Is wanting to make the world that you live in better an altruistic pursuit or simply a manifestation of selfishness?
A year ago, I committed to working on Ind.ie for what will most likely be the rest of my life.
To understand my reasons, you have to understand my past.
The magic of computers
When I was seven years old, my father, a computer scientist and industrial engineer, brought home an IBM XT Compatible computer with a 4-color CGA screen and a mind-numbingly huge 20MB hard drive.
This was an expensive object — probably one of the most expensive things my family owned at the time. So it would have been understandable if he’d been precious with it. However, instead of locking it away somewhere and forbidding me to touch it, he placed it in front of me along with a BASIC manual and said what were probably the most important words I would ever hear: “Go on, play with it, you can’t break it!”
And I did. (Both play with it, and, eventually, break it!)
Apart from a couple like Dig Dug and Alley Cat, there weren’t too many games for PCs at the time, so I started making my own. Initially they boasted cutting-edge ASCII ‘graphics’ and then, by the time the CGA card had been upgraded to VGA and the magic of SCREEN 13 (I used to write all my code IN UPPERCASE at the time; which drove my dad nuts… I’m over that now, Dad!), they graduated to a crisp 320×200 resolution in 256 luscious colours.
Every time my dad would bring home a new programming manual, I’d read it from cover to cover and stumble my way through learning the language. So I learned Pascal (I still have the fondest memories of the Turbo Pascal book), C, Prolog (wtf?), and whatever else I could get my hands on.
With a few lines of code, I could make a universe (white dots on a black background). With a few more lines, I could make a spaceship (a triangle). And let me tell you something: if you are seven years old and you can create a universe and explore it in your own spaceship, you feel like you can do anything. I was very privileged and fortunate to have this as a formative experience. There is nothing more empowering than knowing that your own imagination and your willingness to put in the work are the only things that limit what you can do in the endless expanse that is the universe within a computer.
I tell you this story because I want you to understand that this is not a job for me. I have been making things with computers since I was tiny. It’s just what I do and what I love.
A journey of self-discovery
While programming started out as a very personal thing for me, as I grew up, I began to realise that the things I make can also affect other people’s lives. And I wanted them to affect people’s lives positively.
I began to realise that, as interesting as the technology itself was (I used to love making my own computers from various parts), I was far more interested in how it affected people’s lives. This was about the time that I started to understand that everything we do is design. We create this artificial separation between design and development because we do not understand what design is. Everything we do is about humans. Computers are simply the means to an end. Beautiful, fun, awesome means. But means still.
So I began to try and create the best experiences I could. Because experiences matter; they’re all we have in life. They make up our lives. And, as the people who create experiences, we have a profound responsibility to not take for granted the limited time that people have on this Earth.
Beyond short-term thinking and design
However, I also slowly started to understand that while great experiences can empower people in the short term, they can also enfeeble them in the long term. I began to see that the dominant platforms of the day had predatory relationships with their users. That they treated people as quarries to be mined, lab rats to be studied, products to be sold. That we were being conned with the promise of short term rewards at the expense of the long-term well-being of our human rights, fundamental freedoms, and democracy.
And I wanted nothing to do with these platforms.
But I still wanted to work with what I love.
You can see the problem.
Here you have someone who has spent his whole life — over 30 years — in love with technology who realises that he is ethically opposed to contributing to the dominant platforms of the day. As I saw it, I had two options: stop doing what I love or try and change the way things are.
I chose the latter.
When people hear about what we’re doing with Ind.ie they usually comment on how altruistic or selfless it is. Nothing could be further from the truth. Furthermore, we have to stop this harmful way of viewing actions that are actually in our own selfish (albeit long term) interests.
The problem is that we, as humans, are short-term clever, long-term stupid.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
Short-term clever, long-term stupid
Our evolutionary wiring has conditioned us to seek short-term rewards and failed to penalise us for our post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacies. These evolutionary traits survive to this day and manifest themselves in our short-term selfish behaviour and in our various superstitions.
We’re evolutionarily conditioned to grab the next source of glucose, to crave the next shot of dopamine. Similarly, we are awesome pattern-matching computers that seek meaning, correlation, and causation in everything, even if there isn’t any. This is because, historically, there was very little evolutionary disadvantage to false positives. Quite the contrary, in the past, our short-sighted, self-interested manner meant that we survived long enough to pass our genes onto the next generation. Which is all that evolution cares about. Our fallacies, and the resulting delusional behaviour — the false positives — did not carry a strong enough negative evolutionary disadvantage so as to counteract the positive effects of our pattern-matching when it worked. In the past, the negative impacts of these evolutionary traits might have meant that, at worst, we wiped out a village or two. Affecting the species, as a whole, however, was outside of our ability.
