Fjord Philosophy

Writing about business ethics, communication, and lessons I learn while I run Fjord Audio, an audio equipment company.

While imagining new worlds we should be careful not to ignore our neighbors.

There’s this common itch to design the ideal city, the ideal nation, the ideal world. In Classical times it looked like Plato’s Republic. In present times, it looks like startup incubator YCombinator’s New Cities initiative and the Seasteading Institute. The former was an effort, announced in 2016, to “design the best possible city” and then build it. The latter is a think-tank that seeks to establish new nations on artificial islands. The idea behind any Ideal World project is that there’s an optimal, perfect form of society, and that if we think hard enough, we can know what it is.

In her book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell points out that Ideal World projects are flawed because they try to “substitute design for the political process.” It’s frustrating, after all, to live in a big community full of people with lots of different ideas and feelings, and even more so when they bunch up into groups and manipulate each other. So thinkers are drawn to imagining society as a ship in a bottle, an artistic medium they can sculpt and perfect in seclusion.

The problem with trying to design the Ideal World is that unlike the inert figurines on the miniature ship’s deck, people in real life do exist, and we have desires and feelings, and we want to participate in the never-finished work of making society. So at best, these projects mine for ideas to bring out into the collaborative, political world later. And at worst they’re a sandbox for Fascist tendencies—like a venture capital-backed, real-life Civilization video game.

I felt a little bit of a crisis after reading Odell’s book and thinking about how design over politics can end up silencing people for whom politics is the only avenue for change (meaning city council meetings, local school councils, etcetera). It bummed me out that something I enjoy so much—imagining stuff, figuring out new and better ways to do something, creating things—could be destructive, or at least lead us astray from truly constructive work. But I’ve realized that it’s not that design is bad; it’s that Ideal World projects are bad design. You’d never do a large-scale design project that doesn’t incorporate real-world feedback from users (who are, in this case, your co-designers). Ideal World architects may have years of public policy experience, but experience is just that. It doesn’t give us access to sacred knowledge about the perfect form of government, or anything else. It just gives us clues to the next best thing. Our next thing to try.

Social justice activists show us how to follow those clues. Like Ideal Worldists, they have values and they encourage us to imagine radically new ways of living. But they don’t pretend that we could ever finish the work of making life better. They don’t claim that we could ever fully root out the causes of oppression and the things that make life suck. And they certainly don’t try to get everything right on paper before putting things into practice. They show us that ideals are only useful as North Stars, guiding lights to inspire us as we figure out how to do the real work of implementation.

Then, when they do that real work, they incorporate a wide range of voices; they cope with messiness; they respond to the collective’s actual needs instead of getting tunnel-vision for their chosen winning theory. (Ideal Worldists, conversely, seem to say, “Ugh, I wish I could just do this myself.”) KC Tenants, a tenant union in Kansas City, Missouri, started as the vision of just a few activists. But today its policies are, as a rule, the product of group meetings in which every union member is titled a leader. Egalitarian models like that aren’t easy to implement at large scales or in groups that aren’t bonded by a shared experience like tenancy, to say the least. But they show us what it’s like to treat ideals as a starting point instead of an end. To design society in public instead of in our philosophers’ lairs.

It’s temping to think that the Declaration of Independence should have cured Americans of the Ideal World tendency because it makes such frequent reference to change and flexibility. No matter how badly some Originalists want you to believe otherwise, the Declaration (and the Constitution) were written with mutability in mind—with the idea that society is in constant flux and that its rules require amendment or even reinterpretation as people’s ways of thinking evolve. (The Declaration, after all, even gives the public the right to revolt!) But even that institutionalized reverence of change hasn’t been enough to prevent people from feeling like they can “crack the code” of urban planning, wealth distribution, and other aspects of society by finding their ultimate form. It’s just too tempting to strive for a place where we don’t need to strive anymore, where it’s all been figured out and we can finally just live instead of arguing how to live.

