Lanfang as Frontier

The Lanfang Republic 兰芳公司 illustrates non-European, early modern, self-organizing, frontier settlement. Many of the self-reinforcing dynamics of the American West described by Frederick Turner can be sketched at work there, as can other geographic and historical contingencies that ultimately limited its expansion and led to its fall.

The Elegant Republic

The Lanfang Republic was a Chinese settlement in Borneo from 1777 to 1884. As described in Yuan Bingling’s study, Chinese settlers were originally invited by the Malay sultans of Borneo for their mining expertise. The multiple settlements founded in Borneo, of which Lanfang is the best documented, were organized politically around kongsi 公司, literally “common management”, today used as the Chinese word for corporation. The historical usage was broader and this usage survives in, eg, the organization for temple societies in Taiwan and clan associations throughout SE Asia (eg Khoo Kongsi in Penang). The translation of “republic” comes from 19th century Dutch orientalists who visited and studied these specific kongsi in Borneo.

The Chinese settlers in Borneo innovated on these existing civic institutions to construct the state infrastructure they required, around the council of the zongting 总厅.

The zongting had their own courts of law, their own financial systems, minted their own money, levied their own taxes, and maintained a number of treaties with the neighbouring Malay sultanates and Dayak tribes.
— Yuan Bingling, Chinese Democracies: A Study of the Kongsis of West Borneo

Lanfang acknowledged and paid tribute to the Qing emperor as part of the foreign policy conventions of the region, but did not depend on the Qing state in a colonial relationship. In this sense they arguably exercised more sovereignty than early American or Australian colonies.

Much of the immigration was Hakka or Hokkien, more historically mobile ethno-linguistic groups within the Han Chinese ethnicity. Hakka 客家 literally means “guest families”. Chinese communities as part of existing polities in SE Asia go back at least to the 13th century Yuan dynasty and trade links between SE Asia and China are a historic feature of the region, waxing and waning over time. 18th century immigration built on these existing trade links.

Turner, in The Significance of the Frontier in American History, describes the trader as “the pathfinder of civilization”, though in SE Asia it is the geographic interface of multiple civilizations as well as indigenous and non-state tribes. The traders were then followed by “sudden tides of adventurous miners” (reapplying Turner), followed finally by farmers. Turner is criticized as culturally imperialistic and nation-centric, and he tends to be a cheerleader for the advancing state. In this sketch we take “civilization” as just a synonym for “state-connected people”, without particularly seeing state or non-state non-state societies as better, hopefully without interfering particularly with the rest of the comparison.

James C Scott describes that in pre-modern SE Asian states, “oceans connect, mountains divide”. The frontier was not so much the ocean itself, as the more ambiguous barrier between accessible coastal settlement and mountain or jungle interiors. As in Turner’s America, “the frontier […] is not the European frontier — a fortified boundary line running through dense populations.” Scholars like Anthony Reid and William Skinner describe SE Asia generally as a place of creolization and hybridization. This creation of a new mixed culture in the new environment is a focus of Turner, for whom “the frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization”. In Lanfang specifically there was linguistic creolization and intermarriage between Chinese settlers and Dayak tribes.

Stack Trace

In Lanfang and the other kongsi of Borneo, you have a Chinese maritime culture, self-reinforcing, individually-directed settler dynamics with autonomous government and innovation in civic institutions. These all parallel the American frontier experience. It is also history that the Borneo kongsi had less extent in space and time than the American frontier experience and the subsequent American nation states.

This note doesn’t rigorously address why those differences exist, but we can sketch possible answers within the framework of recurrent reinforcing processes. The arguments fall roughly into whether the settlement process lacked strength in each iteration, or whether the environment was less conducive to the process. In the Lanfang Kongsi case, the process specifically stopped when the Dutch colonial state chose to destroy the kongsi militarily, as threats to their regional interests.

Borneo is the world’s third largest island, bigger than Great Britain and Honshu combined, but it is still much smaller than continental North America. The frontier of state settlement in SE Asia generally was not exhausted in the 19th century – arguably it exists in Myanmar and Laos today – but the opportunities were not so abundant and geographically contiguous as in the enormous American Midwest. The frontier process was not so extensive in time, lasting a century instead of several centuries, so there was less recurrence, and less reinforcing feedback.

