Bullshit Jobs and Silicon Valley

pieter-levels

My latest for Wired:

Levels is on a quest to launch 12 “startups” in just 12 months, and he’s a third of the way home now. One, called Play My Inbox, gathers all the music it finds in your e-mail inbox into a single playlist. Another, called Go Fucking Do It, gives you a new way to set personal goals. Basically, if you don’t reach your goal, you have to cough up some cash to Levels. Gifbook, due to launch by the end of the month, is his fifth creation.

Launching one product a month would be a major endeavor for anyone, but Levels has ramped up the degree of difficulty. For one, he’s building all this stuff while traveling the world. He has no fixed address. Instead, he lives out of a single backpack and works from coffee shops and co-working spaces. And two, each of these “startups” is a one-man operation. “I do everything,” he tells WIRED from his current home, The Philippines. “I’m sort of a control freak.”

Depending on who you ask, Levels represents either everything that’s right about the state of the technology industry or everything that’s wrong. He’s self-motivated, ambitious, and resourceful, building each of these projects without any outside investment. But on the flip side, he’s yet another young white male making products that solve what many people see as trivial problems for an already privileged subset of the population, while ignoring larger issues like global warming and wealth disparity.

Worse, as a “digital nomad” who has left to West to create new tech gizmos in places like Thailand and Indonesia, some argue that he’s exploiting wealth disparity to his own benefit. But Levels no fool. He’s deeply aware of the contradictions in his work, and he’s trying hard to sort through them. He may or may not succeed.

Full Story: Wired: This Guy Is Launching 12 Startups in 12 Months

What I intended — and I’m not sure I succeeded — was to do a meditation/case study on the state of the tech startup ecosystem. We had to cut a lot of material from this article, and there was more that didn’t make it in, but one of the things on my minds was David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” idea. From an interview in Salon:

Suddenly it became possible to see that if there’s a rule, it’s that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you’re paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people’s lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded.

But another curious thing that happened after the crash is that people came to see these arrangements as basically justified. You started hearing people say, “well, of course I deserve to be paid more, because I do miserable and alienating work” – by which they meant not that they were forced to go into the sewers or package fish, but exactly the opposite—that they didn’t get to do work that had some obvious social benefit. I’m not sure exactly how it happened. But it’s becoming something of a trend. I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there’s now an assumption that if there’s work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn’t have to pay for it. He gave the example of translation work. But it extends to the logic of internships and the like so thoroughly exposed by authors like Sarah Kendzior and Astra Taylor. At the same time, these companies are willing to shell out huge amounts of money to paper-pushers coming up with strategic vision statements who they know perfectly well are doing absolutely nothing.

So as much as we bash on techbros* wasting time building silly apps, there’s a bit more going on here. It’s hard to find a job today, especially if you’re young, and especially one that is “meaningful.” Tech just happens to be one of the few booming industries at the moment, and one of the only ones paying living wage**. So while many people might rather be curing maleria or fighting poverty or fixing global warming, building apps for Silicon Valley startups. And what’s their real alternative? Work for a big company like IBM, or go work for the NSA? They’re probably better off working for Yo or Rap Genius or whatever.

“Get rich writing apps” may be the new “make money from home selling Tupperware,” but it’s the best many people can hope for today, and blaming young programmers, as opposed to the politicians and capitalists who got us into this mess.

*Note that I’m not calling Pieter Levels a techbro here.

**Which is part of why it’s important to change tech culture to make it more inclusive, which is another topic entirely. (One covered very well at Model View Culture).

The strange building in the Mojave desert designed by an alien

Integraton

I think this probably counts as psychetecture. The New York Times reports:

Three miles south of Giant Rock, across a scrubby expanse, you will find an even more extraordinary sight: a circular, dome-topped building, 38 feet tall and 55 feet in diameter, constructed by Van Tassel over the course of nearly two decades in accordance with the instructions of his extraterrestrial architectural patron. A sign above the gated entrance to the property proclaims the name that Van Tassel gave to his time machine: the Integratron.

“It’s the most amazing structure I’ve ever seen,” says Joanne Karl, who bought the building 14 years ago with her sisters Nancy and Patty. In fact, the Integratron is a sort of time machine, or at least a time capsule. It is an immaculately preserved artifact of midcentury modernist design, and a totem of 1950s U.F.O.-ology culture — the mixture of Cold War paranoia and occult spirituality that drew true believers to remote reaches of the Desert Southwest in search of flying saucers and free-floating enlightenment. Under the ownership of the Karls, it has become a unique tourist destination: perhaps the oddest spot in a very odd corner of the world, a magnet for new generations of spiritual questers and for the just plain curious. “Nobody comes to the Integratron and just shrugs,” says Joanne. “You don’t leave and say, ‘Oh, that was nothing.’ ”

Full Story: New York Times: Welcome to the Integraton

(via Jen Fong-Adwent)

See also: the work of Paul Laffoley.

