Slight Return, Return

And then I broke the website.

To be fair, I didn’t mean to break the website. In fact, according to the professional who I ended up hiring to bring the website, I wasn’t actually the one who broke it, as much as the breaking was an inevitability that I just… helped happen. Their exact words were something along the lines of, “Whoever was working in the back end of this site before me did some crazy stuff. It’s surprising this didn’t break down long before now.” When I read that message, a wave of relief washed over me: it wasn’t my fault.

Except, of course, it kind of was, anyway; the straw that broke this particular camel’s back was my asking WordPress to update to its latest edition, which apparently just pushed the hinky, taped-together behind-the-scenes too far. I’m not entirely blameless, unfortunately; I just had no idea the damage I’d cause, or what laid ahead when I clicked the button. There’s a lesson there to be learned, I’m sure.

While the site was down, just under two weeks, I felt a sense of frustration at not being able to write anything new, but also a sense of relief: I’d written ahead three weeks’ worth of posts, after all, so it wasn’t as if I would feel under the gun if and when the site retuned; I could just reschedule those for the future and my buffer would still exist. Except, of course, when the site came back, it retroactively posted everything I had already scheduled, and left my upcoming calendar worryingly bare.

The moral of this story, then, is multi-fold: (1) Don’t let your then-spouse jury-rig a website because they might make weird decisions that will cause the site to go down years after you’ve divorced. (2) Don’t schedule things out in advance because it might bite you in the ass. (3) Maybe just write when you have the chance, even if you can’t put it on the website anyway, so that time isn’t lost. (4) It’s nice to be back, isn’t it?

Hello again. Sorry the site was gone.

Drop (Out)

A curious thing has happened over the past few weeks or so: I’ve become quietly obsessed with a rip-off of Tetris.

“Obsessed” is probably not the right word, given that I can’t even remember that actual name of the game offhand — it’s called something like Block Drop or Something Block, but I can’t remember what, exactly — but the name isn’t important in the slightest. What is, though, is the overwhelmingly therapeutic nature of playing it.

(It’s Block Puzzle, I just checked, a name that feels so generic I don’t feel that upset about forgetting it.)

I’ve had it on my phone for some time — since last summer, I think. Chloe was playing it on the plane when we were both going somewhere last year, and after repeatedly asking to borrow it for my own go, I downloaded it to play myself on the trip back, knowing full well that she’d fall asleep and I’d be at a loose end otherwise. And she did, so I did, and then I put it aside and didn’t think about it again.

Cut to… well, now. This year’s been an odd one, in ways I didn’t expect or initially know how to deal with; there’s been a lot of waiting for things to happen, or waiting for calls, or even just texting people a lot more than usual. As a result, I’ve found myself very often with both time on my hands and my phone usually close by. (Traditionally, usually, my phone lives in my office beside my laptop, with the ringer on so I can hear it if it goes off. I only carry it with me if I’m expecting a call.) Because of this, I’ve started playing the game far, far more often.

It’s not a complicated game, which is, I think, its appeal; the mindlessness is something that calls to me, the idea that I can “achieve” something with minimum effort. Again, using the word “achieve” feels misleading, given the essentially throwaway nature of the game, but the idea that I’m putting things in the right place — that there is a “right place,” and an order to things — is part of the draw of the whole thing. I find myself coming back to this repetitious activity, soothed by its small affirmations for the small effort required of me. (“Nice!” it says when a round ends, whether or not I did well. Sometimes, it’s more emphatic. “Great job!” I know better than to believe it, and yet.)

There’s simply something… reassuring about the thought-free repetition and sense that, really, I’m doing something without actually doing anything or feeling any real sense of pressure about it. The game is there when I’m overtired from work but my brain buzzes because it’s not fully done running yet, or when I don’t feel up to anything requiring true commitment. It’s a calming, almost hypnotic presence on my phone.

All told, I probably need to find something else to do. A hobby wouldn’t be the worst idea.

Up The Ephemeral

This, from Christopher Cantwell’s newsletter, has been on my mind pretty much daily since I first read it:

“In Halt and Catch Fire, at play was always the notion of people in need of connection trying to use technology to bridge the gap. We are living in the ironic end result of it not working. Of course, it also has in a multitude of ways. I’ve met some great friends through technology and established an entire second career. But it feels easier to maintain those connections the old fashioned way now, outside a swarm of wasps and detritus and deafening, meaningless noise.

“None of what the characters in our show did worked. Life has greatly improved in ways that can’t be discounted because of machines, but not socially. Technology has fueled cruelty and eradicated humility and assailed ideas of empirical truth and understanding. It has led many to believe that humans are data to be harvested or deleted, based on whether or not they please us on a whim. It has propped up the ephemeral and turned it into idolatry, it has aided in the denial of and / or the worship of real evil, all in the fearful hope of retaining or gaining even more power.

“It’s a failed experiment.”

Ignoring the fact that this makes me want to go back and rewatch Halt and Catch Fire — a show that I dearly love, and loved more and deeper the more it went on, and the more it became kinder to the very flawed characters at the heart of it — I return over and over to the idea that the internet is a failed experiment, and one that has made us crueler and worse people. The internet is responsible for all manner of good in my life, personally; it’s been where I’ve discovered love both romantic and platonic, and where I found my career, after all. But I can’t deny that, as a whole, this whole thing has been… probably not for the best?

And yet, we’re still here. There’s nowhere else to go, is there? Not really; we can’t all just unplug and step away. Such a thing is literally the stuff of dystopian sci-fi because our imaginations can’t really comprehend the idea that it might actually be for the best. How could it all work without the internet, again, knowing what we know? Would things really be better, or have we just had a shift it will take generations to recover from?

And now this question can live in your head for days after, too.

On Twitter

I feel as if I should probably have more of a reaction to the apparently-imminent demise of Twitter than I actually do, somehow. If reports are to be believed, the company’s workforce has dropped by around 88% since Elon Musk took over just three weeks or so ago, in a mixture of enforced layoffs and voluntary departures from those who didn’t want to work in an environment that was clearly becoming increasingly toxic and destined to fail. (Musk had, if rumors were true, written two separate mass-messages to employees telling them that, in the absence of a plan to fix the chaos he was causing, he expected them to become “more hardcore” and work longer hours; alarm bells couldn’t be louder, let’s be honest.)

Twitter has been my social media home for, what, 14 or so years now…? It’s the one social media site I felt able to navigate properly, able to play around in — there was something about the then-140 character limit (now 280, of course) that worked for me in a way that Facebook or Instagram, Friendster or Vine or whatever, didn’t. Maybe it’s that my mind responds well to short bursts of activity; maybe it’s that I am drawn to platforms that center around writing, instead of images. Whatever; I was a believer in Twitter. It was where I felt comfortable.

That home is going to go away, according to those in the know. Ultimately, I feel… ambivalent…? “Numb” feels melodramatic and wrong, to boot, but I struggle to have a response that goes beyond a quiet sadness and feeling that I’ll miss it for the social aspect — there’s a number of people I made friends with because of it! — and the ease of news gathering aspect, but otherwise…? I’m not sure, I’m genuinely not. Maybe I’m just old now, too old for social media and everything it asks of me. Or maybe I’m just waiting for someone to make Twitter 2, and I’ll move there happily and quietly, and live out the rest of my days.

Maybe both.

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.