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This is my first non-technical blog. The intent of this post is to put down a digest, for myself, of the meticulous piece — A PRIESTHOOD OF PROGRAMMERS — written by Alice Maz, wherein the progression of the role of the priestly class with the changing medium of information channels has been discussed. I would like to underscore that the essay has opened up my mind to look at the subject from a completely new perspective, by stimulating a line of thoughts that I did not ever conceive of previously; to be honest, the subject itself is something that never occurred to me. Another after-effect of reading the essay that I experienced is a new impetus to overcome the cumulative mental lethargy from being submerged into the world of 140 (or 280 for some) characters and memes. In this spirit, I begin the summary as I have perceived, along with incorporating a thought or two of my own.
A society can be broadly classified into three categories based on division of labour with a distinct role assigned to each class — Productive class, Warrior class, and Priestly class. Farmers, merchants, craftsmen etc. constitute the Productive class. The Warrior class undertakes the task to safeguard the society. The role of the Priestly class is to build the framework of values, beliefs, and truths which makes the society function as a unit.
Building and activating this framework of axioms on which a society is based requires a means of information flow. Consequently, the medium of information-flow contributes in shaping the framework. In turn, whoever controls the information channels gets to play the priests of the society.
In the ancient world when oral communication was the mode to pass on information, narration was the means to disseminate and preserve knowledge through generations. Guru-shishya parampara, a tradition in which gurus taught their disciples, represents an epitome of sophistication that could be achieved within the constraints intrinsic to this medium. The elegance of this tradition was that the consonance of the pathas (lessons) and standardised phonology for their recitation served a multitude of purposes — made memorising easier, worked as an in-built error-correction system, and avoided the problem of different linguistic accents from creeping in. However, the other side of the coin for this medium was its heavy reliance on memory and lack of robustness to deal with calamities. Nevertheless, gurus who primarily carried out their roles of scientists, teachers, doctors and such, were the priestly class of the society operating with verbal form of information exchange.
With the advent of writing commenced the era of manuscripts. Writing transcended the shortcomings of orality — dependence on memory and fragility of preservation — and thus shifted the focus on reading and understanding. But writing itself, as a medium for the flow of information, is not free from drawbacks. The principal weakness that it suffers from is that what is written has been ‘frozen’ in time. Unlike a guru, a written text will not answer one’s questions or provide an alternative or more elaborate explanations. This innate limitation creates the scope for interpretation of meaning. The age of manuscripts can be characterised by traditions being written down as authoritative scriptures and those assigned to interpreting the scriptures playing the role of priests of the society. Like Guru-shishya for viva voce period, Catholic Christianity is apposite to exemplify the manuscript based period. Different branches of faith stemmed from adapting one of the different possible interpretations of the religious texts. Clergy in this era constituted the priestly class. The framework governing society had its foundations rooted in doctrines stated in religious books. Realising its power over the masses, the priestly class started pushing the boundary of its leverage that gradually resulted in its corrosion.
Invention of the printing press marked the end of the manuscript era and acted as the harbinger of an era that we were living in until about a couple of decades back. The press destructed the previous religious framework by making it possible for the common folk to have access to the texts. This era, in its nascent stages, witnessed attempts to transform the nature of the religious foundations of the framework — for instance, installing values of the Protestant faith — but the new foundations of religious nature were not strong enough to unite the society. Meanwhile, industrial revolution made it feasible for an average person to have access to the written information in the form of books, newspapers, and so on. Literature and newspapers became the means of information dissemination. The resultant void left from the shattering of the religious foundations was filled with the new variants of rights and laws, derived from first principals. In other words, concepts like secularism, republicanism etc. formed the core of the new framework. News became the analogue for memorisation in the oral era and interpretation in the manuscript era. The segment of society that controlled the dispersal of news, namely journalists and publishers, filled the shoes of the priestly class in this era. The advent of television further strengthened their established role of priests.
Journalism started with the ingrained objectivity, at least seemingly, resulting from the requirement that necessitates dry reporting of facts in order to win the competitive urge of being the first and the most reliable news agency. Over the course of time, journalism integrated ethics and moral ethos as its vital elements, projecting itself as the sole bearer of the noble responsibility to shape the society into an utopia. Not long after establishing the profound influence, had news-trading already started wringing its power and credentials to promulgate propaganda of various sorts, but its self-conceived image as one of the most virtuous professions exacerbated its surreptitious misconduct into overtly feeding people with specific biases and poisoned opinions. Journalists, the priests of modern day’s society had realised and in turn, fully exploited their power of being the “king-makers”.
The onset of the internet age, made the impact of the press moribund. The Internet digitised and distributed the power of pen that had been monopolised by the journalists until recently. The concomitant effect was the demolition of the facade of journalism under which it concealed its narcissistic image according to which the common folks, if left to themselves and not guided by the journalists, do not possess enough intellect to understand their own good. The social media platforms have shifted the control, at least partially, from the mainstream media to the social media. The disdain which the priestly class of journalists once held and still holds for the general public has begun being reciprocated in this age of digital media. Unlike the priestly class of clergy in the manuscript era which awakened too late to save itself from the destruction brought up by the emergence of the printing press, this particular class is astute enough to have started the efforts for its survival through the paradigm shift. These efforts are multifaceted, ranging from fear-mongering about the perils of social media to creation of the grounds in favour of the censoring the information floating on the platforms.
It is clear that the medium of information exchange has changed and with it has the society embarked on a journey to uproot the current occupiers of the priestly class, leaving the role vacant to be assumed by software developers. What still is uncertain is whether the programmers would be interested enough to take up the challenge of being the potential class of priests; if yes then whether the framework of societal operations will be substituted with some new foundation or the current values will be carried forward as its core. There are far too many possibilities to settle the questions. We will see what future holds in store for our generation.
Please pardon if, contrary to my intent, the attempt to summarise my learning from the essay has ended up attenuating your interest in it. I can assure you that the essay is every bit worth the time spent on reading it.🙂