There’s a game called Universal Paperclips in which one plays the villain: a paperclip maximizer, or an AI whose purpose is to make as many paperclips as possible, at any expense. The result of this, should the thought experiment become real, would be our own quick death; the machine would want our matter for its own work.

Paperclip maximizers come to mind often, as someone who’s worked in the tech industry for more than a decade, and has nothing to show for it. I didn’t get rich. I didn’t change the world. I know approximately 47 programming languages, but who cares? I’m 34 years old and the vast majority of my time in this industry has been pure waste and an embarrassment.

There’s one thing I got from the tech industry. Although I developed the illness beforehand, my panic disorder really came into its own thanks to open-plan offices and startup health insurance. It didn’t help that, when I was finally on the mend in 2011, I joined Google and had a manager who provoked attacks for his own amusement. That was fun.

If I hadn’t gotten myself stuck in the tech industry, the condition would have fully remitted by now, if not several years ago. Instead, the fight has gone on for a decade, and I’m not fully out just yet.

So, my souvenir from the tech industry is, rather than some neat futuristic bauble, a defect in an ancient part of my brain, the amygdala.

When I grew up, in the 1980s, we learned about what technology might do one day: holiday lunar trips, robot servants, an end to illness, certainly an end to work except for the most rewarding kinds of it. And what have we actually achieved? Fucking Bitcoin. A 140-character President. Literal fake news. That’s what we have to show for ourselves.

As private-sector programmers, we’ve unemployed a lot of people: we’ve annihilated hundreds of millions of jobs. Some of these people got better jobs; many didn’t. We never cared when it was happening to other people, but now we have “Agile Scrum” and Jira and open-plan offices and the surveillance system we built… sits over us, its passive-management eye always watching.

In what we do, as private-sector programmers, where is the honor? There’s none. We are a failed tribe that has made rich people richer– even at our own expense. If we’re lucky, our work will be erased and we will be forgotten.

This may explain the Fermi Paradox. Perhaps there is a plateau of mediocrity at which, though a civilization could continue to innovate, it chooses not to. Perhaps it does not go the way of violence, but bored purposelessness. Perhaps we are not totally alone in the universe, but all those other supposedly intelligent civilizations are mired in thousands of years of user stories and TPS reports. Seems unlikely, right? Sure. But it’s even more absurd, if we could send a man to the Moon using 1969 computers, that we’re using supercomputers to run Jira and do “user stories” in 2017.


16 thoughts on “Lost

    • bitcoin is ok, but it is not going to cure diseases, advance science, and send people to other planets. We want to eventually transcend money with technologies instead of making it virtual.

      We should have achieved far more than bitcoin by now. We should have cured cancer and aging by now.

  1. Well.. human beings are a pretty pathetic representation of what is possible in the universe. I wrote a post about that in 2010..


    Anyway.. as far your panic disorder is concerned- have you considered using Chlorpheniramine. Yes, that it is correct. That particular anti-histamine, you see, was one of the two starting points for development of SSRI-type drugs.

    As far as its efficacy for anxiety disorders is concerned, it about what you would expect from a generic SSRI. It just happens to have a shorter half-life, which is actually more desirable for occasional short term (2-3 weeks) use.

    • At my last job, I had a problem where my co-workers and I were encouraged to stab each other with ice picks. Often this would lead to so much blood loss I was having a hard time staying conscious throughout the workday.

      Fortunately, a random stranger on the internet suggested a good blood clotting agent, and now I can make it through most days without too many crises.

  2. I transitioned from working as a computer operator (Univac 1108) to programming one of the ‘new fangled’ PDP-11 mini-computers in 1978. There was no such thing as a personal computer or smart phone. I witnessed the arrival of the Intel 8080, closely followed by the first IBM PC, which itself was superseded by the amazing (at the time) IBM PC-XT. Anyone remember the Apple Macintosh or Lisa? My first home computer was a Gateway 486 with an unheard-of 680MB storage from a pair of 340MB drives. It was the fastest PC when I bought it but tech was advancing so fast that by the time it arrived at my home a faster, cheaper model was already available. Gateway customer support refunded $150 to my credit card because I was still in the first 30 days of ownership. My first home printer was an HP Laserjet that cost $1400. I now have a color laser HP (with wireless) that cost under $300.

    So what? My point is that, at least initially, technology was advancing so rapidly that it was (at least for me) impossible to keep up. Dreams of what tech would accomplish were rampant and lavish. Eventually reality set it. People got tired of paying out the wazoo to have the latest/greatest. Tech advancements became incrementally smaller as the realities of demand vs supply finally caught up. Companies exist to turn a profit and the grunts rarely share in the treasure to the extent of the owners/high level employees. There’s nothing wrong with this – if you want more rewards climb the corporate ladder until you get to your desired level. I developed software because that’s what I loved doing and because it provided me with a nice (enough) standard of living. I learned contentment – I loved my craft and it provided for my needs and many of my wants. Older, experienced developers commanded a higher compensation for their knowledge and experience. They also served as mentors to younger developers who wanted to learn the craft correctly – with the ability to think critically and develop systems that solved problems.

