Missing Persons Application!

This is a draft of a blog entry. The idea needs further refinement, and we welcome your feedback!

When a disaster occurs, whether fast like an earthquake or slow like a drought or war, people go missing. As outsiders wishing to contribute to restoring the stability of our worlds, the desire to reunite friends and loved ones through the technology we know so well can be tempting. Making use of our knowledge of social platforms, geotagging, and databases is far easier than addressing the long-term systemic injustices which allow these crises to affect entire populations in the way they do, afterall. But let’s say a typhoon has just made landfall, or that there’s a sudden influx of refugees from a drought-blighted country, and you and a group of your friends have gathered to see what you can do about it. This is beautiful — we need to learn how to work in solidarity with those in other geographies. But it’s also a delicate space. This particular post is about whether or not you should build that missing persons app, or spend your time contributing to something like Google Person Finder, OpenStreetMap, Sahana, or Standby Task Force instead.

The missing persons/reunification domain of humanitarian response is not just about people logging themselves so as to be findable by those missing them. It’s also about those individuals being protected during the process, having support in finding those they’ve been separated from, and the infrastructure which surrounds these actions. Software has a lot to contribute to connection, information security, and sorting through indexes, but missing persons is a delicate space with real humans in the mix.

This is an inhabited space

There are already missing persons tools and organizations which have been vetted for capacity and integrity for follow-through and security. Here are the few most successfully used ones: American Red Cross’ Safe and Well, Google Person Finder, Sahana, Refugees United, International Committee of the Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Please offer to help improve and maintain these existing tools (code repos and communities are linked to from each name)! If you are uncomfortable or unsure of how to contact them, please let me/Tim know!

However, we also understand that the world changes. We gain access to new technologies, there are new clever people in the world, and our understandings of situations change. There is *always* room for improvement in this space, just as any other. Want to do something substantively “better” or different than what the existing tools and organizations already do? Here’s what you need to know:

A component, not a solution

The software-based frontend and backing database are a TINY FRACTION of the overall system of missing persons reunification efforts. People are often missing for a *reason*, possibly because of political unrest, domestic violence, or displacement. If your platform publishes photos of someone or their geographic location, will someone try to come after them? Can you protect their physical and emotional wellbeing? There are national and international laws in place to protect such individuals, especially children, and your component of the system must be in alignment with those laws (or have a damn good and intentional reason for not being as such). Ethically, you should also respect an individual’s desire or need for privacy. In the Missing Persons Community of Interest, organizations handling missing persons data are reviewed by external parties for their ability to perform long-term maintainence and protection of said data. You and your tool will need to undergo the same rigor before being launched.

Complications versus easing interaction

Your goal is to make finding loved ones easier, right? Think about how many tools are already in play (see “This is an inhabited space” section above), and what adding one more to the mix would be like. Every new missing persons platform is another point of decision-making stress on the missing persons and those seeking them. Imagine being asked for personal information about yourself while under extreme duress over and over and over again.. or having to repeatedly enter in the details of someone you love and are deeply worried about while on a desperate search for them. The listed existing tools have gone through (and in some cases, are still working out) data sharing flows to reduce these stressors while still maintaining their committments to privacy and security of the data they hold. If you launch your tool, you’ll need to adhere to the same levels of empathy, respect, privacy, and sharing. (Side note, please don’t start a “uniting platform,” either, lest we get here. That’s what sharing standards are about.)

We look forward to your heartfelt, well-thought out contributions to this space.

Tim and Willow

…and yet…

At Cascadia.JS in 2014, I picked up a tshirt from the freebie pile. It’s pink. I know — I was also shocked about this, but the quote on the front was so good I had to go for it. “We don’t know what we’re doing either.” On the back is a subtle “&yet” which I learned was an open source consulting company (ish). Neat! — humility, a culture that accepts shirts which are both pink and comfortable, and a nuanced logo. I especially love wearing this shirt in academic and tech-centric situations.

