The Imperial Code, Or, What if I Told You It’s the Colonial Matrix of Power?

Coding-for-AllThe push to impose computer coding under the banner of ‘universal literacy’ is an iteration of the colonial civilising mission. To adopt a phrase from decolonial thinker Walter Mignolo, this is the latest mutation of modernity’s rhetoric of salvation (Mignolo, 2007). As with nineteenth-century campaigns to promote public literacy, the arguments that are now being made in favour of programming have an eschatological edge (Vee, 2013). Learn to code lest ye be damned. The sermons of media theorist Douglas Rushkoff make it clear that the theological resonance is not metaphoric. It is sincerely felt and integral to the entire enterprise. At the festival South by Southwest (2010) he presents his Manichean vision as an article of faith: “I do believe that if you are not a programmer, you are one of the programmed. It’s that simple.” In the drive towards Singularity you are either 1 or 0, Master or Slave.

Against this level of mania the recurrent controversies over scripture classes in secular schools feel like somewhat of a diversion. Today the doctrine of sola scriptura is practiced more often with respect to the likes of JavaScript rather than the gospels. Any assumption that there is a clear distinction between Western conceptions of technology and theology looks shaky. This is no coincidence. As David Noble reminds us, the former has its origins in the later (Noble, 1999). All significant concepts within Western theories of technology, it seems, are secularised theological concepts.

It is as if these missionaries think coding is something people don’t already know how to do. Not coding in the mechanised computational sense but as being able to read and recreate worlds of meaning. Coding as a mix of plural systems of symbolic inscription, each of which afford a sensibility that can also be broken down and out of, reordered and disordered, dis/re/articulated with other systems.

We learn to code when we learn to talk, write and draw, dance, act and sing. We can learn football codes, martial arts codes, and fashion codes. We learn codes for introducing ourselves to other people, for sending emails, and culinary codes that allow us to tell the difference between inedible raw fish and sashimi. When we connect what is at hand to different possibilities, like a broken chest of drawers that could be mended or repurposed, we decode and recode. In Design Futuring (2009) design theorist Tony Fry identified this move as a redirective practice, a way of making time by redesigning cultural codes.

Script is inscription. It points to the inseparability of ideas and matter (Mellick Lopes, 2005). Information systems, whether composed of speakers, books, or machines, are both affected and affect through their materiality. This has consequences for how worlds are built and experienced, something that design theorists such as Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores (1986) and Anne-Marie Willis (2006) have called ontological designing. Mathematical thinking, for instance, evokes a formalised mode of codification, one that can support, extend, and constrain other codes. Notation allows music to be shared like a novel or play but comes with the risk of masking multiplicities within and between notes. Western varieties of common and civil law – which has its origins in the Roman codex – are practiced quite differently to Indigenous law. Indigenous scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson has described Indigenous Law as an “intersubstantiation of humans, ancestral beings, and land” (Moreton-Robinson, 2015, p. 84). Norman Sheehan, also an Indigenous academic, explains how this conception relates to and emerges out of coding design. In his words Indigenous Law is “a Law of individuated and diverse mutualism”, the knowledge of which “has been coded into language, design and ceremonial forms” (Sheehan, 2004, p. 115). Information and Communications Technology professor Steve Goschnick (2015) claims, without any sense of irony, that computer coding is analogous to other forms of language, save for it having no tolerance for ambiguity. The violence this implies for people and things that do not conform to system categories goes unremarked.

Sheehan offers ‘respectful design’ as a way to repair the wound of a bad relation between different systems of coding (Sheehan, 2011). By contrast, Swinburne University of Technology now lists “Digital frontiers” as one of five key areas of research. Given the recklessness implied in term ‘frontier’ – who and what lives on the other side, and what violence might they sustain for resisting the next wave of expansion? – it comes as no surprise that decolonisation is not listed as one of the other institutional priorities. Such a decision can only be read as purposeful for the discussions concerning the digital and decolonisation are underway in other locations.right 101See, for instance, the Center for Global Studies and Humanities’ dossiers on Decolonizing the Digital/Digital Decolonization, and the dialogue between Tony Fry, Eleni Kalantidou, and Walter Mignolo in Design in the Borderlands (2014).

Why, at this moment, are people being asked to take a leap of faith into coding utopia? The resources that elites have deployed in the push to promote computer coding should give pause for thought. In a promotional video for code.org, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg observes that “the whole limit in the system is just that there just aren’t enough people who are trained and have these skills today.” This is the classic capitalist complaint over labour costs and access to new markets dressed up, once again, in the myth of universal progress. Here code.org’s focus on women and people of colour is worth reflecting on. In the late 1970s and 1980s there was a design assisted movement to discourage women from entering computer sciences (Stein, 2011 & Henn, 2014). Now that enough white men have made their billions and established hegemony the push for expansion is on. The point, to be clear, is not that such exclusions are ever legitimate. Rather, as Melinda Cooper and Angela Mitropoulos (2009) have shown, what is at stake concerns whose interests, which systems, and what kinds of futures are served by these shifting terms of differentiation and ex-/inclusion. While the criteria for entry might change, systemic limits and differential status codes remain in place. Those who can code are divided according to their relative dispensability, and further divided from those whose inability to code is seen as a mark of deficiency rather than difference.

