On Staying Grounded

Walks are my main grounding ritual. I used to prefer easy nature hikes, but these days, I prefer semi-urban walks through landscapes that are a blend of the natural and artificial. The Seattle shoreline is a perfect example. Five minutes from my home, there is a waterfront park from where I can watch trains, ships, airplanes, cars and of course, lots of containers. On a recent walk, I took this picture of four ships waiting to dock. A rare sight, since the port of Seattle does not seem to experience many traffic jams.


The interesting thing about walking the same route over and over is that you notice little changes and seasonal patterns. For example, variations in shipping activity. The variations are what create a sense of direct, living connection to the human drama playing out on Planet Earth.

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The Quality of Life

The idea of quality of life is very twentieth-century. It sparks associations with ideas like statistical quality control and total quality managementIt is the idea that entire human lives can be objectively modeled, measured and compared in meaningful ways. That lives can be idealized and normalized in ways that allow us to go beyond comparisons to absolute measures. That lives can be provisioned from cradle-to-grave. That an insistence on a unique, subjective evaluation of one’s own life is something of a individualist-literary conceit.

I suspect the phrase itself is a generalization of the older notion of modern conveniences, a phrase you frequently find in early twentieth-century writing. It referred to the diffusion of various technologies into everyday pre-industrial life, from running hot and cold water in bathrooms and garbage collection to anesthetics and vaccines.

That conception of the quality of life, as the sum total of material conveniences acquired and brutalities of nature thwarted through technology, seems naive today. But with hindsight, it was much better than what it evolved into: baroque United Nations statistics that reflect institutionally enabled and enforced scripts, which dictate what people ought to want.


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You Are Not an Artisan

A couple of weeks ago, after reading yet another piece of high-minded marketing copy, full of words like hand-crafted and artisan, a silly verse popped unbidden into my head:

This is not the renaissance.
You are not an artisan.
Go around to the back door,
you’re a smelly tradesman. 

So long as we’re pretending that we’re rediscovering an early-modern work ethic, I think I can call myself a bard and allow myself a bit of anachronistic doggerel.

Thinking through the implications of the whole artisan-crafts-guilds meme in the future-of-work debates led me to an odd conclusion: the future is significantly brighter (or less bleak) than people realize. So long as you stop thinking in terms of crafts and aim to practice a trade instead, there is more work for humans than people realize.

What’s the difference? It’s the difference between bards and chimney-sweeps.

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Binoculars versus Cameras

I don’t normally pay attention to token gestures, but Mar 1/Mar 2 are the National Day of Unplugging. I don’t know who is behind this idea, or how much momentum it has, but I really like it. My one experience of joining a Jewish friend to observe Sabbath was both deeply relaxing and thought-provoking.

A complete unplugging happens to be unfeasible for me, since Refactor Camp is this weekend, but I am sort of pleased about the serendipity here. I am suspending my normal 90% online life to do something that strongly depends on physical presence and face-to-face interactions.  Refactor Camp weekend is also Ribbonfarm Unplugged weekend.

So while I won’t be able to entirely unplug from the Internet (let alone electricity), I think this qualifies as observance in the spirit of the idea. If you like the concept, check out that NDU website for more inspiration. Figure out a way to unplug.

While this is a start, I don’t think a token day of ritual observance and a manifesto will really make a huge difference. What we really need, to preserve our sanity and really figure out how to regain control of our agency, is to truly understand how digital/electronic power have hacked our brains, and hack the digital forces right back. They’re not as inexorable as they seem.

I want to share one particularly good unplugging hack I discovered recently, which has made a huge difference in my life. I bought a pair of binoculars. Specifically, these excellent Pentax binoculars:

binocularsI’ve wanted binoculars since I was a kid, but somehow never got around to buying them as an adult. I am particularly proud that I had the discipline to buy small, lightweight and waterproof binoculars I knew I would actually use, rather than bigger, powerful ones that satisfy gadget-philia more than observation needs.

But why are binoculars an unplugging hack?

Because they intensify present-moment sensory experience to a degree that you end up systematically choosing the present over the camera-deferred future. It is much easier to disintermediate the camera using a different device than simply trying to use it less. It’s the gadget equivalent of the solution to the “don’t think of an elephant” problem (the answer is “think of a giraffe instead”).

