Backtraces

Three Decades of Computing, Communities, and Critiques

“The avant-garde are people who don’t exactly know where they want to go, but are the first to get there.”

—Romain Gary

It’s commonly understood that computers, data, and the Internet did much to create the world of 2020 in which I am currently writing. These human contraptions resulted from engineering, financial, and ethical decisions made over many decades. Few people knew about these decisions at the time, and fewer remembered them later—but an understanding of the options available and the choices ultimately made can help us understand where we stand in our own time.

This is a memoir of 28 years spent in the computer field at the company known first as O’Reilly & Associates, then O’Reilly Media. I chronicled and often debated the decisions being made by programmers and their managers over those critical years, and I want the public to understand this history.

In many ways, our everyday lives reflect choices made in the computing field over the past few decades—even where we don’t see computers in operation. Young workers crowd into a few overheated cities considered “innovation hubs”, draining talent and income from the less lucky regions of the world. People rely on personal devices to get them everywhere and connect them to everybody and everything. None of this works without enormous companies gathering data that they push from place to place, and even these companies are not independent—they rely on nearly ubiquitous digital networks, which favor some geographic and demographic areas over others. Overworked creatives (often on contract) can order fresh-baked cookies from their dens at three in the morning, but the same econonic system takes food and housing away from millions. The state of public discourse disquiets everybody.

I’m not offering a grand theory for all this—that would be intolerable hubris, and incorrect. Rather, many small and often overlooked trends have wound tendrils around each other to culminate in our current situation. Some contradictions were resolved, others remain in raw contention. I want to lead you back in time from the moment where I am writing and let you stroke your hands across each issue, so that you come to appreciate what many people—brilliant, intrepid, devious, desperate, or aloof—did to create our world.

This memoir comes in a period when revisiting decisions in computing is not merely an exercise in curiosity. It is inextricably tied to to our time of crisis, or rather of multiple crises swirling around one other, each in the desperate grip of the others. The questions posed by these crises revolve around technical issues, notably how to generate energy and how to intervene in biological processes. The topics in computing discussed in this memoir are equally salient. But although the technology in each question is central, the answers cannot be left just to the technologists. We all must gain some understanding of the issues and talk to each other about just and lasting solutions. I hope that this memoir guides people to deal more astutely with the problems of computer technology, law, and culture in years to come. If I manage to spin an entertaining story along the way, my satisfaction will be complete.

The usual disclaimers for a memoir apply here. The events I report are drawn from memory, and I am ready to admit that I made mistakes. I’m sure the people who participated in these events have their own viewpoints. Because I am offering a memoir, not a history, I take no responsibility for producing comprehensive or well-rounded accounts of events, but will fill in just the details that contribute to the lessons I want to convey. Still, accuracy is paramount to me. I have kept records of much of my activity, and consulted those records along with other sources wherever relevant.

Because I work in a technical field, you will not enter far into this memoir until you discover some tech talk about things such as cloud computing. Many readers may throw down the book at that point, thinking “This is not for me,” or “This is going to be boring.” But please persevere. Yes, this book is for you, and I hope to persuade you how much weight the technical issues carry for our times.

  1. Closing the book: a spiral of advancing strategy

  2. Parallels always intersect in the public sphere: activism

  3. Juggling on a ship that pitches and rolls: sponsors

  4. Thousands of hands to the tiller: writing as empowerment

  5. Intellectual prosperity: writing and editing

  6. Drawing from the library stacks: free and open source

  7. Birds of a feather: conferences

  8. Opening the book: the life at O’Reilly


Backtraces: Three Decades of Computing, Communities, and Critiques by Andy Oram is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0