Leica M10 Monochrom & Leica f2/50 Summicron lens, ISO 160, f4, infinity focus, and 1/4000th of a second

A few weeks back, I visited Bolinas. It was one of those bucolic days that we often take for granted in California. The temperature hovered somewhere between that of a lukewarm cup of mint tea and water from the tap. A bead of sweat would break after a long walk, only to evaporate with the wind that started somewhere in the deep Pacific.

As I made my way along the Bolinas Bay, all I could see was the blue ocean, rendered colorless at times by the bright sun. The sky oscillated between deep blue and near white, depending on how and where you looked. There were surfers everywhere. And more were slowly making their mark on the sand.

It was a perfect day for monochromatic photography. And I had a high-key photo in mind. I was hoping to find a lone surfer who perhaps would make my wish come true and walk into the viewfinder of the Leica M10 Monochrom. One should be careful what one wishes for — a few minutes later, I got the perfect shot: a surfer walking along the edge of the ocean, surfboard in hand, against the blue sky. Distant mountains to the left, ocean beyond, and a faint outline of San Francisco somewhere on the horizon — it is what I had come to capture in the camera.

I like shooting as close to wide-open as it gives me a blurry, un-sharp raw negative that I can manipulate later. When I take landscape photos with the lens as wide open and focused on infinity, it gives the final image an ethereal, brighter feeling, something I learned during my year of film photography.

I was excited to see what the camera had captured. The image looked terrific on the live-view screen, but you can’t judge a photo by its preview, as I have learned time and again. And I was proven right when I imported the digital negatives on my computer. The results mortified me. I had overexposed the picture, and the highlights looked blown entirely.

My only hope was that Leica’s monochrome cameras’ have an incredible dynamic range, which in turn gives you a lot of leeway in post-production. After some minor lens-related adjustments in Camera Raw, I used a layer to lower the overall image’s brightness. I added a tiny bit of contrast. Later, using a curves layer, I reduced the highlights to expose the distant San Francisco hills and blurry waves. And then a curves layer to tame the highlights a little bit further. And then I used dodge and burn to give some dimensionality to the sky.

Despite my initial panic, in the end, I got the result I wanted. A lot has to do with the camera and its technical capabilities. However, I think that I had previsualized the image in my head long before pressing the click-button helped me edit to get to my final destination. The photographic journey of this one frame reminded me a lot of Kodak Tri-X — where even the most over-exposed frames would have a beautiful pristine feel of shadows, mid-tones, and highlights in perfect monochromatic harmony.

In the end, what matters the most, is that the final image will help me remember that perfect day and that wonderful walk on the beach.

March 15, 2021. San Francisco

This week, Tim O’Reilly provided much-needed perspective in his essay “The End of Silicon Valley As We Know It.” If you can overlook the clickbait title, this essay is among the most valuable things you can read to understand our present and think about our future. While there has been much hoopla about folks leaving Silicon Valley, new distributed work philosophies, and other daily headlines, these are primarily distractions from a deeper, more profound change afoot in what we call Silicon Valley.

The Algorithmic Accountability Index: Ellery Roberts Biddle and Jie Zhang have created an accountability index for the algorithmic economy. They looked for companies’ answers to some fundamental questions about algorithms: How do you build and train them? What do they do? What standards guide these processes? An essential piece. 

How the race for autonomous cars started: We might be on the brink of the future where we all zoom around in self-driving cars and other autonomous vehicles. It is easy to forget that, 16 years ago, autonomous driving was a chaotic dream. In his new book, Driven: The Race to Create the Autonomous Car, Alex Davies chronicles what brought us to this moment. Wired magazine recently ran an excerpt, and you should check it out.

Did Tech prevent the World from a bigger meltdown?: While we have read many articles about technology becoming a dominant force in our lives during the pandemic, this article in Foreign Policy asks (and answers) the question from a different angle. I liked the nuanced argument, and that is why I recommend it for your weekend reading.

The cassette tape creator is dead: In time, what was a disruptive technology becomes a part of our life that we don’t even notice. One hundred billion units later, cassette tape is one of those technologies. It kicked off the ability to personalize the curation of music. You can draw a straight line between those tapes and Spotify playlists. Lou Ottens, the engineer who created the cassette tape, died recently. Ottens also helped create the compact disc, which ultimately killed the cassette tape. His obituary is a reminder that only very few are fortunate enough to create technology that touches everyone’s lives.

