The Bureaucracy of Automatons

An introduction to the notes on Confucian Software.

Software and the Sage

Among the many dissimilarities between software and gentlemen of the classical Chinese Spring and Autumn Period, two in particular stand out. One existed in a pre-scientific feudal society on an agricultural technological and economic base, and the other presupposes the scientific method and a modern (or post-modern) industrial base. Secondly, the concept of virtue or potency (德) is central to The Analects, but software artifacts are, in our day and age, non-sentient. Morality requires some degree of self-awareness – of consciousness – and so software does not itself practice virtue any more than a spoon or a lawnmower.

The immediate relevance, for a developer, of the Analects, are the two other grand concerns of Confucius, which are existential fundaments of software. These are names (名), and the rites (礼).

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The First Derivatives of Jane Jacobs

What do these people have in common: a physicist with an interest in anatomy, a pair of libertarian metrophiles, a building architect who inspired a software movement, and a sculptor and writer whose critical model centres around Star Wars?

Pursuing a topic as a layman has its own pleasures. One, fairly widely commented on, is the pleasure of wandering at whim, without a set course or destination. Another, perhaps less noted, or perhaps part of all study, is that you can discover great thinkers by accident, just because everyone you read seems to be talking about them. It is like walking through a dense forest and suddenly realising the rises you have been skirting around are actually the foothills of some great mountain, obscured by the foilage.

I found such a thinker recently, the American writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs. A post by Cam on the physicist above, Geoffrey West, who also modelled metropolitan growth, let the pieces fall into place. (It’s also a great NYT article. This seems to be the key city paper.)

Chris Alexander – the architect – has been an interest for a while, and though he doesn’t reference Jacobs in A Pattern Language, their names now get mentioned together in the same breath. They form part of a humane, localist school of design, which celebrates the dynamism of the city. She was explicitly referenced in Virginia Postrel’s The Future And Its Enemies, which I read some years ago now, without getting that particular hint. The chirpy economic libertarian thread then takes us to Market Urbanism, and the design thread takes us to the wonderful (and anti-corporate) Star Wars Modern.

If you haven’t so far had the pleasure, this Reason interview gives a decent introduction, and the wiki article isn’t bad either.

Interviewer: What should a city be like?
Jane Jacobs: It should be like itself. Every city has differences, from its history, from its site, and so on. These are important. One of the most dismal things is when you go to a city and it’s like 12 others you’ve seen. That’s not interesting, and it’s not really truthful.

I haven’t read any of her books yet. Time to go climb the mountain.