Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

Tech

What I Hope for the Future of the Hudson Valley Tech Scene

I had several conversations at CatskillsConf about the present and future of the Hudson Valley tech scene, and several of the ideas I heard dovetailed nicely with my own thinking about this subject.

I’m cataloguing these here for posterity and comment. Some of these are my own ideas, some of them come from conversations with others, but all of them owe a debt to the spirit of cautious optimism that’s been in the air lately.

Read these, think about them, make suggestions. Better yet, pick an idea you particularly like and take action.

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Digital Terroir

Hello, CatskillsConf! This is the written version of my talk, given on October 20, 2018 at 4:00pm. There might be some slight differences between the written version and the spoken verison. All images are from Unsplash, except for the Hudson Valley image, which I took myself from the top of the tower at Mohonk.

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Radical Technologies

I’ve been reading the book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield, and I thought this quote insightful, on how smartphones shape our lives:

It’s easy, too easy, to depict the networked subject as being isolated, in contact with others only at the membrane that divides them. But if anything, the overriding quality of our era is porosity. Far from affording any kind of psychic sanctuary, the walls we mortar around ourselves turn out to be as penetrable a barrier as any other. Work invades our personal time, private leaks into public, the intimate is trivially shared, and the concerns of the wider world seep into what ought to be a space for recuperation and recovery. Above all, horror finds us wherever we are.

I started reading the book a while back, but life got in the way and I’m finally picking it up again. It’s a breakdown of how nine different technologies are reshaping the world in invisible ways, from how the Internet of Things promotes a worldview of “unreconstructed logical positivism” (the belief that everything can be perfectly measured, and thus perfectly controlled, and human bias can be eliminated) to how smartphones make us nodes in a network, rather than discrete individuals.

Most books in this genre are either too optimistic or too pessimistic for my taste, but this one is neither technophilic or technophobic. Also unlike most books in the genre, it doesn’t read like a BuzzFeed article (“You won’t believe how these 9 technologies will make your life awesome!!!”)… it feels more like something Marshall McLuhan would write.

All-in-all, it’s been a lot to chew on, and I’m left with the feeling that it’s an important read. It’s certainly changing my understanding of the technologies that are coming down the pike. I’m a particular fan of the chapter titles, which sum up the thesis of each chapter and contain gems like:

  1. The internet of things: A planetary mesh of perception and response
  2. Digital fabrication: Towards a political economy of matter
  3. Automation: The annihilation of work

With a last name like Greenfield, it’s no wonder the author writes about high technology.

Building an Online Community

You are the framer of the Constitution in this world that you are building. You are the Abraham in the series of begats.

I’m a big fan of Reid Hoffman’s podcast, Masters of Scale. In the most recent episode, featuring Caterina Fake (of Flickr fame), they discuss how cultures form in online communities. Social networks become their own “civilizations,” and the founder is “the Abraham in the series of begats,” carving out the culture and mores which will define the community.

Masters of Scale title card

This idea has been on my mind a lot since I launched the Hudson Valley Talentbase. The early tone of the community sets the tone for the entire project — attract trolls early, and it becomes a platform for trolls. Shut them down, and they’ll congregate elsewhere.

Talentbase is still young, and there are only a handful of users that I’d consider “active,” but I’m already seeing the seeds of what the community could become. Some users are engaging with the platform in interesting and unintended ways — using the “Post Your Work” feature to post nascent ideas, for instance, or using it as a blogging function. The norms are already being set. I’m no longer the one controlling the experience — I’m just setting up the framework and watching how users interact within.

My fear of setting the wrong tone early was part of the reason I first launched it as an invite-only platform. I wanted the initial population to be made up of people I trusted, and the people they trusted, so that I could establish Talentbase as a place to showcase high-quality work and have high-quality conversation. Hearing two well-pedigreed social media founders discuss this exact idea is validating.

Some other ideas I found interesting from the episode:

  • Towards the beginning of Flickr, there was a large userbase in the United Arab Emirates, but also a large number of photos of Britney Spears with a bare midrif. Those turned out to be mutually exclusive populations — by allowing the midrif photos to continue, Flickr caused their UAE userbase to migrate elsewhere.
  • There’s no such thing as an objective platform. Every online community stands for something, based on the rules it chooses to enforce, but only some communities know what they stand for.
  • Every founder of a social network understands what lines can’t be crossed. Only some of them vocalize those boundaries and codify them for the rest of the community.
  • Near the beginning of Flickr, Caterina Fake made a point of greeting each new member personally. This is a great idea for making a community feel personal (though I’d be tempted to automate the initial contact, and then respond personally to those who answered.)

It’s food for thought for anyone starting an online community. What tone are we setting, and how will it propogate throughout the platform?

New ≠ Better

Here’s a video of a grass mowing competition in which a scythe beats a modern, powered lawnmower:

Our society fetishizes newness. We want new technology, new entertainment, new thinking, new solutions. Sometimes, our desire for newness prevents us from seeing the value in what already exists.

Modern industrial farms have no place for horses, even though horses can handle some types of terrain better than our most advanced industrial farming machinery. There’s land that modern farms let return to wilderness, even though it could be productive and fruitful if we used technology that was commonplace two generations ago.

Of course there are always tradeoffs. A scythe may be faster than a lawnmower, but it uses more human energy — it’s harder for someone who’s out-of-shape to use it, and it’s harder to use over long distances. If an industrial farm started supplementing their machinery with horses, they’d damage their economies of scale. (There’s a case to be made that a farm that can’t be managed by a team of horses is too large, but I’ll leave that to Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan to argue.)

I’m not a Luddite — I don’t think that new things are necessarily worse than old things. I just don’t think they’re necessarily better.

It’s really hard to break out of the new-is-better pattern of thinking; it’s so pervasive that we’re immersed in it. It’s like asking a fish to describe what it means to be wet.

Tech is for Everyone

Anyone with an internet connection and enough motivation can learn how to design and program the next big thing, no degree required. Tech is no longer just for engineers and programmers. It’s for the retiree looking for a second career, and the 12-year-old who decides she wants to make her own video game. It’s for the college student who wants to boost his resumé, and the immigrant looking to get plugged in to their new community. Tech is for everyone.

This is the first entry in a newspaper column I’ll be curating in conjunction with the Poughkeepsie Journal and the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup. The monthly column will be written by members of the Hudson Valley tech community, and will cover design, technology, and their effects on the local economy and culture.

Stay tuned.