The history of computing has been an evolution of conversation between us and machines. Single-purpose machines were built to be talked about, not communicated with. Even a hoax like the mechanical Turk.
But then the punched cards of the loom and Ada Lovelace’s ideas of a general-purpose computer started to become real, and we needed a language. At first, it was a language based on mathematics, the language of log tables, the language of angles, and then the language of letter frequencies. But soon we got more advanced, we got to the language of logic. Decision making, and computers, were open to working on anything.
And that’s where software engineers, programmers and developers enter the story. The medium of communication between the world of humans and the world of logic (because there has been no greater fallacy in human endeavour than to assume there is a complete overlap between the two, despite how many Nobel prize winners in economics have tried to prove otherwise).
The story of computers since then has been the story of building layers upon layers on top of machine logic to bring machines closer to humans. The command line, high-level languages (when C was considered a high-level language), graphical user interfaces, and the emerging field of voice and text conversation epitomised by Alexa and but Google and Facebook bots, but also the first line at the call centre, the first responder on live chat.
There has always been a conversation, and there’s always been a mismatch between our words and our intent.
As developers, our job is to derive intent from those words and the actions. Traditionally, offline in workshops and focus groups, but increasingly in real-time, teaching the machines to understand users and adapting conversions, websites, and apps, as we detect errors and confusion, as our data tells us users are unable to complete their goals.
There has always been a conversation. But this new conversation is with the users, and the machines, and the stakeholders, in real-time. With incomplete and biased data.
Be forgiving in your conversations. No one knows what this global conversation is like. But we know from social media and the news that not everyone in the conservation is pursuing truth and simplicity. But that is the only logical route, and behind all the facades is whatever truth you’ve built into the system. Are they the truths you can stand behind? Are those the truths that help and empower people?
Communicate your truths clearly and without favour, because this conversation is never pure or simple, and we have unearned power to control and shape that conversation. I don’t know if anyone would have chosen to give power to the developers and make us responsible for the truth, but in an information economy, that’s where we are. All these conversations are our conversations.
Tech is not neutral.
Speak your truth and recognise your responsibility.
Neal Stephenson – in the beginning… was the command line