The Bureaucracy of Automatons

An introduction to the notes on Confucian Software.

Software and the Sage

Among the many dissimilarities between software and gentlemen of the classical Chinese Spring and Autumn Period, two in particular stand out. One existed in a pre-scientific feudal society on an agricultural technological and economic base, and the other presupposes the scientific method and a modern (or post-modern) industrial base. Secondly, the concept of virtue or potency (德) is central to The Analects, but software artifacts are, in our day and age, non-sentient. Morality requires some degree of self-awareness – of consciousness – and so software does not itself practice virtue any more than a spoon or a lawnmower.

The immediate relevance, for a developer, of the Analects, are the two other grand concerns of Confucius, which are existential fundaments of software. These are names (名), and the rites (礼).

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The Nobility of Software Development

Confucians represent one of the earliest groups of knowledge workers in human history. They were trained in specialized knowledge for specialized tasks in a complex society, and they had a sense that their specialized knowledge made them an elite group in society. — Marc Hamann

Software development is both meritocratic and social. In the short and thoughtful note above, Marc Hamann argues this makes the thoughts of Confucius particularly relevant to the endeavour.

Marc well describes the sense of recognition I first felt when reading The Analects, the curiosity and respect for people that underlie this jumble of quotes from Confucius and his disciples. He also describes the disconnect between the brittle hierarchies of Confucianism in its most ossified form and the conservative anti-manifesto at its heart.

He also draws a contrast between the trope of the scruffy, arrogant hacker and the gentlemen 君子 in The Analects. Could we instead imagine a kind of nobility to software development? It would imply a sophisticated engagement and sense of duty to society that is the very opposite of the cliched antisocial developer who cares for nothing but code.

Nobility implies privilege and institutionally supported power as well, of course. But software development already has that. Software is pervasive within most social institutions – civil government, banks, the military, manufacturing, energy production, publishing, movies. It’s embedded in the way we communicate with one another and record our personal histories. And the job of software development is embedded along with it. Citizen programmers have jobs in all these places, vote, own houses, and are thoroughly woven into the social fabric.

The scruffy hacker avant-garde exists, and maybe its a breeder for technical innovation, sometimes. But it’s also a mask for hiding behind, and avoiding responsibility, as argued by historians of technology like Leo Marx.

It’s hard to escape that trope without alternatives. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates provide two: the first not scruffy, rigorous in his focus on usable design, the second for his philanthropic ambition. Their fabulous wealth limits our ability to emulate them. Perhaps someone like Confucius, with his respectfulness and humanism, his thoughts on working as part of a flawed system, can offer another model.

VII.1 Reuse

子日,述而不作,信而好古,窃比于我老彭. – 论语 七:一

The Master said, ‘I transmit but do not innovate; I am truthful in what I say and devoted to antiquity. I venture to compare myself to your Old P’eng.’ – Analects VII.1 (Lau)

Before contemplating the process implications of this radically static statement, let’s note that from the perspective of designed code itself, it is always true. Code transforms and transmits information. This is the garbage-in garbage-out principle. Designed code (not genetic or evolved code) does not innovate.

Backups of the user directory for the Analects’ source control repository are, alas, lost to antiquity, and though many sophisticated data recovery techniques have been tried, with some success, none have yielded the identity of Old P’eng. Our ignorance of him highlights our relationship with Confucius and with any classical tradition. To us, Confucius founded a philosophical school, but in his own words he merely continued a tradition that we can see indirectly, if at all.

Scholarly consensus is that Confucius is deliberately overstating his lack of innovation for reasons of rhetoric or modesty (see eg DC Lau, AC Graham, or just wikipedia on this verse). Nevertheless the verse is considered pivotal in understanding Confucius’ traditionalism and conservatism in a time of extraordinary violence and social change.

Existing solutions are useful in at least two ways. 