About a month ago, I wrote about the state of Starlink, the satellite broadband division of SpaceX, and speculated that I won’t be surprised if “the Starlink network evolves into Tesla’s very own broadband backbone, connecting all Tesla vehicles.” Elon Musk, the CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX, threw cold water on that theory in a tweet. 

However, a new FCC filing shows that Starlink wants to offer connectivity to aircraft, ships, large trucks, and RVs. They picked the right target market for sure — the broadband choices on ships and aircraft are pretty meager. Mobile broadband is non-existent when you are using those modes of transportation.

However, I wouldn’t dismiss the Tesla vehicle network that quickly, despite what Elon said. In a January 2020 call, he said that in some years. Tesla could have Starlink terminals. Anyway, since Tesla has concrete plans to make trucks, so that would be a good start of Tesla’s backbone. Connecting its future big-boy trucks (Cybertruck) and moving trucks could help Tesla finetune the hardware for Starlink. 

And if the trajectory of all silicon has shown us anything, it is that miniaturization happens quickly. And capabilities increase even faster. I still remember the roof-sized dishes we needed to get satellite television. Those dishes are much smaller now. 


I came across an article about a Rado watch designed by British-born and London-based designer Tej Chauhan. Rado watches are not to my taste. But his approach to design caught my eye.

It combines our visual language with an optimised functional experience; the way we use form, colour, and material to elicit joy in broad audiences. It’s specifically designed to engage people, and to invite interaction.

The PORT Magazine. 1

His comment made me wonder — isn’t (or shouldn’t) all design by emotive and do all the things he aspires in his work. Still, I couldn’t help but notice how his time at Nokia might have influenced his design philosophy. His work has that typical Finnish design appeal — unhurried, non-fussy, functional minimalism.

While you are checking out Tej’s work, I encourage you to listen to this album from a decade ago. Have a great weekend.

March 6, 2021, San Francisco

  1. PORT is a British Magazine, hence British spellings[]
woman using white device
Photo by Christiann Koepke on Unsplash

Christmas came in March for Tidal, the increasingly irrelevant, money-losing music streaming service, and Jay-Z misadventure. Square, the digital finance company co-founded and led by Jack Dorsey, will pay nearly $300 million and acquire a majority stake in the company. But why, would Square do this? 

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher. One could argue that it makes perfect sense — or that it is utter nonsense.

In a string of tweets and a corporate press release, Dorsey points out that this acquisition “extends Square’s purpose of economic empowerment to a new vertical: musicians.” The official argument is that musicians, as entrepreneurs that are essentially operating small businesses, need a newer (and digital) way to monetize their work and audiences. 

He tweeted:

“It comes down to a simple idea: finding new ways for artists to support their work. New ideas are found at intersections, and we believe there’s a compelling one between music and the economy.”

Dorsey is right — the artist and creator ecosystem is broken. Musicians are looking for better ways to make money. These include everything from actually being paid for their music, to live performances, and merchandise (or “merch,” as the kids call it). Square hopes that it can use its Cash app as a platform for payments for artists. 

All the streaming companies know that there is an opportunity to help musicians, though they tend not to be as focused on that as some might like. Spotify sees a pot of gold in podcasts. Apple wants to sell AirPods. I don’t know what Amazon Music wants. Interestingly, YouTube sees the opportunity and has been working with musical artists on commerce. 

Joining forces with Tidal may help Square get into the merch world, which may be more pandemic-proof than other aspects of the music business. The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that “merch that commemorates online events can build communities as effectively as old-school concert T-shirts.” In that story, Ed Aten, founder and CEO MerchBar, a merch-commerce platform, observes, ”When all of those things got put on hold or canceled, [merch] was the only person sitting at the table.” 

So, when concerts come back, if Square’s Cash App can be used for in-person transactions, it could be a win for the company. But despite the well-reasoned, logical arguments, I have a hard time buying that this vision will translate into reality. One question I keep coming back to: If this is such a vast opportunity, why would Square lock itself out of the possibility of working with Spotify (not to mention the whole slew of other services)? 

