ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Great Aboveground Empire —

I’m about to write an essay that will lead to mass misinterpretation or out of context quoting, and before I get into that situation (intentionally), I have to create this entire sidebar to talk about a social construct I’ve observed over the years. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the Inside Out, but this is a different online (and offline) situation to that. Very quickly: The “Inside Out” is my belief that there are people who believe they are in private spaces online that are in fact not private at all but they’re absolutely convinced of it and the resulting friction is nearly blinding when it comes to a head.

What I’m talking about is something else entirely.

It’s a situation where people want all the cachet of being outside the boundaries, in lawless territories where you survive on the wit and bravery (or brutality) of Taking The Initiative and damn the costs and risks, but also want to be protected and safe with all the constructs we in Civilization provide so you don’t wake up with your throat slit and your pockets turned out.

They want a fictional in-between place that doesn’t bend to the “inconvenient” rules and yet lets you summon them in a moment’s (or hour’s) notice when the game doesn’t go your way and you need to get the DM to re-roll for a Natural 20.

I have my own term for this phenomenon: The Aboveground, a mystical (and profitable) land where people want to believe they’re under the radar, being all subtle and hidden, when they’re actually functioning in plain sight.

(This is very different, I should note, from people who are functioning in an underground manner in plain sight with knowing intention of being watched and findable, just doing so in a double-switchback situation that means they function in that environment. Most people don’t actually want to take on the burden of this, but some do.)

I’ll give a hypothetical that I’ve used before trying to explain my thinking.

The Underground wants to do sketchy shit, so by word of mouth, everyone knows to meet over at Ken’s house, and Ken has a separate basement door entrance, so you know to park down the street and go to Ken’s house and let yourself in the gate and knock on Ken’s basement door and Ken lets you in because other people said you were cool. Once you’re all in there, drinking beers, everyone gathers up the stuff you’re going to do sketchy shit with and you head out into the woods and do sketchy shit.

The Aboveground wants to do all the woods stuff, except you meet at Starbucks and post it on multiple forums and tweet about it using some stupid codeword and also you want a sign at Starbucks telling people the Sketchy Shit Club meets around 6pm every Friday.

The simple fact is, we’ve been spending so many Herculean efforts to bring every single aspect of life online and make communication by massive observed networks and corporate-owned byways and highways that many people don’t even see these worlds as anything other than “the world”. From that lack of perception comes the continued desire to stay out of the eye of the public, or at least out of the eye of authority, to do neat or weird stuff that others might not approve of.

And yet, the fact is (or should be) that doing risky things entails risks. Playfully pop out of the window of your pal’s car to get on the roof to goof around, and you might injure yourself and die. Modify electronics or equipment to do something neat, and you might cross a wire and bust it up permanently, or (again) injure yourself. Take stupid chances, win stupid prizes, right?

But the growing denizens of the Aboveground don’t entirely like that. They’ve either internalized or integrated into their worldview that somewhere, out beyond the bounds of sight, they will always have a safety net, a ramp or an apparatus, that will ultimately provide comfort and rescue to pull them back from the abyss.

And to be clear: It’s an awesome deal if you can get it.

I, myself, have absolutely benefitted from taking wild swings at the fences and going out into the darkness with a flashlight and a prayer, emerging messy, sweaty, with a few cuts and a recurring nightmare about what almost happened there that one time. In my mind, the idea that ultimately, whoever or whatever found us would first try and get the injuries handled at a hospital, or would probably toss us at the edge of the border with an admonishment to not come back, was always humming along in the background, warm and safe. I’ve certainly walked in the Aboveground and fooled myself with the illusion that I wasn’t.

But that’s the point: The Aboveground is the Aboveground but it’s also the Illusion of the Underground cooked into it.

Perhaps that’s where I started to sour on it all, and recognize it for what it was: Cosplay for Hardship; a Kabuki Theater of acting out the long-worn tropes of the outlaw you once were, wearing the new business suit of what you actually are.

The Aboveground is a template that fits in hundreds of situations.

The reason I bring up this thought experiment and sidebar is related to the two most frequent times I see it in use, personally.

