‘ Where are the revolutionaries?
It used to be the younger generation, around college-age, would rethink their parents’ systems: political, business, etc. These kids would look at the buildings around them and imagine what could be accomplished in razing those buildings and creating a new foundation. I don’t see that anymore. I see college-aged kids simply wanting to add a new floor on top of a very rickety shack that should have been discarded ages ago.
Ironically, the people writing these types of manifestos for Computer Science are almost exclusively older. They often wrote that first foundational layer and know that it needs to be overhauled.
It’s true we’ve tried many variations on these themes in the past, but if we do the logical syllogism in our heads, we come invariably to the conclusion this is how the future should be. We know these things. So why give up? What does failure mean other than that we need to continue trying?
It infuriates me that we don’t try — when people say “we’ve tried everything and there’s no way forward.” No, we’re just lazy. Charles Duell never actually said in 1899 that “everything has already been invented,” yet, oh my God, we can’t stop saying it now. So I’m going to ask again, “Where are the revolutionaries?” ’
When we optimize for the dollar rather than the product, we are no longer engineers or artists - we are salesmen.
When we invest based on traction or growth, we are not betting on an improved future, we are banking on an existing present.
I having nothing against making money, I just believe it should be a byproduct of running a good business, not a metric optimized at the expense of everything else. Similarly, I believe in competition, but in a race to the bottom, no one is actually a winner.
To the average person, things probably seem fine right now. In fact, the average person is probably eternally content in the present, whenever that present might be. As someone who clings to the edge of the bell curve, and not necessarily the favorable edge, I want to help you understand that vector between now and the future is discontent.
There was something magic about the 80s and 90s. We were small enough that the individual mattered. We had real heroes. Software was an arcane art that took expertise to ship and worthiness to occupy a store shelf. There was no room for shovelware. There was no ceaseless drip of notifications. We were not glorified drug dealers vying for your attention span. Nobody knew what a dark pattern was. Applications did not harbor their own moral ecosystems dictated by the whims of advertisers and boardrooms.
By necessity everything was smaller, faster, less wasteful, free of bloat. Engineering was the business, not a business expense. It took dark wizardry to cram worlds into kilobytes, and that expertise was valued. Software was not crippled by a myriad of bad platforms, store restrictions, privacy concerns, and permissions.
Somewhere along the way we lost a few things. We lost our freedom, we lost our courage to enact change, we lost our reason to care. We need to care again. We to dream again. We need to feel something, anything, other than passively numb. We need heroes. We need people with brains, guts, hearts, and maybe a loose grip on sanity. We need to challenge things. I refuse to believe this is the best we can do.
The solution is not gradual, it is radical. We need to rethink the operating system, the compiler, the web browser, the internet, and maybe even the computer itself. We need to lay our own fiber if that’s what it takes. We need to ditch legacy, because legacy is not the future. A Formula One car does not have a passenger seat for the horse and a trunk to store the cart in.
We need to rethink the rules. The rules that create perverse incentives and favor monopolies. We need to level the playing field. We need to put the consumer first. Software should not be something that we fight with, that exploits us, that siphons our attention span and our wallet, that pits us against each other. It should augment our abilities and our free time to do other things. We need to hit the reset button.
Right now I probably sound insane, which ok, maybe even par for the course. Reminder: Apple is a quasi-trillion dollar company, started by a crazy homeless person, that competed against juggernauts of its time like IBM. I am definitely not Steve Jobs, but I know what future I want to live in - and I will get there or (literally!) die trying.
When you give up everything that exists right now, the possibilities are virtually endless. There is nothing stopping you from molding the rules in your vision. Want to create your own internet, your own computer, your own blank slate? Go ahead. It will be small, but it will be yours. We are engineers, we are artists, we are gods of our own domain, we are in control. We are not here to stand on the shoulders of giants, we are here to throw stones.
On our net, no domains are yet registered, there are no search engines to compete with, there are no ranking algorithms throwing you into a predestined bucket. There are no advertisements - does that sound crazy? When was the last time you tuned into commercial TV instead of Netflix?
On our grid we own all the fiber and all of the airspace. We paid for it, we put it there, and we own it. What was once an obscene tax paid for a connection will now empower content creators - they are the only reason the connection exists in the first place.
In our system there are rules. Anarchy sounds appealing in theory but that has led us to the present, where corporations abuse the lack of rules or bully people into using their own. I believe it is possible to create a system that maintains freedom while preserving order. It is also possible to create a system that avoids the pitfalls that have led us to where we are now.
In our content, politics are not present unless you are looking for them. The same goes for any other mind-numbing content. Using newfangled technology like tagging, you see what you want to see, rather than corporations showing you what they know will drive engagements or hiding what they believe qualifies for censorship.
In our browser there is no distinction between a native application and a web application. Does that sound dangerous? Good, get out of your comfort zone and quickly learn who to trust; rethink security in a way that does not cripple consumers and creators.
In our interface creative freedom is allowed and encouraged. Material Design and Metro are not gods. We are artists, not cult members. Bring back skeuomorphism, bring back shading, bring back anything that qualifies as variety. Rethink the mechanics of interaction, because no one has bothered to do that for several decades. We can probably come up with a painless way to center elements horizontally and vertically if we are so daring.
In our compilers “write once and run anywhere” is a reality. Performance is peak, package and build systems make sense, frustration is minimal. We are not simply piling on a new standard, we are crushing inferior standards. We will spend our time building rather than fighting three layers of APIs and searching for obscure bugs. Software will only survive based on its quality and merit. Knowledge and experience will matter because strong software does not run on a weak foundation.
We thought we conquered everything but there is still an infinite land left to explore. The point is, the future is nebulous and distant, but the present is whatever we want to make it, starting right now. We are only trapped in a cage of our mental design. There is a future out there waiting for anyone bold enough to claim it.