Unflipping the bozo bit

December 21, 2018

Once the bozo bit has been flipped, it's an almost permanent situation. Once it's on, it's on. Unflipping the bozo bit is a rare occurrence. - Teaching Technically: Flipping the Bozo Bit

The bozo bit.

A term from the crustier circles of computer systems engineering—operating systems, compilers, semiconductors—the sort of places where right is right, wrong is wrong, and sloppy thinking is told to SHUT THE FUCK UP, all-caps, with an exclamation point. Not "nice", but that was never the point.

The basic idea: we're all trying to figure out who's trustworthy and who's not. When you observe a person doing something that seems stupid—not casual stupidity or carelessness, but the kind that makes you realize they're way out of their depth, or have no idea what they're talking about—their bit changes (flips) from 0 (they aren't a bozo) to 1 (they are).

And when that happens, even though you might still be polite and try to hide it, you sort of ignore them, and try to keep them away from anything important; in short, a systems engineer's way of indicating a loss of respect.

Non-computer people call this, "taking someone seriously", but I think "bozo bit" better captures some real-world nuance:

  • Respect is indeed rather binary: like a bit, it's either set, or it's not.
  • The benefit of the doubt is good policy, but when someone loses your respect, it happens rapidly and without warning, just like a bit flipping: 0 to 1.
  • Some bits only flip one way: a 0->1 or 1->0 transition can be permanent.

It's that third one that's giving me trouble.

I met a guy named David (his real name, but I know dozens of Davids) some years ago. After observing some really questionable decision-making and a string of unkept commitments, I'll reluctantly admit I'd flipped the bozo bit on this guy. I'm not proud of it, but I'd be lying if I said I never judged people; this guy in particular was part of the inspiration for Commitment and Risk a few months ago.

But he seems to have turned over a new leaf, and gotten through it. So much so that I'm tempted to unflip the bozo bit.

Sad but true: when respect is lost, it usually isn't regained.

But I think that's a mistake. As I've written before, I believe real change is possible, but it's rare, and the person has to really want it.