An ordinary legacy

I saw a Tweet by Eugene Wei a while back about words that can mean both one thing and almost the opposite thing.

I responded with an old favourite of mine, “quite”:

I was at a session today where I came across another in “legacy”. Legacy has a general meaning, “something left or handed down by a predecessor”, which can obviously go one way or the other. But it also has some slightly more specific definitions.

In legal terms, a legacy is a gift of property, especially personal property, as money, by will; a bequest. Which is generally considered a good thing, both to leave and to receive.

However when you are talking about software or computing (which was the topic today), if something is described as legacy (“a legacy system”), that almost certainly means it is bad, but somehow still in use. That meaning is also invoked in more general settings (“legacy banks” are a particularly popular target in Fintech London-town).

It might be tempting to attribute this to simple neophilia, out with the old, in with the new. But I think it is actually that fundamentally human trait Jeff Bezos describes in a recent shareholder letter, describing human beings as…

“divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static – they go up. It’s human nature. We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied. People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’.”

We don’t appreciate the work and the sweat and the “of its time” imagination of these legacy things – they have been normalised, they are ordinary. And surely we can improve on ordinary.

It is humbling that the best case scenario for technologists is to create something that is ultimately considered ordinary. But maybe it should also give us a renewed appreciation for things we think of as “legacy” right now.

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