In the IT world, it’s 1984

Being stuck in day-long workshops for an entire week does bad things to my head.  It makes me want to do bad things to the workshop organiser’s head with a length of 2×4.  It makes me wonder what sins I committed in a previous life to be subjected to such torture in this one.  And it makes me see disturbing parallels between the IT world and the totalitarian nightmare of George Orwell’s novel 1984.  Come to think of it, these parallels work for the broader business world but I’ll stick to what I know, namely, IT.

WAR IS PEACE

IT managers and business people in general rarely seem happy if IT staff are feeling relaxed.  The pervading mood I’ve felt throughout my IT career is that happy staff aren’t working hard enough.  IT staff are saddled with a widespread perception that they’re overpaid (which from a certain perspective is true but this aint charity, it’s supply and demand, mofo) and so if they dare to be happy as well harsh measures are called for.

Time and time again I’ve seen deliberate management decisions taken with the intent of creating destructive conflict between individuals, between teams and between the IT and non-IT sections of a company.  Competition in and of itself is a good thing because without it we’d have stagnation but being competitive doesn’t have to mean “for me to win, you must lose.”  I’m appalled to see how often it’s still accepted “wisdom” that crushing your opponents (within the same company!) is the way to success. 

The macho, male-dominated world of big business and IT sees perpetual conflict as the desirable state and it’s absence says that something is wrong.  War is peace.

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

There’s a couple of ways to read this one but for me, in the IT world particularly this little bit of doublethink is epitomised by the concept that wireless, always-on, constant connectivity is some wonderful new freedom.  Bullshit.  That’s slavery.  There has to be a separation between work and home life.  Nobody ever uttered the dying words “I wish I spent more time at the office,” yet having the office take over every aspect of your life continues to be seen as a desirable goal.

IT workers are particularly susceptible to this because of the prevalence of gadget fetishism but it’s a horrible trap.  Nobody at work knows my mobile phone number, private email address or IM contact (or my blog for that matter).  I don’t have a pager or Blackberry and I never will.  I never dial into the work network from home.  Sometimes people simply have to deal with the fact they can’t contact me until the next business day. 

I’ll quit a job before I’ll be shackled to it day and night.  Time is the one thing you can never get more of and I value my personal time far more than I value being offered the freedom to access my workspace anywhere, anytime through the latest fabulous gadget.  That sort of freedom is slavery.

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

This one is everywhere.  Modern communication tools give us the potential to have almost unlimited access to information.  At the same time the desire to clamp down on the flow of information seems to grow every day.  Whether it’s from a government or a company, we’re continually hearing that “You can’t have that… You can’t know that… That’s a secret… That’s proprietary.”

This goes far beyond the idea of keeping secrets from real or perceived enemies, these days it seems that basic information is withheld from people on the same side on a routine basis.  Whether it’s a government withholding information from its citizens that the laws of the land say they have the right to know or management withholding information from employees “for their own good” it seems we’re constantly being told our ignorance will make us stronger.

And it goes beyond people in power wanting to enforce ignorance on their subordinates.  It’s hard to escape the feeling that a large number of people feel that their own ignorance makes them stronger.  I know I’m not the only one who sees the pattern of behaviour in Bush administration refusing to accept “intelligence” that contradicted either broad political goals or specific decisions that had already been made. 

And whether it’s a religious fundamentalist refusing to consider the possibility of evolution, an evolutionist refusing to consider the value of spirituality, a global warming denier refusing to accept the weight of scientific opinion or an environmentalist refusing to consider that they might not have all the answers, it’s easy to find people who prefer to maintain their current ignorance rather than weaken what they perceive the strength of their position.  More than a few people seem willing to have that as their epitaph: ignorance is strength.

THE FUTURE

One of the most quoted lines from Orwell’s 1984 is “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”  It’s this line that was resonating in my head as I sat through what felt like the hundredth hour of workshops.  Working in IT, we tend to be more comfortable with the idea of a rapidly changing future and to a greater or lesser extent, we are a part of actively creating that future.

It seems that every technological innovation that can improve people’s lives can simultaneously be corrupted so that it lessens the quality of life.  Every step taken to make information freer can be adapted or twisted to lock information down further.  Every advance can be used to push someone a step back. 

The goals of The Party in 1984 are simple: “The object of persecution is persecution.  The object of torture is torture.  The object of power is power.”  Today we have companies who say “Don’t be evil” while collaborating with a regime that represses, imprisons and tortures dissenting voices.  A company that famously said to choose them “So 1984 won’t be like 1984″ embraces the concept of Ignorance is Strength so fully that they criminalise their most ardent fans for simply disseminating information (speculative information at that.)

Without wanting to be a starry-eyed techno-utopian, it’s fair to say that working in IT gives us many more opportunities to promote positive change than the average worker has.  Do we limit ourselves to a life where the object of work is work, the object of technological change is technological change?  (and dare I add the object of blogging is blogging?)  It’s worth asking ourselves what contributions our decisions are really making.

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28 Comments

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28 responses to “In the IT world, it’s 1984

  1. Hear hear! Well said!

    Although, as far as what contributions I’m making, I’m pretty sure it’s nothing at the moment. Certainly I don’t imagine the world’s going to be a better place if I manage to fix this minor niggle with a product hardly anyone uses.

    Although, your point on ignorance is strength probably applies more to the rest of the world than to the IT sector. At least in my experience most IT workers are happy to look at the other side of the argument – unless the argument is about text editors or operating systems I suppose.

  2. LKM

    I think you need to check up on your history of Apple. I can’t see how going after employees who give trade secrets to rumor sites (and I assume that’s what you’re referring to, as I can’t think of anything else Apple has done that comes even close to fitting your description) has anything to do with 1984.

