Every few months, we witness a tech expert provide sometimes painful testimony to irritable members of Congress. The tech expert attempts, often with differing levels of self-assuredness, to clarify their tech world, while the congresspeople ask their questions. In the end, it appears that no one is significantly affected by the encounter.
Why Tech Experts and Politicians Struggle to Form Strong Connections
There are various ways to interpret these interactions, such as East Coast versus West Coast, lawyers versus engineers, political figures versus corporate figures. However, I believe the fundamental clash is between batch culture and event loop culture.
In the early days of computing, batch processing was dominant. You’d collect a stack of punch cards, queue up to use the massive electronic computer, input your data and instructions, and then patiently wait for minutes or even days as the digital machinery worked on your request. Each batch operation had a distinct Before and After phase: You initiated an action, the computer performed its task, and you returned to collecting punch cards. Then, the event loop arrived: The electronic computer, now compact and affordable enough to sit on your desk, awaited your input. You could take action (typing a key, pressing a button, or later, clicking a mouse), and it would immediately respond, displaying a letter on the screen or launching a video.
Users engaged with these elements, and the web shifted its focus from documents to immersive experiences and interactions. Whether it’s playing Wordle, streaming the next Netflix episode, or scrolling through Facebook, the foundation of every major tech success in the past decade is an event loop that awaits user input. Of course, people still engage in batch-style programming, but they often refer to it as “shell scripting,” “running analytics reports,” or “sending email newsletters at 4 am.
Categorizing the World: Batch vs. Loop
Over the years, I’ve adopted this batch-versus-loop classification to make sense of the world. Banks, for instance, operate in a batch manner, reconciling accounts slowly at the end of the day. They may claim to provide real-time services, but when you investigate, you’ll discover they still rely on magnetic tapes for data storage. On the other hand, crypto operates in a much loopier fashion, responding constantly to users’ interactions with magic tokens, creating a 24/7 reactive and ongoing experience. Books, which take years to produce and often release long after they’ve become newsworthy, fall into the batch category, as do albums. In contrast, livestreams on TikTok exemplify the loop approach.
Congress, in its role as a policymaking body, primarily follows the batch model. If you’ve ever watched the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon with the bill on Capitol Hill, you’re aware that our federal government essentially functions as a costly and inefficient content management system for generating legal documents. You input all the protests, debates, investigations, meetings, and procedures into the CMS, and what emerges is a polished act, law, or, once in a blue moon, an amendment.
On the other hand, modern tech operates under the event loop paradigm. This applies not only to obvious examples like social media and mobile gambling but also to AI. While it starts with large batch processes to build models, the end result is event loop: You request it to draw a picture of a surfing ocelot, and it promptly delivers. The event loop allows for reactions, it’s dynamic, and it’s what appeals to the younger generation.
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