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Editorial

Your 2024 inspiration

Hand-drawn infographic by Michelle Rial: “Is it too late to start?”

The infographic features two timelines. The first, labeled “Perception" shows a timeline with “Birth” at the left end and ”Death” at the right. About 40% from the left is a point labeled ”‘Tool Old’” and the timeline after that is marked as “Too late now.”

The second timeline is labeled “Reality”. The whole timeline is marked as “Still good” and only the part after death is marked as “Too late now.”

Happy New Year, fellow techies! As is tradition on this blog, the first post of the first day back to work is the very important reminder above, which was created by graphic designer Michelle Rial.

Cover of the book “Maybe This Will Help: How to Feel Better When Things Stay the Same” by Michelle Rial.

If you like this infographic, you might also like her book book of similar infographics, Maybe This Will Help.

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Editorial Video

The “Mother of All Demos” happened 55 years ago today

My poster from May, titled Every 13 years, an innovation changes computing forever, theorizes that roughly every thirteen years, a new technology appears, and it changes the way we use computers in unexpectedly large ways.

The first entry in my list was an exception because it didn’t feature just one technology, but a number of them. It was “The Mother of All Demos,” a demonstration of technologies that are part of our everyday life now, but must have seemed like pure science fiction at the time, December 9, 1968 — 55 years ago today.

Photo of Douglas Englebart giving “The Mother of All Demos”
Photo by DARPA. Click to see the source.

In the demo, computer scientist Douglas Engelbart demonstrated:

  • The GUI, complete with resizable windows and selectable, editable text (including copy and paste)
  • The mouse
  • The chorded keyboard (the one thing in the demo that hasn’t gone mainstream)
  • Hypertext — clicking on some underlined text, which would cause a different page of information to appear
  • Computer networking
  • Videoconferencing
  • Projecting a computer screen onto a large screen for an audience

Rather than continue to tell you about it, it’s so much easier to simply show it to you:

Happy 55th anniversary, Mother of All Demos, and thank you, Dr. Engelbart!

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Artificial Intelligence Current Events Editorial

Analytics Insight’s very clumsy plagiarism

On November 29, 2023, Analytics Insight — whose business model is pretty much “clickbait as a service” — published an article titled Ten Women AI Leaders to Enhance OpenAI’s Board, pictured in the screenshot below (along with a big error that I’ll point out shortly):

It bore a striking similarity to an article published three days earlier: 10 Women AI Leaders Who OpenAI Should Consider For Their Board, by Rebekah Bastian (SVP of Product at Glowforge), pictured in the screenshot below:

Later versions of Analytics Insight’s article included acknowledgment of the original Forbes article:

In spite of Analytics Insight giving credit where credit is due, their list of top ten women is markedly different. Here’s Rebekah Bastian’s list from the original Forbes article…

  1. Dr. Fei-Fei Li
  2. Dr. Timnit Gebru
  3. Alessya Visnjic
  4. Dr. Latanya Sweeney
  5. Professor Daphne Koller
  6. Daniela Braga
  7. Professor Manuela Veloso
  8. Lisa Nelson
  9. Rana el Kaliouby, Ph.D.
  10. Kieran Snyder

…and here’s the Analytics Insight list:

  1. Fei-Fei Li
  2. Rumman Chowdhury
  3. Timnit Gebru
  4. Mona Sloane
  5. Joy Buolamwini
  6. Yoshua Bengio
  7. Kai-Fu Lee
  8. Hinda Haned
  9. Danielle Belgrave
  10. Maja Pantic

Note entries 6 and 7, Yoshua Bengio and Kai-Fu Lee — neither of them are women, and their blurb about Bengio even uses a male pronoun:

6. Yoshua Bengio:

Deep Learning Pioneer: Bengio’s pioneering work in deep learning has had a profound impact on the AI landscape.
Educational Leadership: As a professor at the University of Montreal, he contributes to shaping the next generation of AI researchers and practitioners.

Consider this a timely reminder on the first anniversary of ChatGPT’s release (which happened November 30, 2022): For the moment, you still have to double-check an AI’s output before you publish it as your own!

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Artificial Intelligence Editorial

The ugly manifesto behind the “Techno-Optimist Manifesto”

Want to improve the title of Marc Andreessen’s screechy screed, The Techno-Optimist Manifesto? Easy. Just replace the misused word “optimist” with the more accurate “fascist.”

It reads like a supervillain monologue

From the opening sentence, “we are being lied to,” the essay takes bigger and bigger leaps into supervillain monologuing, with lines like “we are not victims, we are conquerors” [and yes, the italicization is Andreessen’s].

But the cherry on this shit sundae — and my personal favorite — is the line “We are not primitives, cowering in fear of the lightning bolt. We are the apex predator; the lightning works for us.” That sounds exactly like Marvel Comics’ Doctor Doom!

The “enemies list” that appears two-thirds of the way into the polemic seemed hilarious at first, but then you realize “Oh shit, he’s serious.” Naming “trust and safety,” “tech ethics,” and “risk management” as things to be opposed is the kind of thing an old Saturday morning cartoon villain would do. I’m reminded of the bad guys on Captain Planet, who declared war on clean water and air.

But as bad as the similarities to cartoon villainy are, the Techno-Optimist Manifesto takes its inspiration from something far, far worse.

The Futurist Manifesto

The real red flag is this paragraph, which you can find smack-dab in the middle of the essay, which is intentionally written with the structure of a poem:

To paraphrase a manifesto of a different time and place: “Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Technology must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.”

He could’ve made it much shorter by writing: Kneel before Zod!

As a fan of the ’80s avant-pop synth band Art of Noise and a fan of industrial design, I knew what he was paraphrasing: The Futurist Manifesto, written by Italian poet and fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

Here’s the paragraph that Andreessen paraphrased:

There is no longer any beauty except the struggle. Any work of art that lacks a sense of aggression can never be a masterpiece. Poetry must be thought of as a violent assault upon the forces of the unknown with the intention of making them prostrate themselves at the feet of mankind.

There’s a helluva lot of batshittery in Futurist Manifesto, and Marc Andreessen retrofitted it into the Techno-Optimist one.

Marinetti and Futurism

Marinetti in his Fiat Cabriolet.

The Italian verision of Futurism started with a car accident.

Like the author of the Techno-Optimist Manifesto, the author of the Futurist Manifesto was in the top 1%. Marinetti had a very nice car — a Fiat Cabriolet — which was no small achievement, considering that it was 1908. (For reference, the first Fiat was produced in 1899, not even a decade before.)

In 1908, while driving home after a friend’s party outside of Milan, Marinetti was speeding and had to swerve to avoid hitting two cyclists. The car went into a ditch and was totaled.

In writing about the incident, he clearly paints himself as a lead-footed driver, describing himself as driving so fast that his car was: “hurling watchdogs against doorsteps, curling them under our burning tires like collars under a flatiron.”

(Remember, he was a rich, eccentric poet.)

Here’s how he described the crash:

The words were scarcely out of my mouth when I spun my car around with the frenzy of a dog trying to bite its tail, and there, suddenly, were two cyclists coming toward me, shaking their fists, wobbling like two equally convincing but nevertheless contradictory arguments. Their stupid dilemma was blocking my way—Damn! Ouch! … I stopped short and to my disgust rolled over into a ditch with my wheels in the air …

The lesson most well-adjusted people would’ve taken from the crash would be “don’t drive faster than you can maneuver,” but that requires one to be well-adjusted. Marinetti decided that it was a symbol of the new world (the car) destroying the old one (bicycles). It captured all the things that excited him: speed, technology, risk, and violence. He thought that they perfectly illustrated the rapidly changing world around him and were signs of a new everything — a new, more mechanical world, in a modern era where everything is fast and furious.

That led him to write the Manifesto in 1908. First published in 1909, it was meant to kick-start an art movement to transform the world — starting with Italy.

The main part of the Futurist Manifesto was written as a set of 11 statements, each one a short or one-sentence paragraph. Andreessen borrowed the style when writing the Techno-Optimist Manifesto:

  • We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
  • The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and
    revolt.
  • Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and
    slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
  • We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  • We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
  • The poet must spend himself with warmth, glamour and prodigality to increase the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
  • Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
  • We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.
  • We wish to glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the libertarian, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.
  • We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
  • We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.

“Come see the violence (and misogyny) inherent in the system!”

If you’re a reader of this blog, the word “Futurism” doesn’t sound so evil, and neither do three of its four aspects — I’m sure that like me, you like the concepts of speed, technology, and even at least a little risk.

And besides, how serious could they be about that fourth part, violence?

It turned out, very serious, at least in theory. Marinetti referred to war as “the world’s only hygiene.”

Here’s the full paragraph from the Manifesto where that bit about war appears:

We wish to glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the libertarian, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.

I added the bold text for emphasis.

