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Shady Illuminations

Anti-social Software

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  John confronts his inner nerd, who turns out to be just as misanthropic as his outer nerd.  

It’s contrarian to argue with success, which is an excellent reason for doing it.

Apple’s I'm a Mac/I’m a PC commercials are highly watchable, but I say they fail at what should be their sole purpose: promoting Apple. The character we’re supposed to identify with is less engaging than the character we’re supposed to laugh at (“PC”). In the commercials, “PC” is Lou Costello, “Apple” is Bud Abbott. Apple is Rowan to PC’s Martin, or Martin to PC’s Lewis. PC is Tommy, Apple is Dick; PC is Cheech, Apple is Chong. You get the point: PC is more interesting, gets all the good lines, and stays in our minds after the commercial is over. The ads are successful, I guess, but what they’re successful at is getting us to identify with a PC.

At least those of us who identify with John Hodgman.

John Hodgman is so successful in the role of PC partly because he’s a gifted comedian, and partly because the role isn’t that much of a stretch. Like John Wayne, whom he resembles in no other respect, Hodgman mainly plays himself. He’s a nerd.

It’s because he’s a gifted comedian (and writer) and because he really is a nerd that he was able to pull off that highly complex performance at the Radio & TV Correspondents’ Dinner roast of President Obama. You know, proving that Barack Obama is our first nerd President, then undoing his own argument with hints that Obama might actually be a jock. (“Despite his Spockish calm and gangly frame, the President is known to dabble in sports... and not just bowling, but the hard stuff. What they call ‘basketsball’.”)

It was a tour de force performance. It demonstrated Hodgman’s comedic genius and pretty much spiked any suspicion that his nerdiness is just a role. Hodgman is a nerd, a math geek, a wimp. You just know that bullies kicked sand in his face at the beach when he was a teenager. Heck, listening to his weedy, nasal voice, I want to kick sand in his face, and I don’t even like the beach.

But I found myself getting more and more uncomfortable watching the performance, because it brought to the surface some of the creepy misgivings I have about the direction of software development today. Because in an uncertain world, I hew to the eternal verities: software developers are social misfits and users are lusers.

Excel Is a Database. Deal with It.

Apparently all software is social now. As usual, I must have been hanging out in the parking lot when the announcement was made. I have to say, it would have bemused me to hear that announcement. I am about half-bemused now, because nerds don’t do social.

Nerds who develop software (but I repeat myself) do deal with people, of course. They even deal with users, if only remotely. Because you have to, don’t you? If you make any attempt at all to make software that is really used, you have to spend time in the intellectual sewers of actual users’ minds.

Which is where you discover that Excel is a database. It’s an established fact in Userville, so just accept it. As Alan Cooper said, the inmates are running the asylum. He was talking about you, not users, but he got the lyrics right even if he screwed up the tune.

You can accept that Excel is a database to users, but you don’t forget that it’s really a spreadsheet program. It’s just that—put it this way: I applaud the fact that Sonia Sotomayor has empathy. In every interaction I’ve ever had with a judge, empathy is just what I thought they didn’t have nearly enough of. And when the judge seems to display a disturbing familiarity with nunchucks and their potential for the infliction of injury, I say the more empathy the better. But empathy for users is an alien concept in the nerd psychology.

Adam Boswick says that it’s the software that is simple, sloppy, and forgiving of human foibles and weaknesses that lasts. Well, that just sucks. If you didn’t have to put up with the stupid user, you would never in a million years write software like that. You’d write tricky, tight, rigidly-designed hacks. At least you would if you’re a proper nerd.

It used to be enough to make the software work. But when software is all about human-human interaction, the goal becomes to make the human-human interaction work. And it’s worse than that, because social software is not about individual users. You have to understand groups, which, it turns out, can’t be done by understanding an individual user and iterating.

Clay Shirky defines social software as “software that supports group interaction.” It isn’t social software until you have three people interacting. Email is Cribbage, social software is Bridge. (Which would make porn Solitaire.) And it’s at that group level where things get interesting. Groups have their own dynamics. Emergent properties, er, emerge.

You might think that this is nothing new. You might say that Second Life is just a remake of Lambda Moo with modern special effects. I wouldn’t argue with you. But what is different today is the ubiquity of social software. Facebook has more members than many countries have citizens. We're no longer in a time of ten thousand-member groups, when social software cheerleaders spoke of a “global village.” Although it’s still a village if you define “village” as a place that enables gossip and vendetta.

Historically, social software has been designed to facilitate flame wars. Seriously, studying these programs objectively, you would have to conclude that this was at the top of the requirements list. Because they do it so well. Even a mild-mannered Wiki is as much a battlefield as a Listserv. It’s just a paintball field where the guns are loaded with turpentine.

All I can say is, it’s a good thing that these crowds will all be wise and these mobs will all be smart. It was a smart mob, we learn, that brought down Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. That movement provides this example of how a smart mob communicates:

Go 2EDSA, Wear blk.

