Hackery, Math & Design

Steven Wittens i

Falling into Faith

Falling into Faith

On lambs in sheep's clothing

I distinctly remember when I realized the tech community was undergoing a significant cultural shift. It turned out to be quite prophetic for western culture. It was late 2013, at a small conference, where the closing keynote had just concluded with a massive standing ovation. It was clear the talk had resonated immensely. Yet there I was, still seated, profoundly uncomfortable, not just because of what I'd heard, but because I felt alone in my quiet dissent. Why did nobody else see what was wrong here?

It's impossible to explain why without describing the actual content in detail. However, even years later I expect that criticizing this talk will not be well received by some, which is odd, considering the entire purpose of public speaking is to reach a wide audience and invite a dialogue. If someone is speaking only in order to be listened to, that's called a sermon, not a talk.

What was said was on the surface mostly unobjectionable. A young woman had just told us the trials of her early working experience. How she'd thrown herself into the job and forgotten to come up for air, neglecting herself in the process. How the focus on work performance left little room for emotional and social well-being, which were equally important. And how she'd overcome all that to bring her there, her first tech conference talk ever.

That didn't bother me at all. It's a common enough tale, which is important for young professionals to hear. They're so accustomed to conforming to the school system, where the roadmap and schedule is already planned out, they're often unable to adjust to the more fluid and independent environment of the workplace. You have to find your own way, and pacing yourself for the long haul is entirely up to you.

In this case though, that wasn't how she explained it. Instead she blamed the expectations of doing as you're told, behaving "professionally," and checking personal issues at the door. These were misconceptions that people had about what a workplace should be. That instead you should be living the good life, namely being in the place you belong, with people that you love, doing the work that's yours, on purpose. This is what was necessary to create an environment in which she "felt safe."

That all sounds nice on paper. What bothered me was that she was not actually practicing what she was preaching.

Het Lam Gods

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by the brothers Van Eyck, 1432 (le wik)

She proclaimed the virtue of not succumbing to insecurity, yet began by highlighting how nervous she was, and that she needed the audience to close their eyes, which failed to alleviate it. So she asked some volunteers to come on stage to goof off and break the tension for her.

She explained how the last thing she wanted was to feel overly needy, "the grossest feeling ever," yet as part of her presentation had a brief video hangout with her coworkers, who were standing by a thousand miles away to provide live "moral support." After which she struggled to bring back her slides and needed an organizer to step in.

She emphasized the importance of letting people be human beings, with all their diverse and varied abilities, yet did not seem to realize the impossibly stifling professionalism she rejected was actually a framework to allow even irreconcilable differences to be overcome, in service of a common goal.

She talked about how tech features some of the most talented and privileged members of society, who can "create gold out of air," yet criticized a mindset that favors rationality over emotionality. This is the main thing that actually lifted humanity back out of the dark ages to make it possible for her to be there.

A person who praised the emotional intelligence of self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness failed to practice all three, by spilling her feelings out, immediately falling back to others for support and assistance, and not even realizing she was undermining her own points. She seemed to view criticism of emotionality as mere denial, an unwillingness to be honest with oneself, but was using it as a shield in that exact same way.

Most of all, it rang hollow to criticize others for having privilege just for showing up, when her own demeanor seemed to be falling into the role of the innocent, wounded lamb, spinning the yarn for all it was worth. Her notion of her dream job seemed to be exactly the most privileged one, free from significant differences of opinion or character, working only with those who would validate her in all the ways she wanted. A job which she now had.

Now, if a speaker makes a point by phoning home on the spot, that's one thing, and everyone knows live demos are cursed. But would it really be desirable if everyone else walked on stage as a quivering reed, requiring a pat on the back to make it through, flailing along the way? You don't have to tell me about the stress, I have given talks that are live demos from start to finish, in front of hundreds of faces and a camera, and it's not easy. But that's up to me to deal with and mitigate, through careful preparation and practice.

So, if this talk was so self-contradictory, why did it resonate? Well, because it hit all the right notes. She was a young mother showing pictures of her daughter, whom she wanted to teach what it meant to be a good person. There was struggle and redemption, in the form of a lost sheep finding her way out of the cold, dark desert and into a warm oasis of love and support. There was talk of her own internalized sexism, which she let go of, and the importance of inclusion and diversity. Back then those words still passed by with little notice, but today they are completely charged with moral goodness, and fighting evil.

I couldn't really explain it concisely at the time, but I put the pieces together later: this was not a tech talk, it was a secular baptist revival meeting. I was reminded of this by a recent clip of James Lindsay explaining that despite the demise of organized religion in the West, people on all sides are still searching for it, and have started acting out religious practice in other ways. I can believe it, because this was an early taste, creating converts in the audience. A place you belong, with people you love and who love you back, doing important work that's yours, with a purpose, that sounds like the ideal church.

