There’s a micro-genre of parody tweet that takes the form of vacuous tech blog headlines: “BREAKING: The Novelty Of Touchscreen Telephones Is Wearing Off,” for example. They’re pretty funny, I suppose, but if you read enough tech blogs to actually understand why then the joke’s probably on you.
Silicon Valley is notoriously inward-looking, and that might be necessary: perhaps you need to lock yourself in a room and not come out for a while if you really want to get busy making something. But having ditched manufacturing and now largely betting on the “creative economy”, the US beyond the Bay Area is understandably curious about what’s going on out there. While the tech blogs keep the citizens of the peninsula entertained, the rest of the world has begun looking in. Interesting opportunity for some outside perspective, no?
It’s soap opera stuff. You start with the drama and intrigue of the VC scene, the industry equivalent of American Idol, complete with unsuspecting young innocents hoping to be thrust from obscurity into fame and fortune by a panel of judges. Move on through the rags to riches (riches to riches?) tales of those few who actually make it into the power set. At this point a society that prides itself on being squeaky liberal takes an alarming right turn into individualist techno-libertarianism, tidily keeping their world shaping unfettered and their IPO windfalls unmolested. Set this against the backdrop of the an increasingly-marginalized middle class and some nascent political maneuverings among the technorati and you’ve already got the makings of a pretty good American novel.
That last link is to George Packer’s sadly paywalled New Yorker article (zero comments on Hacker News) that includes this conversation with a twenty-two year old startup founder about his peers:
They’re ignorant, because many of them don’t feel the need to educate themselves outside their little world, and they’re not rewarded for doing so. If you’re an engineer in Silicon Valley, you have no incentive to read The Economist. It’s not brought up at parties, your friends aren’t going to talk about it, your employers don’t care…
People with whom I used to talk about politics or policy or the arts, they’re just not as into it anymore. They don’t read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. They read TechCrunch and VentureBeat, and maybe they happen to see something from the Times on somebody’s Facebook news feed. The divide among people in my generation is not as much between traditional liberals and libertarians. It’s a divide between people who are inward-facing and outward-facing.
I should mention that I say this as an unrepentant, wide-eyed technological optimist. I came here at least in part to dive right in. The work of one person can potentially reach millions, and that’s amazing. But what direction do you face once you’re here?
The obvious answer is forward. There’s a natural tendency for product designers to fetishize the future. Some might even wish for the magic ability to leap forward in time, if only for a few minutes, and have a poke around, see how it all plays out. It would be fun, right? They could then take that knowledge back home with them like Biff’s Sports Almanac, secret clues from the future to be used to get to the finish line ahead of the competition.
This short-term competitiveness is the root, I believe, of the Next Big Thing-ism that dominates much of the insular conversation here. I wish there was more of a tendency to think of design as an opportunity to gently steer a future that’s still unwritten, to have some small influence over the direction of technology or even kick some stones in it’s path. There’s no inevitable endpoint, no predefined linear story of what must come next. There’s only your own idea of what could come next. This is the main difference between the frothy, business-obsessed Silly Valley stuff and the heroic world-shaping that created it. All these products, they’re just ideas, not predictors.
Eno (of course):
I am not sure about the word vision, actually. The idea of the word vision suggests that you are designing a future in a way, but what I think I want to do is make pieces of work that belong to the future I would like to live in. I would love to live in a future where that room was something that was commonplace in cities. You would walk in to places like that – and they would be made by all different artists, they wouldn’t look like that, that’s my version of it – but that kind of space. I would love it if they existed. They don’t really exist.
The point of living here, packed into nerd buses or SOMA lofts, may be to get an early glimpse of the future. But which direction to look? Inward, there are business opportunities, outward perhaps an enlarged future for all.
So, my website went dead for a while there, as rarely-updated, held-together-with-sellotape websites are wont to do. I let it lie fallow for a while, but then seized the opportunity to finally ditch the overblown ogre that is Wordpress, along with my flaky old hosting provider and the unnecessary subdomain (old links will still work though).
Now the entire site is static, generated on my laptop in Jekyll and flung up to the server as plain old HTML. (How was serving a blog directly from a database ever considered a good idea? We were such dorks back then.) Porting everything over to Tumblr or starting onto Medium would have easier, but, you know, tending to your own garden is nice.
Other bits of housekeeping. I added a list of recent links from my Pinboard account at the bottom. Linkblogs seem to have gone out of fashion, but I always liked skipping over someone’s internet breadcrumb trail. Fresh lick of paint. Comments are gone. The feed should still work.
By way of reintroduction, since last posting I traveled around Asia for four months, got married to Paula, and moved from Zurich to San Francisco to work on a new thing. All of which maybe explains the fallow period.
Photo: Walking in the foothills of the Toubkal Valley, Morocco a couple of months ago. More recently swapped for steep SF hills and silicon valleys.
I’m loving the Olympics so far, but I can’t figure out why world records continue to be broken so often. As beating previous records increasingly becomes a game of milliseconds, surely it should get ever more difficult and rare to see records broken. Yet it seems like every few swimming events new record is set, and the athletics stuff has not even started yet. Where will it end?
Then there’s one Olympic event that dominates all others, the most basic physical competition imaginable: the race to see who can run faster than anyone else in the world.
I’ve especially wondered about the progress of the 100m sprint world record: how has the development of drugs, nutrition, equipment, and advanced training techniques accelerated human speed? With the increasing difficulty that comes with lower times, probably making it orders of magnitude more difficult to hit 9.8 seconds than it is to reach 9.7, how much can athletes keep pushing at that barrier? What’s the fastest a human will ever run 100m? Here’s how they’ve done so far:
(Data Source: Wikipedia)
I made this chart to understand the progression of the record over time. You can see it took about fifty years for humans to get half a second faster at running a hundred metres. Even that’s underselling it: it took fifty years for just one human to run that much faster just once.
