March 1985. I put my birthday money into two purchases: a paperback copy of The Hobbit (so I could stop taking the one from the school library over and over) and TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game. The original yellow-box edition. I had only really gotten into comic books in any meaningful way the year before, as Star Wars faded from view after the third movie (with no eminent prospect of more), and I was already well-versed in Dungeons & Dragons and Star Frontiers, so to have a full-on role-playing game for Marvel stuff? Count me in.
The really attractive thing about it was that it offered a much more flexible mechanic than the other RPGs. You could actually run a more D&D-style setting, or a more Star Frontiers-type setting, because it’s comic books – so you have to have all the elements of fantasy and sci-fi and magic and all sorts of stuff. It was more than a game, it was an organizational framework for my own creative impulses. And it let me create my own characters – naturally, the most horrifyingly awful Mary Sue creations imaginable, as befits a frustrated 13 year old gifted kid – and actually write about them. Badly, and usually more a matter of assembling things cribbed wholesale from that month’s comics or TV reruns or what have you, but you have to start somewhere.
Thing is, though, I became trapped by the system. I had to make things work in the framework of the rules, or find some loophole that would let me bend the rules, because I couldn’t just go off and make up whatever I wanted. It had to make sense, it had to fit the system, and I think buried deep in there is the fullest expression of my Enneagram 6-ness, because I had a lot more flexibility of imagination when I wanted the game and was privy to some of how it worked but hadn’t actually purchased it yet.
In retrospect, I think that may be how I gravitated to sports so readily after high school. Sports have rules, and while their interpretation may be cause to cast aspersion on a ref’s visual acuity and carnal knowledge of sheep, they are pretty reliable – a touchdown is always six points, a free throw is always one, and a ball that goes over the fence on the fly is always a home run. You have statistics and can pretty reliably gauge one player against another, one team against another. And while I rarely if ever actually played any of these RPGs with anyone else – I can’t think of a single gaming session with MSH that ever occurred with more than two people involved – sports were something that allowed, nay demanded a communal experience. Thus my enthusiasm for going off to college, where everyone would be attending football (except there wasn’t any) or basketball (except few people actually showed up) or baseball (except even fewer people showed up).
But back to MSH. At one point, there was a canonical reference book, the Ultimate Powers Book, which contained every single documented super-power in the Marvel Universe and how it worked in the game. And I. Wanted. It. But with no dedicated gaming store anywhere in the Birmingham area, it was impossible to find at a time when I actually had cash money in my pocket. My parents certainly weren’t going to buy it for me, not in a world where the Baptists had thrown Dungeons & Dragons into the same Satanic pig-pile as heavy metal and horror movies and feminists and all the other stuff that suddenly becameHorriBadAwful after 1980.
And the thing is, for twenty years that book haunted my dreams. One of my most common recurring dreams was that I found it somewhere and was unable to buy it, or lost it again, or couldn’t read what was in it, or some such – probably because at some unconscious level, I was thinking that somewhere there must be rules for this life that I could use to crack it if I could only get a chance to read and learn them. And that dream kept after me for literally two decades…until one day at Apple, in an idle moment surfing around in my office, I stumbled across the whole entire book online as a PDF. Which I downloaded and backed up in about six places, because it’s a rare thing that something comes back from the black hole. And then, the next year, they released an actual live-action Iron Man movie…and you know the rest.
I don’t know what the point of all this is, aside from maybe “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood”, but thirty-three years on, it’s nice to remember that liminal moment before I cracked the box, before the rules and processes were laid down, when everything was still protean potential. As spring returns in force, it’s good to believe that sort of thing is still possible.
Remember the 90s?
It’s been long enough and far enough that I can finally comprehend the decade of my (mostly) 20s. As you would expect, it’s a pretty broad scope to go from a high school senior sipping champagne for the first time to ten years later, having two degrees and working in DC in an unrelated field and standing on the Mall near the Washington Monument as the millennium rolls over. But there’s a feel and a vibe there that is recognizable even now.
