Lack of wealth through lack of empathy

March 13th, 2010

A few days ago a coworker stepped into the room of our Integration Manager, with his iPhone in his hand and his face glowing with happiness, telling he has this great new game on his phone. He asked for a permission to take a picture of the Integration Manager, and did so to the sound of dramatic, though somewhat repetitive, music. He then marked the areas around the eyes and the mouth of his subject.

Then the game started. The guy pressed some buttons, delivering virtual blows to the photographed subject, who couldn't really fight back according to the rules of the "game". The face on the photograph got covered with blood and wounds (especially the eyes and the mouth), and the speaker yelled out something designed to convey pain. And the guy stood there and kept punching and laughed his ass off.

Then he talked about how iPhone was this great thing and how iPhone app developers got rich. And I told him in a grim voice to go ahead and get rich off iPhone apps and he sensed disrespect, to him or to the iPhone or both. But mainly it wasn't disrespect, it was desperation. I told him to go ahead and do these apps because he probably can, and I certainly can't, so I have no choice but leave all this wealth for him to collect.

Take this punching app. Where do I fit in?

For instance, I know enough computer vision to eliminate the need to manually select the eyes and the mouth. You find the eyes using circular Hough transform, and then you get a good idea where to look for the mouth and then it can't be too hard. How much value would this automation add? The happy user I observed didn't seem bothered by the need to select, worse, I suspect having to do it made him happier – this way he actually worked to deliver his punches.

And then what I couldn't do, and I couldn't do this for the life of me, is to invent this app in the first place. It's just something that I don't think I'll ever understand, something worse than, I dunno, partial differential equations which you can keep digging into, something more like the ability to distinguish between colors, which is either there or not.

Could someone PLEASE explain just how can such a profoundly idiotic activity yield any positive emotions in a human soul?

Perhaps it's because our Integration Manager is a bodybuilder, with bulging biceps and protein milkshakes and stuff, so there's no other way to beat him up for that guy? Well, he could probably beat me up, and he still enjoyed going through the process with me. So this just shows how childish my attempt to dissect the psychology of the phenomenon is – I'm not even close. How could I ever think of something I can't even begin understanding after I've already seen it?

The serious, or should I say sad, side of this is that to develop something valuable to users, you need empathy towards these users, and the way empathy works is through identifying with someone, and so the best chance by far to develop something valuable is to develop something for yourself. But someone like me, who bought his first PC in 2007 and uses a cell phone made in 2004, with no camera, no Internet connection, no nothing, simply can't develop something for himself because he clearly just doesn't need software.

The only chance for a programmer who uses little software except for development tools is to develop development tools. Take Spolsky, for instance – here is a programmer who is, by the programmers' standard, extremely user-aware and user-centric, as evident in his great UI book, among other things, and yet he eventually converged to developing software for programmers, having much less success with end-user products.

The trouble with development tools is that the market is of course saturated, with so many developers with otherwise entrepreneurial mindsets being limited by their lack of empathy to this narrow segment of software. This is why so many programs for programmers have the price of zero – not because copying software has a cost near zero; developing software has a cost far from zero so there aren't that many free face punching apps, but with software for developers, there's unusually fierce empathy-driven competition.

So every time I see an inexplicably moronic hit app, I sink into sad reflections about my destiny of forever developing for developers, being unable to produce what I can't consume and watching those with deeper understanding of the human nature reaping all the benefits of modern distribution channels.

P.S. To the fellow programmer who, as it turns out, uses FarmVille – you broke my heart.

1. Barry KellyMar 13, 2010

Potential solution: arbitrage of density of inanity.

As you say, tools for programmers are cheap because of too much supply from programmers developing for people like them. The corollary is that software for non-programmers is underserved. You say that it's the core concept that you'd find hard to think anew for the first time, but the thing is, you don't need to be first ever. You can be first in a different market (e.g. Android vs iPhone, or Europe vs US, or New York vs San Francisco), as well as better and more polished. After that, it's a matter of marketing.

2. Yossi KreininMar 13, 2010

To make a better and more polished punching app, I'd have to understand what "better" means in this context – the way to make it "better" to me is to delete it, the way I think I could "improve" it (automatic detection of facial features) doesn't necessarily make the user happier.

I'll concede that it's not impossible to make something you'd never use well, but it's so much easier to make something you would use well that I wouldn't be able to compete with anyone who'd give it a try, so I'd have to be extremely lucky with timing or something to make it.

The other problem is that if I spend time working on a compiler or a processor or a build system and I fail, well, I failed but I was working on a compiler or a processor or a build system, but if I spend time working on something which seems useless and I fail, I've just spent time working on something useless, and I failed. So the risk is much higher.

3. Vladimir LevinMar 13, 2010

It's sad there are so many idiotic apps out there that people use, and are willing to pay for – Farmville, this punching app, etc. I am surprised this app is actually available from the Apple store – or is it one of those apps for liberated phones?