First, it’s what I started to see over the years as I would attend a lot of “hacking” conventions, where it was clear that the realms of curiosity and risk were being traded for 401(k)s, contract-driven shrunk horizons, and the safety and dependability for family. No shame in that. But yet, as that morphing and breaking out of the rebellious chrysalis happened, there was an insistence, or, more a demand that the strange, confused, brilliant and deranged hacking mentality be worn as a faded t-shirt or jacket throughout the process.

Hacking conferences are, in the present sense, overly Aboveground – they have to be. There are contracts signed, real names writing real checks with conference centers and multinationals that price out damage and vandalism, along with an at-call internal and external security force primarily focused on Stopping Crimes…. and yet people either still do the crimes, or they pretend that in some way, some squint-and-you-can-see-it version of being an outsider still persists with your name on the room and a credit card for the flight that brought you here. It’s endemic, marbled into the aging steak of these events, and it’s why, with very very little exception, I only attend ones I both like and which I can drive home from the same day.

And then there’s the other situation.

The entire technical industry and infrastructure space, especially the really “disruptive” ones, has progressively built itself not only on the idea that you should ignore the rules until someone actively stops you or you can get bought out, it nearly depends on it.

Fat with venture capital, bloated with many levels of management and oversight, and exhibiting absolutely no understanding of what represents long-long-term integration into the operations of humanity, good and bad, they instead chose the Aboveground lifestyle.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s hard for someone with a family or maybe even harder when they don’t have one, to turn down gargantuan once-the-province-of-kings level of wealth in doing whatever it is this company does and leaving the hard part, the question of what the ramifications are, to others. In fact, the whole idea of the Aboveground company is to let others deal with the ramifications. Find a weakness, a difficult thing to pull off in the realm of humanity, poke untold wealth into its eye and make the other eye think it’s seeing you, a fake thing, as a real one. Do this so much, you convince yourself there was no other way. Composed, as you are, of people with no allegiance and no cohesion except “we’re all in this together and the train’s left anyway”, the skies are literally the limit.

But in slow motion, and now fast motion, we are seeing the consequences. We see innovation corralled for its thrust potential instead of its energy and focus. We watch good minds convinced that their mundane-as-dishwater job is that of a scallywag aboard a Pirate Ship with a Heart of Gold.

And most notably, when the ship runs up on inevitable rocks, we watch as these Aboveground rebels slip back into the darkness, forgetting the mess they made, and ready for the next “no other way” disruptive orgy to commence.

Consider me old or throw your names at me as I strike a little close to your home. But that’s what happens when you’re Aboveground: Your voice carries very well and very far. Because you’re not in hiding and there’s no blowback for your senseless, consequence-free experiments of “what if I fuck with it”.

So, when you see me lob a few more words in the general direction of a cool, awesome group of rule-breaking rebels, this little declaration should be harmonizing my writing in your mind:

You’re Aboveground. You’ve forgotten what Underground even is.


When I speak about a truly Underground situation, I also want to recognize that along with risks and danger come the fundamentally unjust, heartbreaking, exclusionary and despicable environment that this situation often brings. While the tales of incoherent mayhem and hilarious anarchy might represent entertaining memories, more often than not you have participants who remember those tales as simply traumatic. Underground does not mean inherently mean “good”, “good old” or “original good” in any way. We move beyond this situation for a reason.

The Aboveground, however, will have a tendency to bring along those very same traumas and miseries as being flavoring, spice of the experience of being as cool and awesome as the Underground must be, and meet the same resistance that any reasonable person might respond with when faced with them. The annoyance, the infuriating aspect of it, is that the cries of “we’ve lost something” accompany the protests the Aboveground meets. It’s literally the worst of both worlds; the other choices must be better.

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  1. TC says:

    Holy crap, Sketch. Very well said.

  2. BIlly says:

    I would love five thousand words of you applying this framework more broadly to western society

  3. Colby says:

    This post could use some examples.

    Another useful metaphor?: your home, an ostensibly private place, nonetheless has sightlines that will, if the curtains are not drawn, permit people from the street to see in—so if you behave in those sightlines like someone who believes they don’t exist and there’s no difference between having the curtains drawn or not, then you’re lying to yourself and taking the risk of being confronted with the untruth of your self-told lie.

  4. vrhelmutt says:

    Very well said. I miss the feeling of the memories that I’m now not allowed to have.