Learning is Change

Go for a Walk

My nightly walk.

I have taken to walking our dog at night after the temperature dips just enough to make the evening air inviting. I started trying to listen to podcasts during my constitutional, but I found that I was just getting angry or tired, so I switched to music that I know and love.

As Petey or Bleachers or Ben Kweller blast in my headphones, I’m struck by just how incredible it is to feel in control of all of my limbs. To walk, to breathe, and to see the beauty that is all around me. Even if it is just suburbia. Even if the moment is politically fraught. Even if there are plenty of things to worry about in my family or my work. The nightly walk is enough.

It is enough to show me that there is still so much of existence that feels achingly perfect. I would say that it feels like a miracle, but I don’t believe in miracles. It is more than that. More than just some unexplainable mystery, it feels so quintessentially human. Like, I am most myself, most human while I am perambulating upon this small bit of soil.

And all I have to do is notice and appreciate. So I do.

The Path Not Taken

I am such an enormous fan of the work that John and Hank Green are doing to help democratize education. From Crash Course to Study Hall, they are constantly looking for ways to make engaging learning opportunities for the broadest group of people possible.

And then they drop something like this video. In it, Hank is interviewing another of the most prolific creators in the world of online video and fantasy storytelling, Brennan Lee Mulligan. But, the interview is mostly about the paths that Brennan took through his educational journey.

The best part about hearing this story is knowing just how unconventional it is, and yet just how successful he has become in spite of (or, because of) his unconventional approach to learning and growth. His story is deeply resonant. He was a precocious kid. He tried to power through his education and leverage the “official paths” laid out for him by others. But, he also started camps and led small groups of people in his roleplaying efforts. He interned and bartended. He won $50,000 on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” He started writing for one part of College Humor and then became a much bigger part of it.

It is the story of paths taken and choices made. He would do things differently if he could, but he doesn’t regret his choices. All of the things he has done up to this point have made him into the man he is today. That is a startlingly refreshing take.

We are all the sum total of our paths not taken. We have branched off infinitely until we find ourselves here. You don’t get to see what the other branches would have had in store for us, but we do get to enjoy the view from this idiosyncratic perch. It is a spot that no one else could have found. And it should be celebrated.

I encourage you to watch this interview and to understand that your journey is just as precarious as it is precious. You may not be Brennan Lee Mulligan, but you are someone with just as many decisions and just as many paths not taken. We should embrace the diversity of life within your own story, and we can learn as much as we can from others as we do so.

Summer Camp in 2024

Every summer, our children are out of school. And yet, I am not out of work over the summer. You can see the problem this poses for getting work done.

So, every summer, our kids are involved in various “camps” and “activities” that will help me to get work done. This summer is a little different because our 15 and 17 year old boys are both fully engaged by work (Lifeguard and Art Camp counselor, respectively). So, the only activities we must organize ourselves are camps for our 10 year old.

And wouldn’t you know it, he had some ideas about the kinds of camps he wanted this year. While there are still plenty of soccer, swimming, nature, and other sports camps. One of the activities that he is most excited about is a camp that is dedicated to playing Super Smash Bros. with other excited tweens.

So, I wanted to spend a little time reflecting upon that choice.

Super Smash Bros. is a game full of animated fighting that is anything but violent. It is silly. It is strange. But, most of all, it is entertaining. It is something that you can play or watch and enjoy just as much. It is fun to root for (or against!) your friends and it is easy to get caught up in the lore of each of the characters (of which many come from other Nintendo properties with huge followings).

For each day of this 5-day long camp, our 10-year-old plays a video game for three hours. It is something we would typically not do at home. While we don’t have hard and fast rules about screen time, we don’t tend to let any of our kids play video games for multiple hours in a row. And yet, I don’t have any issues with our son doing just that within this setting.

I think that is because of just how collaborative he is within this environment. Much like he is when he is playing soccer or jumping on a trampoline, he is almost constantly talking while he is playing the game. In fact, I observed a significant amount of conversation before, during, and after each match. There was good-natured trash talk and genuine question asking. There was competitive conversation and team-building words of encouragement. I believe this is why it makes sense for the camp to exist.

My 10 year old needs more opportunities to be with people he doesn’t (previously) know, engaged in a collaborative effort. That is the core of what a summer activity is all about, and this one fits the bill perfectly. The “screen time” required for the activity is superfluous. It is about the community that he has built that will last beyond the week. We know each of the kids usernames to keep it going even after the summer is over, which is not something I can say for any sports camp he has enjoyed.

Writing to Have Written

rewrite edit text on a typewriter
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

I deeply believe in the idea that no one actually wants to write a book.

They want to HAVE WRITTEN a book.

They want the destination more than the process. They want the comfort and resolution that comes from having completed the work. They do not revel the toil. They do not want the discomfort that comes from unresolved characters or un-researched topics.

And when I say them, I really mean me too. I too do not want the process to be so daunting and to cause so much frustration and to feel like it will never end. I too will shy away from large projects, knowing that they are very likely never to reach their conclusion.

And yet, the writing process is where the best bits of learning are. They it is were the most compelling art lives. It is also where the joy of figuring out who you are can be found. And so, I must trust that somewhere in there, a final work will reside. That there will be enough love and wonder and growth in the middle to help guide the way to the end.

