Progress Equals Stress

Recently I spent a day looking for (and by accident stumbling upon) a tiny piece of magic incantation to make some code work, code that I diligently copied out of the instructions of a certain framework. The frustrating experience made me realise how much our lives in software development have changed, from writing most code, over using libraries, to ending up at the mercy of enticingly benevolent, impressively capable, oppressively opinionated, alarmingly capricious, always mysterious magic black boxes.

For magic and black those boxes are.

But this didn’t start with software, this is part of a larger trend, that can be observed in society. First came the Law of Diminishing Returns and killed the real gain in most advancements, inventions, new products, services, so we had to begin making problems up that could then be solved. Things like the 40 hour work week and being able to talk to people at the other end of the world were real progress, adding animated bunny ears to people’s faces who don’t have anything better left to do isn’t (real progress).

What’s worse, as solutions are getting ever more complex, the linear relationship between effort and outcomes disappears too, and that’s rather stressful. The sense of progress is important for our mental wellbeing and replacing the lesser productivity of yore – that also implied a steady pace – with higher productivity that’s more prone to system critical failures is frustrating. And kind of inevitable, for it’s aka progress. Going from a breakneck pace to zero in an instance, several times a day, is a normal routine for most of us today.

We traded our regular and soothing doses of moderate achievement for the dizzying kicks of superhuman highs but are paying a hefty price with irregularity, unreliability and loss of control, all of which are straining and leading to frustration. Then, there’s also more and more of these “enhancements” in our lives as the world around us keeps on getting more complex and our expectations ever higher. And this is one of the reasons why despite all the progress we aren’t happy still, in fact we’re getting ever more stressed.