I’m sure you’ve all come across the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Whilst it’s easy to remember or glibly repeat, it’s also easy to forget or ignore the serious message being delivered by those words. To me, the meaning is legion; something as close and personal as my parent’s care (well, of one at least) and something as remote as the invention of electricity and much more before and since that time. Without the creation of the UK’s NHS by Aneurin (aka Nye) Bevan of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party almost 70 years ago perhaps I wouldn’t be here? Perhaps I would? It’s impossible to know, but entirely possible to imagine one or both of my parents dying or suffering from a disease likely unfamiliar to today’s population, or their parents suffering in a way that made their union impossible.
Now a parent myself, I often walk through our house in darkness late at night or in the early hours (as I’m usually last to bed and the first up). I recall younger years as a child breakfasting before a paper round in the very early hours and the power cuts of the 70’s. Shocking (and exciting) even then, despite the only loss of daily utility being a television and electric fire. I imagine the same now, my younger children distraught and confused by the loss of WiFi at home, 4G outdoors and internet access in general. Not that they know the difference between one or the other. A decent view of the stars at night probably won’t compensate for it. Most likely we’re in an age where a certain generation would mourn the loss of Facebook or Youtube and be entirely unaware of the infrastructure and systems that they rely upon.
Most people, because we’re (pardon the pun) wired that way, think they know all about it. One of many flaws in how the brain works and even today, perhaps a necessary self (and collective) delusion that keeps us all going, like the belief money has value or that leaders reflect the views of those who elected them. These things are entirely false but we choose to believe them, or rather trust in them, because to not do so might fatally wound the ego, might reveal a world we do not wish to live in or a life that cannot be lived*. We are fully aware of our flaws and biases and there is plenty of science or even entertaining books such as “The Invisible Gorilla” that describe them in detail. None of that helps us overcome (or at least adjust for) them unless we wish to, which we mostly don’t. I know how a toilet works buddy, until you ask me *exactly* how.
Every moment of our lives, awake or asleep, relies upon the work and advances of others, the inventiveness, toil and sacrifice of every previous generation. It would be no good my toilet flushing if there wasn’t a pipe leading to a sewer system that took the waste away from my house. What good would OSPF be if TCP/IP didn’t exist? Or Ethernet, or the capacitors on your router’s motherboard. Would Facebook exist if MySQL and Apache hadn’t? It’s easy to forget the path that led to today and the things that underpin our very lives.
It’s easy to dismiss or simply ignore the efforts of others overwhelmingly long dead, that allow us to live the lives we lead today in the way we do. You couldn’t possibly be this awesome if you worked in a coal mine, or write code without electricity. We’re privileged to stand on the shoulders of giants, as they were to do the same. It perhaps dents the ego to consider all of this, but consider it, be grateful for and be aware of it we should, often.
Equally, as much as we may enjoy those privileges, our jobs (hopefully), get excited by technology, find the new shiny exciting or simply take pleasure in a challenge we should remember why we’re really doing this and why those that came before did what they did. To provide for ourselves and our families and hopefully live long, healthy, happy and fulfilling lives which allow others to do the same.
*The impact of that trust being violated or disintegrating can be considerable. A run on a bank is a good example.