earlier times, and in primitive societies, the prosperity of a community
depended heavily (as it does today) on the skill and dedication of its
experts. The expert of those days was the craftsman, the cobbler, the
blacksmith, the joiner, the thatcher. A craftsman possesses skills which
are specialised, and not possessed by the whole population. His skill
consists in his familiarity with his task, his understanding of its
nature and its objectives, his facility with a few simple tools, and
his ingenuity in applying them to a wide variety of familiar and new
circumstances. And the competent craftsman has little difficulty in
persuading his clients of the merits of his methods and his products.
in advanced societies the old skills are no longer required, and they
are dying out; the craftsmen are being replaced by experts of a new
kind, the architect, the doctor, the social worker, the civil engineer,
and many other professional men and women. These inherit many of the
attributes of the craftsman - skill, experience, adaptability, ingenuity,
understanding, and the ability to make themselves understood and appreciated
by their clients and customers, who do not share their expertise.
In primitive societies there is often to be seen another
class of specialist. Like the craftsman he is dedicated to his profession;
like the craftsman he is consulted by the layman in his hour of need;
like the craftsman, he is regarded with respect, and perhaps even with
awe; and like the craftsman he has
numbers of satisfied clients. The member of this class of specialist
may be known as a seer, a soothsayer, a magician, an oracle, a witchdoctor,
a sorcerer, a wizard, and so on. I shall use the word "high priest"
to refer to them all. This term is intended to apply only to a pagan
priesthood, and not to the ministers of any religion of the present
There are many differences between the craftsman and
the high priest. One of the most striking is that the high priest is
the custodian of a weighty set of sacred books, or magician's manuals,
which he alone is capable of reading. When he is consulted by his client
with some new problem, he refers to his sacred books to see whether
he can find some spell or incantation which has proved efficacious in
the past, and having found it, he tells his client to copy it carefully
and use it in accordance with a set of elaborate instructions. If the
slightest mistake is made in copying or in following the instructions,
the spell may turn to a curse, and bring misfortune to the client. The
client has no hope of understanding the nature of the error or why it
has evoked the wrath of his deity - the high priest himself has no inner
understanding of the ways of god. The best the client can hope is to
go right back to the beginning, and start the spell again; and if this
does not work, he goes back to the high priest to get a new spell.
And that is another feature of the priesthood - when
something goes wrong, as it quite often does, it somehow always turns
out to be the ignorance or stupidity or impurity or wickedness of the
client; it is never the fault of the high priest or his god. It is notable
that when the harvest fails, it is the high priest who sacrifices the
king, never the other way round.
Now there is a great temptation for any body of professional
women today to turn themselves into a priesthood.
The mantle of the priest has many advantages to the wearer.
Firstly he no longer has the obligation to explain
himself, his methods, and his objectives to his clients - indeed, it
is actually better to increase their mystification. As a consequence,
when things go wrong, as they often do, the client himself is willing
to accept the blame. The high priest no longer needs to embark on the
uncertain and painful activity of thinking. All that is required is
the ability to consult the sacred books and copy them carefully; for
if a remedy is not to be found in the books, there is little hope that
it can be constructed merely by the exercise of skill and ingenuity.
But I believe that the insidious temptation for professionals
to turn themselves into a priesthood must be rejected with all the strength
at our disposal. Let us extend our parable into the future, and see
what would happen if our medical profession were to become a priesthood.
The walls of the waiting room of our general practitioner are now covered
by volumes of the sacred book - the manuals supplied by a prosperous
and public-spirited drug company. The doctor's duty has been reduced
to consulting these volumes to find a case which seems similar to that
of his client, and finding which drug was efficacious in that case,
and giving the necessary elaborate instructions for administration of
the drug. There is no need for the doctor to understand his client's
complaint or even the method of operation of the drug upon it. In fact
the drugs and their interrelations and their descriptions have got so
complicated that it would be impossible for anyone to understand that,
even the manufacturers of the drugs themselves, and the writers of the
manuals which describe them.
Apart from the obvious benefits to the doctors, there
are a number of other desirable consequences that would flow from this
development. Firstly, it would be highly beneficial to the larger drug
companies, and prejudicial to smaller companies, which would not have
the resources to construct, maintain, sell, and service such a large
catalogue of products. Secondly, the ardours of university education
in medicine would obviously become largely irrelevant to the needs of
practising doctors and their patients, although perhaps a stylised form
of this education would be maintained as a form of initiation to the
priesthood. Professors of Medicine would confine their research activities
to theoretical studies, and to theological wrangling; or those who wished
to climb down from their ivory tower would confine themselves to historical
and textual exegesis of the sacred books. And finally, the general public,
the patients, would be entirely satisfied with the arrangement, and
would look back at the profession of medicine as it is practised today
as backward, if not barbarous.
I sincerely hope that this study of the future will
not come true for the profession of medicine or architecture or law
or social work, or engineering. One reason is that I do not believe
that all of professional practice can be codified in any set of books;
nor do I believe that it is so far beyond the scope of human intellect
and understanding that it needs such codification. Finally, I do not
believe that any single manufacturer of supplies and equipment will
have the temerity, let alone the commercial power, to construct and
propagate the necessary catalogue and manuals.
