1000 Ledes n + 25: The Tipping Point

Usually retrospection shows you things were more complex than you ever thought at the time, but not so in this case. Looking back, years later, she realized there was a moment that decided it all, that painted a decade in hazy pain. She realized none of it would have happened like this if she’d left the first time he hit her.

ACM Web Science talk, as written

I’m Quinn Norton, I write (for Wired and many other outlets) about very strange things people do on the internet.

When Mark asked me to do this talk he asked me for a title for myself. This is my least favorite question, because I don’t know how to answer it honestly. I suggested internet weirdo, and my assistant suggested “kitten enthusiast” — which I think might be the best title I’ve heard for what I am.

My job is awesome, but in recent years it’s gotten very strange. My writing is deliberately non-objective, but sometimes it is so strange as to feel like a tissue of lies, even to me. So this talk is as much about describing new landmarks on the landscape of the semi-consensual hallucination that is our shared reality, as it is about the people doing strange things on the internet.

My daughter, before she could read, taught me what the internet is. She was very anxious about what was written about her on the net, and made me go through all of it with her. This seemed crazy from a little kid from the world where we’re told by jackasses that kids don’t care about privacy, so I tried to tease out why she cared. As she described why, I began to see what the net was to her, and really is to all of us: the net is what we all already know, but haven’t thought of yet. And because of this, because of how strange this is, we who seek to understand and explain the world are in terrible trouble.

But let me give you an example from my field.

There is an aesthetic crisis in writing, which is this: how do we write emotionally of scenes involving computers? How do we make concrete, or at least reconstructable in the minds of our readers, the terrible, true passions that cross telephony lines? Right now my field must tackle describing a world where falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same; it looks like typing.

It’s the same problem filmmakers have with hackers – during the height of their drama, they sit there, inert, typing. This is why fiction keeps inventing high drama metaphors of traditional physical life for the shared internal life of the net, ala The Matrix and Snow Crash.

We’ve long wrapped a ribbon of description around the outlines of subtle gestures of life to focus the reader’s attention on a single person, building dyadic connections moment by moment, between the character and the reader. We have used tiny details to evoke the sympathy of shared emotions, as Archibald MacLeish said, “For all the history of grief, an empty doorway and a maple leaf.”

But how do we describe all the history of grief when, in fact, it’s in this one giant room with us?

Contemporary literature’s dyadic and subtle writing is nearly passive aggressively avoidant on the net. It isn’t a meaningful way to talk about the networked self, because by definition you aren’t just yourself when you’re on the network. You are a smeared entity, multiply identitied. You are different in every packet, sometimes the receiver, sometime transmitter, mostly all at once. You are a node, like a forgotten memory to everyone else, just as they are to you. The sum of human knowledge is your latent, unthought thoughts, the words of all the other humans your memories to never be remembered. Your potentiality is diffuse in the ocean of human imagination, and all of it is there for you to drink.

We often fall into a trap: if we make net life just like real life, we can write about it! But net life is real life. It deserves its own aesthetic of language, and it only suffers the paucities it’s accused of when clumsily translated to our old ways of being in the world.

And if ever we needed evidence, it is this: when it steps back into real life it brings its strange back with it. These are examples of graffiti from the Egyptian revolution, they are values of an incorporeal world, made corporeal, to the great disruption of accepted political structures. This is the Polish parliament, taking on the momentary identity of a 4chan based non-group that first materialized four years earlier to harass the Church of Scientology, to protest an intellectual property treaty. These protests eventually destroyed the international treaty, and no one really knows how it happened.

Consider the case of Pepper Spray Cop. We know it as a meme, a sudden idea that went across the network and was integrated by thousands of people into every scene and every artwork people could reach for. We could describe it in terms of people getting the idea and sitting at their computers, carefully redrawing Lt Pike in one scene after another, uploading and downloading him in his brief, infinite, variety. But have we captured anything there? Are we defeated by of computer interaction that can’t discern Pepper Spray Cop from a love letter, and neither of them from the day work of an insurance adjuster?

We are defeated. We are stuck with facial expressions at a monitor, the little clicking and tapping of prone hands, maybe if we’re daring, even a description of the screen. We are further cursed by the fact and an insurance adjuster could very well be penning a love letter while making her own pepper spray cop. As writers and artists our literal tools are not only locked out of the loop between humans and their computers, but distantly removed from the drama of their networks.

