Friday, March 18, 2005

Can a software developer survive as a luddite?

I'm a computer programmer. I'm also a bit of a luddite. I don't have a cell phone. I don't watch much TV, so I don't have TiVo or a DVD player. (I admit, I watch the occasional DVD on my computer, and get bootleg copies of The Sopranos.) I don't have an iPod, nor do I listen to much music on my computer, which is particularly strange since I'm developing software for people who listen to music on their computers. I was about 15 years late in getting a CD player. I admit that I am hooked on my Palm Pilot, but I resist getting the latest one, and resist adding more software on it, for fear of the frustration when it inevitably breaks.

Moreover, with the exception of this excursion into the world of blogging, I'm having a lot of trouble getting into the online lifestyle. I surf the web when I need something, but I can't get into recreational surfing. Sometimes when I'm at my computer and bored I think that I should do some surfing, but I can't think of and/or find much of interest. I don't care much instant messaging, although I need to use it professionally.

I'm a very good computer programmer, but I'm starting to worry -- will my aversion to most things cyber make me professionally obsolete?


Blogger Steve Nadis said...

What were you doing up at 3:48 a.m.?

1:59 PM  
Blogger Alec Wysoker said...

I think the time is PST

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Brian Mathe said...

You can change the time to be EST in the blogger setup options if you like.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Uncle Alec, I think your aversion to web-surfing is healthy. I can't tell you how many nights my husband and I have clickety-clicked here and there, searching for something with meaning and not finding anything. I have all sorts of library books on my shelves, and I could just as easily (with more fulfillment) browse through those to find random bits of knowledge that somehow find relevance in my life.

What I'd recommend is for you to ask your friends and families what websites they really like, so that when you feel you should surf (hah!), you'll at least have some quality websites with which to start out.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous david schlesinger said...

I think your aversion to all things cyber is very healthy, on a personal level. Every day I threaten to throw away my cell phone, my car, my internet connection, but I can't. It's really just a matter of money. If I had enough, I could afford to throw it all away, but I need it to continue to make a living. Don't get me wrong, unlike you, for some reason, I love web surfing and learning new stuff, but I just wish I didn't feel so compelled to do it, all the time, to keep up; like you, I do it for a living.

If you had unlimited funds, would you throw it all away? In other words do you do it because you have to or you want to?

To the extent that I know you, I'm guessing it's just an aesthetics thing for you. You like the art of programming, but not the online lifestyle, consumerism, etc?

But your ability to 'survive' in the marketplace is a function of your analytic ability and skillset, not of whether you like it, unless you find it so distasteful that you just don't want to do it anymore, and by survive you mean survive 'emotionally'. And of course it depends on how specialized your line of work is.. what are you doing these days?.. if it's highly specialized and limited in scope, and unrelated to the current state of affairs with respect to the online world, then why would it be relevant to you? But, if you are building websites, or building real life marketable technology, that is marketable in the B2B market or the B2C market, then I suppose knowing what's out there would really help.

BTW - to me this blogger thing is cool. I'm in my own world, I've heard the term, but didn't know what it was until just now.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Rob Mansperger said...

Well, I'm sort of a luddite myself. I'd gladly toss the cellphone if it weren't for the kids and my wife's health needs. I hate the ida of being tied into things so much. I limit my time online to office hours for the most part to test web apps and do research for projects.

I do confess to owning an iPod Mini -- but my company gave them to everyone as Holiday gifts. It rarely gets charged but I did find a cool CSS manual designed specifically for the iPod which I loaded onto it -- but have yet to look at since loading it.

Mostly I feel like a man born 70 years too late and would love o be financially independent enough to toss everything and live in a nice quiet secluded woodland area and never be bothered by people again.

4:19 PM  
Anonymous jim trusselle said...

This weekend I read an article on the net about dead jumbo squid baffling scientists and spent the next half hour surfing to find out why. Needless to say, that half hour would have been better spent washing the dishes, folding laundry or simply relaxing with a book. Heck, even taking a shower would have been more productive since it had been a day or so since the last... ;)

A friend and mentor of mine led a 200+ person technical organization and always said that when he retired the last thing he wants to use is a computer. He’s held true to that conviction and is a craftsman, pianist, and seeker of knowledge (via books!).

Alec my friend, nothing and no one will ever replace the wisdom that you have as a damn good, top notch, among the best, computer programmer. Never forget that the wiz-bang, Acela Express technology of today can never replace the experience of developing a system of software that performs as designed.

8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Either you don't understand the benefits that technology provides, or you do, but reject them.

There are great learning shows on TV about medicine, science, travel, home projects and more. If you had a Tivo, you could just pick the shows that interest you and watch them at your convenience.

If you cannot sit down in front of Google and find something interesting, then you are not interested in many subjects. Go look up: babylonian history, the monarch butterfly, beethoven, roman art, feng shui, oragami, sanskrit, conspiracy theories, 19th century poets, Kant, jewish archaeology, Gandi, etc.

