Failure part 2 – tunnel vision

Yesterday we watched the Netflix documentary The Ripper about Peter Sutcliffe, a.k.a. the Yorkshire Ripper, who was found guilty of thirteen unspeakably violent murders and seven attempts between 1975 and 1980. Last November he succumbed to covid, 76 years old. I am not a particular fan of true crime stories, but it ties in with my previous post about failure

The police authorities failed miserably. The huge workforce dedicated to cracking the case was plagued by tunnel vision, herd mentality and sexist attitudes that frustrated the investigation, costing millions of pounds and probably several lives while looking for the wrong man. At first it was roundly assumed and put about that the killer only targeted prostitutes, giving rise to the callous sentiment that decent women had nothing to fear. It turned out the attacks were in fact indiscriminate. Even more harmful was the misguided attention given to a number of letters and tapes the police received, allegedly recorded by the killer himself, in which he taunted the force for their lack of progress. Dialectologists pinpointed the very pronounced accent to a region in Sunderland. The tapes turned out to be a hoax. Anyway, read the Wikipedia page if you have neither time nor Netflix, and prepare to be amazed.

Former police station in Tilburg

As developers we chase bugs, not serial murderers and we can go to bed at night safe in the knowledge that our negligence will not get people killed – most of the time. But as human beings operating in a complex to chaotic domain we are no less prone to tunnel vision than those chain-smoking caffeinated detectives of the West Yorkshire Police force.

We adopt technologies because “it seemed a good idea at the time”. If it’s good for Netflix and Spotify it must be good for us. If it turns out not to be the perfect fit we can always make the business case fit the technology afterwards.

We like to moan a lot – about clunky old-fashioned Java for example – but on the whole we’re a pretty optimistic bunch. We write code so flawless it doesn’t even need documentation and since it’s going on an interstellar space probe, it’s pretty much written for eternity so no human being ever has to look at it again.

Optimism without self-knowledge will cost you. After years of not getting everywhere the evil prankster’s tapes must have felt like a godsend for the exasperated Yorkshire detectives. But why would a criminal of such cunning take such bold risks? Why didn’t they challenge the letter writer to give proof beyond that which any newspaper reader already knew? I’m sure somebody did ask these questions, but they were probably crushed under peer pressure..