software as hostage

Thu, Jul 23, 2009

I read an interesting post by Jeff Atwood about software developers hating software, along the lines of you’re a coder so you know how much effort it takes to do things in software and you can recognise crap software when you see it. But I think that’s a fairly minor barb in Software’s bum. Usually when a major company writes crap software and that software is secondary to the reason you’re using that company, using Jeff’s example of a digital camera, it’s usually the company that get’s the yah-boo-sucks treatment.

But what about when software is hijacked by the politicos in your organisation and beaten about the head to do their bidding? How many times have you heard, from up the food chain, “it won’t work, it’s not X compliant”, or “it’s by Y, it’ll never work for us”. As a developer, you’re constantly emailing the spec for feature X to the politico, who constantly ignores it as it negates the politcal argument. They use it as a way to shoehorn unnecessary features into the system, so they can still play, as they don’t understand the new technology. Hands waving, they use their political weight to shout about features they consider bad, even though the developers have proof they’re not. They have specs and unit tests that prove it works. What happens? A Frankenstein is born and what started as a feasible software project ends up containing features which are nothing more than political balm. A lot of software ends up like that and although, as a developer, you may bemoan the quality or lack thereof, what you see is prolly not the fault of the developers. All software bears the traces of the environment in which it was created and that environment is almost always overwhelmingly political.

There’s a company called Spinvox which apparently has a “D2”, which they call “The Brain”, which will take voice calls and convert them to text messages. This “Message Conversion System” purports to be able to recognise speech, no matter in what language, dialect or state of inebriation of the caller it’s spoken. Well, of course it doesn’t. As a software developer you know it doesn’t. It’s marketing crap which was exposed as just that, crap. Apparently, the “Message Conversion System” is a network of call centres full of people transcribing speech to text, which looks like it may breach UK privacy laws. The BBC reported on this debacle but interestingly, one reporter was adamant it was a human doing the transcribing while the other was equally certain it was a machine. These opinions were based on what came back from the system.

Isn’t that the Turing Test though? Two reporters arguing over whether what they’re talking to on the other end of the phone is a machine or a man! While all the while, there are thousands of call centre scribblers beavering away in a Pratchett-esque world of sprites and goblins hidden out of sight in the bowels of the “Message Conversion System”.

That’s an extreme example of environmental conditioning of software. If it was for sale, the “D2 Brain” would come with a few thousand addon modules, each one powered by a WetWare interface. In this case the software clearly wasn’t going to be up to the job so it was “enhanced”.

That’s two examples of software abuse. Taking capable software and making it less capable to suit a political demand and secondly, taking incapable software and enhancing it to make it look like it’s capable. In the former, ego and claims of intellectual freedom are at work, while in the latter, software has become hostage to the Greenback Monster.

What would you do if you bought a brand new car but every time you turned round you noticed a large group of dodgy looking people following you? Every time you got in the car they’d rush up behind it and start pushing it. Put it in reverse and they’d run round the front and push it the other way. It has no engine. Turn on the radio and they’d all start singing! Congratulations, you’ve just bought a Model D2!

What would you think of the people who designed and built that car, which was being sold to you for a purpose not intended by the creators? Now think of the developers behind the D2 software.

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