February 28, 2019 4:29 PM

Ubiquitous Distraction

This morning, while riding the exercise bike, I read two items within twenty minutes or so that formed a nice juxtaposition for our age. First came The Cost of Distraction, an old blog post by L.M. Sacasas that reconsiders Kurt Vonnegut's classic story, "Harrison Bergeron" (*). In the story, it is 2081, and the Handicapper General of the United States ensures equality across the land by offsetting any advantages any individual has over the rest of the citizenry. In particular, those of above-average intelligence are required to wear little earpieces that periodically emit high-pitched sounds to obliterate any thoughts in progress. The mentally- and physically-gifted Harrison rebels, to an ugly end.

Soon after came Ian Bogost's Apple's AirPods Are an Omen, an article from last year that explores the cultural changes that are likely to ensue as more and more people wear AirPods and their ilk. ("Apple's most successful products have always done far more than just make money, even if they've raked in a lot of it....") AirPods free the wearer in so many ways, but they also bind us to ubiquitous distraction. Will we ever have a free moment to think deeply when our phones and laptops now reside in our heads?

As Sacasas says near the end of his post,

In the world of 2081 imagined by Vonnegut, the distracting technology is ruthlessly imposed by a government agency. We, however, have more or less happily assimilated ourselves to a way of life that provides us with regular and constant distraction. We have done so because we tend to see our tools as enhancements.

Who needs a Handicapper General when we all walk down to the nearest Apple Store or Best Buy and pop distraction devices into our own ears?

Don't get me wrong. I'm a computer scientist, and I love to program. I also love the productivity my digital tools provide me, as well as the pleasure and comfort they afford. I'm not opposed to AirBuds, and I may be tempted to get a pair someday. But there's a reason I don't carry a smart phone and that the only iPod I've ever owned is 1GB first-gen Shuffle. Downtime is valuable, too.

(*) By now, even occasional readers know that I'm a big Vonnegut fan who wrote a short eulogy on the occasion of his death, nearly named this blog after one of his short stories, and returns to him frequently.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General, Personal

February 24, 2019 9:35 AM


In a conversation with Tyler Cowen, economist John Nye expresses disappointment with the nature of discourse in his discipline:

The thing I'm really frustrated by is that it doesn't matter whether people are writing from a socialist or a libertarian perspective. Too much of the discussion of political economy is normative. It's about "what should the ideal state be?"
I'm much more concerned with the questions of "what good states are possible?" And once good states are created that are possible, what good states are sustainable? And that, in my view, is a still understudied and very poorly understood issue.

For some reason, this made me think about software development. Programming styles, static and dynamic typing, software development methodologies, ... So much that is written about these topics tells us what's the right the thing to do. "Do this, and you will be able to reliably make good software."

I know I've been partisan on some of these issues over the course of my time as a programmer, and I still have my personal preferences. But these days especially I find myself more interested in "what good states are sustainable?". What has worked for teams? What conditions seem to make those practices work well or not so well? How do teams adapt to changes in the domain or the business or the team's make-up?

This isn't too say that we can't draw conclusions about forces and context. For example, small teams seem to make it easier to adapt to changing conditions; to make it work with bigger teams, we need to design systems that encourage attention and feedback. But it does mean that we can help others succeed without always telling them what they must do. We can help them find a groove that syncs with them and the conditions under which they work.

Standing back and surveying the big picture, it seems that a lot of good states are sustainable, so long as we pay attention and adapt to the world around us. And that should be good news to us all.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Patterns, Software Development, Teaching and Learning