You see: I am in process.

Of writing a book. Of starting a podcast. Of saving a marriage. Of going on international travel. Of building a life.

I want to HAVE LIVED. But, I also want to BE ALIVE.

Don’t Look Away.

I am glad that I don’t live in a war-zone. I’m glad that I cannot hear shelling outside of my home. I’m grateful that I am not packing up my family and having to travel across the border of my home nation to venture into a future that is completely uncertain, relying upon strangers for kindness and for life-giving aid.

It is my privilege to live in such a place: to be born into a insulated world in which war happens “somewhere else.”

Within that privilege, I have two options:

  1. To act as if everyone has my experience, as if the war either doesn’t exist or at the very least will not impact me directly. I can choose to turn away and ignore the war that has made millions of refugees and killed thousands of soldiers and civilians alike. I can choose, in my privilege, to devalue those lives and inflate my own worth as a result.
  2. I can look right into the heart of war and see my fellow humans being killed, understanding that I am them and they are me. I can make it known to others that I believe in solidarity and in the global community. I can choose, in my privilege, to use the power that has been given to me as a white, male, American to demand change, for justice in the face of war-crimes, and for peace for my family in Ukraine (whether a blood relation exists or not).

It may be rather obvious which one I would like to choose (hint: it is #2).

And yet, I find myself gravitating toward #1 throughout the day. I forget for whole minutes at a time that people are being killed around the clock. I find myself ignoring the full scope of the war and its immediate implications for whole continents of people. This is when my privilege shows most clearly, across my unbloodied clothes and powered and heated home.

So, how do I remind myself of the ongoing tragedy that must be grappled with? I look to those who are closest to the war, and I try to see what they see.

The best way I have found to do this is by following the Associated Press photography collections, which are now a daily set of the most important and powerful vignettes on the war and its immediate impacts upon the environment and the people of Ukraine.

While I am not entirely sure of the right way to cite these images (I’m linking and providing attribution), I will state from the outset that I am in no way claiming that they are mine. Rather, I am using them in order to not “look away.” I want to face these atrocities and use the power of these images to galvanize support for those uprooted by an unjust war.

Infrastructure is incredibly difficult to create, as it is a public good that can only be carried out by having the support the populace. And yet, anyone can destroy Infrastructure. You can take a country back to the 19th century in a hurry. Getting them to the 21st, is far harder

Death is inevitable. And yet, not like this. Watching the smoke billowing from someone else’s death (likely, many others) as you watch your own loved one be buried is an unfathomable reality.

All artifice is gone. These lives are laid bare, their appliances hanging on by their power cords. When Ginsberg wrote, “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs,” he did not mean for them to be blown apart by bombs. He was asking for us to open ourselves up to what happens when we get rid of these barriers between us. And yet, all that I see when we blow up these barriers is that we are all vulnerable and lost. That is the difference between the empowerment Ginsburg spoke of and the oppression that Putin offers.

This life matters, too. She isn’t just a casualty of war. She had a whole other life, one filled with purpose. And now, it has been cut short. But, that is too passive to describe the tragedy of her death. She was killed by men who believe she is the price to pay for conquest.

The price is too high.

Formal education stops in a war-zone. Kids still learn things (see below), but they do not learn what their teachers intended or even what they wanted. Children want safety and to be nurtured in their curiosity. These children will receive neither. They are not less deserving than your children.

This is the first war for which I have seen cell phone videos and photos. Clearly, other wars have featured these pervasive devices, but I have not been privy to them. The juxtaposition of the modern technology in the palm of your hand while the whole world is crumbling around you is astounding.

Steve Jobs famously said that computers are like a “Bicycle for the mind.” And yet, when all you have left is a bicycle and riding has become treacherous, you walk beside it or carry it along. It is no longer a means of conveyance when the world has crashed down around you. We should be able to ride our bicycles down the street. We should be able to put our “bicycles for the mind” to the collective effort of ensuring that everyone can do just that.

Children will sleep through pretty much anything, including war. We, however, cannot sleep through this.

I hate guns. I hate what they can do and I hate what they represent. And yet, in this environment, guns are a practical tool for survival. This child is learning that first-hand. It isn’t okay.

You can hold a portal to the world in your hands. You can grasp freedom through the screen. You can connect with those who want to help, and those who wish you harm. These tools have made the war possible. These tools are the ones that will end the war too.

We haven’t figure out how to use our phones yet, at least not really. We haven’t figured out how the internet will bring us back from this, but I trust that the medium that let’s us share the truth in black and white and lies in technicolor will be the same one that holds a mirror up to ourselves. We will see who we are, and whether or not we are worth saving.

What did he die for? What will his death mean to us?

I hope it will mean not looking away. I hope it will mean that we will amplify his death until it is a cacophony of pain and righteous anger, too loud to ignore. I hope it will mean we stop allowing power-hungry leaders to dictate the terms of survival and society. I hope it means we are all going to choose option #2.

