When I was a ghost myself

How many times will I find myself in Dallas?  That thought propelled me out into the thick night air.  Carpe diem and all that.  And just maybe also a juvenile, morbid fascination helped. After all, I could hardly expect to learn something new about the most studied 6 seconds in history.

We know Dealey Plaza from one perspective, the one Abraham Zapruder provided us with when he accidentally filmed the murder of John F Kennedy.  The splendid motorcade is bathed in sunlight and the crowd is jubilant.  Abruptly, JFK’s movement tell us that something is very wrong.  Seconds later, our worst fears are realised as we see what can only be a fatal shot to his head. All is confirmed in Jackie Kennedy’s dreadful panic.  Finally, the car whisks JFK out of the sunlight and into the darkness of the underpass at the foot of Dealey Plaza.

Dealey Plaza had been built 22 years earlier.  A work of the New Deal, the plaza is a memorial to the founding of city of Dallas.  Like so many spaces in the US, it gives priority to cars (unlike the pleasant Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas), but it is still very accessible.  The plaza consists of understated ornaments in a muted late art-deco style.  It is a heart-shaped gateway to the city.  The underpass we see at the end of the Zapruder film was that gateway.

Of course, that is not how we think of it today – we think of Dealey Plaza for a violent crime and a titillating enigma.  “Who killed JFK?” is byword for conspiracy theories.  But unlike faked moon landings or desert-bound UFO warehouses, it raises a much deeper question: can one individual change the course of history?

One version of events tells us that a single young man with a mail-order rifle manages to change the path of peace and reconciliation that JFK had put the US on.  The lone gunman committed one of the world’s great powers to decades of armed stand-off, a series of bloody proxy wars, and the continued subjugation of its own ethnic minorities.  The other view holds that bigger forces are at work -that such forces are always at work.  They teach us that JFK’s death is part of a much bigger picture, that of the self-perpetuating “military-industrial complex”, or some other force of historical materialism.

There are no happy answers.  We either accept the awful thought that one individual through a single act of violence is capable of plunging the world into deep conflict (Gavrilo Princip being another example), or we hold that they are not, which is even worse.  Oswald acting alone represents some form of human validation.  Conspiracy wouldn’t just show that governing institutions are violent and corrupt, it begins to suggest that nothing we do really matters.

I turned the right from Houston Street onto Elm, the corner of the former book depository, and I was now on the same route as JFK’s motorcade.  And there it was: instantly, intimately familiar, a place I had been many times before in my thoughts.

At 11:30 at night, the plaza was virtually deserted.  It remains largely as it was in 1963.  I drifted, almost invisible in the gloom, toward the bottom of the plaza and the grassy knoll.  Climbing up to the back of the picket fence, I would greet unidentified assassins, shadows in darkness, still waiting for the coast to be clear after 50 years before they can show themselves.  I moved silently to the plinth Zapruder stood on to film the president. I knew this place, I had someone else’s memory of what happened there, a memory that was more vivid than many of my own.  I then found myself back at the top of the plaza, looking up at the 6th floor window.  For a brief moment, there were two of us, the still shape of Oswald’s face discernible in the shadows, looking down impassively on Dealey Plaza, as baffled as the rest of us by what had taken place there.

Walking back to the kerb beside where the murder took place, I looked over to my right.  The underpass now is lit in vivid sodium orange.  The gateway was the light.  I had felt welcome, tranquil even, in Dealey Plaza, but I did not want to go near the underpass.  And with that realisation, I knew my brief time as a ghost was over.

dealey plaza underpass

The Dealey Plaza triple underpass at night

Many feel that the facts of JFK’s assassination have been satisfactorily resolved.  Public opinion does not agree.  And the deeper questions, of course, are unlikely ever to be.  But self-knowledge is also knowledge.  My short trip to Dealey Plaza gave me a glimpse of Sophie’s World, a sense that I was existing in other people’s thoughts.  It felt more like being in a dream than any dream I’ve been in.

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Silicon Valley At Its Seductive Worst

First, two quick caveats, for this is an emotive topic.  One, I do not seek to condemn people who find that a poly-amorous or other non-monogamous form of relationship seem to meet their emotional needs, nor am I necessarily against responsible and respectful promiscuity.  Two, in other channels it appears that Chris Messina has, or had, some reservations about the interview he gave to CNN Money about “Why I choose non-monogamy”.  I suspect he may even privately agree with me (given his reservations) that such an important and complex topic should not handled in a short piece in CNN Money of all places.

