The Social Network, the End of Intimacy, and the Birth of Hacker Sensibility
by Dan Haggard
Think about the person closest to you and the connection that you have. Feel the sense of familiarity and trust. Think of the wonderful experiences your intimacy has enabled. But now imagine this intimacy is torn away. Their eyes intimate indifference. You’re just one of the billions of people to whom they could possibly devote their time. There is nothing that defines your shared connection and makes it stand apart. You’re just the tag end of an economic calculation; a move in a game that will likely never end.
What if this could happen? What if it was already beginning to happen? What if intimacy is just a mode of behaviour that depends upon a certain kind of societal superstructure and technological underpinning? What if intimacy itself could be annihilated by a revolution occurring at the level of that superstructure?
You don’t believe it. But that’s not the least of it – you can’t even imagine it. When it’s you and your lover together, the world outside doesn’t seem to matter. How could it ever impinge upon it short of physical separation?
My aim in this article is to provide you with some tools to help you conceive of this possibility. If I achieve that much, then I’ll be happy. I have a more ambitious aim, however. I want to convince you that it’s possible – that it might in fact happen within out lifetimes.
But there is a story to tell here as well. A large part of the reason why we are hurtling toward this dark future has to do with the breakdown of relations between two groups of people who really should be friends: the hackers and the artists. The dialogue between the two has become so fractured that they will soon become incapable of informing one another of the perspectives that each require to be made whole in their endeavours. The healing of this rift is the only thing that likely can save us from a world without intimacy.
But why is their schism so important? And what has caused it? To answer this we’re going to have to cover a large amount of ground. We’ll look at how the tensions between the two are playing out in the public sphere of popular culture – including an examination of the debate over the recent film by David Fincher – The Social Network. We’ll also have to look at some of the lead voices in that debate, including a lengthy critique of the contributions of Paul Graham, founder of the very influential Y Combinator venture capital fund.
What we’ll find is that these two groups largely misunderstand one another. These confusions need to be addressed if they are to borrow the greatest strengths from the other – strengths that they’ll need if they ever want to take a genuine stand against what’s coming.
In the course of these excursions I’ll provide a detailed analysis of the concept of intimacy. I’ll go far beyond the vague characterisations that you would have usually heard discussed. I’ll try to give a reasonably clear account of the concrete structures in our lives that constitute intimacy, as well as so how these structures can be dismantled.
I’ll begin with a parable that describes how it is our two groups fell out with one another.
The Parable of the Artist and the Engineer
A great artist and writer approached his friend – a similarly talented engineer – in a mood of agitation.
“I’ve done it,” he exclaimed. ”I’ve come up with the theory of human kind that will define our age!”
“That’s great!” said the engineer with genuine enthusiasm. ”Slap together a prototype and we’ll take it to market.”
A dark cloud descended upon the artist’s face and he wandered off mumbling something about the irreducibility of the human soul, alienation, fallen Dasein and a whole host of neologisms the engineer didn’t understand. The latter shrugged his shoulders and went back to tinkering.
Some time later the artist returned looking somewhat despondent.
“What’s the matter?” asked the engineer.
“My great idea has not had the impact I’d hoped,” replied the artist. ”I’ve only been able to get the text into the hands of a small number of people. Fewer still can understand it. I fear my work will be lost ahead of its time.’
“Don’t worry,” said the engineer. ”I have just the thing.”
He rummaged around in his pile of strange devices and pulled out a wondrous looking contraption.
“What is it?” asked the artist.
“It’s a printing press. It will improve the efficiency of the production of texts, lowering the cost and thereby making your work accessible to a much wider range of people. It will also lower the costs of education as well, so more people should be in a position to understand you.”
“That’s awesome,” said the artist. ”Thanks.”
He took the printing press under his arm and once again left the engineer to his tinkering.
A great deal of time passed, but eventually the artist returned once more.
“Hello again,” said the Engineer. ”It’s been a long time. How is your great idea coming along?”
“A lot better,” replied the artist. ”Your machine was very helpful. We managed to distribute a sufficient number of copies of the text and the idea caught on. We formed a movement, then a political party, and now the incumbent elites quake at our ascendency.”
“That’s great,” said the engineer. ”Sounds like it’s going well.”
“Oh yes, quite well indeed. Unfortunately though, it looks like it will be civil war and we’re fiercely out gunned. I don’t suppose you have another one of your contraptions that might give us an edge?”
“Not really,” said the Engineer. ”I don’t really do war.”
The artist looked suspicious. ”What’s that there on your tool bench.”
“Oh that? That’s an atom. Actually, it’s half an atom. It’s a funny story. Everyone thought that atoms were the fundamental, indivisible unit of nature… but it turns out no!…”
“What’s half an atom good for?” the artist interrupted.
“Not sure. I was just hacking around for the fun of it really. I was really surprised by the amount of energy that came out of it though when I split it.”
“Energy,” said the artist. ”And if you had more of these… atoms?”
“Oh I suspect it would be quite the bang…”
“Enough for a bomb?”
“Oh easily…” but then the engineer caught himself as he realised where this was headed.
“Make me this Atom Bomb!” cried the artist.
“Oh, no,” said the Engineer. ”Some one could get hurt. I don’t want any part of it.”
“You fool! Don’t you understand what is at stake here? Would you let the nascent threads of our brave new world unravel before they’ve even had the chance to be weaved? Will you let the posturing elites crush the idea for which so many of us have struggled for so long? In the name of progress will you not support our cause?”
“Yeah alright. Sheesh. Give me a couple of hours and I’ll whip you up a couple of atom bombs. But I’m really not happy about any of this.”
The engineer made the artist his bombs and was then relieved to be left in peace to continue his tinkering. He struggled with his guilt at having helped the artist. He didn’t understand the artist’s ideas. He didn’t know if they were worth the killing and dying. He liked numbers and things that could be measured. If only more people shared his passion, he thought. After all, how many people have gone to war over a mathematical equation? In any case, he hoped his old friend the artist was now satisfied with his lot so that he would no longer be so bothersome.
Alas, some years later the artist returned once more.
“We seized power in a bloody coup,” he explained.
“Good for you,” said the engineer listlessly.
“Yes, it was a glorious moment of triumph for the human spirit. Unfortunately it came at great cost. The reconstruction efforts have sapped our economy and we face a depression. Many people are on the cusp of starving. I know I’ve asked a lot from you, but do you think you might be able to help one last…”
“Actually, I do have something,” said the engineer.
“It’s a mechanised spinning wheel I call the Spinny Jenny. I also invented a power loom. Must have been all your talk about weaving things.”
“Yes, what would you do without me,” said the artist.
“Quite,” said the engineer. ”But there’s more. Together these inventions will herald the dawn of a new age of technological and productive growth that will come to be known as the industrial revolution!”
“Terrific,” said the artist. ”I knew you’d come through…”
“But you can’t have them,” said the engineer.
“You can’t have them. I refuse to give them to you. When you first had your idea, you needed me to help you spread it. When it came under attack, you needed me to defend it. And now, it turns out that the city limits of the problem your idea was supposed to solve never extended beyond the confines of that enormous brain of yours. You can’t even feed your own people. Well too bad. I’m taking my machine to the market and I’m going to sell it. And with that money I’ll build more machines and solve more problems. Eventually my efforts will bring about an information revolution that will advance the progress of mankind at such a rate you’ll barely have time to breathe a new idea, let alone start a war over one. Congratulations, you’ve just been made obsolete.”
“But but but…” sputtered the artist. ”This is absurd. Who will define the essence of your experience? Who will craft the narratives and frames of reference? You’ll be lost at sea, totally adrift from a sense of your own humanity. You’ll drown in the void. How will you be able to interpret the meaning of it all?”
“I don’t care about the meaning of it all,’ replied the engineer. ”I told you, I just like hacking around for the fun of it. And I’d like to be able to keep doing it without being bothered by the likes of you. So bugger off – I’ve work to do.”
Silicon Valley Versus Hollywood
Many of you are probably feeling incensed at the short shrift shown to the artist in this poorly written piece of Randian claptrap. Since when do the artists start revolutions and fight in wars? Actually, quite often. The Spanish Civil war, for instance, was so full of artists and writers it’s a wonder anyone ever managed to get shot. But besides that, just widen your notion of ‘artist’ to include religious leaders, economists, politicians, philosophers – you know… the, non-productive ideas folks that like to tell others how to behave on the basis of some “theory” or other. In any case, if you’re still chomping at the bit, don’t worry. The engineer will be given a thorough going over before we’re through.
For the purposes of this article, the role of the artist will be played by Hollywood, and the role of the engineer will be played by the hackers of Silicon Valley. In what follows I’ll use the terms ‘hacker’ and ‘engineer’ interchangeably (and sometimes ‘scientist’ and ‘nerd’ as well), though there will be some lengthy qualifications that we’ll explore shortly. The term ‘artist’ will continue to be used with the somewhat wide scope of meaning I applied above.
For those of you who have been paying attention to the discussion surrounding the release of The Social Network, you might equate the tone of the parable with what you’ve seen. In fact, the last line of the parable was inspired by a recent interview with Mark Zuckerberg discussing his view of the film. Take a look:
Zuckerberg says that Hollywood got it wrong in supposing that he was motivated to build Facebook because of his longing for a girl that dumps his fictional self at the start of the movie. His response, much like our Engineer (or rather our Engineer is much like Zuckerberg), is to the effect that hackers just like building things.
This reply drew a widely positive response on Hacker News. It was if to say that the hackers were willing to stand behind Zuckerberg in this characterisation of hacker culture – even if many of them would perhaps disagree with the direction Facebook is taking. But what I find even more interesting is that the top voted comment on that discussion reads as follows:
Zuckerberg is flat-out wrong in his assertion that Hollywood doesn’t understand people building something just because they like building things. I’m quite sure he’s right when it comes to some people in Hollywood, possibly even many of the most powerful people. But I’ll bet that what gets a great writer like Aaron Sorkin up in the morning is the same kind of creative impulse that drives hackers. Sorkin is a hacker – just in a different medium.
What’s fascinating in this comment is that it asserts a commonality between the two cultures – but does it by remaking the artist in the image of the hacker. Perhaps if this commenter had been writing the speech of the engineer near the end of the parable it would have gone something like : ’You know what, Mr Artist – you’re not so bad. Deep down you’re a tinkerer – like me. Let’s go get a beer.” But of course, that’s not how the parable ends. Not everyone in the community is so willing to look for commonality.
Even Sorkin himself told New York Magazine, “I am not a fan of the Internet.” As perhaps the smartest most awkward guy in the entire world, Mark Zuckerberg is the perfect scapegoat for the whole damn thing, being someone who stole Hollywood’s cultural influence and built a half a billion strong distribution network it could only dream of, delivering a brutal blow to its business model as a side note.
And with The Social Network, Hollywood now strikes back, by targeting its best and brightest talents (Fincher, Sorkin, Eisenberg, Jones, and a too brilliant to get into right now Justin Timberlake) towards the portrayal and evisceration of Mark Zuckerberg, nerd as villain. In an impressively meta sense, this movie recaptures the pop cultural buzz that has been co-opted by Facebook, at least for the moment.
It was this quote that set my imagination on fire. It made me wonder if it embodies a new consciousness arising among the engineering and hacker class; one that is coming to realise that it has not been the artists and the philosophers who have been driving the human race forward toward its destiny. Insofar as they have managed to inspire the hearts of man, it was only to offer distractions and wild flights of fancy. Rather, it has always been the engineer that has been at the heart of progress. And now, after long having been taken for granted, the engineering class is preparing to launch the human race into a new era of change and development. The rate of change in this revolution is to be so blindingly fast that the artistic class will be totally at a loss as to how to frame it. The forms of life that technology is now making possible will be so new and alien, the super-structrue of the technology itself so complex – that the stories being told by the artists will soon be seen as old and tattered relics of a bygone age.
Of course, the engineers have been driving innovation for a long time. But there does seem to be some truth to the idea that they passively provided (for some profit, of course) the tools that the artistic class then applied in the pursuit of their inspiration. What perhaps is changing is that with the dawning of this new consciousness, the engineer does not feel like they should hand over the products of their innovation to the artistic class to use in pursuit of their next big idea. Rather, they are possessed of their own vision now – one which makes a ideal of the innovative spirit that has always driven them, and rejects the process of idealisation that governs the artistic. Hence we have Sean Parker in the Fincher/Sorkin film telling Zuckerberg that “this is our time”.
This is the most interesting aspect of this consciousness. If I have understood it correctly, then I think it is best described in terms of the innocent motives attributed to the engineer in our parable. Unlike the artist, the engineer is not motivated by some kind of a priori, abstract palace constructed in the armchair. There is no egotistical drive to “define the age”. There is no Nietzschean “Will to Power”. At most there is just the hacker’s “Will to Tinker” and solve problems; a childlike sense of play and experimentation.
Of course, this is NOT an aspect of hacker culture that we see emphasised in the film. Zuckerberg and Parker are both depicted as being egotistical in the extreme. But hey – isn’t that the artist’s shtick? With our commenter from Hacker News thinking of artists as hackers in another medium, and our film makers imagining an over blown Will to Power in our hackers – we have this strange occurrence of each remaking the other in their own image – but without them ever really meeting in the middle.
It may well be my imagination running away with me – but I began to wonder if perhaps there was a great deal more at stake in this discussion over the Fincher/Sorkin film. It seems as though these two groups really should be friends – that there is something essential that they share (as our commenter on Hacker News pointed out), but that they are both fundamentally blocked in understanding the true nature of that commonality. So then, what could be the source of this schism that has come to the surface in the discussion of this film?
