Technology is a Pernicious Rabbit Hole

One rainy Sunday afternoon in 1983 my sister invited me to play a board game, Payday. I gruffly declined. A month earlier it might have been the perfect diversion but something new had clamped my interest, a Radio Shack TRS-80 MC-10. Smaller than other personal computers it was all I could afford on my newspaper route savings. A black and white television served as a monitor and a cassette recorder for data storage. With the 16KB memory expansion and reference book in hand, I was programming a digital Yahtzee. I had already programmed the rolling dice and was now feverishly working on the scoring. My sister chided me for spending all my time on the computer.

The expression, rabbit hole, comes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Alice is bored until she spots a rabbit wearing a waistcoat and pocket watch, talking to itself. Curious, she follows it into a rabbit hole and falls into a fantasy world of strange creatures and twisted logic. In the end Alice grows in size and plucks up the courage to challenge the king and queen of hearts, calling them out as just playing cards. Alice’s sister wakes her up. It was a dream.

Carroll’s book was published in 1865. My modern rabbit hole is technology. Originally interested in language and literature, I was curious about the new phenomenon of the personal computer. I took high school computer courses. I played with them. I went to university for a psychology degree but in the late eighties computers were everywhere. The school computer lab had Apple IIe desktops and mainframe clients. I acquired a 14.4k modem with which I could submit statistics jobs, send email, and browse discussion boards. After graduating I worked in social services for a few years and managed to skip Windows 3.1 entirely. A later job in health research had me grinding numbers on spreadsheets, juicing my programming chops. One Visual Basic certification later I was qualified for nifty, good paying programming jobs. Scooped by IBM I began a lifelong career in information technology.

A corporate information technology department is a world of strange creatures. Alice (yes, like in Wonderland) was gifted with code but had no clue when to start or stop speaking. David was a well-adjusted college kid who could care less about code but liked the money. Helen was a middle-aged tester who resented our kind for taking her old job. I had an affinity for the book nerds. We liked reading, libraries, bicycles and public radio. Skilled with stories and a keyboard, most of us had tried our hand at creating a computer text adventure.

I had spells where I felt I had missed my original calling as a writer, librarian or psychologist. It was not that I disliked technology. Early on it was stimulating to learn the deep knowledge of how the computer world hung together. Analyzing software requirements was a bit like psychoanalysis, asking workers to explain behaviours they performed unconsciously. I enjoyed the zen state of coding, suspending the outside world, tracking a dozen variables in my head, coordinating the moving pieces as I wrote thousands of lines of code. I worked with teams that built four major software systems and dozens of smaller ones, still used worldwide today. It is likely that you have used my code. I still take pride in that. But I always expected to make an exit from the technology rabbit hole. It did not happen.

I became a strange creature. It was a daily battle, spending my best creative resources to increase the quarterly profits of banks, pharmaceuticals and manufacturers. We worked the mythical man month, too many people grinding out code too late at night and too long into the weekend. I smoked and drank. I ate badly and got no exercise. My theme song came from What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes, “And I try, oh my god do I try, I try all the time, in this institution. And I pray, oh my god do I pray, I pray every single day, for a revolution.” I suppose I was hoping for a political and economic revolution that would upend the necessity of my job, but the revolution I got was technological, the rise of cell phones and the Internet. At first, having a cell phone made me sleep better. If it was not ringing I knew everything was okay. The Internet made me smarter, no question, being able to google coding questions and learn new skills. But cell phones and the internet also meant I could be found anytime, and I could work from anywhere. Early adopters, we were assimilated into the borg.

Seven years into the rabbit hole there was a moment of light. Randy was the sort of manager who disillusioned young new employees. Forget innovation and invention, Randy would say. Business applications are meatball programming. Maybe Randy was struggling too. One day he said something unexpected, that an employee needs to be comfortable in his or her own skin to be of any real value to the company. A little harsh, a lot true. I had always been uncomfortable in my skin. I made a business case to fund a Master of Library and Information Science. I used technical terms, like usability and information architecture. Randy approved it.

I imagined that library school would lead to a comfortable job reading books, but the digital revolution was in full swing for libraries too. It may not be obvious, but librarians and technologists do the same thing, organize information. Databases, markup, boolean search: all old news in libraries but digital tools make them fast. Today’s libraries are fast places solving interesting problems; my technology skills were a hot commodity. It worked for everybody. I wrote open source code for libraries, published in technology journals, and patented an invention for IBM. I finished my part-time degree in 2010. There were good library prospects but now IBM upped the ante. Until this time, most technology required that its data be normalized, that is, structured into neat columns and tables for databases. Unstructured data was considered second class, the loose insides of documents and books, best left to librarians. This all changed when IBM faced off its Watson supercomputer against the world’s best Jeopardy players. Watson measured its data in books, unstructured data. It beat the human champs easily using natural language processing. It was the ultimate librarian. I was offered a job in IBM Watson Group and I took it.

Technology is a pernicious rabbit hole, with enough intellectual and economic rewards to keep me there. My final chapter with IBM came after a failed attempt to create a partnership between Watson Group and the Digital Humanist researchers. In library school I had become familiar with the Digital Humanists, academics who specialize in understanding the algorithms of reading. They only lacked computer resources. Watson Group had the resources but needed insight into machine reading challenges. A perfect match it seemed. As I mentioned, it is not always obvious to get two groups to see their shared concern. Had I succeeded I am sure I would have stayed with IBM for life, but the partnership failed, mostly around fears about intellectual property rights. There was nothing more I could do. There was nothing left to interest me. I was offered a pile of money to stay but I was done. Do not mistake this conclusion as my victory over the rabbit hole. I took another job at a small local firm. I work at a civilized pace, live healthy and teach a fitness class. I deliberately avoid writing code but I still work in technology. In the end, people are what they do, and I am technologist. I live in a rabbit hole. I suppose I am a rabbit.

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