As some of you may remember, I spent 2009 writing a memoir about my experiences in New York City's New Media industry from 1993 to 2003. I've often wondered if I would ever write an update.
I might someday, and I might even write about the work I've been doing since 2009, when I moved down to Northern Virginia to get married and began working in Washington DC and in Northern Virginia's tech corridor.
I only write memoirs in past tense, so I won't be writing about my current jobs and projects anytime soon. But I wish I could, because lately it's been as exciting as Silicon Alley down in here. The big local story is the epic #fail of the Obama administration's website Healthcare.gov, which was built by several NoVa firms like CGI Federal.
Today's Philosophy Weekend is a question: what is the meaning of the extreme alienation that seems to be growing between two loosely defined political opinion groups in the United States of America?
Of course, the division between conservativism and liberalism is nothing new. But the emotional intensity of the split has been remarkable in the past few months, stoked by the rollout of Obamacare, which has led to an explosion of political noise, paranoia and apocalyptic drama way beyond the bounds of any normal political debate in this country. The break can be seen in the word cloud above, which shows the terms used by Republican voters to describe President Barack Obama.
It's notable that "liar" dominates the word cloud. This shows the depth of the problem Barack Obama faces in trying to communicate with his opponents. "Liar" is a tough word to fight back against, because it indicates a complete alienation between speaker and listener. If a President is perceived by opponents as incompetent or stupid, some cure for the condition can be imagined. If a President is simply seen by opponents to be a liar, there is no path to a common ground, because there is no common trust.
The pointing finger in this photo belongs to Jeremy Paxman, a British journalist. The pointee is Russell Brand, a brash and popular comedian who has guest-edited a new "Revolution" issue of the New Statesman, in which he says things like this:
Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people … Along with the absolute, all-encompassing total corruption of our political agencies by big business, this apathy is the biggest obstacle to change.
The fact that I don't love Thomas Pynchon is statistically nearly impossible.
Any literary heat map of my favorite writers would find Pynchon near the center, hovering somewhere between Brautigan, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, Thompson, Acker, Coetzee, Auster. And yet I can't stand his thick, impenetrably clever prose. I find his hysterical habit of packing multiple cosmic curlicues, pop-culture puns and obscure historical references into every sentence simply obnoxious. I don't like a writer who keeps trying to distract my attention when I'm trying to read.
But, well, here's the thing. All my friends and literary comrades and people I respect love Thomas Pynchon. I guess they find his convoluted style fun and challenging. Who knows? My friends have Pynchon tattoos, have named their bands or websites after Pynchon, have even written adoring Litkicks articles about Pynchon. I don't understand why all these smart people love him so much and I don't, and I feel very isolated in this position.
Do you ever get a "stuck" feeling when you're trying to think? How can we ever know if we're thinking widely enough, if we're failing to realize something obvious, something so large that it can't fit inside our frame of reference?
The angry, confusing debates -- politics, society, religion -- that often roil us today are rooted in varying frames of reference. We can't understand opposing points of view because we can't see past certain premises and presumptions. Emmett Grogan, the late hippie activist and social critic who founded the Diggers in San Francisco in the 1960s, worked obsessively to broaden his own thinking, and encouraged others to do the same. The Diggers opened a storefront where they gave away food -- and, in a delightfully postmodern touch, asked people to walk through a physical manifestation of a "frame of reference" in order to get it.
It's refreshing to see rival social, political or philosophical doctrines debated online with the kind of clear, brisk, brief writing that the best blogs feature. Last week, Michael Lind of Salon challenged the American libertarian/Paulist movement with a blunt Salon article titled "Grow Up, Libertarians!" This article led with a powerful question: "If libertarianism is such a good idea, why aren’t there any libertarian countries?"
In the National Review, Jonah Goldberg responded directly and thoughtfully with a piece called "Freedom: The Unfolding Revolution". Goldberg tried to swipe away Michael Lind's direct thrust by pointing out that the political ideal of liberty is too essential to be weighed on Lind's scale. Goldberg may or may not be right about the broader meaning of libertarianism, but his piece also echoes and agrees with a basic point of Michael Lind's that contrasts rising tide of 21st Century libertarianism with the sad history of 20th Century Communism. Here, both Michael Lind and Jonah Goldberg are accepting a sweeping premise about world history that is itself untrue, and must be challenged:
The story of Edward Snowden, Booz Allen/NSA/Prism whistleblower, is a rorschach test. Everybody sees something different in it. Me, I told you how I felt this weekend (though I wrote that blog post before the identity of Edward Snowden had been revealed). I consider Edward Snowden a hero, in the proud tradition of Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning -- though I'm more interested in the attack on Booz Allen Hamilton (a sycophantic government/military contractor that's been soaking the American taxpayer for years) than I am in the attack on the National Security Agency. I'm glad Snowden revealed the facts of PRISM, and I believe a helpful public dialogue about privacy in the Internet age is beginning to emerge.
I have a unique angle on this topic, because databases are my thing. They've been my thing since the early 1990s, when I became an expert in SQL (Structured Query Language, the most prevalent computer language in the world) data modeling and database application development. My favorite database is MySQL, the powerful open source platform. (This is the database world equivalent of saying that my favorite ice cream is vanilla, since MySQL is certainly the traditional choice for favorite open source database, but I can't help it.) MySQL powers Litkicks, and it probably powers most of the websites you've visited today.
It'd be nice to report that intelligent public debate about privacy and governmental overreach followed, but it really didn't. Instead, various existing opinion groups immediately began spinning the news to support their various agendas. For the conservative media, the existence of NSA/PRISM is simply evidence of President Barack Obama's personal lust for power and totalitarian control. (This is despite the fact that PRISM was initiated before Obama became President, and only represents the widely accepted mandate of the NSA to gather intelligence against potential threats.)
To opinion groups closer to my own heart, represented by voices from various anarchist or Occupy movements, there has at least been a willingness to condemn the entire federal/corporate/military power structure for the NSA's latest offense against our constitutional right to privacy. But these voices also often seem to miss the larger and more important point: if you care about your personal privacy, and if you don't like the government snooping into your phone records and Internet activities, you ought to be a pacifist. Our culture of aggressive militarism will never be consistent with a culture of privacy.
It's popular among some of our current philosophers to make a big thing of disbelieving in God. For Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens, atheism is an urgent social cause. A widespread naive belief in religion, these philosophers argue, has been a source of great hatred and suffering. And yet they fail to challenge another widespread naive belief that is actually much more malignant than the belief in God. Even some atheists cling to this other naive belief.
I'm talking about the belief that Evil is real. Not evil but Evil -- a mysterious sinister agency that infects certain leaders or populations with the drive to cause great harm. The Evil is a force of almost magical, eternal power, and it operates beyond the reach of trustful negotiation or rational compromise.
We have seen that artistic symbols of absolute Evil fill our shared imagination (with fictional representations like Voldemort and Palpatine) and we have seen that the historic lessons of the wars of the 20th century are often boiled down to a single principle, a vast meme that has dominated global foreign policy since the end of World War II: appeasement of Evil enemies is always a bad idea, and pacifism is a gateway to appeasement.
All this spring and summer, we'll be hovering over the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web's breakthrough into mass popularity. This week presents another possible "birthday" date for the WWW craze: it was on April 30, 1993 that CERN announced its intention to fully share its homegrown HTML and HTTP standards and supporting software with the world as free open source. It seems likely that the exploding popularity of the Mosaic browser (which we discussed last month) helped push CERN to take this step. In fact, Unix developers already assumed that WWW software was free and open by this date anyway, so CERN's announcement wasn't really a revolutionary step, though it is a notable moment.