Revenge of the Nerds

A very small shell script.

In the news is the idea that the FANG (Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Google) needs more than declawing, but needs to be drawn and quartered. I have no idea what the sentiment is in the Biden Administration but I can think of a number of reasons why I am warming to the idea.

Originally, when Elizabeth Warren floated the first really significant anti-trust sentiment I’ve heard in American politics since the breakup of AT&T, I trashed her. It was more about the source than the substance. I don’t believe the likes of Warren cares about the difference between a modem from a hard drive, and that goes for most of the visible government actors. From the first ACA portals to the Clinton emails to the OPM Breach of 2015, the incompetence of government officials to keep their cyber work working and secure is legendarily sketchy. To suggest that their lot are likely to do a rational surgery in the best interests of the public is a dubious proposition. The same goes for the money in Wall Street who created the FANG acronym in the first place. They can’t do a Zuckectomy either. Each of those companies has essentially nothing in common with regards to their business models, all the moneymen care is that ‘big tech’ moves paper.

So while I can’t expect either Wall Street or Washington DC to be smart about any breakups they propose, I can expect that the executives and brains of any such broken up industry to congeal the broken pieces in a properly constructive way. In fact, I am so confident that the main capabilities of the industry would remain intact that there is very little East Coast elite butchery might do to disrupt it. Think of it this way. Who could have predicted TikTok? Nobody outside of the industry. Who could have predicted that Facebook would ultimately buy out the WhatsApp guys, who legendarily once gave them the middle finger? Not many. We live in trillion dollar days. Tech execs will ameoba their way back together, even if the result is creative destruction, like the destruction of Waze by Google. But first the chopping needs to happen. My money says start with Oracle - they have been digesting their competition for decades. Funny how nobody says ‘hostile takeover’ any longer.

Nevertheless, there is real danger in the presence of these giants which is more than just common sense. You have to understand the subtext of the small shell script. Let’s step back in time, shall we?

Wayback Machine
I would suggest that I am typical of a generation of software programmers. Let’s call us Generation 2. Generation 0 would be the programming world of the pioneers which stretch back to the beginning somewhere around the invention of place value in antiquity and end up somewhere after the triumphs of Bletchley Park in WW2. Generation 1 would be those who watched vacuum tubes replaced by transistors and the rise of the giants DEC, IBM, HP and all of the mainframe computing done during the Cold War and Apollo Program. My generation of programmers cut our teeth during the rise of the PC, Intel, Microsoft and Client Server computing. Included in our cadre were the MBAs, the rise of managerial computing, Linux and the birth of the Dot Coms. Right about now, Generation 3 is taking hold of things - these are the first people to take the internet for granted and understand that nobody cares about such things as ‘computer literacy’. They never worried that there might not be a market for digital tech. There are not likely to be any more stories about companies like Xerox where I worked, in which a genius breakthrough in digital tech could not find a market or funding. In Generation 3 every digital tech, no matter how meaningless, like Dogecoin, finds a market and makes millionaires.

Disintermediation
In my generation, we were confident enough about our ability to transform the workplace and generate massive productivity gains because in those early days everything was done on paper. The applications of computer technology were obvious. Aside from marketing and financing, our biggest problems had to do with the considerable weakness of our hardware, software and networking. Once they matured and became even marginally dependable and ubiquitous, applications like email were a no brainer. But before that happened, there were a number of catastrophic failures. Before there was Amazon.com there was Webvan. Even as early dotcoms were massive failures, early pioneers knew that the implications of success would be momentous, so we started using terms like ‘disintermediation’.

Disintermediation is what happens to the job of a travel agent once enough people are using an application like Travelocity. Disintermediation is what happens to someone who takes dictation when voice recognition software becomes reliable and ubiquitous. In thousands of ways, large and small, the class of nerds known as industrial engineers have been looking at ways to make organizations run better. They shepherded us computer programmers on our way into the Fortune 500. They called their specialty Operations Research, and they had the temperament of the folks at Mission Control in Houston. These were the rational efficiency experts who could prove the benefits of what computer scientists knew to be true. The right systems could not only spare us the drudgery of the life of modern day Bartlbeys, but improve the corporate bottom line. Our call in the 1980s and 90s was to digitize everything. To discipline every process into compiled code.

There is an inherent limit to disintermediation. There are only a set number of jobs and areas of expertise where the reality of hands-on and face-to-face can be completely or even partially eliminated. This is something a lot of people are learning for the first time during this pandemic. There is something truly necessary in dealing with the dynamic of people rather than the extracted logic of tasks to be accomplished. At the same time, we are indeed growing different kinds of people whose idea of ‘face to face’ meant selfies on Instagram. It was quite alarming to me to recognize that my own children would much rather have experiences mediated by computer rather than those mediated by automobile, and my kids are not nerds at all. The status symbol of the latest smartphone with a snazzy cover is as real in 2021 as mag wheels and 8 track tapes were in 1976.

