Blind

BlindedWherever I worked, I usually tested the hierarchy’s patience with my ‘going out of scope’. It started in secondary school, actually – I remember the day – when I had gone off wandering outside of the Chemistry curriculum (but within the textbook).

I’d been doing my own notes independent of the class – things that I found interesting. I didn’t understand a curriculum. I was just having fun learning, and so I had foolishly thought that my work would be appreciated when I showed my work to the teacher.

He wasn’t impressed, particularly since I wasn’t doing too well in his class. He wanted me to focus on the curriculum – but no one had given me a curriculum, they’d given me a book. He told me I would continue to get bad grades in chemistry until I focused on the curriculum.

What we both didn’t know at the time is that I didn’t care about the grade, I cared about learning stuff. This could have been a pivotal moment for me in formal education, but it wasn’t. That would come almost 2 years later when I decided I needed to pass their tests.

Similar stories followed me throughout my careers. I was never interested in what society thought I knew, I was always interested in what I could learn. At first, there was little benefit, but later on in my careers in Medicine (USN), software engineering (all over) and writing it came in very handy because I not only knew things that others didn’t, I also didn’t think like others did.

Since I wasn’t interested in their prizes, I didn’t have to play by their rules. And since I didn’t play the ratchet game of educational landmarks, I didn’t limit myself and didn’t stop studying things after I got to a certain point. So many people languish, letting the fluid education they have become concrete, set in stone.

In solving problems, this became my greatest strength – that I was immune to siloed knowledge. It drove managers and CTOs nuts at times, having a software engineer wandering around and talking to users and people who supported software, an unheard of thing in modern software development, but well within normalcy in the elder practice. Know the users, know the uses. Know how it’s used, know how it might break.

Plan for everything.

But sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

As a software engineer, I usually found myself in trouble with management because I was always doing things ‘out of scope’. I’d wander around at times, talking to people who supported or used software I was working on for a few different reasons. At one of the last companies I worked for, I was told repeatedly that upper management saw me wandering from my desk too much.

My Director at the time thought I was unfocused, and yet every project I was given was done on time despite my wanderings outside the building or over to other departments. He wasn’t wrong, he just wasn’t right, and in retrospect I think he wrote that to pacify upper management. Either way, I didn’t really care, but saying that was a great way to make sure I got a crappy raise.  I ended up getting a crappy raise anyway, but in a way that was my fault for not negotiating harder.

What had happened was pretty straightforward. The company had some complex software systems, and when I started the then most senior software engineer was on his last week. I learned as much about the systems as I could over that week, trailing him, getting to understand the big picture of the spaghetti code that interns had written. The few with true specialized knowledge held onto it as their job security.

I learned a lot in that week, but not enough. Nobody who was interested in solving the problems actually knew anything, nothing was documented, and so I began writing things down as I had been taught as a young Software Engineer at Honeywell. Some of it was accused of being wrong by those whose job security was threatened, and my response was that they should fix the Wiki. They never did, of course.

Things changed within the company, part politics, partly near revolt in the Software Department (another article there!), and so structures that were once fluid became siloed. This isn’t as much of an issue as people might think if people actually document what they do appropriately, and it’s shared with the department overall – so there were problems that arose because the software complexity, and entropy, had gotten to critical mass – and problems arose that required someone to be outside of the silos.

At around that time, I was asked to a meeting about some issues and I stayed quiet the entire time. One of the company’s officers asked me to stay after the meeting, and my Director was there too. He asked me, “Why didn’t you say anything?”

So I explained to him that since everyone was off doing their own things, and that I had no insight into how things were actually changing in the software across multiple teams, I felt blinded. Where once I had a working knowledge of the systems, I no longer had it because I wasn’t able to see what was changing, and how it would affect the systems on a larger level.

There was a silence. Nothing changed. And after a few system screwups that brought the entire system down, caused by undocumented and sometimes ill advised changes in the code by people, including myself (mine were documented)… I gave up.