Why Animated GIFs are the New “Hello World”

404 animated gif

New from me at Wired, meet revisit.link, the “Hello World” of web services:

Basically, all the site’s image effects are stored by a community of developers, much like any other open source software. Anyone can not only use these effects, but build their own and share them with the community by way of the code hosting and collaboration site GitHub. “Since everyone likes glitch art and animated GIFs, it’s a creative outlet for developers to create something new that’s outside their usual field,” say Jen Fong-Adwent, the creator of revisit.link. “But it’s also a way for new people to learn basics.”

If you’re building a modern web service, you aren’t just creating a program that will run on one machine. You have to learn how to deploy code to online servers, and teach your programs to talk with other applications. revisit.link is a good way to learn these skills, since the effects servers are simple and lightweight and can be written in any language. And once a server is built, the developer can learn how to use GitHub and how to make small changes to someone else’s code and submit those changes for review—all in a low-pressure environment with a very low barrier to entry.

Full Story: Out in the Open: How Animated GIFs Can Turn You Into a Web Coder

You can play with it here, or view a strea, of examples here.

See also: glitchgifs Tumblr

Mutation Vectors 8/24/2014

Spare's_Portrait_of_the_Artist

You can bury your head in old books, but the world will find its way to you somehow. Ferguson is one of those things that found it’s way in. In the past two weeks it’s gone from a story about white fear to one about the militarization of the police to one about the countless ways America has failed black people.

Of course, we keep having this conversation again and again and not much seems to change. Ta-Nehisi Coates is worth reading on this, as is his epic “The Case for Reparations,” which chronicles the long history of this country using and abusing black people. And it’s not just the U.S. having this conversation again and again, as Laurie Penny makes clear in her piece comparing the shooting of Michael Brown to that of Mark Duggan, which set of the riots in London in 2011. Yet, for some reason I have a strange sense of optimism that things are gonna change this time.

Meanwhile, where are presidential hopefuls on this? Rand Paul, to his credit, wrote an editorial for Time about the militarization of the police and even decried racial inequality in the justice system, but as far as I know hasn’t yet visited Ferguson. But where the Democrats? Matthew Yglesias ‘splains that Hillary Clinton refuses to comment on the issue because she doesn’t have a good primary challenger. But I think the bigger problem is that it’s not really advantageous for any Democratic primary candidate to rock this particular boat. A primary challenger might be able to use Ferguson to score some points in the primary, but then in the general they run the risk of being branded a radical anti-white crusader and lose critical independent votes in critical swing states. I mean, it’s not exactly as if Clinton, or whoever gets the nomination, is really in danger of losing many votes to a guy who employed and co-authored a book with a neo-confederate. It’s part of the good cop/bad cop routine that the two major parties play. (And of course it works both ways — if you’re conservative, then the Republicans, generally, are the good cops and the Democrats are the bad cops.)

The arrests in Ferguson and the death of James Foley have left me, as a journalist, feeling bad that I’m doing such safe work. But Ryan Schuessler left Ferguson because too many journos were being assholes. There’s a lot to unpack there that ties into other thoughts and feelings I have about the professional of journalism, but that will have to wait.

Reading

Austin Osman Spare: The Occult Life of London’s Legendary Artist

Listening

I haven’t been listening to much music lately, but when I have it’s usually been Coil. Stuff from throughout their career, but one that particular caught my ear recently is Black Antlers, which I hadn’t listened to much before.

Why Everyone Is Obsessed With E-Mail Newsletters Right Now

My latest for TechCrunch:

E-mail newsletters are so hot right now.

Some of the best known are by Ann Friedman, Alexis Madrigal, Dan Hon and Rusty Foster. There’s a web ring for e-mail newsletters now, but really the best newsletters are secret. The authors encourage readers to share the subscribe link with other people who might be interested, but request that no one share the subscribe link on social media or the open web, creating a sort of darknet of semi-underground dispatches.

But it’s more than just individual bloggers. Two or three years ago every site on the web was doing all it could to trick coax readers into “liking” them on Facebook. Today much of that focus has shifted towards getting readers to sign-up for an e-mail subscription. Just look at the prime screen real estate e-mail subscription forms are given at Mashable, The Verge and, of course, TechCrunch. Upworthy — the most “social media native” publication to date — goes so far as to put a huge sign-up form below the first paragraph of every story:

Upworthy

Quartz has a much loved daily e-mail blast (though the sign-up form is oddly buried in a pull-down menu) and sports news company The Slurve is going so far as to build an entire business off its newsletter. And it’s not quite the same as a digital newsletter, but the likes of Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Medium are all sending daily or weekly activity summaries to give people an overview of what’s been going on on those sites, and try to entire people to interact. Just last week Madrigal declared that e-mail is still the best thing on the internet.

So why all this effort to herd readers into a medium that is supposed to be dying? And why are we, as readers, so willing to invite even more e-mail into our lives?

Full Story: TechCrunch: Why Everyone Is Obsessed With E-Mail Newsletters Right Now

You can, of course, subscribe to Technoccult by e-mail, in daily or weekly form, here. I’ve even been thinking about making Technoccult an “e-mail first” publication, though I’m not sure a) if that’s just trend hopping or an actual wise move and b) exactly how that would work. But it’s definitely on my mind. I might also do something like make Mutation Vectors e-mail first, though that poses some difficulties with the way the e-mail newsletters are currently generated.

