In my recent posts inspired by Max Weber’s warning about loss of meaning, I have tended to dwell on specific words and concepts whose meaning has been eroded, if not entirely demolished in our era of newspeak. However, the nature of meaning itself is also at stake, not only in terms of philosophical perspectives concerned with the “meaning of meaning” but also with regard to how meaning is put to use. Thus, a corollary to loss of meaning is loss of expertise; and we seem to be seeing more and more evidence of it every day.
The loss of expertise, in turn, may be seen as a consequence of the extent to which “knowledge work” has become reduced to a “sweatshop industry,” whose workers amount to little more than “mindless drones.” The “knowledge worker” is expected to be able to deploy a limited repertoire of routines in a work setting in which efficiency counts for more than effectiveness. It is unlikely that this worker knows why those routines do what they do; and in some cases (s)he may not really know what they do, only the circumstances in which they are to be deployed.
We may well start to be seeing this loss of expertise where it matters most, in the development of the software infrastructure on which this degraded sense of knowledge work depends so heavily. For those who preach that the future of our economy lies in innovations in information technology, software engineering may well be the “last best hope” for real knowledge work. However, even where we expect to find it, it is no longer what it used to be. My own most painful confrontation with this ugly truth has been in the shoddy nature of OS X Lion on my Mac PowerBook, an operating system so flawed that I would have taken it for a Microsoft product.
However, if this was a consequence of a new work [sic] force for which operating systems are no longer “cool,” BBC News just ran a Technology story that cuts closer to the “heart of cool.” A whopping eighteen months after the launch of the iPad, Facebook has finally released its own “native” app. However, if this effort was far from a day late, it is even further from a dollar short. The initial user response has been a host of stories about all the bugs that were quickly encountered. This puts the extended development time in an interesting light. The BBC report claims that Facebook offered no explanation for the delay, offering only the following statement from Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor:
We’re releasing it now because it’s done.
Add “done” to that list of words that have lost meaning!
Automation has always been a threat to workers. At a policy level we have believed that automation should be an incentive to acquire new skills. However, those skills are now under threat, too and have been reduced to a command of fleeting techniques that are here today and gone tomorrow. In E. M. Forster’s cautionary tale, “the machine stops” because no one is left with the skills to keep it in proper working order. Software development has now become a machine, and it is being run by workers who really have no idea what it is doing or how it can been maintained. Forster’s machine degraded gradually, and we may now be experiencing the beginning of such degradation in our information technology infrastructure.