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by Jacob O'Bryant

Tech and democracy

When I launched this newsletter I mentioned I would combine it with the weekly announcements I was already sending to writers who have joined The Sample. After thinking about that again, I've decided that doesn't really make any sense. The audiences for tools-for-online-speech and announcements about The Sample just aren't the same. So, this newsletter might be a little sporadic until I get into a groove, and in return it'll be more relevant. (I'll throw in links to The Sample announcements at the bottom though.) I just managed to convince my 18-month-old daughter to fall back asleep, so hopefully I can get a few thoughts out tonight!

The other day I finished reading How Democracies Die. I recommend it. I was sort of jolted awake by all the voter fraud claims in the US election at the end of 2020. I never liked Trump, but I didn't necessarily think he'd do much permanent damage. (Perhaps I would've been worried earlier if I had been paying more attention.) But since late 2020 I've had a deep sense of foreboding about the future of the US. I didn't want to make the TFOS announcement post too much about politics, let alone US-specific politics; however it is worth mentioning now that one of my motivations is to find ways for software people like me to help support democracy.

So I'd like to build up more background knowledge to help me find ways for tech to make a difference, including studying up on recommendations that researchers etc. have already made. How Democracies Die gave me a solid framework for thinking about these issues and the underlying forces. I feel a little less helpless having read it.

(I also appreciated that it gives a much deeper analysis than "Facebook ruined everything!"—in fact it doesn't spend that much time at all on social media.)

I don't yet have many thoughts on how better software might directly aid democracy, though I do have a decently sized reading list to get through, and I'll be sure to write about anything relevant that comes up. So far I'm mainly thinking on the individual level, e.g. how could I design a reading app that would help me actually feel in control? What ultimately matters isn't the tools we use, it's the information we share with them—I want to make the tools good enough so that we can stop thinking about them.

To make an analogy, one of my favorite pieces of software is my trusty text editor, Vim. I've used it for all my coding for the past 10+ years. Vim makes me feel one with the code. I think of the code I want to write and then it flows on to my screen. My attention stays at a high level, thinking about what the code does and what I want it to do. I never have to break concentration to think about the mundane details of moving text around.

And that's what I want to achieve for societal level communication. I think it'd be great if we could all spend less time thinking about "how can I get more people to see my posts," or "how can I spend my limited energy reading the things that matter most to me, instead of whatever's most convenient," and spend more time thinking about the actual problems we're trying to solve.

If we can make tools that give people more power on an individual level, then maybe that'll add up enough to make a real improvement in our ability as a society to achieve collective action.

Alright, hope you liked my nerd poetry. Some links and stuff:

  • The Sample announcements for 27 June and 4 July.
  • In those announcements I mentioned our new integration with Substack recommendations. So far we've had about 50 signups from that, but engagement has been almost nonexistent 😬. If it continues like this I might have to disable the integration.
  • A technical description of the Tiny News Platform, a publishing platform built for small, local news orgs. It has a couple similarities to Platypub, the tool I'm using to write this post.
  • The problem with email (2021). While I do think reports of email's coming demise are greatly exaggerated, it is important not to be complacent. As I've mentioned, one of the things we need is better consumption/reader apps. Usually this is done by giving users a receive-only email address (e.g. Feedbin and Feedly do this). But another approach is to make a full-fledged, "next-generation" email client that has more powerful reading features baked in. Hey is a step in that direction.

Published 5 Jul 2022

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