Interview Roundup

With all the big tech firms testifying this week in front of Congress, there have been a lot of new, big media stories about Facebook and-- as many journalists have asked me-- "what to do" about it. I spoke to Max Read at New York Magazine for this terrific story about Facebook's epic and unsettling power, and gave a comment to the New York Times for this piece on "How to Fix Facebook."

The quote I gave to the New York Times is about what I actually wish I could have: a "vintage Facebook" setting, circa 2008 or so. I wouldn't be surprised if something like this exists on the internal servers, hacked together by some engineers to run 2007 code. Facebook was so clean-looking then, without like buttons or large Promoted stories. Lots of white space and simple fonts. To have a version of Facebook like that to toggle to in 2017 would be so refreshing.

R.I.P. The Virgin America Era

When I heard that Virgin America was being entirely folded into Alaska Airlines as part of the airline's acquisition, I actually felt a bit choked up. I hadn't expected to get emotional over an airline, especially one I hadn't flown since 2011 (I stopped flying the airline when I moved away from its hubs). Why do I care enough about Virgin America to shed a tear over its passing? I had to ask myself, not having been previously aware that I cared so much.

Miss u

Miss u

My nostalgia for Virgin America has to do with a general nostalgia for what, as we recede further away from it, has become distinct in my mind as a kind of primitive accumulation period for today's culture: the late 2000s, which defined the next decade's worth of tastes but did so before they were entirely mainstreamed and capitalized. Virgin America launched in 2007 as something that seems kind of unimaginable now, ten years later: a luxurious, modern product for regular people. Today, anything that is self-consciously luxurious or modern is also self-consciously expensive: the expense has become part of the product, a guarantee that you are buying something higher end. Even regular venues like bars and pubs, that used to be self-consciously affordable, are now self-consciously pricey. Now we have the "gastropub" where fish and chips cost over $20 and beers have pedigrees. Spending money has itself seemed to become a kind of aspirational experience, a form of self-expression. 

It is no wonder then that Virgin America circa 2007 wouldn't make any sense now: you could fly from San Francisco to San Diego nonstop for $60 some days, in a clean and modern plane with leather-esque seats, drinking reasonably priced drinks, served by friendly and helpful flight attendants. The planes were full of young-ish people going somewhere fun, but the word "millennial" wasn't in heavy rotation yet and so the planes didn't feel like they were pens for some social media marketer's captive focus group. Simple luxury and value coexisted on Virgin America in the early years in a way no chief executive would allow today.

The luxuries that Virgin America offered to the customer-- clean space, comfort, efficiency-- can be had in 2017, but you have to pay a premium for them, because these days cleanliness and comfort are premium products. Virgin America, then, was a bright, shiny last glimpse of an America where every passenger could hope to be relatively comfortable-- just before the post 2008 economic rails diverged drastically into "private jet/first class" and "basic economy class".  Virgin America's dissolution, then, makes perfect if depressing sense, and this is also why the shiny red and white planes seem so cheerful and rare in retrospect. We'll miss u, Virgin America. 

On incoming book queries

I’m getting a fair few queries from reporters lately about the book I wrote in 2012, The Boy Kings, which is about a heady time in the history of technology-- the years 2005-2010 at Facebook. These were intense, fascinating, thought-provoking years for me and for the company and-- despite the fact that every tech company says this-- it was a time and a place that truly, deeply ended up changing the world. As a longtime writer* I wrote about these years in order to describe the issues of power in technology that have only become more pressing in the years since. 

If you are a reporter contacting me because you are interested in my thoughts on that time or about the book itself, I recommend reading it first before asking for comment, as many of the answers to your questions are contained in the text. I loved writing about that moment in technology and since then, I have loved hearing from readers about how the book has made them think— whether about tech culture, life in tech, or their own feelings about technology. This is/was the book’s purpose, and so I’ll let it speak for me, as it was intended.

Yours truly, 


*I am currently writing mostly about design/tech/culture for various publications, and prior to Facebook I was writing a thesis at Johns Hopkins about the U.S. literary reception of totalitarianism in the 1960s. 

I found a modernist Walmart

My favorite thing about traveling is discovering interesting, unexpected architecture, and this modernist Walmart has to be one of the most surprising structures I've ever found in the course of walking around a city. The Mérida Walmart is gorgeous imo, with a beautiful breezeway composed of green metal geometric screens and an elegant curved facade. There's even an artist's placard in front.

