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How much of the computer industry is bullshit?

Having read David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs, one might wonder: could I have a bullshit job? My particular job aside, Graeber specifically mentions the computer industry in a couple of places, most intriguely where he reports on an economic review conducted by Benjamin Lockwood and colleagues that found the total contribution to the economy of “consultants and IT professionals” to be approximately zero (though “engineers” are said to contribute $0.20 of social benefit for every $1 that they earn so perhaps I have more incentive than ever to style myself as a “software engineer” rather than an “IT professional”).

Having recently bought a new computer and gone through the ritual of removing the unwanted applications and disabling all of the unwanted features that came with it, it’s easy enough to believe that the computer industry produces as much useless and destructive rubbish as it does useful applications. And looking through job advertisements filled with the names of technologies but no clear statement of what the company does makes it easy to imagine a lot of developers fooling around with cool technology that does not actually achieve anything. Some more serious researchers—Robert Gordon is probably the best known—have indeed produced economic studies suggesting that the economic contribution of computer technology is far less (albeit not zero) than that of earlier technology like electricity or the internal combustion engine.

Graeber himself suggests that software developers spend a lot of their time “duct taping” (the technical term is integrating) existing pieces of software together. Where the software being integrated is open source, he speculates that this leads to a perverse situation in which programmers do the real work of developing open source software in their spare time then get paid to duct tape it together for their employers (this has not been my experience: my employers have paid me to work on open source software relevant to their business). Sometimes it also feels like half my e-mail comes from software “goons” trying to pressure me into buying software or joining on-line services that I didn’t ask for.

A few scholars who have actually studied how and why computer software becomes bloated with features of questionable value identify phenomena like developers adding features to satisfy their own desires or imagined requirements rather than the requirements actually specified by their customers; uncontrolled expansion of the functionality of software (“feature creep”); and poor project management. The last category might account for some bullshit of the kind discussed by Graeber, but the first two categories (which are much more prominent in the study linked here) are actually largely created by software developers themselves through the setting of what we might call “bullshit requirements” that aren’t relevant to their customers’ needs. These studies, however, are not designed to elicit how prevalent such practices are.

Still, few would doubt that computers don’t provide some significant benefits, and even pessimistic analyses like Robert Gordon’s say that the computer industry contributes something to the economy as well as non-economic benefits like access to entertainment. No doubt improvements could be made and I’d like to think I’d minimise the level of bullshit in any job that I do (or ask anyone else to do). Reading Graeber’s book has just made me a little more conscious of it.

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