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The unasked question
Therefore also the unanswered question
As someone who works, or at least lurks, in the tech industry, I am bombarded daily with advice. Advice on how to code. Advice on what technologies, languages, paradigms, frameworks, libraries, etc. to use. Advice on how to be more productive, happier, or a better manager or leader — two very different skillsets.
And almost everything I see out there is, frankly, utter bullshit. The shit is piled so high it’s nearly impossible to see over or around it. And what is most astonishing about this is that everyone around me appears to take this situation for granted. It is just the way it is. Nothing we can do about it.
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Except it’s worse than that, actually. It’s not just that people ignore it. They revel in it. They are busy contributing to the enormous tsunami of shit even as they drown in it.
What. The. Actual. Fuck?
Wasn’t there something about paychecks?
Oh, yeah. Upton Sinclair might have mentioned it in his book, I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked published in 1934, nearly a century ago now. He said:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
Of course, back then there were only two kinds of people, men and women, and men went to work and earned the salary while women stayed home and took care of the children and the housework.
But I think we can update this and make it more generally applicable:
It is nearly impossible to get a human to face an inconvenient truth when facing that truth will cause potentially severe and unpleasant consequences to that human. Such as having to grow the fuck up.
So when most of us find ourselves in a situation where almost everything around us is clearly wrong and yet everyone we know is pretending otherwise, it seems to us that the wisest course is to go along to get along. Am I right?
The problem is twofold. First, this is the same excuse that everyone else is using for continuing the stupidity, so how will anything ever change? It’s perfectly circular.
Second, the stupidity we refuse to see and correct is steadily destroying us and, potentially, all life on Earth.
We’re a bit like the fella who fell off a very tall building and was heard to say as he passed the fiftieth floor on the way down, “So far, so good!”
We all know that this is true. Ha, ha. Nice try, but yes we do. But when the questions come up, they create intense cognitive dissonance, and that hurts. Who can live like that?
Cognitive dissonance as a means to a (final) end
When we encounter this cognitive dissonance, it is a searing pain in the brain. We need to get rid of it. Ouch! And there are two ways we can do so.
One obvious way is that we could work to correct the problem that is causing the dissonance.
For example, if I am a thief and the knowledge that I’m hurting people is causing cognitive dissonance, then I could ease that dissonance by no longer stealing shit and by returning what I’ve already stolen.
So that’s one solution. But if I were willing to do that, then I wouldn’t have chosen to be a thief in the first place, no?
The other solution is so much more appealing. We can just deny the truth. Ignore it. Pretend that it doesn’t exist. Me? A thief? Nah! I was just borrowing that stuff.
Then, amazingly, we can go on with our criminal activities and simultaneously not be criminals. Wow, this denial is pretty useful. I need to get me some.
The problem with denial is that it doesn’t make the problem go away. It just makes us (pretend) unaware of it.
Most tech “solutions” solve nothing
If you’ve been in the tech industry as long as I have, you may have noticed a phenomena in which “everything old is new again”.
For example, we used to do things using Method A. Then we noticed that Method A had some major drawbacks, so someone came up with Method B. Often, this process repeats with Method C and Method D and so forth, each appearing to be an improvement on the previous method.
Ah, progress! Gotta love it.
But then at some point, maybe it’s Method E, some killjoy notices that Method E looks a lot like Method A. Hmm. In fact, Method E is Method A, just with a new name.
Ha, ha! Life is a big circle. Everything old is new again!
But if we are right back where we started, then have we made any progress at all? Things have definitely changed. They must be getting better, right?
Everything is connected by bungee cords
Bungee cords stretch, but only so far.
So when we change one thing, pulling it in some new direction, the consequences ripple outward through the bungee cords and other things change, too, and often in unexpected ways.
One human who noticed this and asked a lot of good questions was a guy named Paul Virilio. His questions made people uncomfortable — usually a good sign.
Virilio noticed that there were always unintended consequences of every action, and that they were often negative. He called this the integral accident.
What he said was that new technologies may solve old problems, but they bring with them new problems. His example was that the invention of the railroad, which was also, and inescapably, the invention of the derailment. Similarly, the automobile came with the car crash and millions of deaths. Television trivialized events and distanced humans from them in space and time. It also brought with it the modern surveillance state.
Essentially, what Virilio was saying is that everything has a price. Or, as Heinlein put it before him, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL).
But we act as if there is a free lunch. We continually invent “solutions” that simply move the problem around, and without even considering the potential consequences. And that’s how we eventually end up right back where we started. Only worse.
And yet we never question whether progress is actually possible. It is simply a given that it is, and that we are accomplishing it. We have inconveniently forgotten that the concept of “progress” was invented as part of the “Enlightenment”, thus for much more than 99% of our time on this planet, no such concept existed.
