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Hacker News Disease

by Mohamed EL DEIB 2 months ago in tech news

We’re going to have to inoculate ourselves against Hacker News Disease and work on meaningful solutions together.

Hacker News Disease
Photo by Hugo Jehanne on Unsplash

I’ve been seeing more and more lately of what I call "Hacker News Disease". It’s a pervasive mental illness that has caused me to severely reduce my participation there and remove some of the major tech blogs from my list of daily "must reads".

In fairness, this particular problem isn’t by any means endemic to Hacker News. It occurs at the crossroads where a bunch of smart people meet general tech industry discussion. I’m sure there are plenty of places that suffer from Hacker News Disease (and they probably had it first, have a terminal case of it, and are much less civil about it too) but HN is just the only one I’ve participated in, so they have the misfortune of being the community I’ve named it after.

The disease has two primary symptoms:

1. Repeatedly mistaking intelligence for knowledge.

2. The belief that anybody not in the tech industry is stupid.

The first part is endemic to all smart people (but no brilliant ones). People tend to overvalue the skills they have, and undervalue the ones they don’t. Even the most knowledgeable, intelligent people around are rarely experts in more than one or maybe two unrelated subject areas. The sum of human knowledge is vast, and while smart people often believe they could become an expert in any of them individually if they only had the time and inclination, the relatively short number of years we have on this planet precludes them from mastering more than a very small portion of them. So smart people have a lot of intelligence, but still only a tiny amount of knowledge, which causes them to overvalue the former at the expense of the latter.

The tech industry, however, overlaps with just about every subject area known to man on a daily basis. Follow a handful of the better tech publications and topics such as law, politics, entertainment, economics, biology, real estate, sales, design, and psychology are just a few that pop up every time you open your RSS reader. It’s hard to find a sizable industry that hasn’t been drastically altered by the technological advances of the last twenty years, or won’t be by the next twenty either, so it’s not at all surprising that the people in the industry like to talk about those changes as they progress.

The problem comes when people don’t know what they don’t know. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone post a legal question on Hacker News, and get dozens of replies from people who aren’t attorneys. They feel qualified to have an opinion because they’re smart, and lots of the tech articles they read have a legal slant to them, and I guess it’s easy to mistake TechCrunch for education. The fact that they’ve never taken even an introductory law class doesn’t stop them from assuming they’ve got it figured out enough to offer advice.

The same happens in every field imaginable, to the point where I almost wish the site made everyone post verified credentials just so that if anyone with actual knowledge ever responded to a question, you’d be able to filter that signal out from the overpowering noise. Generally what happens though is I click on the commenters’ profiles a few times just to find they’re some 20 year-old programmer working on a new website for people to share music and then I give up.

"The wise man knows he doesn’t know. The fool doesn’t know he doesn’t know."

-(Lao Tzu)

In and of itself this wouldn’t be insidious, because at least the fools are well-meaning, and usually polite too. People mostly don’t offer psychological or legal or health advice over the internet in an attempt to do harm. They mean to help, and they simply don’t realize that harm (and little good) could come of it.

The problem is where it intersects with the second symptom, which is the belief that everyone not in the tech industry is stupid. This is pervasive in the tech media, and in the industry as a whole. A hundred times each day you come across someone saying that "These record label execs are suing people! They’re idiots and they just don’t get it." Or "These newspaper editors are trying to charge for online content! They’re idiots and they just don’t get it." Or "These clowns from Fox and NBC who run Hulu don’t want their videos showing up on Boxee! They’re idiots and they just don’t get it". Or "Warner is picking a fight with Lawrence Lessig? What are they, idiots?"

It never seems to occur to anyone that perhaps the people they think are stupid really aren’t, and perhaps (in reality, almost for certain) the people being commented about are just as smart as and know far more about the situation than the ones doing the commenting.

