Breaking Smart

Today, I am launching a new site: Breaking Smart. It is a seasonal binge-reading site (think Netflix binge-watching, but for blogs) devoted to big-picture analysis of technology trends. Starting with this first season, I plan to publish a complete season of essays once every 2 years. The inaugural season has 20 essays, amounting to a total of about 30,000 words. For those of you planning a lazy, slow August of vacationing, staycationing and catching up on reading, I hope Season 1 of Breaking Smart makes it onto your shortlist and propels you back to work in September with a fresh set of ideas about how the world works. I am also launching a new weekly email newsletter (in illustrated tweetstorm format!) that you can subscribe to on the site.

Season 1 explores the theme of “software eating the world.” Marc Andreessen, who coined the phrase in a 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed, and also helped me explore it through several in-depth discussions last year, has been kind enough to write an introduction.

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Unlike my writing on ribbonfarm, which has an unabashedly insider tone (you either get what refactoring is or you don’t), I have consciously tried to make Breaking Smart accessible to a broad audience. Among the most fun parts of achieving a more accessible tone was working with artist Grace Witherell to come up with a bunch of great illustrations to accompany the text. The montage above, composed from a selection of the individual illustrations from this season, should give you a sense of the essays.

So head on over to breakingsmart.com to start reading. Or read the rest of this post first, for the backstory of how this site came to be, and details on how you can help it boldly go where no website has gone before.

The Backstory

Breaking Smart was born of two sources. The first was a year-long consulting gig with a16z in 2014, during which I had the opportunity to work closely with Marc Andreessen, Chris Dixon and several others to explore how software is eating the world. A16z have very generously assigned me shared rights to part of the work I did with them. This is what has made it possible for me to publish these essays publicly.

The second source was my own research over the past couple of years, for a book project I had tentatively named Game of Pickaxes. But the scope of my research there grew so broad that it became clear a book would not be able to do it justice. I have no idea how many seasons Breaking Smart will last, but I hope to make it an exploration of creative-destruction through technology that goes well beyond would have been possible in a single book.

My gig with a16z began with an invitation from Chris Dixon to spend a month with the firm in 2013. That lead to a year-long project to study the “software eating the world” phenomenon in depth, and understand it in the context of past technological revolutions. I spent the year reading a great deal and thinking about both contemporary and historical technological revolutions. Perhaps most importantly, the project involved lots of very challenging conversations, with a lot of very smart people, from all over the software industry and beyond.

A lot of my writing is driven by solo excursions into topics that interest me. This effort, by contrast, has been a very social one. The essays are the outcome of hundreds of furious debates with dozens of smart and highly opinionated people.  Debates grounded in rapidly evolving live examples. Debates that forced me to consider my opinions on difficult questions very carefully and adopt clear positions, something that does not come naturally to me. But that is the nature of major societal transformations where a “right side of history” emerges. You either pick a side, or a side picks you. With software eating the world, there is not much room for hedging. It is eat or be eaten. The good news is, that is a choice that is actually available, in a meaningful way, to a far larger fraction of humanity than during any previous technological revolution.

Season 1 of Breaking Smart represents only a small fraction of all the extraordinarily interesting things I got to dive into and study in 2014. As those who were part of the debates can attest, these essays barely scratch the surface of  everything we discussed and learned through the year.

Inevitably, I had to make some hard choices about what to include and exclude.

I ended up using a different heuristic than the one I normally use for ribbonfarm essays. Rather than attempting to refactor everything in sight and litter the essays with all the little bits of insight-porn I could find, I decided to try and surface the most foundational ideas, concepts and arguments in contemporary technology debates.

The idea, in these essays, is not to provide a definitive treatment of the themes, or to occupy and defend a set of unassailable positions on every contentious issue. Rather, it is to equip you to make sense of a chaotic live conversation that is playing out all around us. For people new to the technology-and-society debates, I hope this serves as a great entrance point. For those already immersed in it, I hope this serves as a level-up reading experience. One that sheds new light on things you thought you understood.

The interesting problem with writing about a megatrend like software eating the world is that so few have so far had an opportunity to participate in it as true insiders, privy to the world-altering technology development at the heart of companies like Google and Facebook. To make these abstruse matters accessible, I had to reluctantly give up some of my favorite tools like satirical wordplay and foxy perspective shifting. To tackle such a big subject without making a chaotic mess of things, I had to play it relatively straight. It is hard enough to get oriented in the software revolution without me adding  a layer of rhetorical self-indulgence.

My hope, with these essays, is to contribute to broadening the conversation so more people can intelligently participate on the “eating” side of software eating the world.

For long-time ribbonfarm readers, Breaking Smart is going to be a bit of a change of pace and tone. I hope you have as good a time reading my ideas in this different voice as I did developing and refining it. Writing is, in many ways, like acting, and it is always a stimulating challenge to develop a new voice and persona for a new project.

How You Can Help

This is my first new writing project since Tempo (2011), and given its experimental nature, I can use all the help I can get to make it work. Here are some specific things you can do:

  1. Read Season 1 this August, recommend it to friends, and debate/discuss it with your favorite intellectual sparring partners.
  2. If you know smart people struggling to understand the new economy, get them to read it. Season 1 is designed to serve as a sort of Digital Economy for Non-Dummies primer.
  3. Sign up for the email list
  4. Tweet and share on Facebook as you read
  5. Convince senior executives you know to bring the Season 1 workshop to their organizations. I did a pilot version of the workshop in Chile in April. I will be conducting versions in Zurich and London (open to the public) in Fall, and possibly one in Brazil in December.
  6. If you know individuals or organizations who might be interested in sponsoring Season 2, introduce them to me.

