Walking the walk has become a core lesson learned for me. I’ve tried to live an adult life of walking the walk instead of talking the talk. When I was a suburban, socially disconnected kid, I spent most of my time on early BBCs, gaming networks, and the internet posing as a normal adult because that was the only way I could fit in. As I got older, I actually was a normal adult, but I still felt left out. It wasn’t until I joined the Army that I began to understand how important it is to be a member of a community and to “know” what it is to be in a community.
Since then I have moved on from the Army and intelligence community, although I still keep in touch with people there, and can spot those types instantly from a crowd. I went and joined another community, the Georgetown community, and, with more time, became a tangential member of the DC community. Those people have their own customs, rituals, schedules, and uniforms. In many ways, DC people are not unlike military people: long hours, dedication towards greater purposes, responsibility, discipline.
My infatuation with starting a company has continued to grow. But I’ve found just how incompatible the DC community is with social entrepreneurship in my area, online stuff. While there are a lot of initiatives in DC, partly because of cloud computing, cheap CPU cycles, and Obama’s initiatives to drag the government into the present, you can sum up most early pitches in DC this way:
"Looking for Full-Time Coder for DC Start-Up"
It’s funny because in DC, you can stop anyone on the street and they will be some high-level program manager or policy wonk interested in federal-level funding and grant-making for this or some other project. But when it comes to finding people to implement all these plans and programs in a tangible way, the pool is thin.
Contrast this with stories from Silicon Valley, which is continuously castigated for building only incremental improvements to useless features. One-hit non-wonders. Things that make a prettier gadget abusing a Google Calendar API. Or making a more hipsterish movie review site.
So DC is great, important ideas in search of engineers, while Silicon Valley is talented engineers in search of serious projects.
If I had my way, I would found an engineering school in DC, and feed students into the projects that DC is dying to implement. Instead of relying solely on schools like Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon, DC should have some sort of computer science/social entrepreneurship program.
It might even need a broader project than that. I often think about the short booklet I read from SnarkMarket called the “New Liberal Arts”. The booklet proposes a new curriculum for students to learn applicable skills to our digital world: attention economics, coding and decoding, finding, food, home economics, inaccuracy, iteration, journalism, mapping, marketing, micropolitics, myth and magic, negotiation, play, and video literacy, among others.
I’ve found through my job, which involves me reading pretty much as much as I can that comes across the web daily, that so many people are lacking in fundamental skills to interpret their world. They do not know how to parse a story to see a particular agency’s bias, or to see which facts are actually facts and which were selectively chosen for inclusion. The ability to figure out important data from unimportant data is also woefully lacking. There is so much fluff in the world, in the form of excess meetings, long and boring Powerpoint decks, redundant employees, stifling bureaucracy, that it seems like a system built more to protect constituencies than to be lean and efficient.
Just read internet comments some time if you want to see how badly people interpret data they read online. It’s so bad that Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, said the inability to judge facts and disprove false stories online is one of the biggest problems out there.
“Sir Tim told BBC News that there needed to be new systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources.
“”On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable,” he said. “A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging.”"
Students do not know how to build the things they study. The top jobs are going towards lawyers and businessmen, but their studies are so abstracted from anything concrete that it’s all just theoretical to them. The culture of hacking, where you sit down quickly and prototype things with simple building blocks, does not exist in most bureaucracies, and it’s certainly bred out of children by the time they reach high school. The only escape for natural hackers has been the internet and for people who live out in the country and are exposed to working with their hands with minimal supervision.
Everyone has great ideas, but few have the know-how to implement or even prototype them. Which means the ideas die. Few are part of the appropriate communities to make things happen, either.
That is. I learned in the Army that if you’re not in the military, you have no clue what military culture is like. Military bases are usually separated from the rest of the American fabric, in small towns that exist only because of the base. Veterans and their family members live in a separate world. Thus to hear people talk about the military without never having been close to it is so hard to swallow. Likewise, I just became a full Catholic, during a publicized, grueling, disgusting scandal of pedophilia within the Catholic bishopry. (Indeed, before the Easter Vigil before my baptism began, I stood outside the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and some guy in flipflops walking his dog tried to cut through our preparatory line and said, “Excuse me, child molesters”, as he walked through. What, so all Catholics are child molesters? Have we reached this level of disdain for strangers we meet in the world?)
