The second XOXO Festival — upbeat, exciting, inspiring, amazing — ended yesterday in Portland, and I’m on the flight back, and I and can’t stop thinking about failure. Disastrous, merciless, unrelenting failure.
XOXO is the distillation of everything that’s right about indie and maker culture. You can’t possibly be interested in what’s going on in those communities and come away not ready to dedicate (or re-dedicate) yourself to them. XOXO is a perfect place to be who you are, who you want to be, who you are becoming.
And, in one way or another, I’ve failed at each of those things, which is what makes me want to talk about it. Tech culture — and to a lesser degree, the indie community that comes out of it — does not, and desperately must.
It sounds both massively cynical and relentlessly despairing to come away from a wildly inspirational conference like XOXO, filled with people who are both successful and happy, and be most interested in the other side of the equation. I firmly believe that XOXO is perfect as it is — it achieves its goals brilliantly, almost magically — but indie culture at large (and I count myself as part of that culture) needs to be able to have open conversations about the risks, consequences and costs of pursuing your dreams… and failing. Not just business failure, not just financial failure, but personal and emotional failure as well. The decisions our dreams inspire have consequences, and if we imperfectly understand those consequences, the results can be devastating.
This is about how we evaluate risks, gauge costs, and — ultimately — accept and move on from the failure to achieve what we set out to. We cannot be whole unless we acknowledge, discuss and internalize the sometimes shattering consequences of taking a leap and plummeting straight into the ground. We’ve got the conversation about success down pretty well — probably too well, in fact, to where the topic almost automatically evokes the standard storyline of passion, struggle, victory. But until we can talk just as freely about failure, the story of indie culture remains a Disneyfied fairy tale — based on reality, but without the occasionally ugly ending.
Do you love your dream enough to sacrifice your life’s savings? Your marriage? Your oldest friendship? Your mental heath? In more than a handful of cases, your life? These are real-world consequences of failure. But if and when they are discussed, it’s over beers, quietly, in the back-channel. When the topic gains a wider audience, it’s almost mercifully in regards to a single, sad incident — Aaron Swartz dreamed big dreams, for all of us, and however you trace the lines, they ultimately cost him his life.
There are hints of a wider conversation out there. At XOXO, Cabel Sasser spoke movingly about what sounded to my untrained ear like clinical depression, even in the face of inspirational material success and iconoclastic freedom. Marco Arment called his talk a therapy session, and detailed how he moved from grinding fear, through personal understanding, to a new approach to his career. Jack Conte charted the collapse of his self confidence in the wake of a hit.
But how many people looking for investment can openly talk about their anxiety? How many people who are financially successful can discuss the end of their marriage? How many people have seen their dreams collapse to dust in front of them and are expected to pick themselves up and get back to it?
This is not about putting together a conference about failure (FailCon 2013 — sign up now, loser!), or adding a handful of cold-water speakers at existing conventions, or opening up the mic for five-minute stories about lessons learned. It’s about doing the deeply hard work of removing the failure taboo from our culture, allowing the human beings who try — and try hard — and don’t make it to not have to keep the fucking grin plastered to their face, for fear that they’ll be treated as damaged goods.
There is a term in statistics called “survivor bias.” If all you look at are the survivors of a particular population over time, you’ll come away with a mistaken understanding of the probabilities of success. Which pretty well describes the vast majority of public conversation in indie culture. We rightly celebrate the people who have taken chances, found audiences, and secured their financial and emotional success. So much so that it’s become (at best) rare and (at worst) scandalous to even publicly mention failure or crisis or fear, except as a stumbling block to overcome. Failure is temporary, an opportunity, a lesson. Pivot! On to the next thing! Upward and onward!
Which only serves to make true failure — real, lasting failure — feel that much worse. Sometimes failure is not something you bounce back from. Sometimes, it’s something you grow around. Sometimes, it’s something that you seal away and try to forget. Sometimes, it’s something that stays with you every second of every goddamned day.
