autotelic, autistic, assonance-hole©.

Technology as Business: Time to stop denying it, WE are the problem.

So here’s the thing – I absolutely adore Product Design. I mean, I like Product management, ownership, analysis, blah blah blah, but I have been there. I have done that. I have the t-shirt, mouse pad, keychain, AND the “koozie”. (I turned down the drone.)

The ONLY part about technology as a product/service offering (on any vector) that is truly horrific is its arrogance and hubris as an industry.

I mean that in the very nicest and most respectful of ways, really I do. But it simply astonishes me that NO ONE you read about heading these organizations has cotton on to the fact that today’s mess of legacy soup is (not entirely, but) largely OUR FAULT.

Instead, they’re busily ramping up “The cloud” and “AI” and “Data Science” and standing to sing brand-competitive praises; racing to market with polished, slick (trite, over-analyzed, over-priced) almost-things to surprise and delight as if, within ten years (or less!), it will all be the next super high-rise tower of competing method, brand, vision, agenda, hell, you name it.

Selling solutions as if they are refrigerators and then, disingenuously, pretending that it’s not reasonable to expect a refrigerator keeps your milk cold. “Why you need customization, friend! We have JUST the thing! We’ll add the “milkerator” module and customize it to do everything but rub your feet! Just sign here…”

But most egregiously?

The sad fact that, until it became apparent that we’re on a supersonic roller-coaster that’s taking us to the coming talent shortage of 2030, they simply did not have a compelling reason TO care to do anything differently. 

I’m not saying these technology magnates did not give a damn as individuals. As individuals, they cared a lot. Donated a lot. Spun up massive works that did a lot of good. But even Bill Gates cannot solve a global problem out of his own pocket, and, even if he could, it’s not a cut and dried finance issue. 

Even if it were, short-cycle philanthropy – ‘a penny today is better than a dollar tomorrow’ is anything but a shining example of future-first thinking, or even of sustainability.

Then there is the uncomfortable reality that even those glimmers of “long-view” we’ve seen in times of crisis tend to flicker and fade as soon as the sirens do, or when there’s a chance to snatch up a bit of CLTV increase.

Professionally, I find that few businesses are cognizant that is is their cultural legacy (i.e., command/control hierarchies and their related, heavily manual, usually linear, ad hoc methods) that is keeping them in the position of having to constantly play “catch up”. 

This cultural debt in corporations is usually eclipsed by the crumbling legacy systems and methods that all this technology was supposed to “cure”, “fix”, and “improve”.  

As for technology, the industry? Well, we’ve made multiple mountains of money feeding on the cyclic panic that happens when a new O/S hits, or new CPUs, memory, or when some 3rd party “solution” is finally seen as an impediment to competitive agility… or unexpectedly acquired, sunset, etc. 

Worst, I think, is that these technical Goliaths largely decide what’s best for the world based on what they can make (or at least, protect from erosion) than how well it really meets the need (let alone the matter of whether or not the “solution” is more than yet another box you’re going to have to build your way out of ten years from now, if not sooner).

If “the industry” cared more for “the future”, we’d have a lot more support of Open Source. Then again, if Open Source cared more for “the future”, we’d have much better usability from them. 

No company, bureaucracy, or person it seems genuinely goes into to a market to “solve” something, only to make a sustainable revenue stream on it. 

And so it goes. But under it all, ladybugs like me flit about and think silly things like this and wish she had more than “just words” to try and convey the dense interrelation of it all. 

I’m old. And “old school”. So I remember a bit of “the beginning” of commercially available technology.  Everyone I knew was enawed. We observed and then, mimicked the great tech entrepreneurs of our times (as best we could) – we took note of what was needed and then, we rebuilt ourselves to provide it.

My story is hardly the best example, but it does reflect the above. I got my start “professionally” at Delta Air Lines. (Oh, I did a LOT before that, most of which you would not believe), but Delta Air Lines was my first “real job”.

