Softer, Better, Slower, Weaker

I've been doing a lot of thinking recently (and talking to people like Amanda and Aaron) about what I'd hypothetically do a PhD on. This is an interesting topic to noodle on not just because I'm debating going back to college, but because it's just fun, as a personal development exercise, to identify the subjects I care about deeply enough to write about and dedicate myself to for that length of time.

There are a lot of them. But one of the big ones I'm thinking about right now, and hoping to spend the next few months exploring, is the practical consequence of tech's need to always make things bigger and better than last time.

Whether it's due to capitalism, aggression and socially conditioned gender differences, or the inexorable shittiness of people, one common theme of technological progress is that it's always upwards. And on the face of it, that's a good thing, right? We develop bigger and better solutions to bigger and better problems. We go from a service that lets 100 people collaborate (Usenet) to a service that lets millions use it (Twitter).

The problem is twofold. First: by giving into this narrative about how everything has to be bigger and better, and everything has to change the world in some incredibly substantial way for a massive group of people, we ignore the possibility that there are low impact but low cost things we can do.

Second: practically-speaking, in a capitalist society, stuff only gets made if people are willing to spend money on it. This means that people coming from marginalised groups that aren't large enough to be a market, or are too poor to be a market, are ignored. They're "edge cases". They're low-priority.

And the result is that there's this vast, vast space that the last decade of computing has largely left alone, where there are:

  1. Ideas that are technological in nature, have a very small overall impact, but are very simple to implement and run, and;
  2. Groups where software can help in simple ways to improve things, and capitalism dictates these groups will not get served.

In other words: a set of ideas that can be easily tested and deployed, and a set of populations that are not attractive to the people making the big, sexy, hard-to-do stuff, and so don't get served.

That's the space I'd like to explore. And over the next few months I will be exploring it (and writing up my thinking and motivations as I go along); tools to help with motivation around mental health issues, tools to help with egregious online harassment on particular platforms, tools to cause joy. Tools that are not attractive to the general population or moneymaking but need to exist.