Everything old is new again

Weeknotes 38: The past comes back to poke us in the eye.

Andy Baio takes the stage at XOXO 2018. Photograph by Tom Coates (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Live long enough in a job and you’ll see everything get resurrected, reapproached, or regurgitated. No idea is original, we’re told, and it is true… more or less. But what usually does change is the timing, the context, and the way it’s delivered.

This past week brought up a lot of feelings about this. There was XOXO 2018, the festival of digital creativity in Portland that occupied my weekend. I bumped into lots of new people, and it was exciting, but seeing some former coworkers — as well as running into folks I got to know a decade or more ago — really helped that feeling of recurrence erupt. I saw old friends from Medium and we caught up, shared war stories, pondered current strategies (some of which look and feel very familiar.) We’re seeing so many of the same ideas return, I thought, and our vantage point seemed to emphasize what had been before.

Then I saw the news that the Guardian, clearly wanting to challenge The Daily from the New York Times, was launching a daily news and current affairs podcast — “for the first time ever.”

It isn’t the first time. It’s not even the second. The Guardian, of course, has done this before: It was one of the first news organizations that went in hard on podcasts. Fuck, man, we even coined the word podcast in the Graun’s weekly technology print supplement.

I was one of the early crew in this arena, working on Science Weekly, and later Tech Weekly. It was a while ago, and by god we were casting around in the dark a lot. But we were there, and so were others, working on daily news— Jon Dennis, Matt Wells, Ros Taylor, Andy Duckworth… and a host more. And we were trying, and we were learning. I left the newspaper before there was a great purge and a pivot-to-video moment, but it struck me as terribly sad that nobody remembered these efforts a decade ago, or stood up for their memory.

It made me realize how much history gets thrown away as institutions shed their longstanding staff. It made me think of all of the things that have been learned get lost when we ignore the memories in favor of the shiny new. I readily admit to having been that bullish everything-must-be-brand-new person, but these days I think it’s much smarter to spend time really learning the history of a company or a place — or your colleagues — to understand why things are the way they are.

(Adam Tinworth and James Cridland picked up on this, among others, and the G ended up making a correction. I’m glad.)

All of this stirred at the same time as I’ve been digging into history for work projects. One that I’m working on, let’s call it Project Rialto, is a rather epic journalistic inquiry into the last 20 years of technology and society, has involved me asking plenty of people to retread decisions they made in the past. It’s also got me reading things like Disney corporate strategy documents from the 1950s. It’s fun to be writing again, and an extremely illuminating topic.

And then there’s Anxy, where the next issue is turning out to be a lot of fun, with some unexpected participants, a few new faces, and a lot of working out why we have done what we’ve done over the past two years or so. Turns out keeping institutional memories alive is important, for all kinds of reasons, even when you’re operating at small scale.

Culturally this past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing more on the social side than the consumption side. XOXO was intense, back and bigger than ever, and the setup meant I could finally actually enjoy the digital art, board games, and other elements that had usually been impossible for me to get into. Overall I’m still processing the event, and its impact. I feel unsure what I came away with, but it was enjoyable.

Most of my reading has been work-related (highlights include re-reading Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci, and making my way Custodians of the Internet by Tarleton Gillespie) but I also made time to crash through Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, which left me disturbed in a way I’m still not quite able to put my finger on. I wasn’t a huge fan of the prose, but the lack of resolution made me hungry by the end. I’m also just finishing up Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hariri, which has been on the reading list for a long time but I’d never gotten round to it.

I’ve discovered that Kindle reading is good for big tome-like books, because I don’t get distracted by the number of pages left to read. Sapiens is fun, and its zoomed-out view of history is entertaining. It feels a little dated thanks to the political swirl of the last few years, and the biological determinism at the end has me asking questions… but as a broad pop philosophical treatise it seems to work.