i used to with running a software company. My co-founder is Lebanese, so we built a team in Beirut with an office right by the Levantine Sea. Great software engineers over there, excellent front-end talent. But Lebanon has been going through it. And not just in the normal “caught between factions in a perpetual global crisis zone” way. First, the financial system collapsed (No problemsaid the team), then the pandemic hit hard (we’ll manage), then Beirut was partially destroyed in a harbor explosion (a terrible day, but we’ll get through it). Then we learned that people were powering their houses with DIY solar or diesel generators (don’t mention it) and get internet via mobile hotspots (almost always works fine). We rented spare apartments for people who had problems getting home (not necessary, but thanks) and figured out how to pay people when the banks melted (Appreciate it). On January 6, 2021, they slacked off on the American team: “Your coup is ridiculous.”
All of this gave me a great appreciation for how boring America was. America was so boring for so long that other countries kept their wealth in dollars and oil oligarchs hoarded empty apartments in Manhattan. America was so boring that the tech industry for decades was able to make disturbance its mantra. Young people would find something technology-enabled new; VCs would fill it up with cash and build a marketplace for new buyers and sellers; and established players would hilariously trip over themselves trying to compete. They would fail and we would laugh. Need more progress? Just make more technology. Smartphones, drones, teledildonics, IoT – whatever, let’s blow the world up again.
That type of progress is sure to generate a ton of activity. But it’s also strange when you consider how many lives in the world, historically and currently, including American lives, are extremely disturbed – by poisonous spills or the whims of royalty or the goats that all swell up and die. Disruption is an ethos for the bored, for people who live in reasonable climates and don’t mind the street. But America has recently become far less boring.
I think of the picture of the guy with the horn in the senate chamber. Technologists are on the hook for it. Because the internet begat the web, which begat social, which begat Trump, which begat everything and the Supreme Court, which did not derive Roe, and all I’m saying is that technology can’t be responsible for just one kind of progress and wash its robotic hands of the other. Boundaries do not evaporate into the cloud; they get thicker. Distances become more expensive to cross. Grid wobbles. For several weeks this year, it was difficult to buy pretzels. You can’t just say “software is eating the world” and relax. Software has already eaten the world and digested it and emptied out a new world, and that’s where we live.
I once got furious a customer because during a meeting I promised to build them a “big, boring software platform.” They took me to a fancy bar to yell at me. “We didn’t pay you to be bored!” they said. “We paid you for exciting!” I had to explain how “boring” in technology can be an asset, a way to build for growth, how things that look exciting, like New York City, are built on boring things, like sewage or investment banking. An endlessly booming consumer economy might be fun at the moment – but have you ever seen the floor of the cinema when the lights come up? (I paid for the customer’s drinks, of course.)
Stability is a tough sell, I’ll give you; the yield is far away. No hominid has ever thought, “If I stick this stick into a termite mound, my offspring in 50,000 generations will be paying for five streaming services, including Peacock.” They thought, “I’m tired of chasing these termites everywhere when there’s a veritable termite fountain over there.” And suddenly, right then, they ate the world. Humans are here for a good time, not for a long time.
Fast forward 50,000 monkey generations. Pretty obvious now is where you need to learn to fetishize stability. As I write, the tarmac in London is hot enough to heat up your fish and chips. The solutions to the crisis(es) are excruciatingly long-term and require hundreds of trillions of dollars, with billions of people doing their part. What’s a monkey with a stick to do?
So I’m over progress and done with disruption. Stability is my new best friend. Not the big stuff, the UN level stuff. Leave it to the smart macro thinkers with European accents and interesting all kinds of clothes or the sad Americans with Substacks. What I want to work on, for the rest of my career in the tech industry, hand to God (OK, I’m an atheist and easily distracted, so warning lecturer), is to make nice little tutorials and tools – better sticks for friendlier monkeys . I’m working on my first tutorial now on how to parse NetCDF files full of climate data using the Python programming language to store the data in a SQL database and integrate it into a traditional web workflow. That’s my DevOps! Who knows, maybe one day someone will open a school of stability. Everyone wants to drive it and no one wants to wash the floors.
This article appears in the September 2022 issue. sign up now.