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With Great Power...

An inspirational talk on the reach available to every programmer in the World and the responsibility that demands.

Given at Hackference 2015 in Birmingham, England.


  • Intro
    • Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to live in New York
    • Mostly because of comic books
    • Unlike their Distinguished Competition, I read Marvel Comics because their "heroes" were real people in real places.
    • Marvel heroes weren't born to be super and didn't always do the right thing
    • They were deeply flawed normals who were always placed in an extraordinary circumstance beyond their choosing.
    • They also were grappling with their circumstances in real places. They weren't in Metropolis or Gotham or Delta City.
    • They were in Los Angeles, Boston and New York.
    • The lessons they learned through pain were real
    • Spider-man was one I gravitated to immediately.
      • He was a geek who had a tough time at school
      • A natural gift set him apart from others and gave him the ability to do things incredible and lucrative.
      • He got so caught up in his newfound capability that he began to become self-absorbed.
      • So self-absorbed he would only use that ability to benefit himself.
      • Which would be a life choice he would come to regret.
    • Spider-man would go on to spend the next sixty years slinging web through the streets of New York in a journey of redempetion.
    • Not only would the scenery inspire me to make my home in the greatest city in the world, but the story would be one that would be one that would have pronounced effect on me as I started a career in programming.
    • It's a lesson all developers would do well to learn, lest we suffer Spider-man's same fate
    • For make no mistake, the great power we possess carries the same responsibility as Spidey.
  • Agenda
    • Intro
      • Bio
      • Company
      • Talk
    • Outline
      • First, we need to suggest a power that is unprecedented in human history
      • Then prove that such a power is one that all developers possess
      • Then finally evidence that such unprecedented power demands unprecedented responsibility.
      • We're going to use comics books, history, philosophy and cut a little code along the way to prove that everyone in this room and every programmer in the world is indeed a hero.
      • And real heroes have real responsibilities.
  • Unprecedented Power
    • Influence
      • One might say developers possess unprecedented influence.
      • While it seems our influence as a constituency is indeed wide, there is a clear winner here for occupational influence that has held the position for much of recorded history.
      • Hard to make an argument that any one was more influential than a pharoah.
      • Considered less kings and more living gods, their divine claim was thoroughly acknowledged from 3100 BC to nearly the birth of Christ.
      • Fascinatingly, their claim to unprecedented power, like developers, came from knowing something very specific that few others did.
      • Quite unlike the Tigris or the Euphrates or the Ilisos or the Treska, the Nile river ebbed and flowed on a schedule as predictable as the lunar cycle.
      • An early king named Menes exploited this knowledge in his bid to unify the fractured kingdoms surrounding the river for the first time.
      • He claimed himself the living, walking incarnation of whatever god was popular in the area he was making the claim.
      • He would then demonstrate the validity of this claim by accurately predicting on any given day how high the Nile would rise.
      • Of course, those whose power he would usurp wouldn't know that he happened upon a mathemetical method of accurately predicting the water's rise, but it only took a few times of doing this successfully before the useful rumor that he controlled the body of water upon which every last living human depended that folks were convinced of his divine claim.
      • Some compelling historical evidence exists to suggest this claim was thoroughly believed: the pyramids.
      • Foreman Larry does not have the influence to compel a hundred thousand people to build shit like that in the middle of a goddamn desert.
      • This kind of shit is built when you are convinced the dude you're talking to is going to take away all the water.
      • While there are certainly some developers you and I know who might claim to be gods, fortunately for us none of them possess the unique knowledge of the pharoah
      • Thus, we can't claim developers have the greatest influence in human history.
    • Wealth
      • Wealth would be another candidate for unprecedented power.
      • Certainly there is some compelling, contemporary evidence this may be so.
      • Bill Gates, a programmer, tops Forbes list of wealthiest people in the world and he is joined by 5 other programmers in the top 20.
      • Given contemporary income equality, adding up all the wealthiest programmers would likely now eclipse any other single vertical market (e.g. petroleum, manufacturing, telecom)
      • Tragically as mighty as developers' wealth is, that money is not unprecedented in human history.
      • In fact, over the past 1,000 years and adjusting for inflation a mere 3 of the 25 wealthiest people in human history are alive today.
      • The wealthiest person that ever lived
        • Mansa Musa of Mali from the 14th century
        • His empire spanned Ghana, Timbuktu and his home of Mali
        • Source of wealth was the production of over half of the gold and salt mined in the 14th century