I absolutely adored Delta Air Lines. Fanatically. I recommended them to everyone. Hell, I once pulled over and assisted an elderly couple in “BFE” who had broken down in the middle of the Florida Everglades. They swore I had to take money from them. I told them that there was one thing they could do, if they really wanted to repay me. They eagerly asked what that might be; I kid you not, I said to them, “Any time you have to step on an airplane, be sure it belongs to Delta Air Lines. If you can just do that, I’m paid in full.”

Corny, right? But the way I looked at it, they had saved not only my life, but that of my (then infant) daughter. There was no “repayment” I could think to give but to tell everyone I could find how great they had been to “me and mine”…. Why did that matter? Well, that’s even cornier:

I wanted everybody to feel as happy and secure as I did with them.

You see, for me, it was the first time I had actually HAD real happiness or security in my life. More over, it was the first time I felt that maybe, just maybe, my daughter really would have a better life than I.

It was a wonderful feeling. The litany was candid, but not unkind. I would think to myself: 

You know what? I may not have the things everyone says you have to have to be successful. I may not have beauty or glamor or that proper, breathless, ever-on-verge-of-passing-out sultriness. I can’t be Barbie or June Cleaver. But I definitely don’t have any sense of entitlement and no cause to feel attracted to ever experiencing it. I don’t even have the sense to deny this big ol’ plate of sour grapes that I’ve been rolling around with my fork since I was old enough to noodle it. I like my humanity, even if it does annoy me at the same damn time.

And, the big bird finger to them ALL, I did succeed and I AM successful, and I DO grow and prosper and delight in spite of all of it/them.

And my daughter will have it better than I did. 

And my daughter will have everything I never did.

And my daughter will never know how it feels to KNOW the only humans you have to count on simply don’t have what is needed to be reliable…. Responsible… Responsive… Real.

THAT is what Delta Air Lines gave me for nearly five years.

So, yes. I was googly-eyed fanatical about them. Blind, really. 

In the mid-90’s, I found a bug in the ACF2 software that revealed the user’s password. I was actually excited about analyzing it and being the one to turn in the report/write-up.

I never got to do that; my co-workers saw me working on it and, rather than ask me about it, they reported it as hacking. 

No hope in the face of that, especially in those days. I never got to show them my notes to prove they had it wrong.  Delta Air Lines did not care about the truth; they just wanted someone to punish and I was the easiest target:

– Single mother

– No family

– 3rd Shift Worker (so not much of a life, either… so few friends)

Man, do I remember that day. There are no words for my indignation. Then, after telling me the horrible falsehood and refusing to hear me, they presented me with a typed resignation letter and told me I “had” to sign it.

I didn’t even read it. I croaked out through tears that they were going to have to FIRE ME because I had done nothing wrong and I was not about to quit.

So. They did. They fired me. Escorted me to my car, then completely off the campus.

Just like that, my dream of working there until retirement was gone. No recourse. What was I going to do? I could barely afford to keep myself and my daughter fed. On top of that, the anger at being wrongly accused was like an acid. So much more so because I had loved that company and that job more than anything excepting my daughter. 

But, time passes and things change. I spent time with the first online public records company in the country. I worked with one of the first companies to get SMS working. I was part of the team who created the tech that would eventually wind up as a certain, well-known in-car safety and response system.

Do you know how hard it is to trim a 7 page chronology to under 2 pages? Feels like cutting off limbs. But to stay in this industry? Totally worth it. I’m a believer… that’s why the current state of things makes me so mad. 

I kind of fell into consulting after that public records company was bought by a company who was bought by a company who was bought by a company. (Too much change at once for me.)

So, I worked with agencies, did some freelancing, and eventually, opened my own company. Now those, those were the halcyon days. A small condo in northern Atlanta, a comfortable and safe car, my daughter in private school/day care, and I found that, as a consultant (at least there, in the late 80’s and early 90’s), I could actually do technology right the first time.

