The Legend of John
Henry holds a steel
driver in contest with a steam-powered hammer, casting human excellence against
the progress of technology. Henry is a folk hero, but he dies betting against
technology. The point isn’t that technology wins, though — we don’t really
lose when technology wins.
I’m a technologist, but I’m not in it for the tech — I’m in it for making
things that make things better. Code is an unreasonably effective lever. It
sounds syrupy to say it, but I believe that computers are the best way for me
to make the world better. They work faster and more tirelessly than I could.
Bits travel the world freely, providing value to people I will never meet.
Things I wrote 10 years ago are still doing useful work, and they may continue
to do so after I am gone.
But there is a gap in society. Technologists are seen as wizards, in the
Matrix. Sometimes they are shown as heroic, nerdy, or villainous, but always
unassailably “other”. Normal people don’t do this thing. Normal people feel
disenfranchised by technology. Some people feel it’s useful but don’t see
themselves ever producing with it. Very few people see technology for what it
really is: a tool for your use. People often suppose that tech sophistication
is a function of generation — that there was a web generation, a mobile
generation, that the next generation will get it better.
I disagree. Tech is changing more rapidly, not less, while our ability to
incorporate the new capabilities into our practices, norms, and laws is staying
constant. Each generation’s youth get a head start on incorporating new things
because early in life everything is new — we have fewer bad patterns to
match. But the faster
the strides of tech, the more quickly youth’s head start is overtaken. But we
can choose not to be John Henry.
It would help everybody if we worked to close this gap, and casting the gap as
generational does real harm because it encourages waiting while we might act.