Getting things done with resets

I’ve been using some variation of the Getting Things Done method for about 15 years now. It just works for the way my brain is built.

One of the traps of GTD is when you spend more time reviewing and choosing the tools than actually getting things done. You can get into debates about the best way to maintain your system, whether digital or paper-based is better, and how to prevent yourself from letting your system stagnate because you slowly stop using it.

I’ve changed my GTD tools many, many times. I’ve used a Palm Pilot, the Notes app in my phone, dedicated GTD apps, paper journals, bullet journals and post-it notes. And each time I slowly stop using that system.

When I stop doing my GTD routines, I’m fine for a few weeks or a month. Then my anxiety over all the things I’m supposed to be doing mounts up. I forget birthdays or have to get extensions on deadlines. And I look at my old dusty setup, and decide to ignore it. It’s just full of reminders of my failures. I tell myself I don’t need a system, I just need more willpower.

And then my life gets even more disorganised. I finally admit the truth (again), which is that I have some executive dysfunction and routines are helpful for me. But I still want to avoid the scene of my previous failure, so I pick up a fresh tool (currently ToDoist) and start again.

This used to make me feel guilty. I wasn’t doing real GTD! I’m a poorly organised person! I have no loyalty or grit!

But I’ve decided not to bother feeling guilty about it anymore. Perfect adherence to a system is for robots. It’s fun to play with new tools, and if that’s what I need to get me back into a helpful routine then so be it. David Allen isn’t going to come to my house to tell me off! And I can avoid at least a month of mild background stress if I stop delaying and just pick up a shiny new tool.

Voting stories

The first time I voted in a federal election, I was 19 or 20 years old. The Labor party had been in government for several years, with Hawke just removed to make way for PM Keating. This was Keating’s first time going to election as the PM rather than Treasurer.

12 men and 2 women standing on the steps of a building
By Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia), CC BY 3.0 au

No-one I knew was excited about John Howard or the Coalition, but there was a general feeling that Labor had been in power long enough and Keating was too snobby compared to Hawke. At the time I thought my parents voted Labour but I’ve since discovered that both are swing voters.

I was so keen to be a swing voter. No politician can count on my vote, I thought – they’ll have to earn it with good policies! I read the news and watched as much of the ABC’s political shows as I could before getting bored by old men talking nonsense.

I voted at a polling place in the primary school across from my rental share-house. I put Labour first in the House of Reps, and Democrats (remember them?) first in the Senate. I was actually mildly surprised that Howard and the Coalition won. Hadn’t people noticed that the Liberal party policies were kind of mean? Maybe there’s a lot of National voters in other parts of Australia, I thought.


John Howard sitting at his seat in the United Nations
John Howard, by Helene C. Stikkel

Over the next 13 years I repeatedly checked the policies of each candidate, getting excited as some of them figured out how to build websites so it was easier for me to do my research. I kept voting for some combination of Labor, Democrats and the Greens when they were running in my area. I didn’t always like all of their policies, but the Liberals’ economic theories were dis-proven and a lot of their politicians were sexist. Plus I couldn’t stand Howard, Costello or Abbott just on a personal level. And there was no way I was going to vote for One Nation, who were openly racist and were led by a woman who said she would solve the budget deficit by literally printing more money.


Each election night I hung out with friends or texted them as Howard won again and again. We shook our heads as Howard rescued his failing popularity by lying about children being thrown overboard from the Tampa, then used 9/11 to look like a safe choice to lead us into a war that half of us didn’t want or even think was in the right country. We debated the GST, and whether Costello would ever have the guts to challenge Howard, and complained that selling off public assets isn’t the same as good economic management. We yelled as Abbott tried to make RU486 a government controlled substance and stood by all the child-abusing priests. We swore we’d slap Rupert Murdoch if we ever got to meet him.

I became cynical about Australia. So many people voting based on the promise of a little tax cut, or because they hated refugees. At some point someone suggested I watch Don’s Party, but it was so full of old people doing old-fashioned things it was hard to relate to. Nowadays I’d say it was “peak boomer” material – culturally relevant to a specific moment in time, but treated as if it contains universal truth. Maybe it’s time for a Gen Z reboot.


