Monday, November 5, 2007

Blind Provinciality In Silicon Valley

In the wake of the Hollywood writer's strike, Fake Steve Jobs took a break from hilarious, incisive satire to indulge in some hostile, provincial polemic.

Jon Stewart's Daily Show is temporarily off the air, with a Presidential election on the way, and Fake Steve Jobs asks,

Does anyone really believe that the world will suffer if this pile of absolute shit all goes on hiatus?

If that sentence made sense to you, you need to take a break from programming. Even taking that question seriously means you are mired in a monoculture.

This blog is mostly about programming. It is written in the language of a monoculture and aimed squarely at that monoculture, so here we go: lots of people still care.

Lots of people are going to miss Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, for example, especially if the strike lasts a long time. It doesn't take a lot of careful thinking to realize this writer's strike will be a bummer for anyone who was looking forward to the new season of Battlestar Galactica, too. All you have to do is remember that lots of people stand up, turn off their computers, and hang out with each other in physical space from time to time. Those people are called everybody except programmers.

This isn't the only way myopia creates FSJ's delusional diatribe. Part of the problem is that he doesn't really understand what writers in Hollywood do.

I guess we can't blame these writers. They've all got big stupid houses in Los Angeles and Hawaii, plus Porsches and Land Rovers and way more money than they ever deserved and they got it all for producing what history will view as probably the worst bulk of absolute fecal matter that has ever been passed off onto the world. Honestly these guys have run the biggest scam I've ever seen. Now they're clinging to that fat stupid system that has served them so well.

This is so deeply and totally inaccurate it boggles the mind. The average Writer's Guild member makes less than $50K per year, and you could not even imagine how hard they work for that tiny amount of money. I've worked in Silicon Valley. I've seen the worst workaholics Silicon Valley has to offer. Next to the hard work you see in Hollywood, Silicon Valley workaholics are amateurs. Not even amateurs - they're dilettantes. These people work absurdly hard, and the ones who make good money are rare.

But the irony of FSJ's post is that FSJ is bubbling over with resentment and hatred for the Hollywood glamour machine - and lashing out at an attack on that machine. The Writer's Guild is attacking the system of money and privilege that dominates Hollywood - and FSJ can't tell the difference between his enemy and the enemy of his enemy (who would, in a more rational analysis, be his friend).

What's even worse is that FSJ breaks character here. The real Steve Jobs spent years of his life fighting Windows in the marketplace, and anybody who compares Firefly to Windows Vista will have a really hard time calling television writing "probably the worst bulk of absolute fecal matter that has ever been passed off onto the world". I think it's pretty obvious that Microsoft has had a monopoly on that title for years.

There's one actual point in FSJ's several paragraphs of invective:

Up here in Silicon Valley we are busy building the next system and we are laughing our asses off at you guys

From the invective it's implied that "the next system" goes beyond iTunes. It's not just a new way to deliver content; it's a new way to approach content entirely. YouTube is part of it, and Web 2.0, and all that other stuff that venture capital sunk billions into and has yet to see any profit from.

The problem is, up there in Silicon Valley, they are always busy building the next system and laughing their asses off at somebody. In Silicon Valley, you get to play with shiny toys all day long and call it work. That makes practically everything funny. In 2001, when every single person in the industry got fired in the same month, they all threw pink slip parties. You have to give Silicon Valley credit for its sense of humor and its sense of fun, but there's a limit to how seriously it can be taken.

You kind of expect better than this from FSJ. You expect better from Raganwald, too, but for once you don't get it. I left a comment on his blog disputing the use of a land grab analogy in addressing the intersection of tech and entertainment, and got this back:

The problem with the dinosaur analogy is that everybody talks about the dinosaur and not about the rodent-sized mammals that would thrive in the vacuum after the dinosaurs went extinct.

I am much less interested in lambasting the industry (including you, my friend, who has bought into it) than I am in getting people excited about toppling it.

I want it crushed. Destroyed, leveled. Flattened.