This is no longer the case.
In the last two hundred years or so, we have witnessed a radical change: our rate of technological advancement has taken on an exponential character.
And that changes everything.
As Melvin Kranzberg says, ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.’ Technology is a multiplier. If you feed it bullshit, it will multiply bullshit. If you feed it meaning, it will multiply meaning. And we’ve been feeding it far more of the former recently and getting orders of magnitude of it back. It doesn’t help that, due to our tolerance of superstitions, we have a 2,000 year impedance mismatch between our thinking and our technical capability.
To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, evolution works but it is a terrible system to base your society on. For one thing, it only cares about survival, it doesn’t care about your welfare. If it did, I’m sure childbirth would be a very different experience.
Unfortunately, basing our society on an evolutionary model is exactly what we’ve done.
And it has worked spectacularly: in the short term and to the benefit of a very tiny group of people. So much so, that a recent Oxfam report found that 85 of the richest people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world — that’s approximately 3.5 billion people.
At the same time, it has been an unmitigated disaster for the welfare of the species as a whole. We have destroyed, and continue to destroy, huge swaths our natural environment. We have set the wheels of man-made climate change into motion. We have created a world with extreme, unsustainable, gross inequality and poverty. If we truly are an intelligent species, we definitely do a damn good job of hiding it very, very well.
And we can explain all of this quite easily and accurately by blaming our evolutionary conditioning.
This, however, does not change the fact that if we continue down this path, the future of our species is at risk.
Notice that I said, ‘our species’, not ‘the world’. Hollywood movies have taught us that when the world (usually America) is at risk, someone (usually a white American male) will rise to the occasion and, in one heroic act, save the day. I’d hate to break it to you, but the world doesn’t need saving. Bacteria will be perfectly fine no matter how much we fuck things up, thank-you-very-much.
Us, on the other hand… we’re a different story altogether. We’re one fragile species. A thin layer of sentient moss on a rock floating in space among many other rocks — some of which may be heading our way right as we speak.
Our current predicament is a beautiful illustration of how we, as a species, are short-term clever and long-term stupid.
Here we are, with all our eggs in one basket, and instead of taking decisions that would reduce our risk of extinction by one half (finding another planet to spread the risk to), we are navel gazing with the luxuries of war and inequality and messing up the only home that we have today. Not only that but we also support and reward the handful of those who perpetuate this system and respect and fear them instead of rounding up that small band of psychopaths, locking them up, and throwing away the key.
Moving beyond our evolutionary conditioning
You might be wondering what any of this has to do with why I’m doing Ind.ie. It has everything to do with it. Equality (and its bedfellow, diversity), the survival (and welfare) of our species, and technology are so intimately intertwined that I simply do not understand how you could think of any one of them in isolation.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that when we work on things that are in all of our collective best interests, we are not being altruistic. We are being selfish. Selfish, but long-term clever instead of being selfish and long-term stupid, which is the norm today. It’s absolutely essential that we understand this. Mankind has to move away from being short-term clever, long-term stupid. We have to start being whole-term clever.
If humankind is to survive — and survive well — we must move beyond our evolutionary conditioning. We have the necessary facilities to do this. But it requires that we make a rational decision to move beyond the bullshit that we’re hardwired to perpetuate.
And our approach to technology has to reflect this. We have to start feeding it less bullshit and more meaning to multiply. Otherwise we might find that the reason we cannot see beyond the event horizon of the singularity that Ray Kurzweil believes we are speeding towards may just be because we’re speeding towards a brick wall, all the while patting each other on the back for having invented a faster engine. Perhaps what we need to do as we add increasingly bigger engines to the car is to make sure that the brakes and steering are working and, indeed, that we are heading towards a place where we actually want to live.
Instead of designing experiences that empower us in the short-term, only to enfeeble us in the long-term, we must design for the whole term.
So here’s why I’m doing Ind.ie: because, selfishly, I want to live in a world where independent technology exists. I want to live in a world where I can continue to do what I love to do — make things that improve people’s lives — safe in the knowledge that they will respect people’s short-term experiences as well as their long-term welfare. Because I want to live in a world where I enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms; a world where I live in a democracy.
I am doing it for myself.
And it is exactly for the same selfish reasons that you should support us also.