The Best Case Scenario

I heard multiple experts this weekend proclaiming that a “tactical nuclear weapon” was a likely outcome for Putin, especially if he believes he is losing the war in Ukraine. There was a fire at the largest nuclear power plant in Europe after Putin’s forces attacked it. More than 1.5 million people have fled the war zone and are now refugees in need of care and protection. These are the terrifying realities of a global war that will impact us whether we like it or not. But, wars are not merely made up of worst case scenarios and doomsday proclamations.

Rather, the war in Ukraine has fundamentally reorganized power structures that were long entrenched, causing thousands to protest against injustice and the lack of a voice in the political machinations of their homeland. It has presented models of modern leadership to the world that have inspired both support and solidarity. It has spurred multiple nations to apply for inclusion in the European Union, building a stronger international coalition for combatting economic and political upheaval. These are all reminders that any conflict is a mixed bag of fear-inducing realities and hope-inspiring reactions.

But, what if modern war took a different middle path? What if instead of leaning heavily into fear of nuclear fallout, we came together and saw the way modern society, accelerated by democratizing technology, has re-engineered what was possible to build during a time of war? What if the best case scenario were on the table, if we only could articulate it and start to pursue it together?

So, I wanted to take a stab at laying out the Case, the Best Case for how this war might progress. I don’t know that we will get everything on this list, but if others are laying out the case for Nuclear war, perhaps there is room for a counter argument, an anti-totalitarian future with both shared wins and shared sacrifice.

The tenets of The Best Case Scenario resulting from the War in Ukraine:

  • We learn from our whole, unvarnished, history.
    • We don’t try to ban books or teaching certain subjects that make some uncomfortable. We don’t try to whitewash wars or use whataboutism to justify our own actions. We embrace the messy negotiations of progress and help to build a more equitable world.
  • Our strength comes from sustained collective action, not isolation and handwringing.
    • The collective action of supporting Ukrainian civilians has been inspiring. We must have the resolve to sustain that action. We must build upon temporary humanitarian action with systems to support democracies and fledgling movements toward freedom. It is not enough to simply stop a war. We are in a global community. Isolation is impossible.
  • Telling the truth to one another is the hallmark of both our personal and political discourse.
    • We all make decisions based upon the information at our disposal. And yet, some information is demonstrably false. We must be open to being wrong, to changing our minds, and to correcting the record when we find ourselves lacking. We must be honest about who we are and what we want. It is the only way forward.
  • We protect the vulnerable, using Empathy without the need for Affinity.
    • The stories of non-white refugees from Ukraine being turned away (or having extremely long wait times) from the borders of neighboring countries are heartbreaking and totally expected. And yet, Empathy is available for all. For Roma, for Africans, and for all foreign born Ukrainians. We don’t need to see ourselves in those seeking refuge. We must simply see humanity and know that we must act.
  • Our agility of decision-making is not hampered by infighting. We pull in the same direction because our broad interests and values have the power to unify.
    • War is wrong. Killing, especially for such a terrible reason as annexing a sovereign country, is never justified. Surely, that can bind us together. And while we are together, we must agree on the other values of freedom and democracy for all. Our disagreements about how to support should not stop us from supporting at all.
  • Coalition building is not weakness and Tyranny is not strength.
    • The world has come together in opposition to Russia and in support of a caring leader who will not leave his people. We can no longer hold “strong men” up as the model to emulate. It is an outdated and immoral way to govern. Let’s move away from it with every step we take.
  • Our policies meet the moment, for both the urgent and the globally important.
    • Higher gas prices are one of the hallmarks of high demand and low supply. We cannot solve the problem of lack of access to cheap energy by leaning into the system that has gotten us here. We must solve for global war and for global warming. It is not either/or, it is both/and.
  • Mutually-assured prosperity is our daily practice.
    • Nuclear war is not inevitable. Neither is kindness. If both are a choice, why would we choose destruction? Why would we go out of our way to create these artificial barriers between us? Why would we allow ourselves to hate when we have better options available?

I know this is an extremely tall order, and I don’t think this Best Case Scenario is the obvious result of the war. And yet, when I see the world rally together in a matter of weeks to dismantle a dictator and aid an ally, I see what is possible. It must also be possible to come together for more than just stopping a war, though. It must be possible to come together for the sake of one another.

The world order that existed on February 23, 2022 no longer exists.

There is a new one being created right now. Let’s make it better. Let’s try for The Best Case Scenario.

The Best Video Essays of All Time (IMO)

The video essay is not a brand new art form and it wasn’t created from scratch by YouTube’s algorithmic interest in long-form video that increases “watch time.” People have been constructing commentaries on popular culture and on “important works of art” since there was culture popular enough to be commented upon by others. And yet, the video essay as it exists today has grown into a community of thinkers and writers who have transformed the consumption of media into an urgent and participatory act.

