Tuesday, July 07, 2015

competing structures

Lately I've been describing examples of ideas that overlap between my software career and my philosophical positions. The foremost consequence is the thorough puncturing of information's abstract mystique. First, the traceable meaningfulness of information is rooted in the corresponding work performed by teams of computers and humans; conversely, the traceable meaning of the work is shown in the corresponding transformations of information that the work achieved. This principle underscores that information is tied to concrete efforts, and it doesn't arise out of nothing or exist independently. Second, when a computer performs information work, the humdrum process backing it is less like mystical transfiguration than like sending water through a dauntingly intricate maze of pipes, as countless synchronized valves rapidly toggle. This principle underscores that neither information nor its changes have nonphysical foundations.

The third example of overlap is the competition among structures to be used in software projects. Projects have more than one hypothetical solution. A solution contains particular structures to represent and store the targeted information, e.g. a short alphanumeric sequence for a license plate. Additionally, the solution has a structure for the code to manipulate the information, a structure which joins together separate actions for differing circumstances (an algorithm governing algorithms). Thus, depending on the analyst's choices, the total solution houses information in varying discrete sets of structures. Each set might be functional and intelligible. Nevertheless, the structures could have serious faults relative to one another: redundant, complicated, circuitous, simplistic, disorganized, bewildering, fragile. What's worse, frequently the problems aren't apparent until more time passes, at which point the structures need to be delicately replaced or reshaped. Not all of the prospective structures that are doable for the project are equally faultless and prudent. And this is reconfirmed once shortsighted structures proceed to collide with challenging realities. ("I wish these modifications had been anticipated before the structure of this code was chosen.")

Instructive parallels to the principle of competing structures aren't hard to find outside of software. In so many subtle, open-ended contexts, there isn't a uniquely correct conclusion strictly reachable through systematic steps of deductive logic. As a result, humans end up with widely divergent "mental structures" as they attempt to grasp their confusing experiences. While they don't need to turn those structures into effective software, they do need to apply these structures of interpretation to bring order to their thoughts and acts. If they're considered sane, a lot of their adopted structures probably have at least a little coherency and accuracy. As disparate as the structures might be, obviously each is good enough in the adopter's estimation. The differences might even be superficial on closer examination. After all, as much as possible the entire group of structures should be accommodating constraints that are universal: the crucial details asserted by reliable evidence and/or by other, prior. well-established structures.

Regardless, again like the technological structures in software projects, the potential for numerous candidates does not imply that all have identical quality as judged by every standard. An organizing structure can be possible without attaining a competitive level of plausibility. Although the normal complexities of existence might not dictate an obvious and definitive singular structure, intense critique casts doubt on some candidate structures more than others. For instance, belief structures seem more dubious after calling for repeated drastic revisions, i.e. retcons. So are structures that propose "backstage" causes which happen to be almost completely undetectable by impartial investigators. Structures that avoid claiming unbounded certainty merely earn a ribbon for sincere participation in the competition of realistic ideas, not instantly gain as much credibility as the leading structures that also avoid this glaring flaw.

The criteria for ranking require great care as well. Explanatory structures should compete based on thoughtful neutral guidelines, not on indulgence of the favoritism embedded in preconceptions and preferences. Brisk disregard of a structure's failure to withstand unbiased evaluation is an error-prone strategy. Note that like items placed indifferently on the pans of a balance scale, directly measuring one structure alongside a second shouldn't be construed as close-minded disrespect toward either—provided the method of comparison in fact fair and not like a tilted scale.

Generally speaking, the principle of competing structures thrives in the commonplace domains that are unsuitable for the two extreme alternatives. These are domains where there isn't one indisputable answer, but at the same time the multitude of answers aren't of uniform worth by any means. Of course, software projects are far from the only case. For an art commission, a dazzling breadth of works would meet the bare specifications...though some might consistently evoke uncomplimentary descriptions such as insipid, garish, disjointed, derivative, slapdash, repellent, etc. Out of all the works that qualified for the commission, who would then foolishly suggest that some couldn't be shoddier than the rest, or that comparative shoddiness doesn't matter?

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