Forget Disruption. Tech Needs to Fetishize Stability
I used to co-run a software company. My cofounder is Lebanese, so we built a team in Beirut with an office right on the Levantine Sea. Great software engineers over there, excellent front-end talent. But Lebanon has been going through it. And not just in the normal “wedged between factions in an eternal global crisis zone” way. First the financial system collapsed (no problem, the team said), then the pandemic hit hard (we’re doing OK), then Beirut was partially destroyed in a port explosion (a terrible day, but we’ll get through it). Then we learned that people were powering their houses with DIY solar or diesel generators (don’t mention it) and getting internet through mobile hot spots (almost always works fine). We rented spare apartments for folks having trouble getting home (not necessary, but thanks) and figured out how to pay people when the banks were melting (appreciate it). On January 6, 2021, they Slacked the US team, “Your coup is ridiculous.”
All of which gave me a great appreciation for how boring America was. America was so boring for so long that other countries held their wealth in dollars, and oil oligarchs hoarded empty apartments in Manhattan. America was so boring that, for decades, the tech industry was able to make disruption its mantra. Young people would find some technology-enabled new thing; VCs would plump it up with cash, building a marketplace for new buyers and sellers; and established players would hilariously stumble all over themselves trying to compete. They’d fail, and we’d laugh. Need more progress? Just make more technology. Smartphones, drones, teledildonics, IoT—whatever, let’s blow up the world again.
That type of progress definitely generates a ton of activity. But it also sits weird when you consider how many lives in the world, historically and currently, including American lives, are extremely disrupted—by toxic spills or the whims of royalty or the goats all swelling up and dying. Disruption is an ethos for the bored, for people who live in reasonable climates and don’t have tanks in the street. But America has recently become way less boring.
I’m thinking of the photo of the dude wearing horns in the Senate chamber. Technologists are on the hook for that one. Because the internet begat the web, which begat social, which begat Trump, which begat all that and the Supreme Court, which unbegat Roe, and all I’m saying is that technology can’t be responsible for only one kind of progress and wash its robot hands of the other. Borders aren’t evaporating into the cloud; they’re getting thicker. Distances are becoming more expensive to traverse. Grids are faltering. For several weeks this year it was tough to buy pretzels. You can’t just say “software is eating the world” and chill. Software already ate the world, and digested it, and pooped out a new world, and that’s where we’re living.
I once enraged a client because I promised during a meeting to build them a “big, boring software platform.” They took me to a fancy bar to yell at me. “We didn’t pay you for boring!” they said. “We paid you for exciting!” I had to explain how, in tech, “boring” can be an asset, a way to build for growth, how things that look exciting, like New York City, are built on boring things, like sewage, or investment banking. An endlessly churning consumer economy might be fun in the moment—but have you ever seen the floor of the movie theater when the lights come up? (Of course I paid for the client’s drinks.)
Stability is a hard sell, I’ll grant you; the payoff is far away. No hominid ever thought, “If I poke this stick into a termite mound, then 50,000 generations from now my progeny will pay for five streaming services, including Peacock.” They thought, “I am tired of chasing these termites all over the place when there’s a veritable termite fountain over there.” And suddenly, right then, they were eating the world. Humans are here for a good time, not a long time.
Fast-forward 50,000 monkey generations. Pretty clearly, now is the moment to learn how to fetishize stability. As I write, the asphalt in London is hot enough to heat your fish and chips. The solutions to the crisis (crises) are agonizingly long-term and require hundreds of trillions of dollars, with billions of people doing their part. What’s a monkey with a stick to do?
So I’m over progress and done with disruption. Stability is my new best friend. Not the big stuff, the UN-level stuff. Leave that to the smart macro-thinkers with European accents and interesting all-weather clothing, or the sad Americans with Substacks. What I’m going to work on, for the rest of my career in the tech industry, hand to God (OK, I’m an atheist and easily distracted, so caveat lector), is making nice little tutorials and tools—better sticks for kinder monkeys. I’m working on my first tutorial now, about how to parse NetCDF files full of climate data using the Python programming language to save the data to an SQL database and integrate it into a traditional web workflow. That’s my DevOps! Who knows, maybe one day someone will open a school for stability. Everyone will want to run it, and no one will want to mop the floors.
This article appears in the September 2022 issue. Subscribe now.
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