Sisyphus is Happy
A parable for startups
25 years ago I began trying to convince folks that a bit of philosophy could help us create better laws. I was focused then on intellectual property (IP) laws, and argued that the distinctions between copyrightable and patentable subject matter were trivial, and even erroneous. We could do without them, software was showing it to be true, and those laws aren’t really necessary anyway for us to thrive and succeed in our evolving economy. While I got some nice attention from what was to become my first book, The Ontology of Cyberspace, nothing has really changed. At least not in the laws, and certainly not in how capital views the laws. The “IP” is a big part of the balance sheet, a huge asset for any software company, no matter how useless it ultimately may be. But every so often, we do make some progress, we inch that rock up the hill.
Sometimes change can happen despite ourselves. As my striving and hefting of impossible arguments evolved, luck intervened. I became interested in genetics thanks to my (now) wife, who is a geneticist, and began researching the problem of IP in genetics. Shocked and appalled by the practice of gene patenting, I wrote the book Who Owns You in opposition to the practice, once again on ontological grounds. Attacked immediately by pro-IP attorneys, it later became a blueprint for the legal fight that shortly followed, just months in fact after my book came out, and that finally went to the Supreme Court who changed the law just as I argued it should, embracing the argument many IP attorneys had mocked.
The thing about Sisyphus is that he may be down, but he’s never out. Albert Camus says we must imagine Sisyphus happy, because life is a meaningless string of ups and downs, pleasure and pain, happiness and grief, and there is no rhyme or reason at all to it. The challenge of existence is to accept that it is meaningless, and it is up to us totally freely to create meaning, not merely to find it. Happiness in the face of meaninglessness, taking pleasure from the bizarre path we travel, is a choice. It is the most powerful choice we can make.
Seventeen years after my first, strange job in software, I left a tenured job in The Netherlands to move to Mexico, and then left a government job in Mexico that was incompatable with picking up my children from school and being the dad I needed to be, and started a software company in the genetics space. It has had its ups and downs, highs and lows. But even when we’re down, we’re never out. Having seized the moment while we could, ploughing whatever resources we had into creating an actual product that does actual things, we could weather the lows. Like building a house while you have the means, the edifice becomes the foundation for a life. EncrypGen’s Gene-Chain is here to stay, even while we continue to find ways to make the world know, it is a rock we push up a hill with happiness.
A rock is better than vapor. At about the same time, in the medical technology world, the unicorn Theranos was falling apart. As a bioethicist specializing in technology, I watched that saga with great interest. It was perhaps the world’s biggest vaporware project, boldly cast in machine technology rather than software, and had at one point been valued at about 8 billion USD. But they had never created what they said they would, they had only promises and ultimately nothing to sell: no rock, no burden but failed promises to build a magical technology that never materialized. Their founder and CEO faces ruin, and billions of dollars that flowed into those promises are gone. There is simply nothing left to push up a hill, nothing for Sisyphus to do but despair.
We must imagine Sisyphus happy because to choose to do otherwise is entirely unacceptable. He must be happy too given the reason for his punishment. Zeus sent Sisyphus to his enternal fate in part for cheating death twice, including once by deceiving and tricking Thanatos (sounds like Theranos), the overseer of Hades. So Sisyphus isn’t just dead, he carries his rock every day but he lives. He strives, he does something. Doing and striving is better than death. Carry that rock with joy. It isn’t pointless just because it must be done time and time again, when you are down you can see the mountain before you and your burden to carry it up as a purpose — and embrace it.
Take the time and whatever energy and creativity you have and build a rock. Then carry that damned thing up the mountain, over and over if you have to. Our daily efforts, no matter how hopeless they seem, are a purpose, nor a burden. We are Sisyphus, and we must be happy.