Purpose, Joy, Capability


The bubble isn’t what kills you

There is no point in debating whether we are in a financial bubble or not. The bubble isn’t the crisis. A flood on its own doesn’t make a disaster. For destruction and havoc, what you need is a political climate that squashes attempts to discuss flood risk in the first place. The flood isn’t what kills you. It’s the lack of preparation and protection that does you in.

We have a smorgasbord of risk mitigation available to us. We can both prevent bubbles and to prevent existing bubbles from having a catastrophic effect if we want to. We don’t even have to know whether we are in a bubble or not. Most of the tactics limit potential damage by slowing things down. Because limiting the damage also limits the maximum upside for investors — maximum upside, not the upside for the average or even median investor — that unfortunately gives them an incentive to squash any and all talk of a bubble on sight.

It’s short-sighted, of course, but everybody thinks they’re the winner.

But it isn’t the bubble that gets you. Exiling all talk of risk mitigation is like reacting to concerns about car speeding by not only refusing to set a speed limit but by also banning seat-belts and airbags. Without risk mitigation, a crash at any speed will kill you.

The right response to concerns about a bubble isn’t “no we’re not, go away and stop complaining” but “let’s assume for the moment that we are; what precautions should we take?”

Discussion, criticism, and scepticism about risky behaviour is an ongoing process. It isn’t a one-time event you have to time to take place only at exactly the moment when everybody agrees there is a problem. Discussing risk is how we live and survive in a world full of risk. This ongoing debate is one of our safety nets. What we want isn’t a world where it is safe to ask whether we’re in a bubble or not but a world where it doesn’t matter — a world that already has all of the necessary risk mitigation and regulation in place.

The standardisation holding pattern

Very few problems are solved by committee. Standardisation and specification are useless — worse than useless — when the problem isn’t a disagreement of means and methods but of purpose and goals. Settling on a standard is easy when everybody has the same general purpose and almost impossible when they don’t. The web is buckling under the weight of becoming a generic platform shared by a variety of industries, each with their own divergent goals. There are only so many ways this can be solved:

  1. Change the goals. Not everybody who is using the web has goals that are particularly compatible with the web platform as it exists and is practiced. The we doesn’t need these companies to thrive and would be better off if they either burned to the ground or had the decency to adapt properly to the platform.
  2. Slow down and simplify. Let things mature for a while. Let the platform’s fault lines be revealed through experience and experimentation. Let the implementors run around and squash bugs for a while.
  3. Stick to solving small problems — micro-problems even — that are common to a variety of scenarios. Hard because people tend to disagree more strongly on smaller problems than on the big ones. People disagree on solutions to big problems but, because their discomfort thresholds vary so wildly, they disagree on the existence of small problems.
  4. Standardise and specify toolmaking instead of specific solutions: ways to look fore, explore, and implement your own means. This is the idea that is giving us CSS Houdini (let’s you peak under the CSS rendering hood), service workers (customise network behaviour and caching), and custom elements (custom behaviour for arbitrary markup).

None of these paths are easy and estimating any one path’s chance of success in advance is impossible. Normally, this would be fine as you’d just pick a path that matches the values you hold. But we’re at a moment in the history of the web platform where a bad specification or two could derail the entire platform and turn it into an inaccessible enterprise plaything.

The Layer Cake

Like a weed growing on the undisturbed edges of the economy, a new media proto-industry has sprouted out of the mulch of the various self-service commerce platforms that clutter up the internet. This dandelion is a creation that doesn’t scale as high as its predecessors — it doesn’t have its J.K. Rowling and probably never will — but, like the internet it is built on, it lends itself to sharply defined edges, niches, and fringes.

Traditional media simply has no path or place for, say, a queer horror comic or a genderqueer youtube sitcom. Even the relatively small amounts of money these projects get through Patreon or Kickstarter are more than they would ever have gotten through the traditional system. To the old system they exist to serve as a subservient framing structure — what Derrida called a parergon — that exists to separate the dominant mainstream out from its surroundings and clarify it. The question for those in the new industry isn’t whether they’ll earn more money doing it the indie way or the traditional way. It is a question of viability versus non-viability. It’s a classic case of, to paraphrase Alan Kay, technology making the difficult easier and the impossible, possible.

Instead of being divided between a small number of identical players like the traditional creative industries — e.g. in publishing where half a dozen integrated publishers sell to half a dozen centrally managed retail chains — the new creative industry is a layer cake of complementary aggregators that each dominates their respective category: Patreon for subscriptions; Kickstarter for projects that require capital; Amazon’s KDP for ebooks; Etsy for custom crafted goods; and Amazon’s Comixology for comics.

There are now two ways for a writer to diversify their income:

  1. Self-publish on KDP alongside working with as many traditional publishers as you can muster. For many this is not an option due to publisher disinterest. (For example, if all of a publisher’s major retail partners are focused on selling to the middle class, none of them will be interested in books that target minorities or the working class.)
  2. Build or participate in a community of interest and diversify your income across the various platforms of the layer cake.

