Step aside, keep quiet, and listen.

Hello, friends. Greetings from the other side of the apocalypse that was last week’s post. Somehow, it was the most divisive thing I’ve sent out yet, generating lots of “Yes, more of this please!” and “You are wrong about everything you’ve written.” Those quotes are both representative of the wave of satisfaction and revulsion that passed through the 3,000 or so words I offered you questioning the way the future looks and verbatim. At first I was bummed out about the “You are wrong” quote until I realized it was brilliant_marketing_copy. It is now how I sell my newsletter.

Picture me alone in the office. It’s 6:15 AM, Friday morning. A bit of sunlight has made its way through the overcast and rainy sky, the rooftops that stand between this building and a view of the horizon, the floor-to-ceiling windows that look upon those surrounding rooftops, and the additional walls and windows that look upon the corridors and workstations between my inner sanctum and that outer layer of glass. I am in a professional bunker. And this week, I give you a mixpost. For the uninitiated, it’s just what it sounds like — not a long rant that you’ll have mixed feelings about, but just a little of this and a little of that. Feel free to skim as the headlines grab you.

CB, August 7, 2015

Track (1) Step aside, keep quiet, and listen while women ask and answer the questions for a change.

First, the Ada Initiative is shutting down. They had a direct impact on the work I’ve been involved in at HOW with HIDC and the code of conduct that now accompanies those events. That “conference anti-harassment policies were rare outside of certain areas in fandom, and viewed as extremist attempts to muzzle free speech; pornography in slides was a regular feature at many conferences…as were physical and sexual assault; most open tech/culture communities didn’t have an understanding of basic feminist concepts like consent, tone policing, and intersectional oppression” were ever true is upsetting to me, and should be to everyone, regardless of whether you work in this “space” or some other. Sadly, I hardly think that the sexism endemic to the technology and design world is unique to it. But that it has thrived in an industry that is so enriched by women is, I would say, a unique blight. I want to honor Mary and Valerie’s request to forgo any “expressions of sadness for the end of the Ada Initiative.” What they’ve accomplished has been incredible and essential. But their request shouldn’t be read as “mission accomplished.” Perhaps it’d be better to think of it as “mission established.” Without the Ada Initiative, that mission wouldn’t be so clearly articulated and expressed across so many platforms and programs in our little slice of the world. And so now we share the mandate to uphold and carry out that mission. At the bottom of their announcement, Mary and Valerie have included 18 different ways that you and I can do that. Let’s do as many as we can, and add to the list ourselves.

Second, Valeria Maltoni — who I hadn’t realized is among us until this week when she replied to my last letter, which a significant portion of us whom are now among the ranks of Former Don’t Think About the Futurists hated, by the way — sent this piece from The Atlantic my way. In it, Rose Eveleth (of Meanwhile in the Future fame) asks, “Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?” It’s an important question. Just like tech, “futurism,” as a field, is predominantly composed of men. Even though both the World Future Society and the Association of Professional Futurists are currently run by women! Eveleth goes through a variety of possible reasons why, then, it remains so light on female composition and influence. Among them are the usual reasons — the generally patriarchal history of the working world, the “scientific” grounding of futurism, etc. — but the one that interested me most had to do with optimism. She quotes Madeline Ashby, an active and influential futurist herself, who says, “If you ask me, the one reason why futurism as a discipline is so white and male, is because white males have the ability to offer the most optimistic vision.” She goes on to explain that the male view of the world, privileged as it is, is of course more optimistic that the female view, and that when women do occupy a platform from which to share their view, men complain that it’s too “depressing” and “dystopian.” But, the grim view, according to Ashby, tends to produce new ways of doing things, a rewriting of the rules, so to speak, and a more nimble way of navigating the increasingly messy world around us. So, in her estimation, as the future dismantles the stability of the past, it will be the women who can navigate it best.

So here’s the thing, though. I don’t think that there are any gender-based truths about how a human being is likely to think or perceive. Meaning, I don’t think that men or women are more or less capable of perceiving a more accurate view of the world, or forecasting its future. Which means, assuming that’s true, that we have to be careful with what Ashby is saying here. It’s not that women are more pessimistic than men — believe me, I could rattle off a pretty long list of men who are so maudlin in their futurist despair that I often wonder how they even manage to get up in the morning — but it’s that the systemic sexism of history, which cannot be untangled from any threads of futurism followed into the future, has uniquely equipped women to operate with a greater perceptual and functional adversity than men. In other words, men have had it easier, so they’re not going to as easily see the adversity around them. That’s not true of every man, but I think it’s a reasonable assessment, which, if true, is only going to continue to propagate itself unless, per the entire point of this Eveleth’s piece, more women enter the field. And, really, every field, which means, at the risk of letting politics overshadow this conversation, we have to think just as broadly about considering our vote for a woman in a presidential election as a vote for social progress as we did in 2008 of our vote for a candidate who is not white. In almost every context in which the issue of gender and voice is discussed, it seems the central question is why — why is there an imbalance? Why aren’t there more women? Why aren’t we making the progress we desire? To which I would respond that our best bet for progress is not by men coming up with answers to these “whys,” but by men (myself included) stepping aside, keeping quiet, and listening while women ask and answer the questions for a change.

