servers, sewers, alienation
epistemic status: drafty as hell lol
Is being a software engineer real engineering1?
I certainly didn’t think I was going to Become An Engineer when I went about beginning my computer science education. I told myself that I was like a savvy user becoming savvier, a math dabbler dabbling in a new kind of math. There are plenty of kinds of personalities in tech, I told myself, and the one that I have doesn’t need to change.
Flash forward a few years, and I now believe that awe and respect, real emotion, ought to be inspired in all of us by seismic codes, water treatment systems, and air quality reports.
So. You know. It’s maybe had an effect.
If you grow up in the Pacific Northwest on the wet side2, at some point your science class will go on a field trip to a creek for water quality testing. It starts with salmon; they’re not just a mascot or emblem of northwestiness, they’re extremely important to the whole everything here. They are also picky about water quality. So off we all went in our wellies to play with testing equipment, learn what the word turbidity means, count arthropods, and wait for some classmate to, inevitably, fall in. (See: elementary school something-or-other, sixth grade science, seventh grade biology, ninth grade biology, and tenth grade chemistry.)
Sure, it’s an easy field trip to connect to curriculum, but it’s also sort of a civics lesson. We dutifully reported our classes’ findings and learned about the agencies that monitor these things. Society fits together with vigilance at the edges. Someone has to be watching. Agricultural runoff and water drinkers’ health: always in tension.
We bought a house in the country, recently. Only five acres, and you can hear more civilization noise than I might wish, but it’s far out enough that we have a septic tank and our own well for water. Some of that childhood education sunk in: the house-buying process didn’t enforce thorough well inspection, but we even went the extra mile asking for testing for inorganics.
A cool thirty five thousand dollars’ worth of water filtration turns out to be necessary – though test results only came back after the inspection period, I’ll grumble to you. So we’re our own little water quality agency, installing new outlets and hiring an engineer to draw up a system plan. No one organizes this for us. No one will stop us from drinking Tap Water: Manganese & Arsenic Flavor.
You’d think this “independence” might drive a person toward that problematic pioneer fantasy, but it only underlines to me how self-sufficiency is a LARP. Sure, we might not be billed for sewer, but what would we do if the larger society didn’t have someone we could call to pump the septic tank? Hell, learning about the classic American suburban infrastructure subsidy has made the lesser amount of that here feel less like “going our own way” and more like a civic-minded act.
But we do get electricity.
A cloud services company I know had a presentation meant to explain to the families of employees what it is that their beloved children are actually doing for the world. The presentation used the metaphor of the electric grid. Time was, you needed electricity for your factory, you had to build up your own generators. So every factory needed its own supply, and no matter what business you were in, you also had to be in the power generation business. As you may know, since then, we switched to The Grid, and this was far more efficient, and let businesses focus on what they do best blah blah blah, and the presenter walks you through this whole story repeated again but with computers and data centers and The Cloud.
The fact this comparison was made officially under the auspices of this company brings me perverse satisfaction. This is because (I suspect without evidence) the MBA types in the company’s upper echelons would likely sooner light themselves on fire in the street than suffer serious discussion of making their business a public utility.
There’s a famous speech by Teddy Roosevelt, the Man in the Arena speech. Let’s entirely ignore its famous chunks3. Long before I ever thought of engineering, this bit stuck in my head:
Individual initiative, so far from being discouraged, should be stimulated; and yet we should remember that, as society develops and grows more complex, we continually find that things which once it was desirable to leave to individual initiative can, under changed conditions, be performed with better results by common effort. It is quite impossible, and equally undesirable, to draw in theory a hard-and-fast line which shall always divide the two sets of cases. This every one who is not cursed with the pride of the closet philosopher will see, if he will only take the trouble to think about some of our commonest phenomena. For instance, when people live on isolated farms or in little hamlets, each house can be left to attend to its own drainage and water-supply; but the mere multiplication of families in a given area produces new problems which, because they differ in size, are found to differ not only in degree but in kind from the old; and the questions of drainage and water-supply have to be considered from the common standpoint. It is not a matter for abstract dogmatizing to decide when this point is reached; it is a matter to be tested by practical experiment.
I brought this up with a philosophy professor acquaintance who, being in no way closeted in his profession, stridently disagreed with the hard-and-fast line being undesirable. In retrospect, I think this was very funny.
It all starts from a consideration of wells and sewers and becomes a consideration of individualism and socialism. Wells and sewers: the constitutive elements of political theory.
Regular readers will, even without looking at the link at the top, have guessed that this is going to talk about the internet somehow, and that I will be quoting Olia Lialina. From Once Again, The Doorknob:
In Why Interfaces Don’t Work, sentence after sentence, metaphor after metaphor, [Don] Norman claims that users of computers are interested in whatever but not the computers themselves; they want to spend the least time possible with a computer. As a theoretician and more important as a practitioner at Apple, Norman was indeed pushing the development of invisible or transparent interfaces. This is how the word “transparent” started to mean “invisible” or “simple” in interface design circles.
