Optimistic Requiem

Some time ago I'd mentioned David Pye's The Nature and Art of Workmanship, a book recommended to me w.r.t. photography but which I felt has far-reaching consequences throughout all creative, information-intensive endeavors. It's actually a follow-on to a 1964 book titled The Nature of Design (in fact in it he hints at the later book to come, writing in the final pages: "there is no space here to write what needs writing about workmanship...").

Today we've been discussing upgrades and rewrites and redesigns, the advent of the next generation of graphics hardware, algortihms, and paradigms. Great, amazing stuff, to follow (and eventually bury) the great, amazing stuff that's already been accomplished. We collect our facts, our task plans, our AI's and PORs; scratch our heads wondering "how will we ever get this finished?" But really, is it ever finished? Has software ever been finished?

Pye writes, in the days before lasers, desktop computers, or anyone had bothered coining terms like "software engineering," "use cases," or "design patterns":

Nothing we design or make ever really works. We can always say what it ought to do, but that it never does. The aircraft falls out of the sky or rams the earth full tilt and kills the people. It has to be tended like a newborn babe. It drinks like a fish. Its life is measured in hours. Our dinner table ought to be variable in size and height, removeable altogether, impervious to scratches, self-cleaning, and having no legs. The motor car ought to stop dead, and no one in it thrown forward, in the same instant that you press a button. We cannot console ourselves with the belief that such things are impossible. Who would have ever believed that a child could light a whole room by moving its finger?

Never do we achieve a satisfactory performance. Things simply are not 'fit for their purpose.' At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery, and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose yet. Every thing we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But even at that we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance we will have it in appearance.

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