By Mark Bernstein
A lot conventional wisdom about software is mistaken. It's probably a mistake to try to tackle these misconceptions in too much detail in a blog post, but my time here is limited and perhaps a short catalog of common mistakes might help some of you think more critically about the programs you use every day.
Results are what matter
We all know that small computers have transformed the workplace. The world of The Apartment and Mad Men has vanished. Companies know that they wouldn't be more profitable if they discarded their PCs and hired lots of secretaries and typists. Yet the productivity gains from using computers have been remarkably hard to identify.
It turns out that lot of the work we do with business computers involves dressing up our ideas to impress managers and clients. Where a typed page was once sufficient, we now dispatch an elegantly typeset document and a deck of presentation slides. This might not help the company serve customers, but it helps individuals impress their managers.
Much of the real contribution that software makes to your thinking happens in the course of the work. What may matter most in the long run are the ideas you discover while preparing a management report or a client presentation. Process matters.
Software should be polished
We spend too much time perfecting the way our programs look, just as in the previous century we spent far too much time perfecting our books. We are accustomed to a very high standard of editing and typesetting in publishing, a standard that originally was possible only because a vast number of educated women were for the first time entering the work force and were, for a time, willing to accept very low wages. Today, we look for the same sort of surface polish in our software.
All this polish comes with substantial costs. Some costs are evident because they appear in the price. Others are hidden. How do you measure the cost of terrific software that never gets written, or that remains locked in a laboratory?
Software developers have long struggled to reduce the riskiness of development, its delays and failures, by working to build a software factory that would make software construction more systematic. This hasn't worked well. "We software creators woke up one day," I wrote in 2007, "to find ourselves living in the software factory. The floor is hard, from time to time it gets very cold at night, and they say the factory is going to close and move somewhere else. We are unhappy with our modern computing and alienated from our work, we experience constant, inexorable guilt."
We've been here before. In 1853, John Ruskin inserted a long aside in The Stones Of Venice to advise to the Victorian consumer and art buyer. What sort of things should one buy? Ruskin suggests the following:
1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.
2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving record of great works.
Mark Bernstein is chief scientist at Eastgate Systems, where he crafts software for new ways of reading and writing.
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