Albert Einstein probably never actually said that the most important question facing humanity is whether the universe is a friendly place. But it is a good question.
A dog-eat-dog, unfriendly universe diverts energy away from higher goals like creativity, love and meaning and towards more basic needs like protection and security. Maslow described it as a hierarchy of needs, where the absence of physiological and safety blocks access to what most people would consider makes life most worth living.
All of this relates to our relationship with technology. When we develop robotics and artificial intelligence for use as advanced weaponry, what we’re really saying is that the universe is an unfriendly place and that we need to protect ourselves. While that’s true at one level, these investments also paradoxically create more insecurity in the world. North Korea did get nuclear weapons after all, and our drones will eventually be cloned. It’s a race to out-secure one another where no one ever truly gets ahead.
In this process, we also divert massive resources away from more noble applications of these very same technologies.
The Rise of the Coder
Business managers and financial wizards still largely shape tomorrow’s technologies. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin might well break the financial sector’s monopoly on funding new technologies, but there’s an even more fundamental shift already underway.
As software rapidly eats the world and automation subsumes more of what businesses actually do, the importance of software developers becomes harder to miss. Coders are becoming the primary way that value is created in business. This isn’t some trivial, passing phenomenon, but a marked shift in the way business works.
You don’t have to look hard for signs of this power shift. Competition for developer talent is accelerating between our fastest-growing, most valuable firms, and if you happen to have a background in the machine learning branch of artificial intelligence, you can pretty much write your own ticket.
I suspect that compensation is just the first stage of this long-term shift in business. As software accounts for more of the firm’s total value proposition, management that doesn’t care about developers’ opinions on the long-term strategy of the enterprise will become increasingly quaint and old-fashioned.
The most talented coders are extremely creative individuals. Even though they are quite comfortable harnessing the power of automation, they are almost artisanal in the way they work. We’re talking about individuals who derive a great deal of pride and meaning from their work. Over my last twenty-plus years working with software developers, I’ve found relatively few whose work is primarily motivated by big paychecks or hefty stock options.
The interesting question is what software developers would do with a new-found control over their creations and over the direction of tomorrow’s firms. Would they use it to perpetuate the story that the universe is an unfriendly place? Or, will they scrap that script and help us all to aim for something more?
Perhaps something more friendly.