I am all for conserving trees, but I really miss the days where everyone owned a fully-loaded printer. I’m a very visual learner and spatial processor. I need to see the information all around me, spread out in a circle or across the living room floor, covering walls, black text annotated in fucking gel pens and highlighters to distinguish what is what and what should be where in the chronology. The sprawl is part of the process, as is filing is all away when the project is complete.
Many of us have been adapting to this idea of containing our workspaces within a 13-inch screen, switching tabs and documents and removing the clutter. All my possessions at the moment fit into a single suitcase, so I am experimenting with working in an unusually confined manner. Still though, I may be a digital native, but half the weight of whatever I am carrying with me at any given moment is paper. I love the clutter of the tangible expression of thought in the physical world. I need it.
When I create in my preferred mode, and I’m working on a research project or a feature-length (>1,500 words) article, my work space basically turns into Carie Mathison’s apartment. This is my ideal virtual reality app: a 10x10x10 cube with blank walls where I can pin all the different pieces of the puzzle I am trying to solve, and quickly connect the dots free from the distractions of all the other things that lurk inside our 13-inch screens.
Carrie gets a lot of shit for that in Homeland. Someone always walks in, sees her beautiful mind murals, and stands there with their hands on their hips because they know she’s been off her meds. Leave Carrie alone! If I wrote a fanfiction alternate ending to Season 2, Carrie would quit the CIA, ditch her lithium, and move to some Buddhist country to become an artist. I mean look at this fucking mandala:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the open web lately. As a concept, it is relatively abstract to me since I was born in 1986 and came of age in an online ecosystem where closed software systems were promoted in convenient packages. I got my first computer when I was eight (a Packard Bell with Windows 3.1), and my online consciousness began to develop within the confines of the AOL 3.0 interface. For those younger than me who don’t remember, it came on a CD-ROM and had a splash page of a few topics you could click to view content, which I assume some curator on AOL’s end manually updated.
The chatrooms were glorious cesspools of humanity. My user name was SmileyA125 and I still remember the sounds of the door opening and closing when someone would enter and leave a room. Eight-year-old me could transmit messages to Japan in the blink of an eye! What power. But the closest I ever got to the open web via AOL was typing in a URL by hand. I remember I used to just guess which words to put between the www and the dot com, and if a website actually did exist there, it was like winning a game.
When AOL Instant Messenger came along, my peers and I rejoiced. It wasn’t so much that people my age (12-16) wanted to communicate within a closed system, but the features (profiles, fonts and text colors, and my favorite of all: the warn button) made it more appealing. Also starting was the tendency of people to be online all the time. As soon as hogging the phone line was no longer an issue, the concept of logging on and off began to fade. If you were AFK, you were simply idle.
I can’t even remember how I found my Sweet Valley High fanfiction sites—I suppose through a search on Netscape Navigator—but I think this was as close as I got to the open web. I wasn’t yet big on reading the news, so I have no idea what online news even looked like back then or how publications disseminated information online other than by email listservs or people manually keying in the homepage URL. I’d guess the news organizations would have to collaborate directly with the ISPs (like AOL) in order to get direct placement on their curated portals. I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since then, but I know of some news organizations that still require manual updating of their homepages.
I never used The Well or Mosaic or any of the other key things that came before, so I have to use my imagination where all the early stuff is concerned. After meeting Tim Berners-Lee by proxy of interviewing him with Nate Silver for Nate’s book, The Signal and the Noise, I read Weaving the Web which does a nice job of laying out the chronology and major players leading up to the AOL era. I know the open web he spoke of still exists somewhere. When I hear people like Chris Anderson and Ev Williams talk about how the Web is dead, it seems like they’re saying it out of self-interest rather than describing some factual reality. But I still don’t know what on the web is truly “open,” or what ever really was.
The summer before I began my freshman year of college at University of Michigan, The Facebook sent an invitation to my freshly generated umich.edu email address, probably along with all the other umich addresses and those of about a dozen other select Universities. We were to be the first users outside of Harvard. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of absurd that they were able to do that. I remember interpreting that invitation as a 17 year old and thinking The Facebook must be something the University was endorsing as a directory tool—a service it was providing to students like me. But why would some guy from Harvard be given (or be allowed to take) entire student email lists to promote his product, which was set up like a dating site at the time? What other closed web system that wasn’t proprietary University software got such preferential treatment?
My friends and I poured our college life data onto the Book of Faces, openly and assuming respect for our privacy at first, then more hesitantly and pulling back as cases popped up to indicate moderate to great harm could come from sharing too much. The most famous example at my school, which I’ve blogged about before, was when my classmate then two-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, lost a bunch of sponsorships because someone posted a picture of him smoking a bong on the facebook. I never deactivated my profile, but I went through at least 10 cataloging sprees to hone my privacy settings, as well as complete purges of photos of myself. None of that cataloging really matters anymore since facebook decided its users needed simplified options. Those photos I deleted may be lost forever to the internet Nothing.
