when the world is so negative…
I want to write here about tech worker idealism. And not just this general switch to more progressive positions among white-collar workers that we’ve noticed recently in the US. I’m talking about the Richard Stallman/Satoshi Nakomoto/Hacker Ethic anarchic spirit where everyone works together in a decentralized way (halfway building for themselves and halfway for others) to build the Star Trek future of post-scarcity. The funny thing is, nobody else outside of computer technologists really believes in this. In fact, a majority of people in the US are starting to believe that Big Tech is a negative for society, stifling competition and creating a new serfdom in a neofeudal dystopia. So why do IT people believe in their green orgastic future so strongly, particularly when it seems like they’re the ones who are ruining it for everyone else?
Experience of Tech People that Point Towards Anarchic Paradise
a bullet-pointed list to give you an idea of the no-frills tech mindset
- Everything you need is basically free, provided by benevolent bespectacled wizards with long beards at no cost. There’s open-source software, free courses and books, free mentorship, and free credits for cloud computing services.
- There’s a sense of meritocracy in IT. Credentials don’t matter when most of your colleagues are self-taught or bootcamp educated.
- People are passionate about their work and often do it in their leisure time as well.
- Jobs are easy to find, well-compensated, and offer meaningful development of skills
- Most companies are progressive and don’t overtly engage in any morally questionable activity. (It’s probably just task management software or developer tools).
- Programmers are literally given clothes and food for free by recruiters and their employer.
- Your employer encourages you to open-source parts of your project and helps fund some of the projects they use.
- Often-times the service is offered free to users, even if it’s monetized on the back-end.
So many tech workers, not having much in the realm of expensive tastes to begin with, find themselves in a world of economic plenty where for the most part everybody gets along with each other collegially in order to advance their industry. In their mind, this is the natural state of the world, and if we could just extend IT values into other industries, we’ll reach a golden age of civilization.
And then what do tech people want to Fix
- the Financial and Political system! Cryptocurrencies, Decentralized Finance, and DAOs will all certainly solve our ancient coordination problems here
- Electronics: Open hardware will allow every person to fabricate their own solar cells and microwave at home
- Education. MOOCs, open journals, and open courseware will replace the staid university!
- The Arts: NFTs and crowd-funding platforms like Patreon will allow artists to make the kind of work the public appreciates instead of funding moldering symphony orchestrass
- Biology: open bioinformatics and AI powered protein synthesis will allow us to customize medicine for everyone
- Robotics and AI: this will replace all menial physical, mental, and social work and allow us to focus solely on our productivity blogs.
So if you squint your eyes and put on a pair of #ff007f colored glasses, you can see how we will build a future where have an effective technocratic government, an abundance of food and energy, universal access to information, and freedom for everyone to contribute to humanity as they see fit. I tend to think they’re right (although I also think that Ted might be right), but the rest of the media has a decidedly dystopian bent at the moment, so it’s interesting to see why the two viewpoints diverge.
Here let me draw a distinction between the idealistic, passionate engineers and the more entrepreneurial members of the tech community. The bosses realize the value of owning the platform, acquiring your competitors, and commoditizing programmers. The other thing they understand is that good engineers demand a degree of pampering. In addition to the normal things programmers demand (high pay, flexible work hours, and a conference or two a year), they also want to feel that their job is making the world a better place. So in additional to philanthropic activities such as offsetting their carbon and the usual socially progressive positioning of large corporations, a lot of tech companies try to open-source their tools.
Why do we frequently see open-sourcing of software tools when this hardly ever happens in other industries? IKEA doesn’t reveal the details of their production line, and Ford doesn’t tell you how to build your own truck. So why does this work?
Open Source Economics
- Open sourcing a tool doesn’t give up too much competitive advantage. Most of the work at a company is hooking up existing tools and frameworks to data and running everything together.
- Pooling resources across companies helps everyone to win, particularly when the companies are not directly competing.
- Releasing a good library is great for the brand, since it attracts other good engineers who want to work there.
- Sometimes by strategically releasing tools, you can set a standard for the industry that benefits your company (google with Chrome and Android)
- If you release a tool for free, it’s more likely that people will later pay for support.
The point here is that the engineers desires basically conform to the managements’ desires. In general the tech ecosystem powered by greed and passionate engineers and manages to make technology better and better with each passing year. The engineering goal of the good technologist can be well-served working at a large company, so for techno-optimists this is a reasonable compromise although it may look self-serving to those on the outside of this pinnacle of privilege.
Complicity or Pragmatism?
You have to admit there’s a kind of naive optimism in technologists. It’s kind of hard to imagine working at a place like Uber, Facebook, or AirBnB and believing that you’re making the world a better place, despite the propaganda of the management. Impacting the world, definitely, and of course you and your excellent colleagues are getting rich while using some very beautiful software tools. But at the same time, it seems like there should be nagging a feeling that all of this is at the expense of all the people that actually use the product. And really what technology are you actually inventing? Aren’t you just coming up with more convenient ways to write code and to look at the numbers the code generates?
I hate to say it, but I think the lack introspection saves the programmers. Fretting too much about the business models of your company or the overall societal utility of your work also isn’t going to make you program your self-driving car any better (aside from its ethical processor, perhaps). If the invisible hand tells us that we need to all get better at manipulating bits, who are we to say that we should be doing something more meaningful?
It’s obvious that software is eating the world, so it makes sense to keep developing more software until it becomes less impactful. In the end, these big consumer technology companies have funded huge revolutions in computing and Artificial Intelligence, and in the end it’s probably a less destructive way to get progress than a war. I do nurture the hope myself (despite working as a sort of programmer) that the advances of the next decades will belong to biotech, clean energy, and robotics, and the computer programmer will resume their rightful place as a necessary and unglamorous business expense required to keep the information systems running.