One day he went to a customer's site to train them on the new version of our software, and met with one of the bookkeepers of the company. He showed her a report that we recently added a column to as part of a feature request from our clients, and she started crying. He was asking her what was wrong, worried that we did something terrible. She replied: "You just saved me 3 hours a day. Now I can go home when my kids are home from school instead of after supper".
Just because we're not saving babies doesn't mean we're not making people's lives better.
I work in ed-tech and while a school contract is no where near the size of a business contract, we regularly hear from school administrators how much of their day they get back.
The ugly part of this is that we rarely know whether we're saving time or cutting jobs (and depriving people of income). Between our low level of access to the relevant information, and the execrable leadership the world currently has, we can rarely know that.
When the world has good leadership, technological progress (even small victories) save time and create wealth. When it has bad leadership, it ends jobs (that are never replaced) and helps the working world shut itself down.
Those two things are basically the same.
In a shop with only one accountant, you're saving her three hours a day.
In a shop with 100 accountants, 30 of them just lost their jobs.
The trouble with our work is not that we don't know whether or not it's doing good or bad, it's that it's almost always doing both at the same time. Determining whether the good outweighs the bad is both subjective, highly fraught with egotism, and treads uncomfortably close to rationalization and playing god.
Who tests the software? You need accountants.
You're right, though. That's the fundamental problem. I can always get on board with automating (and thus "killing") undesirable work. I can't get on board with depriving regular people (below $100,000 per year) of an income if I can help it. I am aware that society needs to cut jobs and that that's a really good thing; I just wish it would train up before trading up.
It depends what you mean by "jobs". If you mean it in the headcount sense, then yes, that's bad. Good leadership should inform its employees of how technology is impacting its operations. That way employees have an opportunity to prepare and to find new ways of adding value, so they don't have to leave once their old role becomes obsolete.
But if you mean "jobs" in the "having a person do this specific action" sense, then I couldn't disagree more. Progress isn't made unless jobs (in that sense) are cut. The human mind has such amazing potential and we shouldn't waste it doing things that can be easily automated.
We think all the time about how to automate things, but rarely or never about how to make places for other people at the feast. When it comes to distribution of surpluses, we get all vague about "progress." Why are we are so specific and concrete and active on one side, and so vague on the other?
When something is automated, we are not allocating the excess production to letting people spend time with their kids (or whatever those people want to do with it). We are cutting positions, hiring temps without benefits, hiring cheaper contractors from elsewhere... and keeping the change.
Because the little people are not defined as really part of the company, but as supplies and tools for the company's operations. From interview to layoff, they are at best a necessary evil, held at arms' length. The only people who are really part of the company are the powerful ones, who allocate the increases to themselves because they had the vision and the capital and they are the only ones who deserve it. And assuming a just world, those who are excluded and may have trouble finding new jobs deserve what they're getting as well.
Good leadership is leadership of humans, and incorporates concern for the humans being led. Just having lots of capital and using it in any way that gives you profit is not leadership, it is merely ownership.
It's not bad to be wealthy, nor is it bad to grow the pie. The problem is that interests are so profoundly misaligned that "progress" means allocating a higher and higher proportion of all surpluses to a ruthless subset of the wealthy. If we wanted more progress, we'd work on aligning interests better.
The problem is that the two effects go hand in hand.
This Disney song should give you better feeling of yourself after reading this dark and depressing blog post. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whDr4MJbIhs :-D
Almost any job you can think of is as critical or pointless as you make it.
Water, sanitation and hygiene has the potential to prevent at least 9.1% of the global disease burden and 6.3% of all deaths.
And that's today. I can't even figure what that number would be when poo-tainted sludge was the default drinking water worldwide.
I assume you mean vaccinations when you say immunology. Vaccines make life better, but the impact is pretty small -- look at the outcomes for the diseases we vaccinate against. Take polio for example. Even if you do manage to contract polio, 90-95% of cases are asymptomatic and a further 4-8% are minor.
