Would You Have The Courage To Find The Truth?

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Monday, 5.15am

Sheffield, U.K.

“The opposite for courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.” – Jim Hightower

There are always things that people would prefer remained hidden. And there are people who have the courage to expose the truth. But is it just courage or is it also organization. Do you need a society that encourages openness rather than one where secrecy prevails?

The free press

Freedom of the press has emerged over the centuries as a right, the ability to say what you see or think even if that annoys or infuriates people. And people don’t like it, for obvious reasons. Journalists get put in jail, murdered and intimidated. Yet members of the profession carry on, looking for the story. But there are fewer of them because of the way the business works, people with the money pay to keep the media in business and money comes with influence and pressure.

Things have, of course, changed over time. During the Indian independence movement Gandhi understood the power of the press and the way the West would react when the truth came out in their newspapers. An informed population would do the right thing. Would the methods of non-violence have worked against nations that had a different approach to press freedom? Perhaps not.

These days we are all free to publish. If you run a demonstration then you will be on camera, filmed by the police, by your opposition and, if you have any sense, you will have your own team of camera people recording what’s going on. The intense scrutiny everywhere is showing just how much violence there is but it’s not showing anything new, it’s just showing up what was always there. And the thing about behavior such as this is it cannot stand the light, it takes a certain kind of individual to stand and lie in the full glare of the camera. But, of course, there are a few of them around as well. Things are changing, though.

The rise of database journalism

When I started looking at this topic I had an image of someone who headed into a dangerous situation looking for the truth. But it’s never that simple, where you suddenly go into a place that reeks of danger, from where you may not emerge alive. Perhaps it happens but if you were in that situation you’d try and tilt the odds of coming out alive in your favor before going in.

I remember many years ago, when I first entered college, a friend took me to a coffee shop and introduced me to a chap. This guy was sat on his own at a table at the back, or was he alone? Did he have a team around him, quietly watching? I was introduced to him and he asked a few questions, almost like he were sizing me up, like it was an interview and he was gauging where I stood, whether I was a resource or a threat. It was only when we left that my friend explained that this person was a rising local political activist, someone who would probably go on to be prominent in local politics. And that started to explain that air of menace and a hunger for power and the eye on who would help and who needed to be gotten out of the way.

But the majority of the time what investigators probably do is investigate. They look at records, ask for information, look for patterns. There is information out there and the absence of information is also a signal in itself. It’s a signal that you shouldn’t go there, invest there, do anything there. And then you hope that things will change, that people will realize that being transparent is good for business.

News and society

I started this post by thinking I would explore a story about a meeting, something I saw on a TED talk where this guy went and interviewed a gang leader and told his story. That’s the image at the top of this post, the feeling of terror and dread going into a situation that could be life or death. Would you do it? He did, not just on impulse, but after introductions, vetting, a process to reduce risk and build trust. Even gang leaders want to be heard, there are reasons why they have become the way they have. You remember Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”, which was portrayal of the Mafia. Vito Corleone, the Don, didn’t choose to be that way. He was born into a situation where acting honestly got you killed and he then made decision after decision that led to him having power and wealth and control. There is a theme that even gangsters want to become legitimate business people – there is more money to be made out of the shadows than in them.

But when you look at the big picture, we are fortunate that we live in a society where there is more happening in the light than there is in the darkness. The freedom of the press is available to everyone. The cost of entry is falling and the ability to capture and share what is happening around you is within the grasp of many more people. Of course, there are also less people listening and a few people who get most of the attention but that’s not the point. It’s not about how many followers you have but whether shining a light in the spaces you live in will lead to improvements there.

A group of people that have no way to share news, no way to learn about what is going on cannot be seen as a community. You need that gossip, that shared knowledge about what is going on. And that’s one of the elements that you will need to build if you want to create your own community. You have to ask yourself how you will keep the news flowing, how you will keep people informed about what is going on.

But what is news and what is not? What we’ve learned over the years is that people get very good at manipulating whatever you put out there. If you go on the Internet, you expect to be attacked by people who want to exploit any vulnerabilities in your setup. A few years ago I set up a server and it quickly started getting thousands of attacks from computers trying to guess usernames and passwords. This is industrial, state sponsored espionage. You do your work expecting to be attacked, and do what you need to do to fix vulnerabilities. In society, this often comes down to rules.

So let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is Your Place In A Community?

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Sunday, 7.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

“Who is a professional? A professional is someone who has a combination of competence, confidence and belief. A water diviner is a professional. A traditional midwife is a professional. A traditional bone setter is a professional. These are professionals all over the world. You find them in any inaccessible village around the world.” – Bunker Roy

How do you fit into your world? Do you have a place, a niche? Or are you still looking for one, looking for what you can do, where you can do it and how you can contribute to your society and community? Have we really moved that far, are our societies composed mainly of soldiers, laborers and clerks – and then those outside the mainstream?

The nature of hierarchy

A state of hierarchy implies that there is a set of relationships between elements and, in particular, there is one element that is at the top. This means you can have a very flat hierarchy, with a number of elements subordinate to one or a tall hierarchy, grouped into multiple levels, as you traditionally see in organizations or the military.

What matters in society and community is often where you fit into that structure. It’s also more important for us, on a day to day basis, on how we are doing compared with others who are at the same level than how we are doing compared to others at the levels above or below us. After all, you might be delighted with your bonus until you realize that your coworker got twice as much as you did. That will often rankle more than the Chief Executive getting one hundred times what you received.

