Book quotes and commentary: _Software Theory_ by Federica Frabetti

In which Frederica Frabetti locates the “points of opacity” – malfunction – in/of software through study of the Garmisch (Germany) report – a foundational text of software from the first Conference on Software Engineering in 1968 organized by the NATO Science Committee. (Also careful you don’t mince the word “Garmisch” into Gramsci.)

”…these two aspects…the necessity of calculating incalculable risks, and of attributing responsibility for them…is a point where software engineering ‘undoes itself’ precisely at the moment of its constitution.” -p75

As in discovering responsibility outside of the software: in the likeness of user demands, society’s problems, ever-increasing demands on existing software from users.

”…there are problems out there that software helps to solve.” -p79

”…the system and it’s development are never clearly separated” -78

”…they must acknowledge that such a process is not in fact linear, but at the same time they have to avoid backward steps at all cost.” -p78

And how professionalization, as in the planning and management of software development over time – or formalism, or “linearization”; where we literally write many things to organize time (external and internal design specs, JIRA stories, prototypes, then finally the code (I guess) etc…) – relegates software to the realm of instrumentality and further destabilizes what software is; albeit by attempting to create an interiorized structure that skirts isolation. Thus the evergreen frustrations of the business side.

”…this appeal to the lineraization of time is part of the general attempt to ‘control’ software – that is, to think of software in instrumental terms.”

”…software is both a problem and a solution – indeed, it emerges at the point where the distinction between the two becomes undone and it exists only as the precarious stabilization of this distinction.” -p81

Software development is a fleeting discipline. I guess a line of flight in the rhizome. So maybe we’re hearding rats not cats. This partly explains, for me, why I can iterate again and again over a simple “implementation.” Because we’re never done, we’re always undone.

Hence our continued, common problematic to characterize when commercial software development happens. Is it when you change all var to let? The moment your brain begins to mull over a requirement presented by your PM in sprint planning? The final inscription of the company’s mission statement? During a whiteboarding design exercise? The moments of realization you have in the shower, during a lunch conversation? The isncription of an idea you copy/steal from your last job without attribution? The deletion of unused code? The moment you decide to delete the unused code?

Or perhaps the moment we recognize it is bound to break, malfunction, fail:

”…software engineering performs an impossible expulsion of consititutive failure from technology, with this move establishing itself as a discipline.” -p76

And further, what else software development is. Because it couldn’t just be about formalizing the process, right? Because how do we account for the incalculability of costs/time between problem and solution?

“Thus, Dijkstra resorts to individual creativeity – or, as Derrida would have it, ‘genius’ – as an explanation for what is in excess of a procedural method and constitutes a leap beyond the programmable.” -p82

But others from the conference warn about the cult of genius. Interesting earlier this year I was mulling over a similar intervention four decades later:

“The ‘exessive’ creativity of the ‘system type’ is in turn portrayed as ‘bad’ unexpected–something that exceeds the management of the project and threatens it.” -p84

Replace “system type” with our modern-day 10x programmer or rockstar and it’s comforting to think that 50 years ago computer scientists were already weary of the danger this person posed to software development. It certainly seems like Frabetti is jabbing at that here.

Software resists instrumentality, to be merely called “code”; it follows, then, that engineers resist becoming fungible resources in a complicated domain space. Software’s realization is a co-consititutive process of increasing understanding of the problem and the solving of the problem itself. I like the way this passage sums it up:

“How can something based on the lack of knowledge be realized successfully? This paradox clarifies the particular understanding of time that programmers develop in their interaction with software. Not only does one find out what the system does only by constructing it; the original ignorance of what the system does is constitutive of the system…Infelicity is constitutive of the possibility of felicity…One always starts albeit one does not know what will be.” -p90

Of course, the solution is never an end. Or have you ever built software that should not be extensible?

Ross Chapman @internetross