Public perception of the labor-saving potential of computers

While my family and I were at a restaurant waiting for our food, my sister talked about a potential temporary job that would involve data entry to convert records from one database system to another (possibly along with other activities). I immediately thought that this was the kind of thing that should be handled with a little programming, not tedious and error-prone data entry. I said as much, and her response was twofold. First, she pointed out that the data-entry job would involve error checking against paper records. I didn't respond to this, but it seems to me that there would still be value in automating the actual data entry even if manual error checking remains. However, she also speculated that the company might be able to pay less for this one-time data-entry job than for a programmer to write a conversion program. We don't have enough information about this particular job to say anything definite about this, but I pointed out that the conversion program might be very simple and quick to write, possibly reducing the necessary work by several orders of magnitude. She acknowledged this, and we agreed that we won't know if this job can be automated until she interviews. But this conversation got me wondering if most non-technologists truly understand the labor-saving potential of computers, and if so, what attitude they have toward it.

This wasn't the first conversation in which I brought up the labor-saving potential of computers. My sample size may be too small, but judging by conversations I've had with my conservative middle-class American family, it seems to me that non-technologists don't think much about how much tedious work could be saved by programming computers to do more of it. Assuming my perception is accurate, why is this so? More importantly, what can we programmers and other tech-savvy types do about it?

One obvious hypothesis is that most people don't think about the possibility of saving labor through programming because they have only ever been exposed to closed, inscrutable, proprietary software. Indeed, in the situation I discussed at the outset, the old database system and/or the new one might be proprietary, which would make automated migration more difficult. The increased difficulty might be enough that manual data entry really would be better in this case. But even merely perceived opacity is probably enough to ensure that the decision-makers won't think about the potential for automation. Sticking with the database migration example, suppose that under the hood, the old system was based on the Microsoft Jet embedded database engine, and the new one is based on SQLite. (I choose these examples because neither is prominently visible to a typical user, unlike, say, MySQL or MS SQL Server.) I could probably figure out the schemas of both systems and write a conversion script. But it would not occur to anyone with decision-making power that this is feasible, because as far as they are aware, both systems are sealed, opaque boxes. But if more business applications were free software, and the implications of software freedom were well understood, then perhaps more business owners and managers would realize the full potential to automate straightforward tasks through programming.

Another possibility is that people associate programming exclusively with large, multi-developer, months-long software projects. Of course, some programming languages, tools, and processes are designed with this kind of thing in mind, and one might argue that some even encourage it. Michael O. Church's essay "Java Shop Politics" springs to mind. In this light, I consider it fortunate that languages which lend themselves to small, succinct, quickly-written programs are in vogue now. Some of these languages may be deficient for programming in the large, but that just means that programmers and managers alike need to avoid the trap of wanting one language to rule them all.

Another potential reason why people don't think about the full potential to save labor through programming is that they might think of programming as a highly specialized, maybe even elitist, profession with a high barrier to entry. I dare say that some programming ought to be this way, such as development of safety-critical software, and even development of mass-market commercial software. But a high barrier to entry, whether real or merely perceived, may prevent people from thinking of programming as a way to eliminate some gruntwork. It really doesn't help when we programmers look down our noses at certain languages, such as Visual Basic, as declasse or only fit for those loser wanna-be programmers. Whatever we may think of such languages, we have to admit that they have been useful in lowering the barrier to entry for many programmers, thus enabling many more useful programs to be written. (I confess some disdain for PHP, which I justify by pointing out the security vulnerabilities that are common in PHP code.) Luckily, these days, we can promote languages that are easy to learn and are good for quick, one-off programs, but don't encourage practices that lead to low-quality or unmaintainable software.

But what if more people did understand the full potential of computers to eliminate certain kinds of straightforward, tedious, repetitive work? Would they actually welcome this? I can only speculate. But here in the US, we're recovering from an economical recession (or so I'm told; I haven't experienced any effects of this myself). During the most recent election season here, there was a lot of talk about the need to create more jobs. If more people understood the full labor-saving potential of computers, then mightn't many short-sighted people (and the politicians who pander to them) demand that we somehow put a stop to this job-destroying technological advancement? I'm reminded of Stanislav Datskovskiy's essay "Roman Lisp". Might it actually be a good thing that social networks, content consumption, and other consumer-oriented fluff are distracting people from the true potential of computers?

