[FoRK] KK: the art of endless upgrades

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Tue May 17 07:04:24 PDT 2011


The Art of Endless Upgrades

When we first moved into our current house, newly married, I had some
caulking to do around the place. I found some silicon caulking that boasted
on the tube that it was warranted for 20 years. Cool, I thought. I'll never
have to do this again.

Twenty years later, what's this? The caulking is staring to fray,
disenigrate, fail. I realize now that 20 years is not forever, though it
seemed that way before. Now that I am almost 60, I can see very permanent
things decay in my own lifetime. Surprising, asphalt doesn't last forever,
nor do iron and even stone. Some of the most permanent things we can think of
-- the earth beneath us -- visibly moves over 60 years. The hill our house
rests on is slowly sliding around us. Over a hundred years tree roots can
crumble foundations. Try to make something last for 1,000 years and you'll
quickly realize that this is an almost impossible achievement. It requires
the constant application of order and energy to combat the everyday entropy
unraveling what has been made.

It's taken me 60 years, but I had an ephipany recently: Everything, without
exception, requires additional energy and order to maintain itself. Not just
living things, but the most inanimate things we know of: stone gravemarkers,
iron columns, copper pipes, gravel roads, a piece of paper. None will last
very long without attention and fixing, and the loan of additional order.
Life is maintenance.


Most surprising to me has been the amount of sheer maintenance that software
requires. Keeping a website or a software program afloat is like keep a yacht
afloat. It is a black hole for attention. I can kind of understand why a
mechanical device would break down after a while -- moisture rusts metal, or
the air oxidizes membranes, or lubricants evaporate -- all of which require
repair. But I wasn't thinking that the intangible world of bits would also
degrade. What's to break? Apparently everything.

Here is news to the young: Crap accumulates in code. Chips weaken. Programs
break. On their own, nothing you did.

And then there is the assault of the changing digital landscape. When
everything around you is upgrading, trying new actions, or seeking new
loopholes, this puts pressure on the website and necessitates maintenance.
You may not want to upgrade, but you have to because everyone else is.

This upgrade arms race spills over into our private lives. It's completely
altered my attitude about upgrading. I used to upgrade begrudgingly (why
upgrade if it still works?), and at the last possible moment. The trouble is
familiar. Upgrade this and suddenly you need to upgrade that, which triggers
upgrades everywhere. A "tiny" upgrade of even a minor part can be hugely
disruptive. But as our personal technology became more complex, more
co-dependent, more like a personal ecosystem, delaying upgrading is even more
disruptive. So I now see upgrading as a type of maintenance: you do it to
survive. Technological life in the future will be a series of endless

Expecting to spend your life upgrading should be a life skill taught in
school. Indeed, I'd like to learn how to manage maintaining my digital
ecosystem better myself. There must be a zen and art to upgrading.  Posted on
April 16, 2011 at 10:49 PM

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