You can see an example of the last one if you click the link above. While I’ve been thinking of this post for months, it took me staying home sick for a bit to actually use the site enough to inspire me, and then give me the time to write it. In the thread, people who aren’t IP lawyers argue the finer points of fair use, and assert that Warner is nuts for messing with Lessig. The following scenario never seems to occur to any of them, and they even balk at it when it’s mentioned:

1. Warner has an army of highly paid, very smart and very knowledgeable IP attorneys, who all know way more about the situation than anyone who has ever even seen Hacker News, because while the people on Hacker News were studying programming, the equally smart Warner attorneys were studying intellectual property law and working on high-profile IP law cases.

2. Said attorneys (all of whom know exactly who Lawrence Lessig is, and are more familiar with his work than anyone on Hacker News) carefully examined the case, and decided for whatever reason to issue a DMCA take down notice which, by the way, is not a lawsuit, or even remotely close to one, and was issued to YouTube rather than Lessig, though you’d quickly lose sight of those facts when reading anything written about the whole affair.

3. It occurred to the attorneys that Lessig would fight this, because anyone who has ever read anything by Lessig would know that, and as I mentioned before, the attorneys in question are not retarded. Thus they issued the takedown notice because they wanted him to fight it, or at least don’t really care if he does.

4. Because they’re smart lawyers, who are experts on IP law (because that’s their job) and who issued a takedown notice to Lawrence Lessig that they wanted and expected him to fight, there’s a strong chance Warner has something serious to gain from it.

Now I’m not saying any of that is the case. For all I know, this was all just done by some automated software or a low-level grunt whose job it is to find Warner IP on YouTube and issue takedown notices, in which case it will likely blow over and isn’t worth discussing in the first place. Lessig might appeal the takedown, at which point an actual attorney might review it and decide whether or not it’s important enough for them to worry about. I really have no idea there.

But it’s also possible they’re looking for a fight, and if they are, you can be 100% sure it’s because they understand what they’re getting into and think they can win it. And if they think they can win it, there’s a good chance they’re right because they aren’t stupid. In fact they’re probably very bright, and they are very knowledgeable about and experienced in the subject area. If I had to bet on one side or the other, I’d bet on them.

That never occurred to a single person in the entire tech industry though, because they think anyone who can’t code an iPhone app, or doesn’t at least have the common sense to work mostly with people who can, is an idiot. So they go off spouting about how "Not Smart" Warner is, or how they’re in danger of setting some sort of precedent that is disadvantageous to themselves (how they’d manage that with a DMCA take down notice is anyone’s guess) and how they’re shooting themselves in the foot "if they lose, which I think they will despite my not being a lawyer". It never occurs to them that the people who are a lawyer might be a little better at making that judgment, or even that not being a lawyer might make you a fool for even having an opinion on intricate legal matters such as who would win a case about Fair Use.

In some cases, I think the belief in the stupidity of people in other industries comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which people are compensated and therefore motivated. Take, for instance, the most flagrant example of this in recent years: the music industry. Over the last decade, they’ve fought technology tooth and nail, despite the fact that any teenager in 1999 could tell you it was a losing battle. It’s easy to look at what appears to be people tilting at windmills and see stupidity, but what you realize if you dig a little deeper is that they’re largely just intelligent people reacting in a rational manner to their own incentives.

Suppose you’re the CEO of a publicly traded record label circa 2000 and Napster is taking off. You realize that P2P file sharing is going to make a big dent in your sales increasingly over the next decade. What do you do?

You have two options. Behind door number one is fundamentally restructuring your entire company. Remember, this is still years before the iPod achieved the sort of ubiquity that led to the iTunes store and eventual copycats, so at this point, there doesn’t seem to be any real hope of long-term music sales. The CD is plainly marked for extinction, to be replaced by digital downloads, most of which will be traded from one person to another for free. You can see right away that revenues are going to have to come from something else down the line, like product placement in music videos, live performances, etc. You don’t know what you’ll be making money off of in 10 or 20 years, or how much, or even if you’ll be able to make any at all, because really you’re nothing but a middleman between the artist and the fans and maybe, just maybe, the internet is going to cut you out the way it did to computer retailers when Dell took over that industry.

