Interview with Jon-Kyle Mohr

Find Jon-Kyle Mohr @, Twitter & Github

Interview held on April 5, 2018.

Steven Rodriguez: We were talking about how to pick projects to work on. Do you mean you do this from an ethical position, or from a more intuitive place?

John-Kyle: Yeah, for sure. I mean there’s such like a distinct lack of like ethical thinking surrounding technology & has been for like the past 10 years. Politics are starting to become more considered as an effect of shit hitting the fan from seven different angles. And so people are starting to get going and there’s an awareness that’s growing, not just amongst the people responsible for creating the technology but also for people using it day to day. And its something thats not even a decision, it’s more of a compulsion or something like that. Yeah, for, for too long I was just kind of like doing projects and felt like super shitty while doing them. And enough time passed where I was realizing why I felt so shitty just making them, including projects that lived online and it wasn’t because of the medium itself but more of the foundation of the medium in a sense. And so it became necessary to feel decent while doing the work, and begin to address some of these things that are more foundational to ownership in publishing.

SR: It’s funny, just like 10, like 10 minutes ago or something when before I called you, I was like leaving my desk and one of my classmates, um, was asking me about Signal because she had just downloaded it. She was saying she downloaded, because as a consequence of the Facebook thing her boyfriend refuses to text in any other way.

J-K: Yeah, totally. Yeah. What’s your signal is almost like a punchline I think today.

SR: It’s wild, its become ubiquitous and not just because people want to talk about sketchy things or whatever, but they’re moving to it because of something more general they hear in the news…

J-K: Yeah, any type of trend forecaster saw this coming like years ago, right.

SR: Uh-huh. Facebook with their own “anonymized” chat…

J-K: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, totally. It’s been funny. I mean, the way that it felt a couple years ago and now it’s increasingly becoming reality, right now, looking at early environmental activism movement kinda and it feels like, that same thing is starting to happen surrounding data. And like, increasingly more so. How did Whole Foods go from being a weirdo organic food market in Austin, Texas to being bought out by Amazon as a way of becoming the physical manifestation of like this all encompassing fucking huge platform that satisfies all of your human urges, one click purchase for your entire life or something like that, but now in your neighborhood.

I dunno, but to look at how the organic foods movement kinda started and how a local awareness of global food production and creating a community around it really caught on, and people were into it and then it just becomes like advertising. It’s a hyper effective way of just rebranding the same old shit in a way. And so we’re at a funny moment now with this stuff with things like Signal. But to see sort of like, you know, quote unquote, and I use this for like lack of a better term, but just kind of like normie friends using signal or something like that, you’re like, wait a second, what? It’s just used as like stand in for, you know, whatever this more popular version of that thing is going to be ultimately, you know.

SR: That relates to something I wanted to ask you. I read the Fred Turner book, like last summer I think.

J-K: Which one is that?

SR: The from Counter Culture to Cyber Culture. Do you know that book?

J-K: Ok, yeah. I haven’t read it, but I, I do know Turner and yeah, it’s on my infinite list of shit to read.

SR: It’s good and super easy, historical, but not really theory at all. It sort of follows that Adam Curtis documentary, or maybe it’s the reverse, but Turner talks about Stewart Brand and the new communalist and how it went from this mass of 2000 communes or something in the US to sort of silicon valley.

J-K: Yeah, exactly, It’s totally out of control. I mean the whole, the whole lineage of, of all that stuff is crazy and it’s also interesting to see the extension of that because obviously like that’s like what Uber is today and that’s what like sharing economics is and shit like this, right? It’s like, it’s all the obvious extension of that communal living, but like filtered through this lens of just hyper mature capitalism.

SR: There’s like a great part in this book To Our Friends by The Invisible Committee where they talk about the limits of like the ultra left, like specifically like anarchist lifestyle-ism. And how horizontalism in and of itself or isn’t exactly an ethical position per se. In this chat I saw of yours, you mentioned a bit about how you anticipate tech companies eventually recuperating p-to-p browsing. What are your some thoughts on that?

