I have a confession to make: I have a strong tendency to “jump”, emotionally and intellectually, to the biggest problem that I see at a given time. I’ve tempered it with age, because it’s often counterproductive. In organizational or corporate life, solving the bigger problem, or jumping to the biggest problem that you have the ability to solve, often gets you fired. Most organizations demand that a person work on artificial small problems in a years-long evaluative period before he gets to solve the important problems, and I’ve personally never had the patience to play that game (and it is a political game, and recognizing it as such has been detrimental, since it would be harder to resent it had I not realized what it was) at all, much less to a win. The people who jump to the biggest problem are received as insubordinate and unreliable, not because they actually are unreliable, but because they reliably do something that those without vision tend both not to understand, and to dislike. There are too many negative things (whether there is truth or value in them, or not) that can be said, in the corporate theater, about a person who immediately jumps to the biggest problem– she only wants to work on the fun stuff, she’s over-focused and bad at multi-tasking, she’s pushy and obsessive, she wants the boss’s boss’s job and isn’t good at hiding it– and it’s only matter of time before many of them are actually said.
Organizations need people like this, if they wish to survive, and they know this; but they also don’t believe that they need very many of them. Worse yet, corporate consistency mandates that the people formally trusted (i.e. those who negotiated for explicitly-declared trust in the form of job titles) be the ones who are allowed to do that sort of work. The rest, should they self-promote to a more important task than what they’ve been assigned, are considered to be breaking rank and will usually be fired. People dislike “fixers”, especially when their work is what’s being fixed. It’s probably no surprise, then, that modern organizations, over time, become full of problems that most people can see but no one has the courage to fix.
Let’s take this impulse– attack the bigger problem or, better yet, find an even bigger one– and discuss the technology industry. Let’s jump away from debates about tools and get to the big problems. What is the biggest problem with it? Tabs versus spaces? Python versus Ruby? East Coast versus West versus Midwest? Hardly. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy debating the merits and drawbacks of various programming languages. I mean, I may not like the language Spoo as much as my favored tools, but I’d never suggest that the people promoting Spoo are anything but intelligent people with the best intentions. We may disagree, but in good faith. Except in security, discussion of bad-faith players and their activity is rare. It’s almost taboo to discuss that they exist. In fact, Hacker News now formally censors “negativity”, which includes the assertion or even the suggestion that there are many bad actors in the technology world, especially in Silicon Valley and even more especially at the top. But there are. There is a level of power, in Silicon Valley, at which malevolent players become more common than good people, and it’s people at that level of power who call the most important shots. If we ignore this, we’re missing the fucking point of everything.
There is room for this programming language and that one. That is a matter of taste and opinion, and I have a stance (static as much as possible) but there are people of equal or superior intellectual and moral quality who disagree with me. There is room for functional programming as well as imperative programming. Where there is no nuance (unless one is a syphilitic psychopath) is on this statement: technology, in general, is run by the wrong people. While this claim (“wrong people”) is technically subjective just as far as color is technically subjective, we can treat it as a working fact, just as the subjectivity of color does not excuse a person running a red light under the argument that he perceived it as green. Worse, the technology industry is run by bad people, and by bad, I don’t mean that they are merely bad at their jobs; I mean that they are unethical, culturally malignant, and belong in jail.
Why is this? And what does it mean? Before answering that, it’s important to understand what kind of bad people have managed to push themselves into the top ranks of the technology industry.
Sadly, most of the people who comprise the (rising, and justified) anti-technology contingent don’t make a distinction between me and the actual Bad Guys. To them, the $140k/year engineers and the $400k/year VP/NTWTFKs (Non-Technical Who-The-Fuck-Knows) getting handed sinecures in other peoples’ companies by their friends on Sand Hill Road are the same crowd. They perceive classism and injustice, and they’re right, but they’re oblivious to the gap between the upper-working-class engineers who create technological value (but make few decisions) and the actually upper class pedigree-mongers who capture said value (and make most of the decisions, often badly) and who are at risk of running society into the ground. (If you think this is an exaggeration, look at house prices in the Bay Area. If these fuckers can’t figure out how to solve that problem, then who in the hell can trust them to run anything bigger than techie cantrips?) Why do the anti-technology protestors fail to recognize their true enemies, and therefore lose an opportunity to forge an alliance with the true technologists whose interests have also been trampled by the software industry’s corporate elite? Because we, meaning the engineers and true technologists, have let them.
