The possibility of software through the ages

The gestalt of what’s new in software and how it’s changing our world has evolved over the decades.

In the ‘90s, it was “don’t make me think!”. User interfaces went from text-based systems that required memorization and expertise to graphical systems that afforded more casual use of computers. Unix users and their terminals are a notable holdout to this day.

In the ‘00s, it was “don’t make me remember!”. The internet let us to stop worrying about access to common knowledge. Search engines, news feeds, e-commerce, and listing sites made it pretty easy to answer many questions without a resident expert. Nascent social platforms made it possible for our “friends” to feed this information back to us. Notable holdouts: it was impossible for me to search for punchlines from SNL skits, and largely still is.

In the ‘10s, it was “don’t make me describe the content I want to see!”. The now-giant tech companies figured out that their products were more “engaging” if they pushed content to people instead of people clicking around and typing queries to describe what they want. Thus was born machine learning, recommendation systems, and infinite/algorithmic feed scrolling. Notable holdout: none, the blast radius of ad-tech is wide and far-reaching.

From this particular moment, it seems like the ‘20s are going to be “don’t make me leave my enclave”. Even if there’s a breakthrough in medicine and this pandemic is a temporary blip, the writing seems like it’s on the wall. Many kinds of service and retail commerce we used to go out into the world to interact with, along with offices, are going to fade away as climate changes and viruses come and go. Notable holdout: the not-so-middle class folks who do the machine’s bidding and keep the wheels of commerce rolling.

Over three decades, things are at once noticeably better and yet there’s vast room for improvement. If you’re wondering where impactful work can be done in technology, it’s in making the benefits of the technology we’re building for the middle/upper classes today available to the less fortunate tomorrow. If we can make fantastic televisions available to everyone, surely we can improve the outcomes that matter most in everyone’s lives.

If we could bend this curve, the ’20s could be the decade of “no pithy quote, just people helping their neighbors.”