Historically speaking, there stands a great swathe of tradition which sees these two archtypes embodying competing methodologies. To this day the artistic voice is dominated by a romantic ideology which deifies contemplative, individual genius – the artist as mystical conduit to the visionary spring, the defender of the human spirit against the base materialism that ever creeps forward into our hearts. The hacker, on the other hand, is the true heir of Francis Bacon. Inspiration is eschewed. Iteration and experimentation is lauded. Expose your idea to world as quickly as you can and ensure you measure the results you receive. For the artist, procrastination is a virtue. The mind is set free from material tedium and enters the crucible of inspiration. For the hacker, procrastination is the killer vice. The hacker must produce. The hacker must ship, ship, SHIP!
Certainly, a lot of the tension we’re seeing is explained by this history. But these aspects have been around for centuries. I don’t think it can explain the kind of demonisation of hacker culture that we’re seeing in cultural artefacts like The Social Network. I think it’s got something to do with this aforementioned consciousness arising in the hacker class. It scares the artisticly minded – and we’re going to have to go much deeper into this issue to understand why.
The biggest problem in obtaining a deeper understanding turns out to be very much constitutive of the nature of the schism itself. One the on hand, the artistic class is mostly technically illiterate. They barely understand that one technical revolution has occurred before the next one is already upon them. When we interrogate them as to what exactly disturbs them about the sorts of things being developed by Zuckerberg and others, they refuse to speak a technical language that the hackers would understand and respect. Instead we get something of the ilk offered to us by Zadie Smith, quoting Jaron Lanier :
Lanier is interested in the ways in which people “reduce themselves” in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate. “Information systems,” he writes, “need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality” (my italics). In Lanier’s view, there is no perfect computer analogue for what we call a “person.”
But what does this really mean? What is this notion of reduction? Marxist concepts of alienation hardly seem to cut it any more. Why can’t people be represented by technology? The engineer is left scratching his head. In times past he would have gotten back in his box and let the artist have the argument. Part of the developing schism seems to come down to the fact that the engineer no longer seems so willing to remain as meek. The engineer is now demanding that the artist explain themselves in greater detail, and is demanding that they avail themselves of the technical resources developed in the last hundred years in this project. This is a request to which the artist refuses to comply, and instead falls back on their over-used romantic ideology, mumbling various neologisms about the ‘irreducibility’ of the human soul.
Where they do decide to wax lyrical to any length, what we are given are absolutely appalling metaphors that so misunderstand the nature of technology that one can merely face palm. The one offered by Lanier concerns the invention of a system to represent musical notes digitally called MIDI. He describes the way that midi leaves out many aspects and subtleties involved in musical expression:
That meant it could not describe the curvy, transient expressions a singer or a saxophone player can produce. It could only describe the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, nor the watercolor world of the violin…
And that’s the argument. Because it can’t do everything that’s been done in music, it is therefore constraining our experience of that medium, reducing it to what can be expressed in the ones and zeroes so much beloved by the engineering mind. But this is absurd! If MIDI is just viewed as one instrument among others, then… well… it’s just one instrument among others. I don’t expect my saxophone to sound like a violin. Why on earth does Lanier think that the products of technology should? Just because they suffer from various constraints in usage – how does this constrain the human animal in a way that is fundamentally different to the sense in which a saxophone or any other instrument does? If by accident of history, the saxophone was invented after digital music – would people be waxing lyrical about the encroaching danger of analogue music in reducing the human essence? I mean – try implementing a cool delay loop with a saxophone.
On top of this he complains that once a technology becomes ingrained it becomes to difficult and costly to change – so it locks us into the use of that technology. How does it do this? Well, to quote: ” it removes design options based on what is easiest to program, what is politically feasible, what is fashionable, or what is created by chance”. Again – how is this any different to any other technological period in human history? Mozart had to fight to be able to write operas in German – for instance. And, of course, the removal of any instance of lock-in takes the sensibilities and investment of the engineer. Think about the technical accomplishments that went into the invention of the piano. But the breakthrough was indeed achieved – as it has always been achieved throughout history. There is no reason on offer here to suppose that our current age is any different in this respect.
The great shame in all this is that the artist actually has a genuine contribution to make in this discussion. Smith’s expression of it is as good as any you’ll find:
We know the consequences of this instinctively; we feel them. We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing “in” the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us? Is it possible that what is communicated between people online “eventually becomes their truth”? What Lanier, a software expert, reveals to me, a software idiot, is what must be obvious (to software experts): software is not neutral. Different software embeds different philosophies, and these philosophies, as they become ubiquitous, become invisible. (link)
Smith’s exposition doesn’t go anywhere near far enough, but I agree completely with the conclusion on offer here. Ideology cannot be divorced from software. But why is this a problem? Ideology can’t be divorced from any human endeavour. Why should the fact that the creations of our engineering class should be so much more feared than any other ideological creation of the last two thousand years? What exactly are our instincts railing against?
Paul Graham and that Vision Thing
Those who have read Paul Graham’s essays will likely think I have things wrong thus far. After all, it’s hard to imagine a single person who in recent times has been more influential in, not just hacker culture, but also the way it is that hackers self identify. At the heart of Graham’s view, as he describes in Hackers and Painters, is the idea that the hacker is just an artist – much like a painter – but one who works in a different medium. And given that Graham is so influential, then one might think I’m completely off track characterising hacker culture as one side of a schism between hacker and artistic sensibilities. When linked back to Graham’s influence, the attitude of the aforementioned commenter on Hacker News, as well as the popularity of his comment, looks far less surprising.
Another mistake you might think I’ve made upon reading Graham’s essay is the way I’ve lumped hacker culture in with the engineering class. Graham takes pains to assert the distinction between the two, and the rest of his essay provides arguments for including hackers within the artistic set. So if this is correct, and again, if most hackers are following his lead, then this would be another reason for thinking I’ve gotten things wrong.
In response to this I think I should emphasise that I think Graham is an important bulwark of common sense against the sort of aggressive and reactionary responses from the technology elite of which Tsotis is an example. That our commenter was straight from the Graham’s mouth, is good evidence that for now this bulwark is holding. I should also emphasise that ultimately I’ll be arguing a position that I think he’ll ultimately be sympathetic toward. Hackers should be encouraged to develop their artistic sensibility. My larger point is that while hackers should approach their work with an artistic sensibility as Graham suggests, and while many of them might even recognise that they should, it’s a lack of a deep understanding of what this amounts to that is the source of the hacker’s contribution to the schism between the artists and the hackers.
What this leads to is this tendency that I’ve already mentioned which causes the hacker to remake the artist in their own image. I think Graham’s essay is also guilty of this. A proper treatment of why deserves a tome to itself but I’ll pick out some the more salient examples.
For instance, Graham makes too much of the distinction between engineers and hackers (I’m simplifying his discussion somewhat, but I don’t think it matters with respect to the broad point). A distinction between the two can perhaps be made, but it’s of a whole order of subtlety beyond what Graham appreciates. The former, he says, are doing something that is more akin to experimental science. Scientists discover things. They are all about the how it works, not the what should be built out of it. Similarly, he asserts the distinction between the engineer who is only interested in the how, and the architect who is in charge of the what. Hackers, he asserts, are firmly in the ‘what’ category, and so shouldn’t be considered along side the engineers.
I couldn’t disagree more with this sentiment. Scientists do make things. They make theories. And this is an act of creation as infused with artistic sensibility as any other. This is no airy fairy, science is a narrative hogwash. It’s just prima facie impossible to deny that theory construction is creative. The idea that scientists just blankly read off the facts of nature from some dull slate is just completely false. If there is a distinction to be based on this what/how division, then at best it is going to be a question of degree.
This misunderstanding, at least in Graham’s case, seems to come from a failure to understand just what role the concept of beauty plays in both scientific and artistic endeavours. One of his reasons for asserting that hackers should be lumped in the artistic category is because hackers like beauty in their code – just like artists! But this is another simplification. Artists and scientists are both more driven in their quest for the beautiful than the hacker, but they do so at the furthest extremes of a continuum where one pursuit morphs into its antithesis. Hackers, on the other hand, probably sit somewhere in the middle of this continuum. I’ll explain what I mean.
Scientists are more interested in beauty than hackers are. Why? Because in science, that quality is a solid indicator that your theory is correct. No one knows much about why this is the case – but it certainly is. A hacker, on the other hand, is perhaps more motivated by the task of making sure their code is just beautiful or dirty enough for the job at hand, and that, of course, is always relative to what it is their code is trying to accomplish. There may be some hackers locked away somewhere working on sublime crystal palaces of code that later generations of hackers will look upon with awe. But that’s hardly an accurate picture of the culture as a whole.
Similarly, the artist is also more driven by a love of the beautiful – but at this extreme the concept has become its opposite. One way to put the point is to say that for the scientist, beauty is an emergent property of truth. Another way to put it, is to say that the beauty of a theory, in the scientist’s view, supervenes on its truth. Perhaps more simply, beauty depends on the truth for its existence, and not vice versa. But with the artist this direction of dependence is reversed. If something is true, it is so because it’s beautiful. This is that romantic spirit I keep talking about. It is a defiant assertion of the priority of the human will, ego and genius against the base and material sentiment that the enlightenment bestowed upon modern society. It’s no accident that you get artists frequently equating beauty more specifically with concepts like – uselessness, tragedy, sublimity – all of which in some way imply the annihilation of the artist as they take their stand against reality. Hackers can not hold a candle to this sort of rationalised insanity (nor should they want to). They so often talk about how crazy they see themselves for risking so much on their start-ups. But that’s nothing. Hackers, at least, are still aiming to win and survive. Artists, almost by definition, are trying to fail.
(I should mention that my characterisation of each of these archtypes is still relatively simplistic. If you read the essays of some of the great romantic writers then you’ll see many important variations and subtleties of doctrine which makes an overarching characterisation impossible in the fullest sense. But you will certainly recognise the themes here that I’ve raised. Look upon my treatment as more of a signpost that you can use to orientate yourself in such readings, and look upon it as somewhat alternatively placed to Graham’s.)
Another thing which distinguishes the artistic from the scientific – at least insofar as we’re talking about the cultural arch-types that we have inherited – is the degree to which either is willing to give up their creations and walk away from them. Scientists, of course, frequently fail to live up to their ideal. But it is solidly there in their culture as an ideal. They set a high standard of precision as to what counts as falsifying data, and when that data is received, they walk away. The artistic sensibility, on the other hand, is much less willing to accept both the rigour and the willingness required to let go of their vision. Hence we get the cult of the genius which is to be found at the extreme end of the artistic sensibility. ”My work is not accepted because they don’t understand my genius,” so says the artist.
When we view the distinction between the engineering and artistic classes in this way, the hacker again seems to fall in the middle, if not slightly more on the engineering/scientific side. This is certainly the case in start up culture anyway. The hacker’s creation gets tested against the market – and the sooner the better. If it doesn’t take off, then the hacker is much more likely than the artist to say something like: ’I failed to solve a real problem,’ or ‘I didn’t fully understand my user’s needs.’ On the other hand, there is certainly the expectation that the hacker must be willing to grit it out even in the face of certain doom. They have to believe in their idea against all reasonable expectation – for if their idea was so much more obviously the right course of action, there would be many more competitors in their field. In this respect they are indeed much closer to the artist in spirit.
Again this is a case where Graham seems to remake the artist in the image of the hacker. He talks at length about art being a medium that, in a sense, must satisfy an audience. I totally agree that art should do this. But just about all of the artists and writers I’ve ever met tend instead to say that their initial motivation is to satisfy themselves. That is to say, at the outset of creation, they are their own audience. Having an audience outside one’s own self is almost considered secondary. I would completely agree if one was to accuse the artist of being disingenuous on the matter – but nevertheless, the point is that this is how they really see themselves. Perhaps the most extreme example of this tendency comes from the symbolist poets. For many of these poets, the whole point of the poetry was exclusionary. You either had the poetic sensibility, in which case you would see the greatness of their poesy. Or you didn’t, in which case you wouldn’t. If the latter, then there was nothing they believed could be done for you. You were of the common dross, and not worth the time of engagement.
Which brings us to the vision thing – that willingness to assert one’s ideal and vision against the dull tedium of material reality – that drive to remake the latter in the guise of the former. Perhaps the most striking thing about Graham’s essay is that as far as I can see, there is very little mention of it. It is the single most important aspect of commonality between the hacker and the artist. Engineers have it too, but it’s arguable that hackers have it more. If I was trying to run an argument that tries to assert the artistic nature of the hacker’s pursuits, then that’s the aspect I would try to emphasise. I think it’s clearly there in hacker culture – instinctively so. A perfect example is exactly the way in which the hacker tries to remake the concept of the artist in their own image which I mentioned before.
But the vision thing, it’s just not there in Graham’s essay. Well – to clarify – the whole essay itself is incredibly visionary. It’s just that the thesis behind the essay doesn’t seem to give vision a place in the hacker ideal. This is ironic precisely because of its visionary power.
Instead, Graham focuses much more on the similarities he sees in technique, method and situation – exactly as an engineer might. As such, in Graham’s characterisation, hackers and painters both like to sketch. They both produce work that often lacks commercial appeal. Both are learnt by doing and by following example.
Once again, I think these are all good observations of what good artists should do – but these are not identifications that the artist will always accept. For instance, Graham emphasises the hacker’s love of iteration and the immediacy of the feedback that becomes the chief motivation. Artists, on the other hand, will often emphasise their own internal powers and drives as well as their persistence in the absence of immediate stimulation. Wordsworth, for instance, writes:
The sum of what I have there said is, that the Poet is chiefly distinguished from other men by a greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement, and a greater power in expressing such thoughts and feelings as are produced in him in that manner.
I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind and in whatever degree, from various causes is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will upon the whole be in a state of enjoyment.