I knew we were working blind. However, people who had never peered behind their version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave couldn’t see, and because they couldn’t see, they didn’t care.

Innovation vs. Specialization

Solutions KeyPeople look at things through their perception and what their experience have taught them.

We live in an era of specialization, where people are expected to continuously refine their skills in a smaller and smaller area of expertise. We sacrifice width for depth, thinking that more specialized knowledge will somehow allow us to innovate ourselves out of dilemmas.

Innovation typically doesn’t come from people who specialize in only one thing. For instance, the Theory of Evolution is known to have been introduced by Charles Darwin – but very few people know that without the help of James Gould, Darwin would not have found out the 13 species of bird obtained in the Galapagos Islands were related. Gould was an expert, Darwin not so much.

Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity upturned physics and the world not because he had studied Physics, but because he went beyond what was taught and came up with his own theory.

When you look at any true innovation, you’ll likely find that someone with enough knowledge of different fields came up with ideas that solved problems, be they world views in science to implementations of technology.

Unfortunately, there is no direct reward for that.

Society Systems

Don't Panic.

This is about technology and society – which is really about society these days. Bear with me.

The universe we know is full of systems, we as a society increasingly understand them. There are rules to them – real rules – that we’ve begun exploring through science. That’s all very exciting, but society isn’t good at listening to scientists. What we are good at is making our own systems, and we expect them to be followed as if there is some natural order to things.

man wondering if he could pee between the pillars

Born here?
That’s how we define you.

Look a certain way? That’s how we define you.

Believe in some form of deity, or not?
That’s how we define you.

And so on, and so on.

We end up shadowy figures of the biases of others. In an increasingly digital world, where our data is analyzed, our shadows become more blurry yet that blur also defines us as it fits certain fuzzy categories we don’t know about.

This all worked out really well when everyone was born in the same place, looked a certain way and believed in some form of deity, among many other things. Anyone not like was from somewhere else, and was not to be trusted. The concept of immigration was a matter seen as invasion, more or less. Some people still think this way. That’s not the topic at hand. And no, it’s not about branding the systems as bad, either.

They are what they are.
The question is whether they should be what they are now.
That’s what people are largely upset about right now.
It’s largely what they will be upset about in the future.

second babel tower

These systems were seen as necessary at the time. I wasn’t there at the time, and it’s highly unlikely you were there at the time.

We learn about what was wrong with the systems and we have opinions, largely because how we view the world changes.

We disagree with many of the systems now – some more than others. Largely, though, we are victims of what our forebears thought was possible.

Change comes from tossing at least a part of this framework of possibility aside in a haphazard sort of way, plodding toward what we believe is progress – what we hope is progress – but we don’t really know. We like to think we know because it makes us feel grounded, like we somehow matter. Maybe we do. Is it so horrible if we didn’t? Human nature says, “Yes”.

The world is accelerating now in profound ways. Networks pump information, if we drill down into them we find the rhythms to be of a very human nature. When people wake up. When people get off work. It’s all a framework of our own creation.

It’s a framework built so that we can break out of the old frameworks – not purposefully, but it ended up that way. The truth is that no one really had an idea. There were some hopes.

There were also a few who thought it all a novelty. There still are.

Subtly, across generations, we have come a long way – and technology is now driving us to go further. At a societal level, people aspire to be driven by technology.

Who drives the technology?

The people who make the frameworks that people use.

What drives them? Are they trying to make the world a better place?
Who are they trying to make the world a better place for?

Who stymies the technology? The people who make the frameworks that people have used and have begun to feel trapped by.

And all the while, everyone is coloring in lines that someone else drew because society doesn’t like change to happen too fast.

And so, slowly, we build new systems in this evolving mechanism we call society.

We are society.

The Framework Escape

Escape to nowhereWhen we read, we enter a world that someone has created and make it our own. It’s not our world. No matter how hard people will themselves into these worlds, no matter how well they think they fit them like gloves, they are not their worlds – they are the worlds of the writer, the one who dared architect a framework of thought that can guide a willing mind into creating images of a world not their own… that may, sometimes, look almost like the world the writer envisioned.

