Stack Luck

Last year, I sensed my luck changing. It felt like a streak of good fortune, stretching back at least three decades, was gently but firmly coming to an end. But not because of anything I personally did or didn’t do, and not limited to me. Rather it was the luck equivalent of a big, slow earthquake deep down in the stack of civilizational infrastructure upon which my life, and the lives of people like me (information economy global urban elites, let’s say) depends. I call this kind of luck stack luck, an unreasonableness in the nature of the world working for or against you, creating either serendipity or zemblanity in your life. The best description of stack luck I have found is a passage in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22:

“I really can’t believe it,” Clevinger exclaimed to Yossarian in a voice rising and falling in protest and wonder. “It’s a complete reversion to primitive superstition. They’re confusing cause and effect. It makes as much sense as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. They really believe that we wouldn’t have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of the night and move the bomb line over Bologna. Can you imagine? You and I must be the only rational ones left.”

In the middle of the night Yossarian knocked on wood, crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the bomb line up over Bologna.

The kicker of course, is that the next morning, the map is mistaken for the territory and effect turns into cause. The commanding officers assume that Bologna has been captured, and cancel the bombing run. Contrary to the rational expectations of Clevinger, a Harvard graduate who believes in the fundamental reasonableness of the world he inhabits, action driven by superstition works in the crazy environment of the World War 2 bureaucracy. The course of events is changed by a self-validating superstition. And if you think this sort of thing can only happen in fiction, you haven’t lived enough.

***

As Heller remarks elsewhere in the book“Clevinger was dead, that was the basic flaw in his philosophy.”

The genius of Yossarian, the stack-lucky protagonist of Catch-22, is that he manages to be functionally crazy in exactly the right way needed to survive. Instead of living by justified, true beliefs, in a world he believes to be reasonable, he lives by adaptive, effective beliefs, in a world he believes to be crazy.

My unconscious life mission, I’ve lately come to realize, has always been to be as much like Yossarian, and as unlike Clevinger, as humanly possible. I’d rather be crazy and alive, than sane and dead.

That’s become difficult in the last year, because the world is slowly being taken over by people who seem to want to be crazy and dead. And there’s no way to compete with insane death-wishes. I suppose there’s a 2×2 here: sane versus crazy, alive versus dead.

The possibility of sane and alive is the hope that drives rationalists. The possibility of crazy and alive is what fuels the stack-lucky, and increasingly, the latter is a better bet.

But neither bet is a certainty. The reality of sane and dead is what brings down the rationalists. The reality of crazy and dead is what brings down the weird.

Crazy and dead is apparently the ground state of human civilization. When things break crazy, the lunatics end up running the asylum.

A lunatic, by my definition, is a stupid person in Cipolla’s sense: a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

Yep, these people now run the world.

***

Sufficient complexity, experienced from the inside, is indistinguishable from crazy.

The postmodern world can stay complex longer than you can stay rationally enlightened. Long past the point where you exhaust your reserves of courage, imagination, and intelligence, the world of 2019 retains a deep capacity to upend your life in unpleasant and pleasant ways.

To thrive in the world of today, you need stack luck. It is a deep kind of luck that goes far beyond things like being born with good genes, class privilege and a good passport. Or even being in the right place at the right time. This is luck driven by phenomena that penetrate all the way to civilizational bedrock, span the globe, and are driven by forces that unfold in deep, geological time. Luck that penetrates deep into your psyche, affecting the very fabric of your thought, and the tenor of your relationships.

Luck governed by rules that are, to paraphrase Morpheus, not very different from the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken. To tap into stack luck, you have to think entangled, and act spooky, like Yossarian. You have to give up linear notions of cause and effect, and think in strange loops.

You cannot do this if you are too reasonable. Shaw’s famous dictum, that reasonable men adapt themselves to the world, and all progress depends on unreasonable men, has been upended. Now, it is the unreasonable man who adapts himself to the weirdness of the world. The reasonable man believes in some sort of death-wish utopia of apparent reasonableness that the weird world will not allow to stably exist.

