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The Disaster Factory

Posted on Jul 12 2017 in Essays

This essay by Greg Knauss first appeared in Offscreen Issue 8 (now sold out).

I’m a programmer, and therefore live in a world of worst-case scenarios. Networks fail, hard drives crash, and those troublesome human beings persist in disgorging all sorts of nonsense into every interface my software has. Computers are incredibly complex and delicate systems, and they fail in dramatic and unexpected ways, without warning, every day.

No, no, I’m fine. My eye twitches like that all the time.

In an environment as insanely chaotic as our modern technological infrastructure – made up of the most advanced science we have, and often held together with chewing gum and good intentions – the only rational response is a deep and abiding paranoia. Experience has taught me to see my software as a writhing mass of Achilles’ heels, a horrific Shoggoth, every line of code a potential disaster. And so I wrap each in a thick, protective layer of negative assumptions, so that when things do go wrong – and they will – the program can (best case) recover quickly or (worst case) not actually kill anyone.

I wish I was exaggerating. Twenty years ago, a few weeks into my first professional programming job, I read a story about the software in a certain type of X-ray machine. An overflow bug had been found, and the upshot was that the machine had been accidentally mega-dosing every 256th person it scanned, effectively giving them cancer. Paranoia doesn’t seem response enough.

By the way, don’t mention this at parties. People tend to look concerned and then sidle away. And never follow up with the story about the rocket that exploded because of a misplaced semicolon.

But programmers – engineers of all stripes – can’t afford to look away. They need a relentlessly negative outlook, to come up with the most horrific thing imaginable, add contingencies to prevent it, and then invent something even worse. It’s what keeps our mechanised world ticking along, what keeps most catastrophic failures safely theoretical and leaves computers merely frustrating instead of murderous. While most have heard of Murphy’s Law – “Anything that can go wrong, will.” – only the nerds know Finagle’s corollary: “...at the worst possible moment.”

Hug a coder, folks. They could use it. Because what the software industry calls ‘best practice’, psychologists call ‘catastrophic thinking’, and it’s awfully hard to spend ten hours a day worrying about disaster and not have the aptitude you develop for it follow you home, like sentient toxic sludge from a grade-B monster movie. It can infect your relationships, your personality, your real life.

For me, it took years to even see that it was happening. Unanswered phone calls became car accidents. Marital tiffs became grounds for divorce. Heavy traffic became late arrivals became missed opportunities became career stagnation became destitution. Anxiety at the omnipresent but-what-ifs grew until the entire world was shadowed by the spectre of inevitable but unrealised doom. The true pleasures of the real world – serendipity, trust, joy, love – became suspect, not to be believed, traps waiting to be sprung.

But the realisation that I was unconsciously extrapolating to the worst-case scenario in my personal life has helped me enormously. Anxiety defeats the rational mind by preventing a sensible examination of itself; it panics you into action at the expense of introspection and self-assessment. But assessment – the quiet, sensible consideration of risks, outcomes, costs, benefits – is vital to a well-lived life. Reward comes from risk, and a life without risk is a life spent under the bed, cowering.

It’s well-worn common sense that programmers need a break from the keyboard every once in a while. They should be standing and stretching and refocusing their eyes. They should get regular exercise and eat right. They should probably not have the local pizza place on speed-dial.

But programmers should also take a break from programming, from the mindset it inspires and the rationale it requires. Stepping away from the machine is both a physical and mental act. Seeing the world afresh, with clear and unswayed eyes, is as important and rejuvenative as a long walk or a good night’s sleep. Just as programming requires the world to be viewed as endlessly dangerous, perpetually teetering on chaos, actually living in it often calls for the exact opposite.

Because the world is a beautiful place, your friends and family love you, and the warm sun in the sky isn’t going to go nova anytime soon. Probably.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

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