I hope this catches you on vacation somewhere, or enjoying a slight summer lull in your busy schedule. In Berlin, where I’m based, the city seems both noticeably emptier than usual (because summer break) and brimming with life (because summer). It’s easily the best time of the year in the city, even though I wouldn’t mind going for a day without getting soaked in a torrential spontaneous downpour, but hey. It’s nice.
Going forward, you might notice some slight changes in the newsletter. I feel like experimenting a little, especially since I’m seriously winding down my Twitter activities. Winding down further, I should say, because I haven’t been very active on there for some time.
By now, it just feels pretty over to me. Neither do I want to be associated with Musk’s increasingly right wing shenanigans, nor does the platform give me the same joy, energy or conversations it used to when it was at its best. So I guess I’m leaving Twitter, if maybe in little steps: The account might stay up, more or less passive, until I know where to best reconnect with the network of peers I had there. (My not-so-hot take is that we’re witnessing live the disaggregation of networks/publics after a very unusual decade and a half of strong aggregation on Twitter, but who knows. Fwiw, I expect that some connections will be lost, others spread out over any number of future platforms. But I digress.) In the meantime, I’m deleting or shutting down the wild growth of project Twitter accounts I’ve amassed over the years. I’m fairly certain that the codebase might rot to a degree that that’ll become increasingly harder or the company might go belly-up and sell off their assets, neither of which I find pleasant scenarios. So I’m moving out my stuff step by step.
So: Twitter leaves a big gap for me. It was my default place to have conversations online. That energy wants to go somewhere, and maybe the more intimate and direct communication of email might be one of the places it should go. So feel free to hit reply!
For a few installments, it’ll be more conversational, less structured. I think. Probably.
Also, this is the first time I’m trying to send this from a new platform (Buttondown). I hope things work, but if things look wonky, then now you know why.
There is no digital public space
So, with Twitter (now: X) continuing its descent into oblivion under former boy genius turned problematic internet person Musk, and with a bunch of elections coming up over the next 18 months, there’s increasing talk about digital public spaces where debates happen and how.
But the thing is, as best as I can tell, there is no digital public space. It simply doesn’t exist. (I wrote a little about this, but I’ll give you the short version here.) The digital town square, the digital public sphere, whatever the term: All we got is the opposite. Privately owned digital spaces. Various types of private digital spaces that emulate some aspects of public space. Digital malls that a mall cop can kick you out of.
The self-appointed sheriff of X-Twitter is Musk. I’m almost (but not quite) grateful for the brazen example he offers in micro-managing and petty-policing the platform: It’s such a perfect reminder of why private, centralized platforms aren’t always resilient enough as the infrastructure for public discourse.
I’m not sure where that leaves us, though, because I’m not convinced that government run social networks are a good idea (in fact, I’m quite sure they’re not) but this model has by now been failing pretty hard as well. Maybe — maybe! — decentralization can be a step into the right direction, but I’m not sure it gets us all the way there. Maybe we need more competition by making sure that we move away from the quasi monopolies or duopolies in all the social media niches. Maybe there’s a third way and I’m just not seeing it yet. Or maybe the shift towards smaller networks, many private not just in terms of ownership but also visibility (DMs, group chats, etc.) will increasingly take over, as we’ve seen happening quite a bit already.
Either way, things will get bumpy and worse before they get better. We need new approaches, new players, new business models. Might as well get to it!
German government slashes its digital transformation budget
German newspaper FAZ reported that Germany’s federal government just slashed the budget for digital transformation of its administration for the coming year from something like 377m to 3m or so Euros. A little later, Tagesspiegel Background offered a little more nuance and some background that made it sounds like it might not be quite as dramatic as that as there are complicated accounting and budgeting processes that might leave more budget on the table.
