Hardware, Firmware, and Software – Biology, Culture, and Behavior 

Hardware, Firmware, and Software – Biology, Culture, and Behavior 

This article is part of larger context I e been documenting about my study of Anthropology and Computer Science, and how it changes the way you think. For example….

Hardware & Biology

I have always thought of Biology as quite similar to hardware. In fact, in the context of evolution, I use the words almost interchangeably. You get new hardware when you purchase a server, and new genotype/phenotype when you are born. In the case of hardware, this might represent the next generation of HP Server, in Biology this is your offspring. Repairs and augmentations can be made, but you ain’t getting new hardware until the next generation comes out. Generations change based on Darwinian evolution – variation and natural selection.

In hardware this means that with each generation, Product Managers and engineers choose what variation is available in a product line, then customer select which ones they want. The servers that sell well often go on generation after generation, whereas the lines that don’t sell are deprecated. If you know hardware, you will know the HP DL380 sold well for years and years producing models from G1 to G10 over a period of nearly 20 years. The complete history is interesting.

In biology, we don’t have so much control over the product lines, at least not ethically, as CRISPR Baby Scandle shows and Eugenics experiments of the early 1900s demonstrate. Instead, we leave the variation to non-deterministic, biological processes – aka sex and procreation. Then, mother nature, through competition decides who lives dies and finds a mate. Your line might succeed for many generations, it might not.

It’s interesting to note that every single one of us living today has a string of roughly 20,000 ancestors which succeeded in producing offspring. Every generation, twenty thousand times in a row, without fail. This is powerful. Long story short, biology and hardware are governed by Darwinian rules of engagement – we live and die, generation by generation.

Firmware & Culture

Firmware is different, it can be updated during the life of a server, albeit with some fiddling around. Historically, you needed special utilities to load the firmware, though the tools are getting easier. Honestly most people only updated it a few times, if ever, during the lifetime of a server.

Culture is similar. It can be changed, but it’s not easy. It requires large groups of people to make a conscious effort, typically involving verbal stories and books. Like firmware though, the tools are getting easier and the velocity of change is probably increasing. Now days cultural change happens through media like TV, movies and even YouTube.

Firmware is different than hardware though. Many of you have probably forgotten about Lamarck’s theory of evolution which competed with Darwin. Lamarck thought that if a Giraffe stretched it’s neck a lot during it’s lifetime, it would get longer (so far so good animals do grow and change). He also believed this “longer neck” could be passed down to it’s children (this ain’t how biology works – contwbtious epigenetics aside). Firmware is similar – updated versions may live on for multiple generations of servers, slowly having bugs fixed and features added over time.

While that doesn’t work with hardware and biology, it does work with culture – it changes during the creatures lifetime and it is passed on to their offspring in the changed state. It is Lamarckian in nature – who’d a thought.

Software & Behavior

The behavior of any specific program or individual can have wild variation specially (between instances – copies of software and individual creatures) and temporally (over the lifetime).

Software can be changed in memory while it’s running (temporal) – some programs self modify. It an also chabge spatially, as people copy and distribute it.

The same is true of individual behaviors, that is to say they change temporally, based on the age of the creature, and spatially, based on who the person is interacting with (style shifting in linguistics).

The study of this individual behavior is more the realm of Psychology than Anthropology, but the survival mechanisms within this individual behavior (Evolutionary Psychology) is of particular interest to the study of human evolution.

Suffice to say software and individuals are quite malleable.

Conclusion

A Server lives and dies in the market place based on the capability of it’s hardware, firmware, and software to function together as a unit which provides business value. Primates such as humans do the same, competing for resources as a single unit containing biology, culture and individual behaviors – the unit lives and dies together. All of the units, tied together as a product or creature is a powerful concept.

Next time you are at a coffee shop, look around – next time you are arguing with somebody on Facebook or Twitter, remember this framework. Each and everyone of us is the product of every generation before us. Every last one of our ancestors produced at least one successful offspring, with one hundred percent success, over the last 330,000 years, using almost identical hardware (brain, arms, legs, back, etc) – generations and generations of firmware – and 20,000 different copies of software. We are pretty amazing creatures, each and every one of us. We often focus on our differences without noticing what we have in common.

While this analogy, like all analogy, is imperfect, I love it because it helps put so many problems in context, quickly.

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