After a while I wanted to get involved. I still didn’t trust any specific political party, so I volunteered for Get Up instead. We worked to educate people about preferential voting, and climate change, and refugee treatment.

Me in a straw hat standing next to Dave wearing a cricket cap and orange GetUp shirt, holding the Undecided voter flyers.
Me and Dave – we look so young and skinny here!

My favourite action with them was one where we showed up on Election Day to hand out scorecards on the top issues chosen from a poll. In among all the vollies from the parties, we wore orange and shouted “Undecided? Come get a scorecard and a fortune cookie!” I had so many people say things like “oh thank god, I know I should pay more attention to politics but I’ve just been so busy”. A few people asked how I was voting, and I told them I was voting Greens but they should vote for whoever best matched their values. Strategic voting just makes you feel manipulated, and no-one’s going to give you a gold star for voting for the eventual winner. I helped them find what was important to them on the scorecard. That year it felt like I’d actually helped people participate more fully in democracy than they would have otherwise.


My next favourite experience while volunteering was during the 2007 election, which was otherwise a pretty crappy day. The vollies from the conservative parties were pretty shitty towards us – we’d always been teased a bit, but it was usually good natured. But I think this time they knew that Kevin 07 was a winner, so they were feeling grumpy and took it out on us. They tried to “debate” us, and assumed we were unemployed or paid to be there. I was feeling pretty worn down by it all, and I wasn’t as confident of Labor winning after so many years of disappointment. Plus the polling place didn’t have any cake stall or community fundraising snacks or even a vending machine. Just a black asphalt car park outside a run-down church. But then a lovely conversation happened that made it all worth while. An African lady came up to me and said, you are wonderful, all you volunteers are wonderful. She’d gone home to get her kids to show them the polling place, and told us where she grew up the elections had to be guarded by armed soldiers to stop fights from breaking out, or worse. But here we were, chatting and laughing and it was safe to bring children. She was a refugee from war, and this was her first time being eligible to vote in Australia. “Oh my goodness” I said “now I’m even more upset that there’s no cake stall for you!” I said to her that next time she should vote at a polling place set up in a school, it’s usually much more fun than this. But I did feel a little bit proud, and it reminded me that we’re so lucky to be able to change government without any guns, just some pencils and paper.


The year I found out that writing on your ballot doesn’t make it invalid, as long as the numbers are clear, I wrote on my ballot. The usual example is that it’s okay to draw a dick, but that’s not my style. I just wanted to take advantage of this little bit of self-expression beyond my actual little vote. So I wrote a thank-you note to the election staff in the margin of my House Of Reps ballot.


Oddly enough it took me many years to acknowledge that I would never be a real swing voter. The more I learned about politics and history, the more I realised that the individual politicians or the policies they announce during election season don’t matter as much as their underlying ideology. And right-wing economics is evidence-free bullshit (harsh but true). Plus they firmly believe in a social hierarchy that puts straight, white, rich men at the top. I just can’t support that, even when I quibble with the personalities or policies of the left-wing parties.

So for me now it’s the Greens with preferences to Labor. I don’t vote differently in the Senate than I do in the House of Reps anymore, but I think that style of voting went out when Natasha Stott-Despoja left politics so I guess I’m not alone there.


I still think it’s important to vote according to your values. We have preferential voting, so you can’t waste your vote. The Gillard minority government was one of the most productive this century – we got the NDIA and Gonski funding for schools, the NBN was begun, and we got what I hope was our first (not our only) carbon price. If more people voted for parties based on who would represent them best, not who they think will form government or who’s offering the best bribe, we’d get minority governments which have to collaborate with cross-benchers to get anything done.

The biggest change in my voting over the last three decades is that as much as I will always try to persuade people to vote like me, I think it’s more important that they vote at all, and that they understand how our democracy works. That lovely lady who was so thrilled that elections are peaceful here always reminds me that we can’t take democracy for granted. We have to work for it to keep it safe, even when the politicians and issues change over time.

And for that reason, I’d probably still try to slap Rupert Murdoch if I met him.

