In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.
The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, that has become an objective reality.
The first stage of the economy's domination of social life brought about an evident degradation of being into having - human fulfillment was no longer equated with what one was, but with what one possessed. The present stage, in which social life has become completely occupied by the accumulated productions of the economy, is bringing about a general shift from having to appearing...
Guy Debord Society of the Spectacle
The Society of the Spectacle, despite being written in the 60s, might be one of the most lucid critiques of social media, pop culture, the destructive vortex of superficiality, and the deflation of fact that is so frustratingly widespread, thanks in part to software. Debord spends the entirety of the Society rendering an ever more refined definition for spectacle: the realization and materialization of representation as-itself in a commodity economy. The critique is widespread and scathing but predicated on the idea that in a society where representations are the economic goal and the economic by product, the system becomes completely tautological. The means and the ends of the society are completely identical and so agency and embodied living vanish into commodity-representationism.
What is particularly destabilizing about Debord is not his thesis, which is really a very elegant critique of how social-media/mass-media problematize the lived human experience - a thesis that does not need to be pushed hard to advance in our political and cultural pseudo-dystopia. What is locally and topically destabilizing is that the traditions that Debord is criticizing are intimately entangled in the psyche and culture of the greater tech world. If Debord's antagonist is the spectacle, then software is its modern accelerant, and we, the designers, are the workers who "do not produce themselves," but rather "produce a power independent of themselves. The success of this production, and the abundance it generates, is experienced by the producers as an abundance of dispossession."
Which is to say: we labor to manifest code, but are neither embodied in it, nor defined by it. As we deploy our work to production, it becomes a facet of an "advanced economic sector that directly creates an ever increasing multitude of image-objects, that spectacle is the leading production of present-day society". It is no exaggeration that the spectacle grows on our backs.
The topic of being a software developer who engages with Debord, who writes code that is sensitive to his critique, is honestly monumental. The two may be irreconcilable. But, I like writing code, and I like thinking, so here's a playful go at it.
The key, I think, is unwinding of the progression that Debord lays out in his 17th thesis: that we have progressed from being into having into appearing. Representation is no doubt a critical part of coding. We are all the time creating object oriented representations of concepts, commodities, and image-objects. My challenge is to rewind that back to simply being, and here is the short-circuit moment that oscillates between Zen buddhism and wholesale disfunction: code in first person.
Here is a silly example in Elixir. I've found that if one really wants to write first-person code, it is best done functionally:
defmodule I do def am_a_list_with_a_max([head|tail]) do _and_I_sometimes_am(tail, head) end defp _and_I_sometimes_am(, my_maximimum), do: my_maximimum defp _and_I_sometimes_am([head|tail], maybe_my_maximum) when head > maybe_my_maximum do _and_I_sometimes_am(tail,head) end defp _and_I_sometimes_am([head|tail], maybe_my_maximum) when head <= maybe_my_maximum do _and_I_sometimes_am(tail, maybe_my_maximum) end end
iex(1)> I.am_a_list_with_a_max([1,2,34,54,65,21,45,23,67,43,12]) 67
Coding in First Person faces into Debord's criticism in a few important ways, all of which interesting enough that I think it warrants playful consideration:
Relocating the disenfranchised proletariat: The worker is absolutely dispossessed from the product of his labor. It is our job as software developers to think deeply about a thing, but then disembody that thought-structure from ourselves, and capture it in itself in a self-sustaining way. This sounds critical, but that exercise is really the appeal of programming, and why I love it. The reality is that the disembodiment of thinking into a spectacular autonomous image-object is exactly the notion that Debord is critiquing. It also leaves us all vulnerable to modes of disconnection and subjugation. The reduction of intellectual labor into a commodity (what's your hourly rate?), leaves us, the workers, deprived of our intellectual capital, and exchangeably anonymized. Writing in first-person doesn't prevent this completely, but in as much as grammar offers a defense against the anonymity of representation, it is the word "I".
Ambiguity of Perspective: Something really interesting happens when reading and writing first-person code: an ambiguity beings to emerge between the different speaking characters. There is "I" the code writer, which is absolutely the intention. But in a slightly poetic way, the code begins to speak out to the world in the first person. Self documenting code is all the rage.
The important consequence of first-person code is that it orbits the module "I". In many ways, "I" is both the voice of the code writer and the structural core of the code. If you have thoughts on what "I" might be, I'd love to hear it. "I-ness" is certainly a profound epistemological focal point, and something so far missing for code-syntax. Maybe it needs to stand for something larger than a module, however high-order that module is? The obvious conclusion to this is some sort of first-person oriented language, though for now I am interested mostly in exploring first person in existing languages. Give it a try: oscillate between Zen buddhism and confusing disfunction with me.
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