Sunday, June 15, 2008

Inspiration

As a kid I was always inspired by the tales of people who discovered and created exciting new things... inventors were heroes, in a way. I never really got into any one inventor—I wasn't, say, "Edison's biggest fan"—but I always revered them as a group. That's one of the things that excited me about getting into software. It was a way that I could create interesting things with a minimum amount of effort that wasn't directly related to the task; my creativity could be turned into something that worked more easily than, say, a chemist or physicist could. (Somewhat ironically, I guess, creating software for the "real world" has much more overhead and is much more like chemistry and physics than I had hoped as a teenager.)

As I've grown older, those feelings have changed. I think that "jaded" and "disillusioned" are both too strong of words to describe the feeling, but more proper words fail me at the moment. It's more just that computing is so vast that it's hard to imagine myself ever being part of something truly magical anymore. As I look back at the past decade or two, a lot of the big achievements have not been technical; they've been lucky. That's not to say that incredible new things haven't been created—MP3, peer-to-peer networking, JPEG, the internet, and so on—but a lot of the revolutions have been by chance. Take MySpace and Facebook. While those two websites are very important culturally, they're fairly worthless from a technology standpoint. What hack sitting in his parents' basement couldn't dream up a website where people log on and post details about themselves? I imagine that Facebook and MySpace have been designed thousands of times, or more. I drew up plans for a site basically identical to MySpace and Facebook over the summer and my freshman year in college, after a few years of "internet experience." You had friends lists, you'd share things about your day with your friends, and you could network with other people. I thought, clearly errantly, that no one but the nerdiest geeks would ever be interested in it. Had I designed it today, it'd probably even look a lot like Facebook, considering how much I like blue and white. While newer developments like the mini-feed and applications have some novelty, the basic concept is mostly worthless. Facebook succeeded because it was done well, but also because it was lucky enough to have worked.

That's usually what you need today. You have to do a good job, good enough to win over the other people doing the exact thing as you, and you have to be lucky enough to get a break. That's how technology advances most of the time, it seems. A hundred thousand people all think of pretty much exactly the same thing, a thousand of them do it, and a couple of them succeed, partially on their own merits, and partially by chance. It's more about timing and the drive to see things through and less about the neat technology.

Which is fine, and all. I'd be very happy if I went to my grave having created something that changed the world a little, even if a thousand other people did it too and mine was just the one that succeeded. It's just not as incredible and mysterious as my original grandiose dreams of changing the world with something nobody ever thought of. Either the unsettling speed of "internet time" has changed the way that technology is developed now, or my original dreams were just unrealistic imaginings of youth. It doesn't really matter.

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