Ex Libris Kirkland

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Subtitle Technophilia and Its Discontents
First Written 1998
Genre Non-fiction
Origin US
Publisher City Lights Publishers
ISBN-10 0872863328
ISBN-13 978-0872863323
My Copy library paperback
First Read August 02, 2012

Close to the Machine

By the time a computer system becomes old, no one completely understands it. A system made out of old junky technology becomes, paradoxically, precious. It is kept running but as if in a velvet box: open it carefully, just look, don't touch.

The preciousness of an old system is axiomatic. The longer the system has been running, the greater the number of programmers who have worked on it, the less any one person understands it. As years pass and untold numbers of programmers and analysts come and go, the system takes on a life of its own. It runs. That is its claim to existence: it does useful work. And no one individual completely understands how. Its very functioning demands we stop treating it as some mechanism we've created like, say, a toaster, and start to recognize it as a being with a life of its own. We have little choice anyway: we no longer control it. We have two choices: respect it or kill it.

Quoted on August 14, 2012

"There is a political deadline," they said, "and we can't change it." It did no good to explain that writing software was not a political process. The deed was done. They had gone around mentioning various dates--dates chosen almost at random, imagined times, wishes--and the mentioned dates soon took on an air of reality. To all the world, to city departments and planning bureaus, to task forces and advisory boards, the dates had become expectations, commitments. Now there was no way back. The date existed and the software would be "late."

Quoted on August 14, 2012

I'd like to think that computers are neutral, a tool like any other, a hammer that can build a house or smash a skull. But there is something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and data, that recreates the world in its own image. Like the rock-and-roll culture, it forms an irressistible horizontal country that obliterates the long, slow, old cultures of place and custom, law and social life. We think we are creating the system for our own purposes. We believe we are making it in our own image. We call the microprocessor the “brain”; we say the machine has “memory.” But the computer is not really like us. It is a projection of a very slim part of ourselves: that portion devoted to logic, order, rule, and clarity. It is as if we took the game of chess and declared it the highest order of human existence.

Quoted on August 14, 2012

When I watch users try the Internet, it slowly becomes clear to me that the Net represents the ultimate dumbing-down of the computer. The users seem to believe that they are connected to some vast treasure trove - all the knowledge of our times, an endless digitized compendium, some electronic library of Alexandria - if only they could figure out how to search it properly....

In front of a spreadsheet, however, their helplessness and confusion vanish. When users want to show me the sort of information they have been storing, they open elaborate, intricate spreadsheets full of lists and macros and mathematical formulas, links to databases, mail merge programs, and word processors. They have, in effect, been programming. I am amazed at the ingenuity shown in putting together these many tools. I am astounded at the complexity managed so deftly by these “naive” end users.

What is it about the Internet, with its pretty graphics and simple clicks, that makes users feel so inundated; and about the spreadsheet--so complicated a tool--that makes them bold? The received wisdom about user-friendliness is challenged here. Human beings, I think, do not like to be condescended to.

Quoted on August 14, 2012

[This is how I feel about every salesperson ever.]

The property manager is only slightly older than we are, but he is a man of my father's world and time. He has the relentless, cheerful smoothness fo the salesman, which makes me distrust him implicitly.

Quoted on August 14, 2012

The programmer, who needs clarity, who must talk all day to a machine that demands declarations, hunkers down into a low-grade annoyance. It is here that the stereotype of the programmer, sitting in a dim room, growling from behind Coke cans, has its origins. The disorder of the desk, the floor; the yellow Post-It notes everywhere; the whiteboards covered with scrawl: all this is the outward manifestation of the messiness of human thought. The messiness cannot go into the program; it piles up around the programmer.

Quoted on August 14, 2012

Ex Libris Kirkland is a super-self-absorbed reading journal made by Matt Kirkland. Copyright © 2001 - .
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