My information revolution
I grew up in a rural area, in a town with a population of < 300. In addition to a lack of diversity of ideas and people in my community, we couldn’t afford a computer, we didn’t own a lot of books, and our public library sucked, so I didn’t have access to much information as a kid.
I didn’t realize how closed off from the outside world I was until 2010, when I began my first year of college. Despite excelling in high school (big fish in a little pond), my eagerness to learn and excel in college was met by a dire realization that I was far behind my classmates in terms of cultural competence and general exposure to diverse ideas. Completing my classwork and scoring well on tests proved to be no issue, but in classes like history, literature, or philosophy, my lack of exposure was abundantly clear to me. Reading books, talking about politics, and learning about the world at large just wasn’t a part of how my family operated.
The realities of being an average fish in a big pond set in quickly; by the end of my first semester at college, I felt lost and hopeless. My classmates were excelling - they were already conducting research with professors and presenting papers at conferences. I had just learned why professors were addressed as “Dr.”
I never caught up to my classmates while in college. At face value, this is not an issue. We can expect inequalities to emerge among differing populations; some people work harder, are smarter, fall on better luck, etc. But I’ll be frank, I was envious of my peers that seemed to understand how to play the game. They were more interesting and talented, they played instruments, spoke multiple languages, and had traveled the world, and thus were better poised to succeed after graduation and contribute meaningfully to the world. Even when I performed well in classes, or felt like I learned something useful, I felt overwhelmed by the vastness of what I didn’t know, and convinced myself that I would never be able to cover lost ground. I was depressed, and terrified that I would end up being unemployed, or at best working a 9-5 job that didn’t require any special skills or talents. For someone who grew up feeling financial hardship on the regular, and longed for something better, this was a tough pill to swallow.
A Turning Point
During the summer of 2012, I worked on my college’s residence hall maintenance team. While students were away, our task was to repaint walls, unclog showers, replace broken fixtures, etc. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, but it was enjoyable thanks to the good company. I’ll never forget the day one of my coworkers asked me if I had ever heard of a site called “Reddit”. I hadn’t. After he explained he concept of subreddits and the front page, I was intrigued. I had never used anything like it, but it seemed like something I would enjoy, so I gave it a shot. For a short while, I found the endless cat pictures and silly memes amusing enough to completely capture my attention, but not long after that I learned of more substantial subreddits like r/science, r/AMA, and r/technology. Though quite tame in terms of subreddit depth, for someone whose exposure to the Internet was limited, it was a treasure trove of new information and ideas. I was hooked.
From that point forward, a ziploc baggie was just as essential a tool during the workday as my paint brush. I would wrap my phone in the bag, which protected it from paint splatters, while still allowing me to scroll through Reddit with one hand, while the other hand painted countless walls, ceilings, and railings. I spent hundreds of hours doing this, and learned a great deal that summer.
Fast forward to June of 2013. I was a McNair Scholar, and I was supposed to be conducting research about the relationships between midwives, OB-GYNs, and state legislators, but frankly, I was mildly disinterested in the research medium. Feedback was intermittent and progress felt painstakingly slow, and I just didn’t have the attention span to see it through. Though I had access to thousands of relevant research articles through my university’s library, there were still a substantial number that sat behind paywalls. Unless I paid $30ish dollars a pop, I couldn’t access them. I was frustrated. I couldn’t understand how it was acceptable for publicly-funded research to not only be entirely inaccessible to the people who paid for it, let alone universities who pay for it twice over.
So I wrote this short essay about my feelings on the subject, and in the process learned about Aaron Swartz’s efforts, and the heartbreaking end to his life’s work. I was enraged, and I entered my senior year of college with a foul taste in my mouth, left behind by what I had learned about the status of academic research and publishing. Call it a major case of senioritis if you will, but I had zero motivation to graduate.
By the beginning of the spring semester of my senior year, it was abundantly clear that I did not want to graduate - I started skipping almost all of my classes and instead pursued hobbies at home: I read for pleasure, I wrote because I had something to say, and I even picked up computer programming again for the first time in years. I was having so much fun, and learning more than I felt like I had all throughout college. It wasn’t long before I officially dropped out, packed up my car, and drove to Austin to find out what a new life might be like.
The Revolution Begins
When I first arrived in Austin, I had a part time job maintaining a website for a small publication, I delivered pizza on the weekend to make ends meet, and I served as the campaign manager for a local politcal candidate I was busy and tired, yet I was reading and learning more than ever! I listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts while delivering pizzas, engaged in meaningful political conversation on the campaign trail, and most importantly, I started learning web development.
And this was only the beginning. I’ve learned more in the past year than I think I learned throughout 3 1/2 years of college. More importantly, I renewed my faith in my my own intelligence and curiosity.
A year ago I knew shit aobut the Internet and software. Sometimes I still feel like I know shit, but if I’m honest with myself, I know that’s not true. Here’s a list of just some of the things I’ve learned in the past year. I’m proud of myself.
- version control systems, especially git the importance of writing and
- implementing unit tests early writing scalable and modular front end code how
- large scale software projects test and continuously integrate code the ins and
- how to use devtools to debug code, measure performance, and more performance
- on the web the differences between web pages and web apps, and when each is
- useful browser extensions, and the properties they provide asynchronous module
- Bitcoin and blockchains Austrian economics anarchist philosophy distributed
- systems the “darknet” how the Internet protocol works TLS certificate
- authorities PKIs certificate pinning end-to-end encryption data integrity,
- authentication, and other properties the Axolotl protocol WebCryptoAPI
- subresource integrity … and more
I’m in the middle of an information revolution. The Internet is still very new to me, but I can say with confidence it is the reason I’ve learned as much as I have in such a short amount of time. And while the Internet only succeeds because of the joint efforts of billions, I feel confident saying that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Aaron Swartz. In 2012, Reddit was my first exposure to the vastness of the Internet. He co-founded Reddit. A year later, I was inspired by his efforts to make information freely and readily available by all. His life and death fueled my frustrations with the proverbial system, and encouraged me to pursue an alternative path.
It’s because of Aaron, and people like Aaron, that today I feel more empowered to contribute meaningfully to the world. Just a few short years ago, I felt overwhelmed by what I didn’t know, to the point that I thought to give up because I would never catch up. Today, the vastness of the unknown fills me with passionate curiosity.
So to those who share code on Github, write clear documentation, Tweet interesting links, and share tutorials explaining your work, or anything software development-related: thank you. It’s because of you that I’ve been able to advance so quickly in one short year. It’s because of you that I’ll be able to continue learning for as long as my curiosity lasts, and thus prepare myself to contribute to bettering the Internet as a safe place that fosters connectivity and innovation.
Now let’s get to work. There’s a revolution happening ;)