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Sam Osborn
Sam Osborn

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Mindfully Objectifying the Human Condition

Typically, we write code that will at some point represent a human as a symbol.

It might not be an exaggeration to say that the most symbolized idea in art is the human. However, in art that symbolic human is usually a conceptual person, not a living one. Whatever good or harm can be done by artistically symbolizing a human, is exclusively ideological.

In software that has a human user (most of it), the symbolized human is not only an ideological imposition, it is a biopolitical reality. Software regulates, mediates, and entangles our interactions with reality. Symbolic abstractions of humans in general have material, far reaching, and biopolitical impacts on specific human beings. This is especially true with code that is implemented in the healthcare and finance sectors, but is generally true across the board.

Consider this code:

@historic_participants = @profile.archived_participants.select{|p| p.applied?}

It's familiar as something one would find in a Ruby on Rails controller. We're making an instance variable @historic_participants that is a list of historic participants we want to iterate, probably in our view.

Let's itemize the humans we are abstracting into code:
We've got a @profile. That's a human with frustrations, desires, emotions, and aspirations. They are a biopolitical agent, who we don't necessarily know and probably won't ever meet. In this case, they've logged into our website, and we're keeping track of who they are using some client-side data. @profile is a concept in code, but will be instantiated as a person eventually. A person who is trusting us with their email address, a password (which they are probably recycling), and other important information about who they are. Information that could make them vulnerable to biopolitical exploitation. We have a humanist obligation to imagine @profile not just as an instance variable inferred from a cookie, but also as a specific human to be treated ethically or not.

We've also got p. The .archived_participants() method is returning an array of people, and we're going to select from that array, just the ones that have applied?. Logistical details don't matter here. What's important and true is that to do a pretty mundane job, I've ended up holding in my software-hands a pile of humans, and I'm now going to touch each them, anonymously and real fast. As a code writer, this is happening all symbolically, and I'll never even see it explicitly. Won't even know the names of p as they exist. Yet, {|p| puts p.information} reveals enough information about each of these anonymous folks to engage in low-level identity theft. There are, always, biopolitical implications in the human-abstracting code we write.

We are fundamentally objectifying humans as data-objects to make them casually handle-able. When human beings become anonymized objects of biopolitical manipulation, it's basically always a road to human rights abuse. We are only beginning to fully understand the ways in which this process degraded our agency and manipulated us into shopping, believing, and voting in curated ways. Person-as-p reductionism looks like targeting p with personalized ads to make them not want to vote in the 2020 election. It looks like custom insurance pricing because p has pre-existing medical conditions. It looks like AI-assisted sentencing of p in a criminal court because there are more cases than judges can process. It looks, and is biopolitical.


Facing the Problem

Techno-spiritualism offers an unexpected opportunity to engage with this problem. Throughout history we have defended humanist ethics by sacralizing the human condition. There are diverse theological vehicles for this. Humanist ethics could be equally understand through Christ's passion or a pagan neo-Platonic human ideal of unimpeachable potential. It's not possible to mention all the roads one can walk toward theologically sacralizing the human form into an ethically defensible condition. What I will mention is that UCS characters make almost all of them available in code! However you choose to theo-aesthetically legitimize you neighbors, it probably exists as a code-executable UCS character that can be parsed as a variable in your language of choice.

@historic_participants = @profile.archived_participants.select{|| .applied?}

In my example, I've chosen the Elder Futhark rune 'Mannaz' to iterate all of the people in archived_participants. It means human or person. Person as p has been replaced with Person as . The symbol takes the same space in a line of code, but is a sack that carries a deep tangle of aesthetic, mystic, theological, political, and cultic power. It reminds the reader and writer that the people I abstract lightly, live deeply outside of the code.

ᛗ Man byþ on myrgþe his magan leof:
sceal þeah anra gehƿylc oðrum sƿican,
forðum drihten ƿyle dome sine
þæt earme flæsc eorþan betæcan.

The joyous man is dear to his kinsmen;
yet every man is doomed to fail his fellow,
since the Lord by his decree
will commit the vile carrion to the earth.

Anglo-saxon Rune Poem, 8th or 9th C

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