What did pre-Enlightenment geekery look like?
July 4, 2008 9:37 PM   Subscribe

I write software for a living. Assuming this is due to some confluence of skills and interests, what job(s) would I be qualified for if I'd been born in the year 1,000?
posted by sonofslim to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting question. I'm a programmer and think I'd have been suited to being a scribe, jeweler, smith or maybe mason. Something to do with making things, and thinking in a logical flow. Of course, getting qualified for jobs in those days was by apprenticeship or inheritance, so I might not have had a chance to do anything but farm - another productive activity.
posted by anadem at 9:56 PM on July 4, 2008

My best guess is something along the lines of a lawyer, banker, architect, or monk. Logic and creativity and capacity to keep many different concepts in mind while seeing the whole that they are supposed to create.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:04 PM on July 4, 2008

Are you familiar with this here boing boing article?

Keeping in mind that assumption I would say a specific craft like rope-making, wall-making, X-making etc. etc.

Of course it might depend on what kind of programmer you are: are you more of a hardcore hacker type? are you more of a jack of all trades web-designer? are you more on the business end of things?
posted by symbollocks at 10:10 PM on July 4, 2008

You would be a monk. No one else was literate.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:13 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Scribe is probbaly the closest equivalent.

Users know what they want (often better than we programmers know), but they don't know how to tella computer to do it. Illiterates (and certainly illiterates in the year 1000) can be smart and know what they want to say, but not how to commit those words to paper.

But you're asking "qualified for". Assuming you got educated in the year 1000 (and that's a big assumption; that's why you had so many smart illiterates back then), mathematician, architect, clergyman, lawyer, astronomer, astrologer (yes, really), surveyor (required lots of math and engineering), draughtsman, even what passed for medical doctors then. Most likely would be clergyman of some sort, or something in the legal field (and many in the legal field were clergymen).
posted by orthogonality at 10:13 PM on July 4, 2008

You say that we should assume that your aptitude is based on skills and interests - this probably means you would be qualified for lawyer, banker, architect, monk, what-have-you, but you would be vastly more likely to end up as a subsistence farmer or similar unless you totally lucked out by being born into a merchant/noble or otherwise wealthy (for the times) family.
posted by arnicae at 10:27 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Born where? If you'd been born in China or the Islamic world c. 1000, you'd have more options as a 'knowledge worker' than in medieval Europe.
posted by holgate at 10:29 PM on July 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't mean to ruin the fun of this, but it's a bit of a modern conceit to assume you'd be able to choose your profession. You'd most likely do what your father did, as his father did before him. You were a monk if you were raised in a monastery, not because you passed some MonkCAT exam that showed that you were qualified.

The educations obtained by the very wealthy, by luck of birth, were as often as not diversions to 'entertain' young minds, not training for work. Work was for the poor, after all, and the poor did not receive educations. They learned their crafts from their family or their caste.

Your skills might impact how you did your job, but it's not as if there were great entrepreneurial systems or Monster.coms for you to help you change your profession.
posted by rokusan at 10:41 PM on July 4, 2008 [6 favorites]

Best answer: as a fellow programmer, I think our skills most clostly map to weavers, eg. tapestry makers.

Weavers invented punch card data processing -- that's not an accident of history!
posted by yort at 10:45 PM on July 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

I would think either craftsman, inventor, or possibly a monk, depending on what kind of programmer you are.

I think that most programmers have the type of disposition that's well-suited to working out painstaking details over a long period of time. I think that any highly-involved craft work would lend itself to this kind of personality.

