Monday, September 26, 2011

The Real Effects of Computing Brilliance

Recently, L.E. Modesitt, a noted and highly perceptive (imho) science fiction author with a long background in business, government, education, and the like, wrote a blog post in which he decried the contributions of “brilliant minds, especially at organizations like Google and Facebook” to “society and civilization.” He noted Eric Schmidt’s remarks in a recent interview that young people from colleges were brighter than their predecessors, and argued that they had applied their brilliance in “pursuit of the trivial … [and] of mediocrity.” More specifically, he claimed that their brilliance has helped lead to the undermining of literary copyright and therefore of an important source of ideas, the creation of bubble wealth, the destabilization of the financial system, and potentially the creation of the worst US political deadlock since the Civil War.

Here, however, Mr. Modesitt steps onto my turf as well as his own. I can claim to have been involved with computers and their results since I was in the same freshman class in college as Bill Gates (Junior, thank you). I have had a unique vantage point on those results that combines the mathematical, the technological, the business, and even the political, and have enjoyed an intimate acquaintance with, and given long-running attention to, the field. I am aware of the areas in which this generation (as well as the previous two) has contributed, and their effects. And I see a very different picture.

Let’s start with Mr. Schmidt, who is a very interesting man in his own right. Having been at Sun Microsystems (but not heading it) in its glory days of growth, struggle, and growth (1983-1997), he became CEO of Novell as it continued its slide into oblivion, and then in 2001, a key part of the necessary transition of Google from its founders to successors who can move the company beyond one person’s vision. Only in the last role was he clearly involved with successful technology leadership, as Sun was a master at marketing average technology as visionary, while Novell’s influence on industry innovation by that point was small.

All that being said, Mr. Schmidt is speaking from the viewpoint of having seen all three of computing’s great creative “generations,” waves of college-bred innovators who were influenced by comparable generations of their societies, and who combined that social influence with their own innovations to create the stew that is the Web of today. I would divide those generations as follows:

1. Graduating from college in 1971-1981, the “baby boomer/socially conscious”.
2. Graduating from college in 1982-1995, the “individual empowerment Gen Xer”.
3. Graduating from college in 1996-2007, the “Web is the air we breathe” generation.

Where Mr. Modesitt sees only some of the effects of all three generations from the outside, I believe that Mr. Schmidt sees from within the way that generation 3 incorporates all the technological advances of the previous generations and builds on them. Therefore, where Mr. Modesitt is too negative, I believe that Mr. Schmidt is too positive. Generations 1 and 2 have created a vast substructure – all the technologies of computing and the Internet that allow Generation 3 to move rapidly to respond to, or anticipate, the needs of each segment of a global society. Because the easiest needs to tackle are the most “trivial”, those will be most visible to Mr. Modesitt. Because Generation 3 appears to move from insight to insight faster by building on that infrastructure, Mr. Schmidt sees them as more brilliant.

Let’s get down to cases: the Web, and Google. The years of Generation 3 were the years when computing had a profound effect on the global economy: it gave productivity more than a decade of 2.5-3% growth, a kind of “sunset re-appearance” of the productivity gains of the Industrial Revolution. This effect, however, was not due to Generation 3. Rather, Generation 2’s creation of desktop productivity software, unleashed in the enterprise in the early 1990s, drove personal business productivity higher, and the advent of the business-usable Web browser (if anything, a product of Generation 1’s social consciousness) allowed online sales that cut out “middleman” businesses, cutting product and service costs sharply.

But where Generation 3 has had a profound effect is in our understanding of social networks. Because of its theoretical work, we now understand in practical terms how ideas propagate, where are the key facilitators and bottlenecks, and how to optimize a network. These are emphatically not what we think of when we talk about the value of computing; but they are the necessary foundation for open source product development, new viral and community markets, and the real prospect of products and services that evolve constantly with our needs instead of becoming increasingly irrelevant (see my blog post on Continuous Delivery).