Only the unreasonable can adapt. To be reasonable is to regress at best, and court death at worst.

***

To be stack lucky is to have a preternatural ability to adapt to the phenomenology of a complex system that is coextensive with the earth itself in space and time and does not yield its secrets to reasonable people. The “stack” comprises an intertwingled matrix of the artificial and the natural, the organic and the inorganic, the intelligent and the dumb, the sentient and the non-sentient, the modern and the ancient.

Having a blog post go viral is a case of stack luck. Bagging a seat on a starship is a case of stack luck. Having a fragment of your obscure work of art turn into a big, profitable meme is a case of stack luck. Betting correctly on a stock market crash is case of stack luck. Getting in early on a social platform and reaping the reputational dividend of being an early adopter is stack luck. Moving a line on a map and causing a corresponding change in the fate of the territory is stack luck. Getting to be President or Prime Minister of major countries is a case of stack luck.

I haven’t met anyone who has tapped into stack luck pursuing any kind of reasonable playbook. Only insane ones.

Unlike regular luck, stack luck is not a function of knowability. We are not talking about unknown unknowns or black swans here. Nor is stack luck necessarily uncomputable, like the effects of the proverbial flapping butterfly in Australia causing hurricanes in America. Nor are we helpless in the face of stack fortunes: we have agency, particularly in the form of physical mobility to position ourselves in the right place and time in the stack.

Stack luck is knowable, computable, and manipulable. It is just not reasonable. 

To be reasonable in 2019 is to end up dead, like Clevinger. To be unreasonable in the wrong way is to end up crazy and dead.

To work stack luck, and stay alive and thriving, you have to be unreasonable in the right way. I thought I knew how to do that, but in 2018, I learned that my old way of being crazy and staying alive had stopped working. But I had a good run with it.

I have to go look for a new vein of crazy to tap into, and relearn how to get stack lucky again. You probably should too.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. Would you consider Elon Musk to be crazy and alive? His main craziness to me to is serially keep betting all in on long shots.

  2. This reminds me of the distinction between Prometheans who side with history and pastoralists who reject it, except that both sides are now “crazy”.

  3. Does being an engineer who also takes linguistics courses and linguistics clubs count as stack-lucky?

  4. autokobalt says

    i enjoyed this post. thanks.
    stack luck reminds me of david ives’s one-act play “the philadelphia”.

  5. Ravi Daithankar says

    I felt a whiff of high modernism in this post. Could it be that you are simply trying to legibilize a pattern or a structure (that you have termed stack luck) using your current dictionary, when what you really want to do translate another language?

    One thing I have often noticed with people who I think are incredibly lucky (stack kind of lucky), is that they don’t see themselves just stumbling into good fortune, the way it looks from the outside. They seem to be playing to a plan pretty consciously, hoping to and counting on getting lucky, following a playbook that makes no sense at all to me of course. But that’s only because I am trying to study it in a language I understand, not the one it is written in. Which is what I should really be doing. These people go about their lives with a strange kind of belief in whatever that playbook is, and like a self-fulfilling prophecy perhaps, it keeps paying off. To simply characterize such a foreign language playbook as “crazy” is akin to a traveler or a chronicler characterizing an indigenous people as “savages.”

    In fact, I am not even comfortable with the term playbook because even calling it that is characterizing it as inherently legible in *some* language. I increasingly feel people sometimes speak a language that is spoken by a population of 1, but that alone shouldn’t make them any less sane than people who hope to get lucky a more accepted way.

    Also, it sounded to me like you’re using the terms stupid, unreasonable man adapting to the weirdness of the world, and stack-lucky interchangeably here…which suggests to me that if we can pick out the thread/s that strings these 3 otherwise distinct profiles together, we’ll be closer to demystifying how regular luck maps to stack luck.