The difference between this and Graham couldn’t be more clear. Here, the inner driven power of artistic feeling reigns supreme – the playful, iterative process of hacking just doesn’t seem to fit in this picture at all.
Again, I interpret Graham’s analysis in this respect as a tendency to remake the artist in the image of the hacker. And to be very clear – because this point is of the utmost importance – this is actually to be too generous to the artist. The best qualities of the hacker: their willingness to be responsive to change, their willingness to iterate and their love of immediate feedback; these are all qualities which were never perfected (and often derided) by the artistic tradition, to its great detriment.
This somewhat rosy view of the artistic sensibility leads Graham to encourage his readers in a direction that does more harm than good. He encourages the Hacker to adopt that aspect of romantic artistry which is its chief vice – the relentless pursuit of beauty. Not only do I think that this is false in practice – since the hacker rarely is situated in a context where they can be that reckless; but it also detracts from the transformative power that hacking has (or can have), precisely because it tries to ground artistic vision in immediate reality. Graham, seduced by the foppish sensibilities of a now dead age, encourages hacking down the path which ultimately has led to the almost complete irrelevance of the artistic sensibility in contemporary society.
I don’t think this is at all his aim, mind you. Graham in many of his essays emphasises the importance of the usefulness of any endeavour. He tries to re-frame the entire concept of philosophy on the basis of trying to make it useful. I don’t think he intends to assert the primacy of beauty over any kind of useful practice as the artist would. But the way he discusses beauty with such sentences as:
Great software, likewise, requires a fanatical devotion to beauty.
…gives the wrong idea. The fanatical pursuit of an aim implies that one will not deviate irrespective of the cost. Yet beauty is frequently useless (and often defined entirely in terms of its uselessness). In fact, it can be useless at both the scientific and artistic ends of the continuum – and that’s because truth itself is often useless (often harmful as Nietzsche was fond of pointing out). One might even go further than this claim. One might say that truth and beauty are always useless. It takes a being with self-interest and will to take a brute fact of reality and discern within it some thread of their own purpose and desire. There is no such thing as ‘useful’ abstracted from human identity and human ideology.
What Graham should have chosen to borrow from the artists, is not this perverse love of beauty for the sake of it – rather he should have instead encouraged the artistic capacity for vision. In many of his other essays, and interviews, he actually gives this aspect greater emphasis – if not explicitly, then certainly implicitly. I see this particularly when he talks about being as hands off as possible with his YC projects, allowing his founders to pursue their vision, no matter how crazy they often sound.
As such, I don’t think Graham or most other Hackers would actually disagree that they have the visionary sense – it’s there to be seen in all their successes and their failures. It’s just that it doesn’t seem to be a clear explicit component of much of their conscious and explicit formulations. (Would love to be wrong on this matter though, please point me toward the examples I missed!)
Ironically – their willingness to remake the artist in their own image is precisely and expression of just this instinct. But it’s a fragile seedling and it’s in danger of being squashed. Compare Graham’s style of prose in his description of the artistic temperament to one final quote from Wordsworth:
What then does the Poet? He considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and re-acting upon each other, so as to produce an infinite complexity of pain and pleasure; he considers man in his own nature and in his ordinary life as contemplating this with a certain quantity of immediate knowledge, with certain convictions, intuitions, and deductions which by habit become of the nature of intuitions; he considers him as looking upon this complex scene of ideas and sensations, and finding every where objects that immediately excite in him sympathies which, from the necessities of his nature, are accompanied by an overbalance of enjoyment.
To this knowledge which all men carry about with them, and to these sympathies in which without any other discipline than that of our daily life we are fitted to take delight, the Poet principally directs his attention. He considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting qualities of nature. And thus the Poet, prompted by this feeling of pleasure which accompanies him through the whole course of his studies, converses with general nature with affections akin to those, which, through labour and length of time, the Man of Science has raised up in himself, by conversing with those particular parts of nature which are the objects of his studies.
What extraordinary vision! There is nothing like this in Graham’s exposition – no sense that this sort of grasping at the essence of the human condition is the noblest drive the artistic sentiment possesses. It was always in this aspect that art brought light to the world. And if they lacked an ability to resist the temptation of their own genius, then they made up for it through the will of successive generations to tear down and replace what had come before. In this way did they approach the love of iteration that the hacker has been able to internalise and make whole within the context of a single life time.
There is no reason why Wordsworth’s vision here could not be the driving force of some lonely hacker, pouring torrential code down upon his keyboard. After all, does not the hacker wish to insert himself into the ordinary lives of the citizenry and thereby provide excitement against and alleviation from the mundane? Isn’t it true that the hacker sees no opposition between the human species and nature? Do they not in fact seek to exploit the unity between the two in their essential task?
I should also emphasise that I don’t believe that artists entirely lacked the kinds of sensibilities that would be praised in today’s hacker. For instance, Wordsworth’s most important innovation as a poet was that he insisted that poetry should be the language of ordinary people. Hacking really is no different. Hacking at its best provides tools that ordinary people can use to improve their lives. A wonderful symbol of this similarity is the fact that much of the text from which these quotes are taken (the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads), is devoted to the task of explaining why Wordsworth’s poetry still sounds quite distinct from ordinary people, even though it aims at matching them. One might consider that the modern variant of this difficulty comes in trying to understand how it is that code – which in many ways is so alien to ordinary people – has nevertheless come to successfully model so much of what they do. A perfect example of just how wrong Lanier really is when he says that technological constraint in expression is a new phenomenon. Wordsworth was wrestling with just the same issue.
To continue this digression somewhat, this fact provides further insight into why it is that people like Lanier are so mistaken in claiming that technology, as it progresses, only serves to retard and constrain human experience. The hacker solution to the above problem, of course, is to provide a front end that is distinct from their back end. They provide something that is useable to ordinary people, and the latter never have to speak a word of code in order to interact with the creation. Wordsworth didn’t have this ability. The interface of his construction is at the level of the code/poetry itself. And so he was faced with the problem of trying resolve the tension between his intellectualised understanding of common people and the actual realities of their expression. He never really solved – and of course, that’s why the majority of people never read Wordsworth. This is not to say that the hacker’s solution to the problem is perfect. There may still be a question as to what extent code does constrain the possibilities of human experience. One might need an extended foray into Godel’s Incompleteness results to really get a handle on the question as it should be formulated today. But nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that Lanier is right to say that technological mediums today are more restrictive. This is false. They are clearly less restrictive – precisely because they provide multiple levels of interface to their products, something which previous mediums have lacked.
I’m going to finish up this section with what I take to be the most important point in my treatment of Graham. It’s absolutely crucial not to be derisive of his failures here. Really, to call them ‘failures’ is to obscure the enormous accomplishment of his thinking. His execution was flawed, but his instincts were spot on. He recognised a germ of commonality between artistic endeavour and hacking that, as far as I know, no one else even had the slightest inkling of at the time. That’s true innovation. What’s more, the artistic side hasn’t come close to recognising that commonality. Graham has propelled the hacker community far ahead of their artistic brethren. Let us look upon his mistakes with the same levity that the hacker brings to all instances of failure. His mistake was but the first iteration of what may well become a very important hack.
Besides, it’s understandable that he would make some mistakes. The idea was completely new. He was fusing two separate disciplines where he is perhaps really only an expert in one. My understanding is that Graham has spent quite some time studying the arts. Perhaps he only ever could approach it with his hacker bred vision in mind. He could have been as expert in the arts as the best alive or dead and yet still would have viewed art in the way that he does. Such is his actual strength of vision.
If I were to provide a summary of what I take to be the essence of my critique of Graham, then it would be that he wasn’t quite bold enough in his description of the hacker ideal. He wasn’t confident enough to realise that hackers in their methodologies (and not just their media) have made important advances over those offered by the artist. In this way he falsely remade the artist in the image of the hacker and gave them too much credit. He also wasn’t confident enough to reject the worst excesses of the artistic temperament by making a virtue of relentless beauty. It is as if he wasn’t himself sure enough of the greatness of his own vision.
It’s in this sense that I would be willing to accept a distinction between the engineer and the hacker. A bolder spirit would be willing to suggest (even if none of us yet are quite willing to believe) that the hacker ideal, as it is slowly coming to light, represents a new spiritual force that genuinely transcends the tired old dialectic between artist and scientist. If this is too bold a claim to even assert at this stage (let alone believe) then perhaps we might dare to claim that at the very least, that if the hacker ideal does not entirely supersede the old dialectic, then it has the potential to be a genuine third force that sits between the two. Again, at this stage, it must only be a suggestion – and a tenuous one at that. But maybe we can already see things clearly enough to be able to do this much at least.
So let it be a quiet whisper on the streets of Silicon Valley. Let it rest with impatience on the tongues of those hackers scattered in isolation across the world. Let us for at least one glorious moment of visionary imagination cradle in our hearts the excitement that such boldness allows.
But what of our artists? Is it this awakening consciousness that threatens them so? Or is the source of their fear more genuine? We still don’t have our answer.
The Artistic Fear
I’m personally willing to proceed under the assumption that hacking has in it the potential for a genuine revolution of human methodology. If this conscious should arise then the only appropriate label for it would be the term ‘hacking’ – which in its meaning would owe its etymology to the original use by Steven Levy to describe the first origins of this consciousness in the labs of MIT. Yet it would be a genuine evolution in this meaning as well, and would represent its extension beyond the description of a mere subculture to the application of a genuine movement that is on par with both artistic and scientific endeavour, yet distinct from them both.
So let’s explore the suggestion that it’s this growing consciousness in the hacker community that is causing the artistic class to be threatend. Certainly, as Tsotis points out, it has something to do with the way the hacker has managed to disrupt the viability of the old media in which the artist reigned. Many/most modern artists fail to see the need to upgrade their skills and apply their artistic sensibilities to the new media (and I don’t mean new media in the sense of the production of a video that appeals to a Youtube, as opposed to a television audience – I mean new media in the sense of the production of new forms of experience like Youtube itself). Certainly this failure would lead them to feel somewhat endangered.
But still – this does not explain the essence of their worries. The artistic sensibility has a genuine contribution to make to the nascent Hacker consciousness. The Fincher/Sorkin film is about as good a contribution that you’re ever going to see in popular culture. Nevertheless, it is ultimately a failure because of the misrepresentation of the hacker sensibility. As Zuckerberg points out, it fails to see one of the key defining aspects of this sensibility – that playful desire to build stuff. Nevertheless, the fear it expresses is borne of something genuine. What is disappointing is that because it does get that essential bit wrong, it fails to impress upon the hacker community the genuine wisdom it has to impart. Similarly, as we saw with Smith and Lanier, where they try to consciously tackle the issue, their technical understanding of the issues is so woeful that even the most sympathetic of us (in which I include myself) have to wonder what on Earth they mean. As a result, we get reactions like Tsotis’ and Zuckerberg’s which are completely walled off from a consideration of the merits of the artistic viewpoint.
What the film does contribute, and what the artistic sensibility is probably most concerned about in its core, is a fear that the hacker is driving us toward a situation in which we are rendered inhuman in some aspect. This aspect, as I will argue in great detail, involves the annihilation of intimacy as a core mode of life for human relationships. It’s THIS that scares the artistic sensibility so much. It is so great a fear that it causes them to project onto the hacker sensibility this inhumanity that they see the hackers leading us toward. Hence Zuckerberg and the other hackers in the film are rendered as being completely incapable of engaging in intimate relationships. The great shame of this whole mess is that while Sorkin and other people of an artistic sensibility are right to think that the hacker is leading us toward this kind of nightmare scenario, they are wrong to suppose that the hackers are doing it because they themselves are inhuman in this way. This is false. And because it’s false in this respect, it’s preventing the core of its truth to be rendered in a way that the hackers might ever be sympathetic toward.
So why is the hacker doing it? And why don’t they realise they are doing it? How is this to be explained? How might we ever convince them of it?
Consider again the relationship between the engineer and the artist as it was represented in the parable. What it tells us about the artist is that they love to create an idea – a vision of what the world is, and of what they are as participants within it. The criticism that is levelled at them is that they tend to get lost in their creations, and end up either living in a dream world at best, or at worst become consumed by the desire to force their ideas upon world which was not made for them. The parable suposes that the hacker is immune to this tendency. The hacker does not tell stories! The hacker does not invest in narratives! Hackers do not impose their visions upon the world. They are imbued with a love of play. And when their play is not idle, they take their creations to market and let the people decide if they are worthy or not.
What I’m going to argue is that ultimately, the reason why the hacker is leading us toward this dark reality is because this vision of the hacker ideal is itself a perverse abstraction, an ideal. To restore some kind of balance – somewhat ironically – the hacker needs to embrace the need to engage in visionary ideology. It’s ironic because it means embracing the idea of ideology in order to be less ideological. Or to put it in a less confusing way – ideals become perverse when abstracted from the contexts of reality that make them true and relevant. The hacker ideal is perverse in just this way and it’s because the hacker ideal – the concept of play – has been abstracted from the context which makes it true and relevant. This context includes ideology. And interestingly, both play and ideology find their union within the greater concept of human intimacy. And that’s exactly why the hacker is on a collision course to destroy intimacy.
I suspect it won’t be easy to convince the hacker community that any of this is true. I suspect this is because ideology seems to be so much the cause of human misery in this life. This may be part of the reason why the hacker has sought to drive it from their own self-identification, much like our engineer. But it’s at the core of the human experience and can’t be denied. Seeking to make a reality of this ideal just becomes its own abstraction as devoid of truth as the most perverse artistic sensibility.
It is imperative that we help shake our hackers out of this illusion. I don’t say this because I want to re-instate the artist at the top of the pile once more. I don’t think that is even possible any more. I say it because these two really should be friends – in fact ARE friends at their core – even if many in their respective ranks don’t realise it. But I also say it because with their new found power and sense of confidence, the hacker class is in danger of repeating all the mistakes that their artistic brethern made in bygone eras – but with an even greater potential for causing harm.
