Mongomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, explores how decades of urban design are destructive to human happiness, human life, and the life of the planet itself. He tours the world — focused mostly on Vancouver, Portland, Bogotá, Atlanta, and Hong Kong — to understand the different choices that urban designers historically adopted and why communities are railing against those decisions, now.
The book represents a tour de force, insofar as it carefully and clearly explains that urban sprawl — which presumed that we would all have cars and that we all wanted or needed isolated homes — is incredibly harmful. The focus of the book is, really, on how designing for cars leads to designing for things instead of people, and how efforts to facilitate car traffic has been antithetical to human life and flourishing. His call for happy cities really constitutes calls to, first and foremost, invest in urbanization and densification. Common social utilities, like transit and parks and community spaces, are essential for cities to become happy because these utilities both reduce commutes, increase socialization, and the presence of nature relieves the human mind of urban stresses.
While the book is rife with proposals for how to make things better, Montgomery doesn’t go so far as to argue that such changes are easy or that they can be universally applied everywhere. The infrastructure that exists, now, cannot simply be torn up and replaced. As a result he identifies practical ways that even suburban areas can reinvigorate their community spaces: key, in almost all cases, are finding ways to facilitate human contact by way of re-thinking the structures of urban design itself. These changes depend not only on — indeed, they may barely depend at all upon! — city planners and, instead, demand that citizens advocate for their own interests. Such advocacy needn’t entail using the language of architects and urban designers and can, instead, focus on words or themes such as ‘community’ or ‘safe for children to bike’ or ‘closer to community resources’ or ‘slower streets’ or ‘more green space’. After robustly, and regularly, issuing such calls then the landscape may begin to change to facilitate both human happiness and smaller environmental food prints.
If there is a flaw to this book, it is that many of the examples presume that small scale experiments necessarily are scalable to broad communities. I don’t know that these examples do not scale but, because of the relatively small sample-set and regularity at which Montgomery leverages them, it’s not clear how common or effective the interventions he proposes genuinely are. Nevertheless, this is a though-provoking books that challenges the reader to reflect on how cities are, and should be, built to facilitate and enable the citizens who reside within and beyond their boundaries.
Over the years that I’ve been engaging in photography, it’s largely been either a solo activity or undertaken with one or two close friends. I think it’s probably fair to say that, in the time I’m been shooting, I’ve typically been the most enthusiastic photographer when I’ve been out. Most of my learning has been in my own, whether through watching YouTube videos, reading books, being inspired in Instagram, or visiting museums and art galleries.
I recognize just how amateur my shots are and, also, that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I even can, let alone alone should or need to, learn, if I’m to improve the quality, kinds, and nature of my images. The past few years have been as much about learning basic camera functionalities, a set of tricks that I find enjoyable, some styling, basic editing methods, and muddling through composition. I have a lot of bad images but, increasingly, more and more that I’m satisfied with (and some I’m even happy with!). I can also see progress in what I’m shooting, year over year, so I’m confident that the images I’m producing are at least becoming more pleasurable for me to look at and enjoy, and that’s great given that I shoot for myself first and foremost.
However, this weekend I did something that was a bit scary for me: I joined a Toronto photography group and wandered around part of Toronto with them. There were a total of five of us, and I was by far the youngest and most amateur person there; some had been shooting for thirteen years longer than I’d been alive! But it was a really positive experience, insofar as I could see how people engaged with the environment according to what they found interesting. It was also an opportunity to see how people go about getting consent to take other persons’ photos: the thing that’s always kind of scared me about street photography is taking other people’s images, but how it’s (responsibly) done is a little bit clearer after the walk. The other reason the walk was great? All of the people who I was on the walk with were super nice and friendly and inviting to me, the newcomer.
I also appreciated the opportunity wander with good company and for the express purpose of taking photos: there was a nice sense of camaraderie that I hadn’t experienced in this way before. That other people planned their recreation around photography — going to different locales, near and far, for the purpose of photographing the world while also enjoying where they were visiting — was inspiring because while I’ve read about, and listened to, people who are so committed to photography I’d never actually met such people in the flesh. In some respects it almost feels like I’ve found my ‘tribe’ of folks, and I’m looking forward to the next walk I’ll have with them to explore my photography (and city!) with the group.
I’ve been trying another journaling technique over the past week that’s inspired from an application I was referred to. Rather than producing elongated entries (the kind I’ve pretty well always written) I have the date along the left hand side of the paper, and then sentences with a major thing or thought that I had in the day beside it, with each sentence separated by a slash symbol (i.e. ‘/‘). I’ve been finding it pretty useful for speeding up reflections, to the point that it takes about 3-5 minutes, whereas a longer entry has historically taken me 20+ minutes. These shorter journals won’t replace the more occasional longer journals — which tend to be more focused and in-depth on a given subject or issue — but I could see them as becoming a very regular part of my routine.
Inspiring Quotation of the Week
“How well you take criticism depends less on the message and more on your relationship with the messenger. It’s surprisingly easy to hear a hard truth when it comes from someone who believes in your potential and cares about your success.”
Great Photography Shots
On the one hand, I think that Wire Hon’sshots with superheroes in everyday situations are just funny. But from a technical level I find what he’s doing pretty amazing: using forced perspective, he makes the toys appear as life-sized and involved with him, his family, and each other. Hon’s work is a reminder that you can do a lot of impressive work without photoshop if you just prep your scene effectively.
Music I’m Digging
ZHU – Ringos Desert // I’m really enjoying this for generally walking about but, in particular, when I’m heading to the gym.
Tash Sultana – Flow State // I really can’t get over how amazing the vocals and instrumentals are throughout his this record. While I enjoyed Sulana’s earlier EP, Notion, this record is far more sophisticated.
Neat Podcast Episodes
Dissect (Season One) // I’m only partway through the first season of Dissect but I’m already blown away. The thesis of the show is that it will spend one season doing a deep dive analysis on a particular album. The first season kicks things off with a focus on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’. The depth of analysis that takes place on this show is exceptional: it shows how Kendrick’s lyrics build between albums and the relationships between tracks’ lyrics and his life growing up, as well as the playful multiple interpretations that come up routinely across the album. If you like Song Exploder then you’re probably going to love this show.
Clear and Vivid – Cheryl Strayed Shares Her Advice on How to Give Advice // I’m continuously impressed with Alan Alda’s work on developing better communication. His episode with Strayed, of Modern Love fame, emphasizes how having compassion and wanting the best for the person whom you’re giving advice to helps to develop empathetic bonds that facilitate communication. She also notes that in presenting oneself as vulnerable, advice that is provided tends to resonate more with the receptive to because both parties are reducing the barriers between themselves.
CBC’s Ideas – It’s Alive (Frankenstein at 200) // Like most people, I was first exposed to Frankenstein through visual mediums and it was only much later in life that I read (and…forgot…) the actual novel. In this long-form piece, Ideas unpacks the significance and meanings within Shelley’s masterpiece. I came away from the episode with a deeper appreciation for the work and recognition of just how critical the book was of the scientific activities being undertaken at the time and, arguably, today as well.