XOXO was a place where conversations like these took place — both on stage and among the attendees — and it must continue. A cultural norm that requires relentless optimism — that mocks or derides or even just tries to ignore failures, be they economic or emotional — cannot survive. We are made of people, and unless each of us can speak, grow, and even fail as people — as complete people — we will never have a culture that can sustain itself beyond the enthusiasm that will inevitably sour into hype.
There are people who are telling these stories, and the more who do, the better it will be, for everyone.
I was lucky enough to get to go to the XOXO Festival in Portland this past weekend, and I’ve read a lot that’s been written about it since, and, yeah, pretty much all of it is true. It was a wonderful time, special in a way that each person is putting his or her own spin on: it was the anti-South by Southwest, it was a love letter to the Internet, it was “disruptive creativity” made real. XOXO felt like each of those things, and many more. But to me it was the lack of something deeply familiar that marked it as unique:
It didn’t feel lonely.
I’m an introvert, not a particularly distingiushing trait among computer programmers. I generally don’t like crowds, and I especially don’t like crowds of people I don’t already know. I don’t like having to interact in real-time. All of it makes me feel tired and nervous and stupid. Oh, I’m sorry, excuse me — I’m faking a data center emergency on my phone so I can go over to the corner and read Twitter.
At XOXO, there were 400 people all together in the same room. Four hundred unique, potentially problematic souls and I knew maybe 5% of them. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a bit of a wreck going in.
And then it started, and it flew by and not for one second did I feel awkward or adrift or lonely. I didn’t second-guess myself. I didn’t want to crawl into a hole and die. I don’t think I can say that about anything like it before.
I’ve been to a handful of festivals and more than a few meetups and the odd couple of professional events over the years, and without exception there’s been a moment at each where I think, “What the hell am I doing here?” The people — their conversation, the agendas that underlie that conversation, the motives that underlie those agendas — eventually feel otherworldly, and usually sooner than later.
I attended a “founders meetup” once, during a failed entrepreneurial phase, and lasted all of half an hour, including the time it took me to drink a beer in the hopes it would numb the intense urge to flee. But after a handful of conversations about funding and VCs and term sheets and a whole host of other crap that nobody interesting could possibly make the primary motivator of their life, I did flee, out the door and off on a long walk that consisted largely of the glacial realization that this was not a world I was cut out for.
After that happens enough times, you start to feel like maybe there isn’t any world you’re cut out for.
XOXO itself was a pleasure. The logistics were astonishingly well-handled, and everything from the building to the food to the A/V to the after-events to the bathrooms appeared effortless. As a physical reality, XOXO worked.
But, more importantly, as a collection of like-minded people, as the expression of a philosophy, as a new and powerful approach to work and art and achievement, XOXO shined. I’ll leave it to others smarter and more articulate than me to describe the details — each speaker took a turn removing marble that wasn’t part of the statue — but the upshot is that if you are of a particular mind, a particular bent, there is now a place for you. A place to talk and share and experiment and explore. A place to feel among friends. A place to not feel lonely.
It’s just after midnight and I’m sitting in a hospital room in the pediatric unit next to my ten-year-old son. He’s asleep now, after a hard day of watching TV and playing games on the iPad and telling me to stop looking at him, geez.
He’s been here for two days, being fed antibiotics through an IV. He got bit by a bug, and staph got in, and it was MRSA, and the oral antibiotics he was on didn’t do a damned thing. We went back to his pediatrician and she took one look at the abscess that was still growing after thirty-six hours of standard medicine and her eyes got big and, bang, we were in the hospital.
This is how medicine is supposed to work. Everybody has been kind and patient and our stay has been nothing but reassuring and comfortable. Alerts were raised when they should have been, and professionals acted accordingly. Score one for the American medical establishment.
The bill is $23,800.
I’ll have to have to pay less than 6% of that, because I’m lucky enough to still have insurance.