Once again, someone in the movies said it better — namely Arnold Schwarzenegger’s version of Conan the Barbarian:

In spite of their hatred for the calcified past, there was one long-standing tradition that Futurists were okay with: chicks ruin everything.

Futurism and fascism

Creative Commons image by “Douuwwurunwuuzhe”. Tap to view the source.

If you ever find yourself examining an idea, approach, philosophy, or movement and asking “Is this fascist?”, you’ll find Umberto Eco’s Practical List for Identifying Fascists to be a handy checklist.

Futurism checks a lot (but not all) of Eco’s boxes:

  • The cult of action for action’s sake
  • Disagreement is treason
  • Appeal to social frustration
  • The enemy is both weak and strong
  • Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy
  • Contempt for the weak
  • Everybody is educated to be the hero
  • Selective populism

Futurism’s big difference from fascism is how each views the past. Futurists see the past as a useless relic holding them back, while fascists revere it as a golden, halcyon era that they must bring back.

Their similarities eventually overrode their differences. In 1918, Marinetti would form the Futurist Political Party, an extension of his artistic and social movement. A year later, they’d join another party, Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, whose name translates as “The Italian Fighting League.” That group would rename itself as the National Fascist Party in 1921. You might be familiar with their founder’s name: Benito Mussolini.

It’s more honest to call it techno-fascism

Let me show you what a real techno-optimist looks like:

I live, work, and play with technology — and with boundless joy and hope for the future — to the point that I’m associated with a technology that has nothing at all to do with what I get paid to do:

Seriously — if you’ve ever seen me give a presentation, you know what I mean when I say “techno-optimist.”

The Techno-Optimist Manifesto is heavy on the techno, and incredibly light on optimism. Yes, there’s a belief that the future could be better, but in that belief is the constant “j’accuse!” that if you’re not onside, you are the enemy — or at least a murderer.

That’s not optimism, but it is futurism. And you know where futurism leads.

Wired had an article in April 2019 titled When Futurism Led to Fascism—and Why It Could Happen Again, where they looked at futurism and asked:

Does any of this sound familiar? Disruption? Moving fast (and perhaps breaking things)? The rejection of history? Today’s most vocal voices in tech might not communicate their values with the same aplomb as the Italian poets, but they’re often saying the same kinds of things.

The article goes on to provide some examples of futurism’s ideas, expressed by today’s techbros, including Waymo’s cofounder Anthony Levandowski talking about how little he values history (“In technology, all that matters is tomorrow”) and “Google Memo” author James Damore’s claim that the gender gap in tech exists because men and women “biologically differ”.

Beware of venture capitalists writing manifestos

Manifestos written by people in positions of privilege tend to be cringeworthy, whether it’s James Damore’s “Google Memo”, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, or Andreessen’s latest word salad.

In the end, Andreessen’s essay is just a long-form version of his tweet from December 3, 2022, which is just him saying “Let me do what I want, and stop getting in my way.”

I’m all for techno-optimism, but not the kind Andreessen’s selling.

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Editorial

R.I.P. “Super Vittorio” Bertocci

This weekend, Vittorio Bertocci, Principal Architect at Okta and coworker of mine, passed away after his battle with cancer.

When I was applying to work at Auth0 (this was before it was acquired by Okta), I didn’t know very much about digital identity, authentication, or authorization. In preparing for the interviews and eventual “take-home” exercise, I found Vittorio’s Learn Identity video series, which ended up being my North Star. I knew of him from his work at Microsoft (we were contemporaries there, when he was an Architect Evangelist and I was a Developer Evangelist), and I thought if anyone could teach me about OAuth2 and OpenID Connect, it would be Vittorio. I can say with absolute certainty that those videos helped me land this job — a position that I’ll have held for three years as of next Thursday — and for this alone, I will always be grateful to Vittorio.

After joining the company, I was fortunate to partake in a number of his “Architecture Hour” Zoom chats that he held with the Developer Engagement team. I’m even more grateful for the one time I got to hang out with him in person in March at the company offsite, where I had the privilege of annoying him with the accordion.

Vittorio was a giant in the world of digital identity, working continuously as a Principal Architect at Auth0 and then Okta, contributing to the standards that make it possible for us to sign into our websites and applications, and helping people understand what identity is and how it works in the online world.

Beyond his technical contributions, he made significant human contributions as well, sharing his warmth and humor with everyone he met, from his loud “Buongiorno, everybody!” greeting to his constant joking. His long, curly hair was legendary, and the RFC that he co-authored — RFC 9470, OAuth 2.0 Step Up Authentication Challenge Protocol — pays tribute to it in the Acknowledgements section, where there’s a “thank you” to the shampoo manufacturers.

