Nadia Eghbal

<-- home

Being basic as a virtue

Silicon Valley is a coal mine for ideas. There’s something special about it: unlike a coal miner, you get to keep and sell what you extract from the ore deposits, and I feel lucky to have the setup that I do. But it is work.

When most people think about doing creative work for a living, they picture all the fun stuff that comes with it: the flash of inspiration in the shower, the scribbling of notes in the middle of the night. But when you’re working in a system that thrives on the extracting and refining and trading and transacting of ideas, the daily practice of toiling in the mines can feel more mundane than serendipitous.

Lately I’ve been feeling sort of exhausted by the familiar dance of idea propagation that manifests over coffees, dinners, Twitter, and parties in my corner of the world. Asking a stranger what they’ve been reading or thinking about lately feels like the new equivalent of asking someone where they work. Our words are filled with whimsy – after all, isn’t learning so much fun?! Don’t you just love to think?! – but our faces are smeared with coal dust, our eyes somewhat dulled by the knowledge that we’ve done this many times before, and are about to do it many more times tomorrow.

To live a life in which one purely subsists on the airy cream puffs of ideas seems enviably privileged: the ability to make a living merely off of one’s thoughts, rather than manual or skilled labor. But it also means all that bantering and reading and thinking and writing isn’t really about “having fun” anymore, so much as singing for one’s supper. We’re like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind: our gowns are impressively fashioned from velvet curtains, but our hands are still rough from the farm. [1]

Being basic as a coping mechanism

A friend recently showed me a book called Closure, a collection of writings by pseudonymous ex-programmer why the lucky stiff. Among his many other contributions, _why wrote this thing called Why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby back in the day, which was incidentally how I learned to program. In 2009, he unexpectedly went offline, taking all his public work with him.

That was the last I’d remembered of _why. Apparently though, in 2013, _why’s website quietly popped back online and spat out a bunch of network printer commands, which some people figured out how to turn into pages. These pages formed what was eventually compiled by Steve Klabnik into a book called Closure; it was thought to be _why’s final goodbye.

Sometimes I think about committing information suicide. Everyone’s got an escapist fantasy: mine is disappearing to Montana, or perhaps the Palm Springs desert, and living a quiet life working in a little shop, or as a florist (I like thinking in textures). A late friend and gifted programmer once told me his most creative days were spent working in a bookstore. The work wasn’t challenging, but it was meditative, and it gave him space to let his mind wander.

In my typical iterations of this fantasy, though, it’s mostly about getting away from San Francisco, but continuing to write and share things online. Sometimes it feels like I can’t think in here, because people are constantly asking me to externalize my thoughts all the time. [2] I’m not ready to externalize everything I think about. Sometimes it takes years for me to articulate what I’m trying to say. (It took me several months to figure out how to write this post, for example.)

While I think my writing has gotten sharper over the years, I also can’t help but feel it’s gotten worse somehow: invoking the things I hear other people say, instead of the things I happened across in dreams, hazy days that slip away at the park, or reading some dumb fiction I found from a free box that I picked up on the side of the road. I’m not sure it’s that I want to disappear from the internet, but just to get some distance between me and the existential “publish or perish” treadmill of mining each others’ brains for pithy insights that fit into 280 characters.

But I know myself, and I’m probably not going to leave San Francisco anytime soon. My whole life is here. And despite what everyone says about this city, despite even what I appear to be saying about this city…I actually like it here. And I like engaging with ideas, too. I’ve just come to see it more as work than leisure. So instead, my coping mechanism has been to aggressively seek the anti-intellectual: to embrace the basic in my life.

From Closure:

That night, my discussion with Amanda came back to me. How previously I had criticized the kinds of small talk discussions, particularly discussions about music, because they revolved simply around “Did you like this? Have you heard of this?” and how they never went anywhere beyond that, you could never keep track of what you were recommended and there was never anything to talk about, maybe a scene, maybe a lyric. Those pointless discussions that had always left me empty, never able to talk about the beauty of music itself adequately, just the names and the styles.

But now I longed to have this kind of idle discussion. To talk to Amanda about “The Happening”. Maybe there was much more to this kind of talk than I had thought. Why would anyone want to have a deep, meaningful discussion all the time?

Being basic as high-status

If I were to pray to a counter-counterculture pantheon, it might contain the gods of Basic, Mediocre, and Degenerate: [3]

  • Being basic is fist-bumping your neighbor at Barry’s Bootcamp for motivation before you both double the incline on your treadmill. It’s a resistance to intellectualism; a cheery, optimistic belief that the world is really as simple as we want it to be.
  • Being mediocre is turning down the combat difficulty on Red Dead so you can play through the game. It’s a resistance to hyper-optimization; the “courage to be ordinary”.
  • Being degenerate is watching Spongebob Allahu Akbar videos on YouTube and betting $5K that your friend can eat a five-pound gummy bear in one sitting. It’s a resistance to moral authority; you know most people find your behavior disgusting, and you love it.

Being basic is part of the same family as being mediocre or degenerate, but I think the latter two still require some degree of self-awareness. Mediocrity is about making an active choice to say “screw it, good enough”: the decision to keep moving forward instead of trying to get that last 10%. Degeneracy carries a flavor of bird-flipping showmanship: you know what other people would think, and that’s exactly why it’s fun.

By contrast, to be basic is to deny awareness of the deeper workings of the world whatsoever. Being basic is a state of innocence and simplicity, Adam and Eve before the apple. It usually provokes pity or derision from those who do know better, which is why I find it appealing. Being basic signals that I’ve shut my brain off. It’s not quite like committing information suicide, but maybe it’s like giving myself an information lobotomy.

At first, I rationalized doing basic (and while I’m at it, degenerate) things as a form of active mental recovery. As one friend phrased it, it’s cross-training your brain to balance out the hypertrophy elsewhere.

Lately though, as I’ve come to realize that working the idea mines is more endemic than personal, I’ve wondered (or perhaps, vainly begun to wish) whether being basic might become a status symbol in itself, similarly to how being tan evolved from signaling a life of manual labor to signaling a life of leisure. When most people had to work outside for a living, being tan was undesirable. As their work moved indoors, the signals reversed: a pale complexion became associated with having to do work, while a tan suggested freedom to frolick in the sun all day.

Similarly, if producing ideas becomes a symbol of work (having to think about stuff all day), rather than leisure (freedom to think about stuff all day), I wonder whether basic behavior will start to become covetable. Instead of signaling how much we’re thinking, maybe we’ll start to signal how much we’re not thinking. Rather than a private coping mechanism or a way to unwind, basic behavior would become a way to display total unawareness of those who toil in the idea mines all day; a blissful unfamiliarity with the social signal factory.

If the god of mediocre is a sloth, and the god of degenerate is a trash panda, the goddess of basic is an ingénue. When I’m drinking mango White Claw and laughing in the dappled sunshine, I’m projecting a version of myself to the world that says, “I haven’t had to think a day in my life”.

Notes

[1] Don’t get me wrong, I still love the work that I do. Maybe this is how programmers feel when they tinker around with code on the weekend, versus writing code for work during the week. Both can be enjoyable, but they’re two very different ways of experiencing the same activity.

[2] I’m not really sure what I mean by “here”. San Francisco? Twitter? Some other state of mine mind?

[3] The irony has not been lost on me that I’ve written a blog post about thinking less.