Issue 18 / Pivot

December 21, 2022
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Intergenerational Struggle Session

In an industry that measures impact through KPIs (key performance indicators), it’s hard to quantify, or even start to explain, what the effects of creating a print magazine are. When we first launched Logic in early 2017, we weren’t sure who would read it. But over the years, we gradually found an audience, and managed to both irritate and inspire some number of readers.

We’ve always been particularly interested in how our work was being received by younger people. How do they engage with Logic? Do they find it useful? To help explore these questions, and to reflect on the story of Logic thus far, Ben Tarnoff and Xiaowei Wang from Logic sat down with Jasmine Sun, Jessica Dai, and Emily Liu from Reboot. Reboot is a community for young technologists that is active on many fronts, from hosting events to running an email newsletter to publishing a print magazine. Logic has tried to do its part to advance the ruthless criticism of all that exists; we turned to our friends at Reboot to help put ourselves under the microscope. If Logic did have to come up with KPIs, we could do worse than measuring our success by the amount of criticism we get from the next generation.

Ben Tarnoff (BT): As we transition to Logic’s next chapter, we wanted to create space in this issue to reflect on the project so far: what we’ve achieved, where we’ve failed, how and why we did what we did. And we thought of you all at Reboot as ideal conversation partners for that reflection, because our projects feel like such kindred spirits. We’ve tried to make similar interventions, I think. But with important differences. And one of those differences is generational: we’re a bit older, you’re a bit younger.

Xiaowei Wang (XW): We are middle-aged.

BT: Yes. I have not fully accepted that. But Moira has been telling me that every day. So yeah, we’re middle-aged. We don’t know what’s going on. We’re cheugy.

Jasmine Sun (JS): We’re very excited to be doing this. We have all been Logic fangirls from a while back. Logic was a substantial part of the inspiration for Reboot.

Jessica Dai (JD): I first found out about Logic in 2018. I was an undergrad at Brown and one of my professors, Wendy Chun, told me I might like Logic. So I got on the train and came up to Cambridge for the issue four launch party.

That event was pivotal for Reboot existing in the way that it does now. I was in college spending my days on CS problem sets, but I felt like something was missing. And I realized that the type of work that Logic produced could fill that gap for me.

BT: I’m so glad to hear that. Events were a big part of the Logic project from the beginning. We wanted to bring people from different backgrounds together not only in the pages of the magazine but also in physical space. In particular, the constituencies we had in mind were tech workers, scholars and researchers, and organizers and others doing political work. Out of that mix, we wanted to cohere a new public. You don’t create a little magazine for an audience—you create your audience through the magazine. Events always felt like the most satisfying way to do that. For me, some of the life went out of the project when we slowed down our pace of events and then stopped altogether. Something was lost.

JS: I very distinctly remember Jessica’s messages from when she went to the Cambridge event. And when she told me about it, I was like, “This is so cool. How come no one told us about Logic? How come our friends at school don’t know about it? How come other CS students and young tech workers aren’t reading it?”

Emily Liu (EL): At the time, I was in college in Durham, and I was feeling pretty frustrated about the state of “tech ethics” discourse on campus. So I went to Twitter to find people who shared my frustration, and that’s where I first met Jasmine.

XW: When I was in college, there was no “tech ethics” discourse at all. It was such a different landscape. So I’m curious if you could tell us more about how that discourse is developing in CS departments, and how Reboot relates to it.

EL: My school had a CS ethics course that wasn’t mandatory for the major, but it did fulfill a writing requirement, so CS majors often took it for that reason. I remember sitting in the lecture hall and the professor was talking about the COMPAS recidivism algorithm—one of the most canonical “tech ethics” examples—and people had never heard of it before. It kind of shocked me. I was like, “You’re about to graduate and enter the workforce?” For me, Reboot felt like a way to fill the gaps that were left by my college education.

JD: I had the opposite problem. When I was a junior, Brown CS implemented an intensive ethics program (now called Socially Responsible Computing) where they embedded ethics content into almost every single course. So we talked about all of the canonical examples—predictive policing, dark patterns in UI, you name it.

