Why a little cynicism?

a response

13 March 2019

I ain’t no luddite and I still enjoy learnin’. Not a cantankerous coot just yet. However, one thing I find a little disheartening about growing old (I’m 53) is that the thesis, antithesis, synthesis dialectic progression is more akin to the camel, lion, child that Tom Johnson references here. Tom’s article makes a different point about the three stages. What I’m disheartened about is that the child seems too willing to abandon everything old to start chasing the shiny new thing. There is little synthesis except in the basics. Daniel san doesn’t find his Mr. Miyagi.

That’s the cause of the little cynicism I have, at least. I’m finding as I get older that in technology, yes, there are clear inventions pushing us forward, and even though some underpinnings change too, they don’t change much. In other words, every minute there seems to be a new programming language or new UI to learn, and after learning it, I ask myself, “Why does this have to be different? It offers little that’s new other than it’s different.”

That’s not to say that I don’t like many new things that are similar to the old. Depending on the situation, I prefer YAML to JSON, JSON to XML, REST to SOAP, Ruby and Python to Perl, NodeJS to PHP. However, to learn a whole new thing for just a few added benefits becomes taxing on the older brain, especially if you want to become proficient at it. Sometimes you wish that standards would last longer and you could build on that older knowledge instead, particularly the syntactical knowledge; you wish older technologies would add the new features rather than see something different completely re-invented simply to get the new features. One example is when the design changes every time my phone has a system update: sure I get the new swipe keyboard now, but I also have to put up with lots of differences that add nothing but flair. And often there’s a change for the worse, like low contrasting colors (an important change to a color blind person like me).

I realize that I was a bit of a maverick when I was younger, too. Yet after looking at the history and spending some time with the old technology, I saw its benefits. For example, when I first joined IBM, I was all too willing to criticize Bookmaster and the mainframe compared with Word and the desktop because I saw the benefits of Word’s WYSIWIG and outline mode and the desktop’s multitasking capability. What I didn’t understand was how much easier it is to manipulate text-based source files and to maintain a single centralized system. Through the years, we’ve progressed in some ways (hybrid distributed and centralized or cloud systems) and come full circle in others (Bookmaster to Framemaker to DITA or markdown).

So, that’s what’s disheartening about growing old, when you’re forced to learn something new and realize that you spent that energy coming full circle, learning little new at all. It’s the risk takers who make these new things, but I also realize that it’s not for naught that they make them and that not all risk takers are young. In this growth economy, to survive, you’re forced and encouraged to change so that you have something new to sell, whether for money or notoriety. That, too, adds to the cynicism.. and is a subject for another day.

In my life there is one exception. I took the time to become familiar with Unix in college 28 years ago. Thanks to Steve Jobs, Linus Torvalds, and their creative communities, I get to continue to use that same knowledge, with the same Unix-paradigm-following enhancements, on the hardware of today. That, my friends, is indeed a comfort to this aging techie.

Gary Faircloth

Interests: tech writing, programming, science, history. You might also find me playing some PC Ga—SQUIRREL!