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Another Perspective


The sizeable region is the cradle of civilization.  The way things look right now, it may also be its grave.  In computing, the region between terminals and mainframes is the cradle of innovation.  It is where Unix arose, where RAID found its first home, and where open standards took root.  And, like the land of many names that for a long time was called Babylon, it, too, is the cradle of innovation, littered with graves.  A long list of proprietary architectures and software environments died here, often after making contributions that live on.  That's the way it is with civilizations and enterprises.

Early in the history of commercial computing, IBM established the industry's dominant empire and built it to last.  The Babylonians of the other 2000, the B.C.  one, tried to do the same thing, and their empire, long gone, lasted quite a while.  Whether IBM ultimately will have a longer life than Babylon is impossible to say, but it's a safe bet that the influence of both empires will last as long as humankind.  All bets are off if our species happens to do something sufficiently awful, or if another species — perhaps a microbe, virus, or prion — decides to push us out of the way.

Political and commercial empires have rules.  In both cases, the rules are based on experience, and because political and social cultures adapt and evolve in response to changing conditions (including the conditions they themselves establish) it is surprising how persistent these rules may be.  The details change, but the general nature persists.

In the case of government, for example, the set of laws promulgated around four thousand years ago by the Babylonian king Hammurabi covers a lot of the same ground as laws and customs that are with us today.  This is true not only of criminal laws but also of social and commercial regulations.  Issues addressed by the Code of Hammurabi still pop up every day, in, for instance, the computer business.

The cradle — and, for some, the grave — of civilization

The rules governing the sale of computing systems resemble the laws and customs that governed business transactions in old Babylon.  But the regimes imposed by computer industry vendors are pretty lopsided when compared with the rules of commerce that Hammurabi promoted.

Hammurabi had some laws that imposed harsh, if symmetrical, justice.  If you took out another's eye, you might lose one of your own.  The same went for teeth.

Yet Hammurabi seemed to have a sense of equity in some matters that is very decent by today's standards.  For instance, the cost of certain medical services, governed by his code, was higher for the upper classes, lower for the middle classes, and even lower for the slaves at the bottom of the social pyramid (or, perhaps, the social ziggurat).  Medical malpractice was punishable by fines or, in come cases, by death.  The fines put a cap on damages.  Animals were accorded some respect, or at least value, too, so there were even laws against veterinary malpractice that fixed the size of claims against unsuccessful practitioners, who, had they been specialists in waterfowl, would certainly be quacks.

There were also laws protecting children born out of wedlock (and their mothers) from certain types of disenfranchisement by their biological fathers.  There were laws that gave rights to squatters who worked abandoned land for a long enough time, but only if they got the land to yield crops.  There were laws setting out basic rules for construction contracts, laws about shipping and shipbuilding, laws governing trade.  These laws make it clear that the concept of a contract was well understood in Hammurabi's time.  These laws make it clear that the goal of official judgment was to impose fairness and equity on disputants.

It's now forty centuries later, and we still are not that far ahead of the Code of Hammurabi.  In some ways, we might actually have shed some useful notions, particularly when it comes to the way the computer business operates.

4000-year-old code

One obvious example arises in software.  You pay for it, you might think you own it, but you know that's not the case.  Software vendors have been able to persuade the authorities (and, perhaps, malleable customers) that their products should have all the benefits associated with published works, such as copyright protection, but few of the limitations.  If you buy a book, you can sell it.  You don't owe the author another royalty fee.  But if books were sold as software is sold (or, more accurately, licensed), you could not freely sell them and you would have to shred them if you wanted to dispose of them to clear some shelf space.

The same software vendors that stick close to their products after selling (or renting or licensing) them also manage to keep quite a distance from the same products when they might face liability for the harm caused by defects in their work.

Software companies have somehow managed to persuade the user community not only that programmers' errors are unavoidable but also that they simply cannot be found and fixed, except when the poor licensee gets lucky, which is not often enough.  The defense of this idea is rooted in the accurate but irrelevant observation that programmers make mistakes and that if you wrote a program you might not get it one hundred percent right the first time.

If the same idea applied to restaurants, a diner who was served awful or even poisonous food would have no recourse, not even a chance to get the price of the dastardly dish taken off the bill, because that very diner cooking at home might louse up an omelet now and then.

