sexism is a problem; brogramming is not

This article is a mess, and those who are conflating sexism in technology with the increasingly mainstream cultural attributes of programmers are making a serious mistake. I have known meathead programmers who treat women as respected equals, and I have known cartoonishly Aspergery nebbishes whose jaw-droppingly sexist utterances would send any sane woman sprinting from the hackerspace. In between, I have seen a number of ordinary young men — guys whose personal style and mannerisms would be unobjectionable to the median Beach House listener — give presentations at conferences that alienated, angered or hurt the women in their community.

I’ll submit that the project of making women feel comfortable in this industry — a project that is very worthwhile — has basically nothing to do with whether that industry’s men work out, wear their baseball caps backward, or listen to shitty music.

Believe me, I don’t like it when douchebags start showing up at my favorite hangouts, either. But it’s important to distinguish our  insular cultural grudges (which can be fun!) from our insistence on equality and fairness (which is actually important).

I think everyone should learn to write code. That includes the mouthbreathers, if they behave themselves.

it’s not all bad news

Since I have some visitors, let me note that, despite my default position of skepticism, I don’t think technology’s done reshaping our world — not by any means.

True, across a range of disciplines, there is cause for gloom. Some technologies — batteries, getting into orbit — sure look like they’re bumping up against immutable physical limits (fingers crossed that we invent flying saucers; get on it, physicists!). Others, like the speed of your home broadband connection, are hitting commercial or regulatory problems sufficiently imposing that the benefits to overcoming them don’t seem worth the cost. In other cases it’s a mix: growing (and arguably justified!) bureaucracy and depletion of low-hanging fruit combine to slow progress to a crawl.  Future societal changes related to information technology seem likely to be more about growing adoption (“even poor people have smartphones”; “wow, they’ve applied the carsharing model to that?”) than the deployment of new innovations (“he probably misses his old glasses“) — though note that this isn’t actually much of a problem for human welfare if you exclude tech journalists from your analysis.

Certainly some of these points of stagnation will be overcome with unanticipated developments.  And obviously I’m just as in the dark as anyone about what those innovations will be.

But I can guess at a couple of things — there are a few obvious bright spots. Supplementing education, for instance: I don’t know if something like Khan Academy can serve as a kind of pedagogical prosthesis, allowing a mediocre teacher to borrow some of the skills of a great one. But it at least seems plausible, and is something that’s being actively figured out.

Maybe more whiz-bang-ishly, I’m very excited about self-driving cars. Again, this is something that’s actively being worked on: not just by Google but by a number of automakers. And, somewhat shockingly, the early word on the regulatory state’s ability to adapt is not completely depressing (though I expect it to get more so). I realize that this might seem like a somewhat trivial technology — certainly when I first pondered the idea I didn’t understand it to be much more than a better cruise control.  But if you haven’t, let me strongly encourage you to read Tim Lee’s three part series on what this all could mean. It’s not just about playing George Jetson and watching a movie during your next road trip. Self-driving cars would free a huge amount of human capital and dramatically reduce the number of cars and supporting infrastructure that we would collectively require.  This has implications for our cities, our environment — even the experience of being a child or parent (a relationship that, Matt is fond of pointing out, involves a hell of a lot of chauffeur service).

I genuinely think this will arrive in my lifetime (pre-dotage, even! though I think this remains an excitingly uncertain bet), and that it’ll be a very big deal.  It’s worth noting that it’ll also be yet one more thing fueling inequality: no more truckers, no more cabbies, fewer construction and auto workers.  This is why I think learning how to make peace with our new robot overlords is so important.

 

 

for the record, I wish it *could* change everything

Let me start by saying that I really like Alexis Madrigal’s work. He’s got an eye for what’s new and interesting and he writes pieces that are fluid and thoughtful.

