Technology, You’ve Changed: For years, the conversations we’ve had about tech have focused on the negative. We’ve all heard about how tech giants have infiltrated our politics and our privacy, we’ve ridiculed the power-hungry people behind the platforms we love, but that’s not the technology industry Paul and Rich fell in love with. On today’s episode, we look at where we’re at right now, we ask ourselves if tech giants want to be ethical, and we try to defend an incredibly difficult and powerful industry. We also hear Paul’s top-three favourite tech things!
Rich Ziade Give me—give me . . . three things you love.
Paul Ford Ooh! This is good. It’s gonna be really nerdy [music fades in, plays alone for 17 seconds, ramps down]. So, Rich?
PF A couple of months ago.
PF I was a little distracted.
PF And there was a reason.
RZ I knew something was going on!
PF I have to make a confession to you.
RZ What’s that?
PF I’ve been writing a cover article for Wired about why I still love technology [music fades out].
RZ Here we go again!!
PF I’m so sorry [chuckles]. I shoulda [Rich chuckles] told you before the article came out today.
PF But I like to lie and keep secrets from people. No, I mean pe—Rich watched me write this thing.
RZ I did watch you write this thing. I actually did know you were going to write this, Paul. And I thought, “Cool! This is going to be funny.”
PF Mm hmm! “Oh what a huge PR hit for Postlight.”
RZ Yeah, I was like, “This is gonna be a blast!”
PF “Ah! Someone’s gonna talk about like Atari 2600 and—”
RZ Right. And it wasn’t funny. You’ve got everybody telling you nobody—you’re not interacting with your kids anymore cuz you’re starin’ at your phone and don’t bring it to bed! Don’t bring your phone to bed. Stop staring at screens; kids’ brains are turning into mush. And then you’ve got privacy and Google is, you know, staring at me through my toilet at this point [mm hmm]. And then the big stuff, right? You’ve got [sighs] the elections. You know and the place Facebook finds itself now in terms of misinformation and hacking and—
PF Its reaction to the problems. The fact that there are these very, very serious problems in our industry [right] and people keep going, “Well, now, hold on—”
PF And then you got a kind of alt right thing going on and you’ve got the leaders in tech, some of whom are—are aligned with that kind of thinking.
RZ It’s been a pretty tough run.
PF It just feels like this industry is not on the side of people . . . in the way that it used to be. It used to be, you know, you had Steve Jobs running around saying, [yes] “We’re gonna give you a bicycle for the mind.”
RZ Even—even the stuff that is just, I mean, straight up commercial success. I mean, Am—I have a friend who refuses to buy anything from Amazon [right]. Ever.
PF Yeah, I have one of those too.
RZ Because— because she refuses to—to contribute to this thing that is just swallowing the mom and pops whole. So when I heard you were gonna write this article, I’m like, “Great, this is gonna a blast.” Cuz there’s so much good stuff. You and I are about the same age; we’re nostalgic. It’s just gonna be funny, and really just a joy.
PF Ah, I wish.
RZ And it really wasn’t.
PF No. Look: when you—so I get asked, they say, “Paul, write a defense of technology.” And my initial—I thought about for about a day and I went, “This is just gonna end up being like St. Augustine’s Confessions. Like there is no—” Cuz you just can’t walk out anymore, everyone has heard through every marketing message for 25 years . . . that it is a world of wonders, and everyone in the tech industry is here to give them happiness and success, and they have total power over information in their own lives, in the palm of their hands in the form of their phones, and they should be happy. And people are looking around and going, “I’m not happy. This is not what I was counting on. It’s not what you told me you’d get me.”
RZ Mm hmm.
PF And, you know, when you think about it, I always joke that [chuckles] in the old days you’d see an ad and it would be like, “In the future, you can fax from the beach.” You know [yeah] it was just this—but there was this—that future-looking—
RZ Convenience! Convenience was like: you’re gonna be smarter, you’re not gonna have to work as hard.
PF Look, here’s the tricky thing: technology bills itself as the solution for all the problems ever . . . And it turns out that human beings remain the source of a tremendous number of their own problems, collectively. You can’t solve it with, “Everybody doesn’t get thin because there’s a calorie counting app.” And everything doesn’t get better because we are—you have nest thermometers.
RZ No, it really doesn’t.