Or perhaps this is simply a way to ride a hot trend. As Peter Kafka of Vox pointed out:

Given Dorsey’s love of All Things Blockchain, and the current mania over NFTs, it won’t be surprising to see Square + Tidal work on their own NFT scheme. 

Ultimately, even if you are a total believer in the bull case for Square and Tidal, it is still a very expensive acquhire. Granted, other companies have spent more. Bret Taylor came to Salesforce via a $750 million deal for Quip. Apple spent a few billion buying Beat (headphones) and Jimmy Iovine. Can Jay-Z and the new head of Tidal, Jesse Dorogusker, make it all worth Jack’s while?

We’ll see. If nothing else, it’s an interesting distraction.

March 4, 2021, San Francisco


The news of Indie.vc shutting down keeps popping up in my news feeds, social media feeds, and email newsletters. All of them talk about how it didn’t work out, but the right question to be asked (and answered) is actually: What is venture capital — and when does a company deserve it? 

If you don’t know about Indie, here is the skinny. 

In 2015, Bryce Roberts, formerly of O’Reilly Alphatech Ventures (OATV), started a fund that wanted to finance sustainable businesses that were not looking to scale-up fast. It was thought of as a game-changer. As he wrote about his initial launch:

….the post kicked off an extended conversation about how, who, and what gets funded by traditional venture capital and the need for funding options that sit between bank loans and blitzscaling. Being part of that conversation has been incredibly rewarding. But it has come at a cost.

It prompted venture capital’s chronicler-in-chief, Dan Primack, to quip:

“Venture capital, despite being the money of innovation, is rarely innovative itself. Indie.vc was an effort to break out of the tedium, so its failure is de facto disappointing.”

Not quite. 

It was the market accurately speaking the language of risk-reward from the lens of growth. 

Limited Partners — entities that give fund managers money to invest — look for ways to grow their capital by investing in many different types of assets. Each asset class has its investor profile with its own set of expectations of return on investments. Real estate funds, for example, are expected to generate different returns versus debt-focused funds. So, the LPs think differently about each asset class. 

Investors who tend to back venture capital managers expect them to invest in exponential growth companies. There is a reason why there is a stampede for unicorns. Anyone deviating from that idea of rapid growth does not and should not qualify as a venture capital investment. 

Venture capital is all about growth. No growth, no capital. A phase of early experimentation, followed by fast-paced growth and increasing margins, allows companies to access capital from those people who are traditional venture investors. As growth starts to mature, the investor profile starts to evolve.

In a startup, equity is usually exchanged for de-risking parts of the business. The value of equity increases with decreasing risk and higher growth. In comparison, debt can be used to help bolster the fundamentals. It is a crucial distinction that many startups fail to understand. As a result, many end up raising venture debt at the wrong time or using equity when debt makes more sense. 

There exist firms, for example, that provide capital against App Store earnings. It is not classic debt, but a different kind of instrument. There are firms, like Lighter Capital, that help fund growth for companies that are already on a good trajectory but don’t subscribe to the venture capital parameters. 

Over the past decade, it has become fashionable to think that VC should do everything. Even some VCs believe that.  So, it is no surprise that we see some investors backing businesses that don’t fit into the Venn diagram of venture capital. This “everything is venture capital” mindset has caused quite a confusion. 

Just because an entrepreneur starts a new company and is enabled by technology or is building a new kind of technology, it doesn’t automatically turn it into a VC-worthy business. It could easily be bootstrapped and raise debt to finance its growth after finding market traction. 

Or there could be an alternative financial instrument with a different set of expectations and a different LP investor profile. Private equity funds, Different calculations are made, for example, when dealing with private equity funds. 

From the outside looking in, Indie was funding companies that, in their early stages, looked like regular linear-scalable businesses. There is nothing wrong with it. But they just don’t fit the asset class profile called “venture capital.” 

Indie.vc was — and remains — an exciting idea. But applying the VC label doomed their prospects, because it created false expectations. It would have been better off with a relatively straightforward moniker like, say, “Indie Investments” or “Indie Fund.”

What’s in a name? Sometimes everything.

