I am old enough to still remember the ’90s. For example, at the beginning of 1994, when I was in college, I attended a session in the Physics Faculty library about Science publications and knowledge sharing among scientists. During that session, they told us about a group of people who were meeting once a week to talk about the last web sites they had discovered. This was the World Wide Web as invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee when it was just a tool for scientists.
I do not remember myself excited about it. I guess I was slow-minded.
In 25 years from then, Software Has Eaten The World, as Marc Andressen said. During those two decades, all of us who have been involved in software creation one way or another had lived deeply exciting times. At least, I did it for sure.
During these years the access to software creation has been wide open to everyone on the whole Earth. Anyone with a computer could create a piece of software that may capture an enormous amount of users and, eventually, a huge market share. This is the Garage, or the College Dorm Room, myths. Jack Ma could not even get a job at the KYC, but he could start up an Internet company.
This combination of an almost plain entry barrier and such a huge traction power was pretty new. It might remind us of the Gold Fever (the several of them that happened), or the Conquest of the West in the United States. But they were short, and ultimately submitted to government control.
Software has been out of government control for 25 years. And they just got enough.
The dream is over
Governments are putting their hands in the software industry via regulation. The GDPR was only the beginning, a humble first step into what is going to be the biggest change in our industry in its whole history.
Regulation is coming into the software industry because the impact that software has in our societies has become too huge for the governments to keep leasing it without control. Because it is not just a tax evasion anymore. It is that the big tech companies are making the decisions, and I include their mistakes here, and so they have a tremendous impact on our lives. Government representatives (who are the ones accountable before us citizens) currently have poor knowledge, and less control, over them.
In other words: scrutiny from government representatives is coming to stay, as software companies are becoming more and more crucial in the world economy and our societies, as our lives become software-driven.
Trouble is regulation is so far off the mind of developers that it is going to be very tough, and it is going to take long, to make us change our mindsets. The famous Bill Gates internal “Trustworthy Computing” memo is nothing compared to what we are going to face soon. And, honestly, Bill Gates looks nicer in comparison to government bureaucrats in Washington, Brussels, or Beijing.
Regulation is not a fancy concept among developers because it makes our work less fun. Or, in more practical means, because it reduces the valid alternatives at the same time that imposes additional requirements to our designs.
Besides, entrepreneurs hate regulation too, for it slows down the launching of new ideas. Unless it is the leverage they could use to squeeze the market, of course.
For Big Techs only
Besides regulation, there is the fact that the entry barrier to software is steeping fast. I do not know what is going to be “The Next Big Thing“, but I am sure it is not coming out of any garage or a tiny apartment in Eastern Asia. This might look wrong, in a context dominated by software that sinks its roots in Linux, an open-source operating system, and orchestrates its production around git, an open-source version control system.
And yet, the truth is there is no tool that we are using today which was not invented in the quarters of a Big Tech company, unless it is older than let’s say 15 years ago. We must admit this is not unnatural, bearing in mind the aforementioned fact that software has eaten the world and, in consequence, Big Money just came to take over.
Certainly, there is still room for small teams and companies to find their market, but I am afraid they are all going to be niche players. And not only because of the central role of software in the economy, which tends to protect existing players from potential rivals, or because regulation makes it harder for outsiders to get into the field. There is also the fact that the main areas of exploration in software are harder to explore.
Just think a moment of what AI (Artificial Intelligence), Quantum Computing, or Self-Driving Cars have in common. All these fields require huge investments, to begin with, and it will also take years for the industries in those sectors to yield any profit. It is virtually impossible for young developers and enthusiastic entrepreneurs to enter these fields at home or at college and make significant progress that leads them to gain traction in the market.
The something else
The combination of all these vectors of change make me afraid of stiffness, of conventionalism. Of boredom. Sure, it can be exciting to work for the US, the EU, or China governments in AI, or in cryptocurrencies. Although, this is going to be such an ordinary, ultra-processed, excitement that it feels to me like getting an orgasm by taking a pill.
It is not that I am afraid of unemployment, though. Software is so widespread in our lives that niche sources of excitement are going to stay. Besides, teams are far from working efficiently, and legacy applications always require to refactor. We might even start learning Cobol, once we realized programs written in Cobol are going to stay longer than they should under any reasonable consideration.
But all these tasks are expected, they are common work we all do. What about the something else?
I guess what I miss is the feeling of freedom that runs through your body when you are out in the open field. The same feeling that brought me to this industry and cheered me up whenever hard times at work happened. Every time I was struck by boredom I transformed my career, and I did it many times in the last 22 years, always looking for excitement somewhere else.
This kind of limitless possibilities, the dream that there is always something else we might be doing, the unexpected, is what I am afraid we are going to lose, just because the software work that is going to dominate out the industry will be regulated, or it will be so expensive to make that only big corporations and public administrations are going to be capable of host it.
A friend told me my feeling was quite a bizarre form of nostalgia: since I am talking about forthcoming changes (or, more properly said, the possibility of them), my feeling is an anticipation of a future nostalgia for a past that it is still here.
Top image copyright notice: Xorn reveals himself as Magneto in New X-Men #146. Image used without permission.