Software is architecture

17 July 2020
17 Jul 2020
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

Architecture is like air. It surrounds us all our lives, and we barely notice it. Sometimes we’re lucky to witness a piece worthy of admiration, but most of the time, we’re ignorant of its impact on how we live. We don’t realize just how fundamentally architecture and environmental design influences the way we work, organize, and socialize. Until we start to look.

The bricks

Every piece of built environment around you was designed by someone. And I mean every piece. The walls of your room, the streets you walk on to work, the gates of your local park, the windows in your office – it was on someone’s notebook before it was real.

This means that every decision that had to be made to build your world, someone spent time and energy making that decision, however small. Someone decided where your city public library is. Someone decided how close your city parks should be to the wealthier and poorer neighborhoods. Someone decided whether the walls that wrap around you at your workplace should be glass or brick or concrete. They go by different titles – city planners, architects, interior designers – but they all make decisions that create the spaces we live in. And that is a lot of power to be held in the hands of a few.

I recently re-watched my favorite episode of Abstract, following Bjarke Ingels, a prolific Danish modern architect. He says this about architecture.

I like this idea about architecture being a way to manifest your dreams into the real world. It’s almost like a shaman with brick and mortar. That is the true power that we as humans have: we have such a massive impact on our environment, so now that we have this power, we can either use it to create a nightmare or we can use it to realize our dreams. And of course, the latter is much more interesting. - Bjarke Ingels

Ingels seems to take the task of designing our environment seriously. If our every decision and thought is colored by the context in which they occur, architecture is the ultimate, omnipresent context of life. As the background to the world’s events, architecture is the work of building the literal stage of society.

The bytes

If architecture is the work of building the world’s physical stage, software design and engineering is the work of building a virtual one. And as we move our lives online, the virtual stages we build are just as important, if not more important, than the physical ones made of atoms.

The built environment of software permeates life in exactly the same way that physical architecture does. Software-defined social structures inform the way we meet people and get together. Software-defined ranking algorithms inform where we spend our time and where we go for help and authority. Today’s software services define and circumscribe where we spend our time, our attention, and our money. Software is the virtual complement to architecture in the physical one. Said more succinctly, in an increasingly virtual and remote world:

Software is architecture.

Once we realize this, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the practice of responsible and conscientious software design isn’t given the weight and emphasis we grant to the practice of responsible and conscientious physical architecture, one that’s undoubtedly warranted by software architecture’s increasing influence.

When architects build a house or a library or a concert hall or a public park, they design within the guardrails of policy and regulation, informed by hundreds of years of practice that humans have accrued in building spaces that allow people to thrive. When engineers build software, we too often have little regard for the human impacts of our design choices. We build systems that work at a mechanical, mathematical level, but systems that an architect might immediately reject, because it doesn’t create a good place for our lives to unfold.

If we spend more of our lives with our minds connected than disconnected, we software engineers, the de-facto architects of our digital living spaces, are duty-bound to humanity to design the spaces our software creates with the same judiciousness, wisdom, and critical eye that we ask of the architects that construct our homes and our parks.

Software is architecture. It’s time we build it with deserved care.


If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, The hypertext Web is the real Metaverse.

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