unsolicited advice


Will Wilkinson is too kind to me, but too cruel in general:

[The] hyperventilating false drama about never-delivered transformative change is by no means unique to the tech beat. Here on the politics blogs, we’re only too happy to remind our readers that every coming election is the most important election in a generation, that the fate of our civilisation depends upon which of two barely discernible politicians’ cronies get paid. If we can’t generate a narrative with live-or-die stakes out of meaningless developments in public-opinion polls, then we’ve got nothing worthwhile to offer. Reflecting too often upon the ultimate triviality of almost everything we write about does no good for technology or politics writers, or for their readers. The illusion that the next thing will be truly meaningful has always meant more to us than the reality of the next thing. I agree with Mr Lee that there is something quite sad in the way Mr Madrigal, after having discovered that he has been reporting on nothing of significance, does not then go on to draw the well-warranted conclusion that he has wasted some of the best years of his youth foolishly yammering on about ephemera, but instead doubles down and declares “we all better hope that the iPhone 5 has some crazy surprises in store for us later this year”. But it’s only sad because life is sad. Really, why not roll the rock back up the hill?

I am rarely out-gloomed, but I think this is one such instance. So let me present a case for technology being meaningful. I think it’s possible! Anyone who knows me can tell you that, contra my somewhat embittered bloggy pronouncements, I love technology. I mess around with Arduino on weekends; I obsessively amass, modchip and then fail to actually play game consoles; I spent my holiday building a programmable array of Christmas lights; and I can put my hand on a Digikey packing slip without leaving my bed (though this last credential is perhaps as much about messiness as it is about geekiness).

The point is that I believe in this stuff. Information technology, in particular, is incredibly powerful and democratically accessible, and I genuinely think it can improve our society. When you see me getting upset about the tech industry, it’s because I feel that others have lost sight of this. They’re making this inspiring thing I love into a silly business school game, or they’re making ignorant promises — on my behalf, it feels like! — about things they don’t understand and which won’t ever come to pass. Loudmouths are distracting from good work done humbly. Fuck those guys; I hate ’em. I wish they would shut up and go away. But since they won’t, we might as well get on with things.

If you’re someone with technical skills, hopefully you you will prove to be better at ignoring those people than I have. Aside from that, I’d like to talk about the ways that I feel a career making technology can be meaningful. Because I really do believe it’s possible; I would hate the people who know me, who work with me, to read this blog and conclude that I feel otherwise.

Not, mind you, that your job has to define you. There’s nothing wrong with doing an honest day’s work and coming home to enjoy your family, or partner, or dog. Pick up a hobby. Enjoy your vacations. In a few short decades you will only exist as the memories of your loved ones. A few more and you’ll be nothing more than a couple of kilobytes in the Mormons’ genealogical databases. I wish I had a better deal to offer, but by all accounts history is relentless, and it seems assured that rocking back and forth muttering/tweeting about “innovation” and “disruption” will be no charm against it. The important thing is to try not to waste the time you have on stupid bullshit.

I should warn you: this will be grandiose and sappy. To wit:

Improve the World

Yes, the hi-tech, still-quite-expensive things that you build will mostly be used by rich people. That’s just a for-now thing, though. Smartphone adoption is already better than home broadband penetration. Speaking very conservatively, in two generations, everyone in America will be using this technology. In four, I’d bet on everyone in the world using it. And in the meantime, you can push on the decisionmakers. Correcting asymmetries of information can ameliorate asymmetries of power, despite the occasional troublingly counterintuitive result. Look at what Public Laboratory is doing: democratizing technology to make it possible for ordinary people to monitor and — hopefully — legally defend the quality of their environment. I’m admittedly biased, but I find their work incredibly inspiring.

A lot of efficiency gains are made possible by better information — dynamic energy pricing systems, car– and bike-sharing fleets, programmable thermostats. Information technology has a real role to play in keeping the earth habitable.

But you don’t have to know anything about IR filters or weather balloons or Arduino to make a difference. Designing a webform that serves the needs of some fraction of a social worker’s clients, freeing resources for others: that’s work that isn’t flashy, but is truly important. By way of example, my friend Chris helped build a clearinghouse of performance data for the microfinance sector, and though I know the day-to-day development experience was nearly indistinguishable from any other CMS-project-hell, it still seems to me a very fine thing to have done. I’m sure that toiling on the EHR problem is even more mind-numbing, and yet it’s unquestionably of huge potential importance. Writing a line of code can feel very distant from the act of directly alleviating human suffering, but that distance is and will continue to shrink.

