Reflections on poíēsis and community
On February 3rd my spouse and I went to Nocturne in downtown Denver to watch and hear the Danish String Quartet perform Nordic folk music. As an audience member I witnessed the astounding expertise but more importantly the raw gleeful joy of each performer as they plied their craft. The room was packed with people and every face reflected that joy as the very room was bathed in the ecstasy that radiated from each musician.
I too was feeling the amazing energy and yet, the ecstasy was somehow tainted. Creeping up from my stomach was a strange mixture of regret and rueful memory. As I watched their bows sawing and then sweeping, their heads weaving and dodging, their mouths flexing from serious scowls to broad smiles and their feet tapping and rocking, there was a deep memory that would not come clear. That joy, that soaking-into-the-very-muscle joy was not unfamiliar, though still distant and strange.
What I was remembering was the joy of creation. The joy of the musician, of the artist: the joy that derives from the making that the Greeks called poíēsis. ‘Yet,’ I thought, ‘I am not an artist. From what of my endeavors could I possibly have experienced that joy?’ It isn’t just the joy of creation. It goes beyond that. I try very hard to engage in creative work every day and it doesn’t yield the joy I was recalling from that vague reminiscence. It wasn’t just creating, it was (far more importantly) a shared creating. My memory was, like the Danish String Quartet, a shared creation wherein the joy was not just pasted into a private book, it was presented to a community who could amplify that glory and reflect it back and revel in it with the presenter.
I am not an artist, so how could I remember that? Then the regret rose up and I remembered. I too had created for a community. Yes! Then I remembered. Long ago, when I was an engineer, I was actually employed to create. I was given the opportunity to solve problems: beautiful complex problems that others had failed to solve. Sun Microsystems repeatedly offered me and my team the glorious privilege of creation. After tedious and fraught days of experimentation, discussion and reflection, we would each share in the joy of the creative revelation that resolved some particular piece of our puzzle.
Occasionally each of us would stand before the review committee and reveal a completed solution and request permission to proceed with the project. I remember standing before the assembled committee in Menlo Park. We were confronting a problem that software companies everywhere were trying to solve. It involved how to understand the detailed state of remote systems while also conforming to numerous well-understood restrictions involving privacy and security. After weeks of pondering, I had enjoyed that ever-anticipated thrill of a complete revelation. I awoke one morning and I had the entire solution. That was the initial joy.
Then, I presented my concept of the RealizationDetector. I explained how we could know everything about the remote system without knowing anything about that system. I explained how it would gather the information we would never see at Sun; and yet, all of that hidden information would nonetheless yield the valuable actions required for our purposes. As I explained the simple algorithm for generating new RealizationDetectors for any number of purposes, the room focused on the white board as I drew the UML diagram. I knew that my audience was beginning to experience the joy of understanding a solution to a real problem — a simple creative solution. In that moment, I was the Danish String Quartet. I felt the joy. I radiated that joy and I felt it reflected from my audience. At the end of my presentation, I received the warm congratulations and I felt that I had made something of value, that I had been the true poet, that I had embodied poíēsis: I had brought a wonder into being.
That was when I had experienced the joy. For a musician, that may happen every few days as performance follows performance. As an engineer, I experienced that transcendent joy every month or so as I reflected the creative ecstasy of a colleague or enjoyed the approval of others in my engineering community. That was the joy I remembered from so long ago. I wept with the memory of it. No company is looking for that creativity anymore. While I may be creative alone, the joy of public creation has been cut off from me since at every company since Sun, I am not expected to create. I am not asked to do what I do best. I am just asked to code stuff up.
I have a beer, from time to time, with old friends with whom I had solved wondrous impossible problems back when we were both engineers. They too remember the joy and then the melancholy creeps up as they wonder at how they could possibly experience that joy again. I have no answers, only an ear and an arm and gentle understanding. These engineers used to produce real value for competitive companies that craved every competent advantage in the form of brilliant solutions to problems that still baffled their competitors. Now, that kind of competition is simply unnecessary. Company executives have found that cooperation and acquisition keep them just as rich as competition and so my friends and I and millions of other creative technicals, go hungry, the joy only a distant memory. A distant wretched memory.
The bigger issue here is not a paucity of joy. The problem is a paucity of innovation in U.S. industry. When was the last time you saw a truly innovative new solution to an actual problem you have? I don’t mean, a cool pointless technical bobble, I mean a real solution to a real problem. I mean, where is the centrally-controlled system of elliptic-curve coded passports that make identity theft nearly impossible? Where is the entirely secure online voting system that allows every citizen to easily cast votes for traditional purposes but also for the occasional ad hoc issue demanding quick inexpensive popular ascent? Where is the global energy network that automatically routes and stores spare power from small independent solar and wind farms, reliably supplying all areas as power is needed? When did you last marvel at a truly brilliant solution to a real problem?
We don’t solve problems any more. We have become complacent. Those in power are rich, fat and quite satisfied — satisfied that mere money is enough and therefore people are only needed to pull the required levers. No special skills, like engineering, are called for. The nation, indeed the world, suffers because our economic system has been crafted to function using rent-seeking as opposed to creation. Our system saps the value out of everything that has value without replenishing that resource. We are hard-rock miners scooping the minerals, the resources, the very marrow from healthy countries, healthy companies, healthy humans. We tunnel into the pristine face of our barren industry, extracting capital, intellectual property and humans leaving behind only tailings and loss.
This is not only a tragedy, it is a pitiful waste. It is a fundamental misuse of available potential. This is not hard-nosed good business, this is incompetent misappropriation. Modern entrepreneurs are throwing money into the fire and ignoring the loss because their cut is sufficient to sate their short-sighted hunger. This ridiculous and irrational calculus is the basis of our doomed economy, an economy that will last as long as this tunnel yields. When it is spent, we are done.
This is why we must rediscover engineering and innovation. Entrepreneurs must understand that when they sell their company to Google or Amazon, they have failed. We need to nurture long-term companies, companies that concentrate on real value and long-term employment engendering intellectual property that surpasses anything we can imagine in today’s mundane marketplace. Companies that thrive on the joy of creation and the exuberant appreciation of the glory that only humans may bring forth.
Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen the new book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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