Resisting Facebook, the sequel

Last year I “cleaned up” my Facebook settings. I installed a privacy plugin, and unfollowed a lot of brands, and said no to being tracked for advertising purposes. I also told myself I was going to post more fun things and less angry-making stuff about politics or whatever.

It did make Facebook slightly more interesting to read, although 80% of my posts are still angry things about politics.

The big change though is that the ads I see are much more relevant to me now. Instead of generic middle-aged lady things like layered dresses and weight-loss sorry, wellness programs, I now get ads for eco-friendly products and inclusive clothing brands.

I’ve gotten so used to this that I forgot it had even happened until I was joking around on Twitter with some other women about getting generic ads for adult women, full of stereotypes. But the ads I see now are actually much more relevant to my interests than when they were trying to mine all my data to find out what ads I would like. All they’ve got to go on are my posts and what things I comment on or react to, and apparently that’s what they should have been doing all along.

So far this year I’ve actually bought two products from Facebook ads: some bathers (swimmers? not sure what other regional words there are for these) from a size-inclusive and eco-friendly brand, and a bamboo flat-pack coffee table.

I don’t know if Jenny Odell would approve, but I’m pretty sure Tim Hwang would take this as another data point that programmatic advertising isn’t as good as category advertising.

How To Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan

Cover of How To Change Your Mind, a green cover with a person swinging from a cloudPollan has taken his love of botany to a new place in this book. How To Change Your Mind is focused on psychedelics, which are a group of drugs which give a “trippy” effect. Psychedelics from mushrooms have been used since the dawn of human kind (probably), with a brief Western moment of publicity and research in the 1950s. This of course was followed by a moral panic in the 60s, so that the research into how they can help people has only recently started up again.

Pollan covers this history by targeting a few times and places, then discusses the brain science behind psychedelics before examining the new research and where it might lead. In between these sections are descriptions of the trips he took while researching. It’s obvious he had to define a tight scope for this book or else he’d have written a whole encyclopaedia about this topic. I’d loved to have read more about the way indigenous people use these drugs, or more about European researchers, or other similar families of drugs. I’m glad he tried to make the trip diaries readable rather than detailed though – there’s only so much you can read of people trying to describe such an un-describable experience. I was more interested in the before and after of each trip, how he approached them and what consequences they had.

Close up of a psilocybe azurescens mushroom. It is small, with a yellow-ish light brown cap and a pale stem.
Psilocybin azurescens mushroom. Source: shroom360 at Mushroom Observer CC BY-SA 4.0

He frequently mentions the way that psychedelics have a side-effect of making people really excited to share psychedelics with other people. I lost count of the number of people he interviewed who took one trip then changed their work to focus on making psychedelics more widely available in some way. Scientists did it with research, psychologists by including them in treatment, artists by hopping on a bus to drive across the USA handing out acid at concerts. Knowing how he feels about how humans co-evolved with plants, I was sure he’d eventually speculate that the enthusiastic evangelism of trippers is a mushroom’s way of propagating itself more widely. But no, not even when he talks about Paul Stamets calling mushroom mycelium the “wood-wide web”! If a desire to convert people is a side effect, maybe part of the effect is not realising the mushroom is using you for its own purposes. Sneaky mushrooms!

As I read the book I related very much to his apprehension that tripping would lead him away from his materialist, atheist world view and persuade him of more New Age takes on consciousness. It was a relief to find that most people don’t radically change their beliefs after experiencing the dissolution of their self, but instead make a fresh commitment to their existing values. Almost all of the people who made big changes in their lives did so by quitting things they’d never been 100% happy about but hadn’t felt like they could stop doing. Addictions, careers, relationships, that sort of thing. And Pollan is a humanist as well as an atheist, so in spite of his frequent doubts about the reliability of his interviewees he writes about them with compassion and an openness to being proven wrong.

From reading this, I’m now thinking that if I had a safe opportunity to try mushrooms I’d definitely take it out of curiosity. Maybe LSD too. But where I live that’s not likely to happen in a way I’d be comfortable with. Maybe one day that will change.

