In this episode Doug and Laura discuss the importance of community beyond marketing and extractive practices in the Tao of WAO podcast. We emphasise the need to move away from transactional relationships and towards shared values in community building. We also discuss the challenges of community growth and health in decentralised communities like Mastodon, balancing the needs of old and new members, the need for education around technology’s impact, and the importance of preparing for the unexpected.
Find all of our guests’ reading recommendations at our The Tao of WAO book club.
- The Art of Community
- This Week in Tech (TWiT) episode
- Mastodon blog post r.e. onboarding
- Buzzing Communities by Richard Millington
- Doug’s toot
- How to handle criticism of your open project
- How to manage feedback on your open project
- Eternal September
- At Work In The Ruins by Dougald Hine
- What is Bluesky, and why is everyone on Twitter talking about it?
- Bluesky gets moderation and other new features, but you still need an invitation
- Through the Looking Glass – Vinay Gupta on systemic risks to civilization and responses (2010.)
Tao of WAO S06 E03
Doug Belshaw: [00:00:21] Welcome to the Tao of WAO, a podcast about the intersection of technology, society and internet culture with a dash of philosophy and art for good measure. I am Doug Belshaw.
Laura Hilliger: [00:00:33] And I’m Laura Hilliger. This podcast season is currently partially unfunded. You can support this podcast and other we are open projects and products at open collective.com slash. We are open.
Doug Belshaw: [00:00:46] So one of the things I miss about my old podcast ‘Today In Digital Education’ or ‘TIDE’, is talking about the things that are happening right now like this week and what’s on our brains and minds. So I reckon we should do an episode where it’s just us talking about stuff.
Laura Hilliger: [00:01:05] I don’t know. Let’s find out whether or not we actually ever release this episode.
Doug Belshaw: [00:01:11] Who knows? There we go. So this season is supposed to be about cooperatives, and we both have worked and own a cooperative, which is now seven years old. Can you believe.
Laura Hilliger: [00:01:20] That? Yesterday we had a birthday yesterday and we didn’t celebrate yet. We should.
Doug Belshaw: [00:01:27] So the reason I didn’t write anything was because after we were in Amsterdam in January, we wrote a blog post that said, We’re almost seven.
Laura Hilliger: [00:01:39] Right. So you felt like, Oh, we already announced that we’re having a birthday.
Doug Belshaw: [00:01:42] Yeah, but maybe we should do something. Anyway, we’re recording this on the 2nd of May, which is probably important given that we’re going to be talking about things which are top of mind and probably currently relevant. Hopefully they’re still relevant when you’re listening to this.
Laura Hilliger: [00:01:57] There is a good chance that this podcast doesn’t come out until sometime in the summer because we actually have a couple of podcast episodes pre-recorded that we recorded before this episode, which we will release first, but we haven’t been releasing them because we have been doing other things.
Doug Belshaw: [00:02:15] Let’s just talk about that, right? So my parents used to say to me when I was younger and I say to my son, who’s 16, that like, that money burns a hole in my or their pocket. So, for example, it was the 1st of May yesterday and the 2nd of May today. And my son got his pocket money and has spent pretty much all of it today because the money goes in the pocket, it burns a hole and he spends it on whatever. And there’s a little bit of that vibe. And I only say this because I know you well, Laura, but there’s a little bit of that vibe with the content that we produce in the co-op. So we produce stuff and we have to put it out straight away.
Laura Hilliger: [00:02:53] Yeah, it’s I think that this is just a habit that’s built over the past, whatever, 20 years since we’ve been banging out our keyboards and putting stuff out on the Internet. I don’t, I don’t sit on content. I’ve never done that before. So at the moment we we are sitting on content and it’s just a weird feeling to have things that are done that I would like people to give feedback on or that I think are, you know, helpful or relevant to people and then waiting to put it out like so.
Doug Belshaw: [00:03:30] So it could be said that this podcast episode is a little bit of a release valve because if we put this out and out first, then we’ve recorded and released one quite quickly. There you go.
Laura Hilliger: [00:03:41] Oh, so then we should say that we haven’t recorded the other two or we could just not put this out. It’s going to go away from me.
Doug Belshaw: [00:03:50] Well, look, look, we’re breaking down the fourth wall and we’re telling people that. You know, things are coming. Things are coming anyway, right? What’s you talk to me just now about some community stuff. Do you want to talk about that? And I’ll talk about what I’ve been up to and the books I’ve been reading and that kind of thing. Yeah.
