Sometimes, when I have difficulty relating to other people, I stop to wonder if it’s because I live in the future.
As I was leaving my office last night, I realized that I’m currently living at least a few years into the future. As I flipped the switches for the office lights, I watched our robotic vacuum cleaner meander around the carpeted floors. It may not have the personality of Rosie from the Jetsons, but our Roomba is a part of my daily life nonetheless. When I walked out the door, I wanted to listen to some music on the ride home, so I spoke to my cell phone to instruct it to launch Pandora and start playing some Daft Punk. Not only was the voice command process futuristic, but the music’s eclectic mix of old-school funk and modern electronica is filled with progressive undertones. I listened to a slightly dated Country music song last week, which professed that, “…these bills won’t pay themselves…”. This prompted my snarky internal reply that the songwriter must not have discovered the auto-billpay systems that have mostly automated my finances. As a member of the Quantified Self movement, I have collected more data on my diet, sleep patterns, and physical performance than did most Olympic athletes a generation ago. This provides me with early warning signs when I’m not getting enough sleep, when I’m eating too much sugar, and when my efficiency as a runner or cyclist increases as desired. Everywhere I go, there’s an internet connection, unless I choose to avoid it. With that connection, I can instantly communicate with any person I’ve ever met, on continents around the world, at a net cost of free. For my birthday next year, I’ll be asking for a personal genome assessment – which will cost $99.
There are problems that we have yet to solve. Love vs Hatred. Self-Control vs Addiction. Disease. And there are whole new problems that we have created. The economy. Happiness vs GDP. Texting while driving. Obesity.
Caught in the middle: Anachronisms
The other day at a coffee shop, I watched an employee with a wireless biometric sensor on his wrist walking around the store doing a quality control inspection…on a clipboard. While I’m a huge fan of paper and pencil for creative tasks, it doesn’t seem to make sense for data collection that will eventually be digitized. At a meeting recently, an advisor of mine told me that her (technology) company still operates like it’s the 1980s, but her job is to bring her clients forward from the 1950s. It’s possible that my perspective as an early-adopter of new technology actually puts me at an empathetic disadvantage, especially when trying to sell technology products to enterprise customers.
What is our goal of technological progress? What are we working toward? I have some opinions on this, but there are a few concepts that I think we’re really struggling to deal with. The most prominent is abundance vs scarcity. Food technology has advanced to the point that we have more sustenance than we need to sustain ourselves. Now the Western world has crested the summit of hunger and is sliding down the slope of obesity. The same goes for our advances in information technology. We have no shortage of ways to communicate with each other, yet we waste this on cat pictures. The content of an Ivy League education is freely available on the web, yet the cost of attending public universities continues to rise. We’re at a transition where our skills of acquisition and storage are becoming less important than those of curation and discipline. Imposing a shift like this, so quickly and without the benefit of multi-generational transition time, yields a towering task.
This post was only meant to be a stub. It was a brief mention of a few themes that I’d like to explore in a much longer form. If you’d like to follow along as I begin writing my first book, check out this Google Doc. It’s entirely possible that this will end up not as a novel (as I intend), but as a short story (acceptable), or just an abandoned document (most likely).
I’ve always wanted to teach a class. A few weeks ago, following conversations with people in the Awesome Inc community, I decided to create a class called “Programming For Absolute Beginners”. This class offers an introduction to software development based on an excellent (and free) resource called Learn Python The Hard Way. We only announced the class internally (to our Tenants, Team Alpha, and the Experience teams at Awesome Inc) but still had 12 people sign up within 3 days. I was pretty surprised with the response; I thought it would be a struggle to find half that many people. And, following the first and second sessions of the 5.5 week course, both the students (and I) seem to be enjoying the process.
There are two reasons that I’m so excited that this course is able to take place:
I get joy in empowering other people. Education is one great way to empower people. “The more you know,” right? I’ve actually approached the class as more of a facilitator than a teacher. With the varying skill levels of the “students” in the class, and the ability for anyone to move through the material at their own pace, everyone in the group has the ability to serve as a teacher. So, at a meta level, I’m not only teaching a group of people how to be programmers, but also teaching them how to programming teachers. In fact, based on how quickly several of the students took on the role of peer-teacher, I didn’t really have to “teach” them how to do this. I just gave them the opportunity to use their skills. And while this might be bad for my job security as a teacher, it’s great for expanding our ability to help more people. And if that means that more people like Therese, who wrote her first program ever last night, will feel this empowerment, then our time invested is totally worth it.
The world needs more makers. For a generation or so, the title of “skilled workers” has gotten a bad rap. It has become viewed as a subpar status, denoting people who have chosen non-university educational paths, or pursued non-white collar careers. The thing about most white collar jobs, however, is that they operate at a level of abstraction beyond actual productive work. If white collar workers stopped working, we’d lose the ability to account, litigate, and manage. If blue collar workers stopped working, no new stuff would come into existence. There would be no food, no clothes, no cars, and no music on the radio. Herein lies the magic of programming: it’s a white collar job (read: prestigious, well-paid), yet it’s also a blue collar job (programmers actually make things). At this particular point in history, our ability to solve many of the world’s problems is only inhibited by our ability to understand those problems, and our ability to turn the solution into working software. Hunger, energy, peace, communication, drugs, poverty. In solving any of these problems, the lowest-hanging fruit can be addressed through appropriate computer software. So, by helping a few more people become developers, we’re doing a small part to make the world a better place.
A final note on this is how easy it was to go from discussing the idea for a class, to deciding to do it, to starting it. This all happened within 2 weeks. The two major factors that made this so easy:
- Availability of course material. Thanks, Zed! (also, thanks in advance to iTunes U, Udacity, Coursera, and even Wikipedia)
- The power of the Awesome Inc community. I didn’t have to search for a physical space to host the class, or struggle to market to a critical mass of potential attendees.
Based on our initial results, we’ll be offering more of these courses in the future. If there’s anything you’d like to learn (or teach), leave me a note in the comments!