JRF, week 4

I’ve talked so much about politics this week that I’m avoiding it here. Proud of my family in the US who have been fighting the good fight, curing ballots, phone banking and being loud, angry and practical. Meanwhile, in Sweden, most of my extended family have Covid (one of my cousins is a carer, and the family member of the person she looks after went to a small wedding which ended up being a spreader event). They seem to have mild cases, but still. I haven’t seen any of them since February.

Glitches

Glitches make me think, too, of Legacy Russell’s work. I went to a panel she was on at the ICA a couple of years ago, and her points about the role of the internet in people’s lives were just as crisp and provocative as you’d expect from her earlier essays.

I also just trust people who have good slides

Remember when digital dualism was considered a valid academic argument? I sometimes wonder if the obsessive focus on social media’s role in electoral politics and “hatred” is a wider, social application of the same fallacy, and expect academics to come back to me about that in 2029. Anyway, it felt like Legacy Russell had a really strong grasp on the social, political and personal uses of the internet, so I’m excited that she has a book out. (Ordered, not yet arrived.) If you’re not convinced by my endorsement, read this.

Practical things

I typed a bit about what we’re about to start, but then deleted it. In keeping with the whole “don’t talk about what you’re planning to do, talk about it when you’re doing it”-vibe that’s the spiritual ancestor to “Show the Thing”.

Look, there’s no prizes for originality on the internet. Long live the old memes!

Holly ran a great training on how to use Asana. Also pleased to see that Natasha and Craig put together a really nice round up of this month and Grace is writing weeknotes for the intranet about what our team is doing. Parts of the week also went to induction training, and it’s just really nice to get a sense of who everyone is and what they’re doing. I’ve also been doing things like getting set up on payment systems and invoicing training. And bouncing thoughts, concerns and ideas off colleagues.

But…is it real?

Remember this one?

Rainer and Ines wrote a characteristically insightful piece about Estonia’s digital government which touches on the strengths and limitations of taking an engineering-led approach (my words, not theirs). That approach is really similar to an Estonian startup I saw at a GovTech conference in Vienna I spoke at last year. (❤ Wien.) Much like the approach Rainer and Ines describe, what the startup was pitching was clearly buildable — automated document scanning, I think — but incremental and didn’t change anything about the status quo. On the other side of that equation, you have pitches like the one I did a small piece of work for several years back, where an agency suggested that a Middle Eastern airport hub could become the centre of luxury goods processing For The World if only they had enough smart contracts and blockchain to automate away the pain. All of which would lead to human flourishing and big moneys. Naturellement. A combination of Inventing the Future, Bertrand Russell on idleness and the Special Economic Zones people my age were taught about in geography class. I have no idea how it went, but the potential client has barely updated their website. Possibly for the best.

Anyway, ideas that are in the middle of those two are possible, but hard.

Things I’ve like on the web

Am enjoying the slightly snarky tone of Cast from Clay’s writing, as well as their occasional enthusiasm for things like who is doing data visualisations well.

This discussion of online communities and trust was also very good. There’s always a risk that discussions of community spin off into either the fluffy or the dog-whistley. But this one is really concrete:

Given that trust doesn’t scale terribly well, now you have the context to think about the role you want trust to play in your community. Should you try to keep the community smaller and more tightly knit to keep everyone at a similar level of trust? Are there roles in your community that naturally garner different levels of trust? Are their roles that must be granted trust or does it always have to be earned? Do you need to reduce the number of roles you define as part of your community to enhance trust within your community?

Nice.

Thought that this alpha, from the Data Labs at the Wellcome Trust, was really nice.

It’s called Reach, and basically checks how scientific research is used in policy documents. As far as I can tell, it’s a combination of a scraper and some ML matching. But it’s a really nice tool, which moves away from the empty jargon of “data-driven policy” and starts showing what what that could look like.

It’s beautifully documented, well thought-through, and works really well for an alpha. Also, massive props for explaining it as well as having an open GitHub repo and the chance to have a dig around in the API.

I’d love to see more foundations do stuff like this. I don’t know if the Wellcome Data Lab team did this in-house, or with an agency, but if you’re reading this and *do* know, get in touch? (I could also just send you an email like a sensible person and not do a public appeal like a throwback from 2006 blogger era, but here we are.)

Digression about time, memory, empire and ad agency dudes

I’ve been thinking about how I remember very little from the last few months. There’s very little punctuation, somehow — limited things to hang memories off, good or bad. I know I’m extremely lucky in that. But it’s made me think about something from a book I read a few years back called “The People’s Republic of Amnesia” by Louisa Lim, about memory of political violence and change in the PRC. It argues, I guess, that when there’s so much both external and internal change, memory and remembrance shifts. And that’s a bit of how I’ve felt these last few months, especially with so much of life being mediated through these weirdly standardised platforms, which both change all the time and don’t change much at all. Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend the book. It’s fine but not-great, in the way that a lot of books about China aimed at Western audiences aren’t great.

Look, there’s a lot of clues that something is like that. One of the many is if a white person starts spouting off about Confucianism. When I was a journo in Hong Kong, one of the white guys who ran a Western ad agency on the Mainland would insist on including, in pretty much everything he said or wrote for us, some musing about how responses to advertising were actually reflections of deeply held Confucian values. Be it about shoe brands or milk packaging.

It was both obviously inaccurate and, in context, very, very funny. A bit like if you’d have a dude who ran an agency in Manchester who didn’t speak more than a smattering of English but was somehow in charge, saying things to the industry press like, “the balance of the JD Sports logo and signage is indicative of the commitment to the symbol of the Cross that is felt by all inhabitants in this Anglican Land, expressed through their love of football.”

But, you know, almost every week and with increasingly absurd flights of fancy.

We published his quotes, because the other white guys who ran or worked at Western ad agencies in Asia seemed to like his stuff. (There were a lot of them.) Plus, he was always available to talk and we had deadlines. YOLO.

Needless to say, he is now a globally recognised expert on China, and a regular commentator on all mainstream US outlets. At least according to his personal website.

Seriously, trust no one.

Why not throw someone else under the bus, Ella?

Give the younger version of me a job, I guess

Never say an out of date profile photo doesn’t fool some of the people, some of the time, I guess.

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