A Burning Philosophical Question

Some months ago, a colleague posed a question on Twitter:

I thought it a humorous, if odd, question.

I’d been noticing the use of both “tire-” and “dumpster-fire” in the Twitter tech communities for awhile now. (And America’s current… ‘colorful’ election cycle has only increased usage of both, even among non-techies.) So I thought it worthwhile to take a moment and dissect this a little bit.

Let us turn our gaze to dumpster fires first.

“Somebody call the fire department!”

To be fair, I’m not an expert on actual dumpster fires.

But it seems to me that they’re a (rare) byproduct of common, standard operations, i.e. the disposal of trash.

Sometimes, someone throws something away, either in a garbage bag, or directly into the dumpster and it “reacts poorly” with something else in the dumpster. And bam: dumpster fire.

If we analogize a dumpster fire to the sociotechnical systems in which we work, they are alike in that we don’t intend to light dumpster fires. But they sometimes flare up inadvertently in the course of doing normal work, when unexpected interactions happen or we communicate/coordinate poorly.

We know dumpster fires can occur, so we build them to contain the impact: they’re built of heavy, non-flammable metals; they often have a lid to reduce the chance of external sparks. We construct and place dumpsters such that when a fire does occur, it will generally mostly be contained within the vessel, at least long enough for the fire department (or the DevOps team) to come and put it out.

And we generally react to dumpster fires: we want to continue throwing away trash, so we take note of dumpster fires and put them out quickly, so we can resume “normal operations.”

“No… words. No words to describe it! They should’ve sent a poet…”

Tire fires are different.

There’s a reason that the Springfield tire fire is a recurring joke on The Simpsons: it embodies this idea of poor foresight and planning, of trying to accomplish something without really thinking through all the consequences.

There’s often an aspect of not caring about bystanders or future parties a tire fire’s noxious fumes will affect, to say nothing of the fact that those fumes are guaranteed to be horrible. (The contents of a dumpster fire’s fumes are randomish, but generally less likely to be as horrible.)

But there’s a key component of a tire fire that distinguishes itself from a dumpster fire, and it’s the most relevant when we use it to describe technology: tire fires are not byproduct of “normal operations.”

A conscious decision must be made to not only collect, but build that pile of tires. We had to light it ablaze. And unlike dumpster fires, tire fires burn much longer. They’re extremely difficult to extinguish once they’re started, if we even bother to try extinguishing them.

In fact, perhaps that is the most important aspect of the analogy: tire fires can burn slowly for weeks (or even decades!) Because of this, we might be fine piling up all of our tires, but as they burn below the surface, we don’t react to put the fire out, because we don’t even see it until it’s too late.

That’s why the joke on the Simpsons is a mainstay: the Springfield tire fire has gotten so out of control, the community just shrugs, moves on, and mostly-ignores it, accepting that’s what they built and putting it out is just too difficult now.

Interestingly, these effects are all known. We intuitively know tire fires are bad. Really bad. And yet some set of circumstances, somewhere prompted the conclusion that building and stoking one one was a better course of action than… well… not.

So next time someone describes the technology or architectural choices their team has made using one of these fiery analogies: take a moment to consider which one they picked.

It may just provide a deeper insight into the true nature of the situation than you thought.