Defining attributes of the ‘open web’

art-systaime-remix1

“Selfie,” by Systaime. Via NewHive

In response to a previous post where I asked “Where is the ‘open web’ now?”  I received some of the most interesting feedback I’ve ever gotten in all The Millikan Daily’s years online. In attempting to pinpoint where this site lies in terms of web classification, I learned it’s definitely not on the closed web, but it’s still not totally on the open web. Maybe nothing can be in either place in absolute terms, but we can definitely be working to make more things tend toward the open web.

 

The first comment hails from Matt Terenzio, who I thought about when I wrote the initial post because we used to talk about this stuff at a weekly web discussion hosted by Dave Winer at NYU. Matt wrote:

WordPress, even the hosted stuff on WordPress.com is more open because you can export your content and move it. https://en.support.wordpress.com/export/
But you raise a serious point. Even if you have control of your data, it doesn’t mean it stays alive on the web after you die. No business can guarantee that. A library, educational institution or the government seem more capable to pull something like that off, but as of now, we don’t have a great solution.

He raises a few important attributes of online content in the scope of the open web:

  1. Exportability – Can you take your content and move it somewhere else? With WordPress, the answer is yes, technically. WordPress offers this, as Matt points out, though maybe you have to pay something if you’re using the .com version (as I am) rather than the .org version. When you export, WordPress wraps all your content up and spits out a nice, zipped-up file that you can send elsewhere.

I’m going to add to this a few other related aspects to consider:

  • Archive transfer – Once you have your data exported from the CMS, you can transfer it somewhere else a few different ways. The old-school way would be physically via a hard-drive transfer, but more likely you’d do it online. This poses an interesting conundrum though, as various entities are at work to clamp down on the ability of average users to transfer large files. Why? Maybe because the assumption is that a large file transfer will be used for malice, like ‘illegally’ downloading a movie file. I’ve never downloaded anything illegally, to my knowledge, so it’s unfortunate that the tools I have to work with are limited in this respect. Once a friend gave me a chunk of the server space he owned and maintained so I could transfer whatever to and from it without paying extra. If I wanted to do it now, I would probably have to pay for some cloud hosting service who then might technically be able to access the data I was transferring. Right now we’re talking about being open so this doesn’t matter at the moment, but later on it will.
  • Importability – With facebook, I haven’t ever heard of someone importing their timeline to a different online framework where archives and data is displayed in any meaningful way. Which isn’t to say it couldn’t be done, I’ve just never seen it. If you have, please comment below.

Moving on, Matt also brings up an important second topic:

2. A shelf-life of content dependent on mortality – Even if you are diligent in following all best practices to maintain your own slice of the open web, there’s no guarantee they will continue to be maintained after you die.

Of course there are services that make it more likely your content will be maintained and accessible online at the original hyperlinks post-mortem. I met a woman in Iceland who founded a start-up to do something similar, though I’m not sure if it is still operational. I just emailed her to see what’s up.

Then of course, there is the Internet Archive which hosts the Wayback machine. While there are ways to get them to prioritize the archiving of specific websites, I believe their methodology is mostly random, and they will save “snapshots” of certain sites at various moments of time.

Which brings me to our next comment via Scott Rosenberg:

Hey, Arikia — I think of “the open web” as more of a spectrum; some sites and services are more fully “open web”-ish and others less so. If you own your own domain and pay for hosting for your site then that gives you the most control/ownership and puts you in the best position to preserve your work. (I’m still hosting pages I first posted in 1994!) The IndieWebCamp people and their work are definitely worth checking out — building open source tools and protocols for self-owned and maintained sites to thrive and connect with the various silos. David Weinberger’s book “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” put together a lot of the strands of what made the “open web” work and become valuable during the first wide flourishing of blogs beyond the tech scene in the early 2000s. Openness/permeability to links is so central here — one reason Facebook feels so closed is that you can put a single URL into a status update but you can’t simply add links to your content the way you can anywhere else on the Web. To me that’s what really makes it a closed system…