OR, they may remain in data purgatory, inaccessible to me like much of the other data I’ve input into the facebook over the past 10.5 years, but stored somewhere in the recesses of facebook’s servers for whatever reason. In light of all the illegal government surveillance stuff that’s been happening, I’ve been thinking a lot about how if we give a company data, someone could then force the company to give that data to them if they want. I don’t think anyone wants pictures of me getting drunk as an 18 year old, but if they did and I didn’t want them to have them, I couldn’t stop them.
Facebook is definitely not the open web, and I’ve been posting less and less there the more I think about what it means to feed this monopolistic beast.
In college, each student got some allotment of free server space hosted by the University. We could all store files in a shareable directory that said Index at the top. I filled mine with pictures from the internet, mp3s, and maybe some school-related things. It felt like it was mine while I was there. But it doesn’t exist anymore. It was wiped from their servers a while after I graduated. Nobody asked me if they could do it, they just did. The Nothing strikes again.
Now as I think about where the open web exists and how one could encourage publishing there, I’m searching for scenarios in which the decision-making power of what happens to user-generated content online rests not on a corporation that doesn’t share the user’s interest, but on the user, who should technically own her own data.
I’m wondering if WordPress is considered the open web. It certainly feels more open than facebook. I met Matt Mullenweg (the WordPress founder) on two occasions and he seems like a nice guy. But WordPress owns the servers where all the content I’ve authored on this blog over the past eight years is hosted. Matt Mullenweg could theoretically disappear my entire literary archive if he wanted to. He probably doesn’t want to. It would be unlikely for him to do that, but why should I assume that he wouldn’t? It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.
So, if the open web ever existed, and if it still exists, where is it? How is one to publish on it and what benefits does that have for the individual user and the overall health of the web in general? How can I be absolutely sure that content I publish on the web will remain there until I decide to take it down? How can i ensure it will remain there at its original URL after the event of my death? I’m going to do some research, because I’m prepared to go deep with this quest. But I wanted to share the beginning of my thought process, so feel free to leave comments if you can point me toward the open web.
Time to close some browser tabs, but not forget them:
The Next System Project: “The challenging realities of growing inequality, political stalemate, and climate disruption prompt an important insight. When the old ways no longer produce the outcomes we are looking for, something deeper is occurring.”
This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader.
Overview: The jet set life is gonna kill you, they said. And it does. But not as much as it prompts me to live. I am not the person I once was, but I am still me, still moving like my brain is the bus from Speed and it can’t go less than 50 mph or it will explode.
My trip from a small town in Southern Washington to Germany took 48 hours. I left after Christmas dinner and finally arrived at the CCC conference in Hamburg two full days later. This time felt different from the other times I’ve left “home” to travel abroad. The earth is shrinking. Whereas a journey across the Atlantic was once daunting and suspenseful, this one from NYC to Frankfurt felt routine, like my old subway commute to the Wired office. I wasn’t giddy or afraid, just ready. Maybe it was because I’d already been traveling for 20 hours at that point, from Portland to Seattle, through a 12 hour layover in NYC during which I trudged all the way to my apartment and back just to nap. Maybe because I promptly popped a valium immediately upon ascent, and The Wizard of Oz was playing on the in-flight entertainment. Or maybe, just maybe, because I’m finally beginning to fully integrate into this life in orbit, complete with all its chaos.
The path from Germany to England was turbulent, emotionally. I was flying with the kind of heartbreak that inflames every previous wound at once, because when love left it took with it the hope that it could heal all the rest. Additionally, I was hungover and burnt out from 10 virtually sleepless nights of high-bandwidth conversations with some of the smartest computer security experts and tech activists on the planet, dancing and celebrating life the German way, connecting so very deeply. Then I missed my flight. By five minutes. I’ve never before experienced a slow train in Berlin, but I guess the Germans were all still reeling from their New Year’s activities—which resembled an apocalyptic civil war more than a celebration—because I think I’d have been better off walking to Schipol. Halfway through the train ride, hope had long left my body, but I still ran the entire way to the terminal, rolling all 19.1 kilos of my portable house with me.
When the attendant told me I couldn’t board, my posture dipped in defeat so violently that my shoulder bag fell to the floor. I stepped to the side and excused myself so I didn’t melt into the dirty tile with it, put myself on the next flight three hours later, paid a rebooking fee that cost more than the original ticket, and scrambled to communicate with my host in London over shoddy WiFi. When I rolled past the attendant once more, I gave her an apologetic smile, mumbling something about a breakup so she didn’t worry I might be too crazy to fly. I’m sure she’s used to this kind of thing. What an unenviable job. The whole way there I lamented the aspects of my lifestyle that made this situation unavoidable. By the time I landed I came to terms with them, supposing that some of those same wild bits are the ones that led me there, to him and the whole whirlwind, and to such a recklessly genuine exploration in human connectivity in the first place.