But it’s hard for me to read this and not despair. He comes so close to the realization that a guy as smart as him ought to have already had:

I can take a photo of a check and deposit it in my bank account, then turn around and find a new book through a Twitter link and buy it, all while being surveilled by a drone in Afghanistan and keeping track of how many steps I’ve walked.

The question is, as it has always been: now what?

Decades ago, the answer was, “Build the Internet.” Fifteen years ago, it was, “Build the Web.” Five years ago, the answers were probably, “Build the social network” or “Build the mobile web.” And it was in around that time in 2007 that Facebook emerged as the social networking leader, Twitter got known at SXSW, and we saw the release of the first Kindle and the first iPhone. There are a lot of new phones that look like the iPhone, plenty of e-readers that look like the Kindle, and countless social networks that look like Facebook and Twitter. In other words, we can cross that task off the list. It happened.

What we’ve seen since have been evolutionary improvements on the patterns established five years ago. The platforms that have seemed hot in the last couple of years — Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest — add a bit of design or mobile intelligence to the established ways of thinking. The most exciting thing to come along in the consumer space between then and now is the iPad. But despite its glorious screen and extended battery life, it really is a scaled up iPhone that offers developers more space and speed to do roughly the same things they were doing before. The top apps for the iPad look startlingly similar the top apps for the iPhone: casual games, social networking, light productivity software.

For at least five years, we’ve been working with the same operating logic in the consumer technology game. This is what it looks like:

There will be ratings and photos and a network of friends imported, borrowed, or stolen from one of the big social networks. There will be an emphasis on connections between people, things, and places. That is to say, the software you run on your phone will try to get you to help it understand what and who you care about out there in the world. Because all that stuff can be transmuted into valuable information for advertisers.

That paradigm has run its course. It’s not quite over yet, but I think we’re into the mobile social fin de siècle.

This is just an excerpt. But the whole post is pervaded by a sorrowful impatience. A sense that that all that stuff that came before was okay, but not quite what we were looking for, you know? It’s time for something new; something that, finally, will really change everything.

A pessimist might be worried. It’s almost as if these endless cresting waves of technical fads are never actually going to carry us beyond the threshold that we perceive but can’t name — that we won’t achieve transcendence through apps, that HTML5 won’t remake human nature, that meaning might be more than one more MacWorld away. That technology is only important to the extent that it lets us do things we otherwise couldn’t, and that a maniacal focus on tech as a movement, beat or industry will necessarily rob it of all its vitality, leaving the obsessive observer of valuations and launches on a joyless and masturbatory trudge through the sucked-dry bones of a topic that is only worth considering in its relation to a vastly richer, larger and more important cultural landscape.

I mean… it could be, right? Should we at least consider the possibility?

Actually, no, nevermind — whew! — that’s all wrong. Check it out, the new iPhone 5 could be AMAZING:

[...] I think we all better hope that the iPhone 5 has some crazy surprises in store for us later this year. Maybe it’s a user interface thing. Maybe it’s a whole line of hardware extensions that allow for new kinds of inputs and outputs. I’m not sure what it is, but a decently radical shift in hardware capabilities on par with phone–>smartphone or smartphone–>iPhone would be enough, I think, to provide a springboard for some new ideas.

Also, lightbulbs:

I have some [ideas] of my own, too. The cost of a lumen of light is dropping precipitously; there must be more things than lightbulbs that can benefit from that.

That could be a thing, right? Lightbulbs as a platform, man. You go email the alumni list for a technical cofounder, I’ll start working on the pitch deck. Do you think we should do it Ignite style or aim for more of a TEDx thing?

And don’t forget Big Data. No, we still have no idea what problems we actually want to solve with it (all human disease? let’s discuss in Campfire). But check it out, I found an amazing Stack Overflow thread about building a software RAID array out of EBSes. Once we spend a couple hundred bucks on an Elastic MapReduce run, how could we not have fundamentally improved our civilization? It’s inconceivable!