I have no answers, only questions and speculation.

Why I reject Christianity; what I now believe

(Edited and expanded on September 7, 2013)

As my immediate family and closest friends already know, I decided last year to reject the Christian world view. My reason is simple: not enough evidence. The Bible is not consistent with itself, let alone with what we can observe of reality, including history, science, and the reality of suffering all over the world. There is no strong evidence that Jesus is who the Bible claims he is, or that he rose from the dead. Some Christians point to a personal experience of positive change in their lives as evidence. But that doesn't lend any weight to Christianity, because people of all religions claim to have experiences which they interpret as validation of their religion. And faith, which is belief without sufficient evidence, is a cop-out.

Of course, these are just assertions, and my rejection of Christianity would not be rational if I didn't back those assertions up. The nice thing about the Web is that I can simply link to some more detailed treatments of these subjects. So here are a few links to get you started. I may not agree with all of these authors on every single point, but I'm in substantial agreement with them.

Yes, I'm unabashedly linking to the writings of vocal atheists, and I've read many more such writings than I've linked to here (along with Christian apologetics). My Christian parents and other family members have expressed their concern that I've opened my mind to the influence of the devil, and have asked that I refrain from doing so. I agreed to refrain for a time last year, but not anymore. I believe that the very idea of Satanic influence is simply a way that Christians silence skepticism, so that they can feel all right about not questioning their own beliefs, and so that the Christians who claim a position of leadership (priests, ministers, pastors, etc.) can retain their power to tell the rest of us how to live our lives. If Christianity were true, then my belief should have withstood my study of arguments from both sides.

Some Christians may claim that I am rejecting Christianity because I want to live a selfish, immoral life, or because I don't want to be accountable to my creator. That is emphatically not the case. I'm not perfect, but I want to live an upright, moral life. In fact, if you ever notice that I'm using my new beliefs to justify an act that is clearly immoral or overly selfish, then please call me out on it. Furthermore, if there is evidence that we humans were created by some intelligent being, that this God is still alive, and that this God cares how we live our lives, then I'd love to receive guidance from this God. But I don't know of any compelling evidence for such a God. Instead, we have many contradictory claims that people have made about God; not only do we have multiple religions, but Christianity itself is divided on numerous points, and the canonical scriptures of Christianity are contradictory. So it seems foolish to organize my life around the belief that the Bible is true, whatever that means.

So what do I believe instead?

At the most basic level, I believe that beliefs should be backed by logic and evidence. In other words, beliefs should be internally coherent and should be consistent with observable reality. What are my logic and evidence for this belief? Science, which is based on logic and evidence, has improved our lives dramatically over the past several centuries; we know that it works. And we use logic and evidence to determine the truth or falsehood of ordinary factual claims. So why should we grant privileged status to a set of writings that are supposedly the word of God, as Christians say we should? Why should we automatically accept these writings as truth? Why not discover whether these writings are true, based on logic and evidence, as we would for anything else? To do otherwise is inconsistent. The way I see it, the Christian exhortation to accept the Bible as truth, overriding reason, science, and everything else, is just another way of silencing skepticism.

I believe that morality is all about maximizing overall well-being for all conscious beings, most notably humans but also including many animals. No human is smart enough to really pull this off, so for the most part, we have to rely on rules to approximate this goal. On a more personal level, I believe it's fine to pursue one's personal goals, but only to a point; we need to be considerate of others. In particular, we need to avoid doing to others what we would not want done to ourselves. Many moral guidelines can be derived from these principles. Some moral choices are pretty clear-cut; some are vexing. And it seems to me that the Bible is of little value as a guide to morality. Of course, I'm not setting myself up as some kind of authority on morality; this is just my current understanding. And I'm still working on practicing these principles in my own life.

