Ongoing revision process from an academic essay written in a Philosophy of Aesthetics and Politics seminar into something more digestible to the public.
**The Political Programmer — Beyond Good & Evil, Into the How
Gone are the days of “don’t be evil.” Tech companies and the individuals who work in them are realizing that good and evil are a bit harder to distinguish. The primary goal of this essay is to expand our notion of politics and responsibility in tech and to re-integrate this idea into what few have come to see as “apolitical.”
Good vs. Evil:
It’s really hard to tell them apart when you discard obviously malicious intent. The difficulty comes partly from the fact that the technology creators’ intended use doesn’t limit technology. Gene editing is a technology that could save us from world hunger or be used to manufacture deadly viruses. Flight, radio, the computer, and the internet began as military projects. Further, this is applied to business models, too. The attention economy of persuasive ads may be used for a ‘good cause’ but nonetheless normalizes a business model that is ultimately ruining individual lives and society.
No matter how good or bad technology may seem, we can never be sure of its impact on society. This might sound theoretical or historical, but for engineers and technologists who see themselves as powerful and their work as political (both of which are true, as I will argue), nothing is more practical than the questions of what to build and what not to.
My goal here is to expand our thinking about the politics of programming. SpecificallyI will not try to answer if technology is “good” or “bad” on the basis of what it immediate consequences. Instead, I will look at how it was made— its “technique.” This approach comes from a seemingly unlikely source: a WWII German-Jewish political theorist of art, philosopher, and critic Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, wrote during the rise of fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, while Communism and Capitalism. Art, regardless of whether the author intended it, was political.
An artwork’s “technique” is inextricably linked to its social, economic, political, and material conditions. He analyzes techniques to ask a surprisingly subtle question: can art change a society that led to its production? I hope to ask the same about technology.
Through this essay, I will develop a parallel between the 21st-century programmer and the 20th-century artist. Using Benjamin’s essay “The Author as Producer” I reconstruct some of his critical ideas on the political nature of the artist and his notion of their “technique”. Specifically, I conceptualize ‘Big Tech’ and ‘Open Source’ as “techniques” for producing technology and then analyze them using Benjamin’s political framework. This forms the basis of the political programmer, a new way of understanding the individual programmer’s role in shaping political reality.
Inescapably “Political”: Art & Technology
Technology and art are often described as magic. Magic is always political. Technology and art are potent political forces — for good or for evil.
Writing and living during WWII, Walter Benjamin saw Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy weaponize art for the latter purpose. Art, “aesthetics,” more broadly, was used to manufacture a society willing to endure brutal and genocidal means for a “beautiful” end.
Benjamin saw the blank canvas as a place to imagine new and better societies. In the revolutionary context of late 19th and early 20th century Europe, where questions of how to govern society were reignited with the rise of Marxism, art was the medium to collectively imagine and eventually create a society of human flourishing that had never existed before.
As such, Benjamin takes a materialist approach to his political analysis of art. Instead of focusing on the content or form of the artwork, or the “ideas” around art, he examines the art in the social, political, and technological conditions within which it is produced. Specifically, in the context of capitalism, he asks the deeply relevant question we grapple with today: can art truly change a society that enables its production?
Definition of the Programmer
Before I lay out that theory, I want to discuss the definition of a programmer. As the title suggests, I’ve defined the programmer as the producer of technology. But who gets to produce technology?
In Author as Producer (1934), Benjamin proclaims that amidst technological innovation and new political demands, we must expand our old “notions of literary form” and “authorship” to find new “forms appropriate to the literary energy of our time.” Today, I argue, we must similarly expand our notion of a programmer. Not merely because of new technology but because our fundamental relationship with technology is changing. Now more than ever, and at an increasing rate, we are creating technology — not just using it.
With the rise of Personal Computers, the proliferation of software and the internet, accessibility of information, and greater intimacy with digital tools, these new material conditions of innovation have dramatically changed our relationship with technology: from user to producer. This change is still underway, but the rise of ’power-users’ — users who customize their technology for a specific use — clearly demonstrates that the line between user and producer is blurring. TikTok and Instagram users build custom filters; graphic designers and music producers regularly extend and connect the digital tools that make their work possible. These power-users, who are often artists but range from productivity nerds to gardening hobbyists, are, for the first time, becoming the producers of the technology they use. This trend is most visible in software but is not limited to it. Affordable micro-controllers like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi make bringing code into the physical world more straightforward than ever. Though there are very real and pressing inequalities in access to technology and education, it is theoretically possible to modify and shape technology like never before. We can all produce technology and, therefore, all become programmers. I believe realizing this theoretical possibility is immensely emancipatory. The professional programmer, who epitomizes the producer’s relationship with technology, much like the artist, has an essential role in determining whether we recognize it. So although this essay is focused on the professional programmer, the implications of their work to recruit non-programmers into the fold, or prevent this, extend into politics and and the far beyond.
Benjamin begins Author as Producer by criticizing the common debate between a literary work’s political commitment, its “tendency,” and its literary “quality.” On the one hand, work with a ‘good’ political commitment but of ‘poor’ quality is clearly not great. But on the other hand, what about work with a terrible “tendency” of high artistic “quality?” Triumph of the Will, the infamous Nazi propaganda film is a typical provocative example of these kinds of works. Can a work that tries to bring about a ‘bad’ political end be truly great?
The debate rages on, even today. Benjamin believes that “tendency” and “quality” are superficial, dead-end concepts. He writes
“[y]ou are familiar with it, [‘tendency’ vs. ‘quality’,] and so you know how unfruitful the debate has been. For the fact is that this debate has never got beyond a boring ‘on-the-one-hand’, ‘on-the-other-hand’[…].”
Instead of asking about a work’s tendency, which is seldom straightforward except in the most extreme cases, Benjamin introduces the concept of technique by asking a different question. “Before I ask what is a work’s position vis-à-vis the production relations of its time, I should like to ask: what is its position within them? This question concerns the function of a work within the literary production of its time. In other words, it is directly concerned with literary technique.” (Benjamin, pg 87).
Benjamin shits the focus of criticism from a work’s political ends to its position within the “living and breathing production relation.” Not to ask what it says, but instead what it does. To answer the latter question, particularly for a Marxist, we must look at how it was produced — its “technique.” Only when it is considered in these dynamic material terms can we understand the unique, self-referential power art has to change the society that enabled its production.
This question is not limited to criticism of capitalism (produced under/using it) but extends to any work that hopes to change society. For example, the Netflix “documentary” The Social Dilemma, is promoted on social media, using the same unethical and user-privacy abusing algorithms it attacks. Banksy’s artwork, critical of the obscene pricing of art and authority of art institutions, sells for millions at auction houses (three times as much when half-shredded!).
Benjamin poses a subtler question: can art change its conditions of production, or is it condemned to reproducing them, try as they might? Benjamin believes art can, but we must look to the material “technique” to understand how.
Technique is a philosophically loaded term Benjamin uses extensively throughout his work. Broadly defined as “the medium through which we humans […] shape the world,” technique includes tools and how we use them — technology and the social relations of prodcution — but also how those tools shape us. Technique, according to Benjamin, “makes literary products accessible to immediate social, and therefore materialist, analysis. At the same time, the concept of technique represents the dialectical starting-point from which the sterile dichotomy of form and content can be surmounted.” (Benjamin, pg 88). The dichotomy is “surmounted” because “technique” considers how content, form, art, and artist are inextricably linked by the material conditions. Just as the editing tools of Photoshop and the distribution platform of Instagram, for example, influence form, so too do economic and societal norms on what users engage with influence the content. He calls the concept a “dialectical starting point” since it gets us beyond the limited “on-the-one-hand, on the other-hand-debate” to a more productive one centered on “technique.” This focus helps us answer the question of a work’s “function.”
- Benjamin redefines ‘tendency’ in terms of progressive or regressive technique.
- The former improves conditions and the latter re-enforces conditions of production. Benjamin writes, “[w]e can now affirm more precisely that literary tendency may consist in a progressive development of literary technique, or in a regressive one.”
- The question for the critic is now no longer if a work has the right content or form but instead if it brings about a progressive or regressive technique.
- For example, a work whose content might be critical of capitalism but whose technique only strengthens its production relations falls short. Whereas a work whose content might, somehow, affirm its conditions but its technique somehow subverts them, it can (in theory) be emancipatory. So now the question is: what makes a technique progressive or regressive? The final part of this op-ed focuses on this question, but we now have enough Benjamin to shift the focus onto the programmer and technology. After which returning to this question becomes more productive. True to Benjamin’s materialist approach, I start with how technology is produced — its means of production.