I was one of the TAs who helped run the program in the first year, and I ended up writing a whole diatribe about its limitations. My problem was that the program structure meant that it was hard to think systematically—never thinking about the why. Why does DoorDash steal tips? That’s a question that can’t be answered within the boundaries of any CS department.

JS: When you take a class as part of your CS curriculum, you see it as giving you units of knowledge that you consume. It’s just another thing you learn—you get a grade and move on.

With Reboot, we’re trying to do something different. We want to create an identity around being a technologist who is interested in political transformation, both within and beyond the tech industry. That’s what Reboot as a community is trying to do. So when people make friends with each other in our Discord or in person, that’s an important part of the project. It’s not just about consuming content. It’s about becoming a different kind of person by joining a community where we’re all figuring it out together.

Doing Hard Things Together

XW: You mentioned that Reboot is above all a community, but it’s also a publishing project. You recently started a print magazine, Kernel. We know from experience how much blood, sweat, and tears it takes to run a magazine. And you have so many other initiatives going on. So why do a print publication?

EL: I think there are a couple of reasons. First, we want writing that is timeless. We want writing that is not tied to a particular trend or something that fades in a week or two. We want to be able to open an issue of Kernel three years from now and have the ideas there still ring true. There’s also something to the weightiness of a physical artifact. This year’s annual issue of Kernel is 164 pages, and it feels, literally, like a hefty piece of intellectual work. I think the physical aspect also helps as a signal.

JS: A lot of Kernel’s writers are already members of the Reboot community. They’re people who have attended or hosted an event, or are active in our Discord. So the magazine is also a way of bringing people together by working on a big, ambitious project that creates an artifact that everyone can feel proud of.

One of the books that has been really influential for my thinking is Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci. She makes the point that, in the social media era, it becomes too easy to gather people together. You no longer have to hand out fliers, or hold all these meetings to work out the logistics. But those slower methods are valuable, because they help build trust. They make people feel personally invested in a project. And that’s ultimately what enables a group to stay together in the long term.

Running Kernel requires a deep collaboration over both the lofty intellectual ideas that we’re trying to put into the magazine and all the nitty-gritty that’s required to actually make the magazine. Which printer should we use? How do we get the right kind of paper? Doing all that, and doing it together, strengthens our sense of community and brings new people into the community. So, yes, Kernel is hard. But that’s kind of the point.

BT: I love the emphasis on community. We hoped to create some kind of community with Logic, especially through events, but we were always primarily a print magazine. At times, we wondered whether we could do more to actively convene people—we toyed with the idea of running reading groups, like Jacobin did some years ago. One of the reasons we didn’t was because it felt like those conversations were already happening without our help, particularly in the first years of the magazine.

In early 2017, when we published our first issue, we were all living in San Francisco, in the midst of a wave of politicization within the white-collar tech workforce in response to Trump’s victory. Our world was filled with organizing meetings, with people pouring themselves into different kinds of political work. So we could simply insert Logic into those spaces—we didn’t need to create those spaces from scratch.

Over time, the political momentum diminished. Moira and I moved away from San Francisco, had kids, Covid happened, and we stopped doing events. The project began to feel less rooted. I started to have less of a sense of where Logic fit in, what kind of conversations it was creating. And that bothered me. Because if Logic is just a bundle of paper out in the world, that’s not enough for me.

JS: Did that feeling contribute to the decision to pivot to new leadership? How did you all arrive at that decision?

BT: I came up in the punk rock scene. And in that scene, sometimes you see a band that just shouldn’t be playing music anymore. You gotta know when to call it.

Little magazines are similar. Little magazines are creatures of a particular moment in time. They draw their strength from that moment. And when that moment passes, they become zombies. If you try to cheat death, if you try to live past the context that gave you life, you become a zombie. I won’t name any names, but I can think of a few projects that fit that description.

Logic came together at a particular moment in time. And, over the years, the moment changed—the broader political context, the broader context of writing about technology. Eventually, I started to feel like we had outlived our usefulness. Earlier this year, I brought that feeling to the core Logic team, and everyone broadly agreed. Our initial thought was to shut down the magazine. Then Khadijah and Xiaowei came up with a proposal to continue the magazine by reinventing it. And we all loved the idea.

