The Ways We Spend Our Time
I've been intrigued for years by the idea that Americans misuse their time. More than a decade ago, the argument was made that TV, viewed as a distraction from other uses of time, absorbed something on the order of 2,000 Building-Wikipedias a year in human attention. I think that's a gross exaggeration – surely the human need for simple tasks is greater than zero, and even dedicated attention isn't the same as effort – but the core idea is meaningful. If the number is five instead of two-thousand, that's a lot of effort we can put into public works.
The modern Internet is not an exploration of this idea, unless you think well-maintained Instagram accounts are one of those potentially productive uses of time. It does produce something – photography isn't a vice even if it's in mega-abundance – but it isn't building. The production is disposable, thrown out almost instantly, replaced by whatever new things automatically show up in people's feeds.
I love creative work, and not all of it is for-the-ages. But I think we should spend some time, not every day, but maybe every week, building things we really do expect to last. Not a status update, not reaction to issues of the day – those will always seem important, and take as much time as they need – but an artifact of effort and care we can take with us into the future. We should put effort into activities that leave us better than we were, if only to relearn nature's most basic lesson: life is the system that doesn't just decay. We grow, and we do so together.
Something That Isn't Ageism
After a certain amount of professional effort, I'm not sure how much better people actually get at their jobs. I'm sure decades of experience helps, but it also pens people into their set ways of doing things, without much thrust to push them out of a comfortable pattern.
And if people aren't getting better, why do they expect pay raises throughout their career?
Honestly, I don't think most of them do. But in professional services, that is the expectation. And if that's what you expect, you've got to keep getting better, which means dedicating time outside of your employment to developing some skill.
I don't think it's unusual to encourage people to expand their skill sets as they age in their profession. But I do think it's important to say: if you aren't getting better, but expect more money, prepare to get fired. Every year you become a worse person to employ. Not in comparison to anyone else, but in absolute terms. Perhaps the economy's demand for your skills can expand so much you are buoyed by it. But I don't think it's healthy to have a long-term plan where your skills atrophy. Almost anything else can be safely sacrificed.
So, if you want to develop professional skill sets in your spare time, it means taking the process seriously enough for that profession. And there are a number of professions where the tools for the job are (essentially) free, and the level of professionalism can be shockingly low: developing things for the web. Code, design, writing, community, and a smattering of other things. Web makers.
When Is Parsimony Undervalued?
In general, people want simple explanations for complex things. Almost everything is complicated, almost infinitely so, and our brains are all pretty tiny, so single-cause or several-cause explanations run rampant. In fact, our desire for simple explanations is so great, you'd expect we'd demand them even when they stop being useful, and indeed, start being harmful.
In our ever-more-complex society, you'd imagine, this problem would probably be getting worse all the time. More and more understanding based on overly simple explanations that don't get to the heart of understanding. More and more expertise would be hollow, and distinguishing true expertise would get more difficult as signalling pressures get more extreme.
It's enough to make a normal person explicitly reject parsimony. Heartbreaking, but true. Our complex world doesn't have a lot of simplicity, it never did, but now there's just more.
But this virtue shouldn't be thrown to the wind because we live in times that are more hostile to it. That's too sad to even imagine. It would be better if we could find a way to develop better and better ways of thinking about things. That's important too.
In physics, a parsimonious explanation is given a lot of weight. Unfortunately, they have a bit of a conflict of interest: they have to describe the real world. If the real world works in some totally bonkers way (extreme non-locality, without even local conservation laws, with rules that change over time, etc.) then they've got to describe that, even if it's a total mess.
But programming is a process by which people attempt to make a computation make sense to other people and the computer itself. Simpler code, achieving the same thing, might run faster – but most importantly, it is better in the most important sense: easier to change over time, if you want something different done. That's the most important cost in modern engineering, and it is essentially how you would measure parsimony in the system.
Cultivating Persistence with Achievability
But this maybe isn't even the most important virtue to build in a strange world. We live in a world that is substantially less engaging than it has been. We have more delights and baubles, to be sure, but our work isn't the most delicious Where's Waldo of foraging, it isn't the clever politicking of local drama, it doesn't have the thrill of the hunt or sublime relief of finally finding water on a hot day.