And to be clear, that there are no codes to crack does not mean there aren’t monumental shifts to be made. There are exciting new programs to discover, and elegant solutions to social problems waiting, sometimes tantalizingly close to the surface. (I think of Jane Jacobs’ observation that lots of crime can be prevented by pointing apartment complex windows toward the street, for example.) Other times they’re far off, and they require serious questioning of the things that we’ve always taken for granted. I would never want to lend my voice to the ugly chorus of voices that says we shouldn’t try to imagine those things, and that we should always aim our sights low, even when that means accepting the unacceptable. The point here is to avoid the arrogance that comes from thinking we can treat social policies like divinely appointed, theoretically airtight laws. They are hypotheses, we are fallible, and we ought to remember that while we’re doing world-bettering work.

In light of this, it seems like the more worthy object of our effort and of startup incubators’ resources are projects that figure out how to make pluralistic rule less frictional and more equitable. In Silicon Valley-speak, they might call it “improving citizen experience,” where citizens are both the creators and the users of society. To YCombinator’s credit, that’s sort of what they had in mind with their New Cities initiative. Among the questions they posed in the project announcement blog post were “How can we make sure a city is constantly evolving and always open to change?” and “How should citizens guide and participate in government?” But it’s worth noting that conspicuous “should” in there. Shouldn’t citizens guide and participate in government in whatever ways they want to guide and participate in government? If the question was meant to inspire new tools that help citizens do just that, then that’s great. But it has the smell of Ideal World thinking to it—of prescription and pre-engineering instead of empowerment.

When a customer of a hosted software company like Dropbox or Google Drive stops paying their bill, it’s reasonable to expect that the service will delete their stored data after a certain amount of time. It costs the service money to keep it around, and we couldn’t expect them to steward it without compensation indefinitely.

I think of this situation as being similar to a defaulted account at a self-storage facility. When the grace period has elapsed, the terms of the facility’s agreement allow them to stop storing the unit’s contents. In some cases, that means they’ll sell the unit off. What was once private becomes public during an auction, or it becomes private to someone else if the facility sells it directly.

Thankfully, doing the same thing in the realm of digital storage would be considered wildly inappropriate and, in many services’ terms of use, illegal. (All other sorts of data use and abuse notwithstanding.) It would be shocking if, for example, Flickr put your photo library up for auction if you defaulted on your Pro membership.

But consider the somewhat unlikely scenario where a service is storing culturally important information, like only-copies of works of art or documents of historical significance. It might seem far-fetched, but it happens. Think of the countless musicians who store unreleased music in Dropbox, or the journalists whose manuscripts, with all the original Track Changes marks, are in Google Drive. Even corporate tenants’ files could be considered culturally significant if they pertain to an historic event or an innovation. Would we want those to go away just because somebody stopped paying their bills?

In the case of a physical storage locker, it’s easier for facility managers to intervene before valuable things are destroyed. They can see the priceless folk instrument or the classic movie prop’s silhouette beneath a dust cover. Maybe more importantly, the facility manages a relatively small amount of units, and the rate of defaulting is slow, so they’re more likely to have the time to review units and decide what to do with them.

But that’s not the case for platforms that store digital objects. They might store so much stuff that it would be infeasible to individually inspect a customer’s data (taking for granted, for a second, that we’d want them to!). And even if it were, it might be virtually impossible for the managers to distinguish that Important Stuff from all the other data that ends up getting stored — no parchment paper or collectible baseball peeking out from the corner.

A big caveat here is that digital artifacts are not perfectly analogous to physical artifacts in that: they can be flawlessly duplicated an unlimited number of times; they don’t bear the individual physical marks of their creators’ manipulation, as in a painting’s brushstrokes; and they’re often — let’s be honest — valueless. Even a storage unit’s Beanie Baby might be considered more worthwhile to save, given our shared values, than a digital storage tenant’s database of 14 thousand archived invoices. (On top of all that, let’s not forget that the physical storage facility’s model of “saving” important things — selling them — hardly guarantees that the contents will be stewarded well.)