Laura Hilliger: [00:04:06] So a while ago, our very close collaborator, Bryan Mathers, did a graphic for us that’s called ‘The Art of Community’, and I’ll make sure to link to it from from this episode. But essentially it’s a graphic of a person at the front of a room with the words art of community, written in big letters on kind of like a presentation screen. And then there’s somebody in the audience saying something along the lines of, okay, but how is this going to help our KPIs? I can’t remember exactly what it says. I don’t have it open right now.
Doug Belshaw: [00:04:42] It’s like ‘extracting value’.
Laura Hilliger: [00:04:43] Yeah, extracting value from your community, which is such a weird way to think about community. And I’ve, I notice that people. Or organisations tend to be on one end of the spectrum. Either they only want to extract value from their community and their whole purpose of having a community is to extract this value or they kind of don’t know what they’re doing with their community and it’s kind of just, Oh, well, we’ll just kind of see what happens. And but without putting like the the mechanisms in place to ensure that something does happen, they’re just like, oh, well, we’ll open the doors and then people will come in.
Doug Belshaw: [00:05:24] So when you say because some people might be listening to this and thinking, what do you mean by extracting value? Do you mean like free marketing and stuff?
Laura Hilliger: [00:05:35] Yeah, I mean exposure marketing is on my shit list this week anyways. Um, because I. Yeah. And like, I just, I had somebody waste my time with the idea of exposure marketing and I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of my time with this idea. But anyways, um, yeah. So part of it’s like a marketing, it’s transactional on the one side, like they’re, we’re going to do this for our community so that they give us X so that they, I don’t know, so that they talk about our product at conferences or so Yeah, it is kind of a marketing thing.
Doug Belshaw: [00:06:14] So like swag, So you say nice things about our product and we give you swag in return. Yeah. So I’ve got a question about that. I know it’s been a while, but when we were both at Mozilla community like that felt like quite an awesome community to be part of. But swag was still like part of the deal and like scoring free invites to events and all that kind of stuff. So is is there a demarcation between the two or is it a bit of a fuzzy line?
Laura Hilliger: [00:06:45] I mean, I don’t I don’t really think that people who are members of communities are members and active because they want swag. Like I think swag is a nice to have, but I don’t think that people stay involved in a community just because every once in a while somebody sends them some stickers or something like, I don’t think that’s a real motivator.
Doug Belshaw: [00:07:05] So do you think it’s so we talk about open recognition and stuff a lot. Do you think that the swag is a form of recognition?
Laura Hilliger: [00:07:16] Yeah. No, but I mean, I’m really talking about like, I’m kind of looking at it from the other side. So groups of people or organisations who decide to make a community because they want to extract this value, they want to get something out of the existence of the community. Like, like, like the example I gave where we will have more people buy our product if we have an active community of people who are talking about our product. So it’s like using community members as like a marketing arm. And I think that that’s really shortsighted. And because community can be so much more than a marketing arm.
Doug Belshaw: [00:07:55] So instead of so perfect example of this in terms of our clients would be an organisation like Participate. So we do talk about their platform and we give them feedback in terms of what could be better. And we we don’t just point everyone towards it as if we’re shills. But that’s because we’re trying. We’re on a bigger mission together. As the two organisations like, we’re trying to help the world understand what open recognition is and how you can use badges and verifiable credentials in meaningful ways within communities, er, communities of practice, landscapes of practice, that kind of thing. And the platform, although obviously it matters to participate because that’s how they make their money. That’s not why the community is there, in fact. Some members of the community might not even register. Apart from like typing in participate.com that it’s hosted on that particular platform because it’s just wherever the community is who’s talking about this stuff?
Laura Hilliger: [00:08:56] I mean, I think that’s a really interesting thing what you just said there. I believe that we have plenty of people in in the community in the key badges, weird community, which is currently going through a little bit of a rebranding who have not registered onto the platform. There are members of the community. They maybe come to community calls or they identify as a member of the community without ever having, like said, in an online environment. We’re you know, I’m here in this online environment. And I think that I mean, it’s it’s interesting when you think about community is like. That identity piece and that recognition piece abstracted away from where the community gathers. Because if you’re at a conference and somebody you’ve never met before walks up to you and says, Oh, I’m a member of the Keep Badges Weird community, and this person, you know, they’re not a member of the platform, it doesn’t mean that that like they don’t identify as being a member of the community just because they didn’t sign up. You know, and so you would you would interact with that person as if they are a member of the community because they’ve self-identified as such. Am I making sense?
