2013 01 29

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Contents

Feature Cast for 2013-01-29

(00:00:17.231) Intro

(00:02:36.738) Hacker Word of the Week: fried

(00:03:45.967) How This Hacker Sees History

  • Narrative histories have been on my mind a lot lately
    • When grappling with issues like those on which Aaron Swartz worked
      • And even trying to understand his all too short life and work
      • The retelling of history helps work through the emotion and prioritize what is important
    • History isn't limited to what we'd obviously characterize as such
      • Even on such an accelerated and abbreviated time scale as we do with computer networks
    • Similar stories, at a more individual scale often play out
      • On about pages, resumes, and social network profiles
    • Blogs and social sites are all about chronologies
      • The former often more intentionally crafted
      • And the latter arising spontaneously from how we interact with each other
    • I was viewing a former co-worker's profile the other day
    • To be frank, this was not one of my favorite people
    • I was curious, maybe morbidly so and looking for a jolt of schadenfreude
      • Checking in to see what this person had been up to since we parted ways
    • I was mildly surprised to note that their recollection of our overlapping employment
      • Was different than I remembered
    • My surprise was limited by this being a representation of their professional experience
    • You expect to see a certain amount of editing and emphasizing the positive
    • Reading it did make me wonder about this often unconscious fabrication of history
    • I also threw my own biases around our shared experiences into perspective
    • To be fair, maybe the truth was somewhere in between
    • While I questioned the spin this other person had put on things
      • I was forced to confront that I did, and still do, exert my own perspective
    • I wondered at both the risks and benefits inherent in this all too human practice
      • And whether it could be approached with a bit more self awareness
    • At a minimum, doing so is one expression of advice I try to honor from a couple of sources
      • That encourages all of us to re-visit our assumptions from time to time
    • After all, aren't many of those views informed very much by what we make of history?
  • History really is a constant synthesis of experience, fact and view points
    • There is the old saying about history being written by the victors
    • I think history is actually constantly written and re-written by everyone
      • For a variety of reasons, not all of them so cynical as to bolster a particular world-view
    • Any given chronology is really going to be somewhat fractal in structure
      • Lacking any tight linear sequence like the narratives we use to refer to and share them
    • Even with a single causal link, when involving people rather than idealized, notional particles
      • There are just as many non-obvious, maybe even non-rational contributory elements
    • When one person in a group says or does something that appears to cause another to act
      • That overlooks unrelated experiences, internal and external
    • The person prodded to act may be in a positive mood for a variety of reasons
      • So pre-disposed towards constructive action like starting a new project or effort
      • Or may be in a negative mood and inclined to do something dramatic, like rage quite a group
    • Usually we think of these sorts of complexities in a shorthand form
      • One that is only ever an approximation of its actual shape
    • Often that abbreviated version is close enough not to matter
      • Or the bits elided don't alter most people's perceptions
    • Sometimes they do matter, though, that is when the process of zooming back in helps
      • Revealing again the lost nuance and gnarly surface detail
    • Doing so, like generally re-checking beliefs and assumptions
      • Helps understand why the author of a history, or even its reader
        • Invents or accepts the smoothed down version
    • The most obvious reason is often to make a difficult decision easier
    • If some emotive elements are dampened down to make others stand out
    • The resulting heightened contrast makes the resulting action easier to rationalize
    • Of course so-and-so did what they did, it was only fair, or deserved, or even morally justified
    • I suspect more commonly but less obviously, the authors of histories
      • Edit them to match their own self perception
    • The example I gave at the start, about a simple representation of professional experience
      • Is one instance of this sort of history making
    • We each try to weave a clear, strong narrative out of what may have been random happenstance
      • To demonstrate growth, improvement, or any number of things
        • Making us seem professional and responsible
    • Doing this periodic re-visit is often a struggle
      • For the same reasons we tend to only use and share the shorthand version
    • The weight of history is an inertia, a static friction resisting investigation
    • Once we have undertaken the effort to piece something together
      • It takes time, effort and attention to revisit the actual terrain from which it is assembled
        • Whether those are just memories or masses of historical tidbits in whatever form
