Weekly Learning: Culture War, Web App, Startup, and Books

Culture Wars

The Rise And Fall Of Online Culture Wars is a rather long piece, while what I found most interesting is the author’s comment on internet culture:

…any study of Internet culture is basically a study of crazy people, and the failure mode is to point and laugh at them without looking for real understanding.

Specifically, early internet:

The very early Internet had pro-argument norms; it was your god-given right to march into any blog or forum you wanted and tell the people there why they were wrong. Partly this was the inevitable effect of everyone on the early Internet being the sort of programming nerds willing to try this weird new invention. And partly it came from a utopian philosophy where the Internet was going to be a new medium that united humanity regardless of nation or creed in a great Republic Of The Intellect, or whatever. Maybe it was even partly due to naivete – a lot of people hadn’t really met anyone who thought differently from them before, and assumed that changing people’s minds would be really easy. For whatever reason, the early Internet was a place for polite but insistent debate, and early websites centered around the needs of a debating community.

And inevitably, the rise of echo chambers:

Gradually throughout the 2000s this transitioned to “echo culture”, where people hung out in ideologically sorted communities and discussed things from a shared perspective.

There are so many things to unpack there.

Web Software

The Future of Web Software Is HTML-over-WebSocket provides insights on the architectural development of the web apps.

It might feel a bit technical if you don’t have a technical background, but the trend is important to pick up:

Like the game industry’s ever-expanding moves into cloud-based gaming, the future of web apps is not going to be about pushing even heavier obligations onto the user/client, but rather the opposite: let the client act as a thin terminal that renders the state of things for the human. WebSockets provide the communication layer, seamless and fast; a direct shot from the server to the human.

Big and Small

Why Small Ideas Can Matter More Than Big Ideas points out:

The problems that plague organizations, or hold them back from greatness, are often small things that happen to be consistently overlooked. The lack of progress or greatness isn’t because there’s a grand idea missing. Instead the cause is a simple idea prevented by bureaucracy, killed out of ignorance, or buried under incompetence. If those simpler, smaller, ideas were set free, the effect would be as potent as any grand theory. Somehow we discount simple ideas for being playthings, for being too small to be worthy, not recognizing the surprising power hidden in what seem to be our smallest decisions.

So what we talk about when we talk about an idea? Leverage:

Rather than worrying about the size of an idea, which most people do, it’s more productive to think about the possible leverage an idea has. To do this requires thinking not only about the idea itself, but how it will be used. An idea can have a different amount of leverage depending on where, when and how carefully it is applied. One old idea from one team in your company, reused in the right way on another team unfamiliar with it, might just have transformative effects.

The Canadian Tech Scene

Why the Canadian Tech Scene Doesn’t Work is a fascinating opinion piece on the startup ecosystem in Canada.

Firstly, there’s a vicious cycle:

It’s a vicious cycle: the more that startups are selected for deterministic thinking, the more it ends up proving the VC’s skepticism right, and the less leverage the startups will have in negotiating terms next time around.

Secondly, there’s a Canadian Startup Inferiority Complex:

There is a Canadian Startup Inferiority Complex at work, and it compels us to defend our achievements: “Look at everything we’re doing! Look at these achievements, and look all these milestones our startups are achieving! Surely, these milestones are adding up to success.” We need a narrative that we’re on our way, that we don’t have these exits yet but we’re working on them; and that turns into a culture obsessed with milestones.

This preoccupation with milestones kills startups dead in their tracks.

And the obsession with milestones is harmful:

Why are milestones so dangerous? Because when you define clear milestones, you initiate finite games: you’re defining and bounding the problem of startup-building, and inadvertently creating a “win/loss” condition upon the completion of the milestone. Just as before, when you start thinking in terms of milestones, you are no longer asking, “What can go right”, because you’ve already defined the boundaries of “right”. As soon as you start thinking in milestones, you enter the mindset of “what can go wrong”, and you actually break the special magic that makes VC work at all.

VC is a financial invention that’s been perfected to purchase call options on a different future, not in definably achieved milestones to date. The point of startups is to go through the J curve in an all-in bet on a belief about the future. When you are in the J curve, your “milestones” are not actually definable in a positive economic light; certainly not relative to capital raised.

And accordingly:

…the difference between the Canadian startup ecosystem versus the actually-functioning one in the Bay Area isn’t an incremental difference of degree. They’re two systems running in totally contrasting modes: one runs fast, rules opportunities in, rolls valuations forward, and is optimized for infinite-game-mindset founders. The other runs slow, rules opportunities out, feels the need to “defend” valuations (thereby collapsing them to their literal milestone value) and optimizes for fixed, finite games.

Another potential factor is government money:

Programs like SR&ED, Institutions like MaRS, and other well-meaning but disastrous government initiatives to support the startup ecosystem relentlessly pump money into the startup scene. This money is advertised as “free” or “non-dilutive”, but in reality it’s the most expensive kind of money you can imagine: it’s distracting, it begs justification, it kills creativity, and it turns your startup into a government work program.

And the morale of the story:

My hope is that people in Canada reading this will realize that the problem facing us isn’t a lack of anything. The problem with our startup scene isn’t a lack of money, startups, investors, hustle, great Universities, technical talent, or creativity. Our problem is actually the presence of actively bad things: all of our non-dilutive (but extremely expensive!) innovation credits, the presence of incubators and entrepreneurship programs, and the accidental costs of milestone thinking. If we want to build a real startup community in Canada, we need to let go of those crutches, and choose the Infinite Game.

Natural Food

What are natural foods? tries to help us think beyond “natural” as a marketing label:

…it isn’t easy to say what a natural product comes to.

Instead of focusing on “natural food,” it’s probably better to focus on the end:

Eating naturally is eating what we’ve been designed to eat, just like a car that is designed to run on gasoline, not diesel or oil.

However:

The question is: who or what designed us for the natural foods that fuel us?

Thanks to Darwin:

[Natural] selection designed bodies to make good use of the natural foods available.

And now we know:

Our systems are less-well designed to metabolise fruit juice with its concentrated sugar load than the fruit itself. Our ancestors didn’t juice their fruit – that would have been a lot of extra work for no gain. So evolution designed you to flourish not on the juice but on the fruit.

“Natural” probably means nothing on a label:

What qualifies as ‘natural’ for marketers and consumers of ‘natural’ products that we eat, drink or use is more discriminating than what counts as the ‘natural’ subject matter of the natural sciences.

Takeaway: maybe believe in science more than in ads?

Cover Art Matters

Victor Papanek’s Design For the Real World 2nd edition vs. 3rd edition. The latter’s cover art is design by Pentagram.

Cover art matters, right? Right.

Extra Bold

Extra Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti-racist, Nonbinary Field Guide for Graphic Designers, by Ellen Lupton and others, is an incredible book of ideas for everyone.

Divided into three sections, theory, history, and work, Extra Bold uses the visible power of design to help everyone understand what it takes to be truly inclusive in the 21st century.

Graphic designers, rejoice! For the rest of you, buy it, read it, and then give it to an aspiring designer around you.

And, yes, everything Ellen Lupton touches is a must-read. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, start from Design is Storytelling.

Quote

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

I figure executives and politicians love that quote.

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