Tuesday, July 31, 2007

IT: Infantile Tenacity?

Yesterday, in a comment on confused of calcutta, I revisited that old joke that IT is one of only two professions that refers to its customers as "users." This morning, while reading Claire Messud's New York Review piece on Andrew O'Hagan's novel, Be Near Me, I remembered another "professional metaphor," which seems to now attract less attention than it did when it was first introduced. I do not know if Robert Townsend invented the metaphor for his book, Up the Organization; but that is where I first encountered it. It is where refers to IT professionals as high priests.

My memory was tweaked because the protagonist of Be Near Me is a Catholic priest. This gave O'Hagan an opportunity to reflect on the life of such a priest in a passage that fascinated me:

One never buys a house or pays school fees. One sleeps in a single bed. One lives like an orphan in a beautiful paternalistic dream. As a priest one may never grow up. In a sense, one lives as an infant before the practical trials of reality.

I have to wonder whether O'Hagan and I share the same reading of that preposition "before." If one reads this in the context of preparation for the priesthood, then "prior to" would probably be the appropriate reading. However, if this is a description of an ordained priest, then "in the face of" would be more suitable; and this is the reading I prefer, because I can then also read it in terms of those "ordained" in the practices of information technology.

What sort of infantilism do I have in mind (if this text is to be more than a screaming rant)? I think the answer can be found at the lower levels of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. These are the levels that have to do with the self-satisfaction of deficiencies, the implication being that, even when the deficiencies are social, satisfaction is very much a self-centered matter that essentially ignores the roles and motives of others in its achievements. Townsend was basically arguing that so many of the critical elements of the real world workplace were being blocked out by the dogmatic objectivity of information technology that the professionals of that technology would ultimately do more harm than good. Much of what he had to say was not only true but subsequently reinforced by the later stages (fads?) of IT development, culminating in the mess that has been made by the combination of today's enterprise systems and their connectivity to the Internet. Meanwhile, as the technologies have extended from life at work to life at home, the infantilism behind those technologies has similarly extended, leading to such phenomena as the self-satisfying "cult of the amateur" and Time's declaration of that infantile "you" as Person of the Year.

There is a further reading of that last sentence quoted from O'Hagan, which, in my argument, shifts attention from the "IT priesthood" to the "flock." To live as an infant in the face of the practical trials of reality is to believe, as an act of faith, if necessary, that someone (the father figure in that "beautiful paternalistic dream") will always be there to take care of those trials. Put another way, the infant lives without any sense of responsibility under the conviction that there will always be a deus ex machina to set things right. This is why so much of the current Presidential campaign seems to be based on appealing to what I have called the "Secular Messianism" of the electorate. Going beyond governance to everyday life, this form of infantilism was also embodied in the Eloi of H. G. Wells' Time Machine.

This leads us to two ways in which we can view today's IT profession. On the one hand they are the priests, the purveyors of that "beautiful paternalistic dream," who promise that all will be satisfied if we simply offer up our obedience without question or resistance. On the other hand they are the Morlocks, the only ones left capable of pulling those strings that satisfy our infantile needs. Then again, if we apply a dialectical synthesis, it may be that the IT professional is a Janus wearing both of these faces, since both priests and Morlocks seem to ask nothing more than that the rest of us wallow in our own infantilism.

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