CBC Ideas – The Politics of the Professoriat: Political diversity on campuses // This was a maddening episode, where Ideas largely interviewed conservatives who assert that campuses are overly political biased, and that there are things that students have identified as threats and harms that conservatives themselves scoff at. I include it because it’s important to listen to — and disambiguate — the kinds of issues that some conservatives raise about the problems of campuses; specifically, that social progress, integration, advancement of basic rights, and support for more multicultural and integrated systems are somehow problematic, as opposed to emphasizing the need for social order predicated on police forces and so forth. It was deeply disappointing that instead of opening some of the conservative thinkers’ positions to debate they were, instead, left to make assertions about the state of the academy without challenge.
Good Reads for the Week
Lonely City // Xu’s photoessay of longing and loneliness in Taipei felt like it hit all the right notes: the text was minimal and interspersed through a series of photos that were well-curated for the mood he was seeking to convey.
How the Dutch Do Sex Ed // In a comparison of Dutch and American policies towards sexual education, Rough finds that effective and comprehensive sexual education both reduces unwanted pregnancies (and decreases abortion rates), the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and the rates of sexual violence. Given these benefits, it’s particularly heartbreaking that the current government in Ontario is adopting a regressive policy concerning sexual education in public classrooms, largely in a mirror of American politics linked to sex ed.
All of Toronto is getting older, but it’s tougher to age in the suburbs // May Warren’s opinion column focuses on the challenges of the elderly living in the suburbs, with a core problem being that those parts of the city were designed in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ’70s with the assumption that residents will have cars. In effect, urban planning errors — which include not only not building sidewalks, but also failures to invest in transit and separation of living space from social and commercial space — continue to have serious impacts on the persons who try to live in the city. Despite the awareness of the problems in planning, however, Toronto as a city continues to prioritize cars by investing in road systems at the expense of improves cycling and walking spaces: lessons, seemingly, have yet to be learned about what is needed to keep the city itself safe and functional for all users, not just those who ride around in automobiles.
Teaching in the Age of School Shootings // Throughout this piece I felt like I was on the verge of tears, as teachers explained what they had done in the immediate aftermath of school shootings and the trauma that they tried to cope with following the event. It never ceases to amaze me that, despite the relative regularity of school shootings in the United States of America as compared to other countries, authors still are obligated to include language such as “[l]ess than 1 percent of all fatal shootings that involve children age 5 to 18 occur in school, and a significant majority of those do not involve indiscriminate rampages or mass casualties.” Despite the empathy of the piece, that the author had to include this language speaks to the fundamental bizarreness of American gun culture as juxtaposed with gun cultures elsewhere in the Westernized world.
Do You See Camera As A Photographer’s Tool Or A Gadget? // Robin Wong’s assessment of talking about photography equipment isn’t novel, per se, insofar as the idea that photos are more important than the gear used in making the photos. But he makes this argument with an honesty and enthusiasm that’s infectious and delightful.
Ming Thein’s Artist’s Statement, 2018 edition // While I can’t really imagine myself ever engaging in photography at the level that MT does, I find myself routinely inspired by his images and the thoughtfulness that permeates his work.
He Asked Permission to Touch, but Not to Ghost // In this Modern Love essay, Sanders recognizes that how ‘consent culture’ in the #metoo era has entered the bedroom can be stiff and challenging: the regular verbal requests for affirmation seem legalistic, as opposed to trying to read the situation and move ahead. And, more broadly, that the consent culture doesn’t extent to caring culture: it’s a caring of not violating physical boundaries, but doesn’t carry with it a caring of another’s emotional wellbeing when someone ghosts following a romantic encounter. With regards to the regular questions concerning consent, I think that some of that is linked with men just starting to figure out/learn what is or isn’t required or appropriate; it’s a social norm and set of behaviours that will evolve as men, who may not have previously sought clear consent, integrate consent into the ways in which they interact with their romantic partners. But the author’s broader issue — that consent culture isn’t caring culture — is an excellent point…depending on what the relationship is intended for; if it’s designated as a particular kind of physical relationship, expecting it to extend to something else is perhaps unfair for the other party involved. But where the relationship is predicated, first and foremost, on the potential or expectation of mutual care then the failure to act in a caring way is a violation of social norms…though not necessary one that is, or should be, satisfied by consent culture.
Conserve The Sound // As our old technologies fade to the mists of time, this German website is collecting the sounds of classic electronics (mostly from the analogue and early-digital ages) so that we don’t forget their auditory characteristics.
Shed of the year 2018 finalists // Some of these sheds are absolutely amazing. But what’s more amazing is that there even is an 11th annual best sheds competition; stumbling across this kind of randomness reminds me of how the Web was once packed full of wackiness.
Warren Buffett’s 5/25 Rule Will Help You Focus On The Things That Matter // I appreciate how quickly this video outlines a method of setting goals (make 25, prioritize 5, exclusively work on those top 5 and only add another goal when one of the five is completed) but was left wondering about what constitutes a goal that can be ‘completed’: for open ended projects, aspirations, or goals, do they just get closed at some point? Or is it, instead, key that all goals have definable conclusions/points of ultimate success?
I think that I really fell in love with photography after purchasing, and shooting with, a used Fuji x100. It was a terrifically flawed little camera: autofocus was terrible, it was generally slow, and battery life was subpar. Furthermore, I didn’t really know what I was doing: I had shot on an iPhone for years and I didn’t really understand how to configure the x100 for semi-automatic shooting (e.g. setting aperture priority, the importance of difference ISO settings, etc.). Frankly, the x100 was probably too much camera for me at the time…but I loved it, nevertheless.
But as I’ve written about previously, I’m not entirely certain that I really enjoy shooting in the 35mm format. Some of that, I suspect, is associated with how I fell (back) in love with photography. I originally bought my Olympus OMD-EM10ii to travel to Cuba, and purchased a Panasonic 25mm 1.7 lens for the trip. While it’s inadvisable to take a new camera and lens with you when you travel, that’s what I did, and I walked out of Cuba with a lot of images that I really, really loved. I shot exclusively on the 25mm (50mm equivalent) and it lead me to understand how the lens worked in ways that I don’t think I’d have ever appreciated had also brought and use a zoom lens. However, I bought the lens because it was what reviewers said was a good ‘first’ lens insofar as it’s pretty versatile for anything and everything: you can do some portraiture (not really my cup of tea), can do landscape (as I did for that week in Cuba), and some architecture shots (also, as I did in Cuba).1 But without learning other focal lengths I was just going on what other people said the 50mm equivalent lens was good for without understanding from practice what I thought of it.
Fast forward to last week, when I travelled into the United States of America for a wedding and some quiet time in Savannah. Before I left I had to answer a hard question: what lenses should I bring with me? I decided to bring the Olympus 17mm 1.8 and the Panasonic 25mm 1.8, with the goal of trying to learn which I might prefer for general walkabout photography, and why I prefer one over the other.
To be honest, for general walking I think that I really enjoy the Olympus 17mm lens. I truly began to appreciate the ability to capture a broad scene, in excess of what the 25mm lens could capture. And I truly, absolutely, with all of my heart love the manual/automatic focus clutch; I tend to shoot exclusively in manual with the 17mm and it just feels right.2 I also started to come to terms with the differences in how the lens present colour; I don’t know that I prefer one or the other and, instead, just appreciate the differences that come from either one of them.3
However: I also learned that I really, really, really dislike how the 17mm presents humans — and in particular my own body — when not carefully used. I saw one picture in particular and was shocked: was that how I appeared? Was my entire sense of my body inaccurate?
