Dignity in Tech

In my senior year of high school I taught myself HTML. That was right after HTML4 came out, and it made more complicated web designs possible. I had to lay out images using tables, but I could still do it. I was learning Pascal in school and took to coding like a dog to a freshly mowed lawn.

I built sites for some small businesses in my neighborhood to earn enough to pay for a plane ticket, so I could travel in the summer, before starting a 5-year conscript military service program in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Years later, I was a senior in college studying philosophy. My wife was a journalist and joined together with a colleague of hers to start an environmental news blog. I volunteered to take care of the tech, since I had done this in high school… sorta. WordPress was the platform they had chosen.

The first time I went to make a change to the theme I broke the site. I quickly ctrl-z’ed and resaved. Thankfully the site was restored. Then I looked at the theme code, saw the loops and variables, and felt right at home. It was just like the Pascal I had learned back in high school.

I built a website for my father-in-law’s business. Once I had a live example, I could find more clients. Suddenly I was scraping together a living. There was a point when I had to go to the bank to beg for an extra few days on a payment because one of those clients was taking their time to pay me. But I still had the money coming in. That was powerful.

One of my clients was a startup and they asked to hire me full-time. From that point on I was able to get jobs at other companies. The first full-time gig is the hardest to land, even if you have the chops.

Jaron Lanier talks about two possible futures (the conversation starts at 43:29). One is a future built on top of our present paradigm in tech, and then there’s another.

He describes that in his neighborhood there are tree cutters who work together to ensure that if there’s a fire, the trees from one property wouldn’t burn down the rest of the neighborhood.

He goes on to say: Imagine if one day a truck pulls up with fun playful colors, and cameras, to observe the tree cutters. A couple years later a robot comes to market that cuts trees and ensures the same innovative processes that prevents wildfires from decimating the neighborhood.

The outcome would be that these tree cutters, who came up with the innovation, would be out of a job. Perhaps, Lanier muses, they’d be taken care of by UBI, but he goes on to explain that throughout history when such systems were put in place they were quickly taken over by only a few people and abused. Additionally, even if the tree cutters were actually taken care of, they would have lost the dignity of being able to support themselves.

Another possible future, he describes, is where that same robot company is formed and also builds a robot guided by AI that can cut trees. But it does so with the help of the tree cutters, and pays them for their expertise. Not only that, but they create a platform where those tree cutters can develop other innovative techniques and sell them to the market of people who buy those robots.

Same tech robot startup, also using algorithms, but a very different future. One future puts people out of a job, and one future creates a bigger pie, a platform that spawns an industry where people can support themselves through creative ideas, their own innovations. Maybe those tree cutters’ next innovation is beautiful tree arrangements, or maybe they tackle climate change.

There is so much creativity in tech and there’s a lot of opportunity for disruption.

The steam engine was the first time we were able to separate muscle power from muscles. The invention of written language let us separate knowledge from memory. And computers have let us separate computation from our brains.

With all this leverage so much can be done. But it’s important for us to think about how we disrupt.

We can invest in replicating the wisdom of experience, and replacing it. Or we can harness that wisdom by empowering those with the wisdom, and create opportunities for further development of that wisdom, at scale.

I have a successful career thanks to WordPress. They built a platform that others can build upon. People support themselves by building websites, themes and plugins for people who run websites. Entire companies are built around hosting these sites. Much of the sites hosted on WordPress are companies themselves, who can afford to have a professional site at a fraction of the cost of having a web team to maintain a custom CMS.

WordPress, as a very successful company, makes money by doing all these things too: hosting, security, apps, themes. There’s room for everyone because they created a platform for innovation, not a limited pie.

Now I work at Shopify. I’m very proud to work here. They have a reputation for excellence, and I’m proud to have reached where I have — an entrepreneur and self-taught engineer — that a company of such a caliber wanted me.

But I’m even more proud of what Shopify does. They’ve created a platform for people to build livelihoods on top of. They’re expanding the pie.

Their core mission is to make commerce better for everyone. Anyone who has an idea can sign up and have most of the hard things around running a business taken care of. Shopify has millions of merchants building businesses on its platform.

They have also built a platform/marketplace, like WordPress’, for themes and apps. Anyone running a business will need a great looking site, and specialized functionality in that site. People, like younger me, can build their career on top of that. All you need is an idea that makes running a business better, and you don’t even have to compete with Shopify. They provide the ability to sell your idea directly to the people who will benefit.

They’re expanding that pie, like the robot company who partnered with the tree cutters. I’m proud to be a part of that.

Image: Mt. Mauna Kea Summit Observatories