Thou Profoundest Hell

If you want to catch a bear, honey will do the trick. If you want to make a certain kind of impressionable person miserable for life, you give them something that will make them feel superior to others without actually raising their status in the world. The cognitive dissonance of feeling better than the “phonies” but watching the phonies thrive is a recipe for wild mood swings, self-loathing, and raw toxicity. Welcome to hell. A hell mostly of one’s own making, but nonetheless as punishing and painful as anything out of Milton or Dante. And like a lot of things these days, the portal to this nightmarish dimension is the Internet.

In 2007, computer science professor Mark Tarver wrote an essay about a particular kind of person drawn to the programming language Lisp. The kind of person that is cursed with knowledge of the futility of much of human activity, the shallowness of the world around him (it is often a he), and often intolerant of the little things that one does to get by despite such knowledge. He has Bored> as his command line prompt. Lisp is a blessing and a curse for him. It fits his personality perfectly, but also encourages his self-destructive tendencies.

He likes Lisp because it lets him do anything he wants, without needing to collaborate with others. But as a result, everyone makes their own version of standard software tools and everything is poorly maintained and documented. Lisp loses out to programming languages that are less elegant and expressive but are optimized for generality, ease of use, and group collaboration. As Tarver noted, the online communities associated with Lisp reacted with a mixture of snobbishness and melancholia.

The flip side of all that energy and intelligence - the sadness, melancholia and loss of self during a down phase. If you read many posts discussing Lisp (including one in comp.lang.lisp called Common Lisp Sucks) you see it writ large. Veteran programmers of many years with obvious ability and talent go down with a fit of the blues. The intelligence is directed inwards in mournful contemplation of the inadequacies of their favourite programming language. The problems are soluble… but when you’re down everything seems insoluble. Lisp is doomed and we’re all going to hell.

We are the best, but everywhere we seem to be losing. We cannot compromise because we are the best, so we are doomed. What Tarver describes fits a general pattern that is, unfortunately, discernible in specialist communities that flock to particular consumer products, political movements, technical tools, and many other similar things. People watching these communities will often be astonished by the way they move almost seamlessly from arrogant euphoria to deep and dark depression. Every victory is a decisive rout, every defeat is proof that the world is ending. However, Lisp circa 2007 is actually a rather tame example of it relative to other and more frequent examples. Going beyond Tarver’s description of Lisp, this kind of modal dysfunctional community has a collection of other features that make it a truly profound hell for those that get sucked into it.

This place merges the elitism and snobbery of Tarver’s Lisp hackers with the parochialism of rural villages. The people with optionality start to trickle off, and the people who remain are true believers and those who have no future outside the community. The dead-enders alternate between repeated collective rageouts against the external world and internal infighting. Initially the anger, frustration, and gloom is directed towards the outside world. Then inevitably the internal backbiting begins once “our tribe against the world” fails to become a unifying device that staves off the internal entropy building inside the community.

It is both intensely cynical and intensely romantic. It often suspects the worst about the “normies” but nonetheless at least subconsciously craves their approval. It sees the world as a hollow, desiccated shell but nonetheless has a childish faith somehow in particular objects of fixation and aesthetic attitudes. It is a machine for generating not only self-doubt but also self-fulfilling prophecies of rejection. And it comes equipped with the convenient fallback of “I never wanted your love anyway!” when rejection, in fact, occurs. Even if this fallback may not really express what is actually desired at heart. At the end of the day, it manages these contradictions by eschewing practical action in favor of elaborate expressive displays.

Aesthetic symbols and folkloric fragments – often not even particular to the community itself but imported from elsewhere because they look cool, man – substitute for beliefs. Emotions, opportunism, and a desire to dramatize convictions take the place of strategy. In many ways, the Area 51 raid – with no goals more substantial than “clap dem alien cheeks” – is much more representative of 21st century social formations than many of us would like to admit. And when all us fails, beefing obsessively can generate the desired shiny objects to distract the cyber-proles. Any pretense towards the pursuit of instrumental external goals becomes abandoned for the primary internal goal of maintaining the community itself. The show must go on. Are you not entertained?!

But just as you probably might end up feeling unwell from drinking Gamer Girl Bathwater, mainlining this stuff will fuck you up. Badly. And to paraphrase Steve Albini, some of your friends are already this fucked.