Witchcrafting Programmers

Composition with Color Planes (1917) by Piet Mondrian

Composition with Color Planes (1917) by Piet Mondrian

“To hell with logic! Do not talk to me about logic when I’m leading an absurd life anyway.”

Those words come from Shim Bo-nui, the computing whiz who first hunts down an extremely elusive bug in a recruitment contest held by game developer Zeze Factory in the surprisingly geeky romantic comedy Lucky Romance. Obsessed with superstitions, she fixes software hacks only after piling salt around the work station, sticks a talisman under her CEO’s desk, and initially rejects the firm’s job offer because the bad luck she receives there has supposedly caused her sister’s traffic accident. Most ludicrous of all, she believes a fortune teller’s claim that she has to spend the night with a man born in the Chinese zodiac year of tiger to save her sister. It is sobering to note, though, that the difference between Bo-nui and off-screen programmers is sometimes a matter of degree rather than kind. There is a number of possible explanations for such real-life eccentricity.

The first is that no one has complete knowledge of the universe, the power to manipulate all aspects of life, or the ability to perform at the level they like at all times. However strong at logical reasoning and scientifically literate one is, he often finds himself at the mercy of chance and the unknown. Such is the helplessness Bo-nui experiences in the face of her sister’s perilous medical situation. Superstitious practices have thus become her sole source of hope, the only potential agents of change she can turn to in a crisis where experts of the domain have presumably already tried their best. Certain types of challenging computing experience, such as affective computing and robotic limb design, can actually increase the propensity to believe in the supernatural by revealing human intuition or a bodily function being simulated to be so complex that it seems unlikely to have originated organically. MIT professor Rosalind Picard, no less, was left with greater awe at the Maker after her pioneering work in machine-based recognition and modeling of emotions.

Moreover, there is the fallacy that superstitions always emanate from folk traditions, religions or the occult. It can be easy to forget that the lack of rational basis for a practice, not the sphere of knowledge it belongs to, is what fundamentally renders it superstitious. This is duly noted in the webtoon Lucky Romance has been adapted from, in which Bo-nui stuns her self-righteous would-be admirer with the retort that his blind worship of money is also a form of superstition. The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, a book he consults to understand her in the drama, adds more examples of neglected unscientific acts like throwing dice harder when you want to get a bigger number and treasuring objects just because they were owned by well-known personalities. The author, Matthew Hutson, pointed out that, as usual, cognitive biases such as association of like with like are to blame. Yet, like mentioned before, analytical rigor cultivated later in life may not fully counteract deeply entrenched habits of mind society promotes and crude survival instincts honed by millennia of evolution.

Shim Bo-nui (Hwang Jung-eum) and Je Su-ho (Ryu Jun-yeol) in 2016 Korean drama Lucky Romance

Shim Bo-nui and her Zeze Factory CEO, also the would-be admirer, Je Su-ho

In fact, personal vulnerability and mundane bias seem to have jointly contributed to a particular type of irrational behavior endemic in computer science professions. After all, information technology workers often do not have perfect mastery of skills they specialize in either. When armed with protocols or code that worked well in previous tasks, for example, they may not know how exactly these instructions have facilitated the work, or whether the instructions have merely created no trouble. Fearful that modifications would introduce hiccups, these workers may ritualistically include redundant program structures and work steps in new computing projects. The former phenomenon has been branded “cargo cult programming,” a term recalling tribal folks newly exposed to flight technology who created mock airways and wooden imitations of electronic air control equipment in the hope of summoning more airplanes carrying useful goods, and “voodoo programming.”

Superstitions also mingle among aphorisms that guide work attitudes and career choices. Self-help advice, which the larger society frequently also helps shape, tends to be irresponsibly worded, and their adherents sometimes seem to be so conditioned to the principles espoused that they do not stop to question them. When we repeat the maxim “Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” we blithely ignore the reality that, no matter how passionate you are about a vocation, it more likely than not also has facets you would rather not deal with. When we tell ourselves, “Do your work with your whole heart and you will succeed,” we overlook the need for personal branding and workplace relationship management. In particular, some IT professionals may have chosen their vocations out of the belief that they suit their social awkwardness, which is worrisome since teamwork, conflict management, negotiation and networking are frequently important in computer science jobs as well. At the end of the day, even lone-wolf programmers have to answer to someone, if not a client then probably another technical professional who is prone to violent outbursts because he finds interpersonal relations just as confusing and taxing and so requires better-than-average people skills to deal with, not worse.