Two years ago, the company I worked for up and skedaddled — that’s how you say it, right? — to Texas, for a “better business environment” than you can apparently find in California. I think that means that the CEO doesn’t have to pay state taxes and is allowed to hunt low-level employees for sport. I’ve been working as an independent contractor since — and having a good time doing it — but I haven’t been able to find private insurance. Everybody loves the small businessman, the fabled self-sufficient entrepreneur, unless he’s got a history of kidney stones and a ruptured disc and, delicately put, a “problematic height/weight ratio.” They didn’t say which way it was problematic, but I think it’s insurance industry jargon for “Tubby McLardass.”
But California — in an effort, no doubt, to discourage business — lets former employes extend their COBRA coverage for an additional 18 months after the federal limit runs out. I’m paying the full premium, but I and my family have insurance. We’ve got a strategy for dealing with the COBRA expiration, but it’s complicated and requires a lot of hoop jumping and is more than a little silly. If that falls through, we’ll insure my wife and kids and I’ll have to wait for the ban on exclusions because of preexisting conditions to kick in, in 2014.
And that number keeps swirling around my head: $23,800. For a bug bite.
Everybody did everything right. There’s nobody to blame here except maybe the damned bug. And that single random act — save for some lucky timing and California’s silly determination to look after its citizens — would have blown a hole in the side of our savings that would have taken years to fix. OK, kids, which of you wants to skip college?
I don’t normally like to talk politics. Not real politics. I’ll smart-ass on Twitter, but I get uncomfortable as soon as I feel the need to be earnest. I don’t trust myself when I actually care. But the Republican convention just finished up, and tens of thousands of people gathered in Tampa to cheer every mention of reversing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The PPACA is how literally tens of millions of Americans can avoid having a bug bite wipe them out financially. It’s how I and my kidney stones and my bad back and my big ol’ gut may end up protecting ourselves, and our small business to boot. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it’s ugly. Welcome to running a country.
The PPACA is important. It’s vital. When a bug can bring down your family, when there are people who are willing to take away the shield that could prevent that, when we as a country have become so small and stingy and mean that we cheer the idea of ripping medical care away from fellow citizens, offering nothing in its place but sanctimony and self-righteousness… What are we? We’re not a country. We’re not a community. Oh, no.
We’re a zero-sum game. We’re the state of nature. We’re animals, gobbling down as much as we can, as fast as we can, swatting away the weak.
“I got mine” are just about the ugliest words in the English language. They’re also, increasingly, a mantra for the same people who shout “We, the people” out of the other side of their mouths.
I love this country, more than I can properly express in words. It’s my home. It’s my future. Its history and achievements are awe-inspiring. Its idea, its founding purpose, is the most important the world has ever known. We are bound together by the notion that we are all created equal, committed to one another as a single body politic, held by the strength of our lives and our fortunes and our sacred honor. We put a man on the moon and an SUV on Mars and we made sure that tens of millions of our fellow citizens can know that a goddamned insect — or an accident or a disease or any of a billion other random, faultless happenstances — isn’t going to send them to the poor house.
(Assuming social services still supports poor houses. Substitute “the streets” as appropriate, assuming infrastructure funding hasn’t gone to corporate tax breaks.)
We can make this work. We have to make this work. A bug bite cannot be the thing that draws the line between a middle-class life and poverty, between opportunity and the stagnant dead-end of could-have-been. Our friends, our neighbors, our children, the future of this country as a cohesive society — as an endeavor where we see each other as more than opponents, as more than competitors — depends on it.
Otherwise, we’re just waiting for the fever, and the rot, and for the bugs to pick the bones clean.
Today is Opening Day, the start of the 2011 major league baseball season, and so begins the annual rite of passage for all right-thinking Americans: desperately hoping that the New York Yankees lose every one of their goddamned games.
Yes, yes, the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the thrill of the hometown boys making good. But I’m a Dodgers fan, so what chance do I have of experiencing any of that this year? We’re rebuilding. Just like every year since 1988.