Doug Belshaw: [00:10:08] Yeah. So it’s interesting when you start kind of getting into like, what? What are we doing when we’re doing community stuff? So you mentioned identity and it’s when you say that you’re a member of a community or if you interact within that community, it’s like a shorthand for we believe in the same things in terms of mission and values and whatever. And there might be quite a big church like broad tent kind of thing, but broadly we’re on the same kind of path, that kind of thing. Um, and I was listening to a podcast I don’t often listen to This Week in Tech because it’s very long and it’s Super American as well. Like they started just talking about basketball for the entire like first five minutes of this podcast. But um, they were talking about Bluesky and Mastodon and stuff. And it’s interesting to me when you talk about community in the sense of decentralised networks as well, because they were talking about on Bluesky how, you know, further down the line it’s not there yet. You’ll be able to use your cryptographic key and just move yourself to a different instance.
Doug Belshaw: [00:11:15] And you can do that with Mastodon, obviously. And I’ve moved a couple of times. There’s another conversation happening within Social Cop where I’m right now about moderation and one of the things that they get to and the panellist on ‘This Week in Tech’ had Brianna Wu. And like people who work for Google and Facebook and all this kind of stuff. And at the end of it, what they realised was I think they quoted someone else in saying, when you kind of gain community and you kind of join together for a conversation on a particular platform, what you’re paying for or what you’re gathering around is content moderation. Like to make sure that that conversation stays, um, appropriate and what is appropriate might be completely different in a, in a place where where people are talking about motorbikes compared to where people are talking about pedagogy or whatever. So I think it’s really interesting how nuanced and how community stuff is actually like an art instead of a science. That being said, you’ve literally just been gathering data on some community stuff.
Laura Hilliger: [00:12:21] Yeah, I, I don’t know. Sometime last year you read a book and like you sat down and you read a book, Buzzing Communities, I think it was called.
Doug Belshaw: [00:12:32] Yes, so ‘Buzzing Communities’ by Richard Millington.
Laura Hilliger: [00:12:35] Yeah. And so, dear listener, what happened was Doug had a day and read an entire book in a day and I think I was off. I don’t know where I was, but when I came back, there was just like a inspired Doug’s brain on a whimsical board that was just like all about some data. And so we were we were thinking, Oh, hey, you know what? We should have a better data approach to community building and one particular community. And so we’ve been looking at the data for Keep Badges Weird periodically, and I just did this quarter’s look at the data. It was very interesting. I feel like I have to remind myself every time I do it, What did I do last time? How did I calculate what active engagement actually is? And I think that’s like the tricky part is like if you’re looking at data, if you’re pulling numbers, you have to have some. Opinion about what does it mean to be actively engaged? And so remembering what our opinions were six months ago, that was a little tricky, but I figured it out. I left myself very good notes and I said, Thank you very much, past, past Laura and Doug and Anna for documenting this so well.
Doug Belshaw: [00:13:52] Well, again, going back to kind of decentralised communities and all that kind of jazz. And there was there was a blog. The most recent post on the Mastodon blog talks about how the founder of Mastodon has changed his mind and he’s going to be doing or allowing, quote posts on on Mastodon. If you go and sign up on the official Mastodon app, you’ll be directed towards mastodon.social. That wasn’t previously the case. You had to choose a server and you’re going to be able to do search profiles as well. And when I link to this, I use the technology adoption life cycle, which is that kind of bell curve where you’ve got innovators and early adopters and early majority, late majority and laggards. And one version of this chart has what’s known as the Chasm. So it’s very easy to get people who are really excited about a given area, including the technology that you use to interact with each other, to get excited about stuff. So, you know, you’ve got several million people using Mastodon and other Fediverse kind of software now, but how do you get like, I don’t know, like other people who aren’t like us using it? Well, that’s that’s where the chasm comes in and crossing the chasm. There’s lots of stuff written about that. And I was saying, look, perhaps it’s inevitable that we’re going to have to have, quote, posts and like a default server and profile surf search if we want to cross the chasm.
Doug Belshaw: [00:15:23] And someone replied to me saying, Well, my thought is why do we need to cross the chasm? And I get the I get the vibe behind that of just like, why can’t we just keep it to people like us? But eventually you run out of people because people stop using stuff or they move on or they like. And if you’ve you’ve already mentioned Brian Lara but Brian used to say that that quotation from ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, you’ve got to get this. You either get busy living or you get busy dying. And that’s true of communities as well. If communities aren’t undergoing some kind of growth, how have you decided growth means then they’re going to slowly die? And so Richard Millington’s book, ‘Buzzing Communities’ is actually about how do you measure growth and what does growth look like and what does being active look like? And so it feels a little bit. Slime is the wrong word, but like. Awkward and weird to be putting numbers next to community because we’re not treating the community as a product. But what we’re trying to do is to make sure it’s healthy. That’s the that’s the idea.
Laura Hilliger: [00:16:29] But I think that this is the thing to underline that, like the healthiness of a community. So if any, anybody who’s been a member of any sort of community has probably had their cycle within that community, like you’re not I don’t know. I when I was a kid, I was a Girl Scout. I was very involved in the Girl Scout community. I went to camp. I had meetings every week. You know, I moved up the the hierarchy from being a daisy to a brownie to a Girl Scout to a junior, whatever. They are all called earned tons of badges, by the way, physical ones. And I learned a lot of skills in that program. And at some point I stopped being a Girl Scout. Now I am no longer a girl Scout community member. I don’t I mean, every once in a while, if I’m lucky, I’m in the United States when they’re selling Girl Scout cookies and then I get to eat the cookies. But by and large, it’s been, you know what, 25 years? Showing my age here, since I was a member of that community. Like, I grew out of it. And I think this happens all the time. And what people don’t realise is that when you have “leadership within a community”, however, that leadership manifest, whether it’s somebody who’s paid, for example, by Mozilla to be a community leader, if it’s somebody who’s volunteering their time, those people who are in leadership positions can, can and do at some point grow out of it. And the community no longer serves their needs, they move on. And if that happens without healthy community growth and distributed leadership, then the the community folds. And then there’s a bunch of people who are just left like, Oh, what happened here? And I think that that’s something people don’t understand about distributed leadership. Just because it’s distributed doesn’t mean that there aren’t like key figures within a community and making sure that those people are supported and remain supported and that there is growth within that smaller circle of leadership is a way to keep a community healthy.
Doug Belshaw: [00:18:42] For sure, because let’s say you’re an academic and you’re an early career researcher, well, you’re not going to be an early career researcher forever. You’re going to be a mid career researcher and a senior researcher or whatever. So you hanging around in the early career researcher forums might be useful in terms of, you know, giving a different perspective, but you’re going to be out of date quite quickly because the problems that you experienced and the tips that you can give people and the relevance is going to have to you are going to, you know, go by the wayside. So, yeah, people move on.
Laura Hilliger: [00:19:18] So let’s let’s link back to the to the chasm and that that space between the early adopters, if we’re looking at this not in from a product lens but from a community lens. Um, do we. I mean, really, if you’re looking at it from a community lens, then then the idea is simply that early adopters need to continue to grow and to get an early majority so that they can move on and maybe age out of the community. Not age like a number, but like in terms of contribution in years.
Doug Belshaw: [00:19:55] Yeah. And there’s. There’s something. I’ve seen this and you can do this in a kind of really sleazy, like charlatan kind of way where you just keep on coming up with new initiatives which are not that different from one another. But the reason you’re doing it is because it looks like you’re always doing new stuff. Um, someone who is very close to, I would say being like so close, so, so close to it, being a little bit charlatanesque. I would say it would be Douglas Rushkoff. So I think he’s just on the right side of like staying cool, you know, being a valued member of the the global community, doing cool stuff around tech. But he does keep rebranding the stuff he’s doing. With a different gloss and I can see why he does it, because things have a shelf life, a natural kind of amount of attention that they can garner from from people. And this is why people move on on LinkedIn to the latest thing. And it’s quite obvious that some people are just hopping for the latest fad. But if you put those on a spectrum, if you had like everything from fad where people are just jumping, whatever the latest trending topic is through to like the really deep work that doesn’t really change over decades and generations, then what we’re trying to do, I guess, is to be somewhere in the middle, trying to keep what is the unchanging, deep work fresh and relevant for current generations so we don’t go out of date. And you see so many people like lose their relevance because they don’t know how to translate that deep, ongoing work into the language that people can engage with on a day to day basis. Mm.
Laura Hilliger: [00:21:45] So now tie this back to, er, I didn’t read the conversation that you were having on Mastodon, and I’m actually kind of sad about it. But with the with what’s happening in the Mastodon community at the moment, which I’ve also been tracking but not actually commenting on. Um. I think I mean, it’s really interesting because, I mean, this is the the something that we talk a lot about is about like. The difference between being pragmatic with your tech choices and being a little too idealistic.
Doug Belshaw: [00:22:21] So Dan Sinker, who we worked with at Mozilla, generally an awesome person and headed up the Open News initiative, he replied to that, saying Making things easy for people that aren’t hard core isn’t selling out unless the goal is exclusivity. And I said, Well, you know, the goal can sometimes be education and enlightenment, I guess. But I don’t see much of that happening either, sadly. And I guess the point I’m making is that you can go down the route of of Facebook and other organisations like that that basically A/B tested times a billion until it was so easy to use their technology that you never had to think. And there’s there’s some value in that. But as we found with the Mozilla work and web maker and whatever, if you don’t know what’s going on on the other side of that screen, then you are ripe to be exploited. So I think there’s a balance between the little bit of friction. So you can make you can give informed consent and you’re deciding what you’re doing. Like I would say that choosing a server, a must on yes, it’s unusual compared to things like Twitter and Facebook, but it’s not ridiculous to ask people to do that. I don’t think it’s no different from someone poked fun at it saying, “Oh, I don’t know how to use the Internet because when you open a browser, you have to decide which website you’re going to like.” It’s not ridiculous to ask people to join an instance, especially because you can move between them. But on the other hand, yes, there are some things which Mastodon and other Fediverse apps can do about making it easy for people.
