When the Internet came to life in the 1990s, many people saw it as an opportunity for greater and deeper human involvement and interaction. But that wasn’t what happened, obviously. Even as the reality became clearer and clearer, a few people held out hope for something better. My mother was one of them. She was a programmer and had been in the thick of things in the 90s. And then, slowly, the Internet had drifted away from her. In true geek-speak, my mother said she wanted to raise up RHC – Real Human Contact. My father had been a computer genius even then and she hoped that together they could make the world a better and more loving place. Instead, my father tried to start a few Internet businesses, failed and ended up in some medium-end data quantification job. His job was actually exactly the opposite of what my mom dreamed of: he thought up new ways to put numbers on human relationships. Not only that, but he was good at it. Very very good. He began to give a score to almost everything around him. And along the way his scoring robbed the life from the very thing being scored. He ended up sucking some sort of fundamental marrow from everything he touched; his family included.
Not that my mother gave up her dream. But as I grew up, I got to know her as a bitter and angry woman. She would talk about the Turing test, where a computer is judged to have achieved true artificial intelligence by being able to fool a human into thinking they are not talking to a computer. But instead of showing the latest attempts to pass this test, she argued that the world had flipped this formula on its head. With short one-liners and click-to-likes, humans had started to behave like computers. The robots no longer needed to do much to fit in. We had fallen to their level. My mother was obsessed with this. She kept telling me I was living a nightmare, but I didn’t see it. It was just a new reality and she was part of a generation whose time had passed. So what if everybody was buried in cellphones? That was just what life was like. We had evolved, not suffered some horrible loss of the mysterious RHC.
Then, when I was sitting in class in the seventh grade, the school counselor knocked on the classroom door. She quietly and quickly made her way to my desk. She brought me to her office. And then she told me the most devastating news of my life. A distracted driver in an SUV had crossed into the opposing lane of traffic. He had struck my mother’s car.
And she, just like that, was dead. And in that moment, I was totally alone.
I went to her funeral, but I had no grandparents and my father somehow became more and more absorbed in his technology. There was nobody there to mourn with me. I tried posting an update on my profile and while hundreds of my schoolmates clicked sad faces, not one seemed willing to actually comfort me. Even the school counselor had nothing more than platitudes to offer.
Nobody, not one person, bothered to give me a single hug.
I went from denying my mother’s nightmare to living it. Without her, I had no Real Human Contact. Nobody around me seemed to realize that somehow just touching just one person could have more impact than a million hits. I had no idea who to turn to. I would just sit in my room and cry as I watched the world pursue what it could quantify: the numbers. The numbers, the hits, were like a drug, each rolling digit providing a micro-dose of satisfaction.
None of it was real and I needed something real.
I wanted, so badly, to tell my mother I finally understood, but I’d only understood because she wasn’t there to tell. Everything was empty. And she had been right all along.
I don’t know exactly why I did it, but I started to break things. One lunchtime, I just smashed another student’s phone. It was worth hundreds of dollars. Everybody around me was shocked. But it didn’t really solve anything. The kid just got another phone. Maybe I’d hoped my father would notice, would pay attention, would think about me. But all he did was hire a psychologist. Not only that, but he told me exactly how much it cost. Maybe he thought it showed how much he cared, but all it did was quantify how little he understood.
The psychologist wasn’t any use anyway. She and my father were trying to fix me.
They didn’t realize that they were the problem.
Things just got worse from there. Breaking phones wasn’t enough. I had to break something a whole lot bigger.
And so, I started to hack. Somehow, I was going to break everything. The world couldn’t be left to the quants.
I poured myself into hacking. I didn’t want to steal or to cheat, though. As I worked, and worked some more, I realized that my goal wasn’t just to break the system. It was actually to save humanity. I needed to wake the world up.
I thought about my big attack, for years. I thought about exactly what I wanted to accomplish. I was sitting in the school cafeteria, laptop open – surrounded by friends on their phones – when I realized exactly what I wanted to do. I started work that very instant. I wasn’t going to steal user data or passwords or credit cards. I was going to attack a much softer and much more important target. And, after almost six months of work, my attack was finally ready.
