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@DRMacIver DRMacIver/ Secret
Last active May 4, 2017

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Spelling out the politics of Programmer at Large

Politics at Large

A number of people seem to be under the impression that Programmer at Large describes a social justice utopia.

This is understandable. It describes a population of mostly femme-presenting agender mostly-asexual mostly-of-colour people going about their lives. All of these groups are fairly social justice aligned in modern society.

But that's not what's going on here.

Is there a social justice slant to the politcs of programmer at large? Yes, 100%.

Is Programmer at Large a social justice utopia? Agh, agh, agh. no, why would you even think that?

(Yes, I know why you'd think that, I spelled it out above, but I still feel like it requires a fairly shallow reading).

The society in Programmer at Large has more or less every prejudice ours does. Some of them it has worse than ours does. It's just not immediately obvious to everyone because I changed the defaults.

Have you noticed that:

  • the characters use a racial slur in casual converation more or less just to mean "bad"?
  • the only gender nonconforming character we've met is a borderline social pariah?
  • there is a massive prejudice against people having socially disapproved of sex (i.e. all sex in this case)?
  • the protagonist is constantly struggling to conform to social expectations that run counter to their neurodiversity?

The ship is not a good place to be different. It's just that their notion of "different" is not the same as ours.

Why is it like this?

If I were forced to come up with one single "purpose" for Programmer at Large, it's to be a distorted mirror on modern programming culture. If I were allowed two, it's to point out all the ways in which software is inextricable from the culture that creates it.

Among the features of modern programming culture is that it's remarkably homogenous. In particular, there tends to be a fairly large white guy bias in it (this depends a bit on where you are, but certainly it's been my experience in London).

If I pointed out the homogoneity of tech by filling the ship with white guys you wouldn't notice, because it's a default for scifi. Culturally western white guys in space, volume #5017. Yawn.

In general I don't like sticking to the beaten path when writing, but here it was particularly important to avoid it.

So I started flipping defaults, and just kept on flipping until I had a culture I thought was interesting and self-consistent.

It's proven quite interesting to me at least, and gone in directions I didn't expect.

As a bonus, I got a culture that a lot of my friends and others who are not normally well represented get to see themselves in a fairly dominant cultural position. That's nice and I am happy that I have achieved that.

Occasionally this results in things where I get to extend the mandate of Programmer at Large to poke fun at how ridiculous gender roles are when you really think about it (just because I'm a cis guy doesn't mean I don't notice). I am also glad I get to do that.

But those are happy accidents that I am more than happy to take advantage of now that they're there. The original, and the primary, reason is that it is an essential feature of the story's role.

So it is all about social justice politics?

Tech is intrinsically political, fiction is intrinsically political, I am intrinsically political. It was literally impossible that I could write an extended story about tech and not have it be political. My politics are fairly social justice heavy, so there was always going to be an element of that in there.

But what Programmer at Large is absolutely not is a political sermon about how the world should be. It is a story about a world that is interestingly different to our own in some ways and interestingly similar to our own in others, and any political message I am making should be through that contrast, not through some John Galt-esque speech that some character suddenly drops into.

Moreover, it should be possible to enjoy the story without paying too much attention to the politics. Ideally it should be possible to enjoy the story even if you disagree vehemently with the politics. If you wanted to read just about politics, ther are doubtless far better textbooks than Programmer at Large.

But the politics are there, and they have to be there, because it's a story about people and wherever you get people you're going to get politics.

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