Finding Optimism in the Tech Industry

Until a few years ago, the tech world, and especially the computer systems and software industries, were full of imagination and inspiration. A computer was a ‘bicycle for the mind’ 1, and the internet a ‘town square for the global village’ 2.

Now, instead, we have growth at any cost and an advertising-driven business model that invades our lives and manipulates us to click again for that next dopamine rush.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m hoping, and even betting, that this is a aberration, a temporary derailing of our progress.

Technology itself is not the answer. As always, all progress will come from talented and creative people. But to turn this around takes the right kinds of values, and development of a different kind of vision for a technological future.

Look Where You Want to Go

I’m a skier, and even though my arthritic right knee doesn’t let me take on the mountain like I used to, skiing is still deep inside me. When I was first learning about mindfulness and meditation, I recognized the peaceful focus described by Jon Kabat Zinn and Alan Watts in my solo tracks on steep slopes through the trees. It’s “the zone,” but not in the constrained and restricted mode that sports often evoke, but in an open, free, and spacious awareness. Skiing the trees is different from running gates for time. The perfection is creative. The pathfinding is artistry. It’s a dance.

One thing you don’t do when skiing through the trees is look at the trees. You look at the gaps between the trees — you look where you want to go, not at what you want to avoid. You look beyond the immediate gap in front of you. You see, all at once, all the shapes and possibilities down the whole mountain. You don’t take a direct route, but choose creatively for fun; for variety and for expression.

For years now, the world of Silicon Valley has been dominated by a focus on growth, which brings with it an implied strategy of free products supported by advertising, driving problematic tactics to maximize engagement. Engagement. That’s the term of art for what might also be called click addiction.

Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t be Evil” always struck me as lacking. They are saying, “Don’t hit the tree.” There is an opportunity they have to refine that to focus on building something good, rather than avoiding something bad. There’s no creative energy developed from “don’t hit the tree.”

Google’s official mission statement is better: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But I’d be more impressed if it answered a human question of “why.” But even here they fall down. Look at YouTube, a place where the rabbit hole of video after video will take one to darker and more outrageous places. Maybe if they had some more human focus on improving the world, they would find some way to surface better material on YouTube. Maybe.

Who do You Choose to Be?

When Tim Cook says that “he wouldn’t be in this situation,” he a referring to Facebook but also commenting on this whole ecosystem. Facebook, of course, has well-documented problems as their targeted advertising tools have be used by bad actors to foment division and crank up the rage. But it’s not that different elsewhere. A whole industry exists to glean information about us from our every interaction and then drop targeted advertising in front of us wherever we go online. All of this creates problems for vulnerable individuals and groups to be sure, but also for society as a whole. Tim Cook wouldn’t be in this situation because the business he runs, Apple, doesn’t operate to maximize engagement or even to monopolize a market. The business strategy you choose has consequences.

The key, I think, is to build and generate capability in people. Help them to better do work that’s important. Or at least help them to more easily do the neccessary work so that they can focus more of their energy on the important stuff. Help people be creative. Help people build a community. Help people collaborate. Help people understand and solve difficult problems.

For Facebook, for Twitter, for Google and their subsidiary YouTube, and probably for Uber and others, this may be the only way for them to survive long-term. This may seem a silly thing to say when these are among the top companies in the world. But each of these companies thrive when people use them, and one barrier to people using them is the trust gap that’s developing.

Outrage and division can only work as an engagement driver for so long, before people tire of it and withdraw. I’m already advising friends and family to improve their online experience by blocking purveyors of outrage and by turning off notifications for all but the most necessary updates. But these simple steps of self-defense may not be enough.

I propose that the only way for these companies to fix this trust gap is to refocus on serving the needs of people and communities. For some it may already be too late.

But I also think that just as some of the most creative and useful advances on the internet came out of the years following the collapse of the first Internet Bubble, frustration with today’s algorithmic advertising wasteland and its outrage-driven engagement algorithms is generating fascinating work on privacy and security and new tools and new models for communities and advocacy. In these, if not in the big tech companies, I find some optimism.

Know-How

From Hobbies to Trade Skills to Artistic Expression, developed knowledge and improved craft is the mark of accomplishment — Coding is no different.