We might also say: there’s no problem here, because people ought to know not to store really important things in cloud services. They should have local backups on multiple media, etcetera. But people do store important things in cloud services, without redundancy. With PSAs about digital hygiene, we could make incidents less common, but we probably couldn’t eliminate them.

This seems like a problem to me, because we want to be able to step in and save important stuff from destruction, but it’s an obvious and seemingly intractable violation of users’ privacy to snoop around in their stored data just because they haven’t paid their bill, or for any reason. And that’s taking it for granted the the service’s architecture even allows for such snooping the first place; many data models use encryption or other barriers that make snooping impossible.

So: what do we do? Do we tell people not to store their Great Works or historical records in cloud services? Do we make public structures for storing data in trust? Or do we accept that a certain amount of loss is inevitable? It might seem crazy to care about these things falling through the cracks when the net we’re currently casting for information preservation is so wide — on our current path, future anthropologists and historians and who knows whoever else will not be wanting for records of this time. But it is sad to think that a self-storage operator in Bloomington, Illinois could save a rare Eames chair from destruction, but Dropbox couldn’t discover and steward the unreleased photographs of the next Vivian Maier.

There is something kinda shitty about building a business off of an inconvenient part of life. Yes, you're helping other people overcome that inconvenience. But insofar as your business depends on there being an inconvenience in the first place, you're partly betting on that inconvenience's continued existence. Wouldn't you rather have a business that does well when the world does well?

There's an example of this in tax accounting firms. Companies like Intuit and H&R Block make software that help people file their taxes. But since their business models depend on an inconvenience—the Borgesian complexity of the tax code—they lobby the U.S. government not to make filing taxes easier. They want to preserve a negative part of life so that they can continue to remediate it for us. In overly simple terms: they start out helping but they end up hurting because their business depends on a problem.

Of course, all businesses set out to solve a problem in some sense. But it feels like there's a difference between products and services that add value to life and those that merely fix a crappy state of affairs. Would people want the thing you do or make even if everything were great? If no, are you hoping that the world stays worse than it could be so your business can stick around? Are you actively working to keep it worse, the way Intuit, H&R Block, and countless other companies do?

I think it's possible to build a business off of an inconvenience without perpetuating that inconvenience. Coudal Partners did this when internet distribution made their DVD and CD jewelbox case company, Jewelboxing, obsolete. Instead of lobbying the government, the industry, or consumers to hang on to disc media, they shut it down and looked for new stuff to do. It wasn't a defeat. They helped people overcome the inconvenience of DVD and CD packaging when the inconvenience existed. Then they moved on when it didn't.

It's also possible that some inconveniences are more permanent than others, and that it's better to build businesses off of those than on the more ephemeral ones. Not only because it means the problem your business solves will be around longer (a selfish reason), but also because you won't find yourself in the position of hoping or actively lobbying for that problem to persist.

For example, we'll probably always need products and services that help us find good, nutritious food. That's a relatively permanent problem (in the broadest sense; the need to eat can obviously be much greater than a nuisance!) that people are right to try to solve. But food deserts are a relatively impermanent, artificial problem. If you're a convenient store owner—literally a convenient store—you might count on there being few affordable, healthy food options near your store because your business depends on it. You might reject or never feel the selfish impulse to hope that no other food suppliers move into the neighborhood, solving the inconvenience on which your business is based. But it remains that there's a conflict between your interests and the good of your community even while you're working to solve a problem for it. I think that if you're interested in doing what you do for a long time, and on betting for positive change in the world instead of the status quo (or worse), you might be better off selling food that people would love even if they had lots of other options.

The same goes for other stuff. I want to do things and make things that would be worthwhile even if the world were perfect. But insofar as the world isn't perfect, we're right to try to create structures that help with some of its problems. It just takes grace to accept when they're solved. And willingness to work on new ones.

Conventional branding wisdom tells us that brands need to have a single, consistent voice. They need to use it in everything they do and they need to use it the same way every time. The reasoning goes that people are more likely to buy things from someone they trust, and they’re more able to trust someone they know. So brands should try to be knowable—consistent and predictable.

But that’s not how identity works in real life. I have an indoor voice and an outdoor voice, a playful voice and a somber voice. I talk to my friends differently when we’re trying to solve something than when I’m telling a story. And I’m still me in both cases. It seems like the copywriting rule of “one brand, one voice” precludes a brand from being dynamic and multi-faceted in the way that real people are. And expressing ourselves in different ways doesn’t make us any less recognizable or coherent in daily life. It actually helps others learn more about us when they can see how we use different voices in different circumstances.

I’ve been thinking about this while I write the copy for Fjord Audio’s web store. In the current design (since changed) I use copy from an anachronistic poster that I made for Fjord XLR last winter. It borrows the copywriting style from 1970s magazine ads: cheesy, desperately casual, and salesperson-esque. I spent hours reading old Playboy ads (just the ads!) trying to get that old ad-man-style writing into my head. The way I was using it in the intro section of our web store, it stood apart from any other copy on the website (e.g. the Fjord XLR product description and About page, both of which I wrote in my own voice, or some company version of it). But that didn’t strike me as a mistake—it felt like an expression of one facet of the company, a constitutive part of a multifaceted whole.

I think it would be a shame if copywriting rules prevented us from stretching out and having fun like that. Maybe I would have been wrong to include that ad copy in the store design—I wouldn’t really know unless I A/B tested it (I’ve still never figured out how to use one of those A/B optimization platforms). But I do know that I appreciate the opportunity to grow and explore the company’s voice (and my voice within it), while avoiding monotony.

Do political euphemisms help us communicate about our political beliefs or do they hurt us by leading others to believe that our ideas require a more palatable “brand”?

I started thinking about this question after listening to Preet Bharara's interview with Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action. Moms Demand Action uses the term “gun sense” to describe laws that would reduce the incidence of gun deaths while respecting the Second Amendment. At first, the term seemed helpful to me because it highlights the common sense nature of their policy proposals. That is, they don’t want to take away all guns. They only want to relegate gun sales to those whom we agree, as a community, ought to be allowed to have them, in accordance with the Constitution and with our shared values.

But I also recognized that there’s a danger in using euphemisms to describe our political goals. When we obfuscate “gun limits” with appropriate, but nonetheless euphemistic, terms like “gun sense,” we beg the question: Is there something worth hiding about limits on guns? Do we have ulterior motives (e.g. stripping the populace of their weapons so that they are more vulnerable to government imposition)? The answer to those questions is clearly no, but I think we stand to help our cause and work toward our goals more effectively if we talk about them openly, rather than sanitizing them with friendly terms, however accurate they may be.

There are both a parallel and a counterexample in the politics that surround abortion. Conservatives use a euphemism, “pro-life,” to describe their belief that women ought not to have access to abortions, and it’s effective: Who can argue with “pro-life”? I like life; you like life. Their success with that branding challenges my belief that direct language is more effective than euphemistic language about policy proposals. But I think that its success is less instructive than the failure of our equivalent term, “pro-choice.” We use that euphemism so that the call for the legalization of abortion is framed around liberty rather than around the medical procedure of abortion. It’s accurate to communicate our position that way, because access to abortion is about women's liberty. (Ironically, many libertarians and liberty-minded Republicans don't believe that their ideology extends to women's bodies.) But it remains a euphemism for our immediate, practical goal: making it easier for women to access abortions and, therefore, to allow the incidence of abortions to increase. By concealing the term “abortion” behind the euphemism of “choice,” we actually contribute to the stigmatization that makes responsible abortions hard to access in the first place.

