A great tool is not a universal tool it’s a tool well suited to a specific problem.
The more universal a solution someone claims to have to whatever software engineering problem exists, and the more confident they are that it is a fully generalized solution, the more you should question them.
Tuesday, July 6th, 2021
Monday, February 22nd, 2021
Ten down, one to go
The Long Now Foundation is dedicated to long-term thinking. I’ve been a member for quite a few years now …which, in the grand scheme of things, is not very long at all.
One of their projects is Long Bets. It sets out to tackle the problem that “there’s no tax on bullshit.” Here’s how it works: you make a prediction about something that will (or won’t happen) by a particular date. So far, so typical thought leadery. But then someone else can challenge your prediction. And here’s the crucial bit: you’ve both got to place your monies where your mouths are.
Ten years ago, I made a prediction on the Long Bets website. It’s kind of meta:
The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.
One year later I was on stage in Wellington, New Zealand, giving a talk called Of Time And The Network. I mentioned my prediction in the talk and said:
If anybody would like to take me up on that bet, you can put your money down.
Matt was also speaking at Webstock. When he gave his talk, he officially accepted my challenge.
So now it’s a bet. We both put $500 into the pot. If I win, the Bletchly Park Trust gets that money. If Matt wins, the money goes to The Internet Archive.
As I said in my original prediction:
I would love to be proven wrong.
That was ten years ago today. There’s just one more year to go until the pleasingly alliterative date of 2022-02-22 …or as the Long Now Foundation would write it, 02022-02-22 (gotta avoid that Y10K bug).
It is looking more and more likely that I will lose this bet. This pleases me.
Friday, February 12th, 2021
Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation becaue the profit invariably falls into two stools. If his predictions sounded at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that in 20 or most 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn.
But I couldn’t resist responding to a recent request for augery. Eric asked An Event Apart speakers for their predictions for the coming year. The responses have been gathered together and published, although it’s in the form of a PDF for some reason.
Here’s what I wrote:
This is probably more of a hope than a prediction, but 2021 could be the year that the ponzi scheme of online tracking and surveillance begins to crumble. People are beginning to realize that it’s far too intrusive, that it just doesn’t work most of the time, and that good ol’-fashioned contextual advertising would be better. Right now, it feels similar to the moment before the sub-prime mortgage bubble collapsed (a comparison made in Tim Hwang’s recent book, Subprime Attention Crisis). Back then people thought “Well, these big banks must know what they’re doing,” just as people have thought, “Well, Facebook and Google must know what they’re doing”…but that confidence is crumbling, exposing the shaky stack of cards that props up behavioral advertising. This doesn’t mean that online advertising is coming to an end—far from it. I think we might see a golden age of relevant, content-driven advertising. Laws like Europe’s GDPR will play a part. Apple’s recent changes to highlight privacy-violating apps will play a part. Most of all, I think that people will play a part. They will be increasingly aware that there’s nothing inevitable about tracking and surveillance and that the web works better when it respects people’s right to privacy. The sea change might not happen in 2021 but it feels like the water is beginning to swell.
Still, predicting the future is a mug’s game with as much scientific rigour as astrology, reading tea leaves, or haruspicy.
Tuesday, May 12th, 2020
Although some communities have listed journalists as “essential workers,” no one claims that status for the keynote speaker. The “work” of being a keynote speaker feels even more ridiculous than usual these days.
Thursday, April 16th, 2020
Naomi Kritzer published a short story five years ago called So Much Cooking about a food blogger in lockdown during a pandemic. Prescient.
I left a lot of the details about the disease vague in the story, because what I wanted to talk about was not the science but the individuals struggling to get by as this crisis raged around them. There’s a common assumption that if the shit ever truly hit the fan, people would turn on one another like sharks turning on a wounded shark. In fact, the opposite usually happens: humans in disasters form tight community bonds, help their neighbors, offer what they can to the community.
Saturday, February 15th, 2020
- Wrong: web workers will take over the world
- Wrong: Safari is the new IE
- Right: developer experience is trumping user experience
- Right: I’m better off without a Twitter account
- Right: the cost of small modules
- Mixed: progressive enhancement isn’t dead, but it smells funny
Maybe I should do one of these.
Monday, December 16th, 2019
I am not a believer in the AI singularity — the rapture of the nerds — that is, in the possibility of building a brain-in-a-box that will self-improve its own capabilities until it outstrips our ability to keep up. What CS professor and fellow SF author Vernor Vinge described as “the last invention humans will ever need to make”. But I do think we’re going to keep building more and more complicated, systems that are opaque rather than transparent, and that launder our unspoken prejudices and encode them in our social environment. As our widely-deployed neural processors get more powerful, the decisions they take will become harder and harder to question or oppose. And that’s the real threat of AI — not killer robots, but “computer says no” without recourse to appeal.
Wednesday, November 20th, 2019
I’m really enjoying this end-of-the-year round-up from people speaking their brains. It’s not over yet, but there’s already a lot of thoughtful stuff to read through.
Only a few years ago, I would need a whole team of developers to accomplish what can now be done with just a few amazing tools.
And I like this zinger from Geoff:
What you need to build a great website is restraint.
Sunday, August 4th, 2019
Old technology seldom just goes away. Whiteboards and LED screens join chalk blackboards, but don’t eliminate them. Landline phones get scarce, but not phones. Film cameras become rarities, but not cameras. Typewriters disappear, but not typing. And the technologies that seem to be the most outclassed may come back as a the cult objects of aficionados—the vinyl record, for example. All this is to say that no one can tell us what will be obsolete in fifty years, but probably a lot less will be obsolete than we think.
