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. 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used in manufacturing are constantly monitored, and when a harmful substance is discovered, products are immediately withdrawn.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-related matters to the very organizations that create the software. For some reason, we don't think that we must treat these organizations the same way as the others; that, like the others, their goal is to maximize profits, not the usefulness and safety of their products; and that it is up to society to deal with these issues.

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-driven business organizations.

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-drink elites, or the automotive elites, or the pharmaceutical elites, or the food elites, we can trust the software elites implicitly. Unlike all other types of business, what is good for software business is necessarily good for the whole human race.

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-mechanistic phenomena. In my book, Software and Mind, I have proved that any attempt to use mechanistic principles for these phenomena leads to pseudoscientific, fraudulent theories and systems. So the immediate harm is in having to depend on mechanistic, and hence inadequate, software concepts: our most important problems are complex, non-mechanistic, yet we attempt to deal with them mechanistically.

It is the degradation of minds, however, that is the greatest harm. Our minds are capable of non-mechanistic knowledge; that is, complex, interacting knowledge structures. But if we restrict ourselves to mechanistic concepts, this capability remains undeveloped. So we are even less likely to solve our problems. Yet we trust the elites and turn again to their mechanistic software concepts for help, and our minds are further degraded, in a process that feeds on itself.

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-mechanistic phenomena, and both allow us to mirror the world in our minds and to communicate with it. But our dependence on language is not harmful: since there is no elite to restrict us to mechanistic language, we are free to use our non-mechanistic capabilities, and the dependence on language ends up enhancing our minds. Software could do the same: without the software elites and the mechanistic restrictions, our software-related activities would enhance our minds.

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 Eighty-Four, George Orwell showed us that an elite can control minds by restricting people to an impoverished language. That language, Newspeak, is in effect a mechanistic subset of English. And if software fulfils a similar role in society, the conclusion must be that, by restricting us to mechanistic software concepts, the software elites are achieving what Orwell's totalitarian elite achieves through language. What was only a fantasy a few decades ago is now actually being implemented, through software.

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.

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