Saturday, March 5, 2016

Making Fake Things

Software is fake. There are bits inside a computer represented by a magnetic or electrical charge or mechanical potential or some such thing. But software is not an electrical charge. Electrical charges can represent ones and zeroes and a series of ones and zeroes like "10111101" can represent the JVM opcode "anewarray" or the fraction one-half ("½") in the ISO-8859-1 character encoding or the number -67 in twos-complement. Software is not electrical charges, it is a particular interpretation imposed on electrical charges. An interpretation does not weigh anything. It has no color, taste, temperature, volume, mass, or any physical features. It is fake, but fake things can be useful.

Fake things can represent real things (or other fake things). For example, you can represent a couch with a 3D model in a computer. You can represent cities and towns and roads with fake things. You can also represent fake things with other fake things. JVM opcodes, characters, and numbers are all fake things represented by "10111101", which is fake. Fake things are useful because they can represent real and fake things in a way that can be cheaply manipulated and transported instantly across the world. Fake things also have challenges.

Software is a little unique even among fake things because in making software we are often making something that has never existed before. When someone creates a stove there are hundreds of thousands of others stoves in existence to draw upon. There are wood stoves, electric stoves, and gas stoves. But when someone created a text editor, they created something that had never existed before. Here is how Richard Gabriel describes it:

"But, consider the first people to design and build a text editor. Before that, there was never a text editor. Changes to a manuscript were always made by retyping or retypesetting. How would people want to make textual changes? How would people want to navigate? Searching? - no one ever heard of that before. Systematic changes? Huh? By the way, there were no display terminals, so how do you even look at the manuscript?" --

Web applications, virtual currencies, automated theorem provers, and many other software applications had never existed before or were so different in nature from their physical counterparts that they were a unique thing. Making fake things is hard enough, but making things that have never existed before is that much harder. That's not the end of it, though.

Fake things have no real world to help co-design them. Stoves have a real world to help co-design them. There are accessories that are used with stoves that help co-design them. Real things like pots and pans. Stoves have to fit through doorways, nestle between kitchen cabinets, and match the colors on the walls. Text editors have accessories like keyboards and mice that were invented to give real people made of meat a way of manipulating a conceptual world by proxy. Perhaps a mouse has to be compatible with a human hand, but a text editor has to be compatible with the mental model of a text editor that exists in a human mind, a model which no one had ever thought of before. Ultimately making software is a process of collaborating with other humans to dream up some mental model, and then making a fake thing out of software that other humans can use to manipulate that model (assuming they properly understand the mental model).

Which reminds me, collaboration is also a fake thing. Collaboration is about using real things, like vibrating air, to push around fake things, like words. It is about using real things, like markers and whiteboards, to manipulate fake things, like ideas. All of these real things can be replaced by fake things, like video conferencing software and text editors. And fake things like words and ideas can be replaced by other fake things, and all of these fake things can be instantly transported, copied, and manipulated by real people in real (and very distant) places. Collaboration is not a real thing, it is a fake thing produced through the interaction of real people thinking creatively.

And making software is a creative act. Writing software is writing instructions to make a computer do something. You must choose the instructions, determine their order, name things. You develop your own style. Writing software is writing words that have effect. Writing software is as close as you can get to God with words speaking reality into existence, the ultimate creative act. But writing software is not just for telling computers what to do. It is also collaboration with other humans. They must read, understand, modify, and extend what you write. They must understand your vision. You must collaborate with them through your source code.

So, here we are. We have discovered that software is a fake thing, that it is often an entirely new thing, that it is a pure product of the mind, that it is born of collaboration, and it is creative expression. Now what? We must systematically question the constraints we place on ourselves, because those constraints are often meant for real things and our things are fake. Here are a few examples:

A top-down management hierarchy is for making real things, not fake things. Top-down, command-and-control hierarchies are about control and efficiency. Control and efficiency are important for real things, because real things have locality, cost, and scarcity. Software has none of these things. Control and efficiency are important when you are manufacturing the same thing over and over. Software is often exploratory. Software is valuable not because we repetitively make lots of little copies of the same thing, but because we dream up some new way of doing things that has never been done before. Control and efficiency are important when you have a predictable process. A creative process is not predictable. You may think for hours about a problem, sleep on it, and then have the answer pop into your head the instant you wake up. We need to think differently, not just about what we make, but how we make it.

Offices are about locality. An office puts materials, means of production, and managers in the same physical location. Yet with software there is no material and the means of production are mental. There is no reason to be concerned about locality. Ostensibly having a bunch of people in the same office enables them to collaborate, but collaboration is a fake thing. Collaboration does not exist in San Francisco or Saint Louis. It does not weigh 1kg. It is not blue. Having an office for collaboration is a rationalization that projects the past onto the future. Is collaboration different using video conferencing and Google Docs than it is using tables and chairs in an office? Yes, because fake things are different than real things. I do not recommend mixing fake things like video conferencing with real things like offices. It may take getting used to, but embracing the fakeness of collaboration has advantages like hiring people where they want to live instead of trying to convince them to live where you live. It also means having permanent, searchable, modifiable artifacts that can be shared instantly across the world, instead of a whiteboard in a room.

Software can process data, but software is also data. This creates leverage. You can flip a bit, and that bit can flip ten others, and those ten another one hundred, etc. Compilers, build tools, continuous integration, and automated tests are all software doing things to software. "The cloud" has created a lot of leverage because it took something that was real (a machine) and made it fake (a "cloud instance"), and once it is fake it can be manipulated by software. The higher you can climb the mountain of abstraction the more powerful you will become. Before selling to Facebook, WhatsApp had ~450 million active users and ~55 employees. Yahoo has ~12,500 employees. I don't know how many active users they have, but let's just pretend it is ~450 million. Don't be Yahoo.

These are just examples, and you can agree or disagree. My point is, we as an industry can achieve market success and realize our visions much more powerfully, but we must understand the nature of the software we are creating (it is fake), and the newness of what we are doing every day, and its collaborative nature, and the tools that we can take advantage of, and we must have the courage to give up on arbitrary constraints that are optimized for making real things. We must pursue leverage, because leverage will enable us to do amazing things.

1 comment:

rdm said...

While I agree in general, I will note that some specifics are incorrect. For example, text editors have been around since the previous century. (Not 100 years, yet, but more than a couple decades.)