Please Hold

Most of the time, I work on accessibility projects – either as part of my job or volunteering for non-profits. It’s usually auditing or sometimes a bit of front-end web development. But a while back I had an opportunity to do something different: I made a small web site which was featured in a short film. Not a website for the film, but a website in the film.

The film is called Please Hold, written by KD Davila and Levin Meneske, and directed by KD. So far it has screened at a bunch of film festivals around the USA and the world. Along with winning a bunch of prizes, it took the honours for Best Short at the Florida Film Festival, which qualifies it to be submitted for Oscar contention. We just found out last week that it made the shortlist for the Oscar’s live action short film category, along with 14 other short films! We’ll find out in a month or so if it gets nominated.

My husband Dave is a VFX guy and was helping out KD and Levin with this project. One of the things they needed was an interface for a prison system. It was going to be put on a big screen inside a prison cell, and the lead character would interact with it to make phone calls, order meals, and so on. In the past, Dave has found that doing this sort of stuff as a visual effect makes things difficult for the actors. They have to imagine what might be there and how they’ll interact with it, and that’s on top of doing their main job of acting the lines and directions that are needed for the story. Since there was going to be a screen there anyway, why not put an actual interface on it? Then the actors could just treat it like a prop instead. He suggested that I build it, based on the designs they’d already had drawn up by Youthana Yous.

I was pretty excited to make a site that wasn’t for work purposes. Then I read the script and I was super-excited – the story is very zeitgeisty, about automated systems and civil rights. It’s also darkly funny, in a low-key ironic way. Pure Julie bait!

A police drone hovers in front of the face of a young man.
One of Dave’s VFX shots

Dave was my art director and gave me heaps of good advice on usability aspects that would only come up on a film set. It’s a very different use case than I’m familiar with! And my friend Amy Kapernick was tech support for the film crew during the actual filming. Dave and I had scheduled a wildflower trip that just happened to overlap with the time that KD and Levin had to film in LA. We were in and out of mobile phone range with barely any internet, so Amy was on call to make any last minute adjustments they needed.

We got to see the short on the big screen during Perth’s 2021 Revelation Film Festival, as part of the Slipstream and Sci-fi Shorts session. (I also really liked the short “Dry Fire” which is an Aussie post-apocalyptic story with a deaf protagonist.)

Unlabelled icons of a phone, person, shopping bag, etc over a gentle cloud background.
Correcticorp home page

The site itself was easy and fun to make. It was designed to look like a voice-controlled interface built cheaply by a giant corporation. I got to use a lot of vw and vh units and fake a bunch of page transitions.

I also got to animate the background and buttons in a fun and over-blown way. Normally I’m all about subtle animations, with the idea that if you do them right no-one will consciously notice them. But these needed to look animated from a standing distance, rather than if you were seated at a desktop or holding a tablet. So I took a bunch of animations from Animista.net and dialed the effects up to 11. On my computer they look like way too much, but in the film you can barely notice them, which is perfect. The site is just set dressing or a plot device, it shouldn’t distract you from the people.

5 options for meals, with an image, price and short description. Cheapest is a single carrot, most expensive is a lobster dinner.
Correcticorp dining menu

The site doesn’t have a proper navigation menu, since it was designed to look like a voice interface. But it had to be controlled remotely by a crew member to make sure all the actions relevant to the plot happened at exactly the right time. So I made a kind of site map page, with instructions for how they could hide cursors and use F11 to make it full screen.

Another feature was to use editable areas in some places, so the crew could adjust the amount of money in the lead character’s bank account. I also made a few extra variations of pages, just in case, and some blank pages so they could use visual effects to put whatever they needed on top. These were used to show Scaley, the automated legal advice service – like Clippy or a chatbot, but more annoying because your freedom is at stake.

There were also hidden controls to start and stop animations that have to run while the lead actor is playing his role. I’ve always wanted to make secret controls on a site so this was more fun for me than you might expect.

A bank balance and transactions list, with an extra popup menu for buttons that start and stop animation of the bank balance.
Correcticorp banking with my ‘secret’ controls

If we’d had more time, I’d have learned just enough React or Vue to make the page transitions easier. A bit more time for re-factoring would have been handy, but that’s the same for any project.

