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Letters with @jsonbecker, week one

A couple of months ago, Jason Becker created the Letters project in which he and a volunteer correspond for a month via email. I volunteered and was given the month of February. We will be cross-posting these between our blogs. Here is the link to his post containing these letters.

Dear Jason,

I was immediately interested when I saw your post about a letters project for 2023 and grateful that you accepted me when I volunteered. I also have some thoughts on your motivation for this project, which I will share after I briefly tell you a bit about myself.

Rachel and I are two months shy of being married for 25 years and we have a daughter who just turned 17. I’m a CPA working at a large nonprofit. I’m an unapologetic tree hugger who has started (with Rachel) a regenerative gardening project in my tiny backyard. I’ve blogged off and on since 2005 and I’ve recently started woodworking.

I resonated with your idea that public, online letters are an excellent way to discuss complex topics with more nuance. You said your favorite online world was that of personal blogs in conversation with each other. As I mentioned, I’ve been blogging since 2005 and that was definitely how it worked for me in those early days. In the circle of blogs I was part of, we were always either quoting-and-commenting on whatever we were reading or quoting-and-commenting on what others in our circle were saying. (So many blockquotes.) It truly was a form of public correspondence.

Correspondence should a series of responses, not just two people sending each other a series of monologues. There is give and take, and a measure of risk. You opened up this project to volunteers with no assurance that you wouldn’t get a bunch of bores! I signed up for this project, not really knowing you, hoping I wouldn’t come off as some weirdo.

Algorithmically driven reactions to “content” determined to be either popular or profitable are also not true correspondence. Algorithms, being engineered, do not open themselves to response in that more organic, human way.

And with that I’ll close this first letter and await your unpredictable human response!

Hi Jeremy,

Welcome to the project!

Let’s talk about the real world motivation behind this project. It’s not really just about capturing the old internet, it’s about capturing the kind of social life I want to have. I work remotely from home. I’ve done so for more than a decade, though there’s been a formal office for me to report to as desired on and off throughout that period. Before that, I was “online” more or less since the mid 90s. I still spent a lot of time on the phone, mostly talking to girls, in the early 2000s, but I was more or less permanently logged into AOL Instant Messenger since the availability of always-on cable internet around 2000/2001. Throughout college, I spent time on various online forums, on instant messenger, or communicating via email. Then, just as I graduated, the iPhone suddenly made being online something that wasn’t persistent just at home, but everywhere I went. Messaging became something I did on the computer to something I was doing constantly.

I am 35 now, and I would say that 80% of my social life has been through a screen, but in some kind of reverse Pareto principle, only 20% of the value has come from these virtual interactions.

The thing is, I think that socializing through screens has become worse over time, not better. When it was both less central, slower, and lower fidelity, I feel like I got so much more out of my online interactions.

When I thought about why it came down to a few factors.

  1. Most online socializing was additive, not subtractive. I spoke to people I would have never met or interacted with on topics I may not have otherwise engaged in. What was online started as new, but now has become a substitute for other ways I might interact with folks.
  2. Most online socializing was deeper than my in-person interactions. As a male teenager, it felt safer being vulnerable or exposed when conversations were mediated through a screen, often behind pseudonymity with other pseudonymous strangers. My identity could be more fluid, but also I could take risks about myself without feeling the same consequences. And in some ways, it was also critical that I could interact as a peer with adults.
  3. Most online conversations were centered around interests, with long ongoing conversations that fueled a culture and debates. Subcultures not only generate belonging, they generate a certain set of knowledge that felt valuable and powerful and helped to shape how I think about important things.

With Letters, I am mostly hoping for an opportunity for ongoing interactions, with a person and possibly around a topic, that develops a mini-culture over time. I want to capture the value of my real world friendships and interactions– vulnerability that comes not just from pseudonyms or the comfort of hiding behind a screen but from deeper understanding, a conversation that spans hours and not seconds, and a true dialog that has no lead, but instead partners pulling and pushing and forming where we go.

So in the interest of driving the conversation away from the meta and into some meat, let’s talk about your identity as a treehugger.

My mother long styled herself an environmentalist. This comes from a real belief in how a toxic environment can impact individual and public health, as well as a love of nature. I grew up in a family that valued planting trees and hated the idea of corporations polluting without consequences or remediation.

And yet, as I grew older, I began to recognize the many ways that my mother’s environmentalism felt inconsistent with what might actually help the environment. She is an avowed suburbanite, living somewhere that requires the use of a car for everyday living. She fought against additional, denser housing in favor of open space as a part of her environmentalism. She disdained apartment buildings in favor of single-family housing and perceives city living as polluted and disgusting, not at all updating her perceptions of New York City in the early 70s compared to today.

I’ve come to feel deeply disconnected from the traditional environmental movement that fights for local control on zoning and building, extensive environmental review processes, and preservation of open space in already developed areas. My environmentalism is strongly pro-urban, pro-public transit, pro-density, and pro-building (especially renewable energy projects with almost no limits). Whether we call that collection of policy preferences YIMBY or neoliberal or what, it’s generally not associated with the treehugger label.

Which comes to my questions and curiosities. What drew you to environmentalism? How have your beliefs changed (or not!) over time? And how do you feel about the current schism that seems to have developed between, say, the Sierra Club v. the Sunrise Movement v. YIMBYism? These days the importance of environmentalism feels incredibly salient (though I’m sure the horrific air and water pollution of the mid-20th century didn’t make things feel any less urgent then!), but the movement of people who are concerned with the environment and the natural world feels more fractured than ever.

How do we all become treehuggers?

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