Firstly they may capture unintuitive theoretical results in accessible ways. Many algorithm design and data structure results are now in this category, such as sorting algorithms and efficient concurrent maps (eg the Java 6 lock free implementation of java.util.ConcurrentHashMap). The formal scientific characterization of such solutions in terms of, say, algorithmic complexity and performance benchmarks  make computer theoretic literacy crucial. Programmers will be unlikely to understand the derivation by reading the code, so they must be able to read the documentation. 

Secondly they may capture highly specific details of the environment and robust solutions to managing it. This will include successful workarounds for under-specified elements of protocols, or flat-out incorrect but popular implementations. Any user of say Ruby on Rails or Tomcat takes advantage of this kind of reuse. Consider too the domain specific details and tolerances of a fly-by-wire control system for a particular make and model of plane.

These two kinds of reuse may be contrived to lie on a spectrum, but I’ve chosen to distinguish them here for their correspondence to two different categories of knowledge – logos and metis. In classical Greek epistemology logos is theoretic universal knowledge and metis is hard won cunning, “feel”, or craft knowledge (as an aspect of techne, craft knowledge and theory). James C. Scott describes the Greek hero Odysseus, surgeons and maritime pilots as all relying on metis (Seeing Like A State). Scott also makes the connection between traditional knowledge – which is particular and tied to a society and geography – and common law conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott.

Confucius is claimed as a kind of Burkean conservative, for instance, by James Kalb. Both Confucius and Burke grew up in societies with small literate elites and large impoverished peasantries. They both share senses of the worth of settled convention, the importance of teaching and the literary canon, a paternalistic affection for heredity power, and a sympathy for the welfare of everyday people.  Neither are they reactionaries, but welcome improvement at a humane pace (IX.3).

Seeing Burke and Confucius as similar is not mainstream and deserves a dedicated analysis of its own. (My searches revealed more extant work linking both of them individually to Wittgenstein than to each other, but pointers are always welcome.) In a comprehensive entry for Burke in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ian Harris argues that despite being more often claimed by the right wing, he does not have a clear modern partisan successor. Nevertheless, distinguished scholars like DC Lau or AC Graham stay well clear of Western political comparisons, while happily comparing classical Chinese figures with Western philosophers. 

Unusually, a software library, and all the hard won craft knowledge that comes with it, can be imported into another with extraordinary ease when compared to other forms of craft knowledge. A pilot is of little advantage outside his home port, and Ruby on Rails is of little use for 3D rendering, but in software we can copy the pilot and use him on innumerable ships entering that port. We can also ultimately read the source code to Ruby on Rails and determine how it tolerates the idiosyncrasies of particular browsers and servers. This is because all code is built on a formal information substrate – the computational medium. (This is Harrison Ainsworth’s term and his note on reuse provided a number of the connections in this post.)

Not all craft knowledge of a codebase is encapsulated in the codebase. There are particularities of the install, workaround scripts, configuration, scheduled jobs and so on, but these are ultimately digital artifacts easily included within a slightly broader view of what a codebase is (this latter is a premise of DevOps and for anyone serious about a controlled environment). More problematically, there are conventions of use, design choices, oral traditions of “check here when you change there”, and so on. At the limit, all codebases are incomplete. They depend on co-texts, results and knowledge of the domain that need not be encoded. An air traffic control system does not need a textbook description of Bernoulli’s Principle.

Burke and Scott argue that in an established society important, non-obvious, traditional knowledge is captured in social conventions and established practice, and the practice cannot be simplified without a loss of valuable situational knowledge. Scott additionally points out that such an environment is very difficult for an outsider to navigate and there are strong motivations for central political power to apply simplifications to it.

Yet highly particular, ‘local’ code that requires hands on experience and knowledge of accompanying conventions most frequently has another name in software development: bad. Or: spaghetti. Or: legacy. The sentiment is well captured in Qi’s koan on fear, even if it does riff off an opposing classical Chinese tradition. (In Confucian terms we might note the building is not harmonious.)

In No Silver Bullet, Brooks distinguishes accidental and inherent complexity, with the latter being an attribute of the underlying problem rather than any specific software or hardware implementation. Complexity due to poor or improvable design is always accidental; that due to the problem domain is by definition inherent.

