Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Never Hate. Only Ever Destroy.

Just For The Sake Of Contrast

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch

Black and white photography emphasizes contrast, but that's not what I mean.

In my post on trolls, Hacker News, and the need for better filtering, I described myself as having a Tim Bray Problem and a Cory Doctorow Problem, but qualified that by saying it was completely different from having a problem with Tim Bray or a problem with Cory Doctorow.

I think it's possible that this could have been perceived as backpedalling or equivocating or insincere. I've heard Tim Bray even blogged a defense of some kind, although I don't know how you could defend yourself from an accusation like "I personally do not share even one of your interests." However, I'm now going to demonstrate that I was in fact speaking truthfully, and you can in fact take my words at face value.

What I said about Tim Bray was that the only thing I find interesting about him is his hat. I compared him to a glass of water when I am not thirsty. I said "Unlike Tim Bray, Cory Doctorow often annoys me" - which would imply that Tim Bray annoys other people, or rarely annoys me, or does not annoy me at all. And in fact it's the latter that is the case - the whole nature of the Tim Bray Problem is that frequent exposure to information which consistently leaves you indifferent is an inefficient phenomenon.

How Tim Bray took any of that personally, I don't know. As personal attacks go, it could certainly be more vicious. I'm hoping Cory Doctorow had a thicker skin, and/or better things to do with his time. The Cory Doctorow Problem doesn't have anything to do with Cory Doctorow the person.

The whole point of the Cory Doctorow Problem is that the fundamental assumption with Internet celebrities - that a very smart person will always be interesting - is false. Cory Doctorow doesn't annoy me because of any personal failing, but because his name identifies a source of excellent insight on social software, valuable news on copyright politics, utterly useless self-promotional posts, sometimes-valuable sci-fi posts, sometimes-valuable bookcase posts, and utterly useless posts on Disneyland, for some insane reason which I will probably never understand, or, more to the point, be very curious about. What irritates me is essentially a search failure; I can seek excellent insight on social software and end up reading pointless trivia about a corporate amusement park filled with plastic birds on plastic trees. But that's not Cory Doctorow failing as a human being; it's "Cory Doctorow" failing as a search term.

This is also why I think Doctorow's idea of Whuffie is bullshit on a pogo stick. His name fails partially as a search term because his writing covers many topics, but only some of them interest me. This is because he's a human being, human beings have many interests, and a one-dimensional variable like PageRank cannot capture that. Similarly, reputations have many dimensions, and a one-dimensional variable like Whuffie can't capture that either. I have other points of disagreement as well, but that's a whole different post. And it's still the idea - not the human being.

Bullshit on a pogo stick

Going back to the idea of whether or not I have problems with these guys, since I have problems named after them, I can assure you, I don't, and in fact I can prove it.

This is what looks like when I do have a problem with somebody:

I hope that clears a few things up. I think it makes a pretty vivid contrast when set against "this person isn't interesting in my opinion."

One other concern: apologies for the incredible negativity concerning Michael Arrington, his minions, and, to a lesser extent, Cory Doctorow's posts and book about Disneyland.

On Boing Boing, a mostly-fantastic blog which occasionally also covers Disneyland, they follow up disturbing or gross posts with a unicorn chaser. I think all this negativity deserves a unicorn chaser as well.

Feel better? Great. Now back to the seriousness.

With the negativity concerning Arrington and his army of winged monkeys, I broke two of my cardinal rules:

1. Never hate, only ever destroy.
2. Forgive everything.

Obviously, I don't hold to these rules as perfectly as I'd like. They're more perpetual goals, really. If I held to them perfectly, I'd be some strange Web 2.0 combination of Jesus Christ and Lord Shiva, a fire-breathing, forgiving, perpetually-twittering angel of death, and TechCrunch would have been brought to its merciful release many moons ago.

I'm about to redeem myself - I'm about to destroy TechCrunch, in the eyes of some of the people who read these words. For some of you, this will be the moment the shoe drops and you stop reading TechCrunch forever. But to follow my own rules, before I can do that, I have to forgive Arrington, because that's how these rules work. (And they do work.)

How Do I Hate Thee? Let Me Count The Ways

One of the things I have against Michael Arrington is that he perpetuates the lottery-ticket mythology of venture capital which makes high-tech such an imperfect world. But a more important reason to avoid Michael Arrington is that he doesn't really know about, or write about, making money per se. What he writes about is a subset of all available strategies for making money, and a subset concerned specifically with leveraging the advantages of upper-class privelege to get other people to create wealth for you.

Here's something you'll never read about on TechCrunch:

Muhammad Yunus, who developed micro-financing (and later won a Nobel prize for this invention). In Yunus' scheme a woman who owned virtually nothing could get a loan of $200 to purchase a cow. She would then sell the surplus milk of the cow to pay back the loan, earn both milk and an income for her family, and maybe buy another cow. Ordinarily, no bank would have lent her this trifling amount because she had no collateral, no education, and the costs of overseeing such a small loan with small gains would have been prohibitive. Grameen Bank, Yunus' creation, discovered that these illiterate peasants were actually more likely to repay these small loans, and were very happy to pay good interest rates, and so that in aggregate, these micro-loans were more profitable than loaning to large industrial players.

Muhammad Yunus (left), winning the Nobel Prize

This man leveraged the benefits of upper-class education to create wealth by helping other people create wealth for themselves.

