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Living in Data

November 21, 2022

I just finished reading Jer Thorp’s Living in Data. Overall, I thought it was an excellent book. It reminded me a bit of one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code. Both are a journey through technology through the lens of personal experience. In Ullman’s case, those experiences are about her different roles in the tech world and how they informed her ideas on life and technology. In Thorp’s case, he takes us through a variety of projects in which he’s participated that all have one thing in common: data.

From river trips and collecting data from remote campsites in Africa to glaciers in Canada and school gymnasiums in redlined St. Louis, each chapter reveals how different people and cultures are dealing with the world’s increasing reliance on data in all of its forms. The usual stuff is in there, like how we’re all constantly tracked by advertisers, but the most interesting stories involve cultures outside of the—or at least my—norm. Cultures like the Māori in New Zealand think differently about data and data ownership. Their concept of tāonga—translated as “treasure”—applies not only to physical possessions, but resources like ideas and cultural traditions, too. It’s a deep-rooted cultural concept that impacts how modern day Māori think about data sovereignty and, more importantly, how people outside of that culture can legally interact with Māori data. Applied to the western world, it could (and I’d argue should) impact how companies and individuals think about data.

The book is subtitled, “A citizen’s guide to a better information future.” Although it was thoroughly enjoyable, and got me excited about different data-driven futures, it’s definitely less of a “guide” than a memoir of Thorp’s work. There wasn’t a lot of practical guidance for living a day-to-day life in a data-driven world, but perhaps that’s because everything’s so messy right now and no one knows the right way to approach data across such disparate cultures. What works for the Māori might now work for someone from Idaho. While we can take loose lessons from how different people think about data around the world, it’s harder to distill those lessons into actionable guidance that people can apply today. Which browsers or services should I use? How do I get a company to delete data about me? How can I protect my data in the future? Those are hard questions without a single, one-size-fits-all answer.

Still, they are important questions to consider and Thorp did a great job getting me excited to think about them more deeply.

Adios, Twitter

November 20, 2022

Twitter played an important role in my life and career over the last decade or so. But not anymore. I refuse to participate in the hellscape that Elon Musk is creating.

I joined Twitter in June of 2011. In the years since, Twitter has introduced me to people I now call friends, helped me to grow my career and side projects, and connect with a number of communities in meaningful ways. Although I’ve been mostly inactive on the platform for the last year or two, I still checked it regularly to keep up on what folks were doing in those communities.

Since Musk started eviscerating the platform (and all of the unfortunate souls who worked on the product), damn near everyone I still care to follow has set up on Mastodon, dusted off their RSS feeds, or started up newsletters. Over the last week, my feed has slowed to a crawl of mostly, “See ya, Twitter… follow me here.” posts and more sad, heartbreaking news. Mastodon, on the other hand, has exploded. While my feed there is a lot of Twitter-related analysis, there are people sharing life updates, thoughtful posts, and helpful tips, too.

I used to get value out of Twitter. As of this past week or so, there’s been virtually zero value derived from the platform other than the pure schadenfreude of watching Musk waste billions of dollars and destroy a tool that’s been increasingly harmful to the world over the last few years. It’d be more satisfying if it didn’t affect so many people’s lives.

I don’t want to use Twitter. I don’t want to syndicate to Twitter. I don’t want to contribute to Elon Musk’s monthly active user count. So, I downloaded all my data, updated my profile to make it clear where to find me, and deleted Tweetbot from my devices. I’m not deleting my account, since that would open up my handle for someone else and I don’t want to deal with any repercussions from that. But, I’ll no longer be active on the platform.

I encourage everyone to make plans for their exodus from Twitter if possible (I know it’s not for a lot of people). As always, you can follow via RSS, my occasional email newsletter, or on Mastodon.

Getting Smaller

November 16, 2022

As someone who’s worked in tech for a long time, most days find me complaining about the industry as opposed to praising any supposed “advances” it makes. It’s honestly hard not to these days.

But sometimes, you find yourself pleasantly surprised by tech progress. Yesterday was one of those times.

A number of years ago, I started experiencing some symptoms that led to a diagnosis for a mild heart condition. Nothing life-threatening or untreatable. Beyond taking medication, the condition’s major impact on my life has been forcing me to see a cardiologist a few times a year, getting occasional EKGs, and wearing a heart monitor from time-to-time.

The first heart monitor—or Holter monitor, to be more accurate—I had to wear was a bulky collection of sticky electrodes, wires, and a big ol’ box (the recorder) to collect the data, which I wore like the world’s worst necklace. I’d put it underneath my shirt but who am I kidding? You couldn’t hide that thing.

The next one I remember was similar, but the recorder was slightly smaller and fit almost comfortably in my pants pocket. Eventually, the technology progressed enough that the electrodes didn’t need to be physically wired to the recorder and the recorder was replaced with a cheap, generic Android phone which fit much better in my pocket. Still annoying to carry around two phones, but an improvement nonetheless…

At some point in the last few years, they were able to ditch the phone entirely and combine the recorder and electrodes into an assembly that looked like my ribs flying a kite on my chest. Nothing external to carry around and—apart from the irritation from shaving parts of my torso—relatively comfortable.

As I’m writing this, I’m wearing what will hopefully be my last Holter monitor. It’ll see how my heart’s doing after my doctor decided to try taking my off my medication. When I got it put on yesterday, I expected at least two sections and a wire, similar to the last one. What I got instead was what looks like a Tamagochi stuck to my chest. Not quite as fun as a Tamagochi, and with a lot more razor burn, but I marveled at how small the monitor is now. It was a far cry from the box, wires, and stickers that I had to use less than a decade ago.

So far, I’ve barely noticed it. It’s lightweight, compact, and mostly hidden underneath a sweatshirt (thanks, chilly Michigan weather). Unless I feel any symptoms, I don’t even have to think about it. And, if I do feel anything, all I need to do is press it to log an event. Early next week, I’ll peel it off, stick it in a box with a prepaid label, and send it on its way. Next month, my doctor and I will see what it says and figure out next steps. Contrast that to the first few monitors, which required me to drive 45 minutes into the office and have a tech remove it and send it to the lab.

It’s easy to get lost in the drudgery of the tech world. Sure, iPhones get better cameras every year, but the tech world has shown its capacity to wreak havoc on the world and its inhabitants in countless ways over the past few years. But this week has reminded me that tech can still improve people’s experiences and lives in small but still important ways.