Where Did The Future Go?
When I was a child, my optimism was boundless. Infinite wonder surrounded me, and I saw it as exactly that. Life was for exploration! And I was lucky. I grew up as the world built and developed greatest territory ever imagined: the internet.
Then I grew older.
I never lost the sense of wonder. I count myself lucky for that. But all the complicated entanglements became obvious to the point of near-preeminence. “Here be dragons” was no longer a beacon to run to. It was a serious warning.
I put away childish thoughts and reasons.
At least, that’s what I deluded myself into believing. The truth is something far worse happened: the maps got filled in and I mistook them for the complete territory. They are not. They never were. They mustn’t ever be. Thinking otherwise is a dangerous intellectual trap that often accompanies familiarity and expertise. The true Siren’s call that smashes your ship to bits on unforgiving rocks. History may rhyme, but it need not repeat. Not only is the map not the territory, but there is no fixed territory. That’s what it means to be human: we have the near-magical ability to imagine and create new ones.
That’s also what the internet was to me as a child. It wasn’t a place — it was a substrate. It was an æther for human creativity. Promethean Fire channeled by “the electron and the switch.” An everywhere and No Where I entered in order to explore and discover ideas, people, and possibilities — and to realize them!
The internet is still that place for me. But the future I imagined would have arrived by now never did. Don’t get me wrong, people built some truly incredible things. My workstation really is a bicycle for my mind; my iPhone truly does make my life better; and, whenever Twitter goes down — when we suddenly find ourselves unable to think the same thought at each other across the world all at once over a damn near philotic web — I get reminded that the social world is unfathomably more accessible than it ever was before. And yet, I think it is all a stunted thing in comparison to what I thought it would be.
This has been a lot of been abstraction and aphorism, so let me try to be more concrete and specific: I think the great force of future’s diversion was cloud computing.
Cloud computing is awesome, in both senses of the word. By invoking the correct spell, I can marshal and command computational resources well beyond those I imagined even a decade ago — and I can do so for surprisingly little expense. Jeff Bezo’s was right: the internet is like electricity, and infrastructure as a service means you can do more with it.
But there is an expense paid that’s often obscured because it’s not currently measured in dollars. Cloud computing — especially when coupled with ad-supported business models — selects for particular data flow patterns; and, in turn, those data flow patterns select for particular computations. So developers don’t spend their time building smart and powerful agents to assist, extend, and act on behalf of the people they serve; developers build extraction engines – mechanized means for filtering signal sampled from a tiny portion of the spectrum of our possibilities, narrowed by historically-imposed constraints. It’s not a malevolent process. It’s the evolutionary outcome born to a series of realized happenings.
But it need not be that way.
Let me give you an example to entertain. I am what you would call…an active twitter user. I use it like many other extremely online twitter users. But I also use it differently than them. I have the technical skill to create different views than the one twitter restricts me to — the one their architecture and business model demands.
I use a graph database to see how people relate to each other. It adds another dimension to the experience, often an illuminating one. When you can condition expressions graphically, you can see the contrasts between groups of people. You can see with a little more clarity what people believe because they believe it as an identifiable people versus what they believe because it’s directly-coupled to their experience and knowledge.
I use a full-text search engine over previous tweets to look at the progression of someone’s expressions. It adds another dimension to the experience, often an illuminating one. In isolation, a particular tweet may resonate, but it doesn’t help you judge who they are or estimate what they believe. N of one is the lowest of bounds. And social media means — algorithmically curated or not — your sample is intrinsically biased. The things your most likely to observe? Those you’re most likely to agree with strongly or reject vehemently. If you want perspective, you need the ability to zoom out, an affordance not provided by the offered client.
I spent the better part of a year trying to figure out how to offer these services broadly to people. My conclusion was that I can’t. It’s a fool’s errand. Twitter actively doesn’t want you writing clients and I don’t want to build a sandcastle on someone’s private beach. Best case scenario? They don’t knock it down for a while. But even more critically, I don’t think anyone could make a twitter that works the way I and others may want using an ad-supported business model or an efficient data flow architecture, let alone both. That’s the evolutionary dead-end we find ourselves in through the lens of one small but (hopefully) legible example.
So yes, it is time to build. It’s always time to build! And, I know what I’m building now.I don’t mean this metaphorically. This whole essay is me waving a flag. I applied to YCombinator hoping to build a business motivated by these exact ideas. If I get in, I’m going to build it; if I don’t, I’m going to build it. In both cases, I need help. Give me infinite time, I could do it myself. But I don’t have infinite time, and I don’t think we do, either. If you’re a distributed systems engineer, cryptographer, network engineer, virtualization engineer, or product developer, please reach out to me on twitter or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Note: I’m unlikely to respond until next week because now I have to go back to playing an important albeit much less interesting game.) The internet is a decentralized and distributed network of people and resources. I think it’s the greatest thing we’ve ever built. But, ironically — and, tragically, too—we failed to maintain peer-to-peer as the primary conduit. This matters because how we interact selects for what we perceive. More than that, computation itself is a medium. Hell, it’s THE medium. As more people learn to code and as no-code becomes more powerful, how we interact also selects for what we can achieve. As that tide continues to rise, I want to make sure it lifts us all. I want to help push us out of this local minima.
The future never arrived because we failed to distribute it correctly.