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Monthly Archives: May, 2015

There is no such thing as “human nature”

Not long ago, I finished an astonishing book called “The Western Illusion of Human Nature” by Marshall Sahlins, an anthropologist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago (where I spent a formative year from 2008 to 2009). Ever since 2004, when I took an introductory class on Shakespeare at Brown University, I have been immensely skeptical of the notion of “human nature,” mostly because, as Mark Twain once quipped, “generalizations aren’t worth a damn” (think about it). My dislike of the term has amplified over the years as I came to see “human nature” as not just a hasty generalization but also a profoundly negative and deterministic outlook on life.

Genetic determinism: The descendant of “original sin”
Why are we the way we are? A simple glance at nearly anything in any inhabited city should give you a preliminary answer: When you consider all the buildings, roads, vehicles, elaborately clothed tourists, mobile phones that can connect to wireless data, you take in – from every angle – so many things that humans “weren’t intended to do.” We weren’t “intended” (by whom? by what?) to extract crude oil from the ground so that it could be refined into gasoline that would power trucks that would deliver a Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-enabled watch to someone’s doorstep. We weren’t “intended” to eat dairy, gluten, or whatever else the peddlers of dietary fads have deemed the mythical source of all our ills. We weren’t “intended” to turn California into an agricultural superpower capable of producing almonds, artichokes, strawberries, and so many other foodstuff at unprecedented scale.

What I’m saying: Our world exists because of culture, with all of its “unnatural” or “unintended” things being cultural evolutions peculiar to peoples and periods of time. Moreover, all of its perks and drawbacks are the results of cultural choices about what is acceptable and important. The fact that we don’t have universal health care in the U.S. but pay programmers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year? That’s a cultural attitude, not a predetermined genetic outcome.

Human cultures predate the homo sapiens sapiens species by thousands of years, and our evolution – with peculiarities like helpless infants – has been guided by our complete immersion in culture from cradle to grave. Consider this: Even throwback diets like paleo, which aim to escape contemporary culinary habits by going back to what “cave men” ate, are still completely beholden to the artificial and culturally determinedselection of the best-tasting and best-looking fruits and vegetables (there were no perfectly golden, creamy bananas “in nature” before human began cross-breeding cultivars) and the most-consistently bred livestock (raising even a single cow requires immense amounts of food, grown with “unintended” methodologies, and supported by “unnatural” antibiotics and drugs) available. Aesthetics and prejudices (e.g., the unwillingness to eat insects or dogs in the West) play a huge role in simply influencing what is even on the table . We are no more “designed” to eat only preagricultural foodstuffs than we are to speak only pre Indo-European languages.

The idea of a savage man in the wilderness, eager to kill someone just to get his own immensely healthy and faultless food and all the while in desperate need of an iron-fisted enforcer (i.e., Hobbes’ Leviathan) is a myth that owes more to the pessimism of the English Civil War and the legacy of the vile Abrahamic religions than to any actual evidence of how humans organize their lives and groups. It assumes the worst about us and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, marketed by a culture eager to exercise control mechanisms and tell us what is and isn’t “natural” and “intended.”

The eagerness to impart everything to genes, to a built-in “human nature” that is most usually associated with greed, sexual wantonness, and violence, is a remarkably flimsy idea that is nevertheless mentioned with such gravitas whenever someone has to condescendingly explain a “harsh truth” to someone else. I mean: Would you listen to someone babble on about the Christian notion of “original sin” to you in explaining why bad things happen? “Human nature” is “original sin” in another guise: St. Augustine hypothesized that original sin was transferred from one person to his children via semen, a ridiculous argument that nevertheless has been reincarnated in the notion that there’s a certain “human nature” genetically copied across the generations that is accountable for everything from men cheating on their spouses to office managers being ruthless political animals who must be corralled. 

We impart to our own species a level of savagery that we wouldn’t assign to the worst of our relatives in the animal kingdom, and that doesn’t even exist in species like wolves that are often associated with evil despite their comraderie. We paper-over the obvious cultural destruction wrought by specific religions by instead saying that all this evil was instead inevitable because it had everything to do with “human nature” and nothing to do with fundamentalism.

Enough! What if instead of fixating on the negative traits we think are passed from one human to the other, we stepped back and consider how immensely in debt we still are to a Western cultural tradition that, for thousands of years, has put the “holy books” of the Abrahamic religions and the thoroughly pessimistic secular texts of Thucydides and Hobbes on a pedestal? We seem to see newborns and children as creatures that must be inoculated against some kind of savage nature, and then as adults held in check by paternalistic bureaucracies that prevent any lapse into a mythical “state of nature” that, due to culture’s pervasiveness, could never even have existed in the first place.

Almost any behavior that one would try to explain by appeal to “human nature” could be explained another way. Jacques Fresco once remarked about how he visited a Pacific island where everyone was naked all the time, and yet there was no evidence of constant sexual leering or abuse. If nothing else, his remarks are a good jumping-off point for thinking about how, say, Western uptightness about sexuality and a long legacy of optional sexism, rather than some inevitable “human nature” imprinted on the genome, has enabled things like catcalling and micro aggressions.

