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Threat of Obsession

By vaguely_aware in Culture
Wed Nov 01, 2000 at 10:09:00 PM EST
Tags: Movies (all tags)

I watched Pi: Faith in Chaos for the first time last night. I'm not going to bother reviewing the movie, that has been done enough. I did begin a train of thought as a result of watching it however, that I'd like to hear some other opinions on.

One of the themes of the movie is the protagonist's obsession with the problem he faces. His inability to concede defeat and his unwillingness to rest until it is solved struck me as an interesting parallel to my conception of the hacker archetype. Assuming the definition of hacker provided by dmorin on Slashdot:

"To hack is to see a problem, determine the resources available to you, and to creatively apply them to the solution. That allows me to say with equal validity 'hack code', 'hack management', or just plain 'hack life'."

Most of the definitions of a hacker or hacking that fall outside of the media's incorporate some aspect of problem-solving as a primary concern and pursuit. However, Pi seems to be cautioning against narrowing one's vision onto a problem to the exclusion of all else. This would seem to fly in the face of the hacker mindset, however and I wonder how difficult it would actually be to simply give up on a problem you were facing because the consequenses were too dire. How many hackers would be willing to do this?

Bill Joy exhibits concern over this in the Why The Future Doesn't Need Us article that ran in Wired a few months back. Mr. Joy, without explicitly stating so, seems to understand the need to solve the problem and the tunnel vision that accompanies those "in the zone", so to speak. He fears that those who are working on finding a solution to a problem (in this case, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence) won't be willing to stop to think about the outcome of that solution or even the effects of the search. How do we convince the very people we encourage to never give up until the solution is found, the individuals who by their nature almost are problem-solvers, to stop solving due to the percieved potential outcome?

How do we see where our actions will take us? While the protagonist of Pi eventually purges himself of the obsession, of more interest to me is his mentor, Saul, who we can assume eventually succumbed to the obsession and paid with his life, yet he warned Max of the fate he himself eventually suffered. Whether the outcome is madness from trying to solve the unsolvable (as in Pi) or an effect that wasn't expected, can we afford to have the attitude of "the means justify the ends?" At what point should a problem be classified as unsolvable, unsolvable by a particular individual or unsolvable for fear of outcome? How do we make these distinctions?

With obsession, according to Pi, comes the potential for destructive failure (witness Saul's demise and the "solution" Max comes to) or, according to Joy, destructive success due to lack of foresight. So here is the question: Assuming Pi's moral holds merit and Joy's fears aren't unfounded, how do we encourage intensity and dedication without breeding destructive obsession?


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Threat of Obsession | 19 comments (16 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
The Answer (3.00 / 12) (#1)
by greyrat on Wed Nov 01, 2000 at 03:40:53 PM EST

...how do we encourage intensity and dedication without breeding destructive obsession?

By having a backbone. Next.
~ ~ ~
Did I actually read the article? No. No I didn't.
"Watch out for me nobbystyles, Gromit!"

Please keep your answere thoughtfull (none / 0) (#14)
by aeil on Fri Nov 03, 2000 at 10:59:31 AM EST

having a backbone will not keep you from being obsessive. Many factors play into an obsession, some conscious and most unconscious. This statement ignores the learned logic that people namely adults you knew when you were a kid instilled in your mind. Educated and caring reactions by "mentors" really determin the level of obsession a person is able to fall into before the natural "exception" is raised.

[ Parent ]
Interesting (3.00 / 5) (#4)
by maketo on Wed Nov 01, 2000 at 04:16:29 PM EST

I like the article - however (to take a detour ;), one thing I noticed is that you have quoted "dmorin" on what is hacking. This sort of quoting really scares me - in the past only the "great" scientific minds enjoyed this priviledge. Same goes with almost any aspect of human living nowadays. Nowadays, the small person in entitled to being heard. Notice that I am not saying this is right or wrong - just fascinates me ;)
agents, bugs, nanites....see the connection?
not really (3.80 / 5) (#6)
by melancholyDane on Wed Nov 01, 2000 at 04:24:07 PM EST

This isn't really what the movie is about. It really feels like you're seeing the film though geek-colored glasses here. Now this really shouldn't be an issue but this article both refers to "Pi" for its inspiration and it's evidence, so it's critical that you get it right. The destructive influences of "Pi" aren't so much the protagonists desires to solve a problem so much as the answer to the problem itself. Rememeber, "Pi" is really about discovering the truth behind God and how we can't deal with the results. That is, it's not the process that causes Max to go nuts but the end. The infinite God theorem and all that. So this isn't really what you want to talk about.

more to the point, the stand you're trying to take here, is close to the theory that all geeks are somewhat autistic, and the isolation and obsession people perceive about them is merely a representation of some unbalance in the make up of the brain. The "other site" (screw it, slashdot, slashdot, slashdot) covered this some time ago . I'm not sure that you really want to say that. But that's the argument you're pushing even by using the word obsessed to describe the state of geeks solving complex problems. At any rate, it think these points need to be re-though.

