Boats against the Current
Life takes you in surprising directions if you let it. A few summers ago I was living my dream working in tech, but by fall I had started along a new path. In a turn of events that surprised me as much as anyone, I decided 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.
As summer neared its end we all made the trip to New York City to show off what we’d built. But by then it was clear that I didn’t know how to lead. I’d let the technical abstractions, rather than user needs, dictate product design. And I let my certainty turn me into a tyrant. I didn’t care what my teammates or our users said, because I was right.
It took some time, but ultimately I turned this into a learning experience. As I began to make sense of it all, I didn’t stop at the personal level of discouragement—rather, I extended my lesson to the whole of software. I no longer wanted to succeed in the world of software, because doing so meant arrogating to oneself the power to define the environment in which others operate. This didn’t seem right—at twenty-one or at any age.
Disillusioned of the whole technological enterprise, I turned to history. I wanted to understand this underbelly of technology I’d caught a glimpse of, but that wasn’t my only motivation. I hoped that I might be able to find a new sort of dream in the process.
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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. Broadly, these changes flatten the world—good news for equality, but bad news for dreams.
“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. Now there’s nowhere to strive for—no frontier left open nor rock left unturned. 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.
The problem is, we’ve accepted a reduced humanity as the cost of freedom. Although the circumstances of this problem might be new, I don’t think the solution needs to be. The path forward requires that the specific again outshine the generalization. We need to undermine abstractions, problematize technologies, contextualize judgments, and equivocate on goals. Our humanity is reclaimed by subverting the paradigm.
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So begins the search for a worthy 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. So much that we might aspire to has now been rendered completely mundane. With an eye on our history, we can retrieve romanticism from the past—only then can we begin to dream again. “So we beat on,” as Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway concludes, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”4