It would be cool if my greater exposure to the entertainment industry resulted in an interest in my perspective, but that's not what we get here from Reg, or from Avi Bryant either. Avi wrote a whole post implying that for some reason my interest in Hollywood invalidates my ideas on programming. Reg says in his response to my perfectly innocuous comments on analogies that I have my perspective and he has his, which is the politest possible method in existence of telling somebody that you have no intention of listening to anything they say. Being interested in entertainment at all apparently makes me "one of the bad guys." But Raganwald's objection to the dinosaur analogy - that people are talking about Hollywood instead of Silicon Valley - is very interesting. Maybe that's what's really going on here. Maybe the tech industry just hates when the entertainment industry gets all the attention.

As a group, people in technology seem to hate the entertainment industry, but their counter-proposal, that artists simply be glad their work is seen at all, shows the kind of pragmatism and business savvy you'd expect from the people who brought you the dot-com bubble. It also kind of harkens back to another thing Fake Steve Jobs rants about in his post - he criticizes the Writer's Guild for even being a union in the first place. No detailed criticism, of course, just an outraged sneer - "how 20th century is that?"

But think about this. Many people in tech believe artists should simply be glad their work is seen at all. Many people in tech believe that the best programmer is worth 100 times as much as the average programmer. But the system of paying programmers significantly dampens this multiplier. Isn't it obvious why? Because programming is really an art, and artists should simply be glad their work is seen at all.

Maybe the unions have it right. I'm not sure, but it's certainly worth thinking about. Certainly, tech companies have abused contracting laws to hire programmers for full-time positions without giving them lawfully required benefits, and deliberately interviewed poor candidates for positions in order to "prove" the need for H1B visas. In either case, they broke laws to reduce the cost of labor. Programmers are notoriously difficult to unify, but a programmer's union might be a handy thing.

Then again, it might not. The only way to find out for sure is to have a serious conversation about it. Getting anyone to take the question seriously, however, is virtually impossible. Telling programmers "maybe we should learn from entertainment" just doesn't work. Tech people get downright hysterical when entertainment enters the picture. In some cases their hate is so blind that they can't even tell their enemies from their friends. The Writer's Guild is taking on the system of corporate power that the tech industry hates so much in entertainment, and tech bloggers are lashing out at the Guild - which effectively puts them on the side of the very system of corporate power that they hate so much.

If you want the ultimate in shrill and entirely emotional invective against the entertainment industry, check out the TechCrunch coverage on Hulu. It literally centers on name-calling.

All of this makes fantastic timing for an announcement I have to make. I'm going to do a podcast called Hollywood Grit. Everybody knows what Hollywood glamour is, but most people in Hollywood see more grit than glamour, and in most cases, even the glamourous people had to deal with a lot of grit first. It also plays off the John Wayne movie True Grit, and especially the mighty Hank Grit, a character based on that movie, from the excellent and much-missed comic Scud: The Disposable Assassin.

Anyway, it's coming soon, so stay tuned. All my blogs besides this one have died on the vine, but we'll see how it goes. The goal will be to provide a real, accurate glimpse into what life in Hollywood is really like. (Hint: don't expect Lexuses and Range Rovers.)

Getting back to the real topic, there are a couple of things everyone should know about the writers' strike.

1. They tried really hard not to strike.
2. They get virtually nothing for DVDs and VHS.
3. The suits want them to take virtually nothing for downloads and streaming media.
4. The suits are the bad guys.

Here are a couple of things everyone in technology should know about the writers' strike.

1. We've had awesome file-sharing technology for nearly a decade.
2. We have to go around the law and risk ridiculous, insane, asshole lawsuits to use this technology.
3. The suits are the bad guys.

The suits are against the technology industry, and the suits are against the writers. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. And the enemy of my enemy who can beat my enemy, when my enemy consistently kicks my ass, is my really good friend.

Napster went up against the entertainment industry and lost. The writers have gone up against the studios and won. We should support the writers, and we should learn from them, because unlike us, they use tactics that work.