Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Role of Real Technologists

I have spent the last several months thinking about the role of computer scientists, technologists, developers and tech entrepreneurs in these modern times.

I have often lamented the short term focus of those of us who create products and services based on bits and bytes. The last decade has, in many respects, been depressing to me. The internet did a great thing in that it made all kinds of services accessible to more people. But it also redefined what "technology" means. Today, a web page is considered tech. And so, Alltop, or Digg or Blahgirls, are considered technology. This kind of stuff, which may have merit, muddies the waters, when it is stirred in the same pot with tools that require serious technical depth to create. The other thing that has happened is that an enormous amount of our focus and mindshare has moved to quasi-entertainment focused tools such as Twitter.

As I see it we need to refocus. While there is nothing wrong with Twitter, we as a community need to get serious. The reason our economy is failing is because we have had what I would call a fake GDP. We have been booking growth where there really wasn't any, or wasn't enough. Real growth, or real wealth as a society is, at the end of the day, measured by the number of people we are feeding and the quality of food we are feeding them. It is measured by our ability to house our population. It is measured by the quality of life that we can offer, not to the wealthiest among us, but to the most regular among us.

And by these measures, we have not been doing particularly well. GDP growth has been an illusion.

And so as information technologists, what can we do about it? Well obviously we don't make food. But we may create a tool that helps farmers increase yield, or perhaps distribute more effectively. We can't build a new power grid, but perhaps we can develop a new modeling tool that helps develop insights into the most efficient way to organize such a grid. We will not, for the most part, be teachers, but perhaps we can develop software that helps increase the efficiency of learning.

The point is that we don't tend to solve the most important problems directly. But we can make it easier for those that are solving the problems to do so. We create tools that increase efficiency, and that indeed may make new more effective approaches possible.

And given that this is what we can do, this is what we must do. We must all be focused on how we can improve the efficiency and the effectiveness of our front line. For those of you that care deeply about your role in this world, and that have the skills and the capacity to do so, solving the important problems is where your focus should be.


  1. This has been bothering me for a long time. It feels like very little that's been created over the past several years has any real value beyond novelty.

    The technological leaps that email and the World Wide Web gave us--instant communication and access to information--helped the entire world do what they do. They dwarf Twitter, Digg, FaceBook, or any other number of incremental improvements in comparison.

    What we need is another technological leap of that magnitude to grow our way out of this Depression.

  2. I'd say we're hugely better off than the past. http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2009/03/good-old-days-are-now.html

    Food, shelter, and clothing are cheap in developed countries. Everything beyond a very small house size, a very basic diet, and some simple, durable clothes is only about comfort, status, and pleasure.

    Twitter, TV, blogs, Facebook, and a better power grid are also all about comfort, status, and pleasure. Personally, I prefer Twitter to another cob of corn, an extra square foot of house, or slightly cheaper electric power.

    More of the basics are only needed in a few very poor countries. Everything else is about wanting. So unless you're working to help those few very poor, you're satisfying want, not need.

    If you're not poor, almost all GDP growth is 'fake'. So I'd call 'fake' GDP a really good sign.

  3. I couldn't agree more. Most web companies are not tech companies, they're media companies. And media companies aren't further our society, they're just moving content and money from old forms to new forms.

    We need to start getting real!

  4. Chris,

    "I'd say we're hugely better off than the past. "

    This is trivially obvious, but meaningless. There is still plenty of homelessness, hunger, and comparatively poor healthcare right here in america, right now, let along around the world. The fact that things are for many somewhat better than they were in some bygone time does not mean there is not lots further to go, and that there is not still plenty of suffering and hunger. What we have done successfully in recent times is increase the gap between the haves and have nots, which is what our recent pseudo GDP growth has really meant.

    "Twitter, TV, blogs, Facebook, and a better power grid are also all about comfort, status, and pleasure. Personally, I prefer Twitter to another cob of corn, an extra square foot of house, or slightly cheaper electric power."

    To suggest that twitter is more important than a cob of corn is incredibly elitist if you cant afford an ear of corn, or perhaps more importantly fresh water. Your statement reflects that all you are concerned with is yourself. Clearly my piece is not aimed at you, because my focus is on those of us that care about the big picture, which includes the long term viability of the planet and those that have less than us.

    A better power grid is not about comfort. It is about saving the planet from green house gases. It is about being able to operate the planet when we run out of fossil fuels. And just to cut you off if you were going to say that energy is about comfort, it is not. One of the primary reasons we have affordable food is the ability to cost effectively transport it from places where it grows efficiently to places where it does not. This allows for more people to be able to afford food.

    "If you're not poor, almost all GDP growth is 'fake'. So I'd call 'fake' GDP a really good sign."