All of the things you seem to have an aversion to are just tools that provide benefits, but you seem to be reading something else into their existence.

Pretty scary if you ask me. I wouldn't want to go to a Luddite brain surgeon who still used some old rusty copper ax and a few bone chisels.

The short answer is, no you cannot survive.

For every hour you spend reading books, chatting with friends and admiring what a Luddite you are and debating the merits thereof, there are countless millions of Indians and Chinese learning English, J2EE, .Net, Unix, Databases, getting their PhDs, MBAs. Their goal is to steal your job, do it better and make great technology. Your goal would be?

This is fine if you don't want to program anymore. But if you do, I would reconsider your choices.

While you live in a world full of technology and reject it, others are embracing it en masse and you're falling behind in the herd. The last in the herd gets eaten pretty quickly, but you don't watch TV so you might not know that...hehe.

The more you reject technology, the less and less you will even be aware of what it is used for and why other people need it.

1:56 AM  
Blogger ross knights said...

Comments from cowardly "anonymous" show his/her ignorance of the harm that technology can just as easily create.

Is it "falling behind the herd" to recognize that technology tends to become our master, instead of our servant? Blindly follow the herd and you may be heading over a cliff.

The more you depend on technology, the less aware you will become of how to live without it. Wealth is derived not from control and power but the ability to free oneself from the desire for control and power.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Alec Wysoker said...

Wow, a flame-fest already. I think our friend anonymous thinks that I am condemning those who embrace modern technology more than me. I am not. I don't deny the value of many of these, but there are tradeoffs that I have chosen not to make. Nor am I admiring myself, as he puts it, but rather observing myself and wondering.

If reading books or chatting with friends puts me behind in the race for a job, so be it.

12:51 PM  
Anonymous david schlesinger said...


Although anonymous may sound pretty hostile, behind it all I think he may have some legitimate points; his tone and style not withstanding.

From what I know of you (and it's not like we've talked extensively in recent years, yet, I feel I have a good idea of who you are and what you value), it sounds pretty simple. You are struggling, like many of us, to reconcile your involvement in the 'high tech world' with the yearning for a simpler time. You like sports, you like nature, peace, tranquility, simple I'm in the world and living it pleasures..timeless pleasures.. pleasures that a caveman could have enjoyed as readily as you, without regard for the millenium he was born in. You like REAL life experiences. Online you can search for concerts in your area.. find one, pick it and ATTEND, in the 'real world'. Or, you can sit anonymously at home at your desk with an ipod. Maybe you are responding to the impersonal and potentially alienating nature of technology. The in-person experience is richer. Go to google - read about a monarch butterfly, then go outside and find one. Think of the web as a tool to enable you to live your real, in the world life better, not as a substitute for it.

Next point; anonymous says 'no you can't survive'. This relates back to the points I made in my first post about urgency. I find myself immersed in technology out of a sense of urgency. I feel that I must do it to survive. It's a competitive world out there, as programs and hardware that once cost thousands and thousands of dollars become commodities. And techology, and technologically aware people are becoming so ubiquitous that, yes, it does make sense to keep up with the PARTICULARS of technological offerings, so you have a real world sense of why you are able have a job, today, and make some predictions and choices about what you'll have to do to continue to have one in the technology arena.

But, this doesn't mean that you have to be a great enthusiast of the online connected lifestyle, for yourself, personally. You should, probably, however, at least have a sense of the mindset of those who are immersed in it, and love it, after all you are the one who is creating it for 'them'. You don't have to be 'one of them' to learn what they 'they want'. But, surely, if you know what they want, what drives them and what they need, or think they need, you will do a better job at creating it.. even if your level of involvement is primarily technical, at the bits and bytes level, it still helps to have a sense of what you are building, and who you are building it for.

Finally, anonymous was pretty strong in his talk about, 'how you will get left behind'. I think that ultimately though the skills that you have learned as a programmer, and in problem solving will serve you well, and they are at the core of your ability to 'survive'. But, I must confess that the issues he brings up are legitimate. The paragraph where he says 'Their goal is to steal your job...' Well, he's right, and I think you need to recognize that. At the risk of sounding like a total racist, arrogant American, the reality is that yes, there are thousands of Indians and Chinese out there who do want to steal my job, and in fact, I personally have already been GREATLY impacted by outsourcing and the availability of very cheap labor.

Finally, my father always says to me 'why are things engineered so badly'. He gets annoyed when something like an alarm clock is designed so badly that it takes him 15 minutes to figure out how to set it. Are the engineers who designed the clock radio so absorbed in the technology and the details that they fail to step back and see what it would be like to use their products as consumers?
Maybe this is why Microsoft continues to succeed.. Bill Gates always says (I'm paraphrasing based upon my general knowledge of his mindset) that if Microsoft doesn't keep up with an ever increasing set of features, and meet users ever increasing demands, Microsoft will fail, and that's why they continue to succeed.