And I freaking LOVED IT. My favorite part was helping people understand what we were doing, why we were doing it, why we choose Option A over B or C or ….. Z. I have a knack for it; drawing on whatever background my listener(s) have and using it to frame analogies that will connect them to these alien concepts. (I could seriously digress here… I resist.)

They didn’t always like the message; it wasn’t always in the method they preferred. But they understood it and, regardless how they decided to proceed, it was an EDUCATED and INFORMED decision.

Why did that matter? Five reasons:

1. An uneducated and uninformed decision isn’t a decision, it’s a submission to the authority and credibility of the expert resource.

2. Submitting to the authority and credibility of the expert resource is an act of TRUST and RESPECT.

3. Because I believe, feel, and think I am a good person, AND because I want to be a good person, I am obliged to treat people who trust and respect me with trust and respect.

4. As a good person, I constantly strive and aspire not to abuse, confuse, or misuse the trust and respect given me by others.

5. My reputation as a trustworthy, respectable, good person is more important to me than how much money I can extract from the pockets of those I (purportedly) trust and respect.

Actually, add one more:

6. I am just as responsible in my professional life for my actions, decisions, and results as I am in my personal life’s actions, decisions, and results.

Do I manage it perfectly all the time? Hell no.

Do I manage it imperfectly most of the time? Definitely.

Do I manage myself strictly, but compassionately? Absolutely.

I get why “tech as business” did not want to be bothered with education, training, and informing the market, the user. It’s costly. At best. Besides, clearly, if they WANTED to understand, they’d already be in technology, right?

As I said… Arrogance. Hubris. But it quickly became a way to make money. Certifications and competition with the historical, formal education universities. Recursive and reductive acronyms that striate, separate, and frankly, alienate the larger majority of “non-technical”. 

I know where it comes from, of course. I was there. Just like I was there when the bubble burst and I lost it all. Literally. Company. House. Life savings. Car. Had to leave my daughter in Georgia and go on the road just to try and rebuild. Took nearly 8 years and a cross-country trip to pull that off. 

But before all the bizarre happenstance, I was hunkered over the plastic pieces and wiring while someone sitting next to me beat the holy heck out of a keyboard that could withstand a tactical strike. We were playing with ANSI art and watching European demos. It was practically psychedelic…. strobes bouncing off and coloring the walls of… erm… the… basement. (Heh.)

I was there when Mandelbrot’s fractal algorithms were first rendered on a personal home computer. Man, we spent hours playing with those.

I was there for phone phreaking and a bit more besides. I had the honor of being part of INDEX and helping kids who liked technology and computers enjoy them. It was a bit of an unpaid job, but watching young minds engage with the new and unknown…? Amazing. Technology was fun because it was accessible and the people making it wanted you to understand it so you could be as excited about it as they were, as we were, as we are… Still.

Somewhere between when the legend of Xerox PARC and Apple and later, Apple and Microsoft growling over who stole what from whom, it started changing. It probably really started as soon as it was commercially viable, but I was a already heading out of the center of IT and into the “ambassador, advocate, analyst” role, so what did I know about “big business”, “big iron”, or “intellectual property”? 

I find that technology, in many ways, stands where so much of human endeavor seems to wind up – compromised for market share. I admit, it’s difficult to envision so much and endure the slow crawl toward it. I also admit that there’s nothing inherently “wrong” about making money. I like money. It’s just that I like the idea of reaching global parity better. 

I am, I think, a dwindling minority. Maybe that’s what growing old really is… every old becomes new again because who has time to plan when it seems so much easier to recover? (Iteration toward a goal is our future, but man, old habits, they do die hard, don’t they?)

Fast forward to about 2007, when it first occurred to me that the real issues keeping technology from blossoming as more than a tooling were (as always) more societal, more cultural, than they were intentional. Humans, as the animals we are, prefer to piss on the threshold and scream, “MINE!” to considering the benefits of unilateral collaboration (or its far less threatening cousin, Pluralism).

