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Geeks, Germs, and Software

Geeks, Germs, and Software

At a recent presentation given by a software engineer from a very large automotive company, I gleaned some remarkable facts:for a particular car model where the basic price goes up as the livery becomes lusher and the initials on the trunk longer, half of the increase in value comes purely from software. I had assumed that the extra greenbacks in the price came from fancier music systems combined with a cool retro steering wheel and dashboard fascia; apparently it just comes from good old lines of code.

The average top-of-the-line luxury car has close to a gigabyte of software running it, and consequently enjoys the same development issues as any other project producing such volumes of code. One of these issues is the communication between different modules, and a car's software architecture built around layers and subsystem separation reminds me very much of good old fashioned message queues and transport buses, while the irony of the terminology is poetically sweet.

There are some teething problems, however. I'd have assumed the story was apocryphal had it not been told by a car engineer: some autos are built with Bluetooth technology to provide wireless comms between the car's various subsystems. A not-too-pleased owner of said set of wheels one day found his pride and joy wouldn't start when he turned the key. After the tow truck was called and the garage's grease monkeys failed to find a leak or physical problem, the final diagnosis was that it had caught a phone virus. It seems technology had followed nature, where just as the avian flu virus can jump between species, so malicious software designed for one device can inadvertently infect another. Adds new meaning to the phrase, "Honey, I crashed the car."

At the same conference, apart from the fantastic technology being demonstrated, I was struck by the fact that directly afterward another conference targeted at an entirely different technology industry was being assembled in the same venue. The booths and accessories being put together for this were noticeably shabbier and had the appearance of "hand me downs" from another era when said alternative profession enjoyed more prosperity and fortune. The thought the image instilled in me was that we, as software engineers, are now in our purple patch when it comes to our industry's health and future potential.

In "Guns, Germs and Steel" (www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring99/gunsgerms.htm) Jared Diamond articulates how societies were really created around the ability to make tools, which in turn led to the ability to divide labor, allowing for farmers on the one hand and elders and armies on the other. This division of responsibility led to better organizational units that were able to conquer neighboring tribes more easily, and ultimately became responsible for the modern day colonization and the growth of civilizations.

In the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 1900s it was machinery that changed the way societies lived and worked together, and the much-celebrated heroes of the age built things that smoked, choked, and clanked their way along railroad tracks, canals, or spanned ravines. Civil engineering is now a well-respected discipline that universities teach. When I went through college computer science degrees were considered an oddity, now com-sci is a mainstream rite of passage to getting a career in software.

To a certain extent today's super heroes of social change come from the software industry. Love him or loathe him, but Bill Gates was recently given a knighthood by the Queen of England for his services to the technology industry. This could be seen as on par with the industrial heroes of yore who were given similar gongs in their lifetime and then had statues and museums created to celebrate their lives and contribution to social change.

The change that software is able to leverage on our daily lives should never be underestimated. The Internet is a phenomenal example of how a relatively simple technology has just enabled a massive peer-to-the-power-of-peer network of information and communication that affects each of us daily.

I was recently planning a bike touring vacation and was reading a guide book on the various routes. This book's list of preparation tasks included an entry: "Check you have enough camera film." Staring at my digital camera that I take for granted with its ability to record short video clips with sound as well as images, I was reminded of the cartoon in which a daughter, while sitting on her father's knee, asks the question, "Daddy - tell me what it was like when you had to go to a photo lab and wait to see the results of your pictures?" Each time I take my eight-year-old son around the science museum I am not only impressed and in reverence of the great inventions of the last century that shaped our present day machines, I find it a little disconcerting to see the last room of display cases filled with what looks a little like the contents of my house not so many years ago - vinyl records, disposable camera flash bulbs, floppy disks that are floppy, digital watches with red LED displays, and so forth.

If half of the advances in engineering a luxury car, once the bastion of the nuts and bolts brigade, is done with for loops and asynchronous message calls, are software developers the pioneers driving forward technology? As occurred in previous ages, do we also drive society itself and how people operate their lives? Above all, however, we should all feel proud and privileged to exist in an era when such change is occurring, and also slightly humbled by our individual ability to contribute to how lives and the future are organized. To paraphrase a much-quoted prophecy: "It is the geeks who shall inherit the earth."

More Stories By Joe Winchester

Joe Winchester, Editor-in-Chief of Java Developer's Journal, was formerly JDJ's longtime Desktop Technologies Editor and is a software developer working on development tools for IBM in Hursley, UK.

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