I understand if you don’t.
I understand if a career in technology has, for example, thoroughly alienated your labor such that you now disdain the grand strategy of microprocessors on sight.
The power of technology has been coopted, and that which once brought us joy has been contaminated altogether. This is discouraging and traumatic.
I understand if you are completely unable to trust anything that emanates from Silicon Valley.
It makes perfect sense: where there is wealth, there is corruption and destruction in its pursuit. In terms of wealth, Silicon Valley is one of the biggest games going. Its denizens have conducted themselves abominably over the last cycle, and well into this one.
I understand if you have lost the will to imagine a future.
The last decade has tried me. Immensely. I’ve spent years shell-shocked at the loss of a bright, predictable future. I’ve been overwhelmed by the darkness and uncertainty that became our birthright, navigating as we are a future of climate collapse, social corrosion and rampant inequality. Sampled with the right biases, you can accurately say we live in hell.
I understand if you fear the responsibilities of technology.
Especially if you fear that those with the most power are least equipped to meet those responsibilities. That is consistently, demonstrably true. We are continually failed by the stewards of technology, and by those who should maintain the safety and integrity of our economic engines.
I understand if you are a venture capitalist, afraid to invest absent the exuberance of zero percent interest rates, and the conveyor belt of greater fools it promised.
We can’t all be born with the true hunger to build.
I will grant you any and all of these positions.
But guess what: we live here now. We live in a here-and-now where, like it or not, technology governs and mediates every interaction of economics and culture. Infrastructure and government depend on technology. Keeping everyone alive is stacked nine paradigms deep, and that’s only if we start counting at the steam engine and leave out agriculture.
We have a complex world. I didn’t ask for it to be built like this, and neither did you. Still, here we are.
Now, despite all the discouragement attended by the above, I’m going to build technology. I still want to, I still love it.
You don’t have to want to do that. You can just close the tab here, validated in your experience of a difficult world made worse by power poorly stewarded.
Or you can come with me.
I’m overall fine with Apple’s monster
This is my third year volunteering at my library. People need help with their computer, I try to teach or troubleshoot or otherwise unstick.
I have never served anyone under the age of 60.
Part of what has struck me as I guide seniors through their technology journey is how much platform integrity matters. I mean, everyday, every hour impact. Back in the Twitter days, I went mega viral for one of my tales on this subject:
A $500 used laptop that was basically unusable thanks to manufacturer-preinstalled crapware. I know it was the crapware because I opened obscure Windows interfaces detailing the processes running on the machine. I diagnosed it by understanding that the device was constrained by its processing power and memory, and by knowing to ask Windows to show me the resource consumption. I knew how to banish the hijacker with a swift series of further invocations, which closed the program and purged it from local storage.
The various systems and constraints intersecting here were invisible to the person who’d come to see me for computer help. They knew only that the machine was slow, and that it seemed unfair. It had just come from the used computer store.
This is how the integrity of a computing platform impacts its customers. Not everyone knows how to do a clean reinstall of Windows. Not everyone even knows why you would want to.
Becoming the dominant platform has required Microsoft cede all kinds of control. Who can sell Windows, and what they can do with it once they’ve got it, are questions negotiated exclusively by writing checks. If, for example, Lenovo wants to retain a portion of the machines’s CPU and RAM indefinitely to act as a low-rent sales catalog, they can pretty much do that, so long as they conceal their intention under the fig leaf of “software updates.”
It is my sad observation that most of the people I work with would have their computing lives either marginally or dramatically improved if they only had the budget to access the high integrity platforms sold by Apple.
Because the same stuff holds true with phones. Not everyone is buying that premium Android stuff. Folks are stuck with carrier-corrupted, nearly-disposable smartphones. These things are packed with branded crapware, and some of it is even necessary for interacting with things like voicemail. Very little of it works very well.
When it comes to folks with Windows and Android, much of my time is spent troubleshooting. Meanwhile, folks with Macs and iPhones spend a lot more time on the various how-to lessons that help people meet their computing goals.