A few months ago, Case asked my consent to be put in touch with someone on the &yet team — they had a conference coming up, and had suggested I speak. Our phone conversation was brief, but it sounded both fun and values-based, so I said yes (a rarer and rarer thing for me these days), and so I spent Wed/Thurs/Fri of last week in Richland, Washington. If interested, here are my drawings of others’ talks, my slide deck, and the paper I referenced.

It is now easily one of my favorite large social experiences. Music, art, and story were woven throughout the conference, all evoking self-reflection on our role in the path the world takes. It was already populated by some of my favorite people in this space (the aforementioned case, plus ben, jden, kawandeep, etc), and the textcapade starting weeks in advance, recieving letters from another character in the story by mail, all playing through these struggles, had me jazzed up long before the event.

The talks were a beautiful mix of art demonstrations, hopeful distribution structures, empathy arcs, and design philosophies. Inclusion was constantly present, and never for its own sake, but rather from a deep understanding that these are the voices that make up the world. The care &yet took of attendees (and encouraged us to take for each other) opened space for some rather heart-wrenching moments. Please, check out the talks when they go up.

While all of this is amazing, I want to talk about the trust and responsibility that &yet placed in the attendees. The storyline was a surprisingly nuanced version of one of my own ongoing internal battles — burn it all down, or patch to save what we can. (The mixed-mode system work is my attempt at making these transitions graceful, by the by). At no point was a clear value judgement imposed upon the story, or implied to the players. The textcapade transitioned into a sort of backchannel for actors in the parts of those sending the messages at points during the conference, and this archetypical internal battle continued to be played out there as well as by stage actors between talks.
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Liminal Transport

One used to pick me up from the airport, on whatever motorcycle was working, my hip-shaped leathers on under his, a matryoshka doll of care. We’d each have a backpack, holding on tight for safety and because it was the thing to do.

Another still does sometimes, eye-corners crinkling, the easiest silence. The city always appearing around the same bend, a skyline of calm.

Wedged in the front of a bicycle’s cargo bucket, luggage on my lap, while one took us to a front-yard farm to play ukulele music.

Another took pictures as I rode off, capturing our overlapping liminal spaces.

One with temporal and signal precision to arrival doors and green lights, dive bombing down hills and through streets. Rapid-fire catch-up on passions and focus.

A surprise-pile of people under bags in a backseat, through the deserted streets and crunching deep snow of some city. A warm greeting after a stressful time.

One took my 10+hours off-zone self to a warm bed and a shower in their profane and sacred home.

Finding the metal angler fish to get to the private plane, to be taken to find a car covered in floppy disks stashed away in a parking lot, followed by blissful water and the first time we slept intertwined.

In the backseat, a tiny person knitting, another devising experiments to make explosions scientific. Me not holding your hand.

One dropped me off at an airport on one side of the country, and weeks later retrieved me from somewhere else, that same smile and hatchback somehow transported. Now accompanied by a very polite dog and a growing history.

When one held the art between us, wind rushing past, uncertain if the high was from the bike or from the fear.

I took the train from the plane, and another handed me a heavily caffeinated drink and a helmet.

From the backseat, staring at the headlong scar from home to departure, through radiation-thinned hair, a freckled abyss.

But usually it’s gruff drivers, or confusing transit, and I’m not sure I’m thrilled by the adventure any longer.

Life, Distributed

Most of my work focuses these days on social justice in networks. Distributed response is this – how do we perform mutual aid in times of extreme events? Weaponized Social is sort of this (hey, did you know we’re doing one in Nairobi? Also in San Francisco?), of the role of an individual and a group in a networked culture. Networked Mortality is about how we deal with death in a networked age, how a distributed group copes with the loss of one of its members. I gave a talk at Arse Elektronika years ago about PostGeographic Sexuality — what it was like to be partnered with people when encounters are instance-based, rather than cycle-based.

