It all started with a Paul Klee print, or perhaps that’s where it ended:
The Frankfurt School philosopher Walter Benjamin owned this print for many years, and one of his most well-know quotations from “On The Concept of History” (also known as “Theses on The Philosophy of History”) is inspired by this painting.
From Thesis IX:
This is often how it feels to be a developer, especially when encountering non-developers, and a fortiori when doing so developing standards for the future. Where others see a chain of events which is only logical to maintain, we see the piling catastrophe which we cannot truly flee but only ride ahead of in terror.
We’re No Angels
If you’ve ever heard a technologist use the word “legacy” like it’s the dirtiest, most offensive slur in any human language, this is why. “Legacy” is the piling catastrophe behind us. But this storm is blowing from no Paradise, or at least so it seems; it seems to blow from the very gates of Hell.
For those of us who do not feel hurtled forward by the piling on of catastrophe, the past holds a certain allure. We call this nostalgia if we are feeling generous; less generously, “Are you from the past?” (please watch the whole clip)…
Benjamin wrote of this desire for the past, as well. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Benjamin spoke of the loss of the “aura”, that experience of seeing something human in a made thing. But as is often misunderstood in this piece, Benjamin writes an elegy for the aura. He does not demand that we reclaim the aura, but rather warns against it.
The acceptance of loss is one of the marks of adulthood. The attempt to reclaim the aura is the adolescent revolt against the inevitability of technological society. And like most adolescent revolt, it is both fruitless and deleterious. Acceptance is the final stage of grief, as no rage will resurrect a dead parent, and the revenant will never be that which we once buried.
It’s not so different. I’ve been discussing a few emerging standards with folks who seem to be mourning a fallen comrade, lamenting a moribund spouse. The only way is forward; we have no choice. That which existed before was of its time, and now we move forward, face turned toward the piling catastrophe of the past. For as much as we might once have loved it, we are driven forward by the wind of its piling wreckage, and can retrieve nothing,
As I write this essay on technology and Benjamin, I am reminded of another quote, the technologist’s paradox and curse.
For there was another, more cynical visionary, of about the same time, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I am reminded of the ending lines of The Great Gatsby
The uncanny thing about a paradox — it tends to be true.
Borne back ceaselessly into the past
Always. That’s how it feels.
Trying to build the future always feels like beating against the current. I think this is why the “Angel of History” metaphor feels like such a beautiful paradox to me; Blown inevitably forward, yet still having to row against a current pushng backward.
Institutional IT policies, privacy laws, standards bodies… The fact that people are shocked at the pace of innovation is shocking when you stop to consider the possible pace of innovation.
Yeah, there was some point to this when I started.
Mostly I was annoyed at what seemed like reactionary elements in my inbox. But I think that’s pretty much sorted.
If you are still from the past, know this: there will come a time when your presence is unnecessary. I’m still agitating for a Basic Income Guarantee, but I still feel like we’re headed toward a tipping point: either some significant percentage of human labor (I’d put my money between 70 and 80) will become surplus, or apocalypse.
If we decide traditional free market capitalism is the Best Thing Ever, it’ll amount to the same thing, because the 70-80 percent of us rendered redundant will eat one another.
Maybe that’s why we have institutionalized incompetent management in the enterprise world (God, please save me from ever returning there). Stifling innovation has a payoff?
Ugh, that’s enough weird speculation for tonight.