About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

The Computational Condition

Over the past few months I read Hannah “Banality of Evil” Arendt’s difficult and idiosyncratic (somewhat unnecessarily so) but highly rewarding 1958 classic The Human ConditionThis slide-deck is a deep-dive attempt to apply her philosophy to the post-software-eats-world human condition, which I call the computational condition. Maybe digital condition or post-technological condition would be better, but I like alliteration.

This deck should serve as a decent introduction to Arendt’s philosophy of action, which is already part of the zeitgeist to a much greater degree than you probably recognize. It is dense and wordy, 88 slides long and full of big (thematically bucketed and curated) block quotes along book-ended and interrupted by my own heavy-handed commentary and summary sections, but trust me, it’s a 100x easier to digest than the book itself. But that’s not my main purpose in creating it.

The main purpose is this: With some significant augmentations and modifications (a few of them drastic enough to alter her basic philosophical posture in an irreversible and unforgivable way, the irony of which she’d have appreciated as you’ll see), her ideas actually work really well as a foundation for constructing what I think Silicon Valley needs badly right now: a solid political philosophy built on the foundation of the folk philosophy that already defines tech culture: doerism. So here’s my stab at it. Post a comment if you are interested in a sort of video salon on the topic, in either seminar or discussion format (specify which interests you more). I haven’t yet decided whether to do one, or attempted to present this deck. I suspect it would take me 2-4 hours to present this depending on how prepared people are.

In my own modest way, what I’m trying to do here is get a stone soup going, to cook up a political philosophy for Silicon Valley that is not embarrassingly juvenile/sophomoric. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, this should be a good starting point for you. Even if you dislike doerism (in the sense of the lived political philosophy of Silicon Valley), dislike Arendt (there is much to dislike about her), and are suspicious of any attempt to combine the two, this is in a way the most obvious steel-manning of what is already the tacit political philosophy of Silicon Valley. So your alternatives to it should probably understand what it might possibly be right about.

When Tools Shape You

The weaponized form of McLuhan’s famous phrase the medium is the message is the phrase, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us (due to to McLuhan’s friend John Culkin). I have come to prefer this form of the idea, and my favorite motif for it is Doc Ock, the Marvel super-villain.

doctor_octopus_thumb

Doc Ock’s artificially intelligent arms fuse to his brain stem in a reactor accident. In the movie version, the intelligence in the arms alters his behavior by making lower-level brain functions, such as emotional self-regulation, more powerful and volatile. The character backstory suggests a personality — a blue-collar nerd bullied as a schoolkid — that was already primed for destabilization by the usual sort of super-villain narcissistic wound. The accident alters the balance of power between his higher-level brain functions, and the hardware-extended lower-level brain functions. In the Doc Ock story, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us captures the adversarial coupling between medium and message-sender.

The weaker form of McLuhan’s idea suggests that media select messages rather than the other way around: paper selects for formal communication, email selects for informal communication, 4chan selects for trolling. The stronger form suggests that when there is a conflict between medium and message, the medium wins. A formal communication intent naturally acquires informal overtones if it ends up as an email, memetic overtones if it ends up as a 4chan message.

Culkin’s form is the strongest. It suggests that the medium reshapes the principal crafting the message. The Doc Ock motif suggests why. There is no such thing as a dumb agent. All media have at least weak, latent, distributed intelligence. Intelligence that can accumulate power, exhibit agency, and contend for control.

The most familiar example of this effect is in organizational behavior, captured in an extension to Alfred Chandler’s famous observation that structure follows strategy. That becomes first structure follows strategy, then strategy follows structure. The explicit form is Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: in a mature organization, agent goals trump principal goals.

A subtler, less familiar example is the philosophical idea that in any master-slave relationship, the slave can self-actualize through labor. In practice, this happens only when the slave has some freedom above absolute wretchedness, with sufficient cognitive surplus to turn learning from labor into political leverage.

In all such examples, the mechanism is the same. A seemingly powerless and dumb agent, by virtue of having privileged access to information and organizational operations, can become the principal by converting growing tacit knowledge of reality into consciously exercised political leverage.

