Monthly Archives: August 2009

_why’s gone: the death of a pseudonym

If ever you wanted proof that great artists are really appreciated only after they’re gone, have a look at the outpourings from various programming communities that seem to be in mourning at the moment for a man only known as _why, full name “why the lucky stiff”. He’s not even dead (we assume and hope). He just killed his online presence without any warning, announcement, or (at least so far) explanation. Pseudonyms and anonymous existence is something mostly removed from the open source world these days: we mostly know who the names behind the IRC handles are, we see the faces giving the presentations at the conferences. But if you don’t, when the persona goes, and the work goes, then it’s an effective death as far as our one-way relationship with the author goes. Maybe the unsettling aspect about _why’s disappearance is the reminder it is that life itself is abrupt. He punctured the appearance of permanence the online world can give, leaving his fans the final irony of discussing the motive of a man known as _why.

In response to his disappearance a repository of all his salvageable work is forming. His work was unique. His best-known piece, the Poignant Guide to Ruby is a remarkable combination of programming tutorial, comic, and whimsical automatic writing with everything from a cutout beard to the narrator (perhaps _why himself, some speculate) musing on his sister’s suicide attempt.

The biggest divide in the communities seems to be over whether _why was right to so completely and abruptly bring down all his works. He had the right to stop giving to the world; but did he have the right to take it back from the world?

It’s not as if this is an unprecedented struggle: witness the battle between Victor Nabokov and his closest supporters over the fate of his final unfinished book The Original of Laura. Nabokov wanted the manuscript burned upon his death, his supporters didn’t. _why pulled everything, his supporters and admirers wish he hadn’t. Thus the scramble to undo his last act by saving it all. We recognise that _why made some beautiful things; we don’t like the idea of them perishing.

The likes of Sourceforge and Github are littered with thousands and thousands of incomplete and abandoned works, ranging from the barely conceived, to the half-started, to the almost finished, to the finished but left behind and obsoleted by the flow of progress. Their creators are content, or at least apathetic enough, to leave these works to just remain as they are, to provide whatever value is left in them to those who would come later, perhaps in the hope that another programmer with the time and interest will resurrect it, to bolster line items on their resumes, or because it would be too much effort to remove them otherwise. When the effort to destroy your work is greater than that to sustain its existence, the act of removing everything you’re known for, in the process of crumpling up your entire persona, becomes the one of the most powerful statements you can make.

The natural question in response is to ask what exactly that statement is. John Resig praises what _why’s done, calling it Buddhist. Nothing lasts. Here today, gone tomorrow. Like a sand mandala. Zed Shaw rejects that and calls it nihilist. If everything is impermanent, nothing matters. Everything is allowable. Zed suggests karma as a fixer. Everything you do will come back to haunt you, so don’t be bad to others. Which I’m not sure I find reassuring.

If you can call this the death of _why as a persona, then it wasn’t any natural death. It was suicide. Everyone’s going to die some time, but suicides are socially taboo in most cultures, acts of tragically selfish hubris. They go against the ought we perceive in life. _why’s persona ought to have just faded into non-existence. His work ought to have been left out there to bit-rot. There’s a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot says Ecclesiastes. Everything fades, but eternity is in our hearts, so we’d rather rage against the dying of the light. The unease we feel at _why’s action is borne out of the mirror of life an online existence can be. He chose when to die, when to uproot his work, and it unsettles us.

The good news is of course that _why is only a persona. And the archivists have done a good job of preserving his major work. Which makes it all the more interesting that we’re arguing the morality of what he did.