This book was pretty good but it was painful to read. It was painful because it was good... and it describes an engineering project that flopped and stopped: Aramis. It was going to be a railed public transit system with no set routes, but trains that could steer themselves amongst the switches. But it got as far as the prototype stage and then never became a "final product." That's painful to read about: as an engineer, you have to be an optimist; you have to convince yourself that the project you're working on could change the world. But of course, most projects don't finish. Most "projects" get only as close to existence as wisps of brainstorm, passing whims that disappear before they're even written down. Even of those written down, most projects stop at the design phase. Some of them stop partway through production. It's awful to think: this thing that I'm working on; what are the chances that it will actually come into being?
But where Dreaming in Code basically just lays out the story, Aramis gets weird. It gets into philosophy.
Like, what does it mean to say that Aramis will never "actually come into being"? Is the thought of a unicorn a real thought? Are unicorns real? Aramis was a design, a proposed system. As with a unicorn, if asked all the Aramis engineers what "Aramis" looked like, they'd have similar pictures. Does that mean that it existed?
In the beginning, there is no distinction between projects and objects. The two circulate from office to office in the form of paper, plans, departmental memos.... Here, we're in the realm of signs, language, texts. In the end, people, after they leave their offices, are the ones who circulate inside the object... A gulf opens up between the world of signs and the world of things. The R-312 is no longer a novel that carries me away in transports of delight; it's a bus that transports me away from the boulevard.
Does the project's existence fade in and out? Of course—it is a faith, it needs followers.
For technology, there's no such thing as inertia. Here's proof: even an ordinary user can make Aramis less real by refusing to get into one of its cars; or, if she's a local official, by refusing to get excited about it; or if he's a mechanic or driver, by refusing to work for it. No matter how old and powerful, no matter how irreversible and indispensible, thus no matter how real a transportation system may be, it can always be made a little less real.
And the design changed. Aramis was going to be revolutionary; thus, the "first draft" of the design had some unworkable parts. So the designers revised their designs. But... then what was Aramis? This thing that may have been almost-existing or far-from-existing at different stages—what was this thing that didn't exactly exist?
This sounds like philisophical noodling, not the sort of thing I normally enjoy reading. And yet here, it worked. Because it's the story of trying to figure out how this project fell apart. And the way that it fell apart is... it lost its way. But when a project's design changes, does that bring it closer or further to existence? If you adjust a design so that it better fits reality, that should bring it closer to existence, right? But... what if your changes reveal that the project's basic premise is flawed?
"If they've managed to maintain the object in this state of trouble, of turbulence, negotiation, exchange, reinscription, ... then they're bound to succeed; they're going to turn Aramis into an animate body..."
It is in the detours that we recognize a technological act; this has been true since the dawn of time.
And it is in the number of detours that we recognize a project's degree of complexity. A monkey wants to get a banana that is hanging from a branch. The monkey is readily identified as a creature of desire. If he stops staring at the fruit and explores all the sticks lying around his cage, he's called a first-order technician, since he has suspended the first program in order to use a second one. If no stick is long enough, but if he takes the time to attach two pieces of wood together, transforming a short stick into a long one, he is said to be a second-order technician, because the detour itself has been suspended by a third...
Technologists seemingly follow infinitely more complicated programs than those tested in cages, laboratories, or classes by their psychologist or primatologist colleagues. However, these programs cannot be much more complicated, otherwise the ones technlogists study would become hopelessly embroiled, just as technologists themselves would...
So a new technology, is it a thing? Or is it a haze, a cloud-space of variations?
"It's Victor Frankenstein's workshop, it's the making of the creature itself! And look how Shelley was wrong again. Crowds, more crowds. And in her novel she describes only one tête-à-tête between Victor and his disgusting anthropoid! A technology isn't one single character; it's a city, a collective, it's countless. All of Germany and Switzerland together would have been needed to keep Victor's awkwardly stitched-together creature in existence!..."
And along the way, there's musing on the nature of transit engineering, politics, compromise, people, ... If you've worked on a complex project, you might like it. Check it out.