Generation M: an Unmanifesto

The below is my attempt to remove the frothy and breathless tone from “Generation M manifesto” by Umair Haque, because I liked it in many ways. It is definitely more boring, but I hope more real as well. I don’t believe any manifesto can express the right amount of humility towards these questions, but it can emphasize belief in the possibility for something better, so I focused on that.
Dear gradualists, ideologues, and partisans,
We are in a time of large differences between groups, young and old, east and west, rich and poor, but one where many of the traditional ideologies seem to have been scrambled both by a global economy and crisis and fundamental changes in how information is shared through technology.
Everyday, we see the costs of doing the same things. It looks like some big, new, and huge problems are looming, but the solutions that are talked about are old, timeworn, and plain unambitious.
Old ideas of generational shift and left/right politics no longer seem to work. We can’t use simple terms in this new, hypercomplex and interdependent world. We need a new way of seeing and strengthening the relationships we have, not a manifesto of ideas.
These times demand not single solutions, but systems of solutions, involving less large-scale business and more individual opportunity. Less ideology, and more practicality.
Businesses and governments must get connected to and become responsive to a public that is comfortable using social tools to express themselves in massive ways. The hyper-connected “sea of green” in Tehran is the model for a new, speeded-up politics.
Much of this new world no longer requires massive capital or leverage to work, and banks should play a smaller and more supporting role. A smaller role for finance means less focus on lucrative return.
The huge accumulation of risk and the massive gaming of global markets resulted in crisis. This should drive a lot of wealth away from financial instruments and towards tangible, collective works and accomplishments that everyone can benefit from.
Growth as a goal incentivizes distortion. We should prize flexibility and agility, so that no matter which way the markets go, business can prosper and act to benefit everyone.
Rather than nurturing a few elites (or even oligarchs), the new economy should be a huge number of distributed markets. It wouldn’t be entirely controllable, and those that would want to profit from it will have to compete for influence just like everyone else.
We’ve seen the consequences of short-term thinking in spending and debt and felt the pain; now we should start working on ideas that are built to last a generation, not 5 years.
Our sense of ourselves has moved too far towards what we can do as individuals; it’s time to nurture some shared beliefs, projects, and experiences.

Our culture should connect us to our shared past, and remind us that when it comes to the most meaningful things for human beings, there’s usually nothing new under the sun.

In order to provide some label for what’s needed, let’s call it Generation “M.”
This is not a movement in the traditional sense (our society is too distributed one manifesto, one protest, one set of ideas). It’s more the recognition that a new set of norms is needed for a new time, the recognition of a shift. It’s the belief that we can come up with practical ways to live and work together that do a better job at caring for each other.
Ideologies and manifestos will always run up against their own logical extremes. Gen M is the belief that innovative ideas married with historical consciousness and brutal practicality can be vastly more powerful, and meaningful.
Big changes will be necessary. The institutions and norms that we’ve lived within for a long time are too fragile to pass on to our children.
Since the end of the Cold War, we’ve lived with cheap, easy, expensive lifestyle, but one that was empty of meaning and for which we have little to show. Every age has a large responsibility, and this, I think, is ours: to foot the bill for yesterday’s profligacy — and to create, instead, an authentically, sustainably shared prosperity.
Anyone — young or old — can answer it. Generation M is more about what you do and who you are than when you were born. So the question is this: do you want to build the new relationships, businesses, and systems we need? Or do you want to keep repeating the same old ideologies, marching in protests, or clinging to dying institutions?

sharable media design convergence

Twitter, Friendfeed, and Facebook have seemingly converged on what has become the major reason to be connected to others on a social network: sharing short updates, links, photos, etc. A concept for mozilla’s Firefox also looks similar, and lifts ideas from iTunes to help organize things. The designs share some major elements:

  1. Publisher an area to enter some text, a url, or other media, to publish it out to friends or the public.
  2. Items an area where items are listed, either most popular or latest items, or some subset of items
  3. Sets an area where the set of items to show is chosen; it can be all items, items from certain friends or other sources, or user-created sets
  4. Notifications two of the designs have an area to surface notifications, recommendations, alerts, or otherwise push to the user stuff that might be interesting

I like this design convergence, if only because establishing a vernacular for these kinds of sharable media apps will lead to more familiarity with the interface as more people start to use them, and form the basis for the next leap towards an interface that supports more sophisticated forms of sharing and publishing.

don’t hate the designers

Douglas Bowman had to quit Google, and Valleywag explains it all for you (to hell with Owen!). I had a similar experience at Yahoo, so I’m only surprised Douglas lasted this long. The comments on Valleywag are really sad though; a palpable hostility towards “precious,” “childish,” “short-sighted” designers (you can look for yourself, I’m not linkin’). A lot of product design is really bad, sometimes the designers get a chance to do something really good with a job, but not often.
Jared Spool, an Extremely Important Person, once told me over Pad Thai that “visual designers are just failed artists.” I took that personally, being a failed artist (heh), but didn’t understand why the “visual” distinction was necessary… I guess he would have to be a failed artist as well if he just said “designers”? Or he has to get the frustration of just speaking at conferences out somehow.
Facebook’s redesign inspires widespread unhappiness and derision. On Techcrunch, incredible bile is thrown at the designers. I can’t say I like it, but why does anyone think that Facebook is anything other than an ongoing experiment? Facebook users are not “customers,” they are collaborators in inventing new ways of being connected, and much is required of them sometimes. The new Facebook stuff is not very good, but at least they haven’t given up like Irene Au and the crew at Google.
I have attempted to be useful as a designer, and had enough failures and successes to know a good deal of humility. There’s no research method, process, innovation technique, conference presentation, or even extra-talented designer that magically makes good stuff.
UPDATE: Another comment thread at an article about designers quitting Google, filled with ignorant stuff. It really does seem that there is a cultural lack of understanding about design and what it is. I suppose the only real solution is to increase the overall cutlure’s understanding and ability to parse visual and experiential elements; then (and probably only then) will people want a specialist to make the choices about those things instead…

charity fraud

Our house gets calls at least once a week on behalf of several different charities, each with familiar-sounding names:

  • Breast Cancer Society
  • Cancer Fund of America
  • Children’s Cancer Fund Of America
  • Children’s Charitable Foundation
  • Detectives Benevolent Association
  • Disabled Veterans Services
  • Firefighters Assistance Fund
  • Foundation For American Veterans
  • Law Enforcement Alliance of America
  • National Children’s Leukemia Foundation
  • United States Navy Veterans Association

It turns out that the charities are very bad at what they do, handing out little money and paying a lot for fund raising to a telemarketing company called Associated Community Services. This means that only a small portion of the money donated goes to help anyone — ACS keeps the rest. For just the State of Washington, ACS raised $1,152,000, but was only able to pass $353,000 of that to its 14 client ‘charities’; the “Breast Cancer Society,” operating in several states, manages to devote just 3% of the money it raises to actual services, “Cancer Fund of America” manages 9%, and “Firefighters Assistance Fund” manages to spend just 5% of the money it raises on assistance. ACS has even harassed people while soliciting donations, it seems. While all of this is sounds like it should be illegal, it isn’t. The most that Attorneys General in Kentucky, Iowa, Conneticut, and Michigan have been able to do is make public warnings about the fundrasing.

Many sites have noted the suspicious nature of ACS or the charities, and amazingly representatives from ACS seem to be posting rebuttals and misinformation on some of them to try to obfuscate what they are doing. There’s a special circle of hell reserved for this company and its ilk.

Meal Ticket

Meal Ticket is a nice-sized breakfast and lunch place, with good food and comfortable tables. It’s on the pricey side, running about $10 per person (with a drink). There’s usually a wait for a table, then a line to order food and pay up-front (make sure you bring cash or a check, no cards accepted). But after that the staff is very conscientious and sweet in making sure you’re in good shape.