J-K: I just think it makes sense economically in a lot of ways, and that’s how these things are going to be introduced to march platforms. It applies to advertising, it as it applies to bottom line economics in the sense that if you can offload the majority of your infrastructure onto the users, then that’s just saving you a Shitload of overhead that you would otherwise be paying out to Amazon or Google or something like this. it’s interesting how like these large platforms have been able to sustain themselves stay a little bit behind the curve but still pretty much on top of it and through acquisition because that’s like kind of like a relatively new thing to the extent that companies acquire other companies now. That Google or apple can like gobble up Siri and sort of incorporate that into all of their products in such a seamless way, that’s not something that really happen outside of technology. They’re able to keep the market pretty uncompetitive in that way. Because of acquisitions, which is to say that you can’t build a company today and build it on top of like Amazon cdn or something like that or using like facebook’s API.. Like we have hand shit back to the people using the tools. Did you hear about how Tinder, fumbled with the Facebook thing, Facebook changed some of their privacy stuff in the API and like a locked everybody out of Tinder. And once they were able to get back in it lost everybody’s matches.

SR: hahaha. Oh wow.

J-K: Which is fucking amazing because that’s the entire fucking product. And it was just gone. And it was gone because Facebook changed their API, not because Tinder did anything wrong. So how dumb do you have to be to start anything today and depend on existing platforms to handled things like identity and user data. Which is just to say that we just need to be able to put the data in the hands of the people creating it and do it in a way where it’s just like breathing air, do it in a way where you don’t have to manage keys and all this stuff and even be hyper aware of identity and things like that. Right. I mean that stuff will probably start to happen once we have better wireless stuff where the satellite connection is higher up and locally we have an infrastructure that’s managed in a way like a public utility.

SR: So you’re saying acquisition isn’t exactly possible with P2P?

J-K: I mean the bottom line is the existing models are starting to break and with the way these platforms operate they are whose breaking it. They’re breaking socially in the role they play with users of the platforms, it’s totally ridiculous that because snapchat and instagram compete, I can’t share a photo to both of them at the same time. It’s like the dumbest thing ever. It also break with geopolitics in a lot of ways. I mean the Internet is basically being turned into an advertising network, right? All the big tools are just ad networks now. That’s not gonna be sustainable in the long-term I think. SR: People are going get tired of it?

J-K: Yeah I mean, I’m really curious to see what kind of regulations started coming out around personal data on I’m sure that if you, if jump 10 years from now there’s going to be data regulation in place that’s similar to your health record.

SR: Oh wow.

J-K: Maybe engineers of Facebook will have to go through have to be accredited to be an engineer, like how architects have to take a test every couple years.There are super prominent people within the valley who are responsible for creating another type infrastructure. It has just as much as an impact on our day to day lives as the physical infrastructure we inhabit. It’s not what you see in the free market but in relation to ethics. If you’re building a Facebook or Google sized platform, there has to be some amount of regulation in place, especially as Facebook increasingly tries to become like the government. The question is. How much of this is going to be an existing government regulating Facebook or how much of it is Facebook becoming the government? How does a platform like Facebook decide who to silence online, and their whole thing right now is well there needs to be like a voting process. And you’re like, wait a second, you’re trying to turn this into a democracy now.

SR: Yeah, yesterday on the radio they were talking about how a bill is being considered about jailing people responsible for posting fake things on the internet which is silly and terrifying.

J-K: You can’t trust Facebook to have a way to be determining what is true or fake for you, but in the same way your consciousness is able to determine your own personal truths for you as it relates what you interact with and all the people around you, and how that informs your decisions. There’s some cool projects that are all personal ai where you, as like the owner of your data, feed your entire browser history and all the pages that you’re looking at into this, um, ai, for lack of a better word as well as all the personal data that you’re generating through like your social media and things like this. So it’s basically takes any data that comes your way is able to determine how true or false something is. If there’s a headline it compares it against all this other stuff like maybe your friends data and because of the amount off information coming at you it’s impossible to expect your own finite sense to be able to do that job anymore, your eyes can only scan words at a certain rate, and you only have a certain frequency range and your eyes can only see a certain spectrum. You know how to augment it right? With technology. But who owns that technology is the real question. That personal ai thing. I want that shit now. I think that could be super useful. But I don’t want that shit to be coming from Google or Facebook. I mean I don’t want a Facebook chair in my apartment, let alone these other things.

