The Next Big Thing


I had a picture in my mind of of what great programming would look and feel like, and this plumbing stuff wasn’t it. The more I learned about Computer Science, I felt disappointed that it was mostly about copying data from one place to another and not so much about gathering information, comprehending it, and making decisions.

I realized that my Computer Science background wouldn’t be enough to do anything more than schlep other people’s data around. I needed to become an expert in some other field and bring my computing powers to it.

My first idea was music. It was the thing I knew the most about, even though I remained a mediocre musician.

Whenever I asked other people about computer-based music they would tell me about something called MAX. I saw it in action once and I recoiled in horror at how weird and ugly it was. That was not what I wanted computer music to look like. I was going to have to build my own system from scratch. I learned about something called CSound which was beautiful and elegant but it only accepted text files as input. I was hacking it together with these emacs macros so that I could write algorithmic lisp pieces and then render them in CSound with a keystroke.

I thought if I could get good enough at using the text editor that I would be able to improvise this music in real-time. That could be my new instrument. But then I hit another surprise. There were plumbing problems, and there were real-time plumbling problems. It was no simple thing to just feed csound a new score file in real-time and have it keep up with previous instructions that had been given. And I wasn’t in this to write static lisp music. I wanted to be on stage. And no, I wasn’t down for that thing where you press the ENTER key and then just pretend to look busy for the rest of the show.

But there were bigger problems than that. I realized that being a computer musician wasn’t going to pay any better than playing the saxophone. I started looking into the hard sciences, like chemistry and biology. This was the period following the dot-com bust when many pundits were saying that the next round of innovative growth would come from biotech and nanotech.

I became interested in applying to grad school in one of those fields for a while, but as I got closer to graduation it was already becoming clear that the bio trend was just a media friendly narrative about “The Next Big Thing” with no actual money or market forces driving it.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one suffering from delusions about how capitalism works.