Eponymous Laws and the Invasion of Technology

Unless you’ve had your head buried in a devilish software project that has consumed your every waking hour over the last month or so you cannot help but have noticed technology has been getting a lot of bad press lately. Here are some recent news stories that make one wonder whether our technology maybe running away from us.

Is this just the internet reaching a level of maturity that past technologies from the humble telephone, the VCR and the now ubiquitous games consoles have been through or is there something really sinister going on here? What is the implication of all this on the software architect, should we care or do we just stick our head in the sand and keep on building the systems that enable all of the above, and more, to happen?

Here are three epnymous laws* which I think could have been use to predict much of this:

  • Metcalfe’s law (circa 1980): “The value of a system grows as approximately the square of the number of users of the system.” A variation on this is Sarnoff’s law: “The value of a broadcast network is proportional to the number of viewers.”
  • Though I’ve never seen this described as an eponymous law, my feeling is it should be. It’s a quote from Marshall McLuhan (from his book UnderstandingMedia: The Extensions of Man published in 1964): “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
  • Clarkes third law (from 1962): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is from Aurthur C. Clarke’s book Profiles of the Future.

Whilst Metcalfe’s law talks of the value of a system growing proportionally as the number of users increases I suspect the same law applies to the disadvantage or detriment of such systems. As more people use a system, the more of them there will be to seek out ways of misusing that system. If only 0.1% of the 2.4 billion people who use the internet use it for illicit purposes that still makes a whopping 2.4 million. A number set to grow just as the number of online users grows.

As to Marshall McLuhan’s law, isn’t the stage we are at with the internet just that? The web is (possibly) beginning to shape us in terms of the way we think and behave. Should we be worried? Possibly. It’s probably too early to tell and there is a lack of hard scientific evidence either way to decide. I suspect this is going to be ripe ground for PhD theses for some years to come. In the meantime there are several more popular theses from the likes of Clay Shirky, Nicholas Carr, Aleks Krotoski and Baroness Susan Greenfield who describe the positive and negative aspects of our online addictions.

And so to Aurthur C, Clarke. I’ve always loved both his non-fiction and science fiction writing and this is possibly one of his most incisive prophecies. It feels to me that technology has probably reached the stage where most of the population really do perceive it as “magic”. And therein lies the problem. Once we stop understanding how something works we just start to believe in it almost unquestioningly. How many of us give a second thought when we climb aboard an aeroplane or train or give ourselves up to our doctors and nurses treating us with drugs unimagined even only a few years ago?

In his essay PRISM is the dark side of design thinking Sam Jacob asks what America’s PRISM surveillance program tells us about design thinking and concludes:

Design thinking annexes the perceived power of design and folds it into the development of systems rather than things. It’s a design ideology that is now pervasive, seeping into the design of government and legislation (for example, the UK Government’s Nudge Unit which works on behavioral design) and the interfaces of democracy (see the Design of the Year award-winning .gov.uk). If these are examples of ways in which design can help develop an open-access, digital democracy, Prism is its inverted image. The black mirror of democratic design, the dark side of design thinking. Back in 1942 the science fiction author Isaac Asimov proposed the three laws of robotics as an inbuilt safety feature of what was then thought likely to become the dominant technology of the latter part of the 20th century, namely intelligent robots. Robots, at least in the form Asimov predicted, have not yet come to pass however, in the internet, we have probably built a technology even more powerful and with more far reaching implications. Maybe, as at least one person as suggested, we should be considering the equivalent of Asimov’s three laws for the internet? Maybe it’s time that we as software architects, the main group of people who are building these systems, should begin thinking about some inbuilt safety mechanisms for the systems we are creating?

*An eponym is a person or thing, whether real or fictional, after which a particular place, tribe, era, discovery, or other item is named. So called eponymous laws are succinct observations or predictions named after a person (either by the persons themselves or by someone else ascribing the law to that person).

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