So my suggestions to you:
1) Stay in love with your art
2) Stay true to the principles and skills that have brought you success to date
3)Don't necessarily embrace the online lifestyle for yourself personally, but make an effort to understand what drives the culture, and those who use it; this will enable you to do your job better; those online fanatics and web surfers butter your bread.
4)Use technology to enrich your own life personally, realize that this blog, instant messenger, web searches etc. etc. while on some levels are alienating.. they let you stay at your desk and never leave, on the other hand they enable you, and all of us in this generation to expand our reach globally and communicate in a way that is totally mindblowing.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Alec Wysoker said...


You understand me very well, and your suggestions are right on. Not surprising, I guess, since we have known each other probably since we were 4 years old. The 2 challenges for me are 1) to learn enough about things I'm not interested in to stay professionally viable; and 2) to find the positive parts of the high-tech lifestyle while avoiding the alienation.

Your's and anonymous' comments about outsourcing are motivating me to start another discussion about that - when I have a little more time.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Paul M said...


How much of a luddite can you be if you're hooked on your Palm Pilot, even if you resist updating it? Also, TV is hardly "cyber." What's more, you now have a blog and I can't believe I'm indoors on a beautiful afternoon responding to it!

I think you're just acutely aware, and wary, of the time-wasting potential that this technology brings with it. To some extent, the web is TV for people who despise TV.

David Schlesinger's suggestions sound right to me. I would add that:
1) it might be helpful to view online culture anthropologically --- from that point of view, it's interesting, and it doesn't mean you have to adopt that culture;
2) though I'm not a programmer, I would think that whether a project is interesting from a programming point of view is quite distinct from whether you have much interest in the activity it supports, and that's okay as long as you don't see the activity as being immoral --- let others decide whether they're benefiting from the end result;
3) as a senior programmer, you have some freedom to focus on the kinds of project you find interesting; if you focus on those, you'll do fine regardless of your (selective) luddism.

3:43 PM  
Anonymous New Yorker said...

I think there is a big difference between learning how to best use technology in one's professional life and letting it take over your personal life as well.

Technological innovations like cell phones, email and Blackberrys keep us constantly available to other people. There are times when I see this as a benefit, but for the most part I see it as a drawback. I cannot begin to count the number of occasions on which my dinner-dates (friends) have felt the need to answer a phone call or a Blackberry message while sitting across from me ostensibly having a conversation (in fact, it would be easier to count the dinners when this does not occur).

Personnaly, I often have my cell phone off and check my messages when I get around to it. I rarely check email on the weekends. I am truly a rebel. Ha ha.

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Reiner said...

Now that I know what a luddite is, I can make an intelligent comment! I think it is interesting to read some old science fiction and see how what we take for granted today was imagined a few decades ago. It becomes scary when you can now visualize some of the more extended views as approaching in the not-too-distant future.

Things like people plugged into cyberspace as the sole source of sensation, transition of our consciousness into living software that survives forever after our bodies go, and the evolution into a single digital being that normalizes all rationale and perception.

How long before we can download our memories and ability to have conscious perception into the network to preserve our being? How many already rely almost exclusively on software, hardware, TV and other electronic formats to provide the large majority of their life experience.

Boy, I think I'm getting carried away and turning into a luddite myself!

6:39 PM  
Blogger bookladyjkd said...

I think that the tech. industries have created the desire to be a luddite in many of us.

There is this erroneous assumption that just because you CAN do something with hardware or software, you should.

For me, the biggest example is a camera in my phone. I'm sorry, I just don't need to take pictures to talk to someone. Also, I'm not interested in taking pictures of myself while I'm talking, nor, frankly do I care if I get to see someone talking to me. When I want to take a picture, I'll use a digital camera, but I don't want a camera in my phone!

In a previous life, I was a software manual writer, and I miss real technical documentation and useful user documentation as well. The marketing people have run amok with what is provided: you can't give away trade secrets and/or if you make it sound easy no one will pay real money for it.

Also, as a writer, I really would love UNADS (an old UNIVAC mark up language) or Macwrite back. I could do anything I wanted to and didn't have to fight features I didn't need, a concept that seems "quaint" now.

If I could change one thing, I'd like to get it through engineers and/or developers' heads that simply because you CAN doesn't mean you SHOULD. More features are NOT necessarily better.

Also, despite all the gains in software and hardware, the biology of humans hasn't gotten any faster or able to handle the plethora of stuff or features or plug-ins or what have you. Many of us feel that enough is enough already. And, no, I'm not really a luddite, but I think there's a point at which too much is either obscene or a bizarre joke, on us.


10:23 AM  

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