The whole thing a little bit ago with the manic episode pointed at something else glaring in my life which needs to be explicitly coped with in a new way: pattern detection. While I could just take medication to create hard-borders around my affect, I’d rather at least attempt meditation practices to cope. But the interim is potentially dangerous – what if my unpracticed mind isn’t able to do it, or (worse yet) fails to catch that it’s not working? A person with a more standard life might ask a neighbor or partner to look out for them, but that’s not much of an option for me. How am I, who at my most stationary still spends half of each week for 3 weeks a month Providence and the other half in Camberville, and one week a month in the Bay Area; supposed to benefit from people who care for me noticing my unhealthy patterns? How is anyone supposed to notice a pattern with me?

So I’ve started to do this intentionally, similarly to all of the other exercises. A small group of people, who do see me more often (and regularly) than most, have been put in touch with each other with the explicit purpose to check with each other if I seem to be going off the rails in any way. I’ve caved and purchased a fitbit (an evil step sibling to the Pebble of which I’m quite fond), so the Warning Signs (excess coffee, extended sleep deprivation, etc) can be noticed by other people. A tiny web of friendly surveillance. I don’t yet know how it will go, but I do find it highly amusing that Distributed Life is present even here.

I’ve detailed out my process, in case anyone is interested in replicating it.
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A Thousand Tiny Loops

We get a thousand tiny checks a day that keep us from being jerks to each other. Someone grimacing at the joke you’re about to make, blog entries from Captain Awkward, twinkles and blocks at a meeting. Some of these are empathetic – knowing how you feel when someone looks at their phone when you are talking might deter you from doing the same to someone else. Some are explicit – mailing list rules you agree to when signing up. Generally, there’s little chance of you doing something super awful if you’re surrounded by good people, and invested in learning about the world and your role in it. This is part of how we society. This is part of why and how we social movement.

encountering people and other interactions with social contracts make path-finding easier.

encountering people and other interactions with social contracts make path-finding easier.


When those checks aren’t working

Given my incredibly limited understanding of the autism spectrum, it seems that some of these feedback loops simply aren’t able to be processed by some folk. But there is a thing which I do know about where the ability to care about the check-back, adjusting part of the feedback loop breaks down. Let me take you into the brain of a manic person. IE, me.

Being hypo-manic (slightly manic most of the time) is like having a super power. I have a ridiculous amount of energy and drive. I will joyfully get things done that many might find insurmountably daunting. My response to chaotic no-win scenarios is to role my sleeves up and get going. I tend to think, that in one week: giving a talk, teaching a class, moderating a multi-hour discussion, spending time with people I love, and still pulling 40 hours of standard work of all sorts of rad projects and foundation-building is maybe not actually as productive as I would have liked to have been.

The stiletto of this persistent silver lining is that it also means, occasionally, feedback loops quit being as such during severe manic episodes. Social understandings I’ve agreed to, upheld, even helped create just… quit mattering. Explicit agreements are left to the wayside in enthusiasm to enact SOMETHING WHICH IS GOING TO BE TOTALLY AMAZING. Everything is going to be fine! The people I have those agreements with will understand this change in plan! Have some faith in me, while I trample your ability to be a consenting adult in this situation! In short, my brain’s connection between action and consequence (not just to me, but to anyone involved) is broken.

the only thing that matters during a manic episode is that thing you've decided you want to do.

the only thing that matters during a manic episode is that thing you’ve decided you want to do.

I’ve experienced a grand total of 2 episodes severe enough to merit people calling me out in ways I couldn’t ignore in that state, and the subsequent depressive crash while I figure out what to do about still being a person of integrity even when I am not myself is pretty fucking mind-melting as well. Which is where I am right now.

The fallout

After the episode collapses, the fallout is the most sickening experience in the world. People and projects I love have been exposed to injury by the same mechanism which I advocate for the hardest otherwise — our ability and desire to build greater things together than we could on our own.

To see an episode after it has passed is to be alienated from one’s self. To lack any connection, empathy, or understanding for who I was in a moment (or moments); in the same way my other-self had lacked any connection, empathy, or understanding for those I cared about in those moments. Of course I know better. I not only try to demonstrate how people can Suck Less, I try to provide scaffolding for such as well. How could I have done this thing that I help others know not to do?

