Sarah Mei
+ Your AuthorsArchive @sarahmei Software engineer & founder of @RailsBridge and @LivableCode. Currently stirring the pot at @SalesforceUX. She/her. ✨Twitter at the speed of parenting✨ Dec. 29, 2018 1 min read

There is not, never has been, & never will be ANY technology with a purely positive effect on society.

Everything that makes life better for some group ALSO makes life worse for another group.

If you’re building technology, figuring out who will be worse off is at least as important as figuring out who will be better off.

It’s not a zero sum game - often the positive effects of a technology outweigh the negative ones. But there ARE negative effects, and we NEED to get better at understanding and mitigating them.

After I brought this up, my boyfriend spent the evening trying - & failing - to think of an unreservedly positive technology. There just isn’t one. Change necessarily means someone is redundant, some job disappears, or some group loses their livelihood.

Here are some technologies that were _on balance_ massively positive social forces, but had negative effects on some groups:

- antibiotics
- vaccines
- electric lights
- sewing machines
- containerized shipping

I know. It’s hard to think of how they could be negative.

History, as it is popularly taught, portrays technological advances as unreservedly positive, relegating any negative effects, if mentioned at all, to footnotes.

At the societal level, that’s an important narrative, because as people’s lives are disrupted by new technology, we want them to feel like it’s worth it overall.

But as the people who are actually _building technology_, we can’t be satisfied with that one-sided story. We need to dig deeper. Because the multiplicative effect of software means that the stuff we build can trigger massive change - on a scale & timeline never before possible.

As an industry, we already know, & to some extent acknowledge, that our technology will have negative effects - that’s why we call it “disruption.”

But even then, our conversations focus on the positive space: who we’re helping.

What I’m advocating for is also carefully examining the negative space: who we’re leaving behind.

So let’s get more concrete, and examine the negative space for something that is often seen as unreservedly positive: antibiotics.

My grandfather was a machinist, born in LA, of a large German family that settled in southern California in the late 1800s.

By the mid-1930s, he had finished his apprenticeship, and was making good money working in a large machine shop.

The work he did was precise and manual, but conceptually had a lot in common with software. He built machines that built other machines.

His specialty was understanding how to build machines that would output spherical & elliptoid pieces.

In 1934, he cut the back of his left hand, and it didn’t heal for three years.

Three. Years.

The cut wasn’t dangerously septic; it just never fully healed, because he was using his hands all day.

The nature of the work meant that getting small cuts on your hands was quite common, and in these days before antibiotics, having them linger for years was also quite common.

Fortunately, he worked in a large shop with good perks - perhaps equivalent to a modern-day technology BigCo.

One of the perks was that they employed a nurse, who washed & bandaged machinists’ hands at the beginning of their shifts.

This is likely why the cut didn’t kill him.

In 1937, a relative visiting from Germany brought with him a new advance that had just recently hit the German market - sulfa drugs.

These were the first antibiotics, developed before the “fungal” antibiotics like penicillin that we’re more familiar with.

Two weeks later, the cut that had lingered for three years was completely healed.

He told the nurse at work.

Sulfa drugs weren’t available in the US yet, but somehow (family lore says another relative visited, with several extra suitcases beyond what would be necessary for clothes), the machine shop nurse got ahold of enough sulfa drugs to treat all the machinists who worked there.

But in doing so, the nurse - the only woman employed at the shop, by the way - basically put herself out of a job.

Not right away, for sure. She had some part time assistants who helped with the pre-shift bandaging, who were let go first.

Then the war hit, and sulfa drugs from Germany were no longer an option. It was a while before antibiotics were available to US consumers.

But the writing was on the wall.

And you have to imagine that there were thousands (tens of thousands? more?) people in similar roles in hospitals, schools, and workplaces all over the world whose jobs were “disrupted” by antibiotics.

Overall, in the long view, was this disruption worth it to get antibiotics?


Does that mean the disruption was inconsequential?

_Absolutely not._

Women - even when skilled, like nurses - had a really hard time finding reliable work during that time period. A working woman was often a widow with children and few other means of support.

Maybe for that nurse, that job had been a lifeline for her family - reliable income, predictable hours, safe, and inside.

Disrupting that is a real hardship, and not just for the employee - for her family as well.

Judging from the dismissive tone of my replies, y’all don’t seem to think this matters. Like, she can get another job, right? All those tens of thousands of people can learn to do something else. Right?

Go on & tell that to the kids who won’t eat while she’s out of work.

If your first instinct is to say, “well, they just have be adaptable,” might be an asshole. Just saying.

