There is currently a lot of noise surrounding a death cult in the Middle-East: the Islam-based Daesh/ISIL/ISIS/IS/what have you. A lot of press column inches have been devoted to analyzing it, analyzing its destructive potential, and analyzing various ways to combat it.  What is agreed is that Daesh is a “threat to civilization”.

And, to be fair, it is.

But there is a far larger cultish threat to “civilization” (“scare quotes” for reasons left to another rant) that is everywhere, not just a small part of the world in the middle east. You can see evidence of this cult everywhere around you. Open a magazine or newspaper (if you can find these any longer—we call this “foreshadowing” in the trade). Turn on your television. Hit the Internet. Everywhere you look or turn you will find this dangerous cult gazing back at you, judging your worth, and, likely as not, finding you lacking.

You find it in some places far more than others. For example in my former career in software this cult is near peak concentration levels. (Only the maths as a discipline are more imbued with this cult’s essence.) You’ll find it in the fashion and entertainment industries at nearly toxic levels as well. For the cult in question is the cult of youth and its attendant cultural altar: newness.

It's Just a Temp  VFILES Shop - YouTube - Google Chrome 2016-02-014Wherever you look and turn you will see youth and the new held up as the ideal of the world. Young models gaze at you from the thighs of magazines … or they would were it not for the fact that magazines are old (and thus worthless). Instead they gaze at you from the cold, baleful glare of your computer monitor. No, wait. Sorry. That’s old now too. Your phone. The cold, baleful glare of your phone. These young models, nine times out of ten, are using their alluring youth to sell you on the latest new thing: the new phone you need to replace the one you’re using to look a them, for example, because the phone you’re using is a year old. Implied in the sales pitch is that the young person is representative of all that is good and is thus the right person to pitch the new thing that makes your old one (and old life, or even you the old person) a piece of worthless shit.

In the software world the cult of youth is so ingrained that if you’re primarily a coder at age 25 you’re hip and smart. If you’re primarily a coder at age 35 you’re a bit weird. If you’re primarily a coder at age 45 you’re a loser. If you’re primarily a coder at age 55 … well you won’t be. Because nobody will hire you. If you want to work with software past the age of about 40 you’d better get yourself into a management track and become a “manager who codes” because only losers want to remain programmers. And besides, old people who program are worthless. Their skills are “out of date”. They’re “dinosaurs”.

Yet, here I am at nearly 50. I’m half a century old now, and I’m a programmer. (Not by trade any longer, but still by habit and by hobby.) And I know more about modern software and how to make software that works than 99.44% of the hip, “smart” 25 year old code monkeys that look down on me for my “outdated” skills. Not only that, because I’ve lived through the mistakes of the past 35 years of software, I know something far more important than the latest hip language or framework: I know what doesn’t work and, above all, why it doesn’t work.

This is why I know that so-called “NoSQL databases” are a dead end. I used NoSQL databases—professionally—long before a lot of NoSQL advocates were even born. What these young people don’t realize is that we moved away from K/V stores and document stores and whatnot because they don’t work for anything more than trivial cases. We invented SQL databases because the older tech wasn’t working. Going back to K/V stores, document stores, hierarchical databases, etc. is a regression caused by a bunch of people with no sense of history (and an utter contempt for those who have it) unknowingly embracing a past that we rightly rejected as unworkable. Add to this the latest hotness in web programming: Node.js—a “reactor” technology that we “invented” in the ’50s … and the ’70s and the ’90s, only to drop it again and again because it’s terrible, only to have it pick up again in the ’10s because, well, cult of youth. And a million other mistakes that have been repeated again and again and again. Mistakes that just one seasoned veteran with a voice that is listened to could have prevented in a heartbeat.

I’m serious when I call this a threat to civilization. Civilization (or, more properly, culture) is founded upon a basis of learning from the past. In real civilization we look at what was done in the past. We keep the parts that work. We replace the parts that don’t work with things that are better. The ever-increasing cult of youth, however, undermines this because it scorns, ignores, and eventually obliterates the past. This dooms us to repeating each and every one of the past’s errors again and again as some bright spark has an idea that is uninformed by experience.

Some of you are already nodding your heads in agreement. You don’t need to read the rest of this rant unless you want to be depressed. Those of you, however, who arrogantly assume the past has nothing to teach us—that people of the past were ignorant and incapable—you need to read on. Because I’m going to tell you a little story about the past; one that will shame you if you have any sense in your head whatsoever.

