My ex-wife said I should write an autobiography of my experiences in Silicon Valley. So I started with this: how I co-conceived Twitter.
So Microsoft is buying Nokia, signifying another end of a brilliant era, and the start of something...stupider. Better in some ways. But definitely stupider.
Nokia was, to the pioneers of silicon valley, something of a Valhalla. It appeared to us as an intangible distant success, beyond the endless slew of tedious Powerpoint slideshows, which some time in the now far distant past, were finally brightened by the introduction of business-priced color printers. From Nokia, we did not normally see neat business suits with briefcases stuffed with slides, like from everyone else.
The first time I was allowed to discover this strange fact, unbeknownst to many of rank and file in the order of business offices, was because I was nice to a teenage girl in a hotel Jacuzzi. Appreciating my friendship to his daugher, her father joyfully jumped into the Jacuzzi with us and then, discovering I was working a new cellphone technology, enthusiastically told me he was a VP of engineering at Nokia. Then he proceeded to talk for five hours on Nokia's forthcoming products for the next five years. Each hour he steadfastly described one year of future business and product plans, for five hours in a row. In the Jacuzzi.
Half way through, I asked if he wanted to go in the office to continue. "Why bother?" he said. "It's nicer here. Besides, the hot water stimulates the mind. And also, my daughter likes you." She smiled over from the neighboring pool, where she was practicing aqua gymnastics. It was such events over the years that kept me working 100-hour weeks building new technologies, more of which I could share here if others are interested.
And so it is, with Nokia's absorption into Microsoft, yet another of the strange panoply of wonders which gave birth to so much innovation in the dreary rows of martialed cubes, under endless tubes of fluorescent light fixtures, has ended. Gradually all that was so miraculous, which inspired us and kept us dreaming of a better world, is being reduced to predictable formulations by the suits, with yet more of those briefcases of tedious Powerpoint slides which they wield like sledgehammers upon seeing any delicate strands of innovative inspiration.
1. Twitter and the So-Called 'Telecommunications Era'
The whole telecommunications era revolved, to me, around an equally strange pivot point. Long after we had finally reduced wireless communications to fit in a pocket, a PBS radio show remarked on the most common use of our work. Apparently, statistics revealed the majority of all cellphone calls were to let a spouse know where the other spouse was. In conjunction, it was discovered there to be an exponentially decaying relationship between a person's amount of education and the likelihood of that person owning a cellphone. People who did not finish high school were two orders of magnitude more likely to own a cellphone than a person with a PhD.
The radio show commented, by comparison, on birdsong. It stated that the most frequent birdsong calls basically say 'here I am, over here.' Birds cannot see each other easily between trees, and so that's the most frequent birdcall: 'here I am, over here.' The radio commentator went on to ask, as people use cellphones more and more for simple communications as to whether the spouse is still on the freeway or in the supermarket (with conversations often lasting less than 12 words, he also noted) as follows. The result of increased communication methods has been to increase frequency, true, but simultaneously, reduce quality horribly. Are new communications media reducing our conversations to nothing more than birdsong? What a great loss to civilized conversation!
2. And so Twitter was Born
Believing these observations significant, I brought the topic up with the chief engineer who worked in the office of the President of Oracle, Larry Ellison, over lunch the following day. Bemused he looked at me with his clear blue Scandinavian eyes and half shaven beard, for he was an old Nokia engineer himself. "That's really funny," he said. "of course *you* agree with the radio commentator, don't you?" I nodded. "That's because the damn elitists who taught you to recognize important truths were more interested in good conversations, like you, and not interested in fantastic business opportunities."
"That's true," I said. "That's your job."
"Ja. You don't realize what you just told me," he said. "I've been looking for an idea like that for years. I'm fed up with this place anyway." Within a month he quit and totally disappeared, surprising no one, because after all, he used to work for Nokia. Later I learned of a strange new startup called Twitter.
'People like to talk in phrases of less than 12 words,' the company stated, 'so we are making a communications network just for that.'
