Important Problems

Richard Hamming asked the chemists in the Bell Labs Cafeteria:

What are the most important problems in your field? And why aren't you working on them?

The ever brilliant Haroon Meer got me thinking about this question recently; what are the important problems these days? And why aren't I working on them?

In technology, so much seems driven by the market, advertising, and hype. I suppose that's better than war being the engine, but it somehow seems hollow. Technology itself seems to advance for its own sake and pure exploration can be exciting, as in science. But has that really happened much after the PARC days? I don't really think so.

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”

And so what's a person to do? It certainly seems that the most important problems facing humanity are tied up with technology: Can technology extricate us from the downward spiral of climate change and environmental degradation? Can online communities and governance models enabled by pervasive communication technology preserve or foster democracy in some meaningful sense, or will they simply sow the seeds of its own destruction? Can technology help people find a new sense of meaning outside of the natural communities and bonds it has had some part in severing or will it doom us to a hyper-connection devoid of any substance?

I don't have answers to these questions; I don't actually think I (or my fellow programmers) am equipped to address these issue (certainly not on my own). But its certainly incumbent upon us to engage with the meaning and impact of our work. And maybe that engagement, in itself, is a granule of an important problem: How can software engineers minimize the harm their work produces and how can they produce that work in a minimally harmful way?

Certainly having job that helps me support a family is deeply meaningful; and working at a company that share some of my values or at least seems to minimally cut against my grain is a start. And maybe that's okay for now. I'm a bit over 3.5 years into a career in software; I taught myself to do this with the help of a (blacksmith)[]; Just so we're clear I literally googled “how to learn how to code” and just followed his advice.

And even though I beat up on myself, if I'm honest I feel like I'm progressing at an acceptable trajectory. But I want to ultimately do high impact work in this field or, as someone so aptly put it, be a chef instead of a cook. Or else why bother? And so for now, I have an important problem: I have to actually find the important problems. I'll let you know when I figure them out.