Sometimes inefficiency is best.
Evan Selinger and Clive Thompson write about the American infatuation with efficiency.
Coders get a rush of pleasure out of cutting efficiency out of systems, says Thompson.
If you’d asked me what are some of the typical traits of the people who tend to find coding fun before I started working on the book, I would have made rather obvious observations. Programmers are good at thinking logically. They enjoy solving puzzles and breaking down complicated things.
What I didn’t expect to routinely hear from people who became programmers is that, early on, they appreciated that machines are really good at things that humans are bad at. They’re amazing at taking any process that’s a boring slog and making it faster and more efficient through automation.
Different coders often told me the same story from school, a moment when the efficiency lightbulb went off. As kids, they’d be in math class, hating to have to show all their work. It was always some boring question they knew the answer to at a glance but were forced to write up in multiple steps. So, they all were like, “Let me just write a solver,” in whatever language they were using. They’d type in the equation and, boom, a machine outputs all the different steps without them having to do all of the work.
After this success, a realization set in: “Wow, my life is filled with dull, repetitive tasks. And I now know how to instruct a machine to do boring chores. So, I should hand them over.” A kind of thrill in optimizing is born.
Since computers are functional machines that can do lots of different things, these coders would very quickly start developing a type of X-ray vision about the world itself. They’d just keep on thinking, “Wow, I could automate that. I could make this more efficient. I could automate this other thing, too.”
Taking this attitude too far causes problems, when the efficiency seekers fail to see that the activity they labeled as inefficiency, is, in fact, important. Thompson tells the story “about a fairly senior engineer who was probably a project manager:”
At some point, he got very angry at the number of jokes that were being told in meetings, because he was like, “Well, this is a waste of time, and our time is precious.” He literally calculated what he estimated to be the number of jokes told over one year and worked out how many personal hours he felt were being wasted on this.
Of course, the surreal thing about that is anyone who actually knows how organizations work will tell you that little bits of joking in a meeting might be the most important thing being done there. They provide unit cohesion. They’re moments of levity that allow people to continue working under frustrating deadlines and stuff like that. But this guy just couldn’t get past seeing life as a spreadsheet.
Also, this from Thompson:
Why are consumers so eager to find a new app that we hope will speed up our lives or give us more free time? I think this has to do with the novelty effect. When we change something in our environment, we sometimes discover that we’re temporarily more productive and creative. Unfortunately, once something is no longer novel and the change in tempo or style stops feeling fresh, the effect fades.
That hits close to home. I regularly switch task managers and writing software. And yeah there’s that rush of newness followed by a let-down.