Doug Belshaw: [00:24:06] One of the big controversies that I don’t really have a strong opinion about is, “Black Twitter”. So when people of colour who decide to leave Twitter came to Mastodon and the Fediverse and this is talked in much more detail by much greater minds than me on the TWiT podcast. And they expected quote tweets because they call out behaviours which are not cool and show the rest of the community or highlight stuff that is going well and like celebrate each other’s successes. And when they couldn’t do that, they basically said, you know, “why can’t we do this? what’s going on?” And because there’d been the conversation about quote tweets a lot in the early days of Mastodon and whether it was a good thing to do or not. People were a little bit dismissive, which they – rightly or wrongly – and I don’t know the answer to this saw as racist, because they were basically told like they didn’t… Their requests didn’t have a part in the Fediverse. And so there’s been this real tension between like the OGs in the Fediverse and Mastodon in particular, and people of colour, and people who haven’t been part of the original conversation, coming in and saying, “but what about us? we weren’t part of that conversation and why can’t I have this feature?” and “that’s not cool” and whatever. And there’s been a little bit, a lot of, them being dismissed.
Laura Hilliger: [00:25:40] Yeah, actually recall writing a post about this and dealing with I called it dealing with criticism in your open source project or something like that. I’ll have to dig it out. But it was about how you actually deal with requests and criticisms with empathy. When people come to your project after your project is already started, right? So it sounds like the example that you just gave, like there are the OGs in communities as well and in any sort of open source product and in the Fediverse and etcetera. People who have been there for so long and they get tired of having a repeating conversation over and over and over. But part of the art of community is to be able to have those conversations in a way that is supportive to newbies in the community as well. So being dismissive about like I mean, I’ve seen this in offline communities as well, you have people who have been involved for five years or whatever, and then a newbie comes in and says, “oh, but have you thought about X?” And the, you know, the OGs are like (sigh) “yeah, we thought about X, we talked about it for like three years. We did this, we did that, we did the other… I don’t want to talk about X anymore”.
Laura Hilliger: [00:26:59] But this is like, for the new person bringing up X, they’re like… A) they’re trying to contribute to the community, B) they don’t have the context and the historical legacy of what’s already happened in that community. And when you are dismissive to that new person, there’s a good chance that they’re going to leave the community, the project, the product, whatever, because they they don’t feel seen or heard. And so there’s this balance between how do we help the OGs or the old guard continue to move forward and how do we how do we make sure people feel included and bring them in? And this is I think this is that’s that art point and that’s the tension. And people who are good at it, both in Open Source software development and community building, whatever people who are good at it understand that that tension is going to be there and try to figure out ways both to to support both kinds of people, the old guard and the new guard. And sometimes that means, you know, letting go, spinning out. This is something that we’ve also talked about, like when does a project get to the point or a community get to the point where it’s time to separate it into something else?
Doug Belshaw: [00:28:12] No, I think it’s a really good point and I’ll not be able to find it again because Marston hasn’t, doesn’t have full text search. But it was talking, it was a meme and it was just talking about how basically the role of activism, and I would add evangelism to that as well, in terms of whatever it is, you’re evangelising – not just Christianity. But the role of activist/evangelist is to continually explain stuff to people in different ways and ways that they understand, not just tell them to Google it. And you get a lot of very tech people telling people to like read the documents and just googling it and whatever. I’m going to put a link in the notes to what’s known as the ‘Eternal September’ or the ‘September That Never Ended’. And there used to be this thing called Usenet. There still is, but it’s not as popular. And apparently in 1993 I was 12 and I wasn’t online at the time, but Internet service providers began offering Usenet, which was like a… I guess it was like a distributed forum between servers. They began offering Usenet access to lots of new users and that flood of new users “overwhelmed the existing culture for online forums and the ability to enforce existing norms. Aol followed with their Usenet gateway service in March 1994, leading to a constant stream of new users and hence from the early Usenet point of view, the influx of new users in September 1993 never ended, hence ‘Eternal September’. And this is the problem of communities that you’ve eloquently described, trying to keep the OGs happy and trying to keep the new people happy. And it’s a very difficult thing to do. And I don’t have any easy answers apart from segmenting things, spinning things off. Like you’ve like you’ve already said, guess.
