Computing as a form of Societal Participation #

We take for granted most of the complex systems around us. Technology has advanced considerably in the last 100+ years, making computationally powerful and energy dense systems ubiquitous. Technology is an innovation multiplier, we use technology to create more technology with a rapidity of pace that is increasing. This rapidity of change/improvement is covered elegantly in: Machine Thinking: The 1751 Machine that Made Everything.

The codification and transport of information is a complex system that we participate in each day. Our ability to codify more information and share it faster is facilitating a similar inflection point to the phenomena of the Vaucanson lathe in 1751 or the Punchcard based Looms of the same age.

The observance/appreciation of this history didn’t begin for me intimately until discovering Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. Alternatively there is a good mainstream representation in The Matrix Series, second movie, “what is control?” chapter:

Councillor Hamann: That you are, in fact, still human. Have you ever been to the enginering level? I love to walk there at night, it’s quite amazing. Would you like to see it?

Neo: Sure.

Councillor Hamann: Almost no one comes down here, unless, of course, there’s a problem. That’s how it is with people – nobody cares how it works as long as it works. I like it down here. I like to be reminded this city survives because of these machines. These machines are keeping us alive, while other machines are coming to kill us. Interesting, isn’t it? Power to give life, and the power to end it.

Neo: We have the same power.

Councillor Hamann: I suppose we do, but down here sometimes I think about all those people still plugged into the Matrix and when I look at these machines, I.. I can’t help thinking that in a way, we are plugged into them.

Neo: But we control these machines, they don’t control us.

Councillor Hamann: Of course not, how could they? The idea’s pure nonsense, but… it does make one wonder just… what is control?

Neo: If we wanted, we could shut these machines down.

Councillor Hamann: Of course… that’s it. You hit it! That’s control, isn’t it? If we wanted, we could smash them to bits. Although if we did, we’d have to consider what would happen to our lights, our heat, our air.

Neo: So we need machines and they need us. Is that your point, Councillor?

Councillor Hamann: No, no point. Old men like me don’t bother with making points. There’s no point.

Computing is an enhancement to our baseline abilities, something that has been grafted onto most modern societies. Maintaining an understanding of the fundamental forms of information characterization, persistence, and transmittal allows you to be more aware of how you are participating in modern society. Intuition of the composition of complex systems required to share information helps with two of the most challenging social issues of our age: