Book Notes: “WTF?”

WTF?: What’s The Future and Why It’s Up to Us
By Tim O’Reilly
HarperBusiness, 2017

I’ll say this upfront in case you decide to skip the rest of this post: This is an important book. If you work in technology, you owe it to yourself and to the rest of us to read it.

Ethics is currently a hot topic in the tech world. As I write this, executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google are testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding their companies’ role in allowing foreign powers to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Many people inside and outside of the tech industry now realize we need to take a more goal-directed approach to how we design and implement new technologies.

Few are better positioned than Tim O’Reilly to take on the role of conscience of the tech world. For almost 40 years, Mr. O’Reilly has had a front-row seat (and often on-stage role) at the digital revolution through the publishing house he founded, O’Reilly Media. He speaks with the credibility that comes from being a long-term observer and actor in the tech world, without the constraints that come from being beholden to any of the tech giants that dominate the space. He is also a student of classical philosophy and — critically for the book’s argument — the work of Alfred Korzybski.

Korzybski’s central thesis is that language has a profound influence on how we understand reality. His most famous aphorism — “The map is not the territory” — speaks to the fungible nature of language: the things we describe and the language we use to describe them are not the same, and changing the language we use can change how we understand the thing. For example, the label “free software,” proposed by Richard Stallman to describe a philosophy and approach to software development that encouraged sharing and openness, hindered its adoption in the market. O’Reilly helped popularize an alternative term — “Open Source Software” — that was designed to neutralize the objectionable aspects of the original label, and which led to more widespread adoption. Changing the map enabled a different understanding of the territory. 

This focus on language as a tool for change is evident throughout the book and and in Mr. O’Reilly’s career. Besides “Open Source,” he and his associates helped create and popularize other key labels in tech such as “Web 2.0” (to encourage rebooting the tech industry after the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s), “government as a platform” (to bring a more entrepreneurial approach to government operations), the “maker” movement (extending the hacker ethos to hardware), and others. In some ways, O’Reilly Media has been the primary intentional “mapmaker” of the technology world for the past four decades.

The book approaches language as a tool we can use to tackle some of today’s thorniest technology-related ethical problems. Will machines eliminate our jobs? How do we enable people and companies to fit into fast-changing contexts? How do we create social networks that aim for elucidation rather than mere engagement? How do we build resilient societies based on fast-changing technologies? How do we create artificial intelligences that augment — rather than replace — our own? Much depends on how we talk about these things — and not just in the way we frame the stories, but also in the actual words we use.

The primary argument is that technology is a tool and we can choose how to deploy it. (I.e., “It isn’t technology that puts people out of work, it’s the decisions we make about how to apply it.”) As such, the main call is for us to examine the systems that influence our use of technologies and the semantic environments that enable them. The most important of these is our current “free” market system, and​ the book offers a critique that uncovers how current market conditions incentivize actors in ways that are often at odds with healthy, sustainable societies. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Pessimism about the prospects of new technologies abounds in today’s media. It’s not unusual to see articles about the threats posed by AI, the loss of jobs to robots, the manipulation of public opinion through social media by malicious actors, and more. WTF? introduces a clear-headed — and refreshingly optimistic — message into the conversation: We have the power to decide what technologies we use and for what ends, and we can start by consciously designing the semantic maps that will get us there.

Disclaimer: I’m co-author of a book published by O’Reilly Media.

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