For Case, who'd lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he'd frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.
-- William Gibson, Neuromancer
If you look at the chart of the percentages of women in the CS program, there's a blip that starts in 1984 and continues to now, where women left the field in droves. I am starting to think that this wave, which I can probably consider myself a part of, was a larger change that started in the late 70s with the first personal computers in the house, the creation of cyberpunk so that we can ask questions about it in a literary fashion, the revolution of having normal people on the computer networks, and today. We were the first group of people who were really able to hack with computers on our own terms. I read Neuromancer in early grade school, and that was not really an appropriate age for me to have read it. But I was, albeit with my usual ability to not quite fit in anywhere, a larval geek who lived in a cocoon of hacker culture and cyberpunk books and the jargon file.
So maybe I've been thinking about the relationship between the "meat" and everything else for far too long. Maybe I'm starting to feel a bit of a revulsion at the revolution I've been a foot soldier in.
Some of my coworkers got in on that Soylent thing very early. They acquired all of the bits necessary to formulate the homebrew recipe, mixed some up and lived off of it for a bit. The whole time, I'd read the Soylent recipe and I knew that I had some big issues with the idea that some random passionate techie typed person could do something that all of people who have PhDs in the relevant subjects and have been researching this for a long time decided wasn't worth the trouble. But these are coworkers who I love very much, the sort of people who you wouldn't mind being stuck in an airport for 24 hours with, so I can't actually treat the things they are passionate about with overlarge amounts of disdain.
I put it down to the notion that I enjoy real food too much. And real food's great stuff. I love food so much that I've got a pretty damn good system for having homemade food without food prep dominating my life. I had to discover which sauces would hold up when used in leftovers and which veggies lasted long enough in the fridge for salad and a million other things. I also had to learn knifework because I've observed that I can peel and slice carrots significantly faster than many others. I figured out how to build up a body clock so I could put the kettle on, do something else, and magically appear when the water was boiling and ready for me to make tea.
Because I've got this down to a science, it's an attack of one of the essential axioms of every argument for why people want a Soylent -- that cooking must necessarily occupy huge chunks of our time. Actually, if I think back, I've probably spent as much time figuring out individual little hacks for real food as the person who cooked up Soylent has spent on cooking up artificial food. Except I have nothing to sell you, not even a recipe book because my cooking is mostly improvised and I haven't actually spent any time trying to break it down into appealing tactics.
People always look at me funny when I bring in a carefully packaged home lunch. Actually, in a nod to the patriarchy, people who don't know me often times assume that my wife made it. Especially because it's often food from her culture. And I can see this huge attempt from people on the outside to market the patriarchy to otherwise liberal women, pointing out the lack of control we have over our modern food input and offering endless made-from-scratch beautiful bento boxes that a modern woman must make for their kid, so that the next generation might be spared from the horrors of processed food. When, underneath that marketed veneer, it's a bald-faced attempt to shove women back into the kitchen to appease the forces of the patriarchy.
And then I saw one of my twitter contacts write her version of the Soylent story and I came to understand what I was thinking, why there was this emotional revulsion to the idea atop my existing rational dislike.
Something he'd found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew -- he remembered -- as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.
-- William Gibson, Neuromancer
If you look at many of the geniuses of the pre-computer age who we look up to, most of them were fairly physically active. Often times out of necessity because our culture was inherently less car-centric.
The 60s counterculture scene saw computers as a dangerous tool of authority.. of whole societies being recorded by the computer's ministers via punched cards. They started the DiY aesthetic as a reaction to this centralization. By the late seventies, the punks thought they could take the power back by using the newly personal power of computing.
People saw this, pushed their thumb down hard on the fast-forward button of imagination, and created cyberpunk. Previously, we were anti-technologists. But the very inexpensive synthesizers that came out meant that you didn't need a full band to make music. You didn't need a whole printing press to dash off a zine, nor did you need the twiddly work with pressure-transfer fonts and rulers and typewriters. As the modem started to become popular, BBS systems and FidoNet created a format for grassroots community connections.
Thus, in the early 80s, we had cyberpunk starting its underground run. We had the Jargon File that represented a very particular set of anti-corporate hacker type people. This is where we created a new reality upon ourselves. I tend to think this was inherently connected to the point at which women left the field.
The time I came to embrace the flesh, embrace the meat... was an inflection point in my life. Some years ago, I entered a cocoon again and came out with butterfly wings of a different color than the last time. Every weekend, I spent time biking. My mileage ratcheted up and up and up until I could do 125 miles in a day. This came at the cost of other things. It was another larval phase for me.
I realized that it was the solitude of just me and my bike and the rhythm of pedaling enabled me to recharge my brain.
If I've got a whole weekend with no plans and some hacking I want to do, if I spend time with my wife, cook some meals, go on a long bike ride, and force myself to stop before I'm so engaged I can't go to sleep... I'll get the same amount of stuff done than if I spend the whole weekend in front of my computer trying to get each and every last little line of code taken care of. People talk about how they don't have time to get a workout in... I don't have time to not get a workout in.
There's a beauty to living in one's skin, even as a technologist. I've found myself dragging people back into the world of the meat.
As it turns out, there's plenty of good science that shows that physical activity helps your brain work better. So it's not just me and my anecdote, a religious conversion on the bike path to Damascus that I wish to share with you. This makes me wonder if the meat-denying techie that we built up in our heads is nothing but a mirage. We slotted Bobby Newmark and Case but it just doesn't work the way we thought.