The archipelagos of SE Asia made the naval power projection of European empires more crucial. Simply being attached to a power was hardly enough to ensure success, and other centres like Melaka flipped control between Malay sultans and various European empires. It is still notable that the kongsis existed outside support by great or regional powers. They didn’t benefit from nearby similar state-sponsored immigration or colonies, the way, eg, independently founded Plymouth did from state-founded Jamestown being in the same region. The kongsis also couldn’t benefit from imperial military support, either active or reluctant entanglement. After the state sponsored voyages of Zheng He 郑和, a kind of Ming Dynasty Apollo Program of superior technological achievement for reasons of political prestige, the Chinese state gave up on naval power, and the embattled 19th century Qing was in no condition to help mining colonies on the other side of the South China Sea.

Turner describes attempts by established states to establish a defined border being undermined by the self-settling frontier process, and those empires being drawn reluctantly forward, into yet further wars, by yet further waves of pioneers. Comparing with America, the missing figure in Chinese maritime settlement in SE Asia is perhaps not the settler but the privateer.


Louise Levathes – When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433
Anthony Reid – Hybrid Identities in the 15th-century Straits in Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century: The China Factor
G William Skinner – Creolized Chinese Societies in Southeast Asia in Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese
James C Scott – The Art of Not Being Governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia
Frederick Jackson Turner – The Significance of the Frontier in American History
Yuan Bingling – Chinese Democracies: A Study of the Kongsis of West Borneo

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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Where In The Hyperreal Is Carmen Sandiego?

Capital In The Twenty-First Century – Thomas Piketty
Kentucky Route Zero – Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, Ben Babbitt
Manakamana – Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez
Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like To Be A Thing – Ian Bogost

Unlike redwoods and lichen and salamanders, computers don’t carry the baggage of vivacity. – Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology

There is a dog, wearing a straw hat, riding through the night in a delivery truck.

It’s Hamlet’s dog.

They are driving through Kentucky with a TV repairwoman, trying to deliver a package to a lost mathematician.

This Hamlet doesn't talk so much. He likes to talk to his dog, sometimes. He has a lot on his mind. He has his ghosts. He has his debts to pay.

You can control Hamlet, but only in the following way: you can control how he moves and where he turns, but not his destination. You can drive right or left, but he will end up on a boat to England. You can't change the future but you can change the past. When you are playing Hamlet, you can't change the story, but you can say what it means.

There is something astounding in Kentucky Route Zero, the magic realist adventure game from Cardboard Computer. It is not perhaps a masterpiece. It still feels just a little rough. But it is very good, and sometimes like a secret door opening.

There is a very specific mechanic behind this effect, combined with the redneck leprechaun setting. In the usual ludic meter of an adventure game you navigate a graph. At each node you are given a menu of choices. And so it is here, yet your choices include how to explain yourself to other people and the audience. You can drive around exploring the map, but new places only exist when the story needs them. This is your direction, your interpretation of the role. It impacts your backstory, fleshing out the shape of your tragedy. You get different choices for how to explain yourself depending on what you answered before. But the seams are hidden behind the form of a puzzle. The pinnacle of this technique, three acts in, is the song It’s Too Late To Love You Now, where you choose the lyrics sung to a suddenly open star-filled sky. It is a sublime moment of shifted perspective; I don’t think I have ever felt it so intensely in a game before.

“Master, does Emacs have the Buddha nature?” the novice asked.

The Master Programmer thought for several minutes before replying: “I don’t see why not. It’s bloody well got everything else.” – archaic computing koan

There’s an impromptu jam session in the middle of the movie Manakamana, high above the earth, suspended in a Nepalese cable car. By this time, the setting is not such a surprise, because every scene is set on a Nepalese cable car. A scene is simply the ten minutes it takes to ride the car up or down the mountain, of two seats on the cable car, from a single fixed camera on the opposite seat. These scenes have the quality of both a scientific sample and a stanza: it is a cinematic documentary-poem. The filmmakers are anthropologists.

It’s hard work watching real people this way, especially today; the urge to check smartphones and slip into continuous partial attention is strong, and most of the small and presumably sympathetic audience I saw it with succumbed at one time or another. What I found, when trying to stick with it, is a small sense of what it feels like to be that person, at that time, in that place. To be a grandmother with ice cream dripping down your fingers, or a musician having an impromptu airborne jam for the camera; but at the same time to be aware of not being that person, of not having your second ice cream at age seventy, of not having a clue how to play the sarangi, of not being a goat.

