I found myself, in conversation with a coworker (one of the more pleasant and reasonable yet somehow no more intellectually substantive minions of my complete wanker of a boss's-boss's-boss) today, uttering the following line: 'An ad hoc solution that always just works is always preferable, is it not?, to a systematic, formalized solution that can't be counted on.' He seemed to agree in one of the more dimly-lit recesses of his brain.
Needless to say, it didn't seem to matter at all.
At issue was whether part of our daily workflow should switch from a strung-together collection of individual apps - each of which does one thing competently, if not always that efficiently - to an expensive, commercially developed single-vendor 'solution' that's been in the pipeline for 13 months, licensed for in-house modification at a cost of literally millions of dollars, and as yet has not been beta tested. You can guess how I feel about it, particularly since I won't see a lick of productivity or ease-of-use improvement from the product. There are several things about the forthcoming system that are obviously much preferable to the current one - but what startles me is, they've been problems for literally years, yet no one has thought to address them until now, with this all-or-nothing approach.
'We have to get away from' this one old app, he said. 'It's unsupported. What'll you do if it breaks? Who'll you talk to?'
'Does it ever break?' I responded. I was the picture of strategic naivete - my mother would've been proud.
'No, but what if it does?'
I conceded that he had a point. Inside, I was by this point resigned to not really giving a shit about the conversation, and already 24 hours into the fun process of learning not to give a shit about our product. (Thank you, Big Publishing House, for this gift of life and love.)
What troubles me is this: at MIT, we learned to have an appreciation for ad hoc, limited-scope solutions - which combine on-the-spot thinking with a certain elegance. I like machines - physical, digital, whatever kind - that do a small number of things incredibly well. Alarm clocks are this way. Clock radios are generally lame radios attached to clocks. Wind-up alarm clocks do one thing, pleasantly (I love the ticking of a clock as I fall asleep), and then another (namely scare the hell out of you in the morning). Pens too. I didn't think about pens until I owned one that's (still) a great pleasure to use. There's no reason pens should be rubbish, when they can easily be both cheap and not-rubbish.
Maybe these are bad examples, I don't know.
My point is, there seems to be a system-wide hostility in Corporate America to a certain engineer-ish mentality - or more specifically, a fear of ad hoc solutions. It's not enough, in some circles, that things Just Work(tm). They have to 'work' in a way that reflects well on the corporate yes-men not actually capable of implementing them themselves. So informal solutions in-house are fine, so long as they get none of the credit for the achievements of the corporate machine.
This is, in every way, the diametric opposite of the attitude that pervades MIT culture. I'm hardly an engineer - the Computer Science part of my bachelors degree definitely wasn't the focus, though I am allowed to puff up a bit at its presence, I think - but the fact is, as important as facility with soldering irons, differential equations, and the lambda calculus is a cultural indoctrination or appreciation, by which one learns to value (to coin or perhaps reproduce a phrase) the Aesthetics of Problem-Solving.
Among many others I know, this guy has it in spades, for instance. As do these fools, though in a different way (the social-engineering analogue, though they are indeed mostly engineer-types). By rather complex analogy, these kids seem to get it too.
You might say it's about an appreciation of Mechanism - what it is that makes the kid open up the box. Sometimes it exposes the most extraordinary turningwheels and windingsprings and graspingteeth within, and sometimes, I readily admit, it just fucks up the whole cat-experiment thing. It's Wonder, maybe.
At my job I feel a certain cold that comes from the absence of Wonder.
It returns when I write.
Dream good dreams tonight, and call your parents! They miss you.