“Too much power, too little knowledge”
In “Damage”, from his collection What Are People For?, Wendell Berry writes—
The trouble was a familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge.
The context of the phrase, the “trouble”, was a section of woods floor sliding down a hillside into a pond the winter after he decided to level some of the forest for pasture.
Toward the end of the essay, he also writes—
Only when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength do we need to think of limits.
As a technologist, it might be ironic that Berry’s pastoral and agrarian experience brings wisdom to bear on my profession. I wonder how many software projects go awry because we fail to understand the purpose and proper implementation of the wide array of tools at our disposal, or the business domain of the problem our programs try to solve.
Technology, by its very nature, empowers us to act beyond our bodily strength, and software is no exception. Berry might be inclined to look askance at my profession, but his point deserves consideration nonetheless. We can do impressive things with software, but the freedom and possibility that our tools give us should prompt us to think of limits — financial, societal, and ethical. We should not fear discussing and exploring controversial or innovative ideas, but we must consider our responsibility to those whom the ideas might affect, and how it might affect them. As programmers, we frequently discuss “soft skills” alongside technical skills, and how we ought to cultivate them. Perhaps we should add knowledge of “moral skill” to the category of soft skills. Both ourselves and our users would benefit. Berry warns in the essay that the damage done to the land is also damage to himself.
He also writes—
When the road of excess has reached the palace of wisdom it is a healed wound, a long scar.
May we learn from the excesses of others and take a different road altogether.