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12 Jul 2009

FutureRuby and Californian Conflict

Update: Jesse’s talk is now online should you want to watch it.

Before this all fades from my brain in the post-conference haze, I just wanted to post a few thoughts on the final session of the amazing FutureRuby conference in Toronto. Jesse Hirsh delivered an impassioned argument against what he labels the Imperial Californian Idealogy.

As someone who is most definitely left-of-centre, the bulk of this talk appealed to me. A call to action, highlights of the flaws of the capitalism, railing against the environmental destruction caused by the pursuit of wealth – it ticked the boxes.

There were a lot of references to the prominent place in history that San Francisco holds when it comes to mining, wars and weaponry, corporations and politics. I won’t go into those, because I’ll probably get it wrong. I have no bones to pick with that part of the talk, though.

It wasn’t immediately clear to me that he was attacking (some of) the ideals put forward by Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly and Chris Anderson – at first, I thought they were the alternative movement to the old San Francisco elite that was initially described. All three names hold some credibility for me, so that was an interesting twist.

That said – and if we take the points on Anderson’s Free as accurate – then I’m happy to buy into at least some of the criticism, particularly around the push for acceptance of waste. I agree completely that the wasteful nature of people has got us into the current ecological mess. It promotes a very narrow, selfish view, instead of a more holistic approach. Indeed, holistic solutions was the end point Hirsh was driving at.

My main issue? The revolutionary, us-vs-them vibe. It felt implied that we are the elite, the creators, the visionaries. The ones who know best, the ideal internet citizens. There’s enough division in the world as it is. Not that I think Jesse is advocating such an approach, but that’s how the message came across to me. Granted, the Snowcrash references were lost on me, so that didn’t help.

Besides, revolutions are (more often than not) ineffective routes to change. Evolution is the road I much prefer to walk down.

Anyway, I’m off to the afterparty to discuss all this further with other attendees. If you weren’t there, then this probably doesn’t make much sense to you – watch the video, see if that helps.

Comments

20 responses to this article

12 Jul 2009
Lar Van Der Jagt said:

Agreed on all your points, though I can forgive a bit of the us-vs-them as I think it was mostly just to hype us up and reinforce the community vibe that was so prevalent over the weekend. The calls to action were all on a personal level as far as I could tell, not things meant as antagonistic towards “them”. Meaning we can take their power from them just by opting out of their game. We will talk more soon.

13 Jul 2009
James Healy said:

Now I’m curious about the talk. Were the sessions recorded?

13 Jul 2009
pat said:

James: Yup, I think they’ll end up on InfoQ at some point – not sure how soon though.

13 Jul 2009
Serene Yew said:

It’s interesting that you wrote a post about it, because the talk angered me quite a bit. I had to fly out right after the conference, but I hope there was a discussion about this afterwards.

I felt that it did give me a sense of us vs. them and the impression that we are better than them. I really disliked the comments about how everyone on Facebook and Twitter are idiots (although I’m not on either), and how the “Internet has gone to shit”. If we’re really gonna go there, the world has gone to shit. The Internet was not made just for us programmers because we’re special in some way. The evolution of the Internet to allow the inclusion of the public has helped us more than we are ever going to admit.

It is also obscene to be part of a community in which everyone seemed to feel we were the elite. It’s not like we have a lack of arrogant programmers. Humility is the only way to learn and improve. Maybe we should be preaching that next time.

13 Jul 2009
pat said:

Serene: Appreciate your thoughts on the issue, and it’s sparked a bit more reflection for me.

Completely agree that elitism should be avoided, and it wouldn’t hurt the Ruby community to have a solid dose of humility. This really needs be reinforced, because it’s so easy for people to get caught up in the passion of the talks, drink the kool-aid, and ignore other opinion. I think it’s fair to say this is the case moreso at FutureRuby than RailsConf, because of the nature of the event.

Definitely something to keep in mind for the next iteration of RubyFringe/FutureRuby.

13 Jul 2009
Brian Kaney said:

I had a great time and learned from all sessions. But I agree with Serene, although was not quite angered as much. It is hard for me to take someone too seriously who primarily uses negative-sell to press a point.

At at the beginning, Hirsh said Twitter was full of lame, but later it is a leading basis for many traditional news pieces… I was a bit puzzled – is he saying the content of Twitter useful or not? Or was he saying there are just idiots on Twitter, and therefore we should avoid or be careful using it?