Laura Hilliger: [00:30:01] Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, it’s interesting in the context of Mastodon as well, because, you know, I think I haven’t tracked that conversation that closely. But, you know, when, ‘Black Twitter’ felt dismissed, called it racist, I would I would wonder aloud on this podcast, how diverse was the group of people that were building the Fediverse, you know, six, seven years ago? Because I…
Doug Belshaw: [00:30:32] There were a lot of trans people, but as far as I’m aware. There were a lot of they were all white, as far as I’m aware.
Laura Hilliger: [00:30:41] I mean, it’s interesting. Like I think that when somebody who, you know, when when community members come in and question why, you know, why they don’t feel represented in a particular piece of software or why their use case isn’t addressed like being dismissive is just downright like the worst thing to do because you’re not making the software any better. Being dismissive of potential user needs because one person can could very well be representative of an entire group of people. And like with Black Twitter, that’s certainly the case.
Doug Belshaw: [00:31:17] Oh, for sure. Yeah. Yeah. So I think it’s very difficult to be part of a group of people who have built a thing. And by the thing it could be a product or a community. And then new people who represent a new group, whatever that new group is, however big that new group is, come along. And one of the first things that they say is I don’t feel represented by this thing. And it’s so, so easy to take for the for the first response to that to be, well, maybe this isn’t for you then. And that’s the wrong answer. That’s the wrong answer. But it’s so tempting to give that answer.
Laura Hilliger: [00:31:56] Yeah. Wow, this got deep because I have all these examples in my head of like, I mean I’m, you know, in my middle age. I have…
Doug Belshaw: [00:32:10] I’m glad you’re embracing that.
Laura Hilliger: [00:32:11] Now I’m starting to. I have retired from various communities for various reasons. Um, and I’ve also, you know, I’ve also had the realisation, not that I’ve been pushed out of a community, but that I felt that it grew in a way where I didn’t feel represented anymore or that like I felt like a lot of the work that I had done no longer mattered. Um, and it’s, it’s strange because, you know, it, this is all emotional stuff, right? Like this is all about how do you in a community, how do you be the best person that you can be, have the empathy that you need to build in that community. And you know, sometimes it is maybe the right thing to say that this product doesn’t do X because and like with the Fediverse, I certainly see this because a lot of the reasoning behind certain feature decisions has to do with the unfortunate circumstance that we’ve gotten ourselves into with technology where, you know, things like behavioural economics have literally changed the fabric of our society. You know, like and we as technologists have a responsibility to think about that. But the people using the internet today and the masses, it’s not their responsibility to think about it. So that’s another balance that we, you know, that I feel like we’re responsible for, is how do we how do we, you know, empathetically explain that we chose certain decisions or we made certain decisions because we wanted to stop something bigger from continuing to happen or I don’t know.
Doug Belshaw: [00:33:53] Well, I think the interesting thing for me, like you mentioned, about the impact of technology and how it changes society and if you you know, and we referenced kind of web maker there before and people having understanding of stuff, if you don’t know how things work and like we’re talking about apparently some people who have grown up with iOS and Apple devices like literally not knowing what a file system is if you don’t know what those things are. I’m not saying that everyone needs to know the whole history of the web. Everyone needs to know all of the like slightly outdated things to do with computers. But if you’ve got literally no clue about any of that, then again, you’re, you know, it’s easy to it’s easy for you to be exploited and also for you not to really know what it is that you want When it comes to anything like social applications, any products that you use online, etc.
Laura Hilliger: [00:34:54] Yeah, I was just going to say, I feel like as a, you know, as a educator or, you know, as somebody who thinks quite deeply about these kinds of things, I think it’s it’s a product maker’s a technologist. If you consider yourself a technologist or an ethical technologist. And it’s also part of your responsibility to help people understand these things, to help people understand, um, you know, that like that social media did change how we exist as a species and how people interact with each other. And to help people understand why that happened, what the history of it is, why you know, how we can make different decisions in the future and use technology as a tool to to better the world. But like all of that kind of deep thinking around what technology does to people, that’s not everybody’s job. It’s our job as technologists. It’s not everybody’s job all the time. Like it’s just too much weight.
Doug Belshaw: [00:35:54] Yeah, it is. Yeah. And so we you can’t know everything about everything, but there’s surely like a minimum the often the example often cited is like a car, which is possibly a bad example, but like you’ve had to know less and less about how a car works as time goes on, as they become more and more like computers on wheels. So you don’t need to know like how to do something… I don’t even know what the words are like with your carburettor and do an entire oil change and all this kind of stuff because your car’s not going to break down that spectacularly. And if it did, you’ve probably got roadside assistance. So what you need to know changes as time goes on. But there’s still a minimum amount of stuff that you need to know. I’m definitely not saying that you need a driving license to use the Internet like that’s not go down that route. But there’s definitely but there’s definitely some stuff that it’s important to know. Otherwise you’re not. You’re at the whim and mercy of everything that’s kind of going on.
