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Good and Evil in the Garden of Hackerdom

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I was reading today about some technology reporter-editor who is mad at another technology reporter-editor and it occurred to me how many hours I've wasted spending time watching pointless drama on the internet.

No, I do not care if the latest iPad has a video camera. No, I do not want to know what sorts of personnel shakeups are occurring at Microsoft. And no, I am not at all concerned about how venture capitalists choose to waste their money and time.

I understand that some folks do care. Perhaps you have to pitch some of these VCs. Perhaps you are interviewing for a job at Microsoft. Perhaps your business model heavily depends on video being available in portable formats.

But I suspect not. I suspect that articles like this attract internet readers because it gives them something to sit around on their fat assess and pontificate about. Apple getting a new CTO? Well you know, this guy was heavily invested in company X, and company X is highly regarded among this community.

WTF? Come on, guys. If done anywhere else about any other topic this would be called out plain and simple for what it is: idle gossip. It's the technology version of painting the bike shed: somebody can have some sort of drama anywhere in the world that involves technology, and suddenly we're all speculating on motives, emotions, and impact. Bickering with each other over semantics and versions of history.

Don't get me wrong. I think a lot of such communication is good -- it helps us form and maintain a community. But it's critically important to recognize what these topics are: social candy. A little bit is fine now and then, but it's very easy to do too much.

I just got an email from a person who is also doing some fine work around hackers. He has a monthly newsletter with all sort of good advice. He'd asked to include an article of mine, and I was more than happy. In his follow-up, then he asked if I had a chance to read the latest issue.

Well gee, I do not like being so blunt, but no, I have not decided to consume yet more material of a randomly technically tangentially interesting nature. I'm sure its a great publication, and I'm sure with my technical bent I would love reading it, but I'm really trying to be a bit more useful in my life.

And I think that's the insidious nature of the problem. It's very enjoyable to read about some legal battle involving two big corporations which we have attachments to, or hear about some programmer somewhere who made a million dollars attaching lasers to flying turtles, but it's probably not a good use of our time. When we consume these things, it's like we're stuck in neutral, just ambling around without direction. That's a fine way to be every now and then, but -- like I said -- it's very easy to do too much of it.

This gets back to my application of Kant's Categorical Imperative to technology: don't put a constraint on a user unless you are willing to put that same constraint on every user who seeks a similar goal. It's very likely you don't need a login service for your web-app (unless there are some monetary or privacy reasons, of course). You don't need to email or text me when your service upgrades. You don't need to pop up in the corner of my window just to tell me that you're still running.

These are all things that as programmers we have done at various times, and I think they are all evil to a certain degree. They take millions away -- if only for a few seconds -- from whatever they were doing before. And for no good reason. Daniel's rule of big numbers: anything times a big number? It's also a big number.

I just wrote this blog article. It took you ten minutes to read it. If there are six thousand of you, and your time is worth 40 dollars an hour on average, I just "consumed" forty-thousand dollars of worth in the world. Now it's up to me to make sure I provide this value back in my content. And that's assuming that you can immediately switch back to whatever you were doing after you finish reading this, which studies have shown is highly unlikely.

More of us should be doing these calculations.

The same goes for Technology Drama -- stories that provide emotional impact, that consume large portions of our energies, with little or no return for us directly (except for advertising revenues for those who provide the drama)

It's evil. Perhaps not evil in the way we've grown up understanding, but evil nonetheless.

After 9-11 I was on a political board and we were talking about the nature of evil. "Well," one commenter said, "what is evil, anyway? It's all so vague. I don't think it has a definition."

To which I replied, "Evil is somebody who wants to come over to my country and kill me -- to take away my life"

Of course that gets into whether or not there is a universal definition of evil, but lets not go there.

That definition of evil was true then, and it's true now. Evil is people creating material that is purposely designed to take away my life -- if only a very small part of it -- for somebody else's benefit. Killing one person is a horrible tragedy. Aside from your religious or moral feelings, the world lost the benefit that one life could have provided. Playing out your drama about some fanboy topic for fifty-thousand people that consumed several hours discussing it? From the world's standpoint, same amount of harm done, perhaps more.

Searching was the killer app of the 1990s and 2000s. Filtering is going to be the killer app of the 2020s and 2030s. Either that or we're all screwed.

We hackers and programmers are a lot more involved in the world or good and evil than we'd like to admit. Or that we're comfortable discussing.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on November 3, 2010 1:11 PM.

The Case For Nothing was the previous entry in this blog.

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Recently I created a list of books that hackers recommend to each other -- what are the books super hackers use to help guide them form their own startups and make millions? hn-books might be a site you'd like to check out.
On the low-end of the spectrum, I realized that a lot of people have problems logging into Facebook, of all things. So I created a micro-site to help folks learn how to log-in correctly, and to share various funny pictures and such that folks might like to share with their friends. It's called (appropriately enough) facebook login help