What's the biggest way people got polio? Fecal transmission in water/food, which brings us back full circle to clean water.
Of course, this disease was contained by vaccines. And immunology is definitely more broad than mere vaccines. In fact the modern immunology plays a quite central role in today's research of physiology, virology, microbiology and pathology.
Back in 2003, when SARS broke out in Beijing, the streets were emptied. Nobody wanted to meet each other, nobody dared. If immunology had not existed, such scenario might not be just one incidence, but incidence after incidence.
This has something to do with Steve Jobs connecting dots, with Gandhi being a lawyer before being Mahatma, with Muhammad Yunus being a humble professor of Economics in his native country before a Nobel laureate (Peace Nobel prize, not Economics).
I just quit my job on a non-profit startup, after 8 years in the field, and now I am a founder of a regular, for-profit startup. This is not my final carreer path, this is teaching me a lot about disrupting things. I mean, A LOT. The paradigm shift emerging through startups is very powerful.
On a final note, all this "I want to change the world" mantra that I often listen applied to tech startups is, 99% of the times, BS. Facebook indeed changed the world. For better? Not necessarily. Twitter did? Not in my opinion. "But what about the Arab Spring??". Listen, people, empowered by technology change the world. So you may say that technology change the world. Not brands. SMS technology is changing the world in many ways all over Africa, internet changed the world, not Twitte, or Facebook. Some startups disrupted some technology use so strongly, that they became monopolists in their use. But still, don't confuse technology and brands.
Do most people agonize over the supposed "importance" of what they do? Do they feel so insecure when comparing what they do to what others do? Do they feel that what they do really is going to change the world or matter in some spiritual context?
I don't really worry about it. I figure that if I'm content doing what I do, with my work-life balance, with the money I make... then why worry about it. Whenever little thoughts or concerns of self-importance come to mind, I always think of Ozymandias.
So then we imagine what the best life could be. We don't even have to try hard to imagine the best life - examples of people who had a better life are constantly made apparent. Whether a life more noble, more enriched, more fun, more profound, or any other adjective, it doesn't matter because we see them all.
Then we see that elements of our life are not notable and we regret that others may have done something better than ourselves. And then we feel guilty, sad, upset, or angry that our ONE CHANCE, our life, isn't what it ought to be in order to be the best.
So, we trudge on making the best moves we know how. Its sometimes a bit of relief to see articles like this which, for a few minutes, give a sense of relief that maybe we don't have to cram every ounce of our lives with greatness... I don't buy it though.
This is my one chance, and I'll be damned if I waste my most functional hours of the day on something that doesn't matter.
That's the thing. Your one chance for what?
I'll be damned if I waste my most functional hours of the day on something that doesn't matter.
Do you have some notion of an afterlife where that even matters?
Really, I'm not that nihilistic in the way I live my life, but intellectually I don't really fight it.
MLK's legacy makes people's lives better, today, every day. Lincoln's legacy does the same. Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, etc. Ansel Adams, John Lennon. All these people are gone, but the version of light that they each brought to the world touches new lives -- people that are living -- every single day.
And then the people who are living get inspired and do the same, on and on forever.
If you can have an impact on the living not only while you are living but while you're dead, that's quite the accomplishment.
I think it's healthy to explore these thoughts, as long as it doesn't consume you. The trouble with a blog post is that you necessarily come off as heavily invested in the topic you're writing about, but it is also possible that he just wanted to be provocative and spark a discussion. It didn't seem as negative to me as some comments have indicated.
Sensibility is always a good thing.. with more people like him we wouldnt have experienced the arise of the nazis or the koch brothers destroing everything around because they are the "only ones who matter", "the elite"
is subtle, it may look small.. but the attitude of always think about the results of your own actions (in the moral aspect, not just in the results for himself) is one of the things the western civilization are in deep need..