Re: not really (3.00 / 1) (#9)
by vaguely_aware on Wed Nov 01, 2000 at 05:22:12 PM EST

I wasn't really trying to dechipher the ultimate meaning behind the film, but rather follow a train of thought brought about by an aspect that may have only been hinted at in the movie.

I don't mean to say all geeks or hackers get obsessed, but instead wonder if they couldn't easily imagine becoming so based on the pressing desire many geeks feel to find solutions when presented with a difficult problem.

This drive could become frustration, which could lead to grim determination and perhaps eventually full obsession, complete with narrow view of the outcome. One .sig from Slashdot says it this way, paraphrased: "[geeks, hackers, software designers] are so concerned with whether or not they can, they don't stop to think if they should."

"...there are lots of shades of brown, but not too many shades of balls. - Kwil
[ Parent ]
More Hollyweird thinking... (4.00 / 3) (#7)
by azzael on Wed Nov 01, 2000 at 04:59:18 PM EST

Well, in "War Games" they had to teach the lesson of futility, and thankfully for the plot of the movie, Joshua did eventually learn the only way to win is not to play the game. Personally I think it is rather the only way to ensure you don't lose. But while that is true (at least in my world), the saying "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." is also true. So while it is a better thing to regret something you have done, than you haven't done, it is also very important to be able to recognize futility's approach. How? Experience works, and when you don't have enough, use a group of friends and their experience. And when that fails, hopefully you'll realize that your head hurts. "After all, its not easy banging your head into some mad bugger's wall." (Pink Floyd's _The_Wall_ if you couldn't recognize it).

Just my $0.02
"Teach a man to make fire, and he will be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he will be warm for the rest of his life." -John A. Hrastar
Wow (4.00 / 2) (#8)
by tweek on Wed Nov 01, 2000 at 05:06:01 PM EST

I think this statement has to be the most profound I've read/heard in a long time:

".....the only way to win is not to play the game"

The only way to stay sane is to not get caught up in the bullshit. I've almost worked myself into an extra ulcer this year over the state of the elections here in the US. If I didn't care so much, I'd step back. I guess ignorance IS bliss.

Some people call me crazy but I prefer to think of myself as freelance lunatic.
[ Parent ]
Actually... (none / 0) (#18)
by kjeldar on Mon Nov 06, 2000 at 10:17:21 AM EST

sorry, I'm going to have to split hairs here, but the actual quote is:
"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.
How about a nice game of chess?"

[ Parent ]
My thoughts on obsession (3.25 / 4) (#10)
by Elendale on Wed Nov 01, 2000 at 08:05:02 PM EST

There are some interesting ideas regarding obsession, mostly beyond the scope of this post unfortunately. Zennists and a few Samurai dealt with another type of obsession: the obsession to be the best swordsman in the world. One of the teachings i find interesting deals with your focus in martial arts. The idea is to not focus anywhere in particular, thus not paying attention to an enemies ruses or tricks but rather paying attention to the entire situation. I think this applies to us as geeks as well- pay attention to everything around you, not just the code but everything that affects the code right down to the mood of the managers and the gravitational effects of that black whole 10^14 light years away (not a big effect, but still). Being able to perform without distractions is good, but being able to react to changing environs and taking all things into consideration are also good. If you care about it, a good place to start might be Miyamoto Musashi's Book of Five (Spheres|Rings|something). Yeah... i'll shut up now...


When free speech is outlawed, only criminals will complain.

