Today in the midst of job hunting and of seeing who actually lands jobs vs. who has the skills that I feel the jobs actually ought to demand, I am drawn back to 1991, as a fifteen-year-old “prodigy” in a (supposedly highly-ranked) computer science department.
The language for the basic data structures course was ANSI C, a language with which I was very familiar at the time. I was the “probationary” 15-year-old, but I remember having to repeatedly correct the T.A. that was teaching the course. He didn’t understand many of the low-level implications of the code he was writing (nor did he have the temerity to manage a machine state diagram well), so his examples rarely worked as expected, and the class was often left bewildered until I raised my hand to explain what had happened. It annoyed the hell out of me that he was then the one who got to tell me, “Congratulations! You got the high score!” on every exam. Of course I got the high score, I felt like a genius among monkeys in that class. But I still had to pay for the course because I was 15 and probationary, not being considered or rewarded on the merits, but rather on my ability to fulfill part of the social contract (i.e. “to get a degree” in order to ultimately prove my interest in materially participating in this sector of society, that my qualifications might then be considered).
I remember being particularly upset one day when the T.A. radically shortened an assignment that I’d already spent several hours on and finished. He shortened it because people were having trouble getting enough “lab time” to do it. I was flabbergasted, because I was doing all of my coding and exam work from home, using my shell account, Emacs, a VT100 emulator, and the university’s dial-up pool (this was before the World Wide Web, when the Internet was much more functional). I was more than startled and dismayed that people who considered themselves top university-caliber computer science students weren’t taking advantage of the technology. I raised my hand and proposed that maybe people should consider using their shell accounts over dial-up and coding with Emacs rather than filling the labs, which were more badly needed by CAD/CAM kids unlikely to have 21″ monitors at home.
Everyone, including the instructor, looked at me blankly as if I didn’t know what I was talking about… and gradually that blank look turned to condescention, as they told themselves that I was just a little kid, that they were confused not because of some inadequacy on their part, but because I was likely telling incomprehensible tales. But of course I wasn’t telling tales; that’s why I was the top person in the class by such a large margin. I was just so far beyond the realm of their understanding that I may as well have stepped out of a time machine holding a transmutation pistol. I was the probationary 15-year-old kid who wasn’t supposed to be there anyway and who, annoyingly, had lucked into high scores on all of the exams.
After class, I tried to explain to the T.A. what I meant, how he could go home and dial-up to the university’s pool instead of to his favorite bulletin board system, then set Procom or whatever terminal emulator program he used for VT100 emulation, then use the sh/csh prompt just as though he were sitting in a lab! He could launch Emacs, write and compile code, and test it properly, too, without ever having to leave home. No need to fill a lab.
He said he’d try it.
I bet he never did.
A year and several hollow ‘A’ grades later, I dropped out of the computer science department and became a teenage junkie, happy to be rid of all the befuddled twenty-something future hand-shakers who wouldn’t be able to code for shit, but who would no doubt look good in their BMWs as they attended Comdex. I’m still in nowhereland today. I am lost, utterly lost, within the world that I seem to be forced to inhabit.
Everything most people know can be found on the back of a marketing pamphlet somewhere. I begin to wonder if there is anyone else outside the matrix any longer — if I’m the only one on earth who knows that dollars, yen, and marks are all just arbitrary representation for ephemeral capital and power flows, just like memes are arbitrary signifiers for manifestations of schema; if I’m the only one who realizes that FrontPage and DreamWeaver and GoLive are all identical products that really traffic in an underlying SGML DTD called HTML, which in turn relies on an near-infinite turtle stack of standards and techniques, beginning with telnet and TCP/IP and ending with AND/OR/NOT gates and a few transistors (and beneath these, on the walzes and fox-trots of subatomic physics); if I’m the only one who understands that a handful of simple technologies and knowledge bases make up the entire realm of product lines that culminate in brand and product differentiation, the ultimate truths in most Americans’ minds: Hoover vac with Hoover hose, IBM PC with IBM scanner, Cingular phone with Cingular network — what nonsense! It’s all artificially enforced by marketers and lawyers; thirty seconds online and your Cingular phone works with any network, thirty minutes inside your case and your IBM PC has a the guts of a SuperSparc in it, thirty hours with your Hoover vac and it’s an AC-powered personal hovercraft/transport… yet people (including the people who form the referents of this sentence) privelege the mimetic identities so defined and believe them to be facts of nature their entire lives. They live in a circular, oversimple universe in which the instrumental gains of the enlightenment, however inadequate they themselves were, have been lost. And for this stupidity, they are rewarded with fat paychecks, while for my much deeper forms of knowledge, I am rewarded only with questions from those who are getting paid and rejections from those who do the paying.
I feel trapped in a world of stupid people, yet at the same time I feel too stupid to figure out how to get them to feed me. After all, there are infinitely more of them than there are of me; they and their conceptions of the universe (however flawed and incomplete) dominate; they rely on the spectacular accomplishments of a few bright individuals peppered throughout history in order to carry out the day to day expression (in the Marxist sense) of their being, yet they are unwittingly completely unable to even begin to conceive of the material methods, developments, and wisdoms thus born. It’s like a nightmare.
For lack of the sheer intellectual ability to conceive of or value anything else, all that seems to matter in our society is a kind of rote compliance with low-level conformity, a willingness to engage skillfully in social games and graces: the interview, the reference, the phone call, the statement of purpose… Coders don’t need to know how to code, machinists don’t need to know how to machine, editors don’t need to know how to edit, presidents don’t need to know how to preside. Such skills are secondary, or even tertiary, to social graces and a groomed appearance.
We claim to live in an individual meritocracy in this culture, but we don’t traffic in ideas or functions or skills at all anyway! We value only the marketing, the dialogue, and the mimetic differentiation; a particular fashion, a particular assertively bounded and characterized consumptivism and displayism from which we conclude that one possesses the requisite skills and knowledge that he claims to possess, even though the knowledge of that knowledge, or even the slightest notion that it ever existed anyway, has been lost by most of the west, a snapshot from a Jules Verne novel.
Do I sound like the Unabomber? Will I be writing manifestos to newspapers in a decade?
I must return to the academy. It’s the only place where I can stay sane.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’