Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A tale of broken codes

If you have Facebook, you’ve probably seen a lot of “Year in Review” posts, in which Facebook gathers a selection of photos from the past year and puts them together in a kind of mini scrapbook. Chances are you’ve done it yourself. I did.

And if you have Facebook, you also might have seen the story going around about one father’s reaction to the meme.

For web design consultant and writer Eric Meyer, it wasn’t such a great year. His six year old daughter died of brain cancer. For him, the “Year in Review” was painful. 

“To show me Rebecca's face and say 'Here's what your year looked like!' is jarring," Meyer wrote in a blog post, using his experience to illustrate the point that more thought needs to be put into designing code like the one Facebook used for its meme. "It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it's just unfortunate."

Meyer’s post went viral—a surprise to him, as he didn’t expect it to be read by more than a few hundred of his family, friends, colleagues and friends of colleagues.

I can understand why it went viral. When I read it, I resonated with his insights into and reminder of the stark difference between the technology we use and, well, we humans. I also resonated with his observation of the way social media caters to “the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user.”

But here’s where the story gets human. Facebook’s Year in Review product manager Jonathan Gheller saw the post and personally apologized to Meyer. And Meyer’s response?

This.

Meyer, whom we would give every right to rail against the machine and those who created it, apologizes to Gheller and his team. “I owe the Year in Review team in specific, and Facebook in general, an apology. No, not the other way around… He and his team didn’t deserve it.

Why? Because “failure to consider worst-case scenarios” is prevalent in coding everywhere, says Meyer. His original post meant to use Facebook's "Year in Review" as an example of that.

Instead, however, it became a rallying point of condemnation against Gheller and his team. Meyer was distressed by that response:

What surprised and dismayed me were the…let’s call them "uncharitable" assumptions made about the people who worked on Year in Review. “What do you expect from a bunch of privileged early-20s hipster Silicon Valley brogrammers who’ve never known pain or even want?” seemed to be the general tenor of those responses. 
No.  Just no.  This is not something you can blame on Those Meddling Kids and Their Mangy Stock Options. 
First off, by what right do we assume that young programmers have never known hurt, fear, or pain?  How many of them grew up abused, at home or school or church or all three?  How many of them suffered through death, divorce, heartbreak, betrayal?  Do you know what they’ve been through?  No, you do not.  So maybe dial back your condescension toward their lived experiences.

Meyer spends the rest of his post showing how Gheller’s team is just like the rest of us, falling prey to “a failure to anticipate how a design decision that really worked in one way completely failed in another.” That failure, says Meyer, isn’t because they are bad designers, lack empathy, or ignored their users. Instead, he says:

This is such a common failure that it’s almost not a failure any more.  It just… is.

This story makes my mind spin. It fleshes out not only several struggles we have in an increasingly technological world but also what it means to be human and the power of knowing a full story.

We are flawed, human creatures. Even when we have the best of intentions, we hurt others. Our tendency is to make assumptions of the ones who hurt us, to dehumanize and box them up in a stereotype. But each of us has a story—and often, knowing that story turns “them” into “us.” Knowing those stories often touches our own woundedness and brokenness, which gives us a context in which to relate to others, even those who hurt us.

And the willingness to see the humanity of those who have hurt us enables us to respond with Love, the kind of Love with which we are first loved—one that forgives.

In Meyer’s case, the hurt visited on him wasn’t intentional. Being human, we know that isn’t always the case. Yet there is still power in knowing the stories of others, even our enemies. It gives us a context in which to relate—for we too are broken and wounded. It won’t excuse hurtful actions or negate the consequences that must be borne for those actions, but it does enable us to begin a path towards wholeness and healing.

Meyer ends his post by calling for a thoughtful examination of the status quo:
We need to challenge that “is”. I’ve fallen victim to it myself. We all have.  We all will. It will take time, practice, and a whole lot of stumbling to figure out how to do better, but it is, I submit, vitally important that we do.

While Meyer is talking about state of technological coding and design, his words are also a call to challenge the “is” of the broken and limited coding that infects human nature as well. At least, it is for me.

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