One thing is for sure, I wouldn’t have gotten this feedback had I posted this question on facebook! Two main points here:

  1. The open web as a spectrum – Cool. I like spectrums. Many of the human systems we are taught to think of as binary for the sake of mental simplicity are indeed spectrums—why wouldn’t the web be the same? Of course this introduces another layer of complexity to the answer to the question: Is any given website open or closed? It would be easy to lump everything into a bucket of open or closed, but it seems the answer will usually be “neither—it’s some point on a spectrum between open and closed.” Does the spectrum have endpoints? If so, what are they?
  2. Control/ownership – Scott owns his domains and pays for hosting, so he inherently has more control to make his content more open OR more closed, as he wishes. Let’s focus on the open side here, because keeping closed content closed is another can of worms I’ll want the crypto folks to chime in on.

Remember PicPlz? If you don’t, it was a photo-sharing application similar to the Instagram we all know now, but it was mainly marketed to Android users, which is why I used it, because I used Android smartphones for years before I was given my first iPhone in 2013. I uploaded a bunch of pictures to PicPlz, which were shared to other users through links created by the app that were anchored on its domain. When PicPlz folded, all those links evaporated. Who knows what happened to the images themselves, probably deleted. I don’t remember if they provided an option for the user to export their data, or if I chose to if they did. But it goes to show that if you depend on an entity outside of yourself to maintain the integrity of the links to content you create over time, well, you probably shouldn’t care too much about that content, because you’ll have no control over if it stays where you put it.

Next, Eas provides a recipe for their online content maintenance:

My general approach is:

1. Register my own domain name, separately from the publishing/hosting platform (so I can move things even if the publishing/hosting service goes out of business suddenly, or we end up at loggerheads).

2. Use a publishing platform that makes it easy to export data, including comments. I’m using WordPress.org, hosted on a virtual linux server from a established web hosting company with a seemingly sound business model (I pay them every month).
3. Publish under my own domain.
4. Make daily backups.
5. Switch platforms/hosts as needed.

I don’t use wordpress.com, but it would fit into my approach, since they let you bring your own domain, and provide a way to export everything. The exported data can then be imported into self-hosted WordPress, or another system that supports the format format.

In the longer run, I’m thinking of exporting dormant sites into a static format and hosting them on something AWS S3, with the knowledge I could move them to any other static file hosting in the future.

This all requires some ongoing effort on my part. At the very least, I have to keep paying the bills, and I have to move stuff when companies and product offerings rise and fall.

This sounds great! I am lost. I consider myself relatively tech-savy, so if I’m lost, I can assume most other people who aren’t specialists in online hosting and probably just want to write things and share them with other people who write things will also be lost. I’ll make it a point to understand what Eas is saying through online research, but my point is, there is a point where access to the open web breaks down for “ordinary users,” and this resistance is what feeds the establishment of closed systems.

Luckily, as a general principle of life, I always dig into the resistance as much as possible.

Finally, Bob Mottram writes:

I’m a firm believer in the open web, and I think in the not too distant future it could enjoy a new expansionary phase. I run a project called Freedombone, which was inspired by an earlier project called Freedombox. These and similar things are intended to help people take back ownership and control of their data and online presence in a more convenient manner (sometimes also known as “userops” because it enables users to do what previously only systems administrators could). As the hardware and software combinations are further developed it will be easier to run your own blog, wiki or social network node and so you’ll be able to decide what happens to your old photos, whether you want to license your content in particular ways or what happens to your data if you’re no longer around.

So a possible solution to the multitude of privacy and data ownership dilemmas is to “be the web”. My project has the concept of the “web of backups” in which friends can help to ensure they never lose data via mutual automated encrypted backups. The more you get into hosting your own services the easier it is to see how little value the big companies actually provide and how expensive their services are in terms of privacy.

Userops? This sounds like something that should exist, albeit something that those who favor from closed online systems won’t like very much. Count me in.

