Think. Write. Code.

Fixing the World One Code Release at a Time

December 01, 2019 • ☕️☕️ 7 – 11 minutes read

Ask yourself these questions:

Since when someone who studied (or dropped out of) computer science can become the problem-solver of the world?

Since when the God-like powers a developer feels when playing with code can be extrapolated to the greater good?

Democratize publishing?
Connect everyone on Earth?
Organize all the world’s information and make it accessible and useful?

Michelangelo's fresco painting in the Sistine Chappel titled The Creation of Adam The Creation of Adam fresco painting by Michelangelo

Far too long developers have been playing with this world like it’s a video game. Little matters they are part of the same world. They can always hit “Reset”. Or just put on a pair of headphones and a hoodie, and call it a good day’s work.

With copious amounts of passion, determination, and glee, developers have blessed us with large scale emotional, psychological and social experiments. Little thought or oversight was required since it’s only product development.

My sincere, direct answer to this is: fuck developers, programmers, software engineers, and any nuance they may adhere to. I am also one of them, so fuck me too.

What follows is my attempt at ringing a few, much needed alarm bells in the consciousness of any digital dweller, but primarily in the heads of those I just cursed. I hope you can stomach a little cursing when the situation calls for.

A different kind of creator

If you have a developer around, take a good look at him. You are in the vicinity of a little undercover God, regardless if he or she (but mostly he) knows it. From the tips of those fingers extremely powerful things can emerge.

I am not joking or showering you in cheesy metaphors. Developers are not bound by the physical world in the way other creators are. Every day they get to create something from nothing. If this is not God then I don’t know what is.

You may say that their creations are not actually real the same way a building, a plane or a smartphone is. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your three letters .com domain (if you are that lucky) is very much a valuable property just like your house or piece of land. With the difference that you’ve created it from nothing!

This could be great if not for a little side effect. It is all too easy to lack any sort of feeling of responsibility to the outside world. You and your creation can develop your very own morality and ethics bubble since seemingly nothing from the outside contributed to your little love affair. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb so skillfully portrayed it in his book Skin in the Game, [developers] suffer from a severe lack of skin in the game. The same chronic condition financial workers and institutions exhibited ever since they started making money out of thin air (developers are not the only undercover Gods).

Now, why would well-intentioned developers (not evil financiers) not realize this and correct course? They are clearly capable of understanding abstract, complicated things.

The age of developers

No, not a mythical age of valiant nerds with hoodies. I am talking about the actual age of these undercover Gods.

Despite one’s best efforts, despite his over the top ability to grasp a specific subject, despite the sheer dedication some of us exhibit since childhood, despite all this no one can jump the line to gain wisdom at a much higher rate. Yes, one can read bookshelves upon bookshelves of self-help books, dive into mountains of history books, and grasp the latest developments in cognitive or social sciences. A capable, fully committed person can absorb all this knowledge by the time they are 20. Alas, in the wicked real world, having knowledge of something does not equal understanding it. And learning only comes from combining the two.

Vlad, that is easy! Just imagine a more capable, fully committed person able to absorb and understand vast sways of the human experience. To that, I ask: to what use? And you may counter with: obviously, to take on the problems of this world and come up with better solutions. History is filled with such characters and, by all accounts, they’ve taken that challenge and given it their best. So, what’s new? What is unprecedented is the age at which gifted people develop the audacity to try and conquer the world.

All the people in history we would consider game changers by today’s standards had their incubation period as young adults, a few stints in their middle age, and delivered their main gift to the world in the latter part of their life. They lived a little before expecting to change the lives of others. They accumulated real-life experiences, their thoughts distilled and hardened over the years, their intuition honed through a lifetime of mistakes. That is what I call wisdom. And you can’t gain it through a book or by talking to wise people, even those close to you. You need to let time pass over you and all that you are.

Now, look at where we are today in this God-ridden world. We’ve come to believe that since we have far more knowledge at our fingertips, since we can gather data about a multitude of perspectives on any given subject (hence understand it to some extent), we consequently live faster lives, at least on a mental timescale. So, we are entitled to tackle the same problems at a younger age than previously thought suitable. As Zuckerberg bluntly put it in his twenties: “Younger people are just smarter.” The median age at top tech companies speaks volumes about this reality.

Does this mean that people love or hate faster? That you are disappointed or exalted faster? That you go through different emotional states quicker? I very much doubt that, all physical, mental, and psychological health considered equal.

Oh, if you are wondering where do coders go when they age (they must age, right?), there is a place made specifically for them. It’s called management.