Despite that disconnect, I’ve still found it vital to be accountable to my actions. “It wasn’t me” isn’t an excuse I wish to explore. It was me, some strange, terrifying part of myself that I don’t understand and that I’d rather didn’t show up at all. I can only hope that owning up to these glitches in my brain-system can rebuild the trust I destroy in those moments. I feel like I’m picking up the pieces after a destructive family member I can’t help but love has wrecked havoc across a project I love. “That was not ok,” other people say. “I know,” I respond. Because I do.

This is a process

Selfishly, I want us to figure out how to deal with people like me. People committed to causes, with (hopefully meaningful) things to offer on a pretty solid ongoing basis. But people who also cannot be 100% trusted all of the time.

Yes, I see someone about this. Yes, I sometimes take things to help regulate it. But I’m more interested in society’s take, as always. We’re starting to have dialogues about depression – how to signal it, how to take care of ourselves and others, etc… and we need to keep figuring those things out. I’d like this to get figured out, too.

None of us is perfect. None of us should be. Dealing with our flaws in healthy ways is yet one more way we build futures better than our selves. 

Adventures with the TSA

In the last month, I’ve had two interesting experiences with the TSA. Both times, the airline ended up saving the day. I’m writing this not as a “LOOK HOW BAD THIS HAS BECOME!” as I have friends in targeted demographics as well as friends on lists who consistently get detained, and they already write far more eloquently and intimately about that side of things than I could wish to. This is more a “look at what this is like, for someone who is socially aware but also not in a tracking system” (that I know of).

What’s in a Name?

The back issue on my end is this: I like my first name, but it’s not my social name – that’s “Willow,” my middle name. I have no desire to change my names, especially not to simply make the job the state has taken on easier. This means, when I travel internationally, my full name is listed with the airline from my passport, which also means my frequent flier programs have FIRST MIDDLE LAST. Which means when I book an intra-continental flight, my FIRST LAST shows up, while MIDDLE LAST are on all of my locally-relevant IDs (driver’s license, credit cards, academic IDs, etc). I have usually just brought an ID which indicates my first initial, and everything’s dandy.

This hasn’t been an issue until the last two months, when it has suddenly become enough of a red flag that merits extensive measures be taken that I’m not a dangerous person. Which means going through all of my stuff and a thorough pat down. Which is often used as a threat, not as a heads up. As someone who has consistently opted out of scanners which can store and transmit images of your body (and therefore into pat-downs) for the past 5 years of heavy travel, I’m pretty acquainted with the less aggressive version of this process. I asked to see the policy stating that they had a right to touch me, based on my name. TSA informed me that no one is allowed to see their policies, and to please wait on a supervisor.

A gold sticker replicates a TSA-agent's badge and reads "TSA Team Boston, Junior Officer" with the Department of Homeland Security emblem and eagles all over the place.I waited. And waited. My flight began to board. I was still on the other side of security. Finally, I went to the airline desk and told them what was going on, and they changed the name on the ticket to match the ID I had on hand. I made my flight. I’m not sure if the airline did a legal thing, so I’m not naming them, but holy shit am I grateful.

Victory point: the TSA staff felt so badly about their process and supervisor being so shitty that they gave me a junior TSA agent sticker. To which Jenbot responded “You’re just two more pasties away from the world’s funniest private screening.”

Nonconsensual Pat Downs!

Last night had significantly less humor. I, for once, went for the full-body scan thing. My emotional fortitude to opt out of every process is slowly being worn down, which just pisses me off even more. I hate rolling over and showing my belly, but I also hate being touched by strangers who think I’m a fucking villain 3+ times a month. The scan showed an “anomaly in my pants” (lulz), and the female-identified TSA agent started patting me down before verbal acknowledgement nor even eye contact were made. I stopped her, saying I hadn’t consented to a pat down, at which point she indicated the anomaly and stated a pat-down needed to happen. I said I understood, but I hadn’t yet consented. She asked if there was going to be a problem, I said “with you touching me without my consent? Yes.” She then deployed the mantra of “going through all of my stuff and a thorough pat down,” but this time with about 3 additional TSA agents, a manager, and 2 federal officers around me, with them holding onto my stuff.

