Thoughts on Big Tech Censorship

June 29, 2021

The biggest change agent of our lifetime is undoubtedly social media. While other aspects of the internet have revolutionized various ‘industries’ (we all have a lot of opinions on Amazon and Uber), it’s social media that has most dramatically altered our two most important cultural relationships: social engagement with close family and friends, and social engagement with the broader society via culture, literature, arts, and other forms of creative media. In other words- social media has dramatically altered our methods of social and self expression, and in ways we won’t fully understand for decades to come.

The hottest topic these days in social media land is censorship- the idea that ‘big tech’ is squashing out intellectual dissent in the name of mainstream conformity and, I guess, some form of New World Order globalism and/or baby-eating satanism. The point is that there’s now being attributed insane amounts of intention behind the new social landscape that is, frankly, just the collateral damage of a few college dropouts trying to be the first to turn a half-million loan from their parents into a trillion dollars.

That Democrat Ate Your Baby (said in an Australian accent)

Here’s the top case study of the week: Amongst the bevy of unproven Covid therapies out there, the new hot commodity is Ivermectin, as it’s becoming championed as this year’s hot reboot of hydroxycloriquin. Full disclosure, this conversation really has nothing to do with whether or not Ivermectin helps treat Covid, which remains an open scientific question. The controversy is more concerned with the fact that if you go on YouTube and talk about the potential of ivermectin as a treatment, you may see yourself “silenced” and potentially shut down. And yet, is this censorship?

When people cry “censored”, the first big question is- compared to what? Compared to fifty years ago? Seriously, try to orchestrate getting a message out to tens of thousands of strangers in the nineteen seventies, how would you literally have done it without going through a gatekeeper like a television station or newspaper? Fifty years ago, Q-Anon would’ve been the guy on the street corner holding a sign that reads ‘The End is Near (for the globalist left-wing pedophiles)’. Now he has 4chan and a pseudonym alongside his dog-eared copy of The Turner Diaries.

And yet with the advent of the internet, we feel entitled to stand on any platform with a “like” button. The reality is, this whole idea of free amplification (like the fact that YouTube was recommending Alex Jones to more people than watch the Super Bowl) is bonkers. Why should any internet company have to amplify whatever you write for free anyway? If you had a crazy, non-mainstream view fifty years ago, good luck. If you have them now, it’s great as long as your viewers click those targeted ads once in a while.

I’m not arguing that these tech companies should or shouldn’t remove controversial content from their platforms. From their perspective, I would wager that they shouldn’t remove content because it’s self-defeating (look up the Streisand effect). But I’m less interested in Mark Zuckerberg’s perspective on, well, anything. I’m more interested in our individual perspectives as the rats in Zuckerberg’s lab. Thirty years ago, it would be insane to expect NBC to carry my opinions on the 5 o’clock news. There’s absolutely no reason for us to expect it. Jump ahead to this year, and suddenly it’s censorship to kick someone off your platform, when they still have the entire internet to scrawl on. Was it any less effort to build YouTube than it was to build Dateline NBC? Why do we feel so entitled to the recommendation algorithms?

Meet the new Boss, same as the old Boss

We believed that the internet would democratize publishing, that it would tear down the gatekeepers and let the truth ring. Five minutes after that happened, we realized that there’s a lot of dumb-ass people in the world, who want to “share their truths”. There’s no so much information, that filtering has become even more important than amplifying. So we built new gatekeepers who could handle the scale of intellectual feces our monkey brains were throwing out. These new gatekeepers aren’t even human, they’re mostly algorithms, algorithms who can’t really tell if you’re arguing that Ivermectin cures cancer and increases penis size or that Ivermectin should be safely researched in a double-blind clinical trial so we can learn if it’s one of many effective treatments against Covid.  The algorithm simply can’t tell what’s been written in good faith, the same way Google photos can’t tell if you’re in a photograph if your skin isn’t white. It’s just a shitty set of decisions made by a bunch of college grads who were more interested in microdosing LSD than reading science fiction or studying history and ethics.

True, we used to have a few select institutions who set the narrative. NBC decided what entertainment was and the CDC decided what science was. We certainly democratized that- now your kids decide what entertainment was and anyone with a white lab coat can jump on Instagram live and convince thousands of people that they’re an expert. It’s different, but it’s not better. And the homemade video of a “doctor” is certainly not any more true than the medical establishment of the nineteen fifties prescribing cigarettes and mercury. 