If I were to do it again, I’d make more editable text areas. Those take 30 seconds for me, but might have been very useful to let the director and crew adjust things on the spot. And I’d add a settings menu to make changing the appearances of things easier for the crew.

And before you ask: no, the site is not fully accessible. It works with a keyboard because that’s just how I build things, but the contrast is low, nothing has a visible text label and the animations would definitely fail WCAG. I reckon this makes it more authentic – a money-grubbing corporation profiting off human misery wouldn’t bother to have an accessible digital product!

After awards season is over, Please Hold will be available… somewhere! Online, probably. I’ll post a link when that happens, because apart from being proud of my tiny contribution I really enjoyed the film. So I reckon everyone should give it a watch when they can.

 

Resisting Facebook

After reading How To Do Nothing, I decided that I should do a regular spring clean of my Facebook account. I’d like to close my account altogether, but it’s the only way I have of keeping in touch with some people.

What I’ve done so far:

  • Installed a privacy thingy on my desktop computer (I already had an ad blocker)
  • Unfollowed and unliked all the brands I was following
  • Unfollowed news sources (except for The Chaser)
  • Hid the trending topics
  • Unfollowed a bunch of people I only slightly know (nothing personal if that was you!)
  • Checked all my profile settings on phone and tablet
  • Put a reminder in my calendar for a year from now to do a spring clean

I’m assuming that since I’m not perfect, I’ll end up following a few more brands and will need to clean them out every so often. And Zuckerberg loves to change the settings, including overriding your preferences, so I’ll need to keep an eye on them.

What I’ll be trying to do from now on:

  • Post jokes, or updates on what I’m up to, or cool things I’ve found outside of FB. No hot takes on politics or celebrities!
  • Avoid engaging with clickbait that other people share
  • Only checking once a day

This will not bring about the downfall of Facebook.But I reckon it’ll help reduce the time I spend there, and make it a bit more pleasant.

Canvas, HTML and the future of the web

A few months ago Google said they were going to start using the canvas element to render the content in Google Docs, instead of the full set of HTML elements. They’re already testing it, and are finding that it gives them performance improvements.

A chess board with a hand using a white king to knock over a black king.

Accessibility

Of course, the accessibility community is worried about this. The <canvas> element is a black hole for the accessibility APIs – information goes in but doesn’t come out. So assistive software like screen readers or switch controls or speech recognition can’t tell what’s going on in there, and therefore they can’t provide support to the people who need it.

I’m sure Google can make Google Docs accessible though. They’re already looking at something similar to the shadow DOM, I believe. And they’re working on an Accessibility Object Model (AOM, link goes to the draft specification), a kind of partner to the DOM. I’m not so keen on the side DOM based on my experience of the shadow DOM so far. But I’m interested in the AOM as I think it has a lot of potential. And honestly: you can make anything accessible if you’re willing to put enough time and energy into it. Google certainly has the resources to do this.

My fear is that just like a bunch of other tech “innovations”, accessibility will be treated as an edge-case which can be fixed with a plugin or by turning on a setting. Google really should take a note from WordPress and Gutenberg – they assumed that accessibility could be added later, like a nice-to-have feature. But bolt-on accessibility is never as good as when it’s considered from the very beginning. It’s always patchy and poor quality and needs workarounds to get basic functionality happening. And people with disabilities shouldn’t need to run campaigns to remind developers that they exist and have the right to access digital information.

I don’t think this will matter too much in the end. Google will bolt on some access, and the performance improvements of a fraction of a second per document will be worth it because of the sheer size of the thing. They had a billion users several years ago, I can only assume there are billions of documents too, so it all adds up for them. Google Docs isn’t great for accessibility as it currently is anyway, so most likely it will just change to a different flavour of awkwardness.

But then you’ve got the question of power. As Matthew McDonald says in Can Canvas Rendering Replace The DOM?:

…it centralizes the power in the hands of the app. If you control the pixels you can do anything — bypass automated tools, defeat adblockers, restrict browser features like search and text copying. It’s a JavaScript-flavored reincarnation of Flash or Silverlight, without the installation requirement or compatibility questions.