Laura Hilliger: [00:36:48] And I mean, that’s really interesting because actually, like it makes me think at the moment Germany, where I live, is actually facing sort of a vocational crisis. And so basically people are not learning traditional vocations like carpentry or mechanics, and the German population is quite old. So real bell curve in the in the more elderly side of age and young people are not studying or learning these these vocations. So if my car breaks down which you know I got a Volvo, so it’s fine. Just kidding me too. I don’t, I don’t technically have a car. But anyways, if my car breaks down and there’s no mechanics to help me, then, you know, like, then there’s, there’s a stop, right? Like, I can’t I literally can’t do anything about my car being broke down if there’s no mechanics. And with the Internet, I feel like the more and more people are learning to look under the hood but are not maybe learning how to think about the kinds of impacts this can have in for society. I feel like people are looking at that from our, you know, from our professional network or our professional circle. People are certainly still interested in the ethics around technology. But like with AI, you know, barrelling ahead and people just like using it without even thinking about what it what it could do. I think we’re getting to the point where we need more mechanics to be actually thinking about this, you know, Internet plus society problem. And we need more people who are thinking about it to make sure that they are being empathetic towards the quote unquote masses and helping those people learn a little bit more. So it all comes back to education, I guess I’m saying.
Doug Belshaw: [00:38:40] Well, to reflect on that, I think we’ve got a similar problem all over the western world where young people want to be YouTubers and influencers and professional footballers instead of carpenters and plumbers and electricians. Even though there’s quite a lot of money to be made in being a tradesman in the UK, at least I’d say. But there’s I think you can how can I say this in a way which isn’t kind of glib and dismissive, but like if you want to go and fix your toilet or change your car tyre or do something where like, I just need to know this thing, I don’t need to know how it all works. Like there’s a YouTube video or a TikTok video for that. But if you want to craft something, if it’s a longer term thing than just like fixing it or bodging it or whatever, like that’s something which is a bit of a crisis. And the other thing, and I would say this, but like the philosophy behind everything and the deeper thinking behind like, why are we doing this? Like, should we not just stop and have a you know, if we if we can’t stop, you know, like that, that, um, what was it called? The that letter that went out like let’s pause all AI for six months. Ridiculous. Like no one’s going to do that. But we still should be thinking carefully about where we’re going, not just like scaremongering. Like today there was someone who’s quit their job at Google so that they can speak out about AI.
Doug Belshaw: [00:40:03] No, they’ve quit Google because they’re 75 and it’s time to retire. And now they’ve got some stuff which they’re not under an NDA around anymore. Let’s just get that right. But like it’s not all scaremongering. Some of it is like, This is going to be awesome. This is going to be amazing because you’re not going to have to read some shitty report that has loads of typos in anymore, right? Or whatever. It’s going to be like we’re going to be leaning on a lot of the world’s knowledge so that things actually have some research behind them and stuff. Anyway, all of this brings me at least to a book that I read yesterday. So I went over on my ankle yesterday morning while out running and I’d heard a lot and I asked ChatGPT what I should do, and I gave me some advice which I already knew, which is the RICE kind of protocol, which is Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. So I did all of that and I lay on the sofa and my family was astounded. Astounded! That on a Bank Holiday, all I wanted to do was to lie and read this book. So it’s called ‘At Work in the Ruins: Finding Our Place in the Time of Science, Climate change, Pandemics and All the Other Emergencies’ by Dougald Hine And I’ve read, you know, I used to subscribe to his newsletter. I’ve been to an event with him there.
Doug Belshaw: [00:41:17] And there was a number of times in this book where I was ready to put the book down because I disagreed with him. And just as that happened, he pulled back from that. And it’s such a nuanced read. Like, it’s really well written. I think he probably wrote a little bit too fast. Um, and I think at the end of it he kind of acknowledges that and it could have been a bit longer and whatever. But he talks about treating the world like a fish tank as opposed to, you know, and he gives us wonderful and I’m going to get it wrong. But like the the difference between an Israeli chicken and a Palestinian hen or something like that, the Palestinian hen, chicken, whatever it is like, has learned to adapt in any given situation and will produce eggs and survive in any environment, whereas there’s rarely hen like can only survive if you give it the right antibiotics. And it’s like bred to be like do super numbers of eggs all of the time, but it will die if you don’t tend to it. And he uses this like it’s almost like a fish tank model of like, you put fish in a fish tank and you have to look after the environment, otherwise the fish die. But if you put the fish in a river, the fish are fine, like and it just all like nature has a way of looking after itself. And so there’s loads of stuff.