An aesthetic sense of good or poor design becomes crucial when pursuing aggressive reuse (VII.14). Without it you will simply perpetuate junk.

Having argued the link between conservatism and software reuse, it is worth being a little more precise about flavours of conservatism. William F. Buckley famously described it as that which “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” Despite its partisan origins, this is a good start, as it illustrates certain threads of environmentalism and the idea of heritage listing fall easily under the same banner. ((It is also useful to think of contemporary US Democrats defending Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, or opposition to changes to Britain’s NHS in this frame.))

In its purest form, this can be “return to a golden age” conservatism. There’s certainly an argument that Confucius would have been happy with a reversion to the society of the Eastern Zhou. We should again temper our interpretation by wondering how much is rhetoric covering adaptation of tradition to new times. In software, certainly, simply reactionary approaches are of little use. Brooks and the founders of eXtreme Programming have both noted that a more effective strategy is to embrace change. Oakeshott argues in On Being Conservative that settings of widespread and enthusiastic change are in particular need of an awareness of the value of what exists now. A traditionalist most often defends the present versus the future, not the past versus the present. This conservative disposition’s usefulness to software is more apparent if taken as an analytic tool rather than an inherent aspect of personality. After all, the greenfield doesn’t exist (see X.18), and any project that pretends to be a greenfield is an interesting lie.

Conservative thought in this vein usually emphasizes working within a tradition and a community – in software we would say platform. This also suggests interesting contours for the breadth of possible reuse; and there are other verses, such as XVI.11, where that might be explored. What is immediately apparent is the narrowness and fragility of an entirely in-house platform due to the smallness of its developer community; and the need for a shared jargon (XIII.3) and perhaps a canon (XVI.13).

Given the corpus of extant code in the form of libraries, to adore antiquity is to know your platform, including its innards, not just thoughtless rote quoting via copy and paste. At this moment in software, to reuse and extend is a greater service than extraneous self-involvement masquerading as innovation.

If you can easily find some code and copy it, you get the result at zero cost. That is an efficiency that cannot be beaten: no amount of programming tool and technique improvements can ever do that. So we want to maximise reuse. – Fred Brooks, No Silver Bullet

VII.14 The joys of music

子在齐闻韶,三月不知肉味,日,不图为乐之至于斯也。– 论语,七:十四

The Master heard the shao in Ch’i and for three months did not notice the taste of the meat he ate. He said, ‘I never dreamt that the joys of music could reach such heights.’ — Analects VII.14 (Lau)

When Ataturk said “There is no revolution without music,” he had a very specific type of music in mind. The founder of modern Turkey had already brought and led the country through extraordinary change, from wars through ways to dress through the structure of government. At least in Andrew Mango’s interpretation, adoption of the European classical music tradition could then stand as a culmination of that national modernization, a sign that Turkey had arrived.

For Confucius, too, music had moral and political weight as well as aesthetic. Harmony was of great importance to him as a political theorist and as a system designer. Different components work together in harmonious co-operation in a well-built system. Confucius saw a well-functioning state working the same way: for example in XII.11, when everyone from the ruler on knows their place in the system, they can work together.

Carol Michaelson and Neil Macgregor link Confucius’ sense of harmony with the grand bronze ceremonial bells of the Spring and Autumn Period 春秋时代. These were large, expensive, technically sophisticated objects, only within the reach of a lord of a state. We can even imagine this institutional sound being the rather austere music Confucius so enjoyed, though it could have equally been zithers and pan pipes on a more intimate scale.

It’s a very personal, visceral, human reaction captured here, with senses overwhelmed by an aesthetic experience. It shows this reaction to the harmony of a system – a system of instruments in this case – as an intuitive one. It’s also a refined sense. Confucius is, amongst other things, a music critic and a censor, as in XV.11, where he says “Banish the tunes of Cheng” 放郑声远.

