Heidegger in Silicon Valley: technology and the hacker way

Racing-with-machines‘Software is eating the world!’ US tech investor Marc Andreessen claimed in 2011, on the eve of launching his venture capital firm, Andreessen-Horowitz. This extraordinary claim has become the mantra of Silicon Valley 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. Reconfiguring the relationships between goods, consumers, and service-providers, 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 agents.

Take the sharing economy startup Airbnb, for instance (recipient 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 as a computer operating system organises the hardware resources of the computer unit, creating a functional machine, 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.

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.

[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…]

Lines of flight: Deleuze and nomadic creativity

prisoner (1)‘I am not a number – I am a free man!’ Patrick McGoohan cries in the 60s cult-TV series, The Prisoner. McGoohan plays a British spy who is held captive in a village on an island controlled by a faceless authority. The prisoner, known only as Number 6, has resigned from the secret service. It seems to be his crime. In the opening sequence, we see him burst into his spy chief’s office and passionately submit his resignation; he is subsequently drugged, kidnapped, and whisked off to the island. We never find out why he quit. 

The authorities on the island are as perplexed we we are. The prisoner is told that he will remain interned on the island until he has explained himself. But the prisoner refuses to do so. Instead, he seeks to escape. Insistently. The prisoner’s whole tenure on the island (the entirety of two seasons of the show) consists of attempts to escape and flee to the mainland.

Captured by the eerie bouncing balls that guard the island, the prisoner is hauled before Number 2 and issued a sardonic dressing down. ‘In a society, one must learn to conform’, Number 2 tells him. 

‘I am not a number – I am a free man!’ the prisoner replies. The moment he is alone, he is preparing to escape again.

deleuze-et-guattariWe can see The Prisoner as a metaphor for the sixties counterculture. According to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), the counterculture was defined by the many ways that groups and individuals sought to escape the society of normalisation and control that their parents’ generation had helped create. 

The driving impulse behind the counterculture was not just to oppose the status quo, it was to get free of it – to head for the horizon with bloodshot eyes on experimental lines of flight (fuite – this can mean leaking, fleeing, or escaping). 

Lines of flight are bolts of pent-up energy that break through the cracks in a system of control and shoot off on the diagonal. By the light of their passage, they reveal the open spaces beyond the limits of what exists. 

In a series of books written with the militant psychotherapist Felix Guattari (1930-1992), Deleuze linked human creativity to flight. It is our desire to escape the status quo that leads us to innovate. Like the prisoner, we dream of being anywhere but here. We coordinate, form alignments, combine our powers and innovate. We remake the world on creative trajectories.

Deleuze’s idea of lines of flight can help us clear up a common misconception about the sixties counterculture. The counterculture was not fundamentally oriented against mainstream society. It was oriented away from it. 

It is true that the counterculture was defined politically by the rejection of the society that existed at the time. The Free Speech movement and Students for a Democratic Society were opposed to US government policies, especially the war in Vietnam. It is also clear that, in the 1970s, the militant end of the counterculture positioned itself against the state in the hope of creating a popular movement to overthrow it. But the counterculture per se was oriented away from mainstream society. Being against was a means, not an end. 

This is evident in Woodstock generation, which was driven by the desire for another world and way of life, and inspired by the belief that this world and way of life was possible. Having a ‘countercultural’ attitude and outlook does not necessarily imply that one is hostile towards the mainstream. It signals a desire to leave the society that exists, to leave it to its own devices, and to grow creative (with new devices) with other like-minded people.

The Apple I was hacked together on a creative line of flight. So, by and large, was the internet.

Drop-City-Complex-under-construction

One of the best expressions of countercultural line of flight is the the 1960s and ’70s back-to-land movement. Drop City, in Colorado, was the first of many hippie communities that sought to create a new kind of society​. Between 1965 and 1973, thousands of middle class kids, in flight from Mom and Dad, society, the draft, careers, and social conventions of all kinds, came to Drop City and other communes like it in search of freedom and alternative lifestyles. 

The culture got by with a minimum of rules. Everything was set up to enable free-wheeling, nomadic lifestyles, which could be recreated or escaped at a moment’s notice. Nomadism, as Deleuze and Guattari understand it, doesn’t require moving around. You can sit still and be a nomad. Nomadism is a way of being. It involves refusing to be tied down by set categories and definitions. It is driven by a desire to experiment and explore, to learn, grow, and boldly venture forth on creative lines of flight.

