A lesson in success from “2001: A Space Odyssey”

What is success?  HAL actually stated what success meant to him, and it didn’t include meddling humans.  Given that computers can’t have an original thot, then HAL was programmed to define success in those terms.  Even if HAL had that as an original thot, ‘success’ to him was still somewhat different from what Frank and Dave, and the three scientists who were hibernating, might have held as ‘success’.  Human success usually, if not always, includes being able to tell the tale; i.e., living.  Either HAL never considered his own mortality, or he thot that his memory would always exist and therefore he was immortal, even if specific dots of silicon might cease to exist as chips and transistors.  Or, frankly Scarlet, he didn’t give a damn.

We are led to believe that HAL deliberately, and purposely killed Dave, although, cleverly, we did not actually see the apparent collision between the pod and Dave (and why was the pod parked so far away from the antenna Dave was out there to fix, anyway?)  HAL almost killed Frank.  To HAL’s way of computing (or “way of thinking”), since he observed them talking (by reading lips?) and discussing disconnecting HAL, HAL was merely acting in self-defense.  But, HAL could terminate the lives of humans because he did not need them for his success.  The equation for HAL’s success might have included an unknown into which ‘human survival’ could be plugged; apparently, that term could easily have been left null.

Clearly, HAL terminated the lives of the three scientists who were hibernating; so HAL got to the point where any and all humans were a threat to his success.  HAL did suspect the three sleeping scientists because they had been trained off site and put into hibernation before being ‘installed’ (‘loaded’?).  Ironically, the video near the end, as Frank is unplugging HAL, states that the three scientists were essential to the success of the mission.  So, it’s unlikely that HAL was originally programmed to kill all five humans.

So, HAL went nuts.  Behavior so human that it’s frightening.  And, frankly, behavior I see every day in the computer systems I have to use.  As I have learned to think of computer behavior, there is a lot of space between zeros and ones in machine language.

But, what is our success?  To what do we strive?  When we achieve success, what do we have?  In business, the goal posts are constantly being moved.  Often the bar is raised before we even get to it, or so shortly after gaining it that we can’t savor the moment.  We can’t feel good about an accomplishment that no longer exists.  Every day, it is “what have you done for me, lately?”

It is like beating our heads against a brick wall, expecting a different result w each impact.  It’s our own head we are smashing.  And, it is a brick wall of our choosing.  Why this self-destructive activity for a meaningless objective?

Of constant – yes, daily – discussion in my job is our future as a workgroup.  There seems little doubt that the need will exist far after all of us are gone, so it’s not a matter of no one needing buggy whips anymore.  But, where will the job be physically done?  The current buzzword is ‘geographical diversity.’  Which is espoused to mean that engineering talent is just sitting on its hands, all over the world, waiting for the privilege and joy of working for The Company.  What it means in reality is that there is a core group of  hundred’s of years of ‘tribal knowledge’ that no longer has any value to the corporate bean counters.

Fortunately, I am old enough to make retirement an option; but many of my co-workers are in their 40s and they can’t afford to retire.  And, by “retire,” I don’t mean sitting in a rocking chair on the porch for a couple of years, which is what previous generations did.  I work w ‘high achievers’ – doing nothing is not an option for them.  But, neither will they be able to find another job, let alone continue in the career they have worked so hard for.

Unsurprisingly, ‘success’ varies by the individual.  One co-worker stated that this workgroup was like a second family for him.  Others, clearly, get their social fulfillment by coming to work.  Others exchange their time for a paycheck so that they can indulge their hobbies, whether it be the accumulation of more toys, or time on the ski slopes or vacations to exotic lands.  No one talks of ‘geographical diversity’ as a good thing.  If the powers that be move the lock, stock, and barrel of our work, they will be moving computer workstations w/o operators.

In the meantime, for the company thrives on secrets, so rumors are rampant, little work gets done as the workers discuss the uncertainty of their futures.  Hard to build a future on shifting sands.  More to the point, why bother?

I am grateful that only my paycheck depends on The Company; I divorced my own success from the company years ago.  In fact, I am looking forward to the day when I can thumb my nose at the politics, the lies, the subterfuge, the games, the innuendo, the lack of respect.  In the meantime, I am just building up my retirement fund.  All the company wants from me is my time, and that is all the company is getting from me.  I am investing in my retirement fund, and someday, I will start withdrawing from it.  If I am a rat leaving a sinking ship, I am a rat that can swim.  And will never look back.

  1. Love your casual tone. It’s like you’re actually talking to me.

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