Revolutionary to Reactionary:
(UP CURSOR Lecture, Aug 25 2007)
The Soul of a New Machine:
The Soul of a New Machine is a non-fiction book, written by Tracy Kidder
has written several studies of how real-life actually works). Published
in 1981, it won both a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award. The
book chronicles the true story of a computer design team racing to
complete a next generation computer design under a blistering schedule
and tremendous pressure.
Evan Ratliff revisted key players for WIRED Magazine.
Excerpts from: O, Engineers!
By Evan Ratliff:
.............Holberger still describes the Eagle drama in terms of an old Western, as he did
to Kidder 20 years ago. "I felt like the team members were gunfighters who were
brought into town to solve some problem," he says. "They shot the place up, and
they solved the problem. And then the town had to figure out what to do with
them afterward. Which was mostly to get rid of them."
...............When Data General ran the Eagle gunslingers out of town, most of them took
different routes to a similar destination: the next project. Having successfully
created a machine - seen it through from bare wires and circuits to working
computer - they were ready to sign up and do it again. Even after the burnout
and the lack of recognition at DG, they left seeking projects as intense, if not
more intense, than Eagle. They often found them. And for all the gruffness of
West's management style, none of the Eagle vets look back on the project with
anything but fond memories..............
..........."I had high hopes for a management career," says Carl Alsing, now 57. "The hope
was that I could leverage my experience and judgment. That was disappointing,
because at the lower levels of management where I ended up, whatever companies
said they wanted me to do, they really wanted me to put out fires in the current
product and delay any kind of innovation."........ <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.12/soul.html
Unfortunately, I don't have access to an on-line text of the book -but I distinctly remember that towards the end Kidder
specifically asks How
did such a revolutionary
A Deficiency of Language:
Unfortunately, the real problem appears
to be that there is no readily available, practical, language in which
the problem can easily be investigated and answered. I'm not even sure
in which domain one should look: Is it a personal, subjective, problem, something hidden in
the nature of society and culture -is it inherent in the nature of
mechanical computing -or is it a complex interaction between several
Perhaps the real question is: How did this apparent lack of expressive and explanatory language come about?
Towards a Digital Industrial Archeology?
We might find an answer to Kidder's question by tracing the history of digital technology through
Digital Industrial Archeology
However, we are also very likely to get lost in maze of complex
methodological problems and historical power struggles. Although a wide
range of fascinating material is now being collected, at present, I
personally don't have the methodology to
unlock the secrets hidden within historical accounts.
How does one
evaluate the various machines and processes that are now obsolete and
forgotten -and how does one compare them to the technologies that have
survived. or evolved, into current practices?
Towards a Theory of Computer Science?
If finding a useful historical perspective proves to be difficult, then
perhaps we could try a more direct theoretical approach
. Unfortunately, the theoretical approach seems to run into problems
similar to those which rise out of the historical approach. There are
many Computational Models
. From Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computation>
we learn that Computation
is a general term for any type of information processing
that can be represented mathematically
. This includes phenomena ranging from simple calculations
to human thinking
One wonders if such a definition
represents a mathematical limitation to any theory of computation -or
if a broad theory of computation would perhaps, in practice, reveal
serious limitations in the theory and practice of mathematics. <Regarding Algorithms>
A Personal Perspective:
Kidder's question fits in with my own experience: As a young art student, I became
fascinated by the possibility of the computer as a special kind of
"universe" which was outside my normal range of experience. A universe which I
hoped would (perhaps paradoxically) provide some useful insight into my
own (human) condition. Now I'm much older and more experienced, I still consider this idea
valid. What saddens me most is the apparent lack of social and
professional understanding for this position.
We now seem to be in a somewhat paradoxical situation: Computing
appears to involve the construction and implementation of models of computations -and
commercial pragmatism, coupled with a cultural bias that often
sees art and culture as being opposed to technology and science, has
seemingly caused a destructive dissonance between theory and
<Back to the Future
The schizophrenic nature of Programming and Automation:
If "computation" is seen as being
primarily concerned with the manipulation of symbols, then there are
perhaps three main classes (or levels) of processing:
-Operating outside the boundary of current knowledge to extend current limits.
ii. Closed (automated procedure):
-Operating within the bounds of current knowledge with predictable results.
iii. Boundary (Predictive Calculus):
-Operating within the bounds of current knowledge but with unknown results.
If one assumes that programming has not
been automated (by reducing it to the simple task of "coding" an
existing algorithm into a specific programming language) -then the act
of constructing an automated process can be seen as an act of creative
cognition: The creation of a functioning automated model involves an investigation into (and an
interweaving of) the theoretical and practical aspects of the process itself
-plus both the medium and the environment that is being modeled as well as those in which it is to be modeled.
The creative analysis involved in programming requires, and therefore
creates, understanding -and thus gives the power of knowledge to the
Programming is subversive and revolutionary!
However, the mechanical use of an automated tool is specifically
designed to remove and even isolate the user from the practical
considerations that underly the processes involved. Automation is
inherently reactionary and disenfranchising!
Perhaps the practical implementation
of automation is actually destroying the conceptual model making process that
underlies both social intelligence and good programming!
A Final Warning!
It seems to me that the following major
factors have contributed to the evolution of the computer from a
revolutionary to a reactionary machine:
- Personal Ego and Ambition
pride which allows individuals to be exploited in socially and
personally damaging ways simply to prove themselves -even when being
- Bad Human Management
- The apparent inability of society and organizations to use creative problem solvers creatively and effectively
- Bad Strategic Planning
- A failure of organizations to find a strategic model that will survive technological innovation and fickle markets
Perhaps the common link is a lack of
respect for high level, abstract, models -coupled to a lack of social
discourse which could create such models.
There is something
about the digital technology business that reminds me of the myth of
eating his children. Please
, don't let it eat you
, think very carefully about the systems
that you are creating
<trevor at tebatt.net>
Manila, Aug 2007