XW: Honestly, a big issue is just time. A lot of Logic pieces are edited by Ben while he’s not watching his children. Not that I want to say that Ben’s a negligent father.

BT: But it’s true. And we should get that on record.

XW: There’s a lot of free labor involved. And that leads to burnout. Finding writers, growing writers—that stuff takes an enormous amount of time. So does building and running all of the invisible infrastructure around maintaining editorial calendars, lining up copyeditors, and so on. And everyone’s doing it on top of the job that pays the bills. So, at a certain point, you either have to find a bunch of money or come to terms with the fact that it can’t last forever.

JS: That makes sense. But I’m also curious about the politics of the transition. It’s one thing to say the team is burned out, so we need to raise funding to pay people more fairly. But it also seems like, at least from my reading of “Logic(s): The Next Chapter,” that there is an ideological shift at work. Xiaowei, you and Khadijah write about wanting to focus on queer, black, and Asian identities, to bring in perspectives outside of the tech industry, and to engage with international issues. Is that in response to a new political moment? And how does that relate to the previous iteration of Logic?

XW: We’re in a moment where there’s a lot of critical tech discourse that talks about the poor impacted people in a super patronizing way. Then you have groups like Allied Media Conference and the Detroit Community Technology Project that have a very different perspective, which is that people outside of the tech industry, people from marginalized backgrounds, actually have a lot of insights to bring to the discourse and are building new technologies. So part of our hope with the next chapter of Logic is to build community with that in mind, and shine a light on those who are already doing that work. And that can take different forms: as long as I’ve been part of Logic, it’s always felt like a place where multiple political threads could coexist.

BT: Xiaowei touches on an important continuity between the two eras of Logic, which is the emphasis on the agency, and indeed the wisdom, of people who are affected by technology. That is, not seeing them as objects or victims, but rather as agents, as experts, as subjects of their own liberation and of everybody’s liberation.

Now, that emphasis can accommodate a variety of ideological strains. As Xiaowei said, Logic has always been somewhat polyvalent politically. I think my own political orientation is different from that of Xiaowei and Khadijah. And I know our publisher Jim has a perspective that’s different from mine. But, over the years, we’ve all managed to cohabitate and create something that feels not only complementary but more than the sum of its parts. We’ve also made space for contributors who come from a range of positions, from center-left reformist liberal types to anarchists. Broadly, I’d say our big tent is anti-capitalism, or at the very least anti-neoliberalism, but within that, there’s quite a lot of room for disagreement.

The Oedipal Stuff

BT: If you don’t mind, I’d like to get to the meat. What did we do wrong? We’re looking for the Oedipal stuff.

XW: I know.

BT: Right? Just kill the father already.

XW: Yeah, pretend that y’all are on TikTok and making a video about Logic. Go in.

JD: For the record, I am not on TikTok.

JS: I’m not sure I’d frame it as a critique of Logic, but one difference between your project and ours is that Reboot’s tent is a bit bigger and a bit more industry-friendly. We want to be palatable to your median CS student or young software engineer who might, like, vote Democrat, but not really engage with critique or theory. A lot of our subscribers are tech workers who would not call themselves tech workers. The Reboot newsletter is the most political thing they read.

So what does it take to politicize, or even begin to engage, that kind of person? Many of our readers are starting from a few steps back.

XW: Whenever I’ve seen Jasmine describe Reboot in person, she says, “It’s like Logic but, you know, less academic.”

BT: Wow.

XW: And I always wonder, what does “academic” mean?

BT: I’m glad you smuggled in the spice at the end of the conversation. I was worried we wouldn’t get there.

Over the years, I’ve put a lot of thought into how Logic can remain approachable to a wide range of readers. We try to produce prose that is readable. But the reality is that not every piece is for every reader. Each issue should have at least some pieces that are accessible to the type of reader who is not conversant with the different intellectual traditions that inform the magazine—the median CS student, say. Those will be pieces that don’t assume any prior knowledge of a subject, and don’t use technical language.