  6. Jay Chilcote says

    My dash of encouragement: what about the concept of a Stack Luck Surfer? Where Yossarian was a survivor and more Iliad, Milo Minderbinder was a thriver and a little more Odyssey. (If Milo had built the Trojan Horse he would have figured out how to get the Trojans to pay for it.) Selling eggs at a loss in order to make a profit was his initial stack luck of being unreasonable in the right way. As he compounded into a global syndicate and became (I think it was) governor of Malta etc he demonstrated how he was honing his stack luck surfing judgement. I don’t think I’m suggesting turning into a Milo. It’s more of, “What would Yossarian say if he asked himself: WWMD (what would Milo do)?” I think that just naming out loud the options and probabilities is helpful, so perhaps doing it as one fictional character channeling another one could make a strange loop kind of sense!

  7. Zephyr Dear says

    ::quiet, soft, gentle coughing::

    TRANSGENDER WITCH MAGIC

    ::tiny, polite bow. shows self out::

  8. Stack luck is knowable, computable, and manipulable. It is just not reasonable.

    Yeah, but it seems you never go much further into unreason than surfing on network effects, technological fads and marketing hype. Your affections about the block chain were slightly above average when everyone else was also curious and excited about it. This confines you to modernity and “mediocrity” which, unlike unreason, is already a form of risk management and hedging.

    You bound your stack luck to 30 years of globalism, which was all about markets over politics, but now in the successfully globalized world, globalism has no place to go, no trajectory of expansion. Davosians may become grim and totalitarian but in any case markets-over-politics is in recession and political passions are on the rise: software is eating the world and Google makes that software and SJWs eat Google …

    However the biggest thing about the Silicon Valley in 2018 wasn’t virtual culture wars, neither was it fintech, autonomous cars and other future promises but the costs of rent. Money indicates an ever greater centralization and dependence on place. Real estate in the overcrowded cities should have been on the losing side of the digital revolution but instead it was a safe space for money after 2008. You only had to pick the right cities. Place is the big winner of the competition for attention. Physical proximity and access to people wins over virtual access which is completely subordinated to will. Chances are you are getting disconnected without a cause and an explanation. Physical access to goods is also the reason why you can’t be fully anonymous, no matter how much you invest into crypto and develop trust into numbers. If San Francisco and all the companies residing there would be wiped out in a big earthquake, social justice would immediately increase. There would be a greater egalitarianism of place.

    Roland Barthes ones said in a lecture, that language is ‘fascist’. So when language, the command of language is fascist, because it asserts its rules and forms without asking back, where to put physical reality in the big political picture? Isn’t it reactionary, don’t atoms hold us back?

    You and your info economy tribe needed the election of Trump to take notice and now it looms that the return of political passions, the passions of atoms associated with aggression and secession, with new tribes which are built to further and maintain their own benefits and awkward beliefs, disregarding all the others, won’t go away quickly, that the culture wars won’t be won in 2021. When the cute Alexandria, the Social Democrats of America and their #meetoos finally take over and rule the country, you will still be in the wrong stack with your trader liberalism and your picture book of container ships.

    Is ‘life’ vs ‘death’ really a sensible pair of choices? The old religions believed in the existence of a hell, a persistence layer for the dead which was supposed to be very uncomfortable. The hell was a necessary supplement of a world in a divine order because without it, how could the gods enforce virtue by those who would otherwise live and die without fear?

    • Yeah, language may be too fascist a mode of consciousness for inhabiting the stack now. Trying to take off into true unreason while remaining bound to language is likely impossible. I don’t mind mediocrity of course, but I don’t think unreason and mediocrity are at odds. In fact you need mediocrity to tap into unreason. The post was getting too long/clumsy but that was the long argument I cut out.