The Mystics and the Skeksis – Any Gelflings in the House?
But what really is the danger here? How could something so abstract concerning the nature of play and ideology come to have such profound consequences? Understanding this is not at all easy and takes some work. So we’ve got quite a way to go yet.
To ease us into this discussion, I’m going to make use of a somewhat fanciful (playful) metaphor. Although it doesn’t actually map that well onto our current reality, it nevertheless provides a few conceptual hooks that will be useful in getting the general ideas across. It involves that old Jim Henson movie called The Dark Crystal. The idea behind the plot is that for some reason a race of beings split into two different races – the evil, yet powerful Skeksis and the wise yet impotent Mystics. Two young Gelflings are charged with restoring the dark crystal before an event known as the conjunction. Success would mean the reunification of the Mystics and the Skeksis; failure would mean the Skeksis would achieve immortality and extend their cruel reign forever.
The danger we are facing is that instead of uniting the opposing tendencies of the Skeksis (serious/scientific/utilitarian) and those of the Mystics (the artistic/dreamer/idealogue) into a wondrous higher being that has the power to ascend to a higher plane of existence, we instead are on the cusp on enshrining the powers of the former for a very long time (if not forever as the Dark Crystal suggests). And what is the result of this outcome? The Skeksis, fearful of the prophecy that a Gelfling would restore the crystal, set about trying to kill all the Gelflings. They manage to almost completely succeed in this endeavour, save for the two Gelfling heroes of the film.
The Gelfing in this analogy, is the spirit of play so much beloved by hacker culture. That it is an endangered species is something I think many readers will intuitively acknowledge and despair upon. What you’re probably thinking is that I’m going to say that insofar as I’m mapping the Gelfling onto play, I am also mapping it onto the the hacker ideal itself.
But I’m not…
The concept of play, abstracted from it’s connection to artistic ideology is a perversion that needs to be corrected. In this respect, the hacker is currently very Skeksis like. They need to unify their ideal with the concept of ideology itself in order to prevent the genocide of play that they themselves are on the cusp of carrying out. This is no doubt where the hackers will most likely be shocked by my argument.
But how can this be? The hacker embodies the spririt of play as their chief ideal! How could they ever be led to its destruction? Again, it all comes back to the fact that they’ve made an ideal of play – they’ve made an ideal of an absence of ideology, where rather they should employ their sense of play in the creation of ideals. Pursuing the latter course amounts to restoring the crystal (bringing balance to the force – if you want to swap nerdisms), and saving us all from a rather drab and dreary world.
There is another way in which this metaphor fails to map directly onto current reality. If the hacker is the Skeksis in this tale, then it’s inadequate to the degree that it fails to explain how the Skeksis could fail to realise they were pursuing a misguided course. In actual fact, just about all the popular culture artefacts make this same mistake. Probably the worst in history was George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels where he tries to explore the idea of how it is the good becomes corrupted. Such attempts usually fail because they have to clearly demonstrate to the audience that the wrong choice has been made, and yet the audience has to be able to relate to the fallen hero. They never can, because to them the error is always so salient. In Lucas’ case, it really was just incompetence – I mean, how could Anakin rationalise murdering little baby jedi? It just doesn’t wash.
So the challenge I face here is to explain how it could be that the hacker could be so deceived and yet not realise it. It’s the chief reason why this article is so long. This isn’t easy to do. If it was easy, then it wouldn’t be such an incredulous claim. But there are already a couple of clues on the table. The first of these is simply that the mistake of idealising play is itself a subtle mistake. To really understand why you can’t make an ideal of play abstracted from ideology (and a few other components besides) takes some explaining, which I’ll make a start upon shortlye. The second clue is that the connection between this particular failing, and how it might actually lead to the genocide of play, is an enormous, cavernous stretch. To connect up one thread with the other requires that I situate the whole discussion in our immediate and concrete situation. I have to give an account of what play is and show how it is that hacker culture is in danger of destroying it. That will take some doing.
Alas, to make life even more difficult, the metaphor is inadequate in yet another respect! In the film it is the Skesis who fight their hardest to avoid their destruction in unification. The mystics seem to recognise the necessity of it and actively work to bring it about. Certainly I think it’s hard to say that the artists are more like the mystics than the Skesis in this respect. They are ruthless in their attacks against the hacker class. They refuse to acknowledge any germ of commonality between the two classes. Hackers continued to be denied entry to the canon of contemporary heroic mythology. They remain as nerds to the greater majority – and the Sorkin/Fincher movie is a great example of why this is the case.
Hackers on the other hand are much more Mystic in this aspect. The artists are clearly more incumbent (like the Skesis), the Hackers are the disrupters (like the Mystics). Think about the way the artists have latched onto their beloved mediums of expression as ends in themselves and seek to protect them in any way they can against the disruptive technologies introduced by the hackers. Hence we see more and more artists take refuge in the litigious arms of parent corporations who fight ruthlessly to stop the theft of their intellectual property. If it means protecting their precious mediums from extinction, they would rather hand over their sovereignty to the corporations and live off their stingy royalties as opposed to exploring the new possibilities for expression that these new technologies allow. Hacker’s, as we’ve already seen, are already much more open to the idea of developing their artistic sensibilities, even if their efforts in this respect are a bit underdeveloped.
Given that the metaphor I’m offering here seems to shift ground considerably away from any real comparison – you may be wondering why I’m using it. You might also be wondering why I think it would be useful in getting across the idea that the hackers are more in danger of wiping out the gelflings. The metaphor seems to do the exact opposite!
Well, one of the things which the analogy gets absolutely right is the tired impotence of the artistic class. At the turn of the twentieth century, after seeing the madness of two world wars conducted largely in the name of artistic ideology, it was very much as though the confidence of the artistic spirit exhausted itself in complete and utter defeat. It collapsed into the relativism and uncertainty of post-modernism and hasn’t ever really found another voice since then to rally around. This is true of all the social sciences today – which are infused with relativism through and through. Even those which still claim some degree of objective authority – like economics – are all in crisis. None of them have any authority whatsoever to direct the actions and intentions of our politicians. The political class is coming to look increasingly incompetent and juvenile precisely because it is no longer informed by a confident artistic class that can rally belief in the next great cause. Instead it relies on focus groups and sound bites. All words feel increasingly hollow. All direction forward feels increasingly like a regression bug in the software stack.
I think many of the artistic minded today would like to believe that this is simply a factor of time – they would like to believe that no great movements have arisen since the middle of the twentieth century because we aren’t far enough distant from them in time to recognise them as such. But it is a vain hope. How arrogantly did art declare the death of god, only to realise that art itself was to follow soon after? The artistic class really has no voice to offer any more against the ascendant engineer. So they amble slowly toward their destiny – signing up to Facebook like everyone else – trying to figure out new business models for their books – silently aware that it’s now largely out of their hands. We are much like the Mystics from the Dark Crystal movie – impotent and fading from existence.
Think about the differences of approach between the artist and the hacker in dealing with commercial realities. The hacker’s approach is not to meekly give in to corporate culture – but instead seek to disrupt and re-shape it. They contribute to open-source, free software because they know it only enhances their abilities to achieve this disruptive aim. As a result, they have become a genuine force against the corporate reality which is engulfing everything. The artistic class, however, continue to do little more than repeat their tired, romantic, anti-corporate mythologies from the pulpit of the corporate teat. The corporations are happy enough to dispense them a relatively modest existence for this service. They do this even though those artists continually propagandize against them, because they know there is a market for the message that the soul is irreducible – such as the artists produce – and know also that it distracts these ‘free’ thinkers from engaging in genuine resistance against the societal structures that determine human reality. They sweeten the deal with a lottery of fame which keeps the majority of them on the rat-like treadmill, completely neutered and impotent. And, as I’ve already mentioned, they end up siding with the corporations over copyright issues, which seems to me to be the furthest ironic consequence of their current ineffectual reality.
Perhaps I also make the identification of the artist with the mystic because I think there might be a wise old few (and I guess I like to think of myself this way) – who do see the necessity for change. This long essay is like one of those long, eerie yawp sounds that the Mystics repeatedly make throughout the film. You might recall that they actually use this sound to call the gelfling Jen and set him on the path to healing the crystal. I guess I hope that this yawp might have the same effect. Any gelflings out there reading?
The End of Intimacy
But I have still not given a proper justification of why it is that the artists have a genuine reason to be scared of the hackers. I have not yet explained why the metaphor is really apt. Why do I think the hacker in danger of destroying play?
The answer has to do with the concept of intimacy. Rather than destroying play directly, the hacker is in danger of destroying (or at least significantly attenuating) the possibility of genuine human intimacy. What I’ll argue is that as goes intimacy, so goes play – and if the former is in jeopardy, so is the latter . It is this concept which will provide us with the bridge we need to understand how it is that the hacker has come to threaten play. The concept of intimacy – which I’m only only introducing now – is actually the key to the whole damn thing.
The concept of intimacy provides this bridge in the following way. What I’ll show in the next part of this essay is that firstly, play really only makes sense as a concept insofar as it is seen as a component of the larger concept of intimacy. This makes it easier to see the mistake in idolising play as an abstraction apart from this context. Second, I’ll show how it is that the hacker is currently threatening the possibility of intimate behaviour. This claim itself is also one likely to illicit responses of incredulity. Yet, it’s actually going to be possible to give concrete demonstrations of why it is under threat. The analysis I provide will start fairly abstract, but will ultimately come down to the level of the very concrete. We’ll look at specific examples of how it that two people can be sitting across from one another and yet still be failing to achieve an intimate connection. We’ll look at the concrete mechanisms that serve to block this kind of connection. This is the point at which we’ll really get to see the contribution of the Fincher/Sorkin movie to this discussion – because I’ll be using detailed analyses of various scenes in order to help me make my case.
Once one begins to the see the sense and plausibility of this narrative, it becomes easy to see why we need to do all we can to heal this rift that seems to be forming between hacker and artistic sensibility. What they share is a love of childlike play and innovation (the child is an important symbol and myth of romantic ideology as well). But they are also both idealists and storytellers – though the hackers are less aware of it, and hence their efforts in this respect are mostly pretty poor. The artists on the other hand, know how to tell wonderful stories – they can build great crystal palaces in their minds. It’s just that they are really bad at checking these crystal palaces into the git-hub of reality. And of course, this is the respect in which the engineer excels. Since both of these aspects lacking on one side or the other – it becomes immediately apparent that great things could be achieved if they were to take the best aspects from one another.
To reverse this growing animosity I think we’ll need to learn to tell better stories about one another as well as learning the skills that the each side possesses. As hackers we need to follow Paul Graham’s lead, and reach out to the artistic sensibility. Yet we must not repeat his mistakes and make a virtue of those worst aspects of artistic life. Similarly, we must learn to embrace the transformative power of the ideological stance – to take a stand and have the courage to say: human existence is thus!
As artists, on the other hand, we need to bloody well roll up our sleeves and learn to code. We need to learn how to adapt our skills to the emerging media made possible by these technologies. At the very least we need to learn something of these technologies otherwise our counsel will never gain any respect.
The Art of Intimacy
What is intimacy? If it’s something that we’re in danger of losing, we had better make sure we understand exactly what it is, and why its loss will be so significant. I’m going to offer one definition that perhaps will not build in everything that we need in the concept (insofar as we are interested in capturing the full range of its usage), but will be enough for my aims here.
Intimacy is a relationship dynamic that makes possible certain kinds of human interaction that typically involve the following features:
- Play, simulation and role playing.
- Honesty and trust
- Critical engagement and serious discussion
- Fluid transitioning between the above four aspects.
- The minimisation of signalling.
- The maximisation of the exchange of full-blooded semantic information.
Most of these concepts will be reasonably familiar to anyone that has experienced true friendship in their day – even if you haven’t, you probably understand these ideas in the abstract. The last three will probably require a bit of exposition. But it’s worthwhile exploring how all these aspects frame the concept of intimacy.
The first four aspects are not achievable without all of them being simultaneously pursued in any relationship. Play and simulation require trust – the knowledge that you can take on another character, play the fool even, without being judged as that character. Improvisation is perhaps the most important component of play. It’s almost as if the latter is a kind of crucible, provided to us by evolution, wherein we deploy our improvisational abilities, and out of which comes new strategies of behaviour and thought. In the realm of critical engagement, the results of our experimentation and play are deployed in the real world through the analysis of our own behaviours and their consequences. It is through critique and seriousness that play morphs into its opposite – ideology.
Such exchange requires honesty and trust since any sort of critique can easily be interpreted as an attack upon one’s character and lead thereupon to a decline in the intimacy between those attempting the exchange. Nevertheless, this sort of critical exchange is crucial to our concept of intimacy because we intuitively think that genuine intimacy allows us to offer well meant criticism to our closest friends. If our relationships are such that we can’t ever express the critical aspects of our perceptions then, so we commonly think, true friendship and intimacy has not been achieved.
Ideology itself only really makes sense when viewed in this way. Someone only really ever asserts or defends their ‘ism’ because they want to improve the world and the other people they find within it. Ideology assumes an intimacy with the world, that you mean to genuinely improve it, and not just use your ideology as a mask of your own self-interest. Since ideologies are frequently pursued in contexts that completely lack intimacy, so too does the conversation become completely fractured, and no side ever seems to break through to the other. No one believes the other isn’t just acting in their own self interests because no one has established an intimate connection with anyone from the other side.
All four of these aspects feed upon one another. It’s hard to believe that you have someone’s trust if they’ve never challenged you on any issues. It’s hard to let go and have a good time with a person if you think they’re going to think you an idiot for having done so. It’s hard to engage in genuine and effective criticism unless you engaged with that person in amusing play since one needs the insights yielded through improvisation in order to cut through the habituations of their character and help them to see their own persona from above.
