An Ode to Code
In 2008, Harris was asked to give the endnote speech at a conference of 1500 software designers who were devotees of a program called Flash. He was originally scheduled to talk about something else, but something bothered him that he felt had to be said. So he told the audience that they weren’t fulfilling their potential—that they weren’t making serious work compared to other artistic mediums, that they were overly concerned with style and technique and not enough with ideas that could improve the world. He was calling, in other words, for arête.
Some of the Flash fans cheered him for this, but many booed. Later Harris went to the bar where other speakers were drinking beers. One of them told him he wasn’t welcome, and swore at him. Someone shoved someone against a wall; someone threw a punch; several people broke it up. The next day the Flash-o-sphere erupted with talk of the speech and the brawl, much if it filled with Harris-directed invective, and some of them asked a difficult question: Exactly how is Jonathan Harris improving the world?
Like a mystic returning to his mountain-top to meditate, Harris went travelling, looked inside himself for answers, and responded with his latest project: Cowbird.
Cowbird is a web space where people all over the world can cut through the isolation of the Internet and build global bridges to one another, through the exchange of their stories.
Harris explained to the Times audience that the name comes from combining two metaphors: The cow, a slow and grounded animal, represents older, more laborious means of communication, such as the novel, whereas the swift, airborne bird can be likened to the Internet. By combining them, he hopes to improve both.
Harris had concluded that humans need their own “myth” in order to feel rooted, that we each need to “create a life story.” So he made Cowbird—a web space where people all over the world can hopefully cut through the isolation of the Internet and build global bridges to one another, through the exchange of their stories. He hopes this will create a “gift economy of stories going back and forth, rather than an economy of stuff.”
On Cowbird, participants post a photograph and a short story, which he wants to be inspiring. Harris and his team also periodically create “sagas” there, such as a recent one called “First Loves:” A photographer wrote about how being shot at by the Taliban inspired him to finally marry his girlfriend. A woman described getting a medical diagnosis of heartbreak. Harris posted a ten-minute audio story about the time his father nearly died, which inspired Harris to finally tell him he loved him.
Cowbird, Harris says, has a threefold mission: He wants it to be a place for global self-expression unlike anything else on the Web. He hopes that it will become a long-lived library of human experience, allowing people to share their knowledge and wisdom in a kind of permanent, web-based scrapbook of their lives. He also thinks it can represent a new kind of journalism, where people report major news events through their own personal stories.
He told the Times audience about Cowbird, and showed them examples. Then it was time to give them their areté report card. He told them that the media—aka, each of them—generally puts forth a dark vision of things, which in Harris’ opinion could make darkness more likely to come true. Instead, he told them, “We need to put forward beautiful visions.” He suggested that they strive for authenticity, and even went so far as to say that their most successful writers—Paul Krugman and Mark Bittman, for instance—weren’t necessarily the most objective, they were the most authentic.
Areté demands constant self-improvement. Plato felt that anyone who was trying to achieve it had in fact achieved it, because its value lay not in the destination but in the striving. Harris says that the Flash conflagration taught him a thing or two, and that afterwards he worked hard to improve himself and not sound so arrogant. Apparently he succeeded, because when he was done talking the Times staffers didn’t boo him or try to punch him out. Instead, they gave him a heartfelt round of applause. ••
Nathaniel Reade has written for dozens of national magazines, including GQ, Men’s Journal, Yankee, and SKI. This is his second story for Deerfield Magazine.