The Citizenship Stack: Political Technology

If nations were programming languages, what language would they be?

Photographer: Bekir Dönmez | Source: Unsplash

The End of Settlement

Sometime in the last ten thousand (or twenty thousand or forty thousand – the number is fuzzy) years, a combination of tool use, the discovery of agriculture and animal domestication and the capacity to build permanent structures started us on the slow path to becoming a settler species, slowly accumulating ways to cultivate and domesticate the world around us rather consuming what we find.

I was on a tour at the informal settlements in Swakopmund, Namibia. The centralization brings people from the rural to the city, but left many without houses. The people at the township are very happy with their lives tho. They like the style of walking around the mingling with others.
Photographer: Anqi Lu | Source: Unsplash

I am not trying to judge; on the one hand, there are many problems with settlement – density leads to disease, per capita nutrition is lower and egalitarianism is replaced by inequality. On the flip side:

  1. Settled humanity has to engage quite explicitly with the idea of political community and that leads to the lowering of violence.
  2. Settler humanity has no natural predators – its threats are bugs rather than beasts. Bugs don’t prevent you from moving and creating new settlements. So settlerism has an expansion strategy built into it.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? You be the judge, but moral claims aside it's been the most successful large mammalian growth model ever. What we call ‘history’ is a strict subset of settler humanity. But that history is about to get unsettled.

Notice how in the Buddha's list of afflictions that led him on a quest for Nirvana, there isn't any reference to the dangers posed by tigers and lions and elephants. They were no longer ongoing threats. Recorded history's problems are either of human origin (war, poverty), caused by insects and other invertebrates (locusts in the Bible) microorganisms (plagues) or climactic effects (floods, drought) compounded by human errors.

Photographer: wilsan u | Source: Unsplash
  • Settler humanity accumulates even as opportunities for accumulation have changed over the millennia – from land, animals and people to knowledge, data, iPads and Blue Chip stocks. I want to bring to your attention two aspects of accumulation:
  • first, what makes it possible and
  • second, how is it negotiated.

About the first, I am going to point you to some of my other essays. Here, here and here. Quick answer: energy and information make accumulation possible. About the second, accumulation brings forth a range of challenges such as:

  1. Who gets what and how much of it?
  2. Who decides what to accumulate and where?
  3. What to do with the surplus – especially if it's going to rot or spoil?
  4. How can I trade a widget from my surplus for a widget from yours.
  5. How do I protect my surplus or steal yours?

Civilization is nothing but a record of how we deal with accumulation and compounding. If everything that's hunted or gathered is consumed right away, there's no question of compounded inequality. Accumulation makes inequality a lot worse because of growth – if my family earns 2% more than yours every year for ten generations, we will be 50 times richer at the end of it. Scratch that – halfway through that process my wealth will help me hire thugs – aka soldiers – who will appropriate your wealth and call all of it my own.

Unfortunately, while growth has no limits, the planet does and we will reach those limits sometime this century. The ever urgent race to expand and organize accumulation led to the invention of several political technologies: states, cities, armies, bureaucracies. All our 'public engineering' technologies from dams to highways are housed within those political technologies. Further, those political technologies have spawned 'products' of their own: citizenship, borders, kingship, democracy etc. Every political technology so far has doubled down & deepened our settler identity and kicked the systemic crises down the road for future generations to solve.

I'm confident that settler humanity is not the final 'End of History,' in any form – whether liberal democracy or one party authoritarianism or any other political community that rules our lives today. We are at the cusp of post-settlement. How will our political technologies manage the transition to the post-settlement phase of the human condition?

The quick and correct answer is: it's very hard to predict, especially the future. A slightly longer answer takes the form of a question: are there emerging technologies that might help us negotiate this transition? I think so, and my hope is expressed in the following speculation:

If nations were programming languages, what language would they be?

Underlying this question is the belief that writing is one of the key technologies of settler humanity, helping us coordinate all the other accumulations that make settlement possible. To the extent programming is a phase transition in the history of writing, it will either hasten the collapse of settlerdom or help us imagine a different future. At a (slightly) more mundane level, the current political technologies we have – the nation state in particular – are being swallowed by software so we might as well understand that process.

The Argument in a Nutshell

A nonlinear puzzler

Asking the question of 'nation programming' in all seriousness unspools a whole lot of other questions:

  1. What's a nation?
  2. What's a programming language?
  3. How might a programming language be useful for anything else besides programming? Especially for something as 'soft' as political identity?
  4. How might a nation even be a programming language? Or part of one?

