Life in Code - by Ellen Ullman

People imagine that programmers don’t like to talk because they prefer machines to people. This is not completely true. Programmers don’t talk because they must not be interrupted. This inability to be interrupted leads to a life that is strangely asynchronous with the one lived by other human beings. It’s better to send email than to call a programmer on the phone. It’s better to leave a note on the chair than to expect the programmer to come to a meeting. This is because the programmer must work in mind-time but the phone rings in real time. Similarly, meetings are supposed to take place in real time. It’s not just ego that prevents programmers from working in groups—it’s the synchrony problem. To synchronize with other people (or their representation in telephones, buzzers, and doorbells) can only mean interrupting the thought train. Interruptions mean certain bugs. You must not get off the train.

I’m an engineer for the same reason anyone is an engineer: a certain love for the intricate lives of things, a belief in a functional definition of reality. I do believe that the operational definition of a thing—how it works—is its most eloquent self-expression.

A certain amount of complexity-hiding is useful and inevitable. Yet, when we allow complexity to be hidden and handled for us, we should at least notice what we are giving up. We risk becoming users of components, handlers of black boxes that do not open or don’t seem worth opening. We risk becoming people who cannot really fix things, who can only swap components, work with mechanisms we can use but do not understand in crucial ways. This not-knowing is fine while everything works as we expected. But when something breaks or goes wrong or needs fundamental change, what will we do except stand helpless in the face of our own creations?

I fear for the world the internet is creating. Before the advent of the web, if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains, or move from one badly furnished room to another in a series of safe houses. Physical reality—the discomfort and difficulty of abandoning one’s normal life—put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches, and extreme political parties. But now, without leaving home, from the comfort of your easy chair, you can divorce yourself from the consensus on what constitutes “truth.” Each person can live in a private thought bubble, reading only those websites that reinforce his or her desired beliefs, joining only those online groups that give sustenance when the believer’s courage flags.