When people complain about platform level censorship, what they’re really complaining about is the fact that the internet didn’t solve any of the problems we thought it would. We expected the Arab Spring and yet we got genocide in Myanmar and a rise in authoritarianism and election instability around the world. We thought it would bolster the public discourse by increasing access for marginalized groups, but it actually just provided another method for the economically elite to consolidate their own power and control the narrative at an even deeper and more automated level. The internet and social media were supposed to create a better version of our social interactions and a flourishing of our creative media. While it certainly increased the raw amount of creative expression available to us, the jury is out on whether it really is quantitatively better that Tiktok and Teen Mom has usurped Tolstoy as the cultural center.

So I think the biggest takeaway we need to pull is how much bullshit there is and how it will never go away. The same people who are so distrustful of ‘big pharma’ and wouldn’t go near aspirin with a ten foot pole have been the first to jump on ‘miracle medical treatments’ as proof of conspiracy. The same people who were so mistrustful of the curated narrative of the entertainment industry, are blindly trusting of any video served up by an algorithm designed by essentially the same group of people. The amount of trust we’re putting in the hands of strangers is mind-boggling these days, especially when people falsely feel like they’re more “independent” and “free-thinking” than ever before.

Deep Thoughts

This is the lesson of the censorship debate: stop expecting massive multimillion-dollar global companies to do the work for you. Stop. Stop being mad that YouTube doesn’t agree with your contrarian take or that their algorithms aren’t sensitive enough to understand controversy versus intentional misinformation. Stop. Stop being surprised when they take down an undercover reporter’s video inside a KKK rally, but leave the KKK’s posts untouched. Stop expecting Facebook posts to be true or what you see on YouTube to be unfiltered. Be smarter than that. Those websites can show you billions of pieces of content at any given moment. They’re already filtering your reality.

You can’t say you’re a skeptic if everything you learn actually came from a secret algorithm clearly designed to make you mad enough to stay engaged and feed even more invasive advertising. The internet cannot truly democratize information, if everyone is just going to hitch themselves to the same few companies wagons. If you’re going to rely on these companies for how you communicate with other people, good luck. Does anyone truly believe that interpersonal relationships and communication have gotten better over the last twenty years?

At a certain point, we have to blame the smoker if they want to ignore the surgeon general’s warning. If you’re still surprised at Facebook and YouTube for being the shithole mind-warpers that they are, that’s on you.

Staying Socialized

June 16, 2021

One of the common concerns of homeschooling we often hear is that kids need to be socialized. But socialization is public schools is only one specific type of socialization.

In schools, kids socialize in small chunks of time, generally with larger groups of other children the same age and status. And they’re constantly being monitored by adults, rather than engaged with (since there’s 30 other kids needing monitoring).

Throughout human history, most children were given the freedom to spend large parts of the day either alone or in the company of people from various age groups and backgrounds. They lived in their own private world, or they visited the world of adults. They didn’t spend much time in the pretend world of school.

Someone asked us how our kids will learn important things like following rules, taking turns, or standing in lines. As if we’d never taken our kids to a grocery store or a library, or we don’t all have to take turns having six people sharing two bathrooms at home.

It gets to the heart of what school actually is. Is it babysitting for busy parents? A component of the social safety net? A place to prepare children for the future? Or a place to change the future by changing children?

On Basecamp and Banned Speech

April 29, 2021

There’s a saying about being the president: if the problem landing on the president’s desk were easy to solve, it wouldn’t have made it to the president’s desk. In the new social landscape, we’re all the president of our own little social world. We’re all faced with way too many outrageous occasions that beg our immediate attention and absolute judgement. If someone a thousand miles away said something disagreeable, it scrolls into our hands and we swipe them into the society’s trash can. And yet, if every human interaction were this clear and simple, if there had been a straightforward hero and an obvious villain, it probably wouldn’t be news. It would probably have been solved locally and life would’ve moved forward. Instead we’re only given the murky moral quandaries that stir up enough mutual animosity to merit our screen time.

And yet, we do love a simple narrative, don’t we? We love a hero’s journey, good versus evil, archetypes and so on. So when the story is funneled through the telephone game that is “the media” (news, social, and otherwise), what once was complicated and nuanced gets repackaged into a clear game of us versus them. In the red corner we get Tucker Carlson and in the blue corner it’s Rachel Maddow. And they’re in it to win it. To win what exactly? Who knows? Attention, I suppose. From you, from me, from the ad-buying team at Proctor and Gamble.

The first step to gain attention is to simply remove all context. There’s no room for details in a headline. You can’t fit a backstory in an Instagram live. Fifteen words, or less if you’re a true Hemingway.

