The Practical Idealist

Hoisted by their own Program

Hoisted by their own Program,

by Neil C. Olsen.

Petard_gros_1812 from Wikicomons 300xShakespeare in Hamlet memorably wrote, “For ‘tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petard”. A petard was a small bomb used in the sixteenth century to blow entryways into fortifications. I know how the engineer thought, when rising up on the unexpected explosion,  as he turned and fell to the ground. He thought he really should have picked a different profession.

I have been involved in programming and executing software since 1968. That year, someone donated a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8i mini-computer to my high school in Wilton Connecticut.  You had to program a “bootstrap” program into the magnetic core member, and then load a “fan tape” punched paper tape program which installed the operating system. Then you could turn on the teletype and load your own program by feeding the paper tape into the teletype. I fell in love with programming.

Accompanying the computer were bound volumes – about a dozen I recall – defining the assembly language, the interpretative language, and the compiled language available. I remember despairing of ever reading the whole set. To program you would type out a one inch wide perforated paper tape with up to eight holes across. If you punched all eight holes across the tape was vulnerable to breaking. You could “patch” the tape by gluing a piece over; you could also cut the tape and insert a small bit of programming in a few inches if you had made a mistake and didn’t want to re-punch a new tape. Hence the name “patch” to describe a short fix to a program.

I was sixteen. While my fellow students were engaging in the usual high-school social pursuits, I started a computer club.

When I went to college at RPI, one of top engineering colleges in America, I took a sudden and dramatic step down. They had only an IBM “mainframe” which you were not allowed near, you could only view through a locked glass door. You programmed it by typing punch cards, and handing them to data center employee, who would load them into a hopper. You then waited for an hour or more as the computer time shared you program with all the others. A fat wide blue-and white fan paper perforated report with guide holes in the side would print out – usually telling you that you had a bug. You would edit the program by typing new punch cards, and launch it again with another hour turn around. I spent hours and hours there. To this day I can’t abide Doritos and sweet Coke, as that was all that was available in the vending machines. Still, I thought there was too much to learn if only I could get behind the locked door.

FortranCardPROJ039 from WikipediaWhen I graduated in 1975, I went back to DEC mini-computers, but as I was earning money I only was focused on making a system, not indulging in the pursuit of programing happiness. Then at ITT’s corporate technology center I returned to mainframe programming in 1978, but I also coded in assembly on standalone emulators that were a bit like PCs. Around 1981, we hired a number of top level people from IBM, and heard rumors that they were making a general  purpose “personal computer”. As engineers, we scoffed at IBM and their toy computer. It had five inch floppy discs, and everyone knew that eight inch discs were more reliable. It had a pathetic “Quick-and-Dirty Operating System”  called DOS, when the engineer is of the computing world used something called CP/M.  So I purchased an APC computer with the fat floppy disks and CP/M OS. I was determined to learn the whole thing, and began reading the manual. I never did get very far into it before those IBM machines took over the personal computing world. This was my first lesson: clever marketing usually trumps good engineering.

Floppy disks 320px-Floppy_disk_2009_G1 from WikipediaBy the 1990s, personal computers seemed simple. The infoscape grew to include the internet. Information exploded. In 1995 I was working for a start-up that was building a network add-on system that allowed mobile phone users to send and receive a “short message”. Existing systems would handle five messages a second embedded in a $5M switch.  We had pioneered a system that could handle five thousand text messages a second using a high speed computer costing well under one tenth that. I recall meeting with the exalted VP of a very large wireless company based in New York. The man in charge of a wireless monopoly granted by the U.S. Government told me that no one would ever send such messages. Phones were for talking only.

I must admit, I sympathized. I looked down on those who lurked about in “chat rooms”, who thought the internet was for gossip, not information, and didn’t even know how to program.

By year 2000, every company had a web site. I had joined standards committees and was in a small way part of the successful drive to replace the expensive telephone network with low cost voice over IP. We succeeded so well, I didn’t have a job any longer in the much reduced Telco market.