Life was cyclical. It was obvious.
All around us we see the evidence that our attempt to force progress to exist is destroying not only our own lives, but the viability of our societies and our planet as a whole. But rather than stop, step back, and ask ourselves if this is what we really want, we just double down on the denial and push the pedal to the metal.
So what was that question?
The question we never seem to ask is simply this:
Why are we doing this, whatever “this” happens to be in this moment? And it is not the proximate why that we should be asking, but the ultimate why. In short, keep asking why until you run out of answers.
As I mentioned, I am bombarded daily by advice for how to “get shit done” faster, more efficiently, more effectively. But no one ever asks, Why? Why do we need to get this particular shit done? What is our goal? And what’s the damn hurry?
Like everyone, I need money to live in the modern world, so I’ve found myself over and over again spending significant chunks of my life building useless crap because someone somewhere thought that we needed it. Often, I’ve known even as I’ve built the application, feature, or whatever that it is useless and will simply be discarded.
I sometimes estimate that at least half of the code I’ve written has simply been thrown away, or has sat around unused for a while and was then discarded. Or maybe it was never discarded and it is just pointlessly taking up space somewhere.
Even when it is useful, for how long? What’s the shelf life of software these days? And why? Why? Progress? Give me a break.
I’m old enough to remember a time when telephones were connected to the wall by a cord and you dialed them. Dialed. When I was a kid, we had a “party line”. You’d want to use the phone, but someone else — someone you didn’t even know — was on it. If you wanted to leave a message, someone had to answer and write it down for you, and then make sure it was delivered. There was no waiting for the beep.
There were no answering machines, no pagers, no fax machines, no email, no SMS, none of that. There was no Internet. No one had a computer. You might have a set of encyclopedias, a dictionary or two, an atlas, maybe an almanac. For anything else, you got off your ass and went to the library. Remember those?
In most cities, after 1 AM or so, there was no television. Stations went off the air until 5 or 6 AM. In a big city (I lived in Chicago), there might be one 24-hour station, but late at night it showed nothing but old movies. Many of the radio stations were similarly off air at night.
Life was far from perfect. There was plenty of crime, pollution, war, poverty, and more, although much of that was the product of so-called “civilization” and the industrial “revolution”. It is easy to point to advances in drugs, etc. as making life better, but if we’re fair, these mostly mitigate the worst consequences of civilized life. What if we just live healthier lives?
It was no Golden Age — there has never really been a “Golden Age” — but it wasn’t terrible. Most people were happier then. All our “advances”, while rushing us toward a black hole that becomes ever more difficult to not see, have not really made us happier, or healthier. We just last a little longer. Or maybe not, given the rate of drug abuse and suicide.
Back in the 1980s when I was managing a McDonald’s, there were some 13,000 McDonald’s outlets on Earth. And I continually heard the refrain, “We need to reach 20,000!”
And virtually every other manager I knew agreed. Yes, indeed. We must get to 20,000 stores.
As far as I know, I was the only person to ask, Why? We do we need even 13,000? Does the world really need a McDonald’s on every corner?
And I got blank stares. It was simply inconceivable to my fellow managers (McDonald’s, like most transnational corporations, is essentially a cult) that anyone would not want a McDonald’s on every corner. Hell, they probably thought that all of humanity would be better off if they ate three meals a day at McDonald’s.
Nothing has really changed since then. A CEO I know is obsessed with getting faster and better and bringing in more business and growing the company. But why? Faster and better at building what exactly? Why do we need it? Why is it worth the investment not only of materials and energy but of the lives, literally, of human beings?
And why must the business grow? Doesn’t he understand the network effect? The Dunbar Number? Doesn’t he realize that the very things he claims to value about this small business, namely the esprit de corps and the socializing will be destroyed by growth? And growth for what? To what end? Growth simply for the sake of growth?
Growth so a few can hoard more resources for which they have no use? Resources that will devalue everything they have? (Note: the more you have, the less it is worth. Elon Musk is the poorest human alive, not the wealthiest.)
And this business he wants to bring in. Business doing what exactly? We’re helping the clients to be faster and more efficient, yes, I get it. But faster and more efficient doing what?
The truth is that he never actually asks that question. I know this because I asked him, he gave me a non-answer and promised to get back to me. I’ve heard nothing since. It is the question that must not be asked. Because it brings with it the cognitive dissonance, and then we might actually have to change something. Take some risks and get this shit show under control.
Ugh. Sounds painful. Maybe later. Hey, have you heard about this new hexagonal architecture? Oh, it’s so much better than the old way…
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