To go down the second path, many authors would have to completely change and transform what they do and the way they work. The layer cake relies on a foundation of free stuff, posted online, coupled with regular community participation. Which is impossible for many and tough for most.

Mike Masnick over at Techdirt describes it like this: Connect with Fans (CwF) + Reason to Buy (RtB) = The Business Model. Which tells us exactly why it’s hard for many existing artists and creators. Connecting with fans is the hard, unpaid, unloved foundation layer of this new process that they’ve never had to do on their own before. Many of them can’t do it or simply don’t want to. These platforms aren’t for them. They are for the creators and artists who fit the traditional models as badly as the traditionally-minded fit the new community-oriented model. They are for the freaks and weirdos, the dark horses and the fringes, the minorities and the excluded. This is for anybody who would have been ghettoised or excluded from the traditional system. They are the people that the layer cake is made for.

How does this affect the traditional system of integrated publishers?

I honestly do not know. I don’t care any more either. I used to care a lot, but not any more.

For most of the projects in the layer cake, the traditional system is simply a non-starter. They wouldn’t survive there and the traditionally-minded don’t know what to do with them. What little crossover there is between the two is, I suspect, temporary and will fade as the two diverge. Youtube celebrity books are likely to be as much of a fad as adult colouring books or Tumblr blog books a few years ago.

Professionalism

Whenever an entire industry or profession is branded as ‘unprofessional’, odds are that it’s a field dominated by minorities and women. You can make a pretty accurate guess on which parts of society benefit the most from self-service commerce platforms just from where the media places them on an arbitrary gradient from ‘professional’ to ‘unprofessional’.

It isn’t all good.

These new platforms have for some mad reason decided to become our new moral police, and their puritanical zeal disproportionally affects women and minorities. All of the major platforms unnecessarily block legal sex work and sexually-related work — well beyond what is required by either the credit card companies or regulation.

Women and minorities dominate sex work and related industries. The layer cake of self-service commerce integrates creators on the individual level (as opposed to publisher) and, in the sex industry as well as in publishing, this lets workers bypass intermediaries who can often be exploitative and abusive.

When these services go overboard on policing or banning otherwise legal services for vague moral reasons, they are missing out on a big opportunity for reducing overall harm to and increasing the autonomy of an entire class of frequently exploited workers.

Remember, I’m talking here about sex work that is legal throughout the west and yet blocked by most, if not all, of these platforms. I am talking about the line all western governments have agreed on, not the grey and complicated line they disagree on (i.e. prostitution). Even art forms that are relatively staid in sex work terms like burlesque or erotic comics are having a hard time getting through the blocks in place at many of these platforms.

Clay’s Catch

I sometimes wonder if we all wouldn’t have been better off had Clayton Christensen been a fly-by-night hotshot management consultant instead of a staid academic. The phenomenon he stumbled upon — how disruptive innovations fuck shit up for incumbent companies in ways that are hard to un-fuck — and has dedicated his life to studying is more of a management anti-pattern than a fundamental principle of economics. It’s a symptom of a perverse tendency to optimise for the status quo that has been a management orthodoxy throughout the modern era.

The one constant — the one thing you have been able to count on happening — throughout the past two centuries has been recurring, dramatic, and often destructive change. In spite of this, the single overriding principle of modern management practice — management theory being still largely a collection of superstitions and just-so case studies that more resemble Catholicm catechisms than rigorous study — has been that of value and profit maximisation. Which can’t be done without optimising the organisation for the perceived status quo. Which makes it incredibly fragile. Which tightly couples it to its surrounding context under the assumption that the context won’t change.

Disruptive innovations and the havoc they wreak on incumbents is a symptom of this more general malaise afflicting our management practice. It’s a field stuck in the leaches-and-bloodletting phase of practice after having left the even less effective witchcraft-and-superstition phase with the onset of industrialisation.

This makes the multi-book “Theory of Disruptive Innovations” shebang an observation more akin to the Peter Principle or Parkinson’s Law — on a good day maybe even approaching the usefulness of Gall’s Law — than anything resembling scientific observation.

I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off had Clayton Christensen been a celebrity management consultant hammering out a profile-boosting book of business aphorisms instead of a serious academic text. Then he would have spend maybe a page or two explaining the idea before boiling it down to a nice catchphrase with a pithy name. Something like:

Clay’s Catch: if you adapt too much to where you are, you won’t adapt to where you go.

Iceland

Iceland as a small culture

I have no idea how these changes — media disruptions and crowdfunding — are going to play out back home in Iceland. For the fringes of a small culture to benefit from these innovations they have to translate and homogenise themselves to some extent. In doing so they risk losing the very identity that gives them meaning. They could end up as pastiches of their home culture, appealing to the global fringe by redefining themselves as a mashup of alt. culture and regional stereotypes. Whether this can be solved without sacrificing what makes small cultures unique remains an unanswered question.

