Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The concept of recycling has existed since, probably, the dawn of humanity. Somewhere along the lines, some clever marketing person gave this concept a brand, and a motto “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Of course, this isn’t necessarily a motto for recycling specifically, but more for waste control in general. There is a direct parallel to some philosophy of software development:

Reduce

Ephemeralization is a term coined by R. Buckminster Fuller, in his 1938 book, Nine Chains to the Moon. The term can be summed up by the following quote: “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.”

We talk about this all the time in software – it’s the core principle of abstraction, even. Abstraction hides the complicated parts behind a new face, and gives us a mechanism to do much more with less. And, while we’ll never get to “do everything with nothing,” especially when you consider that abstraction is a facade, in principle, it is the same.

Reuse

The Free software movement is the primordial example of reuse in software1. It started, in part, because of a printer driver which was unavailable for reuse due to proprietary concerns. RMS wasn’t able to fix a bug he encountered while printing, because he didn’t have access to the source code.

Since then, we as engineers have enjoyed the ability to build our software on the backs of others, whether it be due to a research paper, a compiler, a crypto library, or a debugged version of TCP/IP.

It’s important that we continue to build upon existing resources, existing libraries, and incorporate existing pieces of infrastructure into our architectual designs, whenever possible.

Stressed, should be the point that whenever does not mean always. There are real and practical benefits of starting from scratch. But, when possible, at least Recycle.

Recycle

Some software components need to be thrown out. Luckily for our planet, there’s very little environmental impact from trashing digital copies of software. We turn some electricity into a little bit of heat, and it’s gone.

However, software is almost never thrown out entirely. A large portion of the time, derived software reuses some of the code from the original, but even if it doesn’t, there are important raw materials to recycle–experiences.

What caused us to make the trashing decision in the first place? What do we know now about constructing software in this domain that will make us better next time? These experiences are as good, and often better than the ability to just flat out re-include pieces of old software.

In Closing…

We as humans have realized that for our planet to survive, we must not waste resources – we simply don’t have an unlimited supply. We need to make concious efforts to ensure that we’re making the most of the resources we do have. Software is no different. In order for us as engineers to grow and innovate, and do so with increasing velocity, we must consider the core principles, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”


  1. Of course, the Free software movement likely wouldn’t have started without the MIT AI Lab, which had a very strong culture of sharing. In essence, the Free software movement is an extension of the AI Lab.

— 2015-03-06