Benedict Evans writes fantastic writing prompts. He’ll make references to different first principles, and he’ll go onto build arguments out of them later. Sometimes I agree with them. Sometimes I don’t. He does provoke thought.
One theme is the nature of people.
On October 9, 2020, Benedict Evans wrote:
We connected everybody, and that meant we connected all the bad people and the idiots, and our own worst instincts, and all society’s problems get expressed in software. Sometimes the Internet amplifies and channels that, but maybe sometimes the Internet is people.
On April 23, 2021, Benedict Evans wrote:
Old: if you make something idiot-proof, God creates a better idiot.
New: if you create an Internet service that’s proof against assholes, God creates a better asshole.
Nature always finds a way.
If you accept these as foundational, that all of society’s problems get expressed in software and God creates a better asshole, then it may offer a whole bunch of explanations about the way software has been made, shaped, and distributed over the past thirty years. It may also yield a few clues about the future.
Let’s begin with heroes.
Entrepreneurs focus on barriers. They see them everywhere. And they’re right! Barriers really are everywhere. In your body right now, there are probably around 7 to 15 quadrillion mitochondria, each one containing barriers that are responsible for your life to persist. How else are proton gradients supposed to exist? Nothing would be alive if it wasn’t for barriers. They’re that fundamental.
An entrepreneurs instinct is to lower barriers.
They can be lowered using all sorts of means. Benedict Evans tends to focus on technology.
Consider aviation as an example. When commercial flight was just getting started in the United States, it was pretty dangerous, but the initial barriers were lowered thanks to postal subsidies. Those subsidies helped make it safe enough for those who could afford it, to feel safe enough to fly. Then jets and huge fuselages lowered the barriers and the cost per passenger mile low enough for mass travel. The trend of lowering barriers continues to this day in Mexico and Ethiopia, where entrepreneurs continue to find ways for more people to be able to do something they couldn’t afford to do before. If you make it affordable for people to get to the airport, and then into an airplane, then they will fly. Lowering the monetary and time barriers creates more value for more people.
The same is true of software. In the early nineties, you needed to be pretty dedicated to be able to figure out how to get onto the Internet. By 2009, people could pull a supercomputer out of their pocket, touch a button below a touchscreen, press a box labelled Internet, and they were there, on the Internet. The barriers to connectivity were collapsed by people who were building idiot-proof boxes. It got cheaper, faster, and most importantly: easier. If the Internet was revolutionary, the simplicity of the portable mobile supercomputer (the strangely named smartphone) was democratic.
Benedict Evans once compared two stories: the experience of Bill Gates and the experience of Steve Jobs.
Bill Gates will be forever associated with DOS. In the eighties and early nineties, people exchanged soft and hard disks. People would trade programs, download them onto their computer, and use the DOS to run just about any program on their machine. Some people wrote viruses, malware, and various other nuances. It was a problem. Then DOS met the Internet. People would download and run anything. This drove an explosion in viruses, malware, and all sorts of headaches for the people of the mass market. A smaller problem became huge because of an existing behaviour, virus writing, met a new distribution network, the Internet. That doesn’t mean the wide open Internet is easy for everyone to use. God always invents a better idiot.
Steve Jobs combined several technologies to create the iPhone. The interaction between the IOS and meeting of the Internet would not be the same as when DOS met the Internet. In order to run most executables on the IOS, developers needed to submit their apps through the App Store. Apple needed to trust what developers were putting onto consumer devices. It’s a stance that has expanded and extended ever since. That doesn’t mean that the App Store is perfect. God always invents a better asshole.
When Bill Gates lowered barriers by skinning the DOS with a usable sleeve (windows), assholes and idiots alike flooded in.
When Steve Jobs lowered barriers by skinning the IOS with a usable sleeve (tapping windows on a screen), Jobs raised some barriers in an effort to keep the assholes out. The App Store made software less free for some, but made it more usable for many.
The Liberty of Non Conformity or Anatomy of an Asshole
The liberty to make life worse for other people goes back to the beginning. The evolution of cells that eat other cells was the ultimate asshole move. Fast forward to the domestication of humans by plants along some river valleys and you see the same dynamic, with people who rely on large pastures to raise livestock like goats, sheep, cattle and horses, continuously stealing from those who rely on rivers to raise grain. And maybe vice versa. The names of the activity changed over time – raid, crusade, chevauchée, expedition, and invasion. It’s all the same thing. I am strong, you are weak, on that basis, give me all your stuff. These are just scaled up, human versions of the same underlying phenomenon of stealing life. Sometimes it is always easier to take rather than make, steal rather than deal.