We’ll back to regular programming on Thursday. But until then, head on over to Breaking Smart and get started on your binge-reading.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Would love to buy this as a Kindle book. Any possibility of offering that in the future?

  2. Congratulations Venkat. This is a masterpiece. And I’m happy to see you developing a more novice-friendly voice. I’ve always wanted to recommend your pieces more but knew most people don’t have the attention span. With this series I’ll give it another shot.

  3. Daniel C says:

    What are your thoughts towards an audiobook version?

  4. In ye Olden Days we would have referred to “Netflix binge-watching, but for blogs” as “reading a book.” That of course is hopelessly outmoded. I am a fan of your new concept. Subscribed!

  5. I started reading and this turned me off right at the introduction:
    “Between both the breathless and despairing extremes of viewing the future, could an intellectually rigorous case be made for pragmatic optimism?”

    What kind of intellectually rigorous case can be made if you set up from the start to prop up the official party line? Why not at least consider it on equal terms with either of “the breathless or the despairing extremes”?

    • I feel that this series is just a propaganda leaflet for salarymen, so they can burn savings chasing a dream. 1 per 1000 will be successful, and here enters mr Andreessen. I wonder what real ideas were born after Venkat, Andreessen crossing. Now we have to read from shadows.

  6. I am half way through the first installment of essays. Already, the burning question is whether I and my tribe — the lawyers — have an optimistic future.
    I confess that I personally have a more pragmatic/hacker orientation. But professionally I’ve been trained to see matters as zero sum contests. You note the stagnation of the Islamic culture; and I cannot help adverting to the fact that Islam is a legalistic culture par excellence.
    I am certainly no technologist. And I have been slow to adopt social media and other efflorescent manifestations of web 2.0. But am I doomed to be a pastoralist cast off? Is there no way a person devoted to logic and the truth-finding function of adversarial contests can grasp the silken cord of zemblanity?

    • Ah, I now see the error of my ways. I don’t want to grasp zemblanity, but shun it. It is not a silken cord, but more like a super-sticky strand of barbwire.

    • Isn’t the law profession already in a major crisis? I think Steven Harper had a book about it, “The Lawyer Bubble.”

      • I haven’t read the book, but I am aware of the argument it makes. I suppose most of my peers see the crisis as a division between those of us (usually older and graduates of Tier One schools) who are on the life boats and the unfortunates (mostly young, graduates of Tier Three or lower, saddled with $100K+ of debt) who are stuck on the Titanic post-iceberg. And yes, that is somewhat of a zero-sum framework.
        One thing software seems to have eaten is the courtroom as a preferred forum for seeking justice. Social media can quickly create a virtual Coliseum, filled with outraged people howling for the death, either literal or metaphorical, of a perceived evil doer. Whatever a Zimbabwean court ultimate does to that Minnesota dentist for his act of leocide, he has already been found guilty of a supreme evil by a quarter million friends of Cecil and driven out of business and into hiding.
        A hundred years ago, the worst thing a socialite could contemplate was social death — no invites to the right sort of parties and the scorn of public snubs from the right sort of people. Perhaps today’s pastoralist would be wise to insist on the “right to be ignored” (already recognized in the EU) and seek to withdraw from the social media arena. But the software is so ubiquitous and so ravenous that such withdrawal may be illusory.

  7. Software has already eaten the world, which is why Breaking Smart 1 reads a bit like a defense of the status quo. It is Venkat wearing the mask of Fukuyama, elaborating a retrospective neo-conservatism in which a liberal ( “free” ) society plus technological determinism is the latest incarnation of the world-spirit. Yes, sure, this is just the current paradigm according to which we produce and sell normal technology.

    Breaking Smart just glosses over the infamous and fearsome Singularity. In my opinion discussing the Singularity is mostly a symptom of an actual impasse. Software has eaten the world but it considerably slowed down eating itself. Instead software has grown into a huge junkspace held together by glue code. The Singularity is the name of the software god which eats other software for lunch and liberates mankind from an increasing number of software developers who build and fix a rapidly aging new world of gargantuan software stacks. The Singularity is therefore the heroic supplement of the post-heroic software worker who is used to enjoy only small improvements, while being scared about dissociation and getting trapped by everything we failed to get rid off. While the liberal-conservative Hegelian optimist still believes in the creative-destructive promethean individual and cannot praise it enough, a fraction of those individuals have silently become Heideggerians who believe that only a software god can help us.

    • Seriously? “Has already eaten the world”? To me it looks like it’s barely begun. Conceptually perhaps mental models have already shifted, but in terms of actual impact and fully embodied and realized realities, we’re barely getting started. To take a small example, ridesharing is still just a minor percentage of the world’s ride-for-hire market. In one way or another, almost all ride-hailing is going to be via app, and that’s going to take time.

      The bitrot/junk software vs. good software is one of the topics where my own opinions have shifted the most. I agree that most software today is crap (Sturgeon’s law applies), but it’s getting way more robust with each new generation of process and tool improvements. It can be hard to see because features and expectations are also increasing rapidly. UX hedonic treadmill.

      As for the Singularity, yeah, I’ve been on record for a while that I think it’s a meaningless red herring.

  8. Just saying your so called “breaking smart” explain software eating the world is a disservice to your idea. I think you need to call it: software is the new world!

    I believe this thinking need a place to discuss and nurture, do you have any mailing list or discourse place?

    For example, you’re saying software is like written language and money, nowadays every organization have section or people in charge of their written languange (secretary) and money (treasury). What are the equivalent section/jobs for software? Today IT departement or CIO sure not enough for it.

    In the future of software as the pillars of society what are the most important thing we need to teach our children or grand children?

  9. I recently got through this series, binging over 3 days. I was very impressed.

    The concept of “pastoralism” and its dangers seems to bear a resemblance to the thought of political philosopher Eric Voegelin.