Liquid Infrastructure


In his extended article* – What Is Code?Paul Ford has written a wonderful description of our current, culturally specific circumstances of coding and project culture.

Now, let me preface what I’m about to say with the plea that you read Ford’s essay if you haven’t already done so. It’s a wonderful read.

The piece is as much about the presentation of the content as it is the writing itself. Apparently there were some wild early ideas: The article as an API. You’d read the article by debugging it!

It is significant not just in the way it nails down the coding culture, but also in how it pushes the boundaries of journalism and the presentation of content.

But, one phrase really struck me as I read the article. Ford describes programming languages as Liquid Infrastructure. 

The point is that things are fluid in the world of programming, fluid in a way that other industries don’t seem to be. Languages are liquid infrastructure.

Part of the impact the phrase had on me was that it’s a nice phrase. It’s easy to see what Ford’s trying to say, and the implications this has for how we might begin thinking about agility and capacity within organisations.

Code has an inherent fluidity and adaptability. It isn’t limited by physical constraints.

Code becomes a model/metaphor for organisational change. 

We intuitively understand that the stability of previous infrastructures, systems and services is fundamentally compromised.

We are not simply moving from one state (unstable) to a new state (different, but stable). Instead, we are faced with a reality which is defined by change.

But Ford’s phrase began to surface other implications and associations for me.

For starters it reminds me of Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of Liquid Modernity. Bauman describes the move from a ‘heavy’, hardware based modernity to one which is light, liquid and software-based.

Such a migration has huge implications for how we interact, engage with human structures, infrastructures and organisations. There is an inherent remoteness to these liquid structures, indeed, they are increasingly unstructured and un-reachable.

For Bauman this implies a complete rethinking of how we even conceive of these new relationships and how we narrate human experience.

In using this phrase, Ford, I think, unwittingly exposes some of these difficult renegotiations and restructurings, but without ever dealing with what these might mean for individuals, organisations or societies.

Unsurprisingly, What is Code? privileges a particular view of the world. It privileges the coder, the software developer.

It is sometimes easy to forget the privileged position we occupy when we advocate a particular view of the world, or of a society, its organisations and infrastructures.

Liquid infrastructures both inspires me with its implications, but also makes me want to ensure I recognise that it comes from a specific way of seeing – indeed a specific way of building – the world.

*Calling Ford’s piece an article is a little unfair. It was 38,000 words and comprised the entire content for the June issue of Bloomberg Business. It is essentially a short book.


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