Intentional Internet 2020

And so it’s already here, imposed on us in the most unfortunate of situations. Could the throwaway culture that the internet played such a formative–albeit aloof–role in fostering be slowly withering away? The way showy, trendy plants do when they’re left to fend for themselves in a garden they had no business in to begin with.

Earlier this year, I had to prune the plants in my garden. I planted boring, native species last year. Not willing to invest much energy or money in something that wasn’t going to give me instant beauty, I purchased small specimens that knew how to survive in the horrible Texas soil, and essentially neglected them through a brutal summer and an erratic winter. It was no surprise that, by the end of the year, they were still alive, but lackluster.

So, like many things I unexpectedly had to prune already this year, I pruned my garden, because that’s what a good steward does. No gardener can become a good gardener without getting over the fear of pruning, and no good gardener can become a great gardener without approaching pruning as part of the craft. Chop, whack, snip. It hurt, to see everyone almost exposed to their roots, not knowing whether they’d make it or not–driving home the guilt that was admitting that I had not taken good care of them. If they didn’t succeed, it would be my fault.

Two long weeks of staring out the window, walking up to them each morning to give them an encouraging poke or two. Then suddenly, they began to swell, and last week, burst in ways I had not imagined possible. Every leaf, bigger. Every stem, longer. Buds too many to count. I popped open the rain barrel and gave them the water I had withheld out of my own perverted sense of frugality. And then, the compost.

My plants didn’t really need me. They focused their energy on their root systems, preparing for challenge, growing the thick skin they would need in the face of uncertainty. But unlike humans, they don’t hold grudges, they are full of gratitude. I repaired my relationship with them, and now they feel safe to blossom and grow. Holy shit the birds that are going to show up!

Who knew that the things we took for granted in our midst could bring us so much joy and sense of place in a time of need. Netflix parties. Virtual happy hours on Zoom. Finding delightful new uses for features we took for granted. Yoga classes streamed live. Restaurants selling you eggs and milk tonight because you both need it but you also just want to see each other be okay.

We’re making it work because we remembered that life is fragile, because it doesn’t have to be. And so we’re freer to say no to the bad parts of the internet because it’s so obvious how awful they are. But we’re also saying no to the mediocre or bullshit ones because they are just in the way. Perhaps we can also realize that making it a better place doesn’t mean we have to hold onto the past, but rather, being very present and in tune to what’s going on right now.

Don’t get me wrong, most of gardening is still pulling weeds. But it helps if you have a clear vision, and feel some pressure (that’s rooted in reality, of course). I am optimistic that, despite everything that’s about to get worse before it gets better, the era of useless meetings and content is on its way out forever. Have you ever seen the wildflowers in bloom?

It was something from Jorge Arango’s post today that got me thinking about this.

…a feeling I’ve had over the past few days: that the current crisis is an inflection point in how we meet and collaborate. It’s not just that we’re working online; we’re experimenting with all types of social interactions. (This evening I’m planning to attend my first virtual happy hour.)

It’s still too soon to tell what the effects will be in the near-term. That said, some seem obvious. Digital communication platforms (Zoom, WebEx, Messages, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, etc.) were already important before this crisis, but now they’re essential. How long would we stand the isolation if it weren’t for these systems? The companies that operate these systems are now central to our social infrastructure.

My thoughts on meetings and similar events both online and IRL:

Priya Parker writing in The New York Times:

It’s possible to make remote gathering a worthy competitor of traditional events. The bittersweet truth about all the gatherings and meetings and parties and conferences being canceled is that many of them would not have been particularly meaningful to begin with. And so if we are willing to bring to the time of Covid-19 a level of intention that we too rarely visit upon our regular gatherings, this heavy time could be leavened by the new rituals it created, the unlikely intimacies it fostered and the ways in which it revealed that convening people is a special privilege that ought never to be taken for granted.

Also, we must be more mindful of what should be a meeting. Now that most communications are happening in information environments, the choice between synchronous and asynchronous communications seems less stark. It’s all happening on the same plane, after all. Why not just start an email thread, or reach out to folks on Slack, instead of scheduling a meeting?

