Programming the 21st Century

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The
recently-ended twentieth century is known for any number of positives,
with humanity's first walk on the moon, the harnessing of hydropower
and nuclear power to generate electricity, the growth in human population
to six billion inhabitants, the triumph over smallpox and polio,
and the general worldwide increase in wealth leading to the situation
at the century's end where the numbers of overweight and starving
people were nearly equal. Even so, the Y2k problem elicited a number
of wags to note that, since the computer systems would not know
that the year was not 1900, perhaps we could get a "do-over"
on the whole century.

The reason
for such wishful thinking is clear: the twentieth century saw two
massive world wars, a cold war with threats of nuclear annihilation,
and a gripping depression that birthed National Socialism and the
Soviet campaign of starvation in Ukraine. R J Rummel
estimated more than 170 million humans were murdered by differing
states and as high as 200 million died.

This came in
great contrast to the century that preceded it. The achievements
of the Western world in the nineteenth century, which we will date
starting with Beethoven's Eroica
symphony
in 1804 and end in 1908 with Mahler's
Eighth Symphony
and the rise of Schoenberg's
atonal music
present a record of achievement and growth that
it is stunning today to contemplate. In motion, we have the steamboat
in 1807, the railroad in 1825 or 1830, the automobile in 1885, electric
traction and independent multiple control in 1887, and the airplane
at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Electricity, telephones, fax machines, telegraph
wiring and wires, and international connectivity under the ocean
all saw first light in this timeframe. Scientific discoveries abounded,
with X-rays, the germ theory of disease, and the periodic table
of the elements being only three small examples from physics, biology
and chemistry. In art music, the Romantic era launched by Beethoven
swept Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and others in its wake; Verdi and
Puccini created timeless compositions for the dramatic stage. Politically,
regimes infringed on fewer human rights, especially in the area
of economics, and slavery, an ancient and worldwide practice, was
reduced to an insignificant institution by mostly nonviolent means,
excepting Haiti and the United States. For information systems purposes,
George Boole created a radically simplified logic that could be
decided by simple machines, Charles Babbage designed a machine that
could calculate, and Ada Lovelace demonstrated the skill of programming
logic machines.

It would be
understandable to fault the twentieth century for performing poorly.
However, we must also look to some of the problems bequeathed to
it by the nineteenth. First, that century spat forth the political
leaders responsible for most of those deaths by government, with
Stalin (1878), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882), Mussolini (1883),
Hitler (1889), and Mao (1893) being five of the top offenders. But
what allowed such leaders to pursue their campaigns grew from an
unresolved philosophical crisis as outlined by Friedrich Nietzsche:
the "death of God." As
explained by Tom Wolfe
, "Nietzsche said this was not a
declaration of atheism, although he was in fact an atheist, but
simply the news of an event. He called the death of God a u2018tremendous
event,' the greatest event of modern history. The news was that
educated people no longer believed in God, as a result of the rise
of rationalism and scientific thought, including Darwinism, over
the preceding 250 years. But before you atheists run up your flags
of triumph, he said, think of the implications. u2018The story I have
to tell,' wrote Nietzsche, u2018is the history of the next two centuries.'
He predicted (in Ecce Homo) that the twentieth century would
be a century of u2018wars such as have never happened on earth,' wars
catastrophic beyond all imagining. And why? Because human beings
would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their
guilt; but they would still be wracked by guilt, since guilt is
an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before
the age of reason. As a result, people would loathe not only one
another but themselves. The blind and reassuring faith they formerly
poured into their belief in God, said Nietzsche, they would now
pour into a belief in barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods: u2018If the
doctrines…of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man
and animal, doctrines I consider true but deadly' – he says
in an allusion to Darwinism in Untimely
Meditations
–u2018are hurled into the people for another generation…then
nobody should be surprised when…brotherhoods with the aim of the
robbery and exploitation of the non-brothers…will appear in the
arena of the future.'"

The first vision
of this death, however, was a result of one of the great discoveries
of 19th-century physics, the second law of thermodynamics. Stated
simply, it says that disorder (entropy) always increases in a closed
system; if the universe itself is a closed system, the universe
will eventually dissipate into nothingness. The phrase "the
heat death of the universe" had entered the vocabulary.

The dominant
school of thought of the nineteenth century if summarized in one
word, then, was materialism. Its influence extended to a number
of areas, including Marxian economics, Darwinian evolution, legal
positivism, and atonal music; a logical consequence of materialism
is the determinism that underlies much of Skinner's
behaviorism
. Indeed, if biology is naught but applied chemistry,
and chemistry is a science that follows exacting, deterministic
laws, then human thought and action, a biologic process, is nothing
more than the end result of a series of predictable chemical reactions
(with, perhaps, some randomness thrown into the chemistry by cosmic
rays) and completely lacking in what philosophers and theologians
call free will.

Against this
philosophic backdrop the (chronological) twentieth century sent
two intellectual warriors. Werner Heisenberg, born 1901, and Kurt
Gödel, born 1906, were two of the central players undermining
this deterministic, closed world. Heisenberg is best known for the
uncertainty
principle
, which states that it is not possible to simultaneously
know the momentum and position of an electron; determining one necessarily
changes the other. In other words, there is no objective, determined
result of an observation; the observer himself can change the result
of an observation at a low-enough level; Janna
Levin
observes that quantum mechanics means that chemical reactions
in the brain can no longer be deterministic, even while she doubts
that "random" provides any more room for a free will to
exist. Heisenberg became one of the founders of quantum mechanics,
which demonstrated that physics at a subatomic level was probabilistic.

