Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How Software Makes Nonsense of Ayn Rand

It amazes me, nowadays, just how many political and business figures – from Rand Paul in the U.S. Congress to Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman – cite Ayn Rand as an inspiration.  I first read The Fountainhead more than 50 years ago, and was interested until the climactic trial, in which the prosecution gave a speech unlike any real-life prosecutorial speech I have ever heard.  I have later heard excerpts from the climactic speech in Atlas Shrugged, which suggest that Ayn Rand’s themes in the two books are part of an overall effort to define “libertarianism” as an attempt to distinguish the “makers” from the “takers” in a typical society. 

Thus, for example, in The Fountainhead the “maker” is an architect who is put on trial because he destroys the corrupted version the contractor (apparently, local or state government) has made of his quality work.  In Atlas Shrugged, apparently, similar indignities drive Dagny Taggart and like-minded individuals to remove from the “takers” and their governments the “makers’” technical ability, needed to use modern machinery such as a radio, and to withdraw from society until it realizes its need for them.

Out of such writings, it seems, are political and economic philosophies made.  Let us also note that at the time Ayn Rand wrote, it was barely possible to see the work world and national economies much as Rand saw them:  inventors and hands-on builders who were also heads of larger enterprises, like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.  Even in the post-war period, with the advent of the veteran CEO who knew how to get things done from executive training in the hands-on Army or Navy, there were possible examples of “makers” to cite as the ones who really made the world work, and made the world a better place.

Today, however, more and more of our products, our solutions, our processes, and our lives are infused with computer software.  And as a result, it is impossible to make Ayn Rand’s vision a reality.  In fact, today, computer software makes what Ayn Rand wrote complete nonsense.

Joining the Few Who Are Far Too Many

 An old British comedy routine spoofs WWII newsreels by intoning, “People flocked to join the few.”

“Please, sir, I want to join the few.”

“I’m sorry, there are far too many.”

That is the first bit of nonsense in Ayn Rand’s philosophy:  that relatively few “makers”, like Atlas lifting the world on his shoulders, run businesses, make things work, and keep progress moving forward.  No:  take any product, from a smartphone to an oil rig, and very few people actually build or design the new hardware.  On the other hand, many programmers over the years have built the software that connects the smartphone to the Web and to others (just like radio!) or monitors the performance of the oil rig, reporting that performance to remote sites looking for promising well sites and prepared for reaction in the case of disaster.  We need hardly add that a vanishingly small percentage of this software was made by executives. 

In other words, over the last fifty years, programmers (and make no mistake, programmers are creative and do their own thing) that are more and more prevalent have taken over more and more of what makes the world run and “progress.”  Take a vacation from making the world run?  How would you contact all those programmers, all over the world, much less get them to agree?  And where would they go to take a vacation until the world needs them?

That leads on to the second bit of nonsense from Ayn Rand:  That “makers” work harder, while “takers” seek to parasitically feed for their own benefit off “makers’” work.  Hedge fund executives work hard, and think creatively about investments; but do they work harder than anyone else?  Heck, no.  Programmers work just as long hours (as do, say, some police or construction workers, to cite a few examples), are just as creative, and their creativity has far more to do with how well the world runs than the creativity of the private equity firm. 

The key point is that if anyone is parasitically feeding off anyone, it’s the CEO or the program-trading hedge fund manager feeding off the programmer.  Moreover, if we remove the manager from the equation, it is relatively easy to substitute other wannabe rich folk for them, while if we remove all programmers, things would indeed slow down quite a bit.  And yet, in Ayn Rand’s definition, programmers are not “makers”, because they don’t know how the underlying hardware works, nor how to run a business.  Summary:  if programmers aren’t “makers”, then all those execs she was glorifying (a) don’t work harder (and aren’t more creative or more impactful on moving the world forward) than programmer “takers”; and if programmers are “makers” and execs are also (according to Rand) “makers”, then the main people feeding off programmers to the tune of billions in cash are other “makers” (i.e., execs).

That leads to the third bit of nonsense:  that government of all stripes is on the side of the “takers.”  We have seen plenty of examples of “maker” programmers inside and outside of government – or, for that matter, hackers.  We should also note the “open source” movement, that seeks to ensure the free availability of software outside of both business and government, and which both government and business are now “parasiting.”  We could cite further examples ad nauseam; but this Randism, today, just doesn’t come close to being true. 

It’s Okay, Honey, You Fulfill a Vital Function

So why don’t the Alan Greenspans and Rand Pauls of the world recognize how completely Ayn Rand fails to fit today’s software world?  My dark suspicion is that they want to believe that somehow they are doing something that makes the world run better, and “the gummint” (due credit to Walt Kelley’s Pogo) is the faceless entity that represents those who want to take well-earned money gained from hard, creative work away. 

I like the way Douglas Adams puts it in one of the Hitchhiker books.  One of his characters, on the run, bumps into a prostitute in a back alley.  Only she isn’t selling sex; she’s selling making businessmen feel better about themselves.  “It’s OK, honey,” she croons to a possible depressed-businessman John , “You’re really needed; you fulfill a vital function; our economy wouldn’t work without you.”

However, because of software, CEOs and investment firms are less and less vital to the functioning of an economy.   Yes, as we’ve seen, their “creativity” can screw things up; but it is less and less important to moving the technology forward.  Yes, they work hard and can be creative; but they simply don’t have the positive impact that they used to.  And so, I wonder if much of the buzz, past and present, about really earning outsized salaries and stock options, sweetheart deals after you leave the political arena with lobbyists, paeans to the “free market” and “laissez-faire” (according to economic theory, these don’t exist in the real world, by definition, because real-world markets don’t have perfect information equally shared), and the like are the output just as much of the prostitute seeking some share of the billionaire’s billions as of the income-unequal CEO himself or herself.

And so, thanks to software, Ayn Rand’s philosophical justification has become real-world nonsense.  In fact, I wonder if what’s going on isn’t the ultimate irony: to see Rand used to justify “taking” by non-governmental CEOs and the like?

But then, I still haven’t forgiven her for that prosecutorial speech.   I hope she’s being forced to code in FORTRAN down in the nether regions.

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