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So much for the daily blogging habit. Here's a lazy list of things on my mind: accessing money in academia, getting off Google, and the fog of identity and war.
Published onMar 14, 2022

So much for that daily, turned weekly, turned…extremely occasional blogging habit, eh? To get back into it, I’m gonna be lazy and just do a random list of things on my mind, like the blogs of yore.

Sometimes, accessing money is a bigger problem than making a sale. Yes, sure, globally, in the financial sense, especially right now. But also for people trying to build things in the academic publishing ecosystem. My non-profit recently launched a membership program. To keep the lights on, we eventually need something like 450 people — a combination of independent journals, publishers, libraries, departments, and funders mostly, but not exclusively situated at universities — to contribute an average of $2800 per year. We know that multiple groups at most universities have that money to spend. And many decision-makers at those groups tell us they want to support us, and open, non-profit projects like us! So in a lot of cases the sale is pretty easy. But the interface for accessing the money can sometimes be absurd in the extreme.

Every university has its own unique procurement process, with its own rules about what and how much it can and can’t pay for, and who can make the decisions about what kinds of payments, and so on. Some of these processes can be so byzantine that we have to strategize with prospective members on how to get their institutions to cough up the money they have already earmarked for us. If we were selling to for-profit corporations we’d mostly be able say “enter your credit card info here” and that would be that. If we were a for-profit corporation ourselves, the interface would be at least a little bit simpler because we’d be able to say “you pay us for these exact services, which we take away if you don’t continue to pay us,” which is at least language procurement interfaces understand. And, with the product and revenue traction we’ve already demonstrated, we’d be able to raise a bunch of money to hire a sales team to navigate the rest of the complexity.

But being a mission-driven nonprofit with values that align with universities has, ironically, made it much, much harder to be supported by those universities. Because when a procurement person sees a line item for nearly $3,000 for a membership, they naturally ask, “hold on, what do we get?” To which we answer: “the ability to email us, invites to some parties, and the vague sense that you’re contributing to the continued existence of the platforms we build that you rely on.” And then they go: “so if we didn’t pay you, what would happen?” And we say “nothing, but there’s a risk we’d go away.” The nice ones ask “can we pay you for a license to the software instead?” To which we can do nothing but shrug and gesture at the IRS.

Anyhow, we’re figuring it out and doing pretty well. But maybe universities that want non-profits like us to exist should make it easier for themselves to support folks like us.

Openness isn’t a panacea. Back when I worked at Google, I believed the “don’t be evil” bullshit, because big tech companies organize themselves like nation-states, and I was young and naive and became a patriot. But, as a Twitter thread that made the rounds again reminded me, Google is actually super, duper evil.

Coincidentally, a friend also asked for advice about buying a new phone and laptop on the same day I read that thread again. My advice was more or less to pay the premium for the Apple ecosystem, because although it’s plenty evil in its own ways, it doesn’t make (much?) money from selling user data, leading to far fewer coercive business practices across the board than Google.

When I make that argument to tech people, they will still often respond with the old standby that Android is de facto better because it’s more open. Which, sure, the software for the operating system is open-source, and iOS very much is not. You could technically, and legally, customize Android to do whatever you want, including to avoid Google’s worst practices. But your decision to buy into the ecosystem still supports a company that has used the reach of its open platform to spy on users without their consent, coerce them into handing over more data, scam small businesses by rigging ad auctions, engage in illegal price-fixing with competitors, lobby against competitors and regulators adopting user privacy practices, and scheme to effectively corner the web itself with its AMP platform, among many other terrible things. Openness is a design decision that can lead to better outcomes for users, but we often conflate it with a value in and of itself.

Also, I still use Chrome and Gmail, but this reminds me to finally take the time go back to Firefox and switch to Fastmail.

Conflicting paradigms can coexist. I don’t spend a lot of time on social media anymore, but I’m still on Instagram sometimes and, well, the war in Ukraine has been a great reminder of just how good social media is at flattening reality’s complexity into jingoistic pronouncements, and just how bad that is for society. Among the justified rage at Russia’s invasion, and the justified rage at how little attention we’ve paid to similar atrocities when we were the perpetrators and/or the victims weren’t white Europeans, there are strands, across the political spectrum, of both outright warmongering and reactionary anti-imperialism that seem kinda dangerous?

The warmongering isn’t anything new, so I’ll just remind you all that Vladimir Putin has enough nukes at his disposal to wipe out most of life on earth and that’ll be that, right? More interesting is the anti-imperialist take that’s being slung around, like the U.S. DSA’s statement on the war. In a few terse paragraphs it manages to mostly blame U.S. expansionism for the conflict, oppose sanctions, military aid, and any other kind of “unilateral coercive measures, militarization, and other forms of economic and military brinkmanship,” and propose leaving NATO as a means of solving the conflict. In other words, it seems that to prove your radical bonafides, you have to basically not want to help people in Ukraine and want to give Putin one of the things he desires most in the world in the dissolution of NATO.

I can hear the howls of activists now — of course we want to help people, just not like this. And to a degree, I get that. I’m just about as radical as they come. I’m so anti-imperialist I’m not even sure states as a whole are a good idea. I definitely want NATO to not have to exist, and for the U.S. to end, apologize, and pay for its imperialism, past, present and future.

At the same time, I’m sure I don’t need to remind the DSA that the international order we have right now more or less only understands and responds to economic and military violence — particularly the aforementioned maniac with the nukes. No amount of “deescalation and diplomacy” is going to stop the bombs being dropped on Ukraine (and yes, other places, including by the U.S. military) right now unless it is backed by threats of violence the system, and Putin as a central part of it, understands.

So, I think even radicals should be able to acknowledge that within the existing paradigm, and particularly because of the very real threat of global nuclear annihilation, the sanctions and aid deployed by NATO and allies represent the best approach to ending the conflict with as minimal loss of life as possible. And at the same time, we can point out that none of this would be necessary if we were to build a better international order that didn’t automatically equate wealth with power. As the unprecedented attention to previously untouchable ill-gotten foreign wealth in Britain and elsewhere demonstrates, the moral bankruptcy of the system is showing more clearly than ever before. Surely we can acknowledge the complexity of our reality and find ways to use this moment to push for the transition to a better paradigm while acknowledging that, within the current one, the most prudent action right now is not to withdraw from NATO.

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