Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

A Lost Art


Last week’s post concluded by expressing my desire to simplify my coding. That’s not a new idea. For many decades, we used the acronym, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I won’t go so far as to say we rivaled the Kiss Army, but there were a lot of us in computing who believed strongly in this approach. And it wasn’t because we thought anyone was stupid. It was meant as a precaution against trying to be too clever.

Clever is how smart people get into trouble. It’s why smart people do stupid things. Clever is the great temptation for anyone who thinks it’s smart to show off. Clever only leads to more cleverness.

The proliferation of new web languages and tools described in last week’s post entices programmers to be clever. They jump to the latest language or tool because it’s easier to perform clever tricks with something new than to take the time to master it.

In fact, the sheer volume of all these new languages and tools itself smacks of cleverness. It’s not that the new can’t be useful—but are they all really necessary? Or are they just another exercise in cleverness?

Cleverness exists primarily to stroke the programmer’s ego. But the goal of programming should be to meet the end user’s needs. To do that well in code, as in writing, requires the ability to revise and improve.

The computer industry calls fixing code maintenance. Maintaining someone else’s code is easiest when it’s straightforward, when it’s easy to read. In six months, that someone else could be the original coder.

Being able to fix code (my aim in the last post) greatly depends on keeping it simple. Choosing the right language and tools can help, but nothing works as well as simplicity. To paraphrase Hippocrates: First, know when not to be clever.

Society tends to mistake clever for smart, especially where technology is concerned. Choosing clever creates obstacles to more important choices, primarily common sense. Technology without common sense has proven to be highly dangerous.

Cleverness is good at making golden eggs, but such geese rarely last. Society’s day to day successes depend far more on common sense than cleverness. Society’s long-term survival depends upon wisdom, another choice subverted by cleverness.

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