Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last of 2009: Employed Geeks, are You Happy with the Empire?

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors. I consider Snow Crash one of the best books... ever. Stephenson is a geek author, one of the sainted few who incorporates real computational concepts into his works. Cryptonomicon is a recent example of this.

Occasionally he writes columns, and one has been turning over in my mind for awhile. Happily I re-discovered it some days ago before the end of the decade...

Right around the mid-naughties, he wrote a column, Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out (New York Times), that pretty much describes the relationship between computer illiterate norms, computers, and geeks through the metaphor of Star Wars, a movie made by a sainted Boomer we all call "Uncle George":

"..the Jedi order, the geekiest people in the universe: they have beards and ponytails, they dress in army blankets, they are expert fighter pilots, they build their own laser swords from scratch.

And (as is made clear in the "Clone Wars" novels) the masses and the elites both claim to admire them, but actually fear and loathe them because they hate being dependent upon their powers.

Anakin wins that race by repairing his crippled racer in an ecstasy of switch-flipping that looks about as intuitive as starting up a nuclear submarine. Clearly the boy is destined to be adopted into the Jedi order, where he will develop his geek talents - not by studying calculus but by meditating a lot and learning to trust his feelings. I lap this stuff up along with millions, maybe billions, of others. Why? Because every single one of us is as dependent on science and technology - and, by extension, on the geeks who make it work - as a patient in intensive care. Yet we much prefer to think otherwise.

[From Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out - New York Times]

And what happened to our Jedi Knights? Our Paduans? The entire IT / Tech / STEM ecosystem in the United States?

Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math classes in hordes. The tedious particulars of keeping ourselves alive, comfortable and free are being taken offline to countries where people are happy to sweat the details, as long as we have some foreign exchange left to send their way.

[From Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out - New York Times]

And we know now what our fearful Boomer friends wanted. We taught them to move a mouse, they lay claim to invention of the entire Internet. And no one dared raise a voice in dissent. Those who *did* were shown the door, to be replaced by the odd foreigner from East or South Asia. Or so we thought.

What started as a trickle become vast armies of cheap Clones and Droids who comply without question. Offshoring and Outsourcing. The Mythical Man-Month. Basically subjugation of the geek via 'Labor Arbitrage.

It's not like this is a one time thing, either.

In the 80s and early 90s they called us 'Hackers'. In fact they still do, like that's some badge of shame. It's not. Hackers still are the cutting edge, preoccupying themselves with technology of consequence. Basically they continue to hack at anything but Flash or Windows. Unless they're blackhats, in which case those disastrous 'platforms' are their bread & butter. Hackers call blackhats "crackers" but this is lost on the uncaring masses.

Those of us privileged to work in the early 90s with major corps had a brief respite before the older Geeks retired to be replaced by clueless MBAs, HR Managers, and other stiflers of creativity. Slaves to the numbers looking for more slaves -- myopic to issues of culture, ethics, and all else. And again, our inquisitive nature got us in trouble, but still there was wonder and work to be done. To bring the future to NOW.

In the naughties it was decided that IT & Tech could be done by anyone who could move a mouse, present a (fraudulent) resume, and say magic words. Sharing of ideas has been replaced with gatekeeping, fear and loathing of one's job, and layoffs, like Adobe's 9% fiasco, as probably related by these two anon former employees:

lobo said 2:10PM on 11-11-2009

I got laid off just today, woohoo. I hope now Shantanu Narayen can afford to pay his bills. And his mortgage too. After a year of 10-hrs workdays this is the best reward one can ask for.

Anon said 3:42AM on 11-14-2009

Adobe sickens me right now. They are laying off their workforce not because they're hitting financial trouble, but because they are outsourcing their work to under-payed workers in primarily China and India... in what may possibly be considered slave-labor conditions.

Shame on you Adobe! If they don't knock this crap off, then the modern day abolition movement will probably bring them to their knees.

[From Adobe layoffs strike home, 680 to lose jobs]

Tech, and in particular the software industry of today is a cargo cult. The 'leaders' of the industry have most of their 'developers' offshore. In fact, Ballmer threatened to move entirely offshore. Remember that?

Is it any wonder that Apple and Google, hardware makers - really the only companies innovating-- don't want anything to do with companies who do this?

If the "Star Wars" movies are remembered a century from now, it'll be because they are such exact parables for this state of affairs. Young people in other countries will watch them in classrooms as an answer to the question: Whatever became of that big rich country that used to buy the stuff we make? The answer: It went the way of the old Republic.

[From Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out - New York Times]

So, to my employed geek tribe who 'love their jobs' -- working for a major multinational like the above mentioned.. cleaning up the errors of the droids & clones-- are you really happy with the current state of affairs?


Working on buggy, banal crap like Flash and Windows? Working as a glorified spellchecker so that 100s of monkeys can bang out miniscule snippets of not-even-good-compared-to-10-years-ago code? The MBA emperor not only has no clothes, your industry is his commode. This will only last so long.

Here is your Republic if you don't speak up:

Home of the free and the brave. Live free or die. Shoot first; ask questions later. Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out. These were the mottos of a brash, impetuous, audacious-to-a-fault nation.

That nation is dead.

[From Ted Rall by Ted Rall -- (12/31/2009) THE FEAR DECADE]

Remember what you were doing 10 years ago? And how you felt about it? What about now? Do you still "love your job?"

I am so glad the 00's are over.

Mentok out.

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