The 100% Club and Why I Don’t Want to Join

Somewhere between that last nine in 99.999999 and giving 110% we’ve lost sight of the big picture. In our quest for perfect control, that platinum club, queue skipping, arrow straight, GPS-tuned line from idea to delivery, we seem to have forgotten that reality isn’t quite that neat and tidy. We’ve got a risk-free monkey on our back. To be perfectly fair (chuff!), I can’t lay this addiction at the feet of the Digital but you can bet Digital is not on the menu at the Perfect Control Rehab Clinic either.

Back in 1772 Voltaire said “The perfect is the enemy of the good” so apparently we’ve got a running start at this jones for dominion over variation. It took a mechanical engineer, Fredrick Winslow Taylor, and his time and motion studies to really get rolling with the application of assembly line thinking to the masses. By the time ENIAC started frying apocryphal moths against its vacuum tubes in the 1940’s we barely felt the prick of the needle seeking that last good vein.

Who Let That .000001 In?
You’d think the software engineering industry would get that there’s always a gap between the actual and the ideal. After all, software engineering is nothing more than the translation of some reality from natural language through progressively more structured formats until we arrive at something the boxes can apply. That process isn’t perfect.

We clarify and trim a hallway conversation into a meeting agenda and power point slides. The meeting notes refine debate into a requirements document. Some designer edits and prioritizes to accommodate budget, technical, or political limitations. Then some engineer, hectored by syntax or admiration of their own creativity, lays some Jackson Pollock-like description of the envisioned state at the foot of the boxes. They then race off at the speed of electrons to recreate a fifth hand rumor of the original idea. All those clipped off bits of yellowed understanding and crumbling clarity are scattered like fallen leaves into some dusty cubicle corner. At the end of it all you’re left standing in front of a confused clerk who pushes the same button on the same point-of-sale terminal for the 15th time, hoping for a different result.

Sorry Mr. Taylor, but Meaning Gets Lost in all that Time and Motion
We act like Bermuda-shorted tourists shooting blurred pictures of what might or might not have been the latest b-list reality show star spilling their coffee at Starbucks with our 10 megapixel camera. One of the best software engineers I know says there isn’t much value in trying to take the measure of something in units finer than precision of available tools. Put another way, what we do with the boxes is an approximation of some reality. Much as we might wish it otherwise, the fidelity of that approximation is limited by the precision of our tools, both intellectual and physical. When we acknowledge these limitations and act within them, good things happen. When we don’t, watch out.

I’d love to suggest that this just a matter of more disciplined analysis and engineering. However, we’re not talking some street corner thugs stealing cigarettes. When executives, engineers, and society as a whole collude to ignore the limitations of our Digital tools, it’s more like the Mob moving in to muscle out understanding and meaning. Tonight, reality sleeps with the fishes and no RICO wielding Digital DA is ever going to figure out what happened.

Celebrating the .000001
The Analog is an infinitely variable, no-solution calculus. Digital is always an attempt to take its measure, and fans of quantum physics know you can’t measure something without changing it. Our application of machines and computers to the physics and logic of reality cannot help but change that reality. We almost always base our designs on some snapshot of the passing show, freezing reality, dumbing it down so we can apply the mechanical advantage and logical efficiency of our machines. We spend a tremendous amount of energy chasing that absolutely perfect, 100% accurate snapshot. However, whatever our intent, only the snapshot is frozen. Reality moves on. Eventually every machine and every computer is, at best, solving a problem that doesn’t matter anymore, or, at worst, creating new problems more intractable than the old ones.

The machines are always going to have a greater mechanical advantage. The boxes are always going to be quicker at puzzling out some mundane piece of logic. We don’t become better humans beings by getting better at playing second fiddle in those games, endlessly refining out the those .000001 variations and deficiencies. We become better human beings when we acknowledge and even celebrate the endless variation we call reality. We become better human beings as we come together at that source of all growth and learning.

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