November 13, 2021

All Heroes, No Casualtieswhere are our stories of tech folks done wrong?

I keep coming around to the thought that software’s still an immature industry. Collectively, we are as children, suddenly come into a whole lot of cash. I am also guilty, and like the rest of us, mostly unable to see how. On occasion, I’ll catch a glance at an honest mirror.

“Immature” is, of course, a lazy coward of a word. The old beat the young with it when there won’t be talking back. If they knew not just what to criticize, but why, they’d find a stronger word. If they knew how to talk the young out of it, rather than charge it to character and bank on Father Time, they’d find a stronger word.

More concretely then: Software lacks a tragic mythology, an instructive narrative vocabulary of good, hardworking types who got screwed. All the dominant stories I’d place in our canon ring triumphant: humble origin, innovative spark, resistance, pluck, and victory. Spurned nerd accumulates billions. Chatty engineer type canonized as fun uncle. Aggrieved beard foments global insurgency. Awkward recluse with funny name becomes icon. Frumpish early hire crashes sports car, laughs it off.

We aren’t passing on warning or grievance to new generations in meme form, only glossy power fantasy. Lots of hints on how to role play Iron Man, not a lot of memory aids for how not to get squeezed out, cut off, sold cheap, disregarded. Hardly complete preparation for life in a sharp-elbows world. Offhand, private advice, one to one, can’t fill this void.

Older fields are more on top of this. Comic artists have railed for years against the mistreatments of Siegel and Shuster, Simon and Kirby, Howard and Watchmen. That collective memory lives on through Alan Moore, TMNT, a Creators Bill of Rights, early Image Comics, and a thousand defiant self-publishers since. Recording artists today know damn well that many black stars got no royalties, that session players got no credits, why Prince became a symbol for a while. It comes up around Taylor’s Versions, in streaming royalties talks, when unsolicited checks for samples show up in the mail.

I’ve yet to find a field where experienced folks can’t answer the question, “What’re the classic warning stories of good people done wrong in your industry?” If someone asked me the same, I’d have to say … The Social Network? But that was early investors, not early devs.

We should learn the dark side of tech industry lore, make it part of what we pass along. We should have an Aesop’s Fables and a Grimm’s Fairy Tales of software, not just a “Stan Lee Presents…”. Life in the bullpen’s never quite what it’s cracked up to be.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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