He’s a lot more cheerful about this than I am, and predicts that this move will lead to huge changes to make writing web apps more like writing native software.

My underlying concern is how many other web developers will move to rendering whole sites in <canvas> just because Google Does It, so it must be the best thing. We’ve already seen the shift from static and database-driven sites changing to full reactive state frameworks because Facebook Does It, even though hardly any of those sites benefit from it. But the chances of all those devs doing the same amount of work on accessibility as Google is pretty slim. They won’t have the staff, time or skills, they’ll just plonk down a drawing of some text, add the latest in advertising tech, and call it a day. Then it will be the new standard just because it’s the most common way to do things.

Gatekeeping

Part of why I’m assuming the tech bros will try to leap to <canvas> is because I feel like all the big corporate Computer Science folks are super excited to ditch HTML and do “real” programming instead. Any day of the week you can find people complaining about how terrible HTML and CSS are because they were only invented to present documents, but real applications have much more complex needs. You can do all sorts of fancy programming and treat the <canvas> element as a compile target, with the bare minimum amount of time spent writing HTML.

It smells a lot like gatekeeping to me – people who have invested a lot of time, money and effort into something don’t want other people to be able to just show up and do it for free. So they pretend the tools that are easy to use are inferior, and so are the people who use them.

That kind of attitude can be easily taken advantage of by corporations who want the word “internet” to be replaced by “Google” or “Facebook”. They promise developers the power to change the world, while they try to control as much of it as they can. Walled gardens are back and although they’re more sophisticated than AOL, they’re still a poor imitation of what the internet could be.

Because the beauty and promise of the web is that you don’t need a Computer Science degree to make a site. HTML and CSS are easy to learn even though (like chess) they can take years to master. If your HTML has mistakes, the browsers will make a guess at what you mean instead of throwing errors. CSS will just ignore anything it doesn’t understand and move on to the next line. Anyone can have a go.

You don’t need to wait for some corporation or Rupert Murdoch to give you a platform – a cheap hosting plan and a free text editor and you can DIY your own crappy site where you can say what you want. Yeah, it’s mayhem out there. But it’s also given billions of people a path to international communication.

It’s a bit like when digital cameras came out – a lot of professional photographers complained about the devices, complained about the quality of the photos and laughed at the terrible mistakes made by all these new photographers. Meanwhile, millions of people had a new way to express themselves and communicate. Flickr didn’t really survive the transition to responsive design but for a few years at the beginning of the digital photography era, it was amazing. You could see the whole world in your browser, when before it was just a whole lotta text.

Putting the means of communication and art into the reach of more people doesn’t mean we don’t need professionals or native software. If you want to make software and complex applications, that’s very cool and I’m very grateful. Some of my favourite web sites are web apps! But just because software engineers have particular requirements, doesn’t mean that other tools are worthless or outdated. The web should be flexible, accessible, ubiquitous and open. That might mean a trade-off of performance, or style. But simple, robust tools which can be used by anyone are still powerful and disruptive. Even when, or maybe especially when, they’re not “elegant”.

Credits: Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

How To Do Nothing – Jenny Odell

Book cover with white text over a photo of a flowering hedge, all green leaves with pink, red, white and yellow flowers.This is less of a review and more of a set of notes on Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. The title makes it sound like it might be a how-to book or a Luddite diatribe, but it’s not. It’s more of an exploration of the ways we could reframe our thinking, and it’s written in a “form meets function” kind of way. As she says in the introduction:

“Less a lecture than an invitation to take a walk”

Odell lays out the familiar problems with social media. It pushes us to constantly be online, demands that we participate in the hype of the moment, and puts humanitarian crises on the same level as someone’s new shoes. It distracts us while our attention is monetised for someone else’s benefit. And it creates a context collapse, so that we become the blandest version of ourselves.

If the little drips of negative effects of distraction accumulate, we don’t do what we want to do each day. Many days of this lead to us not living the life we want, or even having capacity to know what we want.