If you have an interest in economics, emerging business strategies, and Web 2.0 approaches to leveraging collective action, this is news you can use. Likewise, if you have an interest in economics, emerging business strategies, and Web 2.0 approaches to leveraging collective action, TechCrunch is probably one of the places you go for news. But if you expected to find this particular news on TechCrunch, you'd be wrong, because it isn't part of the venture capital system. Everything on TechCrunch revolves around the venture capital system.

This system is almost identical to the pre-industrial patronage system for artists, where extremely rich people would give artists financial support, nominally out of the goodness of their hearts, but in practical terms, in exchange for making them look good. Landed nobles - the wealthiest people in the world at the time - would compete to see who could support the most talented artists. Today we have a system where the wealthiest people in the world compete to see who can support the most visionary engineers. It's the same system.

That's why there are so many copycat startups. If startups are basically just fashion accessories which make extremely wealthy people look good, then it makes perfect sense that whenever the new fashion strikes, everybody needs to be wearing one.

The only major difference between the two systems is the addition of a lottery ticket, the IPO. If you win this lottery, you become an investor too. You graduate from the ranks of supported artists into the ranks of the landed nobles, and you start trying on a few artists of your own, to see how they make you look.

The story of Muhammad Yunus and his economic innovations, interesting though it is, relevant though it is, and thought-provoking though it is, does not belong on TechCrunch, because Muhammad Yunus is not available in your size. You cannot buy Muhammad Yunus, and he is not looking to employ anyone either. TechCrunch is about a particular marketplace, and Yunus isn't in it. But it goes deeper than that - Yunus probably never made a blip on Arrington's radar, because there are no "power players" here. There's just a bunch of nice people who made a bunch of money together, making life better for the entire world. In the eyes of the venture capital system, that isn't interesting.

In fact Yunus' story is actually actively counter-productive to the interests of systems like the venture capital system, since that is a system which maintains class division around concentrations of wealth, and this story demonstrates that eroding or circumventing those systems can be more profitable than co-operating with them.

The real reason you won't find this stuff on TechCrunch is because TechCrunch is about power, not money; because this story is too capitalist for the world of venture capital; and because TechCrunch embodies extremely unpleasant class politics.

TechCrunch comments on Zed Shaw's rant

Another thing I have against TechCrunch is its dishonesty.

You probably never expected to see this next very improbable sentence, least of all on my blog, but: Valleywag to the rescue!

Like virtually everything else Michael Arrington says, this "journalism is evolving" statement is false, evil, and blatantly self-serving, yet close enough to the truth to be worth thinking about. In this case, the true version would actually be that marketing is evolving. Obviously, if you invest in a company and then write about how great it is, this is marketing. A child could tell the difference.

I mean if you've got a hot wife, and I advise her to sleep with me, it's not exactly marriage counseling.

I see you looking at her, buddy. I'm right here.

So we've got somebody self-serving, intelligent, and consistently dishonest, who consistently shovels the "Twitter proves Rails doesn't scale" bullshit and attacks 37 Signals' ideas on business - ideas which start with discarding the traditional reliance on venture capital. So you've got these business strategies which undermine the class politics and power relationships of the venture capital system - and Michael Arrington attacks them. And you've got these technologies which allow tiny companies to build game-changing Web apps virtually for free, again undermining the class politics and power relationships of the venture capital system - and Michael Arrington attacks them too.

You might wonder how TechCrunch could get so much wrong on the technical side of their Twitter coverage. It's not laziness or stupidity. Arrington's calculating, canny, and politically astute. He makes mistakes, but he doesn't make stupid mistakes. Rails and Getting Real both present fundamental challenges to what Arrington does and who he is. If every programmer in the world switched to Rails and Getting Real, Arrington would have to get a job.

I'm not saying there's some kind of conspiracy - I'd be surprised if there were. What I am saying is that Arrington is just so fucking evil that it's essentially impossible for him (or his minions) to accurately perceive Rails or Twitter or Getting Real. He's smart enough, and if he wanted to round up some decent technical overview of the issues and technologies involved, he could certainly find people to ask. He's got the brains and he's got the connections, but discovering and propagating the truth are both fundamentally not in his interest.

You can determine the nature of his blind spot around Rails by examining what else falls into his blind spot. Muhammad Yunus falls into his blind spot. Why? No power players. Just capitalism. Not interesting. Why does Rails fall into his blind spot? Same reason. No power players. Just capitalism. Not interesting.

Arrington's vicious and powerful, and his site is perpetuating lies about Rails that really should have died last year. But let's keep hope alive. We all have blind spots. We've all gotten negative or angry when we should have just paused to seek out the truth. We've all been tempted to stretch the truth once, or to rationalize something we did. We've all made these mistakes. Arrington's human, just like us.

I'm sure one day he'll be older and wiser.

Mike Arrington, 30 years from now

Actually, an older, wiser Arrington might not be a good thing.

@vishnu endangered species nom nom nom

Let's hope Lord Shiva collects him soon.

Burn Palo Alto Burn

Stop reading TechCrunch. Read Getting Real instead. And ask hard questions about the venture capital system.

I addressed these issues in detail in a presentation at GoRuCo in New York this April. If you want more about this topic, including the answer for programmers - or at least my answer for programmers - check it out.