Sherry Turkle sums up this swift development in the 2004 introduction to her 1984 book The Second Self:
In only a few years the ‘Macintosh meaning’ of the word Transparency had become a new lingua franca. By the mid-1990s, when people said that something was transparent, they meant that they could immediately make it work, not that they knew how it worked.
The idea that the users shouldn’t even notice that there is an interface was widely and totally accepted and seen as a blessing.
This essay is collected in Turing-Complete User, which everyone should go read. In the other essays there she pokes more at this idea of non-transparent transparency, the user being made into a child who just wants a gumball out of the machine.
The doorknob in the title is deconstructed a bit, too – don’t think that a doorknob’s job is to disappear! (Or that they manage it)
But this isn’t just interface design, really – not just the bits you interact with – it’s all technology. Is technology to be made by its priesthood to function silently and invisibly so that as few ordinary people as possible ever have to spare a thought to it?
You can certainly come up with good arguments for this, but you can’t say it’s neutral in origin or effect.
Another piece of Pacific Northwest knowledge is that a great piece of American cultural heritage is a set of songs about dams.
Think about that, though. Can’t you imagine someone arguing that infrastructure should be invisible? That the gift of the Grand Coulee Dam is that the city-dweller may flip on her light switch without awareness of the technology involved?
This wasn’t the US attitude toward these large-scale public works projects at the time, even despite all the aspects I’ll bet they really didn’t want people to think too much about. They commissioned propaganda. They had tourists.
Dean MacCannell understood the premises behind featured displays of labor associated with the construction of Boulder Dam and their allure to an emerging market of Depression-era, working-class tourists who traveled for leisure and recreation. Defined as “work display,” he described these images as the “museumization of work and work relations,” suggesting they were indicators of a cultural shift in the United States that represented the end of industrial society and the beginning of a postindustrial, modern culture. These worker-tourists showed a proclivity for guided tours of industrial plants, representations of working cowboys in advertisements, and other images of machines and humans displayed as cultural productions.
At Boulder Dam, the Bureau of Reclamation incorporated viewing platforms around the job site so that tourists could watch the work in progress. Perhaps the greatest display of work ever created, the dam was larger and more awesome than most people could imagine, an amazing spectacle of civil engineering that epitomized the can-do attitude of the American workforce.
It’s easy to miss under the subtle sneer of “museumization”, but the tourists’ interest indicates meaningful cultural attention. What Americans today go on civil engineering vacations?
Cloacina was the goddess of the main discharge of the sewers of Ancient Rome.4
Your average person nowadays, upon being informed of this, laughs and thinks it’s funny. This is because your-average-person-nowadays has a shoddy understanding of how dependent they are on public infrastructure, and a just-as-shoddy understanding of how religion works.
The Romans had it much closer to right.
My esteemed mother talks about how you could tell CarTalk was doomed long before it went off the air. People stopped being able to fix their own cars, tinkered with them less and less, so the questions got less interesting.
Maybe it was a social change – it’s not like shop was available when I was in high school.
Maybe it was how they computerized more and more of the car.
People talk endlessly about how technology-these-days alienates us from $IMPORTANT_HUMAN_VALUE. They build this discourse on the kind of mushy definition of “technology” that boils down to “things that didn’t exist when my grandparents were growing up.” “Things I can imagine living without”. This produces predictably mushy results.
You know what kinds of things count as technology among the people who are serious about its study? Clothing. Writing. Usefully shaped rocks. I went into this let’s-think-critically-about-technology business with the gusto you’d expect of a would-have-been philosophy major who found herself with a computer science degree, but I have Had Enough with critiques of technology that rely on your not remembering to apply them to, say, fire. Enough I Say.
On our five acres I am at war with black locusts – one cut to a stump, one still standing. I find the extent of their roots stupefying. I’d been doing a decent amount of my digging by hand – just tearing up turf for little seedlings and things, you know – but the locust defied this. So I bought a trowel with serrated edges.
Yes, yes, I am saying that the trowel is Just As Technology as the internet, you knew where that was going, full points. But I know, too, there are meaningful differences. A trowel has no non-technical user. Everyone who can heft a trowel in their hands has the sense of it, born of feeling the weight and touching the sharp bits. I am sure that my use of it is very unskilled relative to that which my grandfather, a master gardener, would have made of it, but anyone who uses one grasps it.
This is very, very, very much not true of the internet.
I know myself to have acquired a bit of engineer brain. It is better to solve the problem Once, for Everyone, than to have Everyone have to solve it over and over for themselves. My engineer brain feels this on an aesthetic-emotional level more serious than even that elicited by having to find thirty-five thousand dollars for tap water. Things can be performed with better results by common effort!
