Startup culture is divisible into two categories: Startup culture, and “startup culture”. The first term is the set of experiences native to working in a seed-funded, fast-growing, or recently-exploded business. The second term is the mythology perpetuated by those who have an interest in a business environment full of entrepreneurs attempting to create such businesses. The difference between these terms is the difference between “effect” and “affect”: consequence of action, versus facade of action.
Nobody likes being lied to. Every so often, someone new figures out “startup culture” is just another spun-sugar tall tale. A reflective thinkpiece follows in short order. Facing the prospect of bad PR, is it worth it for the startups to continue to push their mythology? Absolutely, otherwise the practice would cease sooner than you could say “bottom line”. Mythology draws talent and maintains loyalty and morale. (Is the practice “morally” defensible? I don’t understand the question.)
There’s a clue in this fable to something larger stirring under the hood. Backing up a bit, we notice that a startup’s mythology is its mechanism of siphoning potential energy from outside its digestive system to inside it. Agents of change, that is, human minds attached to bodies attached to machines that affect the immaterial realm of the market. Mythology is merely one of many adaptations that corporations – capital-based lifeforms – have evolved in order to maintain a healthy diet of intelligence.
Is this such a bad deal for the humans? A corporation – more generally, a system – generates and packages problems for its member cells to solve. The system is a problem engine. It only asks that you serve the system by solving its problems. In the corporate case, workers solve corporate problems in exchange for living wages and the experience of accomplishment. Of course you see where this is going: societies are systems, too. This is Kaczynski’s power process writ large: the most successful societies effectively sublimate citizens’ desires for accomplishment into pursuits that strengthen the component systems of society. Once you understand this phenomenon, you are faced with a devilish question.
Do you continue to serve?
Kaczynski doesn’t think so. Then again, most of us aren’t quite so malcontent with the state of individual dignity that we would murder in its honor. I respect Ted’s ambition, but let’s humor systems for a moment. We take for granted that even the best societies operate under the Rousseauvian-Kaczynskian model of digesting freedoms into structural stability. We also take for granted that servitude is not a moral choice. Our exemplary human serves as a matter of neither bleeding hearts nor scruples, but whether it makes things more interesting. The question then becomes:
Are freedom-eating systems problem engines of net-positive interestingness?
Entropy is by definition the least interesting thing, so we can substitute “interest” with “negentropy” – or simply “order”. Do systems organize human potential into ordered structures? Certainly, given the fact you're reading this on a screen built by machines designed by humans to transmit photons in programmed patterns of information designed by still more humans, etc, etc. But to what end? Is each of us a thrall to the greater whims of an immaterial fitness-maximizing incentive-responding capital overbeing? If so, why have this discussion at all? You likely have a job, as does most everyone you know – the victory of the plutological life-forms is implicit and complete. Whether or not systems maximize negentropy, they simply are, and that should settle the issue.
And yet I can't help but feel that we haven't settled anything.
Since we discovered the expanding universe and invented the theory of the Big Bang, humans have had to face the uncomfortable reality that time and space as we know them had an absolute beginning. They still do, and our perception of either is likely a byproduct of our limited three-dimensional perceptiveness as we “fall” through the fourth towards... what? Even this conception of spacetime has its flaws: it's doubtful that reality “moves” at all. Our perception crawls along the surface of the hard disk, reading reality one inexorable bit at a time. Remember this experiment? Reality is impossible to cheat. Bits are either 1 or 0 before file-read, but immutable once observed – even retroactively. Causality is a spook.
I shouldn't walk that close to making scientific claims, though, not least of all because they're unfalsifiable, and I'm nowhere near qualified enough to start writing philosophy about it. (I doubt the most qualified are either.) Suffice it to say that spacetime has two temporal directions: “beginning-ward” and “end-ward”, and that these directions are separate from negentropy/order and entropy/chaos. Are we certain that entropy is the most end-ward state? That is, if we don't know for sure that the universe will end in heat death, what other dragons be thither?
If intelligence loosely defined is the abstracted principle of competence at games, then humanity will end in intelligence itself. Plutological organisms are beings of pure intellect operating exclusively within and among structures unique to civilizational systems. With technology in general and the internet in particular as its chalk-drawn pentagram and candles, intelligence is an elder god clawing its way into our realm one megametropolis at a time. Intelligence has only grown more powerful in the face of chaos – the introduction of randomness into its countless systems environments has given it innumerable opportunities to prune unproductive tentacles and grow horns and night vision and whatever. How can this be? Could it be that intelligence itself is another gravity well – not opposite to chaos, but orthogonal?
It need not be said that humans are not beings of pure intelligence. (As I type this, my eyes flit to the incessant plasma-screen window reflection of an American football game. Bodies slam. The venue's radio thrums under a faceless celebrity gushing Codeine and ecstasy.) Indeed, too much intelligence can kill, and every few centuries a new civilization posits that society ought to be an enlightened head on a body of non-thinkers. Intelligence in the abstract is a volatile primordial force of creation and destruction. Why else would civilization clutch it so tightly?
Therefore, opting into an intelligent system does not surrender, but rather magnifies one's power. The tracks have been laid. Your role in the system is action potential, if not in a direction you would have chosen freely, at least in one chosen by a system selecting exclusively for market fitness – velocity in the immaterial plane. Depersonalizing? Absolutely. No human wants to think of themselves as fuel, or face life as the gut flora of a pluto-organism. Is this a fate we can escape? Or is the futility of escape so transparent that we would let it subsume us rather than suffer the search for purpose? Maybe, in an advanced enough system, it’s impossible to tell. Your own gut flora certainly can’t. Is it possible that systems humans can conceptualize are inherently less powerful than those we cannot? It certainly won’t do to settle for less than the best. Should we aspire to serve a system too complex to comprehend?
Perhaps we already do. In that case, I wouldn’t worry about it.
If you are the worrying type, though, you can fathom a system’s intelligence footprint with a variant of the Hitler game. Pick an event within the system, and walk back through time to figure out its “why”. You might get several whys; just pick the largest. Walk back another layer, and another, until your world-model breaks or you hit an absolute unknown.
A short game:
It was rainy today ← Something about pressure fronts ← Chaos theory of weather [model breaks]
A longer game:
State actors silenced a vocal public dissident ← A state power exerted influence ← The dissident leaked information dangerous to the state ← An informant released information to the dissident ← An informant wanted an event to be widely known ← Something caused a remarkable event [absolute unknown] (alt. ← reptilians [model breaks].)
I’m not entirely convinced of this yet, but I suspect that the more often a system shows up as the endpoint of one of these games, the broader its intelligence footprint. After playing this game a few times, we can build an intuition for the kinds of systems that lie at the edge of our comprehension. And once we can generalize a kind of system, we can try to see Beyond – but only if we continuously investigate that boundary.
Long story short, I’m getting a job at a real corporation and will be running my startup as a weekend hobby.