Because of the fights launched by citizens over dozens of generations, first for their collective security and then later for their personal security, citizens in the West enjoy more liberty today than they did centuries ago. It’s kind of astonishing how free we are in Canada given the technology and incentives to make citizens unfree. We can make our lives better for ourselves. We have the liberty to make things better for ourselves and for each other. To create. To be entrepreneurs. To lower barriers.
The liberty to make things worse for other people still exists because it has been there all along.
Sure, we write laws in an effort to increase the positive liberty of some while reducing the negative effects of some liberty caused by others. This is a recurrent theme, with some arguing that we need to do something to protect people from harm, others saying that it doesn’t matter enough to write and enforce a law, and others still saying that there really isn’t a problem worth solving. We can sometimes have these great debates in public, and we agree to wobble along in some way.
Most people are the heroes of their own stories. Look at the way the ancient Egyptians, Vikings, and Mongols wrote about themselves. They weren’t the villains in their stories. Even Tony Soprano had a way of justifying why he was a hero. Assholes don’t often think of themselves as assholes. The gift of self-delusion, imbued in all of us, is possibly hard wired into our DNA. Maybe it’s an exceptional skill to understand just how many externalities you’re imposing on the world. Even entrepreneurs justify the disruption they cause to others, through creative destruction, by arguing that they’re lowering barriers for the masses.
Reasonable people can disagree about what behaviour constitutes an asshole and what behaviour is not. There’s a spectrum that ranges from skipping a stone on a lake to exterminating 99.99999% of humanity with a virus that you engineered yourself. Everybody is a hero in their own eyes. What kind behaviour is prohibited by law, directive, or social convention, and everything in between, and the goodness of fit, is at the core of the social problem.
As Benedict writes, nature always finds a way.
Problems in Software/Society
There are major problems in software because there are major problems in society. Society was extremely polarized along social lines prior to the lowering of the barriers to email, web publishing, instant messaging, and social networking. There has been a persistent, major cleavage, a disagreement in values, about the relationship of the individual to the state and the individual to each other. There are different ways of classifying these relationships, so there are bound to be disagreements about how to even talk about them. Sometimes, it seems, the conflicts over what language to use in talking about things is more viscous than the thing we’re really talking about.
Software can both amplify the differences and bridge the gaps in understanding.
Take, for instance, the nature of two very different software platforms: Twitter and Slack.
Twitter is relatively open with very few barriers. Ideas are shortened to a very narrow cognitive space. It’s a place where some people go to shout at each other. It’s a place where people organize rage fueled mobs. It’s a place where people debate what form of speech should be legal, which should be unacceptable, and which should be banned by the platform.
Slack lowered the barrier to mIRC-style communitarianism. There is a fragmentation of attention across the Internet as people enter these salons and have discussions according to the social norms that they believe is acceptable. A lot of people find comfort in that. The behaviour is easier to moderate because the scale is smaller.
These are two different communication tools that are intended to do very different jobs for their users. They’re both simultaneously useful and useless depending on your perception of the asshole gradient in your context.
The ability to scale social norms, from the community level through to village, town, city, province, state and trading block has always been valuable. It’s all contingent on the popularity of the idea and the technical capacity to sync it across large numbers of people.
We may be experiencing a period of time where our technology has outpaced our capacity for peace and creation.
Maybe it has always been like this since the beginning.
Predictions For The Future of Assholism And Software
The same force that gives rise to creativity, the lowering of barriers, and creative destruction is responsible for the invention of better assholes.
Humans create variance. So long as creation continues, assholes will continue to be created. It’s a feature of the system. And they all believe that they’re heroes for it.
Given the challenges we face together, we better hope that humans are infinitely creative.
Is Apple a bunch of assholes for locking down their technology so as to create a semi-permeable membrane to keep out people they perceive as assholes and protect their users? Are people who want to distribute viruses, ads, or loot boxes to children a bunch of assholes? Could it be that they’re both a superposition of heroes and assholes? Could it be that your normative judgement of which is which depends on the perspective you’re holding when you approach the situation?
It is very likely that speech that is classified as criminal and prosecuted in the offline domain will become classified and prosecuted in the online domain. Harassment is unwanted attention, and a threshold of it, in the offline world, is deemed illegal. There is no doubt that there is harassment that is occurring online. The state has been very slow to prosecute even the most criminal of these activities. It is increasingly likely that this will now change.
In this way, some people will enjoy less liberty to cause harm to others, and other people will enjoy less harassment. It’s very likely the case that some of the people engaged in harassment believe that they’re heroes. Many people are right to worry that new laws may go beyond restricting harassment to criminalizing different kinds of speech that is not harassment. The freedom to do something and the freedom from something are in perpetual conflict.
One can predict a movement where society will actively attempt to use software to fix problems in society. And the problems in society will continue to persist in new and exciting ways.
Many will view it as a forever war.
It always has been.