Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Surprising Behavior Breaks Things

An exploration of Groucho Marx, computer hackers, beta testers, Banksy, and Kali the Goddess of Death


Most channels of action in this world are established with the expectation that they'll be used in certain prescribed ways. Builders anticipate the potential range of actions, and they build to accommodate them. They also try to anticipate "edge cases" - the surprising and unconventional behavior of a small portion of the public. Of course, no one can anticipate all edge cases. Surprisingness, by its nature, is hard to anticipate.

If you do surprising things, you will tend to break things, because things are not made to withstand (much less accommodate) surprising behavior. If you rename your computer's innermost system kernel file to "I Love You", your computer will probably behave erratically. If you attach scramjet engines to your Dodge Dart and accelerate it to 5000 mph, the airbag system is likely to cause more harm than good. And so on.

Most people are not creative, so stuff doesn't break for them as often. Things generally work in a diverse society because most people are surprisingly unsurprising, and so most behavior is anticipatable...by engineers, lawmakers, and other builders and managers.

Being creative, breaking stuff comes naturally to me, and that's made me a very good beta tester. It's the task of a beta tester to push a given piece of technology past its breaking point so builders can make their work as impervious as possible to edge-case usage. Beta testing has been a cherished hobby of mine for many years; it's the only legitimate arena these days for the inquisitive, explorative type of person who proudly identified ourselves as "hackers" before the term became laden with shame.

[A hacker, in the original sense of the word, is someone who finds surprising ways to use technology never anticipated by its builders. Yes, this includes abusive actions such as vandalizing home pages, stealing credit card numbers, and disseminating viruses, but those are merely the asshole side of a broad realm. At its heart, hacking is very similar to "tinkering"; it's about pushing beyond limits and intentions, a pursuit that's innately immoral only for those who equate morality with blind, trudging conformity.]

But while the clever misuse of systems represents a joyful expression of freedom and creativity (I must again link to Banksy as the current champion of that sort of thing), a distinction must be made between that and the random and heedless misuse of systems.

There is risk in making yourself an edge case. Parking lots, for example, are designed for slow driving. Those who navigate them at high speed will tend to have drivers crash into them, because anticipating really fast cars while backing out of parking spaces requires more violent neck-craning than most people apply. Again, surprising behavior breaks things. So it's important to consider the stakes.

But, either way, some level of breakage is always involved. So, from the perspective of those bound by blind, trudging conformity, creativity is indistinguishable from destructiveness. That's why creative people are feared. To Margaret Dumont (the stout, stuck-up lady who was forever trying to throw fabulous fancy parties and sing regal cantatas in the Marx Brothers movies) Groucho and his brothers were evil destructive forces, barging in with their wisecracks and their disrespectful behavior and ruining everything. And it's key to remember that the world is pretty much entirely composed of Margaret Dumonts.

I'm a big fan of Mayor Bloomberg, but I wasn't surprised in the least by his reaction to Bansky's recent New York escapades:
"There are some places for art and there are some places [not for] art. And running up to somebody's property or public property and defacing it is not my definition of art.... it’s a sign of decay and loss of control
Exactly! People prefer control over surprise, so it's the mission of those in charge to defend the former from the latter. Or at least try to, with the grim acknowledgement that entropy always wins in the end.

The Dumontian resistance to surprise is what gave rise to the Hindu goddess Kali being known as the goddess of destruction (remember those depraved cultists in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"?). Like the hackers, she gets a bad rap. What she actually is is the goddess of creativity. But to those who tenaciously cling to status quo, her bottomless thirst for change and the immense energy she wields in empowering the world's ceaseless churning represent all that is destructive, dangerous, and deathly. She's the very root of all our fears because, being infinitely surprising, over time she breaks absolutely everything.

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