Sunday, February 8, 2009

When I realised IT was a fashion industry

When I realized with horror I was working in a fashion industry called IT
I first worked with a partially object oriented (OO) system in early 1980s. In the early 1990s I met a sage old Welshman who taught me how OO could be applied to the solicitation, analysis and recording of business requirements. He had a sound method and language for doing this that was very effective with business people, and that provided useful information for technology oriented people such as developers. Then a number of the more popular methodists sold their souls to a commercial venture and the focus of OO analysis was irrevocably re-centred on approaches ill-suited to business users. My Welsh OO mentor treated this with surprising equanimity and said “well of course we are in a fashion industry".

fashion – a vogue or trend, a prevailing mode imposed or favoured by those whose lead is accepted; attention to the latest trends, something in popular favour

I immediately bristled at this. I had always regarded IT was an engineering discipline (scientific, methodical, logical etc.). Over time I realised that I was living in the past.
When I learned programming at school in the mid 1970s it was taught by our mathematics tutor. At University the IT department existed within the mathematics department, and was lead by people who focused on logic and numeric methods. Most of the people with an interest in computing had developed the interest as it was necessary for their scientific discipline e.g. from nuclear physics to acoustics.
I had pretensions of being an artist, and instead majored in architecture. I lived for years with a fashion designer (and experienced the opening of boutiques, the emergence of collections, etc.). So I thought I could distinguish between science, art and fashion.
I didn’t have much time for the fashion industry i.e. how anyone could take seriously "yellow is in this season". What does it mean? It means that everyone has enough of the blue-stuff we sold last year, so to sell more we need to convince them blue is no good, and thry have to buy our new yellow-stuff. Or that blue-stuff always looked awful and we only just realized it. To me fashion at worst a sophisticated form of deceit; and at best played on human weakness, gullability and insecurity (the need to follow the flock), and in the process promoted gratuitous and wasteful consumption.

So when someone suggested IT was a fashion industry, I took offense. When I calmed down I realised that he was right. Much of IT had moved from being something like a science, or an engineering discipline to a fashion industry. Where something is in season - and things that were perfectly good last season are now eschewed for no real technical rhyme nor reason.

Fashion industries need to make people believe that what they own (or know) is no longer acceptable so they feel compelled to buy some new thing that has been produced (or conceived of). Marketing people in the USA in the 50-60s sought to change the appearance of car models each year (despite the negative impact on cost and reliability, and the unnecessary engineering, etc.). Of course this cancerous influence on the car companies will likely lead to their demise.
Fashion being prominent when utility is easily achieved and the rate of technological innovation is low (shoes, clothes etc.). I think it is inappropriate in an industry such as IT where there is so much still to be achieved and where real innovation continues at such pace (and I think it remains inappropriate in the global car industry).
Once people bought accounting systems now everyone needs an “Enterprise Resource Planning” system. Preferably one designed for a major manufacturer and advocated by a fashioable “independent” consultant. Perhaps people can’t justifying paying so much for accounting systems?

An enterprise PC’s main legitimate use is to: access enterprise systems, some word processing, work on a few spreadsheets, and enable email and Web browsing. As these requirements haven’t really changed what drives the upgrade cycle i.e. the adoption of new software and worse still new document standards, which in turn drive the neeed for new hardware and configuration services?

It is miracle of modern marketing that someone managed to make people care about an operating system (OS). Almost every significant electrical device has an OA (or several of them in a multiprocessor system like a car). Yet in with no other electrical appliance from an iPod, to a phone, to a game systems to a VCR to car does the average person really know the name of the OS, or care about it, nor would they dream of upgrading them (and this is in fact how it should be).

There may be nothing wrong with indulging an interest in fashion e.g. for clothes, cars or technology, if you do so with your money. At least in this item I won’t say fashion per se is bad, but it is an indulgence. The same is not trued if you do it with other people’s money, and pretend it is driven by necessity.

Vendors of course drive fashion industries so they can sell things. That is their role, hence the name “vendor”. The real problem however is not the vendors. Part of the problem is the people who know (or at least are paid to know) there isn’t a real reason to discard old technologies, or methods – and are spending other people’s money. Most of all it is the consultants and professional prognosticators (those whose lead is accepted ”, who need to lift their game – and tell the truth about IT’s dirty little secret.

In others item I write further about the adverse impact fashion on: design; development methods; analysis; etc. For now I will leave you with a quote:

I could discern omens of nothing newer than the old fate
of the sequacious: to be for ever at the mercy of the
exploiting proclivities of the bold and buccaneering in
their bullying and greed.
[Prelude to Waking, by Miles Franklin, 1950]

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