The Matrix films (1999 & 2003) invited audiences to imagine a binary universe, one part composed of computational code and another that was not, with the later being as problematic as the former.right 102While the Wachowskis, directors of The Matrix trilogy, made various visual gestures to the work of philosopher Jean Baudrillard and his concept of simulacrum, Baudrillard distanced himself from the films arguing that the point of his work is not to play upon the difference between the virtual and the ‘real’ but to disrupt the binary itself (Genosko & Bryx, 2004). Mignolo’s use of the terms ‘matrix’ and ‘code’ arises from a different set of concerns to that of Baudrillard, that is, the enduring structure of the ‘colonial difference’ and its impact on how knowledge is created, recorded, distributed and (mis)interpreted. Drawing on Mignolo’s strategy in The Darker Side of Western Modernity (Mignolo, 2011, p. xvii), I would propose thinking about the colonial matrix, the system of power that sustains the idea that there is only one code, the Western code. This is the code that decolonial thinkers such as Mignolo look to break, as a means to shift from seeing Western modernity as The One True Code to one amongst a plurality of options.

Designed things embody codes for designing our sense of the world. In Towards a Philosophy of Photography (2000) the philosopher Vilém Flusser speaks of the camera as an apparatus that designs functionaries, people whose sense of the world has been designed by the analytical reasoning embedded in the technological device. He writes of Auschwitz, the German Nazi extermination camp, in the same terms, as the realisation of an apparatus that designed people who could no longer think or act outside bureaucratic codes (Flusser, 2012; Mitropoulos & Kiem, 2015). Auschwitz was a case where an apparatus geared towards dehumanisation determined that genocide was the most rational solution. But this was neither the first nor the last time such a thing occurred. Flusser’s whole point is to say that the logics of the apparatus persist as a propensity of the Western program(mer).

When historian Tony Barta compares the exterminations that took place within the colonising structures of Australia and Germany he points to a morbid reversal of process (Barta, 2001). In Germany, behavioural codes and racial classifications prepared the way for extermination. In Australia, the attempts to exterminate Indigenous peoples came first. For those who survived, a blood-quantum system was codified in order to facilitate the removal of children from their parents, all for the purpose of inducting them into the Western code.

Today, borders are managed by sophisticated risk analytics systems that are designed to immobilise would-be asylum seekers before they board a plane. This doesn’t stop people – it just forces them to find more dangerous routes. The user interface of these systems, however, have been created using ‘human-centred design’ methods in order to improve the productivity of border force agents. Risk management itself has been codified into international standards that are used to plan and finance infrastructure projects, including detention camps (Mitropoulos, 2015). School children are screened and monitored, their behaviour coded and decoded for signs of ‘extremism’. Asylum seekers are forced to sign stringent codes of conduct that make life on a protection visa even more precarious (Mitropoulos & Kiem, 2015). Professional standards help to ensure a predictable conformity amongst workers, teachers, and students.

How many computer coders does it take to change the world? Or more to the point, what are the implications of producing an expanding surplus of entrepreneurial systematisers, procedural totalisers; people who have been trained to seek out and read others as ‘underdeveloped’, backward, or problematically (dis)ordered. Social activist and author Courtney Martin (2016) recently criticised privileged do-gooders for assuming the problems of exoticised others were simple. While the piece received positive attention, Martin’s proposal to target a more local “unexotic underclass” requires a more critical reading. This is a term coined by C.Z. Nnaemeka (2013) in a piece that includes the following passage:

Now, I can already hear the screeching of meritocratic, Horatio Algerian Silicon Valley,

“What do we have to do with any of this? The unexotic underclass has to pull itself up by its own bootstraps!  Let them learn to code and build their own startups!  What we need are more ex-convicts turned entrepreneurs, single mothers turned programmers, veterans turned venture capitalists!

The road out of welfare is paved with computer science!!!”

Yes, of course.

There’s nothing wrong with the entrepreneurship-as-salvation gospel (Nnaemeka, 2013, n.p.).

This is the techno-theology of the civilising mission, the rhetoric of modernity, the grammar of imperialism: the Western code. It is the charting of territories and populations for salvation by means of ‘development’. All, it seems, so that start-up missionaries might fulfil a sense of purpose. This is one of the reasons why Martin’s piece fits so comfortably in The Development Set, a publication funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It seems its job is not to critique developmentalism so much as generate new investment markets by rebranding the poor and the means of their salvation.

For over 500 years the Western code has been used to impose a sense of there being only one legitimate way to be human. To contravene this code is to risk being seen as a lesser kind of human and, thus, dispensable, lacking, or need of saving. On these terms, to refuse ‘help’ is to be seen as ‘ungrateful’. The violence of coding as salvation is the materialisation of the Western code in new forms. This is not a disruption of the colonial matrix so much as its mutation (Fry, Kalantidou, and Mignolo, 2014, pp. 180–181). An apparatus of control composed of silicon, plastic and heavy metals, of minerals taken from someone’s land, devices built by factory workers, all linked to waste disposal processes that demand exposure to concentrated toxins.