The idea sheds light on why we are instinctively concerned about the Trump administration-in-waiting. While it is plausible, indeed probable, that Trump’s own ideological postures are merely expedient responses to the needs of the moment, the same cannot be said of many of his agents-in-waiting, whether acknowledged or not. They are tools at the moment, being shaped to the will of a victor. Unfortunately, they can easily go from being shaped to doing the shaping.

King Ruinous and the City of Darkness

I want to tell you a story today. A sprawling epic mess of a story which began with two histories intersecting awkwardly just over a hundred years ago in a small tribal village nestled in the dense forests of one of the richest mining regions of the world. It is the kind of story that has multiple obscure beginnings but no ending. The kind of story that evolves as an unending stream of good chapters and dumpster-fire chapters, accompanied by endless bewildering arguments about which chapters were good, and which ones were dumpster fires.

The first history is the one behind a board room struggle within the $100 billion Tata empire, which made  headlines in the business press across the world in October. The second is the history behind a 500 million dollar corruption scandal known as the fodder scam, which first became public in 1996, and eventually led to a man named Lalu Prasad Yadav going to jail in 2013.

In 1904, those two histories intersected in that small tribal village which was about to become the modern city of Jamshedpur. I was born in Jamshedpur in 1974, just short of 42 years ago.

But this is not my story. Nor am I, perhaps, the best person to tell this story.

It is, however, as much mine to tell as anybody else’s, and when it comes to telling the story of history, that is often the only thing that matters. So I will tell you this story.

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Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course: Nov 10 – 22

Over the past three years, as long-time readers will have noted, ribbonfarm has gradually transitioned into a multi-author site. To date, we’ve hosted 13 blogging residents who have completed/are completing 4-6 posts each, on a broadly defined theme. We’ve also hosted 8 one-off guests who have contributed 1-2 posts each. I’m pretty proud that in both 2015 and 2016 (so far), the most popular posts were not by me or contributing editor Sarah Perry, yet embodied the Tao of Refactoring in the best possible sense.

So far, our approach to finding contributors has been pretty much ad hoc, based on random acts of talent scouting by Sarah and me. Now we want to level up, so we will be co-teaching the first ever ribbonfarm longform blogging course, aimed primarily at beefing up our own pipeline of potential contributors. Our goal isn’t so much to help you “improve” (in fact we hope many who sign up are already better writers than either of us), but to help you grok what we’re trying to do here, why it’s valuable/interesting/fun, what we look for as editors, and why you might want to try this approach to writing.

rfcourse

There will be 4 online video sessions of about 90 minutes on Thu Nov 10, Tue Nov 15, Thu Nov 17 and Tue Nov 22, between 5:30 – 7:00 PM Pacific.

Check out the syllabus below, then head on over to the eventbrite page to buy a ticket if interested. To repeat, this is primarily a scouting course, and the main purpose is to beef up our own pipeline of NEW contributors. If you’ve already written for us before, please don’t register; contact one of us for a free alumni/Friends of Ribbonfarm ticket.

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Can the European Union Break Smart?

For my fourth video blog, I bring you a wide-ranging conversation with David Bosshart, CEO of the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI) in Zurich. I’ve known the folks at GDI for a few years, and worked with them several times. Most recently, GDI undertook the German translation of my Breaking Smart essays.

This conversation is partly me interviewing David about the EU, and partly David interviewing me about the US. We talk about the future of Germany and the EU, Brexit, the rise of the new right, the history of corporatism in the US and EU, the rise of China and India, the future of nations, and various other things. Basically the sort of conversation about globalization and Big History that you can only have with somebody from Switzerland.

If the Germanic world interests you, you may like a recent issue of the breaking smart newsletter, Can the Germanic World Break Smart?

If you happen to be near Switzerland around January 17, you should consider attending GDI’s next conference, The Future of PowerThey put on excellent events.

And if you happen to have any German speaking friends or business colleagues, be sure to pass on the German translation of Breaking Smart.

Radical Candor

Today’s video blog (~40 minutes) is a conversation with Kim Malone Scott, creator of one of the finer 2x2s I’ve encountered in my long career as a professional quadrantologist. The radical candor 2×2 is deceptively simple: 4 management styles — radical candor, ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, and obnoxious aggression — arranged along two dimensions: caring personally and challenging directly. The result is one of the most robust and immediately useful frameworks for understanding how workplace relationships work, and how to be a better manager. I personally feel I spend most of my time in the obnoxious aggression quadrant, though Kim was nice enough to award me a radical candor badge.

