David Heinemeier Hansson

April 25, 2024

Villains may live long enough to become heroes

The first tech company I ever really despised was Microsoft. This was back in the 1990s, the era of "cutting off the air supply", of embrace-extend-extinguish, of open source as a "cancer", and of Bill Gates before he sought reputational refugee in philanthropy. What made the animosity so strong was the sense of being trapped. That the alternatives to the Wintel monopoly of the time was so inferior as to essentially require giving up on modern computing.

So when Apple released the first Unix-powered OSX machines at the turn of the millennium, I felt relieved. Saved, even. Finally -- FINALLY!! -- a real choice. Apple provided an escape hatch for computing without giving up on modernity, and I came to love them for it.

But that was then and this is now. Microsoft has completed an astounding redemption arc since. They've gone from being the sworn enemy of open source to one of the biggest sponsors of it. They've been exemplary stewards of GitHub. They've won the hearts and minds of developers with VSCode fair and square. They've even put Linux inside of Windows with WSL! In short, they've gone from being a villain to a hero in a wide array of domains. Open source most of all. And I love it. They deserve all the accolades.

Meanwhile, Apple... Well, I've talked enough about Apple. So let's talk about something new: Meta.

I can't say I ever despised Meta, then Facebook, quite like I did Microsoft. But I sure as shit wasn't a fan. And I remain a staunch opponent of targeted advertising, the privacy assault that inevitably comes with them, and what it's done to the web. But I've come to appreciate that there are bigger challenges facing us than invasive ads. Much bigger.

Take AI. Zuckerberg's embrace of open source AI, now making headlines with the public release of Llama 3, is an invaluable counter to the cartel-adjacent bullshit of "AI safety & ethics" that would see the likes of OpenAI and Google conspire with governments around the world to determine what math should be allowed to predict the next token. I've seen this movie before, and I'm not interested in a rerun.

In fact, Facebook itself was one of the main characters in the previous show. The still going battle over misinformation/disinformation/malinformation, which continues to see the awful fusion of state and platforms through censors and algorithms in controlling The Narrative. Whatever trust I may once have had in objective third-party "fact checkers" have long since evaporated from the catastrophic track record of these anything-but-neutral, would-be arbiters of truth.

I don't pretend that either of these problems are easy or even that they have solutions. But they certainly have different potential outcomes and trade-offs. Some worse than others. And the prospect of having AI exclusively fine-tuned by the likes of whoever did Gemini or directed by bureaucrats trying to "save democracy" by banning the opposition, yeah, no thanks. I'll take my chances with the unadulterated math or speech any day.

Which makes Zuckerberg's transformation so important. I think a lot of the naivete he had, as did many, about the role of content moderation, truth arbiters, and platform control has been replaced by high degrees of skepticism. And I certainly think that after being humiliated by Apple via ATT, he's as motivated as anyone to prevent the next frontier of computing to be dominated by anyone (if it can't be himself!).

This is good. And it's not good because I have some special insight into Zuckerberg's "heart of hearts". I'm sure his dedication to open source AI is as motivated by self-interest as anyone in that position ever was. That's not a bug! It's a feature! Adam Smith saw it clearly in Wealth of Nations from 1776:

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

We don't need altruism to save us, we need incentives. We need competition. We need free markets for products, platforms, services, ideas, speech, and AI. We need to put the locus of control with consumers and individuals, not bureaucrats and monopolists.

That's always going to be the struggle. Whenever we achieve anything close to its ideal, like the marvel of the worldwide web, it constantly has to be guarded against regression. So if Microsoft proves to be aligned with some of those causes some of the time, I shall cheer them on, and I shall quell my quarreling. And if Meta does the same, they too shall receive my praise. (Or so I imagine Smith would sound!).

We badly need more powerful champions and heroes of free markets and free thought. Enough that I'm more than willing to commute the sentencing of former villains who've served their time and changed their minds. And enough that I'm comfortable stack ranking my concerns about society, and realizing that targeted ads just aren't as important as the freedoms defined above.

Let's go, Zuck. Give 'em hell.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.