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Naked Emperors in Tech

swyx profile image swyx Originally published at swyx.io ・Updated on ・3 min read

In Hans Christen Andersen's classic tale, two swindlers trick an Emperor by saying their clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. Everybody sees the Emperor is naked, but nobody says anything, until a child blurts out the simple fact that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. Then the silence is broken and everyone realizes that everyone else was seeing what they were seeing.

There are a lot of Naked Emperors in Tech.

Mostly, these take the form of widely repeated beliefs that are oversimplified (or at least, no longer true). Sometimes these are factual statements that turn out factually wrong. Sometimes these are opinions overstated as fact. Sometimes the cause is schlep blindness. Sometimes these are implicit beliefs - unstated, unconscious, but designed into our products anyway. What makes them Naked Emperors is just somebody visibly pointing out nakedness, and then the lie being retrospectively obvious all along.

Here is a short list I have, with their respective bullshit calls:

What other Naked Emperors are parading around out there, too naked for me to even see?

Additions from the future

Discussion (4)

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ryansolid profile image
Ryan Carniato

That's interesting way of phrasing it. I find these things are super prevalent in Tech. I started typing a list but after I got over a dozen items I decided it wasn't really important what the things were.
We have an industry where you have:

  1. Not always full understanding of the technical details, explainability, easily validated
  2. Over emphasis on what is new/hype. It is always desirable to find some sort of differentiator in an already forward thinking areas. Incremental improvements are less interesting.

Often this means that this hype/marketing becomes part of the technologies identity and sometimes extend on to individuals identity. So when something no longer is true or things have progressed we just keep pushing the same rhetoric.

So if the source was not 100% on the level in the first place (and not really confirmable) it doesn't really matter how untrue something is as the idea will continue propagate. Out in the open with no self-consciousness.

I'd say validate your stuff the same way you validate your news sources, but that process isn't always easy/reasonable to do. So I'm not sure. I tend to take everything in tech with amount of skepticism.

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swyx profile image
swyx Author

calling out naked emperors doesnt always have to be a skeptical exercise. it could be that EVERYONE is too skeptical and you can break through by pointing out something optimistic. i think this is where great business ideas come from. i think the classic example is with Elon Musk and batteries/solar power/rockets.

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Julien Maury

Oversimplifying leads to major fails in this IT business. Whether it's a11y or any other area, nothing is easy. "Easy" is not "simple". It takes time and skills to make it simple. It's the same with the term "magic".

There's no such a thing. People give their time to make things better.

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Karine Sabatier

A nice thought-provocative post and great metaphor. This will have me thinking for a while, certainly.

(Couldn't agree more for the "5 whys"... Effectuation has, for a long time now, given us other mental models than the worn out "find root causes to solve a problem". This article in French explains that pretty well hbrfrance.fr/chroniques-experts/20... (you can drop in into Deepl)
Not sure about the ideas vs action point. Ideas without execution are not to throw away, you just have to rename them dreams or fantasy.)