I will be honest: it's going to take me a while to answer these questions in the detail they deserve, for every concept used in posing the question (NATION, PROGRAMMING LANGUAGE, IS, IDENTITY) needs careful explanation and in some cases radical reworking – a nonlinear question needs a nonlinear response that deviates from the usual answer (if there's one – surely the case for 1 & 2 above, less so for 3 and not at all for 4). But an outline of the general argument can be stated:

  1. Programming languages help mechanize reasoning about abstractions.
  2. Nations are abstractions, and it's reasonable to ask if some of the central features of nationhood are mechanizable.
  3. In fact, there's a long history of creating programming languages for problems that need the rigor and abstraction of a domain specific language. There are programming languages for probabilistic reasoning and embedded systems and other specialized functions, so why not a domain specific language for politics?
  4. The law is arguably already a domain specific language for political reasoning – i.e., for making state-enforceable decisions about how we live, love, fight, trade etc, but it's how the technology of the written word entered into the political arena. To the extent code is a radical leap (forward? backward?) in the technologies of inscription, can we reimagine our founding documents: constitutions, legal codes, world trade agreements in the language of code? More on this point in the next section below.
  5. Citizenship is an abstraction that lives within the abstraction of nationhood. For now.
  6. The reason why citizenship lives within nationhood is because our abstractions aren't powerful enough; they don't help us produce and reproduce the right categories for a turbulent planetary future.
  7. Therefore, we need better abstractions and the analogy with programming languages might help us do so.
  8. With better abstractions in hand, we might (will?) be able to prise citizenship away from the grip of nationhood.
Colorful code
Photographer: Markus Spiske | Source: Unsplash

Why 'Programming Language'?

Before we go any further: why programming language and not something else? Why not ask: if nations were animals what animals would they be? Seems like a reasonable question doesn't it? Every nation already has a national bird or animal so it would be a natural step to ask: is India really a tiger or is China really a dragon?

Fair enough, but some analogies are cute and other analogies are deep. A rare few analogies are both cute and deep. The relationship between nationhood and language runs deep – the most famous treatment of modern nationhood – Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities," makes it clear that modern nations are imagined communities based on a particular language and the specific technology of print media.

In other words: nation = a particular language + a particular technology + a particular identity.

What happens to our idea of political community when we change the technology used to imagine it? I believe code is making that reimagination possible. To add one analogy upon another, consider the idea of a recursive recipe and what it does to cooking.

Recursive Politics

The 'paper technology' cookbook will tell you how to make tortilla or dal from a certain set of ingredients – whole wheat/corn flour, urad dal, ginger, marinara sauce etc. A recursive cookbook is a superset of the paper cookbook, so it too will help you make tortilla from its ingredients, but it will also help you make the ingredients if you're so inclined – the two screenshots below capture a recursive recipe for tortilla in which there's an embedded recipe for flour.

How to make a tortilla
How to make flour

That's a useful strategy if you're trying to run a kitchen and not just cook one meal – if you're running out of flour, you have to make or buy that first before making a tortilla.

Recipes work against a functioning infrastructural background. A cookbook author assumes that you have all the ingredients in front of you and it's not their job to teach you how to stock a kitchen with flour or raisins. If that's a reasonable assumption, it's only so because we take food systems for granted; as it so happens, I am writing this essay at a time when we can't. During a pandemic, we can't assume that everyday kitchen items are readily available for re-stocking, just as most children in Bihar can't take electricity supply for granted if they were suddenly required to perform all their schoolwork on computers connected to the internet.

Recursiveness brings the systemic nature of recipes into sharp relief. By coupling my desire to make tortillas to the availability of flour and the availability of flour to the grain harvest, we can turn infrastructure that's taken for granted into a resource that's explicitly accounted for. Unfortunately, adding this layer of systems representation can also create a new set of problems – we can immediately see the problems that arise from embedding recursiveness into our supply chains. Let's say I have a smart storage bin that sends a signal to the grocery store to dispatch a bag of flour every time my stock is below some pre-determined amount. In fact, let's assume the houses of the future have chutes for drones to land with supplies and those drones are pre-programmed to supply me with flour. Awesome? But what happens when the drone is hacked (as it inevitably will) and someone steals my flour supply?

In the absence of a fair amount of machine learning, recursive recipes are almost as ignorant of systemic disturbances as the paper kind. Every additional layer of explicit representation brings additional demands on robustness and flexibility.

The recipe, as you might have guessed, is a metaphor for politics. It's all too easy for us to consume individual political meals – one election here, one prime minister there, one constitutional amendment here and so on – since that's how the media wants us to eat, but we completely miss changes in the political system as a whole. Even as expansive a concept as citizenship has to be embedded in a network of other concepts – which is exactly what a recursive approach to citizenship will enable.

The Argument Outline Repeated

So far, I have covered the first four steps of the argument outline I had introduced earlier in this essay (and repeated just above this sentence so that you don’t have to scroll up) and introduced recursive politics in the guise of recursive recipes. Next week: no more disguises, we will drink recursive politics straight up.

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