A Brief History of Dangerous Ideas
(Brief because (a) I really don’t know that much history, and (b) there’s really only one idea here with a few examples, and once you get the point, we’re done and can move to the outro.)
Astronomy and Celestial Mechanics were dangerous ideas because they undermined the most powerful organization of their day, The Church. That’s why people have been banned, tortured, and burned at the stake for talking about these ideas.Crossbows
were a dangerous idea because they allowed an untrained peasant to kill a knight. Longbows were not a dangerous idea, because only trained archers can kill a knight with a longbow, and the nobility were the only people who could compel peasants to practise yeomanry.
Cryptography is not a dangerous idea, because we really don’t know if any of our algorithms and protocols are resistant to the NSA. This was hi-lighted when researchers “discovered” differential cryptanalysis. When they looked at the DES
algorithm IBM has been promoting since the 1976, they found that it had been specifically tuned to resist differential cryptanalysis. IBM ‘fessed up: the US government had told them to tune things that way without explaining why, leading us to conclude they had known about this attack for decades before it became public knowledge. Today, we have no idea whether what we think is strong is actually strong or whether it has vulnerabilities and back doors governments can exploit.
Zed and Reg at Rubyfringe exchanging dangerous ideas, photo by Libin Pan
Miles Davis was a walking, talking, trumpet-playing dangerous idea. Not because he reinvented Jazz five different times (Dear Steve: Apple II, Macintosh, iPod/iPhone, Pixar. One more for the tie, two for the record.) Miles was an egocentric, venal man who worked the system, not undermined the system. But he was still dangerous because he got white people directly interested in black music. There was no Elvis or Vanilla Ice or anyone else between his music and the mainstream audience. For a government intent on keeping America’s two dominant cultures divided through fear, anything uniting them was a threat.
People say Miles’ legacy is his music. To me, Miles’ lasting legacy is people like me, people with one parent from each culture who grew up dancing to the same music together. People who, incidentally, do not vote for governments that take a divide and conquer approach to culture.
And on to tech. Microcomputers were not a dangerous idea. But personal
computers were dangerous. It took decades for IT departments to regain control over people bringing their own computers to work. They can thank Microsoft for helping them get back into the driver’s seat.
(This, incidentally, is why I really dislike Microsoft’s policies: it has nothing to do with their lack of taste, it has to do with their mission to make the computer on my desk belong to my IT department or the record label or the movie studio or—I suspect—the government.)
Web applications are dangerous. Never mind the fact that they make desktop applications obsolete. The people who built desktop applications just go and get jobs writing web applications. Same people, different shit. But as Giles Bowkett pointed out
, web applications just might make venture capital obsolete! When you don’t need hundreds of programmers and distribution channels and all the other friction-managing elements of a company that ships old-school software, you need a lot less money to start a business.
And on to media. You know that the web is busy putting newspapers out of business. My wife and I watched YouTube last Saturday Night. I’m not talking about the advertising business: I think we would have been happy to watch ads to watch our Mitch Hedberg and Billy Connoly comedy clips. But the web lets us choose what we want to watch, when we want to watch it. The network can’t put their up-and-coming show on right after their hit to give it a boost. The new show has to compete on its own merits. That puts users in control, and that’s dangerous.
Joel Spolsky said a similar thing about pricing all music at 99 cents a track: it means the labels can’t kill an artist by sticking their CD in the $3.99 crapola bin. Users choose what they want to listen to. That’s dangerous, again because users are in control.
Okay, that’s enough. Dangerous ideas are the ones that subvert the existing hierarchy of control, not just the ones that shuffle people around in the same old chairs. Apple Macintosh with a GUI replacing a PC with a command line? Not dangerous. Apple Macintosh with a Laserwriter and Aldus Pagemaker allowing someone to launch a magazine in their basement that competes with a company employing dozens of layout artists? That’s dangerous, and that’s interesting.
Dangerous equals subversive equals interesting.outro
Deep breath. Okay, the next thing is not particularly dangerous for the world at large, but it is for me. I am retiring from blogging and retiring from hacking on Ruby. Maybe I’ll un-retire one day. I don’t know, the future is not set.
Miles Davis wasn’t afraid to move on when the time was right, even if what he was doing seemed to make people happy. Respecting his legacy means seeking what he sought.
Remember how I said that microcomputers were not dangerous, but personal computers were? Right now, I would say this: Ruby is not dangerous, but Rails is dangerous and Merb is dangerous and Sinatra is dangerous. Rewriting for Ruby is interesting. I believe it is useful. But is it dangerous
Likewise, I can say with a clear conscience that while writing is gratifying, and trying to write out and explain ideas has helped me understand things, the writing I’ve been doing is not dangerous. It doesn’t subvert.
So while hacking away on Ruby the language and blogging about software development is gratifying and useful, they are not dangerous activities. They are microcomputers, but they are not personal computers.
I am going on vacation from August 2nd through 10th. During that time I plan to do absolutely no thinking about computers. For what it’s worth, I will be engaging in activities with faux danger: wreck diving and sport climbing. (p.s. these are not solitary pursuits: if you want to try some of the world’s greatest wreck diving and sport climbing, get in touch).
When I return, I will give things some serious thought and hopefully, discover a way I can help make our world a more dangerous place.
Thank you ever so much for your support and interest and feedback. Especial thanks to my fellow bloggers like Joel, Joey, Giles, Damien, Obie and so many others who exchanged ideas with me and kept the debate alive. And Reddit? And Hacker News? You rock, you are the future. I can’t wait to see how your communities and technologies evolve.