The hippie experiment collapsed under the weight of its contradictions. Over subsequent years and decades, the counterculture thrived. Today, the counterculture has been absorbed into the system of society – domesticated, to an extent, yet affirmed and enabled at the same time. The corporate mavericks who shake up markets with disruptive innovations create businesses on lines of flight. Each generation of teenagers is encouraged to define a new line of flight, starting with the rejection of the sounds and styles that have come before. 

Nomadism is a cultural norm. While plenty of people simply want to ‘fit in’, the best and the brightest want to break out and head for the horizon.

When we look into the future, we dream of a world that is radically different from the one we know today. 

We may be stuck in offices, trapped in traffic, tied down by debt or shacked to unhappy relationships. Inside, we are nomads. We are already in flight. The mainland awaits.

Social media as gift culture: the prismatic self

Multiple-selves-in-social-mediaThis is the third post in a series on social media gift cultures. The series draws on indigenous gift cultures to examine the psychological and motivational dynamics of social sharing online. The first post in the series, The reputation game, looks at the North American Potlatch to reflect on the enticements and rewards of sharing online. Social sharing involves a reputation game. The aim of the game is to win the favour of your tribe by presenting them with exorbitant gifts.

The second post in the series, Sharing circles and tribes, considers how tribes are formed online. Tribes emerge when participants share with select users, who return the favour by sharing with them. These sharing circles are typically based in common values and interests – hence, so are tribes. I indicate the unstable nature of sharing circles and how an affirmative attitude towards gifting helps sustain them. Imbued with the ‘spirit of the gift’, the gift becomes a token of gratitude for the sharing circle and the tribe it maintains. The more that we cultivate this spirit in our online exchanges, the more robust and fulfilling they become.

This post considers the challenges of sharing across multiple systems online. Active users of social media are often engaged across multiple sites, groups, and activities in real time. Multi-tasking online can be a source of signficant consternation. While missteps (below the threshhold of the screaming faux pas) are mostly overlooked, this doesn’t reduce the anxiety that users (particularly new users) feel when tasked with sharing across multiple channels in real time. It is easy to lose track of how one is expected to behave in different contexts.

When tech journalist Paul Miller returned to the internet after a year off, he was surprised to find how stressful it was to multi-task across services. ‘I had, like, three tabs open and I just didn’t know what was going on’, Miller complains. This is a familiar experience for users of social media, who struggle to keep up with the flow of information on multiple channels.

The solution is to find your tribe. Sharing across multiple channels is easier when we share with our tribes in mind. A thriving tribe gives back more than we contribute to it. Tribes are a living reservoir of cognitive capital and an infinite human resource.

[Read more…]

‘I want to practice things like patience’: Paul Miller’s year of exile from the internet

web-paul-millerPaul Miller is back online. Senior editor for the tech website The Verge, Miller took a year off the internet between 2012 and 2013 to see how it would impact his experience. As we might expect, Miller reports that being offline in 21st century society is rather inconvenient. No email. Miller had to deliver his submissions to The Verge by flashdrive. No social media. Miller was out of the loop on all sorts of things. He couldn’t check Facebook to see what his friends were up to. Neither could he jump on Google to browse the open web. No YouTube. No Netflix. Life offline, Miller discovered, can be extremely boring. He admits: ‘I did have a lot of free time, but a lot of it was loneliness and boredom in ways that I hadn’t really experienced before’.

Being disconnected was also empowering in a way. Miller wasn’t subject to constant interruptions and requests, and so he was at liberty to decide what to do with his day. He could get things done. He started working on the book that he envisaged coming out of the experiment. He was able to engage with lengthy reading projects, and spend quality time with himself and others. Unfortunately, the initial burst of productivity only lasted so long. Miller disconnected from the internet in the hope of re-engaging creative touchstones and overcoming blocks to his productivity. In the end, he discovered that his productively problems ‘didn’t have a lot to do with the Internet’. The same problems ‘manifested differently on and offline’.

Positive insights that Miller gleaned from his experiment include the importance of having good habits and the value of mindfulness and presence in life. ‘I want to practice things like patience’, Miller claims in an interview with CNN. ‘Just being present with people and not having so much noise in my head’. Miller found that without a connection to the internet, it was easier for him to be present in the moment. Yet, presence is something we have to work at. In the context of smartphones, laptops, and wearable computers, it is more important than ever that we practice the virtue of disconnecting our minds from the internet so that we can genuinely connect with a real person before us. Miller pledges: ‘Now that I’m back on the Internet I really want to be the shining example of what it’s like to actually pay attention to somebody and put away your devices’.

There is a lesson here for us all. Sometimes we need to disconnect from our devices in order to discover what real connection is about.