Software Is Politics [Proudhon’s Response]

Software Is Politics by Richard Pope.

From the post:

If you work in software or design in 2016, you also work in politics. The inability of Facebook’s user interface, until recently, to distinguish between real and fake news is the most blatant example. But there are subtler examples all around us, from connected devices that threaten our privacy to ads targeting men for high-paying jobs.

Digital services wield power. They can’t be designed simply for ease of use—the goal at most companies and organizations. Digital services must be understandable, accountable, and trusted. It is now a commercial as well as a moral imperative.


Power and politics are not easy topics for many designers to chew on, but they’re foundational to my career. I worked for the U.K.’s Government Digital Service for five years, part of the team that delivered I set up the labs team at Consumer Focus, the U.K.’s statutory consumer rights organization, building tools to empower consumers. In 2007, I cofounded the Rewired State series of hackdays that aimed to get developers and designers interested in making government better. I’ve also worked at various commercial startups including and ScraperWiki.

The last piece of work I did in government was on a conceptual framework for the idea of government as a platform. “Government as a platform” is the idea of treating government like a software stack to make it possible to build well-designed services for people. The work involved sketching some ideas out in code, not to try and solve them upfront, but to try and identify where some of the hard design problems were going to be. Things like: What might be required to enable an end-to-end commercial service for buying a house? Or what would it take for local authorities to be able to quickly spin up a new service for providing parking permits?

With this kind of thinking, you rapidly get into questions of power: What should the structure of government be? Should there be a minister responsible for online payment? Secretary of state for open standards? What does it do to people’s understanding of their government?

Which cuts to the heart of the problem in software design today: How do we build stuff that people can understand and trust, and is accountable when things go wrong? How do we design for recourse?
… (emphasis in original)

The flaw in Pope’s desire for applications are “…accountable, understandable, and trusted…” by all, is that it conceals the choosing of sides.

Or as Craig Gurian in Equally free to sleep under the bridge illustrates by quoting Anatole France:

“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.”

Applications that are “…accountable, understandable, and trusted…” will have silently chosen sides just as the law does now.

Better to admit to and make explicit the choices of who serves and who eats in the design of applications. At least then disparities are not smothered by the pretense of equality.

Or as Proudhon would say:

What is equality before the law without equality of fortunes? A balance with false weights.

Speak not of “…accountable, understandable, and trusted…” applications in the abstract but for and against who?

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