Monday, November 22, 2010

Philosophy, die

I haven't watched "The social network" yet. I don't want to, either. The pleasures of creating a website or writing a program are inherent and private, not shareable or communicable to those who haven't tried it themselves. You cannot, I believe, make a movie as interesting as "The Godfather" or "Taxi driver" out of the story of Gmail. Maybe you could, but you would have to be Scorsese/Kubrick/Coppola/Leone to do that. And even then, the bland truth would not interest a wide audience that stereotypes computer scientists and software engineers. I've often wondered how cricketers would feel if someone taped me at my job for a whole day and played it to them. I know I would watch with interest as the events of a typical day unfolded and nod with identification at scrum meeting jokes and people discovering cataclysmic flaws in their design three days before release, but Sachin would probably doze off fifteen minutes into the movie. It is unfortunately the curse of technology that the most interesting movies about it involve its misuse (Metropolis, The island of Dr. Moreau, 2001 : A space odyssey, The Terminator I and II, Endhiran ad infinitum). Even Iron Man is kind of about misuse, although Tony Stark does claim he privatised world peace successfully.

The reason I wrote that boring paragraph above is this review by Zadie Smith of the film. I agree with her spot-on assessment as she says "From the opening scene it’s clear that this is a movie about 2.0 people made by 1.0 people (Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, forty-nine and forty-eight respectively)" [Unnecessary italics mine]. From what she says, it seems that this film, despite being a David Fincher offering, falls into the same geek-cliche traps as practically every other geek film. Mark Zuckerberg is capable of creating, or stealing, something as massive as Facebook, so he must be "overprogrammed, furious, lonely." This is in accordance with the dictums of dramatic storytelling as put down by Aeschylus: 'He who typeth furiously hath not friends nor kin but hath only the company of the sweat of his brow and his enemies multifarious.' The programmer is socially awkward and inept. The software type is also introverted and not at all given to displays of emotion (OK, maybe Crazyfuck Ballmer is a bad example. But the point is, it does happen in our world). (S)He is altogether disconnected from the 'real' world and 'real' people and has no comprehension of the repercussions of her/his actions/inventions. The only 'real world' object that sparks any interest in the geek is money and there is no end to the extent to which said geek will go to get most, if not all, of it. In the process, love is sacrificed and love interests are either driven away or killed. Smith says the movie fulfills all these banalities very satisfactorily.

And then goes on to make observations as dumb and pointless as those she criticised in the movie. A superficial one first. She says "No doubt the filmmakers considered this option, but you can see their dilemma: how to convey the pleasure of programming—if such a pleasure exists—in a way that is both cinematic and comprehensible?" Why would she assume no pleasure exists in programming? Programmers are not as esoteric a group today as they were in 1968. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people go through the agony and the ecstasy of running their code. Watching it compile and waiting with bated breath for the outcome (if any) is a build-up filled with almost as much excitement and anticipation as the climax of "The good, the bad and the ugly." Even if we leave aside such, some would say, grandiose comparisons, the same pleasure exists in programming as in any other job well done. The doubtful "if such a pleasure exists" is unnecessary.

The rest of her review is devoted to a subject much beloved of luddites -- the philosophical and ethical implications of technology. Smith quotes from Jaron Lanier's book "You are not a gadget" and argues that we are all somehow being tricked into believing that websites represent us wholely and accurately (Lanier is the only software expert she  defers to, in the giant review. He represents the whole software industry.). Our online personas are, we apparently begin to believe, our real selves. To wit:
'We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing “in” the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us? Is it possible that what is communicated between people online “eventually becomes their truth”?'

This is a patently ridiculous point. Almost everyone who is on Facebook or any other website that involves interaction learns quickly enough not to trust online personas. Cases involving paedophiles stalking fourteen-year olds online and preying on them subsequently have alerted us to the dangers of interactive websites. Unnecessary bullshit like ChatRoulette have alerted us to the dangers of random penises being flashed at us. That's why nobody puts everything about themselves online. Atleast, not truthfully. As Gregory House says, "everybody lies."