    It is fascinating how quick you are to dismiss and essentially make irrelevant the concept of poor people. It is as if they do not merit even being a part of your equation. You find it totally appropriate to discount them. Truly instructive.

  5. Don't fool yourself that you're serving needs when you're talking about a better power grid, wider highways, and more food production in the U.S.A. These all serve wants, not needs.

    The few people in the United States that actually are poor -- the homeless, and those with too little to eat -- will not be served by those things. And another cob of subsidized corn only further impoverishes third world farmers.

    It's true there remains much suffering. There are perhaps a billion people in the world who truly are poor. But their numbers are dwindling quickly, ironically largely because of our frivolous want for cheap toys and manufactured goods, and their opening up to the market. Things like micro-credit, cell phones (frivolous?), and innovations like those funded by Bill Gates, really cheap fridges, and water cleaning have/will certainly help too. Where poverty is not being reduced, it almost always seems a political/cultural problem, hard to fix with either aid or advice.



    You're right that in recent years new dollars have gone more to the rich than the 'poor'. This seems unfair. But I'd rather be poor today than a king 200 years ago (court jesters and hunting rides don't compare well to TV and XBoxes). And I'd certainly rather be at the 10% income level now than 20 years ago. Most of the great advances in entertainment of the last 20 years have been almost equally available to all income levels, housing is more affordable (and bigger) than ever, and even health care is a little better. Dollars aren't so good at counting well-being.

    You're right that health is a real issue in the developed world. In fact, in the developed world, age and sickness are undoubtedly the greatest cause of physical suffering. And health care is messed up, in the U.S.A. and most other places. I see no clear solution except innovation here. And government looks like the cause of problems here, not the solution.

    Energy is not a comfort because of agriculture? Only a tiny fraction of our energy usage is spent on agriculture or transport of agricultural goods. Almost all of the long distance transport of food is to improve the variety of colors and flavors on our plate. Without frivolities, we'd have very small energy needs. A fancy power grid is only wanted so we don't have to give up our frivolities.

    Satisfaction of wants is at an all-time high, and unmet needs at an all-time low. Sounds great to me. Yes there remains unmet needs, and innovation is probably the answer there. But come on! Look at the bright side once in a while!

  6. Hank,

    I'm glad you're back.

    I've been part of the Internet-powered, federally fueled Northern Virginia Metroplex for more than a decade. I was critical of the frivolity of the original dot-com boom, was not a bit surprised when it crashed, and I am stupefied that we're doing the same thing again.

    I'm not suggesting that the current financial crisis is the result of a "Web 2.0 crash." But we're clearly frittering away a lot of human resources and intellectual capital on relatively trivial fluff such as Twitter. And as you say, Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and YouTube and the rest of it isn't real GDP, and they sure ain't gonna pull us out of this crisis.

    Regarding your chiding response to the earlier comments about "real" and "fake" GDP: I still work for a DC-area software company, but now I telecommute from a rural county in the mountains of western Virginia, on the border of West Virginia. I moved here with my new wife, who grew up here and whose family still lives here.

    As a Christian who has been on mission trips to poverty-stricken areas since I was teenager, I've long been 'aware' of need and have felt responsible for serving others less fortunate myself. But now I actually live in a community where the population is aging and dwindling, industry is dying, many people hunt and fish and grow their own food for basic survival, and there are literally homes (if you can call them that) without running water just minutes from my own. Many families barely had enough heat and electricity to get through the brutally cold winter we just endured. The limited resources available through the local government and private organizations were stretched to the breaking point.

    Living in this world makes Twitter sound like absolute lunacy. People here actually work for a living. They make things and grow things and repair things. That's 'real' GDP. They probably envy me for making a good salary for what looks to them like sitting on my duff. But I envy them, because if the grid went down due to a natural or financial or man-made disaster and we were back to a survival economy, I doubt they'd be willing to trade many of their goods and services for many of mine. ("Hey, there, Farmer Jones, would you swap me a bushel of those yummy-looking potatoes for some terrific Web content about what a great farmer you are? I can set it up as an RSS feed and you can tweet it to all your followers!")

    So I intend to learn as much as I can from them so that I can do more real things to actually support and sustain my family in good times as well as bad.

  7. I don't know that I've contributed that much more to the discussion in my blog post:
    but it's at least a little more commentary on some part of this post.

    I wonder if we can really make technology a central part of solving the world's problems as long as the money and the attention and the time flow to the trivial. I wish I were more hopeful.

    And, welcome back to blogging, Hank, I've missed your voice.