– Darius Dunlap

I wish schools still had Shop, and Band, and Art. I believe there is a kind of mental development that’s missing without them. And I believe that these kinds of classes — focused on doing and making — support and expand the skills of reading, writing, arithmetic, problem solving, and other key skills we all want kids to develop.

These days there is a lot of talk about “Learning to Code.” And that would be great, except for this aura of magic around it. Because learning to code is really a lot like learning carpentry, or photography, or learning to cook. The basics are pretty simple, though that is not evident to the uninitiated. And full expertise is a lifetime pursuit. And most of us are content with a modest competence.

Learning to code is easier than it has ever been. Not because it’s become simpler, but because the tools have become better, specifically in that they allow you to do something useful more easily and with less knowledge and skill.

Photography is undergoing and transformation in a similar way. It’s not that the pictures we take with our phones and fancy digital cameras are better than film for the expert photographer, but that these new tools provide immediacy. You can take a picture and instantly see it. You can learn from every photograph taken, right there, right then, and take another and another until you get the photo you want. You take more photos, too. Your photography improves at a pace and in ways that would have required much more patience, organization, focus, and effort a couple decades ago when the turn-around was so much slower.

Deep expertise still takes years, but the basics are more accessible than ever.

It’s the same for coding.

Mastering coding, or more properly Software Engineering and Computer Science, is not something every needs to do. it’s probably not something every could do, even if they tried. It’s a deep field and the complexity of the most advanced techniques are beyond those without an aptitude. At the very highest level, it requires not just superior mathematics and problem solving, but also philosophy and compassion — designing systems requires thinking beyond the immediate technical problem to understand how the system fits into the world and how people are going to use it. The people who can do all of this well are rare.

But for the rest of us, our needs are simpler. We can create something that solves a straightforward problem, using the excellent tools developed over the last several decades, and never have to think about the mathematics of drawing the curve at the corner of our icon or the physics of making our animation look natural, or the details of setting up a server and keeping it reliable and secure.

So “Learning to Code” is a lot like learning to cook. It doesn’t mean we will all become master chefs with Michelin-rated restaurants. But it does mean we can learn to make a good loaf of hand-made bread from natural starter that’s better than what you can get off the shelf at the grocers.

Most importantly, learning to code, like taking shop or joining the band in high school, helps you get better at other things. It helps you solve problems in other domains, and it develops your mind.

IIW and Indieweb

Kevin Marks led a couple sessions at Internet Identity Workshop this week explaining Indieweb and getting people started. I helped out a bit, and took for notes for the first two sessions.

IndieWeb Update

Since joining the IndieWeb Camp a couple weeks ago, I’ve had a great time learning more and getting things setup and working on my own sites. It’s still not all where I want it, but I thought I’d do a little update.

The idea behind IndieWeb is that you own your own presence on the internet. This starts with owning your domain, and some kind of website at that domain, where you post your stuff. But you set things up so that it’s easy to post a version to whatever social site you wish, like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or LinkedIn. This principle is called “Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere” — POSSE, for short.

Then, when people post replies on those sites, those replies also show up on your own site, all pulled together in one place.

For me, this is like a kind of magic. All my stuff is on my site, and all my friends replies and comments and likes, as well. But I get that leverage and connection that today is only possible in the big social sites. Facebook has a near monopoly on “everyone”, but some people I want to reach are on Twitter, or App.net, or LinkedIn, or Google+, so I want to be in those places, too. With IndieWeb, it’s possible, and even easy, to connect it all together.

At this point, the tools to do this seamlessly are not simple to setup — not yet something my non-techie friends are going to want to take on. But it’s getting there.

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One of the best parts of the IndieWeb is the group of people creating it. My kind of nerds. It’s a high-powered group, and a friendly and helpful group, too. With a little help, I was able to get a lot of stuff setup in just a few hours.

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I have the IndieWeb stuff integrated here at this WordPress blog, thanks to the nice SemPress theme and a couple plugins. While I was at it, I got https working with a real SSL certificate, and cleaned up a mess of disused and redundant Plugins. (This happens when you manage your own WordPress.)

If you’re interested in seeing this all in action, just check out the comments on my blog. Recent posts were done POSSE-style and you will see some comments coming in from other sites. To learn more of the technical details, check out IndieWebCamp.com