Computing in Context week 3-4: Hero Worship
My first reaction to Carlyle's Great Man Theory was that I couldn't help but wonder if it was satire. With phrases of extraordinary grandeur such as "He is the living light-fountain, which it is good and pleasant to be near. The light which enlightens, which has enlightened the darkness of the world..." felt almost cloying to the point of mockery, in the same way Voltaire found ways to (mostly) avoid punishment by ridiculing institutions through fictitious prose. Indeed I discovered that Carlyle was a satirist, but also that his On Heros writings are taken at face value, interpreted as theoretical evidence of a separate class of man which guide society through cataclysmic shifts both good and bad.
Perhaps I'd wonder the same if I read Kate Dailey's Cult of Steve Jobs one hundred years from now, yet I cannot deny the true and profound case of Jobsian hero worship detailed by Dailey; the numerous books and films dedicated to his story, the startup ethic modeled after Jobs' own wunderkind-dropout to ubermensch-billionaire tale, the excuse for truly atrocious behavior exhibited by "entrepreneurial executives" toward their employees, who cite Jobs' notorious sociopathic tendencies and conflate it as one of the reasons behind Apple's success. So if the question is "do Carlyle's ideas still operate today," the answer is obviously yes.
Examples we were given to examine were all men, so I have to tread carefully in not gendering attitudes and behaviors. But even Silicon Valley "Hero Woman" Susan Sandberg argued that women get in their own way of success by adhering to assumed gender roles (more crassly, "acting like a girl"). And I wonder if we could have a better conversation if we instead asked why only certain voices and ways of expression are considered "leaderly;" as Astra Taylor quotes Mary Beard, “We thought deep voices were deep for so long.” (Tangentially related thought: Taylor's idea of being better able to see the flaws of Adam Curtis' documentaries if they had been "delivered in a valley-girl accent" seems like a backhanded remark. How I interpret that is, we don't question Curtis' assertions because of his acceptably authoritative-sounding delivery, so shifting to a voice that people dismiss would shine a light on his "leaps of logic." But don't we also want to break open what culture perceives as an authoritative voice, as addressed in Sorry to Bother You or even Legally Blonde? Or is Taylor asserting that code-switching will always be necessary to be taken seriously? Or is she just bringing to mind that different phonetics/phonologies will always have to tread more carefully in argument because the public will be quicker to scrutinize for error?)
This particular "leader trope"—the arrogant, individualist tech bro—is what built the Silicon Valley paradigm, so it seems rather silly to ask or expect it as an entity to change from the inside—and I'd say "fuck them" if it weren't for the fact that that particular startup culture as now-globally-pervasive is pretty much single-handedly dictating our world's collective future.
I suppose another option is to reappropriate disruption and coerce a change in the culture that would force the Valley Virus to shift its priorities and therefore the resulting actions. Some of this is happening naturally, as things like data security/surveillance and bioethics become part of the public conversation, eventually leading to public scrutiny of the types of leaders who got us here. Just this morning, news broke that a coalition of organizations have joined forces as a grass-roots effort calling for accountability and regulation of Amazon. Athena Alliance is focusing on Amazon's negative impact on labor rights, privacy issues, immigration issues (given Amazon's contract with the government providing surveillance tech at the border), and climate issues, creating a hydra-like resistance that almost anyone could find reason to support.This is where the Organizing Lessons reading takes hold for me. The Charles Payne quote, "Overemphasizing the movement's more dramatic features, we undervalue the patient and sustained effort, the slow, respectful work, that made the dramatic moments possible," felt particularly important. It recognizes a sort of rewriting of the Civil Rights movement to fit the "hero narrative" with a handful of charismatic leaders while redacting the network of ground-up resistance that both built the foundation on which these leaders stood. Perhaps Ella Baker would be proud of Athena's structure, which connects localized issues, each with their own leadership and organization structures, into a national network of mutual aid and solidarity.
I think that this presents a crack for an even bigger disruptive opportunity, where the public is potentially looking for different ways that leadership could look like. I keep coming back to this thought that maybe everything is "too big" right now; tech monoliths are "too big" to govern, governments are "too big" to actually represent their constituents, global issues are "too big" and complex to solve with a paradigm shift coerced by one particular worldview (in this case, the academic progressive call to action). I'm not really sure where this thought is going, and off-the-cuff it sounds like Libertarian ideology which is at this point so poisoned by our current paradigm that I have to take care to shape and deliver this idea more precisely. It relates to my thoughts about networked multiplicity that I was toying with in my last post, and I'm interested in exploring it further.
A final thought... I believe in hero icons and think they play a role in movement. I consider manifestations such as Laboria Cuboniks, who is a figure that represents a collective, or Pussy Riot, a faceless, amorphous leader against the state. There is a myth that the terms "hero," "leader," and "Great Man" are synonymous and it brings me back to the point of Tyranny of Structurelessness that notes that the idea of a "structureless group...becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others."
Hero image by Zach Dougherty