Like him, I expect an IRL resurgence after all of this passes. But not before we weed, prune, and yank out all of the superficial shrubberies in our lives, and on the web.

Going Home

This year I went back to my hometown in California for Christmas. How fitting it was that as this year of intentional internet came to a close, I was going back to the place where the web started for me more than fifteen years ago.

A portion of this 24-hr drive runs along the US-Mexico border. First in Texas, then in Arizona, and lastly, in California. In Arizona, you start to see the wall. Unsurprisingly, I spent that part of the drive in silence, unwilling to look out my window, wanting to speed to get it over with (but knowing better). At first, it was because of the difficult emotions and memories that characterize my relationship with the wall. Then, because of the way this 100-day project, my year of intentional internet, has forced me to think about the walls on the web and within this industry.

In the Design Industry

There’s been a lot of important debate in this industry this year, specific to designers. Our community started off strong, welcoming anyone who was willing to work–even if we weren’t fully integrated into the design industry. They watched from afar, back when they didn’t think we were designers at all.

Then there were too many of us for them, or we were too unrefined, or we were taking people’s jobs (we weren’t, they just felt too good for it). I guess we just made people feel uncomfortable and threatened in some way. A wall started to form, even if it was mostly a formality. There still was work, and we got the job done.

Then bad stuff started to happen in the world, and a few people decided to blame it on us, when in fact, it was a result of a broader, cross-functional, systematic thing that was years in the making. Let’s make it harder for designers to get in. Make them prove that they’re worthy. Only let in the “skilled” ones. Favor those who come from the “good places” (not those shithole bootcamps).

We talk about how open-minded and empathetic we are, but we’re making our walls taller, thicker. We use the latest technology to tailor a unique experience that adapts to you. Design so good it’s invisible.

For those that have been here this entire time, and are essentially identical to everyone else except for a piece of paper, I don’t know, maybe we’ll let them stay, but we’ll kick them out if they miss a deadline, or something. But we’re definitely not going to have amnesty. We need to close our borders now and keep out bad designers.

Make design great again.

On the Open Web, and in Open Source

There are a few parts along the border that neighbor large cities–you can tell because the Mexico side is much more colorful and crowded than the US side, where there are only a handful of gas stations, or nothing at all. It’s strange to see the side that’s being kept out as the livelier one, while the “better” side, is rather bland. The people on the closed side are finding plenty of ways to be creative while the free side is probably owned by some big corporation.

I thought about how the tech industry is like a gold rush that only few profit from. People on the other side idolizing a system that has more in common with how things run over there than a land of opportunity.

The open web, a thing that only a few companies still champion. The open source community, a place with its own walls. The newer ones too–the kind that you can’t see. Are we letting all people in, or only some? Do we make it easy for some people to contribute because they make us feel comfortable, and do we ignore others because we assume they don’t have something valuable to add? Is open source still a land of opportunity for all, or is it just turning into a convenient place for cheap labor, or one that’s largely for the benefit of businesses and those who can afford to be there?

Might we even be shutting out people in the name of holding onto the past?

The uncomfortable likelihood that we might not be enough to make the world a better place anymore.What is an open web, a better web, a good web, in 2020? If it’s broad stuff like access and opportunity, or specific stuff like economic mobility–what if closed-source software or even the walled gardens are doing it? What if they’re doing it better?

What does an open web, and an open source community, look like when it reflects all those places and people on the planet we always forget about?

When I think about what I admire or what I’ve learned the most from having immigrant parents, hard work isn’t one of them. Neither is the pursuit of a better life. The former, they’ve warned me, guarantees nothing, because so much depends on who you know, and good luck. The latter, they’ve unknowingly demonstrated, is easy to get lost in.

Instead, it’s how they’re unafraid of re-invention, learning on the job, and how they’re always prepared for it to change. If it disappears altogether, they will go do something else. The very next day. Fake it til they make it. They have let go of any notions of tying their identity to their work. Even if they have a piece of paper giving them the right to be here and have been doing the work for years, there will always be people making them feel like they’re fakes. They haven’t made peace with this easily. It’s just what they needed to do to survive.