M.J. Tsai, who curates a great mac blog, pointed to a story with a clever headline — The Mac Price Crash of 2021. “The new M1 Macs have cratered MacBook resale values,” notes Robin Harris.

I check Craigslist fairly regularly to keep track of what’s for sale. I’ve seen an unusual bifurcation in the pricing for MacBooks. There are more late-model Intel MacBooks showing up for sale. Some of those are showing context sensitive pricing, i.e. almost new MacBook Airs for $600 rather than the $800-$900 that some think their Intel-based machine is still worth.

That said if you are on a budget and don’t care about the latest: wait a few months, and Intel macs’ prices will collapse. Harris predicts price “carnage.” And he is right. Why would you buy an older machine powered by Intel chips when you can read all over the internet — the M1 Macs are better, faster, and most importantly, run cooler.

After Apple loaned me a 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro for review, it was clear: we were on the cusp of a significant shift in architecture. Intel-powered Macs would feel puny in a few years. I needed to get rid of all my Intel machines as quickly as possible. The prices were going to collapse. Off went my two computers — an iMac Pro (from 2017) and MacBook Pro 16 from 2019. 

I got pretty reasonable prices for both of them — enough to be ready for the next Apple Silicon-powered large screen laptop. 

As you know, I do most of my daily work on an iPad — emails, writing, reading, and managing my web life. The computers are really for one thing and one thing only: managing and editing photos. I use Adobe Photoshop, which, unfortunately, is not very good on the iPad. 

After sending back the loaner, with much regret, I now have a new loaner laptop hooked up to an XDR Display. It is a perfect replacement for either of the two Macs I sold earlier. I have not missed the old machines for a minute. 

I have been trying out a digital medium format camera, and it produces some big files. And I mean big. Even a few layers in Photoshop can increase the file size to over 5 Gb with my workflow. This computer is being put through the paces — and yet it doesn’t break a sweat. I can be running Adobe Bridge, Capture One, and Photoshop all running simultaneously — with Apple Mail in the background, and everything feels smooth as silk. 

The only time I have experienced some hiccup is when I fire-up Zoom and Photoshop (running via Rosetta) at the same time. The mouse doesn’t move across the screen as smoothly on the screen. 

M1-based Macs are just better. And that is why it doesn’t surprise me the prices are collapsing. The sliding prices are just a continuation of what I had pointed out in August last year — Mac has been steadily losing some of its resale value. At that time, I had wondered if the “news of the pending launch of ARM-based machines that has depressed the prices.” 

Well, I have my answer. 

Not every brick and mortar retail chain selling goods that people can get more easily — even instantly — online gets the GameStop treatment. Some of them (most of them) just quietly fade. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t loved.

Younger generations might wonder why so many old farts are moaning about Fry’s Electronics shuttering. Isn’t it outdated? Hasn’t it been dying a slow death for a while? And the answer to such (snotty, if you ask me) questions is: Yes, of course!

Fry’s was built for a world that no longer exists. We live in a world where Amazon’s revenues ballooned 38% to $386 billion in the middle of the worst health crisis. We live in a world where stock markets value a food delivery company at roughly $55 billion. The elders are lamenting not the death of a store but the slow fading of Silicon Valley itself. 

“It looks like Fry’s is going the way of Netscape, SGI, and Sun Microsystems, and I for one, am pretty bummed,” wrote Mike Cassidy, about the slowly withering retail pioneer. “In fact, in many ways, it is more representative of the valley than any of the region’s famous start-ups.”

***

First, a bit of history!

In 1985, three Fry brothers, John, Randy, Dave, and Kathy Kolder, opened the first store in Sunnyvale, California. Retailing was in the Frys’ blood. Their dad, Charles, started Fry Food Stores. He sold the company for $14 million in 1972. He gave his boys a million each and sent them on their way. John went to Santa Clara University and majored in Mathematics. He was a good football player and a good student. In the end, he decided to do what he knew best: retail. 

In 1985, the personal computer was still young, but you could see the revolution was on the horizon. The center of gravity for this revolution was going to be Silicon Valley. It was the perfect place for an electronics megastore. The first Fry’s was opened in Sunnyvale and covered 20,000 square feet. At one time, Fry’s retailed over 50,000 electronics items within each store. They now call them big-box stores, and they dot the American landscape. But in 1985, it was a radical and bold idea. He also started selling shelf space to vendors, much as they did in supermarkets. It allowed Fry’s to make profits.


