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The Builder’s Remorse

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 26, 2019

It’s nothing new for people who built tools to later have remorse when seeing those tools abused. Sometimes that remorse is world-historical, like with many of the scientists whose work led to the atom bomb. Sometimes, it’s something less than that, like the guy who built the retweet button for Twitter.

In the retweet button’s case, this guy is named Chris Wetherell. He’s also responsible for leading the team that built Google Reader. This is usually posed as an irony: the guy who built a thing that’s now loathed and everywhere (the retweet) also built the thing that’s beloved after its death. But to me, it’s not so ironic.

See, what Wetherell did in both cases was less invent something from whole cloth than adapt a user behavior (manual retweets and RSS readers) into part of a corporate product. In both case, the corporate versions of each were so successful that they crowded out the original forms of user behavior. The retweet got lucrative but ugly, the RSS reader enabled all new kinds of connections, but grew costly. The retweet lived and Reader died, but the underlying pattern was the same; once it was handed over to the corporation, everyone lost control.

And I think you can argue that there’s a parallel here too with the atom bomb folks. Few of them were upset that the structure of the universe works the way their theories predicted. What terrified them was putting the tremendous power inherent in the structure of the universe at the behest of the state.

This is the builder’s remorse. Not that you invented a thing, not that the consequences were unforeseen. It’s that you gave the thing to a power structure where things were overwhelmingly likely to end in ruin. You gave the power to people who don’t care about what you claim to care about. And that problem, because of the nature and structure of money and power, is extremely hard to avoid.