So what is it that gets us into the hierarchy in the first place and then how do we position ourselves in there? And does it matter?

Claiming your place in social status

The psychologist Jordan Peterson has talked about dominance hierarchies as having a biological basis – animals fight for status and so, he argues, do we. His views have been criticized for not taking account of the diversity of human societies over time. He also suggested that what we should be looking at now is a competence hierarchy, where your status in modern industrial or post-industrial society is largely dictated by your competence. This is perhaps nicely summed up by the phrase “Be nice to nerds. You’ll probably end up working for one.”

On the other hand, life just isn’t that simple as the last decade or so of politics have shown us. The information society we live in has made dominance politics perhaps even more important as people rush to the safety of messages and leaders that promise both to protect them and help them dominate others. The messages of competence and community are drowned out as the animalistic, fight or flight parts of our brains crowd out the reasoning and rationality required for compromise and accommodation.

What this probably means is that there is no formula, no sure fire way of getting to where you want to be. The path you take depends on the destination you’re aiming for and you need to play the game the way that works best for you. You can be who you are, you can be what your audience wants and you can be something in between. But that’s something you need to decide. Your worth, however, will be determined by others and how they feel you are contributing to them and their way of life.

When it comes to society anyway. When it comes to things that have to work, then there is a difference force at play.

Operational or technical status

A different approach seems to matter when it comes to technical tasks, the things that require actual competence to complete. This is captured by a observations that come down to something on the lines of “Those who can, do. Those who can’t are promoted to management.” It’s very easy to stand around and talk about what needs to be done. But when it comes down to it, the people doing the doing are too busy getting on with that to also think about the management of the process. And this leads to predictable problematic situations.

Take the handling of the Covid pandemic, for example. The professionals know how to handle patients who present with symptoms, they know how to build hospitals, set up processes, and create safe working environments. Once someone enters a hospital they will go through an industrial process that gives them a better chance of living.

Politicians, on the other hand, have the power to make decisions. But they are uniquely unqualified to make decisions of a technical nature and so they make decisions based on what’s best for them because that’s all they know to do. For example, a politician will take action to lock down communities after it is clear that infection rates are rising and people are dying. If they locked down before people started to die they would be criticized for destroying livelihoods without proof that there was a problem. So, they have to wait until the problem is visible before they can take action. If you’re an airline pilot and you see a mountain looming ahead of you then the sensible thing to do is increase your altitude, fly over it. A politician is in the unenviable position of having to first bump into the mountain and then, when it’s clear that there is a problem, try and take evasive action.

Which then leads to the second challenge, which is that as they cannot do anything useful they have to set objective and targets for others like mandating a certain number of tests a day. So the professionals, in addition to trying to diagnose and cure patients have to record and report on what’s going on. So the objective of the individuals involved becomes to monitor and report rather than do. The intervention of management, then, reduces the effectiveness of the system as a whole.

Does this mean that the competence hierarchy theory does not hold, that dominance is actually what matters?

A fine specimen

I suppose when it comes down to it everything matters when it does. We were on a beach in Wales and a couple of young women walked by and I caught the phrase, “It must be great having a husband like that.” For an instant I thought they were talking about me but, alas, I then saw the object of their admiration, a sculpted Adonis strolling with his partner. We are, after all, biologically driven underneath it all. Above that we have a veneer of humanity, a thin one, one that we have evolved over time but that we are still figuring out how to work with. Evolution is too slow for us, our brains have created a way for us to adapt to our circumstances that go beyond mere biology but we have to remember that he biology still underpins it all and when things go wrong, we will revert to survival and savagery.

But community is not about that, it’s about that veneer of humanity in action. It’s about having the courage to be human and overcome the flight or flight circuitry that’s hardwired into our brains.

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Does Life Really Need To Be As Complicated As It Is?

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Saturday, 7.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

“First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we’ve realized it’s a brochure.” – Douglas Adams

After a round of recent updates it’s becoming clear that some of my computers are getting a little long in the tooth. The relentless need for more bandwidth and higher resolution applications along with sneaky decisions by developers to create lots of processes that hog computing resource is pretty irritating. After all, does a browser really need to use quite so much memory and processor power? What are we trying to do here really?

It sometimes feels like we are in the relentless pursuit of bloat, more of everything at the expense of all things. Having more does not make us better off or smarter or better looking. It all just slows us down, adds weight and acts like anchors, physical, mental and financial. And is this really helping us at all?

I realize this is just moaning, and Douglas Adams in “The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy” gets it right as usual, remarking on how people complain all the time, including how things went bad when we came down from the trees and started walking around, while others are of the opinion that we really shouldn’t have left the seas at all. I also appreciate that the complaints I have will seem pointless to people who do not quite see that constraints are freeing in a way that resources are not.

For example, the Raspberry Pi is in the news, with a gorgeous throwback to a computer in a keyboard priced lower than a weekly food shop, less than you’d spend on a takeaway on certain days. The Pi 400 is an entry level desktop computer and while it’s aimed at students there’s no reason why you can’t try and use it for other stuff as well. I thought I’d try an experiment for a bit and see if I could do the things I wanted to do in the world of the Pi, and actually go back to a previous model, the Pi B+, which is even cheaper.

There are a few core things that I do every day, write – in a blog or papers and draw the images that go along with these. Drawing is the only reason for starting up the graphical display, the X interface, what most people think of as windows. The rest of the time is all about text and that’s fine in the command line, in the old DOS looking terminal. Now, can I do that, can I spend most of my time looking at black and white, including for Internet research and only surface to the desktop when I need to draw something?

