Sifting the Internet for Gold

“…which of my beliefs remain unchanged? What assumptions will remain in place? What trends will be accelerated, which delayed, and which stopped entirely? What do I care about that has become newly relevant, and what no longer matters?

-Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Edouard Urcades, “Premonition.” subpixel.space. March 25, 2021.

Something about the phrase “lifestyle performance and participation” bugs me, but I agree with the thrust of the commentary, i.e.:

  • More culture is shifting online
  • It will continue moving away from giant aggregators like Facebook
  • Much of it will not be generally accessible, moving away from clear net to more private modes
  • Smaller communities, by definition, introduce more variance in behavior, that is, they are weirder
  • The death of retail will open up spaces for small culture and these small communities formed online will reconstitute themselves in meatspace, making meatspace downstream of online life
  • There will be a general flight from most cities as work-from-home becomes a legitimate optionThis will give birth to a new suburban culture

However, there are obvious places where they are wrong too. For example, retail is going to be devastated, but it isn’t because of a recession, it will be because they have been made redundant by online stores and to your door delivery that is already impacting general retail, pharmacy, restaurants and practically every other area of retail you can think of.

“More self-organizing friend groups and professional networks are using video calls and enterprise chat as a way to socialize. As a result, many individuals will suddenly begin to experience their interactions as content that can be public and monetized, and will feel more pressure to externalize their communications for an audience.”

Specialist physicians, for example, can create “journal clubs” and presentations for little cost for Continuing Medical Education credit, which will probably will help in the cross-pollination of practices and lead to better health care.

“We are still exiting an era of defunct political parties that are failing and fragmenting, and making our way into an era of discovery and realignment.”

Possible, but I think the existing political parties in the United States are a Coke/Pepsi duopoly that serves elite interests. It’s possible these new movements will be captured, but if it goes off in a truly new direction, you can be sure that the old guard will protect their lunch.

“The culture war between the East Coast and West Coast, which has been going on for some time, is now all but over. It has self-evidently been lost by the East Coast.”

About as right as saying the United States is declining and China is replacing it, which is to say there’s a surface truth here that falls apart if you think about it for five minutes.

Some of the ideas here are truly horrible. A digital graveyard? Want to imagine what your digital grave is going to look in a century in a culture like the U.S. that doesn’t believe in filial piety or worshiping ancestors? One is the loneliest number, indeed. There is something deeply sad about wanting desperately to be remembered and the reality that very few of us will be. Personally, I think it is better to think about this moment, this life as “tears in the rain”, lost forever once it is over. The transience of it, of the moment, is what is valuable about it. We are thinking about this issue all wrong.

“Breathe. Read the air. We are all going online in a new way, and we will never entirely leave again. In this new era, cultural literacy is a baseline requirement for making technology, for making policy, for living and for dying. Squad up. The real knowledge work begins now.

Let me say, with all sincerity, “Fuck that.” I’m going to stick in my own little weird subculture of one, and while I take an interest in the broader culture, since it is fascinating, let’s also understand Sturgeon’s Law applies, i.e., 90% of it is crap. The real knowledge work isn’t cultural literacy, it is taste making. In the deluge of terrible that comprises much of the Internet, who can distill all of that dross and find the nuggets, the pearls? No one can find them all, obviously, but there’s gold in them there hills! Well, reader, it’s probably as good of a description of what I’m up to with the site as any.

New sites I learned about from the article:

  • Figma helps teams create, test, and ship better designs from start to finish.
  • Notion: One tool for your whole team. Write, plan, and get organized. So, maybe a Slack/Roam?

Our Cults Become Our Culture

“A false theory of culture is worse than a false theory of the heavens. The planets stick to their orbits no matter what we think, but culture becomes what we believe it is. Conditioned by the prophets of data and nostalgia to imagine no further than the evidence of the past, we forget that people are self-aware and their actions shaped by a self-aware culture. Our explanations are not independent of our behavior but constitutive of it. As such, our cults of thinking become our culture.”

—Greg Jackson, “Sources of Life.” The Point. March 24, 2021.

This essay is so good, and this quote is probably not the best excerpt. Worth reading in its entirety.

You Don’t Need (To Complain About) Substack

“Our timing was nearly perfect—a mere two weeks after we wrote our joint essay, Substack had a huge controversy, and is now facing a backlash. Writers are thinking of jumping ship and looking for ideas for what to do next. I’ve been doing this without a net for a while, and I have a few thoughts on how it can be done.”

—Ernie Smith, “Newsletter, Untethered.” Tedium.co. March 19, 2021.

Basically, Ernie explains how to roll your own newsletter. If you don’t like Substack, Medium, or these other publishing platforms, you don’t have to use them. There are options, but many require technical expertise, which is what you are paying them not to learn so you can focus on writing.

Let me take a moment to comment, with the full understanding that no one cares what I think: The Substack “controversy” is nonsense. What they are doing is figuring out who could make money on their platform and removing the risk for these writers to try it out. I haven’t read up on who they made offers to, but is the world a more interesting place with Scott Alexander publishing Astral Codex Ten and Freddie deBoer being given a one year guarantee to build an audience on the platform and concentrate on writing? Probably. I don’t agree with the politics of either of these individuals. But, I do know that the modern media landscape doesn’t give them a platform, and it should. When we support a media landscape of diverse voices, it means you’re going to hear a lot of viewpoints you’re not going to like. That’s the price of a diverse landscape.

