RMS, Damore, nerd behaviors, and cancel culture Show more
RMS and James Damore both seem to assume that because they have a way that what they said is less problematic, if read specifically and interpreted word-for-word, that all the heat they’ve taken is unjustified.
This is a really goddamn common Nerd Failure Mode: the belief that being misinterpreted is some kind of moral or intellectual failing on the listener, and it’s more important to be right than to be understood. This, of course, is precisely backwards; communication is only valuable to the extent that it is understood, and part of a person’s job as a communicator is to be easy to understand. That includes anticipating the emotional reactions of your probable audience and looking for ways to, at the very least, mitigate probable misunderstandings.
This is a serious problem when we have highly skilled and intelligent people who do not have “understanding normal humans” as one of their skills. They will produce not only ill-advised text documents, but ill-advised community governance structures and design ill-advised user-hostile products. But they can also produce a lot of really valuable stuff, as long as they find a group of people who can and will act as interpreters for them. (RMS had the entire early OSS movement for this.)
Another thing that RMS and Damore have in common is that even the “right” interpretation of what they said is far from unproblematic. It’s differently problematic than what they’re accused of, so no useful dialogue takes place; arguing with them on the grounds of how what they intended was also wrong is likely to have better results for them, except that entire subsequent conversation requires the translation services that failed here in the first place.
What I think RMS actually meant, btw, was “Minsky may not have been ‘in’ on Epstein’s schemes, because the trafficked girl in this event may have been forced to deceive him”. Then you get to questions like “well, why did Minsky think the apparent affections of a 14-year-old were okay anyway, and why wasn’t he concerned about her relationship with Epstein?” Which I think can be answered easily; if Minsky and RMS have a close relationship, then Minsky is the type of person to whom RMS makes sense and his behavior seems rational and appropriate, strongly suggesting that Minsky is also unable to understand humans.
This is a LOT of what leads to “nerd rage” and “white nerd tears” that angry Twitterati seem to be proud of inducing. It’s pure anti-neurodiversity, and I have a deep-seated simmering anger that I try to suppress when I watch another round of it go by; it is genuine intolerance for a mind type that persistently makes very bad predictions about how humans behave and acts like an utter buffoon as a result. That is to say, a nerd. A person with enough ASD symptoms to have severe social ramifications and often interest in a narrow topic, but not enough to have been formally removed from society at some earlier part of the pipeline. “Nerd privilege” is capitalism recognizing that nerds are very easy to exploit because they produce good technical output while being unable to comprehend office politics and how to further, or protect, their own career; the result is a high paying job handed to an uncharismatic man. The alternative is usually abject poverty, because this is not a personality type that typically cleans up very well to handle any other kind of job.
And nerd companies still cut loose nerds who become more trouble than they’re worth, who then become unemployable. Damore is adamant that his memo is about why women don’t *want* tech jobs, not about why women who already have them would have to be unqualified- and I confess that’s exactly what I got from my reading of that memo. Unlike Damore, I noticed also that it would not be interpreted that way as written, probably needed an awful lot of changes to come even close, and its attempt to be straightforward and up-front with citations would probably come off poorly to its probable audience. Of course, Damore’s memo was published *while he was asking for help making it palatable*. That happened because he did so on a widespread internal mailing list, which he failed to predict was equivalent to publishing it, because he is very bad at predicting human behavior. A much better choice would have been to spend weeks hashing it out with a patient friend who understands how humans work, but as far as I can reconstruct from what has been published about the history of the Damore memo, he never considered this; circumstantial evidence suggests that this is because he had no personal friends qualified to help with this task.
Which is the biggest problem with the interaction between the nerd personality type and cancel culture. Nerds can and will be cancelled, evicted from public view, easily. They have no defenses; all they can do is dig themselves deeper. (A lot of my social anxiety comes from my tendency to do exactly this.) But nerds wont stop being financially valuable and easy for capitalism to exploit, so they won’t stop having wealth privilege, and it would be a great waste of unique technical talent to try to exclude them categorically from the market. But this means that cancellation will only isolate nerds further from normal people by increasing the stigma attached to this communication style, and that will produce more isolation - and more future memos like Damore’s, as people prone to developing these points of view and expressing them poorly are trained intensely to distrust anyone who might help them develop a better sense for how humans and their weird, squishy, inconvenient emotions and interpretations of ideas work.