It’s easy to feel like the future is always arriving. It’s the age of AI, headlines blare; the age of automation, of surveillance capitalism, of remote work, of distraction. Before that, the age of social media, of the internet, of information overload and big data. We live in a flood of prophecies, the age of ages, drowning in news and takes and things to know.
Why add to this cacophony? In short, because we still have more to say.
Reboot was founded in 2020, and Kernel’s first issue was published in 2021. In these short intervening years, we — the core and founding teams of the first versions of the newsletter and magazine — have collectively graduated, landed jobs, quit jobs, gone back to school, moved across the U.S. and back. We’ve learned to live with Covid-19, seen longstanding publications shutter and resurrect, watched the tech industry go through an entire boom-bust cycle. SUSTAIN is as much about the content of this issue as it is about our decisions to keep going. If in Kernel Issue One we were dreaming something into existence and in Issue Two we were trying to do it right, Issue Three is for building something that lasts.
But SUSTAIN isn’t (just) about us. To sustain means to cause or allow something to continue; to keep alive; to suffer (damage); to support (emotionally). Sustenance is the thing that sustains; sustainability is a property that describes the possibility of limitless continuity, to the vanishing point of the future.
I should say that sustainability, these days, often refers to the environment — how we might survive or mitigate climate change. To be clear, this issue of Kernel is not primarily about climate. Still, it’s impossible to think about how to keep anything going without also considering this ecological backdrop, carbon ticking into the atmosphere.
In other words, sustaining requires flexibility, a willingness to revisit past principles to accommodate a changed present and a changing future. When discussing this issue’s theme with friends and colleagues, the word maintain kept coming up. But to me, maintenance implies stasis, an almost-technocratic endorsement of the solutions we have today. Maintenance and maintenance work are, of course, important. Some of the core principles — refusal to jump ship for the new, shiny thing; respect for the past, and its lessons for the present — are worth preserving (maintaining, even). But sometimes to sustain (an ideal, a movement, a path forward) also requires a refusal to maintain (an unjust institution, harmful norms, the status quo).
All that to say: I’m interested in what SUSTAIN implies about agency. To cause continuation is active; to allow it is passive. To sustain an injury means that something has been done to you; to sustain someone else means that you are doing something for them. This issue of Kernel Magazine is about this question of agency, which means it’s also, fundamentally, about how we live together, about how we decide to participate in the world around us.
This issue is loosely organized in three sections: The System, The Individual, and The Collective. How do we name the systems we are working within and against? Can we “trace their edges”? How might individuals find the agency afforded to them within these systems? How might they demand more? And how might individuals come together — across differences — to accomplish something together, greater than the sum of its parts? We need to understand the systems in order to contextualize our actions within them, but lasting change comes from moving together.
The pieces in this issue exemplify where I think tech writing, and tech criticism, must go.
We should be more willing to be wrong, to make mistakes, to entertain a wider range of possibilities. Maybe there exists a range of fractional truths, of fractal truths. A healthy — sustainable — space of intellectual discourse is one where we hold contradictions together, to seek among them not resolution, but consilience within the tension. To extend an environmental metaphor: if a habitat requires biodiversity for stability and longevity, then an ecosystem of ideas requires a plurality of perspectives. We should think of disagreement and dissent not as symptoms of “error” or “incorrectness,” but as the variations that protect against dogmatic monocultures. So consider: Perhaps we should be suspicious of “democracy-affirming” AI. Despite everything, crypto — both the industry and the technology — might still be good, actually. Quantitative climate models, these data-driven tools which profess to predict the future, aren’t the only way to understand the environment. And even those who work at Port Fourchon, the site of the 2010 BP oil spill, aren’t necessarily the enemies of the climate movement.
We should also be willing to be prescriptive. Of course there’s a critique for any proposal, and of course there are systemic issues at play. (A spectre is haunting tech criticism….) But analysis and nuance need not be paralyzing. Instead, we should understand that the complexity of the forces that made the world we see today — forces as vast as capitalism, imperialism, anti-blackness, patriarchy, and more — is precisely why their persistence should not immediately disqualify any proposition for action. We should try a lot of things and a lot of them will fail, but we shouldn’t not try just because some are going to, because we don’t know ahead of time which are going to work and which aren’t. We plant more seeds than could possibly all grow, but the failure of any individual seedling to flower is no referendum on the rest. Might higher standards for computer animations used in legal trials alleviate their most dangerous characteristics? What would a tech ecosystem look like if it was filled with people who “took business personally,” who were manifesting specific visions into the world rather than just trying to get rich? How would incentives shift if tech companies really had to make money from day one, and if all workers had a say in the direction of the business?
Are we there yet? It’s a trick question, because I suspect we will never be “there” — the horizon of a perfect world. And yet that’s no reason not to try. For all their differences, community organizers and tech founders have at least one belief in common: The future doesn’t just arrive; it has to be built.
So words, by themselves, aren’t enough. We may speak and write new possibilities into existence, but to translate possibility into practice requires, well, building. Real people — you! — doing real things, in the world. When I say that SUSTAIN is about agency, I mean this not just in a theoretical sense: I mean this for you, too. From here, it’s choose your own adventure. Choose wisely, and remember, you’re never doing it alone.
Editor-in-Chief, Kernel Magazine, Issue Three
Jessica Dai is, among other things, Editor-in-Chief of Kernel Magazine.