Open Source Vs Big Tech
Open Source and Big Tech are the dominant ways programmers produce modern-day technology. Big Tech is a conventional capitalist means of production, whereas Open Source is a unique means of production with four distinctive characteristics:
- Code is written by (historically) unpaid programmers
- Collaboration is enabled through the internet using a transparent version control protocol (Git) hosted, most popularly, on GitHub
- No one owns the code — anyone can distribute, use, clone(fork), and modify it
- Open Source is community-driven and strives to make adding to the project’s code as accessible as possible through documentation and educational resources.
I define Big Tech and Open Source (with capitalization) as a theoretical set of practices, ideas, and producer relations. Anyone who has experience with real open source projects knows many fall short on one or more of the characteristics listed above. Still, the incredible success and unquantifiable value of technology produced in this way, most notably the Linux Operating System, make its unique characteristics worthy of independent, theoretical analysis.
Open Source was once the dominant way all software was produced, but it solidified as a counterculture in the late ’70s and early ’80s when programmer hobbyists were frustrated that they could not view, fix bugs, or modify Big Tech’s closed, proprietary software. They saw Big Tech companies such as Windows and IBM who profited from proprietary software as betraying the open culture of sharing that characterized early software and the internet. In contrast, Big Tech is a method of producing technology where programmers are paid in exchange for writing code, and the surplus-value of their labor goes to shareholders of the company. This code cannot be viewed, modified, or freely distributed. In the early 90’s Big Tech demonstrated that proprietary software could be immensely profitable since software could be resold for zero marginal cost. Between 1995 and 2000 there was a rush of speculative investment that eventually led to the crash known as the dot com bubble. Markets soon stablized; capital and Big Tech have since been entwined. The Big Tech means of producing technology has come to be the standard. Open Source on the other hand has plugged in relative obscurity. With minimal capital, open source communities have managed to create immense value by building critical infrastructure tools — such as programming language, operating systems, databases, etc. However, Open Source is resurging today, and capital is beginning to enter it as companies demonstrate that profit is still possible, and in some cases, more likely, with an open source codebase. This rise of Open Source is immensely exciting, and has, as I will argue, immense emancipatory potential, which lies in its progressive technique.
The technique of Open Source is progressive since it empowers users by turning them from isolated passive individuals into a community of active technology producers.
Open Source, by its nature, is has an existential need for collaboration and community. If it is too difficult to use, or to contribute to the project dies by neglect —the fate of 99.9% of open source projects. As such this existential need for community impacts everything from the kind of programmers it attracts to the quality of the code; from the tech stack used and its architecture to the tutorials and documentation on using it. Making the technology understandable and possible to contribute to impacts everything about the creation process, and what even gets made. By recruiting its users to producers Open Source does what Benjamin praises the Soviet press for; it weakens the distinction between reader and author. In Benjamin’s analogous analysis of the newspaper, he writes:
“For as literature gains in breadth what it loses in depth, so the distinction between author and public, which the bourgeois press maintains by artificial means, is beginning to disappear in the Soviet press. […] The vast melting-down process of which I spoke […] questions even the separation between author and reader. The press is the most decisive point of reference for this process […]” For, as we know, the newspaper in Western Europe does not yet represent a valid instrument of production in the writer’s hands. It still belongs to capital.” (Benjamin, pg 90)
The Soviet press, which Benjamin saw as filled with emancipatory promise, enabled the worker to go from a passive reader to an active writer. The technique of its production empowered the proletariat as a community to shape the forces that shaped them. Uncannily, Open Source does the same. It bonds users and producers together, through forums and discussion boards to collectively shape the technology that shapes them. These active developer communities — armies of volunteer contributors — who flag bugs, test features, write documentation, and build useful features are the envy of Big Tech companies.
In contrast, Big Tech is analogous to the newspaper of Western Europe, which works to maintain the distinction between user and producer through “artificial means.” Most obviously, by not sharing the source code, but more perniciously, through its technique. Since the public does not see the code, it is notoriously poorly documented, hard to understand, and idiosyncratic to the point of incomprehensibility to those outside the company. Big Tech overspecializes its programmers, and its long onboarding practices are evidence of its incomprehensibility. It trains programmers to operate on a narrow scope, and most importantly, does not cultivate the ability to communicate their contributions to outsiders of the organization. Combined with exclusionary hiring practices, often from feeder schools such as Columbia, MIT, and Harvard, Big Tech selects and trains a politically impotent programmer.
