What I Learned: Week of September 16 – 22, 2018

A rundown of things I read, saw or heard this week that stuck with me. This week happens to be all podcasts.

Worth a listen

Post No Evil. Radiolab. 2018aug17.

Early in the rise of Facebook, the company realized they needed a rulebook of acceptable behaviors to deal with the occasional appalling, depraved, and possibly illegal content created and shared by users. This was a difficult problem in 2008 when Facebook had a few hundred thousand American users. Now, the platform hosts 2.2 billion users across the entire globe.

This podcast explores the struggle to define and systematize rules of behavior that impact 2.2 billion people everyday with sometime hilarious, sometimes harrowing effect. The challenge of boiling human intent down into discreet, algorithmic if/then rules creates absurd situations where white men are protected against derogatory speech but black children are not. This happened as a result of linguistic nesting of modifiers. White men were protected because the concept of white men belongs to two categories of protected modifiers: race and gender. Black children were not protected because the concept of black children only belongs to one category of protected modifier: race. Children was not a protected category. Hilarity ensues.

Worse still, the discovery that most of the work of monitoring and removing objectionable content happens by low pay, human operators working 8 hours shifts reviewing and removing flagged content at a decision rate of something like one image every 8 to 10 seconds. The workers, mostly Irish and Asian, often turn up with PTSD. I think of them as the Call Centers of Despair.

Divided, Part 1: How Family Separations Started. The Daily. 2018aug21. and Divided, Part 2: The Chaos of Reunification. 2018aug24.

A clear, concise step-by-step roadmap of how the American government implemented a policy of separating immigrant families at the southern border well before admitting that such a policy existed. These stories reveal a situation far more complex than simply the President and his cabinet are evil. Its worse. They are incompetent, too. The metadata in place for tracking parents and children was lost when detainee’s status changed. A few keystrokes made it possible for the government to lose track of which kids belonged to which parents. The kids were secreted, sometimes in the middle of the night, to detention centers across America. The parents sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of the continent or deported.

Listen for a useful summary to make sense of the disparate reports over the past few months. Listen to remind ourselves that the crisis isn’t over even through our attention has moved away.

Shun the Non-Believers. Akimbo. 2018aug22.

Seth Godin reflects on the power of product reviews. Reviews help us find products and services that matter to us, but reviews can wreck the creative process of building those same products and services. This is required listening for anyone who aspires to creative work.

My quick take: when you make something, make it for someone specific. Make it unique. Let it be weird. Making a product to satisfy the reviews results in average content, which soon disappears.

Things made for everybody are actually made for nobody. These things are called commodities.

Things made specifically for someone are called art. These things endure.

Creative Advice from Ira Glass

I have been writing off and on for 24 years. I’m not really sure why I do it. Sometimes I write because I feel like I have to. Sometimes I write because I feel like there are stories stuck inside of me. Sometimes I write because I have ideas in my head that I don’t really understand and I want to understand them better.

I take writing pretty seriously. I stress out about writing. I talk about writing. I read about writing. I pretty much obsess about writing. The one thing I don’t do enough, it turns out, is actually writing.

The writers I admire most say that the secret to being a great writer is writing everyday. Just writing and writing and writing. It makes sense, but it isn’t particularly encouraging advice when the writing feels so thin and poor on the page.

Ira Glass says that’s normal. In fact, mediocrity is part of the process. All good artists start out being mediocre and they are dissatisfied by their own mediocrity. This dissatisfaction dissuades most people from sticking with it. Don’t give up. The cure for mediocre art is to create lots and lots of mediocre art. The fact that you recognize your own art’s mediocrity is a sign of good taste. Keep working at it. Work at it for years. Slowly, you will close the gap. Someday, your art will be as good as your taste, but only if you stay with it and only if you do it a lot.

Here’s how Ira Glass says it:

Keep doing it.

Plumbing for the Next Creative Act

Yesterday I wrote about an interview Corey Doctorow gave to the Bizarre Assemblage in which he talks about how wrong-headed enforcement of copyright law interferes with creative progress. He talks about copying as the source of learning, refinement and, ultimately, improvement. Doctorow speaks on this theme a lot.

I have been carrying around this quote from that article all day: “[I]f we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that everything we do is creative and everything we do becomes plumbing for the next creative act.”

