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pinFrom the Age of Power to the Age of Magic and beyond...

Overload Journal #106 - December 2011 + Process Topics   Author: Sergey Ignatchenko
Certain abilities allowed some societies to dominate their peers. Sergey Ignatchenko takes a historical perspective on dominant societies.

Disclaimer: as usual, the opinions within this article are those of ‘No Bugs’ Bunny, and do not necessarily coincide with opinions of the translator or Overload editors; please also keep in mind that translation difficulties from Lapine (like those described in [LoganBerry2004]) might have prevented from providing an exact translation. In addition, both translator and Overload expressly disclaim all responsibility from any action or inaction resulting from reading this article.

Hray, u hraithile!
Run, for the thousandth time!

Sometimes, to get a better understanding of where we’re standing now, it helps to take a look back, sometimes even a long while back, to the very beginnings of rabbitkind. The history of rabbitkind can be classified in a number of different ways, but this time let’s take a look at it from the following points of view.

Age of Power

A very long time ago, there were caverabbits. A lot of different and interesting things can be said about them, but what is important for us now is which characteristic was the most important factor in the success of societies back there (we will not address individual success now, concentrating on societies). What we can say rather easily, is that back at the very beginning the most important property which has dominated the world, was power. The most physically powerful and aggressive rabbit tribes easily dominated the others. This raw power wasn’t offset by other things like the quality of weapons – with the only weapons being a simple club, it was the rabbit who was able to carry a bigger one that won. Let’s name this rough period in the rabbit’s history an ‘Age of Power’.

Age of Skill

As time has passed, raw power appeared to be somewhat affected by other things, such as military skill and quality of weapons. One prominent example of is ancient Greek and Roman rabbits – while they weren’t more physically powerful than their neighbours, they still managed to dominate them mostly because of superior organizational and military skills. Later on, skills continued to affect societies a great deal, with one prominent example (in addition to an obvious Renaissance period) being the Dutch Golden Age of the XVI–XVII centuries, when tiny Netherlands had risen to one of superpowers of that time based mostly on promotion of various skills, in particular naval expertese. Let's name this period the ‘Age of Skill’. One major characteristic of this Age is that skills were passed from one generation to another as a part of the process of informal education, mostly based on apprenticeships. It was also the way how skills were improved, and the process was rather slow by today’s standards.

Age of Knowledge

As time went on, the situation changed again. Very roughly, at the end of XVIII century, mere skills weren’t enough to dominate anymore, and it became people such as engineers who started to bring nations to domination, spearheading the Industrial Revolution. The fundamental difference between Age of Skill and this new age, is that in the new age the primary and the most efficient way to pass information between generations, and to develop skills and knowledge further, was not apprenticeships, but the application of formal education, such as university education. Accordingly, let’s name this period ‘Age of Knowledge’. Universities have made a huge impact on the way skills and knowledge have improved; and one of major improvements achieved by universities was that a lot of people specializing in the same area were brought together, increasing both the exchange of ideas and level of competition (and competition is necessary to achieve top-level results, see, for example, [Parkinson72]). Accordingly, it was people with university education (mostly engineers) who were a symbol of Industrial Revolution and Age of Knowledge.

Age of... ?

...now British people often incorrectly use the term ‘Engineer’
to describe Plumbers and Mechanics.
~ Wikipedia

By the end of the XX century, things had changed once again. With the advent of the Internet, search engines (and later Wikipedia), knowledge as such has became easily available and therefore has lost its value (the model of supply and demand works surprisingly well even in such matters). Such loss of value is indicated by multiple symptoms, in particular by the loss of respect to engineers (who were once one of the symbols of the Age of Knowledge). In addition, similar to the way the creation of universities has allowed thousands of people to work together, now millions are collaborating at the same time, which again makes a significant impact on the way knowledge is accumulated and created. So, where we are heading now? What is indeed valuable in the modern world?

It looks that (though it is only a rather wild guess on my part) that what is of value now is the ability to combine knowledge from several different sources, to produce a new piece of knowledge. It might be a small step within the grand scheme of things, but I feel it is quite essential to justify calling it a new age. For the purposes of the rest of this article, let's take it as a working hypothesis. But how to name this new age? Age of Combining Knowledge is too bulky, Age of Combination is quite unclear, and Age of Combinatorics is outright misleading. Let’s think about it a little bit...

Why not ‘Age of Magic’?

Any sufficiently advanced technology
is indistinguishable from magic.
~ Arthur C. Clarke

Similar to engineers being a symbol of Age of Knowledge, this new Age, where it is combining knowledge to create new knowledge which really counts, also has a symbol – it is us, software engineers (which, for the purposes for this article, includes both software developers and administrators). The aura around us, software engineers, at the boundary of the XX and XXI centuries is somewhat similar to the aura around engineers a century earlier – we are perceived as difficult to understand people with high salaries (and people are not sure if such salaries are justified, because they cannot understand us), who can do strange things which ordinary people cannot do. Let’s try to look at us with the eyes of your neighbour (the one who has nothing to do with IT). If he takes a look (in the movies, or in real life), how will software engineer look to him? We’re sitting typing some very strange stuff on our keyboards, mumbling some words which are completely incomprehensible for outsiders (and often the words are incomprehensible even for fellow software developers from another company), and from time to time achieving some things which look completely unrelated to our words or actions. But isn’t it exactly the way mages are described in fantasy? They also mumble strange words, make strange gestures with their hands, and sometimes get results which they want – which seem completely unrelated to the nature of the words said or written. Aren’t these two things the very same thing if observed from the outside? If you still have any doubts, think how stuff like

  copy (v.begin(), v.end(),
     ostream_iterator<int>(cout, "\n"));

or

  growisofs -Z /dev/cdrw -r -J /home/nobugs/  archive/20111029

looks to your neighbour? If it is not a spell as described in a fantasy book, what is?

