THE OBSESSIONS ISSUE
The week of September 20, 2015
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The obsessions that define us

By Jesse Hicks

It’s sometimes said that if you want to understand a person, look to his or her obsessions. It’s a little bit like saying you can know someone by knowing their passions, because what is an obsession if not a passion with an edge, a love that’s a little unhealthy? It’s that touch of compulsion that often makes obsessions all the more revealing. You might be passionate about dozens of things, in that you really, really care about them; an obsession, though, that’s the thing you can’t escape, the thing that reveals more about you than you’d care to know.

An obsession is the thing you can’t escape, the thing that reveals more about you than you’d care to know.

For this issue we looked at how obsessions shape people and institutions, and how the Internet has enabled already-existing obsessions, created some that might not otherwise exist, and, not surprisingly, itself become an object of obsession.

First, Chris Stokel-Walker chronicles the tale of two men obsessed with writing the world’s smallest chess program. Thirty years ago, a lone programmer released a chess program for a then-new home computer system. It wasn’t the first attempt to make a computer play chess—information scientist Claude Shannon had broached the idea decades earlier, and mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing had written a sample program on paper. But 1K ZX Chess, as this new implementation was called, was the smallest playable chess program ever written. That record stood until January 2015, when a French programmer decided to break it, taking three months and more than 600 hours to do so. (If there’s a summation of this week’s issue, it’s in that programmer’s explanation: “You only have one life and so many minutes in your day—in your life—to accomplish things and to focus on things that matter.”) Breaking the record began a competition that seems unlikely to stop anytime soon.

“You only have one life and so many minutes in your day—in your life—to accomplish things and to focus on things that matter.”

Joseph Flatley talked to a man who believes the Earth is flat and that a long-running conspiracy has kept this fact from the public. Even 10 years ago, as Flatley points out, such a worldview might be dismissed as harmlessly eccentric—and not likely to draw a large audience. Today, though, it’s earned more than 10,000 YouTube subscribers. Whether they agree that the world is flat is impossible to say, but the Internet has provided a new outlet for an obsession that might otherwise generally go unnoticed. It’s something of a commonplace to suggest the Internet’s strange, dark corners have given conspiracy theories fertile new ground in which to grow and spread, but as Flatley points out, the belief in a flat Earth conspiracy feels very much of our time. It’s a belief bred of paranoia, feelings of helplessness in the face of forces beyond our control, and a bone-deep misunderstanding of science.

Finally, I look at the Church of Scientology’s obsession with the Internet. From the earliest days of Usenet newsgroups, it’s tried to control who talks about the church and what they say, filing lawsuits against critics and using copyright claims to pull its religious material from websites. In that pre-Napster, pre-Streisand effect era, it wasn’t unthinkable that a large, deep-pocketed organization could go toe-to-toe with the Internet. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that the church would lose: It simply couldn’t prevent its secrets from spilling out. Even today, its critics say, Scientology doesn’t quite grasp the Internet, though it remains obsessed with managing its image—a task increasingly difficult now that its detractors are just a Google search away.

Enjoy the issue.

Illustration via Surian Soosay/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)