Track (2) Speaking of Design Conferences…

Design conferences. Here’s the thing about design conferences. You know the problems already. You even know most of the solutions. So a how-to lecture binge is just not going to be worth your time and money. That’s why we’re not doing yet another conference that tries to be a three-day school that sells you Interaction Design 101. But, none of us knows what we don’t know. Sometimes we have an idea of it — just a vague sense of what we’re missing — but we don’t usually have the opportunity to go after it. Why? Because the best place to get it is from other designers, especially those whom we admire from afar. But they’re busy, and frankly, the idea of asking them for advice is intimidating, isn’t it?

This is why I’ve been working to create an event purely composed of case studies. A case study is the form a working designer’s best advice takes. It gets at that blind spot we all have, by opening up a designer’s process to expose everything — what they tried, what failed, and most importantly, how they adapted to respond to reality and preserve the success of their work. It’s not here’s how you should do it it’s here’s how we actually did it. So we’ve gathered 12 working designers from a variety of fields to share case studies of projects they’ve worked on. They’re not coming to Chicago to show you 45 minutes of slides with bullet points or give you a motivational speech. They’re coming to give you a the behind-the-scenes look at the important work they’ve done at places like Buzzfeed, NPR, Code for America, Slack,, the UK’s Government Digital Services, and the US Design Office, 18F. Places you know with the exact same challenges you face.

If you would like to have access to these designers and hear the truth about how they’ve gotten their work done, I encourage you to join us in Chicago in October. If you register by September 10 and use my promo code, “BUTLER50,” you’ll get a combined $250 discount on your ticket. If you want to know more after taking a look at the site, just hit reply and ask me anything you like. But then I’m going to push you to come so we can hang, and like I said last week, I know a place that serves giant chocolate cake.

Track (3) Quiet

The only sound I allow my phone to make is the buzz of its vibration alert when I get a text. That’s it. No beeps, bings, bloops, or quacks. But a couple of weeks ago, I was in a meeting and it was buzzing alot…ANNOYINGLY…because the buzz of an Android phone is much louder than the buzz of an iPhone if you didn’t know it, so I disabled all alerts. And you know what? I haven’t turned them back on. My phone is quiet. I haven’t really missed anything. So I think I’m going to keep it this way for good. What does it say about how we live now that this sounds like a big deal, or that some of you are thinking right now, Wow, that sounds great but I couldn’t possibly…?

Track (4) Here’s How I Do This

On the subject of figuring things out, the other day, a friend stopped by my office to chat for a bit. In the course of our conversation, he asked me about writing and, naturally, I got all evangelistic about it and was all, “Come to TextEdit all ye chatty and curious and I will give you progress,” because my general feeling on the matter is that writing is a most excellent way to process one’s thinking, increase its rigor, and make friends in the process. And of course, I also encouraged him to use TinyLetter to share what he writes. So he asked me how I do it. And I said, “It’s pretty simple, really.” And I gave him the following tips. Some of you are probably already doing something like this, or maybe something better. If so, I’d love to hear how you do it (hit reply and let me know). But some of you might need a plan, in which case, feel free to try mine.

First, let’s get the tools out of the way:

  • Most importantly, I’m using Dropbox to keep all my writing docs in the cloud. That way, I can chip away at what I’m working on at my desk at the office, on my tablet at home, or on my phone in between. Ideas tend to come to me at inconvenient times, which makes being able to access a working text document on my phone and not have to worry about copying and pasting whatever I put there someplace else or doing some kind of doc-sync later a huge gain. Seriously, until I started using Dropbox for this, I did all kinds of silly things like carry around a portable hard drive in my bag and send myself notes in emails. The cloud is where it’s at.
  • I stick with basic text documents. That way, I can work on them using TextEdit on my computer, or Dropbox’s editor, or iA Writer’s mobile app, and never worry about formatting issues like the dreaded curly quote conflict.

That’s it for tools. The tools are the boring part. What’s interesting are the rules. The rules are what make this work. Because we are unreliable and impulsive and undisciplined and resistant to building new habits. The rules compensate for all of that and make it much easier to do this.

  • I write every day, usually first thing when I get to the office, sometime for only five minutes but never for more than thirty. What I’m doing here is a free-writing idea dump. I keep a general ideas document in my Dropbox account where this stuff can go called “MISC.txt.” It’s a mess, but it works. It’s just lines of text broken up by “- - -” where one idea stops and another begins. Often, I’ll go back to this document throughout the day.
  • As soon as an idea starts to develop, like when other ideas start to attach to it and the free-writing begins to get a bit more prose-y, like when I start capitalizing words and using punctuation, it gets copied into a new text document with a recognizable name, like, “what-I-dont-like-about-facebook.txt.” Often, I’ll go back to this document throughout the day.
  • When I do return to MISC.txt or an individual idea’s document, I don’t spend much time there. My days are packed and I generally don’t have the time for much dedicated writing. But I do plan focus days into my week — Friday, most typically — when I keep my calendar meeting-free and block out time to focus on projects and writing.
  • Focused writing time is not romantic. I have no writer’s outhouse or room in the attic. I do not put a record on the turn table and nurse a steaming mug of coffee. I do not pace before a wall of post-it notes. I do not use a typewriter (sorry all you who do and who hated my anti-typewriter comments last week). It’s just me and a text editor…
  • …but ideally, we are somewhere I don’t typically work. Generally, I recommend changing location, even if that’s just by a few feet. Coffee shops are good, as ambient noise is a writer’s friend.
  • Disconnect from the internet. There is no other way.
  • Set a timer for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Having an endpoint will make your writing time much more productive.
  • Open your text editor. Start the timer. Start writing. When you feel the urge to hit [delete], hit [return] instead. That urge is editing. But you are writing now. You are transferring words from mind to machine. There is no back; only forward.
  • When the timer stops, you stop. Even if you are mid-sentence.
  • Save your work. To the cloud.