Sometimes, irrational beliefs persist because the causes of outcomes are difficult to establish and emotional criteria (e.g. degrees of piety and love) for the beliefs to work are not clearly specified. And sometimes, magical thinking actually works, because it simplifies decision-making and, as Hutson explained, gives one the emotional strength and confidence that boost his chances of success. If everyone were to personally conduct thorough investigation of all options and every element of their work materials all the time, probably little would get done. To some extent, too, although absolute faith in and expectations of perfect results from folk wisdom may be unwarranted, the advice may still point one in the right direction. Loving one’s occupation, for instance, may not guarantee happiness and success, but the odds are still generally better than those of being a lifeless corporate drone. When the person has already done his best to explore alternatives and resolve all potential sources of trouble anyway, belief also helps him stay energized and focused on the task. On occasions, then, superstitions become self-fulfilling prophecies, to the indignation of proponents of logical thinking and intellectual honesty.

Je Su-ho (Ryu Jun-yeol) in 2016 Korean drama Lucky Romance

Actor Ryu Jun-yeol taking a break from playing Je Su-ho (Source: C-JeS Entertainment)

Even the most unimaginable worshipers of superstitions—highly intelligent people who embrace irrefutably debunked myths—need not be mere screen creations. IT professionals can have multiple competing identities. A mobile app developer may also be an animal rights activist, webtoonist, romance novelist and one-time attorney all rolled into one. This may mean that the logician in him contends with his inner dreamer, the part of himself in need of thrill, drama, unbridled imagination, etc. Alternatively, a succession of younger selves may be nesting within each other inside him: the comfort-seeking 5-year-old, the authority-questioning 15-year-old, the enterprising 25-year-old, the multi-tasking 35-year-old, the reminiscing 45-year-old and so on. Deep down, he probably does not believe in a superstition, but wants to anyway.

Nevertheless, careers, interests and personalities are not the only dimensions along which identities are constructed. Identities are also defined in relation to other people. Yet it is unwise, unfeeling and, very often, unfeasible to use rationality as the chief criterion for choosing who you want to be a kin, lover or friend to. It would therefore be unsurprising to see people who neither believe nor want to believe in superstitions yet participate in them anyway to offer superstitious loved ones solidarity and companionship.

Understanding need not bring about acceptance. Although Hutson wrote effusively (and somewhat ramblingly) about the comfort superstitious practices offer to the likes of Bo-nui, he at least took care to mention the pitfalls: erroneous estimation of danger or strengthmaladaptive dependence, inflexibility in daily routines, missed opportunities for learning owing to lack of genuine understanding, etc. Still, we can take the criticism further. Even if a shortcut works ninety-nine out of a hundred times, that one occasion it causes grievous damage still calls for immediate assessment of priorities and construction of a more refined approach. Importantly, as well, there is a huge moral difference between embracing ill-founded beliefs and acts affecting only you and prescribing them for others. Certain acts also just cannot be ethically justified by any heavenly will or cosmic rule. In this connection, upon considering the plights of abused relationship partners and trafficked females over the world, the instances when romance and comedy go missing in Lucky Romance‘s tiger-hunting plotline might not feel like a letdown. No man or god has the right to lead a woman into believing that her only choice is to sacrifice her dignity, much less for the amusement of spectators.

And no matter how the drama will go down in the history of television, some bubbly girl who carries amulets inside Couronne bags but effortlessly communicates in Malbolge may be thankful that, after going through Revenge of the Nerds (1984), The Social Network (2010), The Imitation Game (2014) and more, a globally watched production has finally told her story.

Shim Bo-nui (Hwang Jung-eum) underneath cherry blossoms in the night time in 2016 Korean drama Lucky Romance

Shim Bo-nui

The Book                  The Drama                    Book Resources                    Drama Resources

[Warning: Both book and drama contain material unsuitable for minors.]

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10 thoughts on “Witchcrafting Programmers

  1. So much great stuff here!! I find myself thinking about these very ideas as I write my blog – the frightening notion that the control you believe you have over your own life can quickly be eroded by “chance” or “luck”. Superstitions and rituals can be a comforting substitute when logic and careful planning let you down!

    I was also drawn to the IT persona you describe. It reminds me of my son and his autism, how his rituals, obsessive behaviors, and need for sameness (inflexibility) all provide him with a feeling of safety in what he perceives as a chaotic, confusing, unpredictable world. (Interestingly, it is thought that a certain percentage of IT professionals may, indeed, fall somewhere on the autism spectrum). Also in my own OCD – my rituals provided a sense of control when I was anxious, until those behaviors took on “a mind of their own”, hijacking that control from me – a “maladaptive dependence”, I guess you could say.

    My take-away is that the reliance on rituals and belief in superstition or magic can provide comfort, even a feeling of logic, control, and order in an “absurd life”. But taken to an extreme these beliefs and behaviors can be dangerous and limiting. That is why I work so hard to try to diminish my son’s anxieties and build flexibility into his thinking and daily routines. It’s easy to see how limiting those behaviors could become in everyday life!