Feel how you want to feel about iOS or macOS. They serve a function worth paying for, and the market agrees: Apple is worth trillions.
A high integrity platform goes beyond crapware. Apple platforms are packed to the gills with various security precautions that prevent the sort of malware free-for-all that defined the Microsoft ecosystem in the late 90’s. It is useful that this is so: our devices contain everything precious to us. Worms that took over phones or modern computers would be in striking distance of everything from nude photos to banking credentials to private communications. Digital epidemics on the scale once tolerated in more innocent stages of computing would now be catastrophic in their personal impacts.
Look, I understand: perhaps you are the God Monarch of Linux and you can secure and maintain your own fortresses against the chaos of information security. Congratulations.
Most people aren’t you. Most people need someone else to be their sysadmin. For those of us who don’t have these control issues, Apple as the platform sysadmin of last resort is a pretty good deal, especially relative to our other options. At least, for those who can afford it.
Apple maintains an elaborate array of measures, like code signing, malware signature detection, and sealing the entire system in plastic. This is a valuable service, and it requires some amount of ceding control to the platform vendor.
Consequently, Apple has used this control. They set the terms for running code on iOS and macOS and all their other platforms. Not everyone cares for these terms. Indeed, sometimes Apple takes liberties that strain even their supporters’ indulgence, as when they were discovered transmitting fingerprints of every piece of software run on macOS.
But it is by taking these actions can Apple meet the promise of integrity that they have used to win their customers.
For example, Apple can set the terms of accessing components like the camera, microphone, GPS position, and personal contact lists. Without the ability to circumscribe the surface of the operating system and underlying hardware developers may access, Apple cannot promise customers full control of their computing destiny. Software that illicitly activates the iPhone camera is the stuff of crisis, hastily patched as soon as it is discovered, traded in secret at the level of state-sponsored mayhem.
In exchange for this service, customers cheerfully pay Apple enormous margins.
Security authority Bruce Schneier summarizes the situation under the pithy feudal security. We’re essentially paying protection money to one or another standing armies of developers, designers, SREs and information security professionals. In exchange for our cash, they execute varying strategies to provide a fruitful substrate for our digital productivity.
In Apple’s case, their control of the stack goes further: for iPads, iPhones and now Vision Pro, they decide which applications can run on their platforms at all, and under which business terms.
Maintaining the ongoing mesh of systems and platforms that makes the high-integrity iOS possible is ongoing, expensive work. In principle, taking a cut for reaching Apple’s customers via this infrastructure doesn’t bother me.
Where I have the biggest concern is that Apple can impose a veto on innovations that don’t match its strategy. Apple can decide that an application won’t be distributed, period. In trade for security, Apple can determine the precise surface of the device and operating system that applications can touch, and which they cannot. There is a conflict of interest in this control, even if its goals are valuable and necessary. This is an area where I suspect regulators will drop a hammer.
Still, there’s a lot of baby in this bathwater. While Apple is at a nadir of goodwill thanks to years of poor developer relations, their platforms remain powerful and interesting targets. The wealth of frameworks and third party code underpinning Apple platforms allow significant developer productivity, and the customers of those platforms are willing to spend serious money. Of all of today’s various flavors of fuckery, this bargain bothers me the least.
General purpose computing will never return to the free-for-all of our youth. The world is more connected and more complex, and we do so much more that’s sensitive with our computing than we ever did in the past. Meanwhile, as someone who builds technology, I’m interested in meeting people where they are.
Sadly, for the time being, that isn’t some open source utopia. Maintaining a viable computing platform with mass adoption takes extraordinary resources. I don’t believe those resources need forever be mediated by amoral corporations serving shareholder interest. Still, as devils go, I can more than live with Apple.
It’s fine if you can’t. There are other strategies, like building for the web. But there you will encounter far more decadent devils, decaying into their own corruption without inventing anything new. In its openness, the web has been captured by advertising firms so ambitious, they own the user’s perception of web content itself.
It’s a messy time. We must navigate the power of great armies, stacked trillions-deep in value and influence.
