(2012-04-19) Rao Ubihacking Non Disposable Planet

Venkatesh Rao has come to recognize the ubiquitous applicability of Hacking (Reality Hacker). *I now believe that the term hacking is not over-extended; it is actually under-extended. It should be applied to a much bigger range of activities, and to human endeavors on much larger scales, all the way up to human Civilization.

Hacking is a pattern of local, opportunistic manipulation of a Non Disposable Complex System that causes a lowering of its Conceptual Integrity (Coherence), creates Systemic Debt (Technical Debt) and moves intelligence from systems into human brains (cf Slack).

Urban Planning is a better prototypical example to think about when talking about hacking than software itself, since it is so visual. Even programmers and UX designers themselves resort to urban planning Metaphor-s to talk about complicated software ideas. If you want to ponder examples for some of the abstractions I am talking about here, I suggest you think in terms of city-hacking rather than software hacking, even if you are a programmer.

For the overall vision of Hack Stability, think about any major urban region with its never-ending construction and infrastructure projects ranging from emergency repairs to new mass-transit or water/sewage projects. If a large city is thriving and persisting, it is likely hackstable. Increasingly, the entire planet is hackstable. The atomic prototype of hacking is the Short Cut. (hmm, Anti-Fragility?)

Joel Spolsky offers practical reasons why this (major software rewrite) is a bad idea, but what I took away from the post was a broader idea: that it is increasingly a mistake to treat any technology as disposable. Technology is fundamentally not a do-over game today. It is a cumulative game. This has been especially true in the last century, as all technology infrastructure has gotten increasingly inter-connected and temporally Layer-ed into techno-geological strata of varying levels of antiquity.

Non Disposability along with global functional and temporal connectedness (Tightly Coupled) means technology Is A (ahem, "can for some purposes be thought of like a"...) single evolving entity with a memory. For such systems the notion of Technical Debt, due to Ward Cunningham, becomes important... How ubiquitous is non-disposability? I am tempted to conclude that almost nothing of significance is disposable... The new information revealed by the hack is, by definition, not properly codified and embedded in the system itself, so most of it must live in a human brain as tacit design intelligence (the rest lives in the hack itself, representing the value that Spolsky argues should not be throw away). When you have a complex and heavily-used, but slowly-evolving technology, this Tacit Knowledge accumulating in the heads of hackers constitutes what James Scott (Legibility) calls Metis. (This reminds me of 2007-01-20-YeggeGreatSoftwareSystems. Also Big Ball Of Mud, also note this is a Fractal system of systems.)

Beyond a certain critical scale, you can never throw a system away because there is no hope of ever finding the wealth to pay off the accumulated technical debt via a new design. The redesign itself experiences scope creep and spirals out of the realm of human capability.

All you can hope for is to keep hacking and extending its life in increasingly brittle ways, and hope to avoid a big random event that triggers collapse. This is technological deficit economics.

Now extend the argument to all of Civilization as a single massive technology that can never be thrown away, and you can make sense of the idea of Hack Stability as an alternative to Collapse.

At this point, it is useful to look for more examples that fit the definition of hacking I offered. The following seem to fit:... (9 examples)... The really interesting cases are the ones where one side is a human intelligence, and the other side is a non-human system that simply gets more complex and less disposable over time.

Hack Stability is the idea that we’ll get enough Autopoietic Lift through hacks and occasional advances in anti-fragile system design to just balance entropy gravity, but not enough to drive exponential Self Improvement (Singularity).

I am beginning to see the murky outlines of a clean evolutionary model that encompasses all three futures though. One with enough predictive power to allow coarse computation of the relative probabilities of the three futures. This is the idea I’ve labeled the Electric Leviathan, and chased for several years. But it remains ever elusive. Each time I think I’ve found the right way to model it, it turns out I’ve just missed my mark. Maybe the idea is my white whale and I’ll never manage a digital-age update to Thomas Hobbes. *


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