Month: October 2020

Short Answers

Reading Time: 2 minutes

What impact do you want to have on the world and why?

We’ve never had so many resources while being so polarized. As technologists and designers, we are indebted to artifact and execute systems in full cognizance of how we contribute to this polarization. With it, the responsibility of dismantling and rebuilding our systems to serve the masses.

More specifically, I seek to enable opportunity in spaces like the Philippines that have long been polarized by the dishonest misuse of technology. Enabling the future generation’s capacity to innovate with intent and mindfulness at the forefront is key.
From being born in the slums of the Philippines, I understand the need to rebuild the system to work for me (as my story is an exception, not the norm). This requires action at different levels: in infrastructural development to better connectivity, to move development from third-world countries within the hands of developers and designers from the actual region (not non-POC managers moving across APAC as we see today), accessibility in development/creative tools, in legislation and funding, in education access, in corporate structures locally and abroad to give these and in changing the current cultural perception of what technology means in the Philippines.

A simultaneous step to enabling opportunity is ensuring what I create ripples. After ensuring connectivity, making creation as ubiquitous as possible (especially in the non-Silicon Valleys that have long been overlooked) is the next step. Continuing to foster this through community (like the 100,000+ students served at Developh), creator tools, and education is what I want to dedicate my life to––creating radical things for creators and communities, so they may too, unravel what is radical for them.
In short: to create radical things.

Describe your most meaningful experience(s) and why they matter to you.

  • Founding Developh, a community in Southeast Asia where we built up infrastructure for the student startup ecosystem that I bootstrapped and engage hours in each day. I’ve met hundreds upon hundreds of students here, with our programs reaching 100,000+ people and our ventures millions. It will be one of the greatest things I’ll ever do.
  • Etherest, a fictional world I began as a kid turned into free time fantasy worldbuilding project I’m spinning a novel out of. I’ve filled over 40 notebooks with drawings, maps. sketches, and outlines of little stories and arcs on it. Imagining, thinking, and reflecting in isolated systems has let me develop frameworks and systems for the world at large.
  • A post-rock concert (Explosions in the Sky!) at age sixteen at the very front row with my best friend next to me, my hand in hers –– where it felt like everything suddenly made sense. A meaningless moment to anyone outside, but probably one of the only moments where I was in complete bliss; if life could be more moments like this, it would be much better. (This led me to develop a love for music journalism, scouting and hustling my way to more spaces where I could relive moments like this.)
  • The first conference I attended with Developh (after 25 or so events) where someone correctly identified me as the founder first, and not any of my male peers volunteering around me. Growth, but also a need to reshape things.
  • Every time I teach.

These are some short question answers for the Kleiner Perkins Fellowship, where I’m trying to be a Design Fellow. If you’d like to read my answers from last year, here they are.

To create radical things

Reading Time: 6 minutes

“Creating radical things for creators and communities.”

I’ve been using this line to communicate how I currently (but more like hope to) approach my work as a designer/technologist/human being in general. This is a bold statement to make at twenty: I have lived a short life and constantly walk in debt of knowledge and histories that I’ve yet to digest––but I wanted to start attempting to document what I feel this means, and how I feel this statement will guide me as a young builder.

(If I ever fall into the traps of the technologist savior complex, rid me.)

Why creators and communities?

Simply, if I would like my work to be as impactful as possible, it would be in the form of creation that enables others to create. Personally, my introduction to technology changed the entire trajectory of my life: how I create and think about things, the thoughts and people I have gotten to meet. It is only through spaces of unabridged community and creation that I ever got to experience the same feeling: the web at its best in anonymity, authenticity, and openness. To craft these experiences so they are not magical, rather simply an inescapable default, is the goal.
We live in a time where technologists are overresourced, with knowledge being increasingly expensive and inaccessible to attain or even dare to bear. Our world will be dominated by the individual producers. Community must be harnessed, but with full care. These are some of the most complex, people-centric problems that are out there.

The principles

  1. To prevent systems that enable war, racism, sexism, capitalism, or forms of harm, we must not offer any building blocks. In environments where these exist, we must resist, but moreover, dismantle.
  2. Our tools and software must always be liberatory: cognizant of the injustices they support, in service of human freedom, and built for the most marginalized.
  3. Technological iterativism leads us backwards. The promise of breaking things fast very often looks little into histories and larger systems, and goes towards meeting guessed-upon metrics. If design is liberatory, it must be radical, conscientious, and reduce harmful presuppositions at all costs. Designing for true problems means that there are decades (if not millennia) of work and knowledge to sift through, or problems that are not defined at all. Iterativism in goals, not in process, in particular, is dangerous––the systems we exist in must be shifted.
  4. Without collaboration, we are nothing. By the trade of technology and design as a young person, you often resign yourself to focusing on useless shit like interview prep or technical skillbuilding –– you know very little about problems worth solving. Live in the complexity and constant empathy of learning from people you design for, and design with people –– otherwise your work is fruitless.

