This weekend, I experienced one of those moments that make me question the value of information technology. My trusty windows phone, for whatever reason, failed. Given I was traveling in less than 24 hours, I needed to find a replacement. So I traipsed to the local phone store, and was told “I’m sorry, we don’t sell windows phones. They aren’t popular enough.” So there I stood, like the shopper in the proverbial aisle of cereal, trying to choose which new phone to get.
After staring at all the different phones for a while, it dawned on me that the apparent variety is fake. I really only had two choices.
The first is the iPhone. The iPhone is a throwback to the late 1990’s, at least one generation behind current hardware, and with a user interface that falls into the “cute retro gamified Windows 3.11/Xerox Star” sort of thing. Getting anything done requires jumping through multiple hoops. There is no way to pin anything you use on a regular basis to the screen, no information available without entering an app, the icons are tiny candies, etc. Sorry Apple fanfolk, but Apple hasn’t innovated in at least 10 years in the area of user interface design. They did rounded corners, and then they quit.
The other option is to use an operating system built by Google. One sure way to lose my attention very quickly is to put Google on the nameplate.
Twenty years ago, we were all told “in the exciting world of technology, we will all have all the choice we want… things will be simpler, easier, and we will be able to mold technology to allow us to be more human, have more time, …”
Instead, here we are, twenty years on, and we stand at the cell phone store choosing between twenty kinds of cereal that are all the same. Sure, they have different pretty packages, and they use different food coloring, and the little bits of cereal are all shaped differently, but, in the end, it’s all made of the same stuff, either outdated or bad for your health. I get a choice between molding my life around one of two company’s ideas about what my life should be.
How did we come to this? How is it that in the US alone, we have (according to WikiPedia, which I generally trust as far as I can throw my car) 327 million cell phones, and precisely two choices? One word: Mooooo.
Okay, two words: Herd mentality.
We certainly didn’t get here by failing to invent new things, or through a lack of creativity, or by not working hard enough, or… We got here because “here” is where we want to be.
The technology world tends tells itself a story every day that goes something like this: We are free thinking libertarians. We are leading mankind into a bright new future where every person can reach their full potential, where toleration reigns, and everyone loves everyone. This is largely a myth.
Some folks might know that I also keep my toes dipped in the world of worldview, culture, and philosophy. I’m not a philosopher by any means, but there is a level of irony here. The religious world, according to technologists, is supposed to be a hive of groupthink and ignorance, a world where no discussion takes place. The technology world, in contrast, is supposed to be a world where discussion is open, ideas are tossed around, and people are promoted to the top because of what they do, rather than what they believe.
The reality I encounter is often the opposite. When I work in the world of philosophy and worldview, I find people with different ideas, and ideas being defended with well reasoned arguments. People don’t (generally) call one another names, for one thing. People are tolerated in spite of what they believe, rather than because of what they believe, for another.
The technology world, by contrast, is far too often seemingly politics and “what is everyone else doing,” or “what is the best common practice?” The herd rules. Just remember, the herd is almost always running in the wrong direction.
There is another reason here, however, than just herd mentality. We also often forget who our customers are. People complain about the airline industry—the schedules, the lack of choice, the bad and tight seats, etc. But when you consider the airline industry in light of who their customers are, you might get a different picture of things. Who are the actual customers of the airline industry? Is it the individual flyer? No. It is the corporate travel agents who book probably 80% of all the flights in the world, and the companies who pay for the flights. Once you see things in this light, a lot of what we consider “wrong” about the world of travel might start to make sense.
The same is true of the technology world. Who is our customer? With phones, the real customer is not the user, it is the app developer—because the primary way in which a phone is judged is whether or not it has apps. I dare you to find a review of any mobile platform that evaluates the platform without once saying “all this is nice, but now we come to the thing that matters: the apps.” Not that anyone actually uses all the apps, it just makes us feel good to have them.
In the networking world, we often miss the same situation. Most networking gear is not targeted at engineers. Most networking conferences are explicitly not targeted at engineers. Products, sales pitches, and conferences are geared towards the folks who sign the checks—and that is not network engineers. Looked at in this light, a lot of stuff makes sense in the network engineering world that might not, otherwise.
To bring this more fully back to the networking world.
Say SDN in a crowded room, and watch people jump. I have actually heard engineers I consider solid thinkers call static routes configured through an automation system “SDN.” Or take the latest tunneling protocol—please. We already have plenty. Talk about a research paper, and you will find people sleeping or slipping out. Discuss the latest piece of gear from vendor x, and you will have everyone’s rapt attention, particularly as you dive into the deepest details of the configuration process and options.
We are where we are because we are the herd. We have, ourselves, become the nerd knobs we so adore.
Enough whining—where do we go from here?
The place to start, I think, is where I always return. Back to basics, to learning technologies rather than product, to learning to communicate with business people rather than letting the vendors bypass the engineering staff, to learning to build things, rather than trying to reverse engineer “what the vendor meant to happen here.”
It is a hard road, I know—and if we cannot support more than two phone platforms in a sea of 327 million users, then I am not certain we are willing, and able, to walk this road. Maybe I am just whistling into the wind.
On the other hand, we can but try.