Because yes, of course, we all have to be adaptable. But adaptation has costs - to real, actual people, and their real, actual lives.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have introduced antibiotics.

I’m not saying they didn’t save lives.

I’m saying that although the positive space is huge, the negative space isn’t empty.

The negative space is NEVER empty.

Look for that negative space in your projects.

Most of us don’t work on antibiotics. But our projects still have negative space, and understanding who’s in there will help you drive adoption.

Maybe it’s an internal tool that will make filing an expense report faster & easier. Who could be in the negative space there?

One possibility is the people in finance, if they have more reports to sift through and enter.

You COULD be an asshole and just tell them to suck it up.

Or, you could realize they’re in the negative space, and seek them out - help them understand, or even collaborate with them & figure out how to make it a win for them too.

Which approach do you think will lead to a more successful rollout? 🤔

We can do this analysis larger-scale, as well. Who is in the negative space of your company? Of Google, or Facebook? Of automated cars? Of the cloud?

Tech is at a very dangerous inflection point right now with respect to regulation.

If we don’t figure out who’s in the negative space, and start to take steps to mitigate it, the government will do that for us.

By the way, I am well aware that “technology” includes things like safety pins, agriculture, & language.

Not a single one of those has an empty negative space.

For more on agriculture, check out this book.

Wheat domesticated us - not the other way around. 

For a contemporary, non-software example, check out this book on the rise of containerized shipping: 

All incorrect.


Judging from my replies, you’d think I was advocating a return to living in caves.🤣

That’s good actually - it means our societal conditioning to focus on the positive, so that we’ll take the hit when it’s our turn, is strong.

As technologists, we NEED that to be strong.

But as technologists, we also need to see past it, and peer into it, and examine it with a critical eye.

If you can’t do that, you don’t belong in tech.

If we don’t, the government will


That might be better, actually, come to think of it - considering how many people in our industry seem to think like this.

They do have one good point, though, which is that our incentives are generally not aligned with thoughtfulness.

But incentives can be changed. They can _always_ be changed.

Fatalistic acceptance of our current incentive structure is shortsighted. Look deeper.

We loudly & proudly claim credit for the positive effects of our work. But apparently...we shouldn’t claim the negative effects?

(This is wrong. We need to fully claim the breadth of our work.)

Having something in the negative space doesn’t invalidate our work - quite the opposite! You cannot have creation without destruction.

If the negative space is empty, so is the positive space.

This is a principle so deeply embedded in our universe that it surfaces in disciplines as far-flung as physics, religion, and art.

You’re gonna tell me it doesn’t apply to software?

A beautiful, and perfect, illustration.

SO MANY people have suggested writing that I’m going to recommend another book.😅

Deals directly with the transition to writing, the resulting loss of oral tradition, & shifts in the laboring class as professional “rememberers” etc. were no longer needed. 

Prints & Visual Communication also, separately, contains the greatest cautionary tale for software developers that I’ve ever heard.

I swear I will one day work it into a talk. (I’ve tried several times, but it never quite fit 😬)

Software engineers today are basically exactly where engravers were - right before photography showed up.

Engravers had location independence - could move anywhere and find a job. They were highly paid, and essential to the success of the biggest information dispersal technology of the time (the printing press).

Engravers tended to identify with one of a handful of different styles of engraving. People doing one style often looked down on people who did other styles.

There was a whole secondary industry teaching the different styles of engraving, which was very personality-driven.

I don’t know about you but all of that sounds verrrrrrry familiar

Then photography showed up. It was disparaged by engravers as a toy. They were sure that creating images for print would ALWAYS need human intelligence.

Aaaaaaand then inside a single generation, engravers were relegated to wedding invitations.

So if you don’t care about nurses put out of work by antibiotics, or rememberers put out of work by writing, maybe you’ll care about the engravers put out of work by photography.

Because they’re us.

And our photography is almost certainly already here.

24 hours since this got started and dudes are still trying to find the gotcha answer, the ONE TECHNOLOGY that’s all upside and no downside, and then demanding explanations when I tell them their random-ass guesses are wrong 🙄

It’s really not that hard to figure it out yourself:

1. Think about what happened before the technology arrived
2. Think about what happened after
3. Look for the negative space. Ask yourself: what _stopped_ happening? Whose service is _no longer_ needed?

If you get stuck on step 3, 99% of the time it’s because of gaps in your knowledge of history. Go do some reading & try again.

Wikipedia is usually too surface level, but is often a good place to find links to more substantive analyses.

You can follow @sarahmei.


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