Cabbage, potato, carrot, leek stew

I made this stew recipe tonight. Had a ton of cabbage + potatoes, and carrots from our CSA and needed something to do with them. Roasted cabbage and leeks in a sheet pan for 30 minutes instead of caramelizing them in the pan. Used olive oil not butter. Broth consisted of discarded stems of herbs, leeks, corn cobs, cabbage leaves, mushroom powder, cheese rinds and squash innards - detritus from summer cooking. Cooked for 2-3 hours on low. Served with fresh dill, chives, and grated parmesan.

Thoughts on a year-and-a-half of mutual aid tech

A year-and-a-half into the pandemic and one of the few bright spots has been the growth of mutual aid societies in New York City. Initially spurred by an outpouring of volunteers and donations in mid-2020, energy has waned and taken a toll on the sustainability of these communities. As a member of Bushwick Ayuda Mutua’s (BAM) steering committee, I had some insight into this trend as we were recently forced to pause our food distribution because of a lack of resources. As a part of planning our relaunch, we were asked to reflect on what we saw as the future of mutual aid in our neighborhood, and how we could get there. The following are a somewhat haphazard collection of thoughts with a particular emphasis on the technological tools and services we (and other groups) have come to rely upon to do our work.

My first experience with mutual aid was delivering groceries weekly for Bed-Stuy Strong in the summer of 2020. I was introduced to them by my partner Amanda who had gotten involved early on in the pandemic. Over the course of a year, we witnessed as their model moved from one of volunteers shopping for families and getting reimbursed, to bulk distribution with the Brooklyn Packers, and back to the initial model, albeit with a grocery list limited to what had been available in bulk. This year we moved to Ridgewood and shifted our energies towards BAM, where we’ve done weekly deliveries and also served as the organizers of the tech team, setting up automations in Airtable, overseeing our use of Twilio for SMS-based communication, and helping to grow our volunteer base. In the past few months, I’ve joined the steering committee where I participate in shaping collective-wide strategy through a consensus-driven process. During this period, I also spent a year working at ioby.org, a small non-profit which provides fiscal sponsorship to a few of New York City’s largest mutual aid societies.

Through these experiences, I’ve come to appreciate the immense challenges facing these groups as well as their transformative potential. Here are, in no particular order, some thoughts and observations:

  1. Mutual aid groups, in following the adage of “Solidarity Not Charity”, are radical not strictly for the services they offer, but in the communal structures they enact to provide them. As Michael Haber writes in Legal Issues in Mutual Aid Operations: A Preliminary Guide “the philosophers of capital have always sought to normalize extractive relationships between humans.” Creating a supportive, non-hierarchical community is therefore a radically anti-capitalist act in-and-of-itself. Doing this within the confines of an entrenched capitalist society, however, necessitates ongoing critical reflection: is providing groceries to a neighbor in need an act of charity or solidarity? The answer depends on who’s on the giving and receiving side, and whether there is potential for the roles to be reversed. When paired with the very real, very urgent needs of our community, this continual process of questioning both what we do as well as how we do it can be off-putting to some. Someone I worked with once lamented that every mutual aid meeting they attended “felt like a philosophy class.”

  2. This tension is also present in the tools and technologies mutual aid groups rely on to communicate, raise funds, and coordinate their work. While much has been written of the purportedly “anti-scale” approach of mutual aid groups (the lead automation engineer at Bed-stuy Strong stated they weren’t “looking for a system that scales”) the reality is that most groups relied heavily on established technological and financial platforms to quickly scale up their operations at the beginning of the pandemic.
    Bed-stuy Strong Systems Design
    A diagram of Bed-stuy Strong's Intake System, circa May 2020.

    Indeed, these platforms - Venmo, Cashapp, Paypal, Airtable, Twilio, Slack, Lyft etc. - exist because they’ve applied scale thinking to their particular problem domain. While many of them have supported mutual aid work through grants, credits, and other rebate programs, I wonder how sustainable this is in the long term. If mutual aid is ultimately concerned with solidarity, then should it do so by relying on the charity of capitalist endeavors? What would it even look like to perform these services without the infrastructure that these companies singularly provide? It’s a tradeoff between responding to crises in the short term and achieving ideological coherency in the long term. Ultimately, I believe that building alternative communal support systems and supporting our neighbors is too important to overly worry about which tools we’re using to do it.

  3. Part of why the tools don’t matter so much is because the real work is interpersonal. Bushwick Ayuda Mutua maintains a group of defensores who maintain relationships with neighbors, facilitating food deliveries, and in-person distributions of essential goods. These volunteers do the work of building trust within the community and responding to individualized needs. It’s often difficult and emotionally taxing, especially when they have to say no to a request. Maintaining a consistent base of volunteers to do this work is challenging, and is partially why groups have been scaling down or restructuring their operations.

  4. The challenge of building sustainable mutual aid groups will be that of fostering a community of dedicated volunteers to do the work. While automating systems will assist in the process, these can only facilitate the interpersonal connections that make an alternative community possible. As a coordinator for the dev team at Bushwick Ayuda Mutua, it’s more important for me to foster a committed group of collaborators than it is to write code. As we start to rebuild our food program and continue supporting essential goods distributions, I hope to bring more people together to support this work.

Whither the Pageview Apocalypse?

”Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us, and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of St. John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.” — Heinrich Heine, Lutetia; or, ‘Paris’, Augsberg Gazette, 1842

The pageview is dead. Jeff Jarvis presided over its wake in 2007, soberly preparing us for a brave new world of Flash, AJAX, and embeddable widgets in which a page was no longer just a page. Chartbeat announced its death as early as 2012 and most recently in a sponsored post for the Online News Association’s upcoming conference. My current position as a 2013 Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellow was granted a messianic status when some equated the fellowship to a violent crusade against the metric.

