TITLE: In Praise of Usefulness AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 04, 2011 7:28 PM DESC: ----- BODY: In two recent entries [ 1 | 2 ], I mentioned that I had been recently reading Roger Rosenblatt's Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. Many of you indulge me my fascination with writers talking about writing, and I often see parallels between what writers of code and writers of prose and poetry do. That Rosenblatt also connects writing to teaching, another significant theme of my blog, only makes this book more stimulating to me. "Unless it moves the human heart" is the sort of thing writers say about their calling, but not something many programmers say. (The book title quotes Aussie poet A. D. Hope.) It is clearly at the heart of Rosenblatt's views of writing and teaching. But in his closing chapter, Rosenblatt includes a letter written to his students as a postscript on his course that speaks to a desire most programmers have for the lives' work: usefulness. To be great, he says, your writing must be useful to the world. The fiction writer's sense of utility may differ from the programmer's, but at one level the two share an honorable motive. This paragraph grabbed me as advice as important for us programmers as it is for creative programmers. (Which software people do you think of as you read it?)
How can you know what is useful to the world? The world will not tell you. The world will merely let you know what it wants, which changes from moment to moment, and is nearly always cockeyed. You cannot allow yourself to be directed by its tastes. When a writer wonders, "Will it sell?" he is lost, not because he is looking to make an extra buck or two, but rather because, by dint of asking the question in the first place, he has oriented himself to the expectations of others. The world is not a focus group. The world is an appetite waiting to be defined. The greatest love you can show it is to create what it needs, which means you must know that yourself.
What a brilliant sentence: The world is an appetite waiting to be defined. I don't think Ward Cunningham went around asking people if they needed wiki. He built it and gave it to them, and when they saw it, their appetite took form. It is indeed a great form of love to create what the world needs, whether the people know it yet or not. (I imagine that at least a few of you were thinking of Steve Jobs and the vision that gave us the Mac, iTunes, and the iPad. I was too, though Ward has always been my hero when it comes to making useful things I had not anticipated.) Rosenblatt tells his students that, to write great stories and poems and essays, they need to know the world well and deeply. This is also sound advice to programmers, especially those who want to start the next great company or revolutionize their current employers from the inside out. This is another good reason to read, study, and think broadly. To know the world outside of one's Ruby interpreter, outside the Javascript spec and the HTML 5.0, one must live in it and think about it. It seems fitting on this Labor Day weekend for us to think about all the people who make the world we live in and keep it running. Increasingly, those people are using -- and writing -- software to give us useful things. -----