stonemasonMy grandfather worked most of his life as a stonemason. Much of that time was spent restoring the ruin of a Bishop’s palace in Sherborne. His work is still visible long after his death. The work of the stonemasons who built the palace is still visible after more than 8 centuries. How long after you stop programming is any of your work going to last? If it is a desktop app, I doubt anyone will have a working computer with an OS that can run it in 20 years. If it is a web app it dies the day the hosting bill no longer gets paid. What are you going to show your grandchildren – some screenshots on faded printouts?

Everything is ephemeral over a long enough timescale. In the long run we are all dead, as John Maynard Keynes famously pointed out. But it is slightly depressing how short the timescale is for software. It lives fast,  but it also dies fast. Our work is more like that of an ice sculptor than that of a stonemason. I guess all we can hope for is that the software we spend so much of our life crafting brings us some fulfillment and improves the lives of our customers during it’s brief lifetime.

17 thoughts on “Ephemeral

  1. ottersoftware

    This is something that has troubled me one and off for years. I try to work on software which makes a difference to people’s lives rather than being totally vacuous but even then the impact it might make is still immediate and short-term.

    Maybe my photography hobby will provide me with a longer-lasting legacy. I certainly hope it will be something that gives me daughter something tangible to remember me by, even if it is just a photograph hanging on her wall or in a frame on a shelf.

    1. Andy Brice Post author

      I had a quick look on Source Forge. It looks like there are about half a million projects there. What percentage of them do you think will still be used in 20 years?

  2. stevecholerton

    Open Source … the answer to all the worlds problems. Open Source as a concept is already losing favour among many and will undoubtedly morph into something different. OS has a very rebellious, idealistic stance that is appealing to many of a certain age and disposition. Yes, I too have been there I admit, but in the long run the concept is fundamentally flawed, the Cathedral and the Bazaar (Raymond?) is a work of fiction not a workable plan for the creation of great software.

    1. Andy Brice Post author

      I’m sure there are FORTRAN subroutines written in the 60s that are still being used. But I think the vast majority of code just evaporates within 10-20 years.

      1. Software Candy (@softwarecandy)


        It is interesting to see how well designed software masterpieces written in languages considered to be superior to FORTRAN and COBOL (check out what computer scientist and Turing Award recipient Edsger Dijkstra said about COBOL, for example) have shorter life span than “spaghetti code” written in older languages (that were great for their time).

  3. Jon Matthews

    Comparing to some other engineers, yes I suppose our work is relatively short lived. But then there are a lot of professions which don’t create an tangible or intellectual legacy & are still very valuable – for example farmers, doctors, teachers. All shape the future in some way but I doubt many will be remembered for it.

    I guess I’m saying don’t worry – most people don’t get to show their grand kids an artefact from their work.

    1. Ben Shoemate

      Another thought: Ephemeral-ness is more about quality and chance than the medium. For every stone that lasted a 1000 years a million are dust and ruble. Your home movies may never be watched but the Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind will still be here in 100 years (according to Lindy Effect). Your grandfathers stones may have occupied the imagination and brought joy to a few hundreds or thousands people but Google, Wikipedia and Facebook have occupied billions of years of human attention in their short lives. The candle burns at both ends, it may not last the night, but oh my friends and oh my foes, it gives a wonderful light.

  4. Dmitri Popov

    Just imagine that quiet desperation on the face of a bookkeeper when he thinks about the same matters :) At least we are engineers, we turn pure thoughts into somthing that works (or doesn’t work sometimes).

  5. Eddie Baki

    In my opinion, what lives and what awes is the idea the concept not the item itself. For instance Stonehenge, the great pyramid, the first light bulb or steam engine. Today none of these items are usable, but their concepts still inspire massive awe and respect versus let’s say yet another twitter or im client which a 1000000 people use

  6. Graham

    I think the foundational software will still be there. Linux kernel, libc, bash interpreter, these will still be around in 20 years because so much depends on them.

    But the web app or desktop app, these are ephemeral because they sit at the top of the software stack, like the shifting sands of the Sahara desert. But beneath the sand lies clay and rock which has been there for millions of years, and it is similar with software. The app you write today will most likely be dead in 5 years, GNU libc was written in 1987 and will still be in use when we are all dead.

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