Yet, when I open Google Analytics, I am presented with a time series chart of pageviews. When I visit newsrooms, I often see a ‘big board’ listing the top ten articles by pageviews. And when I sit in analytics meetings, I regularly hear the metric tossed around as a means of benchmarking one article against another. If, as I’ve been led to believe, this is a post-pageview world, then we must be living in a zombie apocalypse as I’m relentlessly haunted by the metric’s lifeless corpse.

What then of the pageview apocalypse and the prophets who giddily proclaim it? To what ends are these revelations leading us? What strategic aims and benefits are these claims predicated upon?

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In Jacques Derrida’s 1982 essay, Of an Apocalyptic Tone Newly Adopted in Philosophy, he writes of a tendency prevalent in academia in which scholars paradoxically announce the ‘death’ or ‘end’ of their fields. This same tendency can be located in art and culture when critics bemoan the death of Hip-Hop or Punk. The last decade of the News Industry has often resembled the final minutes of Reservoir Dogs, with publications announcing the demise of their counterparts only to be shot down themselves in the following frame. There is even an online newspaper dedicated to the death of newspapers.

For Derrida, though, such apocalyptic declarations are intriguing not for the end they depict, but for the transformative visions embedded within their rhetoric. Grounding his discussion in etymology, ‘apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek apokalupsis which translates to “reveal” or to “uncover.” In the Hebrew Bible, the equivalent word gala is used over a hundred times saying in effect “disclosure, uncovering, unveiling, the veil lifted from about the thing,” most often in reference to the sex and/or genitalia of a man or woman, but also in reference to their sensory organs (eyes, ears, mouth). ‘Apocalypse’, then, literally means the act of uncovering: the removing of clothes, the shifting of hair, or the unveiling of eyes to reveal a secret or unknowable existence just beyond the surface. In this manner, an apocalypse is “essentially a contemplation,” or a meditation upon a veiled state, which is structured by a desire of a particular disclosure or revelation to its thought process.

——

So what is being revealed when the death of the pageview is proclaimed? Our first clue comes from the coroners. More often than not, they are the stewards of Web Analytics, an industry that was largely built upon measuring pageviews. From Chartbeat, to KISSmetrics, to WebTrends, and Nielsen, it seems like every analytics company has shared in the apocalyptic glee. Mixpanel, a particularly brazen analytics startup, even purchased billboard space along Highway 101 to announce the death of the pageview:

Remind you of anything?

Why then are so many analytics companies taking up arms against themselves? What is the meaning of this cargo cult of counter-analytics? Here, we can use the common structure of the above billboards as our guide:

  • Loudly announce the end.
  • Suggest a counter-action.

In almost every case, when we are told the pageview is dead, we are given a list of metrics that will take its place. This is the revelation. Instead of pageviews, we’re advised, we should be quantifying engagement, trying out A/B tests, conducting funnel analyses, or deploying click/event tracking on our sites (conveniently enough, these tools have often just been added to the next iteration of their platforms). And it’s not that these metrics are useless — they can be of great value when designed and deployed correctly — it’s that, in lieu of a critical assessment of how and why pageview-centric platforms failed us, we are instead told that our egotism led us to pay attention to the wrong things in the first place.

Yet, having experimented with many “actionable”, rather than ”vanity metrics”, I can tell you that their results are often just as murky and misleading. Engagement is a moving target; A/B tests, when poorly designed, often produce inconclusive results; event tracking, while incredibly powerful, does not readily enable comparisons across varied contexts. And, even when these tools are utilized to their full potential, it can be very difficult to translate their insights into action. The fact of the matter is that there are no silver bullets, no secrets to be revealed just beyond the pageview. All there is is hard work, open dialogue, and relentless experimentation to find what works in your particular context. After all, we’re talking about measuring the complex behaviors of millions of people.

Still, many will try and seduce you into believing otherwise. This act of seduction, Derrida explains, is the principal strategy of apocalypticism:

”the subject of [apocalyptic] discourse can have an interest in forgoing its own interest, can forgo everything in order to place yet its death on your shoulders and make you inherit in advance its corpse, that is, its soul, the subject hoping thus to arrive at its end through the end” (52).

In this powerful, if enigmatic passage, we begin to understand the true motivations of apocalyptic prophets. Doomsayers do not merely seek acknowledgement of an end-to-come or one that has already passed, they are more concerned with seducing you into accepting the terms on which their continued existence, their vested interests, and their vision of ‘the end’ are all equally possible. It’s not that analytics platforms are flawed, they say, it’s simply that you’re not paying attention to the right parts; It’s not that insights are difficult, they promise, it’s that you’ve been going about finding them in the wrong way.

So when we are told that the ‘pageview is dead’, what we are actually being told is that ‘analytics platforms are dying’; that the current paradigm is fundamentally flawed and that the companies responsible are scrambling to convince us otherwise. And, rather than accepting their share of the blame, they cite our inherent egotism — our blindly narcissistic desire for validation — in a plot to absolve themselves of guilt and justify their importance. In this vision of the apocalypse, Babylon is inhabited by the users of metrics, not their marketers or makers.

——

“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” — T.S. Elliot, The Hollow Men, 1925.

While the big data bubble has inflated quickly, it will not simply ‘pop’. So, instead of worrying about whether we’re measuring the wrong things, or using the wrong tools or software, or falling behind the competition, let’s take a deep breath, ignore the doomsayers, and do the best we can with what we have right now. And, if after a while, that’s still not working, then perhaps we should reassess precisely why, in what manner, and by whom we were convinced that analytics would solve our problems in the first place.