Monday, May 6th, 2019
A cli-fi short story by Paolo Bacigalupi.
Thursday, February 21st, 2019
Speculative fiction as a tool for change:
We need to think harder about the future and ask: What if our policies, institutions, and societies didn’t have to be organized as they are now? Good science fiction taps us into a rich seam of radical answers to this question.
Sunday, December 9th, 2018
This is the best explanation of quantum computing I’ve read. I mean, it’s not like I can judge its veracity, but I could actually understand it.
Sunday, November 25th, 2018
Given the nature of the long bet I’ve got running, I’m surprised that the Long Now Foundation are publishing on Medium. Wanna bet how long this particular URL will last?
Sunday, August 5th, 2018
From Frederik Pohl’s 1966 novel:
The remote-access computer transponder called the “joymaker” is your most valuable single possession in your new life. If you can imagine a combination of telephone, credit card, alarm clock, pocket bar, reference library, and full-time secretary, you will have sketched some of the functions provided by your joymaker.
Essentially, it is a transponder connecting you with the central computing facilities of the city in which you reside on a shared-time, self-programming basis.
Friday, April 6th, 2018
2001 + 50
The first ten minutes of my talk at An Event Apart Seattle consisted of me geeking about science fiction. There was a point to it …I think. But I must admit it felt quite self-indulgent to ramble to a captive audience about some of my favourite works of speculative fiction.
The meta-narrative I was driving at was around the perils of prediction (and how that’s not really what science fiction is about). This is something that Arthur C. Clarke pointed out repeatedly, most famously in Hazards of Prophecy. Ironically, I used Clarke’s meisterwork of a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick as a rare example of a predictive piece of sci-fi with a good hit rate.
When I introduced 2001: A Space Odyssey in my talk, I mentioned that it was fifty years old (making it even more of a staggering achievement, considering that humans hadn’t even reached the moon at that point). What I didn’t realise at the time was that it was fifty years old to the day. The film was released in American cinemas on April 2nd, 1968; I was giving my talk on April 2nd, 2018.
Over on Wired.com, Stephen Wolfram has written about his own personal relationship with the film. It’s a wide-ranging piece, covering everything from the typography of 2001 (see also: Typeset In The Future) right through to the nature of intelligence and our place in the universe.
When it comes to the technology depicted on-screen, he makes the same point that I was driving at in my talk—that, despite some successful extrapolations, certain real-world advances were not only unpredicted, but perhaps unpredictable. The mobile phone; the collapse of the soviet union …these are real-world events that are conspicuous by their absence in other great works of sci-fi like William Gibson’s brilliant Neuromancer.
But in his Wired piece, Wolfram also points out some acts of prediction that were so accurate that we don’t even notice them.
Also interesting in 2001 is that the Picturephone is a push-button phone, with exactly the same numeric button layout as today (though without the * and # [“octothorp”]). Push-button phones actually already existed in 1968, although they were not yet widely deployed.
To use the Picturephone in 2001, one inserts a credit card. Credit cards had existed for a while even in 1968, though they were not terribly widely used. The idea of automatically reading credit cards (say, using a magnetic stripe) had actually been developed in 1960, but it didn’t become common until the 1980s.
I’ve watched 2001 many, many, many times and I’m always looking out for details of the world-building …but it never occurred to me that push-button numeric keypads or credit cards were examples of predictive extrapolation. As time goes on, more and more of these little touches will become unnoticeable and unremarkable.
On the space shuttle (or, perhaps better, space plane) the cabin looks very much like a modern airplane—which probably isn’t surprising, because things like Boeing 737s already existed in 1968. But in a correct (at least for now) modern touch, the seat backs have TVs—controlled, of course, by a row of buttons.
Now I want to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again. If I’m really lucky, I might get to see a 70mm print in a cinema near me this year.
Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018
Here are Luke’s notes from the talk I just gave at An Event Apart in Seattle.
Friday, March 9th, 2018
I think our destination is neither utopia nor dystopia nor status quo, but protopia. Protopia is a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.
Kevin Kelly’s thoughts at the time of coining of this term seven years ago:
No one wants to move to the future today. We are avoiding it. We don’t have much desire for life one hundred years from now. Many dread it. That makes it hard to take the future seriously. So we don’t take a generational perspective. We’re stuck in the short now. We also adopt the Singularity perspective: that imagining the future in 100 years is technically impossible. So there is no protopia we are reaching for.
Thursday, March 8th, 2018
James is writing a book. It sounds like a barrel of laughs.
In his brilliant new work, leading artist and writer James Bridle offers us a warning against the future in which the contemporary promise of a new technologically assisted Enlightenment may just deliver its opposite: an age of complex uncertainty, predictive algorithms, surveillance, and the hollowing out of empathy.
Thursday, March 1st, 2018
Gene Wolfe: A Science Fiction Legend on the Future-Altering Technologies We Forgot to Invent | The Polymath Project
We humans are not good at imagining the future. The future we see ends up looking a lot like the past with a few things tweaked or added on.
Thursday, January 18th, 2018
The transcript of a talk by Charles Stross on the perils of prediction and the lessons of the past. It echoes Ted Chiang’s observation that runaway AIs are already here, and they’re called corporations.
History gives us the perspective to see what went wrong in the past, and to look for patterns, and check whether those patterns apply to the present and near future. And looking in particular at the history of the past 200-400 years—the age of increasingly rapid change—one glaringly obvious deviation from the norm of the preceding three thousand centuries—is the development of Artificial Intelligence, which happened no earlier than 1553 and no later than 1844.
I’m talking about the very old, very slow AIs we call corporations, of course.