April 17, 2006

Comparing Software Development to Civilisation

I am a computer scientist and as a result tend to view the world in a peculiar way. I can see various patterns emerging in our world that I also find in developing software and other areas of computer science. If any of you are computer scientists then I am sure you will understand some of this.

When developing software you would normally attempt to design it well to allow for all eventuallities, however there are times when this is not the case and the software evolves as requirements change (particularly with personal hobby projects). You start by programming instead of design and as you come across new ideas and requirements you begin to modify the program. In the process of doing this you inevitably create more bugs. When you try and fix a major bug you will almost certainly create more unless you are a perfect programmer. In simple programs this rarely becomes an issue, but in larger projects it can come to a point where it would be easier to scrap the whole system and start again rather than try and make any massive changes or fix hundreds of bugs that are impossible to find.

Does this match with reality, politics, economics and society? Civilisation (and everything that entails) evolved over a very long time into something that is very big and complex. It chose certain paths and was implemented in a specific way. Over time (especially now) various flaws have appeared in the system and changes are needed for various reasons (oil, climate, improved quality of life, security etc). These changes are so massive and themselves could (probably would) cause more flaws if not implemented perfectly. To change an existing system so fundamentally is likely to be a huge undertaking. At this point in software development it would be easier to start again, but can civilisation really be started again? Government systems do not change without force and that creates massive problems, but imagine trying to change massive physical infrastructures, economic systems and the beliefs held by most of those in the society. Such changes are so massive that it may destabalise the civilisation and create so many fractures that it would be better to start from the beginning with a better initial design. This indeed appears to be how it has worked in the past. These changes need to be made, but are we capable or actually making them?

If you do not believe these flaws exist then I encourage you to ask the older generation what they really think of 'progress'. Climate change, peak oil, our freedoms, global suffering, resource depletion, growing health problems, capitalism gone made (the rich and powerful own everything) and increasingly stressful lives.

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