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The Blacksmith and the Bookkeeper, Part 2

September 28, 2004

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Tales of the Postmodern Programmer












Contents
The Decline of the Blacksmith
The Rise of the Bookkeeper
Deconstructing Deviation and
Demise
The Postmodern Programmer
The Programmer's Demise

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
- From "The Village Blacksmith" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The job of the ubiquitous
smithy, once a
historically vital, centrally necessary vocation that enabled social
and
technological innovation over epochs of human history, is now
practically
extinct. The similarly vital role of
bookkeeper, which shares much with the blacksmith in terms of
ancient historical
and commercial-enabling roots, still thrives in the Network Age.
This second of a three-part series of
articles discusses the fitness of each profession insofar as evolving
fitscapes
are concerned, and compares each to the role of computer
programmer. Here we posit that the programmer has much more in
common with the blacksmith than the bookkeeper, and ponder the impact
such
similarity will have on the profession of programming in the coming
decade.

The Decline of the Blacksmith

In the previous installment in this series, the genesis and growth
of importance of the blacksmith trade was chronicled. Now we will
explore the decline of the smithy as the Industrial Age matured, even
as the blacksmith's hammer and forge built the foundation upon which
the apocryphal transition was built.

From the dawn of the Iron Age through the 19th century, the blacksmith
trade grew in demand and became increasingly specialized in the
process. America would not even exist were it not for the
smithy. Indeed, civilization itself is indebted to the blacksmith
for virtually all material innovation up to the advent of the factory
floor. The importance of the blacksmith cannot be
overstated. But then, something happened: machines.

The smithy trade began to decline in the
mid-19th
century, as machines began to produce items that were formerly made by
the blacksmith. At first it was the simple things: nails, hooks, fence rods. In time, more complex products were
machine-crafted, such as hinges and barbed wire. The smithy
simply couldn't compete with the economics of machine-crafted
implements, a phenomenon that soon gave rise to a virtuous cycle of
machine-dominance in the production of most material goods.
What the machines didn't take from the smithy was soon eaten by other
competitive innovations and historical events:

  • Ransom E. Olds' re-introduction of the assembly line (circa 1901) to meet demand for the new "horseless carriage" meant the smithy's skill in shaping iron rims for wheelwrights was rendered superfluous to transportation needs.
  • Soon thereafter, the extensive adoption of large open-geared tractors negatively impacted demand for simply farm tools, horse shoes, and other finely crafted items previously considered agricultural necessities.

The Great Depression killed a last bastion of the blacksmith market niche when architectural ironwork became a symbol of a luxury-laden bygone age. In a
matter of less than 100 years after Longfellow's poem was
published, the vital trade of smithy was all but dead.

Today there are maybe 10,000 blacksmiths in the United States, most of
whom are part-time artists. In a nation of nearly 300 million,
that represents a paltry few, especially when we remember that just 150 years ago, the smithy trade was so very
important. Clearly the advent of machines and Industrial Age
manufacturing practices were the chief contributing factors that
resulted in blacksmithing becoming one of the top ten on the list of
endangered occupation species, along with icemen, luthiers and
mule-minders. Coupled with the demise of the blacksmith was an
entire ecosystem of related occupations, including anvil makers,
forgemen, strikers, and bellows makers, all of whom received the
proverbial
pink slip. The advent of the Industrial Age disrupted much more
than the itinerant farmer, it would seem.

The Rise of the Bookkeeper

The Industrial Age saga of the bookkeeper lies in stark contrast to
that of the blacksmith. Just as Western Europe's 15th century
Renaissance gave rise to an environment that insisted that a
more formalized role for the bookkeeper emerge, the advent of the
Industrial Age placed an order-of-magnitude-greater demand on the
profession. Transactions became considerably more complex as
early supplier chains began to evolve. Assembly lines all but
assured a dominant role for Fredrick Taylor's concepts of scientific management, which proffered four principles:

  1. The development of a scientific method for each element of a man's work to replace the old rule-of-thumb methods.
  2. The scientific selection, training, and development of workers instead of allowing them to choose their own tasks and train themselves as best they could.
  3. The development of a spirit of hearty cooperation between workers and management to ensure that work would be carried out in accordance with scientifically devised procedures.
  4. The division of work between workers and the management in almost equal shares, each group taking over the work for which it is best fitted instead of the former condition, in which responsibility largely rested with the workers. Hierarchical organizations are implied.

Note the role that measurements must play if a reasonable execution of
Taylor's principles are to occur. Any process that touts itself
as science-based must measure something to some degree, by
definition. And the
essence of measurement, in a capitalist system, will always be a
first-order derivative of the much-maligned bottom line--it's not
personal, it's just business. So it is fair to conclude that the
very forces that made the blacksmith's forge chill heated the demand
for bookkeeper-cum-accountant. The interplay of economics
and technology (i.e., innovation) was responsible for both.