Yes, yes, I know – we don’t know much about genetics yet, and eventually we will able to explain everything via super-intelligent machines that can easily sequence DNA and analyze decisions. Bear in mind that the prioritization of such creations, as well as the ways in which they measure things (who decides how and what to measure, and how to interpret the results?), are all cultural realities, too and could be reversed. 

My sense is that we greatly, greatly oversubscribe to the notion of “human nature” because of the historical circumstances we live under, in which there is a dominant single power (the U.S.) with global reach sufficient to create a de facto common language (English) that in turn makes everything seem homogeneous, at least on the surface. If and when this state of affairs changes, I think we will eventually see the world’s disparate cultures and natures finally move out of the shadow of “human nature.”

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“Tech” culture probably can’t be fixed

Tim Chevalier recently penned an excellent essay on leaving “tech culture” behind, talking about how he come to see his work as a programmer as both exhausting and pointless:

“I have no love left for my job or career, although I do have it for many of my friends and colleagues in software. And that’s because I don’t see how my work helps people I care about or even people on whom I don’t wish any specific harm. Moreover, what I have to put up with in order to do my work is in danger of keeping me in a state of emotional and moral stagnation forever.”

I found this post via Twitter and then I read an optimistic response – i.e, said culture can be fixed if only the “right people” were in charge – from functional programmer and ex-Googler Michael O. Church on his WordPress site. As companies like Google and Facebook have become central to the neoliberal surveillance state, as Silicon Valley has become this weird locus for both entertainment (today’s smartphone addicts are just yesterday’s nuclear family sitting rapt in front of the rabbit-ears TV) and austerity lingo (“innovation,” “entrepreneur,” and “failure” are particularly odious), there has been mounting attention on the cultural problems in tech. These issues usually include:

  • Rampant sexism, with the recent Ellen Pao suit against venture capital firm KPCB bringing it into play in a high-stakes trial (Pao lost). Software and hardware remain overwhelmingly male fields, and not by accident either (more on this in a bit). Facebook and Google, as well as much older firms like Apple, wield enormous powers comparable to those at various times in history have been vested in states (e.g.., surveillance in the case of the Web giants), while being driven by a laughably unrepresentative slice of humanity (the upper middle-class to the superrich, with strong biases in areas of race and gender).
  • Workalcoholism, with 80-100 hour weeks described with violent euphemisms like “killing it” or “crushing it.” Just as Uma Thurman had to trek those steps in “Kill Bill,” it seems that everyone in tech has to live out the nonstop bullshit about being, or at least serving, a businessman entrepreneur who works around the clock to build something that has questionable social utility as well as dark political potential capable of quelling outrage over inequality, since criticizing workaholics is surprisingly difficult in the U.S.
  • Individualism, which may seem surprising in workplace cultures increasingly dominated by jargon about “teams” and “families,” but the strain is readily apparent in the archetypes of the cowboy coder, the “visionary” CEO, and the notion that a singular force like “tech” is the solution to political, anthropological, and social issues as well as technical ones. Just as so much anthropology has dissolved into discussions of “power” at the expense of all other motivations, popular social and political science have taken an acid bath in “disruption,” “innovation,” and “technical skills” and the priorities of a narrow group of individuals.

All of these trends are awful, and together they have created a “tech culture” that is enormously unfriendly even to the many of the upper middle-class people whose equal love of social stratification and devices (for instance, Uber is not just an app, but a way around egalitarian public transport) would seem to make them perfect cogs in its machine. It’s gotten to the point of self-defeat. But why is “tech culture” this way? What is it about “tech” that makes it so much worse for women, specific minorities (minorities in the U.S., I mean; they could be and are “majorities” elsewhere) and no-nonsense introverts than, say, “trance music culture” or “content marketing culture”?

I don’t think it is attributable solely or even largely to there being so much money in the industry right now. The facile argument would be to just say that large amounts of money and competition drive people crazy, bringing out the dreaded base “human nature” for antisocial/Hobbesian violence and self-interst (the same “human nature” used to explain contrary concepts like sociability) and running roughshod over cultural penchants for equality.

But such outlooks are necessarily pessimistic about mankind, with roots in the idea of a dismal state of nature (an idea with a very specific, hardly universal, lineage from Thucydides to Hobbes, the latter being the former’s English translator). Plus, to make this argument while fretting over how to fix “tech’s broken culture” is to fuel the same fire that is in need of snuffing: Assumptions about the worst in people coming out in lieu of a paternalistic security-surveillance state are probably major causes of said “brokenness.”

So here goes, three reasons why “tech culture” as conceived can’t be fixed. My intent is writing this is not to paint “tech”‘s problems as intractable so much as it is to highlight how the very terms of the conversation – problematic words like “technology” and “technical,” for instance – necessarily constrain any worthwhile corrective action, which would almost certainly require access to political and cultural channels that “tech culture” has willfully isolated itself from.