      The thing that I think concerns me is that while the stack lucky are getting stack unlucky, nobody is getting luckier instead. The resurgent pre-neoliberal reactionary tribes on the left and right have succeeded in bringing out tribe down but show no signs of being able to make themselves better off. It’s not zero sum, it’s negative sum. The planet is getting unluckier as a whole. If we could multiverse-travel, few would choose this version of earth. Not even the ones who voted for it, or grabbed it around the world. Most would try to route around it.

      Earth 2019 feels like a nobody-wins situation.

      • The resurgent pre-neoliberal reactionary tribes on the left and right have succeeded in bringing out tribe down but show no signs of being able to make themselves better off.

        I’d say we are wading through the ruins of the nation state, a state which was already ugly, smelly and dangerous before it was attacked from the inside, but here in Bavaria it still looks like a minimum viable management unit for some population.

        The kind of high risk / high reward fortune seeking you describe in your articles is for people like me: not rich, not poor with a job or stable freelancing and some fuck you money. We are the “clueless middle class” which is supposed to act a little less clueless in economical affairs. We are a bit like the educated proletarians of past times, the workers who joined socialist reading circles, where they hopefully became good comrades who understand the case of the revolution.

        Though we don’t have strong economic dependencies on place, we are not ghosts either. In my own neighborhood 4 shops and restaurants closed alone at the end of 2018. They weren’t disrupted by Amazon, by delivery services and changed consumer habits. On the surface they were running well and had customers like myself but their business wasn’t sustainable in the light of growing regulations and higher rents. They are getting replaced by virtually nothing – or not nothing but just more flats, because people are willing to pay insane proportions of their income just for being at a dedicated place, a place where is increasingly nothing left but other people, sitting around in their flats. I asked one of those who gave up if she was willing to put on a yellow west. ‘Oh no, I’m peaceful, I don’t want to destroy anything!’. Quite obviously she also didn’t elect populists on left or the right end of the political spectrum.

      • The resurgent pre-neoliberal reactionary tribes on the left and right have succeeded in bringing out tribe down but show no signs of being able to make themselves better off. It’s not zero sum, it’s negative sum.

        Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium is worth reading on this. His basic thesis is that the new decentralized communication modes enabled by social media have the capability to tear down established modes of previously-considered-legitimate governance, but lack any capability to establish consensus around a new narrative that would allow any new structure to achieve legitimacy.

  9. I think your “stack luck” was what I would call the “tech bubble”. For about 25 years, Silly Con Valley (often misspelled) has been the locus of a business that was very promising but also very difficult to put a specific value on. That brought in a lot of dumb money, stereotypically budgets in the tens of millions invested with 23-year olds who knew they needed insight but didn’t know what insight they needed. Because your type of crazy happened to be the sort that flattered them and provided the illusion of a path forward, you could for a time make a surprisingly good living off of 2×2 matrices.

    Now the tech industry is much more mature. Investors have a much more realistic idea of how valuable any company is likely to be, which means that most of those 23-year olds are back to waiting tables. The surviving firms increasingly know what they’re doing; they don’t need the sorts of insights that can be generated by a clever nonspecialist and expressed on a 2×2 matrix.

    Unfortunately, lightning rarely strikes twice. There’s not going to be another bubble big enough of exactly the right type to keep Valley pseudo-wonks employed. You might find it necessary to (gasp) get a real job.

  10. KSG?

  11. I feel this luck so acutely and it makes me aware of the concomitant spline hubris.

  12. Middle Age Prevert says

    wat u can’t quit just cuz things r gettin freaky

  13. Betting on a stock market crash is either a function of deep domain expertise that’s irrational only to the outsiders without expertise or an inherent probabilistic bet and therefore not coputable with certainty.

  14. Some thoughts:

    – What looks like lunacy/reasonableness in this context changes depending on the time frame used. Yes the ‘neoliberal elite’ had a good run, but do they look that clever now, knowing that their salad days set up the twin crises of unhinged populism and environmental collapse? Was this outcome really that unpredictable?

    – This line of thinking gets more interesting when you stop to think about who among them had the wherewhithal to see what was coming and plunged ahead anyway (or even eagerly welcomed it).