The problems we face today are much more mundane, luckily. Billions of people worked hard, hoping their children's lives would be better than their own, to make sure our problems less important, and our opportunities less dangerous.
And so we live in a world filled with accountants. Decent jobs with dramatically lower stakes, all well lit with the same drab coloring and lack of even the slightest breeze to distract you. We have to seal cubicle workers off from the world so they aren't distracted by it, because their work is so desperately boring.
Now, I actually really enjoy the process of making things. I enjoy programming more than writing, and community more than design. But even when you enjoy things, there will be moments. You've been there. You will need to power through the moments of intense punishing frustration, and when you run out of will to care, the sheer boredom. When you've made something you're proud of, the glory and passion will return. But I don't think there's a way to do complex work without persistence.
We've found a classic virtue that's more valuable now than ever. And many people are pretty persistent, it's true. But how do we get excellent?
I think the trick is to persist in things you know are possible. Writing is great. But we all strive to write the best version of something we can. It's a process than can absorb an almost infinite amount of work, and we usually just stop when we realize it would take a better writer than us to improve something. It isn't done, you've just decided to stop working on it.
But programming isn't quite like that. Unlike most other white-collar professions, it provides clear feedback. If something is possible, with enough time, you can do it. If that effort isn't enough, it's because it's something computers can't do (or can't do yet), and that's generally pretty obvious before you start.
You can train the ability to never give up, because it's a skill set where that persistence will never be insufficient.
What Could I Make?
Have you ever been frustrated by a computer?
I sometimes feel I'm only frustrated by computers, and how we use them.
I also think we need a deeper, Galapagos model. We need extremely diverse options for every system that is sort of underwhelming. Lots of small communities and software project might be more vulnerable to the invasive species of Facebook and Twitter, but those places suck. If you can offer something better, a lot of people, the best people, will put in the effort required, go out of their way, and stick with it. The people that don't find Twitter that boring, well, Twitter still exists for them.
We should also try to make our own games. The talent of amusing yourself is important, and I don't know why using computers would diminish this.
So aside from clones with modifications and games, what else? Well, once you get decent at building things, you'll find yourself wanting custom widgets much more often. It's not just when you install three different apps for the same thing and they all sort of stink. It's when you realize, oh, hey, I'd like it if this information was attacked to this thing so when I review it I can know more, etc. It's all the tiny moments where instead of being frustrated, you get a notion about how something might be made better.
Plus there's the treasure trove of things you happen to know about, but someone less deeply engaged in your hobbies doesn't. Promoting a complicated, detail-oriented thing to people who otherwise would be intimidated by it is almost always worth the effort. There are plenty of businesses that wouldn't exist if the customers knew how to use Excel decently well. But even if they did, they'd still have to make the simple little thing. If you can meet your own needs, you can start helping others.
Industrial Capacity For The Minimally Useful
Of course, most of those things will be extremely minor. That's the inevitable consequence of market capitalization. People who want return on their money can't spend it on things where the investment is minimal. They'd never be able to use all of their capital! And low interest rates mean that money has run out of great places to go. In equilibrium, you should think that more and more minor, and harder to monetize things, would all get essentially no attention.
But there is a deep component of etiquette around doing minor things for others. Most of polite society is holding doors open for people, listening, small favors, bringing treats to get-togethers, and hundreds of small moments where it's clear you're thinking of them. You can't monetize "holding the door open for someone", because it's not that big a deal. But that's the bread and butter of being nice to people.
Wouldn't it be great if we all made things for each other, instead of cultures drived almost purely by commentary? Not all of them have to be "useful" – in fact, it's probably best if they aren't – more polite that way, perhaps.
Community For Makers
People who make things, and know their things will face judgment, react to the efforts of others differently. It isn't that they're nicer only in the hopes people are nicer to them (although, it's important to remember that if that's your view, you might be routinely undershooting how nice you should be to everyone). It's that they understand what's important about making things. You want things you've made to occupy people's attention like it's occupied your attention. Ideally, they'll appreciate the parts you like, and know that their job isn't to point out all the flaws you already know about. There's a very strange arrogance to the idea that you, after several minutes, have noticed problems someone else hasn't.