Textbooks are much the same of course, and texts of a more spiritual nature… they are all frameworks. To create a new framework is a daunting task – to try to be original is almost impossible in a world that constantly regurgitates ideas that sell.

Writers, it is rumored, like to eat, and appreciate a roof over their head. Some even say that they appreciate wearing clothing, though no one can seem to agree on what writers should wear – particularly writers. All of these things cost in the framework we all live in, and so there are two main types of writers: Those who are read, and those who aren’t.

To highlight this, please name only one author you do not know.

I rest my case.

And so, to be popular, it’s not unexpected that a writer would copy a framework – and then, it’s not even their framework. In the mind of a software engineer, it’s object re-use – different attributes, but the same object. This is fair game.

Book stores are filled with unoriginal ideas; trust me: I have become more and more disappointed over the years in bookstores as I look for original minds expressing themselves. Of course, I have read tens of thousands of books by now – willingly! – and so it’s harder to read something ‘new’. Once you see that object with all the different attributes, you know underneath it’s the same object.

It gets harder to stretch the mind with new ideas when the same old ones simply change their clothing now and then. Some even change gender – and these days, without intending to offend anyone – there are so many genders. When I grew up there were only 3 around me (most people only recognized 2).

Technology, business… pretty much the same object re-use concept. It’s boring. Everyone is out there building better mousetraps, and yet no one seems to know what to do with all the mice.

In my lifetime, the global population has doubled. This means that the diversity of the planet as far as humans go has risen exponentially. And yet, everyone reads the same books (if they bother), watches the same movies and television shows, listens to the same music…

And in a world of such wealth in diversity, it’s so hard to find originality. It’s out there, of course, but it’s certainly hard to break out of the algorithmic frameworks social media has been building oh so quietly for such a short period of time.

The Lost B Sides Of Our Lives

VINYLVinyl. Some audiophiles still say that it’s the best way to listen to music as they don their rubber gloves, pull their records out of the cardboard holders (plastic removed to avoid warping of the vinyl), carefully placing the record on the turntable, adjusting the speed for a 45 (single) or a 78 (album) post WW II, and 33 RPM later on for albums.

Today, the MP3 reigns supreme – a compressed version of the music where the frequencies are kept only to that which the average human ear hears. Yet there was a time before this, a time before the 8-track tapes and later cassettes and the then ubiquitous Walkman cassette players, before compact discs (CDs) (Hat tip to Valdis Krebs on his correction through LinkedIn).

In the house I grew up in, a Sansui amplifier and tuner was the core of the sound system – 2 Technics turntables, a reel-to-reel system, and a dual Technics cassette deck with Dolby recording and playback ability. When alone, the wooden floors vibrated as only speakers made in the 1970s would make them. Every Friday, Patrick and I would look over the Billboard Top 100 to watch the trends, and I would go off and buy some 45s at the local record store.

I learned early on that what I liked wasn’t always popular. With music slower to come by than it is today, I’d end up flipping the record over to hear the other single that came with the record. A great example of this was the B side of ‘Shout’ by Tears for Fears: The Big Chair. A mixing dream, really.

I’d end up exploring the work of artists other than what was popular. Sometimes it was crap, something that the recording company chose out of their discography that didn’t even make it onto an album, and sometimes not.

We don’t do that anymore. I’m not even sure that many people did it in the first place, daring to spend the time to see if they liked the song, but I do know that at least some hit songs came from B-sides. You can read about some here, and some others here where you can listen to themThink songs like, “You can’t always get what you want” (Rolling Stones) and “Revolution” (The Beatles).

In an odd sort of way, we were allowed to explore the music of artists through their detritus on the B-sides of albums – the stuff that publishers ‘threw away’, not wanting to give a free hit single away with another. And yet, some of their greatest mistakes are treasures – some popular, some not, the listener deciding what was good or not simply by flipping a record over and checking.

