I’m not sure whether or not to be surprised when computer programming and philosophy collide. The two disciplines seem so incompatible, yet are both based on an ability to look at the world and discern truisms in the way things behave. It is always fascinating to me when I discover some fundamental truism in life that is reflected in, or uncovered by, a piece of software. This will hopefully be the first in a series of articles on the subject.
The most philosophically influential software I’ve encountered was a Plague applet I wrote about 8 years ago while working on a more realistic variation of the Game of Life. Among other things, the applet reveals the cyclic nature of a natural system that is balanced by opposing forces. Which, I suppose, is where the saying, “The only constant is change” comes from.
However, the most important thing it revealed to me was how balanced systems react when attempts are made to suppress one or more of the forces at work. Such suppression will work for a little while but the system eventually adapts and returns to more or less the same state as before. The only problem being that maintaining the that state now requires you to keep the suppression measure in place; as soon as you remove it, the opposing force – now stronger and more evolved – will run rampant.
The real-world example – the one on which the applet is based – is our modern dependency on antibiotics. They worked great when initially developed. But as their use has become pervasive, we are starting to see reduced efficacy and the emergence of “super germs”.
It’s not just medicine where we see such behavior. Virtually every aspect of our modern world behaves this way to some degree: the Cuban Trade embargo, the fight for water in the American Southwest, carpool lanes, rent controlled apartments and most especially the War on Terror. All are dynamic systems that react in unpredictable ways to attempts to influence them.
Thus, as a society we need to be much more critical of the policies and infrastructure we develop because short term fixes that are simply responses to a surge in public opinion or an anomalous event, create political, social, and technological dependencies that last for generations.