Kim is a Silicon Valley veteran, with experience points founding a startup, major roles at Google and Apple, and several years coaching executives. I started chatting with her on Twitter when a friend passed along the 2×2. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her in person, and providing feedback on an early draft of her forthcoming book, Radical Candor (available for pre-order on Amazon, due out March 2017). I suspect it will join books like Andy Grove’s High Output Management and Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things on the Silicon Valley management classics list. Alongside writing this book, Kim has recently been booting up a company, Candor, Inc., built around practices and tools explained in the book. If you are an executive at a workplace with a managerial culture that isn’t quite working, this is probably among the highest leverage investments you could make. I have been using the 2×2 and recommending Kim’s models to all my own clients for the last six months or so, which isn’t something I can say about most of the business/management stuff I read.

In this conversation, we talk about the 2×2, the subtleties of how relationships work, differences and similarities between Silicon Valley today and in the eighties and nineties, how radical candor plays out in different parts of the world, how management culture has changed since the organization-man era, how these dynamics play out online versus offline, and many other interesting things.

 

Mapping Organizational Realities

I have another video blog for you today: a salon-style conversation on mapping the external and internal realities of organizations. It’s about an hour and fifteen minutes, and significant portions involve non-trivial visuals, so you may want to grab a drink or your lunch, lean back, and watch like it’s a TV show, rather than listening like it’s a podcast.

My guests are Simon Wardley, whom I met back in 2012 on a gig with the Leading Edge Forum, where he is a researcher, and Dave Gray, whom I met at the LIFT conference in Geneva in 2013, where we were both speakers. Since this is my first true video blog, I don’t yet have a transcription workflow. But I do have some brief show notes below.

Show Notes

Simon has developed, over the last decade, a very interesting mapping technique called Wardley Maps (slowly turning into a book on Medium), which are a way of visually modeling and mapping the context an organization operates in. Dave has written a number of books, most recently Liminal Thinking and The Connected Companyand among the things his consulting firm XPLANE does is reduce some of the thinking in the books to practice using a tool for culture mapping.

I figured it would be interesting to chat with Simon and Dave at the same time and explore the connections between mapping external versus internal realities. I am not much of a process person myself, but I often cobble together bits and pieces from people who do enjoy inventing processes in my own consulting gigs. So I’m constantly, if lazily, scanning for interesting new tools that I can then appropriate and abuse for my own needs.

This conversation came about thanks to a tweet by one of the earliest guest bloggers on ribbonfarm, Marigo Raftapolous who contributed a post on enterprise games back in 2008 before gamification of enterprises was cool. Funny how these things come together. Curiously, all four of us are consultants, so this is also a glimpse into how we consultants talk, think, and network when there are no clients around.

In terms of content, in a meandering, discursive conversation (what else do you expect from a salon moderated by me?) we touch upon:

  1. The mapping techniques used by Simon and Dave in their work
  2. Boydian thinking, OODA loops, orientations etc
  3. Comparisons between military and business cultures
  4. The problems with thinking of company culture as a single thing rather than a collection of distinct subcultures
  5. The pathology of thinking about culture as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as opposed to just a matter of ‘fit’ with the environment
  6. The role played by time, and how different cultures grow at different speeds
  7. How organizational evolution in relation to the market affects its position and play externally…
  8. … and its culture internally
  9. The idea of wartime and peacetime CEOs
  10. How Amazon is a great model for nearly all these ideas at their best

Apologies for any rough edges in the video production quality. I’m kinda new to this particular game.

Speak Weirdness to Truth

Before we entered the Age of Emoji, I never quite liked the quote “life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” But now I kinda do. Emoji have been a bit of a life changer for those of us who are not naturals at this feeling game. Turns out, they function as pretty good theater masks in the sense of Keith Johnstone (in particular the chapter on masks and trances). If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you may have noticed that my current avatar is this hand-crafted,  emoji-mashup version of the classic theater-masks icon/emoji 🎭, (which seems to have turned into a generic overloaded symbol for the performing arts). Since adopting this avatar, I have become a better human being: full of compassion, less inclined to troll, more willing to listen to Trump supporters, etc.

theaterji

Here’s the thing, if you routinely use emoji, especially on Twitter, you will notice that you actually feel the emotions represented, at least weakly. It’s like color-by-numbers feeling. Since emoji seem to be used ironically as often as they are sincerely, using emoji is like learning an emoting alphabet, in regular and italic (=ironic) forms.