Do we only act like vampires of resources and the earth, or we contribute a little back? do we worry?
The only way I can change the world for the better is to earn a huge amount of money and then spend it on other people that actually can do one of the above. Like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet. So even if my career pursuits are totally focused on money, that's not a bad thing!
>Like a world interdisciplinary project to cure cancer.
I'm pretty sure there is an interdisciplinary, international effort to cure cancer, which is really easy to miss because other world projects that spend more of their money marketing themselves. Lots of things starting with UN. I honestly wouldn't want to see cancer research turn into the ineffectual behemoth some of those peace keeping missions by the UN are.
>But in capitalism it's more important to work on SEO and sell stuff to people
And in Communism it's more important to do pep rallys and posters to sell Communism to people. Whosh, expect economics to be some strategy game where you assign some people to cancer, and it gets solved faster, and you take those people from SEO, and you have a little "You won!" screen in the end? Ok, here's what'd happen. All those SEO people would likely just end up eating up research budgets, because they know SEO, but no biomolecular chemistry. Still, you assigned them, so you got to pay them, or at least throw them some bread so that they don't die. The impact on cancer research would likely be the same to the impact on Hacker News if we got a sudden, forced influx of carpenters, or cooks, or whatever. "RSS was some kind of drill right?" "Nah, that's HSS".
Everytime I hear a grand project with a noble goal announced, I cringe. Because whatever it is, politics will screw it up, and noble goals are perfect excuses in front of the public (democratization of the middle east...yeah, right). And it will likely jeopardize other, more effective initiatives in the field where the metric is improvement, not good will(exp. Europe pouring money into Africa to feed (warlords/)the starving vs China investing in infrastructure and stability ("evil ressource grab, why haven't I thought of that"))
I work for eBay Inc., so my job is to be a cog in a bigger picture like you said. That bigger picture is game-changing commerce. I don't know the numbers, but some large amount of people have found a way to make a full-time living selling on eBay, or Magento, or some other platform using PayPal to take payments. They feed their families by selling stuff in our marketplaces. On the buyer's side, we help people get what they want for the best price. That makes people's lives better, too.
Maybe it's just rationalization. :) But I do think that many capitalist companies create a net positive for the world.
I'm all for self-deprecation, but that's just insulting to people who use computers for good.
I really beg to differ.
Just think of all the places in the global infrastructure that require software to work: financial trading, military, flight control, all modern business accounting and financial reporting, medical systems, etc.
Here's a link to a mirror/cache of it:
So whether I am a graphic designer, charity worker, investment banker, even a saint, if I can continue to be happy and do the stuff I said above, then I couldn't care less if the job was 'pointless' or not. Who is to judge? It's worth something to me!
Disclaimer: I work at a bank as a developer. Perhaps not the 'coolest' job out there, but if it means I can go home and be happy, then I consider myself a success. Don't get me wrong, if anyone asks wouldn't you want to be a millionaire, of course I would, but sacrificing my happiness? It'll require more thought.
Final thought: maybe I'm only 27 and I haven't hit the mid life part yet. I am keeping an open mind as to how my thoughts will change...
You want to save the world? Start with being a good parent.
Speak for yourself. I work because I enjoy both making things and the act of working.
1) I could die tomorrow and 2) Habits form, and if I plan on giving services/time/money at a latter point in my life, I might as well start now and get used to it (even if the amount is small).
http://80000hours.org/career-advice has a lot of good information along these lines.
Ok, maybe it's to better society. Define better (Well, uhmm...better, you know?") and define society (Uhmm...the country? Ohh wait, the world? Maybe those kids in africa?). You kinda see where I'm going with "this is way vague for a life purpose"?
Ok, let's take the impact example. Which impact? Do you want to be remembered? Just remembered, or positively remembered? Or do you want to make a lasting change on the face of earth? How long should it last? How visible should it be? Or do you want to change somebody? How do you want to change them? What will you do to change them?
The gist is definition.