Probably one of the few remaining public examples of someone who continues to keep all four aspects of intimacy fused in his own persona and dealings with others is Jon Stewart. Think about the way that he has managed to establish real, serious dialogues with people from the opposing side of the political spectrum. Think about the way that play is so important to his technique. Trust is impossible without it and vice versa. Many people find it strange that a comedian could have come to have so much influence over political debate. But to me it is no surprise at all. What is strange is that this itself would be so alien to so many. What this demonstrates is that intimacy itself is something that is becoming alien to these people.
One thing we should note first before moving on to the final three aspects, is that while I think all of these four components depend on one another, still I believe there is a salient tension between the first and fourth. We engage in play given we trust that we won’t be judged negatively for so doing – yet genuine critique by necessity does involve negative evaluations (of course, not in its entirety, good critique emphasizes the positive as well). Frequently, in fact, intimacy seems to collapse in on itself because of this tension. You might feel less inclined to be light hearted because of a serious criticism delivered to you by a close friend on a previous occasion. Once you were rebuked when you weren’t being serious – so you thought the criticism unfair.
It’s actually in order to resolve this tension that two of the last three aspects are needed. Without them, intimacy does indeed collapse in on itself. Why is this? And what do these two aspects even mean?
A high degree of intimacy requires that the relationship dynamic can shift easily and fluidly between the first four aspects. The idea is that ultimately the movement between critique and serious engagement, honesty, play and improvisation, becomes so fluid as to become seamless. Ones critique of a friend becomes an exercise in good natured, friendly play and improvisation, delivered with honest integrity and intent. Ones desire for relaxation and enjoyment becomes an exercise in rigorous discipline. The deliberate engagement of carefree falsity in playful activity morphs seamlessly into the deployment of serious, truth seeking critique.
This seems paradoxical – and it is indeed difficult to wrap one’s mind around. But think of it like this – any genuine critique of self and other must involve some notion of the possibilities that constrain that individual. If a person is not achieving their full potential, then we remonstrate with them to change their demeanor. But how do we ever get any sense of these possibilities? Well one of the most effective ways is to engage in sanctioned play and falsity. We test our personalities against new possibilities afforded by this falsity and this provides the backdrop against which we measure the fundamental reality of our natures.
It is in this way that intimacy partly resolves the tension between serious critique and playful activities. It therefore allows for the deployment of our full creative faculties in our experiences of each other and of the world. This fact implies something very interesting about a society bereft of intimacy – all these aspects would be kept separate or non-existent in its citizenry and institutions. And of course, that’s just what defines modern society – but I’ll be returning to this point later on.
The Art of Signalling
The other aspect which helps resolve the tension is the minimisation of the signalling behaviour that occurs in all human relationships. What is signalling? It’s going to be such an important concept to understand, for the purpose of understanding how the hackers are coming to threaten intimacy, that it gets its own section.
The concept has been recently popularised by economist Robin Hanson from George Mason University, but I believe it has been around in the economics literature for a while. You can browse his blog posts on the issue here, and read a specific example here. The basic idea is that humans evolved a set of communicative mechanisms that allow them to quickly inform others about, or assess certain traits within other humans; traits such as fitness, suitability as a mate, similarity – etc. What we typically interpret as harmless water cooler chat turns out instead to be a complex process of signalling between humans as they try to establish with one another their place within the group. Hence the enthusiasm of the sports fan, for instance, is interpreted as a strategy to impress upon others that they belong to the tribe – that they’re one of the crew.
One of the strangest aspects of signalling is that the symbolic means employed is often completely arbitrary with respect to the information to be communicated. Hanson quotes the behaviour of someone’s twenty year old daughter in one blog post where she rejects a potential suitor on the basis of a single off-the-cuff comment made by the poor fellow. Hanson surmises that her real intent was to signal, not just to the boy but to the rest of her peer group, that her person was of a very high value. The arbitrariness of her signalling decision works on two levels – the first being in the selection of the particular comment by the boy as being offensive and worthy of full scale rejection, the second being in the implicit belief that this rejection in any way connotes the high value of her person. This is not to say that many people would not implicitly interpret these signals as intended – but the point being is that the signals themselves have a pretty tenuous relation to the supposed facts at issue. Driving a big red sports car doesn’t make you a better lay – but it’s not much of a stretch to think that this is what most guys would like others to think when they drive them.
It’s an aspect about signalling which I think makes it sound dubious as a theory to many. I do think the theory has a big explanatory burden that it has to meet. It has to explain why the vast majority of people are unaware of their signalling behaviour (even when it’s pointed out to them they typically remain unconvinced). And it also has to provide a better methodology for empirically determining just what various signalling behaviours really mean. These are issues that we can’t explore in any detail here – but they’re worth bearing in mind.
It’s arguable that signalling evolved as a strategy to deal with previously unencountered humans. When meeting another tribe on the plains, you needed a quick decision process to decide whether or not the foreign humans were to be trusted, feared, or deserving of your wrath. A failure to decide quickly meant that they might decide against you before you’ve even made up your mind – resulting in the loss of tactical advantage in a fight.
It’s an interesting question to what degree signalling was important within a tribe, i.e. between members. Certainly, tribal society was to some degree held together through constant reinforcement of membership through signalling. However, given that the threat of (life-threatening) attack within a tribe would have been significantly less probable, it seems reasonable to think that signalling would have become less important in such a context. There would be greater scope for tolerance of unusual behaviours.
This provides an easy segue back to the concept of intimacy. It seems reasonable to think that the possibility of intimacy – with its free-forming, improvisational and care-free nature – arose within the context of the trust generated by the tribal arrangement of human relations. The additional wealth generated from a tribal society relaxed the exigencies of life sufficiently for intimacy to arise. Evolution rewarded this development because it provided a safe environment in which to test and practice new forms of behaviour which could then be deployed in the real world. From this point of view, intimacy stands in opposition to signalling behaviour. Accepted signals are put – so to speak – out of play, while new behaviours are adopted and explored.
It’s important to note at this point that my understanding of signalling may well be in opposition to what I’ve seen in the economics literature (though I do not have an expert understanding of the field, so please correct me if I’m wrong). In literature I’ve seen, signalling as a process constitutes human relationships through and through (as well as other species as well). Intimacy is not something which really stands in opposition to the signalling process – it’s just one of the things that can be signalled. One might signal intimacy, for instance, by being critical of a friend, and one might signal a lack of intimacy by not being so critical.
I don’t think this is incorrect as such – critical dispositions can often (but not always) signal intimacy, since it seems immediately connected to the concept as I discussed above. Nevertheless I believe that intimacy is an evolved trait (which isn’t even unique to humans) wherein various accepted signalling strategies are abandoned. In the economics literature, to explain these sorts of behaviours, theorists have come up with the idea of counter-signalling. The aim of the counter-signal is to demonstrate confidence by not providing the usual signals in various situations. While counter-signalling is also something which I think is quite valid as an explanation in certain circumstances, I doubt very much it will be explanatory for all situations where signalling seems to be put out of play. What’s more, we do need some explanation of why we feel so averse to signalling as an overarching explanation of human behaviour. The possibility of intimacy as a genuine mode of relationship dynamics in humans gives us a start on this. At the very least it seems conceivable that signalling behaviour could be minimised or switched off, and that there would be measurable benefits in so doing (namely, the ability to experiment with new and untested behaviours).
The Art of Truth
Even if all of this seems convincing thus far, we still need a way of characterising human intimacy that clearly sets it apart from signalling behaviour. If we can’t do this, then the door is left open for someone to claim that in every human exchange there is a process of signalling going on. The way to do this, I believe, is to recall that feature of signalling behaviour – the often arbitrary relationship between the symbols used and the information conveyed in the use of those symbols.
Now, as a relationship between symbols defined in terms of syntax (the physical bits of matter used in representation), all representation is arbitrary in a sense. What forces us to use the word ‘dog’ to mean dog? Nothing really, besides historical accident. But signalling is more frequently a system of representation where, rather than just physical bits of matter get mapped to certain bits of information, different bits of information are mapped onto other bits of information. So, for instance, Robin Hanson believes the twenty year old girl was signalling the information concerning her high value with another bit of information about her rejection of the boy as a suitable mate. The signal is arbitrary because of the very tenuous relation between the two bits of information. We intuitively think that the rejection of a particlar mating prospect doesn’t by necessity mean that your value is really any higher than it would have been if said mate hadn’t been rejected.
My contention is that intimacy distinguishes itself from this sort of signalling behaviour by the degree to which it dispenses with arbitrary significations. Either it does so in the context of play where for the moment your actions are not given the usual signalling values – or it does this in the context of genuine critique where the aim is the revelation of the true relations and forces governing our own personalities and lives. In the latter case, exchanges of information are given greater value where they reveal the true relationships between distinct units of information. The purpose of such exchanges of information may be exactly the same as those that take place using signalling – the difference will be the higher standard of truth demanded in the former as opposed to the latter.
To use a concrete example borrowed from Robin Hanson’s discussion of health care. He argues that various puzzles about our attitudes concerning health care can be explained in terms of signalling – he writes:
I can explain these puzzles moderately well by assuming that humans evolved deep medical habits long ago in an environment where people gained higher status by having more allies, honestly cared about those who remained allies, were unsure who would remain allies, wanted to seem reliable allies, were unsure who would remain allies, wanted to seem reliable allies, inferred such reliability in part based on who helped who with health crises, tended to suffer more crises requiring non-health investments when having fewer allies, and invested more in cementing allies in good times in order to rely more on them in hard times.
These ancient habits would induce modern humans to treat medical care as a way to show that you care. Medical care provided by our allies would reassure us of their concern, and allies would want you and other allies to see that they had pay enough to distinguish themselves from posers who didn’t care as much as they. Private information about medical quality is mostly irrelevant to this signalling process.
The key idea is stated in the last sentence. The signalling process takes no heed of the actual facts concerning the value of health care. To “signal” that I care about you, I’ll shove that medicine down your throat irrespective of whether or not it genuinely conveys a benefit to you. Nor will I be particularly motivated to find out as much as I can about what those facts might be. The degree to which my relationship with you is genuinely intimate is the degree to which my allegiance to the facts about your health supersedes the immediate benefit your allegiance to me would provide. This doesn’t have to be interpreted as altruistic. I could deny you health care, despite your protests that you genuinely need it, and thereby suffer cost that you may think me cruel and unreliable – but if our relationship has developed a sufficient degree of intimacy, then it would be understood that although we disagree on the best way to go about things, still I have your genuine and factual interests at heart. As an evolutionary strategy the idea would be to gather about you a smaller number of highly reliable allies that don’t reject you even when there exists a great degree of conflict between you. What’s more, you have a set of people willing to expend the energy in correcting your behaviour when you have made a significant error in judgement. The cost of acquisition of each such ally is high, but the hope is that the trade-off is worth it.
Beyond this, the clear evolutionary benefit is that you hopefully develop a set of allies who are more capable of orientating you toward reality. Presumably those who can better discern what reality is like, have a better shot at successfully navigating reality.
The art of truth, as I’ve just described it, embodies the final characteristic of intimacy listed above. In intimate relationships, information exchange aims to be what I like to call: semantically full-blooded. It aims at truth, for the mutual benefit of the participants. In evolutionary terms you could say that the aim of intimacy is the achievement of this ideal. To put it another way, the aim of intimacy is precisely to motivate the production of ideology – which can then serve as a map about what course of action should be pursued.
The Paradox of Modern Intimacy
The paradox of modern intimacy goes like this: if the possibility of intimacy arose out of the tribal structures that allowed for greater wealth, trust and proximity between collections of people, then why is it that intimate behaviour is not the defining behaviour of the modern age? Our current wealth is unprecedented. Our ability to engage with people irrespective of distance is practically unlimited. It should be the case that intimate behaviours would thrive in such a context.
Yet at a first glance, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Signalling behaviour seems to be everywhere. The predominance of sports enthusiasm and water cooler conversation over an enthusiasm for knowledge and critical ability seems to be the norm – and this in a time of astonishing scientific achievement. How could this be the case? Given our great wealth shouldn’t we be seeing a trend away from signalling behaviour toward more costly, yet rewarding intimacy behaviours?
One explanation might be that I’m wrong in the contention that intimacy is a genuine feature of human interaction – that signalling is at the core of human inter-relations and always will be until we evolve. Another might just be that modern society in evolutionary terms has only been around for a blink of an eye and that it will take time for more intimate modes of behaviour to become ascendant (if our wealth lasts that long).
Of course, the observation that intimacy is on the decline might be false. It’s hard to get a clear picture of what is going on out there. Certainly there is a sense that the possibility for intimate relations is becoming ever slighter. The rise of social networking is commonly cited as the greatest evidence for this. But perhaps this is misleading. Perhaps social networking has only made the superficiality of human engagement more salient, that this in fact is the degree to which superficiality has always reigned. Furthermore, it might be that its current salience masks a gradual but significant trend toward more intimate relationships. Perhaps the types of people that do critique the levels of intimacy in modern society do so from the lofty perspective of an academically trained set of mores that demands a much higher standard of rigor than could reasonably be expected from the average person without the economic resources that enables the life of contemplation. Perhaps no one else is waxing lyrical about the decline of intimacy because they are too busy expending their surplus resources on actually establishing intimate relationships.
