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On Breaking

Taking responsibility for what we've built


Childe Roland to the Dark UX Pattern Came

I remember two things from reading The Dark Tower books in college: first, that few narratives are more appealing than a bullet-savant in a dying world, and second, that the final book in the series was basically one long parable about programming. A mild spoiler: in the final book the heroes come across a prison masquerading as a sort of campus. The prisoners are psychics, called Breakers for how they spend their time. Many of them do not see themselves as prisoners. The campus has great food and amenities. Their psychic abilities are an incredible gift, and they are allowed to exercise them in this prison/campus by reaching out with their minds into the sky above and chipping away at the crossbeams of the world.

Of course in messing with the beams they are unknowingly accelerating the apocalypse. But to the Breakers it’s just pleasant, rewarding work. This activity, the intense focus that enables it, the blurring of self with work as a sun rises and sets outside — all of it feels amazing. We might call it flow.

Eventually the heroes team up with a few woke psychics to liberate the others and shut down the whole eating-the-world operation. The bullet-savant fires some good bullets. I don’t totally remember how it all goes down, but I’ve never forgotten how eerie it was to read about that state of meditative timelapse after having spent the entire day writing code for school. And ever since, I’ve had this little reality-check playing continuously in a corner of my brain: Is this a prison or a campus? Does this work doom us or ennoble us?

These questions are never easy to answer, but they’re not terribly difficult at Postlight — we help others inform the world, practice better meditations, and reach students where they are. But they’re always worth asking, and they’re worth asking every time you (a thoughtful engineer) start working someplace new (especially if that place has a literal campus). Most of the time the answers won’t be readily apparent, or will change over time. You might set out to democratize the way people communicate by connecting everyone on the planet and incentivizing them to look at the same site every day—rewarding work — but when a malicious actor uses the thing you’ve built to turn people against each other it might be time to ask again: does this ennoble us? Ask your managers, your founders, your shareholders. More importantly, ask people outside the campus. Don’t let it be a prison.

Also, don’t build superlasers.

As people who build software in the 21st century, we are gifted with tremendous control over our world and the way people live in it. And we’re responsible for the global effects of our work. We can choose to warp everything around us in an effort to court advertisers; we can pretend to tolerate Nazism in the (disingenuous) name of free speech while celebrating the user numbers; we can tout our ads’ efficacy at converting users to buy shoes but testify before Congress that they can’t convert votes; or we can move slow, and not Break things.

That work will be hard, and possibly not rewarding, but it is indisputably ours to do. And it’s possible: Project Coral’s Talk system is a thoughtful, promising way to make online comments better, as is Civil. Facebook has promised to start fact-checking in the News Feed, although they have a long way to go (and some editors to rehire). Twitter has also promised to take abuse more seriously. These solutions and changes were not the result of regulation, but of users complaining—and employees questioning. It’s essential that we, as engineers, designers, and managers, not accept the illusion of the impartial algorithm as an excuse to stop interrogating the effects of our work. Only by critically examining the world we’ve built will we be able to answer: does this work ennoble us?

Kevin Barrett is an engineer at Postlight.

Story published on Nov 1, 2017.