Tuesday, September 29, 2015

No Social Constructs in My Little Town

In Paul Simon’s song “My Little Town”, there is the lyric “everything’s the same in my little town”.  This can be contrasted with "the big city" that is cosmopolitan, multicultural, not all the same.  It is only when you have the experience of more than one culture that it becomes natural to see that there can be more than one notion of how things are.  In Philosophy, when there is one “correct” definition of something, due to it existing in nature, independent of man, it is called a “natural kind”.  However, when something only exists because people have agreed to think that it does, that is called a “social construction”.  Computer programmers need to be aware that, of the things they have to model in their databases, user interfaces & business models, most are social constructions, and hence, there are many ways to skin a cat, but not arbitrary ways.  Two case studies are given that show how programmers can err on either side of the spectrum.

Social Constructs versus Natural Kinds

It is common to consider Natural Kinds to be “discovered”, and Social Constructions to be “invented”.  An example of something that only exists because we say it does is money.  A Bitcoin (or an ounce of gold, or a piece of paper with $100 printed on it) is worth whatever we say it is, and how many Big Macs can be bought with each is whatever we agree upon.  And via the computerized marketplace, we can change our collective mind every microsecond.

Social Constructions are also inherently “relative” to some culture, which means that there can be more than one version of it floating around, and each can be equally valid.  A traditional example is the definition of what it means to be a woman.  While there are the aspects of womanhood that are controlled by DNA and biology, many aspects are defined by society, and there are many different definitions existing simultaneously.

On the other hand, we believe that atoms exists in nature.  We may discover better definitions and understandings of them over time, but those would be mere changes in our knowledge of them, rather than making them an invention.  When Europeans thought that swans only came in white, and then found black ones in West Australia, their definition of swan changed, but we still think that swans are in fact a natural species, independent of whether you’re European.

Natural Kinds that Aren’t

There are times that something is thought to be a natural kind, but later realized to not be, for example, planets.  We thought that planets existed objectively and independent of our latest definition.  We now realize that those orbiting chunks of rock and clouds of gas may exist objectively, but our classifications of “planet” versus “dwarf planet” versus “failed star” do not.  I.E. they are arbitrary enough that aliens landing here will likely have different ways of classifying orbiting stuff.

Saving the Phenomena

So, if planets aren’t “real”, where did they come from?  An early view of the universe was that everything literally revolved around the earth in a perfect circle, except for a handful of “wanderers”, the original meaning of planet.  As we gained more knowledge, we would update our definitions. But we always (if only unconsciously) wanted to “save the phenomena”; in other words, make sure that the new definitions didn’t drop any planets and didn’t add any, otherwise, we would be defining something that did not match our intuitive notion of planets.

Of course, recently that became impossible because we realized that we were either going to have to add hundreds of new “planets”, or, drop Pluto, to be consistent.  The more that people tried to keep the original collection, the more it became clear that the collection was based on culture and history rather than an objective category of things in space.  Some even say that Jupiter is not really a planet, but a failed star.

Case Study: World Headquarters in My Little Town

The world headquarters of Coca-Cola is in Atlanta, and while a world headquarters would be expected to be pretty cosmopolitan, it is in The South which was traditionally very monoculture, conservative, and religious (which I can say because I grew up there).  I was there, on a Y2K project, redesigning data files which were using just 2 digits to represent years (even though the file formats had been specified only two years previously, by the way).  During discussions with the developers (all Atlanta locals), it was assumed that there was only one obvious “correct” way to represent dates in a string: mmddyyyy.  Having lived overseas, I knew to point out that most of the world doesn’t do it that way, instead using ddmmyyyy, or yyyymmdd (and we did not even get into other calendar systems).

The point is that it was assumed that dates were a natural kind when they are actually very socially constructed. In my little town every thing is the same and therefore looks like the one and only way God intended.

Case Study: Bizarrely Arbitrary User Interface at domain.com

While the concept of “social construction” says that there can be several equally-valid ways of defining some things, do not forget about the “social” part! I.E. you should not create an arbitrary definition that no one actually uses and therefore no one will understand.

On the website of domain.com (a domain name registry provider), there is the domain name registration form which includes a mandatory phone number field.  The required format is so bizarre though that it took a chat with customer support to figure out what is was.  It turned out to require the phone number to be entered as the fractional portion of a floating point number…let that sink in…floating point notation, with a mandatory leading plus sign and mandatory integer of 1.  So, phone number “(123) 456-7890” had to be entered as +1.1234567890  ...AND, to make matters worse, the error message received when it was not entered that way, only said that a legal phone number was required, without explaining what the non-obvious required format was.

When I pressed the support chat operator for an answer to my question, WTF?! , I was told (after some time on hold) that “that was the format that the developers chose”. There was no answer to my question: Of all the phone number formats on the planet, who has ever used that?   Apparently it was the culture of domain.com off-shored contract developers with no managers who were engineers enough to review the design.


  1. good good good stuff. going through programming school and seeing relations to philosophy as well. asking myself where there isnt more materila on the connection between philosophy and programming.

  2. i've got a few little thought tangents on the subject as well on my blog