The point is not to demonise computer coding but to suggest that the combination of conformity and non-relational thinking is a mode of violence that sustains the colonial matrix. Decoding the divine mission of computer coding opens a more vital field of possibility. Here the imperial violence of the entrepreneurial spirit yields to hacking with a sense of respect and responsibility; people who can jam, delink, and redirect the operating systems that sustain the colonial matrix. This is not about computing itself so much as computing finding ways to connect and disconnect in support of modes of becoming that diverge from the logics of the colonial matrix.

This possibility is not new and it is not being led by the Western imperial coder(s). As researcher Felipe Fonseca (2014) suggests in his discussion of Gambiarra, the Brazilian culture of repair, there is a world of difference between an attitude of hacking to repurpose and a techno-evangelism that makes without any thought for what it destroys.

My friends are coders of all kinds, but they are the ones who are driven towards short-circuiting distinctions between self and world, analogue and digital, risk and security, ideas and life, technology and poetry, justice and professionalism. Not simply because they can but because respectful forms of breaking and remaking is a way to oppose imperial violence and create the kinds of worlds that support plural differences.

 

Bibliography
Barta, T. (2001) Discourses of Genocide in Germany and Australia: A Linked History. In: Aboriginal History 25. pp. 37–56.
Flusser, V. (2012) The Ground We Tread. In: Continent. 2 (2).
Flusser, V. (2000) Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books.
Fonseca, F. (2014) Gambiarra: Repair Culture. In: November 5.
Fry, T. (2009) Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Fry, T.; Kalantidou, E.; Mignolo, W. (2014) An Exchange: Questions from Tony Fry and Eleni Kalantidou and Answers from Walter Mignolo. In: Kalantidou, E. & Fry, T. (eds.) Design in the Borderlands. Routledge. pp. 173–188.
Genosko, G. & Bryx, A. (Trans.), (2004) The Matrix Decoded: Le Nouvel Observateur Interview with Jean Baudrillard. In: International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 1 (2).
Goschnick, S. (2015) Want Your Kids to Learn Another Language? Teach Them Code. In: The Conversation. Available at:
Henn, S. (2014) When Women Stopped Coding. NPR.org.
Martin, C. (2016) The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems. In: Medium.
Mignolo, W. (2007) Delinking. In: Cultural Studies 21 (2-3). pp. 449–514.
Mignolo, W. (2011) The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mitropoulos, A. (2015) Archipelago of Risk: Uncertainty, Borders and Migration Detention Systems. In: New Formations: A Journal of Culture/theory/politics 84. pp. 163–183.
Mitropoulos, A. & Kiem, M. (2015) Cross-Border Operations. In: The New Inquiry.
Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015) The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nnaemeka, C.Z. (2013) The Unexotic Underclass. In: The MIT Entrepreneurship Review. May 19.
Noble, David F. (1999) The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. London: Penguin Books.
Sheehan, Norman W. (2004) Indigenous Knowledge and Higher Education: Instigating Relational Education in a Neocolonial Context. PhD thesis.
Sheehan, Norman W. (2011) Indigenous Knowledge and Respectful Design: An Evidence-Based Approach. In: Design Issues 27 (4). pp.  68–80.
Stein, J. (2011) Domesticity, Gender and the 1977 Apple II Personal Computer. In: Design and Culture 3 (2). pp. 193–216.
Vee, A. (2013) Understanding Computer Programming as a Literacy. In: Literacy in Composition Studies 1 (2). pp. 42–64.
Willis, Anne-Marie. (2006) Ontological Designing. In: Design Philosophy Papers 4 (2). pp. 69–92.
Vee, A. (2013) Understanding Computer Programming as a Literacy. In: Literacy in Composition Studies 1 (2). pp. 42–64.
Willis, Anne-Marie. (2006) Ontological Designing. In: Design Philosophy Papers 4 (2). pp. 69–92.
Winograd, T. & Flores, F. (1986) Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Bristol: Intellect Books.


Essay originally published in Modes of Criticism 2 – Critique of Method (2016).

   [ + ]

1. See, for instance, the Center for Global Studies and Humanities’ dossiers on Decolonizing the Digital/Digital Decolonization, and the dialogue between Tony Fry, Eleni Kalantidou, and Walter Mignolo in Design in the Borderlands (2014).
2. While the Wachowskis, directors of The Matrix trilogy, made various visual gestures to the work of philosopher Jean Baudrillard and his concept of simulacrum, Baudrillard distanced himself from the films arguing that the point of his work is not to play upon the difference between the virtual and the ‘real’ but to disrupt the binary itself (Genosko & Bryx, 2004). Mignolo’s use of the terms ‘matrix’ and ‘code’ arises from a different set of concerns to that of Baudrillard, that is, the enduring structure of the ‘colonial difference’ and its impact on how knowledge is created, recorded, distributed and (mis)interpreted.

Click to Comment