Deposing a dictator may be commendable, it is surely difficult and it’s probably heroic, but while I mean no disrespect to the heroes who gathered in the Philippines, no amount of bravery can turn a flashmob into a brain surgeon. Smart mobs may happen, but when they do they’re news. You can’t sell a book on the stupidity of crowds for the same reason you can’t sell a news story titled “Dog Bites Man.” Stupid isn’t news; it’s the default setting. More often than not, the village is the idiot.

In July the first nerd President used the word “stupidly” in characterizing the Cambridge police’s handcuffing of a Harvard professor for getting snippy with an officer. A couple of days later Jeff Bezos used the word “stupid” to characterize Amazon’s unpublishing of George Orwell on people’s Kindles. It’s gratifying to see “stupid” getting better shelfspace in the marketplace of ideas.

R U a Nerd? U R not Social.

If you develop software, you’re supposed to be a nerd. And there are clear rules dictating how you should behave. For example:

Joel Spolsky: “Silicon Valley nerds getting venture capital to codify their own Asperger’s Syndrome... and demonstrate thoroughly just how completely they don’t understand human-human interaction.” Research supports Spolsky, suggesting that autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Attention Deficit Disorder are rampant throughout Silicon Valley. Yeah, baby, I want to be an ADD multitasking ninja, because all the cool kids are doing it.

Po Bronson reports that the co-founder of Yahoo used to sleep under his desk when he was worth half a billion dollars. A role model for teen-aged nerds everywhere.

Paul Graham wrote a book. It seemingly went over some readers’ heads. “I didn’t want to waste people’s time telling them things they already knew,” he explained. “It’s more efficient just to give them the diffs.”

Having sand kicked in face by computer priesthood led to rebellion and successful rebels often become bullies. Alan Cooper says nerds have a tendency to act like jocks, snapping emotional towels and administering mental wedgies to users.

Richard Stallman, the most dedicated defender in software development creates lists of “words to avoid.” Disdain for the priesthood seldom survives ordination.

Danah Boyd points out the size of the gap. Only in a nerd’s mind is it an acceptable solution to the breakdown of comity in online social space to suggest that the user just adopt multiple personalities. Hey, my psychological disorder’s working well for me, maybe you should get one too.

Cooper offers this test for nerdiness:

  • Have you ever taken a clock apart to see how it works? (Nerd answer: yes.)

  • Did you get it put back together again? (Non-intuitive nerd answer: no.)

  • If not, do you consider the experiment a failure? (Nerd answer: no.)

He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.—J.R.R. Tolkien

Here’s another test for nerdiness:

You’re a nerd if, when you hear, “The wonder of the dancing bear is not how well it dances, but that it dances at all,” you think,

“I bet I could teach a bear to dance.”

Cringely calls you “stinking gods among men,” which seems just rude (and at the same time kind of cool). Po Bronson (him again) says you will try very hard to maintain the image that you care very little about your image.

Nerd Society

So you recognize yourself in these descriptions and you hate having to deal with people and you’ll join the cause to reverse the socialization of software, right? What? You say no?

I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

Because the final irony in the socialization of software is that the making of software is itself a social activity.

It sure seems like there was a time when it wasn’t. I cling to my romantic notions of the lone hacker carefully milling the corners smooth on each bit of the first word processing program for microcomputers, or the first such program for the IBM PC, or that killer debugger for the first Macintosh, or any of those other actual demented nerds who did great things in glorious isolation because nobody wanted to hang out with them.

But that’s not how it works today. It’s frameworks and Wikis and Open Source repositories and giving back to the community and even pair programming. How un-nerdy.

Software development is social, but what passes for social interaction among nerds? According to Paul Graham, one consequence of the limited socialization of nerds is that great hackers clump. They go where the other great hackers go. With the result that “at any given time there are only about ten to twenty places where hackers want to work.” Somebody tell me whether that’s a bug or a feature.

Trying to make sense of nerd society, I reflect on social insects. Bees, ants. Drones and worker bees. The language developer as queen bee? Maybe not. But it’s interesting to think of the flame wars in the Rails community as colony collapse disorder. I’m just thinking aloud, you understand.

Or language communities. Each language succeeds or fails as it develops a community of users. Each language also reflects the personality of its creator. The edifice of ideas at the heart of Lisp was constructed by an autocratic Scotsman, the bricks of Ada were laid by faceless bureaucrats, and the two languages developed different user communities. To me, it’s a good thing if, say, Guido’s personality keeps the Python community from getting too large. Keeps it from straying from its core values and degrading into Java, I say.

Would Rebol be a household name if Carl Sassenrath got out of his house more? If Adele Goldberg took herself more seriously or Bertrand Meyer took himself less seriously, would Smalltalk or Eiffel rule the OO world?

If nerds have to be social, I guess I’m glad that they are at least as dysfunctional about it as everybody else. Because it seems to me that none of us, nerd or user, has the social thing figured out.

But what do I know.

John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions failed to enlighten him so much as a foot-candle. He is a professional skeptic, and currently is directing his most vitriolic skepticism at LA electro-pop band Fol Chen, who promised him a fortune but never delivered.