  8. M. Chris doesn't know what the hell he is talking about.

    Hank, glad to see you back. I certainly agree with the general prescripts of your post. I think it is worth reminding ourselves that the rise of inequality in the U.S., and our current economic predicament, is the direct result of allowing oligarchs to control most of the levers of government power for the bulk of the past 30 years. By their very nature, oligarchies produce tremendous wealth for their members at the expense of the wider citizenry, and if left unchecked this inevitably causes the public treasury to fall into bankruptcy. There are many historic examples if one cares to look, including some spectacular cases in central and south america.

    The election of M. Obama gives cause for some optimism. However, it appears that his economic policy has been co-opted by old guard representatives of the aforementioned oligarchy. Whether we will see a proper change in direction is till an open question.

  9. I totally understand what Chris T. is saying. The quality of life of almost all Americans IS better today than almost everywhere else in the world. Most Americans have far surpassed the threshold of true poverty and have far surpassed a primitive quality of life. Primitive meaning most Americans have the ability to control their environment. A reality that has not existed at all points in human history nor in a lot of places in the world today. Even the lowest 10% of wage earners probably have a roof over their heads that they didn't build, with warmth that they didn't create, with food they did not grow, etc. etc. Most Americans are above the thresholds of poverty that existed say 100 years ago, or maybe even 50 years ago. So he's saying that anything above these necessities that most Americans have, are wants.

    I did a quick little analysis to put the quality of life in the U.S into perspecitve. Yes it does involve the GDP, which I believe is real. The United States' GDP in 2007 was roughly $14 trillion according to the IMF. That's 25% of the World's GDP, which was roughly $55 trillion in 2007. The next highest GDP was Japan at $4 trillion. I then compared the US's GDP to the 180 countries of the world. The average GDP for the 180 countries is $600 billion, which is skewed upwards by the top 15 or so largest economies. So we'll look at median GDP, since that accounts for the top heavy list of countries. The median GDP was $20 billion. That means that the US economy is roughly 2,200% larger than the average world economy and 66,000% larger than the median world economy. That's huge.

    Now, let's say the median income in America is $55,000 per year. That income would put someone squarely in the middle class. Comparing that to the median GDP, countries like Estonia, Trinidad and Tobago, Cameroon, El Salvador, and Iceland are middle class countries (they all have median GDP's of about $20 billion). If they were U.S. citizens they would earn $55,000 per year. In this analogy, the US would be earning $36 million per year. That's higher than A-Rod or Manny Ramirez. The U.S. is ultra wealthy. It's amazing to think about it actually; what kind of juggernaut the U.S. is.

    Just as a disclaimer, comparing GDP to income is not a purely apples to apples comparison. It would probably be more accurate to compare tax revenues of the 180 countries, but this is directionally correct.

  10. I thoroughly agree. A good example is Apple's iPhone events. When someone introduces an app which could really impact the quality of someone's life, like the glucose monitoring app, the response is lukewarm. But everyone is excited that push notification is finally here so that we can all get our ESPN feeds.

  11. From most of the comments that I have read above I can only conclude that the so called quality of life for you people have improved. But it only made you blinder, lazier, angrier, envy and sillier.

    TV, X-Box, Twitter, sex, a LOT of food, big couch, servants, ... what else? Ah sorry, how could I forget money!

    So can you tell me exactly how does any of this improves you as a human being living on the plannet Earth, having physical body and soul? And you are talking about health. Of course you don't have it, you don't deserve it. And none of your doctors will help you, and none should. And none of innovation will help you... You are just too lazy, scared and "satisfied" to live! And these days it's just became a trend, nothing more!

    I generally agree with the point of the article about Twitter and the like. But come on people admit that's the result of your aiming on comfort. It makes your lazy, aimless, weak, and so on. Comfort is not progress, it's degradation. None of the religions, teachings or philosophies aim at comfort! It's destructive for the human. It's the right way to death and hell after it (or even before).

    It's all the problem of trying to make things easier instead of trying to make them more efficient... :(

  12. I think I agree with the sentiment here. Of course, I don't know if a 24/7 focus on solving difficult problems of human suffering is good for the psyche—that's a lot of pressure to put on oneself. (When asked how he keeps going for years on end, Richard Stallman has directed people to the book The Lifelong Activist).

    But I think the shift of "getting serious" is already happening. In your example of the power meters, Google is actually addressing that. The Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) raw data is available on the web, and they're paying out cash prizes for open source visualization apps that do something interesting with said data.

  13. Arguably, Web 2.0 apps like Twitter, etc., are indeed improving quality of life for a lot of people, and the interactions they enable have in many cases created value for industrial markets which have led indirectly to positive contributions to the essentials (food/housing/etc.) that you mention here.

    Further, by democratising areas of our lives that have heretofore been out of our hands, a lot of new technology is making a huge impact on how the next generation lives, and in so doing, is creating benefits (and also disadvantages) for us all.


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