Tend Your Garden

There is a type of person who cannot take care of plants. You know the type. This person gives her plant all of the TLC in the world but is left with a shriveled thing after a couple weeks.

What if we turn out to be this person with the career or skill we want to grow?

It is a lingering fear of mine. I want to grow into a life where I program for a living. But what if all my efforts to achieve that lead to a withering plant? They very well could. That glimmer of a possibility leaves a sense of existential anxiety. What if I am not good enough?

Hold up. No. This perspective is limited. It implies that someone only tends to one plant at a time. This is far from the case. In fact, all of us are tending gardens. We just can’t see the garden for the plants sometimes.

That was me two years ago. At the time I focused on a future in classical guitar as a performer and instructor. That was my only plant and I suffered from similar anxieties of how it would stack up.

In doing other things, however, my perspective broadened. Other plants started to pop up on the periphery, plants that I wanted to tend to as well. Event planning, podcasting, writing. Suddenly I had a garden. It felt wonderful to tend all of it. So when the life-cycle of the music as a career plant ran its course, I didn’t feel as bad. Because I had a garden to tend to, not a single plant.

And now I find myself zeroing in on one plant again. It is in a time like this that I have to remind myself to tend my garden.

Navigability, Writ Very Large

“For orientation: In daily life, a GPS device is an example of a nudge. It respects freedom of choice; you can ignore its advice if you like. But it helps you to get where you want to go.


“As the GPS example suggests, many nudges and many forms of choice architecture have the goal of increasing navigability — of making it easier for people to get to their preferred destination. Such nudges stem from an understanding that life can be simple or hard to navigate, and helpful choice architecture is desirable as a way of promoting simple navigation.”

– Cass Sunstein, “Freedom: The Holberg Lecture 2018 (here)

I have been thinking a lot about this concept of navigability. It is a topic that Sunstein notes as crucial in our foreseeable future: “in the coming years, those who are interested in freedom, welfare, and uses of behavioral science should devote far more attention to navigability, writ very large.”

When one thinks of navigability with technology, variations on the GPS example come to mind. How navigable is this website? How navigable is my phone? Navigation within hardware and software is always important. My little work in IT has made that abundantly clear. But there is another navigability that I am finding to be even more crucial.

Navigability, writ very large.

It isn’t in a question of how you navigate Google Maps itself, but how you navigate what is between you and Google Maps. How do you navigate the relationship between multiple apps and websites, between all of the constituent parts that make up the Internet and Internet of things?

These kind of flows and integrations are the modern day assembly line. Data travels down the line from Google to Zapier to Mailchimp to WordPress. Knowing how that assembly line works is pivotal. This is what I wondering about – how to think of navigability within this digital assembly line, within navigability, writ very large.

The Power of (Auto-)Suggestion

A couple days ago I took away the auto-suggestion/correct feature on my phone keyboard. That way, what I typed was what I got. You don’t realize how much one relies on this feature until you take it off.

In a short time, I began to type differently. My mind cannot blank, letting auto-suggest fill in with worn-out sentences of my texting past. I have to be deliberate and scrutinize the sentences myself. If I put garbage in I send garbage out.

Suggestion is not a feature limited to smartphone keyboards. You see suggestion just about everywhere online. Youtube suggests you videos to watch, Medium suggests you articles to read, Facebook suggests you people to friend. Offline, suggestion lurks around every corner. A chair suggests to you how to sit. A meal at a restaurant suggests to you what a portion size should be. A friend suggests a book to read.

Sometimes you realize something’s existence by its absence. Taking away something as menial as a phone keyboard opened my eyes to reality of suggestion. It makes me wonder about the act of taking away tiny bits and pieces of suggestion. What would happen if you were not lead by the hand with certain things? Would you notice the difference? Would the lack of suggestion in that case be a net positive or negative? Why?

Such interrogation leads to asking about the ethics of suggestion itself. We cannot leave things at the asking. We have to engage in exploring the answers to these questions, from thinkers old and new, from continual discussion with friends and colleagues, and ultimately from our ourselves.

Because we are living out an answer to this question of suggestion. Consciously and unconsciously, we choose what suggestions to follow. Seemingly insignificant things lead us around without a thought. It is our responsibility to put significance around them – in thought and in action.

Technical Intuition

“I didn’t want our organizational partners to learn to code, I wanted them to learn how to talk to developers. I didn’t want them to outsource complexity, I wanted them to learn what skills they need in-house, which they could contract out, and how that might change over time. I wanted them to become inventive with technologies that they couldn’t necessarily deploy themselves, but could understand enough and in the right ways to articulate exciting new possibilities. I wanted them to ask incisive questions about underlying data that technologies cast off. I wanted them to actively and regularly wrestle with the challenges data use might present and the decisions they would need to make to use it responsibly.”

– Alix Trot, “Technical Intuition: Instincts in a Digital World” (here)

I cannot get Trot’s concept of technical intuition out of my head. It is something that I have used but have not put into words. Trot even mentions this, writing that technical intuition “is a conceptual frame that we know and see but have never worked towards.”

The urge to work towards developing technical intuition seems glaringly apparent as one starts to work with tech. Because mastery always feels beyond reach. Always. No matter how much you learn, whatever accelerated coding course you take, there is still more. It remains ever elusive.

But this is where technical intuition comes in, serving as “broad-based access to personalized decision-making within and about technical systems.” I am reminded of The Gardens of Democracy where Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu’s insist on effectiveness rather than efficiency in the complex systems that we now live in:

“The metaphors of the Enlightenment, taken to scale during the Industrial Age, led us to conceptualize markets as running with ‘machine-like efficiency’ and frictionless alignment of supply and demand. But in fact, complex systems are tuned not for efficiency but for effectiveness – not for perfect solutions but for adaptive, resilient, good enough solutions.”

