Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Rambling Rex

Charlie Stross recently posted on his blog one of the ways in which modern technology resembles old-school fantasy magic. In one sense this is a trivial observation. Arthur C. Clarke, Florence Ambrose, and Agatha Hetrodyne have previously spun riffs on this.

But in another sense the insight is fresh. Modern technological artifacts are understandable, but very nearly un-comprehendible. And hand in hand with this is an increasing lack of user serviceability.

This is something the Maker movement has confronted. So much of our daily infrastructure is presented as inherently indecipherable. Consumer electronics -- both by design and as a natural outgrowth of the technologies of production -- are intended to be seen by the end-user as black boxes. The clearest point of this evolution, to me, is when Apple began putting their cases together with an extra-long torx key; a tool most end users would not have in their tool box.

Because of competition and industrial espionage, many pieces of equipment have the labels scraped off the chips, or the chips potted, to make reverse engineering harder. Now, there are people who have gone all the way down to analyzing micrographs to reverse-engineer a chip down to the transistor level. But for many of us, the need for increasingly specialized tools and specialized knowledge means even such hobbies as backyard mechanic are falling by the wayside.

So, practically, a great many things end up being treated as black boxes. Or, as Charlie put it, the kind of easy-to-use, easy-to-understand magic artifacts in a D&D game. Add to this a few layers of marketing-driven obfuscation, and the result is an end-user who expects their smart phone to work, transparently, all the time -- who is not expected to (when not actively prevented from) knowing what the real limitations of the technology and underlying science might be.

The place where it hits people like me, often enough, is when end-users extrapolate unfairly. They don't understand why the sound in an acoustically complex auditorium seating six hundred people can't sound just like the headphones on their iPod. And the reason is that so much is being done behind the curtain; automatic gain control, EQ curves tailored to in-ear transducers, leverage of psychoacoustic effects, etc., etc.

In short, the black box makes it look simpler than it is. And the nature of that black box makes it extremely difficult -- and, in practical terms, usually non-productive -- to try to open the lid.

Hacker mentality is about prying open the boxes whenever possible. It is about sufficient comprehension of the magic (and often leads to trickles of leaking Magic Smoke. Part of the Maker movement is a similar unpacking of the physical layer of modern technologies. There is something empowering about making your own injection-molded part or graphite-reinforced frame.

Or machining. I may be reading things that aren't there, but I think there is a healthy self-skepticism in the Maker movement. That Makers are aware that their knowledge is incomplete, even dangerously incomplete.

I am sitting here looking at a chunk of aluminium stock. It has markings on one end left over from the lathing I did to the rest of the piece. But I think if it in terms of one layer of archaeological investigation. One peel of the onion skin. How curves get into a piece of stock are not a mystery to me any more. More than intellectual knowledge, I have direct physical experience in cutting those curves on a lathe.

Into the next layer, I have some sense of the way different alloys are available, what an alloy is, what the properties are. I've direct lathing experience with a couple of different alloys, and that gives me a framework to at least have some sense of understanding what "corrosion resistance" and "machine-ability" mean in practical terms.

But even here -- when I order metal online, I sometimes get copies of the "MTR's and Certs of Conformance." Which I can only barely read, and have almost no understanding of how they are used. I am well aware that there are aspects to cutting a shape out of aluminium that are well and beyond my knowledge base.

And that's just cutting. Someone actually made that alloy. Someone mined that bauxite (or whatever). There are so many steps, so many associated processes, so many different sciences that were involved at some point in the bringing of that chunk of stock to where I can stick it in a lathe, it would be a lifetime of study to properly understand them all.

One word I use for this is footprint. Technologies have a footprint. The more complex a technology, the larger the required ecosystem.

If this is true of a pencil, imagine how much more true it is of an iPad.

Well, that is a bit unfair. We don't have to understand gravity in order to model it. We don't need to track aluminium all the way back to stellar nucleosynthesis in order to be able to lathe it properly. We don't have to be Thomas Thwaites, who decided to make a toaster from scratch. (Maybe he doesn't like Apple Pie?)

But it can be said that no one person can build an iPad. And that no one person designed it. It isn't quite the same as saying no one person could design one, but it is quite unlikely any one person would have the range of specialties necessary. And besides, that's just not how industry works. There are project leaders, there are even visionaries, but no one person is tasked with personally doing all the grunt work. Heck, even composers have been using copyists and arrangers for hundreds of years.

This means the artifacts of our creation are one step divorced from our direct design. They arise in collaboration, by committee, using already-complex existing parts in the growing libraries, and on the back of trends and existing standards and back-compatibility and inherited (yet unexamined) design assumptions.

Fortunately, you don't have to recreate an artifact of the modern world from scratch. You just have to understand the real black box -- the essential behavior, stripped of the masking environment -- in order to re-purpose it.

You don't need to have been the original creator of the spells "Summon Monster" and "Displace Spell" to realize you could combine them and decoy an attacker into a nearby wall. And you don't need to identify all the chips inside a toy in order to circuit-bend it into a musical instrument.

So if we accept what Charlie is saying, the implication is clear. Hackers are munchkins.

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