Heidegger in Silicon Valley: technology and the hacker way

Racing-with-machines‘Software is eating the world!’ US tech luminary Marc Andreessen declared in 2009, on the eve of launching his venture capital firm, Andreessen-Horowitz. This extraordinary claim has become the mantra of Silicon Valley startup entrepreneurs, codifying a new philosophy of tech entrepreneurialism and kickstarting a bold new era of ‘creative destruction’. Decoded it means: software engineers are world-builders – so look out! Bored with building apps, games, and websites, the latest generation of tech entrepreneurs are creating social operating systems for the societies and economies of the future. Take the sharing economy startup Airbnb, for example (recipent of $112 million in funding from Andreessen-Horowitz in 2011). Andreessen claims:

Airbnb  makes its money in real estate. But … Airbnb … has much more in common with Facebook or Google or Microsoft or Oracle than with any real estate company. … Airbnb is building a software technology that is equivalent in complexity, power, and importance to an operating system. It’s just that it’s applied to a section of the economy.

An operating system is low-level software that runs on a computer and directs its operations. Andressen’s application of this idea to a company like Airbnb speaks volumes about the ambition of the new startup entrepreneurs and their world-building philosophy. Just like a computer operating system organises the hardware resources of the computer unit, producing a functional machine, the new social operating systems refigure the ‘hardware’ of human reality, connecting people and things in new and productive ways. Airbnb puts people with spare rooms to rent in touch with travellers seeking short-term accommodation. Uber and Lyft put passengers looking for a ride in touch with drivers looking for a fare. TaskRabbit links people to a universe of micro-entrepreneurs who are ready to run their errands, clean their houses, and mow their lawns for a fee. Reconfiguring the relationships between consumers, service-providers, and citizens, these new social operating systems are swallowing whole marketplaces at a time, eating up business that was previously enjoyed by recruiters, cab companies, hotel chains and estate agencies.

This is creative destruction on a grand scale. The social and economic strata constructed over decades is being rapidly redesigned by plucky young geeks in the shadow of the Google campus.

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Hooked on a feeling: how a chance encounter can change your life

I met a man named AJ Emmanuel as I was walking down the main street of my town. AJ was enlisting supporters for the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. He spotted me coming from a distance and lured me in with a parody of my loping stride. By the time we met, I was laughing and he was laughing too.

‘You are wasting your time with me!’ I told him. I explained how my partner and I give a set amount of money each month to a rolling roster of aid organizations. The UNHCR was somewhere on the list. ‘A good conversation is never a waste of time’, AJ replied. It was a sunny day and I was out for a walk – why not take the opportunity to chat?

I liked AJ immediately. He was confident and upbeat. There was mischief in his eyes, but seriousness, too – a tone of gravity underlying everything that he said. I sensed that I was in the presence of a kindred spirit – a street philosopher, of sorts – a man who had seen suffering enough to know that life has no guarantees, yet who is wise enough to appreciate that the only appropriate response is to celebrate each moment.

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Live from the heart: cultivate your powers and unleash your whole person

leonardo-vitruvian-man-bLeonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the quintessential ‘Renaissance man’. His life is a testament to human creativity. Over six decades of creative action, Leonardo showcased gifts as a painter, sculptor, scientist, anatomist, architect, engineer, inventor, botanist, and musician. His contributions are remarkable for their consistent brilliance. Leonardo’s paintings, including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, are touchstones for the history of Western art. In his sketchbooks and journals, Leonardo developed a new visual language for representing bodies and surfaces, which fed into his painting and gave his figures an unprecedented realism. Leonardo’s studies of the natural world made a decisive contribution to the embryonic sciences of anatomy, hydrodynamics and physics. His architectural and engineering designs included bridges, irrigation projects, villas and cathedrals. His notebooks brim over with fantastic inventions, including diving equipment, armoured cars, flying machines, musical instruments and more.

