Trillions of Tiny Flowcharts
Trillions of tiny flowcharts, in everything we touch. Whirling around in decision-making circles, deciding what we can and cannot do, deciding who owns and who does not, deciding what can be said and what must be censored – lists of instructions enacting law itself. Lists of instructions in our cars, our fridges, our televisions. Instructions in our books and notepads and telephones. Trillions of automated ironclad laws, ruling every aspect of our lives with the inflexible precision of a machine. That is our future.
Computers can seem mysterious and magical, but they need not be – they are simply machines that perform a given list of instructions and make either/or decisions, just like a person reading a flowchart. They are not magical, but they seem so because the same computer can read and enact any flowchart we give it. The chart’s boxes could contain a huge series of either/or decisions based on joystick movements and instructions to display a fantastic fantasy world, or they could tell a washing machine’s drum to fill with water before beginning the spin cycle.
It is flowcharts that matter, not computers. In China, internet traffic passes through computers instructed to silently censor web pages containing forbidden words. Recently, Amazon pressed a button that brought a set of instructions to life in every Kindle e-book reader in America, remotely deleting illicit copies of 1984 and Animal Farm.
All we need to understand about computers is that they operate like the familiar flowchart. As more and more objects come to contain microchips, more and more objects are operated by lists of instructions and simple binary decisions. We are accelerating towards a pervasive computing future where every tool we touch and even our bodies contain microchips, all controlled by mindlessly-executed lists of instructions: a future of trillions of tiny flowcharts in everything we touch.
We will interact with these charts through user interfaces. User interfaces are form divorced from function. Word has no need to look like a printer’s typesetting equipment; twitter has no physical object to imitate at all. Interfaces encourage some behaviours, and discourage others. Together these things mean that interfaces are objects of pure ideology. Slavoj Zizek argues that the truest ideology is one you obey while denying it. We all share our lives on Facebook, even though we decry its centralisation and poor privacy controls.
Interfaces, and the instructions to be found under the hood, can be owned in two different ways. Some are owned by private companies and individuals, Microsoft Word is a good example. You may only buy copies of Word from Microsoft, and the copy they sell has a confusing flowchart that few humans can read. Microsoft keeps the human-readable copies secret, so only Microsoft can set what the flowcharts inside Word do – you, or your friendly neighbourhood programmer, cannot change their behaviour. Among other things, this allows Microsoft to make it difficult for word processors made by other companies to edit Word documents.
Facebook don’t even let you have an obfuscated copy of the instructions – instead they keep the diagrams locked away at Facebook HQ, along with all your personal information and photographs. The Facebook webpage is a user interface that gives us an illusion of control over instruction lists belonging to somebody else. Facebook’s interface has been deliberately designed by behavioural psychologists to encourage users to share more information more publicly, because users posting private details publicly is in Facebook’s financial interests. This is the replication of concrete ideology reduced to a mathematical science.
Interfaces and flowcharts can also be held in common. Software held in common is called Open Source, Free Software or Software Libre. Android phones are just one example. On the web, you can download hundreds of alternative versions of Google Android made by people who wanted their phone to behave differently from the norm. If our phones were ever changed to censor our conversations, Android users could turn off the behaviour. iPhone users could not.
In the near future we will not have personal computers. Instead, computers will pervade everything. Every tool will execute lists of instructions, flowcharts, laws. The network will be totalitarian. We are the generation who must answer an epochal question: who will control these new automated laws?