In the famous Thomas Nagel essay What Is It Like To Be A Bat? he teases out the unknowability of another creature’s internal experience, by using the alienness of a bat’s sonar as his key example. We are doomed to incomplete knowledge because we must anthropomorphise things, simply by being a human, thinking. Ian Bogost, in Alien Phenomenology, acknowledges this, but argues it’s not a bug but a feature: you can sidle up to alien experience by analogy.

In a literal sense, the only way to perform alien phenomenology is by analogy: the bat, for example, operates like a submarine. – Ian Bogost, ibid

For Bogost and the other proponents of Object Oriented Ontology, this analogical understanding is imperfect but valuable. It can even be generalized: that this is how every thing relates to every other thing, sapient, material, or conceptual. Bats, submarines, the planet Venus, forced labour, the theory of phlogiston, roti prata, breathing. This knowledge by layers of imperfect storytelling has been put under the banner of Speculative Realism, but professional philosophers, well trained in defense against irony, cannot agree on whether it exists.

When, about halfway through Manakamana, the light fades in from the dark of the cable car station, as it has half a dozen times before, but now revealing a car full of tied-down goats, my first reaction was laughter. It was funny due to raw absurdity, and then it was funny because the filmmakers really were asking you to watch a goat’s arse for the next ten minutes, barefacedly indifferent to your comfort as a viewer. Yet there is method in it; you see the nervous bleating give way to more relaxed sightseeing. You wonder if they are going up the mountain as potential milk or potential meat. In one sense the goats are a mental palette cleanser for the humans in the later scenes, but in another sense I could identify with them. The fixed viewpoint and the familiarity of the repeated cable car setting lulled me into unconscious sympathy. It is a sympathy that can be found in computer games. Play Frogger intensely and you start to see the world as a digital frog dodging traffic. Play Tetris intensely and tile floors become suddenly filled with intuitive meaning.

What is it like to be a bat? I don’t know. What is it like to be a goat riding the Manakamana cable car? I feel I know, but I can’t truthfully say.

((If the car had been empty, would it have cleared my head in the same way? Would I have identified with the cable car itself? Is the player of a train simulator playing the driver or the train?))

It wouldn’t be surprising to see a cable car in the forthcoming Act IV of Kentucky Route Zero. It shows its nostalgia for the vacuum tubes, filing cabinets and combustion engines of last century in every scene. It is about giant machines that smash your leg when they fail. It’s about old trucks, and whiskey, mechanical men, and people entangled in debt to drug companies. It’s built on a Shakespearean frame – players, dog-soliloquies, mini-game, boat trip and all – but that frame is well hidden. Technology, repair and debt are in the foreground. Above all it is about decay. It is a tragedy of depreciation.

Piketty is well aware that the model he proposes would only work if enforced globally, beyond the confines of nation-states (otherwise capital would flee to the states with lower taxes); such a global measure requires an already existing global power with the strength and authority to enforce it. However, such a global power is unimaginable within the confines of today’s global capitalism and the political mechanisms it implies. – Slavoj Zizek

Thomas Piketty has run a decade-long research program on wealth and capital, a ruthlessly empirical effort which uncovered masses of new data. This feeds into a model for the behaviour of large pools of wealth over time: that in the absence of massive shocks like world wars, private wealth accumulates at a rate greater than background economic growth (r>g), tending to increasing inequality without limit. Then he wrote an introduction for the technical layman, dense enough to be serious about the topic, light enough to be illustrated with cultural examples.

Like many histories, Capital In The Twenty-First Century ends up spending more time on the preceding era than its ostensible topic. To make his projections and suggestions on the 21st century he needs to explore the 19th and 20th. This is where the literary examples come in, particularly those nineteenth century ones where the definition of rich is very numerically precise. It’s possible that Piketty intended those much discussed literary diversions as nothing more than a hook to make the book more accessible. After all, he includes examples from not just Balzac and Austen but also Disney’s The Aristocats. Yet they serve two deeper purposes. Firstly they are qualitative data supplementing his systemic data from national accounts, building his historical case from a second point of view. Secondly, they are fragments of the capitalist imaginary, answering questions of partially alien experience. What is it like to live in Belle Époque capitalism? What is it like to live in capitalism today? Eventually, we come to questions unanswerable directly: What is it like to be capital? What is it like to be a capitalism?