But what if we reached for the language of myth and magic to describe Pepper Spray Cop?

What if, instead, we say his sin was so shocking that it scarred the collective dream of the net, that it reverberated so widely it was heard from heaven to hell, pressed its way into the imaginative ocean, from Guernica to Star Wars? We can call it more, we can call it a moment where the net collectively dreamed of police brutality, and the networked creatures were ever so slightly changed. A new signal received, a new wariness, perhaps undreampt of yet by any particular network creature, but at the very least latent for all.

We could say more… we can say the net reared back and laughed, horrified, and cursed him. It placed on him a terrible form of one of its many kinds of fame, such that everywhere he goes in life, all he will be known for is his inescapable moment, like some ancient greek disfigured by the gods. In this, haven’t we said many more true things than if we counted the number of pepper spray cops, or remarked how they were made, or even the apparent mindstates of those who made them?

The network is a place of corporeal metaphors, intellectual landscapes painted out of math. Perhaps we should write about network life like we write about art. Or see it as a kind of magic, best approached with mystical description. We don’t understand what we’re doing, what we’re writing about, our own creation has surpassed the methods of reductionism we used to create it. Isn’t it more honest and true to write about it with a kind of vetted mythology?

For the purposes of this next bit, I dub myself Pope, so that I may canonize a saint for the internet, and that saint shall be
Jorge Luis Borges. He gave us the Library of Babel, and we are endeavoring as hard and fast as we can to give it back to him.

Here is a convenient Celestial Emporium of web culture, ala Borges. I’d like you to consider how this is a useful research breakdown:

1. Those that belong to the Emperor

1. Those that belong to the Emperor

2

2. Embalmed ones

3

3. Those that are trained

4

4. Suckling pigs

5

5. Mermaids (or sirens)

6

6. Fabulous ones

7

7. Stray dogs

8

8. Those that are included in this classification

9

9. Those that tremble as if they were mad

10

10. Innumerable ones

11

11. Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush

12

12. Et cetera

13

13. Those that have just broken the flower vase

14

14. Those that, from a distance, resemble flies

All this is to say that because I study and am part of something largely illegible to 20th century taxonomies, but born of them, I have to use the language of the wrong century to describe my life. My problem is I need a new literature to describe network culture in terms that are true to itself, your problem is you need a new science to do the same.

So, if we accept the weird environment I’ve painted, how do we make it tractable? to some degree, we don’t. We have to start by accepting that to truly describe a weird thing, only a weird description can be true. But there’s so much to say that needs to be said.

There is the way we think of how we interact with computers. But beyond there, I think, is an untapped wealth of wisdom in the stories both technical and non-technical people tell about what their computers are and are doing, and in what they think is happening on their network, not ours. We need to ask them what other people are, online, to them. Because they’re right, even if mapping it to the underlying technologies and protocols can be hard. There is a vast truth in the delta between someone’s online life and there time afk. People don’t go online to become someone else, they go online and the network makes them into many selves, all as true in the moment as any other, and all changing the world with their tiny ephemeral footprints, making a trillion memories none of us will ever remember to remember, all watched over by machines of loving grace.

Let us consider how all these lies are, in fact, more true than all of our statistics about them.

From Alexis de Tocqueville to Now

It’s an interesting time to be reading Democracy in America, for not the least reason to see how new forms of self organization are adapted to when they emerge on the scene, as I believe is the case now. It’s also a painful reminder of how much things have changed, how a new de Tocqueville would mourn late modern America as he did his own Europe.

A excerpt from Chapter Five on the centralization of government has a painful sting to it:

In certain countries of Europe the natives consider themselves as a kind of settlers, indifferent to the fate of the spot upon which they live… the citizen is unconcerned as to the condition of his village, the police of his street, the repairs of the church or of the parsonage; for he looks upon all these things as unconnected with himself, and as the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the Government. He has only a life-interest in these possessions, and he entertains no notions of ownership or of improvement. This want of interest in his own affairs goes so far that, if his own safety or that of his children is endangered, instead of trying to avert the peril, he will fold his arms, and wait till the nation comes to his assistance… When a nation has arrived at this state it must either change its customs and its laws or perish: the source of public virtue is dry, and, though it may contain subjects, the race of citizens is extinct. Such communities are a natural prey to foreign conquests, and if they do not disappear from the scene of life, it is because they are surrounded by other nations similar or inferior to themselves…