I’m going to tell you the story of the Dujiangyan irrigation system, you see.

Almost 2300 years ago (!) the State of Qin had a problem. The Min River (then believed to be the source of the Yangtze; I’m not saying that the ancients had everything right!) was a real handful. It frequently (almost annually) flooded, spilling over its banks, causing hardship and misery. More importantly (to the egomaniacal leadership) this hurt the State of Qin’s ability to wage war, seeing as it was destroying agricultural land and wasting resources rebuilding. Legend has it that one governor Li Bing was tasked with solving this problem. He investigated and found the problem was spring meltwater interacted badly with the slow-moving silted water downstream. Sadly the obvious fix (a dam) was unavailable to him because one constraint on his solution was he couldn’t block the river. The river was needed to transport troops and military supplies (and, of course, trade in general) after all.

His solution was breathtaking in its scope and audacity.

It came in three pieces:

  1. A levee to redirect excess water away from the irrigated fields during times of high river flow.
  2. A weir that mixed up and desilted the water as it flowed into the discharge.
  3. A 20m wide channel that was cut through Yuleishan—through solid rock—to redirect the flood discharge into the Chengdu plains.

Any one of these three constructions would be a tour de force of modern engineering effort. Given the primitive tools available at the time they are miraculous! The levee was built of bamboo, rocks, and wood. The weir was built of bamboo baskets. And the 20m wide channel was carved through solid rock without gunpowder! (This predated the invention of gunpowder by quite a large margin.)

Today we would find carving a channel like that through solid rock “economically unfeasible” even with modern techniques and equipment. Back then they carved that channel by heating a section of rock with massive bonfires, then pouring lots of cooling water on it to crack the rock, then using manual labor to clear out a layer. Lather, rinse, repeat.  For eight years.

The result of the ancient technological wonder was almost immediate. The irrigated fields along the Min River were protected from flood, thus giving the State of Qin, for the first time in its history, a surplus of foodstuffs and supplies it could store. Even more importantly (although likely unforeseen at the time), the silted discharges of the excess flows into the Chengdu plains turned said plains into some of the most verdant farmland in China (something that remains true to this day). More surplus for trade (and, naturally, war)! The State of Qin had a population boom and an attendant wealth boom that made it the dominant power of its time and led, inexorably, to the nation of China as we know it today.

And now for the real shocker: remember how I said that doing this would be “economically unfeasible” today?  If you amortize the (enormous!) cost of this project over 2300 years, it’s actually one of the cheapest engineering projects in history. Because we can amortize that cost, you see. The system is still in use to this very day.

(Another shocker: as much of a tour de force as this irrigation system was, it’s only one of three stunning accomplishments of the State of Qin in roughly the same time frame. Man those ancients were stupid and ignorant!  Just like old people today!)

2300 years ago the Chinese made an engineering project we could not duplicate today that is still in active use. Sure pieces of it have been rebuilt and replaced with better and more modern techniques since then. (For example the weir is now concrete.) But the major piece of it that ties it all together, the channel through Yuleishan, is basically the same now as it was when it was first made 2300 years ago and 100% of the original design is still in use without alteration. Only components have been modernized.

Can you name any piece of “modern” engineering that will be around in 2300 years and still in active use?  (Hint: no.)

This is an (admittedly extreme) example of what those “old folk” can teach us still even today. For many centuries we looked to these “old folk” for ideas and inspiration. We then even often replicated or improved upon these ideas. But then something happened along the way. Being old-fashioned fell out of fashion. Anything old became suspect. Only the new mattered. This accelerated over time to the point that as a culture we are beginning to lose any sense of history. I don’t even mean history 2300 years old like my illustrative example. I mean history like “we knew 20 years ago that databases were badly made and invented SQL because of this”. (Note, incidentally, that I’m not saying SQL is perfect and can’t be improved upon. I’m saying that K/V stores, document stores, hierarchical databases, and their ilk are not the improvement we need.)

This cult of youth infects almost every aspect of society today. Old people are openly disrespected (or at least condescended to) with the definition of “old” reducing every decade. The opinions of old people are disregarded. When we say a technology is bad, for example, we’re not given credit for, perhaps, having grounds for this. No, we’re “afraid of change” and “behind the times”. (This is quite ironic coming from software developers, for example, who largely worship technology that was invented in the ’70s and run away screaming from actual modern technology that I use daily…) History is carelessly discarded (and even erased) as being “irrelevant” and “outdated”.

And we’re only now beginning to pay the tab for this.

—Michael Richter