If you stare at a blue dot

On interacting with systems

Eric ZhangJune 22, 2024

These days, most of the emails I get are from bots. Most of the calls I get are also from bots. “You have used 75% of included services.” “Here is your weekly summary.” “Sorry, our most recent email was sent in an error.” In the past I would get emails from people, perhaps a club on a college mailing list for instance, and I would imagine the face on the other side of the fiber-optic cable. Nowadays, I interact online with computers more than with humans.

But these emails are surely at least designed by a human. For better or worse, it’s someone’s job to ensure that I’m given an automated notice about a lapse of redundancy in a virtual network tunnel in Mumbai, as this is an Important Notice and I am an Important Person and should be alerted in advance, since if I am not alerted, then our systems may have problems, and that would cause an outage, which would make the world less efficient and cascade down to other Important Persons—who would then get more emails and calls in turn, so I must manually intervene and use my judgment to set it right again.

I change as I get older, but the world around me changes even more quickly. I can no longer tell whether my experiences reflect my own change or that of the world. Perhaps we’ve gotten so good at being efficient that there’s no more need for humans to send alerts or emails manually anymore, so it’s only natural that computers should co-opt this segment of landscape of digital presence.

Occasionally, drifting among the endless flood of automation, I get an email from a stranger who wants me to sign a form, asks for verification, or whatnot. They reach out because they’d like to be part of this big system that entangles us. But then I am annoyed that the interaction was not automated.

The world has a lot of tasks to automate because there’s a lot of work to do. The beef in my hamburger travels from Melbourne to New York, and meanwhile the computer I’m typing on is the product of a hundred million man-hours spent designing circuit boards, MOSFETs, protocols, operating systems, and applications. Given the enormity of this, I have so many minds to thank for the fact that I get emails at all.

Yet I am not just a consumer of technology; I am an engineer. I feel the the systems beckon me to improve, to do better, to make them more reliable, flexible, and efficient. As we strive for perfection, we optimize everything away until we’re left with a pure, shiny object, and that is the platonic ideal of a good computer system.

A good system is something universal. I love the work of making great software. It’s creative, and the problems tickle my brain.

But if you stare at a blue dot long enough, everything starts to look yellow. When I look around and grab a meal with a friend, take out the trash, pick up a banana at the grocery store, or have a stroll in the park, they’re all… systems. I get a weird but totally morally reasonable urge to optimize what day to eat my banana. After all, maybe I’ll waste 10% less food, and the world prospers. Or what if I transferred two trains instead of one, and I saved 10 minutes on a Sunday afternoon?

So we optimize—and I am complicit in all of this by the nature of my job and the role computers play in our lives—until as we grow older and become more cloistered, there’s nothing left to optimize except for a walk in the park and a cup of tea on a weekend afternoon.

Holding on to myself, I wonder what comes next.