Jan. 4th, 2017

garote: (golden violin)
From an email thread with Chaz, spruced up:

At the Oakland farmer's market last weekend there was a 17-year-old kid with a full drum kit set up on the sidewalk. He sounded amazing, and I could have sat there eating my fancy-pants crepe on my paper plate and listening to him for the entire afternoon. He had a nice stack of money collected in his hat after a few hours. That's cool; he's expressing his passion, and getting paid for it. He has a bright artistic future ahead of him, but still, I know he's not going to be nearly as lucky as I was. My passion turned into a zillion-dollar industry.

As a group, us geeks have won a huge victory, wielding massive influence in culture as well as economics all over the world. There are live-televised RTS games with sports commentators now. There are video game characters on ice-skating rinks doing tricks for families. There are billion-dollar movie franchises based on comic books, on elves, on vampires, on wizards, on space exploration, being dubbed in a dozen languages. You and I personally have written code that's passed through a hundred million pieces of hardware. You and I have seen our closet hobbies become cultural touchstones. Curating a software collection and building an online persona was just for geeks - now it is for everyone in the modern world. Catchphrases we used to throw around have become the bedrock of new language. Everyone knows what a hacker is; everyone knows what spam is. We have set tastes and precedents on a scale that is hard to overstate.

Yet, you and I remember when a lot of this was just some farty little thing happening in a coffee shop, or a ratty club, or a ragtag college group, and while we loved it, everyone else ignored it or actively scorned us for it. We lived through a time when nerds were still considered a group that needed "revenge". And now, this stuff has become so widespread that it's not even "our people" doing it any more. Our victory has swept around the planet like a wave, and come back at us filled with alien creatures and wreckage. To the old timers it probably feels like cultural appropriation. (Though of course, no one would take their side in that argument.)

Drowning in a crowd of imitators is not the standard outcome when you get older. Usually, the interests of older people are plowed under and forgotten by the next generation. This crowd is an anomaly, and an honor. Having people fawn over the things we create, and say, "wow", and "if only I could do that", is great, but ... our creative skills have also directly transformed into a means to make boatloads of money ... and money is even better than praise. That's way beyond "revenge". It's no surprise that this level of victory has spawned several generations of people running in the same footprints.

Two generations of new recruits has packed itself into this industry and the physical and cultural area around us, and the competition is fierce, and the growth is still exponential. But they've mostly grown the base, and that's grown the top, and paradoxically there is more room for us than ever before, and that room is higher up, in respect and in wages.

The other day I was out at lunch with a group of people who were newly hired to the lab - 20-somethings mosty - and one of them came up to me and said, "hey, are you the guy who wrote that 'Command Line' follow-up essay with Neal Stephenson?" I recognized him as one of the people I'd interviewed, back when he applied for a job months ago. He must have dumped me into a search engine. I felt a bit panicky - does this mean that I have to be as impressive to this guy, as Neal Stephenson is impressive to me? I know that's not gonna happen. I said, "well, we didn't collaborate or anything. He just said a few things to me and approved what I wrote, and that was that." I steered the conversation as quickly as I could into some tangential topic, and cracked a few jokes.

Perhaps this is the sort of cachet you and I have, now, even if it's by accident. Things we've done are now popping up in other people's discussions. It's natural given the growth and scale of this whole computer thing.

Of course, we're not essential. The newcomers can innovate just fine on their own. They don't care for us personally; they just like the same stuff we do -- or did. We were the conduit for something that became massively powerful, but we don't need to grasp the One Ring and destroy ourselves trying to wield it; we can remain ourselves, and diminish into the west. Either way, it's amazing that we can contemplate that choice.

It's kind of great being non-essential. We don't have to worry about "legacy". If I want to spend the rest of my life messing around in my garden, riding my bicycle, and excitedly discussing science fiction, that's fine. If you want to sit in your cozy room and knit sweaters for people you love, and find the perfect cup of tea, that's a perfectly excellent way to spend time as well. Inspiration and obsession will strike soon enough - they always have - and you'll find yourself on some insane adventure again. Let the excited young people work 55 hours a week, changing the world, aiming for "disruption" -- whatever that is. There's no need to compete with them.

The spotlight was going to shift elsewhere eventually. Good thing we never needed it.


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