    What killed my career was the insane drive to do things very quickly and ‘on the cheap’. Many of the younger developers at my last job didn’t want to learn how to think – they wanted me to provide code snippets that solved the issue so they could close a story and move on to the next issue (sprint points anyone?). Elegant solutions were considered a negative because you needed to understand the underlying technology to implement/maintain them. Special skills or knowledge was also bad because it didn’t fit the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach to developers. Management was delighted to finally have absolute control over those lazy, overpaid developers. Methodologies (I use the term loosely) like scrum/agile became insanely popular and thrived in the new environment. Software quality and employee retention have (and are) suffered. I was finally caught in a ‘reduction in force’ that targeted mostly older, higher paid developers. It was hard not to be bitter but I have found retirement to (finally) be quite rewarding. The blog on scrum/agile was a major factor in my recovery because I found many, many other people who had been treated (and reacted) as I had. I wasn’t crazy after all. My focus has shifted, by necessity, to investing and I was surprised to discover that I could generate enough of a cash flow from my prematurely ended savings to maintain our lifestyle. I have more projects than I have time (and money) to finish in my remaining lifetime.

    Sometimes you don’t know where the road leads until you reach the destination. My .02.

    • “It was hard not to be bitter but I have found retirement to (finally) be quite rewarding.”

      What stands out in my mind is the trainwreck that Millennials and later-wave Xers will face when they get too old to get jobs on the market, but don’t have enough savings to retire. (Trust me, even if you do everything right, it’s almost impossible to save unless you become an executive. The “buy a house in California/Manhattan in 1978” option closed out long ago.) And most Millennials say, “That’s fine, I guess I’ll have to work till I’m 80.” The problem is that retirement was *never* optional. Only about 5% choose to retire; most are forced into it by age discrimination. They still want to work at 55/60/70, but literally can’t get appropriate jobs.

      I think that “.38 Caliber Retirement” is going to be fairly common among my generation. (I’d like to discourage that. Retirees are a powerful political bloc, and we should keep our numbers up. Better to fix this country late than never.) You’re going to see people reach 65 never having had positive net worth; student loans, then credit card debt to cover spells of technology-induced unemployment, an uninsured medical problem here or there, then a miserable twilight.

  3. Jira, yay, the monster from what, 2003? that slows even high-end machines down to a crawl. Apparently producing a simple HTML form in an efficient language like Java is a difficult thing to do, who knew?

    • Jira is still around and it’s still terrible. It’s fine as a bug tracker, but it’s micromanagement crack and that’s why it sells, in spite of its falling down when used as anything other than a bug tracker.

    • Deep learning is intellectually interesting but I don’t see it fundamentally fixing the core problems of this industry. As for AI, most of the work is corporate data science which has a terrible culture.

    • I’d be more excited about it if people actually memorized the equations and the math before they ran their mouth about it. Going to these conferences I’m lucky if I run into anyone who is familiar with even the basics of machine learning. Having studied this stuff and worked on it for a long, long time, I feel like a samurai fighting butterflies. Doesn’t matter how much I know either – as I get older, I’ll get fired for one reason or another.

  4. Kind of reminds me of the scene at the beginning of “Last Temptation of Christ”, where Jesus, as a carpenter, is building a cross. We work as middlemen for the cost-cutters, the people who want maximum unemployment (and maximum consumption at the same time, so how does that work?), and suddenly they turn on us and our industry turns to shit. I’ve noticed, in 17 years working as a developer, how timid offices have become. Around 2000, when I started, there was a refreshing rowdiness to developers – we played pranks on each other, threw things at each other, cheerfully talked trash. Now, any office I walk into is full of quiet little people trying to avoid attention – except no, because they’re being talked at all the time by middle management.

    • In 2000, it was a mix of ages (20s to 60s) and backgrounds and people had a sense of humor and perspective. Developers might have been rowdier, but there was less of the extreme peak obnoxiousness (e.g. sexual harassment).

      2017-era developers (who get put out to pasture by 35, and know it) are a lot more timid in the face of management, but a lot more toxic when the surveillance systems (which Agile and open-plan offices are part of) aren’t watching… hence the sexual harassment problem.

      • Yes. One thing that disgusted me about mainstream office jobs in the late 90s was their extreme passive-aggressiveness and pettiness. People hated their work and hated each other. In the early 2000’s, tech didn’t have this. You could be black, white, Indian, Asian, gay, straight, man or woman, 20 or 60 (that was the profile of my office back then) and it didn’t matter so long as the ship was floating. The rowdiness was never cruel or unfriendly – no one ever resorted to racial insults or sexual aggression – that was a line no one crossed. And this was a conpany that built text filters for porn sites to keep people from having to see them! I remember one time we all went out to lunch and somehow, there was a guy from another company eating at our table – but we accepted him and talked to him. Management always viewed this attitude as a problem, and was always trying to start little side-teams who were more obedient, but those side teams always joined us. That doesn’t happen today. Now, it’s just quiet, mousy little people trying to get one another fired, trying to show the boss that the other team members aren’t smart enough. It’s horrible.

  5. Pingback: Quotebag #121 | In defense of anagorism

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