The Sexist Facebook Movement The Marine Corps Won’t Stop

Trigger warning: rape threats, racism, homophobia, general assholery

Task and Purpose reports:

That these men, these U.S. Marines, openly engage in this behavior, openly harass and denigrate women and minorities — under their real names, their real pictures, with no fear of repercussions — reflects a perceived tolerance of their actions. Senior leaders have never told them not to do it, never said that it’s unacceptable, and they’ve never seen anyone get in trouble for it.

In May 2013, Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, wrote to Pentagon leadership, including the Commandant of the Marine Corps, about the conduct of these pages after a constituent reportedly brought them to her attention.

In her letter, Speier addressed many of the things listed in this report. And she contended that the pages “contribute to a culture that permits and seems to encourage sexual assault and abuse.”

But after sending the letter, Speier received harassment and threats from the fans and administrators of these pages. That these men, many of them active members of the military community, would harass and threaten a sitting U.S. congresswoman, reflects the deep radicalization of this community.

Full Story: Task and Purpose: The story of women in the military you haven’t heard, and the Marine Corps doesn’t want you to know

(via Metafilter)

RIP B. K. S. Iyengar

The New York Times reports:

B. K. S. Iyengar, who helped introduce the practice of yoga to a Western world awakening to the notion of an inner life, died on Wednesday in the southern Indian city of Pune. He was 95.

The cause was heart failure, said Abhijata Sridhar-Iyengar, his granddaughter.

After surviving tuberculosis, typhoid and malaria as a child, Mr. Iyengar credited yoga with saving his life. He spent his midteens demonstrating “the most impressive and bewildering” positions in the court of the Maharaja of Mysore, he later recalled.

Full Story: The New York Times: B. K. S. Iyengar, Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, Dies at 95

Infocidal Maniacs

It’s been five years since _why a lucky stiff committed “infocide,” deleting his Twitter account, all of his websites, and his GitHub account containing all of his code projects.

There have been countless debates about the relative ethics of infocide, and I don’t have anything to add. But can I ever relate. There are days that I want to delete my Twitter accounts, my Tumblr accounts, yank my noise albums off the web and, of course nuke this very blog. There’s over 14 years of material here, dating back to when I was 18 years old. Much of it is merely embarrassing, some of it is out right shameful. It would be nice to flush it all down the memory hole and, like the band said, rip it up and start again. Create a new persona, a new blog, a new Twitter account.

Or not. Really, what I fantasize about most is just unplugging entirely. Many people thoughts, good and bad, about this whole unplugging thing. And again, I have nothing to add except: geez whiz it sounds like it would be nice not just to unplug for a day or a month or, like that lucky bastard Paul Miller, an entire year, but to be done with this whole internet thing once and for all. To get a newspaper subscription, dig my library card out of whatever creased recess of my wallet it’s been banished to and just get on with life and pretend that the web was just weird dream that spanned nearly two decades of my life.

Of course, it’s not so simple. I have a job to do, and it requires the web. There’s not many living jobs out there any more, and there are even fewer that I’m qualified for. Most of them require using the internet. And the internet is where my friends are. And I know the newspapers would pile up, the library books would slip go overdue before I read ‘em, and any new blog or Twitter account I created would become just unwieldy as the last.

So I’ll stick around. But a fellow can dream, can’t he? Well, here’s to you, _why. Hope you’re making the best of it.

Beats Antique: She Is Looking for Something

This new Beats Antique video features costumes made by my wife and her business partner Brandy Grey. Jillian also makes a small cameo appearance in the video!

Why Minecraft is the Future of Code Literacy

LearnToMod, Tetris

New from me at Wired:

Minecraft is incredibly open-ended. It’s entirely up you whether you as a player whether spend your time building elaborate castles, fighting monsters, or exploring the the game world. What’s more, using mods, you can quickly create things that would otherwise take a long time to build in the game, such as mountains or massive dungeons, or create custom types of blocks. You can also create special rules that enable you to do things like build your own games within Minecraft, such as capture the flag or Tetris.

Once the kids have crafted their code in LearnToMod, the application connects to their Minecraft account to make the mods available to the kids in the game. By teaching kids to build their own Minecraft mods, the ThoughSTEM team is hoping to keep students motivated to learn some of the trickier parts of coding.

TeacherGaming founder Joel Levin is fond of the idea. “Kids are passionate about the game and they quickly understand that they can extend and enhance their Minecraft experience by learning some basic programming,” he says. “And that’s really what we want, isn’t it? To have kids realize that with code, they can improve their life in a way that’s relevant to them.”

In fact, Levin says TeacherGaming is working on its own mod building education program called ComputerCraftEdu, which will eventually be offered both online and in-person. And there are already a few other classes that teach students to create mods, such as MakersFactory’s class in Santa Cruz and YouthDigital’s online class.

Full Story: Wired: New Minecraft Mod Teaches You Code as You Play

On for adults looking to learn to program, there’s Switch, which is looking to become like “OK Cupid” for code bootcamps.

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