The IT Event Horizon

"Many years ago this was a thriving, happy planet - people, cities, shops, a normal world. Except that on the high streets of these cities there were slightly more shoe shops than one might have thought necessary. And slowly, insidiously, the number of the shoe shops were increasing. It's a well-known economic phenomenon but tragic to see it in operation, for the more shoe shops there were, the more shoes they had to make and the worse and more unwearable they became. And the worse they were to wear, the more people had to buy to keep themselves shod, and the more the shops proliferated, until the whole economy of the place passed what I believe is termed the Shoe Event Horizon, and it became no longer economically possible to build anything other than shoe shops. Result - collapse, ruin and famine. Most of the population died out. Those few who had the right kind of genetic instability mutated into birds who cursed their feet, cursed the ground and vowed that no one should walk on it again."

"The Restaurant at the End of the Universe", Douglas Adams

It can't have escaped your notice that IT is shit. Computers are shit. Software is shit. The Internet is shit. Mobile phones are becoming increasingly shit. Here are the major problems that affect just about anything IT related:

I've been in the industry a few years now: I've seen this stuff from the inside. I've watched the half-baked ideas get half-finished in a half-arsed fashion, and the complete mess that inevitably results. And I've come to the conclusion that the root of the problem is just one word: speed.

No, not the drug, for all that one sometimes wonders. I'm talking about the legendary pace that for some inexplicable reason seems to drive the industry. Moore's law states that the power of computer chips doubles every 18 months, which is astonishing enough in itself, but every other aspect of IT seems to be governed by similar exponential rules. Every year, everything has to run faster, have more features, contain more acronyms, connect to more things, and enable more activities in which you never once previously imagined yourself engaging.

Of course this is completely unsustainable. The reality of computer programmers is that, dulled by beer and the futility of their existence, they only work at a certain fairly sluggish pace, and no amount of cajoling or threatening will induce them to yield any greater amount of useful product. They'll produce more code willingly; just say the word. Unfortunately, producing more code isn't the same as being more productive. It's the opposite.

This is precisely what's happening today. As a substitute for being productive, programmers are being forced to churn out reams and reams of raw code, like an author paid by the word. Those more powerful chips we get courtesy of Moore's law are being loaded up with worse and worse software; they act only to hide the constantly falling quality of programmers' output. That's why editing a text file today is, if anything, slower than it was ten years ago, despite the fact that our computers are supposedly about a hundred times faster.

The pace of the IT industry also guarantees that any new idea will be implemented so badly that it produces no benefit for anyone. In IT, the first person to implement something and get it marketed generally makes a packet. All the people who were waiting for just such an invention to come along splurge out all their cash immediately upon release, and conveniently delude themselves that the product does what they want it to. By the time competitors get to market, they're just in time for the "everyone realising how shit it is" phase of the technological cycle, and they suffer from the negative perception, despite having actually worked hard to produce a quality product.

It's therefore crucial that anything new is implemented as fast as humanly possible. Anything slower will result in total failure. Since there's always someone who's prepared to sacrifice just a little more quality in order to be the first over the line, it's guaranteed that whoever is first to market, they'll get there with just enough quality that the thing can give a sexy demonstration at the trade expos, and no more. In other words, as soon as you get it home, you'll discover that some mind-bendingly stupid design flaw has miraculously converted your expensive, flashy gizmo into a useless lump of suddenly quite cheap-looking plastic. QED. And wow, doesn't that theoretical result just tally with the experimental data or what?

The continued existence of this trillion-dollar confidence trick depends on developing a constant churn of new technological fashions, so that you can believe that whatever problems you're experiencing with the current wave will soon be fixed by one of the incipient ones. Your mouse can't connect to your computer? Of course not, it's PS2, when you get a USB mouse you'll see how much better it is. Whenever you stick your USB flash drive in your computer your cursor floats randomly over your screen? Of course, the USB interface was always a buggy implementation, Bluetooth peripherals will make everything work together seamlessly. Your Bluetooth devices won't talk to each other? Of course not, Bluetooth was always a pile of junk, Wireless USB is the future. And so on and so on till the rapidly approaching doomsday.

It's also crucial that this stuff is aesthetically fashionable. People need to see something more than just practical resolution of their problems in the next wave: they need to see some glorious possibility for an ill-defined but nevertheless highly desirable lifestyle improvement that's just around the corner. Why else would anyone have ever tried to get people excited about a PC: a device which, at the end of the day, even when it's functioning completely smoothly, provides you with nothing more than the opportunity to work harder than you otherwise would have? But it's essential that people buy faster PCs so that they can run the slower software you're busy marketing. So they start manufacturing them in gunmetal grey and luminous black, so that it's more than just a faster machine: it's moving from Bridget Jones' Diary to The Matrix.

Meanwhile the piles of useless computer equipment accumulate in the rubbish tips and everyone's still pulling their hair out just trying to make the fucking thing boot up. Even me, and I'm supposed to be good at this kind of thing. I don't think there's any end to this. I'm sure that as technology advances we'll meet the "IT event horizon", where it won't be economically viable to produce anything except IT, none of which will be of any use whatsoever. I don't have a solution for this. All I can advise is to stock up on baked beans, keep your tinfoil hat on at all times, and don't answer the door to anyone. Ever.

Matthew Exon
Last modified: Fri May 18 09:15:43 CEST 2007