Disruption
Disruption is the dog eat dog version of disintermediation which is what inevitably takes place when high stakes and big money is in play. I think this is a Generation 3 phenomenon that has lost all touch with the Operations Research of yesteryear. Today it is much more about Market Research and what kind of disposable income can be vacuumed out of particular demographic segments. Disruption is about stealing customers. Much of this dynamic is not new. Tracy Kidder’s epic 1981 book The Soul of the New Machine captured the hell bent attitude of market domination perfectly. There was also that episode of the Twilight Zone entitled ‘To Serve Man’ that comes to mind each time I see yet another evolution of Facebook’s interface. If you are not paying for the digital product, you are the product. Keyword: Tristan Harris

There is a relentless logic in the revenge of the nerds. No one can say they’re stupid or irrational. But they are human and they are pursuing extremes of competence. What happens when you are trying your utmost to be extremely logical and you find your path blocked by someone less brainy and focused than you are? What happens when you calmly attempt to improve a situation that is clearly not subject to your disciplined consideration? What happens when you thwart reason with policy? Well, then you get into the area of emotions and passions. There are certain people you really wouldn’t like to get emotionally out of control…

Of course these conflicts don’t always end in such violence as in the classic movie Falling Down. Sometimes the tragedy takes a different form, such as the tragedy of the betrayal of Edward Snowden. Snowden betrayed his nation and his nation betrayed him. It is a sad story we are still wrestling with. Then there is the tragedy of Aaron Swartz who fell afoul of bureaucratic policy that kept public domain information out of the hands of the actual public. That public is still underserved considering what our computer technology could avail us. Alas we lack the incentives of Operations Research and Venture Capital to inform us. We’d like to disrupt CNN and Fox, but there doesn’t seem to be enough motivation beyond the goodwill and part time capacities of a ragtag crew of expatriate journalists. Then again, that’s what The WELL was in the early 1990s. Hope abides amidst tragedy.

Yet we owe ourselves to consider cautionary tales. Americans are our own worst enemies, and considering what we’ve nurtured in the online porn industry, it shouldn’t be surprising that we’d often rather deal with a virtual universe than one that compels us to enjoy each other’s actual company.

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This is the moment at which I take a breath and throw in some interesting observations.

  1. I put the link on Tristan Harris rather than his Netflix documentary title ‘The Social Dilemma’ because people last longer than films. That is especially true for the new digital films. Many years ago the Disney Company perfected a formula for creating demand by embargoing their ‘classic’ films. So you pay a premium for reruns in today’s digital libraries.

  2. Corporate America doesn’t know very well how to buy or build digital technology. That is why Google is bigger than General Electric and Google didn’t build any hardware. Well, they built Google Glass. If the Fortune 500 would have hired the engineers that have been distributed out into the digital sump that is Silicon Valley, such monopolies wouldn’t exist and there would be a revolution in corporate management.

  3. As a combination of of 1 & 2, there is a joke about a bunch of smokestack CEOs getting together are one of those snazzy boondoggle retreats. Over cigars and scotch one of them confides. “I have to admit, Mortimer, your operations are so well managed and dynamic. You pay such high salaries for your engineers, but where did you find them all?” The other raises his eyebrows. “You have never embraced radical change, Randolph. I hired them all away from you!”

  4. Obligatory nod to Eric Weinstein on the fake engineering shortage.

I still don’t quite understand what a SPAC is, but I can guess. It’s what happens when a few folks who control a few billion get a whiff of a half-assed idea and allow a celebrity face or CEO run with it. You probable don’t quite understand what a cryptocurrency is. Same thing, different medium. There are multiple currencies in multiple shifting economies of labor, of capital, of values & beliefs. It seems that the only way to get ahead reliably is to be the best thinker, fastest mover or most capable cheat. It doesn’t leave us peasant much to hope for. General Electric is too small. They’re not hiring. Ford is too puny. They’re not hiring. I clearly don’t need to remind you about people with 3 generations of steelmaking or energy production in their families. So in Texas there’s not enough electricity and the water sanitation plants are shutdown. The disintermediators and disruptors are going like gangbusters. What about the sustainers and the backstoppers? Anybody know if we have enough nurses to give people immunizations?

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A nerd is somebody who much prefers the indoors to the outdoors, a studious species of dork. I have a streak of studious, but purged the dork such that I have no passive aggressive need to make up for anything that happened before my 16th birthday. I remember when the first person figured out how to order a pizza via email. They were at MIT of course. Nothing wrong with that. Yet we like to trade stories about cubicle sleepers and people with Aspberger’s Syndrome and basement dwellers who figure out how to get free long distance telephone service or hack a satellite. These have become self-fulfilling prophesies. A generation of face to face people have been disintermediated. My parents’ generation never even tried to understand their computers. They just gave it over to the kids. My three had cellphones in middle school, back when Kid Cudi was the hotness. But I think we’ve got to slow down those multiple shifting economies of labor and distribute those nerds.

We can’t let them aggregated and accumulate in their hidey-hole oligopolies. We can’t let them take away the need for driving skills the way we let Ray Kroc take away our cooking skills and tell us we deserve a break today. We can’t accept their plastic and take away our wood skills. Not until a GED is enough again.