And it was one of the most successful communication networks ever started, proving not only my belief that the birdsong topic was important, but also that Scandinavian engineers really know what they are doing--at least up to now. Perhaps it's all the Jacuzzis or something. As to whether Microsoft's purchase really spells the end of that...oh who am I kidding but myself. It's over too. Just like Apple.
It really was a pivotal point in the history of technical innovation. As to which way the pivot swung, in my opinion, I will mostly remain silent, except to say a few thoughts below now, and, I quit working in silicon valley. There were a few more such events leading to that decision. But that's another story.
3. So. Stupider. But Maybe Better?
Last year, I joined one of the new boards governed by Twitterspeak colloquials. Many people have conversed with me in a way I didn't really know before. In one way, I was horrified at the truncated speech resulting from Twitter's start, for which I can only blame myself; and the spreading demise of respect for extended conversation that I have caused, which seems to be have been replaced by a respect for individuals more able to insult others; in less words and with more profanity, then even better.
It is not just my fault. The highlighted words in magazine articles, called 'pullquotes,' have long been the curse of columnists. Gradually, in this last decade, the pullquote has taken over from the article and, essentially, replaced it. First the article around the pullquote slowly became padding, like whitespace on a Web page, artistically arranged to make the pullquote more interesting, and serving little other purpose in the publisher's eyes. And now, gradually, the text is fading entirely away, because reading more than 12 consecutive words is now rarely considered expedient by the great majority.
Even the pullquote itself is too long. As the small area of a text in a phone's viewfinder, so difficult to create with the tiny 'smartphone' buttons, results in more truncated words, so then the hash symbol replaces sentences; monosyllabic expletives replace words defining whatever more detailed content of any mindfulness might be easily discarded in an apathetic morass of rapidified convenience. Is it perhaps aptly a misnomer to call a device a 'smartphone,' so that its users do not consider how stupid it is making them? And even more importantly, is it better to make people less aware of how our self expression is being disintegrated into less coherent snippets of thought, so we are less likely to challenge the authority of those who would make decisions for us, and become richer and more powerful at our own loss?
Consider. We are no longer encouraged to seek better expression. Instead even the world leaders bombard is with sequences of short, pithy, monosyllabic phrases, creating a sense of purposeful motion through vaguely defined and improperly expressed emotions; and the emotions themselves, as a consequence, become increasingly crass and less understood, both by the speaker and the listener. Hence, our thought is more easily controllable by those who still seek better understanding and expression of their own societal power.
4. So Why is this Twitterspeak Better?
Well, for that, I must look to those with more experience in such hacking of linguistic beauty into gobbet sequences. I cannot be sure myself if I will ever understand why it is better to communicate that way, but according to those fond of such practice, I am f**ing stupid not to understand why they are superior in communication. I guess they must be right somehow, at least until boredom with boredom sets in.
Boredom with boredom, and a search for something better, appears to me as inevitable as Trajan and his successors rebuilding the largest city in the world; the one which Nero, more enamored with popularity and kitsch art than common sense and beauty, entertained his corrupted consorts by burning to the ground; perhaps for the better, according to some. From my perspective, those who think Twitterspeak is better than more thoughtful and considerate expression are doing exactly the same, in mass, as Nero did with one flame: destroying a civilization. In the rush to birdsong communications, those with the knowledge to make the best decisions are not only sidelined, but totally ignored, as their reasoning simply does not compress into a single smartphone screen. And politicians like President Bush welcomed the demise of thought, in the interest of manipulating mass emotion to their own ends, demeaning intellectuals as 'elitists' because, if people listened to thought instead of Twittered hatelet punch phrases, it would be more difficult for him to start a war for his own personal benefit.
It is up to those who speak Twitterspeak to communicate, somehow, something better, if there is any hope of a better result from a communications media which is slowly replacing all others, and which, sadly, I in half conceived. What they will say, I cannot guess, but probably it will be simpler than my thoughts. lol,