@darph writes here. Rarely.

Archive for December 2012

Matz gets it

The revolution will not be televised

Robert X. Cringely identifies one of the problems of Americas slowly shrinking relevance in tech as somewhat of a numbers problem (if China has more people and the distribution of geniuses is uniform, they'll have, in absolute numbers, more geniuses) and one way of fighting this imbalance would be to increase the yield by better identifying and nurturing said geniuses than other countries. He writes:

What this means in the technical and ultimately economic competition among nations is that a few very smart people can make the difference. We are mistaken to some extent, then, when we worry about average test scores and average performance. Sure these things are important, but they aren’t the key to future industries and breakthroughs, since those will be made pretty much entirely by a very small number of quite non-average people.

Finding and nurturing those non-average folks, then, is not only a function vital to continued American success as a world power, it is also a heck of a lot easier to do than jacking-up everyone’s SAT scores by 50 points.

His proposed way of doing this is through a competition he dubbed Geek Idol:

America and the world are mad for talent competitions so I think we should have one for finding the best people to become computer scientists and engineers. Let’s start a discussion right here of what such a competition would look like, what it would measure, and how it would work.

I think it wouldn't work at all.

The geniuses, the geeks and nerds that get so obsessed with an idea, a topic or a field of knowledge, be it the inner workings of a light saber or advanced caching algorithms or how to scale a social network to be able to serve almost every human being on the continent, which is the kind of obsession you need to change the world, are not the kind of people who would subject themselves to the public humiliation that is televised (or otherwise broadcast) competitions. Cringely's says himself:

Remember this will only scale properly if we also make it entertaining. It has to be fun or it won’t happen.

The reason why these talent shows are so popular is, I believe, two-fold. One part is certainly the sense of awe and respect the you feel, when you see a mobile phone salesman performing opera, or a Korean homeless child singing like an angel, completely self trained. It gives you the feeling that you, everyday Jill or Joe, could achieve something similar. It's the embodiment of the American dream: everyone has a chance to greatness, you just have to go and do it!

There is another aspect to this spectacle though, and its the same mechanism as the talk shows of the 90s and the scripted reality shows of the early 2000s. It's watching all the other candidates, who don't make it. The ones who show up obviously, and horribly unprepared; the ones that are so full of themselves and yet lack any talent1. It is the public display of embarrassment that makes these shows interesting and funny. The ridicule.

“Neither E=mc2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal”

… says Winifred Galagher, quoted in Susan Cain's book "Quiet" in which she makes the case that a surprising amount of the greatest thinkers and innovators were exactly not the kind of people who would participate in such a public spectacle.

Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much,” a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral.

Of course, there’s another word for such people: thinkers.

The nerds and geeks that will shape and change the world are not going to be drawn out to the public by entertaining game shows — they might even not be interested in any kind of private contest, because this kind of recognition means nothing to them. They know very well that society does not understand and therefore not appreciate what they are doing and their peers will only judge them by their real life achievements.

Linus Torvald's public TV appearances are far in between, and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were not exactly media attention whores themselves. In how many mainstream publications has Matz, the creator of the Ruby programming language, even been mentioned? Nerds recognise street cred far more than public exposure, because they all are introverts who shy away from awkward publicity events.

Instead, the only kind of people these competitions would attract, I predict, are the kind of people that are responsible for the term Brogrammers. The kinds of people who bathe in the glamour of a TechCrunch article about their startup that they sell for millions, only to see it "being sunset" after half a year, without having provided anything of lasting value. The kinds of people who found companies with the sole purpose of exiting after a year or two with a fat profit. While this certainly still seems to work for them (though if hacker news is any indicator, the sentiment seems to be shifting) and blesses them with riches, they are a fad. They provide no lasting value.

And finding the people who do change the world for the better was the whole point of the exercise in the first place, wasn't it?

  1. Justin Kruger and David Dunning won a Nobel prize for their publication Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. This is thus known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. American Idol (etc.) are masters of exploiting this effect for the entertainment of others.