Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Last Man: the Travesty of Attribution

No real surprise here, Mark Zuckerberg is Time's Person of the Year. Yes, sure, you could say that Facebook changed my life. In some technical sense, without it I wouldn't be on the West Coast and I wouldn't be "in a relationship."

Time magazine, again predictably, distinguishes the Man from the person depicted in the recent and very good film about Zuckerberg at Harvard. Many of us already know that even a documentary about someone's life is not that life. Even an article in Time, reported first person, is not reality in any sure sense of the term. But larger than Life is what the attribution is all about. A person, finally, who has no life apart from his public one. A person whose life is over, with nothing left inside.

More than anything else, Time's tradition is a recognition that we in the West want nothing more than to attribute things, ultimately to God, and perhaps along the way to folks who can drop out of things the rest of us would almost kill to be admitted to. It goes without saying that Zuckerberg is a "coding genius." I rather doubt it. But the narrative requires it. There's a clue in there as to veracity.

I once taught the History of  Science to a bunch of gifted kids. I was committing a form of abuse in that I was way too busy trying to run the school to pretend that I could devote any serious time to preparing and teaching an actual class. So most of the sessions were bull sessions, and the only one excited, really, was me.

Taking advantage of my privilege to approve whatever the hell I wanted to do, I also remember having a really hard time getting the students to risk any conjectural position for the sake of opening a discussion. They must have been utterly stymied by what it was I wanted from them. Well, that's my excuse for doing all the talking.

And surely no-one shared my intellectual excitement when I offered up the example of  'who invented firearms anyhow?' It's very hard for us Westerners to rid the world of our models for reality where "ideas" are born on some inner side of the boundary of our minds. And then we impose these ideas on the world around us. We express ourselves, and we manipulate the dull stuff of reality until it takes on some shape that couldn't and didn't ever appear in nature without us.

But you know, before there were firearms, there were fireworks in China. Bamboo tubes filled with gunpowder, and plugged on each end. It doesn't take too much imagination to picture one of those stoppers popping out before the bamboo bursts and changing a non-directional percussion into the launching of a deadly projectile. This would not be so much an idea made real as it would be the discovery among artifacts of a new design which might require tweaking if ones goal were to enhance the deadliness of the projectile.

Zuckerberg is no inventor either. He found himself, like some boy who pulls a sword from a stone, at a certain place and at a certain time and exercised coding skills which - contrary to Time's assertion - lots and lots of people could exercise far better than he could. But they weren't where he was - Harvard - and they didn't see the nature of student socializing.

Perhaps like a blind man hearing sounds that no-one else pays any attention to, Zuckerberg decided to embody, in the form of Internet-based code, a machine to facilitate the vectors for socializing that he saw being excercized all around him.

And suddenly we're all back in touch with people we once knew in high school, or in college, and we're pushing the limits of those 150 or so people we have room for in our hearts as friends. But you have to wonder if serendipity is enhanced, or if, once again, we've found a way to channel serendipity, to boost the odds and to make it easier to roll the dice of everyday life to get a kind of seeming serendipity. Blind again to the really strange stuff happening all around us beyond the circle of those who already know us, or once did.

I don't have any strong opinion on the goodness or rightness of what Zuckeberg gets credited with. I think he's a little bit young to be called "Person of the Year" without at least doing that mirror thing Time did a couple of years ago, and crediting the rest of us with needing to be provided with the insights he apparently had about us.

Hell, if we keep pushing the paradigm, Time will have to declare a Baby Person of the Year, and as always, it will be coming up on Christmas where the choice becomes politically mandated. But really now, a couple of thousand years ago it was also the time and not the Man alone which was right for the Crossroads of humans coming to consciousness.

Even artists talking about their work (I've taken an unscientific poll across the years of my entire life so far) can't resist using terms which can be translated back into something approximately identical to 'expressing an idea.' Ultimately, this is an ego move, designed so that we can take credit for the accident of our talent, and our lucky position among social capital which made it possible to manipulate our environment in ways that fellow travelers in these cushy environs will appreciate.

I always listen for the artist who gets the Taoist notion of the uncarved block. The one who recognizes that the "intentional fallacy" is the stumbling block of the entire Western experiment. Artist as expert about the artist's own work is as idiotic as finding in Palin, Stern or Beck some intelligence just because they happen to command an audience. There's nothing there. There's emptiness and a robotic habit to apply the same technique to everything until it doesn't work anymore.

And that won't mean that the person has lost her touch. It just means the world of mankind has grown beyond it. And in the case of the plastic artist, the work really is worth more than the person. It endures as something which always was beyond its creator.

One might easily suppose that if Zuckerberg hadn't coded Facebook, someone else would have. Those other fallen-by-the-wayside attempters can kick themselves for being just a bit off from what we the people really wanted, or they can do what most of us do and be glad that we're not quite the emptied vessel which the accomplishment of perfect expression would mandate that we'd become.

It's OK to be normal, I hope. Being gifted is generally a liability. I mean, if you're a talented violinist, that means you're almost certain to be a failure at being the one people pay money to hear. Should you stop playing?

So, it's not Zuckerberg who can or should be credited with changing the Face of civilization. That was already well underway. He gets to be the focal point, and in a build-up to what Baby Jesus did, he gets to be both more and less than what the rest of us are.

Money is getting ready for post-oil reality, flowing into personalities, flowing into machine embodiments of ideas which never could occur in nature. But it is the nature of Nature to prevail. It is the nature of man, as animal, to disappear with nary a trace left behind. It won't be the words we spread on Facebook which endure. It won't be ethereal friends which take us home.

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