In the 1980s, personal computers fueled a desktop publishing revolution. Software let people create documents with powerful flexibility from their desktops. Yet before these creations could have impact on the real world, they had to be printed on paper, magnetic tape or film. The Internet connected only the scientists and hackers — the majority of computers were isolated with software transmitted on physical disks.
The Internet began as a communications medium: a way to send messages across networks. The need for human-to-human communication across institutional boundaries led to standardization of a resilient messaging protocol (TCP/IP) in the 1970s. By the mid 1990s, email was common, but not universal; the web popularized the Internet as a new publications platform. Initially technical papers were linked across dozens, then hundreds of computers. Then, digital retail brochures dominated the landscape and billboard sported web addresses for the first time.
Blogging started as a simple way to update web pages using date-stamped content. The format became standardized with software that helped people write in a way that they had been writing online for a decade, and on paper for centuries. I started this blog in 2002, and I remember when SixApart introduced a new feature that connected blog posts to each other, establishing patterns for readers as well as authors. “Trackbacks” allowed me to easily see who linked to a post I had written, and for the first time, I experienced a social network forming through interactions fostered asynchronously by words written, read and referred to. It felt like a new digital realm.
Now we have so many ways to self-publish, to reach audiences instantaneously across the world, to find the people who want to hear what we have to say. We’re still empowering a subset of the population: young, urban, wealthy, educated Americans are much more likely to use the internet (according to a 2015 Pew Research Report). It is no surprise that the 15% not yet online are not evenly distributed. Nevertheless, this new generation has emerged who feel entitled to a voice. In this online realm that is as imperfect, biased, and broken as the physical world, we have created the potential for a new kind of democracy, where we can choose the voices who represent us through following and sharing.
For the past year, I’ve been working on a small social network focused on culture change within the US government: Open Opportunities is a deceptively simple system allowing federal employees to post projects that other employees can sign up to work on for their own professional development. We’re mirroring actual collaboration that happens (rarely) in the real world by people who have well-developed networks, allowing them to find and collaborate with others across this huge organization with 2.7M employees. Participation requires supervisor approval, yet we allow the individual to confirm rather than requiring a byzantine series of forms that is more typical for government software. Federal employees are already held to high standards for ethics and must be responsible and knowledgeable about the legal implications of their actions, which allows us to instill a respect for individual responsibility into the design of the software service. Less software can sometimes offer more power as we seek to facilitate interactions that take place outside of software, empowering people to create impact in the real world.
As software designers and developers, it is our opportunity and responsibility to create a medium that will amplify the best of us and moderate the forces that threaten to tear apart our society. In the private sector, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit, Imgur, Pinteret, Medium, Github and others provide new capabilities for communication and social interaction. Software design influences the way we interact, creating emergent behavior that is changing our culture.
In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that “we have allowed our civilization to outdistance our culture.” I think our culture might just be starting to catch up, now that our technology is starting to reach a wider spectrum of the population. His call-to-action when jet planes were new is even more urgent in today’s globally connected society:
Through our scientific genius we have made this world a neighborhood; now through our moral and spiritual development, we must make of it a brotherhood. In a real sense, we must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.