My more agnostic and atheist friends ask me why I would join the Church, knowing about all this. Again, a Catholic within the Church would not ask. A religious person would not need to ask. Churches, despite being so numerous, and religious folk, despite being a clear majority in the US and in the world, exist in a separate world than the rest. Put a pastor next to a programmer and I’m sure you’ll rarely see such polar opposites.
So I’ve been in some pretty disconnected communities. Would that make me a crypto-first-world-urban anthropologist?
I was actually fortunate enough to have a Mac Plus and subsequent Apple products (even the Newton) because my dad would get them as part of his professor’s grant. And I remember learning Logo and Pascal in school, while playing with BASIC at home (typing in those programs out of books and then running them). As I got older, I wished badly to be able to speak in different human languages. I wondered why I couldn’t have known French or Spanish while a lot of people I knew were multi-lingual. When I became an Arabic linguist in the Army, I really lamented it.
But since then, as the internet has exploded, English has become a comfortable lingua franca for me, and what has become far more important to me is computer language. Why couldn’t I have become a god at C++ or Java? Would I need to have gone into CS in school to do that? Would that have doomed me to a linear career? I’ve picked up PHP inasmuch as I need it to prototype and build stuff online — I guess it’s no accident I spent time learning PHP since it’s so easy to build out online.
One article I read recently from RSA, talked about employing the human “third drive”, which roughly coincides with Maslow’s higher levels of human needs. The article claims that carrots and sticks at work is rarely effective and sometimes harmful. Management leads to compliance only, in many cases, as rigid hierarchy means people are only ultimately going to care about their own lane and not take on extra work, which may get them in trouble.
It’s tough because in any organization, the top people may not be the best people to “start” a project. Someone at the lowest level of an organization may have figured out what the organization needs in order to improve, but the authorization and legitimacy bestowed upon that person does not exist. Thus the idea will never see the light of the day. The higher up on the food chain, the less likely the people will be to possess skills needed to prototype. I think this is why I’m so preferential towards organizations that hire strictly engineers and people with serious experience — they were at that lowest level once, and knew the pitfalls invisible to the highest people.
At The Future of Web Design conference in Miami a couple years ago, and with a recent NYTimes article, people have begged for more women in computer science. I’m beginning to wonder if my above hypothesis, that there’s a disconnect between the cultural maps of doers/searchers vs. planners, holds true for women too. DC is interesting because it’s known as the WORST city in the world for single women to find a mate, because women here are so highly-educated and well-off, while outnumbering men.
Do women fall into communities and roles that by their nature seek to improve the human condition and standard of living? Would it be fair to say that while men have sought power in DC, women have sought to use social institutions to improve human lives? Could one say that women have not been as interested in hacking, which in many ways is a very solitary, almost autistic profession, and have sought instead positions that are more socially networked and responsible and creative?
Would there be more female hackers, and hackers in general, in DC if an institution existed to encourage computer science in a town that’s so heavily geared towards policymaking? I am beginning to think so. How can we link together the separate groups of engineers and policymakers/changemakers?
In a broader sense, shouldn’t America, which likes to see itself as a greasy-knuckles, hard-working blue-collar country (despite being the richest and fattest), find in itself a core value of walking the walk? After all, we used to subscribe to walking softly but carrying a big stick. We have imposing science, nuclear, and military programs. We were great because we had substance and experience unmatched elsewhere in the world. It is not like now, where what we value are lawyers who can argue any case as long as they’re paid well enough, or bankers who can innovate money out of our pockets while underlying assets remain unchanged in value, or businessmen who spend their lives adjusting reports while barely understanding the very product or service they sell. That is all image, abstracted away from the core economic and power realpolitik.
I just finished watching Season 4 of The Wire, which brings in the new component of Baltimore life, the public school system. What struck me was the experimental pilot program to remove the problem kids from the general population and try to socialize them, since they were all training to be “corner kids” and learning that school was just a safe zone to learn how to test rules and adults.
Are we preparing people to live and work in the world we now and will live in?
Can we move away from a culture of FOXNews, with its chickenhawk lawyers who rattle their swords on patriotism, love for the military, and mercantilist realpolitik but who consistently seem to have absolutely no experience in anything except morning zoo drive DJs, sportscasting, lawyerships, working for conservative thinktanks, etc.? Can we move away from seeking advice on small business and policymaking from people who have never started a business or who make fun of community organizing?
Can we praise a culture where walking the walk, being a member of a community instead of an outside criticizer and observer, becomes the gold standard?