Coding/programming & form/content

Levi at Larval Subjects wrote:

I once knew a person who had been raised as a rightwing Christian fundamentalist, a real true believer, and that then became a Marxist atheist in college. The curious thing was that while the content of his beliefs had changed radically, the form seemed to remain the same. He still had a very binary way of thinking organized around the friend/enemy distinction, privileged group allegiance against a “them”, and was incredibly self-righteous and moralistic, filled with a passion to denounce and judge. He just now had a different framework for doing so.  This is why real change, I think, can’t simply be a change in content, but must also be a change in form or structure. The pattern itself must change.  If the form of thinking and practice remains the same, it matters little how we’ve changed the content. . . .

This passage made me think of the systems-theoretical distinction between coding and programming.  In the above example, friend/enemy is a binary code; it forces a decision as the other people one deals with must be classified as friend or enemy. It’s a way of simplifying or reducing the complexity of one’s social relationships. I suppose you can also consider some people neither friends or enemy, but in this case we would likely just ignore those people, sort of like the way the economy ignores morality.

The binary code, in itself, has no content. Programmes are needed to fill in the content. If the code stays the same (is invariant), it doesn’t matter how we changes the programmes; we still end up with friends and enemies–a friend cannot be an enemy, and an enemy cannot be a friend. If a person, or a consciousness system, considers conservative friends and liberal enemies, it can easily switch to considering conservatives enemies and liberals friends. Programmes are changeable, but a system’s code stays the same.; it is invariant. If the code changes, then it’s not the same system anymore. A conditional (If . . . then) programme can be used, such as “If X supports abortion rights, X is an enemy (not  a friend).”

In the Introduction of Luhmann’s Law as as Social System, Nobles and Schiff write,

Law develops structures (conditional programmes) for application of the code. This involves second-order observation. Secondary observation here is the operation of observing coding. The code can be applied to itself, to say whether a previous coding was valid or invalid. As an operation of coding this has no greater meaning, in itself, than the original coding (so all the elements of paradox, tautology, and contradiction remain within this observation). But the observation offers rationality. Why was the earlier coding appropriate (valid or invalid)? Answers to this question create conditional programmes” ‘In the presence of fact X, code Y is legal. In the presence of fact Z, code Y is illegal.’ The programmes also constitute norms: those facts that comply with the system’s norms are labeled legal; those facts that violate the system’s norms are labelled illegal.

These second-order observations cannot answer the question: what is the distinction between legal and illegal. They cannot address the question of whether the distinction between legal and illegal is itself legal. They can only produce relatively stable applications of the code, allowing law to carry out its function of maintaining stable expectations. (18-19)

Legal norms, or laws, are the content of the legal code lawful/not-lawful (or legal/illegal). Laws are clearly changeable, but only through legal means. The political system, for instance, cannot declare a law to be unlawful.

A system that changes its programmes (normative, expectational structure), is to said to have learned. The legal system can change its norms when these norms are deemed inadequate to handle to environmental irritations. Structural coupling, in other words, can lead to changed norms.  But, of course, the system can also refuse to change its normative structure, or not learn.

Since the system alone determines whether to change or not to change its normative structure, or programmes, the relationship of system to environment is asymmetrical. But within the system, the coding or lawful/unlawful is symmetrical, as both are used to continue the system’s autopoiesis. The difference is a unity because both sides of the code are need to produce information. Actually, according to Nobles and Schiff, “the two sides of the code are always applied simultaneously to the same situation” (18). In a dispute between two parties, for example,

The state of affairs which gives rise to a dispute is a single state. If we decide that one party wins the dispute (acted legally) and another party loses (acted illegally) we are not applying the code to two different situations but to one.” (18)


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