On the futility of understanding
Is true understanding actually possible? I use my fingers to tap out keys on a keyboard and the light from your screen hits our eyeballs, but is it reasonable to think that there is any correspondence between the patterns in my brain and the patterns that were just created in your brain? Or are we just lucky if we have the same thoughts?
I used to think that if I just used the right words and asked the right questions and if only those I spoke with responded with the right words, then I would really understand what I needed to know. In software development projects I thought I would understand “the Requirements” (insert chorus of angels here). Either, the futility of understanding har recently dawned on me, or mind brain recently got out of focus (which is not unlikely: after my second child was born, my sleep deprivation is way up and my level of intellectual stimuli is down).
In short: I just realized I don’t really understand what others are saying to me. But maybe that’s okay. I’ve given up on understanding, but I don’t let it stop me. When my users tell me what they need, I listen, but I probably don’t really understand. I ask some questions and I get some answers, but not really answers to what I had in mind when I asked the question. So I retreat to my computer. Think a little. Sleep on it. Then I make something I can show my users without spending too much time. I see in their faces that they like it. Or don’t like it (which, to be honest, happens more often). I think some more. I create something different. In the end, I think my users are happier and more productive.
Would the process be improved by a Business Analyst on the project? I don’t know. I probably would understand the Business Analyst either. I would have someone to blame when I got it wrong. But would I get fewer things wrong?
Would it be better if someone had sat down and written a “Requirement Specification” (again: choir of angels)? I don’t think so. I usually feel even more lost when I read a spec than when I talk to “confused” users. (Disclaimer: The users are not really confused – they just seem that way from my point of view)
Perhaps we all really are walking with a blindfold in this world and we are just feeling our way around in the dark. The blindfold is not coming off any time soon. Perhaps it’s just as well we learned to live with it.
PS: If you didn’t understand the point of this blog post: That’s my point!
PPS: This seems like a philosophical position that someone must have thought a lot about before. I’d call it epistemological fatalism. I’d love to get tips to prior ideas in the comments.