Programmer scarcity and the tech megatrend

This is a re-post from Hacker News, some comments in response to an excellent little essay by David Heinemeier Hansson. This topic tends to come up now and then, so I put the comments here to have a handy reference.

I often think about how extraordinarily lucky I am to be living through this technological boom. Computation, automation and mass-communication will continue to transform human society even more for decades. High-end software development skills will become even more scarce. Immersing yourself in the boom by running a software shop with a bunch of good friends - the best of times!

The point about programming skills becoming more scarce is an important additional factor to why it is good to be in the software business:

We are still in a relatively early stage of the technological boom signified by things like electronics, computers, robotics and the internet. These technologies have changed life on Earth dramatically, but there is probably at least as much to come. In any case, for the next two or three decades, more and more aspects of life will be the object of automation, computation etc. So the demand for software development will continue to increase, and probably by a lot. Software will become an even greater part of the economy and continue to crowd out other types of business.

Only a small percentage of the population have the talent and inclination to become very good programmers, and children with these traits often do not get proper encouragement and guidance. So from the beginning, it is very hard for society to produce a large number of programmers. More importantly, the ratio of people who can become good programmers is probably more or less a constant, while the need for software development will grow much faster.

We might also be getting worse at producing programmers. For example, software is becoming more mature, hiding more and more of the internals. I started programming at age seven, in the eighties. In local stores I could buy glossy magazines with articles about programming, often with entire programs that I could copy into Basic etc. For sure, there is the Internet now, but what kind of programming culture for kids is there? I could pick my first computer apart and learn all about how it worked. Kids these days learn to use iPads before they learn to speak, but they never get to see what is inside. Who knows where this will lead? We already know that a lot of graybeards are retiring and they are often impossible to replace since the current generation of programmers is not nearly as hard-core.

Psychological anarchism

This is an outline of an essay I planned to write back in 2005. The project was put on hold, but I’ll give it some new life by publishing the outline here. In time, I will try to translate it, bit by bit, from the original Swedish.

Two main strands of libertarianism can be distinguished. Firstly an economic one, which is oriented around demonstration the superiority of institutions based on voluntary exchange over state intervention. The philosophical tendency of this type of libertarianism is utilitarian. Secondly, a philosophical one, which often [avvisar] utilitarian ideas with [emfas]. Instead, this type of libertarianism revolves mainly around various concepts of rights and the non-aggression principle.

In my paper i want to examine what I see as a related third tendency, which has long led a somewhat obscure life in the shadows of the two mentioned above. If the first tradition is economic and the second philosophical, I would like to call the third onepsychological or perhaps existential. Focus is not on utility or rights, but on autonomy and self-interest.

First and foremost among thinkers in the psychological, existential, autonomistic tradition of radical libertarian thought is Max Stirner, and my paper [tar avstamp] in his book, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844). Stirner’s ideas are timeless and if anything they still seem very futuristic, but they were formulated in a cultural and philosophical context that stopped being relevant long ago. My first ambition is therefore to recunstruct a case for psychological anarchism from Der Einzige and put the ideas in a relevant contemporary context, namely libertarian and anarchist theory.

How does psychological anarchism relate to libertarianism and anarcholiberalism? What are the strenghts and weaknesses of the respective traditions? Can psychological anarchism be developed to a modern alternative to economic and philosophical libertarianism? What could contemporary psychological anarchistic strategies be?

Some sketchy comparisons:

  • Established libertarian theories have trouble explaining why the world is not libertarian, a question that becomes secondary to the presentation of libertarianism as a superior idea. The question why the overwhelming majority of people accept what libertarians describe as outrageous oppression, remains hanging in the air(?). In the psychological approach however, the question of voluntary servitude is central from the beginning, and primary in relation to questions about how societies should be organized. Stirner’s analysis of voluntary servitude revolves around a radical critique of ideology and internalized social control.

  • Despite libertarian ideas being hostile to all common types of politics, almost all libertarian strategies are political. More and more libertarians and anarchists are beginning to realize the futility of attacking the whole of the oppressive order of society, but their political theories are no good foundation for other strategies than political ones. The psychological tradition on the other hand is fundamentally antipolitical, and devises only radically non-political strategies. Liberation is liberation från internalized social control, ideology and voluntary servitude, and thus becomes a fundamentally psychological project and by necessity an individual self-liberation. Stirner’s discussion of this question revolves in part on an affirmation of insurrection, as in contrast to revolution.

