Ride or Die
George Hotz wants to build a human. During our afternoon meeting in his San Diego apartment, I asked him why.
“To truly understand what I am. If you want to understand what a radio is," he said, "build it from scratch. If you want to understand what a microprocessor is, build it from scratch. If you want to understand what a human is, build it.”
As founder of comma.ai, Hotz utilizes machine learning to solve the problem of self-driving cars. Once he achieves his goal of building a fully autonomous driving system, one sophisticated enough that the human “driver” can take a nap as the car navigates to its destination, Hotz says his ultimate ambition, which he settled on at age fifteen, is to “solve AI” That is, to “build something that can do everything a human can do.”
Elon Musk – that other self-driving car guy – is famously nervous that AI robots will go full Skynet on humanity. So nervous, in fact, that he is funding the development of brain implants designed to allow humans to interface with computers, in hopes that this will help humanize tomorrow’s machines. Musk dramatized his fear in 2017 when he quote-tweeted a video of a Boston Dynamics robot doing parkour: "This is nothing. In a few years, that bot will move so fast you'll need a strobe light to see it. Sweet dreams…"
George Hotz is much more sanguine about playing God. But even if he were alarmed by the prospect of creating monsters, his desire for self-understanding is too profound to go unsated. “What if I get to the bottom of this and find that it is some self-worshiping, blasphemous project?” he asked. We were discussing where to locate the line dividing creation-as-worship from creation-as-idolatry. “Will I feel differently about it? No, I’ll do it anyway.”
Since he was a small child, Hotz has been driven first and foremost by curiosity. His parents would often find their son had disassembled household appliances to figure out how they worked, or to appropriate their parts. “I’m confused at how people navigate the world, people who don’t know how light-bulbs work,” he told me. “Do they know how microwaves work? How refrigerators work? There’s all these things that they use, but they don’t know how they work. Maybe it’s my Asperger’s or something, but I don’t think I could function. I have to know how it works.” Sometimes, though, such an imperative can land one in hot water.
“I live by morals, I don’t live by laws,” Hotz told The New Yorker in 2012. “Laws are something made by assholes.” The savant hacker was twenty-one years old at the time and had been sued by Sony the previous year for reverse-engineering the Playstation 3 and uploading his methods to the web. It wasn’t the first time Hotz had stirred controversy – he’d been doing that since he became the first person to “jailbreak” an iPhone, at age seventeen – but it was the first time he had faced serious consequences for satisfying his curiosity.
By the time he settled the case out of court in spring of 2011, he had become a cause célèbre for the infamous hacktivist group Anonymous. The collective released a public statement in defense of “geohot,” Hotz’s hacker alias, on April 4: “Congratulations, Sony. You have now received the undivided attention of Anonymous. You saw a hornets nest and stuck your penises in it. You must face the consequences of your actions, Anonymous style.” Later that day, they hit Sony with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that crippled both Sony and PlayStation’s websites. Weeks later they (or someone posing as them) compromised Sony’s servers and stole the personal information of 77 million subscribers. The attack cost the company tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue during the weeks the PlayStation Network was offline for repairs.
Hotz denounced the hacks, but the crusade against Sony had taken on a life of its own. Soon Lulz Security, an Anonymous splinter group, was attacking not only Sony, but organizations as varied as Nintendo, NATO, and the CIA. While he disapproved of the attacks on Sony, Hotz didn’t regret posting his PS3 hack. “If being a techno-libertarian leads to online anarchy, so be it,” he told the New Yorker. “I’m not a cause. I just like messing with shit.”
In the decade since, Hotz has lost none of his adversarial, techno-anarchist spirit. But he has become more strategic in its exercise, progressively reining in his online presence, even nixing his popular Twitch stream. “It was just exhausting,” he said, referring to the task of moderating his commenters. “Whoever manages to solve that for the internet…” Hotz, wary of the pathologies social media platforms impart to their users, has chosen to disengage for his own health and as an exercise in self-mastery, a recurrent (if often only implied) theme in our conversation.
The first thing I noticed in his apartment, after the all-white Yamaha digital piano, was a large whiteboard emblazoned with the words “The whole world’s full of losers, if you get the chance to win, take it!” I asked about the line. “It’s a quote from The Wonder Years that stuck with me,” he said, and clarified, “Not the show, the band.” Opposite the lyric, on the top-left of the whiteboard, was an even more emphatic exhortation: “WATCH THE BLOCKCHAIN***”. An acronym, “DFT” – which I immediately dyslexified as “DTF” – was sandwiched between the two enjoinders. Hotz wouldn’t disclose its meaning, but assured me it had nothing to do with putting sex on the blockchain.
He is fascinated by the blockchain phenomenon, although he has thus far resisted utilizing it – or exploiting it for financial gain. “You look at all these people making money off DeFi exploits. And I could do that… But I’m not going to steal money. Even if it’s arguably not stealing because, you know, ‘code is law.’” Decentralized finance (DeFi), which provides financial instruments using smart contracts in lieu of centralized intermediaries like banks, has proven to be wildly lucrative, but also wildly vulnerable to manipulation. $1.4 billion worth of cryptocurrency has been stolen from DeFi markets in 2021 alone.
“I used to have a much more criminal mind until I read Crime and Punishment. I was like, ‘Damn, that’d be me.’ So that’s a great book for talking rogue intellectuals out of crime.”
Apart from a criminal streak, Hotz shares with Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky’s antihero, a predilection for instrumental reason and an urge to test his own mettle, to know himself by knowing his limits. As a young adult Hotz allowed himself to become addicted to prescription opiates almost as an experience in self-mastery. “I did it, I was addicted, and I quit,” he told me. “I think I had to have that experience. I don’t think I ever could have been the type who never tried it. Because in some ways I feel that if I’m not strong enough to defeat that and overcome it…” He paused for several beats before assuring me he’d never want anyone to follow his example. “In order to quit,” he continued, “it required me to rethink what I wanted out of life. After that, one of the biggest things that changed is I stopped caring about money.”
His disinterest in “wealthmaxing” is apparent in his management of comma.ai. Openpilot, the self-driving software his team has developed for use in their comma-series hardware, is open-source. He could have made a killing by keeping it proprietary and licensing it to various auto manufacturers, but that would have meant sacrificing his commitment to freedom of information. As the sole board member and majority shareholder, Hotz is free to scorn all the conventional, acquisitive wisdom he wants.
What matters to Hotz is that comma become the first company to reach level-five autonomous driving and effectively become the Android of self-driving to Tesla’s iOS. This ambition may seem pollyannaish to those outside the company, given its minuscule employee count (22) compared to Alphabet’s Waymo (950), General Motors’s Cruise (1,800), or, especially, Musk’s Tesla (70,000+). But Hotz is confident that comma’s approach is more agile. “We’ll solve self-driving cars soon,” he assured me when I asked how close he was to his goal.
One of comma’s key advantages is that, unlike Tesla, they don’t make cars. All the company’s energy is focused on improving the openpilot software, which runs on their do-it-yourself sensory and navigation devkit. The current iteration of the devkit, the comma three, is a sleek, mountable unit that is fixed under the car’s rear-view mirror. It consists of two front-facing cameras (one dual-cam with 360* vision, and a narrow cam to see far away objects), another camera facing the interior (to monitor the driver’s eye movement), and a 2160x1080 OLED display. The three 1080p cameras offer 120 dB of dynamic range, which comma boasts is “two generations ahead of a leading electric car maker” (presumably Tesla). The comma Three must be connected to the car’s On-Board Diagnostics II (OBD-II) port and openpoilot must be installed independently by the user. It currently sells for $2,199.
Comma’s hardware and software have advanced dramatically since their first-generation devkit. Hotz pulled the comma one from market shortly after it launched in 2016 when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent him a tersely worded letter requesting information about the product and not-so-subtly implying regulatory consequences if he didn’t comply. Hotz tweeted his frustration: “Would much rather spend my life building amazing tech than dealing with regulators and lawyers. It isn't worth it.” Despite this initial setback, comma’s hardware is now in its fourth generation and its relationship with the NHTSA is much more amicable.
Tesla’s self-driving software, on the other hand, utilizes a multi-task approach to machine learning. It breaks driving into hundreds of discrete tasks—such as predicting pedestrian movement, detecting stop lights or road signs or lane lines—which are then fine-tuned, often by engineers dedicated exclusively to a specific task, with special emphasis given to edge cases.
Hotz is critical of this costly, labor-intensive approach. “If you were to start a chess engine company, would you hire a ‘bishop guy’?” he asked Lex Fridman on the latter’s podcast. “If anything from the history of AI has taught us anything, it’s that feature-engineering approaches will always be replaced by and lose to end-to-end learning.” Consequently, comma.ai takes a more holistic approach, applying machine learning directly to data from its users’ actual trips. This allows for a more effective emulation of the human driver, which Hotz believes is the best way to get to full self-driving. “Humans almost never crash,” he explained. “Think about how many times you’ve done your commute and how many times you’ve crashed. Maybe once, and it’s probably a moment in your life you talk about.”
Comma trains openpilot through reinforcement learning – a machine learning technique in which an agent learns by trial and error within a simulated environment – using data from instances of unplanned driver disengagements (when the human driver retakes control of the vehicle). Each iteration brings openpilot closer to an ideal recreation of human driving while forgoing the costly tedium of endlessly labeling discrete objects, hence Hotz’s confidence that not only will comma outpace Tesla, but that Tesla will eventually adopt comma’s method.
During our conversation, I was continually struck by the degree to which Hotz and his company are anti-mimetic. Like many founders of tech startups—thanks to the influence of Peter Thiel – Hotz has a passing familiarity with René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. The theory, now supported by a trove of empirical evidence, posits that our desires do not originate in us but are always learned from models. This imitation of desire necessarily produces rivalry, which, as Luke Burgis has shown in his recent book Wanting, can be especially intense in the world of tech founders. Rivalry only intensifies our inborn impulse to imitate. In a market context, rather than spurring one to ever greater heights of ingenuity, rivalry produces creative stasis.
This, I suspect, is why Hotz refuses to view Elon Musk as a rival, despite their personal history. In 2015 Musk attempted to bring Hotz into the Tesla fold after he claimed he could outperform Mobileye, the Israeli company that at the time provided Tesla with crucial driver-assistance technology. But Hotz soured on the opportunity when Musk kept changing the contract terms. He resolved to go it alone. Musk expressed his disappointment in an email exchange, reported in a Bloomberg profile of Hotz:
“Frankly, I think you should just work at Tesla…I’m happy to work out a multimillion-dollar bonus with a longer time horizon that pays out as soon as we discontinue Mobileye.”
“I appreciate the offer,” Hotz replied, “but like I’ve said, I’m not looking for a job. I’ll ping you when I crush Mobileye.”
Musk simply answered, “OK.”
Musk was displeased with the Bloomberg article’s suggestion that Tesla depended on dated technology that one (admittedly impressive) hacker could replicate in his garage. He tweeted a response posted on Tesla’s website: "We think it is extremely unlikely that a single person or even a small company that lacks extensive engineering validation capability will be able to produce an autonomous driving system that can be deployed to production vehicles." Even if Hotz doesn’t view Tesla as a rival, Tesla certainly seems to view him as one, despite their insistence to the contrary.
Interestingly, Hotz appears to have arrived at his anti-mimeticism intuitively, prior to being exposed to Girard’s thought.
“This is how I constructed it from the beginning: the enemy isn’t other people, the enemy is nature,” he told me. “We’re in competition with entropy. Entropy inserts bugs in our code, makes things not work; that’s the only thing we’re in competition with. The second other humans want to compete, they can have it. My only strive is to be anti-modelable. As soon as someone starts to model me, I’ll do the opposite. If you’re, like, way smarter than me, you can actually beat this. If you’re not way smarter, then I’m going to be completely opaque to you. You can look at me in broad strokes the way you look at Kasparov in broad strokes: he’s probably going to win the chess game, but you can’t predict the next move he’s going to make.”
“Nothing really earthly appeals to me,” he continued. “I have no idea what I’d do with a ton of money… I can already afford anything I want.”
But sometimes competition finds us, regardless of whether we seek it out. What then?
“If someone wanted to compete with me—the code is open-source. ‘But George, don’t you want to partner with car companies?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘License them your code.’ ‘They can have my code.’ ‘But they’ll cut you out.’ ‘Yeah, I know. That’s fine.’ Because as soon as you’re in competition with somebody, you’re trying to defend something. And this is why I’m really embracing this postmodern idea of, you try to come for me, ‘Okay, here, it’s yours,’ and my army will slip away so nicely to the next hill. They’ll spend all these resources, but I’ll always be ahead… Like, what if the government wanted to come and shut us down? There’s nothing to come for. What are they going to do, take the code off GitHub? Okay, go ahead. It’s not GitHub, it’s bigger than GitHub. If they want to shut down the organization, it’s not the organization. It’s pretty antifragile, by not centralizing power. You look at what the state is doing to Facebook. The state does not want to destroy Facebook, they want to co-opt Facebook’s power, and they [Facebook] want to be co-opted. The trick is to build power that they can never co-opt.”
Hotz is keen on antifragility and maintaining his own independence in light of the American regime’s totalitarian impulses. This is related to what Hotz believes is a fundamental difference between his and Musk’s approaches to building institutions: Musk is a modernist, whereas Hotz is a postmodernist.
“The ‘library’ continues to exist,” said Hotz of the postmodern condition, “just not in any fixed place. What’s important to me is to build stuff that they can’t destroy. If you build a castle, put thirty years into building this castle, one afternoon with a couple trebuchets can take it down.” Hotz had castles on his mind because he had been playing Age of Empires IV a lot. Coincidentally, it was during a session of Age of Empires II when he received notice that Sony had sued him. “But if you build something like openpilot, they’ll never destroy that. You’d have to wipe it from the hearts and minds of everyone who’s used it. And that’s a lot harder. It doesn’t degrade, either. This is more what I mean when I say Elon’s a modernist and I’m a postmodernist—I want to build those sorts of things. The modernist confrontation is I have machine guns in trenches around my castle, and I don’t think this is a defensible position. The much more defensible position is you will find me hidden among garbage data in blockchains. You’ll never find me.”
Hotz finds utility in thinking of himself as a postmodernist, but a better description might be that he is simply a well-adjusted modernist. The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, dissatisfied with the idea of “post-modernity,” proposed replacing it with a coinage of his own: “liquid modernity.” According to Bauman,
Forms of modern life may differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change. To "be modern" means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively... What was some time ago dubbed (erroneously) "post-modernity," and what I’ve chosen to call "liquid modernity" is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago "to be modern" meant to chase "the final state of perfection" – now it means an infinity of improvement, with no "final state" in sight and none desired.
Whereas Musk has built a wildly successful company according to the old paradigm, Hotz is trying to build a lasting institution under the hostile conditions of liquid modernity. This is another reason why he finds blockchain technology so appealing. It is agile enough to bypass censorship and preserve human memory against the liquid chaos of false progress.
This is why Hotz believes Satoshi Nakomoto, Bitcoin’s pseudonymous inventor, is the greatest figure of the 21st century. I asked him whether he gives any credence to the popular theory that Satoshi is actually Nick Szabo. “I think it’s possible,” he said. “I think that who it actually is doesn’t really matter that much. It’s like when these people get doxxed on Twitter, it doesn’t matter. I guess if Satoshi were, like, say, the CIA, well that would matter. But if it turned out to be Nick Szabo, well, the guy’s everything he claimed to be. It’s like when Bronze Age Pervert got doxxed, and you look at the guy and he’s exactly what he said he was. The problem is if there’s misalignment.”
Although he describes himself as a “definite optimist,” not merely believing that the future is bright but also possessing a concrete vision for how we’ll get there, Hotz is keenly aware of the threats posed by the aspiring totalitarians among us. He was particularly incensed by the ouster of Brendan Eich from Mozilla, the company he founded, for having contributed a nominal sum to the campaign to amend California’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage, and even more incensed by the New York Times’s doxxing of the influential rationalist blogger Scott Alexander.
“After the Scott Alexander thing,” said Hotz, “a New York Times reporter reached out for a comment on a Tesla Autopilot story, and I was like, ‘After what you guys did to Scott Alexander, I’m never talking to anyone from the Times. Ever.’”
Hotz looks at the American left and sees a gaggle of would-be Handicappers General, flattening difference everywhere they find it like the equity-obsessed totalitarians in Kurt Vonnegut’s famous short story, “Harrison Bergeron.”
“I just see that as a symptom of decline,” he said, referring to the movement to “decolonize” mathematics. “No one smart goes to work for the government. No one smart is like, ‘I want to work for the Department of Education.’”
Although he believes the left poses a greater totalitarian threat, Hotz is no fan of the Trumpist right, which he views as patently incompetent. The system itself is what’s broken.
“I was on a road trip through Huntsville, Alabama,” Hotz said, “and they have a space museum there that houses the Saturn Five. That thing was a rocket! Now, people believe conspiracy theories about the moon landing because they just can’t believe the government is capable of doing this. And if you look at today’s government there’s no way they could land on the moon. They can’t even stack containers in a port.”
As we spoke, 115 miles north a flotilla of container ships were anchored near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle forty percent of U.S. container imports, waiting interminably for their turn to unload.