Based on the logic above, I hereby propose to name this new age as the Age of Magic.

Ethics of the Mages

Primum non nocere
~attributed to Thomas Sydenham

Whenever somebody has a power to affect others significantly, it is vital to have certain ethical standards to follow. Professionals of various flavours have had established ethical standards for centuries. The very first professional ethical standard in the history of rabbitkind is, most likely, the Hippocratic Oath, taken by doctors since around the 5th century BC. Much closer to the Age of Magic are the engineering codes of ethics, which originated in the US around 1910 after series of spectacular bridge disasters. It is interesting to note that the first information about an engineering code of ethics in the UK that I was able to find is from 1991, more than half a century later. The main reason behind these professional codes of ethics is to avoid potential harm which can arise from irresponsible actions of professionals (in the case of doctors it is potential death or harm to the patient, for engineers it is a potential failure like collapsed bridge). But is software any different in this regard? Bugs in software have already caused deaths [Therac-25] [Patriot], and have already caused the loss of huge amounts of money [Ariane 5], which already indicates the potentially dangerous impact of Mages on society, and therefore the need for a code of ethics. It has already been recognized, and associations like IEEE or BSC already have their codes, though quality of them may vary; still, what matters the most for the fellow Mage is not to follow instructions set in formal codes blindly, but to understand their responsibility to society.

Education in the 'Age of Magic'

The mind is not a vessel to be filled,
but a fire to be kindled.
~ Plutarch, On Listening to Lectures

As it was noted above when discussing differences between the Age of Skill and Age of Knowledge, the way knowledge is passed between generations is critical for our analysis. The interesting thing about it is that educational system had started to drift towards the goals of Age of Magic quite long ago. If the knowledge itself was the ultimate goal then the system of memorizing everything would be perfect for this purpose. Still, over the course of the XX century the concept of memorizing, so predominant in Victorian schools, was slowly replaced (at least at the best schools) with a concept which can be roughly described as ‘teach pupils to think’, which is a perfect match to the goals of Age of Magic (opposed to the goals of Age of Knowledge). It is interesting to note that our previous analysis didn’t reveal what was exactly the reason for the switch to the Age of Magic, so while it indeed might be the Internet which triggered the change, it could also easily be progress in the education system towards ‘teach pupils to think’ which has caused the Age of Magic.

In any case, what is rather obvious is that ‘teaching pupils to think’ (as opposed to ‘make pupils memorize tons of stuff’) is very important to ensure that society flourishes within the new Age of Magic. Moreover, it

can be easily shown that such an approach not only makes societies succeed, but also makes individuals succeed within societies. Unfortunately, the whole system of formal exams is not a good fit with this concept [Hyman2009], which means that this approach, while popular in the best schools, is far from being universal, so we can conclude: ‘if you want your children to succeed in life – find a school which will teach them to think’.

The final step? Of course not!

The next question which inevitably arises is: shall we expect that this new Age of Magic is the ultimate step in this direction? Of course not. The history of rabbitkind shows that there is no such thing as an ‘ultimate step’ in any direction and this area is not an exception. Later on, we can expect that simple combining knowledge won't be enough anymore, and that rabbitkind will move towards the next age, towards an Age of Creativity; at this point it is too early to say what exactly will be the next step on this way, so I just hope that I’ll live long enough to see it.

References and further reading

[ Adams] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lapine_language

[Ariane 5] ‘The Ariane 5 bug and a few lessons’ Les Hatton, Oakwood Computing, U.K. and the Computing Laboratory, University of Kent, UK. www.leshatton.org/Documents/Ariane5_STQE499.pdf

[Hyman2009] Peter Hyman. ‘Drop GCSEs. We should be teaching our children to think’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/aug/16/peter-hyman-education-teaching-exams

[Loganberry2004] David ‘Loganberry’, Frithaes! – an Introduction to Colloquial Lapine!, http://bitsnbobstones.watershipdown.org/lapine/overview.html

[Patriot] ‘Patriot Missile Software Problem’ Andrew Lum http://sydney.edu.au/engineering/it/~alum/patriot_bug.html

[Parkinson72] The fur-lined mousetrap, C.N. Parkinson, 1972

[Therac-25] An Investigation of the Therac-25 Accidents Nancy Leveson, University of Washington; Clark S. Turner, University of California, Irvine http://courses.cs.vt.edu/cs3604/lib/Therac_25/Therac_1.html

Overload Journal #106 - December 2011 + Process Topics