Mitch Altman Asks How You’re Using Your Life

This talk will probably make you a bit angry. You might be upset with some of Mitch Altman’s views or his hyperbole in describing them. Or you might be upset because you totally agree with his views and feel the same disappointment he does with many (ab)uses of technology. Either way, the point of his talk, which was given at the 2019 Hackaday Superconference, is that we all should think deeply about what we choose to do with our time and our talents. Consider yourself challenged.

The video below is packed full of colorful ideas, along with some colorful language. Let’s take a look.

Technology Just Is

Does technology have an inherent meaning designed right into it? Of course not. Mitch looks at “technology” as a set of tools that can be used as you see fit. The thing that changes is the cultural context in which these tools are put to use. This isn’t a new concept for the Hackaday community — after all, that hot plate and that fish pump weren’t originally designed to make their way into your basement SMD assembly line.

What happens when you design tools that end up being used for activities you don’t agree with? It’s a topic that has been bubbling to the surface of the tech world for some time. You may remember Google employees leaving the company over machine learning projects they contributed to being used in military drone applications. The problem is that these engineers expected a different cultural context for their work. We can guess that many of them signed up to work on image recognition aimed at self-driving cars. They expected their work to make the roads safer for everyone involved. Mitch draws the line when the tech is used to take lives, or support the taking of lives. Where do you?

It’s Your Choice, You Should Choose to Make It

You will spend a significant portion of your life working. It’s worth spending time asking yourself what meaning your work has for you and for others. Have you considered the ethics of the work? And have you reviewed these values and ethics as your career progresses? Not doing so is, for instance, how Volkswagen diesel scandal took place.

Through his decades of work on everything from virtual reality and network storage controllers to teaching learn-to-solder classes and building one tv remote to turn off all, Mitch has chosen to apply his values to the decisions he makes in who to work for and what customers to work with. His decisions come down to doing what he loves and making choices that let him continuing to do what he loves. It’s a good example to learn from. The first step in achieving your goals is know what you want, and for that we can all benefit from a little introspection.

57 thoughts on “Mitch Altman Asks How You’re Using Your Life

  1. “Either way, the point of his talk, which was given at the 2019 Hackaday Superconference, is that we all should think deeply about what we choose to do with our time and our talents.”

    Become an artist. The ARRRR! channel would appreciate it.

    1. The nudge theory assumes that people enter situations haphazardly without previous commitments, such as going into a grocery store without an idea of what foods they’ll buy – so that by placing fruits before junk food would influence their decision over what items to buy.

      This is rarely the case. The person entering the store will in most cases have already decided to buy a microwave hamburger, so they’ll navigate to the pre-packaged foods section and skip the fruit isles completely. Maybe they’ll have to walk through it on the way, but that does not change the outcome because the choice is already made.

      It has the same problem as with subliminal marketing. You may influence the odds of people doing something, but when the odds are strongly against you, these small differences simply don’t matter.

    1. Yeah, it’s kind of hard for me to take this guy seriously about money not being a sign of success when he’s swimming in it.

      Like how is this dude flying all over the world to go to these events and yell at the audience if not because of all his keychain money?

      To say nothing of him getting teary about the evils of the military. Couldn’t sell his sleep masks to soldiers? Come on. He worried they’d be so rested they’d launch an impromptu genocide? Does the guy not play taxes? Better not tell them where that money goes…

      1. >Better not tell them where that money goes…

        It’s not really in his control because he’s forced to pay taxes, and other people beyond his control decide to pay the military. It’s dubious to fault him for that.

        1. That’s not true, there are lots of honest people who don’t want to be part of the “evils” of society, who choose not to be part of those things.

          They don’t have a bunch of money, of course. Having money means being more connected to society, there are more things you’re participating in, more things you’re supporting. More moral proxies.

          The problem with being totally against the military is that the other option is to have somebody else’s military on the streets telling you what to do, or just gangs if you’re lucky. Being against specific military actions makes a lot more sense. For example, most Buddhists support having a military, but they don’t want it to do very much.

          1. “The problem with being totally against the military”


            But… in a country which spends more money on the military than the rest of the world combined… maybe it’s ok to skip all the nuance when debating military spending. I mean come on, who are we building up to fight against? Space aliens?

