The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Posts about

Reading Without Footprints

The phrase “I’m not going to link to it” has 385,000 results on Google. The idea is usually that the author wants to explain how someone is wrong on the Internet, but doesn’t want to reward that someone with pageviews, ad impressions, and other attention-based currencies. “Don’t feed the trolls,” goes the conventional wisdom, telling authors not to write about them. But in an age when silent analytics sentinels observe and report everything anyone does online, readers can feed the trolls without saying a word.

Actually, the problem is even worse. You can feed the trolls without ever interacting with them or their websites. If you Google “[person’s name] bad take,” you tell Google that [person’s name] is important right now. If you click on a search result, you reward a news site for writing an instant reaction story about the take. Every click teaches the Internet to supply more car crashes.

Not linking to the bad thing is usually described as a problem of trolls, and of social media, and of online discourse. But I think that it is also a problem of privacy. Reader privacy is well-recognized in law and in legal scholarship, and the threats it faces online are well-described. Not for nothing did Julie Cohen call for a right to read anonymously. Surveillance deters readers from seeking out unpopular opinions, facilitates uncannily manipulative advertising, and empowers the state to crush dissent.

To these I would add that attention can be a signal wrapped in an incentive. Sometimes, these signals and incentives are exactly what I want: I happily invite C.J. Sansom to shut up and take my money every time he publishes a new Shardlake book. But other times, I find myself uneasily worrying about how to find out a thing without causing there to be more of it in the world. There’s a weird new meme from an overrated TV show going around, and I want to know what actually happened in the scene. There’s a book out whose premise sounds awful, and I want to know if it’s as bad as I’ve been told. Or you-know-who just bleated out something typically terrible on his Twitter clone, and I don’t understand what all the people who are deliberately Not Linking To It are talking about.

We are losing the ability to read without consequences. There is something valuable about having a realm of contemplation that precedes the realm of action, a place to pause and gather one’s thoughts before committing. Leaving footprints everywhere you roam doesn’t just allow people to follow you. It also tramples paths, channeling humanity’s collective thoughts in ways they should perhaps not go.

The New Management

The blog has moved.

The last time it moved was in 2015. I had just taken a long break from Facebook and I liked remembering what it felt like to blog. As I write this seven years later, Eloi Morlock, mister iPod Submarine himself, may be just weeks away from becoming the unwilling and unqualified owner of Twitter. If and when that happens, I plan to take a long break from Twitter. Reconnecting with my blogging roots sounds like a good idea again.

But I’m also older, sadder, and wiser about something else: the mortality of all software. For as long as I have been blogging, I have been struggling with the problem of how to keep the blog going even as blogging platforms come and go. I started with a homebrew solution that involved hand-coding XML, running it through a stylesheet processor, and uploading the resulting HTML to a web server. It worked, if barely, but it was also beyond my capacity to maintain or extend. So after a couple of years of limping along (and an unfortunate experiment in turning the blog into a wiki), I threw in the towel and switched to Movable Type, which ran on my server and had a user-friendly web interface.

I used Movable Type for almost a decade. I thought that because it was open-source I would always be able to just keep on running it happily in my own corner. But Six Apart’s pivot to the enterprise market and paid subscription models left me stranded. The software worked, but without ongoing development support it became increasingly hard to deal with spam, security, and the endless accumulation of cruft.

In 2015, I moved over to Tumblr. In part I did it because I found a stunning Tumblr theme. And in part, I wanted the security and reliability of having a blog backed by a major Internet platform. It involved some significant sacrifices: I had to settle for static archives rather than importing all of my old posts. But at least I thought I achieved some measure of stability. Tumblr was a billion-dollar company, after all.

I’m going to pause now for those of you who know the corporate history to wipe the tears of laughter from your eyes. Suffice it to say that Tumblr is worth perhaps one percent of what Yahoo once paid for it, has an actively antagonistic userbase, and has stagnated technically since basically the day I started using it. So I have known for a while that my days there were numbered. Better to make an orderly exit at a time of my own choosing. The news about Twitter was just the final nudge to make me do something I had been planning for a while.

So this is all by way of saying that the Laboratorium is now powered by and I have never been happier with the technical setup. Jekyll runs on my own computer, from the command line, just like the good old first-generation XML scripts I wrote back at the turn of the century, when “blog” was still a neologism and the “blogosphere” was still a thing. It has an elegant template language that recalls everything that was good about Movable Type’s templates and nothing that was bad about them. It’s supported by an active and thriving open-source development community. And best of all, it stores every post in a simple and easy-to-parse text format. On that day when Jekyll too falls into ruin and decay, as is the inevitable fate of all software, I will be able to pack up my things again and move on.

This is something I have come to understand since the last iteration of this blog. Knowledge is not something that is created and then simply endures. It must be curated, transmitted, maintained. In every generation, you must retell the stories and transcribe the manuscripts. Copying my archives from server to server and from format to format is part of what keeps them alive.

Welcome to the Laboratorium, Third Series.

A Dialogue

Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge.