This moment — and the opportunity to experience it more intensely through binoculars — will be gone immediately. You have to choose whether to experience the moment or capture an impoverished digital memory that you are unlikely to ever review.

I’ve now carried my binoculars with me on several long waterfront walks, observed seabirds, container ships, trains and snowy mountains. I’ve taken them with me on a couple of long train and car rides, and to the Swiss alps. It seems to count as odd behavior. People stare when I whip out my binoculars while they’re whipping out their cameras or smartphones.

The camera today — especially the smartphone and lightweight point-and-shoot — is a dangerous device. Twenty years ago, film cameras were cumbersome enough (and film expensive enough) that most normal people didn’t experience reality through them by default. The dangerous device then was the camcorder, which tempted you into looking at the world entirely through a viewfinder.

Today, cameras being entirely digital and plugged into the Internet via wireless links means that they represent the temptation of continuous sharing. They are now as dangerous as camcorders used to be. Things in the environment start to be viewed and evaluated primarily in terms of their potential as online social objects. We see a spectacle and see an invisible Like button hovering under it. Once Google Glass goes mainstream, this will be literally true.

This power and potential is great so long as we remain conscious of what social sharing adds to the present experience. Does it enhance it or impoverish it? Does the act of sharing make you pay closer, more mindful attention to what you are looking at, or are you turning snap-and-share into a mindless operation like filing unread paperwork or retweeting unread links on Twitter?

Is your camera encouraging you to file away your life instead of living it?

These are not isolated behaviors. They represent a widespread abdication of agency and indeterminate deferral of direct experience. We are starting to inhabit a culture where we  are more likely to forward the experiential possibilities of our life to other people, our unreliable future selves, or digital systems, rather than choosing specific experiences in the moment.

I am never big on prescription, but I’ll offer one here: don’t do that.

And if you buy binoculars to counter the power of the camera in our lives today, please don’t buy those terrible camera-binocular hybrids you see advertised in Sky Mall catalogs. That would defeat the purpose.

I’ll stop here, just short of 900 words, which for me is a pretty disciplined act of unplugging in its own right, since I normally go on for at least 3000 words. But you’ll probably be hearing more from me on this topic in the future. I might even try to figure out a way to regularly observe a digital Sabbath (anyone want to write a WordPress plugin for me called “Digital Sabbath” that takes this site offline every Friday-Saturday and puts up a “Get offline!” page instead?)

Adventures in Amateur Talking-Headery

It’s now been over two years and a dozen talks since I first started speaking with my blogger hat on. Each time I go to one of these things, I realize just how out of place I am.

The talking-head conference circuit (as opposed to academic) is designed around polished and powerful speakers with a true flair for the dramatic. They manage to be theatrical without being corny. They are engaging and accessible without coming across like used-car salespeople. Even when you are aware of the halo effect, you cannot help but be enthralled by people who are truly, naturally good at this stuff (like Bill Clinton say).

These are professional speakers  in the fullest sense of the word.

Me, I mumble, hem and haw, get tempted down unscripted rabbit holes on stage, lose track of time, go too fast or too slow, pause too much or too little, forget to repeat for emphasis, and generally put on a pretty amateurish show each time.

But here’s the funny thing: increasingly I find that it is people like me who seem to be on the agenda at these things. It is sort of like the rise of reality TV over scripted, or the rise of blogging over traditional publishing. I seem to be part of a broad amateurization of the speaker circuit.

I fully expect some sort of iStockSpeaker site to pop up soon, full of people like me in the directory.

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The Ultimate Lifestyle Planning Guide and Map

Occasionally I get in a silly mood and make things like this. I’ve used the phrase getting ahead, getting along, getting away before as a shorthand description of the basic challenge of living life (an overload of a 2-pronged phrase from personality psychologist Robert Hogan: getting along and getting aheadand I like to use it to frame any writing in this general department.

I’ll do my annual round-up next week and then take the week after off, so consider this my holiday gift to you (festive colors, don’t you think?). If you have trouble unwrapping this (hehe!) some hints after the image.

You need some basic Venn diagram and yin-yang diagram literacy to read this. The colors have less symbolism, so you can get away without knowing color science 101. For more notes, read on.

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Notes on Spatial Metaphors for Social Systems

Distance metaphors are natural in any conversation about social phenomena. We talk of the distance between governance systems and the governed, guerrilla movements and host populations,  rich and poor, Chinese and American, Red and Blue.