Anyway, a big +1 on humility, maybe a ruby/railsbridge-esque talk next year. I am more of an ‘us’ person anyway.

14 Jul 2009
Pete Forde said:

So excited to see intelligent discourse on this subject! I even slept before responding to avoid any XKCD-ish mis-steps.

Part of the reason that we started the conference with failure is that the web is so full of skin-deep positivity. Yes, it’s true that we learn from failure, but for me it’s also about allowing ourselves a brief vacation from the effects of constant false-positive on our brain. I hope that this makes sense; I’m not talking about encouraging cynicism but a friendly, calm reality check about the fact that people in our web hive often tend to be obsessed with painting an unrealistically positive picture of how things really are.

futureruby was not a trending topic during the weekend. It was not because people weren’t tweeting furiously, but simply because there are so many more people on Twitter now. I am not at liberty to say the number, but it’s a lot higher than you think (write down a number and 15X it, for realz) and with that popularity comes a predictable decline in signal to noise. It might be pretentious to declare people talking about banalities “idiots” but Jesse didn’t mean that they were drooling on themselves so much as that they are “the masses”. People who think that the last US administration were stand-up guys, or that climate change is a weak theory. Large groups of people are idiots. I’ve been an idiot for large blocks of my life.

Anyhow, I hope I can clarify that Jesse was not suggesting that we are on some higher level than everyone else… if anything, I know that he has more faith in the working class as a whole than a room full of mostly white, mostly straight, mostly male geeks.

Instead, his point was similar to what Nathaniel Talbott said on Saturday: we geeks — the real Morlocks — frequently forget that we have a massive amount of control, power, and influence in today’s society. We control the infrastructure of the world! The world relies on us for communication, transportation, medicine, entertainment, finance, and even warfare.

Re-read Jesse’s ultimate point: “The struggle for human rights never ends, the only question is which side are you on?”

FutureRuby was all about breaking out of passivity to use our powers for good.

14 Jul 2009
Pete Forde said:

Damn you, Textile.

14 Jul 2009
Anthony Watts said:

I really didn’t come away from that talk with a sense of elitism. One of the closing points was about getting out there and participating in your local community – we are special, we are artists with unique skills that can do a lot of good in this world. You can’t say that about most of this shit on the internet. Twitter is full of fuckwads screwing it up for everyone else. So is Facebook. But it doesn’t have to be that way if we have our say.

14 Jul 2009
Serene Yew said:

I’m not on Twitter, and I’m not on Facebook, but Jay Tennier was nice enough to help me understand what you meant by trending topics, and also informed me that “Michael Jackson” is still a trending topic. Although I do kind of agree with Hirsh about the banalities that society finds interesting, I also know that sometimes I’m not really above it.

There was a girl sitting beside me who is from California, and she wasn’t really impressed by the comments against the “Californian Ideology”. It also upset me that it upset her.

I hope that people didn’t leave the talk with a sense of elitism, and I’m glad that there is intelligent conversation about this instead of a flame war. We are not perfect and dare I say, neither is Ruby. Yes, we have some control, and we have some power, but we don’t always do everything right.

15 Jul 2009
Pete Forde said:

I’m with you, Serene — I don’t want anyone to go home feeling like we just told them to fuck off! However, if someone from California felt like they were being personally attacked simply because California is where Silicon Valley is, that would be unfair to them and Jesse because that’s simply not what he was saying.

The valley is just highways, strip malls, and office parks. If you ended up there, you might wonder why you came and what you were expecting to see. It certainly isn’t beautiful in any aesthetic way! It’s just a place where stuff happens, and like any place, there’s a hierarchy of people in charge that use a variety of techniques to keep everyone in there place. This is just business as usual.

For someone to take umbrage at Jesse’s words, they have to have something to lose if the majority of people suddenly realize that what he’s saying is true.

It’s quite likely that the person sitting with you stands to gain a lot from ditching those same masters.

As creatives and developers and citizens of the Internet, we have a tremendous amount of power to change these structures. That doesn’t make us better people, just people that have the power to change things for the better.

17 Jul 2009
pat said:

Pete, Anthony, Serene: Thanks for your comments, and sorry it’s taken me a couple of days to respond. Things are getting crazy for me with preparations for Rails Camp.

