June 21, 2021


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Surrendering to the Potential of Constraints

Winter Break Of Code, Day 5

The prophetic discourse of the Karai can be summed up in an observation and a promise: on the one hand, they constantly affirmed the fundamentally evil character of the world, on the other, they insisted that conquest of a good world was possible. “The world is evil! The world is ugly!” they said. “Let us abandon it!” they concluded. […] In short, it was not the discourse of the prophets that was unhealthy, but indeed, the world in which they spoke, the society in which they lived.

Archeology of Violence, Pierre Clastres

At the peak of the Soviet Union’s civic society, more than five-hundred thousand Soviets belonged to a complex, almost ecological system of bureaucracy known as the Nomenklatura. Itself a reference to the Roman ‘list of names’ – a codified taxonomy into which people could be organized and signified – the Soviet government was built and constrained through social proximity.

The initial idea was to institute a horizontal decision-making system. A methodology that could define and populate thousands of roles for the collaborative administration of social order: ministers of industry, pedagogy, natural resources, foreign relations, internal affairs, communications, and so on.

It was a form of governance intended to gradually flatten a hierarchy that the early industrial revolution had exaggerated. However, over time the mechanics revealed – somewhat conversely – a total institutionalization of ‘nepotism’. Certain senior members of the Nomenklatura had the privilege to appoint new members, and maintain long lists of qualified candidates. New members, now obliged from a favor, formed allegiances to their patrons. Patrons themselves carried social debts to those who appointed them, and it went on like this up the stack into the inner circle. The hierarchy didn’t flatten, it sharpened.

Speed ahead to our modern life. My social relations are all but completely virtualized. My list of friends and followers, contacts and matches, profiles and handles … all thrum wildly. Apps are released every week which impose and constrain my lists into new formations, reconstructing my social life over and over. It’s possible to see the reflection of Soviet governance in our own lives today; perhaps there are hundreds of thousands of members (less, probably) of a new bureaucratic class – technocratic knowledge workers, let’s say – who organize and signify civic life in the contemporary age. Building cooperative protocols and APIs and apps and networks. Designing the interfaces and behaviors and experiences of everyone else. Teaching but sometimes refusing to learn, giving generously but sometimes taking without permission, anticipating what we want but often supposing what we want without asking. Designing our dismal fate. Slowly appointing their heirs by proximity.

As a publisher and designer, I count myself among this degenerate few and tread carefully whenever I manage to move or speak at all.