The Future Of Web Programming: From Artisan To Assembly Line

Sent to me via e-mail from Billy, a frequent commenter on this blog (that is, for as infrequently as the blog gets comments, Billy is often one of those commenting):

I was wondering if I could get a small interview, just one question, for a term paper. I have 15 bibliography cards to do and I need sources and I was going through websites, found three good ones about career prospects in the programming/web development and design fields and that was it. I was thinking about people I could ask questions to and thought about you. I basically needed to know what you think the career opportunities in the programming and web development fields are and what you think they’ll be years on down the road. If you’re too busy I understand. Thank you for your time.

Billy:

I’m no industry analyst; my prognostications are usually limited to American football, and more often than not turn out wrong. (Quoth I, just before kickoff of Super Bowl 44: “The Saints are a great story, but this is gonna be a rout. Indy’s gonna annihilate them.”)

But I do have opinions about what programming and the Web will be like in 20 years, formed as a result of listening to others’ opinions, the history of the neolithic, agricultural and industrial revolutions, and my own experience of seeing how the Web has changed over the roughly 15 years I’ve been working in programming it.

The Web and computer programs we have today are, in a lot of ways, very much like the horse plow, rail fence and punch-card looms of antiquity. Today’s Web technologies and desktop programs are not primitive, but they’re largely second and third drafts of technologies that are changing fast.

The first Arab to tend a garden didn’t envision ConAgra; Adam Smith would probably have laughed at the notion of a Chinese economic juggernaut as he wrote The Wealth of Nations. The same will hold true of Al Gore and Tim Berners-Lee: What they thought they were making, at the time they were making it, is markedly different from what we have today, and will result in something far different, further down the road.

As Technology Matures, More People Get Better Tools

Bandwidth and computational power is becoming both more plentiful and cheaper. Your generation, the first to live most of its life in the Internet age, is entering college and the working world, and your presence will continue to drive expectations about how we communicate and what constitutes “value” in an online world. And as that happens, we will see fundamental changes in where and how wealth is measured and stored — it will be less important to be an industrial nation, and more important to be a free (as in “free speech”) one, contrary to all the “China will rule the world” hype you hear today.

So I think there’s going to be plenty of work in Web development for years and years to come. But I believe it’s going to be less like it is today; that is, it will become less specialized, less a “profession” than a “vocation.” The artisan culture we have in programming today will go the way of the vassal and the blacksmith, because the information revolution will, like its predecessor economic revolutions, reward efficiency, simplicity and productivity; that is, anything that makes it easy and cheap for a lot of people to make a lot of products.

The standards and software that will be adopted as we go forward will make it easier for the average person to create new things and package information in useful ways; and as we go forward, packaging information in a way that is both useful and trustworthy is how one will make money on the whatever becomes of Web.

This would be where I might digress into a discussion about what constitutes “money,” in the sense of “currency,” but Billy didn’t ask for a dissertation on economic theory, he asked a simple question I’m already flogging to death. That said, I would recommend reading Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price if you want to understand how hard cash isn’t the only kind of currency.

So programming and Web development will be less like the artistry it is today, and more like working an automobile assembly line. The tools will become standardized and plentiful. Much of what is done by hand today will be automated. Changing completely the nature of what you are making will require only a few tweaks here and there to your assembly line. (I don’t mean this analogy literally; there won’t be software factories. If anything, the future economy discourages the physical gathering of workers in one place; it encourages the formation of very small working groups.)

Some fine detail work will still need to be done by hand; some sense of artistry and skill will still be around, just as we still need landlords and blacksmiths. But just as it was with the agricultural and industrial ages, the Information Age will eventually produce skilled and semi-skilled labor that creates most of the economic output. There will still be academics / professionals who invent the tools and systems used by those workers to increase productivity and the like; there will still be unskilled laborers to mop floors and empty trash buckets. But most of the future’s computer programming — at least, if we define “computer programming” as “making something that manipulates its inputs into desired outputs” — will be done by the kinds of people who today have jobs as TV camera operators, accounting clerks, truck drivers and police officers.

One Big Channel

A consequence of that will be a general merging of our lines of communication.

The stratification we see today between common end-users (e.g, the guy who has a Twitter account) and the programmer / developers (e.g., the guy who invented Twitter) will blur. There won’t be many single sources of service, like Twitter or Facebook or even Google; the Internet will perform more like a smartphone, as an aggregator of all the information floating around out there, and a source of on-demand information — the difference being, the average person will have tools at his disposal to create the software, and maybe even the systems, that deliver and disseminate the information he wants in the manner he wants, largely independent of the channels we have today (that is, the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters).

In other words, in 20 years everyone will basically be a computer programmer and Web developer — but the computer, and the Web, will be very different from what they are now.

From Music Chamber To YouTube

There was a time when, if you wanted to be entertained, you went to someone’s house or a concert hall to hear an orchestra.

Then came the record player, and suddenly, you could be entertained without leaving home.

Then came the radio, and you hear something new, and get the same information everyone else had, instantaneously.

Then came the TV, and you could see, as well as hear, the performers.

Then came cable TV, and you were no longer tied to what local stations could show you or wanted you to see.

Then came the VCR, and you no longer had to be watching at a specific date and time.

Then came online access, and now you can instantly watch practically anything that has ever been recorded — be it on a network, a Hollywood movie or YouTube.

Something similar will happen with the Internet as its technologies mature and change to meet the needs of people. Today, there’s not a lot of work in playing violin for an orchestra or making vacuum tubes; but there is plenty of work in producing content.

Same will be true as the Internet matures; what we call programming today won’t be programming in 20 years, but there will still be some work for really smart people, a lot of work for kinda smart people, and a little work for really dumb people — just as it was in the agricultural and industrial ages.

Hope this helps. Sorry for prattling on if you wanted a quick and easy answer, but I felt the need to explain why I believe, as I do, that today’s programmers are yesterday’s weavers and the day before’s rain dancers.

2 Comments

  1. I honestly don’t know how to thank you for this, this is a great resource, absolutely amazing. I’m really appreciative of you taking the time out of your day to share your knowledge and experience and beliefs of this field and what it will be like. I find it a little saddening that we’ll lose some of the artistry, I really enjoy that aspect. I guess to be a high end programmer you’d have to be one of the really smart people. Thank you for taking the time to do this, it really means a lot to me.

  2. You’re welcome. As I noted, I may be way off with this; but I have to believe that the generalities of recorded history — that economic activity constantly drives for efficiency and productivity — means that the relatively limited medium of today’s Web will be morphed, many ways, into something that most people can easily use to gather and send information of all sorts. HTML 5 certainly seems another step in that direction.

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