Deconstructing Deviation and Demise

The fact that one calling, the bookkeeper, flourished while the other,
the blacksmith, waned, is beyond dispute. While we could argue
that both professions simply evolved into others as the Industrial Age
progressed, it is a fine point that perhaps merits some discussion but
probably misses the point. Clearly
the bookkeeper of the mid-19th century would find the keeping of books
to be a very different affair than the quill-and-inkwell era in which
the blacksmith prospered. However, in terms of
occupational identity, today if I asked you if you know a bookkeeper,
it is
likely that you could name one or more individuals who would claim to
offer such services. The same cannot be said of the blacksmith.

Find your local Yellow Pages, or use the Yahoo version for your locale, and search for both vocations by their
19th-century names. The results are very clear. Is
the auto mechanic one version of the 21st century blacksmith,
functionally providing specialized skills for some small part
of the continuum once served by the smithy? Perhaps. But
today's
auto mechanic would be hard pressed to form his parts from unforged
materials, to bend, shape, and temper them as needed, and thereby even
begin to
provide value for today's transportation need. Today's bookkeeper
in its many
instantiations, on the other hand, might be substantially slowed
but would still be vital if pen and paper were suddenly once again the
sole tools of the trade. But the explanation for this outcome--the
demise of the one versus the deviation of the other of these two august
vocational species--is as much a function of why
we value services as it is how
the work is done.

Few trades, occupations, professions, or services require little
know-how. Even the least-valued jobs in the poorest of human
concerns requires something in the way of knowledge, appreciation
of context, and a rudimentary understanding of the cultural milieu in
which activities occur. Postmodernist objections aside, a
"constructed" worldview must precede any meaningful (i.e.,
task-oriented) activity worthy of being called a job. The
difference between the blacksmith and the bookkeeper, therefore, was
not one of know-how or the lack of need for it in order to
perform. It was the degree to which that knowledge could be
extracted, standardized, and automated that determined the ultimate
fitscape fate of the two professions. Upon reflection, we might list
the certain attributes of the knowledge
required to perform the chain of tasks inherent in the delivery of
any product or service to be:

Attributes of a Vocational Knowledge Base (AVKB)
  • Extractable: The
    body of knowledge required to perform the
    chain of tasks can be abstractly communicated.
  • Standardizable: The chain
    of tasks required to ultimately
    provide the product/service can be generalized to a population of more
    than one.
  • Automatable: Increased
    productivity can be gleaned via
    innovative techniques.

Each of these attributes forms a continuum, a dimension that we
might consider when evaluating the difficulty and probability that
a given vocation might be automated.

As a general rule, the extent to which the nature of the
knowledge required for any vocation can be analyzed for these
attributes will determine if and when that vocation will face
extinction. The chain of tasks in the smithy's world, a vocation
that had explored the forging and twisting of metals since the dawn of
the Iron Age, was ready for harvest with respect to its knowledge
base. The advent of machines, the parts for which initially came
from the smithy's forge, all but assured that that know-how would be
exploited otherwise.

The knowledge required of the bookkeeper, on the other hand, included
key components that could not be standardized and automated: the
unique context of each individual or enterprise. While it
may be true that some transactions are similar to other transactions,
and that all transactions have something in common, it is the sum of
those transactions in a given account that makes each account
unique. Add to that the almost infinite number of combinations
when it comes to various choices that can be made to account for the
finances of each unique individual or enterprise, and task of building
a "bookkeeping factory" becomes daunting.

The keeping of books requires abstract interaction with a litany of
concerns that are outside "the body" of the individual or enterprise,
including suppliers, customers, service providers, and governmental
entities. That changing fitscape of exogenous forces amounts to
the economic equivalent of fluid dynamics, which may be recognizable in
terms of tendencies and patterns, but is also quite unpredictable when
it comes to the minutia required to individually model and then
automate in practice.

Governments alone provide a dynamic in which rules tend to change on a
regular basis. As such, the bookkeeper is always required to
survey the fitscape anew with each transaction, each account summary,
each assumption and choice. Not so of iron; the rules for shaping
iron have changed very little since we discovered we could. Once
discovered, once standardized, the automated delivery of products (and
services) based on a favorably high AVKB
score will always result in the demise of the vocation in
question. A low AVKB score will ensure that the skills will
remain in
demand for years to come, provided there is intrinsic value in service
in the
first place. Thus, the contrasting fortuity of the blacksmith and
the bookkeeper
can be understood from the perspective of why they were needed as much
as what it was they actually accomplished or how they did what they did.

Applying a similar rubric to the postmodern computer programmer might
now yield some insight as to the coming fortunes of that trade.

The Postmodern Programmer

At its apogee, the career path proffered by the study of computer
programming was one characterized by high-demand employment
possibilities,
relatively lucrative compensation packages, and myriad opportunities in
diverse fields. By
simply mastering the ability to read and write a popular computer
programming language, a dedicated programmer could be assured of work
in many quarters.
By providing the transitional tools for a new age, the postmodern
programmer was both centrally necessary and economically vital to
virtually all concerns. The tenets of evolution, though, are
applicable to all sufficiently complex adaptive systems, including those
that are bound by economic constraints. And not unlike the
legendary
blacksmith, the programmer too will soon be seen as curiosity and
historical artifact; the remnant of another age.

