A snoot and pacifist on iconoclasts, Americans, and heroes

In Uncategorized on January 15, 2013 at 12:01 am

“Revolutionary new technologies and ideas don’t come from people with a reverence for following the rules. They come from iconoclasts like Jobs, Wozniak, and Swartz.”

This is the conclusion of a post (by Tim Lee) extolling the “Americanness” of Aaron Swartz, who killed himself last week. Despite the fact that my particular interest in Swartz arises from his founding of Demand Progress and his anti-SOPA advocacy (neither of which I’m fond of), my diatribe against this rhetoric must be preceded by a recognition of Swartz’s earnestness and intelligence. His blog includes some very thoughtful posts about personal development. (Although I maintain that there’s nothing persuasive in his political writings.)

But Tim Lee called him a hero, and implied that he was more American than most Americans (or at least, than those Americans who don’t download free movies…he may have a point) and that he was an iconoclast.

The word hero is dangerous, a tool of the warlike ideologies that periodically convulse our nation and politics. I cringe to see it used in a newspaper’s opinion pages. Newspapers are supposed to be more civilized: By a quirk of the business of  mass communications, they once found a business incentive for pacific objectivity. Swartz himself disdained this pacific objectivity, longing for the days when men duelled and privately published their own partisan views.

But surely, even if the cyber-ideologues have defeated the pax literalis in newspapers, a hundred years of disarming postmodernism, ironism, and other literary trends should have been more than enough to deflate this kind of primitive rhetoric? I do not wish to expound on the works of Derrida to show the epistemic necessity of a less primitive view, but perhaps I could simply encourage people like Lee to, well, read more newspapers!

But he tells us that Swartz’s heroism, and his essential value as an American, came of his unruliness (he is using language from Paul Graham’s essay on the essential Americanness of hackers), and groups him with Jobs and Wozniak of Apple fame as iconoclasts. This is because Jobs and Wozniak devised a “blue box” which tricked the phone system into giving them free calls. They were hackers.

But it’s doubtful there was much ideology in their tinkering with the phone system: they were just tinkering. And it’s fairly certain that the ideology that inspired Swartz to take up arms was not close to Jobs’s heart: Jobs had an especially passionate hatred for Google because of what he perceived as Google’s theft of design elements from the iPhone. “Isaacson wrote that he never saw Jobs angrier in any of their conversations, which covered a wide variety of emotional topics during a two-year period,” an article about Jobs’s hatred of Google as portrayed in Isaacson’s biography says.

Moreover, Jobs was far from an iconoclast: he was an icon! Not only that, but his business was in important ways built on icons. It was Jobs who approved the “Think Different” campaign, which sold Apple’s computers by linking them almost mythically with a host of icons, from the Dalai Lama to Gandhi.

But the myth of the unruly geniuses on its own deserves some attention. Lee adopts this wholly and uncritically from Paul Graham’s essay, so I will examine a few claims from that. Graham writes:

There is such a thing as Americanness. There’s nothing like living abroad to teach you that. And if you want to know whether something will nurture or squash this quality, it would be hard to find a better focus group than hackers, because they come closest of any group I know to embodying it.

A hacker, as the term is used by Graham, is not just a computer hacker. He is using the term in a larger, but idiosyncratic sense:

Hacking predates computers. When he was working on the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman used to amuse himself by breaking into safes containing secret documents. This tradition continues today. When we were in grad school, a hacker friend of mine who spent too much time around MIT had his own lock picking kit.

Graham communicates by elliptical suggestions and associations,  so in order to gain a complete understanding of his sense of hacker, you have to read his further anecdotes about good programmers who do things their own way and take things apart to figure out how best to do things. What he means is that the most valuable engineers are people who must be allowed to take things apart and subvert systems in order to be creative.

His choice of Richard Feynman is significant, as Feynman is one of the most American physicists to become internationally renowned (unlike Oppenheimer, Feynman was educated in the States and came from a modest New York family). And Feynman was a tinkerer, a bit of a hacker.

But if you consider the example of the Manhattan Project further, the idea that Americanness as the defining quality of the hacker confers some unique creative power on American engineers or physicists falls apart. Feynman was there, yes, he was noted for his brilliance. But most of the work on the atomic bomb and hydrogen bomb was done by Europeans! Enrico Fermi, John Von Neumann, Einstein, Edward Teller–all Europeans! J. Oppenheimer was clearly one of the most important minds behind the atomic bomb, and he was an American, but even he was educated overseas, at Cambridge.

America seems to hold a long-lasting advantage in innovation, but saying that it is because of “Americanness” is as silly as it is circular, and saying that it is because of iconoclasm betrays a total ignorance of the way Americans think and act.


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