Whenever this topic comes up, people say we should delete our social media accounts. As Odell points out, that’s quite a privileged take. It assumes that you have enough social capital that people will seek you out offline, or that someone else will take care of your social life (I’m thinking particularly of married men who “let” their wives handle that for them then are lonely when she leaves him or dies). And it ignores both the fun and useful aspects of socialising online, plus the way that the internet has enabled people to make genuine connections and raise awareness of real problems.

Another frequent suggestion is to do a digital detox, a temporary break to refresh ourselves. But digital detoxes are usually marketed as a way to take a break so that we can return to work more productive than ever before. What if we don’t want to take a break from the endless now of social media just to get better at grinding our way through a capitalist work life?

Odell says that history shows that a better way forward is to resist rather than retreat. We need to develop our skills for thoughtfulness so that we’re not pushed around by the demands of the attention economy. And we can try to be too weird and difficult to be consumed by Mark Zuckerberg!

Some ways of training ourselves to do this are to get into art and nature, as hobbies or just by going for walks. Both art and nature are difficult to manipulate and monetise, and so to enjoy them we have to actively change our perceptions. Once you start paying attention differently, you can become engaged with what’s right in front of you. If you connect with the people and wildlife around you, and learn the history of your place you live, you’ll have more challenging and interesting things to do than sit back and be spoon-fed smooth algorithmic content.

Odell reckons, and I think I agree, that if we can manage that we’ll be genuinely refreshed and have time for contemplation. By doing what the attention economy considers “nothing”, we might just be able to put our attention towards big problems like civil rights, and climate change.

This is a pretty rough summary. If any of this sounds interesting to you then you absolutely should read the book. You might get a different set of ideas from it than I did.

Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying. – Gilles Deleuze

Interesting stuff mentioned in the book, mostly art

Woodcut style poster, of someone working, sleeping and reading in a boat
The old union saying “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, and 8 hours for what we will” was started by the Federation of Organized Trades & Labour Unions. This image is linked to Ricardo Levins Morales Art Studio, where you can buy it as a poster.

Extreme busyness is a symptom of deficient vitality – Robert Louis Stevenson

Added to my to-read list

Programmatic advertising, a summary

Cover of the book, which looks like it's covered in text-only banner ads with little close iconsRecently I read Subprime Attention Crisis by Tim Hwang. I was hoping to find out if advertising was the reason for social media changing from chronological posts in your timeline to a grab-bag of algorithmic bullshit. I didn’t get an answer to that question, but I did get a shock about how fragile the digital advertising economy really is.

Most of the information in this post comes directly from Hwang’s book or articles I looked up from his bibliography. If this topic is relevant to your work, I strongly suggest you read the book instead! If you’re local to me, you can borrow my copy. Or if you prefer audio, there’s a great interview with Hwang on the Freakonomics podcast.

What’s the problem?

These days, most digital advertising is programmatic. This means that people with things to advertise buy slots on websites via a trading system that runs a lot like the stock market. Hwang explains how that came about, then suggests that the current programmatic ad market has a lot of similarities to how the stock market was running just before the Global Financial Crisis. The features he reckons they have in common are:

One factor that Hwang touches on a little, but I’ve seen discussed more in web developer chats, is the performance cost of all the data-gathering. Most big-name websites have dozens of advertising trackers to find out when a page is loaded, who’s loading it, what else they’ve looked at today, and what demographics they’re part of. That information then gets fed into the stock-market of advertising to help all the third-parties bundle and re-sell your attention. There’s no evidence that this improves ad targeting (PDF), either in the relevance of the ads you get shown or the likelihood of you buying the product. But it creates a lot of jobs and opportunities for fraud so hey, why not take an extra 7 seconds to load the page?

So what can we do?

Alternative 1: Get rid of online advertising

This is kind of the scorched earth option. If current advertising sucks, why not just ditch it altogether? The problem with this is that someone has to pay for content authors and design and hosting, etc. If advertising isn’t paying the bills, who will? It’s not a huge stretch to guess that a lot of sites would move to a paid subscriber model.

Given that so many sites are dependent on Facebook and Google for traffic, they have a lot of control over how this plays out. They’ve never given half a damn about democracy or equal access before, and they’re always looking for another way to make a buck. So a two-tier internet for the Haves and the Have-nots seems like a real possibility here. And as soon as that happens in any other market sector, you get predatory businesses trying to scam or take advantage of the Have-nots (see: pay-day loans, pawn shops, US health insurance, etc).

