New nations often use comparisons and metaphors to build a more familiar and solid framework or ‘story’ using the past, especially to evoke visions of ‘glory days’. One example is the symbolism of early America harkening back to ancient Greece and Rome. The founding fathers often learned Greek, Latin, and much of the history of those cultures in their formative years. We can still see that influence today in the architecture of capital government buildings.
It should come as no surprise then, that the same thing happens with computers and the insatiable need for new descriptors and naming conventions. Much of this framework has sprouted up within the last few decades. That doesn’t leave enough time for growing familiarity organically. Past language and literature provide a rich crop ready for immediate harvesting.
Here are two examples:
This epic poem is one of the earliest known pieces of vernacular English literature. The story is about a brave hero who slays monsters in the north of Europe sometime around the 6th century. It is a tale of great strength, difficulties overcome, and distances traveled. The fame of this poem (especially the Old English version) has grown steadily over the last two centuries. It has even been reproduced in literature, popular media, and the cinema. This provides a ready-made metaphor that can be used by something new.
In 1994, Thomas Sterling and Donald Becker built a computer at a contractor to NASA. It was the prototype for what would become the “Beowulf Cluster” architecture. This type of machine uses modest, commodity, even oddly matched PCs connected together to form a single parallel computer. It has acquired a rather stoic and renegade reputation in academia, where it has been used to gain entrance to the exclusive supercomputer club ‘on-the-cheap’. The name is said to have been inspired by the line in the epic poem: “thirty men’s heft of grasp in the gripe of his hand”.
Another old epic poem is Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”. It is an allegory for the soul’s travels and a map of 14th century spirituality. It is as well a multi-dimensional exploration of sensitive/rational human nature and psychology. Again, this work is one of the most studied pieces of literature in history. It is another ready-made treasure trove of meaning and metaphor.
The first of its three parts is “Inferno” (hell). It is graphic and horrifying. It is also strangely open-minded and thoughtful in that figures from classical literature are woven into a Christian narrative. These include Socrates, Plato, and indeed Virgil, Dante’s guide. Perhaps the most apt adjective for “Inferno” is: deep.
“Inferno” was recently used as a template for a “Software Inferno” describing “sinners against software” and their torments (1). By using this template, the author begins with an extensive toolbox of metaphors. Of course, neither “Software Inferno” nor this short blog post should be used as an authoritative representation of Dante. There are plenty of good academic sources for that.
Instead of Virgil, Bell uses the Countess of Lovelace as our guide. More commonly known as Ada Lovelace, she was a mathematician and the daughter of Lord Byron, and is widely considered as the world’s first computer programmer for her work with Charles Babbage. She leads our hapless traveler down through the Inferno, towards the Earth’s core, along a roughly cone-shaped set of circular slices:
- ANTE-INFERNO developers who couldn’t decide whether to use their skills for good or evil, denied entry to both Heaven and Hell, doomed to eternal obscurity
- LIMBO developers born too early in history to know of proper software engineering
- LUST developers who chose power and fame over commitment and responsibility, they gave their time to their computers instead of their family, they sought the spotlight, now they are blinded by its glare for eternity
- GLUTTONY developers with human heads and pig bodies, IPO and stock bubbles had led them into wasteful, gross over-consumption
- GREED IT types who gathered every crumb of profit for themselves, neglecting to, share anything with the people who got them there, condemned to a cacophony of falling pennies forever
- ANGER realm of vitriol and negativity, with inhabitants broiled by burning paper, the only water available had been poisoned just like their own workplaces
- HERESY developers who knew of good software engineering, yet refused to use it, now chaotically and aimlessly going their own way for all time
- VIOLENCE developers who had inflicted malware, viruses, and phishing on the public, this pestilence now torments them in turn, and even sleep offers no escape
- FRAUD techno-hucksters, advocates, evangelists who had foisted crappy software, standards, and models upon desperate users who longed for guidance, they now dwelt in sewage for all time
- TREACHERY those who had enabled and encouraged this fraud, doomed to keep shoveling this detritus forever
Although intended for an audience of computer developers, the macabre humour is widely understood thanks to the template provided by Dante.
Here are a few other names for computer technology borrowed from the past:
Apollo, Athena, Delphi, Hercules, Hermes, Homer, Hydra, Jason, Janus, Merlin, Midas, Oracle, Odyssey, Phoenix, Phoebe, Pegasus, Sisyphus, Tantalus, Troy, Ulysses, Valhalla, Valkyrie, Zeus
… and of course a whole host of planets, moons, stars, and constellations.
(1) Bell, A.E. (2014). The Software Inferno. Communications of the ACM, 57(1), 48-53.