Technical intuition thrives on these adaptive, resilient, good enough solutions. It lends to a renewed sense of empowerment that Trot emphasizes in her essay: “Technical intuition is a foundation for agency in and about the digital world and a missing cornerstone of the solution to many of our techno political challenges.”

We have to work towards technical intuition, taking up the task Wendell Berry issues in “Think Little”:

“We are going to have to gather up the fragments of knowledge and responsibility that we have parceled out to the bureaus and the corporations and the specialists, and we are going to have to put those fragments back together again in our minds in in our own families and households and neighborhoods.”

The Melee Milieu: Tech and In-Person Bonds

There is a game that came out 17 years ago that is still being played. Thousands upon thousands of people use a decade old game console to play it. They cannot play the game online. You can only play on the same room, using the same television.

The television is another story. No flat screens here. Optimal performance comes from a cathode ray tube television. Clunky and inefficient, companies stopped producing these kind of televisions about a decade ago. You have to find them online or at a garage sale.

And the game itself. Modern games are constantly updated with new patches, maps, incentives, what have you. This game has not been updated since its launch date of November 21, 2001. What you see is what you get.

But people are still getting so much out of it. An ever-growing community has developed around this, by technological standards, obsolete game: Super Smash Brothers Melee.

I loved Melee when I played it as a kid, but I had no idea that it the community that continues to expand around it, eclipsing some modern releases. There’s so much out there.

What fascinates me about the Melee milieu is how present technology is in service to past technology. The Internet explodes with forums and blogs and videos about the game. It helps bring people together who love Melee. Still, the Internet can only give so much to the community. Remember, people cannot play this game together online, only in-person.

This is where present technology helps again. Through the Internet, people can coordinate frequent meet-ups and tournaments on local and national levels. That is how the Melee community lives on. If nobody gets together to play it, the community becomes a shell of itself – Metcalfe’s Law in full effect.

Ivan Illich once wrote that machines do not have ends, only people have ends. The Melee milieu reminds me of this oh so imperative idea. Technology should ultimately be in service to people. It is not about the technology. That is but a means. What matters is the people who come together, who share a bond around something. That something can be an out-of-date game by industry standards. Nobody cares. That isn’t important.

What is important is sharing that bond together in-person. That is what fuels communities. That is what technology, past and present and future, should be in service to. Not to company revenue or maximum downloads, but to fostering in-person bonds.

For Theodore

I forgot a friend’s birthday yesterday. A good friend at that. How do I make up for that?

From a card to a Facebook post, technology intertwines with how we celebrate birthdays.

Take the birthday card. We can find a card with a pithy, sentimental, or personalized message. Add any note you want within it as long as it fits within the card itself. Create your own card if you want.

And then take the Facebook post. It can be short, sweet, and to the point. You can add videos, links, gifs, whatever. Because Facebook often reminds you of daily birthdays, it can have an off-the-cuff nature. You don’t want to be that person who forgets to post “Happy Birthday”, so you send one off.

A happy birthday is a representation of our goodwill to another human being. As it acts as an extension of our arms and legs, technology can act as an extension of our goodwill. This goodwill, however, is filtered through the technology itself. The medium matters just as much as the message of goodwill.

And what of wishing this friend “Happy birthday” from this post?

It is fitting, because much of what I think about and write on this blog is because of him. His conversation led me to explore what LM Sacasas calls the “capacity to imagine alternative configurations of the technological order.” Most importantly, I see him trying to cultivate these alternatives into a reality. In the spirit of Wendell Berry, his actions come through thinking little – doing small local things that add up over time. It creates an urge within me to do the same, working like a kind of social contagion.

And that is where our power lies – within these little things. If we want to cultivate these alternative configurations of the technological order, we has to start locally. It has to spread from person to person. May this note be in a similar spirit.

Thanks Teddy.

Oh, and happy birthday.

The Actor / Consumer Confusion

” ‘I want to walk’ is restated as ‘I need transportation.’ The subject in the first case designates himself as an actor, and in the second as a consumer. Linguistic change supports the expansion of the industrial arena: competition for institutionalized values is reflected in the use of nominal language.”

– Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

The dichotomy of actor and consumer is useful, but I wonder if it loses much of its clarity in our digital world. This blurring of the line becomes apparent even within my limited experience within information technology.

Take an organization utilizing a third party service for their operation. I have to learn how to use this service. In that sense, the organization and I are a customer beholden to the limitations of a pre-packaged service. Then I learn about this software enough to utilize it effectively. At this point I feel like an actor. Then the goal is to take this knowledge and spread it to others, empowering them to be actors in their own right.

But things get more complicated. Expert programmers have an expanded sense of autonomy. They could say “I want to make a website” and create one no problem. Actor. However, someone with limited coding experience like me would say “I need a website” and rely on a template from WordPress to create one for me. Consumer.

Let’s go even further. Services like Fiverr promote a different relationship between consumer and actor. They want to empower people to be actors by being consumers of their service. Fiverr gives people the leverage to move forward with their personal business or freelance career. No mention of being a consumer, only an actor. “Don’t just dream, Do”. It is the perfect tagline for the actor. Many other services stress such empowerment with workflow services like Zapier coming to mind.

Even before the digital, people were actors in certain aspects of their lives while being consumers in others. But again, the digital seems to compound this division further and further. Take supporting content creators via Patreon. Does that lend more to being a consumer or an actor who supports other actors?

When we come down to it, what is an actor or consumer in the first place? Will the distinction become more important as we go on or fall to the wayside?