  2. Mitch has a myopic sense of ethics because he fosters an atmosphere of conflict and exclusion where people who do not agree with his world view are excluded or made to feel unwelcome. Not a healthy way to confront the reality of human diversity.

    1. its the only way to confront the reality of human diversity.

      case in point there is nothing to learn from a Nazi or A KKK member. their very world views of unhealthy and wrong from the ground up. so the only way to deal with them is to make them feel unwelcome with the hope their change or at the very least other will see their way of life is wrong too.

      I can understand Mitch, as I myself believe world view that doesn’t work towards equality for all is Wrong. in that context I can understand his stance on guns and the military. the point of the military is to back their governments wishes over the rest of the world. the same goes for all pro gun arguments as they are all based on the advantages they give to the individual over the group.

      1. Making people feel unwelcome with the hope that “they will see that their way of life is wrong” is in my opinion one of the main reasons people go to such extremities and why the world today is becoming more and more polarised.

        If one group of people reject you and the other accepts you; where will you go or stay?

        Completely rejecting a ‘Nazi’ wil not make that person less of a ‘Nazi’. If you are really interested in making the world a less intolerant place you first push aside your own intolerance and try your best to engage in dialogue.

        I think most people aren’t interested in making the world a better place and prefer the conflict..

        1. Thank you. Glad there are some sensible folks left in the world.
          Just because someone doesn’t agree with something doesn’t mean it is default “alt-right” lol. Guy immediately went for the SPLC view of the world where CAIR and MB doesn’t exist to cause conflict because they have more melanin…
          Altman is no better than the earlier “hippies” that all live in lake houses from money they got designing missile guidance systems and NSA tools smdh.

        2. its almost impossible to change peoples mind when they’re that far down the rabbit hole.

          a racist will likely stay a racist their whole life, the same with Nazi and everyone else like them. its nice when it happens but you don’t win by changing closed minds you win by turning everyone who isn’t closed minded against them. you make it so even their children hate them because they see their parents world view is wrong.

          it doesn’t matter if they band together because they won’t have new people joining their ranks and their ideas and beliefs will die off the sad pathetic people they are.

          but tolerating intolerance only breads more intolerance

          conflict will happen no matter path is chosen to believe other wise is to deny reality.

          1. It’s true that what you say will work.

            But it’s the social justice equivalent to a Nazi concentration camp and eugenics programs. This kind of “intolerance of intolerance” is like a nuclear bomb so big that you can’t escape the fallout yourself – so be careful to stand upwind when you press the button.

          2. “its almost impossible to change peoples mind when they’re that far down the rabbit hole. ”
            – It’s almost impossible to change anyone’s mind, especially when you put them on the defense.

            “conflict will happen no matter path is chosen to believe other wise is to deny reality.”
            – I am not denying reality, conflict will always be a thing but there is such a thing as less or more conflict and I feel that being intolerant to ‘perceived’ intolerance is pushing things towards the more conflict end of the spectrum.

            “it doesn’t matter if they band together because they won’t have new people joining their ranks and their ideas and beliefs will die off the sad pathetic people they are.”
            – This is a zero sum game strategy; you believe your ideas and beliefs are superior to theirs and that makes them sad and pathetic. They will likely assume a similar position as a response to your perceived aggression; what makes you think that their group will shrink and yours will grow? It won’t, you will only end up with more conflict.

            ~’I hate group X and find it justified if their children also hates them because they hate group Y’.
            This is a justification for hating people, that does not seem like a very tolerant world to me.

            “but tolerating intolerance only breads more intolerance”
            Dialogue is not tolerating intolerance and even if you feel that it is it certainly does not bread more intolerance. Look up Daryl Davis; he is an African-American man who has convinced a large number of Klansmen to leave the KKK by engaging in dialogue.
            That is the opposite of your claim.

            Intolerance is never the answer.

      2. > I myself believe world view that doesn’t work towards equality for all is Wrong.

        Based on what?

        A counter-argument: inequality is right if it benefits the worst-off member of society over a situation of complete equality. Homework assing: define benefit and harm.