For one thing, it was bright and colorful, grunge notwithstanding. The early years of 90s hip-hop culture – with In Living Color and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Cross Colors and the like – were vibrant and bold and complex (at least until everyone decided to do an NWA pastiche). There were things like Frutopia and OK Soda and Crystal Pepsi. Every sports team had teal or purple to go with their black, it seemed like (teams that wore or adopted teal/black/purple in some combination of 2 out of 3: San Jose Sharks, Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida Marlins, Colorado Rockies, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Toronto Raptors, Arizona Diamondbacks…)
And there were so many more teams. Major League Baseball expanded – twice! The NFL expanded for the first time since 1976! The NBA and NHL added teams hand over fist, as everyone raced to 30 teams or more. Sports splashed into popular culture in a bigger way than ever. ESPN Sportscenter was must-see TV – not just as sports news or news generally, but as entertainment. The NBA hit heights it’s only recently regained, in the era of Michael Jordan and the Dream Team and NBA JAM. Speaking of which, home video games really took off again and permanently displaced the arcade (I myself had a Sega Genesis with three games: Bill Walsh College Football, NBA JAM and NHL ’96).
And you had the mainstreaming of the pager – from a tool for doctors and drug dealers to something so ubiquitous you could get one for free by sending in ten Mountain Dew labels. And from the pager to the cellphone, which finally shrank from shoe-sized to something you could at least slide in a jacket pocket. And then…the Internet. I might be one of the last people to go through four years of college without ever once having had access to the internet; I think it was in the autumn of 1994 that my undergrad began setting up email (through some weird UUNet connection) for every student. Mosaic was finicky and Netscape was a beta, and things like USENET and Gopher were state of the art (and telnet was still a plausible connect tool). There was still a cyberpunk feel to the whole process of getting online, and there were things like PGP and Linux on the desktop that were just a couple years away from the mainstream.
And if you remember those AT&T “You Will” ads? Shit, most of them came true. You wouldn’t fax from the beach when you could email, and Siri isn’t going to be a lot of help getting you those playoff tickets, but almost everything else came to pass (even if AT&T itself didn’t exactly make it). Every so often I have to take out this slab of glass and surgical steel that acts as an extension of my arm and marvel at how I can shoot feature-film-quality video, DSLR-quality pictures, chat halfway around the world or store every piece of music I’ve ever owned along with the entire ninth Star Wars movie.
I think the thing I keep coming back to is that it felt like the world was moving forward. Bob Packwood and Anita Hill kicked off an awareness that you’ve got to treat female coworkers as human beings, Rodney King made it obvious that cops could do the incredibly wrong thing and needed to be made to play by the rules, Arsenio Hall proved you could have an African-American late night host that could dominate the water cooler space, new technology could emerge and make our lives better, global warming and climate change could be recognized and taken seriously…and then, on December 12, 2000, we decided that we weren’t going to bother having the 21st century after all. And nine months later, we clenched it. Things that were a horror and an outrage like Rodney King or Columbine are now barely enough to get people’s attention any more. The weather’s getting worse and the sea levels are rising and you have to argue the facts of something happening before your eyes in a way that wasn’t necessary ten years ago.
I suppose it could be nostalgia for youth, but it’s really hard to shake the sense that something really did shift and that things really are getting worse in a lot of ways. And that reversing the trend is going to be difficult as long as we have to fight people who feel entitled to their own reality and those willing to enable them for the sake of votes, or ratings, or money. The biggest thing is going to be to make those people radioactive enough that the latter won’t want any part of it any longer and then contain the former until they die down to acceptable levels of nuisance. I thought we’d come close to that, but apparently not. It’s time to patch the holes.
I liked having a future. I’d like it again.
If you’d told me almost a quarter-century ago (say, anytime from March 1994 on) that Ebbets Field Flannels, the legendary Seattle manufacture of period-accurate museum-grade reproductions of vintage baseball wear, was making a throwback Vanderbilt baseball cap? I would have lost my mind. As it is, a couple of weeks ago, when this news was conveyed to me at Anchor of Gold…I lost my mind. And rushed to take advantage of a 20% off code on the last day. And came into work on a Saturday to collect the package.
A vintage-look wool flannel Vanderbilt hat, American made and low-crowned, has been pretty much the Holy Grail of my headgear aspirations ever since I started wearing hats on a regular basis again around 2006. While you couldn’t prize the hats off my head throughout most of my higher-ed career, they quickly went by the board in DC, and didn’t come back until I finally cut all my hair off the autumn after the wedding (and in California, with nine months of direct sunlight a year, you need something covering your scalp). Even though I have gotten away from my American-made and workwear obsessions, I have inadvertently stumbled into fulfilling them.