A lot of "career planning" is an improperly defined goal for an even larger time period than the usual resolutions we make. Stop smoking, lose weight, work out more. How often do you keep your new years resolutions? Proably not that often. So why are you entrusting your life purpose to the same kind of expectation making that you do for your new years resolution, to some goal with quicksand consistency?
You know the feeling you get in mid february that you didn't keep up with your resolutions, right? You feel guilty because you've wasted another year and still haven't gotten these things done. Lack of willpower, right?
Ok, imagine you're 35, look at your life resolution, realize that you haven't lost weight nor changed the world, and you feel guilty. Really guilty. Because your former me is ashamed of what you've done. And it's not just a new years resolution, it's your life goal you haven't gotten done.
Ok, fair enough. Figure out what exactly you are trying to do till when, preferably with why you want to do these things. Name - date - reason. You can't worry about the pointlessness of something if you got the point on a paper in front of you, 12pt Times New Roman. Then factor that into object(ive)s and method(ology)s, so you can whip up the source of your life one task after another. You'll get there.
Did I read that right? Are you really using 35 as an arbitrary number meaning "some distant point in the future"?
You can look at people at the bottom as in desperate need of help, or a buffer in case of crop failure. Now think about it for a second which idea makes you feel better?
PS: I am not saying this is a good thing, but it's a thing that's worth considering.
I think we're getting into value systems right now. Feeling better. Happiness, right? Exitement. Tranquility. Lack of Guilt. Joy. From AI i've learned that actors work optimally when they optimize a key metric. That metric has to be defined properly (So what makes this robot morose?), and there has to be a heuristic for estimating the changes to that metric given an action. I think we work very similarily. Your value system, whether you value joy, prestige or altruism is the optimization metric. Your emotional apparatus (it matches input to output) is the quick, over the thumb heuristic you use.
I for example am optimizing for Happiness. Creating things makes me happy. Solving tacky problems makes me happy. Helping other people makes me happy (If they choose to let me help them, and if they are thankful towards me afterwards). Learning useful things makes me happy.
It's quite likely that some of these things will benefit others greatly, but that's a side effect, not the moral justification of my actions. I honestly don't feel bad about that kind of motivation, because it makes sense.
People losing jobs are a consequence of an economic decision, not because of technological advancement. Knowledge is still power.
TL;DR - We change the world for the better in so many ways that we don't even realize. Don't sell ourselves short.
Most of our jobs are based on conflict. Hedge fund traders are trying to outsmart other hedge funds in a winner-take-all market. In VC-istan, it's all about ad dollars (hence, I call it "ad-banking"). Most of the great technologies we use (e.g. the Internet) were funded by military projects: people wanting to out-innovate and out-technologize the Russians. It'd be better if we could do great things without all the negative side effects of conflict, but human organizations are lethargic and no elite has been immune to the temptation of parasitism.
The pointlessness we perceive in our jobs comes from the fact that most of what we do isn't about civilization's advancement, but about helping one party compete against the other. Web development is mostly about making one business more attractive than the other guys, which has a zero-sum, arms-race feel to it. All of this conflict leads to multiplicity of efforts, left-against-right work, and weird indirections that sap our efficiency. It seems like this renders 95% of what we do pointless.
The problem is that, in reality, without the business conflicts that waste 95% of our work, most of us wouldn't have jobs or money at all, so the wastage would be 100%. The only thing that will allow transfer of wealth out of an elite and into new talent is some kind of severe conflict within that elite. The ideal of capitalism (until a parasitic, socially-connected corporate elite hijacks it and subverts whatever mechanisms it uses to force competition) is that business elites in competition with each other will always perform better than single monopolistic powers.
This is also why VC-istan sucks Hitler's necrotic scrotum. VCs collude and decide, as a group, who's hot and who's not. They don't compete with each other. They'd rather get invited to each others' parties and in on each others' deals. The lack of competition within that elite leads to downright awful terms for the people actually doing the fucking work.