        1. See also: John Rawl’s Original Position and its derivatives.

          There is no objective way to define ethics or morality in society, so the question becomes of what anyone entering the society would want it to be like. The conceptual tool of the “veil of ignorance” can be used to find rules to which a rational person would agree to. It works by imagining yourself as not yet born into the society, so you don’t know what position or part in life you will take, or what your preferences would be. Obviously then, you would gamble rules that maximize your chances of having a good life.

          The original version of the argument uses a min-max approach, but other versions are equally valid. In any case, inequality is not considered an absolute wrong, but a compromise between the good of the many and making the situation bearable for the bottom rung lest you end up being it.

          1. Of course there are objective ways to define ethics, ethics are agreed standards of behavior. In cases where ethics principles already have broad consensus, those are objectively appropriate.

            Morals of course are objectively personal.

            The problem many people have is that they’re not willing to accept the ethical consensus, they want to extend or replace the rules with their own sense of morality. There is no objective way to even attempt to prove that your morality is better than another person’s. But it is a lot easier to prove which ethical rules received a consensus.

      3. That is logically flawed even if you only take the rather self righteous view that they are wrong and you need to change their mind, because how can you possibly understand why they act as they do without interacting with them. Surely on deeper reflection you may see that it is foolish to claim to be a pacifist yet really act in a combative way toward people who you deem inferior to yourself. And all of that is aside from the reality of the fact that you can never know with great certainty the long term ethical value of any of your actions even if you are sure of their localised and short term effects.

      4. I am not a gun owner nor I believe owning guns essentially changes anything about distribution of power between an individual and a group (if everyone is armed), but I was under impression that their idea was about reducing the advantage the group has over individual – there is an important distinction between that and what you wrote, although in practice it seems that most prominent apologists of gun ownership are exactly the advantage seekers. After all, more money buys better (range, accuracy, firing rate, punch) guns, so they become not a “great equilizer”, but yet another inequality amplifier.

    2. There’s a name for this phenomenon:

      >Splitting (also called black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) is the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. It is a common defense mechanism.[1] The individual tends to think in extremes (i.e., an individual’s actions and motivations are all good or all bad with no middle ground).

      >People matching the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder also use splitting as a central defense mechanism. Most often narcissists do this as an attempt to stabilize their sense of self positivity in order to preserve their self-esteem, by perceiving themselves as purely upright or admirable and others who do not conform to their will or values as purely wicked or contemptible.

  3. Mitch is deeply concerned about climate change, income inequality and the threat of nuclear war. Somehow he thinks we can change human nature.

    Not to worry, Mitch. Maybe we cannot solve the world’s problems, but in the long run, Mother Nature will do it for us.

    Mitch asks, “What is Success?” Perhaps the Science Show can lend their answer:

    1. Sneaking in the assumption that there’s just one human nature, or that we should trust you to be able to determine what human nature is, or that we can never guide or change or build something apart from human nature. That’s despicably cynical and craven. There’s no wisdom in just rolling over and giving up and leaving everyone to suffer and die. It’s just laziness disguised as pragmatism.

      1. Regardless of human nature, there’s another hidden assumption that anyone has the right to “guide and change” anyone else. That’s assuming the position that your definition and perception of morality, ethics, good and bad, etc. are objective and universal.

        The paradox of progressivism is that it must always define the present as something undesirable and set a direction elsewhere. In order to know the present, it must define fictional entities like “the society” or “the people”, or “class”, “privilege”, etc. much like we define a collection of trees “a forest” even though no such thing really exists.

        Progressivism comes up with these imaginary things, then says “the way things are now, this is no good, and we must do something about it”, and then serves injury and injustice to other human beings under the name of helping them out of this condition. Then when the other condition is reached, if it is ever reached, you must again define the situation unbearable and start over in a different direction. The people who then try to uphold the values they fought for are vilified and destroyed.

        Someone once said, “I can perfectly well imagine a plague of saints.”

        1. “It’s like the problem of geneticists, which they face today. I went to a meeting of geneticists not so long ago where they gathered in a group of philosophers and theologians and said, ‘Now look here, we need help. We now are on the verge of figuring out how to bring in any kind of human character we would want to have. We give you saints, philosophers, scientists, great politicians, anything you want, just tell us what kind of human beings ought we to breed.'”

