A Hacking Life

Up until this point of my life as a hacker, my potential employers have wanted no more than a summary of my technical feats and accomplishments. Although I have written about  code, designs, plans and the coordination of implementations, there is no history of publication to cite as part of the currency of a thinking life.  Therefore,  I will tell my story about how my career has been grounded in experience of both practices of making and designing physical things and the arts of craftsmanship and the design, implementation and operations of digital systems.

My path is that of a hacker.  Originally I started on this path because I would take things apart to learn about how they worked. I come from a working class background with parents with some education and some success in school. I was near the top of my class at one of the best high schools in Chicago. Because of a referral from my machine shop teacher, I landed a summer job in a machine shop. The next school year I Iearned Fortran and then about micro computer kits. My next summer job was programming in BASIC, which I taught myself from a book I took out of the library. 

Susbsequently, I received a scholarship from MIT, and got my BS in EECS in three years out of five. I had to take a break to earn some money before getting my degree in '83. Along the way, I built a kit computer and started with a PC non-compatible company the same month the first IBM PCs came out in 1981. When I returned to MIT, I was in a small circle with the founders of the free software movement at the time when the GPL was created.

Looking back, I was never just a hacker; I also wanted to know how systems worked on all levels.  Even earlier, I had a dream of becoming an architect. My mother was an artist, and I grew up near the studio home of Frank Lloyd Wright and the many homes he  designed. I felt a need to inquire into everything much more deeply. I didn't want to just hack; I wanted to be a systems designer and architect. The title of architect in systems implementation doesn't necessarily reward the most far thinking approaches. The MIT environment was great for contextualizing what I had already learned as a hands on programmer, and started me on a path towards general systems thinking.  Since I already had practical experience with systems,  I came to see that I had a big advantage over most of my MIT classmates.

Although my degree concentration was on the CS side of EECS, along the way I designed a chip in a graduate VLSI design course. As a consultant at AT&T labs, I made UNIX run on a new chip design, and later at Zenith as well.  I used my hacker interests to bridge my software roles into hardware, systems and network architectures. The more different kinds of design and architecture that I learned about, the more I could see the parallels and commons structures. All design is ultimately grounded in human needs, and architects  have to study people and their social architectures just as much as we do engineering and science. I needed to learn more about philosophy and language. I knew from cognitive science that we must also ground this work in new systems thinking in biology that understands the organism as a network of relationships.

Systems, Signs and Autopoiesis

It wasn't until I connected to the work of C.S. Peirce in Semiotics and his theory of categories and signs that I could connect more deeply to what I had learned years previously  In Fernando Flores' "Ontological Design Course."  During that course, I was introduced to system biology in Maturana and Varella, and I realized only later how Peircean signs were a critical part of their theory of autopoeisis. I have begun to explore some of these ideas in writing, but I am no academic background  and finding my audience is a bit trickier.  I cite this story as background towards collaborative innovation in design and architecture in the service of humanity.

Analogies from systems of all kinds as well as the overhyped recent progress in AI suggests that evolution and the emergence of new systems levels as creative acts of evolution are common to and at the core of all systems change. Peircean semiotics and sign systems are an important and overlooked tool to unite our thinking about systems of all kinds. It is also clear that the work and context has advanced to the point that irresponsible applications could pose significant risks very soon, and we probably wouldn't know it publicly for some time if it did. There are similar risks in a number of fields, e.g., genetic engineering, and all of these would only be amplified with the advent of strong AI. Although I may not be able to write papers that advance a highly specialized field, I would claim this is exactly the kind of broad knowledge that is needed so critically to sort out the hype and realities of current risks as well as opportunities.

My practical experience in systems, as well as my life's path through organizations large and small,  has shown me that much of the dysfunction we have produced in our world must be rooted out if we are to not only survive but thrive as human beings. It isn't human nature that constrains us, but our social systems as they have developed historically. We are not condemned to repeat our past mistakes if we can learn from them what we need to do in order to create new social systems. We must temper the enlightenment urge to overturn all of the traditions; progress can only be made within traditions. However, we must not, at the same time,  lose the insights that flowed when the grip of tradition isn't mixed with power and authority not grounded in the traditions of knowledge themselves.

I offer this history and background as a point of embarkation on the rest of my life's work yet to come. Like this personal history, I have works in progress and some bits of completed thoughts to share. I hope this shows what I can write for the future, and what I might bring to important design conversations that must be collectively convened for the sake of all of us. I bring many more questions than answers, but I am confident about what I have to contribute to collective works.

An Offer To Serve the Critical Missions of Humanity

I have so much to offer to the benefit of many, and no adaquate access to the economic means to do it. Sure, I'm employable, but as with too many of my contemporaries, that way is neither sufficient for the family nor does it leave me free to produce the most possible value for many of us. Like many others like me, most of whom don't have many advantages that I have had, this is no way to live. It can be hard to even keep your head up enough to keep at it because it is drilled into us that our failure is our fault and our fault alone.

I don't accept this because my education and experience tell me that we, as an emergent global culture, face a number of immediate crises that will take all the collective knowledge and experience that we can muster. The crises are not created by the suffering people, but by the systems as they have evolved. They may have evolved to function reasonably in an historical context, but, at this moment, the system itself is deeply implicated in the dysfunction. The story told about it may once have  been true enough, but now has become a cover for injustice and blaming the victim.

With my background, I can and will serve one or more missions in the future, but I can't do it alone. None of us can. We need everyone of us. Most likely a future me will look back at a path with many surprises. My education and experience tell me that collective success will depend much more on learning to form and act from the context of much more powerful collectives. Not just AI as in artificial, but more towards augmented intelligence. We need to reach beyond just intelligence and attempt to understand and create collective wisdom and consciousness. As scientists and engineers begin to work with collective intelligence, they are naturally asking the next questions about these next steps.

I'm well qualified to ask good questions about how to survive the singularity. Survival cannot be a limited mission, and division is failure. Can collective missions to save the living planet really work? What kind of collective vision is necessary for collective hope and to fight collective dispair? I do have hope, even confidence, that humanity has the collective power to choose our path, and therefore to choose living systems over dying and killing systems.