So instead of a World Series victory or the National League pennant or a .500 season, I’ll settle for a note delivered right into my Twitter stream, marking the occasion that — yet again — those smug, over-funded, media-driven divas have failed to do something as simple as win a game of baseball. And all will be right with the world.
Follow @yankeeslose on Twitter to join in the schadenfreude!
January 1 is a lousy day to start something new. There are too many expectations, too many clichés, too many obvious pitfalls. If you’re going to start something new, doing it on New Year’s is like getting married on Valentine’s Day, in Vegas, to a stripper. With a cocaine problem. Who took your ATM card to go get some flowers. A couple of hours ago.
So of course, I’m starting something new today!
After almost two decades working for other people, I’m setting out on my own. Later this month, I’ll be starting my own business, doing iOS and Web development.
There are lots of reasons for this, of course, the usual litany. Half the people I know have the entrepreneurial balls to run their own businesses, and I’ve wanted to start something for as long as I can remember. But I’ve also wanted to, y’know, eat. And sleep. And pay the mortgage and have insurance and support at least some of the children around here who claim to be mine.
But sometimes events conspire to create an opportunity that’s too hard to pass up. Sometimes it happens on New Year’s. And sometimes it happens because of a podcast, of all things: Merlin Mann and Jeff Veen talking to Dan Benjamin.
Jeff was talking about being frustrated at Google, with the culture and his inability to change it. He said he spent two years trying to get a seat at the table, and finally decided that the best way to create the culture he was looking for was to go and build it himself: “I can make my own table.” (For the TL; DR crowd: start at 37:30 for a head-spinning discussion of corporate values and culture.)
There’s something about that story — among all the stories I’ve heard over all the years — that resonated. It was the last, tiny little push, after a series of hard shoves in the back and sharp kicks in the ass, from literally dozens of people whom I admire and trust and desperately want to be like. I’m not even going to attempt to name them — the list could double the size of this page and I’d still forget someone — but I’m grateful to each and every one, whether they know I exist or not.
It comes down to this: I’ve been sitting at someone else’s table for almost twenty years, and at some point they started serving comical plastic chew toys, because they’re cheaper than steak and most people don’t seem to notice.
But I can make my own table, too. Today, I start.
Who knew that the way to action was furniture-based metaphors? I was originally tempted to be less ambitious, maybe make my own stool. But that, um, sounded wrong.
And so here I am: Excited, nervous, with a two-decade head of steam built up and nearly insurmountable opportunity to channel it into. This company will be mine, cobbled together from my successes and my screw-ups. The soft, insulating layer of other people’s rules is gone and anything is possible. I get to choose my own work and create my own culture. I get to make something meaningful and I get to own it. It’s my table.
I should probably get some coasters.
I just scratched my own itch… in my pants!
By which I mean, I was never able to find a particular iPhone app that I wanted, so I wrote it myself and it’s now available in the App Store for free. “Buzz Clock” silently vibrates at set intervals, so you’ll always know what time it is, without having to take your phone out of your pocket and have your wife glare at you. There’s not much to the code — it’s trival — but being able to inappropriately apply technological solutions to awkward social situations is one of the reasons I love being a programmer.
The app is open source, so if you’re curious what goes into a small App Store-approved program, feel free to download it and take a look. Any and all feedback is welcome.
P.S. And, yes, I already know I misspelled “discreet” in the instructions, thank you very much. Dammit.
The world is changing, fast and without relent. Some long-standing titans are being swept aside, their self-presumed permanence nothing but paper and happenstance. And in their shock — in their sudden obsolescence — they lash out; their last act, just before they sink below the waves, is a spasm of rage, a fist striking out at whatever it happens to hit. But the world will keep changing, faster and more relentlessly, and the only thing that will save them is to change with it.
So. Pop quiz, hot shot. Is this post about Old Media, the Tea Party or Cory Doctorow?
