I’m glad to remember an internet that didn’t feel like it was trying to drain my attention all the time. Growing up in small towns and being unschooled, the net was both a portal for seeing the world and contributing to it. I talked about it briefly in my last entry—an introduction. I’ve always enjoyed building things with whatever material is around. Back then it was a hand-me-down Compaq and dialup. I didn’t have like, hand tools to build a treehouse, but a machine with a connection. Not really decision making—“I want to make sites!”—more environmental.
So it was disappointing to watch this thing I was so into become more and more adversarial over time. During my teens seeing big tech displace big oil felt pretty Virilio-ish. The story is familiar, yeah? Not a unique experience; it’s broadly personal.
As someone compelled to build, this creates a lot of tension. Honestly, the difficulty in reasoning about compromise is paralyzing at times. Over the past few years it felt like building meant deciding to contribute to the mess, however indirectly.
As the net enveloped more of life the platforms began trying to eat each other. It’s still going on. Facebook wants to become Snapchat wants to become Netflix wants to become Youtube wants to become Instagram wants to become Shopify wants to become Pinterest… and so on. I’m exaggerating, but it’s undeniable that platforms want to become their neighbor before their neighbor becomes them.
It seems like the pattern is a function of time. An indicator of an aging ecosystem. We remember AOL, yeah? These things that feel too big to ever go away, but they do. This isn’t really controversial. It’s how it goes.
Every once in a while I revisit this lecture by Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp at Columbia GSAPP, where he attended as a student. It’s one of the better (imo) schools for architecture and urbanization. Makes sense that Evan went there. Everything is architecture, right?
Evan is on it. The lecture is scatter-brained and cross-disciplinary, and includes phrases like “spiritual neuroticism” and “fragmented myths.” It’s not a tech talk, but one of culture, spirit, big glass walls and gardens (lol.) What inspires us. He’s able to better articulate a lot of the same metaphors used by those critical of platforms like Pinterest.
After a few minutes of watching, a question always returns: How can someone with an understanding of things so dialed be responsible for… Pinterest?
If I had to guess, it’s partly about an interplay between inspiration and intuition. A sculptor or songwriter does not dictate their work. Instead they respond. It’s following your nose and being receptive to what a work wants to be. It requires an extreme sensitivity and the ability to move your ego out of the way to reveal the true shape of what’s in-front of you. Evan’s interests are on point. But Pinterest is less his creation and more the sum of what Pinterest wanted to be at scale. The idea wanted to grow.
Evan and his team were in tune with what a platform within the “web2” attention economy wanted to be, and were able to set aside their sense of idealism for what the ecosystem afforded and what mass utility at scale required of them.
To build on web2 at scale today means accepting those same defaults and a willingness to repeat history. We’ve seen how it goes. The combination of platforms eating each other and these conditions (it’s either ads or subscriptions bb) indicate it’s the end of that timeline. Donezooooo. Time for what’s next (and already underway.)
I’m having having a lot of fun working on Mirror…an understatement, actually. I’m waking up at night with ideas frequent enough that it’s getting annoying. A good problem. They don’t feel like personal revelations, but things that are floating out there, and Mirror happens to be at the right place and time to catch them.
That’s not to say I don’t have concerns about parts of web3. There are a lot of open questions, and it’s kept me out of the space up until recently.
For example, there are great things about permanent storage, and not so great things. I’m also not sure how much energy is involved for NFTs, same as I’m not sure how much energy goes into my salad I have each afternoon, even though I eat them every day. I try to make good choices. Eating a salad is better than a daily burger in terms of cow farts and transportation. It’s not as good as sustenance farming in my yard.
If crypto were going to go away, it would have by now. I’m not sure if it will start to scale in the next five years, or another ten, although I have a hunch, but there seems to be something fundamental here. It’s hard to put a finger on it, in the same way that people questioned the purpose of the internet when we only had phones, books, and TVs. People back then were also able to predict issues we’re now experiencing. “So anyone, anywhere, can publish anything, and everyone can access it?” Was it worth it? A difficult question, and I’m unsure if it’s the right one. It feels similar to how we now see issues with web3, but instead of looking at history we’re projecting forward.
Last question: If I were born a decade or so earlier, would I have been concerned enough about possible issues with the net that I wouldn’t have gotten involved?
Something Evan mentions in his lecture:
The world we are born into as humans is by default normal to us, and then as we live it changes. Occasionally in profound, and occasionally in tragically irrevocable ways, and the next generation that’s born just has no idea what’s been lost. … Any meaningful change we make to the world is likely to be source of great new beauty as well as traumatic loss. … And what matters is we try as hard as we can to make the changes we do make as carefully as possible and as sensitively as possible to the balance that we have today on the world.
Christ, I can’t believe I’m quoting the Pinterest guy. This all sounds great until you realize the Pinterest guy said it. fml.
Anyway, similar to the compromise with my salad, I’ll try to use platforms careful about the balance being shifted in the world with web3. Now that I’m contributing to the creation of this stuff too, I’ll try to do the same in my work.
Genuinely optimistic about the future, but let’s not get lazy here.