Fry's Electronics Photo courtesy of John Wall via Flickr under Creative Commons

Why did vendors pay for shelf space? Because Fry’s had foot traffic. Having learned all the tricks of the trade selling disposable goods at a food store, John knew that it was essential to get people into the store, even if it meant making, at best, no profit on fast-moving items like Coke and Playboy magazines. Get them into the store, and expect them to buy other things. As the son of a food market owner, he knew that you gotta move goods — and inventory kills.

We applaud fashion designers like Paul Smith for creating a unique look for their stores across the world, but this is one area where Fry’s innovated as well. Fry’s was ahead of the curve in their belief in experiential retail. Each store had its unique theme. Palo Alto store (my favorite) was straight out of the Old West. The store in Fremont had an 1893 World’s Fair theme. It was all kitsch, but it made visits even more memorable. And it attracted customers. 

Fry’s was an aggressive user of security cameras to prevent theft. You couldn’t get a quick refund out of them if you tried. The employees were not very knowledgeable. They were making a calculated bet that most people walking into an electronics store would know what the hell they wanted to buy. And for a long time, this bet paid off.

If you are a person of a certain age in Silicon Valley, you have a Fry’s story. I said hello to Andy Bechtolsheim while walking the aisles. And there were others. We have all hit up one of the Fry’s stores at an ungodly hour to find a component or just because we couldn’t sleep. During the internet bubble, I ended up in Fry’s Palo Alto store on a shopping spree with folks who would eventually become my sources. It was the only way for them to loosen up. 

*** 

Thirty-six years is a long time for any company to exist, especially for a retailer. A lot of the vendors who sold their products on the shelves of Fry’s are long gone. The name “Zoom” belonged to a modem maker back in the day. And how many people remember AST? Undeniably, Fry’s had a good run. But we can’t forget the ultimate truth: Change is constant. And these days, things change more quickly than ever before. No place exemplifies that reality quite like Silicon Valley. 

Fry’s came of an age when what we call “ the information technology industry” was still very young. The PC revolution had yet to turn Microsoft and Intel into leviathans. The client-server networking that would change work — and eventually the world — had yet to emerge from their creators’ minds. It was all so innocent, and everything was possible. Hell, no one quite knew what was possible. 

In 2003, Red Herring, a magazine I wrote for, shuttered its doors for good. In my eulogy for it, I pointed out that “Silicon Valley of the 1990s succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. If you pause and take the tally, the technology industry is now mainstream.” Time has only reinforced my core belief in the Internet’s inevitably — and by extension, the tyranny of what is known as the network effect. 

In retrospect, as is often the case, Fry’s death was inevitable. In Fry’s heyday, many of us built our own computers (or at least tinkered with them). We bought software and installed it. The struggle of being a lover of computers was what made it so special. Every year, however, computers became less cumbersome. 

The unrelenting nature of Moore’s Law and the amazing growth of the network have allowed technology to become not just mainstream but an integral part of our lives. Technology has become less tangible, existing mostly as an abstract. Fewer and fewer people buy hardware. We buy iPhones and Chromebooks. We don’t know how it all works. When they break, we don’t fix them ourselves. Someone else does it. Or we throw them away.  

We don’t quite realize it yet, but in 2020, thanks to the pandemic, we abstracted Silicon Valley itself. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft collectively had $115 billion in “cloud revenues” last year. Today’s entrepreneurs aren’t walking the aisles of Fry’s. Their world is that of complex algorithms, machine learning, and ways to generate demand using technology. 

From Lisbon, to London, to Bozeman, the future is being created everywhere now. Silicon Valley is becoming less of a place and more of a mindset. It’s a philosophy that can take root anywhere. The primary association with the word “Zoom” is no longer a brand of a modem. Suffice to say, it is a new era. And it seems that Fry’s is no longer needed.

*** 

The loss of this iconic store is a reminder that what once was a revolution is now part of our lives. I am glad that I got to experience it all, and I will cherish all those memories of that unique place we called Fry’s. 