How might we make a determination either way? I don’t think there is any easy answer. However, to get a start on it, I think one needs to imagine what a modern society completely divorced of intimacy would look like. In such a society, the various behavioural aspects which characterise intimacy would either be isolated from one another – or non existent. This reality does indeed seem to be upon us. Notice how play is a completely separate activity from work for most people. Notice how the space for creativity and improvisation in the workplace is shrinking. Notice how relaxed and off-the-record exhange and role-play is becoming a more risky enterprise. All your emails, your musings on your blog – even your google searches. It can all be used against you – in a court of law – in the court of public opinion. We don’t trust our leaders, we don’t trust our scientists. Signalling trumps well thought out and heavily invested exchange every time.
With examples such as these it’s hard to believe that the intimacy isn’t in deep trouble. But this leaves us with the paradox. How could this be? Something has to explain why intimacy is fairing so poorly.
The Art of the In-authentic
To provide an explanation we’re going to need to explore another concept – authenticity. As the term is generally used, it implies sincerity. One is authentic when seems as one is. You are authentic when you don’t adopt signals that imply you to be something that you are not. With respect to the notion of intimacy, one is authentic when one actually is offering sincere intimacy. Naturally this leads to the distinction between those who actually tend toward intimate style behaviours, and those who merely signal that they are so inclined. By successful, I just mean they convinced others of their intimate proclivities with their signalling behaviour. People who signal intimacy and then don’t follow through are in-authentic. The seem to be offering intimacy, but it is all a ruse.
Once we begin to think about the notion of intimacy in terms of authenticity, the problems for intimate behaviours become increasingly salient. As I pointed out, getting across the information that you are genuinely capable of intimate interaction is costly – and it can’t be achieved quickly. It takes time to establish such trust. As such, there is no way to reliably and easily signal intimacy (to those who understand its nature) because intimacy in its very essence requires a high cost of investment to achieve. Signalling, on the other hand – is considerably cheaper. Just deploy your symbol and reap the rewards. Your greatest risk is that you might deploy the wrong symbol. But that’s rarely more costly than the act of establishing true intimate relationships. That’s problem number one. Intimacy is expensive – signalling is cheap. But this is not the biggest worry. It gets much, much worse.
The fact that there is no easy signalling process for intimacy doesn’t stop humans from trying to use it anyway. It’s natural to think that they would. Achieving that high level of trust is of immense value and benefit. If you can gain that trust on the cheap – if you can just insert a symbol that your target interprets as a signal of intimacy, then you gain a lot for little cost. Similarly, the lack of a real signal of intimacy doesn’t prevent the vast majority of people as identifying various signalling procedures with indications of genuine intimacy. Again, it’s straightforward to understand why – if a reliable symbol of intimacy in natural social interaction could be found, then great benefits could be had for little cost.
The problem for intimacy seekers is that such a reliable signal of intimacy will NEVER arise. And here’s why. As soon as some signalling procedure comes to be widely recognised as reliably indicative of intimacy, those that have no intention of following through on genuine intimate relationships will nevertheless adopt the usage of that signalling procedure to win alliances on the cheap. When they fail to follow through with the necessary expenditures that intimacy demands, the signalling procedure is tarnished and people stop believing in it.
If genuine intimacy can’t be signaled, then how do these supposed signals of intimacy come to be? They come to be as a result of a small minority of people doing the work to establish genuine relationships of intimacy within their community. While the ideal of intimacy involves a continual evolution of improvised play and circumspective critique, nevertheless such relationships develop aspects of routine which become noticeable to those watching from the outside. Those routines come to be identified as signals of the intimate relationships that have been achieved.
But the existence of the continual striving for authenticity creates an even greater problem for those trying to engage in intimate relationships. Once your routines are stolen and used as signals of intimacy, this fact comes to poison the trust you established with those closest to you. At the very least, it begins to work against it. For those very routines, once corrupted by the cheaters, become signals of a lack of intimacy and inauthenticity. The problem is that as much as I think that the quest for intimacy is a genuine, evolution sanctioned aspect of human interaction, the truth remains that we are also hardwired to pay attention to signals wherever they arise. It then becomes extremely difficult to avoid thinking that the relationship has itself grown stale and cliched. This fact serves to emphasise the fundamental importance of play and improvisation to the creation and maintenance of all intimate relationships. They require constant reinvention in order to stay ahead of the thieves who want their authenticity on the cheap.
The great thief of the modern age is the marketer. The marketer is always on the lookout for new signals of intimacy so so as to appear authentic to their chosen markets. If I had to pick a king of thieves for contemporary times, then it would have to be Steve Jobs of Apple. His 1984 Macintosh ad is one of the greatest acts of authentic thievery ever achieved. George Orwell is a name that is synonymous with the highest standards of truth and artistry. That his name would be co-opted as an authentic signal of Apple’s supposed intimate relationship with its customers is enormously ironic – not just because Apple has gone on to become identified with closed systems and unfreedom in the developing mobile space, but because 1984 is one of the most most important essays on intimacy, signalling and authenticity that we have. That such thievery is possible – if one of the purest expressions of truth that we have can be co-opted in an act of inauthentic signalling so easily – then it serves as a powerful demonstration of the enormous difficulties that intimate behaviour faces as an evolutionary strategy.
It also serves as a neat explanation of why it is that despite our current wealth and relative freedom from scarcity, intimate behavior is increasingly on the wane. It’s just too easy for thieves to steal the economic benefits generated through intimate relationships.
The End of Intimacy – Shills and Trend Setters
Imagine that your friend comes up to you and tells you that they found a great new restaurant that they think you should check out. This is a friend whose opinion you trust. You immediately decide to check out this new eatery on the basis of this recommendation.
Suppose, however, that you later discover that your friend was paid by this restaurant to make this recommendation. What would you now think about both the quality of that restaurant and the level of intimacy you believe you’ve achieved with your friend? Both, I think, would be seriously harmed. This would be true even if they disclosed their financial interest in recommending the restaurant to you. While they would be saved from being labelled explicitly dishonest, still you would suddenly wonder how it is someone you thought previously to be so deserving of your time and attention could allow themselves to become a shill for a profit seeking entity.
The revulsion we feel to this imagined event seems innate. There’s good reason why it might be hard wired into us. If a person is being paid for their recommendations, then there arises a possible conflict of interest between the incentives which encourage them to shill for the restaurant, and the incentives gained through the benefit of their intimate relationships. While those incentives might not actually conflict (the restaurant might be really good), we are rightly sceptical of anyone’s ability to choose correctly once those incentives fail to align with one another.
But now imagine not merely the horrible scenario where one of your good friends has fallen afoul of this temptation. Imagine that everyone you know has started doing it. This might sound so implausible and absurd to you, so it’s worth having a think about how this might happen.
It would start gradually. You notice that a few of your friends have joined a new social network. There is nothing immediately creepy about the service. It has a recommendation feature that your friends frequently use – but the advertisers don’t initially offer to share revenues. So the issue concerning possible conflicts of interest doesn’t arise. The service is popular and eventually gains critical mass. Soon it reaches a point where people can’t leave the social network, because every competing service feels like a ghost town (think Google Buzz). Advertisers pour in and for a while leverage great value off the service because everyone is recommending their products like crazy. But eventually it reaches saturation. Every person has recommended everything they are going to. Their feeds are saturated. The algorithms that are implemented by the network to help users filter out the noise are constantly deconstructed and gamed by the marketers – all of whom are competing to attract extra eyeballs to their product (think Google search and black hat SEO).
At this point the social network is concerned that the quality of its service is beginning to suffer. They decide to trial the introduction of a revenue sharing service. The hope is that it will incentivise advertisers to leave their algorithms alone and instead to direct their thieving behaviour toward the users themselves. The theory is that these marketing thieves will never go away. The entire structure of human interaction is defined by the incentives that makes authentic thievery so economically attractive. Constantly trying to stay ahead of them is akin to having to constantly redefine the structure of an intimate friendship. The marketers provide the revenue source for the network, yet simultaneously become its single biggest cost. For as we’ve seen, building intimacy with people is incredibly costly. But if the network can channel them away from trying to game their service to instead trying to game the relationships of the users themselves, then the network’s own intimate relationship with its users will be shielded. Of course, they’ll take a hit from implementing the service in the first place, but we’ve seen how minimal the damage these one off shocks turns out to be. Facebook has gotten away with implementing controversial privacy features because its users are locked in. Once the issue is out of the headlines it’s out of site – out of mind. What would be far more damaging for a social network is the daily frustration caused by spam, poor usability etc. If it’s something they have to worry about on a daily basis and if it’s in their face – then the user is going to be motivated to do something about it.
They might even give the service a cool name as part of a marketing strategy to re-orientate users in favour of the new revenue sharing service. The one that comes to my mind: Trend Setter (wouldn’t I make a good marketer?) The name acts a signal of those people in the community who, because of their authentic engagement with their immediate world, are aped and imitated by those around them. Such people are admired and sought after because of the value they provide. By becoming a TrendSetter, the user gets the benefit of being able to easily deploy a signal that immediately increases their perceived value to the less critically minded members of their peer group. This user is inducted into the heady world of authentic thievery, and it hardly feels as though any threshold has been crossed at all.
I actually first wrote about this sort of revenue sharing scenario over three years ago. Facebook had begun to achieve its exponential growth and only a few months before had been opened to the general public. Since then I’ve waxed and waned in my belief of the likelihood of this sort of scenario. What astonished me after Facebook mainstreamed and began rolling back privacy settings was the degree to which people were quite happy to give away their private data, as well as serve as the mouth pieces for the marketing thieves. This made me think that perhaps revenue sharing would likely never be needed. But just the other day I listened to an interview with Mark Zuckerberg which caused me to revisit the idea.
I came across the interview because of a story posted on Techcrunch about Google stealing Facebook contractors. I was blown away when I actually listened to it. In it Zuckerberg describes what he takes to be the end game of the social experience. He references an EventBrite study which attempts to quantify the economic value of a single sharing event in the social media space. This alerted me to the fact that marketers are now trying to scientifically de-construct the economic realities which drive sharing as well as measure the value it creates. Once the data starts coming in, the next step is obvious and Zuckerberg himself describes it in terms of imagining a web company like Amazon paying users for the value they create. He believes that this endpoint is still a ways off – and probably believes this because of the initial revulsion to the idea that users will feel. No doubt they’ll need to be led there gradually.
You can listen to the interview for yourself here. The discussion in question starts around the eighteen minute mark.
But perhaps you are still unconvinced by the likelihood of this scenario. No one is so stupid as to believe that just because the service is given a cool name, that this would actually have the effect of increasing their perceived value in the group. It seems stupid because the link between symbol used and what is being signalled is so completely arbitrary (and in fact – antithetical). But this just is in the nature of all signalling behaviour. It’s all arbitrary. But this doesn’t change the fact that we are guided by such signals on a daily basis. There’s no specific reason why the stupidness of this particular example would be any impediment to its adoption. If you’re still not convinced, however, I’ve written elsewhere about the specific dynamics of how such behaviour is to be explained without assuming the stupidness of the agents involved. You can read this article here.
Perhaps instead you think that no one would be so evil to implement this feature in their product. And here I face the explanatory burden I mention in the first part of this essay. We have to be able to explain our hackers in a way that doesn’t presume they are evil in their intent. In fact, I doubt very much they would consciously work through the above reasoning I just stated. What they would do instead is probably rationalise the decision with the following argument. Look, they would say to themselves. Our users are already doing this work recommending products to one another. In a sense, they do most important marketing work of any single element in society. Word of mouth recommendation is more valuable than any other marketing channel – and it has this value precisely because of the high cost of establishing intimate relationships. Since it’s our users who are absorbing this cost – why shouldn’t they be the ones that are remunerated for it? Why should all this money go to the marketers who are really just piggy backing and thieving the authentic value our users create? With our new Trend Setter service, the productive, value creating companies can directly leverage the value generated by consumers in the construction of intimate relationships.
Our social network operators will likely continue this argument to its logical, yet completely mind blowing conclusion. The final result of this enlistment of the user into the core of the marketing process is a final victory over the specialised thieving class – the marketers. For they are completely cut out of the loop (the social network becomes the singular middle man remaining). As a specialised class their existence was made possible by the distance (physical and informational) that exists between the productive sections of our society and those that consume this produce. With the technology employed by the Trend Setter service, the new efficiencies introduced would almost completely wipe out the need for the employment of marketers to act as middle-men midwives of consumer desire.
This scenario then, sounds like a win-win for both the producers and the users – the two components of society that actually generate real wealth. The only cost – if you even continue to perceive as such at this stage – is the possibly significant decline in overall level of intimacy between human beings across the face of the entire planet. But why is this even a cost at all – ask our social network operators. It eliminates a parasitic component of our society that has never produced any real value. And it allows people to directly exchange the value invested in their relationships for monetary wealth. It’s completely up to the individual whether or not they wish to protect their relationships. If they view them as sacred – then that’s their right. But they should be given the choice to be able to leverage these new efficiencies of exchange should they so desire.
And here our social network operators have a point which is incredibly difficult to counter successfully. The best hope for undermining it is in trying to show that the overall decline in the levels of intimacy produced by this scenario would lead to a net loss for society in some way. For instance, one might say that intimacy is one of the best institutions we have for helping people to ground themselves in reality. For intimacy is the sphere in which new and successful behaviours are tried. Intimacy is the sphere in which you can honestly critique your friend and point out their failings. If we lose that sphere – or if it even shrinks by a small degree – we lose the great crucible of creativity and innovation that has driven our species out from the primordial bog and granted us a hitherto never seen before control over nature and reality.
But the reply to this line of attack would be the following. Look, they’d say, we don’t need the vast majority of our population to be net creative. They need enough innovation and creativity to get by in their day to day lives, they need enough to be able to make new investments into intimate relationships. But it has now become inefficient to organise society in such a way that each individual stores the creative energy generated through intimate relationships – to then be used directly by those individuals in innovative efforts at the periphery of empirical experience. To reach that periphery now requires an extraordinary degree of specialisation and investment. Better that we find a way to allow individuals to exchange out this creative energy for material comforts – sending that value back up the pyramid to fund further investments in a specialised creative class that will be able to make genuine contributions.