The European generally submits to a public officer because he represents a superior force; but to an American he represents a right…. In America the means which the authorities have at their disposal for the discovery of crimes and the arrest of criminals are few. The State police does not exist, and passports are unknown. The criminal police of the United States cannot be compared to that of France; the magistrates and public prosecutors are not numerous, and the examinations of prisoners are rapid and oral. Nevertheless in no country does crime more rarely elude punishment. The reason is, that every one conceives himself to be interested in furnishing evidence of the act committed, and in stopping the delinquent.

In wider context from more of it, the sting goes deeper.

In certain countries of Europe the natives consider themselves as a kind of settlers, indifferent to the fate of the spot upon which they live. The greatest changes are effected without their concurrence and (unless chance may have apprised them of the event) without their knowledge; nay more, the citizen is unconcerned as to the condition of his village, the police of his street, the repairs of the church or of the parsonage; for he looks upon all these things as unconnected with himself, and as the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the Government. He has only a life-interest in these possessions, and he entertains no notions of ownership or of improvement. This want of interest in his own affairs goes so far that, if his own safety or that of his children is endangered, instead of trying to avert the peril, he will fold his arms, and wait till the nation comes to his assistance. This same individual, who has so completely sacrificed his own free will, has no natural propensity to obedience; he cowers, it is true, before the pettiest officer; but he braves the law with the spirit of a conquered foe as soon as its superior force is removed: his oscillations between servitude and license are perpetual. When a nation has arrived at this state it must either change its customs and its laws or perish: the source of public virtue is dry, and, though it may contain subjects, the race of citizens is extinct. Such communities are a natural prey to foreign conquests, and if they do not disappear from the scene of life, it is because they are surrounded by other nations similar or inferior to themselves: it is because the instinctive feeling of their country’s claims still exists in their hearts; and because an involuntary pride in the name it bears, or a vague reminiscence of its bygone fame, suffices to give them the impulse of self-preservation.

Nor can the prodigious exertions made by tribes in the defence of a country to which they did not belong be adduced in favor of such a system; for it will be found that in these cases their main incitement was religion. The permanence, the glory, or the prosperity of the nation were become parts of their faith, and in defending the country they inhabited they defended that Holy City of which they were all citizens. The Turkish tribes have never taken an active share in the conduct of the affairs of society, but they accomplished stupendous enterprises as long as the victories of the Sultan were the triumphs of the Mohammedan faith. In the present age they are in rapid decay, because their religion is departing, and despotism only remains. Montesquieu, who attributed to absolute power an authority peculiar to itself, did it, as I conceive, an undeserved honor; for despotism, taken by itself, can produce no durable results. On close inspection we shall find that religion, and not fear, has ever been the cause of the long-lived prosperity of an absolute government. Whatever exertions may be made, no true power can be founded among men which does not depend upon the free union of their inclinations; and patriotism and religion are the only two motives in the world which can permanently direct the whole of a body politic to one end…

The European generally submits to a public officer because he represents a superior force; but to an American he represents a right. In America it may be said that no one renders obedience to man, but to justice and to law. If the opinion which the citizen entertains of himself is exaggerated, it is at least salutary; he unhesitatingly confides in his own powers, which appear to him to be all-sufficient. When a private individual meditates an undertaking, however directly connected it may be with the welfare of society, he never thinks of soliciting the co-operation of the Government, but he publishes his plan, offers to execute it himself, courts the assistance of other individuals, and struggles manfully against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the State might have been in his position; but in the end the sum of these private undertakings far exceeds all that the Government could have done.