          “So I said, ‘How will those of us who are genetically unregenerated make up our minds what genetically generated people might be?’ Because I’m afraid very much that our selection of virtues may not work. It may be like for example this new kind of high-yield grain which is made and which is becoming ecologically destructive. When we interfere with the processes of nature and breed efficient plants and efficient animals, there’s always some way in which we have to pay for it. And I can well see that a eugenically-produced human beings might be dreadful. We could have a plague of virtuous people. Do you realize that? Any animal considered in itself is virtuous, it does its thing, but in crowds they’re awful. Like a crowd of ants, or locusts on the rampage, they’re all perfectly good animals but it’s just too much. I could imagine a perfectly pestiferous mass of a million saints.”

          “So I said to these people, ‘Look, if there’s anything you can do, just be sure that a vast variety of human beings is maintained.’ Don’t please bring us down to a few excellent types. Excellent for what? We never know how circumstances are going to change, and how our need for different kinds of people changes.”

          “So you see here again the problem comes out in genetics; we do not really know how to interfere with the way the world is. What seemed in the moral and spiritual sphere to be great virtues in times past are easily seen today as hideous evils. Let’s take for example the Inquisition. Any means were justified to cure people of heresy. We don’t change. We’re doing the same thing today, but under different names. We can look back at those people and see how evil that was, but we can’t see it in ourselves. So therefore, beware of virtue.”

          – Alan Watts, Mind over mind, paraphrased.

          1. If I could send a list of genes to be tinkered with in my own embryo back in time along with the means to do so I would not hesitate for a second.

            The mild allergies I have as an adult suck but as a child were so much worse. I carry a lot of childhood memories from that I would rather be without, days unable to breathe through my nose, hours long nosebleeds, etc… The degradation of my back as I age limits my activities and my family history of cancer, heart disease and diabetes is a constant worry for the future.

            That’s my list as a fairly healthy person. I know people with “big” genetic problems that would play me the tiniest violin. I’m one of the “lucky” ones.

            Why the hell would anyone insist we pass this crap onto future generations if we don’t have to? Shame on anyone who wants to!

      2. Stating that human nature exists does not include the claim that there’s just one human nature, you added that part yourself, apparently merely to justify the pejorative statements that followed.

        Are you entirely sure that is an example of wisdom?

  4. I was like, woah, why the disclaimer. I figured it out about halfway through.
    Interestingly, his technique for public speaking is a tried, true, effective way to move people to action. It is essentially Me, we, Tech, You, We complete with a call to action at the end.

        1. no its very simple the baker was using their religion as an excuse say they superior and thats where they were wrong. being gay doesn’t hurt anyone its just living a different kind of life it doesn’t make it wrong.

          here’s the thing “everyone is equal” as long as no one is getting hurt the meaningless games we waist our lives on are fine. to treat others as lesser beings because they are different is evil. but people like the backers equality feels like oppression

    1. there’s a Hugh difference here and if you can’t see that you need help.

      being gay don’t hurt others they just live differently. the military kills people, innocent people all the time, they exist to suppress people.

      its okay to not support people that hurt others is not okay to hurt others for just being different.

      1. Depends on your definition of “hurt”. Religions are power hierarchies that depend on conformity and coherence – breaking that is hurting the system, which people depend for their daily lives. Social cohesiveness is a benefit, which has to be weighed against individual freedom.

        Secular humanism is also a power hierarchy that depends on conformity and coherence – just with different values. It may benefit the gay people, at the expense of some other people. It is simply hurting a different group. The crucial difference is that you don’t value those people who you are hurting because you believe they don’t deserve to exist, since you believe their values are not valid.

        Ironically, by rejecting religion as a source of objective morals, you cannot justify why you are right and they are wrong – otherwise you’d be committing the naturalistic fallacy. If you insist, you are simply creating another religion and you would be no better.

      2. A military allows you to live without being a slave. A slave, that is, if your conquerors felt you were useful. Otherwise, it merely allows you to live.

        In many cases, being openly gay is only something you can do if you live in a society where that is protected by threat of force.

  5. While I agree with his general idea of small businesses supporting a few people being a great thing, the talk was mostly filled with disappointingly predictable rhetoric. Bummed that I skipped out on badge hacking early to watch it.

    “The cultural context of guns means they are best at killing, and that’s almost all it’s used for”.