As I see it, the economy of the Bay Area (and, increasingly, the U.S.) has three “estates”. In the First Estate are the Sand Hill Road business people. They don’t give a damn about technology for its own sake, and they’re an offshoot of the mainstream business elite. After failing in private equity or proving themselves not to be smart enough to do statistical arbitrage, they’re sent West to manage nerds, and while they’re poor in comparison to the hedge-fund crowd, they’re paid immensely by normal-people (or even Second Estate) standards. As in the acronym “FILTH” (Failed In London, Try Hong (k)ong), they are colonial overseers who weren’t good enough for leadership positions in the colonizing culture (the mainstream business/MBA culture) so they were sent to California to wave their dicks in the air while blustering about “unicorns“. In the Second Estate are the technologists and engineers who actually write the code and build the products; their annual incomes tend to top out around $200,000 to $300,000– not bad at all, but not enough to buy a house in the Bay Area– and becoming a founder is (due to lack of “pedigree”, which is a code word for the massive class discrepancy between them and the VCs they need to pitch) is pretty much out of the question. The Third Estate are the people, of average means, who feel disenfranchised as they are priced out of the Bay Area. They (understandably) can’t quite empathize with Second-Estate complaints about the cost of housing and pathetic equity slices, because they actually live on “normal people” (non-programmer, no graduate degree) salaries. As class tensions have built in San Francisco, the First Estate has been exceptionally adept at diverting Third-Estate animosity toward the Second, hence the “Google Bus” controversies. This prevents the Second and Third Estates from realizing that their common enemy is the First Estate, and thereby getting together and doing something about their common problem.
This echoes a common problem in technology companies. If a tech-company CEO in France or Germany tried to institute engineer stack ranking, an effigy would be burned on his own front lawn, his vehicle would be vandalized if not destroyed, and the right thing would happen (i.e., he’d revert the decision) the next day. An admirable trait that the European proletariat has, and that the American one lacks, is an immunity to divide-and-conquer tactics. The actual enemies of the people of San Francisco are the billionaires who believe in stack ranking and the NIMBYs, not 26-year-old schlubs who spend 3 hours per day on a Google bus. Likewise, when software engineers bludgeon each other over Ruby versus Java, they’re missing the greater point. The enemy isn’t “other languages”. It’s the idiot executive who (not understanding technology himself, and taking bad advice from a young sociopath who is good at pretending to understand software) instituted a top-down one-language policy that was never needed in the first place.
Who are the right people to run technology, and why are the current people in charge wrong for the job? Answering the first question is relatively easy. What is technology? It’s the application of acquired knowledge to solve problems. What problems should we be solving? What are the really big problems? Fundamentally, I think that the greatest evil is scarcity. From the time of Gilgamesh to the mid-20th century, human life was dominated by famine, war, slavery, murder, rape and torture. Contrary to myths about “noble savages”, pre-industrial men faced about a 0.5%-per-year chance of death in violent conflict. Aberrations aside, most of horrible traits that we attribute to “human nature” are actually attributable to human nature under scarcity. What do we know about human nature without scarcity? Honestly, very little. Even the lives of the rich, in 2015, are still dominated by the existence of scarcity (and the need to protect an existence in which it is absent). We don’t have a good idea of what “human nature” is when human life is no longer dominated either by scarcity or the counter-measures (work, sociological ascent) taken to avoid it.
