The Secular Crusades of the Latter Half of the Twentieth Century

Ever Get The Feeling You're Wasting Your Life?


Last updated: 2020.01.08

I'm about to say something that, in all liklihood, will make you groan. So don't say I didn't warn you.

Remember the Amiga computer?

Now that you're done groaning, I'll continue.

That was easily the coolest computer ever made. Nothing made since then has ever matched the elegance, the simplicity, and the sheer brilliance of that machine, let alone surpassed it. If it hadn't been for that noble, modest box, I wouldn't have the job I have today.

The Amiga computer didn't get in your way. It presented the fewest obstacles between imagination and realization. I mean, if you were a programmer, which would you rather spend time doing: building meaningfully on your concepts and ideas, or fighting Windows?

But this diatribe isn't about comparing the relative merits of Amiga versus every other machine. This is about the philosophy Amiga represented, about how I've tried to carry that philosophy forward past Amiga, and how, despite my most optimistic outlooks, that effort at times appears futile.

Some may accuse me of romanticizing things a bit but, for me, Amiga represented the fruit of the labors of people who decided that they were going to do the best damn job they possibly could. They didn't go to work and mill around for eight hours and go home. These people cared about what they were creating. They wanted this machine to be a part of not just their lives, but the lives of (they hoped) millions of other people all across the world.

When you stop and consider the possibility of affecting the lives of millions of people, you start to realize (unless, of course, you're a greedy money-grubbing sociopath with bad hair) the enormity of the responsibility you're assuming, and you had therefore be damn sure that what you're doing is well-considered, and will affect their lives in the most positive way possible.

I don't see a lot of this kind of thinking in evidence these days. What my jaundiced eye is seeing most frequently are quick hacks, scams, and just plain I-don't-give-a-damn kinds of attitudes.

I'm sorry, but I just don't understand this thinking. I mean, think about it. Let's say you're asked to design a car. If you're successful, this car will be used by millions of people, including yourself. So think: What do you want in this car? Think about the car you already have. What do you like about it? What do you dislike? What would you put into this new car that would improve your driving experience, and the experience of everyone else who would drive it? Got it?

Okay, now that you know what you want, why would you build something else? Okay, perhaps you wouldn't, but a heck of a lot of other people sure are. People I know who work with computers every day suffer through mind-numbingly stupid systems and designs, designs to which they themselves contributed. And they complain about it. And my response is, "If you hate this so much, why did you build it that way?"

Some simply reply, "Eh, I'll just live with it." Being a maniacal technocrat myself, I don't accept this response, either. How many things in your life do you "just live with?" Too many? If so, why would you add another? A friend of mine once made the following observation, as part of his discourse on a thing he called Psychic Litter (paraphrased from memory):

Let's say you publish a product that, for whatever reason, causes a person to waste one hour of their time that, had you gone to a little extra trouble, they otherwise wouldn't have wasted. If you sell just 10 million copies of it, that's 10,000,000 hours of people's time you've wasted, which is approximately equivalent to twelve human lifetimes. Those twelve lives of productivity are now lost. So your failure to spend the extra time to save that hour for the user is tantamount to murdering twelve people.

So, if you wanted to think of it as such, that makes every software engineer at Microsoft a mass murderer. Kinda puts things in a different perspective, doesn't it?

This intellectual abstraction is certainly entertaining, but my friend's thesis ties in to the point I'm trying to make, which is: Why would you spend your time creating something you don't want? Why would you want to build or contribute to something that's going to waste your time, or your friends' time?

This, then, is the core of the philosophy I've tried to take from the Amiga and carry forward. My time is valuable. So is my friends' time. I'd like to keep my friends, and I'd like to be able to feel good about myself. So I'm not going to build junk. I'm not going to build or contribute to anything I wouldn't have and use myself.

I don't know a thing about Microsoft Windows. Never wrote a line of code for it. If I have anything to say about it, I never will. I refuse to pollute my brain with the details of design flaws created by people who manifestly don't care about the lives of the people they're affecting. This isn't restricted to computers, either. I won't vote for anyone who I don't believe understands the true gravity of the office for which they're applying. Whether it be software engineering or social engineering, it's still engineering. As a responsible engineer, you must consider all possible ramifications and failure modes of your designs before you can, in good conscience, expect someone else to use it and make it a part of their life.

This isn't some Noble Theology I picked up somewhere, it's pure selfishness. If, by some miracle, I find myself alive 150 years from now, I'd like myself and others to be able to look back on what I created and not cringe in shame. It would be really cool if, in the year 2146, someone walked up to me and said, "You're Leo Schwab?" "Yes." "Are you the one who created that flabloden chranistat I read about in history class?" "Yeah..." "That was really cool!"

This philosophy, however, seems to be in very short supply. Most of the designers and politicians I've seen enjoying great success of late seem to have obtained it by pandering to the Zeitgeist. "Ooo! Object-Oriented programming is the thing now; let's hack together a class library." "Ooo! TV violence is a hot topic again; let's decry it and maybe write some laws." Under ordinary circumstances, I would look at this state of affairs, get depressed, and give up. "What's the use?" I'd say. "I'll just live with it."

If I were to do that, I would become part of the problem; yet another inert blob contributing to the problem by not doing anything about it. So I haven't given up. The piece of operating system code I'm working on now is exceptionally cool, is designed to be maximally flexible, rather frugal with CPU and memory, and not get in your way. After all, I may one day have to write code that uses this thing; I'd like my job to be as easy as possible. I'm doing my part to make my small corner of the universe a pleasant place to be.

Like I said, I want to be well-thought of in a couple centuries, and I want the world I inhabit to be a pleasant place for me and my friends. How would you like to be thought of? What have you done? What are you doing? What kind of world do you want to live in? It's your future, after all...