    • Even in that simplest case, the distillation of our professional experiences
      • We should re-think the actual narrative they tell
        • And how honest a representation they are of ourselves vs. what we want them to say
    • I was reminded in thinking about that earlier not entirely flattering example
      • That the authoring of history is one thing we control
    • Being more intentional in our actions, bearing in mind future histories
      • Is another way to not only tell the stories we want to be able to tell
      • But to live the lives worth telling stories about
  • History is invented at several different scales, often overlapping
    • I really enjoy reading and studying group histories
      • Especially when they are more clearly made up of individual threads and their interactions
    • I am currently reading Gabriella Coleman's new book, Coding Freedom
    • Undoubtedly as a consequence of her expertise, as an anthropologist, specifically an ethnographer
      • This book really relies on the stories she's collected from individuals
    • What struck me as being a member of the wider group a distinct example of which she studied
      • Is her ability to critically pull back and make sense of the collective from the personal
    • She is very careful to state the limits of such generalizations
      • But as with the abbreviation of story from history
        • Teasing out broad trends helps understand what motivates the specific actions
    • Since Coleman's book is not the first more studious look at hacker history
      • She is able to note how hackers as a group have responded to such writings
        • Like those of Levy and Sterling from the very formative nineties
    • The reinvention of history and roles within it is constant
      • And that evolution sometimes arises from the tension between the scales
    • In the case of more formal re-tellings, sometimes a vernacular emerges
      • That helps make our individual place easier to understand and share
    • I know the very phenomenon Coleman identifies has informed much of this podcast and my blog
      • Finding words, terms, concepts and framing that match my individual experience
        • And help me feel more connected with a broader sense of space and shared identity
    • Other times there is a dissonance between the story as told
      • And what each of the participants may know from firsthand experience
    • A recent, if forgivably vague example, is the contrast between a series of mailing list posts
      • Ones easily pulled up out of an archive and read as posted
      • And a summary post, a reaction to some trend, perceived, real or a complicated mixture of both
    • I am sure you've seen the kind of post I mean, where a member of a community
      • Often when feeling to some degree put upon, recounts a sequence of sentiments and actions
        • That sustain what they feel is their current role or perception in the community
    • The re-stating of shared history in this way often is followed by its own reaction
      • Either a departure from the community, with assumed cause, or some pushback, a request for change
    • This is a harder struggle than when explaining to a less known, more general audience
      • As with the example of a resume or some other acceptable revision for clear purpose
    • In both cases, the act of engaging in the telling of history can help reconcile differences
    • Writing down a sequence of professional experiences in a particular format
      • Has to speak to one audience, for one purpose, to catch attention and beg further inquiry
    • A subsequent interview has to be consistent, if more expansive, than what was written
    • Conversing about that history may reveal more subtlety or clearer intention than a dry distillation
    • Maybe this is why we embrace not just one or the other of static pages like profiles and bios
      • Or conversational media like blogs with comments or social messaging
    • The fixed version inheres with the qualities we want to represent about ourselves
      • And where we belong to a group, even self select, speaks about our place within it
    • The living breathing conversations reveal minutely who we are
      • Whether they are consistent with our construction or in contrast
    • I think the most interesting stance is constantly grappling with our history
      • Allowing it to inform our actions but ultimately really only using it
        • In as far as it compels us forward, to do more, to be better, to hone our senses of self
  • Thinking about history always for me inescapably suggests the future
    • As much as we invent and re-invent the narratives about it
      • What we did is unalterable, already infinitely receding away from us
    • Reflecting on our pasts, individually and collectively
      • For me boils down to trying to find meaningful antecedents connect that past to future
    • How does who I was limit or liberate me to be who I want to be going forward?
    • It is a simple struggle then with the ongoing discontinuity that is the present
      • Given we haven't always fully or accurately synthesized the past
      • And that the future is a map that is largely unknown or blank
    • Right here, right now we are laying down those tracks of future history
    • What do we want them to say about is and how can we act in the present to best ensure that?

(00:16:23.733) Outro

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