Modernist Walmart is weird because Walmart in the United States is the epitome of the worst architecture: it is literally a Big Box, so much so that Big Box is the name of the style of architecture that houses stores like Walmart. Is Walmart secretly making beautiful modernist buildings elsewhere in the world and Americans just don't know about them? Why aren't there any modernist Walmarts in the United States? Why is Big Box a thing if a Walmart can also look like this? So weird to enter the alternate Walmart world. Click the photo above for more photos.

Design After Trump: Is Viral American Design Over?

While news and social media buzzes with questions about the future under the Trump administration, I'm also wondering about something less anxiety-inducing: where design will go in the next four years. I like to think about designed spaces as social ways of managing desire and feeling. One of the most interesting design phenomenon this decade was watching one version of American style-- minimalist homestead-- rise and replicate itself across the world. The reclaimed wood style was about managing a rapid transformation to a tech-dominated lifestyle by decorating it in historical references to an iconic American authenticity hewn of rough planks, vintage trim, and farm-made products. As the style spread, the vintage Americana gloss became formulaic, until even the 'old wood' itself wasn't old, but mass-produced to look that way. 

When I saw a replica Ace Hotel in a rapidly developing part of Phnom Penh it seemed like another sign that the version of American style that the Ace helped popularize has become itself a mass production, no longer so much a way of managing contemporary feeling as a set of ready-made signifiers that can be bought off the shelf and installed anywhere, even in Phnom Penh. But this leaves the question: what kinds of spaces will Americans inhabit and propagate in the next four years? What emotions are we managing (despair and uncertainty come to mind) and how will we shape spaces to deal with them?

The problem with despair is that unlike many other emotions that inspire design, despair feels like it inspires very little. Even the iconically austere apartment buildings of Cold War East Germany seem like less of a potential design reference than a too-close reminder of the real austerity the U.S. faces as a country where starting wages haven't increased in decades. Likewise, the Trumpian gold-covered-elevator look won't be distant (or affordable) enough for the culture to creatively redeploy. And brutalism's authoritarian vibes might not feel so vibey in the face of actual authoritarian threats. What do you recycle when it feels like the end of history?

Rebar planter in Villahermosa, MX

Rebar planter in Villahermosa, MX

Is it possible, maybe, that the U.S. won't be driving the designs of the next half-decade? One of the most interesting places I visited in terms of design in 2016 was Mexico, and I was interested to find that it isn't just the high-craft minimalism of Oaxaca that has heavily influenced global design. Even postmodern-looking objets like planters made of rebar, which make up part of Robert Irwin's Getty Center garden, are actually municipal street design on the avenues in some Mexican cities. So I wonder: is Trump's wall, meant to keep people out, actually going to hem the country in and cut us off from the design innovations happening elsewhere? What design trends will the U.S. manufacture, especially given that the recycling of mid-century modernism has reached its peak? Will some weird and wistful version of 90s suburbia actually come back? McMansion chic? Maximalist clutter in place of minimalist emptiness? I guess one way we'll know how we are doing, emotionally and otherwise, is if people have the inspiration to create viral new design trends at all.

'Fake News', Authorship, and the Battle for Narrative Power

Throughout the 'Fake News' uproar of the post-election cycle I kept thinking back to this line that I wrote in The Boy Kings about the launch of News Feed in 2006. The story concerns a moment when a Facebook coworker tested a News Feed story by putting the two of us 'in a relationship' on Facebook. I found out about the story being published in News Feed because my instant messenger started pinging with questions about it. That's to say that this News Feed story went 'viral' in the local social network, and the fact that it wasn't true didn't make it any less viral. The great innovation of News Feed was that it can write and distribute a story without narration by any human. The algorithm becomes the author. And while this particular early instance of 'fake news' in News Feed was funny, it was also when I realized that "we don't even write our own stories anymore."

It's also why I wrote about this in long form, because if algorithms are going to author stories for us, it seems prudent to maintain the ability to author our own. In a world in which algorithms assert their narrative power over us, and entire farms of 'Fake News' write stories substituting one celebrity for another in hopes of generating clicks, human authorship remains an alternate and potentially resistant form of narrative production. While we may not be able to escape narration by algorithm, we can still publish our own narrative and analysis.

