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

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Sam Osborn Author • Edited on

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 • Edited on

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.