My last two columns talked about how our Internet software and content have drastically reshaped some industries (higher education) and will soon reshape others (medicine). This month I want to discuss how our software is reshaping a universal human experience. And I don’t mean taxes.
A good friend of mine, a longtime reader named Lloyd, called me for the first time in months. I inquired about his 20-year-old daughter, Lauren, who had been ill when we last talked. “She passed away about three weeks ago,” he said, pain etching his voice.
If you’ve read this column regularly, you know how crazy I am about my own daughters, now 12 and 10. My job was to change their diapers. Their job will be to close my eyes the final time and to weep at my funeral. Neither job should happen the other way around. If there’s a worse piece of news than the one Lloyd got, I don’t want to know what it is.
Lloyd’s family did something unthinkable even a decade ago. They left Lauren’s Facebook account open, and allowed anyone to post on it. The outpouring of love, of others being saddened and sharing the grief, has been a godsend to the family and to everyone else who loved her. The kids at the special-needs camp where she worked. The classmates from the nursing school she had to drop out of. “There was a tribute from a clinic that she’d supported in Peru,” said Lloyd. “They wrote in Spanish, of course, which she spoke fluently. I’d never known she was helping them.”
This simultaneous grieving together, without regard for geographic location, is new to the human experience. It does not change the sad facts. I wouldn’t say that it makes the grief easier to bear. I think it’s more that all these people coming together give each other the strength to bear the unbearable.
I doubt the creators of Facebook were thinking of communal grieving when they designed their site. They were probably thinking of the usual I’m-at-the-beach-eat-your-heart-out photos that we see way too many of. Or viewing real-time pictures of a bar’s patrons so you can see who’s there, and decide if it’s worth leaving your pre-gaming (getting drunk on cheaper booze before heading out to the expensive bar). You know, the stuff that the Facebook creators do themselves. But users with different priorities and desires have repurposed Facebook to suit themselves, in a way the original creators never imagined.
We see this all the time in software. We build something for one reason and it gets used for others we never thought of. DLLs were originally built to share one copy of Windows code (CreateWindow and so on) among multiple apps. They then got repurposed to support language localization. Now they’re used for dependency injection of mock or stub objects in test-driven development. I’ve often said that your software isn’t successful until it’s been used in a way that you never imagined.
So the next time you’re brainstorming user stories, certainly take the most obvious and likely ones. But also take 15 minutes and brainstorm the less-likely ones and work through those ideas, too. Though I guarantee you won’t think of things an imaginative or pain-wracked user will.
They’re still not quite sure what Lauren died of, except that it took a long time and it sucked. So the usual link to contribute to the fight against whatever it was doesn’t fit here. Instead, Lloyd asks, “Just help someone who needs it, wherever you are.” And I’ll add: If this column—or anything else I’ve ever written—has ever meant anything to you, then do it right now. I don’t care what (a hot meal, a warm coat, a prescription refill someone can’t afford, a stiff drink and a shoulder to cry on—anything) or whom. But don’t dump it onto your endlessly ignored to-do list on your smartphone. Before the sun sets, if it’s up now, or before it rises again if it’s down, go do it. Thank you.
At the end of our call, I could hear Lloyd squaring his shoulders and preparing to put one foot in front of the other. “Hey, Dave, you know what?” he said. “You ought to write about this.” Consider it done, friend.
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.
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