Matt Neary

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Worse Is Better

One of the coolest aspects of software development is the way it makes really big theoretical questions around system design totally accessible. Every teenager building a web app is deploying an ad hoc bureaucracy of computer processes. As you get more experience, you start to think critically about how it all fits together.

I remember reading “The Rise of Worse is Better” a decade ago. The first time I read it, it felt like a call to action. It’s the story of how less elegant designs have come to dominate the world of computing, outcompeting and rendering irrelevant so many other, more brilliant systems. I felt compelled to investigate these alternate threads of history. I wondered what the world would look like if The Right Thing had won at each step along the way to our modern tech landscape.

Toward the end of high school I started taking math at The Ohio State University. This...

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The story goes like this


Anxiety is the writer’s block of life. People with crippling anxiety don’t know how to be author of their own life’s story: it’s like they’re trying to start an essay but can’t pick a first sentence. When you’re anxious, you can’t decide where to begin—because each decision feels overloaded with implications about what will come after, and all paths seem to lead invariably to a dead end. Luckily, in life, we don’t write the story alone: every shared experience, every sort of common ground, is a way of writing our stories together.

Stories are how we give meaning to our lives. At a higher level, they’re how we organize as a society. But sometimes we lose our collective ability to make goals and interpret events. When that happens, we get writer’s block at the societal level.

For example, around the end of WWII, in the aftermath of Adolf’s Reich and faced with the role of mass media...

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Something commensurate to our capacity for wonder

Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Similarly, destiny is when a personal dream meets historical necessity. American Destiny, then, was the realization of a dream that ushered in a new chapter of world history. The greatest dreams of the Enlightenment met a New World in which to express themselves. In the centuries that followed, the untamed land of liberty became the continent-spanning home to industry and ingenuity, and ultimately the seat of a world empire and its shining example of freedom and prosperity.

But along the way, while our nation’s dream-life has grown more expansive than ever before, our hold on history has slipped away. Dream as we may, it is nevertheless hard to imagine that, like past generations of Americans, we too may have our rendezvous with destiny. It is no wonder, however—the dreams that have gripped modern America one after the other have all, in some...

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Here’s to the crazy ones

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Apple’s most iconic ad featured a cast of famous misfits, rebels, and dreamers. I think Michel Foucault would’ve been a worthy addition. The campaign linked the company to a certain philosophy of the world—and this worldview, with its particular understanding of social change, has a lot in common with the work of Michel Foucault and the other founders of critical theory. A later interview with Steve Jobs, in which Steve says the following, makes the connection clear:

When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can...

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Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” He was onto something. The nature of fame has changed a lot since then, because the nature of the media has changed. Warhol was working in an age of mass media—as is so well captured in his art. We now live in the age of democratized media and democratized media have democratized fame. The users of these democratized media, like Instagram, live partly in a virtual copy of the world. As in the work of Warhol, fame generates icons, and these icons take on a life of their own. In Dead Celebrities, Living Icons, cultural critic John David Ebert suggests that this is the very transformation Warhol anticipated:

Indeed, looking back over the various biographies of the celebrities we have covered in this book, it becomes clear that they represent the pioneers, as it were, of the current mass exodus into hyperreality...

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Why Race into Space?


In the twentieth century space exploration reached its zenith during the Cold War. At this point, space exploration was revealed to be about two things above all. First, space was made the arena for a new sort of competition between nations. While America and Soviet Russia were engaged in a cold war, space exploration became the scale by which to measure the effectiveness of the two countries and, in fact, by which to measure the effectiveness of their respective paradigms of governance. America set out to prove that a free society will ultimately outperform a centrally-planned communist regime. This was not obvious.

Additionally, space was rightly perceived as a realm with great power for war and peace. The conquest of space as satellites were pushed into orbit around the planet was the source of great anxiety. Those countries that could do this first would gain the higher ground...

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Idea Filters

Nowadays everything seems replaceable. Discussion of the successors to credit cards and gas-powered cars is common in a way that discussion of those to paper currency and oil lamps never was. The status quo is so quickly shifting that any everyday annoyance is seen as a gap to be quickly filled, an opportunity waiting for any company that will seize it.

Of course, however, not everyone who notices such an annoyance will jump to form a company around it. Most people never really pursue these ideas; they acknowledge them and patiently await their solution by someone else. Those who do attempt a solution will only do so up to a certain cost. It’s human nature to be at least somewhat risk averse. Your valuation of cost, however, is not strictly a function of missed opportunities or necessary resources; this blow can often be softened when a project is compatible with your identity and...

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