The goal of a technologist is to make everyone rich. Obviously, that won’t happen overnight, and it has to be done in the right way. It’s better to do it with clean energy sources and lab-grown meat than with petroleum and animal death. The earth can’t afford to have people eating like Americans and able to fly thousands of miles per year until certain technological problems are solved (and I, honestly, believe that they can be solved, and aren’t terribly difficult). We have a lot of work to do, and most of us aren’t doing the right work, and it’s hard to blame the individual programmer because there are so few jobs that enable a person to work on fundamental problems. Let’s, however, admit to a fundamental enemy: scarcity. Some might say that death is a fundamental enemy, especially in the Singularitarian crowd. I strongly disagree. Death is an unknown– I look forward to “the other side”, and if I am wrong and there is nothing on the other side, then I will not exist to be bothered by the fact– but I see no reason to despise it. Death will happen to me– even a technological singularity can only procrastinate it for a few billion years– and that is not a bad thing. Scarcity, on the other hand, is pretty fucking awful– far more deserving of “primal enemy” status than death. If scarcity in human life should continue indefinitely, I don’t want technological life extension. Eighty years of a mostly-charmed life in a mostly-shitty world, I can tolerate. Two hundred? Fuck that shit. If we’re not going to make major progress on scarcity in the next fifty years, I’ll be fucking glad to be making my natural exit.
Technologists (and, at this point, I’m speaking more about a mentality and ideology than a profession, because quite a large number of programmers are anti-intellectual fuckheads just as bad as the colonial officers who employ them) are humanity’s last resort in the battle against scarcity. Scarcity has been the norm, along with the moral corrosion that comes with it, for most of human history, and if we don’t kill it soon, we’ll destroy ourselves. We learned this in the first half of the 20th century. Actual scarcity was on the wane even then, because the Industrial Revolution worked; but old, tribalistic ideas– ideas from a time when scarcity was the rule– caused a series of horrendous wars and the deployment of one of the most destructive weapons ever conceived. We ought to strive to break out of such nonsense. There will always be inequalities of social status, but we ought to aim for a world in which being “poor” means being on a two-week waiting list to go to the Moon.
Who are the right people to run technology? Positive-sum players. People who want to make everyone prosperous, and to do so while reducing or eliminating environmental degradation. I hope that this is clear. There are many major moral issues in technology around privacy, safety and security, and our citizenship in the greater world. I don’t mean to make light of those. Those are important and complicated issues, and I won’t claim that I always have the right answer. Still, I think that those are ancillary to the main issue, which is that technology is not run by positive-sum players. Instead, it’s run by people who hoard social access, damage others’ careers even when there is little to gain, and play political games against each other and against the world.
To make it clear, I don’t wish to identify as a capitalist or a socialist, or even as a liberal or conservative. The enemy is scarcity. We’ve seen that pure capitalism and pure socialism are undesirable and ineffective at eliminating it; but if it were otherwise, I’d welcome the solution that did so. It’s important to remember that scarcity itself is our adversary, and not some collection of ideas called an “ideology” and manufactured into an “other”. I don’t think that one needs to be a liberal or leftist necessarily in order to qualify as a technologist. This is about something different than the next election. This is about humanity and its long-term goals.
All of that said, there are people in society who prosper by creating scarcity. They keep powerful social organizations and groups closed, they deliberately concentrate power, and they excel at playing zero-sum games. And here’s the problem: while such people are possibly rarer than good-faith positive-sum players, they’re the ones who excel at organizational politics. They shift blame, take credit, and when they get into positions of power, they create artificial scarcity. Why? Because scarcity rarely galvanizes the have-nots against the haves; much more often, it creates chaos and distrust and divides the have-nots against each other, or (as in the case of San Francisco’s pointless conflict between the Second and Third Estates) pits the have-a-littles against the have-nothings.