Let me say: I am naive. I have very little experience in politics and it’s possible (likely) that the Democratic establishment's use of “pro-choice” and Moms Demand Action's use of “gun sense” are far more effective than more direct or verbose descriptions of their proposals would be. I also recognize that hand-wringing and excessive consideration about how “the other side” perceives our beliefs can distract us from our goals and cause us to neglect the people who are most impacted by a proposed policy. (I think of post-election coverage of theretofore dormant and numerous white nationalists, which seemed disproportionate compared to the representation of immigrant voices, Black voices, and other marginalized people who are put most at risk by the Trump Administration.) But those discussions only hurt us when they undermine a promotional push for a candidate or a policy. Here, I think it's worthwhile to wonder whether political euphemisms hurt us or help us, and in what circumstances. Insofar as we need to convince scared, misinformed gun owners about our proposals to make them happen (and, if past constitutional battles are any lesson, we do), then iterating on the language we use to describe our goals can mean the difference between widening cultural divides and bringing our proposals closer to law.

At my university, I'm in a social entrepreneurship class where we're working on using self-sustaining businesses to make the world a better place. It's an interesting class, and it's challenged my ideas about which parts of society should be performed by government, and which should be performed by the private sector. (Having started out from what would be called a leftist perspective, thinking that the most important social functions and especially those with opportunities for abuse by profit-seekers should be reserved for government, I now see that, sometimes, social inequities can be better solved by private organizations—as long as they have a public benefit structure that excuses their managers from seeking profit above all else. Grameen Bank, a micro-credit institution, is a good example of that because it provides an equitable, private sector alternative against inequitable, private sector incumbents.)

We have spent at least three class periods talking about logos—not branding, but logos—analyzing them, and even writing a mid-term essay about them. It's frustrating, first of all, because our instructor doesn't know very much about graphic design. That's okay—I don't think that one needs to have experience with branding or an art degree in order to make meaningful judgments about an organization's visual identity. But in this case, our instructor is instructing and judging us based upon our perceptions of social enterprises' visual identities. That's an inappropriate role for someone without design knowledge to perform. She pronounces “sans-serif” and “serif” as “sans-sereef” and “sereef,” for example.

But the more concerning thing than her pronunciation of typographic terms is the way we're founding our own social enterprises. When we introduced our own projects this week, we had to present our logo. Not our mission statement. Not our strategy or core beliefs. Our logo.

Starting an organization with a logo might be a good opportunity to think about all of those other pieces—its mission, key activity, strategy, and core beliefs—but I think that, more often, it's not. Logo design is not central to who we are when we form a group, and what we want to change about the world. When we set out to do something, we should talk about why we want to do it and how we're going to start, right now. What is our first action step? Surely, it's not to create a logo.

This is a college entrepreneurship course and I don't mean to use this space just to complain about pedagogy. But I thought the experience might be helpful to share because it relates to a bigger problem about prioritization in projects, and how we can make sure we're doing the stuff that actually matters.

I've made the mistake of letting branding get in the way of the real doing. In high school, I ran a t-shirt company called Buck Tees. It started in Spanish class, when my friend, who draws, and I decided to screen-print his drawings on t-shirts. Over the course of the company, we sold about 100 shirts, which was exciting, but it wasn't enough to even break even because I had spent so much money developing our visual identity, buying business cards and stickers (which I thought were central to our success, because they made our user experience better), and over-optimizing our website. If I had spent more time developing our t-shirts and finding people who might like them, the company might have lasted longer. But I was mostly interested in making a brand. Brands need to make things (or do services) and deliver them to people in order to be healthy, though. The logo, and everything you use to present the things you make, are only instrumental to the intrinsic thing that you do, like making t-shirts.

I don't regret the time that I spent on Buck Tees' branding, because it was fun and I learned a lot from it. But now I have a better idea of when to step away from the branding draft table and go do something that might matter more. A brand without products or services behind it is hollow. And that's not a great brand, after all.