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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Sat, 31 Jul 2004

Taking responsibility
This post is going to be a little bit disjointed. I apologize from the start. I have several themes running through my head, and I know they all tie together, but I may not be able to express the connection coherently. But I've been mulling it over for a few days now, and it's not getting any clearer, so I'm just going to take a stab at writing it all down and see what happens.

I was watching a PBS show called Now with Bill Moyers the other day, primarily because I found out that he'd be interviewing George Lakoff, whose work I adore. Before Moyers interviewed Lakoff, he talked with another political analyst about the 9/11 Commission Report. The other guy (whose name I can't remember) made an interesting comment about the report, noting that the report did a good job of identifying institutional failures, but refused to identify specific people that could have helped prevent 9/11. The system was blamed, not individual people.

I perked up when I heard that. It ties in perfectly with Clay Shirky's observation that "Process is an embedded reaction to prior stupidity". In fact, I'll quote more from Shirky's article to make the point:

"We need a process to ensure that the client does not get half-finished design sketches" is code for "Greg fucked up." The problem, of course, is that much of this process nevertheless gets put in place, meaning that an organization slowly forms around avoiding the dumbest behaviors of its mediocre employees, resulting in layers of gunk that keep its best employees from doing interesting work, because they too have to sign The Form Designed to Keep You From Doing The Stupid Thing That One Guy Did Three Years Ago.
Why are we so afraid to blame people? Why is it that it's okay to criticize the process, the institutional failures, but it's not okay to say (to use Shirky's mythical employee) "Greg, you fucked up"?

It's interesting to me because it ties back into my previous post about harshness. People are so afraid of being seen as mean or of being negative that we have to delicately talk around the problem instead of confronting the issues directly. Sometimes people screw up. And it has to be okay to say that, rather than talk about how the proper process wasn't in place to prevent mistakes from happening.

Where am I going with this? I guess I want to try to outline an alternate universe that runs according to the rules I think I'd prefer to live by. In our current world, it's not okay to blame people directly, to tell them they screwed up, and in fact, to say anything negative about them whatsoever, because you'll get tarred with the epithets of "negative" or "harsh" or "bitter" or "cynical" (who, me?). This extends to management within companies and even governments. We can't say "No, that person is a useless loser who will drag the rest of us down", we have to say things like "We don't feel that he can contribute to the team at this time." Instead of saying, "Y'know what? Eric totally forgot to check his code and that's why it broke", we say "We need to have a process in place for checking code to ensure that this does not happen in the future." All of these things drive me nuts.

I think I'd prefer a much more human-centered world. We, as people, need to run our own lives. We, as people, need to take responsibility for our own lives. My primary asset in this world is my intelligence, my ability to judge situations and respond accordingly. Why should I give up my ability to exercise that asset to the vagaries of some process? I guess that less self-confident people might want to make that trade, in a futile attempt at numbing security, where they could never be criticized, they could never be wrong, because they didn't make any choices - it was all the process. But I don't want to live that way. I believe in my judgment. I don't know how I could live life if I didn't. So I want the freedom to use that judgement. I don't want to be hemmed in by "gunk" formed "around avoiding the dumbest behaviors".

Yes, I'll screw up. People that are making decisions often do. But that's okay. I'll admit that I screwed up, and I'll fix it and deal with the consequences, and we'll move on. One of the reasons that I think my coworkers like me is that I'll admit my mistakes. I'm honest and upfront and say "Whoops, I didn't think of that". But I will happily take the brunt of accepting responsibility for my mistakes if it means having the freedom to make decisions. Freedom and responsibility. Always paired.

Too many people in this world run scared from responsibility, from ever admitting they made a mistake. Ben Franklin had it right when he said "The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either." The security of protecting one's ego from the fear of screwing up isn't worth it. It's too much of a sacrifice. I'm not willing to make it. I don't understand why so many other people are. We all admire the people that are secure enough in themselves to say "Yes, I made a mistake." Well, okay, I at least admire them. Nothing was more ludicrous to me than having our president insist in a press conference that his administration had made no mistakes over the past three years. I guess there are those who gleefully pounce on other people's admissions of error and try to use such admissions to drive them into the ground as a way of distracting attention from their own shortcomings and insecurities. That could be a factor, I suppose. I wish we didn't live in a society that encouraged such gadflies. Anyway.

Having the freedom to make mistakes is a large portion of why I want to work at a small company in the future. Startups haven't had time to accrete all the gunk associated with process. Startups have to be more free form, because you don't have a margin for error. You can't afford dead weight in the form of process. It's less secure - each decision you make could affect the success of the project and therefore the company and your job. But it's more freedom. And that's a trade I will gladly take. I want to work in an environment where my manager trusts my judgment, and gives me the freedom to use it. I'll take my lumps when I make a mistake. It's worth it.

I feel like I have some grand vision lurking in the back of my brain of an idealized utopia. I see peeks of it through discussions like this one where several disparate elements come together. A vision of a world which is ultimately human-centered. It's almost objectivist. A world where the freedom to exercise judgment is widespread, and those who make poor choices are called on it and suffer the consequences of their actions. Do I think it's realistic? Unfortunately, no. Too many people want to run away from responsibility, want to live a life of childhood where they are given what they want without having to work for it. They take praise and other gifts indiscriminately because they feel their very existence earns them such plaudits. I have a very different value system. I don't know how to reconcile the two. It may not be possible. The best I can do is try to run my life the way I feel it should be run.

posted at: 02:15 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Paul Graham
A friend of mine passed along the link to this article by Paul Graham, talking about what distinguishes great hackers from the rest of us, in light of my entry discussing the extreme gradient in the ability of programmers. I liked the article a lot, partially because it's eloquent, but mostly because he has similar thoughts to ones I've had. His analysis of how great hackers should be used behind the scenes to architect things, so that "the less smart people writing the actual applications wouldn't be doing low-level stuff like allocating memory. Instead of writing Word directly in C, they'd be plugging together big Lego blocks of Word-language. (Duplo, I believe, is the technical term.)" ties in nicely with my projections of where things are heading in the software industry. I also agree with his sentiment that hackers question the assumptions (his quote: "Programs are very complex and, at least in the hands of good programmers, very fluid. In such situations it's helpful to have a habit of questioning assumptions.")

I don't know who Paul Graham is. From poking around his site a bit, he sounds like an accomplished Lisp hacker. He's written a bunch of thoughtful articles, primarily on programming, but a few in other areas. I particularly liked this article about the unpopularity of nerds, where he points out that being popular in high school, dressing right and acting right and everything, is a lot of work, and nerds can't be bothered because they'd rather be smart and curious than popular. Interesting analysis of the dynamics of high school, especially in retrospect.

Some neat stuff. I'm not too interested in his programming essays, mostly because they seem to often end up proselytizing for Lisp, but the couple social essays I read were pretty interesting. I'll keep an eye on his site in the future, I think.

posted at: 01:06 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

I broke down and opened a livejournal account the other day. It's even worse, though. I only opened a livejournal account because I don't have a real server to host this blog on currently, so there's no real way for me to do comments (both blosxom and Movable Type require a server where I have perl and cgi script rights). So until the day when I get unlame enough to find somebody who will let me host off of their server, or set up one of my own, if you want to comment on one of my posts, follow the link at the bottom of the post to livejournal and comment there. I'll basically post links from there back to posts here. Or something. Yes, it's an ungainly awful evil hack. But I'm lame. Eit.

posted at: 00:47 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal