Recently came across this excellent article on software and coding and its role in our modern ways of living. I was aware of bits and pieces in relation to this, but its good to get something that delves in and gives us a context and perspective on how our lives are being affected and structured around organisational, computing and processing systems. That these systems and machines run on or are based on software code is something which has had an inexorable rise and yet remains a foreign concept to many in terms of detail and context, in fact it often comes to seem like a background systemic detail and yet the detail here is the background, and the background is infrastructurally omnipresent, both on the level of individual and collective practicality.
There is an expectation as consumers that the goods and systems which are built with code or function exclusively through coding are simply items which are programmed and configured to perform tasks – they do the job they were made to do and that’s it. Little thought is given to the structural history of coding.
“Our current conception of what a computer program is,” he said, is “derived straight from Fortran and ALGOL in the late ’50s. Those languages were designed for punch cards.”
There is also fascinating acknowledgement of the reality of ‘spaghetti code’ that can be found in complex software, where layers upon layers of code are created or added providing the final functionality but that becomes a vast mess of code, untraceable and mostly unable to be fully understood or delineated.
Part of what is provided in insight terms comes from recent massive scale incidents and recalls, as when for example, through painstaking examination of millions of lines of code (over twenty months of investigation), Toyota’s accelerator software was found to be capable of accelerating on its own and to have done so in a number of circumstances, causing road accidents and fatalities. That the pedal on a car requires its own software should highlight precisely where we are now in terms of the integration of processor functioning with the materiality of our lives.
“There’s 100 million lines of code in cars now”
The level of integrated (and often invisible) ‘assistance’ which we receieve (after all hasn’t technology always been about making life easier and now cheaper?) from personalised communication and infrastructure access to globalised State and capitalist management of flow, output and sustenance of most of the materials on the planet (certainly in the context of the heavily techno-spaces and territories) is near enough replete.
Technology generally has had an incremental growth in our societies and the organisational forces of our systems of nationhood and of market exchange. Yet that growth has become exponential over the last half a century and the level of permeation of the abstract archictecture of computing has become understandably as ubiquitous.
The article highlights some of the egregious software failures caused by inbuilt unexpected, systemic limitations like programmes needing to have theoretical maximum numbers in ongoing processes and finding those totals suddenly reached and no longer theoretical leaving systems to flounder. While also pointing out that the scale of these problems has often become vast given the loss of localism in the realms of digital/service provision (a freak software based outage in the US knocks out an entire 911 state service for a day, an impact which would once have been mechanical, local and easily fixed) it is pointed out that bringing the internet into such areas was driven by the idea of wider contactability and information sharing, but there have been 4 national outages in the last 4 years.
There is a common theme, humans have created coding interactions so complex it is beyond our capacity to understand them fully and manage them. There is felt to be a generalised alienation of coders from their work through the distance of text editing and the understanding that the burden of conceptualising the programme in its code form creates, stifles overall possibilities. As such a lot of the article focuses on the radical thinkers who are changing the conceptualisation of software as well as moulding its tools and procedures towards different ways of programming, model based design being one such trend as well as code verification programmes and computer written code, some of which are directly conceived as attempts to remove software developers from the software building equation and open the space to creator-users.
“You have software watching the software,”
One thing that remains untouched upon in the article is coding on the fringes of machine intelligence. Many of our science fiction stories concern the potential autonomy of intelligent programmes and computers and weird motifs like the basis of this article, where two facebook bots created their own language to communicate before being taken offline (they were only doing what they were supposed to be doing says facebook!) only further a sense of wariness as to what humans are generating in a mode of ambition. The article itself is relatively unconcerned as to the risks and points out that googletranslate has also developed its own undecipherable language for certain situations.
Bob: I can i i everything else
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i everything else
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to meca
There is an innocuousness to this (which was part of the communication between the neural net powered bots) and the writer makes it plain that this was in pre established parameters and that those parameters have now been changed to prescibe english communication. The situation remains however that the very definition or mode of intelligence includes assessment of layered and multiplicitous circumstances with the capacity to arrive at non-prefabricated understandings and conclusions (and for this to be ongoing), itself an invitation for intelligence established in certain boundaries, to exceed precisely those boundaries. It is a challenge that human beings seem bent on bringing to pass while simultaneously already demonstrating a kind of overwhelm by existing scales and complexities of inert and necessary code which are creating a virtualised-real environment of now and the future.
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