SR: It’s wacky the way things are going. And then also the way things could go. Do you a plausible pessimistic & plausible optimistic forecast for the future?

J-K: hahaha. I have no idea. I don’t subscribe to whatever accelerationism means. I just find it to be limiting kinda how musical genres or something like that.

SR: That’s a good way to put it.

J-K: Yeah. Yeah. Just in the sense of I guess they’re useful, but it’s also like totally inaccurate, you know. But I do think that technology kind of evolves in the way that it wants to ultimately just because there’s so many fucking humans on the planet. Even historically you look at like um, like what was happened in North Carolina with the Wright brothers and what was happening in France and how both of them were on opposite sides of the Atlantic and had their first moment of flight in the same year. But it’s obvious, we all live on the same planet. Why is it so ridiculous to think that like these, these two sort of innovations can’t be happening in parallel based off of just how much time has already elapsed, to get to that one point. The work I’m doing with the peer to peer stuff right now, in the same way just feels obvious. I can’t have any confidence in saying where it’s going to lead but it feels like inevitable, technology isn’t going anywhere, you know, like western economics and capitalism and stuff like that. That stuff is not gonna last forever. But we’re probably still going to be using wheels as a form of technology. Of course the Internet isn’t going to be around in a thousand years. But like whatever supersedes will. With the role of capitalism plays in our day to day lives, people are getting pretty fucking over it. I think.

SR: Capitalism hasn’t even been around for a hundred years. It’s not at all this permanent thing.

J-K: Exactly. To see outside of your own finite experiences is really hard to do as a human. But looking at history there’s something that’s hard to articulate that feels accurate to me, it’s something where if you just don’t look at like simple increments of duration, you’ll know, it’s not gonna be around forever. In that sense I feel like it’s not super interesting to be trying to work on issues that involve technology and capital right now directly, and essentially all of the blockchain stuff feels really kind of like uncanny valley to me. But it feels necessary. But I don’t think that’s going to be as interesting as what happened 50 or 60 years. When you look back on Stewart Brand and the activity happening then, that shit was super interesting. And it holds up.

SR: It seems like there’s like something in our moment about ‘forecasting’, I feel like you see it so much more now with in almost everything. Maybe because the Internet has made all these historical things so much more obvious. Or maybe it’s the way we have to interpret information now?

J-K: Yeah, yeah. I mean, how do you relate to that? Do you find yourself kind of like thinking in this anticipatory sort of way?

SR: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know, like certainly. I think that’s part of my identity growing up. Forever my partner sold vintage clothes at Rose Bowl. it’s kind of forecasting ground zero, vintage fashion trends is like ground zero for this stuff. It’s funny for me too because I was always doing these like weirdo political projects. And I feel like that stuff is like less important to do now or maybe just less unique haha, it’s become very of visible. And I think that was something that I could’ve like anticipated But ya I’m like- “what am I going to do when I get outta here?” sort of zone. Part of me also like thinking along those lines makes me just want to check out completely. Pretty tired of trend cycles. Graphic design also seems really futile right now.

J-K: Oh totally. Diving into some of this stuff that’s more on a foundational level in terms of infrastructure is how I felt good about designing shit again. You know, like I feel like you really can’t trust a lot of design today because it’s values align almost like in direct opposition with like your own as a person using an interface. it’s just like any button that wants to be clicked, you should not click it.

SR: That’s true.

J-K: But that’s a tiring thing.

SR: I expected like these conversations to happen among Yale graphic designers, I was like this is exactly what’s going to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But I don’t know if that’s true. I feel like maybe kinda emerged in reaction to this sorta thing. It’s sad when artists or graphic designers you know have have built entire visual projects they are sincerely dealing with. And then for that to become like a thing that happens for a moment. and then it’s like gone. I seems that people want more control over that.

