s08e05: There’s only one rule that I know of, babies

Goddamnit, you’ve got to be kind.

0.0 Context setting

Friday January 31 2020. It isn’t raining right now. Don’t look at what’s happening in the U.K. or Washington, D.C. if it’s too painful. Or, look, and take that anger and energy. Or, take that sadness and share it and reach out.

This is a long one today, so hopefully you can stick with it.

There isn’t going to really be anything about managing teams. Or service design. Or jokes about Star Trek. (Really!) But hopefully, you’ll like it and you’ll get something out of it.

A note about paid subscriber-only episodes

An aside: if you’re a free subscriber you may have noticed that you’ve skipped an episode number. This is correct! The previous episode, s08e04: The ATCR Boundary was the first paid subscriber-only episode of the year, and probably reflects a move to one-a-month for paid subs.

That episode covered the world before algorithmic timelines and content recommendation (runaway content recommendation events!); dumb-fallback for smart devices; health and safety for internet jobs; and the usual grab bag of links.

If you’re interested, then there should be a subscribe link in a preamble up top. Please consider trying out a subscription, one thing it does is help me justify buying things like home smart air quality sensors and then writing about and having opinions about them, thank you Mr. Hammersley.

1.0 The things that caught my attention

It took me a long while to figure out how to explain my career. Once, back when I was a Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy, an intern asked me how I came into that role and how my career had developed. I joked that I don’t have a career, I have a careen.

I have always loved computers from when my dad borrowed one from work to take home. I always loved making stuff with computers. I programmed—a bit. Or at least I tried to. I remember precociously looking at a thoroughly useless C manual around 8 or 9 years old and not understanding what I thought “Studio H” was supposed to be, the C header file/library for standard input/output functions.

And I went to university and studied law and qualified as a lawyer in England and was all set to be an intellectual property/IT lawyer at a small (“boutique”) firm in Cambridge (hey, I revised the standard contract terms and conditions for Sibelius one time, checked over open source provisions involved in the ANT browser!).

And I got my Masters in Software Engineering so I could have a piece of paper that kind-of proved I knew what I was talking about, ish, and that I knew enough to be dangerous.

And then I worked at a couple of startups and co-founded one, one which is now famous for encouraging people to run because they’re being chased by zombies and started out doing a bunch of what at the time we called “net-native storytelling”.

I met my wife on IRC, playing an alternate reality game.

I would talk to clients and conferences about one measure of a successful, healthy online community being the number of wedding invitations you might get.

I would spend time in advertising as a creative director, the interactive CD working in a triumverate of the more traditional copywriter and art director CDs, at an agency I incredibly respect for the quality of its creative output and how it shows understanding of what makes people people.

Then I’d take some time out and go work at Code for America, because like many in my cohort in England, I feel like I never got the chance to work at the BBC, and I missed the boat on working at GDS.

And then I’d throw myself on a hand grenade and start working for the State of California.

How could I explain all of this? I would not see myself as a designer. I would not see myself as a writer or a strategist. I would just see a jumble of “stuff to do with the internet”, because that was the only through line, jumping from industry to industry.

In other words, weird internet career.

But then, I figured it out.

It was always about the people.

Two stories today, and then a bonus one.

1.1 What is it like to be you?

An article has been doing the rounds on the internet about research indicating that some people experience internal narratives and others don’t:

Fun fact: some people have an internal narrative and some don't

As in, some people's thoughts are like sentences they "hear", and some people just have abstract non-verbal thoughts, and have to consciously verbalize them

And most people aren't aware of the other type of person


There’s a reasonable paper in the Psychological Bulletin from 2015, Inner Speech: Development, Cognitive Functions, Phenomenology and Neurobiology about this phenomenon of inner speech and verbal thinking.

Normally, this insight and research would be the interesting thing for me. But not this time!

This time, what’s interesting to me is the discussion that’s happened after the finding has been made more widely known. I mean, the discussion has been amazing. You’ve got a bunch of people who are sharing their private, internal experience of what it is like to be me, and learning what is it like to be you.