But having come to tech relatively late in the game5, I also have an understanding of how it has changed how I relate to computers. It has unalienated me from them – as technology, like a trowel I can hold, and as they are maintained within social systems. It was an alienation I didn’t entirely realize I was experiencing – not an alienation from “the real world,” but from computer use. And it should raise some flags of some color that where the Bonneville Power Administration might have commissioned Woody Guthrie to write songs about the electrification of the west, the tech industry is content to let ordinary folks proceed in absolute ignorance as to what it means that they are living in a cloudified world6.
And so we come to the linked piece. It’s by Matt Webb, whom I read but don’t know personally, but centers on discussion with Honor whom I do know at least a bit and who Longtime Readers already know is just the bee’s knees.
But what I remember feeling most magical was the idea that there was somebody visiting that server on my desk. There was somebody coming from a long way away and going inside. An electronic homunculus. I could hear the hard drive spi…
I happily set aside my panicked “no! no! that’s not it!” about this metaphor that Longtime Readers may remember, because this is being deployed to explore what is charming about it.
First there’s the feeling of “I made that!” which leads to the feeling of “I can make all kinds of things!” You will definitely get that more when you install the software on the web server yourself, and also when you copy over your own hand-coded text files. (The web is just text!) Then there’s the feeling that p…
Man, other people have a very different experience of self-hosting. When I was just getting started with it, which I guess is years back now, I was ten kinds of “sure I can just build XYZ, let me get my glue gun”… until I came up against the wall of “learn how to accomplish a task that you thought ought to be simple in Nginx config and systemd files”, never mind that they’re “config files that keep the same format for a decade+”. It required a good deal of help to learn, not just Googling. I struggle to imagine it having felt more empowering than
neocities push .
Then there’s the feeling that people are visiting and - the corollary - if other people’s experience of your website is just in that tiny box, then your experiences of all other websites are similarly physically located in boxes too.
I think it would change how we think about the internet, in a grounding and healthy way. I think it would help us regain a sense of agency and ownership, with which we would be way more demanding of the sort of internet we want to live with, a sense that is currently so distant from us that we have forgotten it is possible and can’t even tell that it is missing.
One of the things that I find most interesting about this piece is that the “functionality” it’s describing is very enchanted objects, and the benefit of that enchantment is to make the pedestrian uses of tech more legible.
Very summon the flames directly from hell rather than store-bought, if that makes sense7.
Maybe this is chemistry-class creek-water-testing. Scratching the surface to give a sense of what’s really going on, what there is to consider, to get a notion of how many people have to do how much to make the internet at scale work the way it (mostly) does. Maybe we all need to spend some more time peering at the non-visible to stop it from becoming invisible, transparent.
Maybe I can petition for data center tourism to pair with dam tourism, if either could be allowed post-9/11. I yearn for the internet to be understood as public works, but also for public works to be appreciated as public works8, so I refuse to romanticize the solo sysadmin any more than my septic tank. Yet: it is good that the trowel can be understood by holding, so it is important that the Raspberry Pi can be held, unplugged.
I wonder what the first subjective experience of computational agency was for each of us who ended up ordained as Technical. Are themes of enchantment common?
Which layers of self-hosting have the biggest bang for your buck, feelings-of-agency-and-ownership-wise? (Has this changed over time relative to the different walling off of gardens on the ordinary internet?)
If you care about the serious answer, go and read Hillel Wayne’s series on it because you will not find a serious answer here. ↩
Shibboleth: see who tries to “correct” you to “west”. ↩
Somewhere that I can’t refind, a commentator saying he’d always hated people saying It Is Not The Critic Who Counts, and maybe if we’d all given a little more credence to the critic counting, the US wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. ↩
They also had Annona, a goddess personifying the supply of grain to the City of Rome, including such supply-chainy details as its international shipping9. ↩
I read somewhere that it’s far more common for women to first get into computer science in college than for men, so I sort of refuse to consider it “late”. I wish we’d all quit acting like everyone who’s anyone in tech admined a linux box at the age of nine. It’s obnoxious enough before you even touch on the equity aspects. ↩
Vague theory: I would place this less at the feet of the Industry Powers and their financial incentives than at the feet of the psyche of your average tech worker and his insecurities about the professionalization of his field10. ↩
Whether or not this could be surmised from the tone, footnotes, or lack of editing here, I am not much fussed if it doesn’t. ↩
I possess that historicality of character which can resent in an ongoing way decisions made in 1937.11 ↩
Annona is more “made up”, from what I can tell, to draw attention to the importance of the state in this matter. But by the point you have people making votive offerings to an entity, moderns don’t get to say it doesn’t count. ↩
you can’t get mad at me, I am in this category ↩
A commenter correctly noted that I am here complaining about what I explicitly support, which is proper public ownership of power utility stuff. This is not actually the stuff that I do resent about the BPA, e.g. how it ends up entangled with private evils like PG&E, which I somehow read into that chunk of Wikipedia text despite it being pretty clearly the opposite12. ↩
Perhaps better said: I possess that essential wishy-washiness of character which can be loudly and opinionatedly wrong about obvious things, but which at least can own up to it! ↩