As one Wellesley College film studies course puts it, the Video Essay is the result of the following process:

  1. The student watches an audio-visual artifact, a film;
    • [Or book, piece of news media, poem, painting, etc.]
  2. She then reads [more] about it, discusses it with her peers and the professor in class [or people online]; and this ‘translates’ the experience of film watching into a verbal register;
    • [i.e., speaking her own opinions to others about the work]
  3. In the wake of her readings and discussions, the student then writes a script of sorts where she envisions arguing AUDIOVISUALLY the points she would argue in a conventional paper. This in turn forces her to to foresee how to couch verbal arguments within an audio-visual format;
    • [It is the audio and visual elements that do a great deal of the persuasion and therefore, it isn’t just coming up with the argument, but rather coming up with the plan for how the argument will be laid out visually to achieve the greatest impact.]
  4. The student then selects the images she needs to substantiate her argument and transfers them into an editing application
    • [These visual elements can be direct references of the work itself or entirely new visuals and audio elements that help to prove her point or further make meaning for her audience.]
  5. A dialogical process of a peculiar kind then must take place, namely the process of going back and forth between the written script with its logically formulated ideas and its ideal translation into another ‘idiom,’ that of audio-visuality. Words and ideas must somehow be transmuted into images and sounds, inter-titles and voice-overs, musical soundtracks and split-screens for comparison purposes. It is an INTERMEDIAL exercise that forces the student’s mind to shuttle back and forth between two forms of communication, two forms of thinking, thus proving that the moving image is a form-that-thinks.
    • [Such a process is the modern act of responding to digital media, and is therefore the primary tool we have for understanding our world.]

I believe that this process of observing, reacting with others, building a cohesive thought, gathering media to prove that thought, and then creating a trans-media representation of that thought is the work not just of Video Essayists. Rather, it is the work of meme artists, of journalists, of TikTok personalities, and of every person on social media that is attempting to understand the barrage of information that is too voluminous to understand without some kind of means to process it.

Video essays are just the purest form of this way of understanding, and I love them for that. I love watching the finished product of this process. It is simultaneously poignant and persuasive. It causes me to see the original artwork or moment in time that is being commented upon as having context. It encourages me to see the world more complexly and be okay with the muddy nature of modern society. The Video Essay is, for lack of a better term, truly modern art. Sure, it might be post-post-modern too, but given that it is the process we are all doing as a natural part of our day as consumers of content and “havers of opinions,” I want to celebrate the Video Essay as the Art Form of Now.

And these are my favorite representations of Now:

Spaceship YouCGP Grey created this Video Essay in direct response to the initial lockdown orders and the feeling of anchorlessness that many felt in their wake. The media that Spaceship You was commenting on was ‘the whole of society’ needing to reorganize itself around a new problem, the ongoing and ever worsening pandemic. It was a critique of ”survival skills” that were for a different era. We didn’t need to know how to stock up on food or prepare for the oncoming apocalypse. Rather, we needed a way to deal with the onslaught of bad news of 2020 and the isolation that social distancing ensured. In that way, Spaceship You is a time capsule of a Video Essay. It was critiquing a moment in time, but the lessons of what we learned in the early pandemic I believe will far outlast our memory of staying home, ordering in, and generally trying to wait out the worst of the unknown.

If There Are No Pics, Did It Happen? – Until Idea Channel stopped posting new videos in 2017, it was reliably one of the best places to find new Video Essays which critiqued the exact kinds of things I was most interested in: the ways in which the internet has influenced our society. Whether that was critiquing post-modern masterpieces like Community or simply questioning one of the internet’s strongest beliefs (pics or it didn’t happen), Mike Rugnetta built a strong approach toward questioning the media landscape. In this particular piece, he helps us all to question our need to validate our own experiences with pictures and our further need to share them with others to prove that we are worthy of love and attention.

In Search of a Flat Earth – In my favorite example of a Video Essay that claims to be about one thing (flat earthers), while really being about something entirely different (Qanon ideology), Dan Olson expertly builds the case that the Qanon community is, in their own incomprehensible way, trying to make sense of the complexity of modern life. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I can unequivocally state that the final line in the video is the most satisfying conclusion to any video essay. There isn’t any other work that earns “the prestige” more than this does. Please watch.

The Cruel Optimism of Steven Pinker – There is nothing quite like a Video Essay for helping to re-contextualize an author or a work in a brand new way. For me, there is no better representation of this than the way I have come to understand Steven Pinker after watching this work of scathing critique.

Auld Lang Syne: The Anthropocene Reviewed – Seeing as how this podcast-turned-book (The Anthropocene Reviewed) was literally written as a series of essays, it is hard to frame this as a true “Video Essay.” However, I believe that the way this essay comments on a piece of media, the classic song Auld Lang Syne, demonstrates just how adaptable this model of modern critique can be. We can comment on the despair of the world while still bringing hope to the table. Definitely worth a watch/listen.

Why is Gen Z Humor So Weird? – While I do not believe the humor is strictly generational, this video essay makes the case that the always-on nature of the ways Gen Z grew up have made for a distinct brand of humor that is both post-ironic and self-referential. By watching this, I became for more adept at understanding my children’s preferred method of simply repeating lines from the most ridiculous TikTok video they can find.

Sony MiniDisc: The (Not) Forgotten Audio Format That (Never) Failed – As you can tell by the title, this video essay is attempting to reframe a technology in our collective consciousness. Rather than commenting on a particular piece of media, this style of video is rather digging into the media format itself. I find these deep dives into our past (whether you personally experienced MiniDisc or not) and seeing what it might mean for modern life to be entirely satisfying. Your mileage may vary depending on your ability to get past some of the nerdier bits.

