[ExI] the formerly rich and their larvae...

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Tue Feb 12 01:17:37 UTC 2008

Warning in advance: this is a bit of a rant, not well structured; I'm
trying to shape some hazy ideas that are having trouble gelling.

On 11/02/2008, Rafal Smigrodzki <rafal.smigrodzki at gmail.com> wrote:
> Salary is a signal of usefulness,

Taking Rafal out of context (apologies in advance...)

I think this is a prevalent attitude, but doesn't jibe with my
experience. I've been working in the startup / SME world for years as
a code gun-for-hire, seeing people doing all kinds of different work,
being paid at all kinds of levels.

As far as I can see, management is consistently rewarded far in excess
of technical front line people. The rule seems to be, if you actually
do something concrete, like make a thing, you are intrinsically less
valuable than if you "manage" said people (whatever that means). So we
have a hierarchy, with money generally increasing the higher up you
go, the very top levels being paid crazy money. That's not really news
of course.

Now I've been happy to take at face value the standard explanations of
these disparaties, that the market sorts out who's worth what, and
that people must be generally being paid what they're worth, or
feedback inherent in the system would eventually fix that. ok.

However, looking back, it's very hard to see where much value that I
can put my finger on has ever been delivered. Lots of man hours are
consumed, lots of code written, lots of executive lunches are
consumed, but most efforts fail, most small companies fail. When they
do, the only tangible results seem to be the technologies developed,
which sometimes manage to not go down with the ship.

I've come to the unfortunate conclusion that pretty much everything
that is done in this sector is waste, and that my commercial efforts
are really pointless, the infrequent successes entirely outweighed by
commercial failures. So, seen in that light, it's hard not to see my
ongoing career as a pointless busywork. Socialism likes to resort to
government makework programs, but how is the market economy any
better, seen from this angle?

And, I tend to be biased towards the frontline. I figure if the front
line work ends up being pointless, then how much more useless is
massively well rewarded fluffing about at the executive levels?

So, I then come back to value. Now you can argue that value is
relative, and some value must be being delivered somewhere to someone
in this sector, or it wouldn't continue to exist. But I think this is
an economist's definition of value being used, and I've come to
realise that it's very different to what an ordinary human might mean
when they talk about value. That latter would be related to words like
valuable, useful, constructive. There's some sense of absoluteness,
something existing which is independent of the viewer.

When you define value entirely relatively (each person has their own
schedule of preferences), you still have money existing absolutely. So
what does it represent? As far as I can see, money only represents
itself. And there is then an inherent circularity in the economic
system... we seem to measure the worth of a contribution by how much
is paid for it, while at the same time justifying the amount paid by
saying the person must be worth that much. I am worth $X because I am
worth $X.

As far as my own industry goes, commercial software development is
incredibly inefficient. The collective delusion of IP leads to this
unbelievable grind, being hired to write the same poorly thought out
crap over and over again, people incorrectly believing their secret
squirrel ideas are something new under the sun. It's so clear to
anyone with some technical nouse that 99% of the codebase of any
software system is just plumbing unrelated to whatever the top level
idea is. But ask any most commercial developers what they spend the
bulk of their time writing, and you'll find it's that stuff. Not even
building a better mousetrap, just building another, hopefully at least
average mousetrap. Waste. And of course these days we work with the
extra hurdle of having to avoid patented techniques.

Whatever else I've said about value above notwithstanding, it's clear
to me that collective delusions can trump the corrective influence of
the invisible hand. Intellectual Property is a wonderful example. In
software, the silo effect this has caused in industry (and the
aforementioned endless repetition of the same work in company after
company) I think has led directly to the open source software movement
that we see today.

It took me years to understand, from the perspective of a commercial
developer, how the open source movement could come to exist. Releasing
free code here and there is one thing; an entire movement on the scale
of what we have today, with people making all this great stuff for
free, and making it free to be built on, well that's something that
wants explaining. I used to wonder, maybe someone pays most of these
people, ie: they do this stuff at work, but I think that's a minority.
Then I thought maybe it's a reputation economy, kind of like academia,
and reputation is something you can convert to money. Undoubtedly
there is some effect, but I think that's secondary.

I now think open source is a collective expression of the technical
personality's basic frustration with wrongness. The commercial
software world clearly just does this stuff totally wrongly. Software
builds on software, ideas build on ideas, but IP blocks the use of one
idea as the basis for another. I think technical people en-masse have
revolted, they've said "this is wrong, I'm tired of trying to explain
it, here we'll show you".

Anyway... to wrap up this rant, it comes back to value. Here I am
involved in an industry whose entire merit is questionable. The
methodology is questionable, the track record is terrible, but there's
a godawful amount of money involved. Then there's open source, which
for the most part appears to still be a voluntary effort to make
things better. To create value, in a way that us poor technical folk
understand. And it's hugely successful, on a scale that my poor brain
still has trouble grasping.

This is a signal of something being not at all right with how things
are organised. In light of this, salary is a signal of usefulness? I
think salary is a signal of salary getting ability. Networth is an
indicator of how good you are at increasing your networth. Real value
is something unrelated.



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