Improving Wetware

Because technology is never the issue

Using Climate Change to study Software Development

Posted by Pete McBreen Sat, 05 Feb 2011 04:51:00 GMT

Although lots of software is used in studying climate change, for example a python re-implementation of a climate model, there are many issues in climate change that relate to software development.

Parallels between Climate Change and Software Development

  • Things change slowly and then suddenly things are different

    An extra 2ppm of CO2 might not seem much, but over a working lifetime, an extra 60-70ppm has changed lots of things. In software development Moore’s Law was slowly making computers faster and cheaper. Suddenly things changed when we realized that hardware was no longer an expensive item in projects. When I started software development, the developer costs on a project were swamped by the cost of the hardware. Now using cloud machines, the hardware costs of a project can be less than the cost of gas to commute to the office.

  • What we are sure we know is not necessarily true

    In climate change, the distinction between weather and worldwide climate is not well understood. Also it is hard to figure out how a 2C change could matter that much when locally the weather can range over 60C from the depths of winter to the height of summer. In software development, historically it really mattered that the code was as efficient as possible because the machines were slow. So everyone knows that scripting languages are not useful for large scale development. Enterprise systems are built in traditional languages, but most web companies are using some form of a scripting language, or one of the newer functional languages.

  • Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

    Software development probably lead on this one. IBM was justifiably famous for FUD to ensure that customers followed IBM’s lead and did what they were told. IBM had the market and customers were supposed to do what IBM told them was good for them. With Climate Change, large organizations that will have to change to preserve the climate that is suitable for our current civilization, are spreading as much doubt as possible to delay the realization that business as usual is no longer possible. In Software Development the threat of Open Source is currently the target of lots of FUD and large corporations that are seeing changes on the horizon are doing all they can to preserve their business as usual.

  • Nobody wants to listen to the people who know what is going on

    Software Developers are used to being overruled by people who do not really know what is going on. Sure sometimes it is genuinely a business decision, but often the business people are busy making technical decisions that they are not competent to make. In Climate Change, the scientists doing the work are being challenged by the political decision makers who do not have a clue about science. Realistically the political decision makers should accept the science and then start talking about the political choices that we need to make as a result of that science.

  • The results really matter

    There are two things that our civilization depends on, working software and a livable, stable climate. The news is occasionally enlivened by the story of a major software project that costs hundreds of millions of dollars that fails to deliver the expected benefits. The smaller day to day losses from smaller failures are hidden. Similarly the big storms that are increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change are making headlines, but the smaller impacts are never visible in the news.

Making sense of the parallels

Still working on this one, but I have a sense that the political power structures have a big impact. The techno geeks that do software or science are not part of the larger political power structures that govern our corporate dominated societies. As such the techno geeks are marginalized and can be safely ignored … at least for now … obligatory link to Tim Bray - Doing it Wrong.