In the end though, these people won’t likely be forced to find arguments like these to defend their position. They’ll deploy their service, and barring massive government intervention (and it would have to enormous), will be happy to watch it unfold; an entrepreneurial role of the dice that happily lets selective pressures determine the outcome. If the maintenance of high-cost intimate relationships really is a better survival strategy then it will win out over the strategies employed by the more superficial in our society who happily trade out their intimacy for a more relaxed and care free existence. It’s impossible to know how it will play out in advance. The chips will fall as they may.
I said earlier that our revulsion to the ideas underlying this thought experiment seem innate. By now many of you will be feeling positively terrified at what might be coming. This scenario sounds like the nightmare of nightmares. It’s everything our prophets (like Orwell) warned us about. But maybe that it seems so horrible is actually in itself a source of comfort. If we really are hard wired to seek and maintain intimacy then perhaps this scenario has no chance of really ever taking hold. Perhaps our innate revulsion would shut it down.
For me, the scariest thought is that perhaps intimacy never really was a reality. Perhaps we never evolved beyond signalling behaviour. Perhaps all of our most intimate relationships only ever were just these primitive acts of mutual exploitation. If this is true, then we only now just waking up to the most profound of horrors.
The Art of The Social Network
The central premise of The Social Network film is that the hackers, driven by their alienation and inability to establish intimate relationships, are busy remaking the world in their own image. The ironic knot at the heart of this narrative is the way that this project serves to undo the protagonists, as their own inability to engage in intimate behaviour comes to be deployed against them time and time again. They are depicted as blind to the fact that they are the architects of their own misery, as well as the inevitable misery of countless others.
I’ll argue in detail shortly that while this vision is itself incredibly artful and well executed, it is nevertheless likely incorrect. The hackers are not driven by this supposed sense of alienation. (Obviously I’m in no position to speak about particular individuals – but there are reasons to suppose that the characterisation considered as an archetype is inaccurate, which I’ll also explore below). Rather, as I’ve been arguing, the source of their mistake has been an idealisation of the concept of play as well as a poorly developed artistic sensibility. What we’ll see are the positive reasons for thinking that the social network has gotten this part of the story wrong.
But what the Social Network does an incredible job of doing is helping us to envisage concretely what a lack of intimacy in the wider world will likely mean. The best of art is that which can tie its visionary imagination with concrete reality. Drama has always been the highest of the artistic disciplines in this respect. The Social Network, while in error in its central premise, is nevertheless incredibly expert in its depiction of a reality devoid of intimacy.
Many of you will still be struggling with this. It’s easy to throw around the incendiary catchphrase – “The End of Intimacy”. But what does that mean? If the artist has a genuine contribution to make here, then they must provide us a way to envisage this in concrete reality. Part of their job is to render the form of all these abstract concepts in a plausible, believable representation of empirical reality. As I’ve just said – Sorkin/Fincher’s core vision here fails in this respect, but their peripheral vision of a world without intimacy is spot on. It has to be acknowledged the incredible skill of execution deployed by both Sorkin and Fincher – as well as the cast – is absolutely breathtaking.
As with all great drama, the fact of this achievement can be easily overlooked. The reality presented is so convincing and immersive that we slip into a state of acceptance before really developing an explicit awareness of the exact nature of that reality. The provision of such an explicit understanding is just the reason why In Depth exists. We now get to the fun bit where we get to deploy all the conceptual machinery hitherto introduced in the analysis of this film.
Most of our time will be spent in the analysis of the film’s first scene. It is the best scene of the entire film and that’s saying something for a film of such quality. Everything that it needs to say about the concept of intimacy is captured therein. It’s like a microcosmic rendition of everything that follows thereafter. My original motivation in writing this post was just the analysis of this one scene. A proper treatment required ever more conceptual machinery – that I eventually noticed the larger themes in play and was forced to expand the scope and intention of this article to what you see now.
In fact, an analysis of this scene will reveal an aspect of intimacy that we haven’t yet uncovered. While intimacy itself is characterised by the minimisation of signalling behaviour, nevertheless achieving intimacy with another person often requires that you first pass various signalling tests. Remember, it’s when you first meet someone that signalling behaviour is most important. People use signalling to decide very quickly whether or not you are worth the expenditure of more time. So if you can’t signal correctly, then it’s going to be very hard to break through and establish close relationships with people. Signalling behaviour in general can never be eliminated because you need to start somewhere when engaging with another human being – and all you have in the first instant are the most superficial aspects of information.
The first scene is a brilliant rendition of this fact of life. What we see are two people, Zuckerberg and his girlfriend Erica, repeatedly failing to correctly signal to one another. While Erica is not entirely blameless for this, Zuckerberg is shown to be the worst offender by far. As the conversation progresses we see him become increasingly frustrated and ill at ease. A lifetime of previous failure in social interaction comes to bear. His awareness that he is failing both to read and send the correct signals forces him to have to constantly bring to the surface and question Erica’s intent.
It begins when Erica mentions that she likes guys who row crew. Zuckerberg takes this as a signal that she believes he’s inferior in some respect. While he doesn’t rise to this straight away, his resentment shapes the rest of the conversation to come. When she asks which final club is the easiest to get into, Zuckerberg takes this as a signal that she thinks he’s not good enough to get into one of the elite clubs. She denies that she was trying to signal in this way, and asserts her statement was innocent. Shortly thereafter Zuckerberg tells her that should he succeed in his desire to gain entry to a final club then he would be able to introduce her to wide range of people that she normally wouldn’t ever get to meet. She’s offended so deeply by this comment that it catalyses her decision to break up with him. Zuckerberg is baffled that his comment would be viewed in this way. He misses her initial sarcastic reply. He’s so lost as to what is really going on, what all the various signals mean, that he even has to ask her ‘is this real?’
The sad undertone to exposition is that really Zuckerberg is just trying to signal his value to her and failing miserably at it. Erica repeatedly indicates that she does not accept the various signals of value by which Zuckerberg is transfixed. What Erica seems to value is some kind of propensity for genuine intimacy, and by continuing to instead focus on the more superficial signals of value as represented by club membership, Zuckerberg only continues to signal his inability to provide that which Erica truly desires.
Compounding his failure is a streak of insincerity, borne of the resentment of past social failures and revealed by an act of signalling that is completely absurd. He implies that she doesn’t really need to study because she doesn’t go to Harvard. Notice how absurd and derogatory this claim really is. But that’s how signalling often works. Inferences are made about people based on pretty shallow observations. What we learn about Sorkin’s Zuckerberg at this point is that he really does think she’s inferior. And he feels justified in treating her this way because he feels she was signalling that he’s inferior because he doesn’t row crew. He can’t see the difference in significance between the two acts. Erica’s was offered in the spirit of play – something that intimacy allows. She even describes it as such – that she likes guys who row crew kind of like the way girls like cowboys. Framing it as roleplaying shows she’s trying to assume their intimacy, that he wouldn’t see such a statement as an attack.
As I said, Erica is not entirely devoid of blame for the failures in communication in this scene. That she has a propensity for insincerity herself is revealed multiple times throughout the dialogue. When she suggests that they should be friends, she quickly reveals the falsity of her intention, since she really has no desire to be friends with him. Yet the fact that she so quickly reveals herself demonstrates that her overall tendency toward honest communication. The scene concludes with one final offering of intimacy from Erica to Zuckerberg which is completely lost upon him. She says:
You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. But I want you to know from the bottom of my hearth that this won’t be true. It will be because you’re an asshole.
This is not an insult. It’s not uttered to make Zuckerberg feel bad. It is genuine, honest critique. It is how Erica really perceives him. The provision of this critique, as it is with all critiques offered to those you care about, comes at great personal cost because she risks the possibility that Zuckerberg is incapable of accepting this critique as something other than an attack. She takes this risk even though she knows that such a response is the most likely since she knows Zuckerberg to be incapable of intimate relationships. Of course, this is exactly how it all turns out. Zuckerberg does perceive her critique as a superficial attack – a signal that she wants to undermine him – as opposed to genuine critique aimed at helping him improve his conduct with others around him. As a result he can only respond in kind – he makes fun of her name, her bra size, and grossly generalises about all BU girls being “bitches”. She didn’t have to endure this cost. She could have tried to pursue the more superficial approach that at times she vacillates between.
This moment of genuine intimacy is only one of two to occur in the whole film. The second occurs at the end when the young lawyer echoes Erica’s criticism, but layers it with an added emphasis on Zuckerberg’s responsibility for his failures. He’s not an asshole, he’s just trying really hard to be one. Of course, if someone is an asshole, if they really are deserving of our contempt, then they HAVE to be someone that is responsible for their failures. They have to be trying to be obnoxious. Given this, the lawyer’s statement that he’s NOT an asshole becomes ironic in the extreme, and very difficult to understand. It’s like the statement serves as a tag end of belief in Zuckerberg’s humanity. Yes, he’s still a person in some sense, but we can no longer find any actual evidence in his actions for this belief.
The final conclusion of the film seems to be that ultimately the people around him are incapable of expressing in what sense they accept Zuckerberg’s humanity – if they do at all. Notice how many of these characters try to hang on to this belief – even one of the twins that end up suing him for stealing their idea. What the movie wants us to understand is what that could possibly be like. We are not asked to relate to Zuckerberg, but we are asked to envisage what it would be like if no single person on this planet was capable of acknowledging your person hood. In this way the movie attempts to make concrete in our minds a reality completely devoid of intimacy.
The Playful, Intimate Nerd
As I said, the movie fails in the conception of it’s core premise. The assumption is that because the hacker/nerd in his aspergic brilliance is incapable of engaging in successful signalling behaviour, they are therefore locked out of the society that intimacy allows. Further, this drives them to deconstruct the entire notion of intimacy and unleash their own horror over the entire world.
I don’t think it is very difficult to see why this image of the hacker is completely wrong. While it’s true that nerds (if I can use this pejorative term for a moment) are cursed with an inability to correctly signal to the wider range of people they’re likely to encounter, still this fact has only served to INCREASE their potential for engaging in intimate relationships, not decrease it. It just locks them out of achieving intimacy with the cool kids. That doesn’t mean that they don’t achieve intimacy at all. What’s more, it causes them to develop a sense of the intimate that goes far beyond what is likely experienced by most other people in society.
Some commentators are right on the cusp of realising this fact – yet don’t quite get there. Returning once more to the work of Robin Hanson. He asks the question why it is that nerds are so attracted to games. He writes:
This was my third year at GenCon, an annual convention where thousands play board games, role playing games, miniatures games, etc. Most attendees are, well, nerds. Mostly male too. Now perhaps nerds are more likely than others to attend a convention on a hobby they like. But nerds probably also just like games more than other folks. Why is that?
A game is a kind of story, and most games have some story element. Abstract games, not in some recognizable way like something real, are less popular. In general, stories let us signal our abilities to read social situations, and also the heroes we admire, villains we dislike, etc. Since nerds are, in essence, folks with low natural social skills (relative to their other skills), you might think nerds would favor movies & TV over games, as movies don’t require one to be as social. And among games you might think they’d prefer games with less social interaction. But you’d be wrong on both counts. Why?
He goes on to suggest three possible explanations. The first is to suppose that nerds want to show off their non-social skills, and so require social games so that there are others who can observe their impressive performance. The second explanation is that nerds are terrified of making social mistakes so enjoy the contexts that allow them to act outside the established rules of engagement. The third is that games allow for overt displays of strategic selfishness that normally would be frowned upon in ordinary contexts. It therefore allows them to signal a capacity for strategic behaviour in real social situations to let their peers know that they are not to be messed with.
As it is with just about all explanations provided by the concept of signalling I don’t think you can deny that all these sorts of strategies are in play to some degree in groups of people involved in games. But it misses the most fundamental motivation of them all. Games are extended exercises in play! And what is play? It’s one component of intimacy that on its own is impossible to achieve without that well established belief in the intimacy of the relationship. As such, these extended exercises in play that we see in nerd culture are possible precisely because of the high levels of trust they have established.
Hanson is right that they are initially attracted to these contexts because they see a relaxation of the usual rules to which they so often fail to adhere. But once they realise that they won’t automatically be chastised for their contributions, they realise an extraordinary freedom in expression and self discovery that people outside this context can scarcely imagine. The game that represents this motivating force more than any other is of course Dungeons and Dragons and other forms of Role Playing. Think about the social costs that these people endure in pursuit of what otherwise seems a completely wasteful endeavour. They are stigmatised and made outcast. And yet, nerds continue to proliferate. As an evolutionary strategy, this behaviour must have some kind of pay off – and it certainly does. They are able to establish contexts of intimacy that allow them to explore possibilities of behaviour that they otherwise could never attempt.
Out of contexts like these, genuine transformational innovations have been birthed. Not least of these is the concept of game dynamics itself which many entrepreneurs are now trying to refactor back into everyday life. It was the nerds who discovered that measurable and consistent rewards, as well as a context of consistent progression was a powerful motivating force in and of itself. Hence ‘game dynamics’ has become the latest buzzword of the tech elite. They haven’t yet even begun to realise the potential power of the concept.
Bear in mind also that many nerds will likely have malformations of their frontal lobes that makes concentration without consistent contexts of reward extremely difficult (autistic and ADD disorders sitting at different ends of this continuum). As society developed in a way such that reward incentives became increasingly abstracted from immediate endeavour, the nerds were forced to innovate or perish. So they created contexts in which they could pursue their experimental behaviours. It’s no accident then that nerds love to both game and code. Both involve contexts of immediate reward and feedback. It’s no accident that they were then able to re-apply these innovations back into the wider world through the mainstreaming of gaming that is being achieved by companies like Valve and Zygna. For a more cynical presentation of the same point see the Commonsense Oracle.