    • theotheri says:

      I am a retired cognitive developmental psychologist living now in Cambridge, England, quite possibly the world home of the autistic genius. In truth, some of the best studies of autism in its varied forms are being done here.

      My own experience has led me to conclusions similar to yours and, indeed, to those reflected in this insightful post.

      • We each owe our achievements to many people. This is perhaps doubly so for the autistic population. The love and support successful autistic individuals have received notwithstanding their social ineptness, I would like to think, make the world continue to seem a hopeful and sane place in spite of Brexit, Trump and whatnot.

    • Hello Jen, it’s been a long time! Pardon this late reply. From previous experience, a chair maker who does not feel refreshed makes particularly creaky chairs for visitors, despite the best intentions. >.< I really hope your son will get better with time. His inability to communicate verbally must be more frustrating than an outsider can imagine when he is throwing tantrums, but hopefully the unseeable world he inhabits at other times is all the same a tranquil and beautiful one.

      If you're interested, there is this drama blogger who put in a word for the autistic population: A look at Autism in Korean Culture–Series Review: “The Good Doctor”

      All the best for your family!

      • No need to apologize – I’m just returning from a little vacation myself! 🙂 Thank you for the link. I will check it out! I’m always interested in new perspectives, especially in the autism world. Indeed, for all the frustration my son experiences, he has an amazing attention to detail. I’m convinced he appreciates the beauty of this world on a level far beyond my own. I hope one day he will be able to express it in words!

  2. Special thanks to the following bloggers for their expression of support in the preview of this post:
    Cindy Knoke Cindy Knoke
    Tasty Eats Ronit Penso Tasty Eats Ronit Penso
    Kay Kay
    theotheri theotheri
    colorpencil2014 colorpencil2014
    First Night Design First Night Design
    Midnight Ramen Attack Midnight Ramen Attack
    smithartonline Smith

    Lady Nyo Lady Nyo commented about her affinity with birds in response to the drawing of a snowy owl:
    “I’m not sure what this picture means, as there doesn’t seem to be any explanation besides the headline, but! It threw me back to my very early childhood, when my parents bought a 200 year old house. The attic door had a incised rooster on the door….I can barely remember it, I was about 5 years old, but I do. Funny, because my father’s name in Hungarian means “Rooster”. So, thank you! the bird on your door is beautiful simplicity and turned me towards a very distant memory.

    I believe it is an owl.

    Lady Nyo”

    “LOL! Yes, and the mythology that they are wise birds is a bit….off. But it doesn’t matter, they are magnificent birds nonetheless.”

    “Yes. I am. My name “Kohut” gives it away! I love owls, all birds, and especially birds of prey. For 25 years I painted (watercolor) birds of prey and other species. I still love to paint them, but life takes you into other directions. My best to you.”

    But there was no point divulging the whole plot in a teaser! Now that the cat is out of the bag, it bears explaining that Bo-nui gives her friend a stuffed white owl in episode four, claiming that it is a guardian spirit which will ward off bad luck and keep its eyes wide open all night to search for his missing father. It is at this moment that she explains that although many brush off such stuff as ridiculous superstitions, hope is the only thing within some people’s power.

    The stylistic doodle in the picture was like some kinds of superstition—simple but also simplistic. It was lovely to look at, yet made it a little difficult to decipher the creature being portrayed.

  3. The programmer choosing his vocation thinking that it will accommodate his social awkwardness is quite true, at least from my experience. I have a couple of friends who switched their accounting career part way to a programming one told me that they basically don’t need to deal with people and it seems most in their industry thinks the same. =/ But I agree with you here that they will eventually have to deal with people sometimes. After all, no man is an island.

    • Sadly, a survey has found that 65% of IT workers in the UK has suffered workplace abuse. The compatibility of a prospective job candidate with his future co-workers seems to be something many people fail to consider. It is like matchmaking two violent control freaks to each other in the belief that like belongs to like, never mind how many fist fights they will fill their marriage with! What’s more, having similar personalities does not necessarily mean that members of a team will even be able to empathize with one another.

      On the other hand, there is probably the contrast effect, a psychological phenomenon, in cases of people who switch to industries requiring fewer interactions. Maybe the escapes from nosier workplaces are such a relief that they downplay any trouble posed by difficult people in their new jobs. Or maybe renewed faith and passion help them pull through everything.

      Either way, I think people should not be too quick to dismiss professions that look unsuitable for them at first sight, especially when job vacancies are scarce. Personalities, workspaces and life experiences sometimes seem to work in synergistic ways many job seekers do not fully appreciate.

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