There are many ways in which we might be concerned with how technology is changing our lives.  From how it appears to be altering our cognitive patterns, to how it has created a huge commercial and governmental surveillance operation, to how markets are being captured, disrupted and sometimes, de facto deregulated, by internet companies.  Our lives increasingly resemble a daily celebration of what these companies have brought to us, and it would also be churlish of me to fail to acknowledge that in many ways, I owe my career to them.

But when I read the CNN Money piece advancing the case for how technology can mediate the rise of non-monogamous relationships, I felt fear and sadness.  Not because I wish to judge non-abusive alternative lifestyles of others, nor do I judge those who find they need to make a change, or those who make mistakes or who succumb to temptations (we are human, are we not?).  But I do judge, and judge harshly, blase, superficial and self-serving analysis of the most important matters in life.  So let me declare my position: I am pro-marriage.
In the article, Messina advances an argument for being bullish about the future of non-monogamous relationships. He starts by attacking the “happily ever after myth”, and showing how it wouldn’t pass muster with your average Silicon Valley product manager.  He calls for a “data-positive solution-oriented” approach to the problem that “your product (i.e. marriage) is failing for 50% of your customers”.  I assume that this choice of language is at least partly tongue-in-cheek.

He explains that his “monogamish” relationship is not diminished or weakened by physical intimacy with people outside his (for want of a better word) main relationship.  He has been in this lifestyle for approximately 18 months.  He goes on to say that monogamy dates back to a time of scarcity, and that in the world of abundance which he inhabits, monogamy is a choice which may no longer be rational.

In further tounge-in-cheekery (I hope), monogamy and sex are being “unbundled” (a term typically applied to the simplification of a complex or compound product offering) and that romantic partners are now “fungible” (his actual word).  And naturally, this is thanks to the facilitation of technology.

In summary, he is not asserting that monogamy is irrelevant, but rather he is promoting the idea that non-monogamous relationships which he sees being borne of the Silicon Valley-Burning Man-Randian sub-culture may potentially empower the individual in unforeseen ways (“a bicycle for the heart”).

So, given my carefully exhausted caveat above, why do I have my knickers in such a twist?

People have rational capabilities, but we are fundamentally emotional constructs.  Nurturing our emotional lives, caring for them wisely, is the most important thing we can do for ourselves.  And being bullish on something with so much capacity for emotional harm, and with so little depth of thought, and with such a one-sided (and flawed) argument, is just the kind of dangerous hubris that gives the tech industry a bad name.

Why is Messina’s argument flawed?  

First, he erects a straw man, the “happily ever after” myth.  This apparently reveals his approach to relationships: they are only good while they are good.  This is a passive attitude, reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s view of them.  Surely anyone with any experience of a serious relationship knows that a rewarding partnership is not something that is preordained once you meet Mr or Ms Right.  It is about loving intentionally, every day.

Secondly, he very casually dismisses the obvious challenges of his position.  Being monogamish does not “diminish the integrity of our relationship”, but instead, it serves to “deepen our understanding of each other’s wants and desires, and give us the space to grow independently, without growing apart.”

Let us be happy for them, but I note with some trepidation that it has only been a year and a half.  I am not sure I would risk my marriage on such a small sample size in my A/B test of life (although I do sincerely hope that his and his partner’s experiences remain positive – I wish only happiness).  It seems very likely to me that people could easily experience jealousy, however.  Perhaps this is Messina’s appeal to our higher, Burning Man self: to be above jealousy (which is surely what free love was telling us in the 60s). Perhaps he is simply a very confident lover.  Or perhaps he just hasn’t thought about it much yet.

More broadly, many relationships are not perfectly equal: men earn more money everywhere on earth.  Biological clocks tick.  Looks fade.  Career prospects change.  We get sick.  In short, marriage vows exists for a reason.  I can imagine one partner in a relationship reading the CNN article and broaching the topic, claiming that it will not necessarily affect their relationship if he starts seeing other people too.  His partner’s response to that question may be a factor of both the appeal of the idea and the degree of security they feel in the relationship.  The idea, in other words, may be corrosive.

Thirdly, his analysis is a curious advert for technology-mediated social change.  I am still struggling to understand how much of this was self-parody (I do not know Chris Messina, but evidently he is a successful and clever chap and as the CNN piece reminds us not once, but twice, he is the “inventor of the hashtag”).  His choice of language, of monogamy as a “product”, of sex being “unbundled” from it and of romantic partners being “fungible” all seem to make his argument absurd, to be willfully clumsy metaphors or outright category errors.  Perhaps I am taking the whole thing too seriously -after all, the accompanying video has the host, Laurie Segall, telling us, “we’re lucky enough to be sitting with the dude that invented the hashtag”, while standing up.