Wes Anderson: Breaking Formality | Deconstructing Funny – I feel like Wes Anderson is a filmmaker built for the Video Essay. His particular style of ”everything just right” is exactly what a video essayist is trying to construct in their argument. In this video, though, we go deeper and try to understand the ways in which Anderson uses juxtaposition of order and chaos to create humor. It is an attempt to appreciate the media through a different lens, and it is effective in its precision for doing so.

Human Test Regarding Your Creativity – No list of Video Essays would be complete without at least one entry for Ze Frank. As the ”grandfather of online video,” his work played a pivotal role in forging what Video Essays could become. In this instance, he critiques the very notion of creativity and what it means to be human. Ze Frank places seemingly nonsensical images next to incredibly earnest questions. It is partially existential yearning and partially a description of everyday life. Minus the small ad for coffee in the middle, it is a perfect Video Essay filled with nothing but questions that seemingly make more of a statement than stating the conclusion outright would.

What This Photo Doesn’t Show – While not technically another John Green video, it does feature his wonderful and resonant voice for social critique. This video takes a photographic work of art and explodes it so that we can see the true context in which it was created. This historical approach is not always present in Video Essays, but I appreciate the level of depth that it requires.

The Absolute Pleasure of the Rocky Horror Picture Show – Queer theory and critique is a rich vein of media criticism that is only aided by modern Video Essay conventions. Matt Baume’s understanding of Camp and his ability to create narrative significance around touchstone media for the queer community is on full display here. If you have never really understood “Rocky Horror” or its importance to ‘weirdos, goths, and other alternative types’ of kids, this is for you.

The Yellow Wallpaper: Crash Course Literature 407 – I could probably include all of the Crash Course as examples of ‘Peak Video Essay,’ but I am particularly drawn to Crash Course Literature because of my own affinity for literary criticism. The Yellow Wallpaper had a strong impact on me when I first read it, as I was looking for feminist works to help understand my world and the patriarchal structures that are ever-present. This Crash Course episode dives into some of the historical context for why this short story (of a bed-ridden woman who questions her sanity as she is forced to stay in a single room) was so important. Also, it is another way that I can sneak John Green into this list.

Tragedy In Comedy: Unraveling The Genius of Bo Burnham – Before Burnham’s pandemic masterpiece, Inside, was released in May of 2021, Bo Burnham’s genius was not yet well established. This Video Essay changed that for me. It let me understand where Burnham was headed, and just how impressive his type of introspection and “reflective practice” can be. Even though the video looks a little dated with inclusions of Louis CK as “establishing shots” for a type of comedian who pushes boundaries, the essay quickly moves on to what make Burnham such a unique voice. Ultimately it is a critique of modern culture, which any good Video Essay should be.

I Can’t Stop Watching Contagion – In the early parts of the pandemic, I felt absolutely trapped by the existential dread of knowing the world I knew was collapsing in on itself. I felt like all I could do was refresh twitter and watch movies. This is a very real representation of this time period, and is the best way I have found of understanding just what it was like in those initial moments. They feel so far away now in March of 2022, but in March of 2020, we knew nothing. We had no idea how bad things were going to get, and the only thing we could do is to watch Contagion and try to understand our mortality. Whenever I need a reminder of just how scared we all were, I watch this. And yes, I need to be reminded of it, because the “raw nerve” that the pandemic exposed is still very much there.

The Social Network: Sorkin, Structure, and Collaboration – This video essay is one of my favorite examples of the genre because of the direction of the first scene of the movie. It lays out the ways in which Sorkin’s writing, Eisenberg’s acting, and the college culture of the early 2000s became a perfect match for one another, making meaning out of an incredibly mundane conversation. In long works of video essay, you can forget single lines pretty easily. But, by studying the text in such great depth, as if it were poem, there is far more that can be understood about just why this white college-dropout would change the world.

Find the Hidden Opportunities – John Spencer is one of the only educators I know who understands video essays and their power. He has made visual storytelling into a teaching tool and one that resonates far beyond the confines of his own classrooms. His style of using hand drawn visuals mixed in with video excerpts shows that we are not limited to filming our critiques. We can comment on the world around us (or our given vocation) with whatever tools best suit us.

Casey Neistat: What You Don’t See – One of the best Video Essayists of all time is Casey Neistat. Although he would probably argue that his videos, when he was still making them regularly, were Vlogs. He even talks about them as Daily Vlogs much of the time. And yet, when you look at the vast majority of what he has made since March 2015, they are little movies. They are explainers of this life and of the world around him. They are critiques of his city and of the police. They are deep dives into the world of technology and the impact of wealth upon all parts of the art-making process. And the below video essay goes into all of that, but better, because it wasn’t made by Casey Neistat. Rather, it is done by one of my other favorite Video Essayists, The Nerdwriter. By having the distance that this Video Essay about a Video Essayist creates, you can actually appreciate the craft of both far more easily.

Additional Master Works of Video Essay:

Now that you have read a few hundred words on my favorite Video Essays and perhaps even watched a few of them, it is time to explore your own reactions to the media that saturates our world. Now, I’m not recommending that you hone your own video creation skills for years before releasing your own masterpiece of video essay. Rather, I am advocating that you make memes or share gifs or write blog posts or do something else that is, in fact, the same act of creation that video essayists do. I am saying that you are already a video essayist. You are already critiquing the movies you have seen or the books that you have read. You are a pioneer of the modern internet, and you are making meaning however you can.