Piketty advocates tilting policy back to 20th century welfare capitalism, by means of a small wealth tax on the rich, arguing extreme inequality creates a power disparity that undermines democracy. Such an effort would be an extension of the state project of legibility and control that James C Scott has shown extends back to their formation. One of Scott’s books even has the Nagelian title Seeing Like A State, though Piketty’s readership may be dismayed by its subtitle, How Certain Schemes To Improve The Human Condition Have Failed.

Piketty is a social democrat as well as a bourgeois capitalist economist, and at this point in history there is really no contradiction in that. We are not choosing between capitalism and Something Else; capitalism is the situation of a society with industrial capital and market pricing. Ultimately he’s saying that key aspects of 20th century capitalism were pretty good, and certainly better than what we’ll get in the 21st without political action.

This utopian conservatism is closer to Nicholas Stern, Francis Fukuyama or Paul Krugman than a revolutionary like Marx, though the shrill response to Piketty’s proposed wealth tax shows it hit a nerve. Indeed Piketty’s polite impatience towards Marx’s verbosity and looseness with data is another amusing Easter egg in the book, though it doesn’t stop him analyzing by class and superstructure elsewhere.

Piketty seems to have spawned two serious technical arguments among economists, one existential, revisiting the Cambridge Capital Controversy, one science fictional, on elasticity of capital-labour substitution. The existential question on whether the rate of profit is a price or a systemic effect in time is the sleepy feeling of drifting off while two people riding the Manakamana cable car describe how this ten minute ride used to be a two day hike through the Nepalese foothills. The science fiction is Piketty’s measurements saying in the twenty-first century, robots are a somewhat better investment than employees; the sinister mechanical men in the caves of Kentucky Route Zero come to clean the black grime again, scaring another batch of terrified researchers away.

Industrializing The Noosphere

Control Environment

We are not practicing Continuous Delivery. I know this because Jez Humble has given a very clear test. If you are not checking your code into trunk at least once every day, says Jez, you are not doing Continuous Integration, and that is a prerequisite for Continuous Delivery. I don’t do this; no one on my team does it; no one is likely to do it any time soon, except by an accident of fortuitous timing. Nevertheless, his book is one of the most useful books on software development I have read. We have used it as a playbook for improvement, with the result being highly effective software delivery. Our experience is one small example of an interesting historical process, which I’d like to sketch in somewhat theoretical terms. Software is a psychologically intimate technology. Much as described by Gilbert Simondon’s work on technical objects, building software has evolved from a distractingly abstract high modernist endeavour to something more dynamic, concrete and useful.

The term software was co-opted, in a computing context, around 1953, and had time to grow only into an awkward adolescence before being declared, fifteen years later, as in crisis. Barely had we become aware of software’s existence before we found it to be a frightening, unmanageable thing, upsetting our expected future of faster rockets and neatly ordered suburbs. Many have noted that informational artifacts have storage and manufacturing costs approaching zero. I remember David Carrington, in one of my first university classes on computing, noting that as a consequence of this, software maintenance is fundamentally a misnomer. What we speak of as maintenance in physical artifacts, the replacement of entropy-afflicted parts with equivalents within the same design, is a nonsense in software. The closest analogue might be system administrative activities like bouncing processes and archiving logfiles. What we call (or once called) maintenance is revising our understanding of the problem space. 

Software has an elastic fragility to it, pliable, yet prone to the discontinuities and unsympathetic precision of logic. Lacking an intuition of digital inertia, we want to change programs about as often as we change our minds, and get frustrated when we cannot. In their book Continuous Delivery, Humble and Farley say we can change programs like that, or at least be changing live software very many times a day, such that software development is not the bottleneck in product development.

With this approach, we see a rotation and miniaturisation of mid-twentieth century models of software development. The waterfall is turned on its side.

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Seeing Like A Facebook

The insistence on a single, unique, legal identity by Facebook and Google continues a historical pattern of expansion of power through control of the information environment. Consider the historical introduction of surnames:

Customary naming practices are enormously rich. Among some peoples, it is not uncommon to have different names during different stages of life (infancy, childhood, adulthood) and in some cases after death; added to those are names used for joking, rituals, and mourning and names used for interactions with same-sex friends or with in-laws. […]  To the question “What is your name?” which has a more unambiguous answer in the contemporary West, the only plausible answer is “It depends”.
For the insider who grows up using these naming practices, they are both legible and clarifying.
 — James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State

It’s all rather reminiscent of the namespace of open internets since they emerged in the 80s, including BBS, blogs, IRC, message boards, slashcode, newsgroups and even extending the lineage to the pseudonym-friendly Twitter. You can tell Twitter has this heredity by the joke and impersonating accounts, sometimes created in ill-spirit, but mostly in a slyly mocking one. CheeseburgerBrown’s autobiography of his pseudonyms captures the spirit of it.