See, my wife gave me American Giant’s work shirt for Christmas. I had plenty of US-made T-shirts and aloha shirts, but that was all. This is a long-sleeve jacket-shirt with snaps, made of the same fabric as their famous hoodie – but with the detailing of an actual button-up shirt. It’s something you can wear out of the house in most any casual setting once the temps drop below 70, and it’s the sort of thing you can wear for a week at a time as long as you change the T-shirt under it. It is heavy and overbuilt and thoroughly comfortable, the perfect dream of a shirt for four days in Tahoe or a week off at Christmas or the first weekend of the NCAA tournament at home in front of the TV.
So stack it together. The Vanderbilt hat from Ebbets. The AG work shirt (and T-shirt under), over top of my LC King jeans. Some kind of footwear, ideally that doesn’t require lacing, like my Blundstone boots or my plastic Birkenstock sandals. And then, the real twist in the tale: my throwback glasses from Warby Parker, the ones that make me look like I stepped off the set of Apollo 13 (or Mississippi Burning). Stack it all together, and it’s a completely new look, radically different from anything I had in DC (or most of the time in California, to be honest). And it’s something that given the opportunity, I might just wear almost every day as long as climate permits.
It looks right on me. It feels right on me. It’s not something I was necessarily trying to craft, but I’ve fallen into a look that is effortless and easy without being unspeakably slovenly, and which doesn’t incorporate a single hoodie or V-neck t-shirt or skinny pair of jeans. I look my age, to be blunt about it, and I’m okay with that. The only thing keeping me from wearing it every day is that after four or five days, you can whistle for the shirt and it’ll jump up on your back, which is not compatible with going among people in a society.
Might need to save up for another one.
Well, Zuckerberg, now you’ve climbed up there it’s a hell of a lot higher than it looked, ain’t it dumbass?
With that out of the way, let’s look at what happens now with “social media.” I’ve said previously that the high-water mark of my own “social media” experience was probably around 2006-07, when Vox was still a thing and Twitter was just emerging as a “mass text” service, for lack of a better description. The last social media app I was genuinely excited about was Foursquare in its original form, partly because of its utility as a social tool (for people younger and more social than I could admit to being, to be honest) and partly because it was the very definition of something that wouldn’t have been possible before Smartphone Time. Obviously there was some concern with someone having a record of where you’d been all the time, but Foursquare was its own thing, not part of Google or Microsoft, so it’s probably okay, yes?
(Key omission there was Facebook. This was before we grasped just how bad it was going to get.)
Flash forward to 2018. What am I using as “social media” now? Twitter, against my better judgement. Instagram, which is probably my go-to even though it’s part of the Facebook empire (at the very least, though, there’s nothing to tie it to my existing Facebook presence). Slack, surprisingly, which has become a collaboration tool inside and outside work alike. And the other group chats – iMessage (for almost everyone I know in the States) and WhatsApp (for almost everyone I know abroad, on Android or both). And that pretty much covers it. Never been on Snapchat (not likely to), Facebook is kept at arms length (and locked down to a fare thee well; I would probably delete it outright if I didn’t want the birthday greetings), and…
The original three Internet programs were telnet, mail and FTP. Everything since then is just some combination of those three functions: connect, message, transfer files. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll throw in another one: RSS. Because when you get right down to it, blog syndication is the root of every social media service. A stream of posts, text or files, from individual sources, showing up in a single feed. I’ll throw in another one: SMS, the primeval mobile text chat solution. Hell, even Twitter was built around the character limit of SMS.
When you break it out like that, it becomes apparent that it wouldn’t be that heavy a lift to build a theoretical framework for an open social networking system, merely by everting it. Instead of everything flowing into one centralized service, have individual services feed back in a standards-based fashion. And here’s where I point to micro.blog, Manton Reece’s project to build an open and interoperable social network alternative. The idea there is that micro.blog provides a simple feed (“timeline”) of posts from a WordPress blog (“followed users”), truncated to 280 characters if longer than that (“tweets”) but otherwise capable of containing all the content of any other blog post. Basically no different than following any number of blogs via RSS, but it’s essentially a tool to facilitate putting them into a Twitter-like framework and thus more easily use it the way you would a social media service.
