Compatibility Doctrine, The

Technological doctrine that makes backwards compatibility a priority

Walker falling into ptfall
Image from Steve Bowers
This walker (a Manned Walking Weapons Platform) has fallen into a lo-tech pitfall. It is signalling distress (via chromo-patterns on its outer skin) to its companion, which is still in camouflage colouration


The Compatibility Doctrine was a set of design ethics and regulations published in 489 A.T. by baseline scientist Edward Ne. These doctrines would profoundly influence technological and artistic design for centuries to come.

Problems caused by a lack of Backwards Compatibility

The doctrine outlines the importance of ‘backwards compatibility’ as seen by Ne. As a civilisation progresses through technological advancement, the rate of specialisation in new technology is directly proportional to the dangers posed by lower-grade technology. New systems which have been developed to address certain problems often fail to address older issues and difficulties, and are often vulnerable due to this weakness.

New weapons and vehicles in particular would have a brief period in which overspecialisation created unforeseen problems. The design of various war machines, such as the walking laser turret ‘Mechas’ in the Interplanetary Age, focused on heat deflection rather than structural integrity, energy dispersion instead of shock protection, adopted weak, nimble legs good for raising the turret up to shoot, and favored maneuverability rather than structural integrity. Combined with the high accuracy that rendered miniaturisation unnecessary, early mecha and battle-tanks were particularly vulnerable to primitive mechanical kinetic weaponry. In a hypothetical example, Ne described in detail how an opponent armed with primitive pitfalls, trees and twine could defeat a state of the art (for the time) mecha. A lack of 'backwards compatibility' in warfare technology and strategy could allow the success of asymmetric warfare, using lo-tech weapons to combat an opponent who lacks viable methods for dealing with such attacks.


To combat this problem, Ne suggested a program of both "backwards compatibility" and "looking to the past", so that any new systems would be compatible with, and be able to deal with problems caused by the use of older, heritage systems. This was especially important in warfare, where any new weapons system or defence should be able to overcome or resist older, lo-tech weapons as well as prevail against modern, hi-tech weapons. Previous to this many combatants had found that their creations were inadequate when faced with more primitive forms of damage such as kinetic weaponry, explaining the success of various resistance groups using out-dated designs and weapons.

Indeed, while this doctrine was developed for war machines, the ideas and ethics soon spread to design as a whole, and would subject products such as firmware and software to rigorous tests including ancient, nearly forgotten viruses to which they were found to be particularly vulnerable. This would prove to be the downfall of quite a few Deletionist campaigns that focused on using old exploits so ancient that they were completely forgotten.

Backwards compatibility would also have important consequences in the exploration of deep space. Since colony ships were often sent at very long intervals to distant locations, these ships generally utilised radically different technology from one another; when a second colony mission, launched decades or centuries later, encountered the first wave of settlers, they might find that all their information systems, propulsion systems and docking equipment were mismatched. Even the environmental requirements and genetics of the new settlers could be incompatible with each other.


The doctrine and its assumptions and principles were quickly adopted in a wide range of design processes. It has become such a basic tenet of design philosophy that it is often taken for granted. Even transapient technology appears to make both ‘backwards compatibility’ and ‘looking to the past’ a basic requirement for successful design. Ne’s work is still an instructive text for design students, and remains a valuable tool for designers and engineers alike.

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Development Notes
Text by The HumblerAdditional material by Steve Bowers
Initially published on 29 June 2016.