Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

Can Your System Account for Space Aliens?

Jon Carroll is a friend. Well - Jon Carroll is a friend that I have not yet been introduced to, and I am quite sure that he is willing to put me in that same category. I read his excellent column most mornings, and since we both live in the Bay Area, I am sure that we have a mutual friend-of-a-friend who could acquaint us. I am also taking a liberty, but as a friend, and posting a big slice of one of his columns. I am urging you to buy his book, because that is where I found it.

I have a friend who has a friend who believes that she is a space alien. This is not the easiest burden in life to bear. Worrying about dental work is hard enough, being a space alien worrying about dental work can really get on a person’s nerves. Understand, this is a person who leads a full, active earthling life. She holds a job, buys groceries, has relationships, drives a car, has opinions on popular movies, plays tennis, travels to Seattle to visit her sister. She is not under the care of a physician other than her family doctor, who wants her to cut down on cholesterol.

But she believes that she is a space alien.

She doesn’t tell many people that she is a space alien. Space aliens quickly learn that it is a bad idea to talk about it much. People don’t understand. They try to talk you out of it. They advise you to seek professional help. She doesn’t want professional help. She is entirely aware that people who think they’re space aliens are supposed to be crazy. It is not an honorable job classification, being a space alien.

So, as a thinking adult, she has been forced to ask herself: Am I crazy?

She has considered the matter carefully; she has talked it over with a few trusted friends. And her conclusion: I am not crazy. I am only a space alien.

Right now, she just wants to know what being a space alien is supposed to entail. This differentiates her from many people who believe they are space aliens and are very busy following orders. But she is not one of those people. She does not exhibit the classic clinical symptoms. She does not believe people are following her; she does not believe in the existence of a gigantic conspiracy designed to drive her crazy. She does not believe that Henry Kissinger is stealing her ideas. If anything, she wishes the Mother Ship or whatever would be a little more forthcoming about its plans. She’s tried listening for messages.

She does believe that earthlings are slowly poisoning their planet, an idea shared by many people who do not believe they are space aliens.

The alien chain of command is definitely nonfunctional from her point of view. It’s sort of like being given an office and a desk and being told that you’re a corporate vice president, and then sitting there for years and years wondering what your job is and what the firm that employs you does. Plus, you can’t talk about it because people will think of you as some sort of National Enquirer fruitcake.

The more I heard about my friend’s friend, the underemployed space alien, the more her plight sounded familiar. We were none of us in class the day they passed out the secret of life; we all of us wander around listening for messages that never seem to arrive. The only people who really screw up are the ones who think they’ve gotten the message. All those guys over the years who were convinced they had the exact date when the world would end - they’re batting 0-for-eternity so far.

So here we are spinning through the unutterable void without a road map, bolstered only by the evidence of things not seen, bookended by the mysteries of birth and death, bewildered by our own emotions … Talk about space aliens.

I am not posting this to convince you that Jon Carroll is a good writer (he is) or to buy his book (you should), but to note the experience of deviancy. The underemployed alien is experiencing deviancy in our culture— and for all that we celebrate a certain kind of deviancy, the kind that can make money, we are remarkably intolerant of deviancy in general. It makes me sad. Like free speech, deviancy has benefits that outweigh its drawbacks— I promise you that you don’t want to live in a monoculture, and if you police deviancy, that’s where you’re headed.

Monocultures die quick, well-deserved deaths.

The problem is, it’s much easier to write software that serves a monoculture instead of software that serves a real culture. If you’re writing something enterprisey, you can probably get away with serving a monoculture— but if you want to serve the general public, acting like the general public is a monoculture is a deadly poison for your application. The general public is infinitely diverse. You, writing your very important software product, may be tempted to say - well, so what? Eighty-twenty rule and all that. I don’t need to optimize that far.

You kind of do, though. When you are writing for the general public, you can’t tell who the eighty percent are, you will lose data by not considering all cases, and importantly the eighty percent will change out from under you.

I want to say that again: the eighty percent case, if you’re writing software for the general public, will change out from under you— because people and culture are either changing or dying. You want to be able to pivot, as the startup crowd says: to be able to gracefully acknowledge that what people want and are willing to pay for is a bit different than what you are currently offering, and to be able change modes so that you can actually deliver what people want and are willing to pay for. By definition, you cannot know this information in advance: you must simply be able to react well to changing circumstances.

You are damaging your ability to pivot if you dismiss the fullness of humanity and insist that humans should change to fit your data structures. Don’t gratuitously handicap yourself like that. As Paul Graham notes, you should have a keen interest in what you can’t say. Don’t, in short, be like this twerp Avery Morrow, who sulks that people should fit his data structures better and that developers' convenience should take precedence, in software for a general audience, over users receiving software that serves their actual needs in their actual lives. Morrow has it exactly backwards! When you are a developer, making difficult decisions is your job. Shirking that job leads to bad software. So I think that Morrow is a bad developer and a twerp: it’s clear that his identity has never had to deal with software that denies his existence. If you want to know what privilege looks like, that’s it.

A good developer should have empathy instead of being like Morrow. Lacking empathy makes you stupid. Consider this: Morrow complains vociferously about “gender” being a free-form text field - and yet Metafilter, not a small site by anyone’s lights, has had that in place for years. Metafilter’s gender data is instructive, too. By far the majority of users there simply don’t give a shit about the things Morrow complains about. They leave the field blank and go on their way. On the other side of the scale, here we find underemployed aliens. People have claimed as their gender “xx,” “xy,” and “xml.” People have claimed “m,” “f,” and “varies with proximity to scotland.” There are plenty of aliens here - and Morrow wants to throw them out.

Here is someone with the right idea: Patrick McKenzie’s “Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names.” The human experience is massively diverse and, lucky you, you get to deal with it. When you’re a system or administrator or a developer, dealing with that diversity is an essential component of a job well done. Especially as a developer, where your job is to make abstractions. Abstractions and aggregations and arrays are good - but you shouldn’t let them blind you to the fact that humans are not abstract. The abstractions that we developers describe humans with are convenient, but they’re not free. The price is a reduced precision of representing the human experience.

Embrace the diversity of the human experience - especially when you’re programming something that you want humans in general to use. The aliens are out there, and there is no good excuse for your program to break just because they’re aliens.