Origami in a house aflame
I have this recurring vision of tech practitioners as skilled origami experts, trying to fold paper into clever and graceful swans while their house is fully engulfed in flames. As quickly as they create the little paper animals they burst into flame. It doesn’t really matter that they are masters at their difficult and obscure craft because other issues obviate and destroy their good works.
Despite the thousands of conscientious, skilled practitioners who want nothing more than to create superb quality products with beguiling and powerful interactions, the businesses they work for are fully engulfed in the flames of runaway capitalism. The idea that a company is part of the community where it trades is gone. The idea that it’s in the company’s own best interest to maintain the health and welfare of its employees, users, and customers is gone. The economics of capitalism-run-wild simply don’t support that anymore.
Crafters struggle with this conundrum.
When little companies start out, they know their success depends on the success of everyone in their ecosystem. But after a successful company has grown past a certain point, the calculus changes. While big companies can make money by creating great products, they can make lots more money by creating bad products.
Today’s on-line commerce sites are riven with dark patterns and hidden gotchas, slyly checking opt-in boxes when you aren’t looking, working assiduously to hide phone numbers so they don’t have to provide customer service, and generally treating you like a victim and not a partner.
I once told a client that, by making some modest and imminently feasible changes to their product, they could dramatically reduce their tech support infrastructure. They fired me. They explained that tech support was their most profitable division, and they didn’t want their product to be easy to understand and use.
Apple, for example, doesn’t feel that it needs to play well with other software products. It takes a village just to get a photo away from iPhoto’s grasp and into any other manufacturer’s program.
Crafters struggle with this conundrum. In school, the old socially-responsible values are still elevated as ideals, yet upon matriculating into the workaday world, practitioners soon discover that what’s best for their organizations doesn’t correlate all that closely with the work they are encouraged to do. Instead, companies view their employees and community as ore deposits that are theirs to mine for wealth. Instead of quality and longevity, they coerce and trick for advantage, then abandon everyone at the point of greatest exploitation.
When practitioners try their best to be a good ancestor, by creating works of lasting beauty and value, they are reprimanded by their business overlords for wasting resources. And when they create dark patterns and deceitful interactions, they are compensated and promoted. The practitioners can only shake their heads as they gaze upon their works.
What’s more, companies can hire second tier practitioners to do it. And pay them less money. And send them to cheesy two-day training classes where they learn hacks and cheats and get a certificate because it’s cheaper than a real education.
Companies look at click streams and statistics instead of observing real users. Statistics tell them only how users are coping with the status quo and offer no insight into what they might really prefer. Qualitative research is only of interest to businesses if it means a tax deduction.
While there are still tech practitioners, there is really no such thing as a tech business anymore.
Runaway capitalism means burning down your infrastructure, igniting your assets, and making a killing selling tickets to the blaze. Well-meaning practitioners, intent on creating something of value, are simply folding paper into animals that immediately crisp and blacken.
While there are still tech practitioners, there is really no such thing as a tech business anymore. There are only money businesses. Unfettered capitalism creates unfettered organizations, and they quickly become predatory, consuming anything of value that comes before them.
The people who thrive in such an environment are predators, not social players. They eat their young and destroy their communities. Dedicated practitioners are mostly good people who value their communities and want to build, not plunder. And, unfortunately, they often blame themselves for their inability to reconcile the unreconcilable.