Has that made life better? I would say, that’s like asking if Isaac Newton’s calculus was a good idea, given that it has mainly been used to calculate trajectories for artillery. Ideas can be used for good or ill; and often the inventor or creator has the least control over their long-term use by others.

But let’s play the game, anyway. Undermining copyright? I would blame that more on Generation 2, which used the Web to further its libertarian ideologies that now form a key part of the “Web ethos”. Financial algorithms and bubble wealth? Sorry, that’s a product of the broader society’s reaction to the perceived (but not necessarily real) lawlessness and government “do-gooding” of the Vietnam era, so that law and order and “leave me alone” permitted business deregulation and lack of outside-the-box thinking about the risks of new financial technologies. Political deadlock? Same thing. “Leave me alone” created a split between Vietnam-era social consciousness and previous generations, while removing later generations from the political process except as an amoral or totally self-interested game. In both those cases, no computing Generation could have done very much about it except to enable it.

What are the most profound ideas and impacts of all three Generations’ “brilliant minds”? I would say, first, the idea of a “meta-product” or “meta-thing” (today’s jargon probably would call it a “virtual reality”), an abstraction of a physical good or process or person that allows much more rapid analysis and change of what we need. To a far greater degree than we realize, our products are now infused with computer software that not only creates difficulties in carrying out tasks for poor Mr. Modesitt, but also gives an array of capabilities that can be adjusted, adapted, evolved, and elaborated much more rapidly than ever before. Mr. Modesitt, I know, rightly resents the stupidities of his word processing software; but there is simply no way that his typewriter hardware by now would have the spelling and grammar checking capabilities, much less the rapid publishing capabilities, of that same word processor. It may be more work to achieve the same result; but I can guarantee that, good or bad, many of the results achieved could not have been attained forty years ago. Our computing Generations did that.

The second, I believe, is that of global information. The Web, as imperfect as it is, and as security-ridden as it has become, has meant a sea-change in the amount of important information available to most if not all of us. When I was in college, the information readily available was mostly in textbooks and bookstores, which did not begin to capture the richness of information in the world. The key innovation here was not so much the search engine, which gave a way to sort this information, but the global nature of the Web user interface, the embedding of links between bits of information, and the invention of “crowdsourcing” communities, of which Wikipedia is by far the most successful as a pointer from information area to information area. Say all you like about the lies, omissions, and lack of history behind much of this global information pool; it is still better than a world in which such information appeared not to exist. Our computing Generations did that, too.

The third idea, the one I mentioned above, is understanding of, and ability to affect the design of, social networks. Facebook is only the latest variant on this theme, which has shown up in Internet groups, bulletin boards, open source and special-interest communities, smartphone and text-message interfaces, file sharing services, blogs, job sites, and other “social networks.” The Arab Spring may be an overhyped manifestation of its power; but I think it is fair to say that some of the underlying ideas about mass peaceful regime change could never have been global or effective without computing’s “brilliant minds.” I give Generation 3 most of the credit for that.

So here’s an example of why I disagree with Mr. Modesitt: a couple of years ago, I sat down to understand climate change. At first, the best information came from old-style books, mostly from the local public library. But soon, I was using and to dig deeper, to see the connections between what the books were saying, and then Wikipedia to point me to research articles and concept explanations that allowed me to put it into a coherent whole, adding my own technology, economic, business, political, and government experience and knowledge to fill in the gaps. No set of books, then or now, could possibly have given me enough information to do this. No phone network could possibly have shown me the people and institutions involved. No abacus could have put the statistics together, and no typewriter or TV could have given me such a flexible window to the information. The three great ideas of computing’s three Generations made such a thing possible.

So, no, I don’t believe that much of what this Generation of brilliant minds has been working on is at all trivial or mediocre, despite appearances – not to mention the contributions of the other two Generations – nor has its effect been predominantly bad. Rather, it reminds me of the remark in Dilbert that it is the work of a few smart, unprepossessing drones that moves the world forward, hindered rather than helped by their business or the greater society. Despite society’s – and sometimes their own – best efforts, these Generations’ blind pursuit of “the new new thing”, I say, has produced something that overall is good. In every sense.

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