I want to be the web. Bob, I’ll be in touch.

These comments have been inspirational. If the open web is a spectrum, I’d like to push as many of the people I care about as possible over to the ‘open’ side when it comes to their online behavior and where they’re depositing their mental nuggets over time. I’m working on a few projects right now to do just that, so you can expect more posts like this from me, here and elsewhere on the open web :)

 

The VR Carrie Mathison psychosis app of my dreams

12_homeland.w529.h352

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:

6372101_homeland-53-recap-super-powers_36414322_m

Back to work.

Where is the “open web” now?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo: Arikia Millikan, Olympus Pen E-P5

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.

aol25

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.

17t603sv6ui8ojpg

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.

facebook-2004-640

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.

 

 

 

Links from around the 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.”

Invisible Infrastructures: Surveillance Architecture, by the good folks at the Share Foundation.

The UNHCR report on Eastern Europe. To be taken for what exactly it is and no more.

Social cognition in social anxiety: first evidence for increased empathic abilities (2011). Conclusion: “High socially anxious individuals may demonstrate a unique social-cognitive abilities profile with elevated cognitive empathy tendencies.” (H/t Eve)

Write Till You Drop, a 1989 NY Times essay by Annie Dillard that is equally applicable now. (H/t Taylor Wallace)

US defense chief says Isis strongholds will be targeted by coalition in 2016, by Spencer Ackerman for The Guardian, maybe the only journalist who could slickly end a piece about ISIS with a quote from Steve Zissou.

The Republic, By Plato. The part about the cave.

Woman who was engaged to police spy sues Met over ‘psychological torture’— Sounds like an Alias plot line but no this really happened: “It is the latest legal action against the Met police over the conduct of undercover spies who infiltrated hundreds of political groups from 1968 onwards. A number of them entered into relationships with the women they spied on. In November the force unreservedly apologised and paid compensation to seven women who had been deceived into forming “abusive and manipulative” long-term relationships with undercover officers.”

And a feel-good to balance it out from my daily self-care reading staple, The Berlin Art Parasites (because emotional intelligence is just as important as the other kind): About The Way We Self-Sabotage Our Relationships And The Guilt That Comes With It— “…the most generous thing to do is to free another being from guilt.”

Tab staying open:

http://www.knightfoundation.org/apply/

 

 

Three Flights

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.

Photographed with permission at the Howard Griffin Gallery, London.

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.

Brick Lane street art

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.

Until next time,

Arikia

Conceptually rethinking “ignorance is bliss”

writersbrain

“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.

 

Tuning out

I’m riding in the back seat of my aunt’s SUV, swaying along dark country roads while I try to focus on what I need to do to ensure my survival across the Atlantic this winter. She chats with her friend from down the street and my cousin next to me in the back seat talk about this television show and that, and I may as well be an alien in a pleated skirt and lipstick posing, poorly, as a suburban human. They talk about the newest episode of blah-blah-blah as I sit quietly, watching the rain cling in droplets to the window, grudgingly fracturing off into various paths and I think of Jeff Goldblum flirting with Laura Dern and chaos theory. They discuss which actress was good and which was bad while my mind drifts back to something my aunt said over dinner: about why the public discourse has shifted so drastically to the Syrian refugees when the Haitians have been coming over in boats and drowning trying for decades; about why there is such a debate about helping the Syrians when we haven’t even helped our next door neighbors living in the worst poverty one can imagine, before the subject was strategically changed by her friend who is of the opinion that politics should be avoided during meals and especially meals with family members from New York. I overhear so-and-so won the Emmy for something as I stare off into the woods watching the trees slice through the floodlights of faraway houses, and I am back in Haiti smelling the burning garbage and feeling my combat boots rub my heels raw while I walk with the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Haiti for miles, past the markets where the sellers tirelessly flip the produce and descriptionless pharmaceuticals stuck to cones that brings in the $2 they need to survive for the day. They laugh at the screen death of a B-actor but I am standing with my nonchalant little sister over a mass grave filled with the bodies of victims of poverty, of America’s refusal to take responsibility for the power it has accrued, which led to the lack of help for our neighbors near and far, which led to the lack of stable concrete that burst into powder and smothered everything and everyone beneath it the fraction of a second the tectonic plate nobody had ever thought was a risk slipped beneath the hellish island from where my life snapped into existence on this plane. I exhaled sharply.