There’s vast amounts of databases, real-world data, and video that remains unindexed. Who knows what a billion Chinese Internet users will come up with? The quantified self is just getting going on its path to the programmable self. And no one has figured out how to do augmented reality in an elegant way.

Anyway, thank goodness. For a second there I was worried.

post-scarcity

Robots are coming to take our jobs!

It’s funny: I tend to be skeptical about expansive visions of technological transformation. Our human impulses keep the reality that actually unfolds quaintly venal and simple-minded. Douglas Adams remains my favorite guide to the future. But I do think this could be a real problem.

Americans’ physical needs have been pretty well met for a while now. It sure looks like more and more people are hitting a ceiling on the marginal utility of their dollars. And there haven’t been any hugely popular new product categories for decades — no flying cars, no medical breakthroughs that add decades to life. Just steadily better and cheaper consumer goods, and the debut of various useful but negligibly expensive information technology gadgets. I’m starting to actually believe I could outlive scarcity (in America, anyway).

I am much less gloomy about what we do after that point than Mr. Staniford seems to be. Robots might take a lot of work away from us, but I can’t imagine a future where they take all the meaningful work. Ever been in a nursing home? A mental health facility? An underperforming school? If we really find ourselves with more resources than we know what to do with, applying them toward minimizing human suffering strikes me as a pretty worthwhile project, and one that could occupy an almost arbitrarily large number of people.

Or we could just have everyone spend their days carving elaborate friezes onto our public infrastructure. Hell, let’s build some new pyramids! I don’t know! But I am increasingly suspicious that how we redirect our surplus resources will be the central moral and political problem of the next few generations. No joke: this is why I’m trying to convince Yglesias to write his next book about the economics of Star Trek. Barring some deeply unsettling discoveries about physics, we’re not going to see replicators or holodecks arrive anytime soon. But it’s probably the most widely-known fictional work that even occasionally addresses this problem, which makes it seem like as good a framing device as any.

Or, perhaps more plausibly, we might have an ecological or epidemiological catastrophe that causes the collapse of global civilization. In which case we can probably just ignore these questions and enjoy the time we have left.

UPDATE: I realized I should’ve linked to this post by Yglesias; for how short it is, it really covers an incredible amount of territory.  Better still, I finally got around to reading the Peter Frase essay it links to, which is shockingly good (and includes the trenchant Star Trek analysis I crave). And that, in turn, links to this Charles Stross blog post, which is also very good.

CISPA

A campaign opposing the legislation launched about three minutes ago — Sunlight is among the signatories.  It’s going to be interesting to see how this works out:

  • Will CISPA come to fully carry the “new SOPA” framing that advocates (intoxicated by the overwhelming success of that earlier campaign) are going to be unable to resist suggesting?
  • Will that be productive, or will the net bloc feel that it’s being manipulated and disengage?
  • Can organization of this constituency succeed without the support of the net’s commercial entities?  By most accounts they’re indifferent to CISPA in a way they weren’t with SOPA.

All I can tell you is that people who who have spent years promising that the internet will transform our democracy* are very excited about how the SOPA/PIPA fight went down — and with good reason! It was a thunderous victory by all accounts. The people who have been quietly toiling in this arena feel that they might have discovered a new weapon, and the temptation to try to use it soon will no doubt prove irresistible.

Normally, trying to clone a successful campaign action is a recipe for disappointment.  But it really is true that reflexive opposition to everything Congress tries to do to the internet is a pretty sound policy rule of thumb; there’s an online constituency with vague political preferences but a strong sense of net territoriality and disillusionment with Washington; and the business communities who are most interested in mucking with the internet aren’t really set up to run successful campaigns against an engaged public opposition (these guys are used to getting their way because there’s basically no one paying attention on the other side).

So we’ll see!

* in more inspiring ways than opening up a bunch of small donor money or boring, non-cutting edge (or just uninterestingly egalitarian) things like enabling constituent communication, I mean