We want to create those entry points. But not every piece can be like that, because it’s a quite constrained mode of writing: if you have to spell everything out, if you can’t, truly can’t, assume any prior knowledge, then you can’t go into very much depth. So we also want to create space for people who are doing more advanced work and writing for a more advanced reader. It’s a balance and, honestly, a struggle.

As for what it would mean to call Logic “academic”: as Xiaowei suggests, it’s a word that is used in so many different ways. One way is literal: “academic” as in academia. It’s true that many of our contributors have been academics. It’s sort of inevitable, given the fact that academics typically have more time to develop subject matter expertise, and more time to write, than anyone else. Still, it’s not a pattern that I feel particularly proud of. The lazy version of Logic is the para-academic journal—that’s what happens when we’re not working hard enough. We have published many wonderful pieces by academics. But when an issue is mostly composed of academic contributors, then it’s a sign that we’re not doing enough to discover and develop the kind of voices that ultimately differentiate our project.

People can also use the term “academic” to refer to technical language. Sometimes, as I said, such language is unavoidable. You wouldn’t expect a physicist or a car mechanic to describe the behavior of some complex system without using specialized terms; the same goes for those who write social commentary and critique. All you can do as an editor is to make sure it’s earned—that difficult language reflects a genuine conceptual difficulty—and that the prose is as legible as possible to nonspecialists.

JD: Something else I wonder about is, What happens when you publish social commentary and critique that is true but not necessarily actionable? What does the reader do out in the world after they’ve read the piece? That’s something we’ve thought about a lot while running the newsletter and Kernel.

EL: When we were soliciting pitches for Kernel, we said, you don’t need to be techno-optimistic, it’s okay if you feel negatively about tech—but we do want your writing to leave readers with some sense of agency, so that they feel they can actually do something about whatever you’re writing about. We don’t want our readers to feel like, “The world is so fucked and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

The theme for the first issue of Kernel was, “Where do we go from here?” And the theme for our upcoming issue is “How do we get there?” Those are the questions we’re trying to answer. What are the people, tools, and ideas that can lead us to a better future?

BT: In organizing, it’s a great sin to agitate someone without providing a channel through which to convert their agitation into action. So you shouldn’t approach your coworker and get into a conversation about how much you both hate your terrible sexist boss if you’re just going to walk away afterward. You should be getting them to sign a union card, or join the organizing committee, or something. A good organizer never stimulates righteous anger without providing a direction for it to become politically constructive.

But I think the work we do is distinct, because neither Reboot nor Logic are organizing projects. They’re intellectual projects, cultural projects, community building projects. So our obligations are different.

I should also say that my views on this have evolved over the years. When we started Logic in early 2017, I had more of a taste for polemical writing that pointed toward a particular solution. Over time, I’ve become less interested in reading, writing, and editing that sort of thing, and more interested in residing in the contradictions and the ambiguities and the uncertainties and the difficulties. My basic political commitments haven’t changed. But these days I’m more content to see where the lines of inquiry lead. I don’t want to know the destination in advance.

XW: I disagree—I think both Reboot and Logic are organizing projects. There’s many different types of organizing. And, at its heart, organizing is about community building. If you’re trying to organize your workplace, you’re trying to build trust with your coworkers—that’s building community, right? And that’s what you’re doing at Reboot. Also, different kinds of organizing inform each other. I know there are people who started organizing their workplace because they read an article in Logic.

BT: I think this was an excellent struggle session. Though there wasn’t as much struggle as I had hoped.

XW: We want criticism. We’re lucky that you all have criticism, because that’s how projects and movements grow, through dialogue of this kind. So thank you.

Jasmine Sun is a writer, tech worker, and cofounder of Reboot, a publication and community reclaiming techno-optimism for a better collective future.

Jessica Dai is a PhD student in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Emily Liu is a software engineer, writer, and the editor-in-chief of Kernel Magazine.

Ben Tarnoff is a tech worker, writer, and a cofounder of Logic.

Xiaowei R. Wang is a cofounder and the Creative Director of Logic.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 18, "Pivot". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.