The Bureaucracy of Automatons

An introduction to the notes on Confucian Software.

Software and the Sage

Among the many dissimilarities between software and gentlemen of the classical Chinese Spring and Autumn Period, two in particular stand out. One existed in a pre-scientific feudal society on an agricultural technological and economic base, and the other presupposes the scientific method and a modern (or post-modern) industrial base. Secondly, the concept of virtue or potency (德) is central to The Analects, but software artifacts are, in our day and age, non-sentient. Morality requires some degree of self-awareness – of consciousness – and so software does not itself practice virtue any more than a spoon or a lawnmower.

The immediate relevance, for a developer, of the Analects, are the two other grand concerns of Confucius, which are existential fundaments of software. These are names (名), and the rites (礼).

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The Nobility of Software Development

Confucians represent one of the earliest groups of knowledge workers in human history. They were trained in specialized knowledge for specialized tasks in a complex society, and they had a sense that their specialized knowledge made them an elite group in society. — Marc Hamann

Software development is both meritocratic and social. In the short and thoughtful note above, Marc Hamann argues this makes the thoughts of Confucius particularly relevant to the endeavour.

Marc well describes the sense of recognition I first felt when reading The Analects, the curiosity and respect for people that underlie this jumble of quotes from Confucius and his disciples. He also describes the disconnect between the brittle hierarchies of Confucianism in its most ossified form and the conservative anti-manifesto at its heart.

He also draws a contrast between the trope of the scruffy, arrogant hacker and the gentlemen 君子 in The Analects. Could we instead imagine a kind of nobility to software development? It would imply a sophisticated engagement and sense of duty to society that is the very opposite of the cliched antisocial developer who cares for nothing but code.

Nobility implies privilege and institutionally supported power as well, of course. But software development already has that. Software is pervasive within most social institutions – civil government, banks, the military, manufacturing, energy production, publishing, movies. It’s embedded in the way we communicate with one another and record our personal histories. And the job of software development is embedded along with it. Citizen programmers have jobs in all these places, vote, own houses, and are thoroughly woven into the social fabric.

The scruffy hacker avant-garde exists, and maybe its a breeder for technical innovation, sometimes. But it’s also a mask for hiding behind, and avoiding responsibility, as argued by historians of technology like Leo Marx.

It’s hard to escape that trope without alternatives. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates provide two: the first not scruffy, rigorous in his focus on usable design, the second for his philanthropic ambition. Their fabulous wealth limits our ability to emulate them. Perhaps someone like Confucius, with his respectfulness and humanism, his thoughts on working as part of a flawed system, can offer another model.