Leaping into the unknown

February 5, 2019 (1946 words) :: An attempt to explain why I latched onto left politics after ragequitting tech.
Tags: personal, the-left

This post is day 36 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

I’ve been getting requests to talk more about my personal journey to “the left”, so here’s an attempt to describe one particular facet of it, which I’ll call “the leap”.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about the click that I’ve felt when discovering big-T Theory. Today’s post builds on that. Because the point of theory is not just edification, but what you do with it. No matter how correct your analysis might be, it’s useless if it’s not acted upon - even the best theory of change won’t make a difference unless you turn that into action. And to get there, you have to take a leap of faith.

In software development, there’s a concept of “debugging”, which basically means identifying the causes of problems in your program. Let’s say it unexpectedly crashes sometimes. The job of the debugger, then, is to understand why, by looking at the codebase as well as the entire setup (the database, the webserver, the user’s inputs, etc).

Sometimes, it happens that the debugger has read access, but not write access. That means they can look at all the code, and they know how the whole system is set up, and maybe they can even see all the data, but they can’t actually modify the system to test it. For an extreme example, consider how you’d debug a failed rocket launch. You know it didn’t work, and you might have access to the whole codebase, and maybe you have some hypotheses as to what went wrong. But you can’t easily test your hypotheses on the real rocket, or at least not through trial and error, because rocket launches are expensive. You can’t just say “let me run this experiment again with a 0 changed to a 1 to see if that fixes it”.

So instead, you have to draw on analytical reasoning. You need to construct a theory, drawing on the empirical evidence of how the program behaves, which explains why it crashes. Could there be a memory leak? Could it be getting stuck in an infinite loop? Could a subroutine be returning null when it shouldn’t be? If you could test your hypotheses one by one, that would make the debugging process easier; alas, you cannot, so you must remain on the level of theory. You have to build a mental model about how the system actually works based on your interpretation of the codebase, in order to identify the flaws in the system that are causing the problems.

This isn’t always easy, and some bugs are perpetually elusive. But for the bugs that do get solved, there’s often a moment where it all clicks. One second, you’re staring at your screen, perplexed and frustrated, and the next second it’s like a lightbulb has gone off. Ahhh, you think. That’s why. Maybe you’ve spotted a typo, or you’ve run through your mental model and found a contradiction, or you realise your model is unequipped to handle particular inputs. Either way, there’s a moment where you know, in your bones, what is causing the problem. You don’t even need to test your answer - you just know.

In case the analogy isn’t already obvious, this is how I feel when I read anything that has a cogent critique of capitalism. Reading about class struggle, ideology, financialisation, social reproduction, all the rest of it - it just clicks. It explains phenomena that I’ve observed in a way that is consistent with my mental model of how the world works, answering longstanding questions of mine in the process. I can’t test whether the theories are correct, of course, because I don’t have write access to capitalism, but I know they’re right, or at least, bringing me along the right path.

But see, when you’re debugging something, it’s not enough to understand what causes the bug. You have to actually fix it - you have to go into the codebase and make whatever changes are necessary to prevent it from happening again. Understanding the root causes of the bug is the first step, and it’s a nice intellectual treat in itself, but this knowledge can only ever be a means, not an end. The point of this exercise is not merely enlightenment; the point is to fix the bug.

That was the crux of Marx’s famous 11th thesis, in his “Theses On Feuerbach” (referring to Ludwig Feuerbach, a German philosopher who wrote on Christianity):

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

The click is important, and its usefulness should not be underestimated. Still, it can only ever be the beginning of the process. The point of click-inducing theory is knowledge: to understand how the world works so fully that you see the potential avenues for change. But knowledge is meaningless unless it begets action.

That’s where the leap comes in. Despite the implied physicality in the word, it’s a cognitive act more than it is a physical one. It’s a shift in thinking - a mental leap of faith - that changes the way you relate to the world. Possible futures that previously seemed inevitable suddenly become impossible; possible actions that you previously would have considered anathema now seem reasonable.

