Life is the Ultimate UX (User eXperience)

Curiosity guided me from a working-class childhood into a land of limitless imagination.

Along the way, I honed skills well-suited to the marketing world but the ways and means of that trade steered me clear of it.  Instead, the nascent waves of digital media captured my heart at an SGI (Silicon Graphics) launch party for the Indy, the first desktop media machine.  And I was swept away. 

Held in July 1993 at their Mountain View campus, SGI was riding high on "reanimating" dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.  With Indy, it promised to deliver that capability to the desktop and invited some Bay Area animators to preview its capability.  We were eager to be amazed. 

After promising the Indy would revolutionize our creative lives, SGI founder and CEO, Jim Clark, introduced Marc Andreessen as SGI's newest head in software ventures. Standing beneath a projected photo of the Indy, Andreessen said the image above him wasn't stored on the computer next to him. Instead, the file was actually on a disk across the SGI campus and was being retrieved through an application called Mosaic, the first Web browser to display multimedia content. 

Internet access was rare at the time, but everyone in this audience had experience with an online Usenet group called and knew the limitations of a text-based tool to communicate visual concepts.

So when Clark said that anyone connected to the Internet could type an address called a URL (Uniform Resource Locater) into Mosaic and view this photo on their personal computers, we snapped to attention.  Andreessen then sent an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) message instructing someone in a distant building to upload a different image. When a new photo appeared within seconds, it felt like witnessing a miracle.

An Opportunity to Evangelize

To simply my life as a single-parent in 1995, I returned to live in Montana where I'd grown up. Soon after my son entered kindergarten in Helena, the school district and public library got connected to the Internet. Knowing how isolated an inquisitive young person can feel in a rural setting, this was thrilling news so I produced a pro bono Public Service Announcement (PSA) touting Montana's entry into cyberspace. 
The school district chose eight fifth-grade students to participate in the production and a middle schooler who wanted to learn about editing and sound.

The PSA aired on a local NBC affiliate and won an Addy award. Then seventeen years later, in 2011, I uploaded it to my YouTube channel thinking it might interest some early Internet historians.

By August of 2012 I was happy to see the view count had climbed to 1000.  But the real surprise came just a few days later.  My phone started to ping non-stop with a stream of YouTube email. While befuddled by the reason for this sudden attention, I got a phone call from a writer at Vanity Fair who asked for my reaction to going viral. 

I had no idea what he was talking about but a quick email check confirmed that the pings were YouTube notices about comments posted on the PSA. Views topped 500,000 in a matter of hours and kept climbing past a million the following day.

For the next few weeks, digital notoriety was both exhilarating and exhausting. When a Washington Post reporter referred to me as an "Internet visionary" some friends teased me with warnings about becoming addicted to the attention.  But this was like being trapped in the tornedo scene from the Wizard of Oz.  

The onslaught of parasitic mercenaries was astounding, from offers for bot-inflated view counts to claims of copyright infringement from foreign lawyers. A makeshift production company in Australia even tried to convince Google that the PSA was theirs.

As the count settled into a trickle, I realized this might be my only opportunity for an inside view of YouTube monetization so I opted in. The payback has been a few hundred Google bucks and an invaluable amount insight. 

The most gratifying reward, though, was witnessing the broad and direct immediacy of the Net. Thousands of comments and questions appeared from around the world. My favorite came from a girl in China who was curious about the cat. 

Anti-Social Media Usurps the Web

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Facebook and its "Like" seemed on the verge of finally being called to account. Instead, after a few glib excuses and short-lived dip in its stock price, Facebook was back on top and beyond. 

For those who believed in the Net's humane potential, it was profoundly painful to see it hijacked by Social Media. In 2018, it was this level of disappointment that drew me to the Internet Archive's Decentralized Web Summit in San Francisco.

The Summit was a welcome chance to be among those, including Tim Berners Lee (Sir Tim), creator of the World Wide Web, who were channeling their distress into potential remediation. 

Some young coders who had helped build these profit-driven addiction engines were sounding alarms about their work. Foremost among them was Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist who now works on behalf of the Center for Humane Technology. Harris summarized his experience in the Extractive Attention Economy with this sober truth: "Profiting from the problem, these platforms won’t change on their own."

A phrase that echoed throughout the summit seems destined to become humanity's most appropriate hashtag. 


Exposing the Unknown Knowns

Earlier in this essay, I said that a reporter once described me as a visionary. While that's a compliment I won't claim to own, I will embrace my proclivity for recognizing trends and won't hesitate to state what has been all too obvious for some time. Trust is now the most consequential issue of global life.

Who, how, and why we trust has been reduced to nothing more than a marketing strategy to shape and commodify our behavior, beliefs, politics, and identity. Yet, the majority of us have little or no awareness of the tactics used to achieve such goals. I aim to shed some well-traveled insight on that.