Clean Sweep

Software engineering isn’t philosophy, as fun as both of them are. There are certainly intersections, as HXA7241 (Harrison Ainsworth) recently described:

The single core idea (to be rather bold and sweeping) in philosophy is the distinction of necessary and contingent: ‘necessary’ being what is always true, what is known logically; ‘contingent’ being everything else, that may or may not be known or true according to circumstance.

The single core idea in software engineering is abstraction: which is the fusion of a fixed part with a varying part. And this maps exactly to necessary and contingent. An abstraction says that within its context a particular thing is necessary – the fixed part – but also that the rest is contingent – the varying part. (A single bit number is always a number – by definition, but it might be 0 or 1 – completely by circumstance.)

It is indeed a sweeping generalization, beautiful in its bold wrongness. Thinking mathematics was a science, Wittgenstein once said, was like mistaking the broom for the furniture. Similarly, when you pick up the broom to clean the room – when you put the toolset to use – the confusion disappears.

Now Ainsworth’s assertion is closer to Wittgenstein than the math / science analogy implies, because he is saying that both philosophy and software engineering are toolsets of a kind. (Elsewhere, in an interesting take I might well return to, he describes software engineering instead as engineering in a computational medium.) Even keeping in mind that in another post software engineering is defined as entirely concerned with how the software works. “It neither changes what is wanted, nor what can possibly be computed,” … but it does change what is wanted – the articulation of a possibility in software changes its future iterations through the evolution of human understanding of that possibility. It is less like a broom and more like a paintbrush. Or a Japanese fan. Picking it up changes the room.

Or a dodgy second-hand chainsaw, which only works when you hold it at a fifteen degree angle and rev the crap out of the engine. The machine-nature of useful semi-broken software – or software engineering – seems to strain the very limits of the metaphor. “Software is clarity,” Ainsworth writes. I guess he hasn’t used Microsoft Word.

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