Benign Computing

Benign computing is a term coined by Barath Raghavan in his 2015 paper Abstraction, Indirection, and Sevareid’s Law: Towards Benign Computing 1 . It is a general design framework, inspired by appropriate technology, that aims at computing systems that are less likely to produce harm to the ecosystem and subsequently human society. One of its strategies is to avoid becoming trapped by Sevareid’s Law, which states that the chief source of problems are solutions. Benign computing critiques and tries to avoid tech solutionism. It aims at foreseeing potential drawbacks, to keep evaluating if the benefits still outweigh those drawbacks, and making sure both benefits and drawbacks are distributed and defined from a diverse range of perspectives. Ultimately benign computing limits structural power, such as that wielded by GAFAM, through systems with a large underlying diversity, like in nature. The characteristics show a lot of overlap with the three historical examples from the start of this paper but are much more clearly defined and embedded in contemporary design practices. Benign computing is decentralised and can scale-out through federation of autonomous nodes under diverse administrative control. It is resilient and fails well by mimicking nature in the way it handles failure through complexity and diversity. It is based on open design principles, using open source software and hardware licenses to allow for a diversity of implementations within a scale-out system. It is fractal in nature, meaning systems should be decentralised, resilient and use open design on all levels of their structure to ensure these principles can be applied where needed.

  1. Barath Raghavan. 2015. Abstraction, Indirection, and Sevareid’s Law: Towards Benign Computing. In Proceedings of the First Workshop on Computing within Limits. ACM, Irvine California, 1–4.'s_Law_Towards_benign_computing