Next, ensure that whatever makes your cast of characters deep and richly human is stripped away. They need to feel like people but also to represent a set of tribal ideas and stereotypes. It’s much easier to trash an idea than it is to trash a person.

And finally, just tell me who was wrong. Don’t make me think too much about it. I need my villain in a black helmet and a cape, I need his laugh to sound maniacal and his weapon to look intimidating. I need a five second Marvel movie that I can point to and say, “See?”

At the end of the day, whatever you think you know about this particular story doesn’t really matter, because it’s just the same mythic morality play we’ve seen a hundred times. If the other side is happy about it, then I already know my lines: I should be outraged.

That’s how I felt watching the back and forth surrounding the Basecamp fiasco, a tempest in the tech industry tea cup that luckily flew beneath the mainstream radar. I’ll skip the finer points, because I assume that if you’ve made it this far, you already know them.

On the other hand, how I re-tell the story will give you, the reader, some insight into how I view it. The adjectives I use or the details I curate, each becomes a puzzle piece that I’m hand-selecting to predispose you to supporting my point of view. So I’ll try really hard to be neutral in my quick summary. But I’m human, so I probably won’t be as objective as I think I am.

The main thrust is that two prominent tech execs got fed up with the social/political conversations in their company communications and set up a blanket ban on “societal and political discussion” in official work channels. It was made a little more complicated because 1) their company communications tool is literally their product that they build and sell and 2) these two execs are mostly well-known because of how opinionated they are: they write popular, manifesto-like books and blogs, and even have testified in front of Congress about topics that may be considered “social or political”.

In full disclosure, I’m a fan of their books and their general approach to work. So when I read their original posts, I was giving them the benefit of the doubt. I found myself nodding along the entire time. The “big” conversations have become so tribal, so toxic, why shouldn’t someone be able to just go to work and not also have to justify their political beliefs or defend their opinions? Conversations online are a terrible way to discuss big ideas, why not skip it altogether?

But then more context leaks out. And it gets a little more complicated.

The social/political conversation was coming from a few employees who were upset about some stuff happening inside the company, essentially a long-running bad taste joke that could be symptomatic of some large issues. These employees were trying to lead the company to a better place through recognition and atonement of some past wrongs.

But then more context leaks out. And it gets a little more complicated.

Maybe these employees were very vocal, and very much a minority. And maybe their accusations against their coworkers were getting a little outrageous and disruptive as well.

But then more context leaks out. And it gets a little more complicated.

You see where I’m going with this?

I was originally going to highlight each drip of the conversation, each shift from it feeling justified to it feeling a breach of power. Seriously, read the “leaks” in the Verge or the response from owner DHH. If you want to find justification for either side, you really can. If you want to paint a picture of a few ultra-woke employees hijacking the workweek, making ever-escalating and increasingly-impossible demands for more social shaming and verbal reparations, it’s clearly there. On the other hand, if you want to paint a picture of two privileged white male owners shutting down and walking away from the valid concerns coming from inside their labor force, it’s there too.

The mainstream liberal in me wants to side with labor, and with potentially marginalized voices. The longtime Basecamp fan wants to recognize the continual thoughtfulness of the oft-heterodox owners. At the end of the day, we really have to move beyond the two sides and address the fundamental question here: will banning social/political conversation at work lead to a more productive, more healthy, more fair work environment?

I honestly don’t know. But the more I think about it, the more I have to assume that no, it probably will not.

There’s an cliche making the rounds this past year: the only response to bad speech is more speech. On the one hand, I agree with this. Shutting down a conversation doesn’t solve a problem. Shutting down all conversations that could potentially, vaguely, more or less fall into some broad category of “things I don’t want to hear about”, that’s not solving anything. Similarly, censoring taboo ideas or labeling them as ‘misinformation’ doesn’t solve the problem either, it just pushes them deeper under the surface.

And yet, does anyone feel like the problem these days is that there isn’t enough speech? I mean, at some point, is silence really a form of violence or does it just sound like a nice change of pace in our hyper-online world? Sure we can call it a privilege not having to listen to something that we don’t want to hear. But the end goal isn’t that we just have to sit down and let every bad faith conversation play out in perpetuity.

So I disagree that the only response to bad speech is more speech. It’s certainly better speech, more conversation, good faith, listening, context, ambiguity, and a thousand other things that comment threads and message boards are simply not built for. It’s true that the only response to bad speech cannot be “less” speech. And a company that builds communication and collaboration software should be able to take some time out to work on.. I don’t know.. better communication and collaboration.