Doug Belshaw: [00:42:41] He doesn’t say in the book, like he doesn’t say, “this is my anarchist view of the future”, which it blatantly is. He never uses that word. And by ‘anarchist’, I’m using the word that you and I know and other people who live that kind of lifestyle, which is if we break things down into people who are close to the thing that needs fixing and looking after rather than big government and people deciding on a global scale what needs to happen, things will be cool. He also doesn’t talk about what was the thing. So he talks about this kind of big path and smaller paths. He also doesn’t talk about like, globalisation. And but the thing that he does talk about and I want you to respond to this, but like is about storytelling and how we’ve put on science the burden of knowing, like, everything which can be known is now given over to science. And the example of that would be like previously we talked about saving the whales and like helping making sure that the polar ice caps don’t melt. And now all we talk about. Is the number of CO2 particles per million and making that go down or like. Level off and everything else. Works towards that number. And so there are other ways of knowing, apart from cold, hard science, which we need to be talking about. Anyway, that’s a bit of a ramble, but I would definitely recommend reading it. It’s good stuff.
Laura Hilliger: [00:44:14] Yeah, that sounds like something I need to go sit on my couch and read and have a think, because as you were talking there, I was also thinking about ‘Antifragile’ and the the idea that humans need to be more antifragile. And as a former German National League roller derby player, I have some opinions about that and what it actually means from a physical perspective because roller derby is a very chaotic game and you cannot like you have to be fit to play, but you can’t train your body for the way that you’re going to get hit. Right. Like you can’t you are going to get hit by another person on roller skates and you are on roller skates. So however your body moves in that motion, that moment is like you can’t really plan for it. It’s chaos. And so this this like the idea of being antifragile physically, I have some opinions about, but also like mentally the, you know, the idea that you can that we need to get back to actually. Thinking about the world in in ways that like. How do I connect this to I’m having I’m having a hard time getting the picture in my head to be language in my mouth at the moment. Have you ever had that? But I’m thinking about this like this fish tank and that you can that, you know, if we design the world in a particular way, then it’s going to represent the fish tank. And I haven’t read the book, dear listener. So I’m trying to pull these metaphor ideas together and try to understand what is it that he’s actually saying that we as a well. So for example, should we be doing well?
Doug Belshaw: [00:45:58] So for example, if we all… If something happens so that all the human race died out tomorrow, nature would be awesome and fine and actually regenerate really quickly? Totally. So when we talk about the climate crisis, it’s actually. We’re interested in saving ourselves as a species. And so it’s a bit weird to be telling a story about saving the planet by reducing the amount of CO2. What we’re actually talking about is saving the human species and our current way of life, which is something he talks about a lot as well. So you give the example of fixing your car and whatever. Adam Greenfield, who I follow on on Mastodon, who is one of my favourite authors. And so it’s amazing I get to interact with him and stuff. It’s like the early days of Twitter again, and he talks about like having, um, an individual first aid kit with you and something which can stop people bleeding out because the chances are, given the underfunding, given the multiple crises, the rolling crises that we’re in, the chances are that you’ll phone the ambulance and the cell tower will be down or the waits too long and the person you’re trying to help bleeds to death and you should have something with you to help.
Doug Belshaw: [00:47:14] So all of these things like it sounds like we’re going backwards in terms of progress, but there never was like if you’re if you’ve got any understanding of history, there never was is just a constant progression of things getting better over time. Like it’s always been a bit of a roller coaster. And so preparing for things getting worse we’re not is entirely reasonable. There’s a presentation I rewatched by Vinay Gupta while I was off for three weeks. Um, and I’m going to share it because he talks about. Different responses to what I’ve just been talking about and how the response of some people, especially like men in America, is like tooling up and being survivalists and getting, you know, lots of food in and a bunker and that’s great, but you’re only going to be able to survive by yourself or not very long time. And then there’s other responses which are like transition towns, which is trying to help your community move to a different paradigm. And I’m going to find it because it’s a it’s a good talk. It’s about ten years old now, but it’s, um, it’s well worth a watch.
Laura Hilliger: [00:48:23] Well, I think we fell down into a bit of a well. We kind of went all over the place here with our our spontaneous podcasting. I really enjoyed that. That was great. I think we have to wrap it up though, because we have a meeting in one minute.
Doug Belshaw: [00:48:42] Even if it’s a bit of catharsis, it’s all good. Yeah.
Laura Hilliger: [00:48:47] Cool. All right. Well, thanks, everybody, for listening. We’re always happy for your feedback.
Doug Belshaw: [00:48:53] Oh, not! Cheers, bye!