Sunday, January 22, 2012

Q: What do programmers and plumbers have in common?

A: Both make the world a better place in which to live.

I've been captivated by programming and software since I wrote my first spreadsheet formula back in the mid-eighties. Despite the complexity of languages to which I have evolved, for me, programming is a compositional act in which the lines of code are more akin to musical phrases than 'just-the-facts' morsels of an instruction set. That I can put them all together and make something that works is still pretty remarkable. That it turned out that I could make living from it is nothing short of amazing. That my code has made a difference for the better is the ultimate reward.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that coding is anesthetic. When you are in the throes of getting your stuff to work, you are completely focused on the abstract game of logical pick-up-sticks that you’ve made for yourself. Nothing else is noticed. Nothing else matters. It’s just you and the code; no food, no sleep, no kids. The state of the universe is of little concern.

Ten years ago I was of the belief that if all the coders in the world understood the awesome power we held and could unite under a common vision, we could create a place completely free of the ills that plague mankind. Turns out that our common vision is acute and episodic. It takes a lot to provoke us, but once provoked, we do act, as shown by our recent reaction to SOPA and PIPA.

Still, at the end of it all, it seemed as if we considered ourselves to be more like civilization’s plumbers rather than its guardians.  I had more than casual contempt for programmers that spent a lifetime learning the ins and outs of new techniques and products for no other purpose than to enhance one’s technical prowess in order to be the smartest person in the room. I was mad that those less versed in the complexities of the coding life, civilians -- for lack of a better term -- were articulating the Big Vision for the Planet and getting the attention due to the people that actually made the world go ‘round. My thinking was that the only action that mattered was the Big Action, that a gesture that was not big enough to get the attention of CNBC, Twitter or Slashdot, was an effort wasted.

I was wrong.

Today I understand the power of humility. Today I understand that plumbers are the true guardians of civilization. Being able to keep the sewerage from contaminating the water supply is probably a first order indicator of a civilized society.

Everyday hundreds of thousands of people sit down in a front of computers to write code that makes the world work. True, some of those people try to make the world work not-so-well. But, for the most part, those slinging the bits are good folks, with good intentions. Does it matter that many are doing so in a dream-like dance between the human mind and the artificial? Dunno. I do like to think that there is a certain advantage to being aware of one’s self and one’s situation. But, ‘so what?’, if it's otherwise.  The important thing is that the code allows the information to flow, uncontaminated and continuously to everybody, because a civilization without water and without information is no civilization at all.