I have been exceedingly fortunate in my career to have met and spent considerable time with some of the big hitters in global finance, some now disgraced and others who remain in the Market Wizards pantheon. It is still the case, however, that the most impressively brilliant human being I’ve ever consistently been around is a Philosophy of Literature professor who’s name, while it deserves to be mentioned, in the interest of my continued anonymity I’ll change to SOAT – Smartest of All Time.
One of professor SOAT’s primary influences on me was an explication of the now-consensus view that the Protestant Reformation was an outgrowth of movable type and the printing press. Mass printing of bibles ended the Roman Catholic church’s monopoly on biblical interpretation and individual clerics, led by Martin Luther, used their intellectual freedom to begin a series of revolutions against an unfathomably corrupt Catholic Church. The True Church quickly became five – add Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, and Anglicans – which begat a whole host of eventual spin-offs including Puritans, Pietists, Baptists, Congregationalists and
Republicans Luddites. For our purposes it is only important to remember that A) a media explosion started the whole thing and B) By the mid 17th century the entirety of Western Europe had split into heavily armed camps ready to stab and/or roast anyone who disagreed with them.
If I’m ever going to get to my conclusion, the concept of Abstraction in Computer Science will also have to be described in brief. When Bill Gates wrote the precursor of Windows, it was in machine language, the series of 1s and 0s that hardware understands without a translator. When we recognize that the word “START”, for instance, had to be entered in pencil, on little cards, as “01110011011101000110000101110010011101000000110100001010”, it is not difficult to understand what an excruciating process this must have been. Abstract programming languages, those that act on machine code without the author having to know machine code, alleviated the problem. Further languages acted on the level two programming language and so on and so on until modern languages like Java and C+ are now five or six steps away from machine code.
The closest metaphor I can think of for this abstraction principle is biological, with the doctor as machine code writer and nurses, pharmacists, medical equipment designers and drug company researchers as somewhat analogous to the abstractions. The latter act on complex segments of the whole without holistic understanding. So, we understand the thankfully misplaced freakout over Y2K as an outgrowth of the problem that very few current programmers were capable of working at the machine code, lower languages. If the screw-ups occurred at those lower levels there wouldn’t be enough “doctors” to prevent a global epidemic where pharmacists would be completely unhelpful.
Those few of you still reading are wondering why I just subjected you to a medieval history lesson and a description of a systems concept that was last really important eleven years ago. It is to posit this: Wall Street and the financial industry as a whole has profitably “abstracted” itself from the lives of the average American and that the Internet, as the modern equivalent of the Gutenberg Bible, is the primary catalyst for the OWS backlash. Finance, after all, facilitates economic activity but in a tangible sense produces nothing. Industry employees certainly go grocery shopping and buy cars, but for them the daily lives of people employed in the slaughterhouse or the auto assembly plant are obscure to the point of theoretical. The lack of empathy displayed by financial leadership, while regrettable, is not that hard to understand in this interpretation nor is the vehemence of their defense of the status quo.
The printing press/Internet equivalence is largely self-evident. Sudden, all encompassing changes in mass media consumption have through history caused major social upheaval. (The television/60s relationship works here also). Contrary to intuition, these technological changes that allow exponentially higher levels of individual participation in cultural discourse can result in the paradoxical effect of splintering away from the whole into like-minded, dogmatic sects – formerly the formation of new churches and armies, now evident in the cocooning effect that fertilizes the OWS movement and others.
I have no conclusion here, its just my way of trying to understand current events. I have no doubt made errors in representing the programming analogy (its not my area, clearly) and stretched some historical precedents too far. I don’t, for what its worth, expect 200 years of armed, theological/political conflict. But the analogies interest me greatly and possibly above all other blog posts I will write, I welcome corrective feedback and discussion on this one.