It's hard to say how Hammurabi might have handled this situation.  One notion that did not arise in law four thousand years ago, as far as scholars know, was that of intellectual property.  But there were a lot of rules about the sale, rental, and mortgaging of property, including chattels and slaves.  So it might be possible to guess how Hammurabi would have dealt with the issues that arise in the licensing of software.  Chances are, he would have come down more on the customer's side than our present system does.

In fact, Hammurabi may have been a softie compared with other kings of his time and later.  For one thing, he put in a big effort to publish his laws, and to see that they did not include any fine print.

Scholars know this because the Code of Hammurabi was distributed in the form of carved stelas that were placed in prominent positions around his empire.  They did not all stay put; some were swiped.  Early in the last century, one was found in what is now Iran.  It was in pretty good shape, although laws 66 through 99 of 282 were no longer legible.  It ended up in Paris, at the Louvre.  A summary of the code got into the Encyclopedia Britannica's 1920-1911 edition, and what became the standard English translation of the full text was produced in 1915.

The code seems to have some things in common with laws and customs that appear in the Old Testament.  Experts who have tried to put both the Babylonian Empire and the Old Testament on time lines reckon that Hammurabi and Abraham might have been contemporaries.  There are details in the Bible that show at least one principle or law (dealing with the ownership of lost livestock) that Hammurabi and Abraham seem to have had in common.  The experts say this is unlikely to be a coincidence, but whether one set of rules derived from the other, or whether both came from a single source, is not an issue that has ever been completely settled.  It's a bit like arguments over which ideas the first Jews borrowed from the Zoroastrians and vice versa.  What most scholars agree on is this: Western monotheism has tangled roots.

King and visitor as depicted by his lawyers

The scholarly arguments may never end, but they are bound to change.  Archeologists keep finding pieces of the great historical puzzle, and, of course, they usually don't fit perfectly into the picture hinted at by prior finds.

Notwithstanding the endless bickering among academics about how people governed themselves in the distant past, there is widespread agreement on some basic notions.  Most of the serious work by archeologists, historians, and legal experts includes a premise that social justice is a vital and in fact necessary part of every great empire.  While the conclusions of various civilizations about just what constitutes justice are all over the map (and the unmapped), the search for sustainable order and cooperation seems to be an important aspect of every empire that achieved significant advances in wealth, art, science, health and power.

This raises the issue of whether there is a similar natural law in favor of good behavior that applies to business empires.  It is very difficult to say whether a business that offers the products and services that customers demand can grow into a lasting empire even if it fails to maintain the trust of its customer base.  It is probably true that every business depends on trust in a narrow sense: The faith of customers that the goods and services it sells are pretty much as represented.

But there are quite a few cases in which it is not possible for the buyer to determine whether the items sold live up to the vendor's representations.  That is why governments impose regulations on certain trades, particularly in situations where the producer and buyer are separated by a chain of distributors.

Producers of perishable foods and pharmaceuticals may be compelled to put on their packages dates after which sale is illegal.  Makers of things that are to be ingested or applied to the skin may be required to list ingredients or at least indicated potentially disturbing components.  Sellers of potentially dangerous items, such as caustics and flammables, are may be forced to properly label their products.  And in numerous instances, items must bear accurate weights and measures.

In computing, such practices, whether enforced by law or custom, are often of limited value.  You may know the clock speed of a computer's CPU chip and still not have a very good idea how well the surrounding system will perform.  Even benchmark tests, which attempt to bring software into the equation, are at best rough guides to a system's capacity.  At worst, they are superb demonstrations of the ingenuity vendors exhibit when chasing high marks.  It's enough to make you wonder where those hotshots were when the most recent release of that operating system was being written.

Some users, who discover they have to buy an expensive upgrade well before they expected to run out of capacity, might understandably wish there were rules that gave them a better chance to predict capacity before they were past the point of no return in an implementation.  At the very least, these customers would love a world in which one could readily obtain suitable compensation if a vendor's promises were not met.  In such an empire, a user who could prove he was deliberately sold a system that would soon run out of capacity might be entitled to sue for a free upgrade: an iSeries for an iSeries.

— Hesh Wiener May 2003

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