But I still want to build. Regardless of where we choose to build, we face a maze of powerful interests. In the vast sweep of human history, nothing about that is new.
But what about all these fuckers?
Even saying the word “build” is tainted. Builders has this reek of VC now, and I don’t love it either.
The god’s-honest truth is that Venture Capital, in the here-and-now, doesn’t know how to innovate. Over the course of the last cycle, suffused with the sugar high of zero percent interest, VC adopted a McDonald’s mindset, with standardized approaches to company trajectories and valuations. To address the volume needs of their capital assembly lines, a sort of meta-Taylorism pervaded the industry.
Now, with interest rates stubbornly above-zero, sobered by the end of Silicon Valley Bank and its various indulgences, venture does not know how to move forward. Investors sit on their piles of gold, anxious paralysis holding the industry’s lifeblood in stasis. Investors know that fundamentals matter more than before. But I suspect the majority have no idea what those fundamentals actually are.
Rather than dig in and reinvent themselves, the wealthy tech elite burrow further and further into paranoia, self-justification and incoherent, reactionary politics. They believe themselves to be the inevitable, just inheritors of all power, and they seethe at any skepticism, scrutiny or other challenge to that position.
Despite their sulking, it’s clear that loads of the worst people imaginable won the last cycle. Despite the objective consequence of vaporizing more than 70% of its value, Elon Musk is held up by certain technology leaders a compelling exemplar of “doing more with less,” even as it is now clear he has gotten far less through his destructive cuts. Almost as though the various functions and humans he gutted with layoffs were on some level necessary to Twitter’s ongoing value.
In his wake, we now see hundreds of thousands of technology workers laid off, even as firms continue posting profits. The literature on this is clear: the long term consequences reckoned in terms of morale and broken trust for surviving workers are steep. This is short-term thinking through human sacrifice. The leaders who previously went gorging on talent, meanwhile, seem to keep their jobs.
Amidst all these, we see endless cycles of hype. Breathless support of cryptocurrencies, blockchain and ugly monkey pictures has shifted seamlessly to the inevitability of “AI,” in the form of large language models and weird image generators.
The overall miasma of bullshit and inept power is, indeed, discouraging stuff. It is a hard time to be in love with technology. So many have given up.
It’s not love if it isn’t work
Love is a verb.
Love is the active, ongoing follow through of care for the things we value and want to survive in a world that’s indifferent to our thriving. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s work.
The thing I love most, as a person called to imagine things and solve problems, is the amplification of human intention, imagination and creativity. I love that it is possible to extend the leverage of the mind in ways that can now reach a global audience. I love that thoughtful automation can reduce tedium and return time to people’s lives. I love that it’s possible for me to type things into my computer and accomplish these things. This is an incredible, unprecedented power.
All power requires responsibility and care. I don’t want to gloss over that. I don’t want to pretend there aren’t consequences for being able to reach anyone, anywhere.
There most certainly are.
But giving up the fight because it’s hard and it’s complicated does nothing but cede ground to those who have resources to make it easy, and whose ethical flexibility allows them to ignore the complication.
Some of us came to technology because it paid well. And if that was the only thing keeping you here, I don’t blame you for being done with it all. There are surely less stressful, discouraging ways to make a living.
But I’m stuck. This is what I love doing. It is what I have loved doing for 20 years. It is what I spent my childhood dreaming of doing. There is no other path for me than this one.
I don’t have a tidy summation for you. I don’t have a pithy call to action. I don’t have a lightning strike of clarity and insight that will create motivation where before there was apathy.
All I can tell you is this:
I think it’s worth building technology. I think it’s worth staying curious, imagining how new technologies can be a springboard for your creativity, and for those your creativity can serve. I think navigating the power that has arisen around this field is exhausting, but also a historically-necessary cost of living among hierarchical primates who have yet to escape the scarcity mindset and desperation of capitalism. I think without a commitment to making sense of the mess, we will never be able to change the face of power in this field.
It’s fine if you don’t feel that way. But I am going to need you to experience your mourning and grief process elsewhere, so I can get back to work.
Good luck out there.