Infinitely Deep

A scene from the movie "Big Blue" (1988)

Life is like a sea. Swim, don’t dive. Those who dive, drown.

- my best friend's mom, back when we had no idea what she was talking about

One of my favourite childhood movies was The Big Blue. It is a story of two friends, Enzo and Jacques, who grew up together on a Greek island. As adults, they became world-renowned freedivers and great rivals.

If you haven’t seen it, that synopsis may trick you into imagining a regular children’s movie about friendships, sports and healthy competition. It is anything but. The Big Blue is a strange movie. And brilliant.

Not that 10 year old me was aware of that. In the greyness of the 1990s Belgrade, eagerly waiting for July when we would drive down to Montenegro where I would spend my summer submerged in the Adriatic sea, what’s not to like about a movie that depicts precisely that?

However, The Big Blue is one of those stories that hits you much later in life. Adults, after all, are just children who have figured out what adults were talking about.

Enzo is the freediving world champion. His talent and obsession have brought him to the top. But he isn’t happy. He will only be content once he beats his long lost childhood friend, Jacques, an introvert with a painful past, who is struggling to understand himself and find affection.

None of that would make the plot particularly interesting, I suppose, if not for one strange detail. You see, for all intents and purposes of freediving, Jacques is… how should I put this… a dolphin. Not a real dolphin, but a human whose internal organs behave underwater like those of a dolphin. And Enzo, talented as he may be, is still only human.

I am not a freediver. I am a software engineer. But halfway into my career, on an idle Wednesday, exhausted after a 1-1 with another brilliant, yet unhappy colleague, with my head in my hands I thought of The Big Blue. And realised these two disciplines have something in common.

Most definitions of software engineering will be something along the lines of: telling the computer what to do. While technically true, that completely misses the essence of our work, which is to model the ways humans exchange information. To describe the shape of knowledge.

Telling computers what to do is the easy part. And, luckily for us, usually the only one that is tested during job interviews.

The hard part doesn’t hit us until roughly a few years into our career, when, while standing at the top of the Dunning–Kruger curve, we start to feel there’s more. We see new patterns and imagine better abstractions than those we have. The smarter the engineer, the stronger this impression is.

Could one database answer any type of question? Can there be a perfectly composable user interface? Can we invent a software architecture that is both easy to understand and infinitely scalable?

Sometimes, rarely, but sometimes, we can inch closer to that. As we dive deeper, we find something and it turns out we didn’t just imagine it. After all, that’s how any discipline advances. But it’s never enough, isn’t it?

In any domain, knowledge is infinitely deep. A human will never reach the bottom alive. As one dives deeper and deeper, fewer of us can or indeed are willing to follow.

It becomes a lonely experience. Poetic, but lonely. Like a freediving champion, 400 feet below the surface, floating in silence, perhaps proud, but still not much closer to the ocean floor than a child swimming above him, he is wondering whether he could conquour another foot and still return.

No wonder some of the smartest engineers I’ve worked with are also some of the lonliest people I know. Or farmers, nowadays. At some point, I suppose, each of us must decide whether going deeper is worth it.

Jacques, whom Enzo followed into the depths of the sea, isn’t real. His character being based on the real Jacques Mayol, a freediving champion, and the sad story about his family’s tragedy was meant to trick us into empathising. But Jacques from The Big Blue is not – and this is the thing I realised as an adult – a person. He is a personal ideal.

He represents Enzo’s obsession. An idea that’s been stuck in his head since childhood that just wouldn’t let an otherwise caring adult man enjoy the fruits of his talent, the laugh of his family and friends, the taste of his mom’s spaghetti and the gentle warmth of the Mediterranean sun.