An Email from the Archive

I found this email in my archives recently and thought it might be fun to share publicly.

November 29, 2020

Galen Wolfe-Pauly


An email from the archive

I found this email in my archives recently and thought it might be fun to share publicly.

From: Galen Wolfe-Pauly <[email protected]>
Date: Thu, Jul 2, 2020 at 9:50 AM
Subject: Continuing

Here are a few things I was thinking about after we chatted. It may be that I'm just reiterating things I already said — but perhaps it's useful:

1 -

Our collective desire to depend on digital communication tools vastly exceeds what I would have ever guessed. Even if you somehow factor out what’s addictive about the platforms we use today: they serve a real need. The crux of the problem with our current platforms is that they don’t actually serve the need that we want them to serve. They’re not tools in the way we expect tools to be. For the most part, the platforms we depend on serve the needs of their shareholders or some graph or another that needs to go ‘up’, which makes them compromised in a very deep way.

In the pre-digital world we enjoyed a few things about the way we communicated, collaborated and did business that are dwindling: simplicity, durability and ownership. I’ll try to give some straightforward examples of what I mean:

A - When I talk to someone directly, I’m not worried that someone else is listening in. If they go tell someone else what I said to them, that’s something for us to work out between us — they’re not always reporting our conversations back to a third party. The constraints of the interaction and the privacy implications are simple — I don’t think about them at all. Good privacy guarantees flow from a strict focus on simplicity. When two people want to talk to each other: give them a secure channel to talk. Putting a centrally-controlled service between them is just an interim solution because no one could figure out a better way to do it.

B - When I write something down on paper, or type into a typewriter, I have an intuitive sense of the durability of what I’ve made. I have notes on my shelf I took ten years ago. I don’t worry about them disappearing. This means I can have a very direct, high-resolution relationship with the medium. I can pour myself into my physically-written notes in a way I would never pour myself into a Google Doc. Our digital tools are deeply untrustworthy because we know they can disappear, that they won’t actually last forever.

C - Around 2008 I started limiting myself to a few specific drawing and writing tools. I use them all the time and can actually refine my relationship to them since I know they’re not going to change out from under me. Perhaps at some point these pens wont be made anymore, but the ones I have are actually mine. Similarly, the things I make with them actually belong to me in a way that doesn’t require some ridiculous terms of service. A sense of ownership, when it comes to the medium of communication, determines our level of trust and commitment.

Our digital tools have to achieve the same level of simplicity, durability and ownership that our pre-digital tools did. Until they do, we’re always going to be in conflict with them, full stop.

The main thing is that exactly none of our present platform-centric world can survive when you see things this way. The digital world we live in is composed of an insanely complicated, ephemeral set of tools that distinctly do not belong to the people that use them.

We’re going to be in a constant struggle with technology until it conforms to these three very basic expectations. These are the expectations we try to get Urbit to fall in-line with, of course. Something else could also succeed by satisfying them. But I also don’t really see anything else, aside from Bitcoin and maybe Ethereum, falling in line with these core principles.

So: while I wish that Urbit was more mature and ready to capture those that are being purged from mainstream social media, are bored with it or are frustrated with the constraints of ‘productivity software’ — I think this conflict is going to drag on until people realize that what we’re in conflict with is the structure of the software we use. Using software that’s managed by other people is always going to cause serious problems all the way up at the user level. For more speculation on how this might play out, watch Black Mirror.

2 -

(1) is, in a way, a long-winded way of saying that the state of the world hasn’t changed our direction all that much. In order for Urbit to be approachable to use, it has to be very nicely made and that takes time and iteration. As the system stabilizes, Urbit can evolve in a more traditional way: we, along with others in the ecosystem, release stuff, observe how people use it, and try to make it better. We’re at the point where we’re nearly ready to get into that feedback loop, and we very much need to get there. We’re close.

Urbit is a distinctly different kind of software than anything we have now. Your Urbit is something you actually own and can do whatever you want with: not unlike your furniture or your kitchen tools. An Urbit is a tool for individual, human-scale computing and our whole approach to designing and making things is completely different. Most computing is about industrial-scale computing: where the software system stores everyone’s data and is managed by the people who build it.

Urbit is the opposite of industrial-scale. Urbit is much more like something that’s carefully crafted and delivered to you directly. This craftsman-like approach to building software really isn’t a part of most modern software engineering.

When I think about this from the standpoint of the person using what we make, it’s especially important. Urbit should feel like something that’s purposefully made by hand — not something you picked off the shelf at Wal-Mart. Some of this ethos was present in the early PC movement, but it’s mostly lost today. The care and attention that goes into building the system is also exactly what we make money on. People pay us to own a piece of it, to use it. We’re incentivized to make nice things, in the Urbit model, and we take that responsibility seriously.

3 -

Networks are a really important social form that’s only just beginning to come into existence. A network is neither a state nor a company, but something in-between. Bitcoin is a network, Ethereum is network (but it’s still far too centralized). Urbit is a young network.

(In my view, a real network is always decentralized. Centralized networks are basically just companies.)

Urbit is controlled by the collective of people who use it — in varying degrees, of course. The main thing is that this collective is bound together only by private keys and a blockchain, not a set of legal documents. The agreements between everyone on the network are in some cases more formalized (in terms of ownership) and looser (in terms of content moderation) than what we’re used to in either a state controlled or company controlled model. This is a very unusual kind of institution.

On a successful Urbit network, Facebook, Airtable, and Signal are just successful applications. You could probably build companies around them that ship software to Urbit — but they’re more like 5 - 10 people instead of thousands.

Urbit doesn’t aim to eat away at the government per se. Instead, it’s an important communication tool for institutions of any scale to actually take control of their means of collaboration. The efficiency of inter-government communication and government to populace communication can clearly be improved by a whole lot.

4 -

The most important thing is that people can generate a vision of the future. This can only emerge from a small collective of motivated people. Our public life is overwhelmed by people shooting from the hip, aiming for likes.

There are difficult, infrastructural problems all over the place that desperately need the considerate attention of small groups of people. Urbit, as communication tooling, is aimed at improving the quality of the fabric that binds these groups together. Or, to put it another way, before you can solve any specific problem you have to improve the problem solving process overall. Everything is gated on solving the process.

5 -

Christopher Alexander is, indeed, probably the biggest influence on my thinking when it comes to paying close attention to making things that both generate a deep sense of connection and are shaped by the people who inhabit them. is one of his early, well known essays that’s easy to find online. I think ‘The Nature of Order’ is the thing that had the biggest impact on me, but it’s harder to find. There’s probably a PDF floating around on the internet somewhere. It's also a beautiful (four volume) book. The first volume kind of nails it. This talk is also great:

The thing that comes to mind lately is Hejduk. He had passed away by the time I was at Cooper, but I feel like I was educated in the ghost of his work. This documentary gives a good impression of his thinking:

Hejduk was able to see that architecture isn’t about building buildings per se, but something else. That was always quite obvious to me.

Talk soon!