I mean, I’m sure that my perception and the world’s perception of my body varies. But the 17mm could be incredibly unflattering if not used with a degree of deliberateness that I’ve never required with the 25mm. (It can also produce some pretty nice portraits, too, based on some shots a friend took of me.) For anyone who’s shot these two focal lengths for any period of time this won’t come as any kind of a shock. And I’ve seen enough online tutorials to know that what I saw was to be expected. However, I’d never actually lived the reality of having shots of myself, from 35mm equivalent and 50mm equivalent lenses, put beside one another. It’s meant that I have a pretty visceral and lived reality with either focal lens which is, in and of itself, a photography experience that I’m delighted to have had. Even if it made me question my body for a little bit until I figured out why some shots appeared one way, and others another!
I do a fair bit of personal reading that is like eating candy — i.e. fiction that caters to my guilty pleasures — and some that is like eating fibre — i.e. non-fiction and fiction alike that impress upon me the lived realities of other cultures, groups, and persons.
I just finished Adam Hochshild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa and, at various points in the book, I felt like I’d been hit by a baseball bat. The kinds of actions which were taken against persons living in the Congo were, at their best, barbaric. What was most striking was how those historical facts were so carefully hidden away, destroyed, and removed from the minds of Western and African persons alike. I’ve read anti-colonial literature in the past but this was the first book that helped me genuinely appreciate the horrors inflicted by Western nations on persons around the world; the stories from the victims, quoted in their entirety, were particularly painful and sickening to read. I think that it’s also the book that has opened my eyes to some of the challenges around excavating history of colonialism, and how such excavation and hardship is the necessary pre-condition to coming to terms with the past: Western governments and elites buried the past and, before the past can be reconciled, it must first be made present in our daily lives.
Inspiring Quotation of the Week
“People matter. Meaning matters. A good life is not a place at which you arrive, it’s a lens through which you see and create your world.”
— Jonathan Fields
Great Photography Shots
One of the things that I’m trying to get better with is presenting images according to how I imagined them. This is distinct from how things may have looked: I often want to transform the scene in some way to present something that was in excess or slightly aside from the scene itself. It’s for this reason that I really like Gilmar Silva’s shots that juxtapose the ‘before’ and ‘after’ portraits he takes. In taking us behind the scenes of a final shot it’s easier to think through the logistics and editing that may enter into making an image, as opposed to snapping a photo.
Music I’m Digging
Gang Starr – Daily Operation // I’ve had this 1992 album on repeat for the past week or so; the tracks are incredibly solid mind melds of DJ Premier and The Guru. What’s striking — and depressing — is that so many of the tracks on racism and segregation in America (and North America more broadly) are as poignant and accurate, today, as they were when written over twenty years ago. Whither progress?
Seafret – Tell Me It’s Real // Seafret reminds me ofBannersin terms of their sound and topics that they sing about. And, to my ear and taste, that’s a good thing! The album spends time focusing on the themes of love, loss, and despair, all themes that have resonated deeply with me over the past few months.
Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems // Cohen is a staple in my daily listening, and has been ever since I visited an exhibit/memorial to him in Montreal last December. His dry, cutting, lyrics combined with his lyrical whimsy were what caught me, and it’s the pain of love and life that keeps me coming back listen after listen.
Neat Podcast Episodes
On the Margins – Jason Kottke and Twenty Years of kottke.org // I have to admit that I’m having a hard time with On the Margins. On the one hand, I find the idea of having discussions with authors about the bookmaking process to be pretty neat. On the other, I find that Craig Mod (the interviewer) is too heavy handed in some of his engagements; he has a tendency to push the conversation in unnatural or forced ways. All that having been said, this episode on kottke.org, one of the older websites in existence, is pretty interesting insofar as it digs into the rationales for why the site exists in the first place, projects that have been considered and set aside, and reflections on what comes next.
The Daily – When We Almost Stopped Climate Change // Warning: this is a deeply enraging podcast, because it walks through how there were active efforts that almost led to real action to affect climate change in the 1980s…and which was stopped by conservative politicians on the basis of their economic interests. The episode does a good job in walking through efforts to raise awareness and combat climate change while, at the same time, making it very clear how naked capitalist interests are responsible for selling out the next generations.
The Daily – The War Inside the Catholic Church // I don’t follow religious politics particularly closely, but am aware that the current Pope is in routine conflict with more conservative elements of the Catholic church. As a non-Catholic I personally believe that Pope Francis is the best thing that could have happened to the Church, at the time it’s in now, and so it’s particularly distressing to learn how American conservative Catholics are actively engaging in warfare meant to diminish the current Pope. (As an aside, Francis’ book, The Name of God is Mercy, is a beautiful book that clearly both sets him as a progressive while simultaneously acting as a curious introduction into what the Church could and should be through his understanding of Catholicism.)
The Art of Photography – Your Camera Is Better Than Ansel’s // It’s easy to get caught up in gear that is used to make images but focusing on equipment mistakes the importance of technology versus vision. This episode emphasizes the need to develop our vision first and foremost, with equipment being of tertiary importance.
Good Reads for the Week
We’re in a new age of obesity. How did it happen? You’d be surprised // In another analysis of the obesity epidemic, Monbiot asserts that it’s less about people exercising less, less about the quantity of foods people are eating, and more about the manner in which foods are chemically designed. He writes, “we ate more in 1976, but differently. Today, we buy half as much fresh milk per person, but five times more yoghurt, three times more ice cream and – wait for it – 39 times as many dairy desserts. We buy half as many eggs as in 1976, but a third more breakfast cereals and twice the cereal snacks; half the total potatoes, but three times the crisps. While our direct purchases of sugar have sharply declined, the sugar we consume in drinks and confectionery is likely to have rocketed (there are purchase numbers only from 1992, at which point they were rising rapidly. Perhaps, as we consumed just 9kcal a day in the form of drinks in 1976, no one thought the numbers were worth collecting.) In other words, the opportunities to load our food with sugar have boomed.” This kind of assessment is important because it pushes back on the concept that people become obese because of a lack of motivation or other self-drive rationale: weight gain is a community problem, driven by chemists and marketers, and obese individuals are their victims.
Facebook Fueled Anti-Refugee Attacks in Germany, New Research Suggests // This study again speaks to the ills of the filter bubble economy: to drive engagement, persons are shown more and more polarizing material which often includes anti-immigration materials. This polarization isn’t ‘just online’: it leads to increases in physical violence towards immigrants, and when Internet outages take place the rates of violence decline in statistically significant ways. At some point the mountain of research has to showcase that services like Facebook are prone to increase misinformation and threaten certain communities in serious and lasting ways.