As the administrative authority is within the reach of the citizens, whom it in some degree represents, it excites neither their jealousy nor their hatred; as its resources are limited, every one feels that he must not rely solely on its assistance. Thus, when the administration thinks fit to interfere, it is not abandoned to itself as in Europe; the duties of the private citizens are not supposed to have lapsed because the State assists in their fulfilment, but every one is ready, on the contrary, to guide and to support it. This action of individual exertions, joined to that of the public authorities, frequently performs what the most energetic central administration would be unable to execute. It would be easy to adduce several facts in proof of what I advance, but I had rather give only one, with which I am more thoroughly acquainted. In America the means which the authorities have at their disposal for the discovery of crimes and the arrest of criminals are few. The State police does not exist, and passports are unknown. The criminal police of the United States cannot be compared to that of France; the magistrates and public prosecutors are not numerous, and the examinations of prisoners are rapid and oral. Nevertheless in no country does crime more rarely elude punishment. The reason is, that every one conceives himself to be interested in furnishing evidence of the act committed, and in stopping the delinquent. During my stay in the United States I witnessed the spontaneous formation of committees for the pursuit and prosecution of a man who had committed a great crime in a certain county. In Europe a criminal is an unhappy being who is struggling for his life against the ministers of justice, whilst the population is merely a spectator of the conflict; in America he is looked upon as an enemy of the human race, and the whole of mankind is against him…

On the other hand, I am convinced that democratic nations are most exposed to fall beneath the yoke of a central administration, for several reasons, amongst which is the following. The constant tendency of these nations is to concentrate all the strength of the Government in the hands of the only power which directly represents the people, because beyond the people nothing is to be perceived but a mass of equal individuals confounded together. But when the same power is already in possession of all the attributes of the Government, it can scarcely refrain from penetrating into the details of the administration, and an opportunity of doing so is sure to present itself in the end, as was the case in France. In the French Revolution there were two impulses in opposite directions, which must never be confounded — the one was favorable to liberty, the other to despotism. Under the ancient monarchy the King was the sole author of the laws, and below the power of the sovereign certain vestiges of provincial institutions, half destroyed, were still distinguishable. These provincial institutions were incoherent, ill compacted, and frequently absurd; in the hands of the aristocracy they had sometimes been converted into instruments of oppression. The Revolution declared itself the enemy of royalty and of provincial institutions at the same time; it confounded all that had preceded it — despotic power and the checks to its abuses — in indiscriminate hatred, and its tendency was at once to overthrow and to centralize. This double character of the French Revolution is a fact which has been adroitly handled by the friends of absolute power. Can they be accused of laboring in the cause of despotism when they are defending that central administration which was one of the great innovations of the Revolution? In this manner popularity may be conciliated with hostility to the rights of the people, and the secret slave of tyranny may be the professed admirer of freedom.

Alas and good night, you great experiment.

The Utilitarian and the Devil: A Parable for the Dead

One day, the Utilitarian got out some candles, noxious herbs, bread, sour wine, and some blood, took off his clothes, and summoned the Devil. The Devil appeared in the the palpable dark punctually, just as the last incanted word left the Utilitarian’s lips. He was dressed in a traditional suit, black and dark red. The air around him was musty, smokey, and with that hint of rotten eggs and chocolate just burnt too far to be pleasant. The Devil had the smile of a man who knows he’s won, but patient for the game to play out. He didn’t hide it, and he and the Utilitarian both knew the Utilitarian was outmatched. It made the Devil’s cheeks a little warmer red, and the The Utilitarian even more wan than usual. The Utilitarian, suddenly aware in the presence of the highest of angels that he was totally nude, shivered and crouched. The Devil grinned just a bit too far for his face, and exhaled. His breath was like the warmth of brick fireplace to the cold Utilitarian. The Devil’s breath was a little too close, inviting, but uncomfortable like a winter’s morning when the cold has bit your bones and you think you’ll crawl into the fire so you can at least die warm.

“Yes?” said the Devil, in a growl that rumbled up to a hiss on the note of his curiosity, “What…. would you like… from me?”

The Utilitarian stood dumbstruck for a moment, staring with his lips slightly more apart, seeming to get even paler. He remembered himself, snapped his lips together, and tried to bring his shoulders square with the Devil’s. “I’d… I’d like to sell my soul,” the Utilitarian said, gaining back some of his lost strength as he went.

The Devil reached into a nonexistent coat pocket and pulled out a full clipboard, quill pen resting at the top, and took it in hand. “Excellent!” he declared. “What shall it be? Money, sex? To be the most famous of philosophers, respected and beloved of Mankind? Or perhaps something more prosaic, in keeping with your demeanor. Peace on Earth, perhaps? Please, my dear Utilitarian, don’t keep me waiting!” As the Devil spoke his smile never retreated an inch from his ears. He took up the quill pen in a position of mock preparedness, while the Utilitarian caught his breath again, and cleared his throat.

