The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
I was working at Brookline Booksmith in Boston when the allegations surfaced that James Frey had fabricated large sections of A Million Little Pieces. It was a fun week. Frey had done a reading at the store a few years earlier, and any staff that were there for it remembered him as a jerk. That, combined with the general rarity of interesting literary scandals, meant that we were all enjoying ourselves. I also remember how many customers seemed to come in specifically to talk to us about it, their eyes aglitter with excitement. The impression I got was they just wanted to be involved. If someone was going down in flames, we all wanted to watch.
That universal urge to take up your pitchfork and join the screaming mob is the focus of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the latest book by Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test). Public shaming has always been a part of the human experience, but 21st-century technology, specifically social media, has given it new life. Ronson first took notice when three academics from Warwick University created a spambot Twitter account using his name and picture, and then refused his request to delete the account, spouting some nonsense about layers of identity and how algorithms run the world. They did, however, agree to a filmed interview, in which they come across as the world’s biggest barfheads, the pretentious academic version of SNL’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party.”
Ronson couldn’t convince them to delete the spambot, or even admit that he had a right to want them to, but when he posted the interview on YouTube, the Internet took up his case, posting hundreds of comments on how infuriating these guys were and how much physical punishment they deserved.
Ronson felt liberated, vindicated. “Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right,” he writes. “It was the perfect ending.” (Three years later, the video is still being viewed and garnering comments, my favorite recent one being: “It would be great if at the end of the video the sofa just ate the three of them.” It would be great.)
But the power of social media outrage went beyond Ronson’s trolls. As he says: “Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming…Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.” And so he decided that the next time somebody big was publicly shamed, he would watch carefully, and a few months later Jonah Lehrer happened.
Lehrer, the bestselling author of pop-neuroscience books and a staff writer for The New Yorker, was exposed as having fabricated quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his book, Imagine. I remember this scandal as being less fun than James Frey, but only slightly, as Lehrer was annoyingly rich and successful for a 31-year-old, and once people started digging they found instances of plagiarism in more of his work.
The apex of Lehrer’s shaming came when he was asked to give a speech at a conference as an opportunity to explain what happened and presumably apologize. The speech was live-streamed, and a screen erected above the stage displayed the live tweets of anyone using the conference’s hashtag. What this meant was that as his speech went on, and became less about apologizing and more about justifying, outraged tweets began scrolling behind his head. Tweets like: “Rantings of a Delusional, Unrepentant Narcissist” and “Jonah Lehrer is a friggin’ sociopath.”
Not only was this shaming brutal, it was sort of cutting edge. People all over the world were watching his speech live, and their reactions were being instantly displayed both alongside him and, cruelly, in his sight line. It’s the sort of next-gen shaming Ronson was starting to notice everywhere, but it’s not used exclusively to fell the prideful.
Sometimes it rains down like hellfire on people who make jokes about sensitive topics. Justine Sacco tweeted a thoughtless joke about AIDS before boarding a plane to Africa, and was the most reviled person on Twitter by the time she landed. Lindsey Stone was tagged in a Facebook photo flipping off the camera at Arlington National Cemetery, which eventually came to the attention of the online veteran community. An anonymous man, who goes by Hank in the book, made a “dongle” joke at a tech conference that offended the woman sitting in front of him, who tweeted the joke with a picture she took of him. Ronson spends time with Sacco, Stone, and Hank, all of whom were fired from their jobs after their e-floggings.
Jonah Lehrer, like James Frey and Mike Daisey (who lied in a monologue about the Apple factory in China that he performed on This American Life, and who also appears in the book), broke a public trust. They asked for our time and money, and then delivered a fraudulent product. Daisey posits that “public shaming or humiliation is a conflict between the person trying to write his own narrative and society trying to write a different narrative for the person.” Sacco, Stone, and Hank weren’t public figures, weren’t consciously presenting a narrative for judgment, and never expected their mistakes to be picked up and broadcast by Gawker. They each admittedly acted carelessly, but the speed and totality of their downfall seems out of proportion.
Unless we’re all public figures. If 21st-century technology has made public shaming easier, faster, and more random, it’s also made us all targets. We put an enormous amount of our lives on public view, expecting it to be ignored, but this book makes it clear than anything you say or do can be held against you in a court of opinion, by people who don’t know anything about you, in perpetuity.
(Like all of Ronson’s books, this one is hard to put down, but you will absolutely do so at some point to Google yourself.)
Ronson’s specialty has always been exploring hidden worlds, and in that way this book is what we in the business call “a departure.” While his previous books have let us spy on the world’s weirdos — clucking our tongues at those taken in by a psychic or gleefully taking and failing the psychopath test — this one is about us. He does chase his fascination with public shame down a few classic Ronson rabbit holes — visiting the set of disgrace porn, taking a truly stupid workshop on “Radical Honesty,” and talking to the guys who run Reputation.com — but while they provide the comedy and light voyeurism we’re accustomed to in one of Ronson’s books, they can come off as a little kooky and inconsequential next to the incisive and slightly terrifying stories of public shame finding the common man.
The topic of shame is a much larger umbrella than Ronson has chosen in the past, and as a result, the book can read more like a series of loosely connected essays than a single argument. That hardly affects the enjoyment of the book, but the sections that hit home the hardest have the most staying power.