Is it then any wonder that the concept of play itself would emerge as the central ideal of hacker culture? Come on people – connect the dots! Given that play and games were so formative and integral to the ability of these people to find any sense of belonging within contemporary culture - is it any wonder that they would fail to see the danger in making play itself an ideal that is rendered in abstraction from the context which makes it possible? They have been so extensively marginalised by mainstream culture – they could do nothing else. They have no idea how to approach the concept of intimacy in any other way.
And so it becomes something perverse. That Farmville and other games of their ilk have turned millions of people into useless, alienated zombies is the perfect testament to this fact. The reward dynamic discovered in gaming and nerd culture is refined like white sugar into a form where the social possibilities exist as a pale shadow of what they once were. Play becomes a Skeksis like shadow of what it once was. This is a context where I would agree with Smith and Lanier that the technology has only served to provide a debilitatingly shallow experience – but not because it’s part of the essence of the technology itself – but because the imagination of the hackers has not been sufficient to allow them to generalise the wondrous freedom of their playful hearts to the broad mass of the demos. The abstraction of play becomes the heart of all darkness.
Once you begin to realise the truth of these observations, the general stigmatisation of nerd culture becomes very interesting indeed. Could it be that such stigmatisation is itself driven by a signalling instinct that is dominant in those who are bereft of these gaming tendencies? Could it be that a mind as keen as penetrating as Robin Hanson’s itself is similarly biased? Hanson is a man who has devoted himself to the study of bias and its elimination, yet he could only come up with explanations which on the face of it merely extend the stigmatisation. (In his defence, most of his explanations of varying human behaviours are similarly pessimistic).
Could it be that this continued demonisation and de-humanisation (which is exactly what The Social Network attempts to do to Zuckerberg), is a product of a mainstream culture which in fact is completely incapable of letting go of the fears of social rejection at its core. If they could instead see the potential for freedom that sits at the core of hacker sensibility – might this represent an increase in their own potential for intimate relationships? Could this failure on the part of mainstream culture, as well as those artists who have guided them – could this be one half of the story of why we face the grave threat to intimacy that we now do?
That our artists have so failed is inexcusable. Despite it’s incredible skill, and despite the fact there is much to be learnt through its careful study, The Social Network will ultimately go down in history as perhaps the greatest symbol of this failure. Yes, it makes a genuine contribution to the discourse. It alerts us to the danger that we now face. The danger is real. It helps us to visualise concretely the nature of this danger. But it misdiagnoses the source. What’s more, it completely fails to recognise the degree to which it is just extending reinforcing the cultural forces that right now are driving us toward this nightmare.
The World Without Intimacy
But we are not yet done. We still do not understand the full extent of the danger that we face. There is one final leap of imagination that goes beyond what the movie is capable of providing. The lack of intimacy described in the film is framed by the two singular acts of intimate critique provided by the two women. As such, the absence of intimacy it describes can only be observed from an outside perspective, one that still has access to the concept. In a world devoid of intimacy, access to this concept would be completely barred to us. This is difficult to imagine precisely because the concept of intimacy sits right at the core of our current conceptual scheme. What we must attempt to do is to actually break out of the conceptual scheme that has intimacy at its core. This is necessary if we are to make sense of it as a genuine possibility that we would like to avoid.
I believe that it is possible to achieve this perspective. It takes some subtlety of thought, but it is possible. The first thing to realise is that in a world without intimacy, we would most likely still use the word ‘intimacy’. It would have a different meaning to what we would currently ascribe to it, yet it would likely be used in most of the same contexts in which it is currently employed. Most people won’t be aware that it previously had a different meaning. Many people wouldn’t be capable of understanding the difference if it was explained to them. The universities of this age might have philology courses devoted to explicating the true nature of the difference. There might be new artistic movements that arise to try to reclaim the sense of what was lost – backward looking in a way similar to the Florentine Renaissance in their love of the ancient Greeks.
This description will still be difficult to imagine for most people. However, somewhat ironically, there are certain experiences of such intense personal trauma that they can serve to make the imaginative leap possible for some people. They are so awful that I really wouldn’t wish them upon anyone. Perhaps it is a common experience – I’m really not sure. I’m also unsure if it’s something that can be imagined by someone who hasn’t experienced it directly. Nevertheless, I will try to describe it in a way that is comprehensible irrespective of your own experience.
Try, if you are able, to recall a moment in your life where you had the realisation that someone you previously took to be a very close and intimate friend, has suddenly revealed themselves as false. It might be the smallest thing that provides this revelation. Yet what you realise is that all those playful put-downs weren’t the playful jibes you took them to be. They were instruments of control and fear, designed to undermine your sense of self worth and confidence. Those long conversations where you thought they had revealed their ultimate perspectives on the world were really just a shallow mirror of your own opinions, designed to ingratiate and establish a false sense of commonality. Behind everything was a purely self-serving agenda that became apparent as soon as you established yourself as an inconvenience in some significant respect (as all intimate relationships at some stage necessitate).
This sort of realisation goes well beyond the realisation that you have simply grown apart. In such a realisation you can still look back with fondness at the moments of genuine intimacy that the two of you shared. You can wonder about how it was that the connection was lost. You even might have enough belief to make the gambit that the re-acquisition of that intimacy would be worth the enormous amounts of energy it would undoubtedly cost. But this is not the sort of situation I’m trying to describe here. What you realise in this instance is that there never really was any connection. It was all an illusion – a lie.
If you have had an experience of this nature – I can only offer my sincerest sadness and empathy of what you went through. Yet, you have an advantage over those among us who have been spared. You have a much greater potential of making the kind of imaginative leap that we require. To see this, think about how you would have described the relationship just prior to your realisation – almost certainly, you wouldn’t have hesitated to describe it as a relationship of the deepest and most sincere intimacy. Really think about that. You would have made this claim right up until the final moment of realisation. There might have been a thousand doubts swirling in your mind – but that’s just the thing. These are put out of serious consideration right in the moment of affirmation of the intimacy you felt you shared with that person. You had to do this, because this act is precisely constitutive of intimacy. In your leap of faith, every joke at your expense becomes innocent play – every criticism is offered in your best interest.
The other key aspect to this experience is that you’ll be completely unable to understand why it was that you didn’t see the lack of genuine intimacy earlier. Once your perspective switches, you realise you’ve just woken up in a sudden nightmare of hostility. Everything you’ve built around you is completely antithetical and insensitive to your needs. What you can’t understand is how it is that you allowed this to happen. All the signs are now suddenly crystal clear. Yet not a moment before you were willing to grant them the benefit of the doubt.
This experience is very much like waking up from a nightmare. The terror can often be constitutive of the nightmare of the dream itself – yet your dream self can often fail to be aware of the horror it is enduring. The dream, for instance,might be a horrific murder committed right in front of you, yet you accept it with a calm and accepting disposition. When you wake, however, you are drenched in sweat and terrified by your memories of the dream. You wonder how you could have been so passive in the dream itself. You admonish yourself never to be so complacent ever again – even in moments of fantasy.
If you have experienced this, or even if you can simply imagine it – then you can imagine a world without intimacy. There is only one difference between this sort of experience and the world we are imagining. But now the leap is easy to make. Imagine now that you are back in your relationship with this person. The reality of this relationship contains all the subterranean threads of hostility and enmity as it ever did, but you are once again ignorant of this reality. Yet imagine you never wake up and realise it for the lie that it is. Imagine you remain trapped in that nightmare for the rest of your life. Imagine that everyone else around you is trapped in the same eternal horror – but you are totally without any ability to rescue them. You can’t even rescue yourself.
That’s a world without intimacy.
You’re going to have to learn to breathe this air. Even if its spread is ultimately arrested and driven back, we’ll be forced to inhale our fill of it before this current tendency has played itself out. Those of us who have nurtured a keen sense of the impending nightmare will suffer the most. We’ll understand what is being lost. We’ll see the rest of humanity slipping deeper and deeper into it. We’ll feel the impotence of knowing that there will be nothing we can do to wake them. We’ll huddle together around tiny little camp fires that speckle the endless night, praying that our own fragile flame isn’t snuffed into oblivion.
If you are still struggling to imagine this picture I’m painting, then there is yet one more experience that might help. I don’t think it is as effective as the first example – but it can do the job nonetheless.
In this case, imagine a circumstance where you had managed to establish genuinely intimate relationships with two separate people. You believe of these two people that they share your highest ideals. You know that while you might have the most profound of disagreements, still they have your best interests at heart. Yet, strangely these two friends refuse to acknowledge this commonality in one another. Worse, they reveal to you that they have no trust in one another at all. They openly declare their mutual enmity and you are left to wonder how two people so similar could so profoundly fail to miss such an obvious opportunity.
If you’ve had this sort of experience, you’ll quickly see the similarity to the previous example. It has the same character of total inexplicability. You can’t for the life of you understand how it is that you could establish such close relationships with both of them, yet they themselves can’t manage anything but hate for one another. No matter how hard you try to frame the actions of one to the other in the hope of dispelling their suspicion, you continue to fail time and time again. In time you come to realise that through trying to bring the two together, you are only succeeding in deepening the sense of friction.
If you can imagine a scenario such as this, then the leap of imagination to a world without intimacy is again straightforward. Once you see that a failure in intimacy can be so inexplicable, then you can accept the possibility that many of your own enmities and hatreds might have been similarly constituted. You can now accept the possibility that these were people with whom you actually might have shared the most profound of connections – but for whatever reason, you missed each other in the dark. Now all you need do is generalise. Imagine a world where everyone misses everyone else in just this sort of way. Once again we have a world without intimacy. It still seems inexplicable – you can’t provide an explanation for it. But it is only as inexplicable as that one failure of which you have concrete experience. And since you KNOW such events are possible, so too can you accept and imagine the possibility of a failure at the level of an entire society.
The Code is Mightier Than the Pen
Some of you might have already realised that this is exactly how I view the relationship between the artist and the hacker. Here are two groups that a person like me feels at their core have the greatest potential to share the most profound of intimate relationships. That there are so many forces arrayed to drive them apart into a state of conflict is one of those inexplicable contingencies of life that I can’t quite wrap my head around. If this conflict cannot be resolved, then I believe it will result in the greatest tragedy of the coming age. These two groups are the ones who have any chance of countering the ever encroaching, fascistic, corporate reality. Yet divided they will be powerless to provide this defence. The artists will continue to mouth their empty romantic propaganda from their corporate pulpit, while the hackers will be unwittingly implementing the technological and economic superstructure that will make intimacy extremely difficult to sustain.
The only way this nightmare can be avoided is if the hackers and the artists learn to engage in a genuine and sincere critique of one another. As I said before – the hackers need to learn to integrate their concept of play into a coherent ideology and vision of the world. Once they see the need for this, then nothing in the world will convince them to implement the horror we now face. It will seem antithetical to any genuine vision that they could wish for themselves and everyone else in the world. They will understand that they will be destroying that which they cherish most of all.
To convince the hackers that this change must occur, the artists are going to have to learn to give up their laziness and hatred of technical discourse. They have to give up their empty defence of dead media and realise that the code is truly mightier than the pen. It is determining our reality in a way that writing never came close to matching. The artists must accept that they need to learn to render their visions in this new medium or suffer a Mystic like fate of complete irrelevance.
This is a fundamental refactoring of the artistic conception (code pun intended – consider refactoring of code as the realisation of higher levels of abstraction). But the leap must be made. The full force of the artistic sensibility must be directed toward the potential offered by the coding medium. If we can become technically accomplished enough to even just hint at the wonders that could be created, we will gain the ear of the hacker class who will look upon us with new found respect. They might even allow themselves to once again be directed by the artistic class once more, as it was in former times when the power of our friendship was first exercised. They might be so inclined because the artist had shown willingness to speak a language that the hacker could understand.
Such intimacy can’t be achieved from the safety of our respective comfort zones. This means that particular individuals will have to endure real costs in the advancement of this cause. Such is the cost of intimacy! Each side will have to take the enormous risk in abandoning the tendency toward specialisation in their chosen field. Academics will have to give up their academic careers. Writers will have to stop whoring their scripts to hollywood agents, their books will have to lie unfinished somewhere on their laptops. You can’t succeed in those endeavours AND learn to code. Similarly for the hackers. That start up you had in mind that would have likely consumed the next several years of your life. You’re going to have to spend that time reading all that philosophy and literature you previously dismissed as too vague to be worthy of your time. Figure out how to write a game with a decent plot (Half Life 2 and Bioshock get their honourable exceptions). Your mathematical sensibilities will have to be put out of play for a time as you consider the possibilities of other forms of expression. Only then will you have a chance at reformulating these ideals in terms more acceptable to your keen sense of precision.
We’re going to have to accept the possibility of our extended poverty. We’re going to have to work part time shitty jobs. We’re going to have to eschew the frivolous expenditures that imply time spent in activities not aligned with the cause. A new discipline of focus is required – a new belief in the potential of our endeavour. Many of us are going to have to survive on the hope that one of us will succeed in a fusion of sensibility that creates something genuinely new and astounding. All new code must be open sourced and made available to the new generation. All financial success must be be reinvested and distributed among those still striving toward the unified perspective. The Y combinators of the world must come to represent a greater share of the capital available for the task. Only those who have the hacker sensibility can be allowed access to the capital made available by this new enlightenment. The pace of our innovation will have to be so great that the marketers, the corporates and all the other thieves will be left baffled as to how they might steal our routines and use them against us.
The whole fucking pot is up for grabs, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. So fuck it, I’m all in. I got Pyscipter open on my other monitor – and my first webapp is on the way. Time for my words to end. I’m going to code until my fingers bleed.
See you on the other side.