The food is a mix of home-style usuals and fancy takes on standard fare; omelets and other eggs, burgers, rich soups, and sandwiches, usually with one nice spicy twist or another. The blackboard near the entrance has a lot more choices and specials. It was hard to pick, everything looked good. I did wish mightily for a kid’s menu (or at least a kid’s portion; my four year-old can’t eat two pancakes!).

People like the patio out back with a nice mix of sun and shade in the summer, and I like the cooper-top tables inside (and the quirky collection of asian artifacts and local painting on the walls). The artichoke omelette was a good mix of strong tastes, but a little heavy. The shrimp po’ boy was great — perfectly cooked and just the right amount of spiciness. The buckwheat pancakes were too moist for me (but my little girl liked them just fine). Our cappuccinos were just okay. The cranberry lemonade was delicious.

I really liked the lived-in feel and personality of the place, but the prices make it more of a choice for taking guests out than a regular, home-style favorite.

Meal Ticket

Menu, from, main dishes are $6-10

1235 San Pablo Ave (just north of Gilman, on the east side of the street)
Berkeley, CA 94706, 510-526-6325

Open Wednesday through Friday 7am-3pm, Saturday and Sunday 8am-2pm, closed Mondays and Tuesdays

make news like the cable tv business, please

It seems like there is a fairly straightforward deal possible to save the business of putting out newspapers (the news is fine, doesn’t need to change!). Make it a much cheaper version of the cable business, where subscribers buy into a much-enhanced version of something they get a basic version of for free. Major ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, etc. could create a open news consortium that users could buy into by adding $2 to their monthly bill (this has nothing to do with network neutrality, by the way, just creating the same mechanism that supports free pop music radio).

Assuming that only 5% of broadband customers of the top 5 U.S. ISPs agree to that, that’s $120 million each year. If even just newspapers banded together for this, ISPs would have a strong business incentive to offer the surcharge to their subscribers. Any content provider with a certain level of traffic could offer their content only to subscribers of the consortium, splitting that dollar 50/50. This money would be paid out to content providers on a strict traffic basis. Providing content this way would be much more efficient than via paper, and the writers, editors, and photographers would be responsible to their audiences first, as it should be (with advertising revenue on top of that). And they could continue to provide news summaries and headlines to news aggregators like Google News.

It wouldn’t be the 40% margin of years-ago, but it would be a going concern. All that it would require would be placing the needs of the business as a whole above the fantasy that there is something basically wrong with journalism, Web sites, any particular newspaper, or an attachment to paper as media. And also the willingness to take action instead of letting things slide further towards… nothing.

snark: too big to fail?

Walter Kirn’s review of David Denby’s book Snark is pretty fun reading:

He wants to correct and restrain, using scholarship and logic, perhaps the keenest, most reflexive, prehistoric and anarchic of simple human pleasures, short of eating or achieving orgasm. The act of laughter, this would be. Or, for Denby, the act of low, illicit laughter — laughter enjoyed for the wrong reasons and provoked by the wrong lines. Whether laughter for the right reasons is even possible, given humor’s subversive, corrosive history, is a difficult philosophical question, of course, but Denby feels that it is. This follows from his belief that the impulses to giggle, grin and cackle (and the various means for stimulating these impulses) can be, and ought to be, consciously aligned with civic virtues and literary standards, lest our society laugh for no just cause, at jokes that aren’t witty enough to laugh at and that may even be plain stupid and malicious.