  15. I think I’m with Zizek on this one — the real lunatic utopians are the ones who think a system based on people constantly trying to con, one-up, and exploit each other is sustainable in the long run.

    • Now as Zizek supports Bernie and Alexandria we would like to know ( also in Europe ) how to manage a welfare state while following a ‘no borders, no nations’ credo. It is said that the Germans are the only ones who invite immigrants by millions to work for them instead of the other way around, which isn’t sustainable in the long run either.

      Germany’s former labor party is now openly discussing the universal basic income. The whole economic and productive sphere which was once considered the primary process by the party founders and in left theory circles, becomes an externality in the minds of the new romantic socialists and university dropouts in the parliaments. Electricity comes from the outlets. This and that it should be Green is all there is to know about it. Let’s save the bees instead.

      So there is good and bad con, one-up and exploitation. It is bad when performed by capitalists who produce wealth as a side-effect of egoistic profit seeking and it is good when performed by humanitarians who contribute to society by showing a good heart, a neat face and defeat evil e.g. by censoring social networks. There is also bad and good hate. It all works the same way.

      Is Zizek clearly believing that Bernie and Alexandria are the new hope, does he miss the new class divide or something that even goes beyond with a growing surplus population which crosses through the older social classes and whose major contribution to society is complaints and demands? Is that his blind spot because he became one of their most vocal speakers? There must be a threshold for Zizek e.g. woke capital. It is just too slimy and disgusting for a proper Marxist, even if he bents.

  16. The Members of Jewish Labour Bund in Europe were surely more rational than the Zionists. The Bundists believed Jews should integrate into the countries they lived in. They believed that all humans are equal, they believe in the fraternity of humankind. compare to the insane Zionists that wanted to create a Jewish state in the desert and swamps of the Middle East ffs.

    WW2 came, the world went irrational, the (rationalist) Bundist were exterminated, some of the zionists survived, the rest is history.

    Maybe our definition of rational action has to incorporate surviving? as Yossarian points out being dead is a massive flaw in the dead person’s argument, surely?

  17. The concept of stack luck as something that is ‘reasonable but not computable’ is present throughout the architecture of Christopher Alexander, the writings of people like Darren Allen or Alain Botton. These writers have the understanding that the world is fundamentally unreasonable and that _purely_ rational structures are not survivable; even the somewhat-rational structures we embed our daily lives in have defects which will destroy them in the long run. Thus, they speak through irrational modes of story telling. One might confuse this with narrative rationality, but, say Darren Allen’s work has little to do with _acting out a rational story_ that makes sense. Despite how one might be tempted to read the ‘lines’ in their work, these authors favor a fundamental understanding that cannot be reasoned, taught or acted out in accordance with internal reasoning. Perhaps these writers have a stack-lucky approach since their tribe is small and not really involved in the culture wars, unlike the neoliberals, SJWs, alt-rightists etc. They only take a critiquing position from the sidelines, with not much of a RL subculture to boot IIRC.

  18. Tony Williams says

    It seems to we that everything is knife-edge these days. Everything is metastable, so nothing moves just a little bit anymore. Every outcome is an avalanche. In a metastable world everything matters. Everything can contribute to the outcome, so the successful have to be sewing the seeds of construction in zillions of mundane everyday ways, and weeding the potential weeds of destruction every second of every day. The (intended) net outcome is the ball rolling the right way down the hill. It’s no longer good enough to just get it mostly right, the successful have to get it almost completely right, and never wrong in certain critical areas.

    I don’t think this is a argument against the rational approach per se, but perhaps against the implementability of it in today’s world, i.e. it’s impossible to take enough factors into account. At some point a faith-based approach becomes one’s only workable bet. (e.g faith in JP’s 12 rules for life).

    It could be that the IQ required to rationally succeed (i.e. generate stack luck) in this world has simply exceeded human capabilities.

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