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On the Moral Obligation to Decomputerize: programmers, liturgists, and Luddism

samosborn profile image Sam Osborn ・2 min read

The role of a programmer, irrespective of technology, is that of a liturgist.

For reasons both humanist and ecological, we all need to reconsider Luddism. As Ben Tarnoff says in his recent Guardian piece: "To decarbonize, we need to decomputerize." He is absolutely right, and as I have said before, if we don't nurture that change internally, it will be forced onto us externally as social, economic, and technical institutionalism crumble under the weight of climate collapse.

It is time to take up the task of decoupling Information Technologies roles from digital terrain. What does it look like when you point a programmer at a problem but don't let them use a computer? What happens when digitization is just one tool in a larger collection of information technologies being imagined, trained, and maintained by an IT department?
What are we without our computers?

The role of a programmer, irrespective of technology, is that of a liturgist.

Programmer's are the keepers of ritual. We design the abstract into the material and people it diversely with compassionately trained users. We imagine, design, and dictate repeatable patterns of behavior that capture arbitrary qualities as material objects to do the business of naturalist thinking. We speak a profound and academic language, rich in symbolism and multiple meanings; it is inaccessible to our congregations. We are the mediators of the arcane into the mundane, and populate daily life with enchantment and animation. In as much as our code has the ability to make meaning, it is identical to the ways in which liturgy and ritual make meaning.

The work of expression, the creation of a fabulous environment to derive experience from, is not, however, the first or most pressing operation employing the religious mind. Its first business is rather the work of propitiation; before we stop to contemplate the deity we hasten to appease it, to welcome it, or to get out of its way. Cult precedes fable and helps frame it, because the feeling of need or fear is a practical feeling, and the ideas it may awaken are only incidental to the reactions it prompts. Worship is therefore earlier and nearer the roots of religion than dogma is.
-The Life of Reason Vol VII Book 3: Reason in Religion, by George Santayana


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dmfay profile image
Dian Fay

Comparing programmers to priests seems a rather rosy view of the power dynamic, doesn't it? Could we (or, indeed, priests themselves) not just as easily be compared to hall monitors, supervisors, prison guards? Does a programmer truly mediate users' interactions with some higher symbolic plane, or do we foreclose the space of immanent possibility, setting limits and enforcing rules for good or ill?

Meaning-making is not solely the province of rite and ritual, or even of the human, and programming is one of many ways to facilitate these processes. At our best, programmers draw connections, direct flows, and empower users to explore, model, and share reality. At our worst -- we do the same thing, badly, or without a thought for who is a user and who merely used. There's room for comparisons with the esoteric, but religious and occult schools of thought all have their own stories and justifications for how power is restricted, structured, and wielded, and it's a mistake to take them at face value or to assume they apply in metaphor.

samosborn profile image
Sam Osborn Author

It's less that I see programmers as priests and more that I see them as compilers of liturgy. There are absolutely many priestly tasks that programmers don't (often) take up. Programmers are certainly not priests.

Importantly, cultic ritual can exist independent of fable and dogma. Indeed, Santayana proposes that cultic ritual is a precursor to those things. I would argue that if software is liturgical, and I believe it is, it is a secular (or perhaps more fairly, late-capitalist) liturgy, and not connected to any named divinities or told myths. But that doesn't mean it isn't a) liturgical or b) appealing to one or more cults of belief native to our modern world.

Liturgy has steps, is algorithmic, and depends on a verbs of to-be to get it started.
Compared to other, non-embodied modes of meaning-making (science, visual art, dialectic) which tend to be either examinations of externality or non-reproducible crystals of connection that are absolutely settled in space and time.
A liturgical artifact, like a software artifact, is a portable, grow-able, method for thinking deeply, shared with diverse others to do or be, not to be seen or read. The important difference between liturgy and performance is that the one has active practitioners and the other has a passive audience.

The closest comparable meaning-making mode I can imagine is choreography. Which exists, once created, as a high potential channel of communication, but depends on a dancer to instantiate it.
Dance becomes meaningful to the watcher as well as the dancer, whereas liturgy is only fully evocative to the active practitioner.

This principle of liturgical enactment is what separates it from hall monitors, supervisors, and prison guards. All of whom are judgemental of expressed states, but none of whom are invested in the design of embodied meaning-making tools for understanding.

The claim here is less about working metaphor and more of an attempt to strip away the computer from the programmer and see what substance is left. And then to name that substance with a word that has a vigorous tradition in the history of human meaning-making. The larger message is that data-gluttonous digitization won't be a viable option for Information Technology problem solving in the near future, and so we need to nurture a vocabulary of information technology that is more diverse than only those things with software. Here I choose to focus on liturgy, there are certainly others, as the most compatible with the goals of a software developer as a meaning-maker.

dmfay profile image
Dian Fay

Why liturgy specifically, though, if not to trade on other ecclesiastical or pastoral parallels? Aleister Crowley, in defining magick-with-a-k as the enactment of will, considered such examples as banking, potato-growing, and blowing one's nose. Each of these is just as perfectly algorithmic: one obtains a tissue, one weeds as necessary, one invents subprime mortgages. Each produces artifacts with various representative significances, and these artifacts are from the start entangled in further webs of meaning and meaning-production. You may not consider them methods for thinking deeply, but I'd argue at least two of them qualify. Only one is strictly a method for abstract thinking, but that's a comparatively minor detail.

I have to disagree with your characterization and differentiation of other modes as well. Scientific experiments are conducted specifically in hopes that the results are reproducible and can be further elaborated; works of visual art are intended to resonate with viewers and inform their future perceptions and thoughts, and further to dialogue with other artists by developing styles and techniques. Very few things, at least proportionally speaking, are truly absolutely settled. And even a choreographed dance still has something only the dancers can feel.

Liturgy as a mode of meaning-production just isn't all that special. Audiences participate in performances through applause, boos, distracted talking, sudden hushes; bored children stuffed into their Sunday best and dragged to church are practically sessile. It's certainly an attractive point of comparison, and I'd be lying if I said I'd never considered software development in an esoteric light, but the connotations of holiness (in the sense of 'set apart') and gnosis do weigh a little heavily on the parallel.

On the broader point, I definitely agree! The computerization of society isn't happening because it improves people's lives; it's happening because it's profitable, at the expense of natural resources and, more often than not, social and individual well-being. It's more and more important for those of us making a living on that computerization to be asking "is this really a computers kind of issue?" as the clock runs down.