Robert Harrison under a hail of cyber-bullets: “Children of Silicon Valley” revisited

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Ready, aim …

Robert Pogue Harrison‘s “Children of Silicon Valley” is still making waves, as I rather suspected it would when I wrote about his New York Review of Books piece in “Robert Pogue Harrison socks it to Silicon Valley” over here. But now his Silicon Valley critique has leapt across the Atlantic, and is stirring things up in Germany, where it was published in translation by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (here) and in Italy’s Corriere della Sera (alas, no link, just paper). The two newspapers are sometimes called the New York Times of their respective nations.

So what did people have to say? Not much at NYRB, to my surprise; the responses were verbose and not particularly insightful. On the whole, the techie world seemed to come up with the most informed responses, even when one mischaracterized Robert this way: “Those people are really angry, they are frustrated and angry and pissed off that nobody told them that when the nerds reshaped the tools of the world into something they liked better, there [sic] choice to ignore nerds would leave them badly under equipped to live in that world.” Don’t worry, Chuck McM, whoever you are, Robert has just returned from an extended trip to Italy, has a new book coming out soon, and is doing just fine!

Another reply over at Hacker News from dkarapetyan: “Silicon Valley is no longer changing anything. I don’t know if this was ever the case but the reason I started learning about computers and the theory of computation in general was because I saw it as a way of empowering people and giving them a means of achieving their own goals. This is no longer the case. I see very few companies that are using technology with that intention or building something with that goal in mind. All I see are ways of tricking people into clicking on ads or tricking them into doing free work by giving them tokens, e.g. Yelp. This isn’t to say that technologists are entirely to blame but they played a large role in disempowering an entire generation by giving them gimped tools that were meant more for control than empowerment. Why the hell do I need to know what ‘rooting’ a device means if I want to fully utilize all its capabilities. What is the point of locking down a general purpose computing machine if not for control.”

boring

Are we becoming … boring?

Countering one reader’s claim that “Universal mobile connectivity is huge. Instant access to the world’s information is huge. Instant access to each other is huge,” dkarapetyan wrote again: “Instant access to each other we’ve basically had since email and text messaging and that hasn’t changed. What has changed is business capitalizing on those connections to make money, i.e. Zuckerberg repackaging the internet as Facebook. I don’t really know why you say geolocation is huge. I like my GPS but I can get around just fine without it. It might be huge in terms of government’s ability to spy on me though. Maybe I’m a little too cynical but none of what you brought up changes the fact that all the tools and services we make available to people are more a means of oppression and control than they are as a lever that they can use to move the world. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, etc. are all toys for teenagers. Google and other mega corps are information silos with secretive operations and basically black boxes that print money.”

“Technology should be used to distribute power and wealth but instead it is used more and more every day to concentrate it in fewer and fewer hands. Financial sector you mentioned being an excellent example of such use.”

Over at Union Square Ventures, Nick Grossman considered Robert’s remark, “Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption…” He wrote: “That one makes me think. On the one hand, it’s true – disruptive innovation is about abandoning the idea of fixing/maintenance in favor of building new. On the other hand, the ‘architecture of the internet’ is extraordinarily maintenance-friendly – layering and open protocols make it possible to swap out/fix/improve the components of the network like never before.” He doesn’t get it. He is thinking of software, not civilization, and thinking in terms of months and not years, let alone decades and centuries.

Is it a good witch, or a bad witch?

Is it a good witch, or a bad witch?

Robert had written, “Becoming a boring human being is the fate of most people who keep the tech economy’s lights burning deep into the night. These industries may be among the most vibrant and dynamic in the world, yet those inside the hive are among the most tedious people in the room, endlessly plugging into their prosthetic devices.” The responses from people who countered that they knew “lively,” “articulate,” “interesting” computer folks with “hobbies” are disquieting. I was struck by the lack of metaphysical aspiration.

Many no longer seem to know what a profound person looks and sounds like. I’ve been honored to know a handful, but from the responses I’ve read, I get the feeling that most people haven’t met any. By which I mean the people who have changed the course of my life, not merely entertained me. I hesitate to elaborate, because I feel like I’m speaking in an ancient tongue, as if I were typing these thoughts out in WordStar 3.0 and not in WordPress, or responding to a TV gameshow in archaic Greek. How to define? (“Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,/The light less public and the meaning of life/Something more than a mad camp…”) Let’s start with a quality of being, not merely a lists of accomplishments or degrees, and consider wisdom rather than knowledge. Then add a varied mixture of suffering, conscience, self-knowledge, choices and the enduring payment for those choices, all fermented over time, time, time. But that’s only the starter kit. It gets deeper. You won’t find anything like it in the internet chatter.

SiliconValley

Belly of the Beast.

 


5 Responses to “Robert Harrison under a hail of cyber-bullets: “Children of Silicon Valley” revisited”

  1. Stephen Says:

    That final paragraph is very helpful: it reminds me of Keats’ “foster-child of silence and slow time.” I think that your description of authentic wisdom is completely accurate; nevertheless, I am aware of your insight only because I read about it on the Internet.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Love the Keats passage, Stephen. Thanks. And yes, I’m aware of the contradictions. I’m pretty much on my own computer 24/7.

  3. George Says:

    Let me recommend to you, as an example of what a programmer is capable of, Richard Gabriel’s Patterns of Software, freely downloadable at his web site: http://www.dreamsongs.com/Files/PatternsOfSoftware.pdf . You should read at least the chapter ” Personal Narrative: Journey to Stanford”. I don’t know whether it is profound: it is reflective, thoughtful, and to my civilian eye well written.

    “Life changing” and “profound” are sets that overlap, but neither comprehends the other. I suppose that I have met a few persons you would admit as profound. But the man who hired me for my first tech job was in no way profound, yet he certainly changed the course of my life.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Point taken. And, to take the point to the absurd, I suppose one could characterize one’s murderer as “life-changing,” while not being at all profound.

    We learn by imitation and example; this is why I have a lot of reservations about MOOCs and other forms of online and mail-order learning. The deepest form of education comes from hanging with a truly educated person – and, ideally, not just a clever one, but one who has formed his life around his understanding. Look for my post on Richard Macksey, for example – he’s someone who has shaped generations of students at Johns Hopkins. Or my posts on the late Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank or Milton scholar Martin Evans, both of Stanford. I could go on of course. I was fortunate to study with Joseph Brodsky at the University of Michigan – and I had at least a few interviews with Czeslaw Milosz at Berkeley before he left for Poland in 2000.

    I don’t want to focus on the word “profound” too much. It depends on how you calibrate the scale, and opinions will differ. Nevertheless, there’s a surprising amount of convergence, too.

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