But Some Are Selfish Dicks

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May 082012
To be gifted is to gift to the world of your gifts.  If you live in a capitalist country, you will receive the lowest compensation the market will tolerate for said gifts.  If you live in a non-capitalist country, I really have no idea what your life is like, and I don’t let myself dream about how a world that does not revolve around profit functions.  Anymore.
If you are anti-capitalist, the pay floor for your talents will make you bitter.  If you are anti-capitalist and idealistic, you really do make gifts of your gifts — or at least find ways to funnel them through non-profits.  Straight-edge means you don’t drown your bitterness with drugs, and hardcore means you don’t put advertising on your site/blog/messages.
See, when you have talent — and that talent has no military or especially commercial application — there’s lots of talk about what you owe to the world of your talents…unless you expect a living wage for that, in which case the world doesn’t owe you anything per Mark Twain.  That’s how it works.  Gifted people owe the world their work but no one owes them any reward or just compensation in return.  Seriously, try opting out of this arrangement.  You will be shunned.
Last October, Mark Pilgrim (a software developer and author of multiple books and a blog about programming) committed infosuicide.  The digital version of offing yourself involves not just closing your means of connection to the online world, but also removing your work from the web too.  It’s an intentional act of rescission of your gifts to the community.  Pilgrim had been that idealistic sort in that he advocated for open source work (free for all to use and improve) and he offered his insights to others at no cost.  The common assumption after his infosuicide was that Pilgrim no longer wished to connect online because he sought greater privacy.  If that was all he wanted though, he need not have scrubbed his work.  He clearly wanted to do more than just opt out of digital involvement — he took his work with him so that others would no longer have it.  This is an absolute rejection of the community — not just of your role in it, but in having contributed to it at all.  Pilgrim didn’t just want to leave; he didn’t want to leave a legacy either.
Reactions were swift and of two kinds:  some were immediately concerned that he might be literally suicidal or mentally ill with a potential to be a threat to himself or others.  Someone called the police.  Word came out that Pilgrim was fine and annoyed at being bothered.  Tellingly, he did not issue a reassuring statement or even post a demand for others to back off  – such was his seriousness about leaving his digital life.  The second response to Pilgrim’s abrupt online end was anger.  A poster on one article summarized the fury:  You are a selfish dick if you don’t leave your work out there for others to use even if you want to leave.  Tech savvy users lambasted Pilgrim’s actions and asserted vehemently that he had violated his social obligation to the community in “taking his ball and going home.”  Since that time, others have worked diligently to undermine Pilgrim’s retreat.  They have put up sites that “mirror” the work contained on his old sites so that even though his are no longer there, his work is available through other sources.  They will force from him what Pilgrim no longer wishes to gift them, and yet, no one considers that stealing (as he is attributed).  No one cares that he is free to do what he wishes with his own work, including destroying it.
And then there is this example:  In 2005, historian Alwyn Ruddock passed away.  She had been working for years on research regarding English maritime exploration of the new world and had promised to show that before Columbus came along, the English had already begun tapping the resources of North America.  She died without publishing her research.  Ruddock, like Pilgrim, elected not to leave her work behind for the benefit of others.  She ordered her research destroyed and it was shredded before the academic community acted to salvage it.  Thereafter, Dr. Evan Jones of the University of Bristol undertook a project to recreate Ruddock’s work by retracing her steps.  Thus, Jones too refused to respect Ruddock’s ownership of her own work.  Like the online sources who reposted Pilgrim’s writings, Jones and his co-workers will force Ruddock’s knowledge from obscurity.  They have had some success.  Just this last week, information emerged that scholars have confirmed the discovery of evidence regarding loans made by Italian financiers to English mariners (specifically, John Cabot) for voyages to “the” new found land prior to 1492.  Still, of Ruddock’s actions, Jones stated:  ”I have an enormous respect for Alwyn Ruddock as a scholar. But I can’t respect her decision to destroy all her work. She did what is the antithesis of everything that historical research is about — she sought to destroy all her findings. I can’t and don’t accept that.” (See Ruddock article here.)  In other words, Jones thinks Ruddock was a selfish dick for refusing to leave it for others.
I wonder if there really is any social obligation in writing or scholarship — or in just being gifted.  I suppose this topic is near and dear to my heart of late, as I have committed a sort of partial infosuicide recently.  Ironically, what brought me back was an interest in being productive and sharing that work with others.  I want to reach the community.  However much I shy away from being out there personally, I like being in it productively.  Still, I’m not sure that I owe humankind any gifts — particularly as it doesn’t seem much appreciative of them for the most part.  I can’t help but think that notions of a social contract are just a way to force gifts from others;  is it just stealing through socialization?
Maybe Pilgrim’s and Ruddock’s actions were ultimately signs of humility.  Perhaps both knew that with the clues at hand, others would resurrect or recreate their work and there would be no lasting blow to the betterment of mankind in the end.  They just didn’t need credit for it themselves.  Or, maybe neither person cared about the community at large anymore — they grew to despise it enough to withhold their gifts from it absolutely.  Who can know if it’s a profound hate or incredible modesty at work here.  But, that is a judgment about motives and the outside world clearly cares little about that.  It only wants what it can use from you.  Thankless or not, it will have it, and if you resist, there will be work-arounds.  Then, you will have infamy instead of honor;  history will not release you regardless.  You will be remembered, you selfish dicks.
 Posted by at 8:46 pm