Building A Preferred Future
I’ve almost—almost—completely weaned myself off of Twitter.
Yeah, yeah, I know — please keep reading. It’s deeper than all that. This is something I’ve been thinking about long before the recent swirl and chaos…
This is about investing in something with a solid core, something more sustainable, and something… that might… contribute to a more humane future.
I. A Post-Cloud Future?
For context, I want to share a hopeful kind of visual that’s stuck with me.
It’s from a 2015 talk by Amber Case (that I think I first heard at UX Week?). And while the point of this talk was primarily about calm technology, this visual helped me feel hopeful about some pressing privacy (and ownership) concerns:
Essentially, this visual shows how—since the advent of computers in the 1940s—we’ve swung between centralized and decentralized computing; first with mainframes, then PCs, then cloud-based technology. And while all things cloud can seem so final, there’s a predicted swing (ignore Case’s timeframe!) back to decentralized technology, enabled by the increasing computational power of mobile devices.
Why I like this:
- I love this kind of multi-generational thinking. It’s good to step back and look at the long arc of history, technology, and social implications.
- This points to a post-cloud view of technology. It’s easy to get trapped by how things are, and assume there’s nothing beyond the current state—I love that this says we can have the collaborative benefits of cloud-based computing in a way that also respects privacy.
This framing has been in the back of my mind ever since this moment and is how I’ve tried to assess different new technologies, always on the lookout for this predicted swing back to decentralized, personal computing.
Indeed, there’s much we can project onto this hinted at future state: The small web (rather than big web). Fine grained control over our online identities. Personal servers—when we do all go the personal server route (eventually?), it’s only then that we can truly own and protect our data. But this also raises questions: How might we get all the collaborative and social benefits of a cloud based solution, while retaining control—real control—over my personal data? This is where enabling technologies such as The Fediverse (more below) enter our discourse.
But here we are, in 2023. While my values are aligned with an envisioned future state, most of the services I use are stuck in the clouds.
It’s in the context of this framing that most of my efforts have felt like fighting against what is (plugins to stop ad tracking, avoiding shiny new apps that flagrantly disrespect user data, campaigning for data export options, etc.), more so than fighting for what could be.
Which brings me to Mastodon…
II. A Slow Move to the Fediverse
Like many people, I apparently signed up for Mastodon in 2019, only to forget about my account there. I signed up then, likely frustrated by something or other on Twitter, only to fall back on established habits and norms. Tweeting is familiar. So. Very. Familiar! I’ve been using Twitter—and wrapping my neurons around the micro-blogging format 🤪—since late 2006. Habits are… hard to break. But, back to Mastodon.
Despite claims of moving, few friends actually did so. And on and on.
Nothing changed. Except… for this:
My use of Twitter for the past several years has been a cautious and guarded one. Various events seeded some scary thoughts in my mind: What if Twitter was gone tomorrow? What if I got locked out of my account? What if all my data was deleted? What if I could no longer reach out to people I’m only connected to there?
No longer feeling safe in this home, I began looking around. Recognizing how little control I have over any of these questions led me to think more and more about my independence on the web, what stays with me, who owns my social graph, and so on.
Alas, life goes on.
I continued tweeting, while these nagging concerns grew in the background. And then… Elon’s takeover. I watched, in horrified fascination for a week or two, but knew then I needed to make the switch. For real, this time.
So I returned to Mastodon. Easier this time for many reasons (special thanks to https://listfollowers.com/ , https://twitodon.com/ and https://fedifinder.glitch.me for helping me locate my friends on Mastodon). But this time, I returned to Mastodon with a new perspective.
Here’s where the dots begin to connect.
Thanks to a really good explanation, the “federated” part of Mastodon finally clicked for me. This, seems like a part of the promising, hopeful future alluded to in Amber Case’s visual—not a panacea, but a small, promising, first step.
With all the Twitter chaos going on, a number of options have sprung up to take its place. I know Post.news and Hive have both gotten some attention. And these alternatives may, for a time, offer a better experience than Mastodon. But, there’s a fundamental difference here I want to highlight: Only Mastodon (and similar offerings grounded by a federated orientation) promise something truly new. I’m not talking about bells and whistles, features and the like — I’m talking about the very foundation upon which a service is built. The core, if you will. At this point in time, that core seems to be ActivityPub, the W3C recommended decentralized social networking protocol.
If it’s another cloud-based SaaS company, then it’s yet another place where I’m a hapless tenant. More of the same. Yet another app or site that at its core is ultimately designed to extract value—by any means necessary.
These companies can wave around all the privacy friendly policies and nice sounding value propositions they want. If there’s VC money involved, if you must trust the owners to be good actors, or if in the future one of these companies might ever, ever change ownership, then all of this privacy-washing is exactly that—riding a wave of present concerns, with no guarantee that things won’t change next year. More. Of. The. Same.
If it’s really something a company values, then they should bake these concerns into the most fundamental parts of the business — the legal business structure and choices about technology infrastructure. I’m not looking for a Twitter replacement. I’m looking to invest in what’s next, and something that is truly human-centered.
