Sunday, March 09, 2014

Why Software May Not Eat The World: The Bitcoin Experience

There is massive arrogance in the technology circles, captured best perhaps by Marc Andreessen's WSJ article proclaiming the same. The rise of the 'information economy', though a bit of jargon in itself, has boosted such rhetoric: Today, technologists confidently sermonise others on how to do healthcare, education, construction, everything else, and even money. It did seem that this is the final frontier, a scientific thesis that is really un-falsifiable. Until Bitcoin.

Bitcoin possibly shows what's wrong with this position. It is not about the technology or the economics of it, nor the failure of Mt Gox. It is about the underlying proposition that software can save/ change everything. It may appear arrogant, but the recent pronouncements of Jon Matonis that Bitcoin is a currency in beta and you should only invest if you can afford to lose (see story here), is really symptomatic that software may be living inside a bubble itself. And, bubble in this context is not a financial one, which is what Marc Andreessen so labouriously argues against, but a bubble of own self image - about what it can or can not change, or even should try to change.

Writing on blogger with my Mac, it is hypocritical for me to suggest that the software hasn't changed the world: It certainly has. But its recent appetite to devour, rather than serve, is different. Despite all the solemn proclamations of the Bitcoin crowd, do I really want my currency to be run by a group of people in the shadows, who live in a dog-eat-dog world and couldn't care less if a few people are financially naive and lose all their money? And, similar anxieties may reasonably extend to education, healthcare, maintenance of roads and bridges, monitoring food standards, all the activities which may serve the less able and may have an inherent duty of care: Do the software crowd understand they have a responsibility or do they at all care?

Bitcoin is perhaps an extreme example. It has been shadowy and speculative, and despite all the brilliant technologies that have gone into it, it was so popular because its timing was perfect. This was not about the lack of faith on the banks at a time of recession, as the Bitcoin advocates laid out. This coincided with a time when the national governments are trying hard to crack down on money laundering, and Bitcoin provided the perfect tool to continue doing this. In a world where there is too much money in too few hands having too little use other than itself, this was great. But the hope that this will erase out our banks and institutions is an expectation too far, and it should remain that way.

We may be losing sight of the fact that technology is only one aspect of the changes. Technology does not change everything. It augments our capability to do certain tasks better. However, technology does not make us more responsible and caring. In fact, in some cases, it reduces our sense of responsibility. When someone flies a drone sitting in a Military Base and shoots down real people, it is a lot easier and a lot less human. If this was an extreme example, a variant of that applies to teaching: When I teach on a computer screen a person in Vietnam eager to learn English Language, I know a lot less about her and care a lot less about her than if I was teaching her face to face. And, while one could argue that my being able to teach her make her better off in the first place, because she may not have access to alternative teaching to replace this experience, I must reflexively assume the duty of care that comes with the convenience of teaching through technology. Unless I am able to do this, technology will create an impoverished experience.

So, I am arguing that software is failing to eat the world not because of itself, but the values that are associated with it. The values of the technology industry, typified in the Bitcoin arrogance better than elsewhere, falls short of this reflexive responsibility of additional care, the sensitivity that when we are dealing with the 'world', it will include less able and the less fortunate, and we must demonstrate our ability to be responsive and responsible for those. My immediate concern is not currency but education, where the industrial efficiencies of technological education is celebrated, and while I treat this as a good thing - indeed I am a practitioner myself - I am concerned putting technology first, as its advocates tend to do, creates more problems than solutions and changes the practice irreversibly for worse.

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