These problems are hard. And no one asked us to solve them, at least not this one. We’re actually not the president, and our mobile feed is not actually the president’s desk. Yet we do face our own tiny versions of these problems every day, and as individuals within a society, we move forward and adapt, whether we plan to or not. So I find that what makes me feel the best, feel good in a way that internet outrage certainly fails to, is simply writing about it for myself. Sitting down with a blank page and pushing through the uncertainly in my own mind to try to make at least one coherent argument. To start with an introduction and, by the time I get to my conclusion, to feel like you and I, dear reader, have learned something.

When I started this, I was vaguely upset because I couldn’t get this issue to fit neatly into my box of right and wrong. Now that I’ve written about it, I still can’t seem to fit it neatly into my box of right and wrong, but I’m not so upset about it. Instead I’m curious, because I’m not the same person that I was when I started, and I really want to see where our society goes next.

How To Be Wrong

May 12, 2020

This morning one of my daughters was wrong. Shocking, I know, but it happens from time to time.

Our girls have been learning some simple ASL (American Sign Language) through YouTube videos. Our four-year-old, Maeve, who can sing her ABCs but not identify most of the letters yet, has made it from A to C in ASL. As she was showing us the letter D, she was making the wrong shape with her hand.

Evely, our six-year-old corrected her, but Maeve was resistant. Evely offered to replay the video they watch- a little girl who teaches ASL to her mother and then signs and sings an off-key and slightly reggae version of the ABCs- in order to help her learn to shape her D correctly. Again, Maeve was resistant and starting to get a little upset at the idea that she was wrong. She insisted that she would continue to make the D her way.

This is where my wife and I differ as parents. My wife is more of a pacifier. She sees my daughter getting emotional and assures her that it’s not a big deal, she doesn’t have to learn the correct D right now if she doesn’t want to. I’m much less of a pacifying presence. I simply remind my daughter that it’s OK if she doesn’t learn it right now, but… she is doing it wrong and therefore technically is not making a D with her hand. I think it’s pretty clear how that went over. My daughter went into emotional lockdown, buried her face in her stuffed donkey, and only responded in grunts for a few moments.

This is parenting, this is educating, and unfortunately, this is what happens regardless of how you parent or what educational philosophy you follow. There are no right answers in homeschooling (or any schooling), and unfortunately, most of life comes down to these sorts of social interactions where it matters less who is right and matters more how you talk to someone who you think is wrong.

I recently read an article about how to handle relatives who believe in conspiracy theories. Most of the tips (be empathetic, don’t make them feel less intelligent or try to debate each minor point) made me feel like the perfect example of what not to do when confronted with disagreements in real life. It felt like the author watched footage of conversations I’d had, saw how completely unsuccessful I was, and took copious notes to bring back to the others. Empathy in place of condescension. Understanding in place of exasperation.

Whether it’s my daughter or my adult relatives, it’s important to learn how to be wrong. And I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about myself. Being ‘correct’ isn’t the same thing as being in the right. Sometimes we have to be wrong, because we very often are. Even on the off-chance that we did get all of our facts straight (which can also be unlikely), it’s more often the social interaction- and the relationship with those around us- that we don’t want to get wrong.

Roosevelt on Parenting

May 4, 2020

From Morris’s Roosevelt biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, came this quote:

…the highest idea of the family is attainable only where the father and mother stand to each other as lovers and friends. In these homes the children are bound to the father and mother by ties of love, respect, and obedience, which are simply strengthened by the fact that they are treated as reasonable beings with rights of their own…

Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt is a fascinating case study in family dynamics, and a regular preacher of moral virtue, especially seen in the relationship with his alcoholic, philandering brother. But he was not without his own massive faults.

His first wife died days after giving birth to his first daughter, in the same house and on the same day that his own mother died. Roosevelt went into such a long period of internalized mourning that he gave his daughter to his sister to be raised and hardly looked at her or talked about her for the first few years of her life.

It wasn’t until he remarried (to his childhood sweetheart) that he began to have more kids and turn into the father figure who would eventually write the lines above. His own father was described as both loving and imposing, charitable and demanding, and was always seen by Roosevelt as a genuine specimen of a good man.

Roosevelt himself was raised without formal education for the majority of his early childhood, but being the son of a wealthy New York family, he still had plenty of access to a large family library where he taught himself to read and write. He didn’t attend an actual school until adolescence, and was always said to be the most passionate, energetic, and articulate as compared to his classmates. In his life, he’d become an important academic scholar, prolific writer, and famous legislator, as well as a capable cowboy, rancher, scientist, and soldier.