  • Libertarianism insists on a striclty negative conception of freedom, which is tightly bound up with the focus on politics, while psychological anarchism is based on a positive concept of freedom, which is closely bound up with the focus on psychology. True freedom can not be attained by liberating people from other people, but must be created by every individual for himself. Stirner’s positive conception of freedom is ownness, which is a form of autonomy and self-interestedness.

  • Private property rights are central to libertarian thinking. Stirner [förkastar] all concepts of property rights, but property or possession is very much central in his thinking, integrated in an analysis of power, freedom, autonomy and self-interest.

  • The vision of a libertarian society can seem very utopian when one considers its psychological presuppositions, and libertarians must take seriously the objection that their ideas may presuppose a “libertarian man”, a psychological ideal that can seem unrealistic. By making a psychological analysis a central point and ground libertarian ideas psychologically, this problem is taken seriously by thinkers in the psychological tradition and answered in a defense of a psychological ideal which indeed is very different from normal human psychology and psychological ideals.

  • Psychological anarchism is founded neither on theories of society or philosophical principles, but on the subjective situation of the individual. Therefore it is even more simple, coherent and intuitive than established libertarian theories. If nothing else, this may be a pragmatic-pedagogic point to take into consideration.

Libertarians of different kinds will of course have many objections to psychological autonomism. A critique formulated already by Karl Marx, but one with which many libertarians will surely concur, is that Stirner’s ideas are too idealistic, that they overlook the very concrete nature of oppression. To consider the state not as a concrete machinery of oppression, but as an oppressive abstraction, can of course seem unrealistic. Furthermore, most libertarians would naturally critizise the idea of non-political strategies, and point to the risk that such strategies become harmless to the oppressive system as they strive for a psychological autonomy that is attainable without reshaping society.

The conflict is most apparent between what I call philosophical and psychological libertarianism or anarchism. The latter attacks the former on all fronts, and their premisses are so different that it is doubtful that they could be conciliated. On the other hand, it seems to me that the anarchoeconomic tradition is largely compatible with the anarchopsychological. The former begin where the latter ends and perhaps these perspectives can complement each other in a harmonious way, in a economic-psychological rather than political-philosophical libertarianism/anarchism.

Besides Stirner there are contributions to what I call a psychological libertarian tradition in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand and Michel Foucault among others. Etienne de la Boetie can perhaps be seen as a precursor in some ways. In the literature on Stirner, two authors are worth special mention here. John Carroll har written about Stirner, Nietzsche and Dostojevsky as engaged in an anarchopsychological critique, and Saul Newman har written on parallells between Stirner and Foucault, who’s thinking on power and freedom like Stirner’s is in search of a post-Kantian freedom. This connects with postanarchism, that is, moves to combine anarchism and poststructuralist thought.

In libertarian thinking there are certain tendencies that fits well with ideas like those of Stirner, not least concerning the question of non-political strategies, both from the perspective of individual self-liberation and from the perspective of building alternative institutions that can exist parallell with the state and with time outcompete it.

If you would like to read the rest of this essay in English, consider sending me a message with your thoughts. If someone does this, it just might give me the extra incentive necessary to finish the translation.

Preparatory human beings

I welcome all signs that a more virile, warlike age is about to begin, which will restore honor to courage above all. For this age shall prepare the way for one yet higher, and it shall gather the strength that this higher age will require some day— the age that will carry heroism into the search for knowledge and that will wage wars for the sake of ideas and their consequences. To this end we now need many preparatory courageous human beings who cannot very well leap out of nothing, any more than out of the sand and slime of present-day civilization and metropolitanism— human beings who know how to be silent, lonely, resolute, and content and constant in invisible activities; human beings who are bent on seeking in all things for what in them must be overcome; human beings distinguished as much by cheerfulness, patience, unpretendousness, and contempt for all great vanities as by magnanimity in victory and forbearance regarding the small vanities of the vanquished; human beings whose judgment concerning all victors and the share of chance in every victory and fame is sharp and free; human beings with their own festivals, their own working days, and their own periods of mourning, accustomed to command with assurance but instantly ready to obey when that is called for — equally proud, equally serving their own cause in both cases; more endangered human beings, more fruitful human beings, happier beings! For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is — to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be content to live hidden in forests like shy deer. At long last the search for knowledge will reach out for its due; it will want to rule and possess, and you with it!