There's a man I know who is one of the finest Unix and Linux software engineers you'd ever want to meet. He works for one of the big computer manufacturers, from his house, on his own schedule. He is no obsessed computer loner, but a hearty family fellow who lives in a sprawling suburban home with his loving wife and teenage children. Let's call him "Ron."
Ron is a tinkerer, the kind of "true hacker" who longs to improve every machine he meets. If Ron wasn't earning an excellent living in the computer industry, he'd turn his talents elsewhere and probably meet with similar success. When I look at him, sometimes I wonder what he would have been like if he'd been born 100 years earlier. In my mind's eye I picture him running a farm equipment repair service in a small Wisconsin town, circa 1899, happily modifying his neighbors' threshers and steam tractors so that they'd perform better than when they left the factory.
If the Internet and the computer infrastructure behind it weren't growing so rapidly, and feeding Ron and his family so well, he might have drifted into some other field. Perhaps he'd be designing more efficient Diesel fuel injection systems that would help cut air pollution or inexpensive Artesian well pumps that could help bring marginal land under cultivation.
Now think of all those "If cars were built by Microsoft" and "If General Motors built computers" jokes. Imagine where the automobile business would be today if the entrepreneurs who run Silicon Valley had decided to build cars instead of computers. By now we'd probably all be driving vehicles powered by fuel cells or 100 MPG hybrid gas/electric motors, and the U.S. would dominate the world's automotive industry instead of playing constant catch-up.
If the same spirit that drove the growth of Apple and Oracle and 3Com had been put into space transportation, we might have permanent colonies on the moon by now. We might even be ready to launch human expeditions to some of the more interesting asteroids.
Imagine how much better life in third-world countries would be if just a fraction of the intelligence and energy that have gone into building the Internet had been applied to subsistance-level agriculture. Or if some of the high-ability, high-concept managers who have been drawn to Internet and computer businesses had gone into politics. I don't think there would be nearly as much hunger and misery in the world if so much talent hadn't been sucked into computers and the Internet.
This is all just speculation, no more valid than an "alternate history" science fiction novel.
But I wonder, I really do, what the world would be like today if the Internet was not such an overriding factor in it. And then I remember that the Internet is really not a big deal; it's just a toy for the few of us who are so rich that we don't worry about finding food to eat. In a global context, nothing on the Internet -- not even Slashdot -- is important enough to be worth a glance.
I suppose what bothers me is something I've never heard put quite this way: the "Internet Brain Drain." If all the best and brightest minds are attracted to Internet-based industries, that means the rest of the world is being run by second-raters. And that's scary.
Yesterday I had a phone conversation with a highly-placed campaign official for one of the major U.S. Presidential candidates. (Which one doesn't matter; they're all about the same.) This guy could easily end up as a top-tier White House staffer if his man wins. And compared to most of the people I come in contact with online, he simply wasn't very bright.
I don't think I'm exactly brilliant myself, but I don't presume to think I'm capable of making decisions that affect millions of people. Then I meet some of the people at the top end of the (U.S.) political game, and I realize that I wouldn't trust most of them to drive my limo because I'd be afraid that they'd get lost. And that's really scary.
I have come to believe that the average computer industry person is much brighter and more capable than the average modern American political person -- which is not only scary, but rather depressing.
Consider Sun CEO Scott McNealy. Like him or not, you've got to admit that the man is full of vitality and imagination. Put him on a debate platform with the current bunch of Presidential candidates and he'd eat them alive.
I'll stop with the analogies now. You get the idea.
I believe the Internet, and computers in general, are both worthwhile and necessary. It's when we think of them as ends in themselves that we go wrong. The Internet doesn't create ideas; it's merely a tool that helps distribute them and makes collaborative thinking easier. Computers do no original thinking; they merely help human thinkers work more efficiently.
The talents that make a good programmer could be applied just as well in many other fields, from politics to agricultural development to civil engineering.
Right now, the Internet is the equivalent of a world-wide boomtown. Booms always end. When they do, the people who participated in them settle down and do other things. The Internet boom will end, just like all the others. When it does, infrastructure development will continue, software will still get written, and Web sites will still be made, but not at today's frenetic pace. "Information Economy" skills will become common and will no longer command a premium price -- except for a very, very few people at the top end.
So what are you going to do when this change comes? Have you chosen a "next field" yet? Have you thought about it at all? Do you ever wonder what you'd be doing with yourself if we had no Internet and no personal computers?
After some of the sad contacts I've had with political people (which I'll save for another story on another day), I hope at least a few of you decide to leave computer work and go into politics.
As I said earlier, This is all just speculation, no more valid than an "alternate history" science fiction novel.
But I can dream, can't I?