Digital easter eggs and the changing status of software engineers
|Rich||Sep 10, 2019|
Sorry I haven’t written for a while!
I received an email from Quartz today, however, that I found particularly interesting.
The email, the latest instalment from the ‘Obsession’ series of newsletters, was all about digital easter eggs. These are, if you’ve never come across them before, small in-jokes or signatures that give a nod to their creators, or a wink of recognition to viewers.
Easter eggs were, the email argues, initially ways for engineers to leave their own ‘signature’ or mark within a piece of software or game at a time when “programmers didn’t have the same clout that game designers enjoy today”.
For many companies in the early years of the tech industry, not only did easter eggs signify a lack of corporate control over a product, they also gave engineers a level of prominence or visibility that seemed antithetical to traditional organizational hierarchies, as well as making it easier for other companies to poach talent. (If your engineering talent is anonymous, it’s hidden.)
The cultural dominance of digital easter eggs
Things have clearly changed though - the easter egg is now a cultural phenomenon.In many ways this is unsurprising: it’s a pretty straightforward expression of the postmodern tendency towards self-referentiality.
But easter eggs also highlight the changing status of engineers in companies - and, indeed, of engineering skill. They’re a way of saying ‘building that was easy… I even had time to do this.’
That’s not necessarily a bad thing - people having more creative autonomy over their work is positive, and it should be extended to everyone, not just those with specific skills or expertise.
But such is the power of the humble digital easter egg that companies are now getting in on the act - they become a design feature that’s purposely created to spark some measly level of joy in a user.
For example, Quartz’s FUN FACT is this:
For their 150th anniversary, the Bank of Canada inserted an Easter egg onto their website homepage that can be unlocked using the Konami code.
Here, easter eggs are used by organizations as a small exercise in brand - they make companies look quirky, but also demonstrate their technological nous. This seems like the natural way to combat employees getting too creative - don’t ban easter eggs (like Steve Jobs did), just try and find a way to make them work for you!