All posts in Wise Words

Smart Garbage

“Smart garbage”: objects self-disclose how to fix, disassemble and recycle them.

— Mike Kuniavsky, Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design.

Inspired by a Bruce Sterling lecture in 1999:

Smart garbage doesn’t fester in darkness, ignorance and denial. It becomes a resource.


Motorcycle riding is romantic while motorcycle maintenance is purely classic.

— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Sitting in Prinzessinnen Gärten, enjoying the first outdoor lunch of the season, I got to talking with a Berlin transplant about Quality.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig is reconciling two types of personalities:

  • the romantic mode: primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, and intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate.
  • and the classical mode: straightforward, unadorned, unemotional, economical and carefully proportioned. Its purpose is to bring order out of chaos.

We find these modes prevalent in our society, and often within ourselves as well, as we alternate between these two ways of seeing the world.

In the weird way you discover similarities in your day-to-day work and philosophical models, I was struck by parallels in Pirsig to what we’re doing at Mozilla.

On the one hand, we’re building initiatives to inspire the romantics, the “non-technical” personalities who don’t want to be bothered with the inner workings of code…at least not yet.

These initiatives are about imagination and creativity, self-expression, and a sense of wonder. The 14-year old sending a lovebomb to her mom, the filmmaker re-imagining his film for the web, the journalist remixing a rival newspaper’s website and sending it around the office for laughs.

On the other hand, we’re delivering tools that push what’s possible technically. They are about executing good code, improving software offerings, establishing infrastructure standards, and working with people to dig into code and think algorithmically. Popcorn contributors squashing bugs to speed up the tools, a badge issuer complying with specifications, a developer producing a sophisticated hack to display timelines better in news stories.

making popcorn

At moments in the organization, you can feel the tension between these two modes, the romantic and the classical. They have different perspectives, different ways of evaluating the world and our progress within it.

Pirsig’s book was about the interrelation of the two modes, neither one “winning out” in the end, but rather being pushed to the point where the division between them dissolves.

At the cutting edge of time, before an object can be distinguished, there must be a kind of nonintellectual awareness. You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after you’ve seen the tree.

— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Pirsig uses the metaphor of a train, rushing down the tracks. At the front of the train, propelled by romantic knowledge, you push to the edge of time where the division of perception and intellectual awareness dissolve. The train cars, built and maintained by classical knowledge, are essentially all institutional knowledge and empirical findings. And the tracks that the train runs on is Quality, the continuing stimulus inspiring us to create and push forward in the world.

Pirsig Definition of Quality

Of course, this model isn’t really immediately helpful to improving how different parts of an organization work together.

If anything, though, it does reinforce that the way to speak to people is through the inspirational “what’s possible” romantic mode, all the while supporting the momentum with a real corpus of code and ensuring that quality continues to be the guiding principle of where we’re going and stimulus to keep doing what we’re doing.

You can read more about Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality in Wikipedia or pick up a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I certainly forgot how much I enjoyed reading it the first time.

Images: Time For a Rest At The Camp Buell State Historical Site., Definition of Quality by Robert Pirsig

11.8 inches

Grace Hopper, witty ur-programmer and girl geek legend, explains a nanosecond.

Filter Failure

Clay Shirky suggests that there’s no such thing as information overload, only filter failure. This is a very modern response to an older question. Futurist Alvin Toffler warned us about information overload, popularizing the phrase. It’s an extension of the idea of sensory overload, the idea that too much input could overwhelm and paralyze you. This is based on the faulty assumption that brains are information processing machines, and that we can overwhelm and crash them. …

Knowledge is too big, messy and wildly unsettled, just like the internet. “For every fact on the internet, there is an equal and opposite fact.” David [Weinberger] warns that there is nothing we all agree on – you can find someone willing to argue that 2+2 is not 4 (and, indeed, a quick Google search shows this to be true.) We don’t agree about anything, and David warns, we never will. “This doesn’t mean there are no facts – but it does mean that people are going to insist on being wrong.”

