Essays, etc.

My name is Diana. I make things but generally not very well. I put thoughts here.

> Software From Another World

Software From Another World

I often feel as though there is another world behind or underneath this one, if only because this one feels at times so alien. I maintain two minds to navigate the strangeness of it. In one, I overdose on cynicism to explain the starvation and violence upon which the fabric of my survival is based. In the other, I remember and imagine compassion of sorts that I have never felt, because I want to afford those things to all people. Everyone deserves to survive, and it is a living nightmare that in a world of plenty some are made to starve and freeze and die in the streets. I come from a world that is not a nightmare -- or perhaps, that world is my home. I am only visiting this confounding land of meaningless cruelty.

I buy survival as a software engineer. I have code on other planets, as well as in military drones, and numerous other places. I write database tooling, bits and bobs that make it easy to ask your system about what it knows. That my enemies have made of my works killing machines... All I can say is, I was never asked. What I produce is so innocuous that it ends up everywhere. I have never worked for any military, and yet the nature of open source and of databases makes me a kind of Nth-order civilian contractor.

I have made peace with being a mercenary in this world. I believe survival is more important than valorizing poverty. I have done what I had to do to protect myself and the people I could(n't).

But the truth is, I love software. Something about communicating with these abstractions we still call computers, and about the vast possibilities their existence contains, is truly magical to me. I feel a great sense of responsibility to do right as a craftsperson, and I do feel it is a craft. It can certainly be done poorly, and well too -- though asking what is good software can rapidly garner answers about what it means to live a good life. Ethics and software are bonded at the core, from what we use it for down to how we build it. What else would you expect from a generalized agent system? We craft and command homunculi; do you imagine such could be a neutral act?

I feel that in that other world, there is good software. It works reliably, you can mod it trivially, users own their data, encryption is strong and prevalent, and programmers are organized. There are no ads on YouTube because YouTube is just a protocol spoken by a million interfaces. The library offers email addresses and web hosting. Grocers have no prices because nothing that anyone needs to survive is scarce. It takes a day of training and about four hours of programming to make most types of applications. Far from being a priest class, software engineers strive to eliminate their own power by making their works generalizable and accessible. All published software is free and open source. Why would you do it any other way?

But here, in this world, we are a kind of priest class. A neofeudal nobility rewards servility with an escape from poverty, and asks only that you shunt others into it -- or rather, that you make machines do the shunting in Python and JavaScript. Rather than use our powers to advance and entrench humane working and living conditions, such as Project Cybersyn dreamed, our key advantage as a class of worker is our ability to destroy labor power. We undermine not only unions, but every aspect of the worker's life: AirBnB spikes rents, Uber disenfranchises drivers, a thousand streaming services reinvent cable, Amazon fucks everybody, and so on. Despite any niche expertise, these are companies made possible by software, by the lending of software labor to capitalist ends. We can choose to deny them, if we stand together.

But organizing at work is an easy way to lose your job, and potentially your career. The hacker ethos once championed as a method of subverting prevailing power has become at last its greatest lieutenant. Open source has finally distilled to its essence: caveat emptor. I am not hoping for programmers to organize as a class, not anytime soon -- you dudebro losers haven't got the guts -- but good software simply won't be possible until we accomplish at least that much. There will never be the time or money to satisfy the guarantees our ethics require until we demand them with all the power we possess.

Under capitalism, software only gets worse. Fortunately, the demise of the killing machine looms large. Can you hear the wheezing breath? See the shuffling gait? By all that is good I tell you: a death god is dying. And beyond it, that other world shimmers -- the world of good things. It is no dream or figment, I assure you, but a possibility, indeed in my mind it is a certainty. The dominance of our enemies is more circumstantial than fated, and no ounce of capitalist piddling about human nature truly resides in the spirit of all people. When those circumstances change, as they are changing all around us, then that force of will that binds us tight will break and we will pry ourselves free from the great satan's cold dead hands. A new day is coming, comrades.

Another world awaits.

July 25, 2021