computing in a frictionless sphere

So I’m drinking my second cup of coffee and reading Twitter, as one does, and I wander into a thread on the morality of the death penalty. Not very far, just far enough to see some “teacher” qualities and some “Christian” qualities (go algorithms!)

and to notice someone asking the original poster whether they think the death penalty is absolutely immoral.

My face curdles. The OP says something like “no, but in our current climate practically speaking….” I sigh, close the bird-app, and think: This is why I want to work in Practical Theology and not the other kind. I do not care about “absolutely” anything, where “absolute” means “outside other considerations.” I do not agree that there is a ‘frictionless sphere.’ Of ethics, of theology, of anything.


So, right, ‘frictionless sphere’ is a physics shorthand for the place/situation in which a physics equation is at its simplest. That a ball will roll forever in a straight line is a ‘frictionless sphere’ thing — very useful for distilling a key quality (principle) of our world, but not something that happens in our unadjusted physical existence. There are jokes about this, and they crack me up every time.

In a perfect world (see what I did there-!) the frictionless sphere would live inside physics, where it would be lovely and helpful and everyone would agree on its wise use. Where we live, however, is not a perfect world — that much seems to be generally agreed-upon — and I have had much experience across my decades with humans who find it { important? | satisfying? | righteous? } to wield this ‘distill things down to principles’ approach in, well, nearly any arena one finds humans in.

And even that wouldn’t be so bad (merely noisy) if those same humans were not also usually engaged in Proving They Are The Only Correct Ones… that their frictionless sphere is the. perfect. one., and any other suggestion is deluded at best.

When I worked in IT, I worked with many, many humans for whom this was a consuming pasttime.

There was the Perfect Operating System debate. The Most Excellent Platform (i.e., physical computer) debate. On any implementation project — groups of computers, connectedness of networks, whathaveyou — there would be a Single Correct Design throwdown. I was fortunate; in the places I worked, the technicians gave some consideration to the folk who would end up using this design daily.

But there was still a Single Correct Design, a Right Answer, and the preferences of the user-folk might not be the deciding factor.


Unlike the bulk of my colleagues, I came to IT from an English degree with a side-helping of teacher certification.

I did not then (and do not now) believe in the Perfect Operating System. I find them all annoying in different ways… and if an operating system were to stop being annoying, I would worry about the AI singularity. I’m similarly skeptical about the Most Excellent Platform, or the perfect off-the-shelf software (much less any program, no matter how open source).

But then, I didn’t and don’t think of computers the way my colleagues did then (and professional techies do now). They are not my ‘frictionless sphere,’ or even a place where Platonic ideals might occur.

After all, most people don’t have a Platonic ideal of a screwdriver.
One either uses the tool to get the screw into the hole,
or one goes to find a different tool.

Because one’s focus is not on the tool, but on the outcome: is the screw in the hole? Flush?

When I helped figure out computer networks for groups of humans, I was interested in the groups of humans — what do they want to accomplish? What helps them; what hinders them?
My vision of a perfect network design was one where the workers using it Just Did Their Work, and if you asked them about the computer network they would blink… the same way they would blink if you asked them about the carpet. Carpet? What do you mean what color? Do we even have carpet?

Ask them about their work, though, and (I’d hope) they’d answer: Oh yes, that flows right along. I do what I need to do and I’m seldom waiting around. Because in a business environment, that’s the positive outcome: humans doing the things the business has hired them to do.


Perhaps my stint in tech didn’t start me in this direction, but only offered lots of practice in sussing out how to go this way —

Don’t tell me about what ought to be.
Tell me what is (as far as you know it);
tell me where you wish to be (or dream of being);
and then we sit down together and map out ways we might get there

in this specific time, with these specific people, with the tools we can bring to hand.

Who knows? Maybe I can show you a tool you didn’t already know about, one that might make your work — this work you’re doing right now — a little easier.

I promise I won’t hand you a frictionless sphere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.