Lots of programmers are primarily craftspeople, but are always looking for a better way to do things. I would call them the "inventors." Although they're well-suited for the sort of patient, detail-oriented work of the craftsman, their insights lead them down new roads and often involve learning new concepts. (I like to consider myself one of these)

A third category of programmers are the Scientists. They tend to look down on the craftspeople, and mostly look down on the inventors, unless the inventor in question happens to agree with their assumptions. Although they like to see others put their theories into practice, they are far more interested in the conceptual, abstract world than they are in actual construction. In the year 1000, I imagine that these guys would make great monks or priests.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:17 PM on July 4, 2008

In the early days of computers, IIRC, lots of people assumed that mathematicians would be the best people to train as programmers. Turned out people with a musical background often did better than people with a mathematical background, though. So maybe you'd do OK as a musician. (Assuming you managed to beat the odds and not be a serf, of course.)

1000 AD is maybe a few centuries too early for the kind of elaborately structured, recursively/fractally decomposable music that seems most programming-like to me, but I don't know if that really matters for something this hypothetical.
posted by hattifattener at 1:13 AM on July 5, 2008

Whatever your dad did.
posted by pompomtom at 4:32 AM on July 5, 2008

Response by poster: I don't mean to ruin the fun of this, but it's a bit of a modern conceit to assume you'd be able to choose your profession.

Sure, but every programmer who's chimed in knows that's the degenerate case. Certainly a knack for long, abstract thought and modeling problem spaces predates modern computing (or we never would have arrived at it (although that assumption begs an interesting question of its own)). My question is just: what were those aptitudes good for before we applied them to computing?

If these skills translate to law, clergy, banking, &c, what distinguishes me from a contemporary peer who chooses one of those instead? I find yort's answer interesting because it suggests something I couldn't really do today, not at the level of my current profession. The process of taking a specified end design and creating the technical manifestation one tiny, interconnected detail at a time sounds awfully familiar. As does the thought, "doing this by hand sucks... how can I automate it?"
posted by sonofslim at 6:46 AM on July 5, 2008

Uh, folks, there weren't lawyers and bankers in the year 1000 (in Europe, which is where I'm assuming this question is restricted to). Generally speaking, the ones who had money handed down the law, and the ones who had money inherited it.
posted by mkultra at 7:27 AM on July 5, 2008

Alchemist, they were always trying to document their work without really enabling anyone else to understand it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:39 AM on July 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

Interesting question. All circumstantial limitations aside, I'd say it depends on what level of the software you are responsible for. If you are in a high-level position like a software architect, perhaps you might have been an architect. If the software you write has any sort of UI, then you have to design the system keeping in mind how the user is going to explore your software. In a way, you're really creating an environment for the user, rather than just a tool they wield.

If, like me, you spend more of your time fixing bugs than dreaming up fancy design patterns, then the closest equivalent I can think of is doctor. Something is wrong with a complex system, so you have to make guesses and run tests until something clicks. The difference is in your realm of influence-- you can't exactly refactor a human body.

These analogies are assuming that you're actually good at what you do. I'm sure there are plenty of programmers out there who would have been more suited for sorcery or magic or something like that.
posted by Laugh_track at 8:56 AM on July 5, 2008

Artisan of some kind, as dictated by your father's occupation.

I'm not a competent judge of their historical accuracy in detail, but I've enjoyed reading Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth its sequel (which I've only just started) World Without End. The closest occupation to what you're describing in the first book is architect, but the main character is brought into the trade by his father (with the usual allowances made for poetic license).
posted by jquinby at 8:57 AM on July 5, 2008

Uh, folks, there weren't lawyers and bankers in the year 1000 (in Europe, which is where I'm assuming this question is restricted to).

Sure there were! But their major occupational hazard was getting massacred and kicked out of the country every few hundred years: England is a prime example of moneylenders/bankers getting invited in, then killed, then kicked out, then invited back in...rinse, repeat. But similar things happened in other areas of Europe, like France and Spain and the Kievan Rus (Ukraine), during the same circa A.D. 1000 time period.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:48 AM on July 5, 2008

I find yort's answer interesting because it suggests something I couldn't really do today

There are professional weavers in the world today, just not nearly as many as there once were. If you decided to weave for a living, you could probably train and start doing that.
posted by yohko at 2:29 PM on July 6, 2008

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