The topic of origins has been notoriously contentious, but I don't believe that it's as crucial as many make it out to be. I'll grant that there might have been a creator, who set up the universe, tuned it such that life could develop in some parts of it, and got the process of evolution started on Earth. Maybe the creator even intervened in the case of humans, to give us consciousness and intelligence, while not caring that our bodies are suboptimal in many ways because of evolution. But it doesn't automatically follow that the creator is the Christian God, and that I should therefore go running back to my old religion, automatically accepting everything the Bible says is true. If the Christian God is real, I need reasons to believe that, not just reasons to believe that there must have been a creator.

We can't know for sure what we will experience, if anything, after we die. However, there is overwhelming evidence that intelligence, memory, and personality are all dependent on the brain. All of these things can be seriously damaged when a brain is injured. Therefore, it's reasonable to believe that when a person's brain stops functioning altogether at death, that person ceases to exist. So heaven is probably just man-made wishful thinking. And hell, a place that some people I love are now worried that I will eventually go, is just something that someone thought up to scare people into submission. That strategy has proven to be an effective way of spreading more than one religion, but it's irrational to decide what to believe on the basis of fear. For starters, I don't think it's possible to "decide to believe" something unless one is actually convinced that it's true; at best, I could pretend to believe, and a God who knows my heart and decides my eternal destiny based on what I believe would see right through all pretense. Besides, more than one religion claims eternal damnation in hell for those who don't believe, so which one am I supposed to believe? The one I was raised in? No; I insist that logic and evidence are the only reasonable foundation for our beliefs. So both the promise of an eternal reward and the threat of eternal punishment are irrelevant to me. Though I can't be certain, I think it's most likely that when I die, I will cease to exist. What I believe in the meantime will be based on logic and evidence, as I understand them, not on hope or fear of an afterlife.

I believe that, in the absence of evidence for a god or an afterlife, we should live as though we're on our own and this life is all there is. This, I think, is where my beliefs collide most directly with Christianity. Christians believe that this world is ultimately doomed, and that it's most important to prepare for eternity, meaning the world and the life after this one. Frankly, I'm afraid that if the first part of that belief is taken to heart, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A belief that God will eventually set things right also seems to encourage apathy about the state of this world; at least it did that in me for a time. I now believe that this world and this life are all we can be certain that we have, and when we see something wrong with this world, we should consider what we can do, if anything, to make it better. In particular, in a country like the US that has at least a semblance of democratic government, it really matters whom we vote for and what causes we support. We should all try to make this world a better one for all of us. It sounds trite, but I truly believe it's the best goal to which we can aspire.

Situational ethics

I previously wrote about my attempts to balance pragmatism with a certain kind of idealism. Last night I had to weigh these things again, only this time, my relationship with my parents entered the equation.

For Valentine's Day, my parents bought me a Redbox gift voucher, good for 10 movie rentals. No doubt they chose this gift because we had rented a couple of movies in the previous month and had enjoyed them together. But this created a conflict with my desire to avoid feeding the ethically bankrupt movie industry, who after all just tried to sabotage free expression on the Internet with SOPA and PIPA. What to do?

Now, the second time we rented a movie was after the famous anti-PIPA black-out, and I had misgivings about renting the movie. I said something like, "Why are we renting a movie, when the movie industry just tried to censor the Internet?" And Mom simply said, perhaps in an exasperated tone, "Because we want to watch a movie." So maybe I didn't express the dilemma well enough, but she didn't get it, and we rented the movie.

So some may blame me for caving in the last time. Perhaps if I hadn't acquiesced, I wouldn't have been confronted with the dilemma of what to do with the Redbox gift voucher. But come Valentine's Day, it was too late to undo what I had done, and thinking about what I should have done a week or two ago is probably not healthy.

So I had the gift voucher, and last night, it was time to make a decision; our previous movie rentals had been on Friday nights. I had two choices: accept the gift, rent a movie, make my parents and myself happy, and cast one vote for the movie industry and its practices; or reject the gift, disappoint or even upset my parents, pass up a potentially enjoyable form of entertainment, and cast one vote against the movie industry. If I rejected the gift this first time, perhaps we could have requested a refund for the whole gift voucher.

