Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Reality of Perception


I’m a geek.  And the stereotype for geeks is that we’re socially inept.  Now, stereotypes are bad if you assume that every person you meet in a certain group automatically acts like that (as 3 Black Chicks were wont to say: “we are not a monolith”).  But stereotypes generally contain a grain of truth as well, and some history which explains why those stereotypes exist.  In the case of geeks and social ineptness, I can give you my theory pretty simply: it’s reality vs. perception.

Now, there are different types of geeks, but in this case I think the ur-geek is the programming geek.  A programmer spends his (or her) days telling computers what to do.  And computers, contrary to popular opinion, are stupid.  Like box of rocks stupid.  Like burned-out bulb stupid.  Like the brainpower of a deformed cockroach with its head cut off.  That was born yesterday.  And died two days ago. 

We say that computers are stupid because they do exactly what you tell them to do: computers are 100% literalists.  They have absolutely no concept of what you meant to say.  They cannot in any way grasp your intention.  You think your friend misinterpreted your email because she couldn’t see your body language or hear your tone of voice?  Imagine what the computer itself, who not only lacks the senses to perceive such things but the very concept that such things exist, is going to think.  Sometimes I think non-programmers get confused.  Sometimes I think they look at the way robots act on television and in the movies and think that’s how computers work in real life.  I mean, Data is amusingly frustrating to relate to, and Astro Boy has a poignant Pinocchio complex, and Twiki can’t say anything other than “bidi bidi,” but you know what: they’re all cute.  Cute and fun and not at all stupid or prone to doing exactly what you say no matter how stupid it is.  Plus, they all follow (more or less) the Three Laws of Robotics.  Real computers are so stupid that they don’t even know what the Three Laws of Robotics are.

So, as a programmer, you spend all day long dealing with entities for whom perception is a myth and reality is all that counts.  Is it any wonder that many of us tend to lose our ability to be subtle? our concept of the meaning beyond the meaning of our words?  What makes most programmers (and most geeks in general) social disasters is that we have a tendency to treat people as if they were computers: we say exactly what we mean, no matter how embarrassing, no matter how awkward, no matter how inappropriate.  It’s all reality.

And here I’ll explain for you yet another of life’s supposed great mysteries: the meme of geeks vs. suits.  Now, just as not all geeks are programmers, not all suits are salesmen, but the salesman is certainly the ultimate suit in the same way that the programmer is the ultimate geek.  I am not now nor have I ever been a salesman, but I have known many.  As a geek who attempted to run his own business, close association with a number of different suits across the years was inevitable.  Some of those suits have been the closest of friends, and several remain so to this day.  I could not be where I am today without coming to some sort of understanding of the mind of the salesman, and I can share that insight with you very simply:  It’s all perception.

In order to sell someone a product, what that product really does is irrelevant.  All that matters is what what your customer believes it does.  Now, you may be considered a rather scummy salesman if your product doesn’t do what you say it does, but, really, that too is irrelevant.  Because even if your product actually does everything imaginable—including making coffee and emailing you when it’s ready—if the customer doesn’t believe that it does those things, you don’t get the sale.  The perception of the customer is the only thing.

So it can’t be any surprise that when you put a salesman and a programmer—a suit and a geek—in the same room, they have a fundamental misunderstanding of each other, because they have wildly different concepts of how the universe operates.  As far as each one is concerned, the other is speaking a foreign language.  When the salesman talks about whether the software will inspire confidence in its users, the programmer snickers disdainfully.  And when the programmer tells the salesman that the software simply cannot implement such and such a function, because it wouldn’t be “accurate,” the salesman looks blankly back and demands what the hell that has to do with anything.  They will never come to an agreement.

Well, theoretically, anyway.  Because here we come to the downside of stereotypes.  To imagine that every programmer and salesman will act this way in this hypothetical room just because most of them will is the birthplace of prejudice, and we definitely don’t want to twitch toward that slippery slope.  The truth is that sometimes geeks (and suits too, I reluctantly admit) can rise above their “programming” and learn to see the world through different eyes.  Yes, even I, uber-geek that I am, have learned to value perception.

And, unfortunately, this puts me in a rather weird position.  Because the vast majority of people that I hang out with are other geeks: people for whom perception is this quaint but useless notion.  But because I’ve spent so much time hanging out with suits, I have come (albeit kicking and screaming) to believe that perception can actually be useful.  Never to believe that it’s all that matters and you should throw reality out the window—once I get to that point, I’ll be a salesman myself and I’ll have to turn in my keyboard—but that sometimes, in some situations, you’d better consider what people think about what you say rather than stopping at the simple definitions of the words you choose.  In this, I am almost always bucking the trend in my most common social circles.

So I end up in these bizarre positions of having to defend the concept of perception in certain situations, even though, as a lifelong geek myself, I don’t really subscribe to that worldview.  Not whole-heartedly, anyway.  And it’s always completely unnatural to hear myself responding to a colleague’s assertion that I “shouldn’t get so hung up on appearances” when of course that’s my natural inclination as well.  But of course you can’t be in the business world for 25 years (even buried in the IT portion of it) without picking up the idea that occasionally you oughtn’t tell your boss exactly what you think.

Of course, these insights are neither an end product in themselves, nor did they spring fully-formed from the aether of my brain.  For logical conclusions and seeing what station this train of thought eventually fetches up at, we’ll have to wait for future postings.  And, while a full exploration of the ultimate origins of how I came to land in this middle position similarly exists in our future, I can certainly give a preview.  You see, I am at heart a Baladocian.  Let’s hope that one day that word is linked to another post which explains exactly what that means, but the core of it is believing in balance and paradox.  So I believe in striking a balance between reality and perception.  And I believe that both reality and perception apply at the same time.

The real problem is not understanding how to throw out perception and deal in literal phenomena.  Nor is it understanding how to deal in shades of meaning while ignoring the underlying reality.  And, despite the fact that some folks have a tendency (whether innate or learned) to favor one over the other, most people don’t have any problems whatsoever doing both.  Knowing when to choose one over the other ... now that’s a skill that takes many years to achieve.

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