The software does nothing to me, or anybody using it. If you're wasting hours on end going through Facebook pages and profiles, it proves more that you're an idiot than it does that the software is some philosophical and ethical nightmare. The purpose of 'social networks' is the same as the Usenet groups of yore: bring together people with similar interests and let them share information (photos, videos, memes, whatever). Attributing anything higher, nobler, more sinister to them is purely alarmist. I apologise for sounding like Eric Schmidt here ("If you're doing something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.") but privacy of information is not in the scope of this point that she raises.

Smith says her apprehension that the whole Internet might become 'falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous' like Facebook was why she quit Facebook after just two months on it. There are people like that too, so while she's at it, she might as well quit humanity. She also says, again quoting the sole expert in the world, Lanier, that pack mentality is encouraged, and made more efficient, by the social networks we use. We apparently see what other people are reading, watching, eating and do exactly the same. Of course, individuality is exempt here. The mere act of going online and joining something like MySpace or Facebook strips you of judgement, character and taste and makes you a drooling idiot who watches celebrity wedding programmes all day.

I submit another example of pure philosophical psychobabble:
'I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed. Because I find I agree with Zuckerberg: selves evolve.'

Make your own LAN and sit in it. Play Minesweeper and Solitaire and send yourself an email and then wonder who it's from. Person as mystery! How the hell do people come up with this bullshit? What kind of a horrible Web would it be if everyone and everything was a mystery? If no one shared anything and remained private. It might just be this sort of idiot thinking that leads to proprietary software and DRM and greedy music corporations trying to muscle in on FM radio stations to extort royalty for playing new songs. 'I dream of a private network of music lovers. With music as mystery and song as puzzle. Where I try and discover for myself what the artist is trying to say. And feel.' I hate feel.

Right after that, there's this:
'Of course, Zuckerberg insists selves simply do this by themselves and the technology he and others have created has no influence upon the process. That is for techies and philosophers to debate (ideally techie-philosophers, like Jaron Lanier).'

Not on many occasions will we hear this but Zuckerberg is right. Selves evolve by and because of themselves and their social environment. Technology is an aid to human progress and does not supplant any stage of it. Atleast, not yet (because who knows when the singularity will be achieved and we will become semi-machines and can finally bid goodbye to loose motions). And no, there is no debate to be had by techies and philosophers. Fuck philosophers, they're smug, boring, pointless people who expend much time, energy, money and paper on things that are little else but common sense. Exactly what has philosophy achieved that could not have been learnt by us through pure common sense and a little reflection thereupon? All those books by Heidegger, Hegel, Mill, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Sartre and other assholes can be efficiently summed up like the Pythons did with the meaning of life:
"Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."

That's it, short and practical and quite commonsense. I find the 'philosophical discomfort' that Smith feels with Facebook is as foolish as that felt by people who feared printing when it was invented ("Oh noes! Now our memoriez wil becum poorer!") or that photography would consume your soul or that television would lead to depression and alienation. This alienation thing is another concern of Smith. You can be alienated anywhere. As humans, our greatest invention, society, is also our greatest falling. You can be alone in a crowd anywhere, be it online or offline. Did you see Taxi driver? Do you think Travis Bickle would send a friendship request to Betsy, poke her, have the poke rejected and go on a murderous rampage solely because of that? (Hint: no). Our tastes, attitudes, personalities, stance on the music(?) of Justin Bieber and myriad other 'human variables' come together to determine how we interact with others.

Every accusation that Smith hurls at the Internet and social networks is true of almost every mass medium we have.  But we cannot abandon them. Carrying her logic forward, can we afford to take down the Internet because someone somewhere 'dreams of a more private Web' ? Dictated by our attitudes, we use technology as a means to an end ("Hey, I just used my iPhone to find and drown that guy in sewage"), not an end in itself. Fearing Facebook because you're afraid your personal, human weaknesses and inner demons might make you a fool online is a bit lame. As with almost every bloody thing in the world, moderation is the key.

It's this kind of philosophical nonsense that will come in the way of great progress. Not human ingenuity, not non-availability of funds but this kind of pointless discourse on 'ethical aspects' which are not even ethical aspects. When we invent teleportation and time travel, some idiot with a philosophy degree is going to stand in the way. Pay no heed, future generations. Give them a book deal and a spot on a 24-hour news channel and plough on. We have galaxies to explore, diseases to cure, tyrants to kill. We can't afford to waste time on this (although, if you've already invented time travel, wasting a little time to shoot philosophers in the face doesn't matter and is definitely worth it).