It’s hard to know exactly how Roosevelt raised his own children, but they are said to have been given a lot of freedom to, like him, follow their curiosities without the overwhelming structure and responsibility hoisted on kids today. They weren’t in preparatory kindergartens or given constant homework. It’s not that respect and obedience aren’t expected, but true respect and obedience can only be cultivated in the presence of free will rather than dogma.

For Roosevelt, one of the most important values under his umbrella term of Americanism was freedom– often seen as expansion into new frontiers outside of the strictures of society. In those days, East meant the stuffy, formal, and even effeminate life of London and the rest of Europe. Roosevelt was a doer- someone who constantly pushed West towards the wilderness. For someone with such a strong internal moral code, he really seemed to believe that morality come from inside, and a man proves his morality when faced with the open freedom of the frontier, and apt metaphor for releasing our own children into the world around them.

Quidditch as Self-Directed Sports Education

April 30, 2020

My daughter, who currently goes by the name Hermione Granger, has brought Harry Potter fandom to a fever pitch in our house. While reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to her, I was struck by how foreign many of the underlying concepts of quidditch at Hogwarts felt to me. If you haven’t engaged with Potter before, quidditch is the only team sport available at wizard boarding school, and it seems to combine rugby with soccer, and a little hide-and-seek, all the while played on broomsticks.

The actual rules of the game aren’t what struck me as most odd, though; instead it was the way quidditch as an extra-curricular activity was structured by the administration at Hogwarts. I’d love to know how much of this is standard European behavior or maybe how much is J.K. Rowling’s fantasy. In any case, if you compare it to the standard Friday Night Lights-style artifice around American high school football or any other team sport, from little league on, you’ll notice one key absence: adult intervention. There are almost no teachers, and absolutely no parents, involved in quidditch.

There’s simply Madame Hooch, the impartial quidditch referee and one-time broomstick lesson instructor. The fact that Madame Hooch collects a paycheck at all is pretty mind-boggling, unless we imagine that she’s also working in the Hogwarts registrars office during the other 99% of her time. Apart from the referee, every other position of authority is granted to a student.

The team captains, though selected by a teacher, are students themselves. There is no coach in quidditch- the team captain runs the try-outs, selects the team members, and schedules and runs the practices. The captain is responsible for creating the plays and strategies for each upcoming match. We can imagine a character like Oliver Wood sitting in his dorm watching 35mm projections of Slytherin practices and scrawling into a folio with an energetic feather.

Even the announcer at the quidditch games is a student, only ever interrupted by Professor McGonagall when he succumbs to bouts of cursing, and hardly even then. The students play an entire tournament and not once does a single parent show up with a camcorder and a pizza party.

In Prisoner of Azkaban, it takes a serial murderer camped directly outside of Hogwarts for months to provoke the school into providing any adult supervision (for a game played fifty feet above the ground, flying on broomsticks). It comes in the form of one-dimensional Madame Hooch, who sits court-side and sleeps her way through the practices.

Compare that to a typical American extra-curricular, where it is an adult coach who builds the team, schedules the practices, assigns positions, plans the plays, and so on. Drive by a community park on a Thursday evening and you’ll see more adults than kids, camped out with umbrellas, lawn chairs, and coolers of Capri-Suns. The coach is typically joined by more than one assistant coach, and as a rule there’s at least one irate parent who’s job apparently is coaching (yelling) from the sidelines.

So what keeps Harry Potter showing up to Quidditch practice six nights a week, if not adult intervention? How on earth does the entire structure not fall apart, with the kids spending their evenings on the wizarding version of TikTok or up in their rooms playing with their gobstones? Apparently it’s all those things we typically want our kids to learn: love of the game, high personal standards, camaraderie, and self-motivation.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for The Sandlot-era sports, and sure Harry Potter is fiction, but the idea the children are given some autonomy, that they’re forced to deal with conflict resolution on their own terms, is not new. This is the basis of self-directed education: kids flourish when given freedom, autonomy, and responsibility. If you create a culture where kids are constantly told what to do- all you’re teaching them is how to wait to be told what to do. On the other hand, if left to their own devices, they’ll find reasons- internal motivation- to push themselves. Some will even step up to become leaders.

On Watching Our Daughter Teach Herself to Read

April 18, 2020

One of the hardest mental hurdles in self-directed education is the idea that you don’t sit down with the purpose of teaching your kids to read– not unless they explicitly ask for it. You don’t require daily reading lessons, and you never ask the question, “Is my child reading at grade level yet?”