Is there any difference? All three have a vested interest in systems that are changing in ways they don’t fully understand and can’t control. And they don’t like it one bit.
Lord knows, more than enough has been written about Old Media and the Tea Party, but Doctorow recently planted himself in the same neophobic camp as the dinosaurs and the nutbags with a little rant on the unhackabiliy of the iPad. Cory’s not happy that what he’s comfortable with — what he finds value in — is suddenly going the way of well-heeled white men and well-heeled white men. And he thinks you shouldn’t be happy about it either. Alex Payne and Mark Pilgrim (and many, many others) have expressed similar sentiments.
My initial reaction is sympathy. I grew up in the same era as these guys. My first computer was an Atari 400, weaseled out of my parents after a year of camping at a friend’s house and playing with his Apple II. (Note: Apple II, not Apple II+, you newbie losers. We used Integer BASIC, and we liked it.) One of the very first things my dad and I did with the 400 was add a real, full-stroke keyboard using the instructions in ANALOG Magazine, issue 9, connected via a two-inch wide ribbon cable. It was a heavy, steel-cased thing, and you could have killed somebody with it if you had swung it at them.
God, I loved that keyboard. I loved that machine.
But there is exactly no way in Hell that I’d want to go back to soldering it into a 16K, 1Mhz computer spread across the kitchen table like the victim of a bad motorcycle accident. Just like there’s no way I’d want to go back to punch cards, or vacuum tubes, or mechanical rotors. Or polio, or fascism, or pre-agrarian nomadism. Or the Bush Administration.
There’s a reason most of us aren’t Cory Doctorow. We don’t want to open up our devices. We don’t want to hack them. We want them to just goddamned work, thanks, and if gluing the case shut makes that possible, bring on the Elmers.
Is that me abandoning my fate to corporate overlords? Is that an abdication of my responsibility as a goggle-wearing, becaped techno-citizen? Of course not. It’s me making a rational decision, getting something I care a lot about in exchange for something I don’t care quite so much about. It’s not dumb, and it’s not naive. It’s the market at work, and if my corporate overlords can’t make the trade worthwhile, then I’ll go somewhere else — the remainders bin at Fry’s, for example, or Richard Stallman’s office. But, honestly, the deal would have to suck pretty bad to get me back there. I mean, the smell alone. The freedom of the waves is great, but dying of scurvy sure sucks.
Hate that as much as you want, old-school corner-cases, but it’s the future, it always has been. It’s called “progress,” the continual refinement of the social contract. And it’s no more a betrayal of something vital than any other decision made in rational self-interest. Make your arguments about DRM and closed systems and “Wal-Martization”, but they still don’t come anywhere close to tipping the scale. The iPad (or something like it) is the future of computing for an enormous slice of the population — despite all its political and philosophical flaws — because it’s a pretty goddamned great future. It’s a future that we want.
Simplicity has a purpose, and complexity — “hackability” is just a form of complexity — has costs. The story of technology over the course of the past 20 years is the expansion of one at the expense of another. It’s been more than a fair trade, despite detours and disasters and greed and stupidity. To object to this positive (and historically inevitable) trend on the grounds that you maybe can’t trade comics anymore is to remove the benefits of technology from billions of potential users, for your own myopic ends.
This isn’t about the “easy enough for my mom” trope that Doctorow hauls out as a straw man. I’m an experienced technologist, and have been banging — often literally — on computers for twenty-five years. At least half of what I do, even today, is meta-work, effort that goes purely into keeping the goddamned things running. My wife is not a technologist, but uses a computer every day — and hates it. That she has to fight, constantly, to get her tools to do her bidding is insane. It’s all wasted time and wasted effort, and exactly none of it has anything to do with what she’s trying to accomplish. Her tools suck — all our tools suck — and there’s no excuse for it. Would she trade inscrutable and doesn’t work for inscrutable and does? In a heart beat. I would, too. Everybody would, and will.
