Jessica Kerr on Symmathecism

— A review


Jessica Kerr is one of those rare individuals who seem to have true intellectual breadth as well as depth.

This is thought stemming from Kerr’s The Origin of Opera and the Future of Programming. For some developers, the talk, considering the title, may sound somewhat pretentious. But it’s not. It’s an original, reflective and a very intelligent talk.

Kerr masterfully spins a web of interconnected meanings and interrelated ideas. She tries to establish and argue why developers should structure their work according to ‘symmathesy’, a word which she ‘borrows’ from Nora Bateson, a researcher in cybernetics.

In Kerrs presentation @ Medium she writes:

Symmathecist: (sim-MATH-uh-sist) an active participant in a symmathesy. (…) A symmathesy (sim-MATH-uh-see, coined by Nora Bateson) is a learning system made of learning parts. Software teams are each a symmathesy, composed of the people on the team, the running software, and all their tools.

But wait a bit, I used the word ‘borrows’. And yes, Bateson may have coined the term but the use of ‘borrows’ seems to imply that Bateson owns this term, and that Kerr must give it back after using it. Surely one could say, that she does so by acknowledging Bateson. But I believe there is another point to be made here, namely that language and ideas never are private.

In a way, this talk focus exactly on issues like this. Not the origin of ideas, the organization of ideas, the sharing of ideas, how ideas do meet and how they could meet better.

My view is that Kerr is trying to communicate that ideas deepen with use; the more they’re used, the more depth and context they gain. I believe that words seem to distance themselves from their origin in the proportion to the words spread and usefulness. Kafkaesque, Orwellian and even googling (the verb), are notions that pay tribute to their originator, but their meaning nowadays doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Franz Kafka, George Orwell or the search engine of Google as such.

Another thing about words and borrowing: Even though the notion of borrowing concepts only partly makes sense, each and every word always borrow meaning from other words. This provides a clue for the point Kerr is trying to make.

Language is useless in itself. Language gets meaning from being used, getting practiced. Because of that, language — the medium of ideas, both for transmissions, form, and content — always have a kind of duality and is torn between a passive and active side. When you use language you borrow words from language but you also give something back, meaning.

Every transmission of meaning by language takes place in a web of meanings, contexts, and echoes from the past. We are individuals, true. But we are also vessels, especially when we communicate and share our thoughts with the world.

As an individual, you can choose to acknowledge this and even affirm it by admitting that even though you are very special, you’re also part of a greater whole.

Language is a system and we are all parts of that system — a system that roots us in the human world. And with each language act, we reproduce parts of the system. And more: we modify it; every utterance is a modification since each situation is unique. Language is not conservable… its essence resides in constant, although sometimes slow change.

I understand Kerr as wanting to optimize software development, align it in accordance with these essential facts. And if I get Kerr and her examples right, her most relevant point is that we must broaden our horizons and get better at seeing the truly important contexts, get better at discussing software, sharing ideas and recognizing that our differences in skills, intelligence, views, and values actually can interconnect and together weave a stronger web of ideas, software, and collaborations.

This may seem hazy. But I think it’s not. It may sound trivial. But I think it’s not. And it all may seem very simple. But I believe it’s not. To me, this sounds like hard work… Hard work, but satisfying and rewarding work. To me, it also sounds like a continuous process without an ending.

I think that the mists of haziness quickly disappear if you consider that even grownups gain from collaboration with small children. Of course, I’m smarter than my five-year-old, but I doubt that if I would build lego on my own (and why not?), the robots would not be as cool as when we almost manically share ideas, give each other feedback on solutions and so on. The fact that I am older, a bit better at finding robust solutions on how to make Lego robots that don’t break, is quite trivial.

The same is perhaps true for 10x developers that Kerr trash at the end of the talk. Of course, there are individuals with intellect and knowledge that make them that good. And I think that’s what Kerr is communicating as well.

Her problem with 10x-ers arise when they dictate the terms of collaboration, and why? Because the team will get more inefficient — and likely more unmotivated — in comparison with how it would work if the team symmathecized the development process.

To me, the talk was great in most ways, not the least since I have a bachelor in the history of ideas. But I was intrigued by it as a developer, individual and human being.

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