There’s a game called Universal Paperclips in which one plays the villain: a paperclip maximizer, or an AI whose purpose is to make as many paperclips as possible, at any expense. The result of this, should the thought experiment become real, would be our own quick death; the machine would want our matter for its own work.
Paperclip maximizers come to mind often, as someone who’s worked in the tech industry for more than a decade, and has nothing to show for it. I didn’t get rich. I didn’t change the world. I know approximately 47 programming languages, but who cares? I’m 34 years old and the vast majority of my time in this industry has been pure waste and an embarrassment.
There’s one thing I got from the tech industry. Although I developed the illness beforehand, my panic disorder really came into its own thanks to open-plan offices and startup health insurance. It didn’t help that, when I was finally on the mend in 2011, I joined Google and had a manager who provoked attacks for his own amusement. That was fun.
If I hadn’t gotten myself stuck in the tech industry, the condition would have fully remitted by now, if not several years ago. Instead, the fight has gone on for a decade, and I’m not fully out just yet.
So, my souvenir from the tech industry is, rather than some neat futuristic bauble, a defect in an ancient part of my brain, the amygdala.
When I grew up, in the 1980s, we learned about what technology might do one day: holiday lunar trips, robot servants, an end to illness, certainly an end to work except for the most rewarding kinds of it. And what have we actually achieved? Fucking Bitcoin. A 140-character President. Literal fake news. That’s what we have to show for ourselves.
As private-sector programmers, we’ve unemployed a lot of people: we’ve annihilated hundreds of millions of jobs. Some of these people got better jobs; many didn’t. We never cared when it was happening to other people, but now we have “Agile Scrum” and Jira and open-plan offices and the surveillance system we built… sits over us, its passive-management eye always watching.
In what we do, as private-sector programmers, where is the honor? There’s none. We are a failed tribe that has made rich people richer– even at our own expense. If we’re lucky, our work will be erased and we will be forgotten.
This may explain the Fermi Paradox. Perhaps there is a plateau of mediocrity at which, though a civilization could continue to innovate, it chooses not to. Perhaps it does not go the way of violence, but bored purposelessness. Perhaps we are not totally alone in the universe, but all those other supposedly intelligent civilizations are mired in thousands of years of user stories and TPS reports. Seems unlikely, right? Sure. But it’s even more absurd, if we could send a man to the Moon using 1969 computers, that we’re using supercomputers to run Jira and do “user stories” in 2017.