And in theory, this shouldn’t be difficult at all. You pick your service. WordPress, Movable Type, Tumblr, whatever you’re comfortable in, or even roll your own (as I am contemplating here). At that point, all the micro-blog service is providing is a handy list of posts and an @-name framework to help facilitate replies and threading, and even that could be associated with a more email-style name for additional granularity and decentralization. The second app that goes along with micro-blog is called Sunlit, and it isn’t a service at all, merely a tool for organizing pictures (and if desired, location data) to be more easily posted into your chosen micro.blog source. But the data always lives on your servers. Nothing gets aggregated by micro.blog at all. It’s the thinnest possible skeleton on which individual users then hang their data.
Something like this is going to be a really hard sell to the Muggles, at first. So was social networking in general. But if enough early adopters and technology (spit) influencers were willing to take a hard look and blow up their Facebook and instead work on making the tools to help facilitate this decentralization, it would almost have to trickle down over time. And consider the precedent of not only personal web sites, but email – you can get it from your ISP, or from Google or Yahoo, or from Geocities or Angelfire or just build your own if that’s how you roll, but it doesn’t matter, because anyone can interoperate with anyone else’s.
This can totally be done. It’s just that there’s no money in it, because it doesn’t involve doing for tech bros what their moms used to do for them with a side helping of “send them nudes tho”. But there’s no money in keeping the roads paved and the power on either, yet we find a way to do it, because it’s what you need to get by in a society. As people realize the value of privacy and retaining control over their own data, they might just be willing to put up the money for both.
There was a time when “trolling” was considered a bad thing. You’d go out there and deliberately chum the waters of a discussion space – web forum, chat room, what have you – with some kind of bait intended to get a rise out of people. It was considered anti-social, despicable behavior, and “griefers” and the like were routinely excoriated and mechanisms built to suppress them. Consider Slashdot, which was as potentially vile a cesspit as could have existed online – but it had a community moderation system (checked by meta-moderation) and you could ratchet up the filter level. I read at 3 and almost always got either useful insight or genuine wit. Had I read at 5, I probably wouldn’t have missed much.
And then came Facebook, which created a walled garden and pulled the walls down without ever being held to account. And then Twitter close behind. And both began to optimize for whatever would produce the most growth. And trolling did it. And so Facebook and Twitter looked the other way on bots, looked the other way on artificial content, looked the other way for the sake of whatever grew the MAU and DAU numbers and generated the most “impressions” and basically built what has been so frequently cited as “a honeypot for assholes.”
The problem is, we have one political party that has completely rebuilt itself around trolling for the last decade. The entire function of the GOP at this point is to “own the libs” irrespective of what that means in terms of policy, national security or even what the party itself believed in thirty minutes ago. It really started in earnest with Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, but for eight years of the Obama administration, all the Republican Party really cared about was reflexive opposition to what Democrats wanted, updated daily, and ginning up outrage.
And so a party of trolls met an industry that built trolling engines, and an electoral base that cared only about trolling did just that, and that’s how you end up filling the Oval Office with a senescent buffoon with a Russian lien on his balls. And it’s going to be difficult to do anything about it, because half his party is committed to trolling above all else and the other half makes sorrowful noises and goes right along with it in hopes it’ll get them over 50% on Election Day. I honestly don’t know whether the monkeys or their enablers are worse, but I’m out of patience with both.
But what can you do? Shut down Facebook? I would shed not one tear if a pocket nuke leveled the eastern edge of Menlo Park at 11 AM on a Tuesday. Shut down Twitter? I’d love to see Jack Dorsey in Gitmo with all his developers, and let them figure out which one gets ground up for meatloaf first. But that doesn’t undo the mechanism. 24 hour cable news makes it worse. Endless email forwards makes it worse. There is not a technological solution to the mess we have found ourselves in. The solution requires a stronger political culture, something that we’ve gone to endless lengths to tear down and denigrate over the years because of some notion that politics is inherently bad, inherently divisive, that it’s some kind of alien thing that we have to move beyond. That’s like saying we all need to saw off our legs because there’s a better way of getting around than walking.