Create Knowledge

The callowness and innumeracy of those promoting the Big Data brand almost defies belief, but (I should remind myself more frequently) it’s important not to let this distort your perspective. Yes, there are dopes who don’t understand that a properly selected sample of their (inevitably clickstream or social media) data could get them the same “insights” (always insights) as their massive Hadoop infrastructure. Plus it would let them use scientific-looking error bars, which I bet they would enjoy.

But there really are problems in need of solving which are bigger than human cognition. The gulf between the people who think their FitBits will extend their lifespan and the people working on actual computational biology problems is vast, but those willing to traverse it should be celebrated. There are archives to be digitized, regressions to be run, extraterrestrial radio signals to be processed. There are more disciplines than I can imagine that could make use of our skills if only they were introduced to them.

Make Art

All of this stuff is changing us, and we’re going to need to spend some time figuring out how — particularly as the energies, quantities and general magnitudes of the things we can manipulate grow ever more threateningly huge. Somehow we’re going to have to give this old monkey brain the slip.

That would be the pragmatic case, but maybe it’s foolish to try to mount one. What better thing could there be to spend your time on than making beauty? Besides, you’d be hard-pressed to read much of or the (now-defunct) New Aesthetic Tumblr or the increasingly philosophically-minded indie game scene and not come away convinced that a bunch of exciting, fast-moving (and yes, somewhat insufferable) conversations are reaching crescendo right now. It’s getting to be the part of the party where you have to shout to be heard, and either everyone will start to dance or there’ll be a fight or we’ll get up on the roof. Something interesting is sure to happen — it probably already is, in fact.

Try, At The Very Least, Not To Hurt Anyone

There are a few subdisciplines that you should probably stay away from. “Neuromarketing,” Zynga-style games, Klout scores and other algorithmic approaches to eliminating human agency, dignity and/or equality strike me as basically evil, and though the trend they represent is probably unstoppable, I sure wouldn’t want to be associated with it. Ditto becoming one of the quants designing the HFT engines of tomorrow, or one of the parasites that make their living off of SEO.

On the more benign/less high-skill end of the spectrum, coupon sites are starting to look less like a positive-sum marketing interaction and more like a system for skimming small businesses’ revenue. This model has been deployed to arguably good effect in the past (newspapers! Gmail!), but this latter phase seems to merely be subsidizing my fellow yuppies’ lifestyles in a sort of bizarrely regressive retail sales tax scheme. If you have the economic freedom to choose, I’m confident that you’ll be able to find something more productive to do with your time and talents.

If You Absolutely Must Play The Startup Game

Understand that you’re unlikely to come up with a million dollar idea solely by sticking together free software like so many legos, hoping that lightning will strike and you’ll wake up to a valuable population of users who are now pleasantly locked into your product by network effects and/or transition costs. Sure, it happens — for now, Instagram still counts as an example rather than a punchline — but a lotto ticket offers only slightly worse odds, and requires you to spend much less time fiddling with Keynote. It’s simply too easy for other, smarter people to have the same idea and build it. Competitive markets are good for consumers and bad for entrepreneurs.

But if the startup dream compels you, I would suggest two things.

First, realize that ICT makes information cheaper. That’s it, really. If you want to earn money with this technology, you should look for tractable problem areas where information is still expensive.

Second, connect your project to the logistical nightmare that is the real world. Ship physical goods, install a bikesharing fleet, go meet with the bureaucracy to get the data you need for your business intelligence site. These things are hard to do without leaving the house (or at least picking up the phone), and consequently fewer of them are being done. Another handy heuristic bucket: pursue ideas that require capital for things other than loft space, foosball tables and your bar tab. The low hanging fruit has been plucked, in other words. Reach higher. It’ll certainly be more interesting, and you might even improve your odds.

I’m a Lucky Guy

I’ve already copped to not being a startup guy myself. I guess I should probably acknowledge that I’m not a particularly cheerful person, either. But while I have admittedly made some terrible decisions, my professional choices haven’t been half bad, if I do say so myself. I’m extremely grateful to have the opportunity I do: one that affords me the chance to do work that I count as meaningful across a couple of the above dimensions.

I can’t guarantee you’ll have the good fortune I’ve had in finding a fulfilling way to spend your workdays, but I do wish you luck at not wasting your time.

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Tom Lee

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By Tom Lee