‘We Cannot Afford This’: Malaysia Pushes Back Against China’s Vision // While the prospect of China assuming greater and greater regional power isn’t necessarily surprising, the pushback against Chinese efforts is curious. The article, generally, provides a good overview of Chinese-Malaysian relations but what got me laughing was how obviously corrupt some of the business dealings have been. As an example, a company who’s past work included building a zoo and bird park was hired to build a series of artificial islands as well as establish a deepwater port capable of hosting an aircraft carrier. I guess building cages for animals made them well suited to build housing for military vessels?
Woman: My iPhone was seized at border, then imaged—feds must now delete data // The suit against the government for having seized and imaged the woman’s iPhone is novel. But it was the 90-day period for which devices can be retained that struck me: what is the time delta for updates to be developed to successfully crack iOS devices these days? Is the period of time for which devices are retained functionally the period of time required before attacker’s can successfully overcome Apple’s protections?
Prosecutor: Suspect must give up his phone’s passcode in fatal hazing case // Case law in the USA remains disturbingly unsettled concerning whether compelling a person to disclose their decryption password constitutes a Fifth Amendment violation. This Louisiana case adds further confusion as to how to interpret that law; it’s only a matter of time until the Supreme Court is compelled to determine the scope of Fifth Amendment protections as they pertain to securing contemporary electronic devices. God help us all if they find that decryption doesn’t infringe up existing rights, as such a ruling would likely have a cascading global impact, to the detriment of citizens’ rights around the world.
How the Trump Administration Is Remaking the Courts // Zengerle has done a masterful job analyzing and assessing how the Trump presidency has been quickly and significantly affecting the political leanings of courts throughout the United States, and how his actions rely on the Senate having changed its own rules concerning judicial appointments. The impacts of these appointment will likely be felt over decades, not days or months, and could ultimately lead to significant changes in the nature of American jurisprudence as old norms are overturned based on novel legal philosophies taking hold in courts across the United States.
What about those mandate letters, Premier Ford? // An apt column by John Loric summarizes the significance — and historical precedent — of the Ontario government refusing to publish the letters to the Cabinet. Those letters indicate the objectives Ministers are expected to meet; absent them, and absent a real campaign platform, the public has no real way of understanding what the government is specifically directed to do or whether everything is just being made up on the fly. The Ontario government’s decision is bad for democratic accountability which is, ostensibly, one of the issues voters had identified as an issue in the previous government.
Researchers Edited Mice Genes to Stop Them from Dreaming // Though the researcher’s ultimate goal of the research — to better understand the role(s) of REM sleep to human well-being — is a serious goal, the article itself almost reads like a finding one would stumble across in a dystopia hellscape. “Researchers liberate workers from non-productive sleep elements, ensuring the regime’s productivity.” On second thought, I could imagine an ever-so-slightly modified headline of that type in at least a half-dozen western newspapers in as many different countries…
I know: 35mm is often regarded as better for landscape and architecture alike, but I personally enjoy how you can isolate particular characteristics of a scene using the Panasonic 25mm. ↩
Although for the love of all things even marginally holy I wish that Olympus would push a firmware, so that when I set the clutch to manual the camera would activate focus peaking. It drives me nuts that this is only included in the Pro line of lenses. ↩
I’ve found a particular editing aesthetic with the 17mm that I like; it seems to start to approximate Fuji’s Classic Chrome look (the sole reason I wish I owned a Fuji is for that look!). In terms of the 25mm, I like the vibrancy of its images, as compared to the more neutral colours of the 17mm. For both lenses I tend to shoot jpg and in the ‘Natural’ colour filter on the camera. ↩
I have a long history of ‘dating’ furniture and other adornments for my home before buying them. Before buying my coffee table, as an example, I spent about 4-5 months looking at coffee tables all across the city I live in. I wanted to get a sense of different styles, sizes, materials, and prices before deciding on the piece that I ended up purchasing. The same is true of almost all other major pieces of furniture and electronics that I own. In effect, I spent a lot of time searching for beautifully designed and highly functional items.
For the past three or four weeks, I’m been looking to get a single statement piece for a chair in my living room. I’m in a small space and, as a result, I’m going to see the given accent piece multiple times a day: I want each viewing to be enjoyable. Several weeks ago, I’d found the pillow that I knew was perfect for the chair but held off purchasing it to evaluate other options and explore more possibilities. Before choosing something that was going to reside with me for years I wanted to be certain there wasn’t anything else that was superior or competitive.
When I went to get that perfect pillow this weekend…it was sold out. Limited run, so unless I can find it second hand I’m going to have to just continue the search. Which is fine; there will be another accent piece that will fit that chair. But I’m going to regret not moving more quickly on it for a while.
I think that, when done by ‘normal’ people, the pickiness I personify is probably what drives a lot of minimalist homes. I think of people like Steve Jobs, who famously refused to purchase furniture that didn’t appeal to his design aesthetics. And in watching, and listening to, people who live ‘minimalist’ lives a key element of their very being focuses on neither wanting a lot of things nor wanting ugly things; that which they own should bring joy to their lives, and that which wouldn’t bring joy should be eschewed so they can concentrate on that which is joyful.
There are lots of reasons why people abstain from minimalism. But at least one is likely linked to being taught that it’s not ‘right’ to live in semi-furnished environments: you should be filling your home with all the pieces that society designates as ‘normal’ as soon as you move in. The actual ability to furnish homes so quickly, and frankly so cheaply, is made possible both because of low credit rates and ‘fast’ furniture: think budget IKEA pieces and other stores’ furniture that looks beautiful…until scratched to reveal the particle board (or other cheap materials) underneath. Forty or fifty years ago it wasn’t strange for people to sometimes wait years before they acquired all of the furniture for their home, much of which was well built and could be passed along to another generation.
Minimalism, contra to that past era, is arguably less about passing things along to the next generation.1 But it is about waiting, patiently, until the right pieces are available at the right time. And to find a piece of furniture you need to spend time looking: it’s not as simple as walking into any store’s showroom and picking up the pieces that you want. Minimalism involves caring about what is coming into a home and proactively being involved in genuinely looking for furniture, accents, or other things you will be living with for years to come. And that very act of slowing down and acting deliberately is what makes the hunt for pieces that come into my home both meditative and frustrating. Meditative because it forces me to slow down and move more deliberately and carefully. Frustrating because I’ve become so used to getting whatever I want, as soon as I want it. Minimalism is, in some ways, a call back to a past that isn’t that long ago, and certainly isn’t lost forever.
While I’m still keeping my stuff in Apple Notes — a problem I had with the app functionally being unresponsive was addressed a few point updates ago — I remain tempted to switch things over to Bear so I can work in Markdown. Michael Tsui has a nice summary of how to transfer notes out of Apple’s product. The caveat is that there’s no way to export attachments, which makes this export method a non-starter for me, personally.
Inspiring Quotation of the Week
Your art comes from your community. You must attend to your community.
Great Photography Shots
Unlike every other week, I only have a single photo this week, from Peter Baumgarten. His photo is amazing. But what was even more inspiring to me was his discussion of what went into making the photo: shots like this are the result of a bunch of work and a dash of luck!
Music I’m Digging
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova – Once (Music from the Motion Picture) // It’s been years since I listened to the tracks on this album and, to this date, there are several that strike right at my heart. The movie itself was excellent and largely made so because of the music; if you’re looking for a series of songs about the rise, lingering, and collapse of love, then this is an album for you.
