A Poor Workman Blames His Tools

Anyone who works in software development, as I do, knows that technological determinism is a crock.

Technological determinism is that creed which says that our tools shape us or that, as Thoreau put it, we are "the tools of our tools." In other words, the world is the way it is because of technology. Rather than having created the railroad, television or the computer to serve our needs, we are the way we are because of what these things have done to us.

Technological determinism is the reification of technology. Because we love our tools, we assign them magical properties, which simultaneously let us off the hook for our own actions. The tool has been well analyzed as an extension of the human mind or body, but poorly analyzed as an excuse. Blaming our technology for what we are is the moral equivalent of the Twinkie defense.

In writing about the Holocaust, I described how technology permitted the spreading of responsibility across members of a hierarchy, and further allowed the actor to stand remote from his act. The fact that technology permits us to kill people at a distance, however, makes no moral difference; it does not detract one jot from the fact that it is we who have killed. It is, as the law says, a "distinction without a difference".

One of the essential experiences of software development is that of trying to introduce a methodology, and more generally, a software development process, to people who do not want one. The human mind is stony ground indeed for the introduction of innovations. The hacker mentality--which is the human mentality--leads us too frequently to improvise a solution without having studied the requirements. Along comes a salesman and offers you a package that will allow you to do RAD--rapid application development. Now you are definitively relieved from ever having to learn the requirements, because you can "rapid prototype" instead, which is a hit and miss way of finding the requirements by developing systems you can change instantly when the client shakes his head.

Anyone who has fooled around with RAD has learned a couple of things. RAD is to a sportscar as old fashioned means of software development are to a tricycle. The first lesson of RAD is that you can get into trouble a lot faster, and hurt yourself worse, in a sportscar than you can on a tricycle. Lesson number two: if you don't crash the project entirely, you will discover that the promise of rapid prototyping is tantamount to telling the purchaser of a sportscar that he will not need maps, because at eighty miles an hour he can explore the whole city much faster and find what he is looking for. The lesson of RAD--of all technology--is that you can get to your goal much faster, or get into trouble much faster, with more powerful tools. Its all up to you.

What is inadmissable is the spectacle of hackers lying in the wreckage of a software project, moaning amidst the shards, "Our powerful tools did this to us." People who take this way out deserve to be slapped. Each of us conducts a dialog with a tool before picking it up: Am I ready for you? When we get into trouble, it is not usually because we did not ask, but because we lied to ourselves.

Folk wisdom says, of software projects and much else, "If you don't take the time to do it right, you'll take the time to do it over." The speed of RAD, like the speed of a sportscar, is a strange excuse, a deflection away from the fact that we do not understand the job and towards the excitement of the speed itself. Being able to advance towards the destination at 600 miles per hour doesn't make it less important to study where you are going.

The promise of RAD is, in fact, the conman promise of all technology: you will do the job cheaper, faster and better. The sage replies, pick any two. Select almost any book on RAD off the shelf, and it will promise all three.

Most sentences in which humanity is the object can be rephrased so it is also the subject. "Lightning struck us," may be an exception, but it is very rarely that lightning really strikes us. "Our tools did us in" is our way of saying that we undercut ourselves. "Television changes us" is a strange substitution for "we changed ourselves." In Rebels Against the Future, Kirkpatrick Sale quotes Friedrich Engels describing Manchester after industrialization:

At the bottom flows, or rather stagnates, the Irk, a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse, which it deposits on the shallower right bank....Above the bridge are tanneries, bonemills, and gasworks, from which all drains and refuse find their way into the Irk, which receives further the contents of all the neighboring sewers and privies.

"And yet," said a businessman, after listening to Engels complain of the city's filthiness, "there is a great deal of money made here; good morning, sir." And this is the final word on technological determinism. We live in shit when we are ready to, and when we want to, we clean it up again. In The Silence of the Lambs, agent Starling, attempting to persuade the psychopathic Dr. Lecter to take a personality inventory test, asked if he did not care to understand what had happened to him. "Nothing happened to me," Lecter replied. "I happened." That "I happened" involved a recognition of truth of which most of us are incapable: Lecter moved himself up in the sentence from object to subject, while most of us are content to drift downstream instead.