Doctorow says that he learned to program using HyperCard — a program that was derided as a laughable toy on a comically closed platform at the time. I remember, because I was one of the arrogant SOBs doing the deriding. But HyperCard was a great programming environment, a sane introduction to a complex topic that expanded the population of programmers many, many, many times over. Some went on to bigger things. Some stayed happily where they were, because it got the job done. Excel, VisualBasic, HyperCard — these “toys” are all tools, and tools that work, for an enormous number of people. They offer a leg up, a start, a way in. Doctorow essentially argues that those benefits shouldn’t be available to others, now that he’s found somewhere that he’s comfortable. Infantalize that. If you need to change a battery to feel like a whole man, then perhaps you’re missing the point.
I have no doubt that the computing device that my kids will use is going to look more like the iPad than my beloved Atari 400, and that they won’t care one damned bit about how they can’t solder a keyboard into it. Maybe one of them will be interested enough to program it, learning Objective C or Newspeak or whatever Apple will command. Maybe someone will write a (compiled, Apple-approved, DRM’d) HyperCard for the iPad, and they’ll use that. Maybe there’s an iPad version of Rocky’s Boots on the horizon. Maybe the device will just be a beautiful, convenient interface to the great open platform of the Web, and they’ll program there. Maybe they won’t program at all.
Maybe they’ll just get stuff done, without having to worry about interrupt conflicts or file systems or DLLs or viruses or moths squished in relays. Maybe, instead they’ll write a novel, or paint a picture, or use technology in ways that we can’t even dream of, because some significant percentage of the crap that we currently suffer through just to get it going will be gone. To dismiss them as mere “consumers” because they may not be programmers — because they may not waste their lives fetishizing the rituals of a dying priesthood — is arrogant and insulting.
Yes, yes, this simplicity will come at a cost, of course, just like every other aspect of modern life. But for the benefits of cutting-edge technology in its full flower — to even begin to reap what the future has to offer — it’s more than a fair trade. It always has been.
George Orwell was right, of course, but he was twenty-five years too early. And twenty-five years too old.
As much as any civil libertarian feels put upon by the encroaching, omnipresent surveillance of the state, far worse off are their kids. Children — free of any such trivialities as Constitutional privacy protection — are monitored and cataloged and ear-tagged in ways that their parents can’t even imagine, and very often happily participate in. It’s all in their best interest, of course, the saying goes. But the implications of encasing our children in the physical and emotional bubble-wrap of good intentions are both profound and vastly under-appreciated. It’s not a new idea that kids today are coddled by perpetually terrified parents, but the extent of the coddling goes well beyond the home, into nearly every institution that makes up a child’s world.
An example: the other day, I dropped my kids off at their school late — Daddy needs his rest, dammit, and sometimes dawn comes too early — and by the time I got to work, I had this e-mail waiting for me:
Creeeeeeeepy. Creepier still, later in the day I got a phone call from a robot — a robot, operated without a hint of irony — that informed me of the same thing. My wife got the mail and call, too. And the record of this transgression — and the record of the notification of the record — sits, still, in the bowels of the Ministry of Education. Message sent and received: You just try skipping class, little mister. You just try. We’re watching you.
My children are now 11, nine and eight, and are coming into the prime years of adolescent mischief making. But in the age of computers and cameras and databases and twelve-foot-high fences and involuntary geolocation reporting and home drug testing kits and thermal imaging and full-body X-rays and God knows what else, is it even worth bothering? Is it even worth trying to bother?
I was never much of a teen-age troublemaker, and the risk aversion born in that time has followed me my whole life. Once, in junior high, I tried to forge my mother’s signature on an absence excuse, and the repercussions of that act — laughably minor from the safe distance of a few decades — left me with a disinclination towards anything that might cause someone in authority to give me a stern look. It hasn’t been a wholly bad thing, my adult timidity, but I can feel it hanging on my shirt tail any