“Riki, are we talking to much about TV?” my aunt asks.

“No,” I say pleasantly and smile, loving her so much it overrides my building anxiety over the futility of our day’s events to change any bit of what is wrong with things.

“Are you thinking about all the work you have to do?”

“Yeah.”

Cirrhosis of the heart

love4dummies

I’ve been writing a book proposal. My handwritten copy comes from a totally different part of my brain than my typed copy, so I’ve been going back through my old journals, through the trenches of my psyche, fishing for the repetitions and the points of lucidity that I could only write knowing they were for myself and no one else. It’s hard. It’s hard to face those old parts of me.

Our brains repress things for a reason, sometimes the good with the bad. There were many parts that would have been better off buried, but the ink on the page is like a time machine. All the heartache comes back just as vivid, even though now I’m enough removed that can view it like a movie. It’s no wonder so many writers went insane.

I used to believe that nobody would ever love me. I was told this so much when I was a child that I really, deep down, thought myself incapable of being a beloved, well into adulthood. Too weird, too wild, too quick to see the endpoints and paint pictures of an extended reality for those unwilling, or so I thought, to look beyond the painted veil. But they weren’t unwilling, they were incapable of seeing—at least in that moment in time. This has taken years to unlearn, and I’m still not so sure there is anyone out there who can handle all of me, as is.

One of my exes once shouted at me in exasperation that being with me was like looking into a mirror. I didn’t understand why that was problematic. I tried to give him the things he wanted that he hadn’t yet acknowledged to himself. Ego dystonia. I have a knack for sensing repressed desires. I someone that stranger tell their darkest secret to within ten minutes of meeting, if you can imagine what comes out within a month of dating me. They always ran away. But they always came back around, eventually. When I was younger, I thought I’d wait, but now I know it will always be too late. I have pages and pages of unsent “I told you so”s, and unsent they’ll stay.

I wonder if all that running has hardened my heart. If all the wounds from the pieces they took when they left have created scar tissue, and that when someone comes along who has the ability to pierce through all the damage, he’ll break it for good when he eventually runs away too, afraid of his own reflection. Perhaps this is my armor now. It’s heavy, but I built it myself because I know I need it.

If 29 year old Arikia had 19 year old Arikia in a room, I would grab her and shake her and tell her that someday she will be loved as I disappeared. Isn’t that how time travel works? I wish 39 year old Arikia would come back and tell me that now.