Fast forward to today.

The Internet brought us the ability to get music like never before. I’d like to think most of us legally buy music, I’m certain at least some of us download without paying some service or publishing company. Artists in some cases have bypassed the middlemen in this, allowing us to purchase directly from them through websites. Some even make their music available for free here and there.

But the services, just like yesteryear, are about maximizing profit. There are no more B-sides; we are bombarded with things that are algorithmically decided for us as we stream music. Just as on social networks our digital shadow – what we do online – is used to decide what we see, so it is with our music. Alternative – how can something be alternative when it becomes mainstream? – is even decided for us. We are less consumers now, maybe, than we were before the Internet in that there is no conversation (hat tip to the Cluetrain Manifesto), decisions about what we get are decided not even by other human beings but by statistical and heuristic analysis of our data. We are, in the eyes of algorithms, what we were, and not what we can be – never-mind what we should be.

Generations have passed having never flipped over a vinyl record, having never read something not decided for them…. we are become the algorithms of our algorithms, the ‘tools of our tools’ as Thoreau might write today.

Unless we find the B-sides of our lives.

Hedgehog 2.0.

927A9660.jpgSchopenhauer wrote about the Hedgehog’s Dilemma:

One cold winter’s day, a group of hedgehogs crowded together for warmth so as not to freeze to death. However, the pain from the mass of spines soon caused them to separate again, until the cold forced them back together, and thus they continued, moving from one source of discomfort to another, until they found a distance that allowed them to live but without the benefits of the full warmth of community.

To build on this, the longer a hedgehog stays out of the community, the longer the quills. It may not have started as a misanthrope but rather an explorer, maybe it was shunned because it was different, but over time without the issue of intimacy to contend with, it grows longer quills which makes it a misanthrope even when it tries not to be.

There are entire generations growing up more comfortable with a cold flat screen than other humans at this point.

Let that sink in.

Suffering Tortured Networks

connectors twistedThe world twists us, with all the cultural inertia we inherit, with all the cultural inertia those within our spheres inherit, torturing our realities into what is sometimes hard to recognize. Social networks magnify this beyond our geographical familiarity, connecting us with those we would not otherwise interact with – an improbable thought for those who have grown up with this interconnected world, a sometimes nostalgic thought for those who existed before the Internet came into being. Algorithms control what we see, shoving us into the echo chambers of our choosing, dooming us to a perception of agreement.

This was all lauded at one time as a great democratization of information, of how it would change the world in ways that would be popular – and in this, it ended up being true where consensus will make fake news possible if only because people lack critical thinking skills that somehow escaped insertion in the indoctrination of formal education systems. Pieces of paper abound by people who followed a straight path and who did no more, who know nothing but what got them past batteries of multiple choice questions and glorified essays on topics graded sometimes with critical thought, sometimes not.

Processed like cheese, graduates come out homogenized and appropriately boring – perhaps, through good fortune, they become insightful in the areas they have studied in, but this does not translate to being insightful in the useful things in life because nobody seems to think life is important enough to talk about outside of the speakeasys of what social contact happens outside of formal systems.

We watch feeds of people arguing, jumping to conclusions, sharing things with catchy headlines that they did not deign to read the substance of. Reading to argue, emotion begets emotion and rationality is left behind. This scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey immediately comes to mind:

Given a new tool for communication, we seem pretty intent with beating each other to death over differences of opinion, the meek becoming exactly what they hated in others and unable to see it in themselves. Good intentions abound, right actions are lost in reactions to reactions to reactions to reactions… so much so that no one actually remembers the actions that started it.

Our tortured social networks have a guided evolution this way, marketing wanting to sell people things that they want on pages that people are more likely to visit because they agree with. Fights are good business on the Internet; more advertising impressions.

And now we see that the democratization that the Internet brought us magnified our social faults more than our ability to affect positive change. Or is it not too late? Can we untwist these networks?

Perhaps we’re just not ready for our own technology.