I balked. I’d rather spend another night where I was than deal with this (I was in a lovely place with lovely people). They tried to take my ID to scan it for a report I wouldn’t see. I instead put on my boots, got my bags (they didn’t resist my taking my things, but they also didn’t make it clear in any way it was possible), and walked towards the airline counter to sort things out. As I was walking away, one of the federal officers told me in a surprisingly friendly tone that if I attempted to make it through a different security line that night, I would be arrested and criminal charges pressed against me.

The airline informed me that I could use the ticket’s cost towards a future flight, but that they couldn’t book me on another flight the next day free of charge. That was between me and the TSA. I went back to the security line and talked with state officers, the TSA manager, and their manager about my general work, large-scale conflict resolution, sexual assault survivors, trans friends, and the TSA’s lack of empathy and effectiveness. I should have left the last part out, but I was pissed off. They allowed me to go through the process that night, if I were willing to go through the pat-down and stuff-going-through. And fuck it, my going home was more important in that moment than my civil liberties. And yes, I’m also well aware that basically no other demographic would have been able to have this privilege (because while it was personally deeply uncomfortable and not ok, it was still a systemic privilege to be able to have a re-do).

A friend who happened to be in the airport at the same time (small world is small) had seen some of this happening, and waited past security for me to be sure everything was all right. I’m deeply thankful for this act of kindness and manifestation of social fabric. Also that the TSA manager enacted the pat-down, as a personalized moment of “I know I’m a part of a fucked up system.” I made it through security at the core of the airport just as my flight was meant to be taking off in a peripheral gate, but I jogged to my gate anyway. And the goddamn airline held an entire flight for 15 minutes just so I could still get out that night. So much gratitude.

Internal Consistency is How the Terrorists Win, Apparently

It’s worth noting here that I fly a fair amount. I also tend to detect patterns and systems fairly well. I dread the inevitable next agent-splaining of how TSA policies work, which are always attempts to be kind and to let me in on “how things work,” but are never remotely consistent. Fuck you. The haphazard nature of enforcement has little to do with “let’s keep ’em guessing!” and far more to do with “what equipment is working today and what rules we’ve been chop-busted about most recently.”

Which Just Adds To…

The cycle we’re caught up in right now does little to nothing to “catch the terrorists” (which is also just slapping a band-aid on a gaping wound of systemic problems) and a whole lot in further ostracizing and demeaning historically marginalized demographics.

I have no idea what to do with this – the work I can’t not do (for passion, for frustration, for specialization) merits traveling a fair amount. The people I love are a distributed lot. But I also can’t handle instances like this happening too much more before… something has to change. Me, or it.

Here’s something I used to do a lot more, and which now I’ve been worn down out of doing, so I can still have emotional capacity for other things I care about. And that also pisses me off.


While I’ve long been interested in Cochlear Implants, a combination of consistently reading Mel Chua’s blog and my ongoing fights for space for visual expression on Wikimedia Commons has reinforced my investment in accessibility. The more ways we express ourselves, after all, the more chances we have of being understood.

While it’s great to be aware of a need to become more accessible (see Benetech’s Diagram or this talk at Cascadia.JS by Alex Qin), it’s a bit more difficult to figure out if you’re “doing it right” when attempting to become more accessible. I have the terrible habit of adding in footnotes, or of linking things thoroughly, which can disrupt the text-to-speech experience. Sorry, everyone.

The most basic step I’ve taken is adding the “Accessibility plug in” on WordPress. Then, based on feedback from Twitter, running Apple Voice Over, which shows I’ve got a long way to go, but it’s also far better than it was in the past. I now think I get things just well enough to realize when I’m making layout choices balancing visual appeal and audio accessibility.

