October 15, 2007
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NeoVictorian 1: Civilization and its Discontents

At OOPSLA, I'm planning to talk about NeoVictorian Computing. It's a big talk, with lots of side paths and a few surprises.

The slides are now available on my Lecture Notes page.

I'm going to talk about why we in computing seem unhappy, and how we might fix it.

NeoVictorian 1: Civilization and its Discontents
Photos: Jake Hildebrandt, Lady Raven Eve

Why do I say we are unhappy?

I think we all woke up one day to find ourselves living in the software factory. The floor is hard, from time to time it gets very cold at night, and they say the factory is going to close and move somewhere else.

NeoVictorian 1: Civilization and its Discontents
Photo:Lewis Wickes Hines, NYPL 91PH056.029

What might cheer up the software world? The usual answer is: piles of money. Money is nice. You can exchange it for goods and services! But I think we want something else:

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

That's what these machines are intended to do, and that's what we wanted to do. But this isn't a sentiment that fits well with Postmodern Programming. It's not really congruent with the early Modern purism of Dijkstra, or with the late modernist abstractions of UML. It speaks to the thought of an earlier age, refracted through the lens of our greater knowledge and our changed circumstances.

I see hints of similar yearnings all over the place, from steampunk to cosplay, from art to architecture to fiction. It's not just nostalgia or dressing up. It's not something we're borrowing from the arts. We are the arts.

I think we can learn a tremendous amount by pulling back from The Enterprise and putting our skills in the service of individual knowledge workers, real people doing important work.

NeoVictorian 1: Civilization and its Discontents
Photo: Aldo Murillo

In this series of posts, I'm going to speculate on what's really wrong and suggest how we might begin to change things. The short version: The Arts & Crafts movement failed in consumer goods, but it could succeed in software.

I'm going to be using some slides from my upcoming talks on NeoVictorian Computing in this series, but my argument here will be quite different from the talks. Don't worry too much about spoilers.