Interview with Antonio Dini: Italian Technology Writer and Essayist
He interviewed Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Marissa Mayer, Linus Torvalds. He wanted to become a foreign reporter, but he was assigned to the technology news desk. He has two passions: computers and aviation. Regarding computers he recounts that, at 14, he asked his parents for a Commodore 64 instead of a moped. When speaking of airplanes, he quotes William Langewiesche’s The Turn, because the essay allows understanding one of the fundamental principles of flying. If you ask him what his job is, the answer is that he mostly writes and that is why he called his Telegram channel Mostly,
Antonio Dini writes about information technology for various newspapers, including Il Sole 24 Ore. For those who follow him, his newsletter Mostly Weekly is the red thread that Antonio unravels in the labyrinth of our digital lives. For example: have you ever wondered what web developers can see when you browse the pages they built? Well, Antonio writes, click here. Or have you really understood the new legislation about cookies? Try this. You can guess that Antonio Dini still belongs to the era of printed paper, when he shows the shelves of the studio where he writes. The books are many, there are more boxes in the attic, and, he says: “If I were younger, all this would be in a Kindle.” (Born in 1969, Antonio Dini studied Political Science in Florence. Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori was one of his professors).
You are now a father who was once a child in love with computers: according to you, do we really live in a dystopian world?
The problem today is that society at large has not metabolized what information technology is. It is still seen as magic or voodoo, it is not comprehended. There is a quote I really like. The author is a Dutch computer scientist, Edsger W. Dijkstra, and it says: “Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes”. Take a car: it is certainly important to understand how it works, but a good driver has a completely different set of skills. This lack of computer culture is combined with a flaw in the legislative framework and the existence of companies with predatory business model. More than this, in different areas of the world, there are opposite conceptions of the role of the state and of principles such as privacy. Certainly, these differences do not help.
Let’s focus on social networks. Are the doomsayers right?
The business of social networks is tracking users and monetizing this tracking. With this goal, they have created a diet based exclusively on proteins, that is engagement. Unfortunately, it is toxic nutrition. People are more engaged when there is conflict, less engaged when there is dialogue. Listening is not recommended when you want to create engagement. In a context such as social networks, interpersonal relationships are a fuel to increase engagement. This is insane, because the human cost is very high. The consequence is the constant neurosis and their induced insecurity.
They constantly look for recognition, for the gratification of the likes. That said, social networks are a particular kind of community. All other existing communities, such as forums, specialized communities, make sense. They are grass roots social structures. They do not constantly consume people’s information and passions.
Your book Emozione Apple had positive reviews and was reprinted twice. Tell us about your experience in San Francisco.
On a personal level, the most beautiful experience I remember was the Sunday after I arrived in San Francisco. My accommodation was a hotel in Union Square. I went out to eat a sandwich. At night, the city was populated by the homeless; I was not impressed by that place. The following morning, however, I walked up Noble Hill, then I went to the Golden Gate and North Beach. It is the only city where I was smiling while walking. It was full of sun, with the white houses and the ups and downs of the hill. I fell in love with San Francisco, almost as much as I could love a person.
Over the years, I have met many small entrepreneurs who gravitated around the Apple and HP campuses. I remember, for example, when I met by chance and then interviewed an entrepreneur who had founded a small startup, Upstartle. The company was offering a service called Writely. It was a web-based word processor with which you could work from the browser. In 2006 they were acquired by Google. Together with another product, XL2Web, they became the foundation of Google Docs.
Let’s enter the pantheon of Big Tech. Tell us about meeting Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
I met Steve Jobs briefly not in the best of contexts. I just had the time to ask him three questions. He was very cold and distant with me. I then discovered that he would soon retire due to cancer. I probably met him in a very difficult period of his life. Bill Gates is a very friendly and good-natured person. However, due to the strict rules of engagement, my interview was less radical than the one I would do today. As for Jeff Bezos, I remember this anecdote.
Just before entering the room of the interview, his PR person told me: “Please don’t be scared when he laughs.” Right there and then, that sentence weirded me out. Well, believe it or not, Jeff Bezos has really devastating burst of laughter. In general, these guys, unlike Europeans, do not look for diplomacy during interviews. American executives are like professional athletes. I compare those interviews to tennis. They want the match to be challenging. They want to win, obviously, and they expect the same from you.
Today, who would you like to interview?
For sure Elon Musk. Then, I would like to interview Jeff Bezos again. A lot has changed about him since I first met him, as his company did. I would do an encore with Linus Torvalds. This time I would like to interview him in person, because the first time was by email. Also, Donald Knuth. His father owned a small printing business and Knuth started teaching computer science at a time when the concept of computer science was very different than it is today. Knuth contributed to building this concept along the way. He is the author of The Art of Computer Programming, which is still incomplete. He wrote a typesetting system for scientific texts, known as TeX. It is a digital language used by all the scientists. Academia uses this digital typographical system. Unfortunately,
Donald Knuth does not give interviews. On his Stanford University page, he writes: “Send me a letter, I have a wonderful secretary who tells me what incoming mail is interesting.
My goal is to communicate efficiently, in batch mode — like, one day every six months.”
So you’re going to send a letter…
Honestly, I don’t really know what to ask him. I can ask better questions when I can look the interviewee in his eyes. At this point, two hours have passed since the interview started. Antonio loves to talk. It is his profession, because, in addition to practicing journalism, he is a college instructor. Antonio apologizes for being slow, but for those who listen, it is a method more than a defect. It is not by chance that he mentions Feynman’stechnique because he is convinced that everything can “be explained to an 8-year-old.” He does not say, but you can guess that. For him, knowledge is power. Disclosure, either in a classroom or in a virtual space, is a social responsibility.
“When we were college students in Political Science, we were taught that the goal of organizations, as well as that of individuals, is to self-perpetuate. However, individuals inside the organizations still can choose, even if they work for the organizations and even if they sometimes hide behind the organizations.”
Now, the reader can imagine, Antonio is implicitly talking about freedom. “When I write, I don’t use Word. I use the basic text editor format, which today does not have compatibility issues. Combined with simple markdown, this format is fluid and does not require dedicated software. For me it is future proof. I change the text editor depending on what I like.” It sounds incredible: Antonio Dini’s job is mostly to write, but he does not use Word. Here we get to the point where listener’s attention was completely captured. “The final goal is to be like Hard Haid Moe. He is a Disney character, originally appearing in Donald Duck. He is the symbol of self-reliance; what he owns is enough for a living. He is the hermit who lives at the top of the mountain. Quite unpleasant, he maintains himself with what he grows, and he defends his property by shooting rock salt at whoever disturbs him.”