“I will sell my soul to you in exchange for passage to Heaven for 10,000 unworthy souls.”

The Devil’s smile shrank to a dot of a mouth, and he narrowed his eyes. Now, it is said that an unstained soul (which The Utilitarian had) smells ever so much sweeter to Hell than its sullied cousins. This is not untrue, but 10,000 was a lot of unworthy souls. They were perhaps not so tantalizing, but they were the Devil’s fair and square, and there were 10,000 of them. On the other hand… he slapped his pen down on the clipboard and both vanished in a flash of fire. The Devil stared at an imaginary point across the basement’s width. To the Utilitarian, he seemed to be thinking, but it was terrible to watch the Devil think, and it made him shake again. The Devil looked back at the Utilitarian, meeting him in the eyes. “It may not be mine to give. I shall make inquiries.”

With that, the Devil was gone, along with the summoning circle and its creepy paraphernalia. All that was left was some misplaced wax and the cold, naked Utilitarian.

Months passed without word from the Devil. The Utilitarian lived an ascetic life, balanced with charity and good works, in anticipation of the Devil’s return. He wanted nothing to sully the value of his soul. He remembered the Devil’s smile at him, and he knew the Devil would somehow find a way to pay.

The decades came and went, and the Utilitarian remained a blameless champion of the suffering. He fed the hungry and found great pleasure in it. He reached out to the mad especially, and sheltered them from the world when they couldn’t shelter themselves from the beasts of their minds. He came to enjoy his work, and his enjoyment only made his good work better. As he slowly shrank into a stooped old man, he barely thought about the Devil anymore. He had come to love his life for the joy of the service. He was no longer holding his soul virtuous for the sake of good value, but had become that value itself.

But one morning, as the Utilitarian was getting out of bed, he heard a caller knocking. It was the Devil again, just as he had been, as if he’d just stepped out for a cigarette. “Are you still interested?” asked the Devil.

“My soul for 10,000 unworthy?” asked the Utilitarian. The Devil nodded once. “Then,” continued the Utilitarian, “I am still interested.”

“Well, then. Let’s seal the deal over a game of chess, and drink some tea!” said the Devil, happily producing a kettle and game board from nothing and nowhere. The Devil set out the board and patted his stomach unconsciously. He gestured for the Utilitarian to sit in his own seat while he poured tea in two abruptly existent cups on the table. Content, he seated himself behind black, and the Utilitarian took the first move.

“You’ve done well for yourself,” said the Devil as he made his move, “You’re well on the way to sainthood.”

“Nonsense. The mutterings of committees, talking about my death,” said the old Utilitarian, waving his hand dismissively in the air.

The Devil laughed, and went on, “I have rather better sources than you on these matters.” The Utilitarian looked abashed, and made his next move. They went on for while longer, chatting, playing chess, and drinking tea, until the Devil paused, stealing the Utilitarian’s attention away from the game.

“You know, people get it all wrong,” said the Devil, leaning back from the game, tea in hand. “I don’t want good men to join me so I can torture them for all eternity, or eat them, or whatever people think I do. It’s just that the evil deceased can be so boorish. Black hearted men don’t suddenly get easy to live with just because they’re dead. Whereas you, sir, are simply good company to all comers, even myself. I know from your life that you are not only kind, but enjoy being so. That you laugh in equal parts to your tears, that you think, and are willing to share your thoughts. Why on Earth would I not want such company for my duties in Hell?” He waved his hand gently around the bare room, as if impressed with its lavishness.

The Devil looked down, losing the Utilitarian’s eyes, and continued. “With that I must remind you of the terms of our deal and see if you agree. In exchange for your one, unblemished soul descending to the depths of Hell to be by my side for eternity, 10,000 souls marked for me by the unworthiness of their lives shall instead walk the road to Heaven, to dwell forever?”

“It is obviously better that this should be,” said the Utilitarian, “And whatever waits for me in Hell, the knowledge that 10,000 can rise towards bliss will be an eternal comfort.”

“Yes, that will be true. But my, shall we say, counterpart, wanted the deal repeated to you as his condition, to give you time to consider what you are asking for.”

“The math is simple. 10,000 will always be more than one,” said the Utilitarian.