Well, so far it seems like I can. Elinks is a fine text mode browser. Using Screen I can create windows and copy and paste text from one place to another, like with the quote that starts this post. I post what I write to WordPress using org2blog but I have to confess I am not a fan of the interstellar spaceship that is emacs. I prefer writing in ed and vi. But emacs has the awesome org2blog mode that makes it so much easier to post what I write to WordPress.

Already as I do this it’s distraction free, I cannot do anything other than write without effort, so I have to make an effort if I want to distract myself. There is the cursor and the page and that is all. I only need to go to a browser when I am looking for information and the rest of the time I am free to move that cursor along, word after word, line after line. There is no email popping up, no LinkedIn to check, no news to worry about, no update on what Biden is doing right now or whether the other guy has finished with golf.

Now, for those of you that haven’t seen a Pi, it’s the size of a pack of playing cards. It’s sitting here, working away, doing what I would do with a lot more computing power. That said, this little box probably has most of the power of my eight year old machine, but given that I am using forty year old software it has all the power I need.

Anyway I don’t have much more to say on this matter other than I’m going to try this for a bit and see what happens. There should be no real effect on anyone that reads this. It might just make it easier for me to focus on what matters.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How We Feel About The Others Around Us

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Thursday, 5.57am

Sheffield, U.K.

Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be recognized as the person that they are and not a stereotype or an image. – Loretta Lynch

In my last post I looked at groups and some of the types of conflict that we see arising around us. But why is this, and why can’t we all just get along?

Resorting to stereotypes

In 2002 Fiske, Cuddy, Glick and Xu [1] proposed a model of stereotype analysis that suggested that while there are many factors that affect how we see each other, two in particular have a big effect on our reactions. They termed these warmth and competence. Competence is relatively easy to understand but the word “warmth” is harder to appreciate. It tries to capture the idea that we are biologically programmed to assess whether someone wants to harm us or help us and react accordingly.

That seems a poor choice of words, leading to reinforcing stereotypes with the added burden of an emotionally laden term. After all, if you label someone as low in warmth you don’t just mean they wouldn’t help you if you’re in trouble. You also mean they are cold, heartless, unsympathetic and from there, it’s a short step to deciding that they’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.

In searching around for alternative words I’ve settled for “exposure” in the adapted model in the picture above. After all, how do we get to know whether something is harmful or not? If you look at how animals respond you’ll start to see how it works.

For example, the first time you meet someone else’s dog, the chances are that it will be wary. Animals are wary of everything when they first come across it. Then they quickly pick up signs that you are a friend, and as they get to know you they warm to you. Warmth, therefore, emerges from exposure and the realization that you are not harmful and are, in fact, helpful. If you’re a danger or a threat they’ll warn you first and then attack or run depending on what seems appropriate in those circumstances. Or if you are neither, they’ll ignore you and get on with investigating the nearest tree.

First reactions

Once we caveat what we mean by exposure and warmth the emotions we have when we respond to others start to become clearer. We’ll come back to competence later, but for the time being let’s take it as a sign of status. After all, if someone is in a better situation than you that must be because they are competent and if they are in a worse situation that must be because they are less competent. That statement is open to attack, but if we take it as true for the time being then we can look at the extremes and how we react.

If you look at someone who is better off but you don’t know well then you wonder why they are up there, what do they have that you don’t have. You envy them. If you are better off than others and wonder what they did to get themselves in that state, then you have contempt for them. On the other hand, if people are better off than you and you see them all the time, on television, you follow them on social media and like the stuff they put out, you admire them. And if they are worse off but you know them well then you sympathize and pity them.

This is why marketing firms and politicians and influences saturate you with information. The more you are exposed to something the better you feel you know it and the more likely it is that you will engage or interact or support or buy the thing being promoted. The amount of exposure also results in a paradox, even if you vehemently disagree with the products or opinions being peddled you can’t avoid being exposed to them, not if you want to have a chance to disagree or oppose those positions.

Second thoughts

What this means stereotypes form and are reinforced as your exposure to groups increases and you form perceptions of their competence and the level of harm they pose to you and your way of life. Reality is complex and nuanced and how you think is going to change over time, if not over generations. Groups that you perceive in a particular way didn’t get there overnight, there is history and precedent that weights down every thought and contributes to creating the reality that you see.

It also means that we have to take the time to engage with groups that we are underexposed to, and that takes time and effort. And courage. How many of us really have the courage to go into a situation that we haven’t been exposed to before and illuminate it, for ourselves and for the benefit of others. What does it take to do that kind of thing and should more of us be doing that?

We’ll look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

  1. Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 878–902. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.82.6.878

The Nature Of Conflict In Groups

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Wednesday, 5.41am

Sheffield, U.K.

Britain is not homogenous; it was never a society without conflict. The English fought tooth and nail over everything we know of as English political virtues – rule of law, free speech, the franchise. – Stuart Hall

Are you the kind of person that speaks their mind and stands up for what they believe in, or are you the kind of person that listens, deliberates, looks for compromise? What creates the need to do this in the first place?

The conditions for conflict

Imagine a number of people swimming up and down, back and forth. As long as they keep to their lanes everything is fine. If they move off their lane, however, and into someone else’s way then you have the creation of a situation, one that may be quickly resolved, or one that escalates into conflict of one kind or another.

There are a number of instances where conflict can arise as shown in the image below.