But, I want you to keep going, and to feel like you are a part of this broader movement toward all of us making things as we consume. We are not merely consumers of media, we are makers of it, too. And the sooner we recognize that, the better stories we will be able to tell and the more sophisticated our understanding of the world will become.

So, as I said in 2014: We should tell the stories of us. In any way that we know how. And all of us, now, know video essays and we have the tools to create them, in our pockets.

[FYI, if you want to watch all 40 of these amazing video essays as a single playlist, here it is.]

I am a Crypto and Blockchain Luddite.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the industrialization of textile equipment allowed for cheaper production of clothing and disempowerment of skilled craftspeople across the industry. In the face of losing their livelihood to automated textile production technologies, the Luddites fought back. They fought for better working conditions in factories and they fought for a return to a pre-industrial era. They are known for “Machine-breaking” which was outlawed in the early 19th century as a way to ensure the Luddite movement would have severe consequences (death, in many cases).

And yet, many have noted that the Luddites were not actually anti-technology or anti-progress. Rather, they were against the poor treatment of workers and the deterioration of working conditions in the factories that implemented these technologies. They wanted high-paying jobs and skilled work for continuing to make high-quality goods. They rightly saw the “race to the bottom” for textile production (making the cheapest possible shirt, for example) was beneficial only for those who owned the factories and not for those who worked in those factories.

The Luddites were for a concept of “fair profit” in which the increase in profits from the efficiency gains of technology would be widely shared with the workers as a kind of moral imperative. They believed it was “good” for the wealth and productivity gains of industrialization to make positive change for the lives of more people and it was “bad” for those gains to have a negative impact on society by concentrating wealth in the hands of a few industrialists who, in many cases, already had the benefit of generational wealth.

Ultimately, the Luddites were defeated, as they lacked political power and the money from industrialized production easily outweighed the poor workers that were displaced by the advanced machinery. And yet, the concept of a “minimum wage” and worker’s rights continued to have an impact across multiple industry modernization efforts. Their movement was not successful in finding a way back to high-paying jobs for thousands of skilled handloom weavers, but their fight was an important one for how we understand the power technology and “progress” can have on our lives.

And perhaps, I am starting to see a movement toward a new kind of Ludditism, a new fight for the future of how money is made and who gets to control it. I believe the new fight is with Crypto and Blockchain technologies. And this time, the Luddites are going to win.

For the past few years, I had been cautiously optimistic about how blockchain technology might be beneficial for education. I was listening to folks in the Office of Educational Technology (in the US Dept. of Education) about their Education Blockchain Initiative which seeks to subvert traditional educational models in favor of transactional and credential-able learning outcomes.

I was enamored by the idea of easily transferable credentials that would not have to be verified by a single arbiter of education (a school, a business, a government entity, etc.), but would rather be verified by the whole system of learning that we had all agreed to govern the process (a distributed ledger of all learning!).

I was further excited by the idea of student ownership for their learning data and that future versions of student profiles could have their entire portfolio of learning objects stored “on the blockchain” which would allow for better reflection and demonstration of competency and progress.

And when strong and inclusive Community structures for learning became a part of the blockchain ecosystem, my head started spinning with possibility for what it could mean for educational institutions and individuals who are passionate about bringing people together to do important work (like solving for the climate crisis or creating a more equitable society).

Just imagine if you could hold “a token,” or key, to all of the resources you might need for your learning. Imagine that token was your identity and it could contain or provide access to your transcript, your job history, your “learning transactions,” and all of your assignments in an immutable ledger that requires significant storage space and computing power to add things or build upon.

And while I was continuing my cautious optimism about the ideas or the future of blockchain, crypto.com was buying stadium naming rights and Matt Damon started telling the world that investing in crypto was going to be the new frontier and we better get on board or we will be left behind (or worse, poor). The things that were actually the here and now of blockchain, the things actually being done with it in 2016-2022, were kind of terrible.

But, all of these important “caveats” of blockchain were somehow dismissed as either “beside the point” or were not about The Future, which was obviously going to be awesome! And then I watched this video from Folding Ideas (Dan Olson):

I fully understand that you may not have the time to watch this documentary length YouTube video, but you should. You should take one of the times you would otherwise watch a movie and watch this instead. It is that good. Oh, and after watching it, there is a high likelihood that you will start to see all of the complaints about Blockchain, Crypto, and NFTs as just the opening gambit for the full truckload of terribleness that is the grift-laden blockchain hype machine.