  3. nou

    Sounds like somebody has a case of the Mondays.

  4. tom

    isn’t it amazing how resonant that book remains after 60 years! (and it really is a good novel as well, a love story at that)

  5. I love the literature-IT fusion. This is one of the best posts I’ve read… ever.

    I like the part about keeping yourself free of work. Until I got into independent contracting, nobody had my mobile number, and I wouldn’t be lasso’ed in by a pager. The pay just wasn’t enough.

    I see the Your-Ignorance-Is-My-Power thing all the time on a smaller scale, especially between techies competing for a newly opened prominent position…

    Dig it, dugg it, will be back for more.

  6. Amen brother! I can never understand how some people believe that they are ‘suave’ and ‘sophisticated’ being turned into a friggin borg drone! And then having your sex life interfered with by your palm pilot! Perverted! Insane! Not to bring race into the picture, but a ‘black’ person told me that he didn’t buy into the idea of technological convenience for this very reason. He said he didn’t want to be a ‘happy slave’. I guess what they say is true: ‘there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so’.

  7. aussie, Nope! not going to believe it. You can’t possibly work in IT. You write too well. I’ve been in IT for almost 20 years now and have never come across anyone working in IT (self included) that could write as well as you. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read my share of white papers, technical manuals, executive briefs, email(s) and the like. Most of them make my face fall through my hands. Keep up the good work.

  8. Jasmine

    …werid…
    Are you a Boy or a Girl?

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  10. 2 x 4 ?
    Here in UK we use manly 4 x 2 s.
    Inches I hope…

  11. Those points are so true in many areas outside of IT. It seems like in so many ways the biggest strengths of something can turn out to be its ultimate downfall.

  12. Massif: I tend to agree with you about IT workers and ignorance, I was thinking more of management. Although when you get some hardcore programming language zealots (for example) I find it hard to call their blinkered attitude anything but ignorance.

    LKM: Look up “Apple” and “secret” on a search engine. If that doesn’t help explain it then nothing will. How’s that Kool-Aid tasting?

    Nou: I’m like this every day

    Tom: Yes, it didn’t “predict” the future but the themes are terrifyingly resonant

    Brian: thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it

    Phil: It’s like a drug for some people, I swear. “Must… have… more… gadgets… must… stay… connected…”

    Erik: high praise indeed, thanks! Would it help if I told you I did a theatre degree before getting into IT?

    Jasmine: I’m a bitter old man

    Matt: I agree these issues spread waaaay beyond IT. I just think we have our own unique flavours of them.

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  14. I was *X in 1984. I had dreams. I had ideas.

    I looked up secret on Google. It’s not a secret anymore.

    So sorry about your workshop woes Mr. Angry.

    *10 seems kind of young but the X idea was born that year by Apple. It had to have been planned.

  15. LKM

    >LKM: Look up “Apple” and “secret” on a search
    >engine. If that doesn’t help explain it then nothing
    >will. How’s that Kool-Aid tasting?

    Uhm… Wow, you went into “you are a fanboy” mode awfully quick, without providing any kind of answer to my question. I’m inclined to take that as proof that I’m right. You don’t actually have any facts to base your “Apple is suing its fans for speculating about Apple’s future products OMG WTF BBQ” idea on.

    Did you even google “Apple secret” before writing that?

  16. MrPete

    Totally agree about Freedom = Slavery, but I do see it in more than just IT people. I often wonder how on Earth anything got done prior to invention of the mobile phone given the sheer number of people who seem incapable of ignoring them for any length of time.

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  18. Perfect.

    You drove the nail through the plank, buddy. You could not be more right – I have seen every one of these policies vigorously pursued during my IT career at every single place I have worked, and everyone on each side of the fence at each such place has voiced and espoused what you have quite eloquently written.

    Well said, well said.

    Not.
    A.
    Slave.

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  20. Me

    Excellent article, can’t say it enough! Not least the Google/Apple bit.

    Luckily, out there there are well-functioning middle-class enterprises that have a cooperative work environment, and yet get work done and make money. Maybe we just need to kick more corporate ass for this idea to take over. And more independent contractors that refuse the MBA’s boot in their face. Fire your manager.

  21. Jessica: I’ll survive :)

    LKM: You know why they call me Mr Angry? Because I consider “Fuck off!” more than adequate response to an obsessive fuckwit like you.

    MrPete: It’s very widespread – it’s up to individuals to make a change.

    symbolik: I was basically getting it all out of my system :)

    Me: “LKM” apparently disagrees with you, but then again, I suspect LKM is a fucking moron.

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  23. LKM

    Well, I guess that is settled, then. And while I will not go as low as calling an anonymous person I’ve never met (and thankfully never will) a “fucking moron,” I will thank you for your public admission of both defeat as well as asshattery.

    I would, however, still like to find out what the hell you were talking about with regards to Apple. It seems to me you get your tech news from The Register and George Ou. I would have liked to discuss the things Apple has done, but since you obviously prefer to remain ignorant, I accept your choice.

    Have a nice life, you obsessive little fuckwit.

  24. So we’re all clear now – you’re a repressed, fucked up loser, and I don’t give a shit if you live or die.

  25. You’re maybe being a little overly dramatic in this post, Mr. Angry, but yes; some good points. In IT there can be opportunities to promote positive change and we should take advantage of them whenever we can.

  26. I’m always over dramatic.

  27. This is like if Dilbert turned out to be the guy behind the mask in “V for Vendetta.” wow!

  28. That’s an interesting comba I haven’t heard before.

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