Of course we’ve hinted at the value of reading (“This game would be even more fun for you if you could read what the characters are saying”) but never forced it. We bought practice reading books with Disney princesses, unicorns, and dragons, and we even have a large copy of Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons that’s been dog-eared at lesson 27 for a few years now.

Over that past year or so our six-year-old had developed the narrative that reading is just too hard, even though she was picking it up quite easily all things considered. Because it wasn’t instantaneous, it wasn’t fun. Of course our overwhelming urge as parents is to keep pushing it, knowing it will be fun once you can do it. But that “grit” mentality- the ability to push through something hard knowing it will be worth it in the end- is something that has to be experienced in order to be learned. And that’s hard, because the common culture is to push your kids through something hard, forcing them through hoping they’ll learn the lesson in the end (“See aren’t you glad you stuck it out?”).

Self-directed education takes the opposite approach. Our daughter will learn to read when she wants to learn to read. When she sees enough value in it that it becomes important to her. For her own reasons.

In life, at the end of the day, no one is going to push you. No one is going to force you through college or motivate you to become an outstanding employee and earn that promotion. No one is going to will you into writing that book you’ve always put off or starting that business of your dreams. Internal motivation, much like reading, is a foundational skill that, once developed, opens every other door behind it.

So we stopped suggesting (or nagging) that she learn to read, and yet we continued to read aloud to her on a daily basis. It’s actually a delicate dance- we never stopped enjoying the magic of books, but we never forced her to read to get her enjoyment from them either. The reading level of these books has grown, from C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl, to the inter-generational conflict and time-traveling conundrums of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I really thought we’d step beyond the reach of her six-year-old mind, but she comprehended, slowly and surely, asking a lot of questions along the way.

The hardest part is to watch other kids in traditional schooling start to tackle reading lessons, phonics flash cards, and Dick and Jane. You know your child is certainly capable, but for whatever reason, she simply doesn’t want to try to read on her own. You can start to feel like a failure as a parent, because we’ve all been trained to treat our children’s progress like a race, a competition. If our children are falling behind academically, it means there’s a mistake somewhere along the line, a problem to be fixed, at least according to the popular mindset.

It’s hard to stand firm and wait it out. It’s hard to trust in our children that they’ll naturally want to do the right thing. And I could trot out the research and statistics on natural learning ages, but none of that means anything when you’re trying not to feel disappointed in your child for not being a savant at age five.

But then one day everything changed, like we hoped it would. Like we knew it would. She started seeing the signal within the noise of black squiggles on a white page. She was pointing to the words, sounding them out on her own. She picked up the Disney princess primary readers, stumbling her way through sentences. She did it on her own, with no one pushing her, and she got to own it- the pride, the success, all her own. She asked questions and we answered, but otherwise she was showing us how to read, not the other way around.

So I understand that other philosophy, the one that says we should always be pushing our kids, that if it were up to them they wouldn’t do anything but sit and play Minecraft all day. I can certainly relate to that fear. But that’s actually a problem that doesn’t solve itself as you grow up. I still have to convince myself to spend a few hours writing every week instead of watching Netflix or scrolling through Instagram. I still have to fight every day to turn on my internal motivation to accomplish my personal and professional goals.

So of course we don’t let our kids watch television all day. I see television and iPads like sugar: inherently addictive regardless of age. We all work to limit the influence. So sure take away the television for most of the day, but also take away the adult supervision, the schedules, the lesson plans, and the micromanagement. Allow your kids to truly entertain themselves- give your kids the ultimate freedom to grow and it’s amazing the lessons they can teach themselves.

The alternative is to teach them that motivation is someone else’s job, that all they need to do is sit around and wait for the grown-ups to tell them what to do.

How Many Podcasts Do We Need?

April 13, 2020

The ongoing joke starting somewhere around 2018 is that everyone has a podcast. With the move towards ‘shelter-in-place’ rules the past few weeks, that maxim has only proven more true with more friends and relatives grabbing a microphone to unload their point of view. My cynicism has been grappling with how to feel about this, so I think a trip through podcast history might be useful in establishing context.