Artificial scarcity is, in truth, all over the place in corporate life. Why do some people “get” good projects and creative freedom while others don’t? Why are many people (regardless of performance and the well-documented benefits of taking time off) limited to two or three weeks of vacation per year? Why is stack ranking, which has the effect of making decent standing in the organization a limited resource, considered morally acceptable? Why do people put emotional investment into silly status currencies like control over other peoples’ time? It’s easy to write these questions off as “complex” and decline to answer them, but I think that the answer’s simple. Right now, in 2015, the people who are most feared and therefore most powerful in organizational life are those who can create and manipulate the machinery of scarcity. Some of that scarcity is intrinsic. It is not an artifact of evil that salary pools and creative freedom must fall under some limit; it is the way things are. However, an alarming quantity of that scarcity is not. How often is it that missing a “deadline” has absolutely no real negative consequence on anything– other than annoyance to a man-struating executive who deserves full blame for inventing an unrealistic timeframe in his own mind? Very. How many corporations would suffer any ill effect if their stack ranking machinery were abolished? Zero, and many would find immediate cultural improvements. Artificial scarcity is all over the place because there is power to be won by creating it; and, in the corporate world, those who acquire the most power are those who learn how navigate environments of artificial scarcity, often generating it as it solidifies their power once gained.
Who runs the technology industry? Venture capitalists. Even though many technology companies are not venture-funded, the VC-funded companies and their bosses (the VCs) set the culture and they fund the companies that set salaries. Most of them, as I’ve discussed, are people who failed in the colonizing culture (the mainstream MBA/business world) and went West to boss nerds around. Having failed in the existing “Establishment” culture, they (somewhat unintentionally) create a new one that amplifies its worst traits, much in the way that people who are ejected from an established and cool-headed (in relative terms) criminal organization will often found a more violent one. So they’ve taken the relationship-driven anti-meritocracy for which the Harvard-MBA world is notorious, and then they went off and made a world (Sand Hill Road) that’s even more oligarchical, juvenile, and chauvinistic than the MBA culture that it splintered off from. Worse than being zero-sum players, these are zero-sum players whose being rejected by the MBA culture (not all of whose people are zero-sum players; there are some genuine good-faith positive-sum players in the business world) was often due to their lack of vision. And hence, we end up with stack ranking. Stack ranking would exist except for the fact that many technology companies are run by “leftover” CEOs and VCs who couldn’t get leadership jobs anywhere else. And because of the long-standing climate of terrible leadership in this industry, we end up with Snapchat and Clinkle but scant funding for clean energy. We end up with a world in which most software engineers work on stupid products that don’t matter.
In 2015, we live in a time of broad-based and pervasive organizational decline. While Silicon Valley champions all that is “startup”, another way to perceive the accelerated birth-and-death cycle of organizations is that they’ve become shorter-lived and more disposable in general. Perhaps our society is reaching an organizational Hayflick limit. Perhaps the “macro-age” of our current mode of life is senescent and, therefore, the organizations that we are able to form undergo rapid “micro” aging. There is individual gain, for a few, to be had in this period of organizational decay. A world in which organizations (whether young startups or old corporate pillars) are dying at such a high rate is one where rapid ascent is more possible, especially for those who already possess inherited connections (because, while organizations themselves are much more volatile and short-lived, the people in charge don’t change very often) and can therefore position themselves as “serial entrepreneurs” or “visionary innovators” in Silicon Valley. What is being missed, far too often, is that this fetishized “startup bloom” is not so much an artifact of good-faith outperformance of the Establishment, but rather an opportunistic reaction to a society’s increasing inability to form and maintain organizations that are worth caring about. Wall Street and Silicon Valley both saw that mainstream Corporate America was becoming inhospitable to people with serious talent. Wall Street decided to beat it on compensation; Silicon Valley amped up the delusional rhetoric about “changing the world”, the exploitation of young, male quixotry, and the willingness to use false promises (executive in 3 years! investor contact!) to scout talent. That’s where we are now. The soul of our industry is not a driving hatred of scarcity, but the impulse to exploit the quixotry of young talent. If we can’t change that, then we shouldn’t be trusted to “change the world” because our changes shall be mostly negative.
Technology must escape its colonial overseers and bring genuine technologists into leading roles. It cannot happen fast enough. In order to do, it’s going to have to dump Sand Hill Road and the Silicon Valley economy in general. I don’t know what will replace it, but what’s in place right now is so clearly not working that nothing is lost by throwing it out wholesale.