Now a tradition in its third year (see 2016 and 2017). Here are all my extracted answers to our monthly Basecamp check-in question of What are you reading?
Notes from Underground Fyodor Dostoyevsky was one of those authors I had heard about in school but never really contemplated reading directly. He lived 1821-1881 and wrote such classics as Crime and Punishment that I never considered myself invited to read. What a mistake. This isn’t exactly the first classic that I’ve given myself permission to read that rendered the inhibition to do so silly, but it really nailed home the point.
It’s such a lovely weird book. Partly, it’s Dostoyevsky giving us an account, through the fictional narrator, of his view on the human condition. Just one quote: “But man has such a predilection for systems and abstract deductions that he is ready to distort the truth intentionally, he is ready to deny the evidence of his senses only to justify his logic”. The idea of humans being suckered into living only according to “logic”, and not only the vanity of such a pursuit, but the impossibility of it, is a wonderful antidote to much of contemporary morality and wonkness.
Elephants wouldn’t be killed for their tusks if there wasn’t a demand for ivory. We can do all sorts of things to discourage poachers, but as long as the market is there, the killings will continue.
Likewise, the flood of privacy scandals involving Facebook, ad exchanges, and other privacy poachers all tie back to the same root cause: Personal information is valuable because we use it to target ads.
But what if you couldn’t do that? Then the personal information would cease to have value, and the flood of privacy scandals would stop (or at least greatly diminish).
The world of commerce spun around just fine in the era before ads could be targeted by personal information. When ad buyers would place their spots based on context. Got a new car to sell? Put an ad on a website that talks about cars. Maybe it wasn’t as efficient, or maybe it was. Either way: The societal price we pay for allowing ads to be targeted is far too high.
We’ve placed all sorts of other restrictions on advertisement, so it’s not like this is a new thing. You can’t advertise tobacco products in many places. Some countries restrict advertisement against children. Regulation like this works.
Just try to imagine that world without ad targeting. It’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be a better one.
Three years ago we embraced an exciting new publishing platform called Medium. It felt like a new start for a writing community, and we benefitted immensely from the boost in reach and readership those early days brought. But alas it was not to last.
When we moved over, Medium was all about attracting big blogs and other publishers. This was going to be a new space for a new time where publishers could find a home. And it was. For a while.
These days Medium is focused on their membership offering, though. Trying to aggregate writing from many sources and sell a broad subscription on top of that. And it’s a neat model, and it’s wonderful to see Medium try something different. But it’s not for us, and it’s not for Signal v Noise.
Quitting Facebook. Renouncing Uber. Avoiding Amazon. There have never been more or greater reasons for turning your back entirely on much of Big Tech.
The last few years have brought an endless stream of scandals and unflattering revelations. There aren’t many starry-eyed optimists left who still believe that Silicon Valley is just here to build a better world. We’ve almost all come to accept the fact that Big Tech is here less to help the world and more to devour it.
If you’ve reached a similar conclusion, the natural dichotomy is one of apathy vs revolt. And let’s face it, apathy is the far more common out. What am I, in my lonely being, able to do in the face of such power and abuse? Best not to think about it too much, and – will you look at that! – these companies are experts at helping you not think about the structure and stranglehold of their businesses.
Revolt: deleting your accounts, swearing off the services, advocating for alternatives, is draining and even isolating work. No wonder most people can’t fit in such a fight in their daily routines of anxiety. Quitting cold turkey ain’t no feast.
But these aren’t the only options! You don’t have to either resign yourself to your utter insignificance or don a cape while shouting in the wind. There’s power in the margins. Tremendous power.
If Facebook’s endless privacy scandals have shown one thing, it’s that the company has far too much data on its users, and that they can’t be trusted not to sell, barter, or abuse that data whether for profit, growth, or negligence.
While individuals have long been rallying around #DeleteFacebook, there hasn’t been a comparable campaign for business. Enter: The Facebook-Free Business.
Being a Facebook-Free Business means your customers can trust that you aren’t collaborators with the Facebook machine. That when you spend your money with a Facebook-Free Business, none of that money will find its way back to Facebook’s coffers.
The rules are pretty simple. Being Facebook Free means:
We do not buy advertisement on Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, or WhatsApp.
We do not use Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, or WhatsApp to promote or represent our business or to communicate with our customers.
We do not assist Facebook in its data collection regime through use of Facebook social Like buttons or by offering Facebook logins.
In short, that the business does not use Facebook or its subsidiaries in any way shape or form to operate, further, or conduct itself.
Oh those superhuman CEOs who get up at 4am for that killer start to the day! Aren’t they just amazing? Such sacrifice, such grit, such tenacity.
Such fucking bullshit.
If you’re the CEO, and you can’t get work done at work, you only have one person to blame for it: Yourself. There’s no law of nature that dictates that it should be impossible to get deep work done at 11am or 2pm, just habits, values, and policies.
It’s your job to fix the damn workplace, not run away from it. Stop playing calendar Tetris with a whole organization. Stop loading up on meetings. Stop demanding endless status reports. Stop interrupting everyone all the time with shit that can wait.
Organizational dysfunction, such as the inability to get work done at work during regular work hours, is a reflection of executive habits and beliefs. Work isn’t crazy because of the nature of its being. Work is crazy because you’re making it crazy!