February 25, 2021, San Francisco

target block in open space
Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash
“The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides taught that the only things that are real are things which never change… and the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught that everything changes. If you superimpose their two views, you get this result: Nothing is real.” ― Philip K. Dick 

You might have noticed that it has been awfully quiet here. I decided to take a “break” from reality and ended up staying as far away from the shackles of networked life as possible for as long as I could. I wanted to experience the kind of boredom that makes you come up with random and ludicrous ideas. The type that pushes you to jot down thoughts in a notebook, even if you can’t read your own scribbles. 

My disconnection allowed me to start considering what constitutes reality in our hyper-connected world. It is apparent that we no longer live in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) kind of environment. Fact-based reality has become a figment of our imagination, or maybe we are beginning to realize that it was always so. “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else,” George Orwell noted in 1984.

Much of today’s reality takes its cues from what we dubiously dubbed “reality” television. We all know that the Kardashians — like all reality show characters — are not really real, at least not as we know them. But they look and sound real enough, and they provide enough drama to provoke a real reaction. And this holds our attention, which can be sold to advertisers. 

A few days back, I watched Vanity Fair writer Nick Bilton’s documentary, “Fake Famous.” It is a great indictment on the artificial realities we all seem to live in, propped up by fake followers, bots, and machine-generated affirmations such as hearts, retweets and likes. 

The platforms encourage these falsehoods. As Bilton points out in the documentary, the social media companies turn a blind eye to these bogus, inflated metrics — after all, Wall Street rewards big numbers with big valuation. Of course, if he wanted anyone to watch his movie, Bilton also had to traffic in some artificiality. (Hint: It is highly watchable and recommended.)

“There is more than a hint of reality TV in Bilton’s social-experiment gambit,” writes Naomi Fry in her review of the film for The New Yorker. “The repackaging of individuals into a more commercial and skilled version of themselves reminded me of any number of shows, not least ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ with its makeovers and photo shoots.” 

The characters we follow on social media are essentially all Kardashians. The social platforms use the same highly crafted narratives to create a perception of reality — but unlike the television networks, they do it at hyper-scale. Even though I wrote about this way back in a 2011 essay, I am still surprised by the sheer magnitude of the simulacrum-generating machinery that surrounds us. I totally underestimated the human capacity for narcissism. 

***

The un-reality of our present is really a consequence of the exponential multiplication of realities. In the not-so-distant past, most of our societal constructs — political bodies, media entities, and the like — helped shape our collective reality, which is an extremely important thing for a society to have if it is to work in a linear fashion. The research (conducted by those more qualified than me) bears this out.

“Our culturally adapted way of life depends upon shared meanings and shared concepts and depends as well upon shared modes of discourse for negotiating differences in meaning and interpretation,” the late psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote in The Acts of Meaning. “By following a set of rules governing interpersonal communication, people inadvertently modify their private, idiosyncratic conception of a state of affairs and reach a common understanding of that situation. As noted, these shared representations constitute the contents of a culture.”

I fear that we now live in a world with multiple — and multiplying — shared realities, rather than a collective one. Recently, I delved into the work of Gerald Echterhoff and E. Tory Higgins (the former hails from the University of Munster in Germany, and the latter from Columbia University), who have both spent a lot of time trying to understand the nuances of reality. In a 2018 paper, they wrote: 

Shared reality is the experience of having in common with others inner states about the world. Inner states include the perceived relevance of something, as well as feelings, beliefs, or evaluations of something. The experience of having such inner states in common with others fosters the perceived truth of those inner states. Humans are profoundly motivated to create shared realities with others, and in so doing they fulfill their needs to have valid beliefs about the world and to connect with others.

The work of Echteroff and Higgins shows that communicators are able to tune their messages to their audience, and in turn, the audience response has an impact on the communicators. The result is the shared reality for that group. 

A study by Singapore Management University’s School of Social Sciences researchers showed that, when each person in a group was “informed of the majority opinions and allowed to communicate with only a fixed number of individuals,” after multiple communications, “opinions began to become more alike among communicating participants (clustering).” In comparison to email, social media and its network effects act faster and have a much deeper reach than other forms of communication, which can lead to more precise clustering. 