PF People are just still people and, in fact, it started to go the other direction which just flat out, I think the listeners are—of this podcast will understand what I’m saying. You get Russian meddling on Facebook and you end up with Donald Trump as president. Like that didn’t feel, for most people listening, like a step forward [Rich laughs]. It felt like a tremendous step backwards.
RZ I mean, it is!
PF It is. Yeah. We’ve made—and technology has enabled us to regress as a society. And so there was no way to write the article without actually taking that into account and taking my own complicity and all those into account because at a certain level, you know, when I’m running Postlight with you and marketing the company. I talk about Postlight. I talk about the things we do. And we do good work. I’m proud of it. Our clients are across the ideological spectrum, and I welcome that. I like that. I like that we touch all of capitalism including parts that I wouldn’t necessarily find myself, by my own choice.
PF Bring it on. Let’s see how it works. I wanna understand. I wanna go up close and I wanna build software. And I wanna see how the world works. That is my company and I’m proud of it. But me, it’s a different relationship. I gotta think those things through on a day to day basis.
RZ It’s a wonderful piece, by the way, if you haven’t read it, you should go read it. Is it online, even though Wired is going to ask you about 600 times whether you wanna pay them or not . . . for their magazine and their content.
PF One of the most amazing things about being a writer over the last ten years is [yeah] people yell at you about the CMSs that [Rich laughs] power—
RZ I’m fine with the CMS, man! It’s just the bar, like, to like, “Hey, do you wanna subscribe to Wired?” Is getting thicker and thicker [no, I know] and there’s like I can see four lines of text up above [chuckles].
PF It’s like when you’re wearing goggles. You wear goggles, you see the article and everything else is—is, “Maybe you should subscribe?” “You have one of four articles. That’s it.”
RZ [Laughins] I love “one of four articles”!
PF When you get to three of four, you start to feel it.
RZ Anyway, it’s a wonderful piece.
PF Thank you!
RZ It really is.
PF That is kind.
RZ And I guess, you know, it—it left me a little sad . . . by the end of it.
PF It was tricky because I—I didn’t wanna be melancholy but then realized—
RZ I don’t wanna spoil it for people, but—
PF I mean there’s nothing to spoil. It’s an essay and if you’ve read anything by me, it’s—it’s the thing that I do when I write and I—
PF I’m exploring, in the piece, both what I really do love about technology and I kind of, now that we’re on Track Changes, I wanna talk about a few things that I—I still love that are probably a little too granular and nerdy to put in the piece and—but it’s about the consequences of being in this industry and—and thinking really hard and wanting to be ethical but also wan—having some hustle and wanting to make a—make a good living, and just sort of how all of that fits together. And how that fits together in a kinda weird era in our industry. And I think—
RZ There’s a little bit of disappointment.
PF Well, you know—
RZ You’re disappointed in—in the dream, right? Like you thought it was gonna be—and it turns out there’s a shit ton of work to do.
PF Well, here’s the thing—it’s not . . . [Exhales] It’s not exactly disappointment. What I’m seeing is that tech used to see itself as aside from the rest of our society. And being in tech meant something a little different from being, you know, you used to be a lawyer, and going into tech was a kind of . . . a jump into the future, away from the legal industry.
RZ Not just away from the legal industry but to this almost pure place.
PF That’s right: I’m gonna just work with machines and abstractions and like—
RZ And I wanna do good—cool things and good things and I—the idea of using these things, or these things causing bad things to happen was unheard of to me. I mean there was bad code but that’s—that’s a bug, right?
PF Unless you were in a very specific part of the field, you just didn’t have that power.
RZ Yeah, and it just—it was unfathomable, honestly. It was like, “I’m gonna draw with this. I’m gonna render a ball with it, and I’m going—”
PF You had a relationship with the computer. It wasn’t about your servers serving hundreds of millions of people.
PF And getting information from them and doing things with them. So it’s this very personal thing. And there’s not—
RZ But even when I went into like—my fir—like when I finally figured out SQL [pronounces it ‘sequel’] and starting to code in a very kind of kludgy way, I wanted to make a music streaming app. Like I didn’t—I didn’t want to do anything beyond that. It was not my personal computer still. I think for most people, they view it as an aspirational place [mm hmm], that’s a positive place.
PF And it’s small. It’s small. Like—
RZ And it was small.