I have started taking audio recordings for some of my entries, and I’ll continue to slowly flesh this out. Additionally, some image descriptions are now far more detailed and… poetic?… than they have been before, as inspired by discussion with Diagram at Aspiration’s DevSummit. If you have requests for either image descriptions or audio files, please let me know. This has the added benefit of reminding people there’s a real live person behind the entries on this blog, stumbling speech and all.

But I still don’t know if I’m “doing it right.” How do I find out? I feel strangely like someone stumbling on social justice… is it on people already marginalized to lead me to doing things less wrong? Regardless, I’ll keep bumbling along on my own, open to learning more.

You belong to society

I’ve been unable to continue ignoring a notion that most people I see in online debates about gender1 carry, which is that those in these debates do not think they impact society, and subsequently have no individual responsibility towards it. It is simply a soup of which they are a part, where they are a stone — immutable to the broth around them, of no consequence to the overall flavor.

Let’s talk about emergence, here from the Complex Systems perspective, as the interaction between the parts and the whole. “Can’t see the forest for the trees,” as not being able to see the big picture because one is so focused on the next-scale-down of units (trees), despite these composing the next-larger-up scale (forest). Each has different behaviors, which slightly or drastically effects the other. Or, “the devil is in the details,” in which the opposite happens, the smaller-scale being skipped over while the next-larger-scale is focused on. You’ll note that these things matter to each other. They influence each other. In many circumstances, these two scales are caught up in creating each other in at least some small way2. To claim that one is more important than the other glazes over this connection. Plus, the math doesn’t work out right.

Let’s talk about values. I would like a just and equal world. I bet most of the people I talk to would also like some version of this. Some folk hold other amazing core values such as inclusion or empowerment. Here’s the thing to understand: anyone you interact with3 will be holding something like this inside of them. Maybe not so explicitly, maybe not as an active part of their interactions, but it is there.

Let’s talk about fault. The people that got us to where we are now were doing the best they could under the circumstances. Maybe some were malicious, but generally. they were just surviving. People in power tend to want to continue doing well. People who are out of power generally make do, though they’re likelier to have a generally more shitty time. Inequality makes both sets unhappy. It’s not the fault of the people in power that the structures which allow them to be in power exist; it’s not the fault of those out of power that they were born into a setting that keeps them out of power.

Let’s talk about responsibility. While no one currently alive is to blame for history, we are currently building the next generation’s history. Hell, we’re building our own. And we have a responsibility to act in a way which upholds our values, rather than shirks responsibility as bizarrely tied to fault. I don’t want to take the responsibility to respond kindly to this person because their upset is not my individual fault. I don’t want to help clean up after dinner because not all the plates are my fault. I don’t want to take responsibility for mending the rifts in society because they’re not my fault4.

In each of these, it is not just what you are asking for yourself, but what you are changing in the people around you. When a child is being surly, and a parent reacts badly because a nerve got struck5, the wrong lesson is being imparted. It’s not about the parent’s feelings in that moment. It’s about how the child learns how to react to someone expressing their feelings in a not-yet-eloquent way6.

Sometimes taking on this responsibility to society means shutting up, even when you’re right. Sometimes taking on this responsibility means speaking up, even when your voice trembles. Sometimes this means cleaning the common area, even though you haven’t even been around for the past week. It means having differences and resolving them in a way that makes sense for future generations to also resolve them, even if you’re not happy with the results.

When anyone says “my individual experience matters more in this moment than how we as a society deal with moments like these” I see them as throwing a tiny tantrum rather than building a better world. It’s not their fault. Why should they have to do anything to fix it? This is why I continue to think Laurie’s piece is so great and I get filled with rage and bile at StarSlateCodex. This is why I find GamerGaters outright laughable7. This is why I find some of my geek feminism friends so aggravating at points7. In all of this, I see why they’re saying what they’re saying. Of course those feelings are valid. But that’s not the whole point, is it?

Get our shit together. Focus on where we want to be, and manifest that in each interaction we have. This is what I assume most people are doing, and why I’m now so comfortable saying “I don’t like how we’re doing this, can we try another way?”

I don’t like how we’re doing this. Let’s find another way.


