Proper Treatment 正當作法/ blog/ posts/ Pollution and taboo are a cultural discipline for enforcing realms of abstraction
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2010-12-30 07:16

To: Lukhnos D. Liu

I have been thinking about your blog post about making change rather than calling attention to it. It seems that many (perhaps most or all) important changes are successful exactly when people don’t realize that they exist. User interfaces are like that: if your users notice that there is an interface, probably the interface is not good. Infrastructure services are like that: the goal of the sewage system is to provide city dwellers the abstraction (or, illusion) of free disposal of waste. If people think about the sewage, then it has failed. It makes it difficult for governments to raise the money to maintain the infrastructure.

Programming languages are similar: if programmers notice that the facilities provided by the language are not “really what happens on the machine” then the language has failed. [Nowadays, when people assert that mutable state is really what happens on the machine, I ask them if they mean string theory or quantum field theory—ed.] For example, machine language is successful in that programmers rarely think about microcode; garbage collection is less successful in that programmers often think about pointer reachability. So, I advise my colleagues studying programming languages that they are doomed for obscurity, like individual petals of cherry blossom.

It seems, then, that the computer scientist’s notion of abstraction may be related to the anthropologist’s notion of taboo. Do you know about the book “Purity and Danger”? I plan to take a look at it.

[Perhaps infrastructure services and programming languages are either dirty or sacred so people avoid touching it: if you touch it, then either it defiles you or you defile it—ed.]


From: Lukhnos D. Liu

Yes, it’s about time for me to pick up the book again some time, too. Remember we talked about this “should we wear shoes if we are moving a piano across a Japanese living room [to a bathroom? ;)]” question? I mentioned this to a friend of mine who’s teaching anthropology at Tunghwa University, Hualien, and that’s the first title he came up with. We should make this into a puzzle game…

To: Lukhnos D. Liu

I thought about making it into a puzzle game, but my tentative ideas were all too depressing to be fun enough for an actual popular game. When I described the idea to one person, she said, “oh, you’re describing life.” Yes, perhaps life doesn’t make for a popular game.