I left London feeling I had accomplished all I set out to do in a short week there, including reevaluating my life. London is beginning to have that effect on me, with all its rule-followers and closed circuit cameras despite an underlair bubbling with dissent. There was a day when I wondered if I had reached my quota of traveling—if I should throw in the towel and go find a little cabin in the woods to go soak my aching bones and start building something resembling “stability.” Does living this way reach a point of diminishing returns? I was greeted with snuggles and tea from someone very special to me who lives with one foot in each world. She reminded me that we are something of a different breed—we, the ones who have dubbed ourselves travelers, journalists, who have chosen to reject modern stability in order to bear witness to the events of the world. Maybe the most we can hope for in love is getting to collide momentarily with the ones who inflame our greatest desires as well as fears, occasionally getting to roll along together for a brief moment in time. How could that kind of all-consuming love keep up when one is moving so fast? I conspired with my confidante and we held each other close in our arms, hearts and minds, knowing we oscillate on the same wavelength.
One day, after prowling around Brick Lane with one of my most liberated and perceptive artist friends, overdosing on chocolate in the shop where he was resident artist and overindulging in esoteric musings about the artistic condition, I began to wonder if I was somehow cheating at life. Some experiences I encounter living the way that I do—lately they feel like they’re more than people are supposed to experience across an entire lifetime, but crammed into a week. Hunter S. Thompson once wrote of the edge:
“The Edge…There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others-the living-are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there.”
As the farmlands of Surrey blurred by in the train window on the way to Gatwick airport, I wondered if at some point I did step over the edge, making life exponential in all its tragedies and ecstasies. Can one come back from going over the edge? Maybe I don’t know it at all, and this is just aging. Sometimes I wonder if I was supposed to die a long time ago, and if this state of hyper-intense living is some kind of weird artifact, like a bonus level in a video game. Or maybe my senses have just been so pummeled by the world that I am doomed to feel disproportionately.
Leaving London, I supposed I would allow myself to be life’s punching bag as long as it keeps serving me pellets of bliss occasionally. That was what being with him in Germany was, and it was worth all the subsequent discomfort of withdrawal from all the top-shelf chemicals his presence released in me.
Above the clouds, I reminisced on meeting David Hoffman, a visionary photographer who captured iconic images during protests in the 70s and of social movements all over the world. You might imagine people who carry memories of the most violent outbursts of human injustice around with them to be scary and stoic, broken and curdled by the things they’ve seen and learned, but it’s often quite the opposite. He radiated cheer and curiosity; out of every pore spilled a “fuck it” to life attitude, reminding me that sometimes the only smart option to take when working within the confines of a corrupt system is to cheat by not playing their game. Why not follow one’s artistic drive and play for the easter eggs, snatching every morsel of meaning in life? I asked him how he trained in his youth so he wouldn’t be harmed in the process of creation. “Oh, I’ve had my teeth knocked out, scars…” He chuckled. “Photography is a contact sport, the way I do it. I just got lucky.”
I comfortably boarded my British Airlines flight to Amsterdam, which was calm like the Tube usually is due to a mixture of British politeness and awkwardness. I spent the last half hour of the flight trying desperately to contain my delight while reading the opening of Cat’s Cradle. How comforting to know a writer like Kurt Vonnegut once existed with all his observational powers and methods of transforming facts into evergreen lessons for humanity! Tears of laughter forced their way through my eyes and I sat, discretely gasping for air, struggling to maintain my composure under the sideways scrutiny of curious British eyes. What could possibly be funny while crammed into a metal box hurling through the sky? Everything. Everything! All the emotions densely packed into 2016 so far burst in effervescent bubbles of laughter, and I’m sure the other passengers thought I was already high. But I waited until I was safely and legally in a coffee shop in the heart of Amsterdam for that.
“Ignorance is bliss,” as the age old expression goes.
I have always been deeply offended by this concept. I remember hearing it for the first time as a twelve year old, from a boy in class using it out of context in an attempt at flirtation with my best friend. It was a signpost slamming down in front of me, bifurcating the road ahead. Did that imply the only way to obtain bliss was through a life of ignorance? How does one impose ignorance upon oneself? It was an unfathomable maneuver for twelve-year-old me. It defied the laws of entropy we were learning about in science class. You can push a ball downhill and it will roll, but to push a ball uphill requires work. For some it seemed, knowledge acquisition was an uphill venture, but my ball was rolling easily downhill. Ignorance would require some forceful blockade.
I couldn’t contemplate it much more at the time, as we were headed to a field trip at a water park. So I added “ignorance is bliss” to the arsenal of insults I kept on deck to sling back at boys who would dare to pull my pigtails. I guess I was supposed to feel jealousy of those naturally predisposed to ignorance, and of the pleasures they are able to easily derive through capitalism. Sometimes I do. But only in the fleeting way one might feel jealous of a labrador, unable to process injustice in the world beyond not being allowed outside to chase a squirrel.
These days, I am quite certain that bliss, true bliss, can not be obtained via any willful practice of ignorance. We should really revise this phrase, so as to not offend those high-bandwidth minds that could begin to get this planet unfucked. Ignorance may be “contentment,” “satisfaction” at most. But bliss, real bliss, comes from being able to see those things in their places on a much more robust spectrum, and seeking out the upper limits while not fearing the lower. After all, these states temporary.