    Considering that the overwhelming majority, by several orders of magnitude, of the gun’s “cultural context” is friends and family hitting the range and having a good day, this is such a provably wrong statement it’s just silly. In nearly every city in america you can usually find several gun ranges around, filled all hours with families poking long distance holes in paper or making thick sheets of metal ring. But I guess that doesn’t count as “cultural context” if it doesn’t fit the narrative.

      1. you comment really show the lack of understanding of the problem as a whole.

        its like say because drunk driving doesn’t kill people every time that no one should stop people from driving drunk. who care that 1000’s of lives lost to gun deaths every year in this country that doesn’t happen in other countries? who care that 90 plus present of those Deaths don’t involve criminals in anyway. or any other of the statistics about real gun violence.

          1. Or more importantly, are you allowed to lie and make stuff up in order to influence people to your side? What’s the acceptable limit of exaggeration before someone can all bullshit on you?

            I’ve seen your type before. You cry over propaganda and lies when the other side is doing it, and then turn around to do it yourself. You’re forcing the audience to choose between judging malice or incompetence, and both undermine your cause. If malice, you’re relying on people to be too stupid to notice, and if incompetence, you simply look like fools.

          2. Thanks for expressing what I tried to much more succinctly. I don’t care much for having the gun debate any more, I’m just tired of people sanctimoniously preaching arguments-from-false-assumptions at me.

        1. The USA’s problem with guns is not a problem with guns.
          It’s a problem with a lack of maturity.

          As a young country, only 150years ago you were all wandering around “defending” yourselves with guns from Indians, and each other.
          Your rule of law is only very recent.
          You’ve got an enshirned right in the constitution to defend yourself agasint your own government and you feel that you need to exercise that right. Despite your political system being completeld games by billionaires, but you’re ok with that becos you stil beleive in the “American dream” con.

          Your police force is more military than the military of many European countries.
          They draw arms as first resort. They are filled by tesoterone filled nutters on a power trip, ex military, an attitude that they operate in a war zone, and no doubt huge numbers suffering from PTSD.
          And you wonder why you’ve got problems?
          Many other countries have guns in the population. Have the right to open and concealed carry and have more guns in the hands of the average person.
          Yet they dont have the same problems you do.
          Because it’s not “guns” which is the problem.

          You openly create division in society (walled communities), destroy towns/cities/communities through poverty and unemployment, and then up and move to start a new one leaving people behind.
          You’ve got no real social care system – that’s communist.
          Your health care is insane, but Obama was also a commie for trying to fix it.

          It’s just maturity. You lack it. Probably empathy too. – “I’m gonna get mine”

          Go watch videos of Aussies have a confrontation and arguing. It rarely gets beyond name calling.
          Put that in the context of the USA, everyone in the video would be dead including the cameraman.

          1. Have you ever been to the US?

            People get angry at one another all the time without shooting anyone. I don’t even know anyone who has been shot outside of war. My own guns rarely leave their safe. When they do it’s for target practice or hunting.

            The “Wild West” only ever really existed in a Holywood studio.

            I have been in a couple of situations where a gun was “used” in self defense. It’s use was 100% deterrent. It was laid across a lap, not fired, not pointed at a human being, not even cocked. In both cases the potential victimizer simply saw it and left. I don’t know what would have happened otherwise but I’m glad not to. Perhaps I wouldn’t be here.

          2. Weird, I saw more violence in my 12 hours in Copenhagen then I’ve seen in 30 years in the US, and I was not from a great area. Funny how silly assumptions made from incomplete data paints whatever picture one wants.

        2. I’m not talking about guns, I’m talking about the statements provided in the linked video, which were provably false propaganda and nothing more. Gun politics is off topic for this site, and debates on that can be handily found online elsewhere.

  6. I click out of the video when it was revealed that he created the TV B gone. I have better things to with my time to listen to someone, who believes they should impose their will on others. In the event I was in that audience I’d played like a US Senator. leave the jury room during a trial, or leave the room, during the State of the union address.

  7. LoL At the comments from people who use the internet as a measure of humanity. Life is not like the internet. Everyone who speaks on the internet, as I am doing now, are over emphasising their own importance. The internet gathers all extreme views together and presents them as the norm for personal or monetary gain. Worst thing humans ever did was to create agriculture and stop being hunter gathers.

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