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There’s still hope for building on the web

There’s still hope for building on the web

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The Vergecast interviews writer and programmer Paul Ford

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales

This week on the interview episode of The Vergecast, Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel sits down with Postlight CEO Paul Ford. Ford co-founded Postlight, a digital product design lab and strategy firm, in 2015. He is also a writer, product strategist, educator, programmer, and software consultant.

If you keep up with tech writing, you probably know Ford’s name. In 2015, he wrote an entire issue of Bloomberg Businessweek titled “What is code?,” which colorfully explained the foundations of computer programming for an audience that doesn’t understand it or how pervasive and powerful it has become. Recently, Ford wrote a piece in Wired countering antagonism against and pessimism about technology, and how he’s still hopeful and excited about what tech can do for society.

There are a lot of negative conversations about tech right now — regulating Silicon Valley companies, the havoc caused by Amazon and Facebook — but from someone who builds things for the web, Ford brings an optimistic look at how tech can positively and creatively impact our lives in fun and exciting ways.

Ford came in to talk about his hopefulness, his piece in Wired, the state of building stuff for the web, and how people think about tech today. Below is a lightly edited excerpt of the conversation.

Nilay Patel: So let’s talk about building stuff. You wrote a piece about how building stuff is good and gives you hope. You’ve built a lot of stuff. How do you think that’s changed, and how do you think we make that better so that we preserve the spirit of hope and excitement?

Paul Ford: Well, I think, first of all, there’s just a lot of work to do. So that part’s good. You know, everybody’s got a digital platform sitting around. As we’re talking, I’m looking at skyscrapers. There are 700 to 2,000 badly decaying digital platforms within eyesight. So there’s just a lot to do. First, I don’t think product and product management is hurting for hope, and you have to be hopeful to be a product manager because products don’t want to ship. So there is a fundamental optimism that has to be paired with a willingness to say “no” and all that stuff. I think there are lots of things that are really complicated and big and weird in the world, and the platform companies are confusing and messy.

The thing that is still mind-boggling — and maybe this is just the adolescent, model train part of myself — is that it gets cheaper to do more every day. Now, it’s hard and it’s rigid because you have to make the app-like experiences. You can’t just publish a page anymore and so on. But my old website ... it used to cost me $100 a month just to have a good server that could handle a reasonable amount of traffic, and so on. And I let that sit for a couple of years while we got Postlight rolling. And then one weekend I’m like, “I have to stop spending this money.” It costs me $1.99 a month to run now because I use this thing called Zeit, and I just put it on the Zeit static hosting.

There are some command lines I run. I have no clue what’s happening. I don’t know where it is. I don’t know what’s working. I cut and paste it from a tutorial, and it works great. Everything works just fine. I have this archive going back 20 years that is stable and secure, and I have it backed up in case that goes away. If I used Amazon, I could probably get it down even further. So it’s getting cheaper to do more, but it is not an environment that rewards the vast and ridiculous creativity that we saw in the early days. I think it would. I think that just a little more ridiculousness would be welcomed because it’s very inexpensive to be ridiculous at scale. 

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