The institutional decay is being accelerated by the vaccine mandates, said Hotz. “What you’ve done by mandating vaccines in these institutions is, you maybe have five to ten percent of people who will quit their job over this. And that’s accelerationist.” Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, Hotz doesn’t know, but he believes accelerating conflict is probably the only way forward. “I don’t believe in reform anymore,” he said.
Even the grandees of internationalism see the crisis as an opportunity to accelerate their timetable for radical changes to the social contract the world over. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, began publicizing the “Great Reset” agenda in 2014, but he believes the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the perfect conditions for its realization. Schwab argues that in order to resolve the crises afflicting humanity, “the world must act jointly and swiftly to revamp all aspects of our societies and economies, from education to social contracts and working conditions.”
I asked Hotz whether he was concerned by such machinations.
“I’ve started looking into NGOs and this whole government money laundering scheme,” he said. “They all very much talk in lockstep. I saw a phrase, ‘climate justice.’ You see these phrases and it’s like, do normal people not stop and look at that phrase? I know these memos go around that are like, ‘We’re now branding it the “climate crisis”.’ This stuff they definitely have the power to do. But whether they actually have the power to affect the future seems very unclear to me. And, yes, they can control this narrative. But from where I sit here, the narrative has less power than ever.”
However, as the narrative loses power, as people lose trust in elite institutions and those institutions begin collapsing, elites become more authoritarian precisely because their power is threatened. They may be losing their hold, but they can do a lot of harm on their way out.
“I agree with this,” said Hotz, “especially if you fall into their traps. I think that if you understand what’s going on it will be easy to avoid their traps.”
What is the biggest trap? I asked.
“So I distinguish the coronavirus (with a lower-case ‘c’) as the virus, and the Coronavirus (with an upper-case ‘C’) as the happening. Don DeLillo had a good word for what these things are. In White Noise he talks about the ‘airborne toxic event.’ And I think some people are really negatively impacted by that. Imagine having to go to school and wear a mask, or having to work from home… whereas my life didn’t change all that much, because of how I’ve architected it. You know, some people are going to be very negatively affected by inflation. Some will be harmed if a particular asset class collapses. These are the traps you can fall into. If you’re careful and you don’t overextend yourself, you’ll avoid them.” In effect, you need to consciously construct an anti-fragile life.
“I don’t think any of this is going to affect me in the short term,” he continued. “My biggest concern is that nothing is going to replace the university system. It’s going to take a long, long time for that to revert, and there’s going to be a lost generation of know-nothings. The damage that’s being done to generations … might cost us the Singularity.”
Hotz believes that restoration of the universities might be possible if – sometime soon – we simply “build one much better one.” “But it’s not just about money. You’ve gotta give these people buildings. I think it has to be physical. It’ll cost a lot of money, but it’s not that much. It’s maybe a billion dollars. If someone put a coherent vision together for it, I don’t think funding it would be hard. You need professors, and you take those from the old universities. You throw out the entire administrative class and replace it with a new type of administrator. And then you make a building. And just doing that alone will be enough. But it’s gotta be a beautiful building.”
“I think about it and think about it,” he continued, “but realize I’m not up for it. I don’t know how to marshal a billion dollars. I wish I could, but I can’t.”
I ventured that someone like Elon Musk should just drop the money on a capable individual and deputize them to make it happen.
“The whole thing is a lot to put on Elon. It’s sad that we only have one Elon.” He laughed.
“I think funding the thing would be so easy – if someone put together a plan and dealt with the coordination of the mass defection. You’d have to get like twenty big name professors, you’d have to approach them in secret and it’d have to be like a compact…”
With so many once-great institutions now subject to ideological capture, comma.ai stands out for its imperviousness to cooptation. I asked whether Hotz thinks his situation is unique or something that other entrepreneurs can replicate.
“You have this relationship with power,” he said. “You can exclude these people from your organization, but you also have to exclude power. That’s what I’ve chosen to do. We have no power, no power at all.”
This state of affairs is hardly permanent. Hotz believes that, eventually, an effective counter-elite will emerge, largely from outside of our corrupted institutions and utterly dismissive of their authority. In the meantime, Hotz believes that a lack of power is more than compensated for by a surfeit of freedom.
Perhaps a week after our conversation, a collection of professors and public thinkers announced the creation of the University of Austin (UATX) as an answer to pervasive decadence in academia. Pano Kanelos, who left his position as president of Saint John’s College to serve as president of UATX, writes:
Our students will be exposed to the deepest wisdom of civilization, and learn to encounter works not as dead traditions but as fierce contests of timeless significance that help human beings distinguish between what is true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Students will come to see such open inquiry as a lifetime activity that demands of them a brave, sometimes discomfiting, search for enduring truths.
