Why Tech Bros and Politicians Can’t Really Connect

Illustration of batch processing tech trying to fit into loop processing tech and getting an error message - ILLUSTRATION: TWISHA PATNI

Why Tech Bros and Politicians Can’t Really Connect
WIRED, September 25, 2023
Ideas
By Paul Ford

“There are two ways to compute, and two ways to see the world. It’s batch vs. loop—and we need them to reconcile.”

 

EVERY FEW MONTHS we get to see a tech dude offer excruciating testimony to grumpy members of Congress. The tech dude tries, with varying degrees of arrogance, to explain his world; the congresspeople recite their questions; in the end, no one seems notably changed by the experience. There are many ways to understand these interactions—East Coast versus West Coast, lawyers versus engineers, political narcissists versus corporate narcissists—but I think the core conflict is between batch culture and event loop culture.

 

In the beginning of computing, batch processing reigned supreme. You would gather your stack of punch cards, wait in line for your turn at the giant electronic brain, feed it your data and instructions, then wait minutes or days for its digital gears to grind out a response. Each batch had a discrete Before and After: You did a thing, the computer did a thing, you went back to gathering punch cards. Then came the event loop: The electronic brain—now small and affordable enough to sit on your desk!—would wait for you. You would do something (type a key, press a button, or later, click a mouse) and it would respond, right there in the moment, painting a letter on the screen or starting up a video.

 

The web started out batch. It was a delivery platform for mostly static pages of HTML. You could make sort-of-interactive pages from databases, but the interaction was clunky. Then came JavaScript, a programming language that was all about its event loop. The online document no longer just sat there, all pathetic and booklike. Every time you moved your mouse, every time you punched a monkey in a banner ad, it took notice. And people did punch the monkey, and the web became less about documents and more about experience and interaction. Tapping on Wordle, skipping to the next episode on Netflix, scrolling Facebook—behind every great tech success of the past decade is a loop awaiting user input. People still do a lot of batch-style programming, of course, but they call it “shell scripting” or “running analytics reports” or “sending email newsletters at 4 am.”

 

Over the years, this bifurcation—batch versus loop—has become a way that I classify the world. Banks are batch, with their slow resolution of accounts at the end of the day. (Oh, they’ll tell you they offer real-time this or that, but when you dig in you’ll discover they save stuff on magnetic tapes.) Crypto, constantly transacting in response to users sending messages with magic tokens, is much loopier, a 24-hour reactive, never-ending event. Books, which take years to produce and come out long after they’re newsworthy, are batch, as are albums; livestreams on TikTok are loop.

 

Congress, as a policymaking body, is basically pure batch.

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About the Author:

Paul Ford is a writer, programmer, and software entrepreneur. He lives in Brooklyn.