Or you can sue every corporation that tries to get in on the P2P game, which won’t save you the end, but will definitely disorganize the community enough to staunch the bleeding for awhile, possibly a long while. (It’s actually done far better than most of us ever would have guessed.) You’re not stupid; you know that every time you obliterate one Napster another Kazaa will just pop up in its place, but between suing each one out of business and scaring customers by suing a few of them too, you’ll at least be able to hang on to something for a while.

And hell, the average tenure of an executive at a large corporation is only 5 or 6 years and you’ve already been on the job for two. You’re getting paid a huge salary with tons of stock options that vest over a relatively short period (such as 2 or 3 years) with a strike price low enough that your shares can slowly sink and you’ll still make millions for as long as you keep your board happy enough to not fire you, which you’ll do by pointing out that despite millions more people stealing your product daily, you’re still bringing in almost as much money as you did last year, and if you can just have a little more time you’ll sue your way back to revenue growth.

So what do you do? Do you destroy your major source of revenue, that’s brining in hundreds of millions of dollars annually, because you realize it’s going to die one way or another in the next 10-20 years and you might as well get on with it, and then start giving away the music for free and scrounging for ways to monetize in the hopes that some time, long after you’ve moved on to run a car company or a retail chain, your record label will be the one left standing? Or do you use your legal muscle to keep revenues as high as you can for as long as you can and keep collecting your multi-million-dollar salary and options package while doing lines off of naked starlets on the weekends before you move on to run a car company or a retail chain?

When you look at it from that perspective, it’s a no-brainer. You sue everyone and everything you can. If a 65 year old woman’s grandson downloads a CD of songs from Sesame Street on her computer, you sue her, sue the kid who spawned the little bastard, take the grandkid to juvenile court, and sue everyone on their block just for being within a reasonable proximity. Then you have your PR department spread the word that file sharing is illegal and if you do it, or ever even shake hands with anyone who did, we’re going to take your retirement, your house, your car, and even your $3 Timex wristwatch just like we did to this little old lady, and you’ll be spending your golden years working a second job at McDonald’s just to pay off what you owe us, all because you just had to have that Britney Spears CD but couldn’t pay $9.99 for it like a good law-abiding citizen.

That’s what they did, and it’s what I’d do too, and I have standardized tests to prove that I’m at least not an idiot. But everyone in the tech industry just assumes they’re stupid and they don’t get it. They’re not, and they do. It’s just that they don’t get paid to get it. Getting it isn’t what pays the mortgage on a $20 million mansion in Beverly Hills and the lease on a yacht. The job of getting it and actually doing something about it will fall to the next guy.

And now, a decade later, the next guys are taking over the record labels, TV networks, and movie studios, and we’re seeing things like Last.fm and Hulu and 360 degree music contracts which I said were going to be the future of that industry a year before anyone else. They’re adapting to the changing situation because the new guys, unlike the old ones, get paid for that. Their market caps are sinking faster than their boards can reprice the executives’ options, and the investors finally realize that all of the king’s lawyers can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again, so they have to be patient and plan for the long term. And that restructuring is what we’re seeing now.

Everyone on both sides of the coin wants to work this out, because there’s enough gold there for all of us. But for those of us in the tech industry, if we’re going to get there we’re going to have to realize that they’re smart too, and they know things we don’t, just as we know things they don’t. We have to work together, and leverage their knowledge of how to produce quality content, which they do better than anyone in the world, with our knowledge of how to package it up and deliver it to consumers in the most appealing manner.

And when Hulu says they don’t want their content appearing on Boxee, or Warner issues a take down notice, or the RIAA sues our favorite music startup, instead of calling them idiots and assuming they’re out of touch with their customers and the changing world they live in, we should realize they have smart, knowledgeable people who know much that we don’t putting a lot of thought into what they’re doing, ask why, and see if we can find a workable compromise.

It’s going to be a long, bumpy road, and some of the industries (like music) that are struggling to keep up with the times will probably fare much better than others (like newspapers) in the end. We in the tech industry will do our best to step up and fill the gap, and try to make it work for everyone, but to do it well we’re going to have to stop assuming that everyone else is stupid and doesn’t get it. We’re going to have to inoculate ourselves against Hacker News Disease and work on meaningful solutions together.

tech news

Mohamed EL DEIB

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