The Tiny Number of Tech Heroes

Tim Berners-LeeI found a telling sentence in an otherwise good article about HTML5, “We do things with web pages and HTML today that were never dreamt of by the early developers and implementers of the language.” It made me ill, even though I see this all the time.

Tim Berners-Lee Double Standard

What’s notable is the double standard we see. When early HTML is discussed in even a slightly negative light, as it is in this sentence, it is “developers and implementers” who are to blame. But when it is one of the thousands of times I read about “who invented and implemented the glorious web” it is Tim Berners-Lee who, as the 20th century Moses, brought it to the masses on silicon circuit boards.

The Rubbish of the Romantic Hero Archetype

I know I rant a lot about this but the Romantic Hero archetype is rubbish. It hurts society. All those conservatives who are so concerned that no one will do anything if they can’t make billions of dollars aren’t at all concerned that people might not do so much innovation if they are completely ignored while a tiny fraction of developers gets all the credit.

Tim Berners-Lee did this; Tim Berners-Lee did that; Tim Berners-Lee did some other damned thing!

The only examples I know of people who really qualify as Romantic Heroes were so ahead of their time that no one acknowledged their work while they were living. Take Gregor Mendel — the “Father of Genetics.” It took roughly 35 years after he published his work (over a decade after he had died) for his work to be rediscovered and celebrated.

I don’t even consider Einstein a Romantic Hero. What he did was part of the flow of science at the time. He took Max Planck’s work and, being much younger, saw its implications. (It’s possible to say that Einstein did attain Romantic Hero status with General Relativity. Of course, basically, no lay-person understands that work or its importance.)

Be Rich and Suddenly You Are Achilles!

And we even give Romantic Hero status to people who didn’t really do anything other than make a lot of money — like Steve Jobs. I’ve loved this scene since I first saw it. It didn’t actually happen. But everything the Steve Wozniak character says is absolutely correct. And more or less the same things can be said about Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates (although at least they all have some technical knowledge).

It Takes a Planet

I don’t mind giving people credit. But does it always have to be the same people? There are thousands of people who made the internet what it is today. Virtually no one knows who the most important ones have been.

Ever heard of JCR Licklider? Of course not! Why would you? Haven’t you heard?! Tim Berners-Lee invented the web. The fact that the web would be meaningless without people like Licklider hardly matters. We wouldn’t have Facebook selling our private communications to Netflix without Berners-Lee! It hardly matters that this is even more true of Licklider. Webpages are so much more interesting than the very idea of networking computers together!

Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman

My go-to example is Richard Stallman. He oversaw the creation of almost an entire free Unix operating system. Linus Torvalds creates one (important) part of it and suddenly, the operating system is called Linux. (And it is mispronounced because of Torvalds’ Finnish accent.)

Good luck using an OS with a kernel and literally no other software. And what did Linus Torvalds write his kernel in? Richard Stallman’s GCC. (Note: Torvalds is also a dick.)

But Linus Torvalds is the star and Richard Stallman is that weird guy with Asperger’s — to those few who know he exists at all.

(As a side note, let me point out that one of the biggest bits of apologetics for Torvalds kernel is the claim that you can use the kernel without the GNU tools but not the other way around. This claim must be made by very young and ignorant people. I was using all of the GNU tools before there was a kernel. I still use them on my Windows and Mac machines. The truth is, for most work, my GNU-powered Windows machine is better than my GNU-powered Linux machine. For a server: Linux all the way. For a workstation: Windows.)

The Stupidity of All This

But I understand why people pick out a small number of people and turn them into computer Romantic Heroes: they don’t know enough about technology and its history to have a reasonable and objective view of the way that things progress.

Of course, this isn’t something restricted to technology. Humans just seem to have this kind of thing ingrained in them — or at least Americans. And we need to get past it. This fantasy of the Romantic Hero hurts us. And it hurts the supposed Romantic Heroes most of all. Linus Torvalds used to be a fairly humble and nice guy. Now he’s an asshole megalomanic — with a virtual entourage that only makes him worse.

But he can die for all it matters to me. The problem is that the “Romantic Hero” warps society. It makes it seem like we actually live in a meritocracy. It justifies vilifying the poor and worshipping the rich. And in the end, this will destroy us.

But at least no one has to know anything about the web. They just have to be able to shout, “Tim Berners-Lee!”

2 thoughts on “The Tiny Number of Tech Heroes

  1. “We do things with web pages and HTML today that were never dreamt of by the early developers and implementers of the language.” It made me ill, but for slightly different reasons. Mainly, I must admit I think most of what’s been added to HTML since 1.0 has been anti-features.

    • This is something that drives me a bit crazy. If you are a writer, I can teach you all the HTML you need to know in 5 minutes. The truth is, the most important things have always been there: p, h?, and so on. The only exception is either ul or ol (I can’t remember which). One of them, strangely, was not in the first standard.

      However, there are other things that I quite like. I liked how XHTML made the form far more predictable. In the early days, it was very sloppy. (And most browsers still support that.) And I’m thrilled with CSS and happy about the changes that have been made to JavaScript. But some things in HTML5 don’t make a lot of sense. Like: when is any developer going to feel good about using

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