If you want to manipulate others exclusively for your gain as a communicator, you can easily find some people to join you in the alternative reality you create. Being a pied piper is as easy as writing a tweet. 

Increasingly, algorithms — aided by memes, tags, and other simplistic tools — do the work for you, clustering people into what we call “filter bubbles.” And these bubbles have a way of metastasizing. In some cases, the result is relatively harmless and straightforward, like the rapid rise in popularity of avocado toast. On the other end of the spectrum, we have attacks on the U.S. Capitol. 

In his book, “Shared Reality: What Makes Us Strong and Tears Us Apart,” Higgins writes: 

“Our shared realities become the world we live in and know: Sharing is believing. And with tight networks of people talking just to each other, these shared realities are the DNA of our social bubbles … With no shared reality being created, the interaction is treated as meaningless. It is as if the other person doesn’t matter or doesn’t really exist. Given our strong, natural motivation to create shared reality with other humans, not doing so when interacting with members of an out-group is like treating them as being non human. We want to create a shared reality with members of our in-group but not with members of out-groups.

Our eagerness to enter into these bubbles explains the rapidly escalating tribalism in our societies. The social networks have created schisms between us that make it more difficult for us to recognize each other as fellow humans — which, indeed, many “users” on our platforms are not.

***

Reality is not something we stumble into. It is deliberately created. Professor Bruner’s work showed that we are more likely to remember something when it is told as a narrative. When the story is good, the facts don’t matter. We tend to find comfort in the world of narratives, which is what enables them to snag our attention in the age of half-truths. Real or not, they have a way of becoming our reality.

In some cases, the rise of a new story or an alternative reality can be a good thing. In the past, only those who could afford to put forth narratives were able to create reality, giving those in power the ability to impose their perceptions onto others. Those who didn’t have the means to share their story didn’t get to write their history. Sadly, many of these stories have been lost. Now with the rise of the influencer class and social platforms, the idea of power is more than just wealth. The outsiders are able to now at least appear to have the opportunity to have their voice heard. For example, the recent actions around the GameStop stock opened an opportunity for alternative narratives around the stock market that were not controlled by its establishment. 

Still, Silicon Valley has significant control over our social media platforms. And not surprisingly, Silicon Valley has become really good at creating stories. That’s how we get all of our bogus (and boring) origin stories, new financial instruments, and questionable new trends. However, we are rank amateurs when compared to politicians. Steve Jobs might have had a reality distortion field, but Washington‘s reality is permanently distorted. And the media who mock politicians and technologists for a living are no different. Everyone wants attention, and attention begets more attention — and more loyalty from those who crave it for themselves. 

***

So, I highly recommend taking a moment to step away from the network if and when you get the chance. Meet some actual humans. Write down some thoughts on actual paper. Reacquaint yourself with the real world, and remind yourself of your own realness. When you inevitably return, try to stay in that mode for as long as you possibly can, which — let’s be honest — can be harder than it sounds. There are many mirages to lure you off course and algorithms eager to impose alternative ways of being. As I make my slow reentry into my networked life, I am reminded of Tim Burton’s wise words: “One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”

February 24, 2021, San Francisco

Everything, they say, is bigger in Texas. Even the cold snaps and the impact of climate change! “I think the Texas freeze will become the new poster child for compound weather and energy disasters,” atmospheric scientist Daniel Cohan of Rice University told Yale Climate Connections. “Why the power is out in Texas … and why other states are vulnerable too” is a must-read article about the recent storms. More importantly, it points to our power’ grid’ vulnerability and the lack of long-term resilience in our infrastructure against climate change. 

As a society, we often look for a Big Bang-like event to shake us through our slumber, but climate change is different. It is more like a boxer getting hit in the head and not noticing that his brain was turning to mush. The denialism around anything based on science is a disease that is the real problem for America.

“As climate change escalates and disrupts weather patterns, our country must update the grid, immediately, or risk losing not only power but lives,” warned environmental scientist Urooj Raja of the University of Colorado Boulder. Will we listen?  If our response to the pandemic is any indication, then the increased tribalism and politicization around climate change will be worse. 

Read article on Bob Henson, Eye On The Storm