J-K: It’s really hard to say to what degree you kind of push up against whatever set of circumstances you find yourself within and what compromises you make to be able to attain a goal. One of the things I love the most about the peer to peer web stuff is that the moment you monetize it, it kind of loses all integrity in a way. This stuff has already happened and been massively successful, look at Napster. It’s almost cliché at this point to talk about these things. But those things worked great. It was all based around the premise of things being free and there wasn’t any scarcity. Anybody who wanted a track could just go and get the track, but with somebody who has an Instagram account, you’re not getting paid to post on Instagram, right? Like, you might get paid for like placed advertisement and stuff like this, but Instagram isn’t paying you. And so it, it seems really obvious that like this thing is going to happen soon and I’m kind of anxious about what it is because it’s going to be. It’s going to be operating with very little overhead costs and built on top of an open source stack in a way and is going outperform existing platforms in ways that really matter for people who are making a living based off of like a tension meaning something you have to be show care with. I’m really curious to in five years what’s going on? It’s interesting to look at Spotify. Like they just did their IPO and all this stuff and Spotify early on was a peer to peer, in the sense of when you would listened to a track, you would would get it from other people who are also listening to that track.

SR: Oh woah, I didn’t know that.

J-K: Yeah, yeah. It was like one of the biggest peer to peer tools out there, but then once they started cutting deals with the major labels, then you know, like they couldn’t keep that infrastructure in place because the labels were like, well hold on a second. If people are already sharing and publishing stuff for free on Instagram and Snapchat then it’s, it seems obvious you don’t have to worry about economics in the same way because people already aren’t getting paid.

SR: Culturally people are going to change the way they relate to the things that they produce, their identities are going to become less like affiliated with the stuff that they like. It seems almost specific to the US and other places like the US that we like to treat creativity or like this. I think it goes back to performance art in this weird way, that was the beginning of “you’re always on” or something, I think that’s not actually how the world is. In Mexico for instance people are just into things like it doesn’t say much about who they are. Whereas now it says a lot about people in the US, and people use that as a metric system.

J-K: Yeah. I’m doing doing project right now that’s been sort of interesting. There’s this town, it’s the northernmost town in the states. It’s in Alaska a town called Barrow The population is pretty much entirely Inuit and for the longest time it was like a sustenance economy, where the idea was why would we catch more fish next year when we had enough this year. In fact, it’s going to be a pain in the ass to have a surplus, and sharing is fundamental in this communal sensibility, it’s how the entire place survives, especially in a harsh environment like that. It looks quite different now, but the core of the culture is still there, especially in awareness of their heritage and today they’ve found themselves moving past this “well it’s not cool to be like Inuit”, sort of thing. There was shame of feeling different or something like that. Now that’s something they embrace because it gives them identity, which is really cool. But they’re like on social media and shit like this now. They’ve been laying down high speed Internet recently and they’re like, what the fuck’s up with? Profiles are the weirdest thing, you know, because they’re like a representation of the individual. But within this community, it’s all about the people as it’s, it’s a communal way of living. It’s not an individualistic way of living. So the social media profile, feels like super alien to them in a lot of ways. They’re trying to figure out what would social media looks like if the Inuit were to like design it themselves and things like this. And that’s such a fascinating way to think about stuff, you know, because that’s really where I like hoped to see these sorts of questions being answered. I don’t really have any hope in “the valley” to be answering them. But these other areas that are more peripheral. The role of the suburb or something like this, like how suburbs related to urban life, and how they urban life was this centralizing force and then everybody’s like fuck this shit. We need to own our own property. With suburbanization there are all sorts of things that are definitely less desirable but it’s also an obvious reaction to this kind of centralization. And I think we’re like going through that right now.

SR: Absolutely.

J-K: Based on how we relate to technology it’s maybe going to move to like the suburbs of technology, and there’s going to be different sets of problems that are introduced with that, you know, in the same way with the automobile. Like look at the automobile now the role of fossil fuel, it’s not a desirable thing, but at that moment it made sense in terms of the autonomy that it gave the individual or something like this.

