January 12, 2004

Seattle and the Demons of Ambition, Fred Moody

Subtitle: A Love Story

The sweet naivete, boom, and disillusionment of "old" and "new" Seattle are the stage for the fiscal naivete, recklessness, and resignation of the author, an old Seattlite. He was poor but honest, an alternative journalist, until he was finally swept up in the dream of riches - alas, just late enough to lose almost everything. Likewise, he follows the career of one unworldly but technically adept sculptor in granite and radioactivity; and a bunch of would-be-worldly programmers, most of whom lose vast heaps of money; and Bill Gates, of course.

These are combined because, to Moody's eye, Seattle's innocence was lost to the money of the tech boom. We had innocence? Needleless seamstresses and Boeing's Star Wars money *ever* had innocence? I wonder. There's a lot of dirty Seattle history as well as the claim of a 'lost age' of consensual politics. I actually thought of the WTO protests, with which Moody opens the book, as a sign of innocence; the chamber of commerce, or whatever, thought it would be a feather in the city cap - the protesters thought protest might change things. Innocents all.

I was somewhat amused by Moody's move in the late '70s, early '80s to Bainbridge Island to get away from the uncool, gentrifying changes in Seattle. I'm amused because my family moved there at about the same time, when I was a kid, and B.I. was in my experience much more status-conscious and social-climbing than most of Seattle was a decade later.¹

I add this scrap of my personal psychological history, because Seattle... is full of Moody's. He's all about the self-defeating, polite, work-to-live ethos of Seattle, with a restrained but identifiable undertone of "But in the 60s...". I think it's very odd that he didn't notice for years (decades?) that this is an inheritance from Asian settlers, as well as Scandinavian ones. When the consensual politics is consensual, it's great, although it isn't quick. When the work-to-live principle leaves room for what people actually do - ski, build wooden boats, cook, commit more socially recognized arts - also delightful. Moody's mockery and despair at the unimaginative, expensive city efforts to be "world class" by building copies of anything big that other cities have has all my sympathy. I still live in the city itself, so am domestically affronted by the rotten-borough sports stadiums, to start with.

But he loses my sympathy, nearly my comprehension, by a fixed and inexplicable failure to see that technocracy has also been a long Seattle inheritance - mining, Boeing, aluminum - and that many technologists are as purely moved by the passion for what they're doing as more abstract artists are. His unworldly artists are victims; his unworldly programmers are comic children. How he could write this way after several immersive histories of Seattle tech endeavors, I don't know. I'll have to read them.

A friend of mine, when I expostulated on this, said it was obvious most techies are just in it for the money and hate the actual work; he adduced the career of a friend of his.² It's a sloppy argument, analagous to my dismissing all "art" because I know people who are "artists" out of a desire to be cool and shocking and free of petty social constraints of decency. ¹¹

On the other hand, I can understand being too annoyed to admit that the numerate and logical get joy in what they do and money to boot. To be fair to Moody, he sees the joy in Bill Gates and in some of the people at the HIT Lab. He just finds it hard to see in anyone (except Gates) who's practical at managing money; I think that's a bit of "But in the 60's..." leftover. He says it better than that:

... I felt it myself: an unpalatable, unendurable mix of horror, envy, disgust, and prurience.

Was that a good state of soul to look for startup work in? No. He overreached, he fell, he sat through the Slough of Despond at monster.com. And afterwards he started working for the Metro bus authority, which he describes as thoughtful, civic and determined; and observes Gates giving away money to mend market failures the rest of the country won't conceptually admit. There's still some old Seattle here.

It would be interesting to compare Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and Vancouver B.C. for their reactions to wealth, bust, and social shock.

ISBN: 0-312-30421-8

¹ I asked my mother how she saw it as an adult; she said that it probably had had hippie cred until right about when we moved there - my parents weren't looking for status fights - but not necessarily more than Fremont or Ballard or South Park, even at the time. I can see Moody's belief as one in good faith, then, although I don't think it's very perceptive. Or maybe these things are particularly bad for teenagers, although I know my parents experienced them too.

²This makes me slightly ill, as I don't expect this to produce technology that's very good for people. When the coders are weirdos who love what they're doing, they can someday convert us to the same weird love; but how is someone who hates it to begin with to know that it doesn't have to hate us back?

¹¹It's an eternal battle, the attempt to substitute wealth for coolth, or v.v., or either for virtue.

So wrote clew in Cities. , History (20th c.). , History (21st c.). , Technology. | TrackBack
And thus wrote others:

Sounds to me as if you would like to take part in a blogger party..sorta like what McLendon did in NYC...but there are other bloggers here and we should get together with our fellows and readers and just drink beer.etc etc

I am thinking about doing it at the Tangletown..I have also asked Butterflies & Wheels...


yclept: David Sucher at March 18, 2004 07:03 PM

Sure. At the worst, we can all complain about what other people have done to the Seattle we were going to get around to building. After a beer or two we can judge each others' passive-aggressiveness. Then we can slink home and leave thinly veiled staircase arguments on our blogs. Literary legacies have been born of less.

I expect it to be much better than that, actually; I was just hit with a memory of BBS-era F2Fs... but we were all nineteen then.

I'd rather not sit in cigarette smoke, but the weather's getting good enough to sit outdoors somewhere & trust to the wind to clear the air. I don't know the Tangletown; any sidewalk seating?


yclept: clew at March 19, 2004 11:56 AM

F2Fs?

Unfortunately no outside seating at Tangletown...sidewalk is too narrow.cBut it is smoke-free.cAnd they serve well drinks. Nice place.

(I have an email address.)


yclept: David Sucher at March 19, 2004 07:15 PM
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