But it’s hard to fix that which you don’t know is broken. So let me spell it out: Having to get up at 4am to get real work done is broken. Busted. Kaput.
And it isn’t any less broken because a fawning business media keeps exalting the virtues of your morning routine or strict regiment. Quite contraire.
You know what’s cool? Getting to work at 9, putting in eight solid hours, and then being done by 5. There’s nothing stodgy or uncool about having reasonable work day that allows for a workout at 7:30am or playing with your kids at 5:30pm.
There’s no prize for being the first to rise. You’re not a fucking bird and there ain’t no fucking worm. So chill. Set a good example for your organization. Make calm a mission. Start getting work done at work again.
Furthermore, since the spirit of this idea is to collaborate, we’ve also licensed all these policies under the Creative Commons Attribution license. If you’d like to use any of the policies for your own business, feel free! All we ask is that you give us a bit of credit, if you either copy them entirely or materially.
This act of sharing was inspired by the reception to opening up our Basecamp Employee Handbook. We’ve heard from so many business owners and employees that our handbook helped them put together their own. That they were inspired by some of our values or practices enough to adopt them as their own.
Our hope is that the same might happen with our policies. If more companies would adopt a no-nonsense refund policy, we’d all be better off. If more companies — AND YES I’M LOOKING AT YOU GOOGLE 😂 — would honor their legacy systems, and not willy-nilly kick users to the curb, we’d all gain from the level-up in trust.
Policies are part of the organizational code of a company. Not only should that code be open source, it should be tinkered with, improved, critiqued, forked, and refactored. Let’s do that.
We don’t need to wait for the singularity before artificial intelligence becomes capable of turning the world into a dystopian nightmare. AI-branded algorithms are already serving up new portions of fresh hell on a regular basis. But instead of worrying about run-away computers, we should be worrying about the entrepreneurs that feed them the algorithms, and the consumers who mindlessly execute them.
It’s not that Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, et al are wrong to ponder whether Skynet might one day decide that humankind is a bug in the code of the universe that should be eliminated. In much the same way that evangelicals aren’t necessarily wrong to believe that the rapture will at some point prove the end of history. Having faith in supernatural stories about vengeful deities condemning us all to an eternity of misery is a bedrock pastime since the cognitive revolution. Precisely because there’s no scope for refuting such a story today.
It’s just that such a preoccupation with the possible calamities of tomorrow might distract us from dealing with the actual disasters of today. And algorithmic disasters are not only already here, but growing in scale, impact, and regularity.
A growing body of work is taking the algorithms of social media to task for optimizing for addiction and despair. Whipping its users into the highest possible state of frenzy, anxiety, and envy. Because that’s the deepest well of engagement to draw from.
If you really set your mind to it, you can do it. Get to the very top. Beat out all the others. That’s how I did it. I just wanted it more, worked hard, and eventually all my dreams came true. I won’t say it’s easy, but it’s up to you!
So goes the familiar song of entrepreneurial or professional success. The same song being played in a thousand different tunes by a thousand different hucksters. It’s the song we all want to believe. That the world is ours for the taking, and whoever wants it more, will get it, and when they get it, they’ll deserve it.But that’s a shit track, and we really need to change the station. Odds are overwhelmingly that you will not make it to the top. That you will not be the next baller posting champagne shots and private jet pics. Or be celebrated in parades of adoration by your peers. There just isn’t enough room up there, on the top.
There’s lots of room amongst the disillusioned, though. The disappointed. The self-loathing. All those who wanted it so bad, but didn’t get it, and now blame themselves (or others or both!) for their supposed failures. That group is easily thousands if not hundreds of thousands if not millions of times larger than the small crop up there on the top.
A shit track indeed. To give simultaneous false hope and a false idol to so many when you know, PER MATHS, that it just isn’t going to happen for the vast, vast majority. That’s not just a shit track, it’s cruel. Time. To. Change. The. Station.
So here’s a better one: Making it to the top isn’t the game you should be focused on. The top is full of people who hate what they had to do or who they had to become to get there. Even for the people who get there with a clean conscience often end up disappointed by how shallow the satisfaction really is.
Besides, you only have limited influence on whether you’re going to succeed at whatever you put your mind to. It’s by no means within your exclusive sphere of control. There are so many things that have to come together at the same time. Only a couple of which you own.
But you do have control over whether you’re doing a good job, as measured by your personal sense of satisfaction in the work. Over whether you’re taking the time to notice, to learn, to improve. That’s the most fulfilling part of being up there, at the top, anyway. The “being good” part. Hell, even the “becoming good” part is pretty amazing, if you play it right.
That’s a game worth winning: The one played with yourself for your own betterment. Not the one played against others, measured against them. Screw that game.
Yeah, yeah, I know. That’s a luxurious game to play. You’ve already made it to some satisfying station in life when you’re allowed to focus on your own personal development for subsistence rather than a survivalist climb out from the bottom. But that’s also true for most who are into that Getting To The Top game.
So resist the temptation to focus on where you want all of this to take you, if you can. Luxuriate in the experience and flow of getting better. Stop playing games where you can’t set the rules. Start winning the ones where you can.