Here’s to the crazy ones
It’s too bad Apple’s iconic ad didn’t feature one of the prominent postmodern philosophers—maybe Michel Foucault (pictured above), or Jacques Derrida. They’re the crazy ones, the misfits, and the rebels and their intellectual project has a lot in common with Steve Jobs’s campaign. Their approach to social critique led from the same basic worldview that Jobs elaborates in a later interview:
When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.1
French philosophers and American technologists agreed on one important point: “All that is solid melts into air.”2 What you call life was socially constructed and there’s no fixed center from which to assess it because the world is in flux. Perhaps this seems obvious, but there is an alternative. Faced with a changing world, one could instead respond with a nostalgia for origins, natural innocence, or lost purity.3 There could, in other words, be some greater ideal worth clinging to.
The meme in Silicon Valley is that all these technology companies are “making the world a better place”. Steve Jobs may have sown the seeds of this mentality with the Think Different campaign, but there’s an important difference. “Here’s to the crazy ones” is not about social good, it’s about rewriting our social reality. The ad links rebels, artists, and computers with a vague sense of changing the world. It’s necessarily the social world being described—this is changing the world in the Bob Dylan sense, not the global warming sense. Additionally, this is change for its own sake: the ad calls for change, but there are no ideals nor higher values attached to it.
This is why technological disruption and social critique need each other. Social critique takes on the status quo, but by itself would erode the social order completely. Technology disrupts legacy institutions, but by itself has no telos. Social critique gives technology license to tear down and technological disruption gives critique the tools it needs to rebuild. Although neither puts forward a constructive vision of the future, they are enough to engender a new sort of common ground. The very mechanisms of change can be more lasting forms of social reality, because they do not require that things stand still.
Hopefully, this synthesis will let us relate at a higher level, removing the walls that have delimited our social reality as we begin to see each other as co-creators of a still-unfolding world. Unfortunately, our need for reinvention may continue well into stagnancy, ultimately short-circuiting as we are pulled away from reality and into successive fantasy worlds of our own design.
Whether what comes next is freeplay or meltdown (or both), we’ll have to wait and see.