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Sam Osborn
Sam Osborn

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Post-Progress Software Development

Things look dire. Not a small collection of smart people* are looking at the astonishing mismatch between IPCC climate models and current state of political action and imagining a near-term future (in our lifetimes) that includes something akin to societal collapse or systemic unravelling.

What is certainly true is that economic progress as we've known it will not be able to continue as it did through the 20th century. At the very least, a major and immediate redirection of the prime movers in our economy - from disposable and carbon-based to sustainable and renewable - needs to happen, on a scale that would redefine economic life in the developed world. What seems increasingly more likely, however, is that we will not meet required goals, and economic and technologic change will be out of our control: forced upon us as global food networks decay, major urban centers flood semi-annually, and refugee migration becomes the new normal for large parts of this planet's humans.

The short history of Software Development as a profession has been paired with a unique socio-cultural-economic reality, manifest in peri/post-20th century growth and so far dependent on a petroleum rich mega-surplus of energy, capital, and educated human resources. This reality is incompatible with either a society that is handling the realities of climate change, or a post-collapse world were society is heavily fragmented, has access to much less surplus, and is exposed to fairly regular pain and suffering.
These two scenarios seem like the only two roads ahead of us - both omit the current programmer's status quo.

So what does the near-term future look like for code-writers?

Will our occupation become irrelevant as the social fabric that supports it crumbles?
What will we do if the infrastructure of the internet is fragmented? Either through economic/cataclysmic dereliction or populist and psuedo-fascist states erecting ever more ardent firewalls and iron curtains?

When it comes to technology and knowledge, I am far from a fatalist. It is critical to note that technological progress has never been stopped or even delayed because of socio-politcal unrest or climatic hardship. In fact there is a good argument to be made that these factors drive progress in the longterm. While it seems like the economic reality is likely to change drastically, there will not be a regression in technical knowledge. Yet, certainly a regression in its permeability, accessibility, and social station. In the same way that post-Roman Western Europe continued right where Rome left off technologically and philosophically (with a noteworthy shift in aesthetic, religious, economic, political, and cultural organization), I expect the same is true of our immediate future. Humans as whole won't forget how to write code, or make tools out with circuits and batteries. However the tasks we will be asked to complete will be very different and the resources at our disposal will be greatly reduced. Like post-Roman Europe, power and accumulated capital will shift from central economic hubs to peripheral, but networked, communities.

Among other things, it seems that climate induced economic-politcal meltdown will help to break up the monoculture that is modern professional computer science. Instead of walking in lock-step, encouraged and informed by common web culture, we will be diffuse, peripheral, and diverse. Helping, I imagine, local people with local problems using networks of devices regionally not globally. Hopefully, the harsh realities of the world facing us will break the spell of technology-as-lifestyle and social-media-as-productivity, and let us use computers again as tools. I see, with optimism, a future for both code writers and code that is more earthly, humane, and immediate. One that is dialectical, rooted in craftsmanship and antiquity, not entrepreneurialism and economic opportunism. However, that reality will be matched with a world devoid of modern luxury and economic excess.

What do you think?

*
Jem Bendell's Deep Adaptation
Breakthrough Think Tank
The Dark Mountain Project
Extinction Rebellion

Cover Image: photography by the author

Discussion (4)

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dmerand profile image
Donald Merand • Edited

I love the idea that the future of computers + the internet is smaller, more locally relevant, and more bespoke/customized. Some of the best parts of what we currently have are the niche networks like Ravelry, (Dev), the Mastodon Fediverse, etc. It would be cool to see those networks get even more local + radical.

In terms of the profession of writing code, I've often imagined that we are sort of in the place that woodworkers were in before furniture starting being made in factories. Woodworkers still exist now, but they're not spending their entire day making the same piece of furniture by hand - that's what robots are for. There are fewer of them, and they're building custom things for folks who need something that's not mass-produced.

In a post-progress world, perhaps such services will be useful as barter for other services and goods. I love the idea of trading a Raspberry-Pi based LoRa temperature monitor mesh network for some sheet-metal work.

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dmerand profile image
Donald Merand

Also:

Hopefully, the harsh realities of the world facing us will break the spell of technology-as-lifestyle and social-media-as-productivity, and let us use computers again as tools.

Amen.

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Luke Westby

I have hope that the catastrophe we face will also be a chance to build a better world focused on caring for people and the land and water we depend on. Whatever happens with computing specifically, I hope it too will be reimagined to serve and support all rather than sciphoning power and wealth to the few. I’m ready to fight for that future, and indeed, we’ve already begun.