I shouldn’t have to explain this, but the alternative to politics is not everyone around the campfire singing Kumbaya and holding hands. The alternative to politics is Somalia. Or Syria. It’s bullets and bombs and the state of nature. We have a process for how society should make decisions and direct itself, and our neglect and abuse of that process has brought us to our current state. The choice is to repair it, or else brace yourself for what comes after.
You won’t like it.
I had to reckon with an iPad mini 2 recently – the first retina-display Mini, the one that shares its chipset with the iPhone 5s, one bought less than two months before my now virtually unusable Moto X. And the unfortunate fact of the matter is…the iPad isn’t too much better off. It’s sluggish on iOS 11, occasionally unresponsive and difficult to get working on anything particularly complicated. With a little work, you can get it going on VPN to bootleg a BBC iPlayer stream of the Olympic closing ceremonies and output over HDMI to your television, in theory (for legal reasons), but trying to multitask is a bit of a challenge. It’s also fine as a Kindle replacement, except that I have a Kindle Paperwhite that does that job splendidly. And if I’m honest, so does this iPhone X.
It’s looking increasingly like there isn’t going to be any iPhone SE2, and on balance it doesn’t looks like an X-Minus is on the cards either. If you believe the Great Mentioner, the fall lineup appears to be a tweaked iPhone X (5.8” display), a new iPhone X Plus (6.5” display) and something else (the heretofore skipped iPhone 9?) with a 6.1” LCD display rather than AMOLED and a price point lower than the X (generally assumed to be $700-800 in most quarters). One can only assume that the iPhone 8/Plus will stick around as the last-but-one discount models, and that the 7/Plus will remain in the “free with contract” slot.
This is hugely problematic. Yes, the entry level iPhone has always bumped around $650 or so, but in the last couple of years, there was that iPhone SE, with either the current chipset or only one year behind, first at $400 and then $350. Now, the cheapest current-chipset phone will be this notional iPhone 9, so-called. Which could conceivably cost $800, double the launch price of the SE – without taking into account that the iPhone X will be the smallest and most compact current iPhone. The iPhone 6/s/7/8 was just a hair too big, and now a phone a hair bigger than that will be “the small one.”
It’s really getting hard to shake the sense that Apple has lost their way, and is content to lean into being the new Tesla, churning out mildly reliable produce at premium price. Don’t @ me. iOS 11 and macOS 10.13 have both been shit on toast from a bugs-and-security standpoint, the very worst of the OS X era, and to have the baseline “current” phone jump to a thousand dollars besides is just insult to injury. Meanwhile, for those willing to take their chances with the Beast of Shoreline Boulevard, there are Android devices out there with last year’s OS for $100. You can get a smartphone – not a great one, maybe not a long-term useful one, but a smartphone nonetheless – at burner phone prices now. And Apple’s setting the flagship baseline ever higher.
Thing is, I have the iPhone X through work. I would love a notional SE2 or X-Minus to replace the two-year-old SE as a likely travel phone, but that looks increasingly unlikely. I’m not buying a 6-inch phone, ever, full stop. And it’s hardly worth it for me to buy an iPhone X just for the sake of owning it myself. Maybe if my job changed and my hand was forced, but not until my employer demands this one back. Especially if I’m not leaving the country before December at the earliest and can have this one unlocked by then.
And the iPhone X, annoying as it is, keeps growing on me. It’s easy to keep it charged. The screen is big enough that it can substitute for a Kindle. The lack of a headphone jack has been less of an issue than I expected, thanks largely to the Beats X headphones. I can’t deny the power of Animoji to entertain toddlers. And yes, frivolity of justification notwithstanding, I can actually do some work from it and deal with technician requests from a barstool.
But it’s still too big to easily use one-handed. It’s still too big to be comfortable in a front pants pocket. FaceID isn’t as reliable as they claim, especially when you’re lying in bed or sitting at the desk and have to crane the phone around in ways that weren’t necessary when TouchID could just let your finger rest for a second. It’s just a hair too big to be a hair too big – and meanwhile, Sony has picked up the torch and make the Xperia XZ2 Compact, which is ever so slightly taller than the perfect-sized first-gen Moto X and tapers the back to fit the hand in similar fashion. And a 2870 mAh battery is on par with…the iPhone X.
Just because Apple doesn’t do it, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Which should send a terrified shiver through every AAPL stockholder.