But in the case of my own profession, that of computer
science, I very much fear that it has already gone a long way on the
path towards a priesthood The analogies are too close for comfort. Our
altars are hidden from the general public in a superbly air-conditioned
holy of holies; ministered to day and night by a devoted team of acolytes,
and regarded by the general public with feelings of mystical awe, which
has been nourished in our own interests by those specialists who should
have put forward all their efforts to dispel it.
These analogies are dangerous; but I believe that
the most dangerous aspect of all is the increasing dominance of our
sacred books , the software manuals which have become essential to our
every approach to the computer, and whose size and complexity seems
to be increasing at an unbelievable rate. I have recently attempted
to study a slim volume from the library provided by one manufacturer.
It was rather over a hundred pages of close type. At the beginning,
it frankly told me that an understanding of the text would depend on
prior familiarity with three other volumes not available to me. It also
admitted that the practical application of the knowledge contained therein
would depend on a knowledge of some other volumes, depending on the
size and nature of my computer and its software configuration.
Nevertheless, I persevered in my study of this single
volume. I found in it some extremely well written and well presented
case studies of several example problems which could be solved with
the aid of particular incantations displayed therein. Indeed, I had
a very strong impression that I had understood the methods described,
until I tried to apply them to a new and different example problem of
my own. Then I realised that I had no knowledge of the actual capabilities
of the software described - what was the range and limits of its adaptability.
In fact, the only way of solving the new problem was to try to copy
the incantations carefully from the manual, making as few adaptations
as possible to meet the needs of the new problem. Naturally, this involved
a great deal of guesswork, since there was no way of finding in advance
whether the changes would have the desired effect, or indeed, whether
they would be acceptable to the deity at all. The only recourse is to
try them out; if successful, I will praise the lord from whom all good
things do flow; if not, I will attribute my failure to my own errors,
sins of commission and omission, and resolve to do better next time.
Any idea that I have control or responsibility for the efficient and
effective use of the computer has disappeared entirely.
There is another and rarer class of person whose activities
are recorded by history, and whose successors are still active today
- these are the prophets of doom. They are inclined to point out that
the priesthood has gotten fat and idle and self-seeking; that they are
leading the people in the worship of false gods, and that the only hope
of avoiding disaster is a widespread return to the simple virtues of
earlier times. Naturally, they make themselves very unpopular with the
priesthood, and usually even more so with the population; it is not
the priests but the population which drives such men and women into
the wilderness.In spite of this, I can see that prophets of doom are
still needed today, and still persist in their unpopular messages. An
outstanding example is Rachel Carson, who pointed out that the growing
use of chemical insecticides is even more damaging to crops and people
than the insects which they were increasingly failing to kill. And I
hope that even in the future, if a profession ever degenerates into
a priesthood, there will be those who continue to fight against it.
In the future as in the past, we will have doctors who persist in pointing
out that fashionable remedies are useless, or even damaging, that the
drugs are worse than the disease, that many of them are addictive, that
their effectiveness decreases with repeated use, that their side-effects
induce even worse diseases, which need yet more drugs for their cure;
until the problems caused by the drugs are many times more severe than
the original problems which the drugs were designed to cure.
This situation has occurred again and again the history
of medicine and there have always been doctors brave enough to point
it out. It has occurred in the development of artificial fertilisers
and weedckillers. And let us not be ashamed to admit that it has occurred
in the development of computer software designs, which were originally
intended to simplify computer usage and make it more accessible, and
which have now become a major barrier to both understanding and access.
So it is among the prophets of doom that I wish to
enrol myself. I believe that the current situation in software design
is bad, and that it is getting worse. I do not expect that this will
be recognised by the designers, manufacturers, sellers, or even the
users of software, who will regard the increase in complexity as a sign
of progress, or at least an inevitable concomitant thereof; and may
even welcome it as a tribute to their intelligence, or at least a challenge.
The larger manufacturers are not only set in their ways, but they have
actually profited from the increase in complexity of their software,
and the resulting decrease in the efficiency and effectiveness of their
customers' use of hardware. And everything is now so complicated, that
any particular attack on the problem of low quality software design
can always be evaded by appeals to tradition, to standards, to customer
prejudice, to compensating advantages, and even to promises to mend
the fault in future issues.
So it will be a long tine before there is even any
recognition of the problem which faces our profession. But even if the
problem were widely recognised and deplored, its solution is going to
present extremely difficult technical problems. The pursuit of complexity
is easy, and the implementation of complexity can safely be delegated
to competent managers. But the pursuit of simplicity is one of the most
difficult and challenging activities of the human mind. Progress is
likely to be extremely slow, where each complexity eliminated must be
hailed as a breakthrough. We need not only brilliance of intellect but
breadth of experience, nicety of judgement, excellence of taste, and
even more than our fair share of good luck. And finally we need a puritanical
rejection of the temptations of features and facilities, and a passionate
devotion to the principles of purity, simplicity and elegance.
And so my final message too has strong religious overtones.
that the reformation in software design that I advocate will be peaceful