Pete and Anthony: regarding signal to noise on Twitter, I think we’ve got a bit of a different situation there than in other media, because of the asynchronous nature of following (instead of friending). That provides a healthy (well, healthier) level of control over noise. I imagine it’s only a matter of time until most clients have filters for incoming tweets, much like you can in mail clients. What needs to be encouraged is unfollowing, and not feeling obliged to follow back. This isn’t a new idea, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, your twitter follower/following numbers indicate you’re well aware of it.

Anthony: The idea that we shouldn’t have certain people on Twitter or Facebook sounds a little elitist to me – or are you suggesting that we can change the services so people aren’t “screwing it up for everyone else”, instead of keeping the “fuckwads” off these services?

Pete: For what it’s worth, I picked up the attack was not on California itself, but some of the people and concepts that have come from it. And I’m generally agreeing with all your other points :)

As for us being people that have the power to change things for the better, I would love to see discussion on concrete actions that make that change happen. It’s something I try to encourage others to do.

17 Jul 2009
Anthony Watts said:

I should have been clearer – I certainly don’t think those services should be exclusive in that sense. I have a low tolerance for noise on Twitter and Facebook and I am very wary of the marketers who just can’t wait to sink their teeth into them. That’s the “us vs. them” I was thinking of during Jesse’s talk.

I agree with you about encouraging people to unfollow. I’ve recently unfriended a ton of people on Facebook and kept my contact to friends and family only. Same with Twitter to a lesser extent, although I seem to get a lot of follows from people who obviously don’t care about what I have to say. I almost wish that I could approve followers on my account. Thankfully, there is blocking :)

Anyway, thanks for keeping the dialogue going. I’d actually love to hear what Jesse has to say about the feedback.

20 Jul 2009
Serge said:

Was this a rehash of Barbrook on Californian Ideology, then?

29 Jul 2009
Steve Hopkins said:

I’m only going to leave this one quote, which I love at the moment.

“The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed yet” (William Gibson)

Sure, there is an element of ‘us vs them.’ I think there always has been in all evolutions or revolutions. Why else would we be sparked to change if we couldn’t see ‘them’ behind us?

The problem becomes, as you point out Pat, one of greater magnitudes when we believe our world view as the only correct one. Yes, it’s true that in terms of computer programming and generally getting computers to do things you want, you guys are kings (well, I admire you!). But, this doesn’t mean there isn’t already another future here, now, which is building. This doesn’t mean that there are other leaders, in other fields (I’m thinking social entrepreneurs in developing economies) who are not also ushering in an existing future now which we could look at as stupid, except that it is not at all!

Anyways, great discussion and conversation. I’m quite sure i’ve missed most (all) of the subtle points and issues surrounding the specific ruby conversation, but thought I would just drop the quote in anyways. It helps me daily at the moment. :)

04 Aug 2009
Jordan Bettis said:

So is it going to go up on BlipTV or someplace where I can download it? That “InfoQ” setup is horrid.

And pretty ironically so considering the vibe that the conference appears to be trying to put off.

04 Aug 2009
Pete Forde said:

Jordan: I’m not sure what your concern with InfoQ is, as it’s basically just Youtube + Slides.

In the case of Jesse’s talk, there are no slides, so you just hit fullscreen and enjoy.

We have no intention of posting the raw video content, and that has nothing to do with the “vibe” of the event.

Hugs!

04 Aug 2009
Jordan Bettis said:

Whatever InfoQ is doing it doesn’t work with gnash, while youtube works fine. Why not put it on youtube?

The conference appears to be trying to appear as an anti-douchebaggery meeting. That InfoQ site drips douchebaggery. It seems like a weird combination.

05 Aug 2009
James Healy said:

Like you Pat most of Jesse’s underlying message resonated with me. Yes we should consider the community impact of our projects. No we shouldn’t swallow the get-rich-when-google-buys-us approach hook, line, and sinker. Thinking with our wallets first will not always give us the best results from a community health perspective.

I didn’t get a strong “us-vs-them” vibe from the talk, although I do think he’s comments on AOL and twitter users were poorly worded and overly negative.

My main issue was that his core message was obfuscated by political buzzword bingo. I too consider myself “left of centre”, however I felt like I’d been cornered by a neo-marxist on a uni campus. I suppose the references to revolution, comrades and anarchism were included as a shock alternative to the status quo, but for me they diluted the message.

05 Aug 2009
James Healy said:

Oh, I’m also not a fan of watching presentations on InfoQ.

I’ve been spoiled by confreaks and now have a strong preference for downloadable videos I can watch on a device of my choosing at a time of my choosing. Like my TV or iphone.

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