I don’t think this has happened before at this scale. A global communications network now exists that’s cheap enough or in some cases even free to access, offering a pseudonymous way for people to feel safe enough to share a private experience with complete strangers? I give Facebook and Twitter a bunch of shit for their rhetoric about a global community (no, Facebook’s billions of users are no more a community than the television-watching global community) and creating authentic connection, but I will very happily admit that this, this particular example with people sharing what it is like to be me and learning what is it like to be you is the good.

This is the thing that makes free, open, networked communication brilliant. This is the thing that brings down silos and creates common understanding and humanizes us all, that creates empathy and the first steps towards compassion.

That someone can read about this insight and have a way to react to it and share their perspective and not even know who else might read it, but feel safe in doing so and maybe even with the expectation that this sharing is a net good? That is good. That is what we should strive for.

I’ve seen this happen before. It’s happened on forums like Metafilter, which I kind of expect to, Metafilter being a very closely curated and well-tended community of people, with real moderators watching and guiding and modeling conversation. When it’s happened in that place, in that context, the examples I’ve seen have been a bit like:

“Hey, here’s an interesting article about bodies. Did you know this about bodies?”

And then the comments quickly turn into:

“Huh! Well, my body does this and I think it’s weird. Is this normal?”

Inevitably followed with:

“OMG my body does this too, I thought it was just me.”

and then:

“No way! My body is also this way.”

This exchange can be qualitatively lifechanging for someone. Think about what this means:

There are other people like me.

I am not alone.

Sure, there are times when we want to be alone. But there are also times when desperately want to know that someone out there knows what it is like, even in the tiniest sliver of a sense, in that just-cracked-open door sense, what it is like to be me.

And I think this is golden and light and to be protected and nurtured because this is what grows us and sustains us and it is what we all deserve, whether we think we deserve it or not. Every single human, from the moment we’re born.

I know what it felt like when I first went online, having the privilege of parents who had the means to get a modem into the house, when I found the first BBS to dial into, found the first people interested in the kinds of things I was, as passionate about them.

There wasn’t that much back then, it wasn’t like now. We were just starting to drag things over into the online space. I don’t want to say it was all good. There were assholes and people acting out and reacting to the trauma they’d grown up with there, like there are everywhere. But I stayed for the connection.

I think this is why so many older technologists are upset and lost and afraid about where we are now, because so many of us have seen and experienced this good connection, and we’re worried — rightly! — that too much bad is happening. Too many people are getting hurt, and it feels like it’s getting too easy to do harm and to hurt other people in this space.

I don’t want to lose sight of the good. I want to remember the hard, positive moments of growth and connection that networked computers have provided and continue to provide, because if we lose sight of that, that’s a terrible tragedy. I want everyone to be lucky enough to experience these moments, to have as many chances as possible for their entire lives.

Last week I finally had a chance to chat with Joanne McNeill about her new book, Lurking: How a Person Became a User after she reached out to me. We talked about why people go online and, at least in my head, it reinforced the story I have that connecting with people through networks is often an encouragement to become a technologist. To be enriched by the connection and to want to learn how to share not just the connection, but to create new and more ways to experience that connection.

It is easy to shit all over platforms like Nextdoor and point to people being inconsiderate, rude, dismissive and actively harmful to each other.

It can be the other way too, though. It happens. We owe it to ourselves to deliberately and honestly create more spaces where people can learn and hear what is it like to be you.

This was an expanded and edited version of a series of tweets.

1.2 Growing up videogames

I noticed something this past Christmas when my parents came out to visit us.

Part of my memories of growing up at home with computers include our parents being annoyed or at least concerned at the amount of time we spent playing videogames. Or, that videogames were frivolous. I’m of the age where we tried to persuade parents and teachers that the manual to Sid Meier’s Civilization was actually useful and relevant to our history classes and can I just say: I still think we were right.

I also don’t remember playing videogames with my parents. I know some people did, but different families and different cultures, you know? It just wasn’t my experience. I have a memory of my dad coming home and showing us Elite on the BBC Micro, but I don’t remember seeing him play it. To be honest, that may well be because me playing it is a far more exciting memory.