My vote, for or against the movie industry, would be infinitesimally small; I'm just one person among the millions who rent movies. Still, I'd like to believe that if enough of us stop feeding the movie industry, then that industry will lose its clout in our government, and thus its ability to sabotage the Internet and general-purpose computers. Conversely, if enough of us continue to feed the industry, by renting or buying movies, then the industry will retain its corrupting power.

If I were choosing whether or not to watch a movie by myself, then the above would be the only thing I needed to consider. But as I said, my relationship with my parents was also a factor. My choice would have a far greater impact on that relationship than it would have on the movie industry's power over the Internet. I'm well aware that my reasoned rejection of Christianity last year was a major blow for my parents, so I have made a conscious effort to be on good terms with them in every other way that I can. And because I still live with my parents, despite being 31 years old (a problem which I know I eventually must address), my relationship with my parents is one of the most important relationships in my life.

So we rented and watched a movie last night, and enjoyed it. And, I suppose, we helped reinforce the movie industry's power in our society.

I guess this post is an attempt to justify my decision. I admit I've given the decision more thought this morning than I did last night. So did I make the right choice? I really want to know, because I have 9 more opportunities to make a different choice.

Pragmatism and idealism

Lately I've been trying to find the right balance between pragmatism and idealism, particularly when it comes to issues regarding freedom and technology. If I were to consistently live by the ideals that I'd like to support, then I would need to:

  • use only free software
  • develop only free software, or not develop any software at all
  • not use any DRM-encumbered service, ever
  • completely avoid patent-encumbered software, e.g. MP3 players and encoders
  • use software on my own computers instead of centralized Internet services wherever possible
  • not feed the big media companies, who try to sabotage free expression on the Internet with things like SOPA and PIPA

And maybe I've forgotten a thing or two.

Needless to say, the first two items alone would require me to quit my job as lead programmer at a small software company, because I both use and develop proprietary software. That's not something I can easily do, nor is it something I particularly want to do. If nothing else, I can't be sure that I'd be able to find another job.

So pragmatism and idealism are at odds in my life. Still, I'm taking some small steps toward the above ideals.

Last October, I began resisting DRM, though I've wavered a few times since then. (I bought one Kindle book in November, which I haven't yet read, and I've used Amazon Video on Demand a few times.) I haven't completely given up on audiobooks; Simply Audiobooks provides a relatively small selection of audiobooks as MP3 downloads.

One thing I've just started working on is to not feed the big media companies. That means not giving them money, and not lending my ears to their advertisers. This is a tough one; a lot of the music I listen on is from major record labels, and there are even a few TV shows I like (particularly The Big Bang Theory). But I'm starting to increase my support for independent musicians; for example, last Sunday, I bought all of Jonathan Coulton's albums. And one way to enjoy mainstream music without feeding the big record labels is to buy used CD's from individual sellers. I've just started to do this. Still, the instant gratification of MP3 downloads is awfully tempting. Just today, I bought an album as an MP3 download, but at least I used 7digital, which doesn't require a proprietary downloader.

Perhaps the problem is that my idealism isn't really my own. I've bought into the rhetoric of those who oppose proprietary software, DRM, software patents, certain centralized Internet services, and so forth; but I haven't experienced first-hand what's apparently wrong with these things. DRM, for example, has only bitten me when I've been careless with my player authorizations; that was clearly my own fault. And as for proprietary software, it seems to me that proprietary software can be OK if the software company makes an effort to provide a good product on fair terms. So maybe people like Richard Stallman, Bradley Kuhn, and the Defective by Design team are just being hopelessly idealistic. But they might say that I need to sacrifice some conveniences or even my current job in order to stand on principles.

Anyway, I'm not going to do anything rash, especially when it comes to my work. But when it comes to entertainment and leisure activities, I'm going to keep resisting the lures of big companies and their questionable practices.

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