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Wednesday, 11 June 2014

An odd thought about Michael O. Church's writings

I've never met Michael O. Church. The only things we have in common (as far as I know) is that we both left Google under less-than-happy circumstances and both do big-data / large-scale IT / artificial intelligence work. But I find myself reading every one of his blog posts. For the most part, they are some of the most existentially depressing posts of any author I've ever read. And yet, I'm morbidly fascinated.

For a quick summary, most of his postings can be grouped into one of two major themes:
  • The way technology companies are run is fundamentally unsound, inefficient and unjust.
  • Silicon Valley culture has many, many problems because of this.
He does write about other matters as well, but these are the themes which seem to be the most divisive. The response from the tech community on these kinds of posts is one of two polar extremes:
  • "That is exactly the problem; Michael has expressed something that I was aware of but was never able to put into words".
  •  "What rubbish. Michael is an idiot."
As I'm getting older, I keep thinking about how future generations will see this current time -- on the cusp of the computer intelligence era -- and how future historians will understand our responses to it. It occurred to me today that Michael O. Church is probably going to be one of "those references" that future students will be forced to read.

I say that because modern-day historians are expected to be at least passingly-familiar with Marx.

I don't mean that Michael O. Church is a marxist. (Perhaps he is; I don't know. I'm not a marxist either and haven't been bothered to learn all that much about it.) What I mean is that Marx was writing incitefully and insightfully about the interactions between capital and labour at a time of vast technological and social change, desperately trying to say "does it really have to be this way?" and "are there any alternatives?"

Step back to 1844 when Marx was writing Das Kapital. Railways were being built across Europe. These were completely over-priced investments to move people from one end of a line to another that should never have been profitable. But incredibly, one minor innovation (putting train stations along the journey so that people and goods could get on and off and complete a short fraction of the journey) turned the over-priced bubble into very successful investments and an engine for innovation, communication and economic development.

The closest analogy in modern times would be the dotcom boom of the late 90's which -- despite wasting vast quantities of money -- turned out OK for enough investors, and brought us the google search engine, a large amount of Linux infrastructure, a semi-pervasive internet and various other goodies.

The second railway mania (in the 1850-1860s) didn't end so well, but that was still in the future. 

The second mania was in fact dominated by many problems that would fit into a Michael O. Church blog: colonisation of the engineering investment by the lowest of low-life hucksters, exploitative working conditions for the engineers, cushy positions for management. (It was considered impossible that any company could run something so complicated as a long railway track. It had to be privately owned by the wealthy initially. And company management should only ever be a minor, part time task.) Financial sanity was long since left behind. It was in fact the bloggers of the day (journalists writing at the scrap-ends of the newspaper) that started doing financial analysis. Their writings led to the invention of audited financial statements and the rise of the big accounting firms. 

Leading into this era, Karl Marx wrote (in his spare time while holding down a job):
  • Vast numbers of words on topics to do with the way companies run that were essentially being ignored by everyone else. (So does Michael O. Church).
  • A model for how the excess of productive capacity gets distributed. (So does Michael O. Church).
  • Understandings of the inner workings of capitalism. (So does MOC).
  • Some ideas that might work on how to resolve some obvious problems. (MOC writes about open allocation, for example).
  • A lot of stuff that a lot of people disagree with and take issue with. (MOC likewise). 
I keep finding more analogies, but I wonder whether I'm stretching it at this point.

Try as I might, though, I can't think of any other blog author who would be deeply historically interesting to anyone living in the 2150s. But MOC's blog (if it is still accessible by then) would surely end up as a footnote or two in a thesis on the end of the Silicon Valley era.

And depressingly, almost nothing I've ever written so far in my life will be of any interest to anyone. At best (or perhaps worst), some future English literature students might be footnoting "geek poetry of the early cyber era".

Greg Baker is an independent consultant who writes, programs, thinks and fixes things to do with computers, IT and all things technical for customers who don't want to pay for expensive consulting firms. Contact him ([email protected]) if you have challenging problems you need solved.