February 2001

Labor-saving devices. New technologies. Increased productivity. Efficiency. Prosperity.


The key ingredient to every new technology is the desire to cut corners and make money. Cheap stereos and cheap televisions come to us, not because somebody found a way to make them cheaper than they were made 20 years ago, but because somebody found a way to remove just enough quality in workmanship and reliability to save some money in production, but not so much quality and reliability that it's not worth buying at all. Manufacturing and design techniques have become extremely proficient at knowing just which corners to cut to save a buck, while giving the outrageous appearance of newness and coolness and even more advanced technologies.

Let's look at some concrete examples.... Concrete, for example. Buildings just don't last like they used to. Roads must be re-paved every couple of years. Cracks appear in sidewalks soon after construction is finished. A recent government project had a *very* embarassing case of cracked concrete, just a few months after the first stage was completed.

How could this happen? Technology, of course. The technology has been applied to know just how weak to make the concrete in order to have the winning bid, plus have a little left for menial salaries for workers, and a ton of profit left to keep the CEOs and the stock-market analysts happy. How cheaply can we get the crushed rock? Use lumpy rock that has not been crushed into tiny pea-gravel. How little cement can we use in the concrete mix? Just enough to congeal, the kind that ought to be used only at the top of buildings instead of in foundations and roadways.

And computers and cheap software make it all possible. Without cheap software and simple calculations -- such as spreadsheets provide -- the makers of concrete would have to err on the side of quality. There would be "extra quality" in the resultant concrete, instead of a finely-tuned episode of corner-cutting. Technology in the form of PC-based software is being rampantly misapplied by greedy companies to cut corners ever closer, removing the last ounce of "excess quality" from the things we buy and use every day.

It should come as no surprise when the same corner-cutting mentality is applied to the software tools themselves, should it?

When we joke that a Microsoft product is ready to ship if it compiles and the screen display works -- without any further error-case testing -- we are not far off from the truth. There is an inherent conflict between an ever-growing monolith of larger and larger program size with greater and greater functionality, versus the desire for fewer errors and greater reliability. When lower development costs and faster development cycles are factored into the equation, it is mathematically certain that reliability must be sacrificed on the altar of stock-driven profit.

You see, reliability is expensive. Choice, in the form of multiple software platforms, multiple suppliers of an application type, or multiple implementations of a software solution, is expensive. The "excess quality" that is being squeezed out of each and every product we buy each day is not without consequence, for we pay again in the long run with uncompensated downtime, trips to the repair shop, or the need to buy a new whatever-it-is every few months or years. That "excess quality" used to exist in the form of robustness, which is the ability of a product to work even under adverse or stressful conditions.

And that goes for people, too.

The same mass-production mentality that leads to bogus software and weak concrete is also a heavy influence on the production-line attitude present in the majority of the public schools. By teaching everyone from a limited set of textbooks, a limited set of computer software, and with rapid coverage replacing deep coverage of key subjects, students are often equipped only to thrive in idealized work conditions. How much better for schools to adopt a multiplatform system of learning computers, for example, so that students would be exposed to a variety of architectural models and information infrastructures. By comparing relative strengths and weaknesses, students would learn comparative reasoning and real-world tradeoff skills.

Naturally it is a difficult thing to expect quality to emerge victorious over profit, even in the supposedly non-profit world of academics. In every phase of modern life it seems that we are urged to cut corners and oversimplify, to go with the flow instead of dig deep and analyze carefully. This is the mentality that leads to the mindless acceptance of mediocrity, whether the product is buildings or software or people.

I will never accept mediocrity as the only choice, and I urge all of you readers to fight off the forces of mediocrity and to pursue excellence, whether that means choosing OS/2 or just choosing a better brand of concrete. Or a better school.

Most recent revision: January 30, 2000
Copyright © 2001, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.