PF Like I’m sure if you walk down the street in Beirut, there’s a good chance you’re gonna like see somebody you know.
PF Because it’s a small country. You’re from Lebanon [yes]. You don’t live there day to day but you’re there a lot [yes]. Like that was the web. There was an incred—and that was tech—and, you know, throughout most of my twenties and thirties is it just—it felt like I kept running into people on the street.
RZ You—you were!
PF You were. And now it’s the whole world, and instead of being this separate thing where you—where you say, “I’m gonna leave this boring industry aside and I’m gonna jump forward and I’m gonna change the world,” it’s become another one of the giant sort of substrates that run everything.
RZ Like oil.
PF Like oil or like water, electricity. [Ok] And I’m not just saying like internet service, just technology and software enablement is—it’s, I mean, to bring it back, like legal services or medical. Like it’s this sort of hi—
RZ Is this bad?
PF It’s not. It is just—
RZ Bad things come with that kind of power, is that what you’re saying?
PF It’s just scale. That’s all. Scale. The medical—you can be fascinated by being a doctor but the overall medical industry is, you know, enormous. Health care and, you know, insurance . . . things like that. We’re there. That’s where we’re at, where it’s a trillion dollars, and you focus on a couple simple stories if you’re the media and trying to cover what’s changing, you focus on Facebook, you put Mark Zuckerberg’s face on things because people understand that. But people need to understand that like SAP and Enterprise Resource Planning are probably just as big as Facebook.
PF In terms of how they change the world and how they change America and what they do—
RZ How people work.
PF Exactly. And so it’s just culture now. It’s not separate from culture. It’s not this—it’s own little world where you could be like, “Hey, we’re over here, changing the world.” We’re just in the world. And that—
RZ But here’s the thing: is it worse? Like, look: insurance. Insurance is a trillion dollar industry. I mean we all need insurance, right? Like down to the banks in Bermuda and what not but insurance doesn’t do a lot of bad things. There’s a lot of bad things comin’ outta tech!
PF Insurance is heavily regulated industry with a hundred—a hundred plus years behind it.
RZ Oh!! Is that where we’re going?
PF Hundreds of years behind it. Yeah, I think if the governments are going to assert authority over the things that [chuckles] governments usually assert authority over. Like I mean they try to keep people from cheating each other. They try to keep large scale lies or propaganda that is offensive to their interests from getting disseminated throughout media. Like the government—
RZ There are protections.
PF They will. They will. And you see it—you see it in Europe; you see it starting here.
RZ The FDA. And drugs. It takes five years for a drug to make it through.
PF Sure, this is different, and I’m sure people will have both valid and just frustrated reactions to the government meddling in their stuff. But the reality is we’re finding that there are borders . . . in how the internet and technology, in general, works. Like, you can’t really do things online in Iran right now as a US citizen. You can’t, like, there are all sorts of boundaries [mm hmm]—people in Turkey—
RZ Censorship and—
PF—they get their internet turned off, like it’s not as simple—And there’s always going to be some new technology that promises universal access like mesh networks or satellites, but so far, the traditional ways that big systems monitor and control the behavior of the citizens in a country, those keep getting asserted. Like, right? So, we don’t live in this perfect ideology. Tech didn’t tear down those borders.
PF It didn’t, you know, The Arab Spring had a lot of effects but a lot of them were really negative, you know, and—and—
RZ You know that’s the funny thing, right? Like you—you—you’d think it was just gonna take care of itself. Here—I think when you peel it all the way back, humans love power. And—and—and you know what makes me think of this? I actually don’t think that, you know, I’m not a communist. I’m—I’m a capitalist [mm hmm]. Not that they are exactly, diametrically opposed but conceptually there’s a few—few theories around equality and fairness more pure or—or clean in their, in their description as socialism, right?
PF Mm hmm.
RZ And if you—if you lay ‘em out, I mean, why—who or why would anyone be against it, right? But if you think about the implementations around it, the same way the internet and social media powered The Arab Spring . . . in reality, upon implementation, humans mucked it all up. Right?
PF No, that’s exactly right.
RZ Like, I mean, in the old Soviet Union, it was essentially a massive communist experiment, a massive socialist experiment, right?
PF Mm hmm.
