Saturday, January 07, 2012


[[I'm doing some housecleaning on the blog; this is a draft from over a year ago that I never got around to releasing]]

Here's a chunk I edited out of the Personae post, because it seemed a wee bit self-pitying:
The people who seem to thrive in this culture are those who are full-time extroverts, the kind of people who have constructed a persona for a particular purpose and/or audience and live it out 24/7. San Francisco is full of people like that, but I'm not one of them.
But danah boyd has a good rant on Facebook, in which she made essentially the same point and introduced a good term of art:
With this backdrop in mind, I want to talk about a concept that Kirkpatrick suggests is core to Facebook: radical transparency. In short, Kirkpatrick argues that Zuckerberg believes that people will be better off if they make themselves transparent. Not only that, society will be better off... if people make themselves transparent. And given his trajectory, he probably believes that more and more people want to expose themselves. Silicon Valley is filled with people engaged in self-branding, making a name for themselves by being exhibitionists. It doesn'™t surprise me that Scoble wants to expose himself; he is always the first to engage in a mass collection on social network sites, happy to be more-public-than-thou. Sometimes, too public. But that i™s his choice. The problem is that not everyone wants to be along for the ride.
Of course, she is a consummate self-brander and I am not, so even if we are saying the same thing, it ends up in quite different speech acts.

Personally, I hate being labeled and classified, it always seems limiting. This is a constant irritation, for example when recruiters ask me if I'm a front-end or back-end engineer (or even worse, a "Javascript engineer"). Fuck that, I'm an across-the-board engineer (or better, a software designer, at least that's what I aspire to), and just about everything I've built involves jointly created front- and back-end work. But that doesn't help them slot me into the slots they are trying to fill.

This shouldn't get my hackles up. People need to know what role you are playing if they are to interact with you. I often feel my attitude is some kind of leftover sixties romanticism, a belief that everyone drop their masks and interact authentically...which is a rather childish belief, but persists somewhere down in my subconscious.

For similar reasons I've never been able to fully adopt a political, philosophical, or religious belief system either. All my lame efforts at spiritual writing, for instance, comes from being unable to identify with any religion, but being almost equally repulsed by the smug scientific atheists. I am trying to find a truth that is not this, not that, because all the interesting things seems to lie in the lightly-settled borderlands between existing fields and existing systems.

During my time in academia, I was in a lab at MIT that was founded to be more interdisciplinary than the old AI lab (which was originally an interdisciplinary place, but was in the process of congealing into a settled discipline of its own around my time), and while there I managed to help invent a new subfield that was even more interdisciplinary than that. But I didn't manage to turn that into an intellectual home, so went on to other things. At some point the urge to be interdisciplinary starts to look like active resistance to discipline.

Or maybe it's just GrouchoMarxism: I don't care to belong to any club that will accept people like me as members. Anyway, for whatever reason, my thoughts and interests seem to actively resist categorization. Which I like to believe helps keeps them honest, fresh, original, and alive, but also makes them damn hard to describe to anyone else, let alone be stamped with a brand and put out into the marketplace.

[[Realized after posting that self-branding literally means "searing a symbol into your own flesh".]]


scw said...

These comments struck a chord with me, though maybe not quite the one you intended to strike. It may still be in sympathetic harmony.

It has often seemed to me that people who live extremely public lives, such as politicians and movie stars, have something missing from their psychological constitutions that "normal" people do - namely, the sense that there is some portion of their lives and some amount of their time that ought to be private. They are happy, or at least content, to live in the limelight.

And because, as you point out, their professions necessitate self-branding, which is hard to maintain consistently, there is no time and no place in which they may quietly and deliberately come to terms with their self-contradictions. The resultant tension reveals itself in the peculiar lives of politicians like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, the serial polygamy or persistent substance abuse problems of numerous past and present Hollywood stars, and occasional highly public melodrama.

Living in a placid midwestern community among people who at least seem to me to be resolutely normal, with stable marriages, happy families, and children who grow up to follow the same undramatic and wholesome patterns their parents did, I have to wonder if such people, and their communities, will really be better off if they make themselves more transparent. It seems much more likely that doing so will introduce them to the stresses that make Washington and Hollywood such neurotic places.

mtraven said...

Well, the world needs placid stable people to be sure, but all the progress and interesting stuff comes from unplacid unstable people.

I don't much care about politicians or actors, who one expects to live their lives in public. But intellectuals and creative persons also seem to have to spend an inordinate amount of their time advertising themselves. Maybe that's just because the costs of communication have dropped so drastically, that the competition for that kind of attention is greater than it used to be.

jlredford said...

We've been told for decades now that we all must become Brand Me, that we must market ourselves the way shampoo gets marketed, or else we'll fade into the mass of indistinguishable shampoos and have our work replaced by that of other, cheaper indistinguishable cogs. Californians seem to lead this trend, in both the Ecotopian and Industry zones. It's another sign of excessive regard for Me, which the Left Coast has long been stereotyped with.

I agree that it's irksome, but I'd say that the real negative consequence is excessive pay and power to the Branded Ones, of whom Jobs was the exemplar. Even if you are in some way uniquely valuable, you're not thousands of times more valuable than everyone else.

scw said...

It is far from clear that "all the progress and interesting stuff comes from unplacid unstable people." I'm acquainted with a fellow who holds more patents than I have birthdays. You may have used one or more of his inventions without even knowing it. He's a quiet sort. You wouldn't be able to pick him out of a crowd. I'm not sure that he even has a Facebook account.

The notion that creative genius is somehow linked to an "unplacid unstable" (manic or melancholic) personality is an ancient stereotype - see for example Ficino's "De vita" - but that doesn't make it true always or even most of the time.