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Department Of Homeland Security and Software Tools

August 4, 2008

Tools extend the capacity for human intentions to manipulate the physical world.  Advances in making and using tools have created huge gains of time or capabilities.

At each step of evolution, as tools have extended capacity for manipulating physical objects, they have also shaped the intentions they were created to fulfill. Examples are everywhere, but we sometimes overlook how the creation and use of a lineage of tools is intricately linked with learning and changing perception of tool users.

Software is a game changer in the evolution of tools in two ways.  First, software reuses complicated, expensive hardware for a broad variety of intentions.  Software allows us to decouple expensive, slowly evolving (matter-manipulating) machines from intentions.  This trend means we think less and less about hardware having a narrow intentional purpose.  We think of hardware as increasingly abstract and serving the purposes of the software.

Secondly, software is closer to being directly about human intention than earlier tools.  This is a punctuated step. A shovel is useful for digging a ditch to irrigate the garden and so is about an important intention.  But the shovel embodies nearly nothing about the human values placed on the garden, the nature of gardens, or the biology of plants.

Software, on the other hand, is increasingly embodying our values, the way our minds and bodies work, our social interactions, and more.  We depend on it to give us instant access to more information than we could possibly remember. We use it to communicate with friends. We use it for analysis and prediction to supplement millions of years evolution of heuristics and biases.

From this perspective, computing devices with the software they execute are a special kind of tool that embodies records, patterns, values, habits and assumptions of our intentions. In the shadow of this claim, the Department Of Homeland Security’s cavalier attitude toward seizure of any form of information storage and processing device whether "analog or digital" without cause for suspicion is an extreme violation.

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