RZ But what happened was you had people on line, trying to get toilet paper but you still had a power class . . . that was dining and living well. People still grabbed power. You thought it was gonna be this sort of enforced equal, you know, sort of like, you know, all things—
PF Humans are very, very tricky.
RZ They’re gonna pollute the water, dude. It’s just how humans work. They have ambition and they’re aggressive and they’re competitive. It is natural.
PF Not all of them but that—that part of humanity definitely asserts itself in ways that can mess the rest of it up.
RZ You need like three percent [yeah] to mess it all up.
PF No, I know, that’s—
RZ Most—the great majority are—are on board.
PF No, and they just want a—like they want a piece of fish.
RZ They just—that’s all—and it’s completely genuine and real but when you talk about the ones that wanna assert their power and their influence and know how to do it and can figure it out, they’re gonna do it.
PF Well this is, you know, a tech podcast ten years ago, when there were some podcasts but not many. We would’ve talked about things like, and we still do, Microsoft Word tips; basic blogging, so on and so forth [yup]. Now our conversation—the conversation on Twitter; the conversation in the world about technology is: what are the fundamentals of human nature? Which ideology is most applicable?
PF Socialism or capitalism?
PF What are the balances that we need to seek in order to create tech—technology systems that don’t destroy the institutions of our government. Like these are—this is where we’ve gotten to and we are not prepared, we were never prepared, to have this conversation about technology because there’s [music fades in] no way to, you learned because it happened [music plays alone for eight seconds, ramps down].
RZ Paul, what else do you do besides write for magazines? [Music fades out]
PF Well, right now, Rich, I’m optimizing our CRM here at Postlight and our overall sales process so that we have a good, steady cadence of inbound leads, of mid- and slightly-larger-than-midsize—
RZ This is not a pitch. This our process, Paul [laughs].
PF Yeah [chuckles]. Ok, what else—well, what else does Postlight do?
RZ We build digital products. Yes!
RZ Paul, we build web platforms, APIs, we digitally transform things all day long.
PF That’s right!
RZ Just all day.
PF That’s right.
RZ From the big company to the small; from the investment bank to the NGO. We love to build product and we’d love to talk to you. Reach out to us at email@example.com [music fades in].
PF Yup! We’ll help you ship your app [music plays alone for seven seconds, ramps down].
RZ Do you think that right now sort of the—[music fades out] you know, there’s a handful of people who are really the power brokers like around tech, right? You’ve got Zuckerberg and you’ve got Bezos and you’ve got these incredibly powerful people and right now they’re—like Zuckerberg is being painted as someone that was just absolutely obsessed with growth and money and—and power and whatever—however else you wanna frame it. You think it was actually good intentions and the thing just got away from him?
PF Oh, I think almost invariably. I also think the CEO of Exxon Mobil is probably sitting on a sofa, watching Zuckerberg testify to congress, and going, “Ha ha ha. Not me! [Rich laughs] Not me this time! You boys have fun over there!”
RZ “Fill up the calendar!” [Laughing]
PF “Woo! I’m just gonna sit here in Houston and enjoy myself [Rich laughing],” or wherever the hell Exxon Mobil is, right? Like that’s—and the same is true of like insurance [yeah] and, you know, [right] institutional banking, there just going—
RZ The senate testimony is—is really—that’s the mark, right? That’s the marker.
PF It’s technology’s turn! Yeah.
RZ Yeah, exactly.
PF Enjoy that seat, fellas!
RZ Ok, but you don’t think these people had ill intentions?
PF This, I think, is the worst and most complicated part, and I think it’s the hardest thing for people to understand: I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg is particularly evil.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF I don’t think that Facebook is particularly evil. I know a lot of nice, well-intentioned people who work there. I don’t know if—I have a little thing, I try it out and say it but it’s the ethics don’t scale. Ethics are—are optimized when we talk about them for small groups of people.
PF Right? You had in our last president who I was fond of, someone who also practiced in a tremendous amount of drone warfare, and that was a part of his administration. He’s not hiding that. That was part of his administration [yup]. That drives people bananas, right? It’s very in conflict. But that is the job. The job is like, “Sometimes I follow the advice of my generals and I kill people in other countries and sometimes I give a really inspiring speech about the history of America and—”
RZ I think it’s this horrible calculation that has to get done every time. It’s like, “I think this one’s actually gonna kill less people.”
