I saw the trailer for the up-coming movie version of the book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (OSC). I had some travel on my calendar so I downloaded and started burning through the book again.
In my opinion, Ender’s Game is one of the supreme works of human genius. I know, I know. I am one of those. But, you have to remember that I am smack-dab in the middle of the baby-boom generation. So I was pretty much raw meat for the Ender’s Game thing.
Although I was a bit too old, really. Ender’s Game really appeals to young boys around the age of 10 – 12. The way it unflinchingly describes bullying and hazing, with all of the ugliness revealed. And Ender’s Game especially appeals to the technically oriented, math/science crowd. Well, that part was certainly me, only like I said a bit late.
Ender’s Game was first written as a short story way back in 1977, so the root of what OSC wrote is pretty old. But the book version appeared first in 1985, at the so-called dawn of the computer age. I was 31 at the time I first read Ender’s Game, and I had just touched my first computer, in my case an early RISC-based UNIX system. In that context, what OSC described was this:
- A world-wide (planetary system-wide?) networked computer system which enabled communication in real time across vast distances among virtually all of mankind
- Entire political movements arising and transforming human culture, as a result of this computer network
- A three-dimensional virtual reality game with numerous players in which Ender interacts with avatars (either computer generated, or representing another player) in solving interesting problems (including battle) within the virtual landscape
- A threaded written communications system in which you post messages in a forum, and others interested in that subject are free to read what you read
- Another mode of the communication system in which individuals or groups can engage in private interaction, using either a real-time (like text) or store-and-forward (like email) method
To name just a few of the things OSC foresaw. I am sure you could argue that others had written similar things by the time OSC wrote what he did. And I would certainly not disagree. But that does not matter. Because of the period in history when OSC was writing, and was so hugely popular, he influenced the work of thousands upon thousands of technical professionals who worked in IT during the 80s, including myself. It would not be overstating the case to say that we built the environment that we did (on which I am typing as I write this) because OSC told us to do so. This very social networking environment is hauntingly familiar to me when I read the description of the world in which Ender lived.
Oddly, this slightly disadvantages OSC in the current era: Because he so perfectly describes the technologies that we use everyday, the tendency is to assume that OSC wrote the book after he had access to the internet. Not true, though. OSC did not have access to any of the technologies that he describes. He made it all up. It just looks so much like home to us now.
But even that is not the supreme genius that I mention at the beginning of my blog post. The one idea that affected me the most was the way he describes Ender’s unique insight. What Ender saw, what Ender understood when no one else did, was the power of individual initiative. Other armies in the Battle School practiced memorized drills. Ender would have none of that. Instead he created a group of individuals who were capable of exercising individual initiative in interestingly unpredictable ways, while still maintain coordination with each other. This became the team which was able to finally defeat the buggers.
I liken this to being in a jazz band. I have played many kinds of music. Classical music requires that you follow the notes on the page, and add value through your phrasing, intonation, dynamics, etc. Anything else is a mistake.
Jazz is not like that. When you are playing with a jazz band, even if you are not soloing at the moment, you are nonetheless expected to improvise a little. Otherwise, you sound too robotic. And of course, when you are soloing, then the sky’s the limit. You want to do a key change? No problem, and others playing along with you had better be able to follow.
Thus, a member of a jazz band, like a member of Ender’s army, is expected to intelligently exercise individual initiative in the context of being part of a team. And the level of individual contribution is much higher with a jazz band than it is with, say, a string quartet. But nonetheless, what matters most is still the performance of the entire group, not the contribution of the individual member.
And that resonates with me. I very much want to be in a team like that, even if it means I have to create it myself. But I am not delusional: I am not Ender. I have yet to get a large group of people to follow me like he did. Perhaps someday, though.