Historians of technology are fond of printing the designs of Hero of Alexandria, who described a forerunner of the steam engine in antiquity. Men were not ready for such tools, and it was not picked up until the eighteenth century. Technology results from a combination of individual human inventiveness and statistical probability; one cannot say with certainty that James Watt will be, but across the mass of time one can confidently predict that there will be many James Watts. Humanity throws off several such natures to invent, and many more to improve, then takes to its bosom that for which it is now ready, and which will bring the conditions which it craves or (like the filth of Manchester) which constitute an acceptable sacrifice for the money to be made.

Once we have stopped reifying our tools, we are forced to acknowledge that technological failures occur not because our tools ran away with us, but because we ran away with ourselves. Putting aside for now the possibility that we secretly wish to die, one possibility remains: when we question our tools, "are we ready for you," we answer the question ourselves, based on false optimism and self-delusion. Sociobioligist Robert Trivers acknowledges that self-deception may be an evolutionarily successful strategy, in that humans "readily create entire belief systems with self-serving biases, and the more skillfully these self-serving components are hidden from both the self and others, the more difficult it will be to counter them." In other words, humanity is like the cartoon character who runs over the cliff, but will never fall so long as he does not look down.

Everyone has had an adventure in which he or she accomplished the impossible, because of ignorance of the limitations. But, as we all eventually learn, a strategy of self-deception is no substitute for knowing the truth. Clarity always provides a good basis for judgment, while self deception only works until it abruptly fails. Because there is no clarity, there is no way to perceive the line until it is too late. Believing that you are a coordinated and masterful devil may allow you to juggle the wine bottles and even pull the tablecloth out without disaster, but when you dance on the window-ledge you will discover your inflated opinion only when the concrete, fifty feet below, breaks your skull to tell you so. If there were a God, we should pray to Him to lead us only into recoverable errors. Fifty centuries ago, a carelessly thrown spear could have no consequences affecting the species, but today a careless spear can end the world.

The unshackling of technological from moral progress, in fact the unshackling of technology from responsibility, has made us into incredibly powerful children. Morally, we are certainly not less than we were, but we are not more. Humans knew as much about themselves, about morality, in Plato's time as today. All that has changed since then is our ability to engineer the world; our ability to engineer ourselves--a task for which there is no technique of mass production, but which each of us as artisan must perform upon ourselves--is as dim as it was then.

If we do not reify our tools, if we ask the question "are we ready for you?" before picking each one up, and if we answer it honestly, then sometimes the answer will be no, we are not ready. This is the greatest challenge of our race. What will we do, when we see we are not ready? This is itself the ultimate tragedy of the commons. Our collective way of answering the question is uncertain. As long as technology is primarily the province of capitalism, the answer will always be, we will do it anyway, because there is no law preventing us and we may make money from it. As long as there are multiple governments on earth, the answer will be, we must do it because someone else will if we don't. As long as there is bureaucracy and the diffusion of responsibility, the answer will be, our job is to do it and someone else's is to worry about the consequences. When it comes to things that need to be done, the environmentalist's credo, Think globally, act locally, is effective. But when it comes to things that need not to be done, it breaks down, because the solution then requires that everyone acting locally also refrain. And then we are acting globally.

A little more mistrust of our own capabilities is called for, along with mutuality and good faith. Easy to say, hard to implement. The human race might come along more slowly, but more safely, if it behaved like Ransome of the bad heart in Joseph Conrad's The Shadow-Line:

I listened to him going up the companion stairs cautiously, step by step, in mortal fear of starting into sudden anger our common enemy it was his hard fate to carry consciously within his faithful breast.