This Christmas, just a few weeks ago, my parents got to watch me playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch with their three year old and “I’M NEARLY SEVEN!” year old grandchildren.

I was worried they’d be angry or disapprove. Again, playing videogames wasn’t something it felt like they’d really understood or liked us doing when we were kids. There was alway something else, like music practice.

So anyway, I’m sitting there, in front of the TV playing this game and my kids are snuggled right up close to me and we’re exploring together. Breath of the Wild is an open-world game, which if you’re not familiar, means you can kind of just wander about and do whatever you want. There are quests and tasks to do, but you don’t really have to do them, and you can kind of do things in whatever order, too.

My three year old is excitedly looking out for sparkling things, which is how the game’s interface shows you what’s interesting and what you can interact with. Games these days are not like 80s and 90s point and click adventures where you’d have to scrub the mouse methodically across the screen to find where the cursor might change to a hand or whatever, the realization having come across that doing so kind of gets in the way of actually enjoying the experience.

(There continues to be a debate, and a valid one, about intent and whether making something hard is a reasonable thing to do or not, and this just points to games maturing as a medium and the ability of a creator to make an artistic point through deliberate choices of how you interact with the work).

Meanwhile, the seven year old is practicing his reading: he’s excitedly narrating for us, reading out descriptions of new items we discover to his little brother.

We’re playing together.

My parents, to my surprise, are rapt. They’re paying attention and watching their grandchildren play with me. They’re noticing what my children are noticing and how they’re thinking about things. The three year old is talking about how there are bad guys over there and whether we should fight them, or go around them.

I think, my parents are probably doing that grandparent thing of thinking: LOOK HOW SMART OUR GRANDCHILDREN ARE!

And then, a little afterwards, I realize: my parents don’t see playing videogames as a bad thing anymore. (I would not point this out to them about 8 years ago, when I would catch them staying up late playing whatever match-3 game on their first iPads).

But now I could see how my parents could see how playing this game together was creating connection in our family. I was prepared and all tensed up for them to react judgmentally, to act as if we were wasting time or not doing something more fulfilling.

I noticed how they were supportive, and that they praised my kids when they noticed something in the game. How they noticed I was able to use the game to talk about how we can try again when things are hard, and how we practice to get better at things we’ve never done before.

There’s a challenge in the game, about what feels like partway through, where you can earn some money by helping to manage a deer population in a forest - you get paid depending on how many deer you can hunt inside of something like a couple of minutes.

I was terrible at this. It was incredibly frustrating. I got frustrated. My kids got frustrated.

So I said: “Hey, I’m not good at this because I’ve never done it before. I can’t do it yet because it’s new and I haven’t learned how to do it.”

That first try, I was lucky to get one deer.

I said: “Let’s try a few more times and see what happens.”

About five tries later, we were up to about four or five deer.

The nearly-seven year old picked up on this. It was a bit world breaking for him to find out there’s something I had never done before, that I wouldn’t automatically be good at because I was his parent or a grownup.

Being able to say that I’m not good at something, that I’ve never done it before and that it will be frustrating, but that I will get better with practice? That’s a good thing for me to say at all, never mind to my children.

This isn’t just a story about parenting and generational change and videogames. I work with a big government department inside a big government agency, with people who are being asked to do new things and learn new skills and think very differently.

Nobody likes to fail. But, like my therapist likes to point out, you can’t grow and you can’t learn without failing. At all. Just doesn’t happen.

Saying this to coworkers and repeating it and internalizing it is crucial. Actually, never mind coworkers. Anyone. Your partner. Your parents. Anyone you have a more than passing relationship with.

Where this relates to games is this: there are many, many books to be written about how well put-together Breath of the Wild is. I’ve done a bunch of gamification work a long time ago and was doing it right when someone branded it and it started turning all horrible, when it got simplified into badges and points and leaderboards and unhelpful mentions of cognitive evolutionary psychology into a silver bullet you could apply.