SR: Yeah, it’s wild, the suburbs as this metaphor. I came to New Haven two years ago and stayed at this anarchist punk house and recently hung out with some of those kids, and it reminded me of the kids I grew up with. Also he art school here doesn’t have a relationship to like the diy scene in New Haven not like other places like Providence for instance.. I grew up in Riverside, which is a suburb of LA and the types of cultural expressions that come out of those zones, uh, are just so much weirder than like what you would see in like the most “edgy” like art scene in LA or in New York.

J-K: Yeah, totally.

SR: I feel like that’s sorta whats at stake. I could see that being a culture that gets built on like P2P or whatever, weirdo peripheral zones.

J-K: Yeah, totally. Which I think is like what you kind of see more traditionally and within those types of projects, we’re this idea of like early web vernacular and things like that you see like a lot of like quote unquote weird stuff. But I really do feel like it’s kind of become like a little bit more mainstream and the same way that that the suburbs are mainstream and that’s like a complex thing, in the sense of like what that meant too, like the role of local politics within that type of movement from an urban to suburban way of living, like the void that that was left within these urban environments. The thing that’s important with a lot of this stuff is that technology is not a solution. Technology is just a way of like friendly change. And, and what happens with that changes, like largely that’s more of a social kind of thing or that’s more of like a human problem for us to expect, switching to peer to peer to solve broader political issues or something like that. It’s like totally naïve, but use it as like a tool for being able to create the environment for those types of things to take place. Through the means that have always been available which is just humans and numbers of humans basically. I think this particular moments is really fascinating in a lot of ways, especially seeing network infrastructure as being as much a part of your environment the ground that you’re standing on.

SR: I feel like it cuts across all sorts of different people. For instance Limewire was like such a hood thing. I remember in middle school, like that’s where your friend’s older brother showed you underground rap, like than that’s how you learned about Limewire. It’s fascinating

J-K: It’s fascinating how when any new technology is introduced there’s this culture built around it. you know, even early app when stuff or like the Ipod, Apple was like I don’t know, like how do we build this company? Like let’s do music, that doesn’t make any sense when you think about it as like a technology company, but when you think about it as like this sort of like, this cultural thing, then it makes total sense, you know?

SR: Yeah, I think there’ll be some reason why like mesh networks for instance will get introduced into like the hood.

J-K: Well it’s already happening in certain areas, you know, or like to see what happened in New York after Hurricane Sandy. And like all the networks popped up. Like um, that was really interesting. I thought.

SR: Yeah, I just saw this story. Where in Miami this guy got busted running a pirate radio that he had been doing it for 30 years, he some sort of Cumbia promoter running this like whole empire with a pirate radio for like 30 years.

J-K: Crazy. I’m interested in what’s that thing’s going to be? But like what is that combination of the pirate radio thing and Soundcloud where it’s like people predominantly self releasing stuff but doing it in this open way and it’s so interesting that people don’t expect to get paid for this stuff anymore, hehehe. Like that’s not to say that’s what you want, but I think that it’s something where, you know, as wages go down and jobs become more scarce. Like to expect people to pay for music is like ridiculous. Right? But you can’t as you can only get whatever little handout Spotify is giving you as a way of trying to survive, and even then, it’s like impossible unless you’re one of the biggest artists on the planet, you know, so like your way of competing with those artists isn’t through like, competing, trying to figure out how to make it work economically. But it’s, it’s really just through attention. And so these networks that are all about like abundance and about, data portability and stuff like that, they’re going to be the ones that ultimately succeed in this kind of like attention economic scenario. I mean it makes total sense for it to happen in these cultural spaces, more so than like, um, you know, that blockchain is trying to solve this stuff in relation to finances is like, that’s like going to slow down that project so much, you know, to try to like, like big finance. Um, it’s a lumbering machine, but to do these cultural things that are messier, they can grow more organically. Makes total sense.