First imprints.

16 August 2023

From time to time lately I've been thinking about what Cory Doctorow called the enshittification of just about everything and peoples' reactions to it. Sometimes there are less shitty alternatives which present themselves with a little looking, sometimes there aren't. Most interestingly, and this is a bit more common than I find comfortable, other solutions or alternatives to those things that are suddenly now user hostile are just... well... the reaction to them is like somebody just told the other person to shove a pair of daisies up their nostrils and hum Yankee Doodle. I've started filing this under the category of folks' first mental imprints on broad concepts (like technologies) after R.A. Wilson. To put it simply for the purposes of this whatever-the-hell it is, the first imprint of something is the very first conception of what a thing is and fundamentally how it works and has always worked.

To put it a slightly different way, when all you know is a single way to do something, not only are you unlikely to search for alternatives but it's very easy to get tunnel vision and forget to think about whether or not there are other ways.

As a brief personal example, from an early age I grew up learning how to program on a Commodore 64, which out of the box topped out at a whopping 64 kilobytes of RAM. By today's standards that is a laughable amount of memory (outside of embedded systems, anyway) but back then it was a hard limit. Great to work in right up until you ran out of memory, and then that was that. If you wanted to do anything relatively sophisticated (along the lines of the type-in programs in Compute!'s Gazette) you had to be pretty determined (and pretty clever) to fit so much functionality into so small a space. That said, that experience colored the way I write code for many years; I always try to keep things as small and tight as possible, with as few dependencies as I can get away with because being conscious of memory and storage usage is hardwired into my brain, even though it is significantly less of an issue these days.

Consequently I have to remind myself that I don't have only 64kb of RAM available anymore. For better or for worse having lots of memory available means that less terse, more expressive code is possible. This also means more expressive comments in the "what I was thinking" school, but that's probably a separate post. The point I'm trying to make is that first imprints set one's baseline expectations thenceforth.

A couple of jobs ago, I was working in the office (as was customary in the Before Times) and something happened that knocked out the network uplink. Seeing as how the company in question was one that went all-in on Google Workspaces, Github, and Slack, this left most of us dead in the water. No updating documents, no pushing commits to any of the Git repos, no e-mail, no Youtube, no Spotify. I say "most of us" because, as one might reasonably guess, I was merrily hacking away on my laptop, writing a script in a text editor and listening to some MP3s in my headphones. Aside from my bots suddenly dropping off because my laptop couldn't reach the IM server it wasn't that big a deal to me.

I should probably add that, as engineers went at this particular company I was probably the second oldest codeslinger there. Maybe the first. I really don't know. Most of the coders were barely out of college, and I think a few of them dropped out to join the workforce. No judgement here, I mention this only to give folks some idea of what the other engineers' life experiences might have been like and what they may or may not have been exposed to. Figure they were in their early 20's.

Anyway, I looked up and saw a couple of the other engineers standing curiously around my desk watching me. I pulled my headphones down and asked what was up.

"What are you doing?" one asked.

"Well," I ventured, not quite getting it, "I'm just listening to some music and working on that script in morning standup."

"How?" was asked.

I wasn't really getting it. It was possible that they were messing with me, but somehow unlikely; that wasn't something folks did at that company. "I'm using a text editor to work on the script and there's a bunch of MP3s on my laptop. Is there a problem?"

It's fair to say that the next question asked left me gobsmacked. "What's an MP3?"

As it turned out, none of them had considered the possibility that one might, or could have audio stored on their laptop. They'd grown up with on demand television and a DVR so there was never a time where they had to knowingly save any media locally. If it wasn't pre-recorded and magicked out of the set-top box (which means it was, in fact, stored locally but when most of your media experiences involve on-demand streaming, assuming that one knows there is a distinction between the two is incorrect) it was available by streaming. Later on they had Youtube and Spotify for their media and, again, because every device they had was always connected and everything was available for streaming, downloading a file to save for later wasn't something that they'd ever considered was a thing. Everything was Just There, All the Time.

In 2021.ev, some articles were going around to the effect of kids not knowing what files were, or how directories work because they grew up without once ever seeing a shell, having to save files locally, or even go looking for a file because the search software built into their systems and that are available to anyone with a network connection are such that it was never an experience they had. They never lost a file and had to figure out where it might have been saved, because the OS indexed everything and a quick search pulled it back up. Storing local copies wasn't a thing they did because they could just google what they needed and find it again. As far as they were concerned, everything was out there all the time, and could be accessed whenever they wanted. I don't think being disconnected was anything that had directly, knowingly affected them.

If this sounds suspiciously like the old man yelling at those damn kids to get off of his lawn, it's not. At least, that's exactly the kind of thing that I'm not trying to write. Much of what we know, you, me, and everyone else out there comes from our life experiences - things that have happened near or to us, which we've then had to navigate. In some ways, they provide context for other things in life, and sometimes teach us certain problem solving skills. For me, those life experiences including losing and finding files, keeping backups of my files because I didn't want to lose whatever term paper I was writing, organizing local storage media and dinking around a DOS prompt (and, to be honest, trying not to get caught doing so most of the time). I was a late adopter of GUIs and web browsers, largely due to the cost of sufficiently powerful hardware. The other engineers I'd inadvertently puzzled had grown up with GUI desktops, mobile devices, laptops in and for school, storage that is omnipresent and Just Works, and neigh ubiquitous search to keep track of their stuff. Where things were and what they were called mattered very little to them because their desktops and whatever applications they use do it all for them. It's transparent; so transparent that even the guts are invisible.

In teaching occasionally over the years, I've learned two things: First, don't make folks feel bad because they don't get something or it doesn't make sense. Today's lucky 10,000 is a very real thing. Not everything clicks the first time for someone, and it's hard to tell why this is the case. Sometimes rephrasing helps, sometimes an example helps, sometimes it involves the assumption that someone has seen or done something in the past when they haven't. I sure as hell don't understand everything right off the bat, just ask any of my math instructors over the years. Second, always try to end on a high note. I've found that, when you're frustrated, cranky, and maybe a little scared because something doesn't make any sense your long term memory kind of gives up and doesn't store anything but the feelings of being frustrated and cranky. Doubling back a little ways at the end of a lesson to touch again on something that does make sense is not only a confidence booster, but I've found that the few bits that did make sense in the morass of all the stuff that didn't really do stick more firmly in one's head. To quote Dune, "Muad'Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn."

These were folks who were very obviously smart. They'd gone to (and a few had dropped out of) more prestigious schools than I had. They'd grown up in different environments with vastly different technologies. These were folks confronted with ideas that they'd never knowingly been exposed to before, ideas that could provide insight into how some very ordinary, everyday things work under the desktop. So, and I'm eliding a lot here, I asked what they didn't understand, asked what they knew and had experience with, and figured out from that how to explain what I was doing. What files are. What local storage is and how it differs from the cloud-based storage they'd grown up with. That sometimes local storage is used to cache a copy of things that come from the Net, because even when you don't have a network connection sometimes things are still available to you. What a file system is. In the process I asked them about some stuff they were working on at the moment, and found a couple of ways to explain those ideas using concepts that they were already familiar with.

I don't know everything. Not even close to it. I know a few things a lot of people don't. More importantly, each and everyone out there knows things that I don't. Every sentient being on this planet has lead very different lives, had very different experiences, learned different lessons and read different things. I regularly have to look things up that I haven't seen before and study new topics because I lack the experience to understand them. This is no different from anyone else out there. There is no shame in that. And there is no shame in realizing that there is something new to learn, because there is always something new to learn. Usually at the most unlikely times and circumstances.