“Networked knowledge may or may not be truer about the world, but is is truer about knowing… This crazy approach to knowledge feels familiar to us, because it’s how we tend to know.” [Weinberger] closes with an observation that’s both hopeful and unsettling: “What we have in common is a shared world about which we disagree, not a common knowledge we share and can collectively come to.”

— snippets from Ethan Zuckerman’s heroic liveblogging during the book launch of Too Big to Know by David Weinberger.


How to Vacuum Form a Guy Fawkes Mask by Aram Bartholl / CC BY NC ND

I’m interested in collective being. I’m interested in making it easier for people to be public and social selves, as Martin Luther King certainly was. The risk is that if we turn everything into private property, it becomes harder and harder for us to have these common or collective selves, which is something we need.

In anthropology, there’s an interesting resurrection of an old word, which is the word “dividual.” So we live in a nation that values individuality; we live in a nation of individuals. But a dividual person is somebody who’s imagined to contain within himself or herself the community that he or she lives in.

So it would be nice if we began to have a better sense of how to own and circulate art and ideas, such that we could be present in our dividuality, as well as our individuality.

— Lewis Hyde interviewed for On the Media about copyright, the commons, and Martin Luther King Jr.

And Anonymous is organized not only around a radical democratic (at times chaotic and anarchic) structure but also around the very concept of anonymity, here constituted as collectivity. The accumulation of too much power—especially in a single point in (virtual) space—and prestige is not only taboo but functionally very difficult.

The lasting effect of Anonymous may have as much to do with facilitating alternative practices of sociality — upending the ideological divide between individualism and collectivism — as with attacks on monolithic banks and sleazy security firms.

— from Biella Colemann’s brilliant article about Anonymous, Our Weirdness is Free

Clopen = Closed + Open

Google has made much of Android being “open” for use by anyone and thus potentially better than the “closed” system of the Apple iOS world. But “clopen” would be a better way to describe Android, as some have, because it’s both closed and open at the same time.

— Danny Sullivan, For Consumers, Android Is More “Clopen” Than Open

The Self-Reliance Economy

Basically, they hire a middleman. Procter & Gamble, for instance, realized that although Walmart is its single largest customer, System D outposts [off-the-books, self-reliance economies], when you total them up, actually account for more business. So Procter & Gamble decided to get its products into those stores.

In each country, P&G hires a local distributor—sometimes several layers of local distributors—to get the product from a legal, formal, tax-paying company to a company willing to deal with unlicensed vendors who don’t pay taxes.

That’s how Procter & Gamble gets Downy fabric softener, Tide laundry detergent, and all manner of other goods into the squatter communities of the developing world. Today, in aggregate, these markets make up the largest percentage of the company’s sales worldwide.

— Robert Neuwirth in an interview with WIRED’s Robert Capps, Why Black Market Entrepreneurs Matter to the World Economy

Tech Criticism

At the end of this year I’m thinking about the need for proper criticism of software, alongside other arts like theater, movies, music, books, travel, food and architecture. It’s finally time to stop being all gee whiz about this stuff. Tech is woven into the fabric of our culture, as much as or more so than the other arts. And it’s headed toward being even more interwoven…

The goal would be to move away from the lone inventor myth and see tech projects as more like film production or a even more apt, a TV series. Software is a process.

— Dave Winer, We need to improve tech criticism. Here’s how.

It’s Own Thang.

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be creating things on the web. This year’s advances in browsers, standards, and smart thinking have enabled us to finally begin to web design. We’re no longer forced to think of the web as a digital reproduction of physical pages, but rather to finally embrace it as its own thing.

— Dan Cederholm, What I Learned About The Web In 2011 via Third Wave Berlin

Ay, where’s the rub?

Frictionless sharing makes sharing meaningless.

via Mike Loukides, The End of Social