When I used to write software for a living, it occurred to me that there was something about code that didn’t reflect the world I’d grown up in. In that world, there were usually physical linkages that you could use to see how one thing caused another.
For example, you could look at a car, and see how a spark would ignite an explosion in a cylinder, which would move a piston, which would turn a crankshaft, which would cause something to spin, and something else to turn, and so on down the line, until the wheels moved. You could see how pressing on a brake pedal would send fluid through a line, which would push a brake pad into a wheel to create friction, which would slow the car. And so on.
So when something wasn’t working, you could trace through the linkages, and see where one thing was supposed to be causing something, but wasn’t doing that. And then you could fix it.
With software, on the other hand — especially badly-written software — you don’t have that. Some variable or parameter gets set over here, and something else happens over there. It’s action at a distance. It’s almost like magic.
Increasingly, the items we use are controlled by software, and increasingly they reflect this magical quality. You push a button, and then something happens. Maybe the toaster or microwave turns on. Maybe a sprinkler system starts sprinkling, or the washing machine starts washing. Maybe the time changes on a clock. Maybe money moves from one account to another account in a bank somewhere. Maybe your car starts, or a rocket gets launched towards Mars. It’s all the same. Push button, get result — any kind of result.
Our reliance on software fosters a certain way of looking at the world, which is that there is a sort of ‘universal mechanism’ for getting things done. You push a button, and you get what you want. Unless the machine is broken, in which case you throw it out and get a new one. But you don’t worry at all about how it works. That’s taken for granted. You just worry about results.
What occurred to me this morning is that this way of looking at the world has spilled over into politics, where the universal mechanism is voting. If you want something to happen — for example, you’d like to get free medical care, or have your college loans forgiven, or keep people from saying hurtful things, or force everyone else to wear masks — you don’t have to think about how those things might happen, or what the causes and effects and processes and linkages would be, or how systems set up to accomplish them might break, or never work correctly in the first place. You just vote for the person who says he’ll make them happen. And if that doesn’t work out, you vote for a different person.
Which is to say, the government is now viewed by many people as just another black box that can give them whatever they want, if they just push the right button.
The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that ‘civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them’. When I first heard that, I agreed with him. But now I think he probably got it backwards. People have become so accustomed to not having to think about causality in their daily lives that when called upon to do it, they can’t, for sheer lack of practice. And this is never so obvious as when they’re voting.