It’s a poetic mission statement for an endeavor which seems to jive with Hotz’s recognition that such a school must be physical and beautiful. However, scratch away the veneer, Hotz suggests in a recent blog post, and one finds that those behind UATX “are either straight up supporters of Power or naive political children.” He points to Joe Lonsdale, Sam Altman, and Marc Andreessen, all of whom “are very successful in the current system.”
“This is not a counter-elite!” Hotz continues. “This is a spin off of the exact same BS that’s everywhere. NGO awards and fake status signaling markers.”
Hotz ventures a “testable prediction” about the project’s future: “If they don’t already have one at launch, the University of Austin will have a Diversity and Inclusion department in ten years. But don’t worry, they stand against whatever new wacko left thing there is in 2030. Please don’t fall for it.”
His pessimism stems in part from his deep acquaintance with Silicon Valley. That UATX is backed by a number of Silicon Valley tycoons is for Hotz an enormous red flag. “Modern Silicon Valleyism is a grotesque ideology formed by psychopaths. Fuck you, I’m not a fucking piece of data. I will not be optimized, integrated, or transformed.”
Hotz believes the task of reforming or recreating the university is much more complicated than most people understand. It may even require building a new religion, one that offers both a way out of the prisoner’s dilemma and an answer to the Unabomber’s manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future. Students must be equipped to integrate themselves and their communities into a compelling narrative that makes sense of their being in the world. This is no small task. “But,” insists Hotz, “I suspect that until you do this you will fail, and you’ll end up with just more neoliberalism in fancier and fancier disguises.”
Near the end of our conversation Hotz and I discussed how to preserve our humanity amidst the techno-chaos of present and future, what James Poulos has aptly called the “digital swarm.” Zuckerberg’s “metaverse” is sure to engulf many of us and will itself be engulfed someday by a still larger, still more ethereal abomination. Endless divertissements tickling our brain’s novelty and pleasure centers, requiring less and less of our embodied presence, making us into “wire-heads.” How does one preserve meaning over-against the swarm?
“Whenever people talk to me about terminal values in life – it’s narrative,” said Hotz. “That’s it. That’s my terminal value. As long as it’s a good story…”
He arrived at this understanding after his battle with addiction, and it has been a stable terminal value ever since. Opiate addiction and wireheading each destroy one’s life narrative by trading meaning for pleasure. “The problem with wireheading is, ‘Okay, now tell your story.’ ‘Well I sit there and I feel happy.’ ‘Okay, good sentence, bro.’”
The abjection and dislocation of the wirehead is a shoal cordoned by many a flashing buoy. One can navigate away from that particular shite story if one chooses. But it is less clear what one should navigate towards. What’s the measure of a good story?
We naturally intuit the goodness of a good story when we encounter one, but distilling that quality into a pat definition is rather like trying to pinch a ball of mercury between your fingers. Hotz analogized it to Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” But he found this dissatisfying. Tolstoy’s opening sentence in Anna Karenina – “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – brings us closer to the mark.
In keeping with his habit of analyzing the world through the lens of code, Hotz observed that the difficulty of defining a “good story” (or a “happy family”) is akin to that of defining a “good driver” – it’s much easier simply to exhaust every conceivable description of a “bad driver,” leaving a kind of photonegative definition of the good. In the same way, he can’t define what a good story is, but he knows it’s a story he wants to read. “If you give a version of myself frozen in time the story of the rest of my life, and that version of me would rather read a different book… what am I doing wrong?”
Hotz’s answer gestures towards Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return and the moral challenge it poses: Live your life as if you will live out those same decisions again and again without end, as if every choice is an eternal choice. Such a maxim might satisfy a Nietzschean nihilist abandoned to his own subjective taste. But to a very different sort of existentialist – Dostoyevsky, say – this immanent eternity is actually a vision of Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s damned are locked in eternal stasis, no longer capable of change. Because the decisions that shaped the plot of their lives were not directed towards a transcendent horizon, the arcs of their stories are flat. Plotted on a graph, an endless sequence of the same curve is merely a straight line. In the end, it is bad stories that are all really the same.
Wherever else George Hotz’s curiosity leads him in the years to come, may it also lead him to mystery deep enough to confer true arc to his story.