PF That’s right. And so you’re putting people—now that—that was a person who I would—I would argue was pretty qualified for that job or had at least thought about it; wanted it; and was willing to do it. And took the criticism and said, “That’s it. I am what I am. I’m gonna do it.” You look at the CEO of a giant social media company, they didn’t sign up for all that. They just—[stammers]—
RZ I think that’s absolutely true.
PF It just blew up so big! And now they’re—they’re sitting astride a world economy and they’re, like everybody, like a lot of people who run companies, maybe a little narcissistic or maybe they have a world of people around them saying, “You’re a genius,” and, “Thank God you made this happen.” And they truly are like they are sitting on top of it. They are the—they are the source.
RZ They don’t have the answer. The answer right now is thousands of people in countries watching and vetting videos and pictures—
PF That is not—that’s not a solution.
RZ That’s not a solution and that’s where we are, right?
PF Because, really, the requirement for social media to work is a better civic society, right? And that’s—we’re not—we’re not having that conversation.
RZ No. No, no, no.
PF We’re just talking about the stock market at some level and so—
RZ This is—this is way bigger than this podcast. Let’s—let’s end this on an optimistic note.
PF Yeah, no, I know, I’m going to.
RZ Give me—give me . . . three things you love. In one sentence or as to why you love them.
PF Ooh! This is good. It’s gonna be really nerdy.
RZ You know what? You get to do this. This—you earned this.
PF I read the release notes for every single release of PostgreSQL [pronounced ‘post-grah-scoo-el’] which is an open source database.
PF I love it. Just recently it’s adding better indexing support; full tech support—
RZ PostgreS is good.
PF Things about J—
RZ It’s good.
PF It is an all purpose data engine.
RZ [Laughs] Ok. It’s—it’s only down from here. Go ahead, number two. Number two.
PF At home, my primary computing platform is Ubuntu Linux . . . which I love and runs just fine. It has flaws but I know them, and it lets me do just about everything that I need to do.
RZ You’re in your browser; you’re writing an email. Ok. So.
PF And the third one.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF We’ve talked about it before, but I come back to it over and over. There’s never been a better system for me for writing; organizing thoughts. I do all my proposals; all my to-do lists; all my essays, everything, starts in Emacs text editor in Org mode, and it’s updated continually and it just keeps getting better. And I love it.
RZ [Chuckles] You know—
PF Oh! I got one more!
RZ Alright, you know what? You can have one more, Paul.
PF If you use GitHub now, and you merge together some branches in your service control, which we did with our Labs project recently, it automatically deploys to a test website. Like after you—you just put the changes into GitHub, and it says, “Running some tests, [sing-songy] chum, chum, chum, chum, chump.” And then—
RZ It makes that actual sound.
PF It does. And then it says, “Ok, you’re ready.” And you can just go over and look at the site. It’s deployed. You don’t have to do anything.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF Everything’s automated [yeah]. It’s a miracle.
RZ Yeah. Yeah, yeah. We’re there.
PF This used to be like two days of work, every time.
PF And now it’s, “I had a spare idea, I didn’t have to ask anyone. There it is. It’s live. Thanks computer.” [Music fades in]
RZ You can touch it. Yeah.
PF Yeah. And it works. So that’s where we’re—Look: thing—hard drives are getting bigger; computers are still getting faster; coding is getting easier; like this is still an age of miracles and I—I don’t want—I don’t want to take that away. That is the best thing about this industry.
RZ But there’s hard work to do.
PF There is hard work to do. And we’re committed to it, and, you know, right now we’re runnin’ Postlight, and tryin’ to help in other ways. I give away a lot of money; we give away resources and advice; we try to help NGOs and non-for-profits; and . . . that’s where we’re at right now. And we’re gonna keep going. There’s no other industry for me, man.
RZ I wanna close this by pitching your article one more time. If you buy magazines [laughs], which not a lot of people do, you should pick up the latest issue of Wired, it has the big clicky pointer finger from Windows 95.
PF You’ll recognize it—that the article is me—by me because on the cover of Wired it says my name which is cool.
RZ It does.
PF I’m not gonna lie.
RZ It just quotes Paul Ford. So pick it up. It’s a—it’s a—it’s a great article, actually. It’s also online.
PF If you need us, you wanna reach us: firstname.lastname@example.org [music ramps up, plays alone for six seconds, fades out to end].