Neat Podcast Episodes
The Documentary – Neighborhood: We Might As Well Be Finnish // An overview of both the political situation that Finland finds itself in, today, as aggression from Russia increases as well as a history lesson of the challenges Finland has undergone over the past two centuries. This podcast helped me learn a bit more about the political history of a country that I was otherwise pretty ignorant about.
The Documentary: Norway’s Silent Scandal // What happens when a BBC journalist intrudes into the relatively sleepy country of Norway? On the one hand, you learn a lot about the issue of child protective services taking children away from their parents with disturbing regularity. On the other, you learn just how unwanted foreign journalists are when they apply their journalistic interests to situations that might receive less, or different, attention from domestic journalists.
The Documentary – Not Making Babies in South Korea // In this episode, the BBC examines the social and gender reasons for the startlingly low birth rates in South Korea — women are currently expected to have 1.05 children in their lives. In an unsurprising spoiler, the higher costs of child rearing, the challenges women face at work when wanting to become mothers, and failure to shift domestic norms around distributions of domestic and professional labour are all linked to the country’s low birth rate.
Dear Sugars – Talking About Privilege // Two different kinds of privilege are discussed in this episode: male privilege associated with expectations that women take a man’s last name upon marriage, and male white privilege, where the man refuses to meaningfully engage with his African American partner’s racial identity. In both cases it felt like the men had fundamentally failed to engage with their partners as full partners in their life journey; in neither case, it seems, did the men recognize that the difficulties and questions their partners had identified needed to be genuinely worked through together. The problems, in effect, weren’t recognized as ‘group’ problems — save that they affected both parties — and were instead problems that the women needed to fix. This style of contemplating difference and challenges in interpersonal relations strikes me as a poor way of building strong and robust relationships which, to my mind, are predicated principally on open communication.
Clerks! (Part I) and Clerks! (Part II) // I had no idea what, in precise detail, law clerks for the Supreme Court of Canada did on a regular basis. I knew the basics — they helped with writing legal memos/briefs, argued with their Justices’, etc — but not the history of clerking in Canada, the rationale to increase the numbers of clerks assigned to each Justice, nor the breadth of activities that clerks are sometimes tasked to accomplish. I found it interesting that, in the assessment of past clerks, those who would benefit from the experience are likely those who move into academia or the non-profit sections, whereas those who shift into corporate practices are less likely to benefit from their year in Ottawa.
Good Reads for the Week
When Self-Care Turns into Self-Sabotage // Wilding provides a good assessment of the kinds of self-care exercises we undertake, and which are counterproductive, as opposed to those which tend to be more challenging and active, and which also satisfy our existential needs. Central to the ‘good self-care’ activities is a mindfulness that accompanies an activity: they aren’t retreats from the world, per se, but are designed towards developing ways to build emotional, social, and physical resiliency in the face of stressors.
Bribes, Backdoor Deals, and Pay to Play: How Bad Rosé Took Over // A good take on the bad practice of companies trying to buy their way onto prestige wine lists. I’d never considered this as part of how wine lists were chosen but it makes me that much more curious about how, and why, restaurants’ lists are produced.
The Unlikely Activists Who Took On Silicon Valley — and Won // Confessore’s article outlines, in depth, just how California’s newest privacy legislation was crafted and passed. Perhaps more importantly, it showcases how dedicated small sets of individuals can come together to press for political change when they are opposed by incredibly well-resourced companies.
In Pakistan’s Financial Crisis, an Opening for Chinese Lawfare // China is aggressively expanding its foreign influence. From building space bases in Argentina to creating and arming new islands in the South China Sea to engaging in hostile loan practices, they are behaving exactly like a rising power ‘should’. They are also trying to push, pull, or drag other countries to shift off the US dollar as their trading currency; if they can woo key US allies, such as Pakistan, it will merely continue to speak of the rising global dominance of China, and especially in their close region of influence.
Anthropocene looks to be an incredible movie about the sheer impact that humanity has on the Earth, and the broader implications it has for understanding ourselves and where we live.
Indeed, there is a fundamental issues of being unable to find people who will inherit actual possessions; when we all have our own homes filled with furniture, why would we want out parents’? And even if we did, where would we put it? ↩
Over the past few weeks I’ve been visiting art galleries and spending a lot of time — sometimes 20 minutes or more — in front of certain paintings to try and understand why the artist made their composition decisions.1 This has involved both trying to understand the positionality of different subjects, the roles that light played in directing attention across the canvass, and more broadly trying to understand the emotional or intellectual responses that I experience when spending time with the work. To be frank, it’s a strange kind of experience just because standing, silently and quietly, in front of something in public contemplation feels abnormal. However, it’s a feeling that I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with: for a long time, it didn’t make sense to me that someone would spend tens of minutes, or even hours, or longer over the course of years, to view particular works. But I’m very slowly starting to really appreciate why people do that; in my case, probing a piece of art seems to involve letting go of myself to explore, consider, evaluate, reject, and refine thoughts that I have when taking in the artist’s works.
I’ve read, repeatedly, that photographers can benefit from spending time looking at paintings and other canvass-based pieces of artwork. Photography, in many respects, aims to accomplish many of the same things as paintings: good photos affect the viewer’s mind and emotions, while telling a story that is more or less simple. Even the starkest abstract or architectural photographs can ‘say’ something to the viewer. This is contrasted against snapshots that may capture a moment in time, but which aren’t necessarily meant to affect how the view experiences their lives. There are, of course, difficulties because what are sometimes regarded as snapshots may, in fact, be photographs: good street photography, as an example, may resemble snapshots but is actually meant to convey a more-or-less subtle story to the viewer.
None of this is to say that snapshots are bad kinds of images. They can hold incredible value: snapshots I’ve taken over the years of family gatherings, as an example, hold immense value to me. This value is heightened when they’re the only ‘real’ reminder I have of certain family members who have since died. But they’re not ‘artistic’ in isolation.2
It’s in the process of sitting or standing, silently, with our own photographs that I think we can come to imminently realize whether whatever was shot genuinely crosses the line between a snapshot and a photograph that is seeking to convey something beyond what was captured. And, over time, I think that it’s this practice that leads to photographers capturing more of a scene that is self-evidently visible in the pigments and paper used to print on: it’s by careful study of our own work, and that of other photographers, that we can train our minds to almost automatically see what is a photo, why, and how to capture it in its entirely instead of simply snapping a quick shot. Unless, of course, a snapshot is all that you want to capture at the time!
It’s baffling to me that Apple Music lets users create profiles, so that we can share what we’re listening to with other users, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to link into our profiles from the public web. It seems like another of Apple’s failures to understand that social discoverability shouldn’t be exclusively be constrained to very limited sharing within their closed environment.
Inspiring Quotation of the Week
Stop caring with other people think.
Choose your bosses carefully. Bad habits are difficult to unlearn.
Turn the fucking Internet off. Do the work.
Know where you are going. 100% of people who go to a train station know where they want to end up.
