spiraling inward

Sam Altman’s post about Silicon Valley orthodoxy has everyone on Twitter pretty upset, and understandably so. It’s a mess. Altman’s not brave enough to defy the orthodoxy he feels stifled by, and instead offers a straw man too ridiculous to take seriously. The idea that anti-gay sentiment must be tolerated if we want to accommodate genius is ludicrous; it’s hard to even know what to do with it.I suppose I should admit that just last weekend I listened to an Apollo astronaut admiringly reflect on how no one could build a rocket engine quite like Wernher von Braun. Still. It takes tremendous self-flattery to imagine that the tech industry is built on minds so rare. I don’t think I’m being unfair in supposing that Altman is probably mostly sore about the treatment his friend Pete has received.

Still, Altman’s discomfort puts me in mind of my own looming dinosaur status (38 next year!). It’s only happenstance that on the same day I read Altman’s blog I read this piece by Dayna Tortorici in n+1. And while they’re talking about different sets of mores, I think it goes a long way to explaining how and why Altman feels the way he does:

The way they had learned to live in the world — to write novels, to make art, to teach, to argue about ideas, to conduct themselves in sexual and romantic relationships — no longer fit the time in which they were living. Especially the men. Their novels, art, teaching methods, ideas, and relationship paradigms were all being condemned as unenlightened or violent. Many of these condemnations issued from social media, where they multiplied and took on the character of a mounting threat: a mob at the gate. But repudiations of the old ways were also turning up in outlets that mattered to them: in reviews, on teaching evaluations, on hiring committees. Authors and artists whose work was celebrated as “thoughtful” or “political” not eight years ago were now being singled out as chauvinists and bigots. One might expect this in old age, but to be cast out as a political dinosaur by 52, by 40, by 36? They hadn’t even peaked! And with the political right — the actual right — getting away with murder, theft, and exploitation worldwide . . . ? That, at least, was how I gathered they felt. Sometimes I thought they were right. Sometimes I thought they needed to grow up.

This was the deal, right? The culture would move, and you’d slow down relative to it, and eventually you’d be a monster. But not right away. That was supposed to happen around retirement. Things seem to have accelerated. I think this is the root of Altman’s complaint.

What’s interesting to me is the possibility that thins acceleration has been nonuniform, like the gas of a spiraling stellar accretion disc, reaching a screaming white-hot intensity at its center even as its outer edges barely drift. In rural communities we are still working to end the persecution of gay people; in the city we’ve moved on to ending gender. I pick these examples not to signal my sympathy for either but merely to illustrate their distance from one another. I had assumed that although the system’s state was spatially gradient, its velocity was a constant. I now think this is obviously wrong. And differential acceleration means that things grow ever further apart.

It’s easy enough to shrug off whichever part of this picture you dislike. For example, critics reasonably dismiss instances of illiberalism on college campuses by pointing to more prosaic (and urgent) political struggles elsewhere. But these are simply different parts of the disc. The larger question of differential ideological acceleration remains ignored. Presumably it must all be reconciled into a culture, more or less, some day or another, through means disappointing or violent.

Maybe this is how it always was, just another sad minor revelation of age, like culture seeming to become boringly nostalgia-soaked when the seemingly sophisticated references to works that predate you grow rare. But people can self-sort and communicate more efficiently than ever, and that means they can jockey for position within their ideological projects more furiously than before. Spiraling inward, the heat and pressure growing.

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