Back to mostly-weekly reading, this week with “Where did software go wrong?” and a piece on encouraging written communication.

I took another week off from writing because I lacked the emotional energy to do so; there were more important things happening last week that I wanted to focus on. I was also moving to a new apartment, which is exciting and also draining.

Where did software go wrong?

Author: Jesse Li

This is a powerful piece about what software fundamentally is—about how software is a human activity, about how commit messages reflect lifetimes of accumulated knowledge and experiences, about how even code is borrowed language, and about how software is built for people.

Software does not create reality, Li argues; it ingests data and reflects a reality that is regurgitated and reconfigured. Later, we rely on these models to produce new, slightly-wrong realities (the Twitter timeline, the Spotify Discover Weekly), and feed the software more data.

Our software creates new problems—problems that we’ve never had before, like fake news, cyberbullying, and security vulnerabilities—and we patch them over with yet more layers of code. Software becomes quasi-cause of software. These are echoes of the same voices in a positive feedback loop, growing louder and less coherent with each cycle—garbage in, garbage out, a thousand times over.

First, Li writes, the robots beat the humans (in high-frequency trading, in ticket scalping, in recent Instacart bots). Then “the robots became part of the game,” playing against each other; using them became a necessity to keep up. “Once the software train begins to leave the station, we have no choice but to jump and hang on, lest we get run over or left behind—and we are not sure which is worse.”

To revisit that ambitious question we set out to answer, where did it all go wrong? What got us into this mess, this tool-assisted speedrun of accumulation and exploitation? The trick is that we have not been studying software on its own—we’ve established that computers and computer code are veritably saturated with human touch, human voices, and human thought. Software cannot be divorced from the human structures that create it, and for us, that structure is capitalism. To quote Godfrey Reggio, director of Koyaanisqatsi (1982), “it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, so we are no longer conscious of its presence” (Essence of Life 2002).

A beautiful, thoughfully-written post.

Encouraging a culture of written communication

Author: Maarten Claes

This opens with a convincing introduction:

More and more people are being exposed to working remotely. One of the key factors for success in a remote workplace is a culture of written communication. It’s not always obvious how to create such a culture, and it takes at least some level of discipline from the people involved to make it a habit.

It’s easy to think that creating a culture of writing means creating high standards for it, but the author instead suggests to lower the barrier and encourage more writing. Upwards communication is a place for high standards, but within the team allow imperfections to encourage communication.

Video calls and written communication complement each other; discussions can become long and exhausting, and sometimes in-person communication is indeed the best way to get things done.

Finally, writing down spur of the moment thoughts—uncertainty, confusion, or observations—helps to make written culture more organic. Once a crisis happens, the author argues, “you’ll be happy to have a team that’s ingrained with the habit of continuously and informally sharing information like this.”