🗞️ The future of The Future is Digital

Tolerating intolerance is not a good strategy

When I started this newsletter, I deliberately chose a name that was both specific and generic at the same time. This choice might have felt anodyne then, and perhaps you didn’t even think about it. The title was there to express the feeling that I had about how digital technology was going to become further and further entrenched in our personal and professional lives. On that front, I was not wrong. And if I think about where we were at that time here in the Caribbean, we were only starting to think about these technologies and how they might be brought to reality in the region, but looking far afield at what had been taking place in the United States and Europe and trying to shoehorn procedures, products and services into the local context. However, the truth behind the generic title was that I chose it for a specific reason.

Despite being generally optimistic about technology, but not a techno-optimist, I always felt there was a risk in bringing technology to bear without the checks and balances to ensure we reap the benefits of the technology while minimising potential adverse effects. In other words, I called it The Future is Digital, but I didn’t outline if that future was good or bad. It was a hedge. It was a guess. And it was a feeling that I’ve been harbouring for a long time now, without being able to put my finger on why. The future of The Future is Digital will go into that over the coming months, and I invite you to follow and share your thoughts along the way. I will make mistakes, have bad takes on an idea, and perhaps hit the nail squarely on the head at times. When you do this kind of work, you open yourself up to the possibility of learning something deeply because writing is thinking. If you don’t like my point of view, or you feel my arguments are not good enough, engage with me. I’m open to discussion and will always remain civil in my replies. Online communication has gone to shit over the last few years, so I’d like to promote a little civility.

When I started this newsletter, I took a lot of time researching how I could get it online in a qualitative and non-ad-intrusive way. I settled on a brand new system offering a compelling argument to host my newsletter. It is free to use until you start charging people for subscriber-only access. At which point, they would take 10% + payment processing fees. I signed up to create a Substack when it was still only a niche platform with a handful of writers using it. I’d never intended to stay there indefinitely and hoped to raise enough money to self-host it elsewhere in the future. I felt it would be best to own and control a host fully in the long run, but that idea was a long way off. Hold onto that notion, as it will become more apparent in my future writing for this newsletter. Oh, and while I’m here, apologies for not keeping up a regular writing schedule; more on that later.

So, where is this newsletter as of today? I’ve written just short of 100 posts over the last couple of years and some several hundred thousand words, with a couple of popular articles:

and (unsurprisingly):

These posts were particularly popular compared to the others and elicited discussion between myself and a few people, mostly offline, given that I am not really that online despite being very “digital”. But to cut a long story short, I am about to embark on taking this newsletter to a different place in two respects. Firstly, I’ll be moving off the Substack platform as soon as possible. Then, I will be making an effort to pick up from where I let it slip over the last couple of years.

Starting with the platform shift. If you are subscribed, you shouldn’t notice any difference, save the look and feel, and perhaps the need to take a quick dip into your spam mail in the event your mail provider marks my new newsletter as spam. Here’s why.

1. Substack and the paradox of tolerance

Karl Popper’s Paradox of tolerance states:

… that if a society's practice of tolerance is inclusive of the intolerant, intolerance will ultimately dominate, eliminating the tolerant and the practice of tolerance with them.

If you’re unaware of what has been happening at Substack, let me indulge myself in giving you a brief overview in complete fear of invoking Godwin’s Law.

Dave Karpf, along with some two hundred or so writers, sent an open letter to the owners of Substack to ask that they clearly state their position when it comes to platforming Nazis. I think most of us can agree that the correct number of Nazis that you should host and tolerate is zero, or if not zero, then as close to zero as it can be. The paradox of tolerance should perfectly explain why that is. Then there was a particularly cack-handed communication roughly translated as “I didn’t know he was a racist”. If we take that at face value, the fact that he didn’t do his homework (which would have quickly and easily determined his guest’s POV), this a remarkably naive thing to have done and a complete failure on Hamish’s part. Then there was a convenient post by a different bunch of Substack writers who seem to be ok with Nazis being invited to the party and promoted by Substack. Then, after the pressure built with public announcements of several high-profile writers abandoning the platform, Substack finally stated its official position explaining that we should be tolerant of things that we are not comfortable with and therefore tolerate Nazis on the platform. It was as bad as it sounds.

The most egregious part of the stated position is the false ideology that is awash in the tech scene, that all speech is equal and, therefore, should be treated equally. In my view, this is so flagrantly naive that it beggars belief, and I am astounded that while writing those words, they didn’t have a moment of reflection to try perhaps to fully understand the gravity of what they were saying. It is like saying that all cell growth is equal, and therefore, we should give cancer a chance because it should be treated equally to any other cell growth. Cancer is cancer, and we deal with it accordingly within the means we have. Nazis, white supremacists and the like are a fucking cancer and should be dealt with accordingly. Cancerous cells will eventually take over the host, fully consume it, and ultimately kill it. So it is with Nazis. They will consume everything until they, and only they exist. It must be stopped at every opportunity.