As a cultural figure, Leonardo da Vinci sets a high bar for the rest of us. Few of us could hope to match his success in such a diversity of pursuits. Mostly when we dabble in fields beyond our professional training, we wind up conceding that, while we may be happy apprentices, we will never be grand masters. Yet, we shouldn’t be discouraged by this. While you and I may never enjoy the accomplishments of Leonardo da Vinci, we can nurture and explore a plethora of talents and abilities, just as he did. Leonardo gives us an ideal to aspire to, even if we can’t match his achievements. He is someone who cultivated his full potential to think, feel, do and be.

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Meaning is use: Wittgenstein on the limits of language

LudwigWittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein made a major contribution to conversations on language, logic and metaphysics, but also ethics, the way that we should live in the world. Wittgenstein published only one book in his life, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1921). The Philosophical Investigations (1953), for which he is most well known, is a posthumous document comprised of notes taken by students in his classes.

Wittgenstein was a difficult character. Those who knew him assumed he was either a madman or a genius. He was known for working himself up into fits of frustration, pacing about the room decrying his own stupidity, and lambasting philosophers for their habit of tying themselves in semantic knots. In his favour, Wittgenstein was not afraid to admit his own mistakes. He once said: ‘If people never did anything stupid, nothing intelligent would ever get done’. He also said: ‘I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves’. Students approached his classes at Cambridge University with due trepidation, never sure if they were about to witness a brilliant act of logical deconstruction or the implosion of a tortured mind.

Sometimes a crisis can be productive. Wittgenstein, who was constantly in the grip of some kind of intellectual cataclysm, tended to advance his thinking by debunking what he had previous thought to be true. The best example is his celebrated about turn on the nature of language. In the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein argued for a representational theory of language. He described this as a ‘picture theory’ of language: reality (‘the world’) is a vast collection of facts that we can picture in language, assuming that our language has an adequate logical form. ‘The world is the totality of facts, not of things’, Wittgenstein claimed, and these facts are structured in a logical way. The goal of philosophy, for early Wittgenstein, was to pare language back to its logical form, the better to picture the logical form of the world.

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Cynic simplicity: the courage to think

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Twenty years had taken their toll. I hadn’t seen Andy since our high school reunion. At first, I barely recognised him. There was more of him than I remembered. His face was broad, carved with crevasses of flesh. The hams and T-bar shoulders that had made him a star on the rugby field now hefted an imposing gut. His hand absorbed mine, pumping fiercely. He seemed to have swelled in size, as if his whole body were inflated with air.

If the suit didn’t give it away, you could tell from his manner that he’d done well for himself. Andy had done a bit of everything. Five years’ work in the WA mines had set him up to make some smart investments. Andy was a ‘self-made’ man, with a dozen businesses behind him and two failed marriages along the way. These days he worked as a consultant to the coal industry (‘Carbon budget, my ass’, he said. ‘The stuff’s in the ground, it’s coming out’). He liked how the Asians partied with a bottle of whiskey on the table. We bonded over shots at the bar, but the more we talked, the more the years yawned like a chasm between us.

He laughed when I told him that I was a philosopher. ‘So am I’, he said. ‘I’m a professional cynic’.

Cynicism used to be a dirty word. When Andy and I were kids, we wouldn’t have thought of affirming it. To be cynical means to be distrusting of people’s motives and dismissive of their good intentions. Only a fool would want to try to change the world. Cynics are convinced that everyone operates out of self-interest. Given this state of affairs, the only smart response is to take care of number one. In business life, cynics are distinguished by a ‘me first’ mentality. They don’t care much where they make their money. If the money’s easy, it’s good. Often, you’ll find them working for pariah industries like coal and tobacco. They are working for a broken system, and they know its going nowhere, but they’re riding the gravy train to the end.

I am troubled by the easy affirmation of cynicism in contemporary life. To my mind, the fact that successful people like Andy know that things are getting worse; also that aspects of their existence are helping things to get worse; yet think the matter is out of their hands, that it is beyond their power to do or change anything, so they may as well be cynical – this amazes and upsets me. ‘Pretty stupid not to be cynical, these days’, Andy laughed when I pressed him on the issue. ‘Take it from me, mate, it’s a pack of dogs out there’. He squared his shoulders and knocked my glass with his drink. ‘Chi-ching’. Same old Andy. Yet something had changed – I could see it in his eyes. It was a flicker of fear. Our conversation was taking him places that he rarely went. Difficult places. His cynical philosophy gave him license to live the way he wanted. But did it allow for journeys of the mind? Did the old school battler have the courage to think? [Read more...]

