Fabricating My Open Source Future

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 02/18/2010

There is so much to think and do and be in life. The choices can be overwhelming, and some choices when made could consume significant portions of the rest of your life. The wisdom to make these choices well sometimes doesn’t come until a lot of them have already been made, and the damage is done. This post is designed to help me think through those choices, and make the best decisions in the professional realm.

At nearly 40 years old, I feel I finally am equipped to do it right. And the single most important factor is the fixed and finite resource of time. How much can I fit into the next 40 years, and can I stick around long enough to see and afford the miracle breakthrough of longevity, so I can get another 80 years?

I’m a technologist and futurist at heart, rampantly consuming science and technology news. And I feel I must already go on a topical tangent in this post to qualify that reference to to “another 80 years”. We are the first generation in human history where the fountain of youth is not an unreasonable fantasy. Just yesterday, there was a news story about unravelling the reason cells age. They apparently send off signals indicating wear and tear on our DNA, so the body can expire us before nasty cancer-causing mutations get a chance.

But I digress. I won’t be banking on any age-defying pills anytime soon. Rather, I’ll be taking command of my life with a force and thoroughness that was previously circumstantial. I made a few ingenious navigational tweaks to my course through life here and there–such as switching from engineering to graphic design to web development to search engine optimization. But those were really were really just navigational tweaks based on luck, and a personal yo-yo’ing journey between the super-coolness of subjective artsy stuff and the awesome power of undeniable objective stuff. On that journey, I’ve started and not finished too many things. I’ve leapt onto stepping stones without willing my own path into existence. I’ve got plenty of evidence that I can see things through to completion to great effect.

And this website. MikeLev.in will document that journey.

Time is the most precious resource. Optimization of how that time is used is the most valuable ability. A clear vision of where you’re going is your first most valuable asset. And already developed mastery of the tools you’re going to use to achieve that vision is your second most valuable asset. And all the rest is motivation to kick your butt into gear.

The traditional trap people fall into is getting in over their heads in debt and responsability before they’ve developed deep wells of personal capacity, and the drive to do something big and meaningful in the world. And money has little to do with it. You can blow personal fortunes overnight. But you can rebuild it much more easily with that capacity. But even that’s not the point. The idea is to do something that improves everybody’s lives.

And at this point in life, right when I get the impression from those around me that by the age of 40, my enthusiasm is supposed to be crushed by the disappointments and harsh realities of life, I find myself being sold on the concept of infinite supply. Effectively free energy is on the horizon as solar cells become cheaper and more efficient. Who pays for that? The sun! Information flows more freely, equalizing opportunities regardless of socio-economic conditions. Generalized fabricators already exist, and will continually be getting better, until they eventually reach the point where they are open sourced and can produce an identical copy of itself, doing for material things what the Internet did for information. The difference between bits and atoms begins to blur. God forbid we create something that can create a slightly better version of itself using what we might call creativity. We are on the verge of a self-fueling technology acceleration curve.

Clearly, I think we live in the most interesting time in human history. We are the last privledged generation where true privacy can still be found, and you can drop off the grid if you really wanted to. And we are the first privledged generation who will be able to will into existence materials with miracle properties, and correspondingly challenge the very assumptions on which society is based–moreso than at previous times in history when splinter factions couldn’t get all their basic needs met by technology.

One of the greatest stories of our time is that of two individuals who realized this, and have been bitch-slapping eachother for thirty years, because before them, it took a huge cooperative effort like Xerox to pull off such things. But with the information revolution, the means of production became nerds tapping away at keyboards, moving bits around. How much of our day looking st screens has been defined and shaped by two individuals?

Soon, these shuffled around bits will be connected back to the real world through those fabricators in a more meaningful way than they are today, and new Gates and Jobs will be born. We are just at the ENIAC stages of fabricators. And the fun stuff is still the domain of researchers today. The open source accessible stuff is still pretty crappy–but fun to watch on YouTube. In the meantime, the revolution is mostly contained to information-space.

And that information space is still rife with opportunity. Standards let everybody jump on the bandwagon and enjoy the benefits of technology, but they also lower expectations and create blind-spots that are invitations to entrepreneurs to step in and innovate. The onus is then on the entrereneur to make their fortune, and move onto the next thing before compertirors or the open source community steps in, steals their intellectual property (calling it obvious–but only in hindseight), and rolls it into a new product or open source standard. The Z80 to the 8080. DOS to CP/M. Windows & Mac OS to Xerox Star. Internet Explorer to Netscape. HTML5 to Flash. The list is endless. And it’s not written in stone who will win. Clearly Intel prevailed over Zilog. But Microsoft prevailed over Digital Research.

And with each innovation, the world takes a baby-step forward, and awesome inherently superior potential futures get delayed for a 20-year cycle. DOS did us no favors. Neither did Windows–they’re only realizing now (with Aero Snap) that organized windows with neatly fixed positions is important! Imagine how much more productive the world would have been over the last 20 years if Microsoft went with Felix Unger-style window panes instead of Oscar Madison-style clutter! This is the sort of blind-spot that popularly embraced, but inherently flawed standards create. Apple tried to bring order to the windowing mess with Expose, but missed the mark.

Today, the primary offender is the Web browser. Innovated by Vint Cerf and a few other uncredited individuals, but mainstreamed by Netscape, it forced every single action through ridiculously simple API with an equally ridiculously simple mark-up language, designed to encourage adoption–and NOT designed to support rich interactive software applications. So right on the verge of immersive artificial reality user interfaces that leverage the state of hardware, we’re knocked back into the stone-age as the browser API gradually creeps outward to displace all the underlying operating system components, and their high performance APIs that have been optimized to take advantage of the host hadware. But in exchange, we get $100 laptops. Hmmm. I guess it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

And so it is with that perspective that I make my decisions about how and where to spend my professional time. I have to feel a true passion and love for the work. I have to hold it in historical context in my mind. I have to be doing something first and in a creative new way. I have to be working my way towards improving everyone’s life. And I don’t what to spin my wheels on the afore-postedbuild vs buy issue. And my work needs to be future-proofed, so it doesn’t end up sitting decaying away on some hard drive in 20 years. It needs to be designed with its own longevity designed-in, so even if it sits on top of proprietary components, it can be relatively simply re-connected to alternative open source components, once they exist.