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This list of conflict types covers a huge spectrum; it’s mostly what we read in the news every day. It’s a vast topic and there are many sides to each story in each type. That’s part of what makes it hard to decide where to focus when looking at this area. At the same time any conflict situation you are likely to face probably involves a mix of all these elements so you do need to understand them as a whole to see what is going on.

The interplay of attributes

Joining a group is something we do several times as we live our lives in society. You’re born into a particular group, gaining an ethnic identify and a culture. As you grow up you start to define your interests, both individually and as a group. You start to take on roles with increasing responsibility throughout your life and you’ll spend most of that in social settings, including the work you do at your organization, where you will also interact with other organizations and groups with their own collections of individuals with their own cultures, ethnic identities, interests and roles.

It doesn’t take much to see that there are inevitable flash points, situations where something doesn’t go right, where someone swims into someone else’s lane and tempers start to flare. There’s a process to this, an initial event leading to a reaction which either escalates into full-fledged conflict or that is de-escalated through the actions of one or both parties.

In addition, you can have conflict within each group or between different groups, all with the continuing mix of attributes depending on how diverse they are.

One model that seems useful in understanding these areas the idea of stereotypes.

We’ll look at those in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Equality, Popularity And Control – Some Thoughts

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Tuesday, 5.52am

Sheffield, U.K.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. – George Orwell, Animal Farm

What would a world look like where a few people can shout, their voices amplified with a megaphone, while the rest of us can only whisper? We don’t need to imagine that kind of world, it’s the one we have now. But is that fair or is it just the way thing are and always have been? Do we just need to accept the world as it is or is there something we can do about it, or do we just need to get better at engaging with the world on the terms we are offered rather than the terms we might prefer?

There are options but I think you have to decide what kind of approach you are going to take when thinking about them and it takes time to get to grips with the complexity of it all. It will always be easier to do the easy thing and, as long as you go for that option, the what’s possible will stay invisible.

As I work on the content for this Community book project I have to say it’s quite hard. It takes longer to think through what’s going on and write words than if I took a faster and less involved approach.

For example, if I look at my social media feeds, the business related ones anyway, there’s a lot of stuff out there. Is it worth trying to think about what it is, whether there are categories of material or do you just take what’s there as it is. Why would you engage with a piece of content? Well, because it interests you, it’s newsworthy or useful. Or you were sucked into clicking on it because it seemed interesting but when you looked at the detail it was simply clickbait. Or its content that you want to share with others who you think might find it interesting.

Do we think that there are real communities building on social media or are we seeing something artificial, something that looks like the real thing but that is in fact carefully manipulated to give us an impression of togetherness? For example, I hadn’t quite realized that the main social media platforms regularly refresh the content you see on your feed. You could argue that this means you get more content put in front of you. At the same time it makes you feel like the platform is active and new content is being put out there all the time so if you aren’t checking it you’re missing out.

I’ve recently joined an alternative social media platform called Fosstodon, my handle is @ksuresh@fosstodon.org if you want to connect. This article is an introduction to how it works and it’s the one that pointed out the value of just having stuff ordered chronologically. This means you can look at what’s new and then get on with whatever you’re doing rather than constantly refreshing your screen to see if anything new has turned up when in fact it’s just the algorithm faking it to make it seem that way.

What this seems to lead into is the concept of socialization. You aren’t born knowing what a community is and how to function in there. Your community teaches you what normal looks like and you accept it. In fact, you never really ask questions about it because you don’t have to, it’s like fish wondering about water. We take it for granted that there’s a way to be, a way to search the Internet, a way be social and we take the easy routes, the ones that pop up. So most people will use Google to search and Facebook to keep track of their friends, and Twitter for whatever Twitter does and WhatsApp for private group discussions and YouTube for media and that’s that. That’s what we’ve been socialized into doing just by dint of the fact that these are the biggest, wealthiest, noisiest platforms around and if we’re not on there we feel like we’re missing out and when we get in there we find that there isn’t much space left for us.

Of course, that isn’t the case. There’s always room for you as long as you have resources or a plan and really want to get famous. For example Derek Sivers came up with a set of directives and one of them had to do with getting rich, because it’s much easier to become famous when you’re already rich. His argument is that people only value stuff that they pay for and so you might as well make money because if you’re making money] then that’s proof that you’re being useful.

Now, there’s a lot packed into those statements and I need to unpick some elements. If you’re doing something useful then people will be willing to pay for it. Enough people at least to make it viable. You might have a whole lot of users and only a small percentage may find what you’re doing useful enough to sponsor your work but ideally your project should at least break even. If it doesn’t, if you’re losing money on the idea then it’s destroying value and that’s a bad thing. Your time is worth something and if you’re spending all of it for free reading other people’s marketing material then you should be getting paid or getting value of some kind.

Ideally, whatever you’re doing should make a lot of money. I recently read that the Raspberry PI Foundation, which has just come up with a brilliant Christmas present, is the fastest growing computer company in the UK. It’s also a charity. Red Hat Linux was bought by IBM for 34 billion. The privacy focused search engine DuckDuckGo has gone from nothing to 2 billion searches a month, nothing compared to the big competitor that does over 100 million searches. And then when the money you’ve made exceeds what you need to run the business and pay people well you’d use the rest to make things better. And that’s what some of these businesses do.

