March 3, 2020

Not Not Politicalif software matters, it’s already political

The pols are ruining everything. Their ideological raiding parties and weaponized catch phrases trample every boundary. Into conversations about ink pens, about laptop stickers, about shipping supplies. Into conversations about law, about software, about open source. The massively underachieving, overconfident, blustering imperium of narcissistic dolts with social media accounts systematically colonizes every nook and cranny of our daily lives. There’s no safe place to hide online.

Like many, I find this pattern distressing. I live a quiet life, and get my conflict fix at work, representing clients. Compared to the average half-hour contract negotiation any day of the week, the shouting rhetoric, bad arguments, and amateur debate tactics of the political stage depress me. I would gladly change to some other channel, if only I could find the button, if only I believed I’d find something different.

I feel all of this. But I’ve also noticed a certain faulty, self-serving pattern in my own point of view. Noticed well enough to notice also in others.

It is one thing for an industry or a hobby or a “community” broadly speaking to avoid talking politics, or talking in political terms. It’s nice to work with people whose political opinions I don’t have to know, whose ideological proclivities I don’t have to guess, whose work and other contributions I can consider and appreciate just so, as they’re relevant to our conversation, and not to some never-ending national brouhaha. Frankly, it’s even nice to disagree using something other than the usual “left”-“right” key words and phrases.

Sometimes political vocabulary, political ideologies, and their human hosts do indeed try to force their way in by storm, uninvited and unprovoked. But as I’ve learned, not all attempts to “politicize” what we prefer to think of as nonpolitical, apolitical, politically immune, or politically neutral can be written off so blithely. Sometimes the matter itself is political, and the arrival of political people to talk about it in political terms simply reflects that unacknowledged reality. The shift is dismaying, but not disappointing, because at some honest level, we expected it.

In simple terms: Whether we think of our work as political is one thing. Whether we talk about our work in politicized terms is another. Whether the effects of our work have social, economic, and ideological consequences that directly implicate politics is quite another still. When the politically relevant effects of our work become predictable, discoverable, or especially obvious, responsibility kicks in. And complaints about politicization, as if the pols were to blame, rather than ourselves, catches a very different light.

The work we do, or even the diversions we enjoy, can become urgently and unavoidably political, whether we like to think or talk about them that way or not, whether we intend a political impact or not. When landing parties of news wonks wielding words of the moment hit our shores, slapping “progressive” and “conservative” on two sides of every argument, it feels like an invasion. But from the top down, it’s more like a counterattack. A riposte to relevance, not an unprovoked assault.

Trouble is, the things that feel important, the things that seem to matter, the things that credibly threaten to change the world … sometimes they actually are important, do matter, and markedly affect the environment we share with others. From any selfish, individual point of the view, the best possible gig is of course one in which we’re important, respected, powerful, and nonetheless completely immune from outside interests, ideologies, opinion. We want to be philosopher kings, or exalted technocrats, within the largest quasi-feudal domains of specialization we can eek out, seeing only to our own concerns and skirting the harder problem of balance across the whole. So we seek leeway and shun accountability. We theorize fuzzy, positive impacts to bolster our self-esteem, and dismiss issues that scratch our luster. Even those brought very forcefully to our attention.

I see this in software, and I see it in other aspects of my life.

Take motorcycles. I love to work on motorcycles. Especially the old ones, which are better to understand, better to maintain, and better to improve.

As it happens, the best motorcycles for the mortal shade-tree mechanic predate strong emissions regulations. The new rules killed off powerful designs, like two-stroke street street bikes, required new, complicated equipment, like evaporation canisters and lean fuel circuits, and hastened the shift toward more efficient and reliable electronics, essentially automotive computers, which remain opaque, fragile, and immune to hand tool therapy. Modern, computerized bikes that sip fuel and emit hardly a toot aren’t so much fun for me to work on, but a lot better for you and everyone else, if’n you don’t fettle engines for fun and prefer to breathe clean air in relative quiet.

At a basic level, I don’t want to hear that my 1978 Honda with four carburetors, no catalytic converter, high-flow exhaust, and several rubber tubes leading straight to the atmosphere contributes to climate issues. I don’t want to think about the day when it’s no longer legal or practical to ride it on public roads. I don’t want to hear that the garage hobby keeping my hands moving and my head screwed on tight collides with an epochal issue of international policy concern featuring dueling preachy blonde minor spokesgirls. And I can see exactly the kind of bounty political parties stand to earn by politicizing the issue and reaping single-issue voters thus sown. People love motorcycles. People make whole lives in the craft and the culture.

But there’s no good case for giving motorcycle buffs immunity from the political process. Not from its rhetoric. Not from its regulations. Politics could leave us alone and maybe would leave us alone … if what we do didn’t affect the rest of society.

Despite the astounding, performative asshattery of rolling coal and openly dodging standards on the emissions front, it’s even easier to make the case that software achieves political relevance. We can draw straight, bold lines from technology company power and the culture of software developers to pressing political issues, including meta issues like propaganda, surveillance, media control, monopolization, online radicalization, and wealth disparity. So we are going to see more participants in software, open and closed, who identify first with political or ideological missions, and second if at all with goals specific to software. We are going to have to listen to those people describe issues, state positions, and agitate for action in political terms that we’d rather pretend belong on cable news, and not in our niche.

The question in my mind isn’t whether tech has the solidarity or the clout to resist politicization. It is already political by effect and responsibility. It is losing only a certain convenience in the mass-consensual project of pretending otherwise. Rather, the question in my mind is whether the virtues software people have produce a better debate, and whether software people can offer any achievements in that regard back to the main.

Do people who do software have anything special to contribute to the deliberative process, other than software and software companies? Can they evolve or refine the way individual callings, like software, get integrated into a broader conversation about the whole? Do they have a better way to talk about, and work through, the issues that their work presents to society more broadly?

If not, we can indeed expect to spend more time cringing through the usual bipolar rhetorics, recriminations, and stereotype-ridden simplifications of general political “discourse”. We can expect to lose more precious faith for the lack of practical results.

I strongly suspect we can do better. But not if we refuse to acknowledge the problem.

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