Back in the olden days of yore- a decade or so ago- basically two types of personalities drove the podcast movement forward. One one side, you have the comedian, announcer, or radio personality who can talk to anyone about anything and make it interesting. Examples of this range from WTF with Marc Maron, Joe Rogan, Pete Holmes, to Ben Shapiro, Rachel Maddow, Alex Jones, etc. These podcasts typically take the shape of a monologue and/or long-form interview filtered through their comedic lens or editorial worldview.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the subject-matter expert who takes the deep dive each week into their area of expertise. You see this in health-related podcasts, technology, politics, etc. Some include interviews, but many include panel discussions centered on current events, the latest technology news, business strategies, episodic analysis of Frasier, or cutting edge scientific research. These might be less far-reaching, but more fervently followed, especially the further niche they move.

A hybrid variation of the ‘radio announcer’ meets ‘subject-matter expert’ here is the well-produced, NPR-adjacent format seen from podcast ‘studios’ like Gimlet, Slate, and Serial-producers NPR. I see these as a separate category of podcast, more like a feature documentary than the daily local news segment. For the sake of this discussion, I’m more interested in the first two podcast genres, mainly because of the low production value and minimal editing required.

When podcasts first began, everyone was a hobbyist, because there wasn’t an industry around it. The only one seeing an upside was Apple, who basically “invented” podcasts to help market iPods. I’m hopeful that the last few years have seen peak podcast in terms of corporate influence, especially as the medium resists the type of detailed analytics-gathering that ruined the online version of news and print media.

And yet, while a podcast interview used to feel random and unique, most weeks in podcast land, the same few guests circulate through the top ten list the same way celebrities cycle through the late night shows when it’s promotional season for their new movie. In any given week, you’ll see the same name pop-up on more than a few podcasts, serving up half a dozen 1- to 3-hour interviews in the span of a few days, typically with a new book or show to promote.

For most of the podcasts, I think the comparison to television is apt. The comedian-based podcasts are the late-night talk shows, the expert and panel-based podcasts are the basic-cable niche channels, from CNN to HGTV. So much of traditional cable television becoming less relevant as time goes on, irrelevance accelerated by the internet and social media, which has blurred the lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’, ‘influencer’ and ‘influenced’.

While the amount of “content” we are served a daily basis expands, it only makes sense that the expectations (and production values) drop. The more that we lose the distinction between creator and audience, the demand for who is “authentic” (or at least the Instagram version of authentic) rises to fill the gap. And COVID-19 has only accelerated this progress as we see Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert ditch their suits, interview guests over Zoom, and grapple with interruptions from their children and pets. See- celebrities ARE just like us!

Which brings be back full circle to the rise (again) of the hobbyist podcaster, and more than that, the rise of the amateur livestreamer in general. COVID-19 has seen my social media feeds flourish with livestreams from friends offering musical performances, tutorials, and classic vlog-style monologues (“hey guys!”). Most of this comes from people will little to no “influence” in the traditional sense. Just old connections, sharing something cool with their small group of friends. This new push of amateur content is beginning to trickle over from social media into podcasts.

I must admit that I was in the original camp that asks, do we really need to hear even more people rambling through an amateur podcast? Do we really need more “content”? Compared to people who do it for a living or have been doing it for a while, the average joe is probably not THAT funny or expert at anything. Not that our friends and family aren’t smart and humorous, just that we’re not making it our daily job to take smart and funny ideas and format them for an audience. The friends playing guitar into their cell phone aren’t going to be a slick as the rock star live-streaming from his in-home studio.

And yet, aren’t we all watching our friends Instagram stories and getting our news from that weird right-wing aunt who seems to have nothing else to do all day? Isn’t there something inherently more interesting about seeing a friend grow into an artist, than seeing a popular artist on social media pretending they’re our “friend”? In a sense, I should probably be more interested in what my friends have to say than someone like Conan O’Brien, even though Conan is probably going to be funnier than most people I’m related to.

So I’m interested in the shift from the celebrity podcast to the friends-and-family podcast. I might even like it. Like the Andy Warhol cliche, everyone gets their fifteen minutes of podcasting, sponsored today by Blue Apron.

Finding Yourself vs Creating Yourself

April 13, 2020

There’s a moment in Scorcese’s Bob Dylan docu-fantasy for Netflix, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, where Bob Dylan is asked about the idea of “finding yourself”. His answer, excerpted below, is probably the most insightful moment of the film, and if the film were an essay, would stand as its thesis statement.

Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself and creating things.

– Bob Dylan

In one sense, the answer is the perfect rebuttal to that terrible phase we all go through sometime around college- the phase of “finding ourselves.” There’s nothing wrong with trying on new hats, like that week where you tried so hard to be a guy who wears a fedora. But “finding yourself” still promotes the harmful idea that the real you is out there somewhere, whole and intact, waiting to be discovered.