(1) Germany’s administration is far behind its goals in terms of digital service delivery. And I mean far behind its own goals as laid out in the OZG (Online ZugangsGesetz), which were not particularly ambitious to begin with. Maybe more importantly…
(2) The notion of digitizing administrative processes — of translating them from paper-based to the internet — has it all backwards. It’s not going to solve any of the underlying issues. What we need isn’t just for digital forms (HTML or PDF) to replace paper forms. What we need is wholesale administrative reform. Which of course is much, much harder. But if we don’t break up those silos and start designing service delivery from a citizen/user perspective across administrative silos, nothing will get easier to understand or to use, no matter the format.
Disadvantaged groups will not be empowered to really take advantage of government programs that are incredibly hard to navigate, no matter in which format they are set up to fail in filling out the necessary forms. And even if you’re not part of a disadvantaged group, you should not realistically be expected to navigate the often obscure departmental boundaries of an administration which exists, after all, to make things run smoothly for citizens, not the other way round. So…
Transformation is the wrong metaphor, the wrong mental model. We need a full redesign not just of the modular forms. A redesign of at least the processes, and maybe of the institutions. Otherwise we end up with the proverbial lipstick on a pig. Even if it’s a digitally transformed PDF of lipstick on a pig.
(3) Overall, I truly believe that despite all the efforts that many smart and dedicated folks inside the administration are putting up, and despite massive improvements, Germany is probably 10 years behind the state of the art. Which in internet years is, what, like, forever behind? It’s bad.
Again, I’d like to take the opportunity to shout out Jen Pahlka’s book Recoding America. I highly recommend it.
Speaking of recommendations: Good friend and collaborator Boris Anthony has for quite some time had this amazing little custom-built setup to, well, enhance ebooks. A way to display covers and highlights, to convey the volume of the books, to offer reminders of books read and yet-to-read. He started sharing a little bit about it online at libra.re. I absolutely love it. I read most books as ebooks. And the reading itself I find enjoyable: The lightweight device, the small physical footprint, the subtle backlight, the way I can increase the font size when reading late at night when my eyes get a little tired. But literally everything else is a pretty poor experience.
The books don’t take up any space (in the Robin Sloan sense of the expression), so I’m not reminded of the things I still want to read: The books essentially vanish in some digital directory. Without seeing them on a shelf, my memory of which books I’ve read and what they triggered in me just goes poof and vanishes. The highlights disappear into Amazon’s abysmal highlights page, never to be seen again. (Although I found a Rube Goldberg machine-esque way to pipe them into my Obsidian as text files. No one should be expected to jump through these types of hoops to access their book highlights and annotations.)
So, ebooks: reading good, everything before and after bad. Boris found a way to make the journey that much more enjoyable. The only problem is that it appears basically impossible to productize because the same folks who design this second-rate experience also tend to enforce existing copyrights in a way so it’s more or less illegal to do anything about the situation.
Alas, for those exact reasons, libra.re isn’t usable by anyone other than Boris via his custom build. But it’s great to see this shared as he’s been thinking about the challenges and opportunities in this space for a long, long time. And I can’t wait to eventually get some good use out of the afterlife of my ebooks, too.
What else is going on?
My longer-term client work is ongoing as usual, which is great. For a while now, that mostly means working with Stiftung Mercator‘s Digital Society program, the European AI & Society Fund and Sovereign Tech Fund, a German government program to strengthen public interest open source digital infrastructure ecosystems.
Early stage (dare I say stealth?) project Difficult Conversations is still, well, very early stage so I can’t share much. But it now lives in a Notion, and if that isn’t a sign of progress being made than I don’t know what is.
That said, I’m starting to roughly plan my capacities for 2024. If you want to explore working together in the coming year, now is hands down the best time to have a conversation and scope out if collaborating might be a good fit.
On that note, I wish you a brilliant rest of the week and talk soon.
Note: This is cross-posted from my newsletter in an attempt to both to make it easier to read this via RSS feed and to have this in my own independent archives. You can subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox.