I am writing this on earth day, but this isn’t about the earth. On way to work I was riding the bus. And as usual, I was catching up on my reading as I was glued to the phone. During a stop, as many of you probably have, I looked around and found everyone else doing mostly the same thing. It isn’t too different from the scenes way back when where men in hats read their newspaper on the bus. The format changed, but the activity stays the same. Instead of hats we have headphones.
Lamenting the dreams of Alan Kay, I have come to understand that computers have replaced the old media. Not just in form, but also its place as people makers. Society and its stories is what makes our people, and while Mother Earth creates everything that keeps us alive, it is Mother Software that now is creating who we are.
David Graeber talks about how up until the 1700s, nobody had ever written a book describing what are the conditions that create the most wealth. They were writing, what are the conditions that create the best people. I am starting to see a moral transformation where people are asking these questions again. It all started in 2011 when a wave of revolutions swept the middle east and social movements like Occupy Wall Street spread throughout the world. Before violently being crushed. You can see it today with the slow destruction of America’s two party system, with Bernie Sanders and Trump representing the tensions between the old guard and the new constituency on the Democratic and Republic sides.
I believe a similar moral transformation will take place in our little world of software. We have to reconsider the place of software in our society. Because the production output of society is not the creation of things, but the creation of people.
Which brings us back to the people glued to their phones. Besides replacing the old media, software is replacing old economic structures. Where the clearest example is crowd funding. Instead of being passive subjects in the decisions of what gets made. Where, prior to crowd funding, bank managers and venture capitalists decided which ideas get funded. We can now be part of that decision process thanks to software innovation.
A similar structural transformation happening before our eyes is happening in politics. Bernie Sanders is raising more money than Hillary Clinton by using software. He has raised $46 million dollars in March alone. Where before he would have to beg the owning class for funds, he can simply ask them from us. His campaign for presidency would not be possible without software like ActBlue.
These are examples where Software is helping produce better people. People who feel empowered. This is software helping people practice democracy in both politics and economics. Yes, technology is helping create more Socialists.
Mother Software is also replacing other fundamental functions in our society. Social institutions like local newspapers, zines, and libraries, are being replaced with, what DuckDuckGo calls the “Filter Bubble”. We are now more often self selecting the information we receive. Websites like Google and Reddit take our input and feed it right back to us, creating a cycle of perversion. So instead of getting opinions about information and ideas from those around us, we get it from those around the world like us.
This is further reinforced with news feed algorithms from Facebook. They show you what they think you like, based on your likes. It seems people are being slowly exposed to a fewer variety of ideas.
It is time we, the software makers, start thinking whether the software we are creating, is creating the friends we would want to have. What is the software that creates the best people? Because as Earth Day reminds us, we are approaching a global crisis. Global Warming is happening, and the effects are largely unknown. We will want the best people around our children when they have to handle that fatal bind.