A Message to Fellow IT/Software Pros
The world of software is at the very apex of evolution. Life can be seen as a sort of ongoing chain-reaction of “order”. If we go back in time about 4 billion years we could say that there was 0 or very little “biomass”, in other words, matter that was transformed and incorporated into these self-sustaining chain-reactions of order/life. Today we not only have biological order, we have social order, what Herbert Spencer referred to as the “Social Organism”. The ‘Social Organism’ is rapidly growing and increasing the rate at which it transforms the earth’s matter into human usable wealth. Every year, highly automated building-sized machinery in the mining industries across the entire world scrape/mine less than 4 cubic miles of matter from the earth’s massive volume of 260 billion cubic miles. This matter is ‘collaboratively transformed’ or relocated by millions of people as trillions of dollars’ worth of wealth in terms of cars/computers/buildings/refrigerators/products/etc. are produced thus increasing the word’s economic pie of wealth and social order. Living things don’t just act randomly, they require precise knowledge/information to move the matter around in a way that keeps the “order”/life going. For billions of years, most information needed to create life was stored in genes, which changed very slowly via biological evolution. About 500 million years ago, life-forms with brains began to emerge which allowed information to be stored outside of genes leading to more flexible and superior decision-making. Eventually life-forms evolved that used their brains to be increasingly “social”, and cooperate with others to reach even higher levels of productivity/fitness/competitiveness, which leads us to ourselves, anatomically-modern man. Tribal man was doing relatively great compared to other species, but with at most about 150 brains per tribe and most people knowing how to do similar things, which meant information was more or less repeated across each brain, the social order had to remain relatively simple and backward/tribal. Then, during the last 30,000 or so years, something wonderful happened, something as momentous in the history of life as the emergence of biological evolution and genetics. The so-called ‘market process’ and its various components like trade, money, profit/loss calculation, economic competition and interest rate coordination, began to emerge and radically alter the way the social order worked. The aforementioned components will be discussed in detail in the next few minutes but let us devote a single sentence to each one now, and their relation to software.
Trade enabled the ‘division of knowledge’ where thousands or millions of minds can specialize in different things, and by trading, have access to wealth that depended on knowledge stored in other minds that specialized in different things, like if a carpenter trades his services for a mechanic’s. Money overcame certain problems associated with direct exchange/barter, like how does a heart surgeon trade his much more expensive services for a toothpick, and money also enabled profit/loss calculation which allows each social order, person or company, to know that it is producing more than consuming thus being profitable. Economic competition motivated the creation and spread of superior knowledge and subsequent social order throughout society. And interest rates play a key role in pairing people’s saved wealth with the minds that have the best ideas. These mechanisms transformed tribal man into cells of the ‘Social Organism’. As wonderful as this was, knowledge was limited by the small number of brains needed to store such information and their rudimentary ability to process it, until computers and software came along.
As software developers and fellow travelers, we are at the apex of this evolutionary process. We describe knowledge using newly-evolved ‘programming languages’. Innovations like source-control, allow the trial and error needed to discover new knowledge to happen in less risky and faster ways than would have otherwise been the case. Algorithms, libraries, and entire frameworks/runtimes which package this knowledge in complementary ways, are competing against each other like different versions of genes (alleles) which provide similar functionality for the organism/society. Sometimes libraries contain functions/information which are no longer invoked and might even cause errors should they be invoked because perhaps some dependency has changed. These functions/information can be allowed to deteriorate/‘mutate’ without negatively affecting the software’s overall functionality or purpose. We see the same ‘pattern’ in biological life. Seventy-five million years ago, our ancestors were mouse-like creatures, as we evolved some of the genes that described this mouse-like animal changed but others remained in our genomes and are just skipped/ignored and allowed to mutate without really affecting us. Our more mouse-like ancestors had genes that described how to make a superior olfactory system than the one we have today. But it seems that as our vision became better and better and we relied more on it for our survival, such wonderful olfactory system lost its importance and the genes responsible for it were able to mutate to the point where the olfactory system degraded but it did not cost us our continued existence.
At its most fundamental level, evolution through natural selection is like a very simple algorithm that creates order (which requires precise knowledge). First it evolved the biological evolution and genetics we were taught in school, and then it evolved ‘the market process’ which hardly anyone in the entire planet is aware of and much less understands. Although clever comparisons between biological evolution and the new world of software might lead to useful insights, such insights will pale in comparison to the need for a basic understanding of what the market process is and how it works to spread through the upper ranks of the software/IT world.
In August 10, 1915, British physicist Henry Mosely, who would have probably won the Nobel Prize that year, died in perhaps the stupidest and most disastrous conflict mankind has been involved in, The First World War. Yet this horrific conflict and much that grew from it like the birth of the Soviet Union, The Second World War, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and its numerous ramifications, were mostly an outgrowth of economic ignorance. Had world and entrepreneurial leaders understood the workings of “the market process”, the vital role that economic freedom plays in it, and the fact that “empire” or overseas colonies and overall militarism are horrible for the economy, the conflict could have been easily avoided. Today we find ourselves in a similar situation. Today the world is littered with nuclear weapons, and major leaders are constantly vilifying each other. As of this writing the US has sanctions against Russia and risks conflicts with China over some insignificant little islands and now the Coronavirus blame-game. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has ramifications which affect the entire world in countless ways. We had managed to avoid a WWII-like calamity for about 80 years, but sure enough, this Coronavirus lockdowns and related polarization might prove to be mankind’s Final Disaster. Why is it that so many of us who work in big tech and the IT/Software field in general, can so easily collaborate with friends from all over the world and within our companies easily prove to mankind how all human beings from every country/culture/religion can easily get along and evolve a culture of hard work and mutual respect yet our tribalistic governments are always one spark away from disaster? The point is that the world had plenty of so-called “experts” and scholars in 1914 and 1939 when the world wars got started. As long as the same intellectual errors persist, so will the high probability of another disaster and our continued path away from the tremendous amount of peace and socioeconomic prosperity we can and should be enjoying. Countless bright individuals are working on amazing breakthroughs like Henry was, especially in the software sector, yet the proper understanding of peace, how the economy can and should work, in other words, how the market process/economy works to create a prosperous social order which is ultimately responsible for the freedom and socioeconomic prosperity which enables all life and scientific progress, remains as unknown to such bright individuals as it did to the numerous scientists and entrepreneurs who allowed themselves to be swayed into such a horrific conflict when they could have easily prevented it. The point to be stressed is that the proper understanding of economics should be a top priority, especially for those very bright individuals who are leaders in their respective fields. What good is being an ambitious software developer working on the latest technology (a Henry of our day) if economically clueless tribalistic politicians take mankind towards another disaster? Take someone like Linus Torvalds, as mind-boggling as his contributions to the software industry via his creation and management of Linux, and then git!, his contributions are incomparable in importance to those of perhaps the greatest economist of all time, Ludwig von Mises. By 1920, with the publication of his essay “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” Mises had provided a simple yet infallible destruction of Socialism, yet the numerous economic fallacies that underpinned it still managed to spread and destroy hundreds of millions of lives, not to mention the socioeconomic advancement that would have otherwise taken place.
It is the IT/Software world that is full of today’s most ambitious intellectual dreamers, it is the IT/Software world and the Facebooks, and Youtubes, etc. who have the power to quickly disseminate ideas, so let us coordinate to ensure that we understand how freedom and competition has coordinated our sector so wonderfully, and then use our multinational connections to help spread such wisdom to our tribal politicians before it is too late.