Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Bill Joy: Ignorant Slut, Crotchety Old Man

My friend Ben Casnocha sent me this excerpt from The Atlantic Monthly, a great publication that I refuse to read because I am too cheap to spring for a subscription. (He also suggested that I continue to use the "ignorant slut" them, so blame him if you're tempted to flame me!)

In it, ubergeek Bill Joy rubbishes games and blogs as a gigantic waste of time:

Bill Joy, the cofounder of Sun Microsystems, dismissed the suggestion that the online communities formed around Internet games and LiveJournal pages could provide an educational boost for America's young people

"This all sounds like a gigantic waste of time. If I was competing with the United States, I would love to have the students I was competing with spending their time on this kind of crap. People are fooling themselves that they're being creative in these spaces. The standard of creativity in the world, to be competitive and be a great designer, is very hard: you have to go to school; you have to apprentice; you have to do hard things.

...The real problem is, by democratizing speech and the ability to post, we've lost the gradation for quality. The gradation of quality was always based on the fact that words had weight. It cost money to move them around. So there was back pressure against junk.

Ultimately, not everyone can have a million readers, because all the readers have run out of time. So it's a false promise to people, that they can get the big audience. Because in the end once you've gotten to the years when you've got a job, you've gotta raise your kids, you're not gonna have time for this."

Joy's arguments are so wrong in so many ways that I'm reminded of a VC friend who once admonished me not to play any rap music at an event because he couldn't "make heads or tails of any of that dip dap dip dap stuff." It's sad to see a man become crotchety before his time.

Bill makes a couple of important and completely blockheaded assumptions.

1) To be creative, you have to go to school, apprentice, and do hard things.

First off, you certainly don't have to go to school. Going to school helps, but is far from a prerequisite. The number of great artists who have a degree in Creative Writing or Studio Art is embarassingly small.

Apprenticing is important, but there are many different forms of apprenticeship. For a writer, simply reading the great works of the past is a wonderful apprenticeship. There is no requirement for a formal, in-person apprenticeship.

I do agree that doing hard things is essential to creativity, but I disagree with Bill's assumption that blogging and creating and playing games are easy tasks. Doing them well requires just as much discipline and skill as coding in Java.

2) By democratizing speech and the ability to post, we've lost the gradation for quality.

Another absurdity. Why not just say that by democratizing the right to vote, we've created a dumbed-down electorate that can't be trusted to make the right decisions, and that we should go back to only allowing the landed gentry (or digerati) to vote? (though a frightening number of people agree with that last statement...)

It is true that barriers to entry help filter out bad content, but they filter out good content as well. A transparent market without barriers is fairer, and ultimately, more efficient. Bill may be disappointed that outsiders have a better shot at finding an audience...I view it as progress.

3) Not everyone can have a million readers, so for the majority of content creators, creativity is a waste of time.

This may be Bill's most pernicious argument, for it has an important grain of truth. As I've written before, anyone can be a star, but everyone can't be a star. However, who ever said that creating content was about becoming a star? Creation is its own reward. Young people have more opportunities than ever to experience flow, and that's a great thing, even if few of them go on to sign record deals.

Bill's right--I have a job. I have to raise my kids. And I probably don't have time for this. But that's not going to stop me. Not because I plan to make millions, but because I don't plan to make millions.

Ask any true writer why they write, and the answer is probably, "because I can't not write." The same holds true for any other creative activity, including coding.

Shame on Bill for forgetting that.

4 comments:

MJ said...

Didn't read the article, but that won't stop me from commenting :-)

Maybe Mr. Joy hasn't noticed that the company that's putting his out of business was started by a college drop-out?

What a tool.

Foobarista said...

It is surprising, but far from unknown, for old techies to go Luddite in their dotage.

In a way, it reminds me of the ancient rule that parents almost always hate their kids' music; it is an annoying sign that youthful coolness has passed them by.

Tim Taylor said...

I couldn't agree with you more on the idea of blogging isn't about audience, it's about fulfillment and in whatever form getting a better understanding of who I am.

I actually don't think creativity should be hard. Where it gets tricky is when I start to think of the result instead of embracing the process or the journey free of my self critic.

Gabe Rosen said...

For me, blogging has been an excellent tool to write more serious, more polished pieces for a wider audience without getting caught up in trying to get published or make money, which were never goals of mine. From a venture capitalist's perspective, the only people who should really be worrying about their ability to monetize blogging should be the people who work on (or invest in) blogging products.

Where I will concede that Joy is not entirely wrong is on the quality issue. There is a lot of atrociously bad writing out there, and free services like Myspace and LJ definitely showcase this. However, no one is forcing anyone to spend time there. If the New York Times (ok, bad example given recent years) started using "lol"in every sentence, replacing "you're" with "ur", and and wRiTiNg LiKe ThIs, we should worry.

What consistently amazes me about new technologies is how they always seem to just confirm more efficiently what we already know: that many people are illiterate and have no idea, that it's easy to confuse having contact info with having an actual relationship, and that other people's lives are always more interesting than our own.

However, the new technologies Joy decries also have the potential to get people in touch, make the world a bit smaller and friendlier, and shed some light on the occasional genius (or perhaps just comedian) previously toiling in obscurity. Seeing as it's up to willing individuals to wade through the imbeciles, I don't see much of a problem here. Unless, of course, you believe that Myspace, LJ, et al are actually making people stupider as well...