All this is of course very marginal, really on the edges of the huge business that is business. What you see are ultra-wealthy individuals on social media, the new billionaires with hundreds of millions of followers who promote products and get paid for doing so – they are the ones with the megaphones. That’s business all right but when it comes down to it what exactly are you looking at when you see products being promoted in an entertaining way? It’s marketing, it’s entertainment. Is it community?

What differentiates marketing content that aims to build a community from any other kind of community? Are you not being brought together by your shared love for the thing that’s being promoted? If you had an actor or a singer who had a wide fan base because of their work, then wouldn’t you call that group a community? How different is that kind of system where you have one person who is the figurehead, the center of attention, from a religions community?

It’s hard to tell a “real” community from a “fake” one by just looking at what they look like. From the outside they share the root elements, the thing in common, the shared passion. So perhaps we have to look at outcomes. Social media platforms can be seen as spaces for communities to form, not as moderators or supporters of one community over any other. Of course, their rules help communities live or die, grow or vanish because they control visibility, the algorithms control what is seen and visibility is oxygen for communities. That’s no different from the responsibilities of a government, that has to decide what kind of rules its citizens want to live with. The platforms are not neutral even though they would like to be and that means they will increasingly be forced to behave in ways where they use their power to set rules responsibly. And they may need to balance the need to be fair with what is popular. If the last few years have taught us anything it is that if you allow people to lie without challenge then people will believe them and the world will be a worse place for it.

We can perhaps only tell what a good community is by the things that it does. Network marketing businesses, for example, are really in the business of growing members not selling products. That model is a sham, a few people make all the money, not from what they sell but from all the membership sales they make to new members who will never see the kinds of returns that are being promised. And there are other models branded as “community” that are based on coercion and control – many political movements among them.

So where are we with this so far?

I have to admit that I’m a little daunted taking on this project. Sivers writes about his experiment with daily writing and found he didn’t like it. It meant he was publishing stuff that wasn’t ready to be read. He felt he had promised to only put material out there that was worth reading. On the other hand I have been writing daily (apart from holidays) for 915 days and much of this material is not worth you reading all the way through, it’s work in progress, research notes, the kind of material that I can draw on to eventually make sense of something.

I don’t think the community point is as easy as saying do X, Y and Z on these platforms and you will end up rich and famous. It’s more complex than that, more nuanced. And I don’t think it’s going to be in a form where I have clear conclusions in each post. In fact, each post may be a confused mix of angst and second guessing as I work out what I think about this topic. Somewhere in all this material may be a nugget of something that is useful

Fair warning then, these posts may not be worth your time. I’m still going to keep writing them, however, because they’re worth mine.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Does Your Community Have The Ability To Communicate?

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Monday, 5.38am

Sheffield, U.K.

Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible. – Carl Gustav Jung

I am working on a book project on Community and thought I would take the opportunity to explore what life would look like without Google, without the big search engines that make life so easy, helping us find information, media or directions. Where would you begin and would we be able to function at all? Do we still remember things? Do you have any phone numbers committed to memory? When was the last time you used a paper map? And where would you turn to find anything at all?

Asking a friend

It’s so easy to find information now that it’s a little hard to picture what you would do without being able to search. You’d probably start by calling someone you knew who might know something about the matter. Or, before that picking up a book on the topic.

I thought I’d approach this first from a technical point of view, as there are topics on which I need to find information that are quite specific and have been around for a while. For example, if you want to use free/libre software there are certain patterns you will see about the way a community is formed around those topics.

Take GNU troff (groff), for example. Many people will never have heard of the idea of typesetting. We’re used to working in a word processor or using an office app that shows us what our final document will look like at the same time as we edit the content. The typesetting process is very different with formatting codes interspersed to tell the software how to put together the final output for display or print. An example of this that everyone is familiar with is a web page, where the source for the page is written with formatting codes that tell the browser what a heading is and what a paragraph is and then the browser displays the page using bigger fonts and layouts as appropriate.

If you look at the groff webpage you will see that there is an introduction, a document that explains the mission of the project and information on where you can download the software. What’s also really important is the documentation, which you can get installed with the software or find online. The last two key elements are the mailing list and the bug reports tracker.

If you couldn’t search for exactly what you wanted these pages give you an entry point into a world of information about this topic. The mailing list archives are especially important because they let you ask questions. There is an etiquette around the use of these tools. You’re expected to read the manuals and then check the archives to see if your question has been answered. Then you can ask your own questions. You can answer questions if you think you know the answer, engage in conversations and even have long disagreements on points that you feel are important.

It’s no different from real life, except that it’s captured using technology so you can look back over time and learn from what’s there as well. These communities that form around a piece of software, something they use and have a common interest in, are the ones that sustain and develop and improve the tool itself, first for themselves, but then as a result for the rest of us as well.

The technology has changed over time

Web pages and mailing lists are the features of a particular kind of approach to community building, one that emerged in the early days of the web, when email was the new killer app. What’s interesting is that those systems have survived for decades now and will most likely carry on for as long as there is interest in the tools that the members use and as long as there are ways in which new users can enter the conversation and there is a way to share responsibility and develop a succession of users who will help to maintain the project and the community.

It might seem like these groups are part of history now, but it’s quite possible that they will outlast many newer groups. For example, how many communities online have you joined in the last decade? Social networking sites, for example, allow you to join in many interest groups, administered by the people who set them up. On LinkedIn, for example, I have joined over 50 groups, most of which have very little activity. At first glance this seems to be because much of what is on there is either people introducing or promoting themselves or that the conversations that are started aren’t really all that interesting. Or perhaps they are, but it’s just that they are in the wrong medium.