I was really stuck by Oleg Tolstoy’s photographs of Japanese taxi drivers, both because of her artist’s statement — she wanted to explore persons who were almost from another era, given their dress and professional silence while transporting passengers — as well as because the images themselves possess an almost cyberpunk-cinematic quality. I also found that the photos were evocative insofar as how the drivers were staring into the distance were incredibly effective in directing my on attention through the photographs. It’s obvious as soon as you look for it but, prior to then, it’s a subtle forcing of the eye through the frame which brings out a lot. In pulling myself away from how I’m ‘meant’ to look at the photo I quickly shift to a series of (to my mind) interesting questions: what is, and isn’t drawn clearly into our visual frame as we follow the subjects’ eyes? What can we learn from what our eyes are ‘told’ to ignore or to pay attention to? What would be the difference in how the pictures were viewed, based on whether you were trained to read left to right, right to left, or top to bottom?
Music I’m Digging
The Prodigy – Need Some1 (Single) // I’ve long been a fan of The Prodigy and this song has all the hallmarks of their better work: it’s almost impossible not to start moving as soon as it starts playing!
Nine Inch Nails – Add Violence (EP) // The second of three short EPs published by the Nine Inch Nails, the dull and gritty sounds of the album are really striking. I’m less a fan of Trent Reznor’s ‘louder’ songs, and far prefer ones which are more haunting. The songs ‘The Lovers’ and ‘This Isn’t the Place’ are the standout tracks for me, with the latter song in particular being strikingly haunting and, to my ear, amongst the band’s better work in the past few years.
Neat Podcast Episodes
Eat This – Barges and Bread // An in-depth discussion of the historical ways in which wheat was transported in Britain, even prior to the Romans developing fortifications around contemporary-day London. I learned both a lot about how and why wheat was transported in the bulks that it was, as well as the difficulties in using barging systems today to transport grain and other materials across British waterways.
The Daily – The Trump Voters We Don’t Talk About // Based on a relatively large-n sample, and measured across time, this episode unpacks the demographic groups that voted for Trump. Moreover, it looks at which groups are steadfastly supporting him, and where Trump’s voting base may have begun to fall away.
Lawfare – The Challenge of Digital Evidence // While encryption has sucked up a lot of the air concerning the difficulties that law enforcement agencies have in prosecuting crimes, this podcast focuses on all the other (often more serious) problems authorities have in obtaining digital evidence. The episode is a good introduction to the solvable problems: figuring out ways for authorities to determine who has the relevant data they need, educating authorities so they can actually process contemporary digital evidence, and establishing an central office that can coordinate authorities’ requests for data. It’s a solid overview of the non-encryption problems facing American law enforcement along with generally reasonable solutions.
The Sporkful – Michael Ian Black Is A Man Who Eats Salads // Like many episodes of The Sporkful this one uses food as an entry point into a discussion about more serious social issues. In this case, food and eating is used as a way to engage with concepts of often-toxic masculinity, the social constructions men live (and chafe) within, and the challenges associated with food and body image that men often experience. I found my head nodding throughout the episode as Michael carefully works through some of his own issues with how masculinity is constructed and the ways in which he tries to grapple with the associated social norms.
Good Reads for the Week
Ontario brewers should think twice before they buck themselves // While the craft beer market remains in an uneasy state in Ontario, any breweries that start producing dollar beers are almost certain to produce swill and irreparably damage their brands. Plus, should craft breweries attain any real market share as a result of producing dollar beers the big breweries will almost certainly just sell their own beers at a loss to run off ‘craft’ brews selling for under a buck.
How to Photograph a Vacation // Rose’s suggestions for image making on vacation resonate with me: the different techniques he uses (e.g. anchoring shot, unique shots, isolation shots, etc) are things I’ve done to varying degrees of success, but that I find helpful regardless. I also really like the idea of culling a trip to a small number — he suggest six — of photos that ‘define’ the trip. While my number tends to be higher, I may also spend a lot more time engaging in photography while travelling? (Disclosure: I tend to shoot prolifically when on vacation, to the tune of hundreds or thousands of images. Shooting is a key element to my experiencing a happy vacation.) Regardless, I find that culling down to the best 10-30 images is something that I actually enjoy doing because it’s a good learning moment; it compels me to ask what photos are my best, and why?
The disturbing record behind one of B.C.’s top billing doctors // While over billing was a serious issue with this doctor, the more deeply problematic element was his incredibly poor medical care that left women scarred mentally and physically. Persons who haven’t dealt with bad obstetrician-gynecologists really can’t understand how deeply debilitating their actions can be or how long it can take to recover. I can only hope that this case encourages Canadian colleges of physicians to more carefully monitor and police their members, though I’m not confident that’ll be the case.
“9/11esque” Tweets and the Saudi Spat // Craig Forcese has a terrific (academic) blog where he reflects on the terrorist promotion and advocacy statutes in Canadian law and asks: would they apply to tweets sent by parties friendly to Saudi Arabia and which showed a plane tunnelling towards the CN Tower?
How Big Is the Alt Right? Inside My Futile Quest to Count // While far from scientific, Grey Ellis argues that the alt-right in the United States is once more being pushed underground on the basis that fewer people are likely to turn up to public events. However, this assessment discounts the effectiveness of online recruitment; while those persons may not show up in person to demonstrate they will be woven throughout society and able to exert their views in perhaps more subtle ways as they harass individuals, discriminate on a local level, and spread their hate and prejudice in more private settings. Pushing hate underground doesn’t inherently make it any less of a social evil.
Workplace Wellness Programs Don’t Work Well. Why Some Studies Show Otherwise // I’ve been suspicious of wellness programs for a long time; they’ve struck me as ways of externalizing poor health issues onto employees and then blaming them for not being proactive about their health. But where my worries have mostly revolved around the issue of insurance cost hikes, this analysis by the New York Times showcases that wellness programs don’t really lead to significant improvements in quality of health for those in wellness programs when appropriate controls are established. So the idea that wellness necessarily leads to better health for employees generally doesn’t hold. Instead, there are just certain classes of people inside, and outside, of wellness programs who will live healthier lifestyles. It’s a person-thing, not a wellness-member thing.
Tree Bark Generates a Weird Force That Defies Gravity // While many people think that the internal fibres of trees are responsible for their upright posture (I definitely did!) it turns out that trees’ bark growth plays a significant role in maintaining vertical stability. This is why some parts of tree bark are thicker than other parts: those thick elements are used to maintain posture, and removing or weakening that element of the epidermis of the tree will cause it to begin to tilt. Fascinating.
Fire in Cardboard City // What if fire broke out in a land of cardboard? How would a city respond and with what consequences?
Native Land // A mapping of the lands the indigenous people in Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand once claimed as their own.
IKEA’s “ENEBY” Bluetooth Speakers // I already have three separate speaker systems for my 1-bedroom condo. But I really, really like the idea of picking up some of these IKEA speakers (assuming they sound good enough) to install in my bedroom and bathroom. I just wish that they were Airplay 2 compatible so that I could stream music throughout my home without having to constantly be re-pairing with different speaker sets.