This is a lovely, direct way to say a very powerful thing. Humans are creative. We create things. Being creative is what makes us unique. Current copyright law focuses very much on the need to protect fixed expressions from theft. That is not a bad impulse. People who create things deserve credit for those things. People who make a living creating things deserve fair compensation for creating those things. No argument there. The problem arrives in the overreach. We have fetishized the end product so much that we have missed the point of what we are actually doing when we create something.

The artistic products we value — the books, movies, paintings, poems, stories, pictures, drawings, performances, music — have value because they transfer ideas. New artistic works don’t spring up from nowhere. They come from previous works. They take ideas and comment on them, enlarge them, refocus them, refute them. Artistic products tell us about ourselves and tell the people who come after us about ourselves as well.

I am very, very interested in the idea that art is really just a conversation. That the point of any creative work is simply to give someone else an idea so that they can do a creative work that will give someone else an idea so that they can do a creative work and so on.

When we think of ourselves this way, the work we do, all the work we do, becomes an inspiration factory. We are always building the plumbing for the next creative act. The goal is not really to write a book or make a movie or paint a picture or write a program. The goal is to propagate our best ideas, to move the species forward by mixing thoughts and ideas in a mad foam where the best ideas can combine, survive, mutate and grow.

Biology gives the example. This isn’t a one to one transfer where you give me an idea then I give the next guy an idea. This is pollination. A mad spray of ideas, inspiration and perception which mixes together in weird, unexpected, powerful ways.

We cannot control the outcomes of our creative output. Maybe we can’t even really understand it. That’s why the impulse to control and limit creative copying is a bad thing. We are limiting ourselves before we have even had a chance to see what we are capable of doing.

Cory Doctorow: Copying is the source of creativity

Cory Doctorow is a great writer with a fascinating mind. He writes around the edges of the science fiction genre about themes like intellectual property,  information economies, informatics, censorship, and internet connectivity. If you think he sounds like a nerd, you’d be right. He’s a nerd’s nerd. I say that with great admiration.

Doctorow spent several years at the Electronic Frontier Foundation working on information policy issues related to copyright and intellectual property. Doctorow has become a powerful voice in the movement against Digital Rights Management software. DRM is the stuff that makes eBooks impossible to share or use the way you use paper-based books. DRM is the stuff that makes “owning” eBooks a fundamentally different experience than owning a paper-based book. He writes a lot about the concept of ownership and how we try to manage ideas as property.

You should read his books and essays to learn more about that.

Doctorow generally opposes the idea that piracy is an author’s worst enemy. In fact, Doctorow gives electronic copies of his books away for free in the belief that free copies increases his reading audience which, in turn, drives more sales. It seems to be working for him.

I admire Doctorow for his ability to reduce complex, abstract ideas to their essential core. He makes big ideas small enough for me to carry around with me and share with other people.

This recent interview in the Bizarre Assemblage is a great example. This is how he describes the role of copying in creative works:

 I knew even before I went to work for EFF that there really wasn’t any way that you could prevent people from copying things that they wanted to copy. And I also understood that copying was not in and of itself evil. In fact, copying is kind of the basis of humanity. You know, four billion years ago some molecules used some process that we don’t understand to figure out how to copy themselves and we are their descendants  We have a name for things that don’t copy themselves: we call them dead. So it’s pretty hard to condemn copying as wrong when everybody biologically copies all the time. And I felt like, as an artist, there was something profoundly intellectually dishonest in proclaiming what I did to be original. Obviously I do a lot of verbatim copying as an artist and my life is filled with mixed tapes and with things that I copied as part of my journey, as it were, to becoming the person I am today. But also every time I write a novel, I copy Cervantes who invented the Western novel. And every time anyone writes a detective novel, you copy Edgar Allen Poe who invented the detective novel. And it’s very tempting to say well, what I’m doing is a creative input of what those people did. But I think that’s intellectually dishonest. And I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that everything we do is creative and everything we do becomes plumbing for the next creative act.

He goes on to offer great advice to young writers: Write a lot. Write everyday. Great advice from a writer who has made a creative career that matters. Read his stuff. Study it. Copy it and make it your own. By making it your own, I mean add value. If you can add value to someone else’s ideas, you are making the world better for all of us. You are making “plumbing for the next creative act”.