Someone Ronson told about his book replied that it must be about “the terror of being found out,” how we’re all scared that our worst sins could be exposed to the world at any time. This must be part of the thrill of watching a public shaming — beyond the gratification of seeing a just punishment, it’s seeing it happen to someone else, and being affirmed that you are in fact the decent person and they are not. Maybe we all deserve to be shamed for something, but pointing our finger at someone else keeps us on the other side of that line.
Because, I have to say, even after reading the entire book, and having my basest instincts dissected for me, when I watched the video of Ronson’s spambot trolls, I had a powerful urge to leave a nasty comment about them. I barely stopped myself.
Using the New York City borough of Queens as a linchpin, Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, Dissident Gardens, questions the American twentieth century’s “great comedy: that Communism had never existed, not once. So what was there to oppose?” Yet, every character in this book, which seamlessly bobs in and out of the last century’s decades and into the recent past of Occupy Wall Street, leads a life of great opposition, resisting everything their eras throw at them: electrified rock ‘n’ roll drowning out the pacifist strumming of folk music; the painfully belated attention, and lack thereof, from distant parents; the “ritual compliance” to TSA indignities. At the core of this resistance are two women, Rose Zimmer and her daughter Miriam. Steeped in Marxism but having no choice but to cope with how “true Communism had floated free of history, like smoke,” after Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin, this cell of two takes shape, a solidarity of dignified disappointment.
The ghosts of European Diaspora drive Rose’s husband back to his native Germany, leaving the two Zimmer women in Sunnyside Gardens, a still-standing 1,200-unit planned community built around communal gardens. It is here, only six stops away from Manhattan on the 7 train, where community organizing blurs with neighborly nosiness and Rose and Miriam anneal their individual strengths through clashes that demonstrate the women’s similarities. Their time living together comes to an end after a precocious teenage Miriam, Rose’s “renegade self” who has skipped her last year of high school, brings home a young man. Rose discovers the two of them in Miriam’s bedroom and after the suitor is permitted to leave, Rose, having turned on the gas, crawls into the oven before removing herself to shove in Miriam, an episode of utter histrionics that will haunt both women for the rest of their lives. But before the suitor is sent on his way so mother and daughter can tussle, Rose declares: “I tried to raise a young woman but apparently produced an American teenager in her place.”
Spend enough time in Queens and you will invariably hear such lamentations from foreign-born parents raising their children in this melting pot borough, explaining why it plays a central role in this novel. True, all of New York is a melting pot, but Queens has always been a remarkable amalgam of multiple nationalities living in close proximity, maintaining aspects of home while embracing New World attitudes. These hybrid identities, however, test and taunt Rose, Miriam, and their chess-playing, numismatist cousin Lenny Angrush, all committed Communists with increasingly less to share in common with their comrades. As Lenny says, “Fuck the amnesia of Communists who’d conveniently forgotten they were Communists, of the immigrants who’d forgotten they were immigrants.”
Miriam moves to Manhattan; her son Sergius is sent to a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania; one of Rose’s causes, Cicero Lookins, the overweight, gay son of Rose’s lover, a black, married cop, eventually ends up as a university professor in Maine. But no matter how far any of the characters travel, they cannot escape Queens. Lethem does not let them; the borough exerts a heady presence. He evokes the crazy convergences of streets, avenues, roads, drives, and lanes; he frames the genesis of the Mets as the “death of the Sunnyside Proletarians”; there are flickering-reality interactions with Archie Bunker; the 7 train rising above ground in Long Island City and careening toward Queensboro Plaza against the backdrop of Manhattan is “progress up out of the darkness, scraping moonward into the constellation of streetlights and signage along Jackson Avenue.”
Queens is the perfect metaphor for the world, as it contains the world, making the lives of the Zimmer women universal in that like them, every single one of us must struggle with our own identities in order to understand the identities of others. Frustrated folk singer Tommy Gogan, Miriam’s Irish husband, is jealously in awe of Bob Dylan, thinking his shape-shifting theatrics compromise the integrity of music, of the music’s message. But then he realizes that “Dylan, having shrunken an entire world to his sole person, was terrified by the isolation.” Both Rose and Miriam also fear isolation so they spend their lives trying to expand their worlds through the collective and individual gestures of causes, from workers’ rights to helping Cicero and the Sandinistas. Rose believes that all true Communists die alone, but that is just an easy way to accept that we all die alone: “Always opt for civilization’s brutalities, for the stupidities of the urbane. Not for Rose or Miriam the primal indignity of nature.”
Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude features one of the best endings in all of fiction as father and son drive through a blizzard, listening to Brian Eno’s Another Green World, “two gnarls of human scribble, human cipher, human dream.” This is the moment of implicit reconciliation and a nod to how the unexpected can bring together individuals. The characters in Dissident Gardens grow from the expectations of planned, organized communities intended to unify individuals but they spend their lives trying to extract themselves from these contexts only to realize that it is not their individuality that defines them but their solitude.
Dissident Gardens is an intricately detailed meditation on varieties of emotional isolation. When the 7 train charges above ground today the majority of people just keep watching their screens or check their phones for service, oblivious to the surroundings of the borough that most of them call home. The graffiti-adorned 5 Pointz standing resolutely under the growing skyline of Long Island City is no match for Angry Birds or a text message about baby names. Technological connectivity isolates us from our surroundings, and from others. A political ideology meant to unite communities around the skills and abilities of individuals splintered those communities. The irony in both examples is the same – what in theory should bring us together keeps us apart. In Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem leverages this irony, bringing to life characters who want no parts of what they feel connected to but cannot quite latch on to what it is they really need.