III. Building the Future I Want to See
A common myth about futurists is that they predict the future. This is wrong on several accounts. Futurists do not (1) “predict” (2) the future.
Using a variety of tools and methods, futurists look at present signals to explore several (plural!) alternative futures. Okay, so *many* futures. Got it. Sounds a bit like writing science fiction, right? Except, once you’ve identified all these possible, probable, preferable, and even unlikely futures, you pick the one you want. Why? Agency. To work backwards from this selected fiction and figure out what you can do today to make that preferred future more likely to happen. We align our actions today with the future we want to see tomorrow. You do the work today to *make* your preferred future become reality.
We can easily rattle off dozens of TV shows and books that all paint a horrifying dystopian future, where every aspects of a person’s life is governed by the corporate (or government) overlords: Continuum. Jennifer Government. Hunger Games. X-Men: Days of Future Past. 1984. The Handmaid’s Tale. Firefly. Altered Carbon. Severance. Black Mirror. The Expanse. Wall-E. Gattaca. Fahrenheit 451. Elysium. Avatar. The wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet (or off-planet) control our lives. This ‘Corporate Overlord’ theme is so common, it’s become cliché. And, normative.
Whatever their entertainment value, these dystopian futures were never meant to celebrate these futures — they were meant as a warning. Great science-fiction is a comment on present circumstances. ‘This is bad. We can do better. Or… face the consequences.’ But, here’s the danger: Expose yourself to enough of these dystopian narratives, even just for entertainment, and this becomes the dominant narrative. We start to believe these dystopian futures are inevitable. ‘That’s just how things are.’ Returning to Amber Case’s visual, we get stuck in the present, the here and now, believing that cloud technology (really just someone else’s server) is simply how it is and will ever be — what else is there?
And yet… there is more. There are alternatives. There is or can be a more humane future.
In other areas of my life, as I am able, I’ve made conscious choices to create—however small my contribution — the future I’d like to see:
- Buying local
- Seeking out fair trade options
- I happen to love a visit to my FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store); the cost? Buying board games at full price
- I love my local cafe—during the pandemic I looked for any excuse to support them through a rough time
On the digital front…
- I’ve sworn off signing up for new apps and hardware devices that are obviously privacy hostile
- Avoiding the ease of buying from Amazon
- I support the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
- Where possible, I’ve tried in my day job to advocate for decisions that favor privacy and portability of data
- Soon, I plan to return to a self-hosted—or easily portable—blog (YES—the irony of posting all this here on Medium, a centralized blogging platform, is not lost on me!)
In lots of small ways, I’m trying to to create the future I want to live in.
I’m switching to Mastodon because it represents the kind of future I want to help make. I want that post-cloud future where my stuff stays with me. Where if I decide I don’t like the instance of Mastodon I’m on, I can relocate—without rebuilding. Where if I choose, I might even spin up my own instance. A future where the current domain of devs—spinning up servers and installing patches — might be something anyone can do… Imagine that! This is the beauty of an open source, standards-based, federated model—what’s mine is mine. Or rather, ours. We dodge the whole social “lock in” that is the foundation of most cloud-based services these days. Yes, to realize 100% these benefits you’ll need to self-host, but that’s the point: You can. You can have the benefits of both personal computing and remote (cloud) computing. You can have privacy, ownership, AND social connection.
Again, a promising, first step. All of my concerns are still valid if I’m a tenant on someone else’s server. Instances can be defederated. Where I’m ‘at’ could disappear overnight. I’ve traded a transaction with a corporation for trust in the goodwill of an individual. But—at the core—I have choice. I can move somewhere else without starting over.
And what of the present learning curve? If I switch to Mastodon (or some other service based on the ActivityPub protocol), aren’t there a lot of usability issues? One, that’s changing, quickly; I just switched to a new client—Ivory—and it’s got a really, really nice UI. But, let’s stick with the whole “bad UX” complaint. What does that complaint do for us, really? It makes it easy to tell yourself “I’ll check back later, when there are more people and it’s more polished.” For some folks, this might be the right decision. But, taking a ‘future I want’ orientation reframes these complaints: ‘How long can I put up with a less than polished experience? What are the (perhaps temporary?) trade offs I’m willing to make, for the future I’d like to live in? How might I help make something better?’ With a federated model, we move from an investment in someone else’s core to an investment in a core that kinda sorta belongs to all of us—especially true if we self-host. Rather than gripe about a service or leave because something is a bad experience, I can lean in. Or help. I can offer explanations, and fixes. I’m contributing to something… better? I’m contributing to something more aligned with the future I’d prefer to see.
Which leads me to the ultimate point of all this: We have to step back and ask ourselves ‘Is the core good?’ That’s what this switch—really, the last decade or so of life as a tech worker—highlights for me: Is the core good? If the core is good, you can work on the other stuff: Social norms, acting on values, better experiences, infrastructure issues, bugs, new features, and so on (and trust me, there are plenty of healthy debates about these things happening within the Fediverse!). But… If the core is rotten (or prone to rot), then what use is it setting up pretty picket fences and fresh coats of paint? You’ve got to start with a good core.
I’m happy to be investing in something that will perhaps be more sustainable, and help to build a more humane future.