Finding Balance

We’ve recently had some discussion here on Shift Journal about Dan Haggard’s article on the hacker/artist divide, in which he points out that the two groups are much more alike than they may seem.  Although hackers have been stereotyped as overly practical and lacking meaningful relationships with others, they often engage in playful, creative group activities such as online multiplayer games and open-source coding.  Artists, meanwhile, may be tempted to sell out to the highest bidder instead of creating meaningful works to express their visions of the world around them.

To bridge the divide and bring about more authenticity and intimacy in social relationships, Haggard suggests that artists should learn to code and that hackers should cultivate more appreciation of art.  Although I agree that doing so would improve the two groups’ understanding of each other, I’m not sure it would matter much in the broad scheme of things.  Code is just one medium of expression, after all.  It’s not inherently more practical or less artistic than any other.  Yes, if hackers and artists could communicate better with each other, that would be a good thing; but that in itself won’t change the world.

I believe that our failure to connect with one another in today’s society runs much deeper.  We’ve left behind our traditions, cast aside the natural rhythms that governed our ancestors’ lives, and built an artificial environment at odds with our instinctive expectations.  Instead of living quietly in small villages among our family and friends, rising with the sun and changing our routines with the seasons, we spend our days in climate-controlled buildings doing the same work year-round.  Many of us have closer relationships with our Internet friends than we do with our neighbors.  We don’t live near our extended family because there’s always a better job or a more interesting city somewhere else.  We’re constantly surrounded by noises that are not part of the natural world, from radios and TVs to highway traffic and airplanes.  When we try to find meaning in all the confusion, we’re more likely to find slick sales pitches instead.

That’s not to say our ancestors had easy lives.  They had to work long hours in the fields, along with other tedious chores such as gathering wood and water, just to survive.  They had far less control over their lives than we do; many were slaves or serfs, and they could be conscripted or killed at any time by whatever war-band happened to pass through the area.  If they didn’t have a good harvest, or if raiders stole their cattle, they’d be lucky to get through the winter without starving.

What’s causing our modern-day angst is not that we are literally worse off than our ancestors, but that our environment has changed too quickly for us to adjust.  We no longer relate to the world as our species evolved to do; our subconscious expectations are stymied at every turn.  We don’t yet know how to tell stories that will make sense of it.

So yeah, if you’re an artist, learn to code.  If you’re a hacker, read some books on art history and philosophy.  But don’t stop there.  Grow some vegetables and share them with your neighbors.  Sew quilts with a group.  Learn folk dancing.  Work in a community garden.  Restore an antique car and drive it to visit your family members who’ve moved away.

Get out of your rut, in other words.  Find different ways of relating that aren’t just the usual routine of going to work, doing the same old stuff, coming home, and eating a pizza in front of the TV or playing the same computer game.

I plan to take my own advice with regard to my writing here at Shift Journal.  I’m going to take a break from writing next week and get my garden in better shape instead.  When I return two weeks from now, I’ll start posting fiction in installments—another kind of art and play, another way of relating.  See you all then.

related: Friendship, Intimacy, the Autistic Cohort, and The Social Network

related: Waiting for the Fireworks

related: False Friends

on 04/6/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 6 Comments | Read More

Comments (6)


  1. Jonathan says:

    Your experience says artistry and hacking; mine says music and computer science. I’d go so far as to suggest that both require a fundamentally similar approach. I am both a musician and computer programmer, and I know many people who excel in both areas as well. If I’m right, that means that being competent in one means there’s a good chance you’re competent at the other. So what you’re proposing (an artist should learn to code and a hacker should become knowledgeable about art) shouldn’t be a stretch at all.

    Back to your original point, what you’re calling for I call “traditionalism” but when I call myself a traditionalist or say that I have “traditional values,” most people think that means I’m conservative and have “family values.” But what I’m really talking about is contemplating how “things” (for lack of a better term) have been done over a period of time in different places in the world, and giving weight to their importance. That’s not to say that I’m bound to a particular tradition, but more that it’s an influence on my life. For instance, most cultures in the world over the years have practiced some form of baby wearing. Because so many people in so many places in time have given value to the practice, to me that means there’s something to it and it’s worth considering. (By the way, we wore our son almost exclusively for 2 years, and I can tell you that it beats fanagling a stroller!)

    All this leads me to wonder if us neuro-atypical people are more inclined to look outside the bounds of our particular time and space for inspiration, being that we’ve been, at some level, unsatisfied with our current environment. Perhaps this ties into some of our love of fantasy fiction, that we long for another time and place where the rules are priorities are different.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    Thanks Jonathan. Just to be clear, the proposal that an artist should learn to code and a hacker should become knowledgeable about art, along with the use of those particular terms, came from Dan Haggard’s article and not from my experience.

    Contemplating tradition — yes, that’s a good way to put it. Looking at what works and what doesn’t, in light of the changes that have taken place over time. That’s often a theme of fantasy fiction — the main character is living happily in a quiet little village until the evil sorcerer’s minions, etc., come along and start destroying the villagers’ traditional way of life. It may well be a metaphor for what we’ve lost in the modern world, as you suggest.

  3. Dan Haggard says:

    It’s a nice piece. I meant to reply to the other articles you guys posted recently but I’ve been somewhat overrun of late with work n sickness – low on mojo.

    It’s a fair criticism I think. I do perhaps over estimate the extent to which certain elite cultural groups influence the wider culture around them. Certainly the prescription for artists to learn to code and for hackers to read philosophy and the like is first and foremost a means for those two groups to understand one another better. This isn’t directly going to help the fellow on the street to better to relate to the other fellow next to him/her. Most people know neither code nor philosophy so it’s not likely either are going to feature in a mass drive toward more intimate style behaviours. My hope is that the hackers and artists working together might be able to come up with tools which aid the common folk to better connect with others around them. At the moment they’re giving us tools like facebook and twitter which only seem to heighten the signalling noise as opposed to substantive exchange.

    Everything else you say I agree completely. We have to find a way to structure society that better fits our evolutionary heritage.

  4. Gwen McKay says:

    I didn’t mean to accuse you of elitism, Dan. I meant only that I see the problem as too complex to be solved with new tools for connecting — there’s so much in our environment that creates noise and distraction.

    Hope your mojo gets replenished soon. :)

  5. Gwen McKay says:

    Thanks Stephanie!

Leave a Reply