I have been thinking about power a lot, lately. Powerful people, on the whole, have the money. It’s why so many of us feel compelled to learn to programme computers, because there at least appears to be a profession that commands a relatively high salary to the time invested. So our brain makes a leap of logic and assumes that because everyone is constantly told to learn to code, everyone can or at the very least, should. But what’s happening with the coding movement is just a symptom. The world has a new toolkit and needs new people to use it to make new things. People joke about 3D printers printing themselves, but there’s a decent allegory for tech: coders are crafting their own jobs, their kids’ jobs, the product, the factory, the machinery and the maintenance team.
Why I haven’t learned to code
It’s hard to argue with what’s happening as a net force for good, but things are changing at a breakneck pace and every kind of production is becoming infected with the pressure to join in the tech world’s high stakes game. Technology has the money so it steers the culture, I suspect, more than we realise. Not only that, but there’s an extent to which it controls the speed and the values of those from smaller worlds who find themselves overlapping with it. We have a new industry and a new ‘industrial revolution’, and programmers, creative as they certainly are, must of course hold efficiency at a premium. Those who aren’t fast enough are no use and won’t stick around long. And that’s partly why, despite my fascination with everything technical and the great pleasure I get from it, I haven’t succeeded in my attempts to learn to code or enter a technical career. I am all personality, argumentativeness and impracticality. My usefulness is subtle, slow-burning and rather subjective. I can’t fix your website, but I can probably break it in a way you hadn’t thought of.
And that’s the thing: usefulness is a kind of power, and a rather intimidating one. But there are other kinds of power, and other kinds of usefulness. Arguably, in a world fixated on developing, true power lies with the destroyer. It’s the breaker who holds the maker in fear and pushes them to plug gaps and find work-arounds, just as poverty propels wealth. And for all its obsession with efficiency, building anything that works properly is slow and arduous and involves multiple trials and errors. Throwing a stone through a window is where real efficiency lies. What does the vandal have to lose?
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest we should all become destroyers, though some of us certainly tend to it. But I’m pretty sure we don’t all have to be useful builders, either. There is a third way. Artists – whether working with solid materials, abstract ideas, language or code, are uselessness architects, dismantling, deconstructing and often building. They demonstrate an alternative currency of existence, where the things we make need not participate in an ongoing economy of service, and they demonstrate a kind of labour whose value is greater than money. Artists are important because a free world must allow for the dominant models to be questioned. It’s the same reason my publication, Hack Circus, is secretly all about credulity, and the importance of fantasy and uselessness in technology. We must live in a world where it is possible that not everything is known, finished and decided. There must have space for alternatives. But these alternatives won’t turn up on their own – we will have to create them (and if you can learn to create them out of code, all the better.)
Make it yourself
Finding the ‘point’ of art which uses tech in the skewing presence of the information revolution’s money is like trying to read a compass in a magnet shop. We are so deeply entrenched in one value system that it’s easy to forget it’s not the only one. Creative or wordy people are steered into journalism and marketing (in many ways the same thing) – two areas most lucrative when they serve the money machine, and guaranteed a spectacular financial freeze-out if they dare serve anything else. Growing up, I remember being warned strongly against even attempting to pursue work in the media: “It’s too competitive”.
But question everything; throw stones through every glass ceiling! The one thing that has no competitors is our uniqueness. It’s possible to create forms of expression that are as unique as we are, without compromising at all. As long as we are able to uphold values other than money. What if there are other kinds of work? Other ways to be reimbursed?
This isn’t The Goode Life and we must, of course, work. But we must also stand up for the value of an alternative, without apology or concession and with nothing but glancing sadness for those who won’t share in a wonderful value system beyond cash. Money will get you a certain distance, but – as I will discuss in a blog somewhere soon – trust will get you further.