Vivek Haldar

Why technologists want to secede

Tech’s secessionist streak has recently got a lot of attention. Balaji Srinivasan thinks we should build a new society based on technology, breaking free from the “legacy” institutions we’re currently hobbled with. Larry Page hopes for experimental societies where change and experimentation can proceed much faster. Elon Musk wants to go live on Mars.

Most reactions to this have been along the lines of “look at these rich powerful elites thinking they can up and leave and do without all the rest of us!” I want to focus not on the politics behind this, but the motivation.

These ideas are getting attention now because rich and powerful titans of tech are espousing them. But these are the secret fantasies of every geek, rich or not, powerful or not.

Geeks have deep isolationist tendencies. They prefer losing themselves in sci-fi worlds to hanging out with friends. They build an early affinity with machines and programs. They sense that programming is the ultimate in world-building, and what’s more, it’s executable! They build elaborate towers of abstraction. They are drunk on the clean rationality of the world that the machine and they have built and understand.

Eventually, they secretly wish for a more ordered world. A world that is not messy or unpredictable. A world where one might have to work hard to establish the priors, but once they are, everything follows.

It is telling that one of the central activities in programming is abstraction. Abstraction is nothing but taking a jumble of intricate detail, putting it in a tightly sealed box, and then poking very small, well-defined holes in the box to interact with that jumble. So clean! So much better!

But every abstraction is leaky. Ints carry the baggage of their bit-width. In a perfect world, every int would be a BigInt with unlimited range. But we live in a world where it matters whether ints fit in a hardware register or not. Networks carry the baggage of not being perfect links. In a perfect world, a link between two machines would be an immutable, always-available channel for sending messages between them. But we live in a world where wires break.

This is the central tension in the mind of every geek. The constant need to abstract, to order, to rationalize, pitted against the necessary realization the world and entropy will eventually thwart you.

Secession is simply the same need for order and abstraction carried into the geek’s mental model for society.

I wrote previously:

The world of humans is messy, unpredictable, and—this is the part that infuriates you the most, the part you simply don’t get, the part that will forever make you an outsider—unreasonable. Humans are unreasonable. Your whole life, you’ve trusted one thing to save you. And saved you it has, again and again, without fail. That one thing is reason. Computers are a tool of reason, to be handled by people who obey the code of reason. People who are involved with computers, they’re reasonable, just like you. You all share a deep, unspoken bond. You’re all worshipers in the church of reason.

Please don’t hold that against us.