John Ruskin, gothic cathedrals and the rise of the digital revolution

By Rob Hatch, Skuid internal solutions engineer

With the invention of the steam engine and the advent of the the factory system, the Industrial Revolution transformed England, completely disrupting the ways businesses of the time operated. Specialization and the division of labor allowed the quantity of goods produced to grow. New tools allowed production to be more efficient and guaranteed an equal perfection. The empire gained great wealth!

In that moment an artist and critic named John Ruskin raised his hand in complaint. He pointed out that this efficiency and perfection essentially enslaved the laborer. The systems that enabled growth and wealth required a great mass of common folk who society instructed not to think and just operate. Ruskin bitterly complained against this situation.

Against this modern reality, Ruskin pointed to the builders of gothic cathedrals. In these great buildings, masses of craftsmen worked together to carve beauty out of stone. Each worker brought all the skill and creative thought he could muster to the stones he was assigned. The result was at the same time beautiful and imperfect; angels might not be carved exactly right and window lines might not exactly match, but as an expression of a community working together, the cathedral was unsurpassed.

Fast forward to today, and there is a new revolution transforming our economy and society. Instead of steam and machine, the agent of today’s change is technology. Companies grow bigger and more efficient, driven by the new powers of software. What is produced and managed today in ever-increasing volumes is data, and enterprise software is the steam engine driving that production. The empire is gaining great wealth.

But we may find ourselves echoing Ruskin’s complaint. A new division of labor has been created between software makers and software users. Companies create “one size fits all” software and sell it to other companies, where users are expected to mindlessly fit their processes into the limitations of that software.

Sound familiar?

I think Ruskin would look for a new gothic cathedral in our day. One practice he might appreciate is bespoke software. In reality, no company is exactly like another. It takes a slightly different sort of machines to run each one. The builders of the cathedral could be a creative group of employees who bring skill and experience together to design and build the bespoke software tools that would best run their own company. The divisions between makers and users would be broken down. Feedback for improvement would always be gathered, and it would always be easy to improve and iterate on the apps used to run a company.

I think John Ruskin would appreciate Skuid.

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