This intuitive, trained, sense of how a system is assembled is of great value to a software developer. Kent Beck used the term Code Smell to refer to the sense something could be improved in a piece of software, based on a relatively short aquaintance with the code. Confucians have an auditory metaphor, rather than an olfactory one, but the idea of aesthetic cues for system building coming from non-conscious sources is the same. Code smells focus on the dischordant elements. Conversely, code can sing. The fix is in, everything compiles without warnings, the unit tests and acceptance tests are green, you deploy and run cleanly in production; the joys of software can reach such heights.

[B]elatedly we need to tell you that the musical ensemble would have been a happier mataphor[.] — DeMarco and Lister, Peopleware

XII.11 Let the prince be a prince 

Duke Ching of Ch’i asked Confucius about government. Confucius answered, ‘Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, the father a father, the son a son.’ The Duke said, ‘Splendid! Truly, if the ruler be not a ruler, the subject not a subject, the father not a father, the son not a son, then even if there be grain, would I get to eat it?’ — Analects XII.11 (Lau)

齐景公问政于孔子。孔子对日,君,君,臣,臣,父,父,孑,子。公日,善哉,信如君不君,臣不臣,父不父,子不子,虽有粟,吾得而食诸。- 论语,十二:十一

This is one of The Analects clearest statements of the feudal and patriarchal social order that would later get the name Confucianism. Detach it, for a moment, from that overwhelming cultural context, and it’s also an expression on separating design concerns. The two can be contrasted. Every political pundit is a social engineer. They either advocate improvement to the design of the state, or argue a change will break the existing system.

Mencius (孟子) expanded on this sentiment for one of the earliest recorded defenses of the division of labour (Book 3 part 1 chapter 4, 3-4). Labour specialization works because humans have limits on the complexity of a task they can undertake, and are not cloneable or particularly fungible. 

Software, by contrast, is highly specialized, but also cloneable at near zero cost. Software complexity has different boundaries. There are physical limits inherent to what Harrison Ainsworth calls engineering in a computational material. These are physical characteristics of algorithmic complexity or computability – limits on how fast a particular problem can be solved, if it can be solved at all. 

There are, by contrast, few physical limits to the conceptual complexity of a software component. Those measures like cyclomatic complexity – number of subtasks, variables and choices in a method – have high values, orders of magnitude short of the physical limits imposed by compilers and interpreters. (I once worked on a system where other team members had, in their wisdom, exceeded the limit for the size of a single Java method in a long list of simple business transformation rules. Pushed by the very essence of the language to refactor, they proceeded to – what else? – push the remaining rules into longMethod2().)

The limits which measures like cyclomatic complexity indicate are human limits. They mark the soft edges of a space where humans can effectively create, manage, or even understand software. There are different ways of describing coding conventions, but they all seek to indicate a limit beyond which code becomes illegible.

Legibility is the term James C. Scott uses to describe the social engineering needs of a nascent or established state (Seeing Like A State). The mechanics of a working state require internal legibility. Those working for it must be able to measure and understand their environment in mutually compatible terms which also promote the success of the government. This is why feudal states have such a profusion of titles which become the name of the person (not Bob – The Duke of Marlborough). It is also why courtly dress has such systematic rules. This is seen particularly in bureaucratic feudal states as seen historically in East Asia, eg in feudal Korea, but also in the Vatican, or the badges at the postmodern World Economic Forum. These codes serve the dual purpose of defining the interfaces of the state and of making the role of the person instantly legible to one familiar with the system, all while tempting people with the markings of social status.

Marking lexemes by colour and shape according to their role is exactly what IDE pretty printing achieves. This is also the intent behind decoupling, encapsulation, and well-named entities (name oriented software). It makes the role of a component, from lexical to method, class and class pattern levels, readily legible to humans who much maintain and extend the system. 

This strictness of role works well for machines made of non-sentient digital components. For systems where components are sentient meat, there are inevitable side effects. This is, perhaps, the core ethical dilemma Confucius concerns himself with: the demands of The State and The Way (道).

FUNCTIONS SHOULD DO ONE THING. THEY SHOULD DO IT WELL. THEY SHOULD DO IT ONLY. — Robert Martin, Clean Code