In 2006, I opened a web site for my startup company, and used my old friends – a text editor and HTML code – to present information to customers and sales staff. I was programming a fairly simple HTML web site, with bits of java, php, and perl code, scripts that “compiled” into visual images and did functions so simple I would have been embarrassed to code it in 1968. I had to learn an FTP upload program, a text editor, a pdf converter, and how the hosting site worked,. The latter was the real problem: learning’s really terrible site management interface was a horror. If found myself for the first time actually calling for help. As on every help call they tried to sell me something, I was left feeling as if they had deliberately designed a bad interface so I would call. Still, if you wanted a clean simple web site, it was possible to set up one without a lot of effort and only a few phone calls to tech support. It still required special knowledge of programming.

By the mid 2000’s, social networks arose, with an implicit demand for using them. The expectation was that everyone had a web site. Better hosting sites that were faster, cheaper, and inexperienced users could build a web it. But you no longer programmed. You were a “user”. And every web site was different. You had to learn the procedures for each site all over again.

Around 2010, there was what I call an “icon rush”. Like the gold rush, thousands of people, hoping to be the next Google or Facebook, created sites you could to join. In fact, you had to join or you were not cool; by 2010 Google changed their search engine: they would degrade your index rank if you weren’t social. That means your corporate web site is merely a start, a door into the vast infospace. Learning a programming language, and editor, a file management system, and a handful of passwords in no longer enough. In 2012, I spent my 60th birthday changing all my passwords so that each was unique. I deleted the ones I no longer used. I had over 400 passwords. I had to have a presence on multiple sites on the net.

For most of 2013, I’ve also worked in a volunteer task for at Trinity Episcopal Church in  New Haven to upgrade their web site. I discovered that the world of 2006 had disappeared. No one programmed HTML. You created “content” using Content Management Systems that claim to make authoring web blogs/sites easy. And they do. After looking at five or six, and programming sites with three of them, I found WordPress to be the best: it was taking something like 70% market share, making it the modern Microsoft.

But I still needed to occasionally get into the HTML code level. So I had to learn a new system, and a new way of managing my files in addition to the old. I had to learn a graphic editor. Also, text and pictures are no longer enough. You need to make videos. I learned an audio editing program, and a video editing program. I proudly launched four videos. The learning was not generic, but product focused.

Nor did our work stop when the web site was designed. We first realized that the web site is not a content location, but a “portal” to those looking for information. You had to design the site entirely around the latest devices. You had to be smartphone and tablet friends. You had to be device agnostic, responsive, retina-ready, and use grid layouts on your web site. You had to choose a “theme”, the default layout designed by a programmer that offers a particular look and feel. There were over 1,500 themes to choose from. Then you chose “widgets”, small bits of plug-and-play code, that do specific functions, such a manage links, create button, display forms, etc. There were over 23,000 widgets in 2013.

When that is done you are not done. You no longer make a web site. You make a network of sites. You move content out of your site into many different sites. Each has to be learned. Each has to be managed. Each has to be exploited. You need to do this or you don’t exist: search engine optimization (SEO) now demands you have a strong blog and wide social network presence. You need to learn with some degree of expertise Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Tweeter, Flicker, YouTube, Livestream, Tumbler – as a start – plus spend your time commenting and “liking” community forums and content sites all over the internet.  You are never done.

I suddenly realized that my programming ability is being steadily discounted. I have been translated from a programmer to a user. Not only that, but technical knowledge is no longer necessary to survive in the new infoworld. What it praises and rewards is social skills. You want gossips. You want chatterers. You want uninformed opinions, “like” button-presses, and excessive digital socialization. You want daily updates, hourly notices, real time texting. Even our names for technical items have been hijacked. The short messages I helped make happen are now called twitters and sending is called texting.  Content is not called blogs, video is now called tubes, and the most popular content site of all is a “book” that largely consists of pictures of faces: Facebook.

The engineers have programmed themselves out of their creation. It is those non-technical classmates, the gossiping girls, team loving jocks, and class clowns in high school who rule the internet, not the nerds who started computer clubs. The old, fat or ugly once again, whatever their talents, are inferior to the photogenic. Creative skill and intelligences are nothing compared to winning the genetic lottery for looks. Building a web site requires not programming but “shopping” skills: picking the best 10 widgets among the 23,000 is a talent more suited to the mall rat than the engineer.

The cool ones again run things. Fashion, presentation, grooming, and presence dominate utility, content, process and knowledge. It is who you know, not what you know, that matters.  We have returned the world to high school.

And we built the system to make it so.



Note: All images are from Wikipedia Commons.

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