Sharia cigarettes

Author’s note: I wrote this after consuming a substantial amount of whiskey, then edited it sober. Best read with a fake NY accent.
So I’m in my favorite bar in Brooklyn. It’s 2amish, when the regulars from my first Brooklyn neighborhood come in to get rowdy. They say the Subway is the great equalizer of New York City but we’re not allowed to drink alcohol on trains here. This cavern of debauchery—my Tuesday night worship center tended by Metalhead Jesus who serves whiskey instead of wine—doesn’t quite draw a random sample of city-dwellers; set back a considerable distance from the street with nothing but three stenciled letters reading “b-a-r” to identify itself, I suppose it self-selects for those inclined to be trusted with secrets; it transcends class, race, and income, while running the gamut of big city personalities.
This is the place that keeps me grounded; it’s how I make sure I never get sucked too deep into any particular bubble, my portal back to ordinary life—whatever that means in NYC.
I was at the far end of the bar laughing with Lily*, a woman who befriended me years ago by telling me all of her girlfriends hated me, then being impressed when I didn’t give a shit about who or why (because their boyfriends tend to get drunk and send me naked pictures, I guess). She asked if I wanted to go out for a smoke with her, so I broke out a pack of my duty-free Camels from Istanbul.
“You know these only cost $2 a pack in Turkey? Why are they so expensive here?” I complained rhetorically.
Unexpectedly, the guy sitting next to Lily, a “regular” so she claimed when she introduced him to me, uttered to no one in particular:
“Sharia.”
A record screeched inside my head and I let out a scoff.
“What?” I looked to Lily seeking some further context about this person, this statement, but with a subtle shake of the head as she turned away, she removed all ties and responsibility from this person.
I observed him as he started straight into the bar shelves. He nodded, one emphatic nod, and looked at me sideways as if to say, “you heard me.”
“Wait, what? Did you say ‘sharia’?” He sighed, seemingly exasperated that I didn’t get the connection, and sipped his drink. He expected me to drop it and go away. But sometimes I like to argue for sport, so I decided to call his bluff.
“No no, how would sharia law impact the cost of cigarettes in New York?” For a moment as he sat there looking annoyed, I doubted my own skepticism. I bended my mind to consider this new conspiratorial option. At the very least, I wanted to hear the punchline of a joke I didn’t get.
He made the face of a know-it-all fifth grader, and for a moment I thought I was about to get schooled. Then, all at once, he resigned, hunching forward.
“Yeah, I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about,” he admitted. “You got me!”
Lily gave me a congratulatory glance. I laughed. He was too drunk to care, but I could sense the onset of embarrassment seeping through the whiskey, so I said: “OK, well you wanna know my theory?”
“Yeah, what is your theory,” he said, finally turning to face me.
I said something about how the American public’s complacency with monopolistic industries that are capable of manipulating governmental regulatory entities has resulted in bulk inflation of goods that holds no bearing on the actual cost of the items outside of this legislative zone. Cigarettes were an easy target here because of the additional “sin tax” factor. Just a theory. I don’t really know, but at least I know what I don’t know.
He faux proposed to me, and Lily and I finally went outside to smoke.
I wonder in what other circumstance he might have blurted out an Islamic buzzword as an explanation for some other minor first world injustice, and how maybe another time no one would have called it out. Someone listening may have thought “yeah, that Muslim thing, that sounds right,” and inflated the image of Middle Easterners as abstract demons coming for every last one of our freedoms. After all, how many Americans believe that Islam started and is the present cause of all our problems? I would think there is some substantial overlap with the ones who think a set of religious laws that are used to generally oppress women and free thought, has anything to do with the price of cigarettes anywhere in the US.
I don’t really know who else would care enough to call out a drunk stranger at a bar. I hope a lot of people. I personally do it all the time, for practice and amusement. There’s an art to engaging with people who automatically assume themselves more clever than you, to setting them straight without pissing them off, to doing it in a way such that they respect you after. I wish more people would do it. This city is built on bluffing and bullshit, but what it really needs is a whole lot more caller outers.
Back inside, we all continued drinking whiskey around our corner of the bar and navigating other shaky political ground and laughing. If you want to kick it in the great equalizer, you can’t be so PC all the time. I’ll forever be baffled by the dumb shit Americans say. But I’ll keep listening to it.

On editor’s block, the corrosive effects of the advertising industry, and the dismal state of journalism

