The abrupt, wholesale changes to society caused by COVID-19 has many people feeling unmoored, adrift, “not themselves.” Who could blame them? Life was racing along, and then suddenly, the brakes lock up; all that forward momentum has us straining against our seatbelts.
The novel coronavirus has us all contemplating the fallibility of the things we took for granted, the givens, the foundational. Perhaps the only thing scarier than a widespread change to everything around us is a much more localized kind of change – the change of self, specifically the mind. I’m not talking about calculated change, change that you work hard to achieve, the fulfilling of New Year’s Resolutions. I’m talking about the changes that happen to you, changes you might not even notice, changes that fundamentally alter who you are as a person.
In a heartbreaking new story from WIRED, Sandra Upson explores the life of the engineering genius behind Cloudflare, a young man named Lee Holloway, as he struggles to retain a small bit of himself. Unless you’re really in the weeds of the Big Tech, you likely won’t recognize his name; I certainly didn’t. But Cloudflare might ring a bell, tickle a dusty corner of your brain for reasons you can’t quite place. It’s because the company, which specializes in providing tools to websites to help them fend off cyberattacks, featured prominently in the news in the aftermath of the El Paso mass shooting. The shooter posted his manifesto to 8chan, the Internet’s equivalent of the dank space under a bridge where trolls live. 8chan used Cloudflare’s protective services, but after the shooting, Cloudflare made the decision to deny its services to 8chan, and without them, the website was vulnerable to sustained attacks that would bring it down. When Cloudflare pulled its protection, it was essentially signing off on shuttering 8chan. There was debate around whether Cloudflare should take such action, for it weigh in with what amounts to its own brand of editorial discretion. But the point of this newsletter isn’t to relitigate the merits of such a decision (though it is an interesting moral and legal argument); no, this newsletter is about the mind that made such services possible in the first place.
Lee Holloway was undeniably a gifted coder, a genius in the true sense of the word. But by the time Cloudflare rang the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange and became a public company, he was relegated to the sidelines, not there to celebrate with his co-founders. This isn’t a story of corporate malfeasance or scams or anything of the sort. It’s simpler and sadder than that: Lee Holloway lost himself.
The piece zooms out to stratospheric heights to get the reader to consider the underlying mystery contained in relatively simple questions:
What makes you you? The question cuts to the core of who we are, the things that make us special in this universe. The converse of the question raises another kind of philosophical dilemma: If a person isn't himself, who is he?
The questions mix together the philosophical, spiritual, and scientific. Each can offer a piece of the puzzle, but the final picture is still incomplete, as illustrated here by Upson:
The gist, then, is that someone is “himself” because countless mental artifacts stay firm from one day to the next, anchoring that person's character over time. It's a less crisp definition than the old idea of a soul, offering no firm threshold where selfhood breaks down. It doesn't pinpoint, for example, how many psychological chains you can lose before you stop being yourself. Neuroscience also offers only a partial answer to the question of what makes you you.
Neural networks encode our mental artifacts, which together form the foundation of behavior. A stimulus enters the brain, and electrochemical signals swoosh through your neurons, culminating in an action: Hug a friend. Sit and brood. Tilt your head up at the sun and smile. Losing some brain cells here or there is no big deal; the networks are resilient enough to keep a person's behaviors and sense of self consistent.
But not always. Mess with the biological Jell-O in just the right ways and the structure of the self reveals its fragility.
Lee's personality had been consistent for decades—until it wasn't.
The story unspools like a mystery, where Holloway’s successes are followed up peculiarities in his personal life. The peculiarities soon begin to take over, displacing the normal, the once-was, the usual. Those closest to Holloway don’t understand where the change is coming from, and even more bizarrely, Holloway himself doesn’t even seem to realize anything is amiss.
The final answer is far more upsetting than a midlife crisis or conversion experience. The cause is not related to the coronavirus, but this was certainly a timely piece to publish during a global pandemic for one simple reason: Sometimes, change comes for us and not the other way around.
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