In the same Dropbox folder where I keep my MISC.txt file and my ideas-in-development files, I keep this week’s Tinyletter, pre-formatted as I like. That way, I can drop things in there (especially the links in the “Recent Tabs” section at the end) as I go through the week and never have to be up late the night before I want to send it out. For example, this letter lived in my Dropbox folder as “2015_08_07.txt” for the last seven days. I generally duplicate the last one, clear out all the unique stuff from before, and preserve the greetings and section headlines. That’s it. That’s how this stuff gets done. It’s as boring and mundane and mechanistic as working out at the gym. But it produces the results you want.

Track (5) Progress is Messy

I spent yesterday in the last of a series of full-day vision-building sessions with the leadership team at Newfangled. We’ve been going through a program that is helping us establish a new system of operating and more intentionally plan for the short and long-term future of our firm. It’s been invigorating, challenging, fascinating, and exhausting. Among the many themes that have emerged in our discussions, the difficulty of progress — no matter how clearly the objectives present themselves — has probably been the most central. So many analogies have been helpful to us in working through how, exactly, we’ll reach the goals we’ve set for ourselves. Here are two.

First, how do you change the plumbing without turning the water off? That’s often what it feels like to course-correct at Newfangled. We have more than 150 clients. At any point, perhaps 8-12 active new projects, which take 4-6 months. With that kind of volume and those kinds of timelines, big, operational changes are eased in ever so carefully in order to preserve stability for everyone involved. So if we want to add or remove from our process or toolkit, we often have to do this in parallel with old ways of doing things until those projects which were already underway when the change was made can naturally reach a conclusion or milestone, after which we can more easily bring it in to alignment with everything else.

Second, if you ever ran hurdles in track, you know that you don’t get over every hurdle the first time. But you also don’t stop when you knock one over. You just keep going. And over time, you learn to control your speed, height and rhythm enough to run the hurdles and get over each one. That’s a fundamental truth to an organization’s progress: you don’t ignore obstacles, but you do learn to accept the messiness of getting through them.

Track (6) An Excellent Quote I Wish I’d Written That Perfectly Expresses What is Wrong With Media

In light of my last few letters, I’ll leave you with this passage from Josh Topolsky’s farewell letter to Bloomberg:

“The reality in media right now is that there is an enormous amount of noise. There are countless outlets (both old and new) vying for your attention, desperate not just to capture some audience, but all the audience. And in doing that, it feels like there’s a tremendous watering down of the quality and uniqueness of what is being made. Everything looks the same, reads the same, and seems to be competing for the same eyeballs. In both execution and content, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the rat race for maximum audience at any expense. It’s cynical and it’s cyclical — which makes for an exhausting and frankly boring experience.”

Heavy Rotation: This week, I’ve mostly been listening to Wikipedia again.


Must-Reads: Hand & Brain, a collaborative essay in seven voices: Laura Potter, Rod McLaren, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Alice Taylor, and Warren Ellis. Thanks to the social entanglement of the web, my “version” of this has already been heavily highlighted by Dan Hon. It’s almost as if I borrowed the dog-eared, underlined, and creased copy from his personal library. In other forms of this-makes-my-brain-hurt, try A Visual Introduction to Machine Learning.

Recent Tabs: How much brain do we actually need? Apparently, not much. “When sunlight heats the air inside a geodesic sphere with a diameter of half-mile or more, the combined weight of the interior air and the sphere’s physical structure would be lighter than the atmosphere, allowing the sphere to rise in the air.” —Buckminster Fuller proposed floating cloud cities in 1960, which is just another reason why he was the man. Why Ringo was great. Lara Hogan’s Designing for Performance is available to read in its entirety online. If you decide to purchase it (which you should), she’s donating the proceeds to charities focused on getting girls and women into coding. Microsoft Doom. The Smog Free Tower creates clean air zones in cities and compresses the filtered smog particles, which are then used to make jewelry. How to have a great life without spending a lot of money. Foresight is hard even for psychics. I know I promised I wouldn’t mention the debates, but, yeah, Rick Perry, you did say Ronald Raven. Know he is out there, somewhere, the Goblin King of the sewers, and should you have cause to call upon him, you need only look down.

Written by Christopher Butler on August 7, 2015,   In Essays

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