I’m frustrated at theoretical case studies without audience and self-serving solutions when there is so much the world actively needs. Perhaps those areas are not explicitly looking for designers, and they likely aren’t. The goal of a designer is to design at the side, the core of it is to be present, active at where things demand support––and recognize how design is ubiquitous and must be crafted with people by you at all costs.

The web, since I’ve been on it nearly every day in middle school, presents us countless opportunities to rethink its architecture and contents. Here are some things I feel are in need of reshaping.

Low data

I feel that many people don’t wholly accept this yet, but many third world countries interact with the internet from the confines of social media platforms and their built-in browsers, if they have any ability to access non-social networking sites at all.

One of the most memorable side projects I’ve seen was a Messenger bot that sent users snippets and details from any requested Wikipedia page; the Wikimedia Foundation has shared several efforts to make their critical resource more performant for low-bandwidth users. Minute performance improvements mean everything to these users.

Most recommendations on accessibility for low-bandwidth users include recommendations on switching to cost-conscious browsers like Opera Mini as opposed to regular mobile browsers that will literally hog refreshes; getting websites to work compatibly in article mode, deliver things in test-easy RSS feeds, and looking at the future of consumption across SMS and email will also become important. Designing beautiful experiences that take into consideration loading and engineering constraints will become increasingly important.

Destroy incrementalism

If we want to change behavior, we can do so radically. Natural’s mode of generative interfaces seems ridiculous (and very like Her), but will slowly be adopted (the same way commanding home speakers was awkward five years ago). New search interfaces that mimic how we actually think being worked on by companies like Neeva will shine.

Incrementalism doesn’t mean we discount actual input from the audiences we serve; it means we are riding too heavy on linear waves of thought and numbers when many desires and needs are already vividly mapped––and will take more than gradual tuning to get there.

Documents and questions need to happen more as a designer. My process must be informed by the demands of the world, by planning that is both quick to execute yet intentional in the bounds of a system.
The compromise here is that design must exist at the highest plane, and the iteration must happen at the low-level. Design will guide our modes of thinking, and iteration is just perfecting all the last-order pieces of what we build. When we focus more on behavior and interactions rather than technical details and implementation of new work, we get to validate more radical, profound systems that the world needs.

The browser is an untapped medium

All our internet use still interfaces with the relatively unmoving browser. Its interactions have long stayed the same despite our interactions and engagements on the web constantly evolving into new paradigms. Moreover, we have basically memed browsers and brushed them off, the market has relatively stayed unchanged (compared to the vast amount of options we had in the 90s), and we have made it so that the user bares the burden of the medium. Following Mozilla’s work and more recently, The Browser Company have been huge interests of mine. Our foundational bridge to the internet needs a do-over. Beaker is an obvious place for this, unafraid to serve builders and lean towards the experimental for the peer-to-peer web.

Remember too that web design––and thus browser design––is architecture. Like how every website is a place that offers access and atmospheric context to the resources and services they provide, so do our browsers. What fabrics will emerge from a new browser medium that truly serves the people?

Reclaiming websites

“I like to call the web humanity’s shared language. We’ve all come together, by some miracle, as a society to define a set of rules and technical standards about how we will communicate, how our computers will communicate with each other, and people all over the world use this.” explains Tara Vancil, a developer at Beaker.

Why then, has the building block of the web become so untranslatable? It seems that though we have more tools and resources than ever, web development becomes increasingly difficult to enter. Creating a website has never been so dumbed down, yet gratingly difficult to consider. Perhaps a cultural thing, but also something by design (as we stray further from the customizable web). After all, everything easy is hard again.
If we make personal websites the default canvas of the internet once more, I’m wondering how much knowledge and information we can better share and capture, even temporally. While people are bending the mediums of TikTok and Twitter, we are also pointlessly building tools to live on top of platforms that do not serve us: tweet thread unrollers, startups fighting to be the best link in bio… these platforms do not serve our content or people.

In Laurel Schwulst’s My Website is a shifting house next to a river of knowledge, they detail that the website in creation has been overcomplicated today. (Artists are now perhaps the best teachers I’ve seen on web development fundamentals, only complicating things with enough engineering as necessary.) Websites represent a duality: they are both subject and object, the creator both author and architect.
A website then, can be a room. A shifting, movable room that offers comfort in the age of information overload. A river of knowledge becomes architect to a website; it is independent of corporations. Laurel describes how websites can potentially take other forms, a budding and tolerant plant, a shelf (smaller than a room), a whole garden changing across the seasons, a puddle that is temporary after a “storm”.

