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Software is the Ultimate Tool

October 4, 2013
Tim Penner

Software engineering culture plays on two deep-seated psychological phenomena to produce effects unknown in other technical milieux. The first is the intimacy of language and mind.

There is much theory (and common sense) that suggests that language and thinking are inextricable. Andy Clark writes very eloquently on the matter, explaining the role of language in the construction of mind. The following extensive quotation from Supersizing the Mind (2008) is irresistible:

Self-made Minds:
"Coming to grips with our own special cognitive nature demands that we take very seriously the material reality of language: its existence as an additional, actively created, and effortfully maintained structure in our internal and external environment. From sounds in the air to inscriptions on the printed page, the material structures of language both reflect, and then systematically transform, our thinking and reasoning about the world. As a result, our cognitive relation to our own words and language (both as individuals and as a species) defies any simple logic of inner versus outer. Linguistic forms and structures are first encountered as simple objects (additional structure) in our world. But they then form a potent overlay that effectively, and iteratively, reconfigures the space for biological reason and self-control."

The cumulative complexity here is genuinely quite staggering. We do not just self-engineer better worlds to think in. We self-engineer ourselves to think and perform better in the worlds we find ourselves in. We self-engineer worlds in which to build better worlds to think in. We build better tools to think with and use these very tools to discover still better tools to think with. We tune the way we use these tools by building educational practices to train ourselves to use our best cognitive tools better. We even tune the way we tune the way we use our best cognitive tools by devising environments that help build better environments for educating ourselves in the use of our own cognitive tools (e.g., environments geared toward teacher education and training). Our mature mental routines are not merely self-engineered. They are massively, overwhelmingly, almost unimaginably self-engineered. The linguistic scaffoldings that surround us, and that we ourselves create, are both cognition enhancing in their own right and help provide the tools we use to discover and build the myriad other props and scaffoldings whose cumulative effect is to press minds like ours from the biological flux. (pp. 59-60)

Beyond the primacy of language in models of thinking in cognitive science, there is a powerful role for written language as the persistent fuel of progress. Its potential is shown by how the effects of writing demonstrably influenced early cultures and how transformations of thinking by written language and recorded media interact with culture as distinct from temporal auditory and visual media. I found validation in various works on culture, communication, writing and media but none so fundamental and succinctly expressed as in the (translated) words of Jean Bottero, renowned assyriologist, in Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning and the Gods (1987), on the impact of the advent of writing.

The writing system [of Mesopotamia] is impressive in itself. It is also the earliest one attested in world history, and was perhaps the most shining and generous contribution of the ancient Mesopotamians to the development and the progress of our understanding, when we consider, right now, to what degree the transition into the written tradition has profoundly transformed our intelligence, by reinforcing and multiplying its capacities. (my emphasis) (p. 4)

What this says to me is that a persistent medium, especially one that conveys language explicitly, has marked effects that temporal media do not. I extend this into the fundamentally written nature of software. After all, the whole process of software and machines that run on software is about stored program devices – recorded, persistent media.

All human endeavours are marked by the language they carry and depend on, but software engineering is distinct in important ways. Architecture, for example, manifests as the language of abstract, normative plans and models. Non-productively, the language only stipulates design and construction guidance needed for the arduous processes that result in buildings. You cannot build a building with a building, or use parts of buildings in other buildings. You can only re-use proven plans to guide new construction projects. Conversely, software, as language, is not abstract, and is both productive and normative. It literally does what it describes. Software engineers use it to build other software, and combine and re-combine parts instantaneously to create new outcomes. Writing software is thus the act of changing the physical world by simply using language, the intimate companion of consciousness.

The second psychological phenomenon of software engineering is the reciprocity of tools and mind – tools being extra-cranial extensions of mind that correspond to and expose its reflexivity.

Reflexivity comes from making tools to make better tools and envisioning new possibilities, better prospects, once useful tools are in hand. Horace Fries in his article Mediation in Cultural Perspective (1945), makes this clear.

Some half-million to a million years ago our early sub-human ancestors found themselves walking erect and using their former forepaws as manipulative organs. With the transformation of the first finger into an opposable thumb the organic foundation was laid for the continual use and improvement of tools. Tools were used, and then they were used to make tools. Slowly but surely an accelerative process got under way; a process almost mysteriously self-propelling, as it were, in the cultural and material environment of men.

When simple tools are used, the intended consequences become readily identifiable. Eventually they become organized in more complex groups as aims. The experience of a tool can then stand as the experience of something not present, something hoped for in the future, something deliberately to move towards — though absent — or a thing to be accomplished. In short, a tool is the simplest kind of manipulative sign or symbol. When tools are used co-operatively by more than one creature, there is that marvelous experience of a common aim. (p. 449)

Daniel Chandler in The Act of Writing (1995) confirms that the mediation of tools is more than process facilitation.

In constructive models of the making of meaning, the active role of all participants is now well-established. Far more than simply Homo loquens, Homo scriptor or even Homo faber (makers, or toolmakers) we are, above all Homo significans: meaning-makers. We now need to devote more attention to exploring our modes of making meaning with the media involved, and to the subtle transformations involved in all processes of mediation. We must also acknowledge that media do not simply ‘mediate’ experience; they are the tools and materials with which we construct the worlds we inhabit. The recognition and study of processes of mediation underlines the constructedness of reality. Engagement with media may even be fundamental to the construction of consciousness. (pp. 225-226)

The reflexive effect of software, as a tool, is not confined to software engineering. Through the global nervous system, by which communication and computation converge ubiquitously, software-driven media and their effects previously confined to software engineering culture now commonly mediate in the transformation of everyone’s interaction with both their physical world and the information that describes it. Engineers transfer certain programming capabilities and responsibilities to non-engineering users, user-adaptable mobile phones being the current stunning example. The children of the soft tool culture, endowed with powerfully reflexive media, are arguably more intelligent information creators and consumers than any previous generation.

Because cognition is not confined to the braincase, the plastic brain can adopt and adapt to any form of real-world mediation. How we interact with the physical environment throughout our lives is a matter of experience, and, importantly, conscious choices. That environment is strongly characterized by how we explain it to ourselves through language, a determinant of who we are and who we wish to be, and by the media we employ to create environments that suit our purposes, and through which emergent purposes manifest. To understand the industrial revolution is to realize that we did not just create machines that make things; we created an industrial society in which systems of thinking and machine-making devised machinery that made things that changed us. To understand the 21st century is to realize that software, the expressive language/tool medium, that not only constructs our reality but physically transforms our universe, has now become the fount of all change.


  • Bottero, Jean (1987). Mesopotamia: Writing, reasoning and the gods. Translated by Zainab Bahrani and Marc van de Mieroop. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Clark, A. (2008). Supersizing the mind:Embodiment, action and cognitive extension. New York:Oxford University Press, Inc.
  • Fries, H. (1945). Mediation in cultural perspective. American Journal of Economics and Sociology 4(4), 449-460.
  • Chandler, Daniel (1995). The act of writing. Aberystwith: University of Wales.

Further reading

  • Clark, A. (2003). Natural-born cyborgs: Minds, technologies and the future of human intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
  • Gardiner, W. L. (2002). A history of media. Victoria, BC: Trafford.
  • Gibson, W. and Sterling, B. (1990).  The difference engine. London: Victor Gollancz.
  • Hayles, N. K. (1999). How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Stephenson, Neal. (1992).  Snow crash. New York: Bantam Dell.