If you've made it this far, I apologise for the length of the post. Something about Zadie Smith's attitude towards the web and software irked me and I cobbled this together. I don't think I've put my point and indignation across well, probably kept some of it to myself. Doesn't matter, you probably also like the idea of a 'person as mystery.'


wanderlust said...

wasteofellows, making out this web and geek thing to be some spite-fuelled crap.

no one makes movies about those of us geeks slaving all day long in cubicles, making java jokes, and (yet?) being well-adjusted people who get together for a drink at the end of the day, hook up, hang up, and, oh hell, sleep eight hours a day.

cue mindryin spoof of social network :P

Harish said...

" Carrying her logic forward, can we afford to take down the Internet because someone somewhere 'dreams of a more private Web' ? "

- hehe sakkat aagide. Internet closed down today anta newspaper headline bareebahudu aaga.

Fine post swalpa lengthy aadroo.

Karthik said...

what fine angsts you are having.

I think you would be better served by zadie smith, the pornstar.

Hmm, btw, Shobha De would be an awful name for a pornstar. Dont you think?

Su said...

I <3 Gregory House.

Incidentally, that was also my "personal" highlight of the entire post.


NyTyne said...

kickass bro..
reading your blog after a very looooong time...
mindri-ing goes on and on :P

Arjun Sharma said...

[wanderlust] Eight hours a day? Some of us are just born into luxury, aren't we? :)

Heh, hoon, it's about time Mindry got off its ass and did something. Social network spoof is a good idea.

[Harish] Hoon, "Internet will be closed from 9 AM to 6 PM tomorrow in Banaswadi, Basavanagudi, BTM Layout, Chamarajapet, Sultanpet, Chickpet, Cubbonpet, Rajajinagar..." anta power cut announcement thara haakbeku paper-alli.

[karthikd] Thu, Shobhaa De as a pornstar can scar anyone for life. I have to sear that off my brain now.

Is there a porn star called Zadie Smith?

[Su] :) Good, people are finding their own personal highlights in my posts. Nice. Makes me feel like I've accomplished something. Sigh of relief duly emitted.

[NyTyne] Indeed. The work of a mindri never stops. On and on we go.

Anonymous said...

This was like one of the old ones. Loved it.

The Psycho Blogger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Psycho Blogger said...

It's amazing how many things stupid people can read into totally harmless stuff when in fact it is simply the fault of people themselves for not cutting back. Yes, there are substances that get people high but does that make them inherently evil? Obviously, people must waste entire paragraphs on useless philosophical debates while dodging the actual issue. After all, philosophers need to be made to feel useful sometime as well right? :D

Nice post dude, albeit a bit on the lengthy side :P

Thrush said...

So many firsts in this post men:

1. You come to rescue of Facebook (I'd like to italicize "you", but i'm too lazy to type out the HTML tags. Holding shift with my pinky is just about enough labour for me at the moment)

2. You've reviewed a review! Whaaw!

Despite the length, I find it quite succinct. Especially when compared to Zadie Smith's usual ramblings. (Also, have you noticed the irony? She trashes the Internet, and her article appears on it?)

I understand the romance of what she's saying (that whole personal mystery shebang). But it's badly articulated. And it's actually pretty pointless, and like you've pointed, she comes out sounding like those philosophers who didn't like the idea of the earth being round. (apparently, there was never such a myth going around. but that's another comment, some other time.)

I once read an article (in another dimension and another time, so i can't really quote it) which said, we will always be in this "victim" of the Internet mode till we develop an instinct like we have in the real world.

What Mark Z. means is that - we evolve. Meaning, we will adapt to the Internet as we did after coming down from the trees/getting out of the water/smoking the wrong weed. We will one day develop a sixth/seventh/nineteenth sense and naturally understand the dangers, perceive threats, and eventually, fend off trouble.

I'd never thought I'd say anything nice about FB - but FB is here to enable just this evolution. It's like a snow storm that has happened for the human being organism to figure they do need body hair.

So, until then, there's no way for "personal mysteries" to exist. How can they, when the idea of a personal mystery itself is changing?

Phew. There. Laang kaament, befitting a laang posht.