Another issue with websites is that page rank algorithms and search engines dominate the thread in which we connect websites. We write content crafted for backlinks. When I was first making websites in the late 2000s (disclaimer: I was like eight years old) my favorite corners and threads of exploration were web rings and affiliate markers: you vouch for someone, you exchange links.
Still, the internet is an all-encompassing, global experience; yet the digital realm is dictated by rankings that do not always serve the needs of the people. If we were to create more contained webs powered by creators and trust, our communities and circles would be significantly more valuable. Why is the concept of distance controlled when it should not mean anything? If everything on the internet is a click away (both close and far at the same time), users must be able to reorganize cyberspace for themselves.

To move towards a space of reclaimed and individualized websites, we need diligence. We need builders setting examples for what the garden of the internet can look like, unyielding to what is out there. It is by this legibility that the rest of the world will come to us––then the tools, people, and systems shift shall follow.
Or if anything, with a radical migration, what may come?

To All Our Noontime Saviors

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Growing up with Wowowee, the Villar family as my backyard neighbors, MMK, and the 6/55 Lotto.

Every Saturday afternoon, I’d poke a pencil into the broken buttons of a Sony CRT, flipping from Cartoon Network to channel two. The whole household would crowd into my room, impatiently waiting for Willie Revillame to start spinning across the screen, surrounded by women in heels and miniskirts—the Wowowee dancers clapping and twirling in front of a studio audience of hundreds from all across the nation. “Sa Luzon, sa Visayas, at sa Mindanao, saan man sulok ng mundo makakasama nyo!” every line from the theme song flashing at the bottom of the screen, practically unneeded, the room clapping along. From Luzon, from Visayas, and from Mindanao, wherever in the world you are, come join in! To any outsider, he would seem like a generic, unassuming Filipino-Chinese man, but to this country, he was a savior. Everyone in the audience arrived at Manila by boat or plane or eleven-hour bus ride, all with dreams to hear his theme song, almost synonymous with reinvention. In a smile, he could give you the money to turn your life around.  My yayas, the household help that my frequently-absent parents employed to keep the family together, lived for these noontime showings. They’d convene every weekday and Saturday before getting back to folding clothes or cleaning the plastic dining table with baby wipes. I’d sit next to them and learn the way Willie worked: joking about politicians and the weather to factory workers and housewives in his audience, my yayas laughing along as if on cue. He’d pry open their story, the town they came from and how they found their way to Wowowee before handing them a thousand peso bill. When Willie lifted the mic to them for their fifteen-second story 1, it was always one of resilience.

My yayas would yell answers at the screen as Willie spun the Willie of Fortune, contestants with their broken teeth and hand towels draped over their shoulders struggling to sing the lyrics to the chosen radio tune. “House and lot! House and lot!” he’d dangle the rewards in front of them them, a nation tuned in to see them walk away with nothing or everything. “Sayang,” I’d watch my closest yaya exclaim, in clear defeat before backing up from the screen. “Alam ko ‘yun.” What a waste, I knew that. Yaya always swore that she’d be on that stage one day. Dancing along, or in a glass box with cash blowing around filling her pockets with all she could keep. I envisioned her sobbing out her life story with cameras and lights, Willie’s sympathetic hand on her back and a thousand bill slipped into her hands. I wished I could give her that.

For several years, our family never bought groceries from the supermarket, or many things at all. I remember asking my father for a 70 peso magazine for my eighth birthday and being rejected, but for some reason we always made exceptions.

In those times, I frequently accompanied my mother to work at the maternity hospital2 our family owned in Tondo, Manila. I was born in that hospital (delivered by my grandmother) and was raised in that district for the early part of my life, before my parents had enough to buy our own home and settle two hours down south. Tondo is one of the world’s most densely populated areas and is Manila’s largest city, where an estimated 4 million people live in the slums, many live on just $1.25 a day.34

After my my mother’s work5, we’d squeeze into a tricycle6 to the Tondo public market. Stall after stall in a warehouse, water dripping from the ceiling with the merged smell of every imaginable produce. This was no supermarket. My mom would buy us Coke poured into plastic bags, a straw poking out before we waded through to buy our groceries for the week. On some of these trips, my mother would ask to make another stop by our first family home7, some blocks away from the hospital. It was a crude house built of corrugated tin and thin wood, one wall of unfinished concrete blocks and a rotting door, a large 2001 calendar covering an unfinished hole. Outside, the street sung, neighbors crowded around a small television playing chimes and commercials, the sound of rancorous laughter and kids chasing dogs. We’d walk across the old street, the scent of burning trash and sampaguita8, and stop by a stall to buy a ticket for the 6/55 Lottery. In order to win the 6/55 prize, you have to hit all six numbers in any order. “Your dad was so excited, the jackpot was 30 million last Monday,” she tells me. She would always ask me for a number.