Taken to its worst extreme- and I can definitely see this when I look back at my own twenties- we end up sitting around and waiting. We aren’t even looking anymore, we’re holding out for our future self- the grown-up version- to show up and find us- to lead us into a future that we have no ability to build for ourselves.

As you get older, you realize that most of your heroes didn’t sit around and wait to find themselves or be discovered- they journeyed off in search of themselves, maybe found nothing, but along the way created some semblance of a personality and unique point of view, mostly through hard-earned experience.

Bob Dylan, of course, is the king of making- and re-making- himself. His list of varied roles, from troubadour to trouble-maker, are now cultural archetypes. However, as he remade himself, he also remade the world around him, from the world of protest music and 60s rock to the 70s Nashville resurgence, and so on. The best and most effective version of creating yourself, then, bleeds out into the world, because whatever you create of yourself must bear some reflection on how you see the rest of the world- and how you’d like see it changed.

Scorcese’s film, like Dylan’s music, is an attempt at world-building, a term usually reserved for science-fiction and fantasy literature, but becoming more common in our world of “cinematic universes”. Even the subtitle, “A Bob Dylan Story”, has to be an intentional nod to film franchises like Disney/Marvel, and origin story episodes like Solo: A Star Wars Story.

I’m not sure Scorcese would appreciate the comparison to Marvel, but consider the fact that the film is littered with fictional characters representing archetypal narratives (e.g. Sharon Stone as the “teen groupie”, the “promotor”, the “visual artist”, and so on). These characters are clear archetypes or literary personas, crafted like comic book charaters or commedia dell’arte. During the original tour, Dylan works on a similar concept, Reynaldo and Clara.

As world-building moved from niche to mainstream, from the Tolkien nerds like myself to the globe-spanning popularity of video games like Minecraft, television shows like The Walking Dead, and the rest of the Disney-verse, we’ve seen a shift towards the appreciation of self-invention. The internet, social media, and blogging have pushed this idea of world-building, of self-invention to it’s next logical evolution. In a sense, we’re all a Bob Dylan or a Marvel character, documenting our lives with the additional ability of post-production and selective editing.

Of course most of us won’t rewrite the book on rock and roll, or rake in billions at the box office this year. Our worlds are somewhat smaller. But we still have some concrete ability to create and re-create them as we re-create ourselves. So why not do it with intention.

How Much is Enough?

February 26, 2019

How many people’s kids should I keep track of? Should I know all their names and ages? What if we’re related, does that change things? Nieces and nephews, how important are they? Are second cousins a real thing? Should I know what grade every one is in? Should I watch what my own kids did without me today or should I let them tell me about it?

How many friends’ weekends should I know about? Should I know what everyone did last summer? Should I follow all the updates and stay abreast of the current statuses? Should I reach out personally in case there’s something going on outside of what they’ve shared?

How many health and fitness gurus should I keep tabs on? Should I be taking notes or cataloging recipes? What about the new research they just mentioned, should I fact-check it? Should I make sure they’ve cited their sources, should I check Pubmed for a general consensus or opposing view from the scientific community?

How many celebrities should I follow? Musicians? Writers? Do they have a new project coming out or a Patreon I could be supporting? What about artists, how much time should I spend with each piece they share? Should I like it? What if its something painful and vulnerable, is Like really the best response?

What about comedians or satirists or political commentators? What if they have a great one-liner on todays headlines, should I read it? What if I don’t understand the context, should I find the news story they’re talking about?

How much news should I follow? Foreign affairs? Local? State? Domestic? What’s the government up to, especially those hundred new congressmen and women? Is it OK to just ignore anything about the President? Are there any bills I should be researching, Supreme Court cases I should have an opinion on?

Hows the global climate doing? Is there anything I can do about it? Is there anything I can learn about it? Were there any natural disasters? Should I be donating towards the relief efforts?

Maybe I should research the charities to make sure my donation is going to a good cause? Should I double back and research the news organization to make sure my information came from a good source? Should I triple back and make sure that the tech company’s platform that curated my newsfeed did so with minimal bias?

What about opinions that challenge my beliefs? Should I check in with the conservatives, with the christians, with the conspiracy theorists? Should I engage critically or just listen? Should I open a dialogue or shut my mouth?

What about my own thoughts, should I listen to them? Should I share them? Should I write them down and publish them immediately? Should I wait a day or will I wake up tomorrow in a completely new zeitgeist? Or will I wake up tomorrow and it’ll be exactly the same thing?