Quora answer: Is the state of software engineering improving or getting worse?

Feb 04 2012

Here is a good place to talk about intensification of nihilism. This is because software is a very unique cultural artifact in as much as it is the only cultural artifact to directly embody what Plato calls the Third Kind of Being in the Timaeus, and what I following Merleau-Ponty in The Visible and Invisible call Hyper Being and what Heidegger calls -B-e-i-n-g- crossed out and Derrida calls DifferAnce (differing and deferring). This is to say that Software as far as I know is a Singular Entity that directly embodies a particular (third) meta-level of Being. We can analytically recognizes phenomena as having Hyper Being as a source, but only with software can we see a cultural artifact that wholly embodies the characteristics of this kind of Being.

As software is transforming world culture, it would be good to understand the ontological nature of software and its impact. The basic quality of Hyper Being is what Paul Simon calls slip-sliding away. Strangely, the lower meta-levels of Being exist in Hardware as the index (Pure Being – pointing) and accumulator (Process Being – grasping). This is explained further in Wild Software Meta-systems at http://works.bepress.com/kent_palmer. There are five meta-levels of Being which are higher logical types (Russell) and software is the only cultural artifact that directly embodies Hyper Being. So in a sense with the advent of Software with Lady Lovelace as the first programmer of Babbages Difference Engine (which never was actually completed). In other words the first mechanical computer had programs that were waiting for the hardware to be built to be run, just like today with Quantum computing. (cf. David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality)

What happens with the intensification of nihilism (and idea we owe to Jose Argulles from Transformational Vision) is that something new arises and we think it is going to solve all our problems, but then it ultimately just makes things worse. So with the Web we thought all our problems would be solved, there was boom then bust now boom again, but now we have privacy concerns, pornography and children concerns, most of the traffic is spam, there are worms and trojans, and hackers, our data is stolen, our identities are stolen, we don’t know how to or if we should tax or control the internet. The list of ills goes on and on. Same thing with other equipment with software in it. Basically machines don’t work anymore unless their software is running because most are not purely mechanical anymore. Our Cars have myriad computers in them all running real time software doing who knows what, but that means they cannot be fixed by just anyone any more and the cost of fixing them has gone up substantially. Businesses cannot operate if their computers go down, so that means if electricity stops almost everything else stops. Anyway you get the idea. There are Ills associated directly with the computer and its software that just did not exist previously. We can do things we could never do before, but we have wicked problems we never had to deal with before, like “Social” relationships with people we don’t really know and who could be hiding their true identity, and mean us harm that we would not be open to if it were not for the allure of social networks. People can find marriage partners that they could not find before, but on the other hand we are opened up to many scams, and unscrupulous if not dangerous people who we would have never met before. In intensification of nihilism what at first seems like it will turn everything into a Utopia turns out to be a Kakatopia (Hell on Earth) which is worse than what previously existed before the new great white hope arose.

Now with Software all this becomes much worse, because we are suddenly operating with something that embodies a kind of Being we normally do not have to deal with, which is Hyper Being which makes everything slippery. It is hard to categorize software in our traditional categories, and it is hard to control and deal with it. For instance in the control of intellectual property rights. Copying is just so easy, and control is very difficult. The movement to Social Media sites is really an attempt to solve this problem by tying applications to hardware that we access across the net. This is because software as traditionally conceived as applications that run on ones own computer are just too hard to control and thus to make money from. What is the value of Software is always a problem. And many expect it to be free, in spite of the hours and hours needed to create it. But many are willing to give away their software for free, and that makes it so that people cannot sell into those markets unless they have something special to offer that the free programs do not have. These sorts of examples, like the craziness of software patents, can be multiplied almost endlessly. Take BITCOIN for example. It is a purely computational currency, but it was hacked and bitcoins were stolen causing their value to plummet. Or take the arising of Anonymous as the anti-corporate force, which brings up how much corporations are dependent on control of identity, yet Anonymous are the stockholders, employees, or customers, or just interested bystanders that attacks the corporation by making its secrets available to the public and thus giving some accountability that otherwise would not exist for instance with HP Gary.

I shan’t belabor the point. The key is that software is both getting better and getting worse at the same time. It makes things possible that would otherwise be impossible, like Smart Phones, but it also makes it possible for us to be tracked without out knowing it by the government, or others. On every issue there are nihilistic dual threats and capabilities that would not exist otherwise, and we have entered into this bewildering world unprepared in which Hyper Being plays a significant role and transforms everything for the better and worse at the same time but at a faster rate, and in a more intense fashion than has been the case in the past. It breaks down barriers that we want to do away with, but it also breaks down barriers that we do not want to have broken down. For instance, kids put pictures of themselves that are sexually explicit on the internet, or other kids do it to their friends/enemies and we do not know if this is pornography or not, but kids commit suicide because of it, and other schemes of cyberbullying. There are intense positives and negatives and they get worse with the spread of software. It allows us to put rovers on mars or fly by Jupiter and Saturn or Mercury, but it also allows money laundering, or makes all our countries less safe, by allowing secrets to be hacked from Government computers.

We need to realize the specific uniqueness of the ontology of software and how that is affecting our society, culture, and families as well as ourselves as individuals. Effectively we are living in a world of global presence to those who are absent, and effectively everyone in the world. Software makes that possible, which can have extremely good (sharing knowledge and advances in science spreading faster) and extremely bad (scams, cyberterrorism, cyberwar, etc) results. The quicker we understand the nature of DifferAnce, the better we will be able to understand this new and bewildering world made possible by software.

Along with all these cultural and social as well as individual changes there is the change in the Software Industry itself. Here too things are getting worse and better at the same time in extremes. For instance the proliferation of software languages means we are exploring more possibilities of how to write programs, but at the same time there is such a bewildering array of them it is difficult to keep up. We can say something similar for all parts of the software world. So many open source projects, so many software applications, so many social websites, so many services offered on the internet, so many resources offered in cloud computing. Yet on the other hand so difficult to absorb everything that is happening and make sense of it and apply it.

For instance we have Agile and now Lean software development which are bringing new paradigms to software development. These were aimed at freeing the programmer from process, but with new ALM software systems controlling production it is not clear that these initiatives that sought freedom from process are not just going to make things worse in terms of creating more red tape in the software creation process. What was designed to bring back creativity in software production as Agile was described seeking hyper-productivity, may actually hamstring the developer as they are immeshed in ALM systems that block progress due to enforced processes that are called Agile or Lean but actually make it harder to write good software. This is still an open question. But it is in keeping with the general tenor of changes brought about by software is that there is a radical intensification of nihilism. For instance we write programs but it is nearly impossible to reuse anything because the infrastructure is changing so rapidly, so lots of this work becomes wasted by just small infrastructural changes. So we are constantly having to start over, yet at the same time we cannot abandon legacy code due to the cost, so we have to both abandon and keep running old code. Cobol is still being written and maintained despite the fact that it is completely outmoded. We have to connect all kinds of legacy systems to each other and incorporate them into our new development, so we are constantly having maintenance issues along with development issues.

Software produces in society and culture intensification of nihilism and it is not immune to these same sorts of effects itself. Software evolution is becoming more and more intense yet our ability to absorb, incorporate, and use these evolutionary advances becomes more and more limited because of information overload, knowledge obsolescence, and generally a lack of wisdom in how to develop these capabilities so that they can stay in better synchronization with each other so that the infrastructure is not so disruptive to our own use of it to accomplish things that people want, but which shortly will be obsoleted, or worse will live on a kind of Zombified existence as the program that never dies because it is crucial and it costs too much to replace it.


Wild Software Meta-systems http://works.bepress.com/kent_palmer



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