I suppose you could say I’m pointing at something via a bulky analogy – a “professional writer” would hate this verbosity and call it obfuscation the same way programmers hate the user interface and call it obfuscating. In the same way, the technology industry hates any inkling of noblesse oblige and calls it obfuscating (to ultimate profit). Ditto government and pretty much any other collection of humans one could name. 

Even in the face of the coming talent shortage, there are many, many companies more than happy to hook and angle clientèle for extensions and “customization” until there’s new technology that breaks the proverbial line.  

But can you imagine a world in which, rather than predatory competition, there is full, true collaboration? Cooperation? Some say that collaboration cannot possibly motivate more or better than competition. To this, my reply is simple:

How would we know?

But, back to today and this reality. Any company over 10 years old and having any form of computerization in place (not necessarily automation in any real sense) feels the pull of time and technical advancement. The problem is, most do not understand how the convergence of older technologies (telecom, broadcast, radio, etc) and newer ones are about to spin off truly new things that no one has yet seen or experienced.  

It’s like hearing the voice of our industrial ancestors laughing about the possibility of there ever being gaslights on Main Street. Or sarcastically pontificating over holiday supper that, “Those tin cans will drop out of the sky a few times and that will be the end of that. Stick to boats and the railroad; that’s industrial technology you can DEPEND on.”

Or the pooh-poohing over telephones. Or computers. Or the World Wide Web. Or car phones. Or cell phones. Or Wi-Fi. Or any of it.

Don’t you see? THIS is where we are! On the precipice. It’s a generational thing. This pattern must repeat but it also must evolve. History is nothing more than repeating patterns of human behavior.

We only begin to truly see them. We only begin to truly understand them. Paradoxically, I think we all have this visceral sense of it and, in many ways, we’re no different than any other life – repeating the cycles because we have to experience the cycle to discover the shape of the unexperienced to reach the next “eureka!”

All the corporate celebrities, innovators, inventors, investors, as well as you and I? We are going to age and retire and, eventually, pass. Just as Rockefeller, Edison, Bell, Tesla, Turing, countless, forgotten women and minorities of math, medicine, science, and technology –  it’s a fractal soup in which we nestle… a Yata No Kagami, a Möbius Strip, an Ouroboros, an infinite void filled with life (even if ‘filled with’ only means “humans” for most who read this in this moment).

Cycle after cycle, ripples across the ocean. Prosy, eh? But I rhapsodize over the reality that, for now, technology is the pebble only so I can be assured of your eyes to say this: We are become the impediment.

We have become over-full of ourselves. Tasty dog food aside, eating your own dog food today means very little if it’s not advancing the common, shared needs of humanity.

I know that ruffles the pride of some (my anarcho-capitalist friends in particular, to whom I say: “You’re about to get what you’ve been asking for, but you’re really not going to like it as you thought you would”).

I ask you, with happy “naivety” (context: archaic/original meaning – #3):

If our best signal of progress is merely continuance, merely existence, if this, our rudimentary, predatory, dominance-based “norm” is as far as we truly wish to stride, how well have we truly made use of this, our amazing talent for tooling and all its emergent uses?

I have not given up on this ideal (foolish or not). Candidly? I don’t know many who have, particularly in technology. It’s kind of what drew us to it.

History tells us the only things that truly last are those we carry with us by memorializing OR by making them accessible to all. The things that last must be ubiquitous to stand a chance OF lasting. It’s a simple truth – a significant portion of humans must have a similar experience if that experience is to continue, let alone progressively improve.

This trickle of technology and educational aid is far less than is needed. It is far, far less than we could provide. That doesn’t make it hopeless. Just harder. We need not wait on everyone else. Do what small works can be managed in the day to day: 

Do what you can, every time you can, for as long as you can. Every instance of progress adds to the momentum of progress in our culture, our society, our nation, and our world. 

Do it “#JustBecauseYouCan” because if you won’t, how can you expect anyone will?

p.s.: I genuinely think this could apply (and should) on every human avenue of endeavor. What do you think?