The Devil put out his hand, and as the Utilitarian shook it he felt the whole of the small house shift, and begin to sink into the ground. The Devil went on unperturbed. “10,000 and one are not as uneven as you think,” he told the Utilitarian magnanimously, clasping his extra hand over the Utilitarian’s. “I’d wager Hell is nearly as improved by your grace today as Heaven has been diminished by it.”

Why I disagree with Wesley Yang’s conclusion

Rodin's Fallen Caryatid, still crushed by her stone.

Wesley Yang wrote about Aaron in New York Magazine with sensitivity, complexity, and pathos. He laid out parts of the story like puzzle pieces. But then, I believe, he built the wrong image. He built an easier image than belonged there.

I’ve talked to very few journalists since Aaron died, compared to how many tried to talk to me. Mostly those who caught me in New York before I left America, those who got to me through friends, those who were lucky enough to find me when I could talk.

One of them was Yang. I told him (as I told all the journalists I spoke to) that this was a very hard and complex story, that I wouldn’t want to be writing it. Then again, I said, I wouldn’t want to be me even more. I spoke to Yang as I packed to leave America, as I was moving and sorting, falling in and out of silences the day after I’d eulogized him in Cooper Union. I was puffy with crying. I was the strange kind of empty and full that only comes with grief. I spoke of our lives together. I told him things that were not to be published. I asked for quote approval, and he promised it to me.

Yang did not do wrong by me. Many of the moments of his piece were lovely, and he danced up to the ambivalence of Aaron’s legacy in a way few writers thus far have. But in the end he shied away from the terrible lessons of Aaron’s death. He shied away from the what the insanity of the last month has pointed to; in the end, I think, he made this story smaller and easier than it is.

“It cannot serve society’s purpose to make a felon and an inmate out of so gifted and well-meaning a person as Aaron Swartz, and thus he was a victim of a grave injustice. But it bears remembering that the greater injustice was done to Aaron Swartz by the man who killed him.”

The greater injustice: it’s a beautiful sentence, but one that belittles the soul of civilized life.

To put this on Aaron is to say he was too weak, too fragile for our society. He should have been stronger, it’s what society requires. But Aaron would have (rightly) pointed out how meager and mean such a society is, how it’s the job of everyone to demand a better society. “A felon and an inmate” is the lesser of injustice that Yang describes. It’s a way of blaming Aaron for not being able to endure an unbearable weight, the cruelty of a violent system disconnected from justice. Living through this investigation was hell. It is the stuff of hell, of destruction, before you even get to the deeper hell of our private slave labor prison system. You have no idea how you’d react if this has never happened to you. Not Yang, not Heymann or Ortiz. Perhaps me, because I’ve been in the range of damage, more than once. But even then I’m not sure.

We are not the mythical Hollywood Spartans Aaron and I laughed at together many years ago after watching 300. We were slowly, reluctantly, falling in love after both of us had rejected dayjob life at Wired. That night we were both amused and just a little bit horrified that this primitive notion of what makes virtue; that the heroes of this story would have killed us both as children. Aaron and I were part of a culture that prides itself on not slaughtering deformed or sickly children, or leaving unwanted babies to die of exposure. Instead we were the people that could go to the moon and builds ADA ramps. We hold people like Stephen Hawking up as paragons, not of their virtues, but ours. We contend that we live better and more wisely for keeping brilliant minds in useful arts and sciences not only alive, but offering a place where they can thrive and enrich us all.

And we are lying.

Yang blames Aaron for not going to high school, for not learning to do pointless things because he was told to by men with power over him. I have sympathy for Aaron here, I didn’t finish high school either. I have what Yang points to as Aaron’s fatal flaw: and inability to accept doing pointless things to get by. My mom used to get so angry at me, and yell “You can’t have your cake and eat it too!” I would say to her in my calm and infuriating way, “What’s the point of having cake if you can’t eat it?”

It is not as Yang seems to imply the snowball effect of a simple lack of discipline. I can endure things, as could Aaron. Both of us were strong in many ways, and could endure violence from our minds and bodies which few people will ever have to experience, for years. We’d both endured the placelessness of rejecting the system, the self doubt, the terrible judgement and disappointment of others. I’d love to say I helped guide him, but he did at least as much for me as I did for him. We laughed about how bad we looked on paper, two high school dropouts with shitty employment histories. But he told me I was amazing, that I could do what I wanted with my life. I told him he was stronger than he knew.

In our culture, this strength is not enough. One must be born without blemish, and be strong and brilliant on top of that. Yang is critical of Aaron’s inability to endure pointless things thrust on him by corrupt power structures. I share this quality with Aaron, so I am left asking myself, why am I alive? I believe it is for two reasons: I was born a woman, and I was born poor. To be either in America teaches you something quickly that Aaron never learned. It teaches you that you are prey. I have the instincts of a prey animal: avoid detection, flee from violent people, hide, wait, use all available resources for my advantage. Aaron and I were both fragile, but he believed that we still lived in a society that valued something other than might and force. I have no such illusions.

Yang had all these puzzle pieces, and tried, understandably to say something about Aaron, but instead he accidentally said about America, something more important than Aaron’s death. He said that we are social Darwinists now. That our values are that if you are weak in body or spirit, that if you are poor, or even just unlucky, you deserve to die. What Yang shows in his account of Aaron is that we are a lesser place and a lesser civilization than we’d hoped for.

Photo from Flickr, by rocor

10

-Let's say for the sake
	of argument
-that only 90% of everything sucks.
-For every ten blooms of Queen Anne's lace,
-one is the wide circle of snowy fractals that
	floats beside the road like an ethereal crown.
-For every ten New England trees in fall,
-One burns redder than the imagination
	through the all the fibers of its leaves
-For every ten songs, one makes you jump and twitch and smile in your bus seat,
	then look up to see if anyone noticed.
-For every ten kisses, one gets you into terrible trouble.
-So then which line of this poem
-is the good one?

Remarkable to Look Back

And sad. President Clinton was a impressively smart man, and in this interview he shows it off in spades, able to call to mind statistics and rationales for policies without any aid. He’s a statesman, in the most classic sense of the word. And Amy Goodman is a journalist, in the best sense of that word.

But I think what is most remarkable looking back on his words 13 years later, is that everything he talked about is worse, under both the Republicans and the Democrats. That the gains he crowed were illusory, the economy he pinned so many hopes on had been a pyramid balanced on its tip that could last only so long. The reforms to come he spoke of weren’t just abandoned by the opposition, but by his own party, after he had deferred them himself, always “waiting on reports.” Everything, every single point he made, however elegantly made by this most skilled of politicians and speakers, every course of action he talked about, has all ended in total failure. From ending racial profiling (which Hillary was working on in New York) to New York’s shameful Stop and Frisk, unemployment is of course ridiculously high, schools failing, racism worse, healthcare costs higher than ever, Mexico is a basket case, the private prison system has reinstated slavery largely based on race. Cuba is still under embargo. Since them we’ve gotten black sites, Gitmo, endless wars. We’ve gone from secretive banking corruption to openly refusing to enforce the law against the masters of our economy, who commit fraud routinely, while violently suppressing the growing dissent on the streets. The failure of this system is so total that only insanity can still profess faith in it.

And not only is Leonard Peltier still in jail, this Democratic president has matched his unprecedented secrecy and persecution of whistleblowers with absolutely no pardons.

Amy Goodman is still doing good work, though.

We are Free

“The state can’t give you free speech and the state can’t give it away, we know that. You’re born with it, like your eyes, and your ears. Like old Campbell used to say, ‘Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free.’”

Aaronlulz

I found my file of quotes from Aaron. They mostly happened before we were romantically involved, and some of them are obscure in-jokes, but I preserve them here for anyone.

quotes from my roommate:

a: “Fonts are about the human condition.”

q: “Some of us had to live through the 80s…. all you had to do was potty train.”
a: “Some of those bands made potty training pretty hard.”

q: “I considered converting for the food, but then I realized I could get it anyway, and I was like, ‘fuck your god!’”
a: “Damn! She found our loophole! We need more Manichevitz DRM!”

a: “I think a lot of what I liked about it was sexy shots of Helvetica.”

a: “United sure has come a long way from bankruptcy. I remember the good old days when they couldn’t even afford Helvetica. They had to print signs in Arial instead. It was disgusting.”
q: “I wonder if the United channel is on, I switched to being a United frequent flyer for that.”
a: “I switched because of Helvetica.”
q: stares
a: “I’m not joking.”

a: “Mandatory minimums is your way of locking up people with small penises!”

a: “If skullfucking is wrong, I don’t want to be right!”

a: “Genes load the gun, but it takes parenting to pull the trigger!” (making shooting motion)

a: “I’m part of the Jewish cabal that controls the internet.”
q: “I haven’t actually heard anyone say there’s a Jewish conspiracy running the internet.”
a: “Oops.”

q: “You don’t have crotch prions.”
a: “You don’t know that!”

a: (Looking at his glass) “This fruit juice is making me paranoid.”

a: “Your shirt is in italic, mine’s not.” (We have the same shirt)
q: “No, that’s just my breasts.”
a: (investigates)
a: “Your breasts make a really nice italic.”

a: “I bought a new font. I’m out of my mind with glee.”

q: “I learned a phrase in Swahili.”
a: “Was it ‘My daughter thinks her hand is a pontoon bridge?’”

q: “Oh, you’re not cynical. And the pope’s jewish.”
a: “Don’t say that! it’s a secret.”

a: (Holding a ticking small clock) “Can I take the batteries out of this thing? It’s like a constant reminder of my impending mortality.”

a: (On Lasik) “Lasers are supposed to come out of your eyes.”

a: (looks at aaronquotes file) “You have to put lines between them! See this file, you know how to make lines.”
a: “Give it to me, I’ll do it for you.”

Notes as written

This is the written version of my eulogy for Aaron. I would like to not write any more eulogies for a while.

(The campfire at Lassen)

An event like Aaron’s death divides a life, the BC and AD of one’s personal story. From now on, my own biography will be divided into when Aaron was alive and after he died.

We look for the words that bring him back, we look for the memories that contain him like an incantation that can contain a soul. I have a thousand stories of our pieces of time together, a thousand little nets to trap the smoke he is now.

But I can’t. He has slipped away. I loved him, but he’s escaped me.

Aaron has left us, and entered the realm of mythmaking. He doesn’t belong to any one of us anymore, not even himself. He belongs to memory and history.

Still, I lost a person, a person I loved. That’s who I’ve come to talk about. Not the internet saint, or the incredibly accomplished activist, or the young and notable internet technologist. The Aaron I’ve come to talk about is the one that sang little boxes to my daughter in Daly City. The person that almost never did the damn dishes. The one that stole my camera to take long exposure of Ada and me sleeping. The one who complained all the way through camping trips, grinning, and always agreed to the next one. The one that climbed 30 feet to the top of a tree and sat there insisting he liked it and wouldn’t have any trouble getting down. He ate a lot of water crackers. I studied how to feed him, and in time I managed to get a few vegetables down him on a regular basis. Mostly though I managed to feed him cakes and cookies and creme brulee. He was terrible about making plans at the last minute. he could be a terrible pain in the ass.

We talk about how extraordinary he was, but he wasn’t. Aaron was another human, with all the flaws and glories that each of us have, infinite wells of solitude that we are.

He was scared and self conscious, funny, greedy, and petty, loving, curious, hopeful, and strange. He was irreducible, difficult: a person, the most complex thing we’ve yet found in our universe. He turned to me once in a movie theater and said, like someone that had just realized the answer to a difficult math problem, “I contain multitudes.”

To call Aaron extraordinary is, in a way, to sidestep the message of his how he lived his life.

The only reason we’re all here at this memorial holding up this 26 year old as a paragon is that in a culture ruled by fear he learned, and taught me, that trying was more important than being afraid. “Don’t worry,” he told me, “no one remembers your failures.” Don’t waste time doing small things and being cautious. We’re here because he did so much much in his 26 years… despite a culture saying you have to be careful and risk nothing, be responsible, deferential, go through the proper channels, he rejected that. He didn’t wait to start living. That’s all it took.

Aaron understood that learning was more important that accreditation, and that intelligence is a poor and pale substitute for caring. He burned with love for humanity. He surrounded himself with people — also infinitely complex — struck dumb by a love of the world. He lived a life of thought and action.

We shared an understanding, that a life is a thing made in the living of it.

He inspired me, and here, in the AD, I will carry that little inspiration like a jewel gripped in the hand, beautiful, valuable, abrasive, and impossible to forget.

First Fig
Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.