I launched it one September morning. It was on a delay fuse, it had to spread and infiltrate its targets before it would act. But one month later, in the middle of October, it was activated. And it worked perfectly. I didn’t go after credit cards. I went after counters. Wherever my code found a database with a hit counter, a like counter, a view counter – it scrambled the data behind it. It scrambled humankind’s attempt at quantification.
I thought it was truly clever. For a few days, until the systems were restored, losers would have their voices heard and the popular would find themselves cast into obscurity. For a few days, people wouldn’t be able to judge themselves or others by their hits. For a few days, people couldn’t monetize their views. For a few days, everything would be how it was supposed to be. For a few days I could dream of actually talking to another person. I couldn’t bring my mother back, but maybe I could find a bit of her Real Human Contact.
But it didn’t really work.
Everywhere I went, people were just angry. It was like I’d cut them off from life itself. And they couldn’t live without their drug. They couldn’t talk about anything but the fact that it was missing. There was nothing else to them. And I had accomplished nothing, despite all my efforts. And I knew, even before the backups and the offline storage brought the quants back to life, that the world had turned to hunting me.
They were hunting me and I had nowhere to hide.
FBI Special Agents came to my father’s door three weeks after the attack. I knew I had been found. And so I tried the very last trick I had in my toolkit. I ran a small batch sequence and I sent my story to the press – all of the press. Maybe, somehow, I’d get my message to the world. It was a thin string of hope.
Naturally, they stuck me in a prison without Internet access. I was a minor, and so I was in Juvi. Remarkably, for the first time, I found a bit of what I wanted. Nobody had phones there, nobody had computers. The problem was that the place was violent and vindictive. I was getting a touch of RHC, but not the kind anybody would want. The only thing that rescued me was that I was scheduled for trial as an adult. The scale of my destruction had been far greater than anybody else’s in that place – at least the way they saw it. Many of those kids had hurt people or threatened them; one or two had killed. But even in that group, I was kind of a celebrity.
A billion hits was a bigger deal than a single murder.
Despite their isolation from the Internet, they didn’t get it either. And when I was tried, and when I was convicted, I’d spend a long stretch of my life in real prison, surrounded by the kind of RHC I could definitely do without.
My dad visited, but it was kind of pro-forma. His employer wasn’t exactly pleased with me and neither was he. But my second visitor was a journalist. He wasn’t from one of the big publications. He was freelance. But I talked to him. And he seemed sympathetic. And then he left. And then another journalist came. And another. And soon I was doing interviews in every moment I was allowed to. I didn’t know exactly what they were writing, I didn’t have access to a paper or a blog. But I had a lawyer, and he told me the gist of what was happening.
They’d started profiling me as some sort of destroyer. Then I became a kook. And then, bit my bit, they realized I was selling papers. And they began to be sympathetic. It was generating hits. And the whole process was steamrolling. I wasn’t changing the Internet, but the rules of the Internet were rescuing me.
I was popular, so popular that the Internet giants themselves dropped their civil litigation. I knew it wouldn’t help the criminal trial; I’d so clearly broken the law. And I’d admitted it.
And then I went for a hearing and something amazing happened. The judge bumped my case back down to juvenile court. I would be tried, convicted, and freed in just over a year. After that I’d only have probation.
I’d be sentenced to three years without a computer.
I was a tougher kid by the time I got out of juvi. But I was also much better off. I’d sold my story for hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’d made a fortune off other people’s need for hits. And as I finished high school, I was admitted to one of the best colleges in the country. I had a great story. I was growing by every metric.
Of course, I was just as broken as I’d always been. I was a celebrity, not a person. I was a billion hits in human form. And I was totally alone.
I thought about online dating, but the whole system was falling apart. People couldn’t get to know each other from data packets on a screen. There was no humanity in it, not in most cases. People needed to meet. But they were losing the ability to get to know each other. They didn’t know how to act. They didn’t know what was normal. They didn’t know how to talk like adults, even if they were. They were all so lonely. And so I decided to do what my mother had once done. I decided to connect.
I logged on one day and I announced an invitation-only event at a local coffee shop. I rented the whole place out. Fifteen people registered and fifteen people showed up. They’d come to see me, the Internet celebrity. But I didn’t give them me. I did something different. I grabbed one person from the crowd, at random. And then I brought him up to a little stage. He sat there, uncertain about what to do. So I asked: “What’s your name?”
