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Sunday, March 19, 2023

'It's Not a Bug, It's a Feature.' Trite—or Just Right?

We’ll never know who said it first, nor whether the coiner spoke sheepishly or proudly, angrily or slyly. As is often the case with offhand remarks that turn into maxims, the origin of It’s not a bug, it’s a feature is murky. What we do know is that the expression has been popular among programmers for a long time, at least since the days when Wang and DEC were hot names in computing. The Jargon File, a celebrated lexicon of hacker-speak compiled at Stanford in 1975 and later expanded at MIT, glossed the adage this way:

A standard joke is that a bug can be turned into a feature simply by documenting it (then theoretically no one can complain about it because it’s in the manual), or even by simply declaring it to be good. “That’s not a bug, that’s a feature!” is a common catchphrase.

When 19th-century inventors and engineers started using bug as a synonym for defect, they were talking about mechanical ­malfunctions, and mechanical malfunctions were always bad. The idea that a bug might actually be something desirable would never have crossed the mind of an Edison or a Tesla. It was only after the word entered the vocabulary of coders that it got slippery. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature is an acknowledgment, half comic, half tragic, of the ambiguity that has always haunted computer programming.

In the popular imagination, apps and other programs are “algorithms,” sequences of clear-cut instructions that march forward with the precision of a drill sergeant. But while software may be logical, it’s rarely pristine. A program is a social artifact. It emerges through negotiation and compromise, a product of subjective judgments and shifting assumptions. As soon as it gets into the hands of users, a whole new set of expectations comes into play. What seems an irritating defect to a particular user—a hair-trigger ­toggle between landscape and portrait mode, say—may, in the eyes of the programmer, be a specification expertly executed.

Who can really say? In a 2013 study, a group of scholars at a German university sifted through the records of five software projects and evaluated thousands of reported coding errors. They discovered that the bug reports were themselves thoroughly buggy. “Every third bug is not a bug,” they concluded. The title of their paper will surprise no one: “It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature.”

INABIAF—the initialism has earned a place in the venerable Acronym Finder—is for programmers as much a cri de coeur as an excuse. For the rest of us, the saying has taken on a sinister tone. It wasn’t long ago that we found software ­dazzling, all magic and light. But our perception of the programmer’s art has darkened. The friendly-seeming apps and chatbots on our phones can, we’ve learned, harbor ill intentions. They can manipulate us or violate our trust or make us act like jerks. It’s the features now that turn out to be bugs.

The flexibility of the term bug pretty much guaranteed that INABIAF would burrow its way into everyday speech. As the public flocked online during the 1990s, the phrase began popping up in mainstream media—The New York Times in 1992, The New Yorker in 1997, Time in 1998—but it wasn’t until this century that it really began to proliferate.

A quick scan of Google News reveals that, over the course of a single month earlier this year, It’s not a bug, it’s a feature appeared 146 times. Among the bugs said to be features were the decline of trade unions, the wilting of cut flowers, economic meltdowns, the gratuitousness of Deadpool 2’s post-credits scenes, monomania, the sloppiness of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, marijuana-induced memory loss, and the apocalypse. Given the right cliché, nothing is unredeemable.

The programmer’s “common catchphrase” has itself become a bug, so trite that it cheapens everything it touches. But scrub away the tarnish of overuse and you’ll discover a truth that’s been there the whole time. What is evolution but a process by which glitches in genetic code come to be revealed as prized biological functions? Each of us is an accumulation of bugs that turned out to be features, a walking embodiment of INABIAF.

Nicholas Carr's (@roughtype) latest book is Utopia Is Creepy.

This article appears in the August issue. Subscribe now.

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