I think there are lots of neat apps out there waiting to be made that are not a waste of time though. For example, a friend of mine recently bought an app for $8 that's a huge catalog of birds. I asked her if you could take a picture of a bird and have the app recognize it for you. The answer was "no." But wouldn't that be amazing? I am sure someone will do this, eventually, and I can certainly see that as being both fairly successful and extremely cool.

4. AntiguruMar 13, 2010

Well, there's six billion and counting people on the planet. Usually that idea scares me but it's almost impossible not to succeed at something if you just make something that appeals to yourself. Maybe make a kafkaesque transformation game?

As for dev tools you'd be surprised. Sure, there are a million of the most basic things like text editors, but I've made some tools to put very large companies to shame for more complicated/specialized stuff. But of course then you need to have more specialized knowledge too, but I got run off of a big website for defending the idea of making your own data structures and algorithms.... That is the competition by and large. People for whom anything that takes more than downloading an API and plugging it in is simply outside the realm of imagination.

If you do something, anything, you will succeed. Even if it's just to make some open source API, then you can write books about it and contract out fixing problems with your own API. There is a lot of money even in 'free' software. I'd rather be the computer vision API guy than the face punch guy, there's always stupid things to succeed in. If that's really what you wanted I'm sure you could have been a lawyer or insurance guy instead of programmer.

5. DanMar 13, 2010

I work with a co-founder who is great a talking with users and selling people on our software. I make the software. It's a good division of work. I put in more hours, but since I love writing code and since we're each making a small fortune, I don't mind...

6. Tim SmithMar 13, 2010

Yossi, thanks for putting in writing what I had long felt as a developer of mobile games back in the mid-2000s. At the time I was struck by the fact that while I myself would never spend $5 on a mobile game, those who did were providing my livelyhood. I had the advantage of working for large publishing houses that were able to "motivate" me despite my lack of empathy for the end-user.

I think this can be described as an inverse-Hamlet problem: as 99% of the population cannot empathize with the most intelligent 1%, many times the inverse is also true; and empathy with the user (through understanding their "pain") is the key to creating value.

7. EntityMar 13, 2010


You need to turn your Intrinsic motivation factor of writing software and convert it to Extrinsic motivation factor. You will soon find out that the guy your working for may in-fact be taking home a bigger portion of the pie than you. (What I'm saying, don't allow your love for programming blind you)

Food for thought, I've allways disagreed with doing what you love. I think if you love what you do and you work and make a living off it, then your complicating matters. You get caught up in internal debate about justification of the hours that you do. Is it for the money or you love doing what you do? But if you sat down and put a extrinsic value on what you do, you will find that there are other rewarding professions that still allow you to keep doing what you love.

To the article.
It has amazed me about the west is that its been so decensertised to violence on television and entertainment medium its just taken as granted today without much thought. For example your inital reaction to the punching application, your first thought goes out to the person who is getting punched in the face and secondly to the person who recieve enjoyment to inflict virtual pain on somebody else.

I forgot the term of this in phsycology, but its close to diffusion of responsibility. That because hes pushing a glass screen and visual seeing the effects of his action, and receiving enjoyment out of it he does not feel responsible for his actions. Although, I've always kept my distance from people who get enjoyment out of these kind of things. Granted he may be a very polite person in real life, my main concern is the moral,social bindings where to be removed by say alcohol or substance abuse will lead to such a person lashing out.

From person experience I've seen this happen not directly to me but to several close people I know. So I've tended to stay clear of such people who do enjoy inflicting pain on entity's, it being a computer game or visual medium.

8. Yossi KreininMar 13, 2010

@Vladimir Levin: detecting the kind of bird on a photo is astonishingly hard. 100 man-years kind of hard.

@Antilamer: I'm in it strictly for the money, though I'll concede that I, um, learned to relax and enjoy it as a vulgar Russian joke goes, and I'll also concede, as I did above, that the worthlessness and/or idiocy of a project greatly increases the risk of failure as I perceive it.

@Dan: Good times.

@Tim Smith: I started working on automotive safety apps long before getting a driver's license, but I wasn't doing user-visible stuff. I guess I could be reasonably happy to work on the backbone of a punching app, in a universe where it needed any "backbone" to speak of.

@Entity: regarding people's enjoyment in inflicting pain upon virtual, um, entities – I won't go down the path of elaborating on the psychology of that; never was that good at psychoanalysis and deep suppressed desires and stuff. Regarding "the west" – by far the most humane civilization to ever inhabit the planet, I find.

9. Vladimir LevinMar 14, 2010

I do wonder if something could be done vis. the bird recog thing. I can think of some short cuts – like using the iPhones gps to eliminate possibilities based on location, then showing the user several candidates as possibilities and letting them choose. Maybe even letting the user take several snapshots and combine them for the search... I don't know if such tricks would help though or if you just need to hire a 100 programmers to work on it for a year :D

10. IlyakMar 14, 2010

Lack of empathy is not a problem. rather a symptom.

