Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Geek Mind

James Poulos:
The Cloud problem is itself merely a symptom of Gelernter’s insistence on seeing the internet as a single, universal System — driven, as I suggested at Pomocon, by a captivation with the vast possibilities unleashed by treating the internet as a System. This element of geek psychology is a serious problem — less because the field of human possibilities can and should be dramatically reduced, and more because I detect, paradoxically, a failure of the imagination among geeks who gravitate with such pubescent enthusiasm to technological unitarian universalism. I’m profoundly unconvinced that the possibility-maximizing framework is, and must be, the unitary and universalist one.

The desire for a single answer, or universal unitarian system, is a direct product of the education of an engineer or computer programmer. Engineering or programming education habituates the recipient toward determinism. A determinism that is often devoid of relevance to the people who will be using the technology the geeks develop. This is why FLG is so vociferously against the we-need-more-math-and-science-to-compete-in-the-global-economy bullshit.

As he is wont to mention, FLG, unlike most other bloggers or even political pundits, did two years of engineering education. Unless you've gone through that and then done a liberal arts core it is difficult adequately convey the differences. Due to both self-selection and formation, engineers have little understanding of what is meaningful to people or even people themselves. The vast majority of other people aren't deterministic, for example, and this causes unbelievable problems for software developers.

What's the point in all this? Well, Mr. Poulos approaches the question like he has been trained to do, and presumably in a manner that interests him, which is to say as a political scientist and lawyer. Now, I understand this language. Well, to some extent and Mr. Poulos in particular a good bit less. But the juxtaposition of Poulos' analysis with the deeply distorted view of human beings that the typical engineer possesses and the resulting and rather rudimentary political thinking that results is discomforting. To put it more simply -- Poulos has an understanding of people and how they interact with one another and, more importantly, the consequences thereof. Now, you or I may disagree with his assumptions or resulting conclusions, but for an engineer you may as well be speaking Greek.

An example that FLG thinks explains some of this is science fiction. The vast majority of science fiction attempts to illuminate some aspect of politics or culture. Indeed, FLG would argue that science fiction is for all intents and purposes the grammar and language geeks use to talk about things that are meaningful to people -- politics, religion, etc. There are some outliers that we all know, but if you look at any random SciFi work the understanding of politics, culture, religion, or economics is extremely rudimentary and often just plain odd.

On a related note, whenever FLG hears from people like Tom Friedman that the leaders in China are all engineers who then presumably understand technology, and in particular his current favorite type of technology -- green, as if this is preferable to the fucking lawyers in charge here FLG always snickers. Engineers may be good at getting stuff done over in China when its all about just getting stuff built with little concern for the human costs. But as China gets richer those engineers are going to be royally fucked. It's already starting to happen. People are getting wealthy enough in some pockets that things other than construction and economic growth matter more. Having a government of lawyers sucks, but it's far better than being governed by engineers who focus on efficiency. Eventually, engineering efficiency applied to government will result in the efficient overcoming of political obstacles -- killing people. Or they will have to abdicate.

Anyway, all this is to say that people shouldn't trust our futures to engineers. They're good at making things, but somebody else needs to guide them not the other way around.


Withywindle said...

The Brezhnev generation that ran the USSR were engineers.

FLG said...


I'm not quite sure what point(s) you are arguing with that fact. I can see some stuff with the Brezhnev stagflation and some other stuff, but I'm not clear what you are arguing.

Withywindle said...

Some of their limitations as policymakers has been attributed to an engineering mindset.

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