And, just like that, we spent ten minutes, just talking. And everybody just watched. And the whole room got to know somebody they hadn’t known. When he left the stage, others approached him. Some found they liked him, others didn’t. But they began to talk. Then began to talk to him and about him. Not shallow conversations, but serious ones.
They began to have what my mother had wanted so badly: RHC. I was amazed. After a few minutes I called up a young woman. And she sat down, nervously. And I started the same way: “What’s your name?”
And it worked just like it had with the man. The room was infused with another buzz of activity and connection. It was full of RHC.
And I knew I had something. I founded a business. I called it What’s Your Name. I bought online ads, I trained interviewers. I sold tickets. And within two years I had thousands of chapters.
Tens of thousands of people were meeting and talking and getting to know each other.
The Internet was spreading RHC.
But it didn’t work for me. I was a celebrity, not a person. Everybody already knew my name. And nobody seemed able to get to know me.
And then one Thursday night, at a small gathering at a coffee shop, I invited a young woman up to the stage. I just knew we’d have a great conversation. She had a sparkle about her. A touch of the mischievous. A touch of the mysterious. I wanted to interview her.
But then, before I could deliver my signature question, she asked me: “What’s your name?”
I looked at her, wondering whether she was joking. But there was no guile there. There was no sarcasm. She didn’t know who I was. And so I answered her question. And for the next ten minutes, I answered more and more of her questions. And somehow, through what she asked me, I got to know her. Somehow, in ten minutes flat, I fell in love.
When the time was up, I just sat there; she just sat there. Then, together, we left the stage.
I have long read this Torah reading in a very particular way: Yaacov (Jacob) desperately wants the birthright. But he isn’t seeking wealth or power. His mother convinces him to go to his father because Yitzchak will bless him “before Hashem.” We know, from this, that Yaacov is seeking Divine connection. He realizes that Esav will abuse it and the inheritance of his forefathers will go to waste.
But Yaacov’s approach almost leads to his own destruction. He doesn’t just ask his father for a blessing. He lies to him. He tries to replace Esav. He breaks all the rules. He destroys convention just as the character in this story destroys quantification.
But it doesn’t work. Before long, he driven from home, penniless, hungry, and desperate.
When he gets to Padan Aram, he continues on his law-breaking path. He lifts the stone over the well, breaking a convention that protects the society from thieves like Lavan (Laban). He has not learned to honor convention. But he does. Lavan takes him in because he is a relative. He takes him in because of social convention. And in the reading that follows, there are 19 different contracts. Some are implicit, some explicit. But Yaacov learns to accept and then use them. When Leah is switched for Rachel, Yaacov accepts that Leah should be married first. It is a convention that justifies breaking the contract he thought he had. When Rachel buys his attentions from Leah, he accepts her contract. And, bit by bit, he learns to use contracts – explicit, implicit and social – to his own advantage. When Lavan tries to cheat him from his wages, he uses the explicit contract to take everything Lavan has. And when Lavan accuses him of theft, he uses the standards of shepherding to defend his actions.
Yaacov goes from a man who would burn everything down to accomplish what he feels is just – to a man who uses everything in the world to deliver a more fundamental justice. He is like a firebrand, a young revolutionary who loses everything and then realizes he can be more effective by using the systems he decries to create a better reality. He goes from being a young man who dwells in tents to the only one of the forefathers who builds a house.
I think we all go through the process of being young firebrands. We think we can change the world, when we’re young. It fires our imaginations. But almost all of us fail. The world is setup to defend itself from radical change. Almost all of us emerge from this period in our lives defeated by reality. We give up on changing the world and just accept it, like the protagonist’s father. Yaacov almost falls into this trap. He only decides to leave Lavan when Yosef is born. He only decides to leave when he realizes he will be bringing up a son in a world bereft of his most fundamental values.
Too many of us fall into the trap Yaacov is almost captured by. We fail to see that our acceptance of the world as it is is actually what enables us to change it.
Like Yaacov, we can strengthen our connection to Hashem while weaving the world around us into a relationship with the Divine.
Bit by bit, without tearing the fabric that defines it, we can reinvent our world.
Image: Ben Raynal, Flickr