 percent). Among tablet owners, news consumption numbers were broadly similar across age groups, with 50- to 64-year-olds being the peak news consumers.

From here.

I admit, I read the Guardian, Slate and Talking Points Memo daily over breakfast on a tablet, and sometimes the Oregonian, too. Pre-tablet, my news consumption was far lower.

What Are Our Tote Bag Rewards?

Actually raising money is only part of the challenge with Kickstarter, which has to approve a project in the first place. The Amicos’ first Kickstarter campaign pitch last winter was rejected because the rewards they proposed — the special add-on that donors gets based on the amount they donate — weren’t good enough. (Update: Kickstarter’s Justin Kazmark emailed me after this article went up to say that the first proposal wasn’t rejected per se. “Someone from our team suggested they just give more thought to their rewards before launching,” he said.) This time around, awards varied from donors names being published in a “thank you” post ($10 or more) to getting the Homicide Watch team to guest-teach a class or lecture ($5,000 or more).

“Kickstarter is an odd fit for journalism in many ways,” Laura said. “The symptom of that to me is that rewards are so problematic. Public media does tote bags. Tote bags even have nothing to do with what you’re actually producing, which is the point of Kickstarter. It doesn’t have anything to do with the product we’re offering, necessarily.”

From here.

I have a weird fascination with crowdfunding, and especially the idea of crowdfunding what I do, which is journalism, I guess. Discovering that people have successfully done it already is oddly comforting, to be honest.