Practically any structured scheme you might use to capture this richness of possible real world names will fail, as  Patrick McKenzie amusingly demonstrates in his list of falsehoods programmers believe about names.

Scott goes on to show how the consistent surnames made information on people much easier to access and organize for the state – more legible. This in turn made efficient taxation, conscription and corvee labour possible for the feudal state, as well as fine grained legal title to land. It establishes an information environment on which later institutions such as the stock market, income tax and the welfare state (medical, unemployment cover, universal education) rely. Indeed the idea of a uniquely identifiable citizen, who votes once, is relied on by mass democracy. Exceptions,  where they exist, are limited in their design impact due to their rarity. Even then, the introduction of national ID cards and car registration plates is part of that same legibility project, by enforcing unique identifiers. For more commercial reasons but with much the same effect, public transport smartcards, mobile phones  and number plates, when combined with modern computing, make mass surveillance within technical reach. 

The transition to simplified names was not self-emerging or gentle but was aggressively pursued by premodern and colonial states. In the course of a wide survey Scott gives a striking example from the Philippines:

Filipinos were instructed by the decree of November 21, 1849, to take on permanent Hispanic surnames. The author of the decree was Governor (and Lieutenant General) Narciso Claveria y Zaldua, a meticulous administrator as determined to rationalise names as he had been determined to rationalise existing law, provincial boundaries, and the calendar. He had observed, as his decree states, that Filipinos generally lacked individual surnames, which might “distinguish them by families,” and that their practice of adopting baptismal names from a small group of saints’ names resulted in great “confusion”. The remedy was the catalogo, a compendium not only of personal names but also of nouns and adjectives drawn from flora, fauna, minerals, geography and the arts and intended to be used by the authorities in assigning permanent, inherited surnames. […] In practice, each town was given a number of pages from an alphabetized catalogo, producing whole towns with surnames of the same letter. In situations where there has been little in-migration in the past 150 years, the traces of this administrative exercise are still perfectly visible across the landscape.
[…]
For a utilitarian state builder of Claveria’s temper, however, the ultimate goal was a complete and legible list of subjects and taxpayers. […] Schoolteachers were ordered to forbid thier students to address or even know one another by any other name except the officially inscribed family name. More efficacious, perhaps, given the minuscule school enrolment, was the proviso that forbade priests and military and civil officials from accepting any document, application, petition or deed that did not use the official surnames.

The ultimate consequences of these simplification projects can be good or bad, but they are all expansions of centralized power, often unnecessary, and dangerous without counterbalancing elements. Mass democracy could eventually use the mechanism of citizen registration to empower individuals and restrain the government, but this was in some sense historically reactive: it came after the expansion of the state at the expense of more local interests.

The existence of Farmville aside, Google and Facebook probably don’t intend to press people into involuntary labour. People are still choosing to click that cow no matter how much gamification gets them there. The interest in unique identities is for selling a maximally valued demographic bundle to advertisers. Even with multitudes of names and identities, we usually funnel back to one shared income and set of assets backed by a legal name.

Any power grab of this nature will encounter resistance. This might be placing oneself outside the system of control (deleting accounts), or it might be finding ways to use the system without ceding everything it asks for, like Jamais Cascio lying to Facebook.

The great target of Scott’s book is not historical states so much as the high modernist mega-projects so characteristic of the twentieth century, and their ongoing intellectual temptations today. He is particularly devastating when describing the comprehensive miseries possible when high modernist central planning combines with the unconstrained political power in a totalitarian state.

Again, it would be incorrect and unfair to describe any of the big software players today as being high modernist, let alone totalitarian. IBM in its mainframe and KLOC heyday was part of that high modernist moment, but today even the restrictive and aesthetically austere Apple has succeeded mainly by fostering creative uses of its platform by its users. The pressures of consumer capitalism being what they are, though, the motivation to forcibly simplify identity to a single point is hard for a state or a corporation to resist. Centralization has a self-perpetuating momentum to it, which good technocratic intentions tend to reinforce, even when these firms have a philosophical background in open systems. With the combined marvels of smartphones, clouds, electronic billing and social networks, I am reminded of Le Corbusier’s words. These software platforms are becoming machines for living.