I don’t think they’re aware that their ability to continuously evolve and adapt to chaos is a gift they passed down to their kid. But they didn’t know the internet was going to define her generation.

When I first told my mom I was going to go off and work on this stuff, she tried to convince (guilt) me to stay and do something familiar and comfortable. They had worked so hard to give us what they had. I don’t think she was aware of how the last twenty years of her actions spoke louder than her words.

I knew I had no future in academia, just as she knew she had no future in Mexico. At best, I could make a few grand as an adjunct. At best, she would keep farming and hope that it would feed her family. What’s the point of staying when you know a certain kind of life is coming to an end? You have to learn to block out the voices that tell you to stay, for whatever reason, like a person, or by telling you that things will get better, or even for the sake of something abstract–honor y patria. At some point, the risk of staying is greater than the risk of going. They know this, but they’re just too afraid.

That ability to discern whether to stay or go is a process that runs in the background for us, from the moment we look around us and assess the prospects of our future, to the day we tell people we’re leaving and take the first step out, through the unknown terrain that they warned us about but we still said yes to. It keeps us focused on how we will get up when we fall down, how we will start over when we get caught, and the dream we have for life on the other side.

When people want to hold you down they tell you that you’re unfit for the journey and won’t make it. That your time has passed, or that you need to stay because of the choices you made in your life. What those people don’t understand is that once a person has a dream and is determined to follow it, nothing is going to hold them back. The ones who are fit can get caught. The ones who look the part can get screwed over. Sometimes, it’s the vulnerable ones who carry the biggest burdens that make it on sheer grit and will. It might take them longer, maybe. But they make it.

I know I don’t know what I’m in for. All I know is that I’ve been fed up for a while. I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last.

There’s this stretch of land once you’re in California where it’s hard to tell if things have become barren due to years of drought, or if you’re just going through the desert. You’re driving too fast to figure it out. It’s not particularly a scenic route; there aren’t any rest stops and you just keep going straight ahead. It’s too hard to turn back at this point. The destination is so close.

At the start of the year, I got this gift in the mail from a mentor, where he said that 2019 was going to a good year…but was it, actually? Sure, there was life, but there was also death. Most of it was just watching, and waiting. And always work, so much work. The kind where only time will tell if anything came of it.

The desert turned into green fields, and the egrets came. Then there were the mountains, who always showed me how to get home.

Goodbye, 2019.

Colorful Blocks

Usually when I come out from my office at the end of my workday, I’m greeted by an enthusiastic toddler at the bottom of the stairs:

“I want to build! I want to build with colorful blocks! Mama, can you build with me?”

I bought a set of wooden blocks for my toddler for her 2nd birthday, not expecting her to grok them for a while, as the box listed them as a 3+ toy.

At first, she could only stack a few blocks, which, developmentally, was to be expected. She also wasn’t that interested in them. She preferred toys that had a much more obvious use case, like books, or a stacking toy.

I figured, if the blocks weren’t going to be used to “their fullest potential” for a while, maybe we could use them some other way with toys she was more familiar with.

How might we use the blocks for her dolls? Why, they need a bed, of course:

How about a lamp?

Designers and weird lamps…

Pretty soon, the doll was running her own coffee shop:

“Mama puts on her sandals and works from the coffee shop.”

And taking her friends out in her unicorn slipper lowrider:

Now this meant that we had to build places and spaces for the dolls. And so began the building of the “towers.”

We built “downtowns” for us all to enjoy, including Swiss Cow:

By now, building was something she would do every day, and she was more than happy to do it by herself for almost an hour on end–enabling us to cook meals, or tend to the baby. Building is second-nature to her. She’ll raise up some pretty funky-looking cantilevered stuff now. My buildings look so uncreative by comparison.

Building blocks have helped her use her imagination, which is usually in the form of asking a ton of questions. What was most surprising though, was this got her to start noticing the world around her. She knows when she’s downtown, she points out tall buildings in real life, and she asks us to help her “build this design.”

All it took was to unlock her imagination with something that was obvious and real to her. The basic building blocks. Now she just wants to build! She was the apprentice for a hot second before she was the one giving me creative direction.