Tim O’Reilly on why the future probably won’t be all that be terrible


Enlarge / Some classic O’Reilly titles. (OK, not really. But honestly these titles would teach some folks very valuable devops skills.)

Author and long-time friend of Ars Technica Rob Reid recently had the opportunity to interview legendary publisher Tim O’Reilly about O’Reilly’s new future-focused nonfiction book. Given O’Reilly’s importance and influence—and who hasn’t consulted at least one of his company’s animal-covered books to shed light on some difficult bit of tech?—we asked Rob to write us a summary of the interview that we could share with the Ars audience. The full interview is embedded in this piece.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the influence Tim O’Reilly has had on tech over his career’s long span. But I’ll try. First, he’s the preeminent publisher in a modern field that inhales books despite their ancient form as software developers, IT folks, and others constantly race to keep up with the languages and skillsets of their fields. He also launched the first commercial website long before Netscape or Yahoo even incorporated (prefiguring another huge trend: AOL bought that site, then immediately screwed it up).

Convinced the Web would be hot, his company convened the summit at which Marc Andreessen and Tim Berners Lee first met. He later hosted the conclave whereat “open source software” was quite literally named, and the open source movement’s precepts were enunciated. Though he didn’t coin the term, Tim (basically) named the Web 2.0 era, and also defined it with a wildly influential article and conference series. He later published the magazine which gave us both the word “maker” and the Maker Faire, and he still sits at the heart of the maker movement.

Having failed to overstate Tim’s significance, I’ll now tell you about his new book, WTF, which comes out today. As we all know, this stands for “What’s the Future.” As Tim points, “WTF” can be a cry of either dismay or amazement. An optimist by nature, he’s trying nudge us toward the latter, despite the overwhelming 2017-ness of things. I recently caught up with Tim for a wide-ranging discussion of his book, the future, his personal history, and the true meaning of WTF. Our interview is the latest episode of the After On podcast. You can listen via your podcasting app (just hit Search and type in “After On”), or by clicking right here:

Picture the future

I’m not a book reviewer and this is not a review—though I will say that for me, Tim’s book is a feast. Part memoir and part forward-leaning manifesto, it’s full of contrarian insights and fresh lenses for framing tech’s ever-baffling trajectory. All is backed up with data, facts, and first-hand reports from Tim’s decades on the front lines. And it’s steeped in a level-headed positivity that elegantly rebuts the sudden knee-jerk pessimism of a community which (let’s face it) has it pretty good, compared to most humans across history.

An example: though I admire the man, Jaron Lanier once wrecked my day by eloquently observing: “At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion dollars. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only thirteen people.”

In our interview (and also in his book), Tim quashes this perspective, which he gently labels “impossibly wrong.” Instagram is but a wee epiphenomenon, a glittering but tiny speck on the hull of a leviathan transformation—one which has created untold millions of jobs (and, yes, destroyed millions of others). “Think of the mountain of work that’s required to bring us Instagram,” Tim says. “This massive economy of data centers. Of Internet connectivity. Of the manufacturing of phones, which are more ubiquitous than cameras ever were. And think about the number of little shops there are, everywhere, selling cell phones. How many people work for Comcast, T-Mobile, Sprint, and all the [other] carriers. And all of the cable that had to be laid… just immense amounts of work in order for that Instagram culture to exist.”

Humans as technology’s gut bacteria

This isn’t to say Tim lacks empathy for the dislocated. Indeed, he brims with it, and is flat-out denunciatory when discussing modern inequities. He likens emergent aspects of our world to algorithms pursuing master “fitness functions.” Much as Google is geared to maximize ad revenue, the markets drive companies to maximize profits at the cost of all other goals and values (he goes so far as to liken the financial markets to a rogue AI). All of this notwithstanding, Tim remains highly invested in the free market system. He’s an entrepreneur with 400 mouths to feed at O’Reilly Media, after all—a trick he manages quick well.

Tim talks deeply about platforms in our interview, and what he calls “thick marketplaces.” He extends this definition beyond literal markets like eBay to more figurative ones, like the Microsoft ecosystem of the 90s. Those who desecrate their marketplaces by devouring participants they should empower—again, think Microsoft in the 90s, or more recently, Twitter—do so at great ultimate cost to themselves.

“Think of the mountain of work that’s required to bring us Instagram,” Tim says.

Our interview touches on the fascinating notion that humanity could be viewed as a microbiome for massive techplexes like Google and Facebook. I’ll admit to a weakness for this concept, as I developed it independently in my most recent novel (where my treatment is more playful than Tim’s, though I take the idea very seriously). In the 90s, he was struck by how certain engineers were being deployed almost like software components within organic, ever-evolving “applications” like Yahoo. Back when applications generally traveled as physical totems frozen onto discs, this was a true WTF moment.

Tim has since watched this symbiosis grow ever deeper. AI applications are now often trained by humans via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. And consider how Google gets smarter whenever we choose one link over the others on a page—then either snap back to Google because the link wasn’t suitable, or vanish because it was. “So there’s a symbiotic intelligence,” he points out. “There’s people inside it—the programmers who write the algorithms and manage the workflows. And then there’s people outside, who are communicating with it.”

We are the powerhouse of the cell

It gets deeper when companies like Uber and Lyft bridge into the physical world. At Lyft headquarters, you might view software components as being like workers in a factory, with programmers for managers. Managers who get signals from customers and the market, and continually coach their components to do better jobs. The components themselves manage another level of worker—the drivers—who are actually “augmented workers,” their capabilities heightened by digital tools like mapping services. Tim calls these sorts of companies “compound organisms,” or even “compound beings. He compares them to mammalian cells, which long ago teamed up with sovereign organisms, which are now our mitochondria (your mitochondrias’ DNA is distinct from your own, attesting to its indie roots).

All this could lead to bad outcomes to those on the lower rungs. But it could also lead to wonderful ones (consider how psyched we should all be to live on this side of the past century’s breakthroughs—societal imperfections notwithstanding). Tim points a cautionary finger at the blunders we could make from here, and does not minimize them. But on balance, he’s optimistic. I’ll add that his personal story is a nice case study for non-STEM folks, because Tim—like the founders of Ars Technica itself—dedicated his higher education to studying dead languages (specifically, Latin and Greek). As one who also prepared for his tech career by studying a non-programming language (in my case, Arabic), I approve.

Tim foresees smooth sailing if society can better provide for those being left behind. In this, he cites the bogeymen of all tech optimists, the Luddites. But he suffuses his discussion of them with both empathy and optimism. Not the blind optimism of the naïve. Not the self-serving optimism of the wealthy libertarian. But the fact-based optimism of a thoughtful technologist who is, at bottom, a realist.

I’ll close with a passage about the Luddites from Tim’s book. I also cited these words in our interview, because it find them so lyrical, and so characteristic of Tim’s perspective:

They were right to be afraid. The decades ahead were grim. Machines did replace human labor, and it took time for society to adjust.

But those weavers couldn’t imagine that their descendants would have more clothing than the kings and queens of Europe, that ordinary people would eat the fruits of summer in the depths of winter. They couldn’t imagine that we’d tunnel through mountains and under the sea, that we’d fly through the air, crossing continents in hours, that we’d build cities in the desert with buildings a half mile high, that we’d stand on the moon and put spacecraft in orbit around distant planets, that we would eliminate so many scourges of disease. And they couldn’t imagine that their children would find meaningful work bringing all of these things to life.

Rob Reid (@Rob_Reid on Twitter) founded the company that built the Rhapsody music service, and now writes science fiction for Random House/Del Rey. His new novel and his podcast are both called “After On.”



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