Despite this harsh assessment, I don't intend to malign or single out the speaker, and I did not link to the talk on purpose. I also hope she's grown wiser since, though similar talks have been given dozens or even hundreds of times by now. The phenomenon of sanctifying secular practice is widespread. I merely want to add my voice that this is definitely happening, and this is the best way for me to explain it.

As I was revising this post, another video appeared which goes into the Evergreen State College scandal, demonstrating the unholy mix of organisational politics and collective guilt that lay at the basis of it. Professor Bret Weinstein, at the center of the storm along with his wife Heather Heying, describes the exact same feeling of being one of the few people in the room noticing the dishonest and manipulative pressure being applied to sell a moral ideology. He also describes the people who publicly appeared to support it, but privately admitted to not daring to speak out against it.

This is why favoring emotionality over rationality can be so pernicious: it prefers nice-sounding platitudes over reality. This is why dreams of universal harmony and psychological safety are utopian: it denies the fundamental differences and conflicts that exist. Skeptics have an allergic reaction and can see right through it, and it did not fill my heart with the love of Jesus.

Shrine to Grace Hopper

Shrine to Grace Hopper, 35C3, 2018
Is it still ironic if you're not allowed to laugh at it?

Five years later, if I look at what the main effects of secular-religious practice have been on the industry, it seems to be to enable exactly the same dysfunction that made traditional religion so unwelcome in the first place. Under the guise of creating better communities and addressing severe "inequities," the clergy feels that the ends justify the means, and that it doesn't need to follow its own commandments. It is now commonly argued that top-down control is necessary to ensure the safety of the users, like the shepherd protecting his flock. Tools have been created to make this easy at a frightening scale, ready to be abused, as well as standard policies to enable it.

At best, this leads to a slow decay of free expression. Nuanceless policing bots and scripts make it trivial for innocent bystanders to get hurt. The threat of losing one's social network on just one of the handful of popular platforms creates a severe chilling effect. This is augmented by the ease of concerted flagging and other public shaming campaigns, which create a guilty-until-proven innocent environment. In the worst case, it provides moral cover for sociopathy, as plausibly deniable censorship is enacted through the use of shadow bans, demonetization and filtered recommendations.

This also ripples down to the local scale, as a common theme in religious practice is that it must be applied every day, in every place, in order to live a virtuous life. So when this year's 35C3 congress put up conspicuous portraits of women-in-tech and built an actual shrine to Grace Hopper, I couldn't help but see the analogy to portraits of the Virgin Mary, celebrating the immaculate conception of the software compiler. When a DJ spun his tunes in front of an antifa flag, just like the one hanging over the venue entrance, I wondered exactly what sort of transcendant ecstacy was being sought on this dance floor. I can take a "you do you" approach to this, don't get me wrong, but this rule of tolerance was certainly not followed when people started stealing national flags and scrawling graffiti, after severe enough complaints were made prompting security to advise taking them down on the first day.

This is about far more than some industry events or edgy tweets though, as shown by the Grievance Studies hoax. The same James Lindsay, along with scholars Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian, wrote over a dozen fake humanities papers last year, with all the right citations, and got several published in peer-reviewed journals. This included dissertations on celebrating morbid obesity, inspecting the genitals of dogs for signs of rape culture, putting white students in chains in classrooms, and even a rewritten excerpt from Mein Kampf, with intersectionality replacing naziism. They collected numerous accolades and compliments for their supposedly "rich and exciting" material, before the gig was up.

As they put it, they wanted to demonstrate that what passes for knowledge production is often just sophistry, coating unsupported ideology with a veneer of respectability, as a form of "idea laundering." Instead of using the processes of academia as a crucible for arriving at the truth, scholars in these fields use them to reinforce their preconceptions and manufacture a monoculture.

In response, unable to discredit the papers on their own merits without shooting themselves in the foot, opponents targeted Boghossian with an IRB ethics complaint. His employer Portland State University concluded that a practical audit of indefensible scholarship amounts to doing research on human subjects without their consent. This attempt to save face further reinforces the mockery of process, and merely tries to shoot the messenger.

Religion appears to be a fundamental need for many, which evolved to provide strong in-group cohesion as a competitive advantage, at the expense of demonizing apostates and heretics. When its worst impulses are not contained, rationality is tossed aside as inappropriate, seeking out a greater moral purity with unquestionable zeal, playing as dirty as needed. While the overt practice of faith has now become severely outmoded, it only leads to bigger problems when we pretend it is no longer present or relevant.

I know "X is religion" is not a particularly novel take, but religious war is war, and war never changes.