        • Adjusted for inflation his fortune was 264 billion pounds - compared to a mere 89 for Bill Gates at the height of his fortune in 1999.
      • Certainly anyone here will tell you programming is indeed a lucrative career, but unfortunately appears West African miners have us beat.
    • Other possibilities?
      • We have a developer giving a shot at politics in the US - we'll see how that turns out with McAfee 2016
      • Exploration - unfortunately rockets appear to be harder to make than first person shooters
      • Rock stars - still doesn't seem to be working out for me.
    • Reach
      • I'd argue the power that is unprecedented in human history for developers is reach.
      • Software has spread to more people than anything that has happened before
      • People talk about this in incomprehensible ways - thousand percent growth, trillions of messages per second
      • Let us consider PHP alone
      • Say what you want about the language, but you're using it every day - whether you want to or not.
      • Add up Facebook, Yahoo and Wikipedia and that's 2.1 billion people visiting it every month.
      • Facebook has a billion people using it actively.
      • The last time a billion people were active in anything it was Islam.
      • The time before that was Christianity.
      • I can tell you the latter was definitely not "opt-in"
      • Think about that people - it is absolutely staggering in human history
      • PHP is literally more popular than Jesus.
  • Unprecedented Reach
    • We have a compelling argument that some developers have the greatest reach humanity has ever seen.
    • What we don't have is an argument that all developers have it.
    • Those developers that reached more users than the major world religions had to have had some ability that I don't have.
    • I'm going to make the bold claim that is not true.
    • The tools and services that are available to developers right now have made each of you capable of reaching billions of people around the world.
    • It doesn't require any other skill than the one you've already developed.
    • Live Coding
      • Video endpoint on laptop
      • Video endpoint on smart device
      • Make them talk
      • SMS in
      • Call out
    • From empty files in a little more than ten minutes we just demonstrated the capacity to reach over 6 billion people on the planet over video, audio and text message.
    • What is missing
  • Great Responsibility
    • That's a pretty amazing capacity we have
    • And a pretty spooky one at the same time
    • History suggests great power usually doesn't work out great for the wielder.
      • Eventually Macedonians would arrive educated in the same science that predicted the Nile's rise and fall, crushing the rule of the pharoahs.
      • Manusa Masa died young, his wealth widdled to a third of its size after the ensuing civil wars in a single generation.
      • John McAfee ended up becoming John McAfee
    • History alone won't lead us to a more fortunate path.
    • We can turn to philosophy - Immanuel Kant
    • Categorical Imperative
      • Act as though the maxim of every action could be applied as a universal law
      • Sounds a lot like the Golden Rule you may have learned in grammar school
      • But it is a philosophy that works at the scale of a developer's reach.
      • Kingdom of Ends
    • If we're being honest, a lot of what we choose to work on is not building a Kingdom of Ends
      • Liquid meals that exploit our industriousness so we can spend more time working
      • Sharing apps that exploit our vanity so we can spend more time viewing the lives we lead through a screen
      • Rating apps that exploit our schaudefreude ruining the reputation of others for the entertainment value
      • Any of the multitude of "sharing economy" clones aiming to solve every First World Problem left in the San Francisco Bay Area
      • They are beneath us.
      • They are beneath the people that wield the greatest reach humanity has ever seen.
    • Name a constituency that gained unprecedented power in the whole of human history and the only ones that didn't descend into complete ruin in a generation's time were the ones who exercised a philosophy predicated on serving their communities.
    • This weekend as you wield that power, I would encourage you to think about the responsibility that power bears.
    • What you build should be worth of this supernatural ability
      • If it is fun, it should be fun for everyone.
      • If it is funny, it should be funny for everyone.
      • If it is useful, it should be useful for everyone.
      • If it is beautiful, it should be beautiful for everyone.
      • For if you build this weekend with the pretext that what you produce should be applied universally, your work will transcend this historic ability you now have.
      • It will be important.
      • And that is the great responsibility we bear.
  • Conclusion
    • Sixty years ago a wild eyed huckster spun a tale on pulp paper about a nerd who got bit by a radioactive spider.
    • Almost unknowingly, the tale Stan Lee told carried with it one of the great lessons from Western Civiliation.
    • The principal tale - that with great power comes great responsibility - was learned not just by a teenager from Queens but by every powerful contituency in human history.
    • Because of our unprecedented reach as developers, we share that responsibility.
    • And this weekend, and every thereafter, is another opportunity for us to live up to this remarkable gift we all have.