So I’m not keen on letting go of advertising altogether.

Alternative 2: let the industry sort it out

Hwang reviews the current attempts by Google, Facebook and the advertising industry to fix this. The short version is: hah! as if!

They’re all getting rich from programmatic advertising and will survive just fine even if there is a market crash. They’re just tinkering at the edges to look like they’re trying. Their efforts aren’t designed to make any real, lasting change.

I don’t think we can afford to wait for the advertising industry to grow a conscience.

Alternative 3: Gently deflate the market bubble

Hwang says that instead of waiting for the financial bubble to burst, we could attempt a controlled demolition instead. His suggestions seem pretty good to me:

  • independent research – currently all the research into programmatic advertising is done by Google, Facebook and marketing companies, usually via astroturf “industry associations” staffed with their mates and full of lobbyists. We need to fund truly independent research into the value of digital advertising, the impact of ad blockers, the amount of fraud, and so on. Without an accurate picture of the situation we can’t do much at all.
  • whistle-blowing by employees who know their bosses are committing fraud or covering up inconvenient facts. For this to have an impact, we (the general public) have to follow up on scandals and demand punishment and prevention.
  • regulation to prevent a crash. As with the stock market, large financial transactions should be monitored for fraud and have regular health-checks.

We’re seeing some efforts in the US and the EU towards regulation. Usually politicians aren’t up-to-date on technology, but with solid support by the tech industry (the parts of it who care about ethics and long-term stability, at least) they could really help. I’d certainly trust politicians like Elizabeth Warren or Katie Porter in the US, or people like Scott Ludlam and Senator John-Steele here in Australia, to do their homework on this and make some good changes.

I’d add one more suggestion: that people buying advertising space do an audit of what they’re spending on. There’s been a few examples lately of brands reducing their daily ad spend by checking conversions and blacklisting sites that aren’t brand-friendly (i.e. racist blogs, Covid disinformation, etc). And getting rid of fraudulent vendors didn’t reduce effectiveness for Uber (podcast without a transcript, but the page gives a summary). At least this way the clients aren’t contributing to the inflation of value.

Alternative 4: Get rid of the “programmatic” aspect

Hwang also suggests that the programmatic stock-market model of advertising isn’t necessary, and we could go back to category advertising. I was already persuaded of this idea. Category advertising is where you say “I have a website for people who geek out about productivity software” and so you sell ads to businesses that sell productivity software and related things like cool notebooks and pens, office furniture or all those everyday carry tools. You don’t need to know my age, gender, postcode or eye colour to know that as a productivity geek I will always be interested in buying far too many pretty notebooks.

I know that the only two ads I’ve ever clicked on deliberately were from The Deck, an advertising platform which is now sadly closed. They did the sort of category style advertising which isn’t common anymore, and the ads were always simple yet effective. Maybe they had a style guide or constraints on what their advertising partners could do? Anyway, I deliberately whitelisted sites that used The Deck so my ad-blocker would let them through. And one of those two times I clicked an ad, I bought a really great product that I’m still a customer of today.

A more significant example is NPO, a Dutch broadcaster (like the BBC or the ABC) who got rid of advertising cookies to avoid the hassle of complying with the GDPR. They still auctioned off their ad space, but buyers got information about the page being viewed instead of the person doing the viewing. Their digital revenue is up.

This also seems to be backed up by a detail that Hwang briefly mentions: when HotWired started putting banner ads on their sites in 1994, click-through rates were 44%. Nowadays clickthrough rates are more like 0.5%. Not all of this can be put down to the change in advertising techniques, but surely some of it can?

So what next?

I’m a big fan of options 3 and 4 above. But I think we have to move quickly on it, and I don’t actually have any control over any sites with advertising or products which need marketing. This makes my support a bit theoretical 🙂

I figured I’d write up a blog post though and see if I could persuade other people in the tech industry to start looking into how advertising is working for them. Is your current setup helping or harming your work?