Of course, capitalism comes with incentives, and the incentives encourage extreme viewpoints. That’s what people will pay for.

If you want to promote conventional opinion, write mediocre poetry, share your hot tips on making money (or living your best life, nutrition advice or what not), then you get on a free tier of an online publishing platform. Or, if you are slightly more serious, you pay for the privilege and get a WordPress personal site or equivalent. And, if you are very good, relatable, extreme and/or lucky, Substack might approach you in a decade too. Good luck to you, if that’s what you want.

But, complaining how some company runs its business? Is Substack Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook or Microsoft? Do we want to talk about the relative harms here and why quitting Substack for some other online publishing or newsletter platform is a relatively cost-free form of virtue signaling? Want to guess how many people will read and heed Ernie’s advice rather than join the platform of the moment? Fractions of a percent. In other words, the objections about Substack and the migrating to another service with the same incentives is the kind of nonsense that characterizes left activism and is why so much of it has very little impact on the real world beyond soothing a few consciences and signaling we are good people at very little cost.

Rolling your own has a serious cost, in time and effort. Giving up Facebook, or one of the other feudal internet companies, also has a significant cost. But, leaving Substack to go to Buttondown? Who you fooling?

For a better argument, see Ben Thompson.

Thanks to Ernie for suggesting a few editorial changes to make it clear that rolling your own is not cost-free nor is it virtual signaling. It is a great way to control your creative output and foster independence. The challenge for publishing ecosystems is getting the tools to the point that non-technical writers can take advantage of them.

The Road Map Back From Authoritarianism

“Experts in authoritarianism advise keeping a list of things changing, subtly, around you, so you’ll remember. Days after the 2016 presidential election, I started a list. Each week, I chronicle the ways Donald Trump has changed our country. This selection, adapted from more than 34,000 entries — or about 1 percent of the total — focuses on the norms he and his administration have broken. The List offers us a road map back to normalcy and democracy.”

-Amy Siskind, “This is not normal:
A guide to what the next president will have to unwind.
The Washington Post. October 16, 2020.

Doom scrolling, at its very best.

Conversations on Political Economy

Capitalist: Capitalism provides for the most efficient allocation of resources, wealth creation and individual choice. It’s the best economic system we’ve got.

State Socialist: There are other values than efficiency, prosperity and choice. Capitalism tends toward oligarchy and monopoly. As industries concentrate and gain economies of scale, wealth creation is concentrated for the benefit of society’s elite, and non-elite individual choice declines, and over a long enough time period, with limited or no competition, resources are not allocated efficiently. State socialism solves these problems.

Capitalist: State socialism is inefficient. There are few incentives and options to create wealth, and it limits individual choice. State socialism tends toward dictatorships and state monopolies. When the state takes over an industry, it benefits elite government officials rather than society as a whole. Bureaucracy and corruption lead to a squandering of resources, and kills individual initiative.

Small Socialist: Small socialist enterprises — such as employee ownership, cooperatives, and collective ownership — solve both the problems of Capitalism and State Socialism at the cost of economies of scale. Decision-making is distributed across the industry or enterprise. Employees and/or customers are also owners and have incentives aligned with the business. What’s not to like?

Capitalist: Without economies of scale, small socialists remain small. Some industries cannot exist without economies of scale. In others, it is impossible to compete with capitalist or state enterprises without them. Small socialists will stay small, with all the poverty that entails. Capitalism solves this problem.

State Socialist: Small socialists also have the problem of capitalists, except it concentrates power into decision-makers hands. They, in-turn, have incentives to collude to extract benefits for themselves or for their industry at the expense of the enterprise or society as a whole. Good stewards and state ownership solves this problem.

[Continue, ad infinitum and adding in small capitalist, communist, anarchist, fascist, etc.]

Discussions of political economy are ultimately discussions of what you value and which system you believe is most likely to give it to you. See also: Revolution for One.

Joe Biden Profile

“Richard Ben Cramer wrote a great book about the 1988 presidential campaign, entitled “What It Takes: The Way to the White House.” It may be the best book about an American presidential campaign ever written. Mr. Cramer followed six candidates who ran that year — George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt and Mike Dukakis. The Bush and Dole portraits are hands-down the best profiles of those two men that you will ever read. The book’s added value this time around is Cramer’s profile of Biden. You feel like you know him after you read it.”

—John Ellis, “Sunday Supplement!” News Items. August 9, 2020.

Cosmopolitan Values

“But over the past 60 years, college graduates have gone from being 4 percent of the electorate to being more like 35. Now, it’s actually possible — for the first time ever in human history — for political parties to openly embrace cosmopolitan values and win elections; certainly primary and municipal elections, maybe even national elections if you don’t push things too far or if you have a recession at your back. And so Democratic elites started campaigning on the things they’d always wanted to, but which had previously been too toxic. And so did center-left parties internationally.”

—Eric Levitz, “David Shor’s Unified Theory of American Politics.” New York Magazine. July 17, 2020