1) The term “technology” is a problem in and of itself
Like many words with Latin or Greek roots, “technology” gets off the air of sophistication to English speakers whose routine conversations are dominated by shorter words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Leo Marx has written extensively on how “technology” is a “hazardous category,” one that emerged as a way of appropriating the work and culture of blue-collar individuals – machinists, artisans, et al – for their white-collar counterparts, or at least the most visible artifacts thereof, particularly industrious men in lab coats (more indicative of wider “technical culture” than “tech culture,” but the gap between “technology” and “technical” is narrow and it’s sometimes not even clear what “tech” is short for anymore), serious politicians paying lip-service to “innovation,” and MBAs and executives of all stripes who have seen “tech” as the next road to riches.

“Technology” as a word is in this respect a lot like “innovation”: Its usage automatically draws a line between classes. Just as “innovation” is off-limits to the activities of individuals like bus drivers or shoe repairman, “technology” is off-limits to the social underclasses and the demographically disadvantaged. Yet, the issues of “inequality in technology” and the “technology gender gap” keep popping up and confusing otherwise sensible people. Remember that the entire technology category was made to rebrand once-workmanlike activities like repairing a machine or reviewing specifically coded systems into something acceptable for the upper, mostly male, classes.

Technology is no longer even about labor, or the “hard work”that so many entrepreneurs pay homage to in order to subtly justify inequality, but about the production of artifacts, as Debbie Chacra so memorably put it in a piece for The Atlantic entitled “Why I Am Not A Maker“. This shift that is neatly encapsulated in the Maker movement that makes it clear that tangible (commercial) items, not behind-the-scenes care-taking or educational work, are the best representations of the value of one’s effort and class. The obsession with creating objects and turning yesterday’s castoffs – factory machine labor, geek culture – into tomorrow’s winning business formulas brings me to…

2) Geek/nerd culture may be at fault too
Saying the geeks won the battle over their one-time high school bullies has become cliche. Silicon Valley, Makers, DIY lifestyles: They all nominally benefit geeks who were “unpopular” (I don’t even know what this means anymore, in an age when anyone can get thousands of likes for a Facebook status or reddit post) in high school and invested themselves in “uncool” (not anymore) activities like reading comic books or programming.

There is a large overlap here between the rise of the artifact-obsessed technology culture of Silicon Valley, the newfound top dog status of geeks, and the enormous monetization in the West of properties like DC and Marvel Comics, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars, to name but a few. Disney (owner of both Marvel and Lucasfilm somehow) now turns to comics rather than Broadway (the inspiration for many of its old-school animated musical) for its cash cows.

The point of this overlap, though, is that there is tremendous reinforcement from all over of the geek mindset, which of course prioritizes things – fictional characters, universes, continuities, costumes, etc. – over real people. Think of the enormous mental energy channeled into deciding between an Autobots and Decepticon costume for a convention, for instance. There are finite resources and time in any day, and geek culture expends it on fantasy worlds in which factors like race, class, and gender are secondary because real people aren’t involved and the universe might be on the verge of being destroyed or something.

There is a striking parallel between what tech culture is producing – software, mostly, for limited audiences and use cases – and what the increasingly commoditized geek culture is churning out in the form of mass market film, comics, and games. The cultural issues that besiege tech certainly have analogues elsewhere – sexism, racism, and crass individualism are in pretty much every office – but the industry faces the unique pressure of having to absorb tremendous amounts of money (from VCs and consumers alike) while still overseeing its long tradition of lionizing artifacts and abstractions at the expense of nearly everything else (that’s why we get so much speculation about how much a “great programmer” is worth when we should be asking what an average one is worth).

3) The separation of “technical” and “non-technical” persons is more needless stratification
This picks up the end of the last point. Go to any story about the mythical “skills gap” in the U.S. or the bios parts of a tech firm’s website and you’re likely to run head-on into the word “technical.” Here again we have something maybe once had tangible meaning – someone’s skill with a carpentry tool or machining process – being used as a preemptive moat against anyone with “soft” skills like communications, writing, PR, etc.

Of course it’s weird that politics – the “softest” skill of all since it is so hard to evaluate, with a “bad” grasp perhaps benefiting one as much as a “good” one would, depending on the context – is still what determines how organizations function. But if tech, and more specifically technical skills, is the answer to everything, politics goes out of sight (it doesn’t go away, but ends up sort of like the man behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz,” if you will) and the often random fortunes of a company and its culture are instead put under the illusion of a meritocracy. ”

Technical” is a handy word in this setting because it implies easily quantifiable results and, let’s admit it, a certain look and behavior that informs all of the stereotype and extreme cases, like the aforementioned cowboy coder. A technical person can produce artifacts, which are what tech is known for. The fact that artifact-making is traditionally a male habit and one with a long tradition of excluding all but a narrow cross-section of society becomes secondary, and the problems multiply.

This entry ended up being way longer than I imagined, and I have likely gone off onto confusing parenthetical tangents here. Ultimately It feels like the tech industry’s hand-wringing over its culture problems is like the coal industry fretting about environmental damage: Admirable, but intrinisically linked to how it does business and why it has succeeded in the first place. We’ll probably have to rethink the entire category of ‘technology’ to ever get onto better footing.