Substack is a private platform, and I will defend its right to decide where it wants to position itself. This, however, also means that I will defend the right of writers to criticise it and demand a certain amount of reasonable censorship, transparency and equal application. I would also support anyone wanting to go elsewhere and try to put pressure on the other enablers in the value chain. And I would defend Substack’s right to associate with Nazis. But that will not stop me from expressing that I believe by enabling and promoting Nazis, they become Nazis at worst and Nazi sympathisers at best. I will be doing everything I can to help crush this cancer. I will not tell you what to do with your attention and money; that is up to you, but if you agree that Nazis should not be tolerated, then I would recommend that you unsubscribe from any Substack until such time as they start to do their best to eliminate this cancer. That is what I am doing.

You may ask why I am so uncompromising with this. Well, some of it is about the way Substack operates. Substack’s response is all well and good taken in the first degree, but when you look deeper, you’ll notice they do moderate. For example, pornography is not allowed on the platform, and they do a pretty good job moderating that. They also state clearly in their terms that hate speech and calls for violence are not tolerated. Perhaps I’m a fucking idiot, but the last time I looked, white supremacy ideologies were hate speech. I could go on, but frankly, I’m pretty wound up about this and particularly disappointed with what was once a great platform to help (very) small-time writers like me get out there. I’m going to suck it up and shift to a different platform, of which I haven’t decided yet. I’m torn between micro.blog or WordPress. Both have upfront costs associated (unless I accept ads on WordPress). It’s not a lot, and I’ll probably put it down as a work expense, as this venture was always related to my business and is probably partly responsible for my getting several consultancy opportunities.

Substack is treating us like morons and trying to avoid telling the truth about the reason why they’re taking certain decisions. Fine, go ahead and take money from Nazis and white supremacists. Just don’t expect me and a lot of other people to participate, and do expect a lot of us to find ways to stop the cancer from spreading.

2. Picking up from where I left off

The last two years have been particularly challenging for me personally. It is likely the main reason my writing output has fallen off a cliff for this newsletter. I haven’t not been writing, just not here.

I was recently diagnosed with two neurological conditions. I’d actively sought a diagnosis for one of the conditions, so the result didn’t surprise me; it was the other one that hit me unaware, and despite being grateful to have a formal diagnosis, it hit me much harder than I thought it would. And in true style, as anyone who knows me well enough offline, this happened during the world’s biggest crisis since 1918 and the Second World War. Awesome.

I’m unsure what to do with the information besides understanding it in more detail and interpreting how it affects my daily life. That’s what I’m doing, but honestly, I’m a little lost about that. I know there are mitigation strategies, and I have, over time, naturally built up some of them, but they are nowhere near being as effective as I would like. And at 53 years old, teaching the dog new tricks is harder to do. Not impossible, but a little more challenging.

To give you more detail without giving you access to my medical history, two conditions (that may or may not be related) cause executive functioning difficulties in day-to-day life. Charitably, when you have two, it is called twice exceptional or 2e for short. This is the optimist’s view. I prefer to call it twice-afflicted for the moment. And I would add that I call it thrice-afflicted, as the two contribute substantially to a third difficulty (although not a condition, nevertheless, very difficult in its own right). Again, if you know me well enough offline, you’ll know or have suspected some of this already. I have either discussed a subset of this with you. What I haven’t done is open up generally about it until now. But I’m not going to name them online for obvious reasons. (Yes, you, the morally bankrupt advertising industry on the Internet.) Feel free to reach out if you want to know more. I’ll be happy to discuss.

So, in trying to pick up from where I left off, I hope to gather the bits and pieces and develop a couple of plans to help me write more often. I have been doing some of that already, and I’m seeing some of the fruits of that labour. What I don’t promise to do, however, is write about tech in a sycophantic and all-starry-eyed manner that I was perhaps a little guilty of at first.

Contributing to the third affliction is a feeling of disappointment and an impending sense of tech being co-opted by forces that are not true to the stated ideals of its makers. See Substack above. See also the absolutely shameful bunker being built by Mark Zuckerberg in Hawaii for when the shit hits the fan, and he can say, “Fuck you, Jack, I’m alright thanks to me extracting your wealth to my bank account.”

I’ll discuss some of that another time.

Regardless, I hope you have a good holiday. Connect with what is meaningful to you. Connect with family and friends, and enjoy the break. I’ll try to write something in early 2024.


Matthew Cowen @matthewcowen