Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Not In Love Anymore

I once had a girlfriend ask me if I loved my computer more than her.

Though the answer was "no," at the time the question didn't seem quite as ridiculous as it now does. Once upon a time, when video games weren't outgrossing movie tickets, major news media weren't quoting Internet memes, and computers weren't ubiquitous, I loved computers. I loved video games. I loved programming. I loved modding hardware and building systems. Even word processing seemed new and amazing.

Today, a friend posted something to a discussion on the Simon's Rock alumni mail alias in which he casually mentioned "loving" his laptop. I realized that I found the statement surprisingly absurd. More than lamenting about the diluted meaning of the word "love," I lament that I no longer love computers.

When the hobby was more obscure, and being a computer nerd was uncommon, I enjoyed both the underground social aspect of computing and the fact that it was a lot more DIY. In the 1980s, pretty much every computer owner I knew wrote programs and could maintain their system. Creating your own software and comparing notes was just part of the hobby. As that creative aspect was replaced by just more consumerism, computing became decreasingly interesting to me. Becoming mainstream didn't help. Now that computers are everywhere, the novelty is gone. Standardization and market forces (including some "aggressive" business practices on the part of some companies) has eliminated all the interesting, creative and unusual hardware developments that used to occur. Computers are no longer a new frontier, and have become boring.

Though I still enjoy writing programs, I do agree with Donald Knuth's recent argument in Communications of the ACM that programming as it is currently taught and practices has become soulless and uncreative. That most programming jobs involve maintaining other people's code, stitching together mystery code through opaque "business logic" interfaces, and copying the functionality of popular, successful software is a shame. Once upon a time, there was a lot more room for experimentation and innovation even in professional, commercial software development. Now it's mostly maintenance, refinement, updating, and replication.

Sure, there are still interesting research and career opportunities in computing, but financial support for them is dwindling as "safe" bets are now the norm in the industry. Once, the whole computing community was innovative. Now, the innovators stand out. Naturally, this happens to every industry as it matures, and it was to be expected. Personally, I didn't think it would happen so quickly, and to such an extent. In one sense, it means that we've done our jobs well and covered a lot of ground, but there could be a lot more interesting R&D and hobbyist computing going on if the industry hadn't so fully embraced the commodity model of business.

I still like computers. We've had many good times together, and I still want to be friends. I hope computers sill want to be friends, too. But I just feel like we've both changed, grown apart, and I'm just not in love with computers anymore. Computers, you're still young and have a lot going for you. I'm sure you'll find someone else.