Yet, I think there is something missing in the book (which I haven’t read, of course) and the review. Snark is a good shorthand for humor that works on a sophisticated level, as sort of an end in itself. I think snarkiness is the Credit Default Swap or Mortgage-Backed Security of the cultural world– an instrument so complex and disconnected from anything valuable that it creates dangerously inflated markets for worthless exchange. Like a book Snark and the snarky review of the book Snark (and definitely a blog post about both!). So, from now on (much like the painfully earnest site SnarkMarket), I’m only going to use the term snark ironically.

some feedback for a K-8 school’s technology plan

A schooI’s technology plan I read is mostly about computers for students and teachers, other equipment, and goals for integrating equipment use into the classrooms and professional development plans, without describing what students would do with the computers. Some feedback I gave:

I like the quote from John See’s on the cover of the plan, start with the applications, not the technology:

Typically, technology committees go before school boards asking for a computer lab, or computers for classrooms. The first question board members will ask is, “Why do you need them?” Why not answer that question in the plan? It may be better to go to a school board saying, “This is what we want our students to be able to do”

I would imagine the applications kids use to be various combination of:

  • reading, researching, exploring
  • writing, editing, taking pictures, collecting research, making docs
  • sharing, messaging, commenting, evaluating
  • planning, calendaring, collaborating (via the above applications)

All of these are best done in a networked context, where a kid or teacher has their own space but can easily get or move information around. Basically, a Web site, or sites. And none of these are particularly well served by specialized software like Word or PowerPoint (in fact, the software is usually a distraction to the task I’d imagine). So, what’s really needed for the applications is:

  • A campus-wide wireless network, 54Mbps or so.
  • An internal and external Web server.
  • Any computer that can run Mozilla Firefox 3
  • A bunch of new Web sites that enable the above applications (could be built on top of an application server like Drupal)
  • A set of policies for learning contexts that govern what data and work can go from internal network out to the public Web, and vice versa

This is different in that:

  • A lot of fancy new computers are not needed (just more older ‘commodity’ computers that can run a good Web browser well)
  • No further work on the internal ethernet network is needed (better to replace ethernet with more wifi hubs or extenders)
  • The real time, resources, and energy should be spent on the Web-based applications that will be directly part of the curriculum, instead of equipment

And there are great alternatives to expensive computers:

  • Standardize on free, bulletproof software instead of a single hardware platform: a robust Web browser that can use Web-based applications like Firefox 3.
  • A 1 year-old refurbished Dell laptop with Ubuntu costs $400, new MacBook costs $949, but they have identical performance running Firefox.
  • Computers can be more easily maintained by standardizing on one simple configuration for everyone. If a computer is running badly, it can be wiped and re-imaged (instead of troubleshooting software installations).
  • Software can be limited to what’s free and available on all operating systems (Mac, Win, Linux): a Web browser like Firefox 3, a text editor, and media management applications like Songbird & Picasa.

in praise of assholes

Recently I’ve found myself having very unpleasant conversations with people about work. Often, both of us are in a bad situation, and there is no easy way to make the project better, only ‘least bad’ answers. It’s a negative situation. Dealing with the disappointment and upset in this situation often leads people to act badly, myself included. I push too hard, questioning people’s conclusions too much, and generally am a nuisance. One might even say an “asshole.” I am not mean, but probably irritating.

When I went to school and worked my first few jobs, demanding bosses were the norm. Animated discussions, arguments, and emotion were part of caring about the work. I had a boss who extracted good things out of bad situations on a regular basis. I hated him at first, but eventually grew to admire him and respect him. Bewilderingly, I no longer have passionate arguments with people about work. Instead, discussions and meetings are meant to reinforce decisions already made. Negativity is to be avoided, and any criticism is almost offensive (even if just in tone).

I certainly can understand the desire to make work fun, lighthearted and focus on the positive at work, but I think something was lost. Progress and good work doesn’t come easily. In fact, it’s really easy to do mediocre work when everyone is afraid of failing (and getting laid off). There are great people who can avoid that and still be full of sweetness and light, but those people are few and far between, and the emotions involved are not going to last as long as good work. Abusive, mean behavior is wrong no matter what. But I find myself wishing for a couple of assholes at work, people who would shake things up, force the issues, and push past the usual solutions. But for now, I’ll just try to stay positive 🙂


I liked this post from Caterina Fake so much that I made myself a small leaflet version with these and other singletasking axioms to post by my desk (download PDF). I am kicking the interrupt-driven lifestyle!