A Software World

At the end of his takedown of an article that calls 2013 “A Lost Year for Tech” (neatly summed up as “a sad pile of piss-on-everything cynicism”), John Gruber writes:

There’s a nihilistic streak in tech journalism that I just don’t see in other fields. Sports, movies, cars, wristwatches, cameras, food — writers who cover these fields tend to celebrate, to relish, the best their fields have to offer. Technology, on the other hand, seems to attract enthusiasts with no actual enthusiasm.

Rene Richie followed up on that point, wondering where the nihilism comes from.

It could just be that computer technology is still relatively new and tech journalists - and tech readers, we feed each other - lack the maturity of older, more established industries and pursuits. It could be that tech writers sometimes seem to care more about being perceived as cool than in being good.

I think this nihilistic streak could be a symptom of the deep-seated suspicion of technology in Western Culture, even among those of us who claim to love it. We all use technology, but we don’t trust it. We fear the power of its “reality distortion field.” We tend to see the experiences it enables as inauthentic, alien, perhaps corrupting, and certainly inferior to “real” experiences. This theme of technology’s malevolent influence is obvious in a lot of science fiction, from Frankenstein to The Matrix, but you can even see it in the training montage from Rocky IV.

The Russian might have a fancy weight room, fancy exercise equipment, and fancy synthetic muscles, but he’ll never triumph over Rocky, who can lift real wagons and real bags of rocks and run to the top of a real mountain.

I thought of that montage when I saw this post from Seth Godin, which makes the fairly reasonable case that our pursuit of productivity (through apps and blogs and devices) often makes us less productive in the end. I take his point until he gives this example:

Isaac Asimov wrote more than 400 books, on a manual typewriter, with no access to modern productivity tools. I find it hard to imagine they would have helped him write 400 more.

First, “400 more” is a pretty high bar. But wouldn’t Asimov have derived some benefit modern productivity tools? Like, say, a computer? If not Asimov, I imagine there were countless people born before the advent of “modern productivity tools” who would have benefited enormously from them. Of course these tools can’t write 400 books for you, but they can reduce the friction just enough to get the ball rolling.

To give just two examples, I was a remarkably disorganized person for most of my life, because I insisted on trying to keep my deadlines, appointments and todo items in my head. Now, with apps like Omnifocus and Due, I’m not only much more organized but also remarkably less anxious about what I might forget. I’ve also been somewhat overweight for most of my adult life, but in the last four years I’ve lost about 50 pounds, mainly due to changes in exercise and diet. But those changes were the direct result of tracking my calories and exercise through the app Lose It. (I had no idea, for instance, that running five miles only burns the equivalent calories of one big sandwich.) Those are the two biggest impacts on my life, but software has, in a variety of ways, also helped me create better lessons for my students, grade papers more thoroughly, capture innumerable moments of my children’s’ lives, stay in touch with people I love, write a novel, and start this blog. My life is significantly better as a result of this technology.

Which brings me back to the nihilism of tech journalists. Few, if any, of these small improvements of the daily life of one person would merit a headline in a tech publication. We tend to expect, and tend only to notice, the big revolutions in technology: the personal computer, the iPod, the smartphone, the tablet. It’s no coincidence that these are all hardware products. Hardware feels more “real” to us. Maybe the reason tech journalists are so often depressed about the state of technology is that hardware revolutions are extremely hard to come by. Dozens of hardware makers get up on stages and set up booths at CES every year touting their new attempts at hardware revolutions. And most of them fall completely flat.

Software doesn’t get the same attention, because it’s less substantial, less trustworthy, and because it’s behind a screen. But software is the real story. Frank Chimero’s fantastic web essay What Screens Want makes this point by citing a video clip of the British documentary program Connections, in which the host describes how plastic has completely permeated our world. Chimero then rewrites the script, replacing the word “plastic” with the word “software.”

It’s a software world. And because of software, it’s a soft world in a different sense, in the original sense of the word: it changes its shape easily.

Software is the magic that makes our devices “indistinguishable from magic”. Many of us think of it as an art form, and yet it’s a strange sort of art form. Most art forms don’t remind you to take out the recycling or help you lose fifty pounds. But the things software can do are almost limitless. Maybe tech journalists would be less cynical about the advances of technology if they wrote more about software than hardware, and more about the how than the what — how software is not only changing its shape, but changing our shape, in more ways than one. That is the real, ongoing technological revolution.