Software and Mind by Andrei Sorin — related articles
The software elites
To understand the issues I am addressing in my book, Software and Mind, it may help if we contrast our software affairs with other fields. (The book can be downloaded free at www.softwareandmind.com.)
Thus, when buying packaged food we expect a detailed list of ingredients and an assurance that the government is watching over the food producers. In a drugstore, we expect to find medicines that have passed the most stringent tests as to their benefits and side effects. When buying a car or an appliance, we know that it has been designed following elaborate standards to minimize the hazards of using it. The materials used in manufacturing are constantly monitored, and when a harmful substance is discovered, products are immediately withdrawn. In the case of cigarettes, a major campaign has been taking place to reduce the harm that smoking causes to society. And in the case of entertainment, the media must restrict themselves to content that is socially acceptable.
The list, of course, is much longer. But these activities already demonstrate the problem. What is common to all of them is that certain business organizations are supplying certain types of products, and we have erected a complex structure of controls to ensure that these products are useful and safe. We understand that the main goal of business organizations is to maximize profits, so it is against their interests to be concerned with enhancing usefulness and safety, which can only reduce profits. It is up to society to deal with these issues, and to force business organizations to comply with its demands.
Now, while the list of organizations that we are watching over is growing longer
every year, there is one type of organization that is conspicuously absent from this
list: the software companies. While we all agree on the importance of computers,
and hence of software, and while practically every human being depends directly or
indirectly on software, we feel that we can leave all decisions in software-
Some people may argue that we do have controls. For example, the systems sold by
the software companies are based on theories that are invented and taught in universities.
Moreover, industry experts also promote these systems. Finally, some famous computer
and software associations endorse the theories and the systems based on them. Unfortunately,
what this shows is not that the software companies are right, but that the aforementioned
entities are equally irresponsible. The fact that there are no dissenting views is
not a good sign. Where is the tension between social entities with conflicting interests,
so important in a free society? Recalling the earlier examples, the equivalent of
our software affairs would be for universities, doctors, and medical associations
to hold the same views as the tobacco companies; to encourage us to smoke as much
as possible; to invent theories that allege the benefits of smoking; and to limit
the debate to comparing one brand of cigarettes to another. Thus, while unthinkable
in other domains, in our software affairs we find it perfectly logical that academic
institutions and professional associations promote the same values as profit-
Since there is no real difference between them, I have called these entities – software companies, industry experts, universities, and various associations – the software elites. Between them, these elites dictate how all human beings on earth are to create and use software. Thus, since we depend on software in practically everything we do, these elites have more power than any other elites (political, religious, military, or business) in history.
And yet, no one feels that we ought to question this state of affairs; that perhaps
these elites are not what they seem to be; that perhaps the theories and systems
which they all recommend, while good for them, may not be good for the rest of us.
For some unexplained reason, we are convinced that the software elites can do no
wrong. Unlike the tobacco elites, or the soft-
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We watch over the traditional companies because their products may harm our bodies. In the case of software companies, their theories and systems are harming our minds. Here is how it happens.
The concepts promoted by the software elites are derived from the mechanistic ideology. Mechanism claims that every phenomenon can be described with precision (which is the same as claiming that every phenomenon can be represented with a neat hierarchical structure of elements within elements). This ideology has been very successful in the exact sciences, and in fields like manufacturing, but is quite useless for phenomena involving minds and societies, which are too complex to represent mechanistically.
Programming and using computers, in particular, involve almost entirely non-
It is the degradation of minds, however, that is the greatest harm. Our minds are
capable of non-
Remember that it is not the dependence on software that is harmful, but the dependence
on mechanistic software. I show in my book that language and software fulfil a similar
role in society: both are non-
* * *
The similarity of software and language can also help us to understand the true nature
of the software elites. Their ultimate purpose is not software, not even business,
but totalitarianism: controlling the minds of large numbers of people. In Nineteen
So the fact that we don’t care whether the software elites are exploiting us may well be a sign of how advanced our mental degradation already is. We understand this for language: because language and thought are closely related, an elite could, by impoverishing language, distort our perception of reality, and thereby prevent us from knowing that we are being exploited. And if software is similar to language, depending on impoverished software is bound to have the same effect: we increasingly perceive reality – our needs, expectations, capabilities, responsibilities – only in ways possible through mechanistic software concepts; in other words, in ways that serve the interests of the software elites.