For example, if you just want to have a chat, a natter, pass the time, then some networks are going to be better than others. Instant messaging is a better choice if you can’t meet face to face, whether it’s using a text message or an app that allows group messaging. The ancestor of these systems was Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which is hard to use and is falling out of fashion although there will always be adherents. Over the last couple of decades we’ve moved from group emails to seeing the emergence of Facebook and Twitter and then increasing fatigue and distrust as these platforms are hijacked by advertisers or manipulated by people who want to influence how you think about things.

In recent years people have begun to miss the experience of face to face contact and so meetup websites have sprung up that, in the midst of a pandemic, have let to a number of video conferencing sessions, where you can meet people as you would at a social event. The fact is that the need for connection is deep and real within people and technology facilitates that in different ways.

What seems to happen is that communities build around a shared interest and they use processes and technology to connect and stay in contact. In some cases they are sustained and grow. In other cases they wither for lack of interest and fade away. At intervals, the technology moves on, and some communities make the shift to a new mode of communication while others stick with the tried and trusted.

What’s the purpose?

What we need to do is explore the connection between our need to communicate and the medium we use to communicate in a little more detail. I’m starting to see these words connecting together as I write and think about this topic. Community is about having something in *comm*on, but its also about *comm*unication and about being *comm*itted. Maybe there’s a model that will emerge from this exercise and there’s a reason why those words have all emerged around this structure.

I was going to talk about how a community might develop in this post, but I think there is an alleyway here that I should explore. What is it about conversations that work or don’t work on platforms? There’s usually a power law in play, where some things get all the attention and others get hardly any at all. So perhaps we’ll explore that tomorrow, what kind of conversations are happening and are there any patterns to what we can see.

Until then,

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Is It Possible To Take Back Control Of Our Own Minds?

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Sunday, 7.06am

Sheffield, U.K.

It would be too easy to say that I feel invisible. Instead, I feel painfully visible, and entirely ignored. – David Levithan, Every Day

I am starting to realize that for a decade or more I have steadily given away control of my own mind, surrendered my ability to think to a host of corporations that have skillfully made it easier and easier for me to retain nothing and depend on them for everything. I’d like to end that dependence, wean myself off, extract myself from their cloying embrace. But how can I do it, is it even possible and where do I start?

For most people this would be impossible. The technology we use has turned us into cyborgs, with smartphones grafted to our palms that connect us to the greater network, the organizations that feed us all we know. And it feels like a lot, it is a lot, because our brains have a limited capacity to process incoming information and the more bandwidth these organizations use up the less we have to think for ourselves until we eventually just give up.

Think I’m making too much of this? Well, for starters, do you still regularly bookmark web pages? Do you record interesting content in your own files with a reference to where you found it. Do you still keep any version of a commonplace book? I feel like I’ve done less and less of that as the years have gone on. I’ve abandoned the practice of having a memory and relied instead on being able to search and find what I want. And it has worked, but is it good?

What makes you viable?

This talk by Lara Boyd, which you can skim with the transcript here tells us that the brain lays down chemical tracks over time, as you build your memory, building and reinforcing the network that holds what you know. The Internet has a similar feel to it, with individuals creating pages and those pages being read and linked to and built on, until you have a corpus of material that is ever increasing but also decreasing as sites come to the end of their lives and fall away. Imagine for a minute, that network as a universe of shimmering strands, lit up, twinkling in the darkness of the night sky, like a galaxy slowly turning, everything you know and have learned over the decades of your lifetime.

Look at it again now, through the lens of a search engine, your access to that network moderated through a small box in a web page. Everything you see is not filtered and funneled through that box. The lights aren’t there any more, you have no idea of what exists. You just know that when you want you will be directed to the portion of the network that is deemed to be best for you. It will be convenient, it will be easy, it will almost always be right. But you will no longer be able to see the full picture, the night sky will, for you, be entirely dark.

When someone has their hands around your neck they control whether you get air or not, whether you live or die and the search engines that we use are making decisions on which people and organizations live or die, because they provide the traffic and visibility that is oxygen to a digital network. And it doesn’t take long to realize that isn’t a viable way to be. But is there any other way, what else can you do?

An experiment in liberation

It feels to me that having a choice is an important thing. There’s no point just giving up and seeing the world as it is. What can we do to take back some control – over our own lives and our thoughts. How do we break free from the embrace of the godlike creatures that have taken over our world?

It starts with community. You can’t do it on your own, you need others who think like you, who have the ability and competence to help and guide you, who build the tools to set you free so that you can continue to help to create a place to be. And let’s start with search, because the first thing you need to get started in the darkness is a light.

Imagine, for a minute, that you’re stood in a great city. The roads are full of people, the buildings are vast and high and gleaming. Everyone looks happy and healthy and content and are rushing about doing whatever they need to do. Looking down, you spot a grate and tug it open. You see an opening below and drop into the darkness. You’re under the city now, in the catacombs, and you don’t know where to go. Where can you find a light?

Peer to peer search engines

As I explore this world I’m going to avoid using the big search engines, the ones you all know. Instead, let’s start with a little help from our friends. YaCy is a search engine with a difference. Instead of a centralized search engine like the ones you are used to this is a peer-to-peer search engine, where your computer joins others in indexing and retrieving web pages. You can download and install it and then start to use it for searches. You won’t get the same results are you will using Google; as the documentation explains “YaCy will provide different and better results than Google, since it can be adapted to the user’s own preferences and is not influenced by commercial aspects.” I don’t know about the better, that’s probably not true and won’t be for a while. But it is different and it based around your preferences and it won’t sell to you.

