Looking Forward

Following Ben Werdmüller and Laura Ritchie, two members of a small eclectic Mastodon community I belong to, I am using the turn of the calendar to look forward and not backward.

Image: Anticosti Island, Wikimedia

And honestly, the main thing I am hoping for is to finish 2023 in continuing good health and spirits. It's something pretty easily taken for granted, but at the age of 63 I'm counting every good day as a gift. Some of those days I live to the fullest, some of them I rest, but not a one goes by without me taking note of how fortunate I have been in life.

Not surprisingly, then, it is the thing I hope for most for other people as well, for my family, community, friends and strangers met and unmet around the world. In my 40s and 50s I was privileged to be able to travel all over the world, and the main lesson for me was in recognizing our common humanity. Not that everyone was the same - far from it - nor that everyone was nice and friendly. Many were, some weren't. Doesn't matter. I wish the best for them all.

So to the pandemic, then, which I hope ends for everyone, but also the many ills and afflictions existed before Covid and doubtless will linger on after. I hope that some of the good that may come out of our relentless research will be greater advances on diseases like HIV-AIDS, HPV, the flu, meningitis, and the many other viral afflictions. And though it may be too late to turn back the impact it is having on our family, I'd like to see progress against dementia.

And it may be surprising but I feel there may be wider successes on the health care front precisely because we've seen first hand the cost of leaving people uninsured and untreated. Sure, this is counting on a very selfish urge on the part of the wealthy, but perhaps they will be convinced again, as they have in the past, that the health of one is the health of all. There may be a day perhaps sooner than people think that single-payer health insurance will arrive in the U.S., and this will free a generation of people to take risks, live freely, and grow beyond corporate health plans and HMOs.

The other way we're seeing how all our destinies are bound together is with the growing reach of climate change and associated ills, sometimes all in one place. Each year I look for small things - like the return of the monarch butterfly - and fear the big things - floods, fires, storms, drought, disease, devastation. Any of these could touch home, and all of these will touch someone this year. I have always tried to keep my footprint small and - even with air travel - mostly succeeded. 

Perhaps this will be the year we hold some of those large companies and institutions to account. Not just oil companies - though they are certainly complicit - but the financial and political infrastructure that continues to prioritize making rich people richer over the health and welfare of the rest of us. In truth, it doesn't matter how small my economic footprint is (much less the nearly zero footprint of those billions of people around the world living in poverty). It's the wealthy who are causing climate change. And so what matters is changing the behaviour of the rich and powerful. Maybe that starts to happen this year.

And I want each person to experience agency and impact in their lives. Ben expresses this through advocacy of women's rights, Laura through self-efficacy and getting to yes I can. The best I can be is an ally for women, for black lives, for indigenous rights, for my friends in the gay, lesbian and trans community, and for the rest (and as always I'm trying to find that fine balance between recognizing them and saying their name by listing them, and not leaving out equally valid and important movements by not listing them). You won't see me out there on the barricades leading the way, but when you need it, I'll have your back.

This is also the spirit in which I approach education. I know that for many proponents education is the great leveler, the way people can advance in their lives, obtain more gainful employment,and provide for themselves and their families. I'm under no such illusion. True, educated people earn more, which is a good argument for education, but it has also positioned the need for an education as a barrier standing in the way for many others. So long as we have a mechanism favouring some and penalizing others then we in the education system are perpetuating the harms we wish to eliminate. Unless and only until education fulfills the aspirations of people, and not merely the conditions of their servitude, it will not emancipate.

That is why I am an advocate, first, of free learning. Free in every sense, and not just in terms of cost. It is not hard to imagine a world where, when you're young, society gives you the means to pursue your own passion, and then continues to support that passion throughout life. What else is society for, if not that? The purpose of employment is not, and has never been, to support the objectives of the company or institution or the captain of industry, it is to support each member of the workforce in their own endeavours. The purpose of any enterprise is to support its employees. The money we spend on labour is a benefit, not a cost, of business.