The case for monogamy

Now, let us not say people shouldn’t have these relationships, but they absolutely should not do so on such flimsy understanding of possible consequences, underestimate what lasting romance can mean to their lives, and give up monogamy the way they give up their privacy when they log onto Facebook.

I agree on some things.  Our environment has changed.  We tend to believe less in gods.  We tend to look less to political ideologies for guidance on what is right.  And we risk finding less meaning in our lives beyond being cultivated consumers.  So what do you hang your soul on?

A lasting, meaningful relationship is hard work.  You don’t meet the one person in all creation intended for you.  You become that person.  You choose to devote yourself, and you keep on choosing to, and devotion without sacrifice is meaningless, as is monogamy without a desire for others.

If human progress is anything, it is our ability not to opt for the satisfaction all of our immediate desires.  True devotion to another person is, I believe, just about the highest state it is possible for us to reach, not the lowest, as Rand asserts.  If you are able to do that, if you master your desire, you have mastered yourself.  Not everything need be vanity.

I am no absolutist and if we do not harm others or behave towards them without their consent, then I do believe we should be able to do as we please.  But such decisions should be done thoughtfully, and the most important decisions in your life should not be treated like an A/B test in a social networking service.

My final appeal would be this.  There does seem to me to be an inherent contradiction between the need to preserve emotional distance from a sexual partner who is not your main partner and what most people understand as the idea of “romance”.  I hope we never surrender the notion that is a certain something in human emotional connections that will forever resist analytics.  Sexual partners may indeed, as Messina forecasts, become “fungible” -but let us agree that romantic ones never will.


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How do you refute Determinism?

I’m currently reading PubMatic’s 2015 Programmatic Outlook Report.  It’s good reading for anyone thinking about Mozilla’s place in the future of digital media and our role with respect to advertising.  This paragraph in Matthew Shevach’s essay, “Should Publishers Fear The New Walled Gardens?”, caught my attention:

Consumers are required to use their real identify on Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon… There is no way to stay anonymous within the deterministic ecosystems that currently exist… Each of the big four providers have integrated their own unique user identification platform into their advertising systems so that they can address ads to each consumer in a deterministic fashion.  No guesswork here.  They know exactly who you are.

Tracing the implications of this, Shevach continues

Publishers would need to set up shop within one of the walled gardens, charge for services, or slowly wither away on the small share of ad dollars they can attract…Do we want a world where only a few big media companies own the entire ecosystem for publishing and advertising?

In other words, on our current trajectory, Shevach is describing a possible world where the Internet allows for no privacy and the Web offers no economic opportunity.  I agree with him on all counts apart from his use of the term “deterministic”.

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Sen-Sa-Shun as recorded by Freddie King

Meant to post this sooner.   I just about get through this, but I don’t quite manage to summon up the presence of the big man, whom I regard as the greatest blues guitarist of them all.

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Thanking all bus drivers on behalf of Mozilla

I’m just back from Mozlandia, our informal all hands coincidental work week in Portland, Oregon.  In terms of what I got out of the event, I think this may be the best of its kind that I have attended.

On Friday evening, a curious thing happened.  I was sitting with Pierros and Dietrich in the salubrious Hilton hotel lobby.   We were accosted by a man who seemed in something of a rush, and who, by his appearance (specifically, the uniform he was wearing), was a bus driver.  He asked if we were from Mozilla.  We confirmed that we were.  He then thanked us for the work we were doing for net neutrality.

I often read people describing themselves as “proud and humbled” in our industry.  I have to confess, I have every bit as hard a time getting my head around how pride can be humble as Yngwie Malmsteen does with the idea that “less is more”.  I can, however, relate to the idea of taking pride in being humble.  And this was such a moment for me.

There are many people who know much, much more about net neutrality and its implications for the future of the internet than I do.  But still, I expect myself to know more about the topic than our friendly, Oregonian bus driver.  And so I find myself asking the question, “What is he expecting from net neutrality?”.  I believe that his expectations will amount to the internet progressing much as it has to date.  He probably expects there to be no overall controller, no balkanisation of access and content, and maybe he is even optimistic enough to hope that the internet will not give rise to the acceptance of widespread surveillance.

