Favorite Reads: Karl Popper, “The Open Society”

Favorite Reads: Karl Popper, “The Open Society”

Fifth in a series of favorite reads on human nature, society and information technology.

When Karl Popper made the case in 1943 for guiding human society in an open manner with modest ‘piecemeal’ social engineering replacing grand ‘oracular philosophy’, his arguments foreshadowed a battle waged over how to develop software systems. Popper reminded us of a much older question: Should aristocracies make decisions on behalf of the general populace, or could the populace be trusted to judge and decide on the best course of action? In the software realm, ‘oracular’ interests favored specification-driven methodologies while ‘piecemeal’ advocates argued for an iterative prototyping approach.

Centuries passed before democratic institutions could establish their efficacy in the eyes of the world. But only a few decades were required to confirm the viability and enhanced quality of software systems developed iteratively in an open manner. The parallels between Popper’s prescriptions for humanity and the ideas espoused by the open source software movement beg for a careful study of both.


Favorite Reads: Jorge Luis Borges, “Ficciones”

Fourth in a series of favorite reads on human nature, society and information technology.

The celebrated collection of short stories in “Ficciones” so impressed me that the author, Jorge Borges immediately became my favorite fiction writer ever. I vividly remember “The Babylon Lottery”, about a society addicted to a lottery run by a mysterious company where winning meant the fulfillment of dreams while losing meant death. Of course, my one sentence summary does a huge injustice to the piece, which like all the stories in the book, seems to conjure up our deepest debates about human nature and how we should best structure our society.

My gushing admiration for Borges was shared by Herbert Simon, who devoted a chapter in his autobiography to a personal encounter with the great writer. Quoting Simon (“Models of My Life”, Chap. 11 Mazes Without Minotaurs):

“In December 1970, Dorothea and I visited Argentina, where I was to give some lectures on management. In my correspondence about arrangements, I did something I have never done before nor since — I asked for an audience with a celebrity. For a decade, I had admired the stories of Jorge Borges… I wrote to him…”.

I wish I could have been there to witness the subsequent meeting between the great American social scientist and the Argentine literary giant.


Favorite Reads: Christopher Alexander, “The Timeless Way of Building”

Favorite Reads: Christopher Alexander, “The Timeless Way of Building”

The third in a series on favorite reads related to human nature, society and information technology

I marvel at the ‘great’ architecture of the world, both modern and ancient. I even cherish a baseball autographed for me in 1988 by the renowned architect Frank O. Gehry. Yet I find other places shaped by anonymous collaborators perhaps more inspiring. I refer from experience to the Cinque Terre in Italy, Santorini in Greece, and Lijiang in China. These built environments posess grace and charm beyond description. Each is magically gratifying to stroll through, and draws admirers from throughout the world.

When the architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander speaks of architecture fit for living in, I believe he has such examples in mind. He champions an ‘unheroic’ architecture, where the people of a community assume primary responsibility for shaping their living environment, applying proven design patterns to suit their aims, perhaps under the guidance of a new type of architect who helps them with the planning, design and building process. Alexander’s arguments are profoundly democratic, and represent a dissenting voice within an historically aristocratic profession.

Alexander champions iterative approaches to design and construction as the best means of creating truly livable communities and towns. Though his ideas have been criticised within his own profession as impractical, they have been embraced by software developers, many of whom favor deploying rough implementations of applications quickly, and seek user feedback to shape subsequent revisions. The prevailing modern programming languages support this process explicity. Admirers speculate Alexander will ultimately have a greater impact on computer science than on architecture.


Favorite Reads: John R. Searle, “Mind, Language and Society”

Favorite Reads: John R. Searle, “Mind, Language and Society”

Another of my occassional entries on some favorite reads on human nature, society and information technology.

Since I started my ‘favorite reads’ list with a founding father of artificial intelligence research, perhaps it is fitting to next mention a famous critic. John R. Searle achieved notoriety for a critique of AI known as the Chinese Room Argument. The ensuing controversy kept a few generations of graduate students and journalists well-occupied.

In “Mind, Language and Society”, Searle provides a lay summary of his life’s work. The book outlines Searle’s efforts to demystify the human mind by removing the cultural baggage which hinders objective analysis of it. For Searle, the mind is an impressive biological organ which in the human species is able to generate language. Language provides the mechanical foundation for our most distinctive talent — the ability to construct social realities on top of the physical realities around us. While attempting to outline the mechanisms by which humans are able to create stuff like culture, Searle hopes to bring the dispassionate methods of empirical science to a realm often shrouded in mystical terminology.

Searle’s ideas about language and the construction of social realities seem especially interesting given the rise of the Internet. People now have widespread access to social software. These new tools simplify the creation of human institutions that may have no physical presence other than the digital bits on a server’s hard drive.

It is noteworthy that Searle’s social and physical realities seem to parallel Herbert Simon’s artificial and natural worlds (see below).


Favorite Reads: Herbert A. Simon, ‘Sciences of the Artificial’

Favorite Reads: Herbert A. Simon, ‘Sciences of the Artificial’

This represents the first in a series of occassional entries on some of my favorite reads on human nature, society and information technology.

In 1990, I had the good fortune to stumble upon the late Herbert A. Simon’s Hitchcock Lectures at U.C. Berkeley. In a series of three talks loosely related to cognitive science, Simon addressed the schism between the arts and the sciences, and attempted to show how each could advance the other. During one memorable example in support of the above, he demonstrated how visual inspection could solve a physics problem far more effectively than mathematical analysis.

Simon displayed the most stunning intellect I had ever encountered face-to-face. Of course, I was hardly alone in this assessment. By that point, he was already a Nobel Laureate in economics, a recognized ‘father of artificial intelligence’, and a distinguished ‘professor of everything‘ at Carnegie Mellon University.

A number of years after that encounter, I picked up a copy of Simon’s ‘The Sciences of the Artificial’, an ecclectic treatise originally published in 1969 on the social sciences, human nature and the design of complex systems. The ‘natural’ world was the world provided by nature. The ‘artificial’ world explored by the book was the world shaped through the imagination of humans, encompassing cities, social institutions and computer programs. In a compact 216 pages, Simon thus managed to relate information technology to everything.

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