At its base, Breath of the Wild provided an environment for practice and mastery. For teaching and learning skills, rewarding exploration and inquisitiveness. For patience. And it does that without giving you points and a number and levels. Take that, surface-level gamification!

My point here is exactly the same one I made above. Breath of the Wild and the space it provided made room for the opportunity for connection between me, my kids and my parents. It is a good thing. We could still play too much of it. We could still fall into and neglect other important things. It’s still an opportunity to teach that too much of anything is unhealthy.

I wish more people, as many people, could have this chance of connection and could achieve it, and more than once. Throughout our whole lives. My partner and I could easily be described as crunchy for our approach to screen time. I try as hard as possible to be present as much as I can, and I don’t always succeed. We try to give them time to play and learn on their own and not hover.

I dearly love that Breath of the Wild exists as something to do with my children. Nintendo have done a fantastic job.

It has never been about the technology. It has always been about what it does for people.

Also: videogames are art and culture now. Just deal with it. Nobody needs to certify it. You don’t need permission from anyone to have this point of view. The evidence is everywhere. They have been for a long time, but the argument is over.

This was an expanded edited version of a series of tweets.

1.3 Goddamnit, babies

One last piece. This one has nothing to do with tech.

I have a problem with self-esteem. You might, too. When people give me positive feedback about my work, whether it’s the paid-for stuff, or stuff like this where I’m “just writing” because it’s a thing I like to do, the easiest thing for me to do is to deflect, deny and minimize.

“Oh well, I suppose it wasn’t that bad.”

“Well I didn’t really try that hard.”

“It’s okay but it’s nowhere near as [good, insightful, useful, relevant, beautiful] as [this other person we both respect].”

I’ve talked with my therapist about this a lot. I would say: “Well, it’s hard to be proud of my work. I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“How about just, ‘thank you’?”

Which kind of floored me.

And then we thought about it a bit more, and I tried to think about it from the other side. Because what if the praise or feedback was sincerely offered?

I’d been too busy listening to myself, telling myself the work was no good. I wasn’t actually listening to my friend or peer or, perhaps worst of all, someone I looked up to and respected.

I realized that my deflection, minimization and evasion could even be pretty rude. I was effectively saying “I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. I don’t believe you. I don’t respect your opinion.”

That’s not what I meant though, right?

I can think whatever I want about my work.

It might be a bit rich to tell other people, friends and peers that their opinion is wrong. (And sometimes it might be!). But arguing with them about a compliment? When I’m out of an emotional space and thinking critically, that kind of feels a bit fucked up.

I want to write this down and not as a humblebrag, but as a way to keep myself accountable:

It would be kind to myself, and probably help make my writing easier, if I remembered that in one meeting, Dan-fucking-Wieden, the co-founder of the agency I worked at with his name on the fucking door, told me he’d read what I’d written and unequivocally and clearly that I was a good writer.

I should probably believe him. He didn’t have any reason to lie to me. He’s made a career and a business and other peoples’ careers out of finding and working with good writers. Who am I to say he’s wrong?

His compliment doesn’t mean I can’t get better. I can take it as there’s something worth growing. If I really do want to get better at writing, say, then I can probably do more of the hard and painful work of figuring out why I put so much energy into deflecting praise and feedback.

Of course, this isn’t just for me.

If what I have shared has that tiny bit of what it is like to be me then you might have a bit of feedback filed away that you’ve tried to shush away. Maybe dig it out and listen to it today and act as if it might be true? It would be a kind thing to do for yourself.

About 3,600 words over an hour lunchtime isn’t bad, right? I mean, I had the outline done already over coffee this morning so I did cheat a little.

If you’re a new subscriber, you might be getting the impression that this is a newsletter where I write about what it means to be a person in a world full of technology… and that’s quite an expansive topic.

You are right! I’m very grateful to everyone who subscribes, paid or not, (all ~2,600 of you!) and that you get something out of me writing about things in this way. I’m even more grateful for the notes and encouragement that I get back, and I’ll practice what I have so recently preached: thank you.

If you liked this, feel free to forward along. And as ever, I love getting notes and I do reply, even if all we do is just say hi to each other.