Antifa Flag at 35C3

Antifa Flag at 35C3 (via Twitter)

As such, the situation in tech is just one facet, with clear parallels elsewhere. Faced with a righteous moral struggle against "whiteness" and "nazis," nowhere near as prevalent in reality as in religious fever dreams, and with zero self-awareness, this wave of social justice has turned into a disturbing tsunami of groupthink. Heretics and apostates are more commonly called hateful trolls and alt-right fascists, even if the opposite is true. Without a clearly delineated space to practice their faith in, believers have instead taken it into HR departments, professional networks, academic faculties, media outlets and political parties, bootstrapping their own inquisition in the name of Trust and Safety, rooting out harmful ideas.

The most notable example for me remains the excommunication of James Damore at Google in 2017, fired not because of what he said, but because of what some of his coworkers and the press read into it. They were unable to treat science with the rationality it requires. The psychological safety of his coworkers was more important than his physical safety, judging by the threats they sent him, as they succumbed to emotionally driven, hateful mob behavior to expel the scapegoat. Which, y'know, is a biblical concept. As is the innocent lamb of god. These two avatars also featured prominently in the Drupal community's persecution of Larry Garfield in the same year, in service of an imagined victim of sexual abuse who was never actually consulted.

The knock-on effects continue to escalate, due to the increasing dominance of tech platforms in society, as shown recently with crowdfunder Patreon's capricious banning of wrongthinkers, and the subsequent sabotage of competitor SubscribeStar when PayPal cut off payments. The desire to exclude sinful thoughts can now go as far as denying all avenues of financial support, violating the autonomy of their individual backers. These acts are then justified by clearly labeling the targets as being anti-goodness, and appealing to the supposed superior human judgement of a case-by-case approach, in practice little more than naked subjectivity.

The net result is that whole categories of people are now made actually unsafe, under constant threat of being censored or falsely discredited, in order to satisfy the mere comfort and status of a shortsighted and pampered demographic. That same group will regularly say that it's actually the white men whailing about losing their privilege. So I have to wonder what parallel universe they imagine yesterday's tech was created in, where taking a serious interest in computers, video games or science fiction was not cause for social ostracism. This was a plight shared by geeks of all colors and varieties, and a pattern which appears to be repeating itself more insidiously.

The talk mentioned above did raise the question, "what about the negative impacts of denying people to be themselves entirely at work?" Well Damore, being autistic, was clearly denied the opportunity of doing any of that at all, despite following the signposted processes. The resulting media coverage then reiterated all its old talking points, in a muddled "conversation" a nebulous "we" need to be having, but which nobody is allowed to disagree with. That tech communities have themselves long served as safe spaces for the neurologically diverse is ignored, directly contradicting the stated aim of inclusion.

I should add, I'm not naive enough to think this is a uniquely left-wing phenomenon, and religious conviction invites the same in return. But in this case, "who started it" does actually matter a lot. The left controls the vast majority of cultural and intellectual levers in the West today, and accountability is long overdue. It's also high time to acknowledge how provincial and seasonal the current American Trump-obsession and its associated race-baiting is. They are preoccupied with the US border, but mostly ignorant of what happens far from it. That the same people who seem extremely concerned about cultural appropriation can't seem to even imagine how narrow and imperialist their perspective really is, is a supremely sad irony cherry on top.

Social media appears to have been a major driver, and I suspect the early warnings in tech can be directly attributed to its tech-savvy early adopters. By blurring the lines between the personal and the professional, it encourages people to focus on emotional harmony over objective cooperation. This kind of infantilization was one of several factors identified in Lukianoff and Haidt's The Coddling of the American Mind and actually harms social and emotional development. It's a trend that's going global. The world simply cannot be run like one big, happy village, and trying to do so regardless only results in a purity spiral where the genuinely marginalized are necessary collateral damage and the watchmen run amok.

In fact, I'm more and more convinced that the main effect of social media has been to make cluster B disorders such as narcissism and borderline personality socially advantageous. The main weapons deployed by a Mean Girl (m/f/nb/rgba) are selective sharing of information and narrative framing, and instant shares and likes are incredible force multipliers in the right wrong hands.

Not so long ago we confined religion to the personal sphere, and valued the separation of church and state. In a time when elements of the private sector control essential parts of the public sphere, that should include them too. It would be significantly better if we'd start valuing this principle again, because faith is now being used to justify burning the ideals of free society at the stake. The flames probably have not reached you yet, but how much longer?

Even worse, a tech community that was once united around treating censorship as damage, and personal freedom as paramount, is now divided on these very issues. It leaves the door open to far more dangerous leaps of faith, like the idea that the greatest public resource ever created should be backdoored and surveilled down to every nook and cranny for misbehavior, for the good of all. It's happening right now, one law at a time. In case you missed it. It might be worth doing something about it.

As for me, I'm still around, getting work done as best I can. If it's quiet around here, that's only because I'm putting efforts elsewhere, coding in peace. Feel free to hit me up. Just not on Twitter.

This article contains graphics made with WebGL, which your browser does not seem to support.
Try Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. ×