Think of it as a match that you light in the darkness. It’s not the powerful torch that the commercial search engines are, but it works, it’s in your pocket and you can get started with it.

Finding shelter

The next thing you will do as you wander through the dark corridors, illuminated just by your flickering match, is come across rooms, some of which have people and perhaps even have light and warmth. These spaces have life and conversation and laughter, a place where you can stop and talk to others and see if you get on.

Let’s look at the website of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). What are the things that jump out at you? The FSF has a mission, to defend the rights of all software users. It uses only free software to do its work. It sponsors the GNU project, which provides free software. And then they have the LibrePlanet community, a space for you to join and engage with other individuals.

All this is made possible through the use of technology, some of which you may have forgotten existed. For example, in the days before the search engines there were things like forums and internet relay chat. I remember using them in 1998/99, which is a long time ago now. They still exist, you can join them now. Of course, if you don’t want to go through the bother of that and prefer social networking sites, those exist too. For example Fosstodon is an alternative social media platform that has an open license.

So, we have shelter and chat. This is a little like Maslow’s hierarchy for community building. Perhaps that’s a model worth building on as we explore what it takes to form a community, whether it’s offline or online. What are the equivalents for a group that are trying to come together. I did a similar analysis for businesses some time back so perhaps in the next post I build on this idea and see where it takes us.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Introduction To A Community That Protects Your Freedom To Use Computers

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Saturday, 6.24am

Sheffield, U.K.

The free software movement is one of the most successful social movements to arise from computing culture, driven by a worldwide community of ethical programmers dedicated to the cause of freedom and sharing. But the ultimate success of the free software movement depends upon teaching our friends, neighbors and work colleagues about the danger of not having software freedom, about the danger of a society losing control over its computing. – Free Software Foundation

I’m trying to remember when I first tried out free software. Did I do it because it was free, as in it cost nothing? Was that all there was to it? Or was there something deeper, a pull that went beyond the basic issues of a computer and convenience to the core of what it means to be able to be free rather than have free stuff.

For many people these issues may seem irrelevant. After all, think about every computing service you use. It’s all free, isn’t it? Yes you pay for hardware, your laptop, your phone, your tablet, but then pretty much everything you use costs nothing or it’s a subscription, something you pay as long as you use that service. It’s free, it’s easy and that’s all there is to it surely? Or is it?

The Right to Read

In 1997 Richard Stallman published a fictional article called “The Right to Read”. It projected a future where you weren’t allowed to read anything unless you agreed to be monitored and followed the rules set by those in power, typically governments, corporations and institutions.

Think about this for a minute. It seems farfetched. Is there anything you do today that doesn’t require you to agree to be monitored? For example, I wanted to use the word “dystopian” to describe Stallman’s article. But I wasn’t sure about the meaning. Now, quick, how would you check what it meant?

Perhaps you are one of those people that still have a physical dictionary on your desk. I do have one, but it’s currently in the loft, behind piles of things that need sorting out. So, no help there. How would you check the meaning of that word without agreeing to be monitored in one way or another? Google it? Of course you could, but you’re going to be tracked and you’ve had to sign up to an agreement to use their site anyway. If you don’t use Google, perhaps there is a different search engine, like DuckDuckGo, which protects your privacy, that will lead you to an online dictionary, one that will have its own conditions that you have to agree to in order to access its content.

Well, you argue, that’s no bad thing. At the end of the day you can find out the meaning of the word you’re looking for and having to agree to follow the rules is a small price to pay for the ease and convenience of being able to search for something and find it instantly. It’s easy and convenient and like air and light and electricity you only notice how important it is when you haven’t got access to it any more.

Now, that won’t happen, will it? But if you imagine the worst possible situation that could happen, well, that’s dystopian. And I found out what that means by installing a piece of software called dico that asked a dictionary server what it meant. I still had to agree to the terms of the software before using it but the one difference is that the terms are ones that protect my freedoms, not terms that take it away. There is a community out there, founded by Richard Stallman, that operates with a set of principles that will protect your freedom to use computers and read, a community called the Free Software Foundation. One that supports almost all of the tools I use for my own work, and one that I should probably do a lot more to support. But why?

The pen and the sword

As you know I’m trying to work through a book project here, and I’m finding this one a lot harder already than the first two, mainly because it’s hard to work out what you can and can’t do, what’s right and wrong and if it’s right or wrong.

For example, I am writing these words in a text editor on a Linux computer. I can keep doing what I do if the Internet is turned off, I don’t need to sign into Microsoft or Google or Apple or any of the other big corporations that provide computing services to the vast majority of people. I’m writing in plain text, a format that will last as long as computers last. I’m also using a terminal, a command line. It’s black and white, no mouse involved. The technological experience is decades old, not that far removed from a typewriter with a few improvements. So, why do I use this approach to create text, why not just use a word processor, an online tool, something easy and convenient?

There are two reasons for this. The first is practical, the tools I use are better for a whole host of reasons. They don’t try and tell me what to do, correct grammar or spelling or suggest different ways of doing things. They let me get on with my work. The second is more important, and has to do with my freedom to write and say what I think because in this world of ours your ability to document your thoughts is the way in which you protect your freedoms.