According to Moira Weigel, Nancy Fraser (critical theorist and one of my all-time faves) said the following at an event last year:

There are moments in history when the common sense and deep faith in the institutional order is shaken and people do other things than try to improve their lot within it. They become willing to question more foundational things about the social order and to join movements and parties that want to renovate the world in a more fundamental way. I am interested in how things unravel, how they lose their self-evidence, and how their downsides come to be experienced, not just as “oh well, nothing’s perfect,” but as outrages - something that we shouldn’t have to put up with, and don’t have to put up with, something we should change. And I can’t help but think there’s a possibility that we may be in that kind of moment today.

I remember a time - not too long ago - when I still roughly believed that the world was pretty much fine as it was, and all I had to do was try to take my place within it. I had an uncritical faith in the system, and I believed that it would reward me in ways more or less commensurate with my innate ideas of justice. If I worked hard, and followed the rules of the system, I would move up the invisible ladders in due course. I knew the system wasn’t perfect - I knew it was stacked against particular groups of people - but I had confidence that it would work for me.

I don’t know when exactly that self-interested framework ceased to be enough. It wasn’t that I stopped believing that the system would work for me. I realised that whether or not the system works for me isn’t necessarily the best way to adjudicate the value of the system for everyone. I went from “the system works for me, a highly privileged tech worker, therefore it’s good” to “the system doesn’t work for most of humanity, so maybe it’s not so good”.

I grew up, in other words. I started to look beyond the borders of my own perceived self-importance, beyond the cold solipsism of the lonely ego.

To return to the debugging analogy: the program may have been working fine for me, but it was constantly crashing for so many other people. And it’s not that I hadn’t seen the bugs before, it’s just that I didn’t really think of them as nasty enough that I needed to spend time debugging them. Some bugs are tolerable, if you’re convinced that the program you’re using is better than the alternatives, and you don’t know how to fix them anyway.

At some point, though, the problems become bad enough that you start trying to understand what’s causing them. What used to seem tolerable and maybe even good suddenly looks like injustice, and you seek out their root cause as well as the knowledge of how to fix it. And somewhere along the way, there’s a leap. You go from seeing the system as mostly fine but with a few glitches, to realising that the glitches you’ve noticed are in fact fundamental to its functioning. The flaws no longer seem defensible, and you want nothing less than to burn it all down. From the ashes, start anew.

The thing about this cognitive leap of faith is that there isn’t necessarily a purely rational argument for it. It requires faith, after all. It’s a decision, and not always a logical one. Whether you take this leap, or you spend your life defending the sanctity of the system you happen to find yourself in, depends on all the little things you’ve experienced in your life that make you who you are. And everyone’s different. I can try to explain why I took my leap, but I can’t force anyone else to do the same. What level of moral discomfort you’re willing to put up with is between you and your god.

That’s not to say that life is all rainbows and butterflies and greener moral pastures once you accept the necessity of radical action. There are times when I feel drained or overwhelmed, when I’m tired of the infighting and the impotence associated with being in a movement mired in defeat. Wistfully, I imagine how much simpler life would have been if I could just go back to believing in the system. Sure, I would have to put in some work in order to succeed within it, but at least the rules are clear, and I was always good at following rules. Once you’ve leapt into the unknown, though, all the rules and justifications start to crumble around you. There are no clear rules, anymore. You have to make your own rules.

It’s not exactly easy. Radically overhauling the existing system is a long-haul project, and it’s hardly going to be as immediately rewarding as merely going along with the system. Sometimes I question my newfound conviction: the system can’t be that bad, I think. At least, my life would be a lot easier if it weren’t, because then I could focus on the things I want to do rather than the things I feel are necessary.

But then I remember how unnecessarily shitty life is for so many people, simply because we’re trapped in a system that optimises for runaway wealth accumulation for the few at the expense of immiseration for the many. We don’t live in peacetime; there’s a war going on, and it’s been going on for centuries, even if I’m only just waking up to the reality of that.

Ultimately, you have to reconcile the gap between the world you wish you lived in, and the reality of the world you do live in. And unlike the characters in The Man in the High Castle, you can’t simply close your eyes to transport yourself into that other world.

You can’t physically leap your way into utopia. The best you can do is work to build it in the here and now.

Another late post. They’ve been getting later, on average, which is concerning. I really need to start writing these first thing in the morning, or something. Please send me your advice on how to get better at writing consistently.

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