Mark Sanghoon Kim Empathy is Key

Thoughts on Breaking Smart, Part 1

I stumbled upon Venkatesh Rao’s collection of essays titled Breaking Smart and found them very thought-provoking. Its first season is described on the website as “an in-depth exploration of Marc Andreessen’s observation that ‘software is eating the world.’” I wanted to share some insights from the essays I found particularly interesting.

Something momentous happened around the year 2000: a major new soft technology came of age. After written language and money, software is only the third major soft technology to appear in human civilization. Fifteen years into the age of software, we are still struggling to understand exactly what has happened. Marc Andreessen’s now-familiar line, software is eating the world, hints at the significance, but we are only just beginning to figure out how to think about the world in which we find ourselves. (Rao, “A New Soft Technology”)

Written language and money were two ‘soft technologies’ that changed the world. It is intriguing that Rao places software into the same group as written language and money (and also not mentioned here, mathematics). I think we can agree that software is also changing the world, every day, and I like how Rao makes the connection between the inventions of written language, money, and mathematics, with the invention of software.

As a simple example, a 14-year-old teenager today (too young to show up in labor statistics) can learn programming, contribute significantly to open-source projects, and become a talented professional-grade programmer before age 18. This is breaking smart: an economic actor using early mastery of emerging technological leverage — in this case a young individual using software leverage — to wield disproportionate influence on the emerging future. (Rao, “A New Soft Technology”)

This is the first time we see the term ‘breaking smart’ used in the essay. It seems that Rao is borrowing from the concept of ‘breaking bad,’ which describes someone who ‘goes bad,’ or deviates from his norms. An example could be someone who stops abiding by the law for personal gain. In Rao’s essay, we see ‘breaking smart’ as a way one could use emerging technologies to his advantage in his work, career, or life. I agree that software engineering is the skill of the present and the future, and one could advance his career and build useful products using software.

Similar impact patterns are unfolding in sector after sector. Prominent early examples include the publishing, education, cable television, aviation, postal mail and hotel sectors. The impact is more than economic. Every aspect of the global industrial social order is being transformed by the impact of software. (Rao, “A New Soft Technology”)

Many industries are being greatly impacted by software - hence, ‘software is eating the world’.

First, as futurist Roy Amara noted, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Technological change unfolds exponentially, like compound interest (Rao, “Getting Reoriented”)

This is especially fascinating to think about. What if we are underestimating the long term effects of software? What if technology holds exponentially more possibilities that we cannot imagine right now? Then we are in an exciting time, and I’m hoping I can be involved in these ever-increasing possibilities of helping people, creating special products, and advancing technology.

what the smartest people do on the weekend is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years. (Rao, “Getting Reoriented”)

No particular thoughts here, but it is an intriguing idea.

Technologies capable of eating the world typically have a Promethean character: they emerge within a mature social order (a metaphoric “heaven” that is the preserve of older elites), but their true potential is unleashed by an emerging one (a metaphoric “earth” comprising creative marginal cultures, in particular youth cultures), which gains relative power as a result.

As a result of a Promethean technology being unleashed, younger and older face a similar dilemma: should I abandon some of my investments in the industrial social order and join the dynamic new social order, or hold on to the status quo as long as possible?

The decision is obviously easier if you are younger, with much less to lose. But many who are young still choose the apparent safety of the credentialist scripts of their parents. These are what David Brooks called Organization Kids (after William Whyte’s 1956 classic, The Organization Man): those who bet (or allow their “Tiger” parents to bet on their behalf) on the industrial social order. If you are an adult over 30, especially one encumbered with significant family obligations or debt, the decision is harder.

Those with a Promethean mindset and an aggressive approach to pursuing a new path can break out of the credentialist life script at any age. Those who are unwilling or unable to do so are holding on to it more tenaciously than ever.

Young or old, those who are unable to adopt the Promethean mindset end up defaulting to what we call a pastoral mindset: one marked by yearning for lost or unattained utopias. Today many still yearn for an updated version of romanticized 1950s American middle-class life for instance, featuring flying cars and jetpacks.

How and why you should choose the Promethean option, despite its disorienting uncertainties and challenges, is the overarching theme of Season 1. It is a choice we call breaking smart, and it is available to almost everybody in the developed world, and a rapidly growing number of people in the newly-connected developing world.

These individual choices matter. (Rao, “Getting Reoriented”)

Really long excerpt from the essay, but captures a central concept of what it means to ‘break smart’. There is a struggle between the established and the emerging, pastoral vs. Promethean. Rao is advocating for people to adopt the ‘Promethean mindset,’ to pursue new paths that may lead to greater, unimagined outcomes.

Overall, some very interesting thoughts on the history of technology and the impact of software.