In 2010 they introduced to us the concept of the government, just in time for the Presidential Elections. I was fresh out of third grade in April and witnessed the last push of campaign season, where I was almost certain that commercial blocks ran longer than actual shows did. My parents even helped our two yayas register to vote and offered to carpool to the same precinct. Every day, our heads would be filled with presidentiables, from their songs and words on television to their posters and banners fluttering across billboards, buses, and rice sacks. Nakaligo ka na ba sa dagat ng basura? Nagpasko ka na ba sa gitna ng kalsada? My yayas garnered all they knew about the electoral process from their friends across the village and from television. They swooned over a new man—a presidential candidate named Manny Villar. They held frequent debates over who had a better theme song. (Yaya still remained loyal to Willie.) Villar ran one of the most memorable campaigns in Philippine history. The newscaster reported of his upbringing in our shared birthplace of Tondo, selling shrimp and fish in the same market. The radio gossip talked of defiance, graduating from the country’s most prestigious university with his promise to lead the Filipino to the same path. He had his miracle story.  Have you ever swam in a sea of trash? Have you ever celebrated Christmas in the middle of a road? His commercial ran over and over, filled with street children amidst Tondo—the murky Pasig River in the background. They could chime in so perfectly, “Si Manny Villar ang magtatapos ng ating kahirapan.” Manny Villar will end our hardships.

In election summer, we watched the morning news give election spiels and success stories. I learned to cook spam for lunch right before Willie’s usual skits and games. In the afternoon, my yayas paused and prayed to the 3 o’clock prayer––devotion synced across every Filipino channel while I watched them. In the evenings, we’d wait for MMK at 9 after all the dishes have been washed. We listened and cried to stories of common people and their lives turned from slums to comfort, never without struggle. One night, yaya turned to me and asked me if my parents were voting for Manny. I shrugged, but I knew the answer.

Manny Villar lived in the house behind mine. His backyard spanned over two times the space our home took up. He had (had) a pool with bridges that I could peer over from my parent’s bedroom. I would sometimes catch both my parents, dead-tired from a shift peeking over their curtains to gaze at the Villar’s backyard. “One day,” my parents exchanged. I’d join my yayas in cleaning my parent’s room and stare over at them, as they’d whisper about the extravagance of the house’s interior—details picked up from neighbors. All our drives from our village back to Tondo were plastered with Manny, him being a new face for hope. From Tondo to billionaire businessman. Once, in a traffic jam on the way home, a child knocks on the driver’s seat window begging for spare change with a “Nothing is Impossible with Manny” slogan on his shirt, the signature orange of his campaign draped across.

I remember asking my mother what it took for us to move to our home several times that summer. She never gave a clear response. Instead, she always promised us larger things: that one day, we’ll move and find home, have a garden, more bathrooms, and a washing machine. She referenced the high-rises glittering across the Manila Skyway with their exorbitant toll fees—but beautiful either way. “Maybe Makati, or at least Alabang so it won’t take you two hours to get to school from this house every day.” 

Manny didn’t win. When I went back to school in June the boys mocked the song, “Si Manny Villar ay ang dahilan ng ating kahirapan.” Swaying along like all the children in rags. The jingle left primetime commercial slots, but it never really left people’s minds. Manny Villar is the reason for our hardships. I could still see the brown and murky river, the children smiling and some even swimming across as they mocked it.

Wowowee was cancelled in July. Willie had a feud with one of the showrunners. A day later, the weekday slot was replaced by Pilipinas Win Na Win, co-hosted by the sister of our newly-elected President.

I often wonder if we ever truly achieve the Filipino dream.  

If not Willie, if not Manny, someone else will always step in. In 2016 our family closed in to the television as they swore in someone with an iron fist, who promised to end corruption and poverty and who swore away all men who would defy him—swore to kill.9 He touts his harsh upbringing, lifting Davao out of poverty and promising to save the Filipino people. Yaya watches the television, swayed by his words. “Siya na,” I watch her tell herself. This is the one.

My family never moved out. My mother still works at the same place, so we still visit Tondo every now and then. Last summer, we went by the same booth to pick up a 6/55, my parents ticking the same numbers they’ve ticked for years. All this with the street still alive with blasting karaoke, the same stalls and regional television. The block crowded around a screen, cheering and talking against the same cracking pavement and crammed homes, drinking soda from plastic bags. The ballot, the promises, the hope—all ever constant for reasons I still have yet to swallow.

I wrote this essay for a class in my Freshman Spring at Yale. Some parts are fictionalized/overblown. I have long tried to articulate how warped my view of life is from growing up with malls, gameshows, and no trust of government.