What Has Software Done For Me Lately?
It may or may not be innovation, but it's rarely progress
Last week, technology writer Tim Lee revisited Marc Andreessen’s 2011 post, “Why Software is Eating the World.” Tim surveyed the results of the twelve years that followed Andreessen’s statement and was less than impressed with software’s impact on the world. From the vaunted sharing economy to cryptocurrency, there have been marginal gains at best, and more frequently less than that. It calls to mind another work published in 2011, Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation. To the crowd of tech optimists that made up his own closest cohort, Cowen said: compare this to building out the original electrical grid. To the discovery and deployment of penicillin. To indoor plumbing. Does any of it come close? Of course it doesn’t.
I was divided on Cowen’s thesis at the time, but eventually became convinced of one thing: we may or may not be successfully pushing the technoscientific frontier year after year, on the whole. But the Silicon Valley, venture capital backed, programming-focused enterprises that have drawn the most attention and excitement for most of my life have contributed very little. Tim mentioned that in 2011 the VCs were hoping to produce another win as big as Google or Facebook. But what about Facebook? Facebook accomplished no technological marvels. It simply happened to win first place in a market that has enormous network externalities, largely because of the contingency of how it rolled out initially. A world where Mark Zuckerberg never created Facebook is a world not noticeably different from our own. In terms of advancing the human experience, it is negligible, debatable that it’s even in the black at all compared to some modestly superior alternative that might have succeeded in its place.
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