The United States is perhaps the preeminent example of this, a nation state founded on a document, a Constitution. Of course, you can point to the Magna Carta as the ancestor of it all. I would also argue that the Indian constitution, which gave 300 million people their freedom, had the largest impact of any single document in history. These political documents mattered, they were a contract that set out the rights of people and those rights still need defending even today.

How do you defend your rights? With words, of course. And so the tools you use to write your words are just as important as any other tools you use to defend your freedom. Once upon a time you would have reached for a weapon; in many parts of the world that’s still a first recourse. But for more and more of us these days you reach for your computer and start writing your message of hope. History teaches us that words have power and if someone has power over your ability to create words then they have power over you.

I have a deep, visceral need to be free to write and the Free Software Foundation’s mission is one that I can sign up to. It’s a community with which I share values and ideals. So, while I might use non-free software if I am working for others on their systems I will use free software to do the things that matters to me.

Exploring the model

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, hopefully you understand that people can have points of view about things that you didn’t even realize were an issue. And before you write me off for that, what you should notice is that you and the people around you will their own causes, the things that they find important and that they want to defend, whether it’s the right to bear arms or their religions beliefs or an activist movement looking to stop climate change.

What I’d like to do tomorrow is carry on with the Free Software Foundation. Today has been about its mission and why I think it’s important. Tomorrow, let’s look at how it operates in practice and see if there are elements there that we can identify and see how the various parts are working.

What Is It That Makes A Community A Community?

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Friday, 6.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

There is but one Church in which men find salvation, just as outside the ark of Noah it was not possible for anyone to be saved. – Thomas Aquinas

If you had to build an ark and save all that was important, but only had a certain amount of space, who and what would you take with you?

Your immediate family is probably an easy choice. Your parents? Grandchildren? Animals? If you were required to. How about extended family? Neighbors? People from further down the street? From the next village?

Noah’s ark is an apt image for the rushed construction of a community, a bringing together of people and creatures that would not normally be together. The have to live together for a while, follow rules and try and survive the flood that washes over them. And when it’s all done they disperse across the world when released from the walls of their boat.

The single, overriding characteristic of the ark metaphor is that there are two places to be inside the ark or outside it. If you’re inside, you’re safe. If you’re outside, you don’t matter.

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The origin of the word community lies in the concept of having something in common with others, where you are, perhaps, what you have, what you care about, or how you think about things. You can be born into a community or join it, with or without a choice in the matter. You experience can be good or bad, pleasurable or horrifying. There is nothing that says a community has to be good or right or fair. All that needs to happen for a community to exist is that its members have something in common with each other.

But what we’re interested in is precisely those value judgments that help us understand what good community is and what bad community is and how to tell the difference. There are communities everywhere we look, thriving ones and struggling ones. You have communities that have endured over centuries and others that come together for an evening. What is it that makes communities viable and productive and how do you tell the difference between one that looks wealthy and prosperous on the outside but is rotting away on the inside and one that is struggling to survive but that contains the essential elements that will help it live, if it can just survive the flood washing over it right now.

The thing about community, then, is that its essential quality is dynamism, renewal and rebirth. It is alive. Unless it’s not, in which case it’s no longer a community. It’s a memory, consigned to history. It’s difficult not to think about a community as an organism, as a living thing. And living things can be vital and healthy or sick and diseased. At the same time, if one that looks at communities from a social point of view rather than a biological or economic one, which makes no judgment other than suggesting the fittest survive, then should we try and ensure all communities survive, even “bad” ones?

So far, all we have are questions and perhaps we need to set some ground rules before we explore too much further. The purpose of this book is to help us engage with the world around us in a way that is “good”. But what does that mean? It’s very hard to define good. Sometimes it’s easier to start with what we think of as bad. But it always comes down to a point of view. For example, is an influencer who reaches millions of people and tells them how to live doing a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on your point of view, and some people will see what’s going on as empowering and others will see the same thing as degrading or controlling. When you look at the world out there what should you aspire to be? What are the images most of us see, how does that influence the aspirations we have and what is the reality we are likely to face? Are there fundamental principles that can help explain what goes on in the situations we see out there.

As someone who runs a business or is a creative professional do you have a right to a living wage or do you have to fit into the way the world works? Is there room for individual freedom and self expression or do you have to comply with the prevailing view or be punished for stepping out? After all, you can’t always rely on a god to come along and help you. Sometimes you have to help yourself. But how should you go about doing that?

It’s not easy finding a place to stand and start thinking about these things. Should we look at the research and try and understand what academics mean when they use big words and design research studies and write papers hidden behind paywalls? Or should we look at the material that’s out there. Should we look at specific examples of how people did what they did or is that a waste of time. After all, you hear about someone because they’re famous. But are they famous for being well known or is there something they did that, if you do it too, you can also be famous? Every time. Or should we create models of how things might work and test them on our own lives?

I think perhaps we need to start with ourselves. We all know how we live, what we’ve experienced and how we approach the world. We’re less aware of how others do this and it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that it’s all down to them. We often excuse our mistakes because we see all the factors that led to the decisions we made but with others it’s very tempting to see it as down to individual choices.

And maybe what I do need to do is start with an example, a community without which I wouldn’t be able to do anything that I do right now. A community with which I should really engage a lot more because of all that I have received from it. A community that is perhaps the exact opposite of the ark, where the purpose is not to save those who deserve to, or who can afford to be saved but to give each person the freedom they ought to have. One that follows a model that looks a little more like this.

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But, to be fair, you could argue it either way, as always.

But I’ll start with that tomorrow.

Cheers, Karthik Suresh