Why Developers are So Important
Jun 24, 2010 Clay Johnson

I was asked a question by @mollsiebee from Fierce Government IT at the InformationWeek GovernmentIT Leadership Forum a couple weeks ago, that I didn’t do a good job of responding to. The question — as I recall — was why developers matter if people aren’t paying attention anyhow. Ordinary citizens need access to government data — isn’t that the point? And if nobody’s asking for it, then who cares?

Thankfully, my hairline (and other evolutionary traits) helps people to avoid confusing me with Steve Ballmer even though my message is similar. Though there’s probably a little less profit motive to it. I’ll explain.

Since the first information technology boom around 50,000 years ago with the invention of speech, there have always been information gatekeepers. Around 6,000 years ago at the dawn of writing, these gatekeepers were called scribes. Writing was a trade secret of professional scribes and understanding this technology led to great power in society. Some of the really good ones were eventually revered like gods. Check out what they have to say about Imhotep over in Egypt.

Fast forward a few thousand years and printers become the new scribes. While knowledge gets further democratized with the invention of the printing press, it still takes some capital to get your hands on a printing press. You needed not only to get your hands on a press, but even Johannes Gutenberg had to partner up with a paper mill to print his bibles. Printers become powerful folk and as literacy rates changed, the printers replaced the scribes as the gatekeepers of information.

A few hundred years later, we freed information’s reliance on matter learned how to turn it into energy. We invented the telegraph, the radio and the television. Being a telegraph operator turns out to be a great career decision in the 1900s. Thomas Edison started out as a telegrapher, and went on to found General Electric which would dominate not only the telegraph, but the entire broadcast medium for centuries. In fact, television and radio became so powerful that reading was being heralded as on the way out in 1980 until we made the platform for ubiquitous information consumption we call the Internet. Reading frequency has tripled since then.

And now the masters of this new medium are developers. Like the scribes, telegraphers and printers before them, they’re finding keys to wealth. Let’s not forget, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg aren’t writers, publishers, or social media “experts”. They’re developers. Developers are the new information gatekeepers, and thanks to the Internet, becoming a skilled developer isn’t a terribly difficult skill to obtain. Unlike the Ancient Egyptians who forbade women from becoming scribes, anybody with a computer, connectivity and time can head over to peepcode and learn Ruby.

With the pervasiveness of data among us, this means it’s difficult for people without the ability to process vast amounts of data to learn the truth. The amount of signal being produced by putting printing presses in everyone’s pocket means new skills have to be developed. As access to information becomes universal, our definition of literacy is changing. That trend is popping up everywhere. Right now, developers possess the greatest ability to be infovegans, but what’s unique and special about them— as opposed to their gatekeeper predecessors, is that they can build tools to allow other people to become infovegans themselves. There’s only a slight difference in cost between the developer making a tool for themselves, and making a tool for everyone.

The skill of making information manageable today lays solely in the hands of developers. So — why I keep saying that we have to get developers involved in this government data isn’t because they are the only ones who can make sense of the data for the rest of society, but because developers are also the ones who can teach the rest of society how to process the data. Developers could be the final gatekeepers as we redefine literacy. If developers are invoked with a sense of social and civic responsibility, their ability to give people access to Truth can’t be overvalued.

Or, going back to the food metaphor: for many, it’s too difficult for people to go on an information diet. Just as the cost of a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables is nearly 10x the cost of a conventional diet the cost of a high-fact, low-opinion information diet is too costly for most of society. Developers, as the new gatekeepers of information, can change those economics by not only building better tools for people to process that information, but by making it easier to become data literate.

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson