I gave the following short talk at Funconf this year.
Thank you very much to Paul and Eamo for being such incredible hosts and creating one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Much love to the friends—old and new—who I got to share that experience with.
My friend Hjon IM’d me one December day three years ago.
- Hjon: Do you know anything about the Pasco train station?
I thought to myself. I had never actually traveled by train, but I remembered a recent discussion with my &yet teammate, Fritzy, where he was talking about taking his kids on a Polar Express train ride soon.
- Me: You haven’t met Fritzy before, but you should talk to him.
After passing along Fritzy’s contact info, I popped a message to Fritzy giving him a heads up.
- Me: My friend Hjon has a question about the train station. He’s going to ping you.
- Fritzy: Ok……
I went back to what I was doing and 10 minutes later got an IM from Fritzy.
- Fritzy: So, how well do you know this Jon guy?
- Me: Well enough, I guess. He’s a good guy. Local iOS developer. I’ve had lunch with him a few times. I like him a lot.
- Fritzy: Ok….
- Fritzy: I mean, I guess he can park his car at my house for a few weeks and I can give him a ride to the train station.
- Me: Wait. What? He just wanted a ride to the train station?
- Fritzy: He asked if it was safe to leave his car parked there for a few weeks.
- Me: Hahahaha oh man.
- Me: I thought he had some very train-related question and I was directing him to the only person in the last two years that I’ve heard say anything about trains.
- Fritzy: I see.
Then Fritzy sent me a screenshot that dropped me to the floor laughing to the point of being incapable of speaking—a picture of his IM roster with one group titled “Random Train People” consisting of one member who had been named “Random Train Person”.
Earlier today, we boarded a train—bound for where, we had no idea. (Funconf!) A few of us were talking about trolling, negativity, and just how generally poor discourse can be online.
I suggested that a huge part of the problem comes from our nature being to just simply categorize others (and, in doing so, to dismiss them) because it takes a lot of mental energy to empathize with someone and see them as complex people.
Just then, the train staff came by with the drink cart. As they worked their way quickly through the aisle from the back to the front of our car, they called out, “elbows, elbows, elbows, elbows.”
To us, they were just random train people, to them, we were just elbows.
I do think this simple example sums up so many of the world’s problems. There are people who we know and understand and empathize with—those within our Dunbar’s number (or monkeysphere) and everyone else, to us, is just a category of person.
Racisim and sexism are easily explained as having their root in this flaw in human thinking, but those are the simple, obvious versions. We “enlightened” people who’d never be racist or sexist engage in the same kind of thinking whenever we write off a group of people with a categorization. (Heck, even brogrammers are people, too.)
One of my favorite quotes comes from CS Lewis. My slightly modified version of it:
There are no ordinary people. You have never spoken with a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization, conferences, software—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.
But this does not mean we are to be perpetually solemn.
We must play.
But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.
Many of the world’s problems come from believing there are ordinary people. It’s an easy temptation to come to conclusions about people.
This problem doesn’t seem to exist at Funconf. This temporarily assembled community has thus far operated as if everyone present is a fascinating, unique, one-of-a-kind person worth getting to know and understand on a deeper level.
I believe that culture is what it looks like when humans scale.
I believe what’s here at Funconf is precious, as I know do many of you. And not because of the helicopters, intriguing island, and drinks with new and old friends.
People here are kind and generous to each other because Paul and Eamo are generous—because Chris Williams is kind and generous.
Let’s Funconf the world, my friends.