A change of scale

All of this would not be so worrisome if we kept the scale of previous centuries. Sure, young daredevils left their mark on our world, mainly through industry and war. But the scale and pace of their ambitions allowed the rest of society to take in the consequences (like climate change) and decide what to do about them. Sadly, society’s responses were often less than satisfactory, but we couldn’t say there weren’t ample opportunities to do something if we so wished.

Now, the new techno-Gods in hoodies have ambitions and powers at an entirely different scale. The ubiquity of our new means of communication makes any solution ultimately aim for global reach. Alas, the consequences are also global.

As if this wasn’t enough to complicate our reality, the areas developers are aiming to fix are much more complex in nature. We no longer play with such crude things like conquering land, gaining control of oil fields or other natural resources. We now want to fix human interaction, each of us’ self-esteem, privacy, public image, sense of identity, or even our sense of truth, the real Holy Grail (and money maker).

Just consider how the top results on Google or posts in the Facebook feed are the authoritative source of truth for the majority of us. It doesn’t matter much if you don’t know anything about the person or entity portraying those truths, because in a uber-connected world how could you possibly know everyone? Given the constant time pressure, we are forced to defer responsibility and trust to the gatekeeper.

I struggle with this each time I do an online search: are the reasons Google pushed this result in front of my eyes aligned with the characteristics I believe necessary for a reliable source of information? Often, I am left guessing and taking unnecessary risks.

A change in complexity

One domain of CS that has seen more broad scrutiny is AI because we can relate with the idea of intelligent machines killing us all. We have Sci-Fi to thank for that. Sadly, when it comes to seemingly less apocalyptic undertakings like social experiments via social media our peril detection radars are much less attuned. Sure, an episode or two of Black Mirror comes in at times and sounds the alarm. Dystopian literary works also do their best to depict possible outcomes in chilling detail. I’m afraid this is, with annoying regularity, too little, too late.

There is a disconnect between the huge leaps our technology and science have made and the adolescent understanding and appreciation we have over the consequences of our actions.

Oftentimes we end up creating systems way beyond our understanding. It is quite easy for any developer on a team to create good building blocks and feel a sense of progress, of doing good work. But it is many orders of magnitude harder to understand how those blocks interact with each other and how a flaw in one impacts the whole system.

Due to the almost mystic nature of computers and information, we tend to overestimate our capacity for understanding what we are building. Being the ever introverts awashed in impostor syndrome, we constantly overreach beyond our capabilities and brag about how much we have learned in doing so. That may be, but at what costs? Would we still brag about it if we saw actual people paying the price with their emotional, psychological, social, and even actual lives?

Developers are raised and trained in a good learning environment where they get to make mistakes, analyze the conditions that surfaced them, make the needed adjustments and learn for the future. No harm, no foul.

The problem is that the real world is anything but that. It is a wicked learning environment where the actual conditions can seldom be completely replicated, much less analyzed in all their implications. You don’t get to easily undo the consequences and try again. You don’t get a complete reality status report and formulate a sure solution. In fact, one might do more harm than good in attempting to fix a problem.

A sane response to all this complexity would be to build anything of importance with resilience at its core. To protect our users from our obvious shortcomings. To shield society from the unknowns we inadvertently incorporate into our creations. That would mean a grasp of the known unknowns, and, perhaps, the unknown unknowns.

More often than not, resilience is simply out of radar. Hell, it is even frowned upon since it implies we might not know everything (again that imposter syndrome). To make it even less palatable, it stinks of inefficiency, the archenemy of every self-respecting developer.

A change in preoccupations

There is a deafening silence among the profession when it comes to humanities. As Seymour Papert put it in his awesome book Mindstorms, there is a schizophrenic split between “humanities” and “sciences”. And for “good” reason: it is not in the job description! We are all just normal people with a knack for computers. We can’t all be expected to be polymaths. Then, why do we behave like ones? Why don’t we realize our natural limitations and bring on board people with perspectives to supplement our own? No one would demeanor us. No one would think less of our technical prowess. No one would pay us less. No one would have to suffer at the expense of us playing God.

It certainly isn’t a place of comfort, certainty, or infallibility. It’s a place of constant doubt, uncertainty, and vulnerability. But then again, isn’t that how it should feel when you want to solve the problems of a world full of people? “Move fast and break things” may work to some extent for industrial exploration and expansion, but certainly not for “connecting all the people” or “democratize publishing”.

The domain of this problem is vast, multifaceted, with many, many unknowns. So I will pause for now and give you time to take in my wandering thoughts, leaving you with some resemblance of solutions.

I believe we should enter a period of denuclearization of the Internet and the web. We should stop this explosion of platforms we readily deploy on our society. Instead, we should peddle back a little and reconsider the initial goals computers had: helping each of us understand, think, and create better. We should focus yet again on the individual and his or her priorities and well-being.