Generally I’ve been focusing on European art from between the 1600s to 1800s. ↩
There is a case to be made that, assembled in aggregate, what might have been snapshots can become proper photographs with a story and emotive element. But at least with the snapshots I’m thinking of — and seeing scroll on my TV — they definitely don’t rise to the level of a photograph with a particular intent behind them besides documenting a time and moment. ↩
It’s one day after the 2018 Ontario provincial election. The winning party ran on a semi-platform that is designed to actively undermine the province’s climate change reforms, dismisses the importance of raising the minimum wage, and is actively hostile to efforts to improve sexual education. In the stead of these values, the party asserted they would reduce the cost of beer, reduce taxes, reduce energy costs, and otherwise work to promote ‘business friendly’ policies. The ways in which these values and objectives would be reached were never explained in a rigorous and methodical way: people voted for values and out of anger at the former governing party.
On days like today, it’s easy for progressives to get upset, angry, and/or depressed. But such emotions are reflections of our own dark and often unproductive states of mind. While a government can significantly affect the policy landscape, damage can be undone and most harms repaired or remediated. Instead of falling into dark states of mind, we are in a time when it is essential to evaluate where we can contribute to our societies and advance the values that we think with enhance our lives, and the lives of those around and affected by us. To promote a more progressive society we might actively promote, support, and elevate the roles of persons of colour, indigenous persons, and women in our communities so that they are better situated to accomplish their personal and professional goals. We might volunteer for causes that are important for progressive politics. We might even actively work to support a political candidate or party that didn’t accomplish the results we wanted.
In effect, it’s during times of change that it makes the most sense to get actively involved in our world, to influence the persons and organizations we’re involved with, and seek to effect change that extends and supports civil rights protections and equality amongst all people. Now is not the time for getting angry, per se, nor the time to lay down and wait for the next four years. No, if anything, today is just like yesterday, and is just like tomorrow should be: it’s a day to actively work towards improving the communities we find ourselves within so as to ensure that all persons enjoy equal rights and are able to thrive in their personal and professional lives.
I absolutely am floored by the reality that Anthony Bourdain killed himself in a hotel room. I’ve watched him from afar for many years, as so many have, and I’ve always appreciated the vigour and honesty that he projected in his public life. His frank discussions about troubled pasts and the difficulties people face everywhere around the world, and how North American and European activities endanger the lives and wellbeing of persons everywhere else in the world, were and remain important assertions and lessons. But rather than remembering him most for his travels I think I’ll remember him for the positions he unwaveringly took in the face of bad actions. His essay on #metoo struck me as particularly powerful, and specifically the paragraph where he wrote:
In these current circumstances, one must pick a side. I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women. Not out of virtue, or integrity, or high moral outrage — as much as I’d like to say so — but because late in life, I met one extraordinary woman with a particularly awful story to tell, who introduced me to other extraordinary women with equally awful stories. I am grateful to them for their courage, and inspired by them. That doesn’t make me any more enlightened than any other man who has begun listening and paying attention. It does makes me, I hope, slightly less stupid.
This was the kind of language and public assertion that needs to be made. Bourdain himself was a deeply flawed individual, and he at least presented the image of someone who was trying to work through those flaws and present them as things that can overcome in the course of life. However, while those facets might be worn down over time they were unlikely to ever be entirely eliminated. Rather than showcasing himself as having overcome his past he, instead, presented himself as a man involved in an ongoing narrative, without a clear conclusion, but with an intent to rectify and avoid the sins of his past. There are far worse narratives to carry us through our lives.
Inspiring Quotation of the Week
My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.
Where Have the readers gone? // [T]he new media is giving birth to. But it annoys me that it’s the first media revolution in the history of mankind to first and foremost serve economic as opposed to cultural ends.”
Kindness Prompt Cards // In theory, we are all interested in being kind. In practice, a lot gets in the way: tiredness, anger, bitterness. These new cards are intended as a prompt to our better natures.
It’s great that Apple is supporting these issues. But it’s equally important to reflect on Apple’s less rights-promoting activities. The company operates around the world and chooses to pursue profits to the detriment of the privacy of its China-based users. It clearly has challenges — along with all other smartphone companies — in acquiring natural mineral resources that are conflict-free; the purchase of conflict minerals raises fundamental human rights issues. And the company’s ongoing efforts to minimize its taxation obligations have direct impacts on the abilities of governments to provide essential services to those who are often the worst off in society.
Each of the above examples are easily, and quickly, reduced to assertions that Apple is a public company in a capitalist society. It has obligations to shareholders and, thus, can only do so much to advance basic rights while simultaneously pursuing profits. Apple is, on some accounts, actively attempting to enhance certain rights and promote certain causes and mitigate certain harms while simultaneously acting in the interests of its shareholders.
Those are all entirely fair, and reasonable, arguments. I understand them all. But I think that we’d likely all be well advised to consider Apple’s broader activities before declaring that Apple has ‘our’ backs, on the basis that ‘our’ backs are often privileged, wealthy, and able to externalize a range of harms associated with Apple’s international activities.
We get to make decisions about how we react to unpleasant or unfortunate news. For some, that means getting angry and holding onto that emotion in order to focus the anger into ‘productive’ work energy. For others, it can lead to deep frustrations and a sense of being incapacitated. And in yet other cases it might involve both of those reactions — anger and frustration — that is quickly followed by letting go and appreciating the positive aspects of often difficult situation.
Letting go is strangely both easier and harder than either of the other emotional reactions, largely because it entails confronting why those emotions are being felt in the first place. Anger and frustration tend to represent outward manifestations of our own fears, concerns, worries, or other personal traumas. Engaging with them internally means dealing with those demons, whereas using them as energy or letting them consume ourselves externalizes such emotions in ways that prevent us from dealing with our own traumas.
At least one challenge is that social norms often inform us that it’s ok to just be angry. Just be frustrated. And that such emotions are normal and needn’t necessarily be ‘moved on’ from. It’s those situations, where those you’re encouraged to return to that trauma zone after it’s been dealt with, that can be the most challenging; those are cases where the puerile desire to experience our worse is often most challenging to rise above. Rising above it, however, is a kind of active work that promotes self-reflection and self-revelation. It’s not easy, but it’s perhaps some of the most important emotional labour that we can undertake.
Inspiring Quotation of the Week
“Concern yourself more with accepting responsibility than with assigning blame. Let the possibilities inspire you more than the obstacles discourage you.”
– Ralph Marston
Great Photography Shots
The idea of routinely capturing the same location, and tracing change, is something that is incredibly attractive to me. I often find myself pulled back to the same locations to see them at different times, with different light, and different natural coloration. And, so, I was incredibly impressed with Jani Ylinampa’s photos of a Finnish island through the seasons.
A data access request involves you contacting a private company and requesting a copy of your personal information, as well as the ways in which that data is processed, disclosed, and the periods of time for which data is retained.
I’ve conducted research over the past decade which hasrepeatedlyshown that companies are often very poor at comprehensively responding to data access requests. Sometimes this is because of divides between technical teams that collect and use the data, policy teams that determine what is and isn’t appropriate to do with data, and legal teams that ascertain whether collections and uses of data comport with the law. In other situations companies simply refuse to respond because they adopt a confused-nationalist understanding of law: if the company doesn’t have an office somewhere in a requesting party’s country then that jurisdiction’s laws aren’t seen as applying to the company, even if the company does business in the jurisdiction.
Automated Data Export As Solution?