1. And race, now, too!
2. Exceptions of pragmatic lock-and-key example, and the theoretical molecule representation of same self model.
3. With incredibly rare exception, not based on if you get along with them or not.
4. Are you fucking kidding me, this is how we get ants.
5. children can be astute little fuckers
6. I am in no way claiming to be amazing at this, merely that I am aware of, and subsequently actively working on, it.
7. “You need to listen to me!” they say, while not listening.

Expressions of Solidarity


I wonder if, what Scott means, in this whole storm recently, is actually:

“Your struggle is my struggle. While I had a really rough time growing up, it must have been just as hard for people like me, and even harder for those facing structural oppression. I want to fight these systems with you. When you say I’m ‘privileged,’ I feel like my experience is being discounted and it makes it difficult for me to be in solidarity with you.”

I feel like this is what Laurie is asking for. I know it’s what I would ask for.

Teaching People to Fish

When people tell me that Cartesian systems are optimized, I want to laugh. Of course they are, but we’ve optimized for the bits we know about. We’ve focused on optimization of output, not on optimization of adaptability. And the Quest for the Upper Right Quadrant (aka Capitalism, aka the Singularity, aka any overly simplistic idea of infinite growth and eventual overall simplicity) is always about output. In systems in which the power distribution is also hierarchical (aka, the ones we’ve got), people are not empowered to deviate from set tasks to cover those unknown parts. This is why the idea of innovation and entrepreneurship is so fraught. To some, it’s about empowering for adaptability and connection, for gap filling. For others, it’s about hurry up faster to that upper right.

Which brings us to this article I referenced a bit ago as abhorrent.

The following comments are worth looking at, as well.

Please Do Not Teach This Woman to Fish

After all, which economy is more productive — one in which every single person is an entrepreneur, or one in which a minority of entrepreneurs employ the majority of people?

To understand why, consider a common-sense question: How big can a business be in a rural village? There aren’t many customers there, and incomes aren’t very high either. A business would have to serve several villages to start creating jobs in any significant numbers. Now, consider rural women with families. They may be reliable repayers of loans, but they’re much less mobile than single men. Single men can move to cities, or at least cover a lot of ground in the countryside, in an effort to win new customers.

Of course, these jobs won’t always go to the rural women helped by microfinance programs. Microfinance programs may be one of the best ways to help them, short of having their children take jobs in cities. Nor are these jobs necessarily the ones that fulfill the social goals in the mission statements of Western nonprofit organizations. But they are the kinds of jobs that brought hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty and could someday do the same for Indians, Haitians, and Congolese. In these countries, the quickest way to escape poverty is likely to be via bus to the nearest city for a manufacturing job. Hundreds of millions of economic migrants know this, but so-called antipoverty experts are just beginning to understand it.

Two things in this that bring out my “are you fucking kidding me” reaction.

  1. I find it distracting and ridiculous when untenable living situations are equated to financial poverty, and focus only on the funds, not on the conditions which the funds MIGHT alleviate. It’s possible to work and still be miserable. Wage labor rant. Being slowly crushed by capitalism (or communism!) rant. Capitalism is but one way to attempt to interact, not the only way. Sure, it’s good at propagating ideas quickly, at fast iteration, etc, but too often it leads to:
  2. The idea that we have a hierarchy as a necessity in any business. That there are employers, and there are those who do the shit jobs to keep things running. We are all humans, we are all equal, and it is just as possible to find joy and honor (or misery and bitterness) in driving a taxi or gutting fish as it is to find the same in leading a multinational business or making the internet work. To insist otherwise is to discredit the experience of millions (billions?) of people. To want to reinforce the idea that those jobs are actual shit is to actively demean everyone doing them.

No business, organization, relationship is dependent upon power structures being in place, where some work is “more important” than other work. A business, organization, and relationship where all parties are encouraged and expected to examine, innovate, and contribute is one which is adaptable and successful. It is one which is scalable in a complex and networked world. So yes, teach that woman to fish. Better yet, ask her to teach you. She’ll catch more than you ever will, with all your business and economics training.