But I am guessing.  Guessing because I didn’t have time to ask him, (he pretty much flew through that lobby), and also because I am not entirely sure myself of what we can expect from net neutrality.  What troubles me is that “net neutrality” might be a placeholder for some, meaning not just net neutrality, but also a lot of the other aspects of a more – how do we put it – equitable internet.  At the moment, net neutrality is both disrupting the old order, but also giving rise to new empires, vaster and more powerful than those they are replacing.  Now, all empires fall: the ancient Romans, the British, Bell Telecommunications, even the seemingly invincible Liverpool FC of the 1970s and 1980s.  All empires fall.  The question is, “what will be their legacy?”.   It isn’t an easy question to answer, and the parallels between the carve-up of the unindustrialised world and the formation and destruction of nation states in the preceding centuries is a gloomy place to look for metaphors, some of which (balkanisation) have already entered our everyday language.

What I do know is that the bus driver expects Mozilla to do the right thing.  We have his trust.

I believe all of the paid staff at Mozilla are aware of our good fortune to be able to work with ideas and inventions that can shape the future of the internet in ways that we identify with, in ways that we want to believe in.   And as Ogden Nash put it, “People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up.”  Working full-time in the tech industry has its hardships, but I can think of tougher places.  We have much be grateful for.

And so, when a bus driver thanks us for our service, I feel compelled to offer my gratitude in return.  We trust bus drivers to know where we want to go, and to get us there safely.  What do they trust us to do?

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Is the Web dying?

This article may or may not be pay-walled, depending on how you arrive at it.   It is an exploration of the shift to apps.

The history of computing is companies trying to use their market power to shut out rivals, even when it’s bad for innovation and the consumer….That doesn’t mean the Web will disappear. Facebook and Google still rely on it to furnish a stream of content that can be accessed from within their apps. But even the Web of documents and news items could go away. Facebook has announced plans to host publishers’ work within Facebook itself, leaving the Web nothing but a curiosity, a relic haunted by hobbyists.

This is something I was getting at with my post yesterday: that advertising remains one of the Web’s unique selling points.  It is much more effective as an advertising platform than mobile apps are.  At the moment, the Internet giants extract an enormous amount of value from the content on the Web, using it to drive engagement with their services.  The Web has very low barriers to entry, but economic sustainability is difficult and the only proven revenue model appears to be advertising at scale.  The model needs liberating.

(Note: The source of this article, the Wall Street Journal, may appear to refute that, (given it has a paywall), but I believe that their model is essentially freemium and it isn’t clear to me what revenues they derive from subscription customers.)


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Many people don’t know/didn’t realise/don’t care/already know/already know and didn’t care, but I am back full time with Mozilla after a hiatus of a number of months.  In fact, I jumped at the chance to join Mozilla’s Content Services team and after a fairly short conversation with Darren, Mozilla VP of Content Services, I knew it was what I wanted to do.

I feel very happy to be back, and I wanted to put a few thoughts on paper about my motivation.  I think back to a conversation I had earlier this year in Barcelona with Alina, someone who always expands my thinking.  I believe in the web.  I believe in Mozilla’s efforts to maintain its importance in how the Internet is developed and consumed.  I believe it is entirely preferable to the reemergence of technological islands, walled gardens, empires, (call them what you will).  And yet, from a different perspective, isn’t the web evidently facilitating such empires anyway?

Taking it further: the web, this incredible creation that has enriched our lives in ways we could not have imagined for ourselves previously, is also an agent of economic and cultural imperialism, in the same way that free trade and liberalised capital markets arguably have been in the 1980s and 1990s?  I realise that many Mozillians will have an inherent faith in market solutions and I certainly believe in free trade…up to a point.

People will identify Content Services with advertising.  And how do I feel about advertising in general?  About the same way as when I first read J.K. Galbraith on the subject, over 20 years ago. Advertising troubled Galbraith, even in 1958 when he first published The Affluent Society.  Advertising gives cultural force to the means of production.  Or as he put it, “wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied”.  That is, advertising is the means by which supply creates demand.  It allows capital to influence our psyche and creates new cultural barriers to market entry.  In 2014, it’s hard to imagine an economy without advertising.  And while I do not entirely share Naomi Klein’s wholly negative views on what brands mean, I do find that idea that so many of our cultural signifiers are created with the purpose of persuading us to consume x in preference to y to be more than a little uncomfortable.

Given that perspective, why Content Services?  Well, Content Services is that it is not all about advertising.  Content Services will help deliver Mozilla a new voice for its community and with its users.  But saying that, the most important thing for Content Services is advertising.  That is because advertising is the most important economic activity on the web – by a long way.

Look at what advertising has enabled on the web.  How much content is free to consume as a consequence of federated advertising?  Many Firefox user choose to block adverts, and other people round on those users for failing to honour the implicit contract between the publisher and the reader.  I am not sure I subscribe to that point of view entirely, but to fail to view advertising as an exchange of value between the user and the website is to be disingenuous.  And it is something that the web does extraordinarily well – and at scale, and on an aggregated basis.  It has empowered the user, and the search engine, the social network, and it has wreaked havoc on publishers.