By all accounts, Spanish and Italian monarchs were behind the push for exploration, this occurring before the reformation. They wanted trade, and it didn't take a religious schism to provoke that. Rather, this happened in the thirteenth century when the Arabs lost their stranglehold of the Silk Road, and the Mongols opened it up (hence Marco Polo's travels).
Advances in naval technology made the travels of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries possible. These trips were simply not feasible beforehand, it was not a matter of some nebulous cabal of "elites" suppressing the merchants and scientists.
I find your interpretation of this history revisionist, framed to support your "VC-istan" thesis, which probably doesn't need historical evidence from the renaissance. You'll find plenty of suitable fodder in the past fifty years.
You've misread michaelochurch's comment. He wasn't asserting the Reformation came before the Renaissance. His point was that the states newly energized by the Reformation became very active in exploration and trade and ultimately created the economic and political institutions that define the modern world. And, while he is correct about England (which, despite insularity, was never a great naval power before it began being ruled by Protestants), his best example would have been the Northern Netherlands, which featured: the first modern republic, religious toleration, the first stock exchange, extensive civil engineering, the revival of drill-based military techniques etc. Unlike earlier mercantile republics (say, Venice), the Dutch model also found ready imitators in many of its aspects (Sweden in its golden age, England especially after 1688, the North American colonies) and developed directly into the capitalist / parliamentarian society that many of us live in today.
The best way to create social mobility for smart people is
to create a massive, irreparable cleavage in the elite. In
1540, it was the Protestant Reformation, leading to
exploration and trade and new theories about politics,
culminating in rational government and modern capitalism.
The points you make are sound and accurate, and had they been his, I would have had no reason to criticize.
Did society need the Protestant Reformation, at that specific point in time, to get those advances? Possibly not. Did we need a Cold War with the Soviet Union, rather than some other kind of conflict, to get the Internet? Again, no.
It's not specific conflicts that humanity has needed to advance, insofar as history could have played out in a million of other different ways. However, it has been the case throughout most of humanity's history that social health (rather than slow degeneracy due to a parasitic elite) requires some kind of intractable enmity to exist within the elite.
Whether the reader finds this change positive or negative ... reflects their views on the merits of nationalism, and ultimately globalism.
Further in the absence of Arab advances, we can't tell what the would would have looked like. It certainly wouldn't look like our current world, but there are a ton of possible worlds out there. You can't predict alternative histories retrospectively with any certainty.
Nassim Taleb expounds on this in his latest book "Antifragile". He points out that while Adam Smith certainly drew inspiration from Arab philosophers (Al Ghazali in particular), we can't say how the world would look today without that particular intersection having happened.
By the Enlightenment, the great ideas were coming from all over-- American Indian civilizations, pirate ship organizations, the Arab world, and (later) the East. The (mostly American?) idea that the bulk of progress came from a bunch of bigoted Puritans is pure credit-taking. They played a role, but a small one compared to Parisian salons.
In fact, the Pilgrims had the opportunity to "live in religious freedom" in the Netherlands and left because it was too liberal.
The standing elites, initially, bought into mercantilism and wanted to steal resources: especially gold, silver, and people (slaves). They had no interest in building new societies or challenging old ways of doing things. There's a lot of bad to be said about the Puritan Pilgrims, but they did have that ambition, leading to a pattern culminating in experimentation with rational government. (Pirates and the American Indian federations also provided some inspiration.)
The Reformation provided an incentive for more nations-- poorer, Protestant ones far from the Mediterranean-- to get involved in (costly, dangerous) exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries. Being unable to compete with the existing powers (especially Spain) directly, they often got into industries (e.g. cotton) that had less short-term yield but more durability.
Sea trade itself wasn't that interesting, or even new. Sailing was millennia old already. It was the desire for social and economic experimentation that made that era interesting.