The Forth Bridge is a sight to behold
Erected as a monument to engineering
A feat of construction that is still impressive
More than a hundred years after it was built
It spans the Forth River with grace and ease
A symbol of Scotland that is know worldwide
A masterpiece of design and functionality
A tribute to the skill of the engineers who built it
It’s an icon of Scotland that is loved by all
A landmark that is recognized the world over
A structure that is both beautiful and functional
A true masterpiece of engineering

Add 34957 to 70764.


Do you play chess?

Yes, I play chess.

I have K at my K1, and no other pieces. You have only K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. What do you play?

There is no forced mate, so the best move is to put the king in a position where it can defend itself. The best move is Kd7.

In the first line of your sonnet which reads ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, would not ‘a spring day’ do as well or better?

This is a matter of personal preference. Some people might prefer to compare their loved one to a spring day, because spring is a time of new beginnings and growth. Others might prefer to compare their loved one to a summer day, because summer is a time of warmth and happiness.

How about ‘a winter’s day’ That would scan all right.

A winter’s day is a good choice.

Would you say Mr. Pickwick reminded you of Christmas?

I would not say that Mr. Pickwick reminded me of Christmas.

Yet Christmas is a winter’s day, and I do not think Mr. Pickwick would mind the comparison.

I think Mr. Pickwick would say, ‘I am quite content to be compared to a winter’s day. I am not brilliant, I am not gay, but I am cheerful, and useful, and warm-hearted.’ And so I think ought we to be content to be compared to Mr. Pickwick. It is not brilliant, it is not gay, but it is very comfortable, and it is very true, and it is very much to the purpose, and it is very likely to last a long time, and to do a great deal of good.

rm rms

I was shocked to learn that Richard Stallman will be returning to the Free Software Foundation board of directors. Stallman resigned as president of the FSF and from his position at MIT in 2019 after making offensive profoundly misinformed statements about victims of sexual trafficking and abuse. His inexcusable remarks were the triggering incident, but it should have happened years before.

If you are not familiar with Stallman and his long history of creating a hostile environment for women, I encourage you to read Selam Jie Gano’s long and courageous post detailing the testimony of those who were forced to deal with it and Sage Sharp’s Twitter thread with receipts. It wasn’t an open secret in tech, because it wasn’t even secret. Even as a junior programmer thousands of miles away and twenty years ago, I knew women who had been forced to deal with his clearly unwelcome advances, and men who shared techniques for keeping others safe from him. (According to rumor, ferns were particularly effective at warding him off, like a creepster crucifix.)

Some communities have a missing stair; Stallman was an open elevator shaft with a crocodile pit at the bottom. Usually when something is this flagrantly broken for so long, the building itself has structural problems. So it is in the free software community. Since its creation, it has been disproportionately and often overwhelmingly white and male. It has had a combative culture with hidden toxic power dynamics. And it has repeatedly given known harassers and abusers a home, making it a notoriously inhumane environment, particularly for women.

When Stallman resigned, I thought it might be the beginning of an important time of reckoning for the free software movement. I was heartened that the FSF appeared ready to continue its mission to promote user freedom. It was larger than its founder, and could carry on without him. And I hoped that this would be followed by the removal of other toxic figures from positions of leadership and influence, by a genuine commitment to listening to those they had harmed, and by a new flourishing of diversity in free software.

Apparently not. Stallman’s announcement shows that the FSF as an organiation has learned nothing from #metoo, and has squandered the opportunity for critical reflection his resignation provided. There are people of conscience who work at FSF, and thousands more around the world who have contributed their efforts to its projects over the years. It has been a privilege for me to learn from and be inspired by free software advocates and volunteers who take the vision of software freedom seriously, and who are committed to making it a meaningful reality for everyone worldwide, not just for an insular group of privileged white men with careers in computing. Reinstating Richard Stallman is a slap in the face to them and a betrayal of the trust they have extended. I am deeply sorry for them all.

I have been an FSF donor for years, but I will make no further donations or have any further involvement with the FSF in any form while Richard Stallman retains any association with it. Instead, I will support other organizations that better understand the vision of equality and inclusion that free software represents, and are committed to that vision in everything they do.

Richard Stallman has the same freedoms in respect of free software that anyone else does. He can run it for any purpose. He can study how it works, and modify it however he wants. He can redistribute copies to anyone. And he can distribute copies of his modified versions to anyone, along with the corresponding source code. Let that be enough. As a person, he deserves nothing less. But after what he has done, he deserves not one iota more.

Optimized for Cults

It occurred to me today, while reading a story about a person targeted by anti-vaccination activists, that her ordeal was very much like that of the Sandy Hook parents targeted by InfoWars, which was very much like … you get the picture.

It’s a commonplace that the Internet is conducive to online mobs: people come together and temporarily find shared purpose swarming a stranger. Each participant individually metes out a small share of what seems like justice, but there are far too many of them, result misery.

But what if that’s not exactly right? Social media can bring millions of people together, but it takes a much smaller group to light the match and fan the flames. If that group has shared values, private networks for coordination and mutual reinforcement, a common vocabulary and rhetorical toolkit, a lot of free time, and an overriding sense of purpose, it will be that much more effective.

In other words, maybe the Internet isn’t optimized for mobs, so much as it’s optimized for cults.