But, in case you don’t have the time to sit down for the full video, here are a few summarized highlights that I found compelling (with linked timecodes):

  • Blockchain projects (especially those around NFTs, Cryptocurrency, or gaining access to something via ownership) are inherently a “Greater Fool” scam in which the early adopters and hype-based promoters are rewarded and later adherents receive diminishing returns (38:51).
  • The security of blockchain is laughable and the privacy of blockchain transactions is almost nonexistent (81:00 and 85:41).
  • NFT’s (and all blockchain data) only “point to” the resource/image/asset being sold, and therefore manipulation of the NFT is as trivial as changing what the URL resolves to and the assets are infinitely copyable and can be “owned” on as many blockchains as can be created (46:47).
  • One of the primary (although, unstated) goals of blockchain technology is to “tokenize everything,” making everything into a stock market that can be speculated upon (94:48).
  • Organizations (like labor unions, communities of practice, schools, etc.) are too complex to be represented in code as a DAO and any of the claimed benefits (efficient bookkeeping, improved asset management, etc.) can already be done by faster technologies at a fraction of the price of running transactions on a blockchain (123:54).
  • The “winners” of Crypto and blockchain projects are the same “winners” we have in more traditional financial instruments and that is why they so closely mimic the financial bubbles (and busts) of the past rather than representing a brave new world of commerce (75:16).
  • Putting all of your records (passwords, credit card info, your social media profiles, etc.) into an identity on the blockchain creates a single, easily decipherable and socially engineered, point of failure that is not only impractical but has demonstrated to be an easy target for would-be thieves (80:25).
  • Deflationary assets (in particular, currencies) punish the actual use of those assets, as there will never be more “tokens” or “coins” and so holding on to them is the only way to guarantee you “win” (meaning, can sell them tomorrow for more than they were worth yesterday). This means that the Crypto becomes essentially useless for tasks other than speculation (112:06).
  • While decentralization has been sold as a core tenet of blockchain technology, the power over much of the “network” is concentrated in a very small number of people’s/company’s hands, and those people are not interested in further democratizing the internet (114:19).
  • The power consumption for blockchain technology is entirely unnecessary, as the vast majority of the power needed is consumed doing duplicate work for verifying transactions (15:52).

I could continue to list all of the persuasive things in Dan Olsen’s video essay, but I feel as though it would just be piling on. By this point, you should recognize that Blockchain technology is bad at what it claims to do well: propose a viable alternative for economic institutions and transactions and way forward for building lasting and meaningful social institutions. You should also see that in attempting to solve for non-existent problems like man-in-the-middle attacks (31:15) or previously solved problems like conducting straw polls (125:20), it creates far worse problems for pretty much everyone involved (136:09).

This is why I am now a Crypto and Blockchain Luddite.

It isn’t enough to write snarky jokes on Twitter about Blockchain projects or do important think pieces about why paying more than a million dollars for a meme is a terrible idea. We must actively engage in “Machine-Breaking.” We must dismantle the incentives for folks to create more and more “Greater Fools.” We must not listen to the celebrity endorsements or the promises of large windfalls just over the horizon. We must not wait and see what the future of Blockchain technology holds. It is here now and no amount of hype is going to make the fundamental flaws in the technology go away.

But, what does a Blockchain Luddite believe? I have a few thoughts:

  1. I believe in hard work over inscrutable schemes.
  2. I believe in people and transparent processes over code and immutable ledgers.
  3. I believe in shared ownership of ideas and power over individual gains and concentrated wealth.
  4. I believe in equity and inquiry over toxic positivity and a hype machine.
  5. I believe in sustained progress toward a better future over techno-futurists’ quick fixes.
  6. I believe in building trust in and with others over creating trust-less systems.

And what can a Blockchain Luddite do to make sure that this kind of technology does not become the backbone of our economy, politics, or education?

  1. Invest in local solutions to local issues. This includes investing in and supporting public schools, independent journalism, and technologies/companies that honor and value people.
  2. Fight back against the hype machine wherever it presents itself. Whenever someone “makes a good point” about Crypto solving a problem (or potentially solving a problem in the future), ask if that problem could be solved better without blockchain technology. Ask if those who are “getting in now” are having the same opportunity as those who “got in” days, weeks, or months prior.
  3. Do not buy Cryptocoins, NFTs, or other technologies that are based upon the Blockchain. If we do not provide more “Greater Fools,” the speculative markets will collapse.
  4. Make cool things that do not leverage append-only ledger technologies or trust-less networks. Make privacy-focused opportunities for innovation. Bake equity into your technology and your organizations.

With all of this said, I do not claim to have a special kind of knowledge about the future (or the past for that matter). I am a technologist and an inquirer. I make observations based upon the information in front of me and what I can learn from others who have done the same. So, even if you aren’t ready to join me in becoming a Blockchain Luddite, I encourage you to read widely on the subject and make financial and technological decisions based upon your values and your understanding. That is the best that any of us can do.

If, on the other hand, you are ready to make Regular Progress that is not built upon the Blockchain, I’m attempting to forge a new community of people here to do just that. Blockchain Luddites of the world, unite!

Violence is not Dissent

Language is powerful. It has the ability to make us cry or move us to action in an instant. A few words, when written out and written on paper or pumped into our eyeballs on a screen can inspire a generation or topple a government. And because the cost of “printing” those words has gone through the floor, we no longer understand what they are capable of, what we are capable of when we use words to threaten or advocate violence.

A tweet is ephemeral. A text takes almost no thought whatsoever. A message posted to a private facebook group or the local Nextdoor community is habitual. Even, a letter sent to someone’s house after they have been doxxed is barely harder after you have been given the words to say by “your team.” We may not be inoculating ourselves to deadly viruses at the rate that will allow us to leave them behind, but we are all inoculated to language. It is around us in every moment, barely registering. Written language is water.

