20 Sep 2016

Free Will, Techno-Determinism, and Panache 

Magnum Opus.
From a series of talks given at various colleges during Fin's World Tour 2016.

Pretty much every Silicon Valley tech company you hear from is going to sell you this idea of ‘impact.’

The narrative is essentially that your work should be a source of meaning in your life because the ratio of number of users of your service to employees at your company is a very large multiple.

This is actually just leverage, a basic property of all technology.

You can see the myth of impact in the form of technological leverage break down whenever you hear someone talk about why they left a large company. Generally, they’ll say something like, “it was cool to have a huge user base, but I felt like nothing would change and everything would just keep working if I left.” This is the cog-in-the-machine feeling of alienation which accompanies pretty much all industrialization.

So what are you supposed to do to find meaning? Work on crazy art projects that are totally novel but that no one other than you cares about?

I think there’s a middle ground, which I’ll elucidate with some reflections on Venmo.

Would there eventually be a more efficient / easier to use app that allowed you to send money to other people using your phone? Yes, I think this was inevitable.

Was it inevitable that there would be a payments app that required you to add a note to every payment telling the story behind it, which allowed you to publish these stories and share them with your friends? Was it inevitable that people would cite seeing what friends were doing last night as their favorite part of this payments service? Probably not.

The techno-determinist payment service you would expect is something like Square cash - antiseptic, efficient, very useful, but completely lacking in any style other than Apple design aesthetics, not at all surprising or fun.

So, if you find leverage meaningful, work at a utility or infrastructure company. But if you’re seeking something more, even if you are working on something useful and not just a crazy art project, ask yourself what you can do that is not necessary, but makes the thing better. How can you make it delightful, or surprising, or playful?

Thoughts? Email me: andrew.kortina@gmail.com

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