Digital Ways in an Analog World

It seems we can’t go long without hearing the Digital mob raise its favorite chant “This changes everything!” Like first time parents, they’re convinced there’s never been anything quite as wonderful as their new baby, be it the latest operating system, the next killer app, the next generation of phone, or the unfortunately named iPad. It’s tough not to roll one’s eyes, to turn away to more substantial considerations, and leave the myopic bright eyes (digitally enhanced no doubt) to their eventual disappointment or distraction.

But Digital IS different. It may not, ahem, change everything, but like any new experience it may cast a new light across our known world, illuminating features we hadn’t noticed before.

Most of the time when I get cranked up here, I’m drawing attention to ways that Digital hasn’t changed the fundamentals of what it means to be human, either personally or professionally. I’m not quite ready to climb down off that soapbox, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that as we track outcomes on the way to more Digital, we may learn something about being human as well.

A Digital Lens
Digital is a fertile ground for metaphors of the human experience. Forget something? You “lost a pointer into memory.” Can’t quite function before that first cup of coffee? You’re just having trouble “booting up.” Feeling the need to get away? You just need to “go offline” for a while. Beyond those throw away phrases, though, are some richer veins of understanding to be mined.

Most recently this was brought to mind when trying to implement some minor bit of process at my current job. Hey WAIT A MINUTE! Before you run off screaming over the horizon at the mere mention of the word “process” for fear of its evil twin, “bureaucracy,” take a deep breath. There’s a story here that might be worth hearing.

I’m the first one to rant that process isn’t some magic elixir you pour down some poor drone’s throat and get instant conformant, efficient behavior, even it happens to have “Best Practice” printed on the label. Implementing effective process, at least in situations that mean anything, is always more complex than a single power point slide.

The evil twin, Bureaucracy, didn’t start out leaden and overly complex. Rather it was born in that moment when we imagine there is a simple, single, repeatable solution to a problem that is only poorly understood. “If we just do… THIS, the problem is solved, right?” Mmmm, but then what about this condition, or that exception? A few iterations, and all of a sudden we’re filling out form 732-B5.2 in triplicate while standing in a line that isn’t moving because somebody at the front is waving form 327-A4.5 in the face of an uncomprehending, uncaring clerk.

Does that sound familiar? It should to anybody that’s ever worked on a piece of software that is more than fifteen minutes old. We may all be only six degrees of separation away from Kevin Bacon, but trust me, we’re all infinitely removed from the mind of the original software engineer for a piece of unfamiliar code. And that’s just the well written (if poorly documented) stuff, a vanishingly small portion of all the software rat-racing down all the digital circuits around the world.

Digitally Enabled Godzilla
So what’s my point? That all software developers are really just closet bureaucrats? While perhaps true, I’m headed somewhere else. Developing good software is an amazingly difficult undertaking. Oh, it may not be too hard to come up with the happy path of functions, that yellow brick road of the well known and easily anticipated. But then we push our little digital undertaking up against the realities of everyday. In a flash it’s not so much Fred Astaire as Godzilla with a huge snort of cocaine up his prodigious nose, rampaging through the neat little processes of our workplace.

Going on thirty years ago one of my CompSci professors mused that if we built bridges the way we build software, we’d all be dead. True then and probably still true today, but in the past thirty years we’ve learned a lot about how to codify and structure an activity in such a way that it can be explained to and satisfactorily replicated by our dear if somewhat dim digital boxes.

Hmmmm. Codify and structure an activity. Software or process. You make the call, but I can’t help but think that some of the approaches we’ve developed over time to deal with the amorphous translation of ideas into software could also be applied to translation of objectives into process for our organizations.

We’d never imagine that we could take a thirty year old application written for an IBM mainframe, shove it onto our sleek little iPhone and get good results. Yet it seems like you can’t turn around at work without some newly minted VP attempting just that with process. And bureaucracy is born.

Process, just like software is only as good as its assumptions about inputs, outputs, and translations. Good software employs a degree of flexibility as a way to predictability. Lazy software just suppresses that flexibility (or throws the computer equivalent of a temper tantrum and crashes). Same deal with good process. Good process supports and enhances the application of good judgment to the unexpected on the way to predictability. Lazy, bureaucratic process drains away any opportunity for judgment and any flexibility to address the unexpected.

We Think Therefore We Stomp
Unfortunately for the process engineers, whether at home and at work, the platform for software , a computer, is much more structured and predictable than the platform for process, human beings. It doesn’t take long to get a good bead on the underlying capabilities and limitations of a particular box or application. Humans? Well not so much. We constantly surprise each other in both useful and not so useful ways. The human capacity of imagination and interpretation separates us from the boxes and is the blessing and the bane of any process engineer.

Which brings us back to more familiar Analog Underground territory. The practices of the Digirati may cast some light on how we choose to program ourselves and live our lives. Those practices, however, cannot be applied as if there is no difference between machines and humans. At best we’d create many minor irritations, inconveniences, and other petty bureaucracy. At worst we’d edit out all the random, chaotic pathways to unexpected meaning and connection that make us fully human.

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