Gödel
was a mathematician who worked on problems in the Principia Mathematica
(PM); as explained by Hofstadter,
PM was designed by Bertrand Russell to exclude "strange loops,"
one specifically stated as "Let
S be the set of all sets that don’t contain themselves. Does S contain
itself
?" PM was supposed to be a system that excluded such
self-referential items by establishing a series of axioms and conclusions
drawn from them; everything that was true in PM was supposed to
be derived from other things held to be true. Gödel discovered
a second, obscure meaning to each of the axioms in PM, however;
each true item in PM could be also represented by a number, and
it was possible to create, using these numbers, true statements
that were not derivable in PM. The statement he created was, essentially,
"I am not provable in PM." (If it is provable in PM, then
it is not true, which makes PM inconsistent; if it is not provable,
it is true, but PM is incomplete, as not all true items in PM can
be derived in it.) In essence, in the most precise system of rules
designed by mankind, it was not possible to elucidate all the true
statements within the system itself; a logical consequence of this
is that no other system of rules could be complete, undermining
any number of areas, including scientific socialism.

These two developments,
quantum mechanics and the incompleteness
theorem
, help to guide the direction that IS takes. The incompleteness
theorem is used to demonstrate the limits to what is computable,
through the Church-Turing
thesis. Quantum mechanics is the science that drives the increasing
capacity of information technology. In his 1960 article There's
plenty of room at the bottom
, physicist Richard Feynman
discussed the abundant space available for the storage of, say,
the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin (the religiously
oriented will recall the vision of heaven offered by CS Lewis in
1956' The
Last Battle
as an onion whose inner layers were "larger"
than its outer layers, a strikingly similar idea from the field
of literature). This vision becomes reality in the later part of
the 20th century and the next.

Two "laws"
discuss the resulting growth in capacity, Moore's Law and Metcalfe's
Law. They describe exponential processes of growth in transistors
and network value, respectively, and both go to explain a conundrum
as confusing as quantum mechanics for the person seeking to manage
change in information systems: the oncoming "free economy."
As
explained by Anderson
, the logic is this: if the cost of a transistor
drops by 50% every 18 months, eventually it will be so low as to
essentially be free; the same effect obtains in computer disk storage
where capacity has grown even faster than transistor density. (Indeed,
quantum mechanics undergirds this growth, and will need to be harnessed
to continue it.)

Metcalfe's
Law describes the increase in value of a network as you add more
nodes to it; the increase is greater than linear, so that more users
increase value more than they increase costs. (Think, for example,
of the utility of EBay, where having more buyers and sellers increases
the overall value of the network.) The ultimate example of the value
of a network comes from the World Wide Web. Here
the creators of Google found
, like Gödel, a second, hidden
meaning in the links that connected Web pages, a meta-meaning that
actually helped decide what web pages were most relevant when searching
for the answer to a web query. The resulting search engine has become
one of the greatest machines invented by mankind, and is the basis
for a corporation whose market capitalization as of May 1, 2008
is $180 billion, this for a company that did not exist ten years
prior.

The world of
information systems can offer exponential growth and wealth creation.
Integrating the exponentially-increasing bounty obtained from harnessing
quantum mechanics with the scarcity arising from the material world
is the central challenge of the 21st century. Information
systems is critical to this challenge; as a calculating and counting
machine, the computer has brought us the great age of quantification,
where most of our information is represented as a string of digits
(think of MP3 files, DVDs, and this website, for three examples).
Quantification leads to the perfection of Taylorism,
or scientific management, with its reduction of humans to cogs in
a machine, while paradoxically providing exponential growth and
non-linear, unquantifiable changes to companies and society.

Time, however,
is not unlimited for information systems in this integration. Two
events in 2006 are indicative. For one, on
one day in 2005 or 2006
, more oil was pumped from the earth's
crust than had ever been done before, and has been done since: this
is the concept of peak oil, and suggests the literal and figurative
"end of the road" for the age of material progress which
has been built largely on the extremely profitable "energy
return on energy invested" obtainable from crude oil. On the
plus side, Tan Dun's opera "The Last Emperor" premiered
on December 21, 2006
, arising from a composer whose success
has depended on satisfying paying customers in Wagner's brainchild,
the movie industry, and from a rising economic power, China; the
music is outside the mainstream of tonal Western art music, but
with the promise of a new and exciting age of art music composition
stretching out in front, and perhaps an end to the century we've
credited as "beginning" in 1908. It would still seem possible
to find a deeper order and harmony underneath the structure of musical
notes, and perhaps in other areas as well.

Understanding
these contrasting and conflicting centuries, and synthesizing new
strategies and possibilities from them for personal, organizational
and societal advantage and profit will be your task as a strategic
thinker in information systems. Know that you will make decisions
in a field essential to both materialist measuring of the world,
and non-linear qualitative changes to it. The work is challenging
but rewarding, and critical to the advancement of civilization.

Adapted
from a course lecture.

May
16, 2008

Thomas M.
Schmidt [send him mail],
a native of Brooklyn, thinks the course of the 20th century
would have been different had Mahler completed his tenth symphony
and hopes that art music from rising economic power China can help
the 21st century get the focus back on what the Durants
called the civilizing process "on
the banks
."

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