The problem is striking unsmartness and undecentness (Π½Π΅ΠΈΠ½Ρ‚Π΅Π»Π»ΠΈΠ³Π΅Π½Ρ‚Π½ΠΎΡΡ‚ΡŒ, you know) of people. It's not that any person is undecent, but once you gather a lot of people their common denominator (what would they do, like or say) is awful.
Even mass culture, which used to be stupid but respecting smartness, became actively harmful, for every second you experience it, it rots your brain by some amount.

Once you solve that you'd have your empathy back.
Just make people:
1) Understand who is smart and who is not, and only care about the first ones.
2) Actively try to become better themself.

People used to be like that when they headed from countryside into city, but they're no longer.

11. Michael MoserMar 14, 2010

Empathy was a big theme of the great 19th century Russian literature.
- in many instances that was armchair empathy, but sometimes not, as somewhere the real thing has to be out there.

This conflict was eating Mr. Tolstoy in the end, Gogol was the real thing, but he went nuts.

The problem here is that software is really an armchair world par exellence – its not quite real in the end; its a simulation.
So showing empathy with real persons by means of a simulation – wow, that sounds like the stuff that literary conflicts are made of.

12. Michael MoserMar 14, 2010
that's what I mean.

13. gus3Mar 14, 2010

Empathy for whom?

In the end, the primary empathy that matters is empathy for yourself. When the work day is done, when the job is done, are you proud of it?

Last week, I did a pro bono consultation over the phone for someone who was having trouble activating both cores on his laptop. I was able to trace the problem to a Windows-only DSDT, one that the laptop's BIOS devs weren't likely to fix. But at least I was able to find the source of the problem, even if I couldn't fix it. And I was very pleased with myself that I still have the chops for tech support. That was the only real payback I got: a spring in my step for the rest of the day.

If you're not proud of your work, even after you get your paycheck, you need to find other work. And maybe the face-punching app's author is proud of that. Who knows?

I doubt I would go back to computer tech support full-time. The cobbler's kids are the last to get new shoes, and the IT professional's home system gets poor administration.

14. Yossi KreininMar 14, 2010

@Ilyak: my opinion of the population is much higher than yours.

@Michael Moser: erm, I'm not a big fan of Russian literature and especially everything in it having to do with the authors' concern for mankind. I think the prerogative of authors is to be concerned with entertainment.

@gus3: "pride" is very multidimensional and depends on one's worldview and emotional habits. One could develop a habit of being proud of almost anything.

15. StimpyMar 15, 2010

You sound like a pussy.

16. k5.userMar 16, 2010

I find it funny and ironic that you reference Joel, who would (based on his own posts) never hire you, because you aren't "enthusiastic" enough (as shown in this post).

17. Mr.MustardMar 19, 2010

I would never hire Joel. He's a little too enthusiastic, I think.

Anyway, a good game is just an interesting action (or collection thereof) with some gold plating. It's supposed to be the inverse of work. Ideally we would work less to get more tangible results but we play to get practically nothing in turn, and more play is better. So while it might be logical to automate something, that thing might be fun to do in itself. Imagine a fully automated FarmVille – something rather like an aquarium. Aquariums aren't inherently fun. What's interesting about aquariums is the care of and interaction with its inhabitants.

Ya dig?

18. Yossi KreininMar 19, 2010

I do prefer looking at someone else's aquarium to running my own, similarly for other people's cats and dogs – more to the point, there exist FarmVille bots, at least it's a popular search query according to Google's auto-completion. Of course the bots are (probably) there to give the humans a competitive edge over fellow humans – but here again is something I don't quite understand, nor do I understand Quake aim bots and the like: winning a game is supposed to be fun because it's an achievement, and if you cheat, you effectively cheat yourself out of an opportunity at an achievement (similarly to the way your opponent cheats you out of it if he plays a weak game to "let you win" – now you can't really win no matter what you do); the ability to enjoy a group's respect for an achievement one didn't really achieve is something I find hard time identifying with.

I ain't diggin'.

19. Amir BarakMar 22, 2010

Empathy in a bowl of soup...

Where does the punching app author fit in with your world? does he have to?

Do you really want to write anything other than what you do?

I don't know why applications like this are fun or good or even profitable, I know I'd never buy/write something like that, although I do want to write a Game [as in a complex interactive software with narrative and emotive functionality] because it's something I've always been interested in.

There are alot of idiots in the world [I had a few as teachers unfortunetly] and I suspect most of them probably have an iPhone as well and much more money than I would ever see... I'm not sure where I was going with that... And now I'm depressed too...

20. AllanLane5Sep 30, 2011

Brilliant insight. The other problem is that people who HAVE the empathy to appreciate a "punching" app probably don't have the skill to create it.

So you have empathy, just the wrong kind to make a fortune with a punching app. Sorry about that.

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