Musashi (none / 0) (#16)
by Miniluv on Sat Nov 04, 2000 at 02:48:13 AM EST

It's book of five rings, and it's a highly recommended read. I've replaced my worn out copies several times now...when taken in a broader sense, that and Sun Tzu's Art of War are manuals for living. They offer knowledge for solving problems tactically and strategically, and how to tell the difference.
"Its like someone opened my mouth and stuck a fistful of herbs in it." - Tamio Kageyama, Iron Chef 'Battle Eggplant'
[ Parent ]
Other Takes on Obsessions (3.33 / 3) (#11)
by eskimo on Wed Nov 01, 2000 at 09:53:24 PM EST

In Ghost of the Grand Banks, Arthur C.Clarke talks about people becoming literally mesmerized by the Mandelbrodt Set, to the point that they become drooling morons, and once reformed, they find the pattern everywhere and put it other places.

I find this an interesting flip to the point. The way Clarke portrayed it, the people worked on it until they just sort of got lost (either it was in the book, or I read it elsewhere, apparently people have all kinds of names for various cartesian patterns created...similar to pi researchers naming strings of numbers). It is sort of a subliminal obsession. Compared to Chess, or the premise of Pi, or sword fighting (other good martial arts books are recollections and fiction by Mark Saltzman), it was hardly an obsession, but with the similar results.

I guess what I am trying to say is that while Tony Gwynn or Ted Williams would admit that they were obsessed with hitting, somebody like Einstein might not say he was addicted to math. The question is not whether you are obsessed or not, or even if it is destructive. Instead, it is how deluded you are. Was Mozart obsessed? Was Saliere? They got there in different ways.

There are more delicate accounts of obsessions than Pi. And I enjoyed the hell out of Pi. Try Searching for Bobby Fischer first.

I am my own home. - Banana Yoshimoto

The Physicists (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by recursive on Thu Nov 02, 2000 at 11:34:09 AM EST

From an abstract point of view your problem touches the question of responsibility for an innovation: who is responsible for an innovation: the inventor, or its users? Is it the inventors responsibility to stop thinking if the results may be dangerous? This "classical" problem is nicely covered by The Physicists, a book and play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

-- My other car is a cdr.

My opinion (3.00 / 1) (#13)
by mwright on Thu Nov 02, 2000 at 03:43:03 PM EST

I think that whether or not to become totally focused on one thing is good, but only in certain situations.

For example, many breakthroughs have occured when they did simply because one or many people completely focused on it, without giving up. Look at Andrew Wiles and Fermat's Last Theorem.

That said, it is always best to know when to stop. If someone decides to undertake an impossible task, they will have to eventually stop, and it's better to do so sooner or later.

So, my final opinion: You should know the problem. Start by learning about it. Spend time thinking about ways to deal with it... what methods to use, etc. If you can't find any approach after a while, it's probably best to give up. If you do, you can probably focus on that one approach without much harm.

A relevant quote? (5.00 / 1) (#15)
by ainsje on Sat Nov 04, 2000 at 12:01:17 AM EST

Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross an infinite sea and so make it finite...The poet only desires exhaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

-G. K. Chesterton "Orthodoxy"

Good laws derive from evil habits. -Macrobius
Diversity in knowledge... (4.00 / 1) (#17)
by Miniluv on Sat Nov 04, 2000 at 02:54:25 AM EST

I think an interesting point to bring up is, how many of the truly great breakthroughs were really made by narrow focus people? Einstein wasn't so narrowly focused that he couldn't draw inspiration from non-pure-physics things. Turing was reputedly extraordinarily learned in all sorts of things not relating to mathematics. Buckminster Fuller was well versed in many areas of knowledge, as was Carl Sagan.

I think there's a big difference between the massive refinement discoveries that narrow focus people have made, with the ground-breaking theorems, ideas, and such that more widely learned people have made.

I think looking at these people as "role models" of a sort is what has inspired my goal, one I know I won't achieve, but which I feel perfectly comfortable with obsessing about. That goal being to know everything. I think it impossible, but admirable, to shoot for this, as there's certain to be all sorts of interesting tidbits to pick up along the way. And for the record, I know I won't make any of those astounding discoveries, and I'm cool with that.

"Its like someone opened my mouth and stuck a fistful of herbs in it." - Tamio Kageyama, Iron Chef 'Battle Eggplant'

Take a step back (none / 0) (#19)
by mmcc on Mon Nov 06, 2000 at 06:10:52 PM EST

This reminds me of the main character in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence, Phædrus trying to define quality.

Putting things in perspective helps to avoid obsession. Logic and math are interesting creations of the mind, but they have little to do with the real world... remember to get out in the sun, breath the air and feel the wind on your face occasionally! ;-)

Threat of Obsession | 19 comments (16 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
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