Promises to myself: ten philosophical resolutions

Dandelion Clock

Don’t you love the feeling when you realise that your work for the year is done and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t kick up your heels and relax? I woke up with that feeling this morning. I’m off to Vietnam at the end of the week and I can feel myself being drawn towards the plane.

Bon voyage, friends and fellow philosophers, wherever you may venture this holiday season! I’ll see you again in 2014 with more adventures of the cerebral kind.

I’ll leave you with a list of philosophical resolutions for 2014. I’ve lifted them from some of my favourite posts on this blog. I’ll be taking them with me on holiday. Promises to keep.

1. I will say ‘yes’ to life.

‘To complete Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses, the lion must become a child. ‎Maturity, for Nietzsche, means rediscovering the seriousness one had as a child at play.

A child-like spirit is vital to happiness, health, and well-being. “The child”, Nietzsche says, “is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a Sacred Yes”. The lion becomes a child when the individual who says “I will” ceases to affirm their values contrary to the law of “Thou Shalt”, and affirms them instead “for the sport of creation: the spirit now wills its own will, … its own world”. Life is no longer a reactive struggle to defeat other forces. Life is a celebration of one’s powers – a sustained act of pure affirmation. The child-like spirit knows the joy of life and the innocence of perpetual creation’.

From Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses (February 2010)

2. I will grow collective.

‘Love is a disruptive event that opens people to a new terrain of possibilities and a common vision of what they might be together. I find this aspect of Badiou’s argument tremendously interesting. When people find love, they realise life offers them more together than it does alone. They realise that they can do more together, and thereby discover a tremendous responsibility and risk. Can they be worthy of this common possibility? What level of dedication and trust is required to realise it? Love, Badiou claims, requires that we reinvent ourselves – together. It is a project of co-construction – the kind of event that we need to constantly work at in order to sustain’.

From Life changing love: Badiou and the birth of possibility (January 2013) [Read more...]

Be with me: Heidegger in the age of the smartphone

It is early morning. A chorus of birds filters through an open window. A young woman lies in bed with her boyfriend. It is a quotidian scene, almost perfect, yet something is off. The boyfriend is checking his smartphone, a web-enabled device. In this moment, his attention is elsewhere. Cut to the outdoors: the couple are getting ready to go jogging. The boyfriend is still caught up with his phone. She waits while he chatters to a friend. Cut to the woman lunching with friends of her own. There is real social chemistry here, a buzz of laughter and conversation. But the others soon start thumbing through screens, engaging with their phones. The young woman has forgotten hers. Her expression, as she looks about the table, is worried as much as reproachful.

Where are you, my friends? Why can’t we just be together?

‘I Forgot My Phone’ is a gem – a softly ironic and resonant statement about life in the smartphone era. It is not a polemic. It features people who are clearly enjoying the connectivity and functionality that their phones provide. The genius of the film is to let us see the world through the eyes of a character who lacks a phone, and is looking for human connection. In this way, it focuses our attention on what happens when we introduce smartphones into social situations.

The protagonist in ‘I Forgot My Phone’ wanders through a set of strangely ‘deworlded’ social events. People co-occupy physical space – sharing a bed, sitting about a table, congregating in a hall – yet their attention is directed away from the people around them to a greater or lesser extent. They exist alongside one another, as opposed to ‘with’ one another, in a psychological and existential sense. Everyone is enjoying private experiences mediated by their smartphones that never add up to something unified and common. A couple enjoy a private event on a public beach; a group of friends at a bowling alley sit hypnotised by their glowing screens; people at a concert engage the show through their video apps, as if they were elsewhere, watching the action unfold. The atmosphere is dead. The experience is so individuated, you could scarcely call it a crowd. [Read more...]

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