May 8, 2015

Am I Making The World A Better Place?

A while ago, I watched The Internet's Own Boy, a documentary about Aaron Swartz. It was immensely painful to learn about someone as amazing as he was, someone who seemed to look at the world in the same way I did, after he committed suicide. At 24 minutes, Aaron's brother says something that continues to stick with me.
"The way Aaron always saw it, is that programming is magic—you can accomplish these things that normal humans can't, by being able to program. So, if you had magical powers, would you use them for good, or to make you mountains of cash?" — Ben Swartz
From a young age, I recognized that I had an unfair advantage over my peers. My programming abilities ensured that I would be able to sail through life without ever having to worry about money. I was also aware of oppression. I recognized parallels between the intellectual bullying I was subjected to in middle school and the real world, where I saw powerful people abuse the advantages they had over their peers to make themselves rich at the expense of everyone else. I was told that life simply wasn't fair, and there's nothing you can do about it.

I said that I'd make life fair.

I realized that if someone used their advantage to make things more fair instead of less fair, they'd be able to make the world a better place. Furthermore, I had what Aaron called "magical powers". I already had an advantage. This mirrors Aaron Swartz's own epiphany about using software to do something about serious problems in the real world.
"I feel very strongly that it's not enough to just live in the world as it is and just take what you're given and follow the things that adults told you to do and that your parents told you to do and that society tells you to do. I think you should always be questioning, and take this very scientific attitude that everything you've learned is just provisional, that it's always open to recantation or refutation or questioning, and I think the same applies to society. Once I realized that there were real, serious problems, fundamental problems, that I could do something to address, I didn't see a way to forget that."— Aaron Swartz
Everything I've done since then has been an (occasionally misguided) attempt towards accomplishing this. My singular goal in life became maximizing my positive influence on the world. Of course, I am not Aaron Swartz, and I did not have access to an enormous fortune. This meant making sacrifices in the short-term so that I could pursue my dreams in the long-term, and hopefully have a lasting impact.

A year ago, that meant making a choice. I needed to pay the bills, and so I now make a six figure salary working for a large software company. I am not happy there, which confuses people who think I'm successful. They are mistaken; I am not making the world a better place yet, so I am not successful yet.

While it's easy to determine if you are improving people's lives right now, what about in the long-term? If you spend your entire life helping some kids in Africa versus starting a billion dollar corporation and then hiring thousands of people to help kids in Africa, what had more lasting impact? Trying to think about the future changes how you view things. Building an enormous company with a technology that helps a lot of people and then selling it for a billion dollars to a corporation that immediately proceeds to either shut it down or simply ruin it is short-term thinking. I love the Clock of the Long Now, because it mirrors my efforts to think far in the future, not just a few years. Will your actions have a positive effect on the world in ten years? Twenty? Fifty? How can you choose a path that will ripple across the sands of time, finding ways to help people long after you've died?

What is your legacy?

This is the question that drives me. How can I change the course of history for the better? How can I maximize my impact? Even if it's only by a fraction of an inch, with our combined efforts, we might one day get there.

...

I'm still at that nameless software corporation. I am still languishing in its depths, unable to work on anything that actually matters because of a particularly annoying non-compete agreement. I won't stay much longer, but now that I am on my last leg, I am beginning to wonder if I have perhaps already stayed too long. How much money do I need to save up? What is the optimal point of departure? Have I already missed it?

Am I still working towards making the world a better place, or am I simply making mountains of cash?

5 comments:

  1. Maybe it's only a small effect when compared with the greater things you're driven to accomplish, but even in simply communicating your values to the world, you begin to motivate other like-minded people to realize those values in their own lives and build upon them. After all, ideas are infectious, and your long-term legacy need not consist entirely of your own direct impacts echoing through time.

    Granted, I get the impression that spreading your views also tends to draw an endless slew of backlash and vitriol from opposing crowds. And yet somehow a dedication to defending your ideals against that onslaught, rather than sacrificing them for an easier walk through life, is what sets you apart from the majority in this respect.

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    1. This is probably the most insightful comment I've ever gotten on one of my blog entries XD

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  2. Aaron's story is extremely sad. I remember reading the articles on him and doing my own digging into his past the day his suicide came up. More frustrating than being held back from changing the world I think is actually finding the freedom to change the world, only to discover just how little there is out there.

    I hope you manage to hold onto your ideals once you're free from your firm. It will be a whole other game after that, which for me at least only became an evermore uphill climb. I was of the mindset of wanting to help the world around me 3 years ago(wanting to help the world), at one point even scheming for what was essentially a utopia. The hard part was not actually figuring out how to build it. It's more the fact just how few people give a damn. There are a lot of people who simply don't want to be helped, can't see the bigger picture and would rather shoot it down, or would just rather sulk in misery no matter how much you try to make it easier for them. Things like leading a horse to water but not being able to make it drink totally apply there. Needless to say, I've long lost my patience and decided to forge my own path for better or worse. I still care about these things, but freedom (financially and legally) imo is probably the least of your obstacles here, sorry to say.

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