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Spooky Software

The Disappearing Act is The True Magic of Software

We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.

— Douglas Adams

The technology industry is obsessed with capturing and bottling magic. The VC-fueled segment with which I’m most familiar, in particular, aims to captivate consumers with technology that is constantly visible and engaging. Marketing sites and product decks are rife with phrases such as “grand central” and “the platform hub” for this or that. Tech is touted as the magic charm that everyone will drive to move the next-gen economy. Even businesses that don’t need venture capital are selling this kind of magic: for example, Apple will soon ship an AR/VR appliance that literally takes over our vision and is supposed to re-enchant everything before our eyes. In order to meet today’s financial and social pressures, modern tech business has cultivated a “type.”

Is there room for a different take on magic: one featuring the disappearing act? An overlooked aspect of technology is its ability to become invisible infrastructure and reward us in ways that flashy solutions do not. This kind of magic would not be about doing more: it’s a vision of doing the same with less. Things that don’t require constant attention are magical because they free us to focus on more demanding and important issues in our lives. I don’t think about memory management in the Linux kernel, interact with SSL handshakes, or engage with the software that handles my paycheck. If I step back for a moment and think about what these solutions are doing for me, I am amazed and grateful because I get to spend more time with problems technology can’t help me with. Even if it’s utilizing “boring” technology that doesn’t make the news, if the magic is done well, nobody will even notice at all; products don’t have to be everything to everyone to be exciting.

Solutions that are fueled by or sell “user engagement” are threats to our focus and attention. We only have so much mental headspace and time, so we should take great care with them. To that end, I’d like to see software actively disappear. I don’t want more subscription-based SaaS tools that I need to interact with every day or more apps that prey on my attention for clicks and ad revenue. I see this as a goal for not only end users of technology but also its creators and maintainers. What’s more magical than a piece of code that never needs to be updated or migrated? I want to see more buzz for ideas such as self-healing code that runs forever and funding for projects that are simple enough to actually complete without endless “improving.”

Our ambitions and energies could be utilized for truly magical ends if we re-imagine what technology is capable of.