Some companies, such as Facebook and Google, have developed automated data download services. Ostensibly these services are designed so that you can download the data you’ve input into the companies, thus revealing precisely what is collected about you. In reality, these services don’t let you export all of the information that these respective companies collect. As a result when people tend to use these download services they end up with a false impression of just what information the companies collect and how its used.
A shining example of the kinds of information that are not revealed to users of these services has come to light. A leaked document from Facebook Australia revealed that:
Facebook’s algorithms can determine, and allow advertisers to pinpoint, “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” If that phrase isn’t clear enough, Facebook’s document offers a litany of teen emotional states that the company claims it can estimate based on how teens use the service, including “worthless,” “insecure,” “defeated,” “anxious,” “silly,” “useless,” “stupid,” “overwhelmed,” “stressed,” and “a failure.”
This targeting of emotions isn’t necessarily surprising: in a past exposé we learned that Facebook conducted experiments during an American presidential election to see if they could sway voters. Indeed, the company’s raison d’être is figure out how to pitch ads to customers, and figuring out when Facebook users are more or less likely to be affected by advertisements is just good business. If you use the self-download service provided by Facebook, or any other data broker, you will not receive data on how and why your data is exploited: without understanding how their algorithms act on the data they collect from you, you can never really understand how your personal information is processed.
But that raison d’être of pitching ads to people — which is why Facebook could internally justify the deliberate targeting of vulnerable youth — ignores baseline ethics of whether it is appropriate to exploit our psychology to sell us products. To be clear, this isn’t a company stalking you around the Internet with ads for a car or couch or jewelry that you were browsing about. This is a deliberate effort to mine your communications to sell products at times of psychological vulnerability. The difference is between somewhat stupid tracking versus deliberate exploitation of our emotional state.1
Solving for Bad Actors
There are laws around what you can do with the information provided by children. Whether Facebook’s actions run afoul of such law may never actually be tested in a court or privacy commissioner’s decision. In part, this is because mounting legal challenges is extremely challenging, expensive, and time consuming. These hurdles automatically tilt the balance towards activities such as this continuing.
But part of the challenge in stopping such exploitative activities are also linked to Australia’s historically weak privacy commissioner as well as the limitations of such offices around the world: Privacy Commissioners Offices are often understaffed, under resourced, and unable to chase every legally and ethically questionable practice undertaken by private companies. Companies know about these limitations and, as such, know they can get away with unethical and frankly illegal activities unless someone talks to the press about the activities in question.
So what’s the solution? The rote advice is to stop using Facebook. While that might be good advice for some, for a lot of other people leaving Facebook is very, very challenging. You might use it to sign into a lot of other services and so don’t think you can easily abandon Facebook. You might have stored years of photos or conversations and Facebook doesn’t give you a nice way to pull them out. It might be a place where all of your friends and family congregate to share information and so leaving would amount to being excised from your core communities. And depending on where you live you might rely on Facebook for finding jobs, community events, or other activities that are essential to your life.
In essence, solving for Facebook, Google, Uber, and all the other large data broker problems is a collective action problem. It’s not a problem that is best solved on an individualistic basis.
A more realistic kind of advice would be this: file complaints to your local politicians. File complaints to your domestic privacy commissioners. File complaints to every conference, academic association, and industry event that takes Facebook money.2 Make it very public and very clear that you and groups you are associated with are offended by the company in question that is profiting off the psychological exploitation of children and adults alike.3 Now, will your efforts to raise attention to the issue and draw negative attention to companies and groups profiting from Facebook and other data brokers stop unethical data exploitation tomorrow? No. But by consistently raising our concerns about how large data brokers collect and use personal information, and attributing some degree of negative publicity to all those who benefit from such practices, we can decrease the public stock of a company.
History is dotted with individuals who are seen as standing up to end bad practices by governments and private companies alike. But behind them tend to be a mass of citizens who are supportive of those individuals: while standing up en masse may mean that we don’t each get individual praise for stopping some tasteless and unethical practices, our collective standing up will make it more likely that such practices will be stopped. By each working a little we can do something that, individually, we’d be hard pressed to change as individuals.
(This article was previously published in a slightly different format on a now-defunct Medium account.)
1 Other advertising companies adopt the same practices as Facebook. So I’m not suggesting that Facebook is worst-of-class and letting the others off the hook.
2 Replace ‘Facebook’ with whatever company you think is behaving inappropriately, unethically, or perhaps illegally.
3 Surely you don’t think that Facebook is only targeting kids, right?
It’s become incredibly popular to attribute the activities undertaken by the Facebooks and Googles of the work to ‘surveillance capitalism’. This concept generally asserts that the current dominant mode of economics has become reliant on surveillance to drive economic growth. Surveillance, specifically, is defined as the act of watching or monitoring activity with the intent of using captured information to influence behaviour. In the world of the Internet, this information tends to be used to influence purchasing behaviours.
The issue that I have with the term surveillance capitalism is that I’m uncertain whether it comprehensively captures the activities associated with the data-driven economy. Surveillance Studies scholars tend to apply the same theories which are used to understand CCTV to practices such as machine learning; in both cases, the technologies are understood as establishing feedback loops to influence an individual or entire population. But, just as often, neither CCTV nor machine learning actually have a person- or community-related feedback loop. CCTV cameras are often not attended to, not functional, or don’t provide sufficient information to take action against those being recorded. Nor do individuals necessarily modify their own behaviours in the presence of such cameras. Similarly, machine learning algorithms may not be used to influence all persons: in some cases, they may be sufficiently outside the scope of whatever the algorithm is intended to do that they are not affected. Also, like CCTV, individuals may not modify their own behaviours when machine learning algorithms are working on the data those individuals are generating on the basis of being unaware of machine learning operating on their data.
So, where surveillance capitalism depends on a feedback loop that is directly applied towards individuals within a particular economic framework, there may be instances where data is collected and monetized without clear or necessary efforts to influence individuals. Such situations could include those where a machine learning algorithm is designed to improve a facial recognition system, or improve battery life based on the activities undertaken by a user, or to otherwise very quietly make tools more effective without a clear attempt to modify user behaviour. I think that such activities may be very clearly linked to monetization and, more broadly, an ideology backed by capitalism. But I’m not sure it’s surveillance as it’s rigorously defined by scholars.
So one of the things that I keep thinking about is whether we should shift away from the increasingly-broad use of ‘surveillance capitalism’ to, more broadly, talk about ‘data capitalism’. I’m not suggesting doing away with the term surveillance capitalism but, instead, that surveillance capitalism is a sub-genus of data capitalism. Data capitalism would, I believe, better capture the ways in which information is collected, analyzed, and used to effect socio-technical changes. Further, I think such a term might also capture times where those changes are arguably linked to capitalist aims (i.e. enhancing profitability) but may be less obviously linked to the feedback loops towards individuals that are associated with surveillance itself.
After approximately twenty months of work, my colleagues and myself have published an extensive report on encryption policies in Canada. It’s a major accomplishment for all of us to have finally concluded the work, and we’re excited by the positive feedback we’ve received about it.
Inspiring Quotation of the Week
“Ambition is a noble passion which may legitimately take many forms… but the noblest ambition is that of leaving behind something of permanent value.”