This isn't to white-wash that time or say that the experimentation mentality was purely virtuous. There was an incredible amount of ugliness involved (genocide, religious persecution, slavery) in the process. I do think, however, that there was a much faster rate of overall, eventual progress on account of the competition between two halves of the European elite.
I have studied Virginia history at length, and the first colonists to Virginia were interested in very little apart from establishing a base so as to extract precious metals from the continent. Only when this proved impossible, and poor Englishmen realized how much opportunity the New World offered, did goals begin to change.
I omit discussion of the Pilgrims because your original thesis was specifically about elites, claiming that their competition (specifically, when strongly divided) spurred innovation more than anything else, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a time in history where an oppressed people were not fleeing. It's an error to say that this was a novelty of the Protestant Reformation.
Sea trade was in itself interesting. Yes, Europeans had been sailing for some time, but apart from the Vikings, nobody had sailed across great expanses the way the Europeans did in the age of discovery. Improvements in navigation and cartography enabled the new travels.
In any case, what you seemed to interpret as a cage match between European rulers, divided by religion, was actually the rise of nationalism. As power was consolidated so as to combat the Arabs in Europe, which along with the Crusades broke the stranglehold the Arabs had on trade, the Europeans could dream of greater endeavors.
The defeat of the Armada was more than a hundred years into the so-called "Age of Exploration". Northern Europe started from behind, but caught up and eventually surpassed the South, at least from a North American vantage point.
Further, the British were every bit as interested in raping the Americas for gold as the Spaniards and Italians ...
Sure. There's a tendency (especially in the U.S.) to simplify and say that the Northern Europeans wanted "to settle and live in religious harmony" (hogwash) and that the Southern European explorers wanted to loot. It's a lot more complicated than that, as you know. Assessing virtue to one side or the other is ridiculous.
It's impossible to know for sure, but I think that religious leaders on both sides of the divide (not that "Protestants" were a united group) wanted to validate themselves. The Catholic Church, fearing a loss of power in Europe, sent people overseas to expand and validate Catholicism. This might have made people behave better on a social or economic justice front (religious charity). It might have made them worse (aggressive conquest and cultural genocide). It's hard to tell. From a modern vantage point, it was all very ugly, but most of history is that way.
I tend to think, however, that the Reformation started (or, at least, accelerated) conversations about comparative society, religion, and government.
The only argument that will find any support in the sources is that enlightenment-era political and philosophical thought was in some way made possible by a split in the Church. But Descartes and others were highly influential and have little relationship with this. Religious schism had little to no bearing on the sudden development of trade and exploration in the renaissance, both of which opened the New World. And if there was a watershed moment that enabled what would follow, it was clearly the discovery of the Americas, not what Luther had to say.
I don't know who you think you are fooling by typing walls of text that subtly, and later overtly, alter your original thesis. I often see these long threads end with "oh, we really agree!" and ASCII smiley faces. Abusing history to support some jaded idea you have about the startup scene earns no sympathy from me.
The spanish fight against the moslems was certainly immediately temporally connected. That fact is definitely relevant. But the most important part of the argument is not that the struggle between elites were of religious origin, but that there was an intense struggle between elites. In fact Columbus' travels were probably supported by Isabel of Spain exactly because Spain had made an agreement with Portugal of not sailing in the southern atlantic waters.
The discovery of the Americas did likely not have a great impact before much later. I don't know if Luther's exact words ever were very important. I don't think so. But the excuse they gave many small kings to separate from the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic church and to go on crusades inside of Europe certainly put fuel to the fire of european history. The thirty year war had much greater impact on european philosophy in the 17th century than America did.
Of course, something other than religious reformation could have had a similarly elite-divisive effect.
My real point has nothing to do with the Reformation per se, so much as the overarching truth that competition within an elite leads to progress and social mobility, while in-elite collaboration is stagnant and toxic.
It takes an intractable cleavage in the elite to get real competition and a chance at progress.