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The Machine Has No Soul – Sha Doobie

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I make a living in the computer world. I love gizmo’s, spec’s, and waxing ethereal on all things IT. I wanted to be a rock star, but this is as close as I could come.

We all face intense challenges in our IT lives because of gizmo’s, spec’s, and widgets. We really do try to make our worlds better via the application of technology – and then we spend countless cycles trying to manage the new problems we just inadvertently created while solving some other problem by throwing more technology at it. It seems we are caught in a vicious cycle.

Does it matter? Kids are a good bell weather for such questions. My kids are amazed I can A: make a living talking about this stuff and B: that there are other people out there that spend any time at all listening to people like me talk about stuff like this. I try to explain to them that machines are the future – that some day computers will be so smart they will help us in unimaginable ways. The kids say “they already do”, and I say “ah, but they don’t. They stink. They make us work much too hard on keeping them happy, so we don’t really get to see them doing the good things they are capable of. They are too complicated, too hard to manage, too hard to make them really useful.”

Then my kids walk away with their eyes rolled up. My daughter pulls out her phone, and listens to some rap music (which, by the way, is just awful. I’m sorry, and I know I’m officially my father, but you have to be kidding me with this stuff. The lyrics are not only stupid, but disgusting. I grew up loving punk, to which my dad must have been equally thrilled, but at least those mohawk wearing freaks tried to say something ((albeit not well always – I love the Sex Pistols, and they aren’t going to win any poetry contest)). My son hops on IM like he’s been doing it since he was born, which he pretty much was.

They don’t see gizmo’s as technology. The see applications. They don’t care about pipes and cycles. They care about how many songs fit on their phones, and how they can connect and grab other songs from friends and Internet sites. They replicate more data in a day than most fortune 500 companies I think.

So, the interesting (to me) things learned are 1. I probably am an idiot for spending as much time as I do on how things are supposed to work and not on how they really do work, and 2. what they taught me is that technology will never have life. It takes the soul of human to apply meaning and value to a gizmo, whether a phone or a data center. The machine will run faster and faster, but it will never really think.

I brought my 14 year old daughter Katie to see Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) two weeks ago. She has really eclectic musical tastes, she’s also the one who enjoys listening to rappers tell tales of their sexual exploits over sampled (stolen) music and profess to how many cops they have shot, but I digress. Anyhow, we are in the midst of 28,000 40 year olds smoking dope like it’s 1970, watching what was probably the single greatest display of musicianship I’ve ever seen (really, and I’ve seen everyone – he had 3 guitarists, two keyboardists, sax, three back up singers and some guy who I couldn’t figure out what he did. They played every song note for note – no kidding, note for note. If you happen to play an instrument of any kind, you realize that not only is that music effectively impossible to play as a soloist, but the fact that all eleven of them could be so perfect was astounding). The only other comparative even close that I have witnessed would be Steely Dan.

Leaving, totally blown away, I said “what did you think?”, and she said “That was awesome”. So I said, “yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen better musicians”. She said “yeah, they were good, my guitar teacher can play a lot of that stuff, he plays along with a machine”, which made me think. They have keyboards that really are computers that can play stuff like Pink Floyd. Roger no doubt used one or two. They were programmed to play. They created sounds that made the live show feel like you were listening to the album. Now that’s an application. That’s a great example of some of the good things that all this technology can do – but at the same time, it’s why my kid was totally underwhelmed at witnessing what might have been one of the greatest musical performances she may ever see. She expected it to sound like that – and why not? Her cell phone plays Pink Floyd songs through her earphones and it sounds great, why the heck wouldn’t some old guy and a bunch of young guys playing live sound the same way?

The problem isn’t technology. The problem is perception. In IT we have become our fathers. We still focus on the gizmo’s, we haven’t learned how to focus on the application. We spend too much time figuring out how to make the cell phone work, and not enough time listening to the music. The application is human, the gizmo’s are not.

So even if Roger had a little help, the fact is that people wrote those songs – brilliantly. The creative element and the ability to execute on it will never be done by a machine. Sure, someone from some lab is going to tell me how I’m wrong, but I’m not. There is no point in making the machine feel – we already do that. The machine is how we deliver the post creative results on a consistent basis, but it doesn’t come up with the plan.

Which, finally, gets me to the point. Strategic thinkers will always have a role, whether as song writers or IT folks. Would you rather be the guy who writes the song or the roadie who downloads it onto the machine? If you spend all day chasing cables, you should at least spend the ride home thinking about what you would do IF everything infrastructural just worked – because someday it just might.

Of course this rant could be based on residual contact ingestion from last nights Stones concert. This was my 6th (?) farewell “Keith can’t possibly live another year” tour. Jagger is the most strategic thinker in the history of the music business. I’m guessing he personally pulls a million dollars a night out of the shows they do. Keith gets a bottle of Jack and someone to tell him when to go to bed and wake up. The rest are just happy to be there. They are the machines.

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Steve Duplessie is the author of the “Steve’s IT Rants” blog, and the founder and Sr. Analyst of the Enterprise Strategy Group.

The Machine Has No Soul – Sha Doobie
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