Programmer are alienated from the technology they produce (in a codebase of millions of lines, individuals cannot see their contribution to the whole) and they lack the power to build in other collaborative, non-Big Tech, settings. In stark opposition to Open Source, the technique creates the pressure for obscurity rather than transparency. Under these conditions we have the most problematic and irresponsible uses of technology, which perpetuate social inequality and alienation.
At this point, many might contest the definition of Open Source and Big Tech, as well as generality of the claims I have made about their respective techniques. On the former objection, they contest that the neat, theoretical distinction doesn’t exist. This is absolutely correct. In reality, all technology is produced on a spectrum between Big Tech and Open Source. Some companies with open codebases might be using the technique of Big Tech, and similarly Big Tech companies, despite the provocative name, might practice the Open Source technique.
This is helpful complication because although the relationship began antagonistically, they are now interacting in exciting and troubling ways. Open Source projects are turning into large companies backed by (venture) capital. On the other hand, paradigmatic Big Tech companies such as Google and Microsoft are open-sourcing (yes, it is a verb) internal tools and code which generally would have remained closed. It is precisely these mixed cases that have motivated this essay, and where a discerning, theoretical discussion of their technique, rooted in Benjamin’s analysis of the Soviet Press and of Western Europe, is helpful.
On the latter objection, namely of the overstated impact of technique on the programmer, I am not saying all programmers become like this. Many of the best and most politically potent programmers in the world work at paradigmatic Big Tech companies. But I am claiming that they likely have resisted the incentives and pressures of conditions which are not conducive to developing that potency. Conversely, working on Open Source does not guarantee potency, but it makes it more likely.
So far, I have argued that the technique of Open Source is progressive and therefore, emancipatory because it, unlike its counterpoint, works to empower its users to producers. Does this remain even when capital enters into it? Yes. While Big Tech “belongs to capital” Open Source uses it. It uses capital in a way that questions the very production relations of conventional capitalism. It also allows technology to be shaped by humans for humans, not by humans for capital. Open Source accomplishes these lofty claims in a number of ways which, in concert, gradually becomes increasingly emancipatory. There is far too much to discuss here, so I will focus on three.
First, it questions traditional producer relations and shallow theories of why we work. The success of Open Source is mind-blowing and complicates the (simplistic/Smithian) conventional capitalist theory of labor. The most crucial technologies upon which the internet and trillions of dollars of economic activity have been made are built by communities of programmer hobbyists, self-organizing, and working for free. Big Tech relies on and re-enforces the idea that workers work because they are paid. So, for example, when a team of five passionate Open Source programmers volunteer their time and build a thriving community and a better product than teams of a 100 funded by billions of dollars of revenue from Google, the phenomenon calls into question the Big Tech, capitalist means of producing technology. Programmers are driven by more than shallow self-interest, but by a desire for community, recognition, and craftsmanship. The major platform for Open Source, GitHub, enables a transparent record of every line of code and every comment/discussion made by an individual, even in a complex codebase. This radical transparency and tracking allow for individual contributors to be recognized and recognize their contributions to a greater whole. Unlike the programmers of Big Tech, they are not alienated from their labor. This in it of itself is worth serious consideration.
Second, it empowers workers with choice and a clear record of their contributions. They can choose to work on any project they desire, moving from project to project, developing a resumé that is their GitHub record of all their work. This allows these programmers to find and work on problems they truly care about and find interesting.
Finally, the transparency of the technique influences the kind of technology that even gets built. The most politically oppressive technology can only be produced under the cover of obscurity. Especially as there is greater concern about the ethical implications of technologies, many of the worst uses can be averted through openness. The mere transparency or lack thereof guides technology into emancipatory or tyrannical directions.
Underlying Open Source’s emancipatory potential is its technique which empowers us to create and see ourselves as part of that human collective process of shaping the world. The psychological implications are just as empowering as the political ones. It is about time the programmer, in the broadest sense, recognizes both. With this recognition the programmer becomes a more intentional and potent political force that can bring about this future rather than, often times, unknowingly, prevent it.
