Laziness is a virtue

You may be surprised to hear that the first and foremost virtue of a programmer is laziness. In the Linux community laziness is acknowledged and valued above even eagerness and interest. Well, if you happen to be married to a hacker, you may already know they're a lazy bunch; there's never any help with the washing-up, not a chance of a hand with the laundry - in fact, often, a hacker even forgets to eat. However, others may find it hard to understand how Linus, for instance, can be said to be lazy; he is, after all, the kid who more or less locked himself in his room for a year, sitting up at all hours writing the code for the first Linux version.

The logic of the claim goes like this: the lazier the programmer, the more code he writes. When a programmer hits a boring, time-consuming and high-on-routines task, he gets lazy. There is nothing worse for a lazy hacker than boring routine tasks. That's why he decides to write a program that will do the routine tasks for him. This is the program he sits up all night to perfect, seemingly diligently at work. Typing is too arduous for him, so he writes the code for a word processing program. And because it's too much effort to print out a letter and take it to the postbox, not to mention licking a stamp, he writes the code for e-mail. Now you'll understand how truly lazy programmers are.

So, laziness is a programmer's prime virtue. It's good to remember this contradictory and somewhat amusing claim, because it's all too easy to forget why computers and computer programs - along with all other technology - were originally invented.

A new nuclear power plant is currently being built in Finland. Before the decision was made to build it, there was lively debate for and against nuclear power. One Member of Parliament who debated the question suggested that more nuclear power would be bad for Finland because the other ways of producing energy employed more people. Now, I must emphasize that I think there are many good reasons not to build more nuclear power plants in the world, but this was the most ridiculous argument I've ever heard, and I retain the right to laugh in the face of such an absurd argument.1

Naturally, you could actually produce electricity by having all the unemployed people in Finland pedal exercise bikes hooked up to dynamos, which in turn would be hooked into the power grid. That would probably give enough energy to light a fair-sized village, not to mention the added benefit of guaranteeing employment for everybody. But you'd be crazy to do it that way.

Surely, the point of having electricity is to free people from having to work so hard. We've come up with machines that run on electricity and do the job for us while we lie on the sofa watching television, which also runs on electricity. Lots of politicians seem to forget this, particularly when they talk about unemployment.

Don't misunderstand me. Losing a job can be one of the greatest misfortunes to befall us in life. Many people would rather be both ill and divorced, as long as they could keep their job. And some unemployment almost always follows technological advances. When the tractor was invented, farmhands lost their jobs and people moved to the cities. Luckily, they found manufacturing factories there, and got themselves jobs working on conveyor-belt production lines. But today, when a factory updates its production lines, one result of installing more advanced production machinery is that it inevitably requires less people to run it. And, once again, working people are made redundant.

But don't blame the engineers. Thanks to engineers, we no longer have to ruin our backs ploughing the soil. Thanks to engineers, machines now do the heavy work in factories with people overseeing it. Thanks to engineers, most of us have more free time to use in any way we choose, which is what we wanted when they were still inventing the tractor. The point of inventing and developing machines, computer software, and suchlike is that we won't need to work - or at least not work so much.

It's an unfortunate conundrum of modern society that the work that is available is unequally divided so that some people work as hard as ever in the factories, while others are left entirely without work. Perhaps here, too, we should learn from the Open Source way of thinking and employ the principles of openness and sharing. Perhaps the engineer who invented that first tractor actually meant for everybody to have some work to do - enough, but not too much - and for us all to enjoy our fair share of idle moments too.

  • 1Tee hee hee. Woah woah woah.


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