Iceland as an icon of rebellion

That Iceland has turned into a major anti-capitalist legend online for our actions after our economic collapse is a constant source of wonder for many regular Icelanders. Where others see heroic action, we see incompetent politicians bumbling their way to do the absolute bare minimum required. Investigating a major collapse, whether of a building or an economy, to see if malfeasance or foul play had a role in it is the absolute very least you can do in a democratic society. Instead of analysing Iceland’s bafflingly unique response to the crisis, a more interesting question is: why didn’t politicians in other countries accomplish this same bare minimum?

When large financial institutions not only avoid investigation for suspected crimes but even go completely without meaningful punishment when they are actually caught in the act, the natural conclusion to draw is that they are the ones in charge. The authorities work for them, not for us. When banks walk away scot-free from direct support and participation in an illegal global system of violence and murder, it’s clear that we live in a plutocracy and not any form of democracy. (I say ‘we’ because I live in the UK, not in Iceland which is more accurately a nepotistic-but-democratic vassal state of an international plutocracy.) Money is the power in our society. Which is fine if you expect to have or get money, but sucks hard for the rest of us.

Living without money in a plutocracy is bad enough. An additional worry is that this dynamic is very unstable. The plutocratic system, lead by money, is driven by the same value maximisation fallacy as modern management. The plutocracy doesn’t account for shocks, economic crises, resource depletion, misallocation of necessities, or crisis migration (otherwise known as ‘a bunch of refugees all over the place’). The plutocracy does a piss poor job of building and maintaining infrastructure — sees it as an inefficient use of money. These flaws increase the odds of mass societal dissatisfaction and opens our politics up to extremists. When moderates are locked out of the plutocrat-controlled media, the extremists — with their lack of regard for the system in place — begin to look like the only viable alternative to many.

We are locked in a destructive cycle with no obvious peaceful way out.

Reactionary Lutherans

There’s a story somewhere in Iceland’s transformation from the relatively hardline and reactionary Lutheran society it was, sixty or seventy years ago, to the progressive aspiring-to-be-egalitarian place it is today. The Iceland my grandmother grew up in was closer in its puritanism to the US than it ever was the other Nordic countries. As late as the 80s, coming out as a gay celebrity in Iceland meant you had to flee the country.

Other countries were and are worse, but I’m curious to know how many other countries have made the same transition from universally pretty-bad to universally not-to-shabby in only a few decades. Probably more than you’d expect. It seems like the thing people would take for granted.

Today, gay pride is one of Iceland’s biggest family events, in many ways more popular and less divisive than our Independence Day. There’s a story somewhere in all of this — something with a nice and constructive message — but I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly where.

Speaking of independence day: helvítis Danir. A surefire way to develop a dislike for a group of people is to read about how that group systematically oppressed your group of people. It isn’t a healthy dislike to develop because modern Danes obviously had no hand in the systematic starvation of many generations of Icelanders.

Then again…

As I rush to brush blame away from modern Danes I’m reminded of the mess they’ve made and been making in Greenland and the Faroe Islands. And they are the sort who vote for people with horrible ideas for doing horrible things.

So I’m back where I started: helvítis Danir.

Iceland has been independent for seventy years. We’re still angry and resentful about our oppression at danish hands. If historical oppression leaves such scars, I can’t begin to fathom the wound that is living with oppression. Nor can I fault people for the rage it must inspire.

The people of a food-producing country only getting a below-subsistence share of the food their country produced is a recurring pattern of oppression throughout history.

In case you ever wondered why Iceland’s traditional national foods are offal and badly preserved seafood, dishes the ruling nations considered utterly inedible, now you know why.

Knowing the difference

There are things you can change and there are things you cannot. The problem with pithy aphorisms popularised by quacks is that we are woefully bad at recognising which is which, no matter what stage of change we’re at. Easy fixes lie untouched for years and at the same time we repeatedly shatter our bodies against cliffs that are as good as eternal. Appearances deceive and there is no way for us to know whether we are on the cusp of success or if all we are doing is pour our heart’s blood on the un-cracked rock-face for all to see. The problem doesn’t lie in our mistaken perceptions or in our flawed analyses but in our very framing of what we are. The thing to change — the goal to achieve — does not matter. What matters is what you do and how you do it. Life is composed of our actions, not our successes or failures. Achievements and disappointments are the punctuation, not the substance, of life. What matters is that purpose, joy, and capability combine to become an imperative for turning recurring action into craft.

  • Ongoing purpose, not an end goal, that gives the action meaning even if the goal is not fulfilled.
  • Joy, not love. Work can’t love you back and unrequited love is toxic. Work without any enjoyment rarely has meaning.
  • Capability, because meaning also comes from doing the best we can with what we have.

This is what I do. This is who I am. Work must have meaning beyond its final product. In life, the end never justifies the means because the only end is death.


Originally published at www.baldurbjarnason.com on January 4, 2016.