But this becomes the threat to the technologies themselves: if narration by human subjects is seen as a resistant act, then companies that desire total narrative power must deflect the threat that human narration poses. It is not even the content of the narration but the fact of the narration itself-- the product of an individual's human values rather than an algorithm's A/B tested ones-- that becomes existentially threatening. This explains why human narration in Silicon Valley is now being modelled, avant-la-lettre, as an outlaw act. For one thing, if you write your own story, it might not be the story the algorithm or the company would tell; but even more fundamentally, to write is to assert disagreement that centralized algorithmic narration is always an adequate substitute for human authorship.

The commitment to algorithmic narration is probably also why Fake News has posed such a conundrum to algorithmically-driven companies this year. If companies have come to feel ownership over the telling of stories, then what happens when distant entities flood the algorithm with 'Fake News', beating the house algorithms at their own news-creation and -distribution game? It isn't just human writers who pose a threat to the ownership of narrative, but other automated storytellers.

In essence what the Fake News wars are about is who gets to tell stories and create news at all-- about who (or what, if a machine) is authorized and who is not. Technology companies could very well end up banishing 'Fake News' by moving to publish only news they create and approve, which creates a new monopoly on news and story creation. It is for this reason that as we head into a world dominated increasingly by centralized power, maintaining the ability to tell and write our own stories remains critical.

Back to Nature

I wrote about the revival of plants in art and design and why they are taking over contemporary architecture, for Curbed.

The Ruins of Reclaimed Wood

In the combination Taco Bell and Urban Cabin [via  Buzzfeed ]

In the combination Taco Bell and Urban Cabin [via Buzzfeed]

Two years ago I wrote about what the reclaimed wood trend meant during its rise to popularity. I wrote about it because it was fascinating to see a rather unremarkable material develop so much resonance so fast, to the point that by 2014 wood was everywhere in any establishment that fancied itself “authentic” or "modern" or “independent”. And for the initial years of its rise, there was something about wood that did feel this way; wood lent a feeling of presence, weight, and style to public spaces that in previous years tended to be sterile or plastic in their design. Reclaimed wood was a sudden intrusion of texture that you could touch, a reference to the wilderness, to cozy spaces in the wilderness, to old-timey lumber bars with wood walls that felt like being in an old whiskey barrel. Wood felt nice to be around; tactile; solid; sheltering.

Now it’s 2016 and old wood has become spectacularly annoying as a design meme. I can’t recall ever being annoyed by a material and its ubiquity the way I am annoyed by the constant appearance of wood in commercial spaces in 2016. In the same way that wood once felt nice and comforting, it now feels the opposite, like a bad, boring pop song that gets stuck in your head that you can’t get out. Wood is the earworm of contemporary design; repetitive and relentless, cropping up again just when you thought you’d moved on.

Reclaimed Wood is like “millennial” in this way: it doesn’t really mean anything at all, just that there is a business that would like to sell you something based on an identification it hopes you will make with what it is selling.

Maybe because of its annoying repetitiveness, however, I am fascinated again with what wood signifies now that it is being adopted by every new hotel renovation and chain restaurant redesign. What this means is that we will be living with institutional Reclaimed Wood for another five years at least, or more, long after the new wave indie restaurants and their followers have moved on. In a year or two, when hip design spaces are well into some other decor, we’ll still be eating breakfast at business conferences in a chain hotel’s farm-cabin inspired cafe.

When I see businesses opening today that are decorated in old or quasi-old wood, it feels disorienting in that it feels like the store is referring back to a design trend that itself feels historical, like the cafe is referencing the old days of 2010 when Instagram was new and rusticity suddenly seemed modern. The rustic referent of the chain hotel’s wood walls has disappeared, replaced by a reference to capitalism and its swift appropriative movements itself. Reclaimed Wood is like “millennial” in this way: it doesn’t really mean anything at all, just that there is a business that would like to sell you something based on an identification it hopes you will make with what it is selling. 

Design crashes are interesting though, in that they necessitate change and design innovation. I wonder what interesting ways enterprising people will go about ‘fixing’ the wood which is now everywhere. The nice thing about wood is that it can altered easily, with sanding, painting, carving, etc. Maybe we’ll enter a maximalist, Ruined Wood phase where all the distressed wood becomes further distressed and de-natured beyond recognition. Maybe the remains of Reclaimed Wood will make it interesting again, as we live on in the apocalyptic ruins of what was the briefly imagined utopia of the urban cabin.