Boats against the Current
It can be hard to discern causality in one’s own life, but I think it’s fair to say a certain LSD trip is why I chose to study history.
It was the summer following sophomore year. I was twenty-one and working on a small software development team, leading the design of a higher-dimensional spreadsheet. We made plans to end the summer with a tour of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Standard & Poor’s. By then we would have a product ready to demo.
At the start of the summer we laid out our goals. In a team meeting before our first presentation of these goals to other groups within the company, I played “High for This” by The Weeknd. The following month or so was full of professional optimism, a fair amount of weed, and a steady soundtrack of similar songs. July 4th was the day of my acid trip. I took a larger dose than ever before and this time, unlike times before, I had a question on my mind during the come up.
I’d been thinking a lot about software design and what makes one design better than another. At the same time, I’d been thinking a lot about abstraction—the shape of abstraction, and how different core building blocks will engender totally different spaces of possibility. Now, as acid worked its way into my brain, I wondered whether any of this stuff was really any good. I had brought my iPad with me and pulled it out to take a look. I unlocked it and for a while looked intently at the launch screen. Then I asked myself whether it even made sense to expect that software could be truly good.
The hours that followed are a blur. I was bombarded with intense visuals and overwhelming emotions as my mind took me for a ride through memories, thought experiments, and waking dreams. Within a few months I was totally disillusioned of technology, computer science, and the dreams of my youth. After that, it took me some time to regain my footing.
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Growing up, technology was my ticket out of the suburbs of Ohio. The Internet opened the world to me, allowing me to learn anything and connecting me with worlds I would’ve never known otherwise. The Internet connects all of us like never before, but it brings with it changes in how we relate to one another.
“I do not have free will,” the philosopher Vilem Flusser writes, “I am a functionary of programs that are alien to me; I am an instrument.”1 At every point in history there have been unfortunate individuals whose humanity was reduced to their function. Such people were, and are, instrumentalized by someone or some regime more powerful than they are. But now instrumentalization cuts both ways. Mediation of life to the degree that the Internet has made possible flips the equation, so that each of us is now master and servant, consumer and producer, celebrity and audience. Of course, freedom is expanded when relations between people are not poisoned by subjugation of one under the other. But this is too often made possible by forms of mediation that infringe upon our freedom in less obvious but nonetheless sinister ways.
Reductive systems generally and new media specifically can have unexpected consequences. When you judge your peers by how many followers they have, you end up measuring yourself by the same standard. The same systems that make the world legible too often erode our appreciation of life’s richness. Like the anthropologist James C. Scott said of state schematics, such systems threaten to bring about “an impoverished and unsustainable social system.”2
You might look to celebrities and online personalities and be struck by the distance that separates you from them. You may think you want what they have. But perceived differences in the paradigm of modern media and Internet platforms obscure the commonality. All are made smaller by the force of abstraction—including you, those you admire, those you pity, and those you don’t think about at all.
You might nevertheless hold onto the illusion that those at the top have a meaningfully different experience from yours, but they don’t. We all have the same mundane view from the top.
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It was the allure of a dream that pulled me into the world of software. I imagined leaving behind my suburban upbringing and entering into the real world in all its glamor. It’s a funny accident that my escape from a cloistered, phony world was inseparable from the intricacies of technology. I then found myself planning a second escape in short order, ultimately breaking from the ersatz world of software only to find that the entire outside world had succumbed to it. The world which I sought no longer exists. And far-flung ideas about where you’ll go and what you’ll achieve no longer inspire. Fantasy doesn’t work when you can see and discover more than you can imagine. Everything is right here.
So long as you’re comparing your life to hypotheticals, you can do so only by reducing your current situation to a concept. When you do so, you begin to deal in abstractions, figuratively uploading your reality into the virtual and then juxtaposing it alongside the rest of cyberspace. To dream in an online age, an age in which the digital expanse has subsumed and outstripped imagination, is to alienate oneself from reality.
In his later years, F. Scott Fitzgerald began to sour on the American Dream. “Her dominant idea and goal,” he wrote of America, “is freedom without responsibility, which is like gold without metal, spring without winter, youth without age, one of those maddening, coocoo mirages of wild riches.”3 America has since made this mirage manifest. Like the fantasyland of Las Vegas, Internet platforms give us the illusion of total freedom as they ensnare us.
In this predicament, having accepted a reduced humanity as the cost of freedom in a mediated world, postmodernism points the way forward. We need to borrow its strategies. We must undermine abstractions, problematize technologies, contextualize science, and equivocate on goals. Broadly, in so many areas, the specific must again outshine the generalization. Humanity is reclaimed by subverting the paradigm.
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So begins the search for a post-modern dream. It cannot be dependent on a noble and definite goal—we have outgrown such things. It must instead be a view from the bottom, a situated view that again imbues the details of life with value and meaning. History has ended and, with the help of modern technologies, so much that we might aspire to has been rendered completely mundane. Before we can dream again, we must reclaim romanticism from the junk heap of history. “So we beat on,” as Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway concludes, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”4