Toddlers in Porsches with Plasma Weapons

by Kevin Oh

In this one TED talk, Malcolm Gladwell told a story about how the U.S. military once spent $3 billion dollars developing a “scope” (as in, a telescopic sight for a weapon) for planes to attack their targets with terrifying accuracy. When it worked, it was considered revolutionary. The so-called Norden Bombsight made it possible to “drop bombs into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet.” God-like accuracy for the time.

However - Gladwell later laments that regardless of the US Military’s newfound technical capability, it led to little actual progress because:

“The harder problem [in war] isn’t putting the bomb in the pickle barrel, it’s finding the pickle barrel in the first place.”

The world of programming has always been characterized by a relentless pursuit of improvement and optimization. Any algorithm in the world could be done by a human with a pencil and some paper. The goal is to do it faster, more efficiently.

But I fear, at least in the scope of my own goals as a developer, that my participation in that grand pursuit has, for too long, gone undirected by some greater moral imperative. Something to give it all meaning. And after years of study, what I’ve become is a toddler sitting in a Porsche, armed to the teeth with plasma weapons, with no real enemies to shoot and no idea where to go.

Very practically in my own life, as a single human being, where does that leave me? Okay, AWS has made cloud computing accessible and affordable, and with containerization technologies like Docker, provisioning tools like Ansible, caches, quick-compiling statically typed languages like Golang, Continouous Deployment & Integration systems like CI/Travis/Jenkins/etc, I can solve problems at scales previously unheard of. For absolute certain - this is nothing to scoff at. It is jaw-droppingly amazing what brilliant minds have been able to create.

And yet, when I see old friendships dissolve on Facebook because of bitter political arguments, when I see the systematic spread of false information, the overwhelming flood of brilliantly-marketed distractions violently spewing out of every digital .com orifice of the Internet, when I start to notice patterns in the signs and speeches broadcast by homeless men on the train, when I hear statistics about the jaw-dropping wealth inequality in the country, I feel a sharp sting of frustration.

Surely, if I’m so smart, and surely, if I have access to this great technology, I should be able to do something? Surely, if I could type in some code in just the right way, then in a year’s time I could halve world hunger?

I don’t mean to contrive and impose a moral impetus on every other developer in the world to go and join a nonprofit. But I can’t help but wonder - could I, myself, be doing more? I’m certain I could. Our profession is, at its heart, about problem-solving, but for too long I’ve confused the labor of almost academic optimization with labor that actually fortifies the bottom line of the human experience. Reconciling broken relationships, reducing human suffering, enriching our lives with art, comedy, and other creative works.

It would behoove all who call themselves engineers to consciously endeavor to remember this truth: money and technology can free up time and massage away roadblocks and hiccups, but those things that most enrich life can often be had for free, and are not complicated in nature.

And whilst technical work can absolutely indisputably enrich our lives, aid communication, and so much more, it’s a nit worth remembering. A Bluetooth-capable, battery-powered mug is great, but you can drink water from your hands just fine. Watching The Avengers, with all of those millions poured into CGI and audio engineering, is an amazing experience. But watching a fellow human belt out a vocal solo on Broadway is its own unassailably human experience, and one that I fear we are forgetting.

I say again - it feels like I’m armed with a bombsight, with the ability to shoot bombs inside a pickel barrel from 20,000 feet, but with no barrel in sight.

This post is a reminder to myself to re-focus. Remember the power that a simple WordPress site can have. Remember that somewhere out there, thousands of people are doing more with a Wix website than I’ve ever done with the apps I built using whatever.js.

In the current political and economic landscape in the US, there’s a lot to broken stuff to fix. FreeCodeCamp and organizations like Catchafire connect nonprofits with devs. CodeForAmerica connects government with devs. I think I’ll try to do more.

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