And only a character like Vittorio could become an anime character! This video, created by Auth0’s Japanese office, explains multifactor authentication (MFA) in the most delightfully bonkers anime way:

Vittorio’s approach and demeanor are part of the DNA of Auth0’s legendary work culture. I’m pleased to say it lives on in Okta, and for that, Vittorio deserves a lot of credit.

Requiescat in pace, Vittorio.

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Business Editorial Humor

The strategy behind Twitter’s rebranding, explained

This is the latest from Pizza Cake Comics, created by Ellen Woodbury. Click the comic or this link to see it on its originating page.

Categories
Business Current Events Editorial

There is no plan at Twitter/X. There are only pants and paved cowpaths.

A sloppy rebranding

As I write this — 11:10 p.m. on the evening of Tuesday, July 25, 2023 — more than a day since Twitter ditched the bird icon and name for X. The problem is that the rebranding wasn’t terribly thorough.

Consider this screenshot from my Twitter/X home page:

Also, if you click on the links at the bottom right of the home page, the pages they lead to still bear the Twitter bird and name:

The newly-renamed corporation had a crew to remove the old Twitter sign from its San Francisco headquarters, but the police were called in and stopped it since the company never contacted the building owners about it, nor did they get a permit to set up the sign removal equipment on the street:

At last report, the sign on Twitter HQ looks like this:

These are the kinds of mistakes that a marketing or brand manager would never make, because they know that rebranding is something that requires a plan.

But there is no plan. There’s a goal — ditching the Twitter name and replacing it with Musk’s beloved brand, X — and there’s PANTS.

Pantsing and paving the cowpath

“Planner” and “pantser” are terms that many novel writers use to describe two very different writing styles:

  • Planners have their novel outlined and planned out before they start writing it. They’ve got clear ideas of the story they’re trying to tell, and their characters and settings are fleshed out.
  • Pansters — the term comes from the expression “by the seta of one’s pants,” which means by instinct and without much planning — might have a vague idea of what they want to write about and are simply making it up as they write.

Both are legitimate ways of creating things, although a planner will tell you that planning is better, and a pantster will do the same for pantsing.

As an organization, Twitter has been a pantser from its inception. Most of the features that we consider to be part of the platform didn’t originate with them; they were things that the users did that Twitter “featurized.”

Consider the hashtag — that’s not a Twitter creation, but the invention of Chris Messina, whom I happen to know from my days as a techie in Toronto and the early days of BarCamp:

Retweets? The term and the concept were invented by users. We used to put “RT” at the start of any tweet of someone else that we were re-posting to indicate that we were quoting another user. Twitter saw this behavior and turned it into. feature.

The same goes for threads (not the app, but conversational threads). To get around the original 144-character limit, users would make posts that spanned many tweets, using conventions like “/n” where n was a “page number.” Twitter productized this.

All these features were a good application of “pantsing” — being observant of user behavior and improvising around it. This approach is sometimes called “paving the cowpath.”

If you do a web search using the term paving the cowpath ux (where UX means user experience), the results tend to be articles that say it’s a good idea, because you’ll often find that users will find ways around your design if it doesn’t suit their needs, as shown in the photo above.

However, if you do a search using the term paving the cowpath business, the articles take a decidedly negative slant and recommend that you don’t do that. User behavior and business processes are pretty different domains, and business processes do benefit from having a plan. As a business, Twitter had no plan, which is why they’ve always been in financial trouble despite being wildly successful in terms of user base and popularity.

To paraphrase Mark Zuckerberg’s observation about Twitter, it’s a clown car that somehow drove into a gold mine.

Pantsing as a process

Since Elon Musk’s takeover, Twitter has been pantsing at never-before-seen levels, largely based on Musk’s whims. We’ve seen:

And the company’s been losing developers for reasons that started with cost-cutting, but soon, people were losing their jobs for contradicting the boss. Working for Musk is like working for Marvel Comics supervillain Dr. Doom:

More on Musk

If you’d like to hear more about Twitter and Musk, including three theories on why Musk has descended into madness — I’m particularly intrigued by theories (ketamine, a.k.a “Special K,”, a.k.a. horse tranquilizers) and (simulation theory) — check out the latest episode of the Search Engine podcast, hosted by Reply All’s former host PJ Vogt, What’s Going on with Elon Musk?