What literary fiction has to tell us about the IT industry

leo_tolstoy.jpgIt’s taken the better part of eight months, but I’ve finally finished reading War and Peace. Given that a new translation came out during that period, sparking yet another round of critical assessment, there’s not much left to say about the book. Except that every IT manager could benefit from perusing its approximately 1,400 pages.

This conclusion came to me following an interview I did recently with Peter Ryan, a doctoral candidate in the York/Ryerson Universities Joint Programme in Communication and Culture, and an instructor in Ryerson University’s Department of Politics and Public Administration. In this case, I was the one being interviewed, as part of a doctoral thesis Ryan is pursuing that explores whether literary fiction affects IT research and development. So far, he’s talked with 10 authors (including Greg Bear, Cory Doctorow, and Robert J. Sawyer) and 10 IT industry execs (including Sun CTO Hal Stern and Google’s Mark Donnor). He hopes his work might inspire a change in mind set among those who help fund the study of great writing.

“Governments have tossed money into think tanks,” he says, “but people see literature as entertainment.”

I didn’t expect Ryan’s questions to stump me, but when he asked for specific books that may have influenced technology R&D, I struggled. My first thought was I, Robot, the collection of stories by the late Isaac Asimov. In them he coined the three “Laws of Robotics” which govern how the non-human characters interact with their masters. This, I suggested, was not unlike the policy and rules-driven processes that are being automated by IT managers in enterprises today, and reflects a similar kind of thinking. But that seemed too easy.

As Ryan suggested, people have been exploring the link between science fiction and IT for years, principally on sites like Technovelgy. William Gibson’s Neuromancer, for example, has often been cited as a precursor to our Web-driven world. “People read that book and said, ‘I can make that,’” Ryan says, adding that he interviewed all kinds of authors. “The sci-fi community came out in full force. The more literary authors didn’t want to be branded.”

But then I’m reminded of a favourite quote by Joan Didion, who opened up her famous essay “The White Album” with the line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Storytelling – especially that captured in much of the literature of the past 200 years – informs our ideas of what’s right and wrong, how we should act, and what we value within our communities. Surely that has to have an impact on the kind of thinking that goes on in the minds of IT managers, whether they realize it consciously or not.

War and Peace is a great example. Its battleground scenes are full of real-time decision making, allocation of resources and making the most of the information you can manage. Its main storylines are even more important, dealing with the complexities of relationships between parents and children, lovers and friends. When we talk about the need to teach IT professionals soft skills, Leo Tolstoy may have written the perfect textbook.

I’m not sure what Ryan’s project will prove, but if nothing else I hope it starts a conversation that may not have happened otherwise. Which, of course, is exactly what the best fiction does, too.

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