The great resignation of 2021 was probably overstated, but I think it may represent for many a new recognition of this real role of employment. If your job's not working for you, why are you there? If it's endangering your life, why are you there? I know, people have families, people have expenses, and living without money is not an option. That's probably the only reason many people are at many of these jobs at all. And in 2022 maybe people will begin to see how they can meet these obligations while living more free and fulfilled lives.

My fear is that our corporate masters won't let us go, and that they'll do this by making it harder and harder to sustain ourselves. We are already hearing concerns being expressed about inflation caused by supply chain disruption. They say, for example, there's a shortage of drivers - something that could be easily addressed with higher wages. But I fear they'll respond to inflation by raising interest rates. Yes, this would reduce demand, but only by wrecking the economy and undermining government finances. I'd rather see them reduce demand by taxing the wealthy, especially at the point where they spend their money on frivolous luxuries - yachts, first class air travel, expensive cars, mansions, the usual. I won't say I'm hopeful. But I do hope governments recognize that the old approaches will not work.

My own efforts are - as always - on how we can organize ourselves and our technology more effectively to make an aspirational future possible. 

I'm trying really hard not to be that old guy who has a passion project he has been working on for years forever hoping it will suddenly catch on and become the next Facebook. I've seen too many of them and I know that this isn't what happens. On the other hand, I'm not going to stop playing with gRSShopper because it really has become a thing where I can try out my ideas, if only to learn about what sorts of problems are faced by people actually trying to implement them. Doing this in any realistic way means that I have to be constantly learning. I can't imagine that I'll stop in 2022, but at some point I'll stop, and I'll be sad when I hang up my tools.

But right now I am loving the challenge. I know it's impossible to keep up with everything, and I don't even try. At the same time, this means I can simply pursue my passions, wherever they lead, and there will be something new and interesting and really useful to someone. And I have so much background now that I'm at the point where I can study something hard for a year and be where it would take someone younger ten years to get to. I can't simply 'pass on' this knowledge - but I can model the attitude and approach that has gotten me to the point where I am, and that's what I'm doing. So I'll continue to post 'Stephen Follows Instructions' videos, so people can see how the sausage is made.

In the same vein, I want to continue with Ethics, Analytics and the Duty of Care. Through the fall I created something like 80 videos, as well as a similar number of slide presentations, and a bunch of other resources. The people following this process can probably be counted on one hand, and I can't really offer a good reason why I've fixated on this project like this. There probably isn't one. But I'd like to see it through to its end, which means converting all that work into something bookish (not 'a book' because it's just too small and too corporate a container for what I want to do). 

I am also going to work on data literacy. I wish I could rope Doug Belshaw into this, but I can't find a way to pay him (it's just way too complicated from my government office). But I want to think broadly about literacy without losing my grip on reality. This came about as a result of a small project last year, after which I said "I'd like to explore this more properly" and there was some funding to make it possible. Would I have done it anyway? Yes, but my focus would have been broader, because to me 'literacy' means 'critical literacies'. That's both the value I can bring but also the source of my need to stay grounded.

That's enough for one year, though as Ben Werdmüller says 2022 could be the year web3 becomes real. Web3 was my one-year passion project for 2019 - I built a blockchain and ran a MOOC and made what I thought were huge conceptual leaps in how we would think of some fundamental things in the future - things like democracy and identity and community and learning. Ben talks about how much fun people building blockchains are having - it's hard to ignore this Matt Damon spot - and we're one good application away from all of this becoming reality (and this, btw, goes hand in hand with the great resignation).

In the meantime, I want to focus on having great experiences. I was going to say "I hope to travel again", and I do, but I should not forget that I went on an epic 3-week bikepacking trip last summer. I still think about that experience every day. It was in preparation for something I am calling 'Project Anticosti' - a plan to bikepack the length of Anticosti Island and back, a total distance of 500 km - a lot less than I cycled last summer - but on a northern and essentially uninhabited wilderness island. I still have some work to do to get the bike and myself in shape, but I've done the basics. 

And for the rest of it, I want to make sure I visit family and do things with Andrea - we have season's tickets for the RedBlacks next year and we'll be returning to Mont Tremblant once or twice, pandemic willing. Andrea would like to live up there one day and I'd like to make it possible.


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