It is just that some of it has been poisoned.

Even though these poisoned words may cost us nothing, we must remember that they can cost others everything.

Our words:

And to what end?

What does winning look like for those who are advocating violence? Is it to live in a society where there are only those who believe as you do? Is it to have a single vision of education, politics, and the social order?

It seems now that we have ratcheted up the stakes so high that every message sent is kill or be killed. But, that isn’t all that language is for. We can speak to inspire, to create, or to empower. We can write to create opportunities for ourselves and others. We can entertain or wonder aloud. And yes, we can also dissent.

But violence is not dissent. It is not speech of any kind. In fact, it is the limiting of speech. It is making sure that others know that speech is meaningless. At least that is what it has become. For if the words you write into the little Facebook field don’t mean anything, you can say whatever you want and feel no remorse for death threats. You can keep encouraging one another to feel more and more aggrieved so that you feel justified in posting noose iconography. You can make others feel unwelcome and unsafe.

But, this is not where it ends. When words lose their meaning, violence is all we have left. And even if it isn’t dissent, it is still incredibly scary. For those of us for whom words still have meaning, we know what is coming. While it may have been true once that the pen was mightier than the sword, by making the pen impotent many feel as though the sword is all they have left.

Community Rules

I joined Twitter in March of 2007. In the five thousand four hundred and forty-six days since then, I have tweeted nearly 19,000 times. That is a lot of words to put out into the world. The question you might ask yourself is, “Why?”

What is it about Twitter that continues to hold my attention? Why have I invested so much of my precious time on this earth in writing a few words or sharing a few links with a seemingly indifferent internet populous?

Even though much of Twitter is wholly uninteresting, hateful, or even toxic, I can honestly say that the reason I keep coming back to the service after all of these years is the community that I find there. I can say this without a hint of irony about the same Twitter that empowered much of this country’s worst instincts. I can say this because I mean something very specific by Community.

For me, Community is not a hashtag to be thrown around or painted with a broad brush. A community serves a function.

A community:

  1. Provides value to its members (although not the same value for each member).
    • I laugh frequently after reading what others have posted. I am inspired and I am angry. I am moved to action. I read and learn about new ideas. I get outside of my own little bubble of the world. The value I derive on one day is not the same as any other day. My value is not universal. It is personal.
  2. Is made up of a diverse and ever-changing group of people.
    • I have mass-unfollowed everyone a half-dozen times over the last 14 years. Each time, I build a new group of individuals, sometimes political, sometimes personal, and sometimes professional. With as many types of people there are in the world, I have yet to find the end to the variation. It is incredible.
  3. Receives contributions from its members based upon their varied lived experience and cultural backgrounds.
    • I want to learn from others who are different than me. Collectively, we know far more than we could ever know individually. I will likely never live in Paris nor will I ever know what it means to grow up Black in a Southern state. On Twitter, I can learn from both experiences. And that is the contribution they give to the community: the gravity of their own lives.
  4. Has a common language that is always adding new words, memes, and touchstone moments.
    • We didn’t always have retweets, hashtags, or @ mentions. We didn’t always know how to thread conversations together. These things have grown up because we needed a reason for them to exist. Their reason is community, and that shared understanding of the platform helps to build deeper connections.
  5. Has a shared self-selected purpose, even if that purpose only lasts for the duration of a single afternoon.
    • Many of us use twitter to comment on the world around us. When we are in a shared moment (a major world event, a political movement, etc.), we can engage in the same conversation. We amplify and build upon one another’s voices. This is a shared purpose, even if it is just a 3 hour football game.
  6. Contributes to a larger public conversation.
    • One of the most important aspects of Twitter is that Tweets (for the most part) are publicly available and publicly searchable. It is the opposite of Facebook groups and pages because those spaces let anyone hide behind the garden walls. When people share on Twitter, they are speaking in public. And, that let’s us learn from anyone.

And yet, the same things that make this Twitter community so strong are the things that make it amorphous and often unfulfilling. The concept that “anyone can tweet” presents a challenge for maintaining long-running conversations or building deeper bonds within a community. Ideas can be co-opted or hijacked in an instant, and until now, Twitter has lacked the tools to fight against the base instincts of an internet mob.

But, that may be changing.

Yesterday, I was invited to take part in the Twitter Communities beta. This means that I can now have a space (exactly one, actually) with a set of community rules and a shared understanding for what should happen there. These are the ones that I came up with:

While these may change over time as the community grows, these were my first instincts for how to create a space that is only the best of what Twitter has to offer. And when I finally created the “Regular Progress” community, it felt like I was getting back what it felt like to scream into the void in 2007 and have a dozen or so strangers respond.

I wonder if you might like to join me there. Maybe you too would like to help “Chronicle the Regular Progress we are all making, whether that is in parenting, politics, or personal growth.”

We aren’t just going to share #wins, but also what we have learned from our losses. We are going to be real, whole, human beings in this space, and I would love for you to take part. And I hope, after spending some time there and sharing your progress, you will come to believe what I do about Twitter: Community Rules.