Kevin Simler’s recent guest post made use of the standard geometric-metaphoric scheme, the Hofstede cultural dimensions model, to talk about startup cultures. The model also forms the basis for the analysis of globalization in Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0, which I reviewed last year. So distance metaphors are very robust across a wide range of social phenomena, from small startups to the entire planet.

Topology — the study of the pre-geometric structure of a space, such as whether it is orientable or not, doughnut shaped or spherical, and so forth — is not as natural or easy to apply, but is also useful if you can pull it off, as Drew Austin’s recent post on the Holey Plane demonstrated.

When you do topology and geometry for social systems incoherently, you get frustrating books like Friedman’s World is Flat.

But more careful approaches aren’t safe either.  In particular, the more I think about Hofstede’s model, the more dissatisfied I get. Is there a better way? I’ve been playing around with a few very preliminary ideas that I thought I’d share, prematurely.

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At Home, in a Car

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Regenerations

Early tomorrow morning, I will pile stuff into my twelve-year old Corolla one more time, and make the two-day drive from Las Vegas to Seattle, via Twin Falls and Boise. My car (which I bought new in 2000) is now over 130,000 miles old and has sported license plates from five states. It has traveled with me from Austin to Ann Arbor to Ithaca to Rochester to DC to Vegas. That last trip was also a nomadic driveabout across the lower 48 that covered nearly 8000 miles over six weeks. Many of you have met my car. Some of you have ridden in it as well.

To the extent that there is any sign of external continuity to my adult life, it is tied up in this car. It has also been the only non-disposable physical part of my life for a long time. Since I arrived in America at age 22, I have not lived in a single place continuously for more than three years. In about a week, I will turn 38. I will have lived in 16 apartments/houses and half a dozen cities through my adult life. My digital life will have passed through half a dozen computers, email addresses and cell-phones.

For much of this time, my car has been the only physical anchor of my sense of place and self.


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How Do You Run Away from Home?

My Big History reading binge last year got me interested in the history of individualism as an idea.  I am not entirely sure why, but it seems to me that the right question to ask is the apparently whimsical one, “How do you run away from home?”

I don’t have good answers yet. So rather than waiting for answers to come to me in the shower, I decided to post my incomplete thoughts.

Let’s start with the concept of individualism.

The standard account of the idea appears to be an ahistorical one; an ism that modifies other isms like libertarianism, existentialism and anarchism.

Fukuyama argues, fairly persuasively, that the individual as a meaningful unit only emerged in the early second millennium AD in Europe, as a consequence of the rise of the Church and the resultant weakening of kinship-based social structures. This immediately suggests a follow-on question: is the slow, 600-700-year rise of individualism an expression of an innate drive, unleashed at some point in history, or is it an unnatural consequence of forces that weaken collectivism and make it increasingly difficult to sustain? Are we drifting apart or being torn apart?

Do we possess a fundamental “run away from home” drive, or are we torn away from home by larger, non-biological forces, despite a strong attachment drive?

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Hall’s Law: The Nineteenth Century Prequel to Moore’s Law

For the past several months, I’ve been immersed in nineteenth century history. Specifically, the history of interchangeability in technology between 1765, when the Système Gribeauval, the first modern technology doctrine based on the potential of interchangeable parts, was articulated, and 1919, when Frederick Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management.

Here is the story represented as a Double Freytag diagram, which should be particularly useful for those of you who have read TempoFor those of you who haven’t, think of the 1825 Hall Carbine peak as the “Aha!” moment when interchangeability was first figured out, and the 1919 peak as the conclusion of the technology part of the story, with the focus shifting to management innovation, thanks in part to Taylor.

The unsung and rather tragic hero of the story of interchangeability was John Harris Hall (1781 – 1841), inventor of the Hall carbine.  So I am naming my analog to Moore’s Law for the 19th century Hall’s Law in his honor.

The story of Hall’s Law is in a sense a prequel to the unfinished story of Moore’s Law. The two stories are almost eerily similar, even to believers in the “history repeats itself” maxim.

Why does the story matter? For me, it is enough that it is a fantastically interesting story. But if you must have a mercenary reason for reading this post, here it is: understanding it is your best guide to the Moore’s Law endgame.

So here is my telling of this tale. Settle in, it’s going to be another long one.

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