Defining "postmodernism" is a little like nailing down a universal
description of true love: words cannot convey its essence,
but you know it when it hits you. The anarchistic, eclectic, and
often incoherent ramblings that characterize much of the Pomo Jones
mindset belie the importance and value it
may conceptually provide. Computer programmers are icons of the
postmodern age and sometimes idiosyncratic of its nature. As much
as film, and more than television,
architecture, or art, the postmodern programmer has enabled the
cyber-collage, globally diverse viewless worldview that is the
hallmark of Pomo entrails. Indeed, computer programmers (those of
the Java, C#, and Perl caste, at least) are the
Pomo elite.

From the beginning, the art of programming meant a merging of subject
and object, of thought and code, providing an ever-increasing platform
of interconnectedness and being, yet lacking in a grand
narrative. Today, programming means breaking
the bounded, solitary-node paradigm, enjoining a network that is
effectively limitless but unique at every node. Beyond
nihilism, the species pomo sapiens
brought us humor (no small contribution) and made visible the economic,
political, gender, and colonizing hegemony inherent in western
"objectivity" and "universality." The task of reifying thoughts
for silicon brains made such assumption-breaking donations mandatory;
it was part of the development process. But enough of the mumbo
pomo tripe; eschew obfuscation and consider: the AVKB
score of the postmodern programmer is closer to that of the blacksmith
than the bookkeeper.

The Programmer's Demise

A number of facts support the view that the programming trade, at least
the one that is focused on building solutions for a networked
environment, is headed for extinction. Consider:

  • The advent of the Codeless
    Development Environment (CDE)
    : Beyond the IDE, new efforts
    such as Builder™ from Skyway Software, the recent release of Sun Java™ Studio Creator and the entire raison d'etre for Codeless Technology, B.V. (the Netherlands), point to the emergence of tools that do not require traditional programming skills in order to create world-class networked applications. The advent of the CDE will make traditional programming skills as well as IDE approaches moot.
  • The emergence of the software factory: While a bookkeeping factory may never be viable, a software factory is. That at least is the view of Microsoft, as "patterns of industrialization" finally give rise to an ASIC-like assembly process for software components.
  • The decrease in the number of programming jobs in IT: It's not that IT is disappearing. But the number of actual programming jobs is diminishing, as measured by jobs in IT. (See the blog "The Incredible Shrinking Workforce" and links therein.)
  • Fewer students enrolled in computer science courses: The actual number (not just the percentage) of computer science students has shrunk considerably since the peak. Just as the Dow Jones Industrial
    Average is something of a barometer, measuring the sentiment of the
    aggregate of investors at a particular juncture, the number of computer
    science students is a measure of the market viability of the set of
    occupations that have typically required such skills; a canary-in-a-coal-mine
    indicator of the increasingly reduced demand for hardcore programming
    competence.

These facts underscore and support the assertion that programming
skills, at least those that focus on networked applications and
object-oriented components, fall into a category of vocations with a
high AVKB score that are clearly headed for a fate similar to that of
the proverbial blacksmith. And it is the why of application development, as
opposed to the how, that is fundamental to this impending decline.

Why are computer applications needed? The most straightforward,
simplistic answer would have something to do with increased and
increasing productivity; IT expenditures will only bring increased
productivity to my enterprise if the applications I require can improve
business processes and/or reduce the cost of business done
otherwise. At some point, the cost of the application itself
becomes non-trivial. As such, in an environment where
productivity increases are gleaned via IT-related, business process
improvement, the cost of those kinds of improvements will eventually
rise to the top of the expense stack, requiring cost-reduction measures
on the very cost-reduction measures that so dramatically increased
productivity in the first place. Outsourcing IT work to locales
where the labor costs are substantially lower than my own is therefore
inevitable. And if I do not make similar cost-reduction
adjustments, I cannot continue to compete.

Further, while there are some activities in my enterprise that
may be unique (e.g., the array of choices made to manage the
accounting of my firm), there are many for which a tweaked boilerplate
solution will suffice. My CRM system requirements, for example,
may be very similar to those of my competitor, or those of concerns in
completely unrelated industries. The same may be said of the requirements for my HR
system, inventory tracking, supplier management, VPNs,
etc. Thus, the combination of increasingly useful boilerplate
solutions, emerging CDE environments, software factories, and increasing
global competition
requiring ever deeper cost-cutting measures all but ensures the
relatively rapid extinction of the programming species as it may exist
today.

This is not to say that computer science is going away any time
soon. But the adaptations required in order to remain an
economically viable career path will very likely give rise to new
occupational-species coming from computer science; filling jobs that will no
longer require workers to actually write code--at least not in the
way we've grown to understand what it means to write code today.
But just as the entire notion of "writing code" has changed
dramatically since the earliest stacked job batch systems of the 1960s, our current concept of "writing code," bound to an early 21st century frame of reference, will not continue indefinitely.

How will the postmodern programmer evolve? What new
occupation species will emerge to take its place in the dynamic
economic fitscape unleashed by 21st-century forces? That, and the
concept of hyper-human activities, will be the focus of the third and
final part of this series.

Max Goff is the Chief Marketing Officer for Digital Reasoning Systems, Inc., headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.
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