The Danger Of Ostrich Solution

Ever asked an engineer for a solution for a problem with your Windows installation? Ever gotten the answer “use a Mac!”? Or “Buy an iPhone?” Or “Use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office?” That’s the engineer’s Ostrich Solution right there: by pretending the entire premise of the question is invalid, you ignore the problem by blaming the victim. Kinda like putting your head in sand and ignoring the rest of the world exists.

I tweeted recently how I thought that Youtube is becoming useless because they’ve started adding ads directly in the middle of programs. As an automatic algorithm, it disrupts the experience of viewing because it has no concept of story pacing. For some pirated TV shows which have clear cues (like a few frames of black) it might work, but for a whole lot of programming it just ruins the experience.

The responses I got were all in the line of “use an adblocker”. The Ostrich Solution. Pretend Youtube is not screwing things up by ignoring it.

I agree that it is a good solution to annoying ads. It’s direct, it’s simple, it’s effective. It’s the kind of solution engineers thrive on. But it only solves the problem for one person. Everyone else, especially those who don’t have the technical knowledge of installing an adblocker, are completely thrown out in the cold. But the engineer no longer knows this, since he’s solved his own immediate problem, and does not even realize that someone else might have a problem. And that’s how you distance yourself from the general population.

I mean, we engineers know that encryption is important. We run things like “HTTPS everywhere” to keep our communications private. But it wasn’t until Edward Snowden revealed that NSA had been attacking the infrastructure of major internet companies that they decided to turn on encryption for ‘’everyone’’, not just those who actually cared about it. Was it because of cost issues, or was it simply because the engineers figured they know how to turn on SSL from the options so “it was already secure for those who wanted it to be secure”? The designers even made it user-friendly by making the tick look big.

We know that the internet’s freedom is at stake, so we build undeniably wonderful things like Tor and SSH ‘’for those who know how to use such things’’, and leave everyone else to be steamrolled by zealous nationstates. We design internet-enabled gadgets that make our house tweet, and glasses that let you record everything, but don’t really care about what might happen when everyone’s connected this way and someone cracks the OS or our government turns nasty. At least we’ll be rich and can protect ourselves.

I know it’s a human thing. It’s not only that naturally we’re interested in our own wellbeing more than that of other people, but that often it’s just easier and faster to solve the immediate problem and leave the underlying problem field for others. We’re occupied by a billion trivial matters, of which ten are satisfying, and the pressures of the civilization to provide even more and cheaper and better. And we look at people who have made a gazillion dollars and are willing to work long, gruesome hours to get even a whiff of the same success. And this is a wonderful time to be an engineer. We’re good at details, and details is what the world gives us right now in plenty.

Especially in IT, people want to be trailblazers. They want to be the next Twitter or Facebook. That means doing a lot of things that nobody has quite done before in the same way. That’s the nature of engineering in general: there are always exceptions, always problems to solve, no matter how many times you have done it before. And this is good, but it does make it very easy to get trapped in the details. Just solve the problem, and move to the next one.

But I just wish that we could sometimes stop and look at the big picture too. What do things really mean? Where are we going? Do we want to go there? How can we achieve that? What are the steps from here to there? How do we convince everyone else about this too? What will happen when everything is Done?

How to make Solutions For Everyone instead of Solutions Only For Ostrichs.

(OK, perhaps it’s just me who needs to stop and everyone else is constantly looking for the big picture all the time. But I don’t think I am deeply mistaken if I assume that I am not that different from anyone else, and that others share this similar feeling. Perhaps we could do something about it?)


My intuitive understanding of "IT people" is that we build tools. Like all tools, they can be used for good or evil or not at all. If we want to change things "for everyone" we're entering the world of politics. Instead of addressing developers, I think we should be addressing politicians and voters (to vote for more understanding politicians).

--Alex Schroeder, 07-Apr-2014

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"Main_blogentry_060414_1" last changed on 06-Apr-2014 15:24:32 EEST by JanneJalkanen.

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