But most amazing of all is the magnitude of what Usain Bolt has achieved. 2008, boom. The timings simply drop off a cliff when they reach him, blowing almost two tenths of a second off the difficult end of the record, and single-handedly making over a third of all progress since electronic timing was introduced.
There are some other interesting details to be spotted: Charles Greene held the record for a single day before Jim Hines took it from in Mexico ‘68. Hines’ time that day went unbeaten for over fourteen years. Ben Johnson’s infamous win sticks out a mile; nobody would beat his chemically-enhanced run for more than a decade.
Will Bolt keep hacking away at the record? We’ll find out before the men’s 100m final tomorrow afternoon.
Chris Butler’s mixbooks are an reversal of the popular trend towards e-books: they scrape and un-digitize and materialise bits from the internet, regressing them into paperback format. Also, making your own book of your favourite articles is just a fun thing to do.
The 2011 edition of A Year of Ideas is near the top of my reading pile, and the timing is perfect: I’m about to go traveling, three months backpacking in Asia – oh yes. I’ll be offline most of the time, so I’ll bet this collection of web articles can provide the internet dopamine hit that my RSS-addled brain will no doubt crave.
But I’m trying to pack light. Books are heavy. Bringing a Kindle is a no-brainer. So I decided to go online and save all the web articles featured in the mixbook, and now I can read them on Instapaper while I’m away. Onward the mixbook goes, cycling back and forth from analog to digital. It’s like “Read later” Inception.
Here are my two favourite photos of Steve Jobs.
This photograph is about the magic and wonder of technology. Poor Woz almost looks blissfully unaware here, like he has no idea of what’s coming next. He’s just hanging out, having fun. But look at the young man on the left. He’s deep into something. He doesn’t know how to make one or even exactly how it works, but goddammit he’s going to figure it out, through sheer force of will if he has to, and he’s going to make something beautiful with it. He’s curious. The way he’s peering into whatever little thing he’s holding, he truly sees it. He sees what’s possible. He clutches it to his chest, keeping the secret to himself for now. But you get the feeling he already knows.
I saw this one just recently, after he had retired from Apple. It’s the other Steve Jobs, the perhaps overly-romanticized version of Steve as a free thinker, a loner, a rebel, an all-round badass. His Side B. Hungry, foolish. This is the guy who read the Whole Earth Catalog, dropped acid, and visited ashrams. The guy who was as weirdly exacting about fashion as everything else he did. But mostly it’s a glimpse of the private side the man. Even if he weren’t as insanely wise, adventurous, profound or ingenious as the personality that we projected onto and expected of him, he enriched the lives of countless people and he lived his own wonderful story. And now off he goes.
Jared Diamond picks on agriculture as The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race:
Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.
Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.
Then I read this piece on misunderstood jobs in The Atlantic, in which a construction worker describes the paradox of human progress too well for me to not quote the whole thing:
It’s 95 degrees and the humidity is 80%. People don’t understand that. People see a man with a shovel in his hand working on a job site and think he’s lazy because he’s just standing there. What they don’t see is the struggle going on inside your brain. The part of you that has lived in the wild for millions of years is saying it’s too exhausting, it’s too hot, why don’t you go lay in the shade for a while. That part of your brain sees the shovel, sees the ditch, sees the pipe to be laid, and it doesn’t see how this is getting you food or sex. That other civilized part of you is saying, there is food and sex to be found in that ditch. You just need to hunch over that pipe for another 5 hours, and then for another three days, and then it’ll be this made up thing, Friday, and you’ll have this other made up thing, money. Then you can go out and eat and try to procure a mate.
You just need to clinch that shovel tightly for a little longer and you can get what you want. The little tribesman in your mind doesn’t understand this. Things were easier in his time. Sure you only lived to be 26, but if it was too hot you didn’t move, if some bit of fruit was too hard to reach you walked to the next tree and looked for lower fruit. There is no low hanging fruit left in this world though.
You hold that shovel and think if only I could bludgeon that little tribesman in my brain. Then I could be free to give myself to wage labor, free to force my body to do what it doesn’t want to. So when you see a man on the side of the road not moving just watching some machine manipulate earth, know that he may not be lazy, but just engaged in a struggle between a past that shaped us and a present that was made by us but not for us.
That last line is great, no? If I’m honest though, I’m just posting this out of my own little sense of laziness guilt, because today I visited this site’s admin page for the first time in so long that I actually had to log in. Bad sign.
I feel sorry for blogging. How could something so great just wither on the vine? There are vast prairies of abandoned blogs now. Without any specific decision, there’s been a mass migration to social networks, like tribesmen picking up and moving to cities overnight. It’s certainly not the worst decision in internet history but maybe it’s fair to say that it wasn’t given much consideration at the time. “Just imagine a band of savages,” Diamond writes, “exhausted from searching for nuts or chasing wild animals, suddenly grazing for the first time at a fruit-laden orchard or a pasture full of sheep.” Progress isn’t deliberated upon, it’s magnetic. But once drawn in, you might find yourself living (in a shotgun shack) on a cheaply manufactured high-carb, high-fructose diet of realtime information. You’ve traded still pools of honest expression for rivers of pageviews and machine-generated timelines. It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether we all made a little mistake with that.
Or maybe not. Maybe the super-accelerated infobahn of internet time just breeds early-onset blogging nostalgia, like how being a tweedy professorial New England type can lead you to be nostalgic about scratching around in the underbrush for berries and shit. Progress is having none of that. Progress tells you to shut up, grab the shovel, and dig.
Previously on Thoughtwax: Running, hunting.