Makers know when they're asking for someone else's sense of taste to replace their own. If you think you're giving aesthetic feedback, be very clear on whether they asked for it. If something is confusing, it's probably best to simply ask your question than it is to point out something being confusing. They'll remember the questions you ask, and appreciate the raw data of your confusion over the guesses of how a confused person would fix it.
But more importantly than all of the etiquette around building things, it gives us all opportunities to build for each other. It's easy enough to be trivially mean or rude to someone on Twitter – how do I be trivially nice? I can tell someone I enjoy their work, and that's a little nice, but it's so effortless, it runs the risk of being distracting. Real etiquette involves more effort than a tweet a fair percentage of the time, and we should have communities that allow that level of effort, instead of accidentally capping engagement at 280 characters.
The Small-Scale Internet
Of course, if almost everyone makes things, they'll only be used by a few people, most of the time.
I don't mind that so much.
Is there anyone who thinks that, if they could change the world very slightly, that we need slightly bigger tech companies? I think we all know that, on some level, we'd prefer to be users in the Galapagos tech world mentioned earlier. It makes more room for things that delight us very specifically, instead of the broad and unappealing things like Facebook. If you want billions of users, almost none of them are going to be excited about it. People just are that uniform. We all want slightly different things, and if we get better at connecting people, surely that means we ought to get better at connecting our systems too?
Is there anyone who still prefers using their car radio to podcasts, custom streaming music, and audiobooks? The "Golden Age of Television" is probably just the consequence of the internet – the floor fell out. Entertainment you sort of like is so abundant you probably don't value it at all. We'll only spend the time on things we really like. Other industries are being transformed by the competitive pressures – killing comedy movies, TV reviews (and probably politics) becoming intensely polarizing, advertisement increasingly requiring ideological commitment to get attention, conspiracy theories have (on net) been diminished by the internet – maybe because they are less interesting than excellent drama, disinformation has become an artform too skilled to handle without preparation, algorithms are shaping content in so many complex ways that even experts can't figure it out, and it's possible we're getting better fiction than ever before, because why else would people read?
Even the most well-adjusted reactions to this should be worrying for people outside like industry. At the margin, the bigger a company is, the more they are replacing recommendation with algorithmic optimization, replacing authenticity with a more calculated guess. Activities that ask a lot of us will, all else being equal, be avoided – wouldn't it be eaiser to just veg out? Choose the things you like and lean back?
Non-enumeration and Modification
But life isn't about enumerating the things you care about. The world is pretty vast, but even billions and billions of yes/no choices about what you care about shouldn't be able to describe you completely. Creative work extends past mere preferences, and allows us to express something beyond mere approval.
I firmly believe that remix culture is the first step into this world. That's why fanfiction is so common and so frequently dominated with the less than elegant prose of young writers. In a world as systemitized as the modern American school system, of course they would first need to practice originality in combination with expressing their joy in something. It's heartwarming. And if you think the world doesn't have enough expressions of love, you probably ought to be a reader of fanfiction as well.
Modern meme culture (which it's important to explain, extends far beyond the image macros of the earlier internet) is another great example. It provides a low-stakes on-ramp for modification and enjoyment that doesn't draw a big distinction between creator and audience, and doesn't allow the sort of ego-driven participation that many other forms of art do. You can't threaten someone for sharing your gif. You can't stop them from changing it, and no one will know your name. You make the joke, because you wanted to make it, and then you're done.
A lot of people want to be writers because they think it is some elite status, some part of who they are. But really, it's just, do you want to spend the time writing, in order to get the result. There's not much else you can even know will happen, but if it's something you want to share, and you want that so bad you will put in the effort, you should. Life isn't very interesting if you put in no effort.
Make whatever strange art you're moved to make – including spreadsheets. I have a strong suspicion that lack of a pro-spreadsheets community and platform, combined with the only vague social acceptability of making spreadsheets in your spare time, leads to be near-permanent under-supply of spreadsheets that would be useful to most people. The weirder your art, the more you should trust it will get the appreciation you suspect it ought to get. It doesn't have to compete with as much for the attention it needs.
And above all, have fun. Trust me when I tell you that television is an inferior experience.