I suspect it is my emoji (over)use that has gotten me interested in one particular feeling lately: weirdness. By my account and understanding of it, weirdness is not so much a feeling as that state of not knowing what to feel. There can be no static emoji for it. At best you could make an animated gif that cycles through several emotions to represent the state of emotional indeterminacy that is ‘weirded out.’ I’d put 😟, 😦, 😐, and😠 in the cycle (note, depending on where you read this post, these may not render exactly as I intend, which is part of the fun). You can say more: weirdness is also the experience of not knowing what to think. 

The experience of weirdness, and the condition of not knowing what to think or feel, but engaging life in that state anyway — what I call speaking weirdness to truth — is perhaps the soul of gonzo, if not its body. Speaking weirdness to truth is the lowest-effort way to pull off the Hunter S. Thompson life anti-script: when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

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The Liminal Explorer of the Adjacent Possible

A short story.

The city was content in the deepening twilight, as the Sun set with the air of a job well done. Wrought iron street lamps flickered to life and small birds twittered in the bushes on the gentle hillside sloping down towards the water. From the patio of the Em Cafe, two thin and earnest young men looked out across the bay, nursing their cold brews with an air of reluctant contentment.

“Would it be bourgie to say ‘this is perfect’?” asked the ginger-infused cold brew.

Classic cold brew pondered the question gravely for a moment, and opened his mouth to respond, only to shut it again as a homeless black woman shuffled into view, pushing a shopping cart, and muttering something under her breath in a disturbed undertone.

Ginger cold-brew shuffled uncomfortably, “Well, you know what I mean. The bay view, the weather, the coffee. Not, you know, life.”

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Trace of the Weirding

Today’s post is hopefully a bit of a treat for those of you who like audio and video more than text. I’ve updated my You Are Here map for 2016 (thanks Grace Witherell!) and turned it into a narrated video walkthrough. It’s basically about an hour of me talk-walking through a map. If you prefer audio, you can just scan the map to get a sense of it, and then just listen to the audio.

If you’re new to ribbonfarm, this may be a good way to get oriented — or entirely confused. I don’t know. I’m too deep in this thing. The big change in the map from last year’s version is the addition of the whole western 20% or so, and the incorporation of 2016 crazy election year motifs into the landscape. It’s still very US centric, and doesn’t satisfactorily capture some of my newer interests, but it’s a start.

What’s not represented is some of the developing influence of newer residents and their writing on either ribbonfarm or my own thinking. That’s too new, and it’ll probably get folded into next year’s map. So this is mainly me talking about my own interests, with some digressions on Sarah Perry’s stuff.

The narrated walk through was heavily inspired by conversations at Refactor Camp 2016. Here are the links mentioned in the video.

  1. High-res version of the map (5MB)
  2. Refactor camp session slide decks: Thanks to Mick Costigan, Megan Lubaszka, Renee DiResta, Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose.
  3. Blake Masters’ notes on Peter Thiel’s 2×2 
  4. My gloss on Jane Jacobs Guardian/Commerce
  5. Economics of Pricelessness
  6. Hamilton vs Jefferson
  7. Post on future nausea and manufactured normalcy
  8. A post on New Horizons
  9. My extended riff on hedgehog vs. fox
  10. Bruce Sterling favela chic/gothic high tech talk
  11. Atlantic post on climate change
  12. Some stuff on serendipity versus zemblanity
  13. Sarah Perry’s roundup/introduction on postrationality
  14. David Chapman, Meaningness
  15. Sarah’s book Every Cradle is a Grave
  16. Less Wrong
  17. Slatestarcodex map
  18. The Gervais Principle
  19. Sarah’s theme parks vs amusement parks post
  20. My post on Crash-only thinking
  21. Breaking Smart if you’ve been under a rock and don’t know I do that
  22. The Breaking Smart newsletter in tweetstorm format
  23. Tempo, the book
  24. James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
  25. My Now Reading page with a lot of background