gonewriting
This weekend a friend gave me something I needed very badly. It was something I never would have bought for myself, but didn’t have the audacity to ask anyone for. And he just knew, and he could, so he did. If you ask me, that’s the way gift-giving should be done, not in the context of some capitalistic ritual.
This friend was an instant friend, the kind of friend I don’t need to use falsities or filters with. He is also one of the original architects of the internet. When it comes to publishing, and most other stuff, I trust him. He knows my style, knows my flaws, knows that I care deeply about improving the condition of this world if it is within my reach. So when we got up to leave his favorite Ukrainian diner, and he asked me to something, I listened.
“Just write,” he urged me. “No matter what else you do, just keep writing.”
So I am. This is me writing.
As he and others have aptly noticed, I haven’t been writing much lately, for publication, and there are three main reasons for this. Better to be a writer who writes about writing than a writer who doesn’t write, I suppose.
For one, I have, not writer’s block, but editor’s block. I used to publish something every day, for fun, for justice, and for the sake of writing. But when you spend so much time editing and processing and publishing other people’s work, your own becomes but a shadow of a priority, the last thing on the to-do list. I enjoy helping people publish the best possible version of their writing, so it’s easy to feel that I am doing something meaningful *enough*. I am not immune to the illusion of productivity. In working behind the scenes, like a ghost, with authors whose ideas I support, and who have a bigger megaphone than I, I have been able to feel content in a way. But, as my friend told me the day we met, if I don’t act now while I’m young, I could wind up content—or worse, married. I’ve luckily dodged the later, but the former is a work in progress.
The second reason I haven’t been publishing much lately is that the process is unpleasant on the whole. Publishing tech still sucks, despite all its promise, and writing professionally involves doing many (IMO) degrading things that have nothing to do with writing at all. Sometimes by the time I “sell” my writing, my initial idea has been bent so far away from its original orientation that I don’t even know how to write the new thing it is supposed to become.
My ideal editor just says “Yes. Assigned,” to good ideas, and offers the support to help elevate a work from draft to ready-for-publication quality. That is the kind of editor I have always tried to be. I still know a few good ones, and they are prepared to ditch the click-driven jobs they hate and work with me on the kind of writing we believe should be produced as soon as the option presents itself.
Our publishing industry in the United States, in its current iteration, doesn’t incentivize the publishing of ideas that are worthwhile of being discussed in and of themselves. There is a capitalistic undercurrent to almost every form of paid writing that selects for things that exploit the reader using all the original tools of captivation (comedy, sex, violence), refined into the art of public manipulation as described by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew. This is, of course, until you’re able to break through to the literary level in which you can write whatever you want because you’re a “thought leader.” But by that stage, you probably don’t need to be paid to write. It’s probably more of a hassle invoicing through the archaic payment systems in “modern” media than to just call it a trade, your work for their platform. I find it a serious conundrum that the people who should be writing the most, are the least incentivized by the industry to do so.
An essay shouldn’t be a vessel for ads. It should be a tool of transformation in and of itself.
Finally, and frankly, I am disgusted by the state of the world. As I have observed in my travels over the past three years to 30 different countries, the dismal state of human affairs is directly connected to the state of the publishing industry—globally, but driven by the failings of the American media.
I have made my career out of creating jobs for myself and other within institutions I wanted to believe were good and just and shared my ideals for producing the kind of journalism that fuels democracy. But it has never taken more than a month inside each institution for me to understand the flaws, the poor decision-making, and ultimately, the greed that corrodes its editorial goals in practice. I have made it my hobby to usher talented individuals around the industry, plucking them from toxic institutions and placing them in places that are at least a step up, where they may have the opportunity to gain control. But something always stops them from truly breaking through.
If my experiences over the course of my career in media, which include founding and operating a media company, have led me to one conclusion, it’s that the advertising industry is a plague on the journalism industry, and on humanity itself. I won’t contribute to it any longer (in so much as that’s possible while still remaining connected to my peers on the internet). And I don’t need to.
I’ve tested my limits of existence and I know what I need to survive in this world, and it is not much. I won’t waste a day of my time doing something I don’t believe in. And who on the publishing side wants to work with a journalist who can’t be bought and owned? I’m not good for your business models. But that’s OK because I’m creating new ones.
If only the our government took care of us all so we could focus on improving the world through our art. Absent that in American society, we must rely on each other.
So I will write. But I won’t write for the advertising industry, or for capitalism. I will write for my friend, and for fun, and for justice. I will write. No guarantees on what about, but I’ll keep doing it.
And if I don’t, I don’t. But the only way I’ve ever done anything in this life is by lighting a fire under my own ass. So here’s hoping.