Almost every user of the web enjoys a huge consumer surplus.  That is, they would pay far more for the web than it costs them (once you’ve paid for access to the network, you “pay” almost nothing to use the web).  And some consumers enjoy a much larger surplus than others.  Typically, richer consumers, who have a higher propensity to pay, transmit an effective subsidy to poorer consumers who would have a lower propensity to pay.  And this aggregated arbitrage is a good thing. Generally.

Except that it has given rise to incalculably powerful and valuable empires.  These empires might be defined as the ones who own the user’s identity.  The ones you log in to, who know the most about you, about what you do, who you know and what you read.  Empires which extract value from all of the industries they touch, from online publishers to mobile network operators and ISPs.  I must stress none of this is a criticism of a Google or a Facebook: they have delivered huge utility and have successfully exploited their market positions.  But it is notable that a company with no significant patents or copyrights, nor indeed revenues, and which employed a reported 55 people could be valued at $19Bn. It is reasonable to suppose, under such circumstances, that there are major externalities generated by this business, or that this business is a significant free rider, which almost all internet business are: something those of use who support net neutrality implicitly agree is a good thing (I do not intend the term pejoratively).

What are the externalities?  As we’re fond of telling each other, if you’re not paying, you’re the product.  The price we pay is our attention and exposure to adverts, and knowledge about ourselves.  We are being broken down, analysed, reassembled as segments, profiles, tracked as individuals and as sub-markets and, yes, being spied upon.  Some people are relaxed about this, perhaps feeling that they have nothing to hide, and besides, they haven’t even come for the Socialists yet…

What’s more, the cultural impact is abysmal.  In the old world, advertising inventory was finite, confined to the space for adverts on billboards, in newspapers and so on.  When the Mozilla community created its iconic New York Times advert, it was an incredible demonstration of the power of a community – placing such an advert cost real money.  But in the online world, inventory is flexible, and theoretically infinite.  You can grow your inventory by retaining users, get getting more clicks.  And you do this by writing clickbait headlines, by instrumenting your users, by taking your publication downmarket, by designing your site so that one article extends over multiple webpages, and so on and so forth.  The effects on our culture are obvious.  The effects on our psyche, we’re only just starting to understand.

And then, there is a battle over online privacy.  Or perhaps, more aptly, an arms race.  Privacy measures are met with counter-measures.  Tracking cookies, which still seem important today, may seem positively anodyne in years to come.  The more intimacy we gain with the internet, and the more capabilities it assumes, the deeper and deeper this problem becomes.

So, where does all this leave us?  Well, there is another Mozillian I would mention who has frequently inspired me: former CEO John Lilly.  Almost exactly four years ago, John gave a talk for the House of Commons, in which he presciently suggested that just as troubling as the Orwellian aspects of the internet are, so to should be aware of the dangers of a culture that is amusing us into bovine submission. John is a man who reads books, and as he points out, the internet is as much Brave New World as 1984.  And John also spelled out the importance for mass participation in the creation of counter-measures to this.  Actually, just go and read his post again, if you haven’t already.

Advertising on the web is a problem, it risks trivialising our culture, creating a mass surveillance system and is supporting new forms of digital empires.  And yet, it is better than the alternatives: all this economic value being pushed to proprietary technology platforms.  And it is in danger: it is in danger of being unpalatable in a modern democracy, and of being superseded by proprietary technologies with even worse consequences.  That is why Mozilla has to act, and why it is entirely appropriate that we involve ourselves in this industry.  It is why we should conceive and build solutions to these problems, and look to empower all parts of the internet ecosystem that generate value for the consumer.  This problem is our problem.  We must not just try to wish it out of existence.

Our first duty is clear: it is to the Firefox user, and the trust they have in Mozilla.  It would not be right that we would send our users to whichever service on the internet and rule out-of-scope the consequences for them (and nor do we).  We build Firefox users the tools to be in charge of their experience.  But we must help instantiate the rest of the world we want to see, bringing advertisers and publishers who share these values into the Mozilla community.  We will understand their needs, and where they are transparent, where they scale and support heterogeneity, where they offer a reasonable, knowable and workable exchange of value, we should finds ways to facilitate them.  Until that happens, the concentration of power on the internet will only continue.  And honestly, who else but Mozilla is going to address this problem?

And more important to me than any of this, is to be working side-by-side again with my many wonderful friends at Mozilla.


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