The material conditions have changed and we must change with them. There is no going back to pre-technology, pre-internet, or pre-BigTech. For better or worse, technology mediates our experiences of art, the world, and ourselves. Technology has changed the way we live and shape the world, and fundamentally our relationship with technology is changing beneath our feet. It is important for everyone to develop their identity as programmers and embrace the political responsibility of that. Rather than allowing market incentives to shape technology, we must demand an active role in shaping it. This is no longer an empty cry, but one that can be realized. Open Source engenders community, diminishes the distinction between users and producers, and empowers us to shape our technology. Capital inflow has accelerated and empowered Open Source, but we must be cautious that its technique remains transparent and encouraging — the basis of its emancipatory potential. Professional programmers have the power to vote with their feet, time, and skills. The decisions about what to work on matters, but so does how it is worked on too. I share in Benjamin’s cautious optimism that technology can bring about a better, freer future. Whether is used for those ends or as a tool for social control, is still to be decided — by us. So then I will end, perhaps fittingly, with a call to action to all my readers — not only to ‘professional’ programmers. Here goes:
Unless you live alone under a literal rock, you, my reader, most definitely interact with technology. It can often feel like the forces that govern technology are out of your control. This is not true. Remember, “all that is solid melts into air.” You must demand of your technology what you want. Do not throw your hands up in frustration the moment things get technical. I am not advocating you go back to school and get a degree in Computer Science, or even learn to code. I am advocating to Know Thy Tools. If you use a piece of software regularly, learn it. Learn the shortcuts, and learn where and how you can customize it to do what you want. If you find that you cannot customize it, take the time to research other tools you can. Many of these will be Open Source or use its technique. Choose to use Open Source projects with vibrant communities even if they are rougher around the edges. Join their community Slack or Discord, and voice your frustrations. Talk to the programmers creating these products because they, unlike the programmers at Apple, or Google, will likely listen. In doing so, you are becoming empowered as a producer of technology. Your digital tools are as much a part of you as your limbs. They are the digital nervous system that allows you to shape the world and the people in it. Invest in learning them. More often than not, technical jargon and claims of “complexity,” especially by those in Big Tech, are meant to keep you as a passive user. They have a vested interest in keeping you from building technology. Their individual pay is economic power under Big Tech is based on scarcity and homogeneity. Above all, they want you to forget that technology is meant for human flourishing — not capital.
Benjamin, W. (1966). The Author as Producer. Understanding Brecht, ISBN 1-85984-814-1
Jan Sieber, “Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Technique”, Anthropology & Materialism [Online], 4 | 2019, Online since 13 October 2019, connection on 31 May 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/am/944; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/am.944
Technique guides tendency →
Just as the concept author was once filled with authority, and the emancipatory press expands that concept to → less authority of the programmer.
Too much on Benjamin/ art
The aesthetic purist who denies this political dimension under the cry , tacitly supports a politics that naturalizes and obscures the authority of the people and institutions that define art. Who is funded, decide what counts as art, who is considered an artist — specifically those .**
Technique and Materialism:
Nothing is more material than “technology” itself.
- What can Benjamin tell us about the programmer and technology in the 21st century? A whole lot. Like art, technology is a potent political tool. The internet and social media, tools many argue were essential to events like the Arab Spring, are widely used by governments and institutions to surveil and suppress.
Before I lose the card-carrying capitalists whose complete retort to the ideas of Marx and Hegel is “communism never worked,” none understood capitalism, its tensions and shortcomings better than them. Furthermore, Marx, in particular, was acutely aware of the ability of capitalism to co-opt efforts to change it. This is particularly important. The programmer, therefore, has political power as the producer of technology. Benjamin’s method and theory form the basis of a similar politically oriented and materially rooted theory of programmer and technology, which I begin here.
Specifically, my goal is to provide a framework to understand the political power of the programmer as a producer of technology, drawing from Benjamin’s analogous theory developed in Author as Producer. I begin by motivating and explaining Benjamin’s concept of “technique.” Like Benjamin, I adopt a materialist lens which means I focus on how modern-day technology is produced, so I define Open Source and Big Tech, as the two “means of production”. Employing Benjamin’s analogous analysis of the newspaper, I argue that the emancipatory potential of Open Source lies in its technique, which, unlike the technique of Big Tech, weakens the distinction between user and producer. Finally, I conclude that Open Source, even as it interacts with Big Tech and capital, has the emancipatory potential to democratize programming, empowering communities to shape the technology rather than let it be shaped by the incentives of capital.