Friday, March 14, 2008

Meta-Problems

The other day, I overheard one co-worker showing Emacs to another co-worker. The one who was new to Emacs said something like, "Oh, it doesn't do X?" The Emacs proponent replied, "Well, no, but you could always implement it if you want it."

And this statement sounded really familiar. It sounded just like Paul Graham's description of the Blub language (which is an amazing essay, I must say).

Now, I'm not saying some other editor is more powerful than Emacs. But I am saying that the fact that this statement was made is an indicator that Emacs isn't the most powerful. It's a Blub editor compared to the imagined ideal editor.

The entire idea of a Blub language and the power continuum doesn't apply to just languages; it applies to all tools which are powerful enough to emulate tools with more power. With programming languages, as long as a language is Turing-complete, it can emulate any other language that is Turing-complete. A similar "whatever you can do with your tool, I can do with Blub" argument can be used with editors when Blub can be extended with plugins or scripts.

Emacs may be powerful due to its extensibility, but I think we can do better.

Patterns of Patterns

Building on top of the most powerful tools available, which eliminates usage patterns and implementation details, leads to new usage patterns. Eventually, these patterns will be considered implementation details. When the Internet was first invented, HTTP GET wasn't an implementation detail; it was what they were creating — the churning fringe of development. Now it's a detail, as we're creating AJAX web apps built on top of HTTP and a slew of 57 other things that didn't exist before.

Whatever you make, there will always be patterns — patterns of repetitive tasks that are tedious, expensive, and could be done cheaper by a machine. Thus arises the desire to automate the task completely, or at the very least, create a tool to make the repetitive parts disappear. When this is done, the pattern becomes embodied in the tool, and at first, all patterns seem to have been eliminated. But in time, new patterns emerge, in which your tool is just a small piece. At this point, you're back where you started, possibly with more resources and personal growth if you're lucky. But the loop begins again.

Seeing this meta-pattern, we can attempt to follow it to its conclusion. If we're going to create tool X in the first tool-making iteration and tool Y in the second tool-making iteration, can we go directly to Y and skip X altogether? If you can see patterns 2 or more iterations ahead, you may still have to implement X but you'll have a great advantage by seeing the longer-term goal of Y. That said, it's hard to see patterns, even in this iteration, let alone iterations far in the future. Who knew, that in just 10 years, the web would evolve the way it did. Back in the 90's, it wasn't even clear that anyone could make money off of a search engine (one of the most lucrative fields) because the thinking was that people would search for something once, bookmark it, and never return to the search engine — a legitimate concern back in the day. Obviously wrong though knowing what we know now. ...So can we do better?

If you noticed, what I just did was unroll the tool-making loop 2 times. We tried to exploit the pattern by jumping ahead 2 loop iterations at once. But to fully exploit a pattern, you must look at the big picture. You have to look at the entire loop all at once.

Most people are stuck in 1 — the current iteration. Last paragraph, we jumped to 2. What about n? The "limit", if you will.

The first thing that sticks in my mind is the loop condition. When do we ever exit? Why are we here in the first place? There are many directions this line of questioning can take. One of them — if you pursue it faithfully to its conclusion by looking for the limit of the {meta to the power n}-problem — leads to questions like "What do I want out of life?", "What is my purpose?", and "What is my true essence that defines me?". But those are beyond the scope of this essay.

Another direction we can take is to observe the fact that as long as we are in this loop, we are struggling to find a pattern, factor out that pattern, and make the thing we originally set out to make (at the non-meta level). And this is all irrespective to what we're actually making. In other words, as long as you're making new things and competing for resources, regardless of the field, whether it's software, clothing, or underwater basket weaving, you will always be in this loop.

To What End?

When I was younger, I thought solving certain problems on the computer was valuable. I began programming to solve some of them.

But after a while, I observed the act of creating software as being repetitive. The act of programming — the very act of problem-solving — became the barrier to solving problems. The problem-solving embodied in programming became the new problem. It was a meta-problem because I didn't actually care about writing the programs themselves; I cared about the solutions that the programs entailed. Writing program after program, it only made sense to solve the meta-problem. And that is how I got interested in programming languages, the medium through which all programs were communicated.

Looking back, what I did was jump from 1 to 2. But for a while, I failed to make the quantum leap from 2 to n.

The human race will no doubt continue to improve technology ad infinitum, becoming more efficient and allowing people to do things they could never do before. And for short-term goals, this makes sense. But how is that any better overall?

I used to think that advancing technology to do work for us was a good thing. It would free us up to focus on what really mattered.1 But why not just focus on what really matters right now?

Some people will say that they can't because of some thing X that prevents them. To that, I would argue that you will have to learn how to deal with X, because even if you solved X (which humans will one day), there will always be Y to fill the role of the thorn in your side. Of course, some will say that advancing the state of the human race in the way I describe is what matters. And to that, I would say you've never honestly asked yourself "why".

When you're being practical in the short-term, the thing you're actually making on the non-meta level is what matters. But when you're setting long-term goals, the solution to the meta-problem is what matters, because the problem (just like in software) inevitably arises again in an infinite number of variations. It only makes sense to come up with a general solution.

But you can apply the same reasoning to the meta-problem itself, and think of it as simply another problem. Now you care about the solution to the meta-meta-problem, and it makes no sense to settle for a solution to merely the meta-problem. ...Ad infinitum.

What does all this "meta" talk mean? It means that technology is inane — it can't solve your Ultimate Problem. There will always be another problem. So should we give up and stop advancing technology?

It only makes sense to do something that has no inherent value if it works towards value elsewhere. So, if for example, you were using the day-to-day work of building the next great web app that allowed people to eat ice cream in a way that was socially networked (with a news feed of who ate what flavor combinations when (and the number of pounds they gained as a result (updated in real-time (and notified via text message)))), then go right ahead. Ditto for creating AI or reciting 1024 digits of π while juggling if you believe it is a means to something inherently valuable.

But to think for one moment that it in itself will satisfy you in the long-run, that it is a valuable end in itself, you're deluding yourself.
1. It seems silly to think we will one day have robot slaves doing all the work for us, but if you follow the current pattern to its conclusion, that's what will happen, among other things.

1 comment:

mempko said...

If you approach life with the idea that you can take human action to a "logical" conclusion, or base some meaning on "logical" principles, like applying logic to meta-problems, and meta-meta-problems, you will find turtles on top of turtles.

To make the MOST rational choice you have to take into account all variables in your environment. And if you believe in cause and effect and a deterministic universe, you will assume you can predict the future exactly. However people are not capable of this at all.

I say to hell with an ultimate problem and solve the problems of the present. Because we cannot know the future all we have is now. You can write software that helps people NOW...and by helping people, i don't mean making a CEO more money.

We are a community of people and are not alone. I suppose our biology pulls us closer to being social beings.

The world is not a closed logic system...fortunately as well, the computer is not a turing machine but more.