Worlding Raga: 1

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

I have found a new evil twin, my first new one in a decade. His name is Ian Cheng and he is an artist. In my 2009 post on evil twins, I defined an evil twin as:

“…somebody who thinks exactly like you in most ways, but differs in just a few critical ways that end up making all the difference. Think the Batman and the Joker”

Back then, I identified Nassim Taleb and Alain de Botton as my evil twins. I have since demoted Taleb to mostly harmless, and de Botton seems to have diverged from me. I did tentatively add Bruce Sterling in 2016, but he is really more like an evil uncle than an evil twin. I tried making Sarah Perry an evil twin, but she’s neither evil enough, nor twinny enough.

But Ian is definitely a new evil twin, starting with the fact that he crafts a mean 2×2. This one, from his art book, Emissaries Guide to Worlding, is an A+. Tag yourselves, I’m obviously top right, “emissary to the WORLD.” Portal art is the perfect term for what I like to do.

Ian’s primary interest right now is what he calls worlding, and mine is what I call escaped realities. James Carse’s notion of finite and infinite games is a foundation for his current thinking, as it is for mine. He appears to take Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as “that which does not go away when you stop believing in it” as a personal affront, as do I.

There is even a very evil-twin story to how I encountered Ian’s work (I haven’t met him yet).

I was speaking at an event at the Serpentine gallery last year, and just as I was heading back, Ben Vickers, the CTO, handed me a signed copy of Emissaries, saying Ian really wanted me to have it. I didn’t think much of it, since people often hand me books, and I rarely get into them.

In hindsight, this was a “you’ve been served” moment from an evil twin. Like the closing scene of Batman Beginswhen Commissioner Gordon (played by Ben Vickers) mentions the Joker in passing.

Kidding aside, it’s always really fascinating to find someone who has found their way to the same idea spaces as you, and brings a similar aesthetic sensibility and sophistication level to it, BUT comes at it from a completely different direction.

I have been interested in what Ian calls worlding for as long as I can remember, and one of the most disheartening things about the idea space is that most of what you can find written about it is how-to world-building cookbooks for producing ersatz fictional worlds, for people who want to write pastiches of Tolkien or Asimov.

But Ian clearly gets worlding at an actually interesting level.

One of my criteria for an evil twin is that their work must make you viscerally uncomfortable, because it’s in an uncanny valley relative to your own. I’ve only made it a few pages into Ian’s book because every paragraph has bits of this viscerally disturbing uncanny resonance. I suspect it will be very slow going for me indeed.

Compare for instance, these two thoughts. If you’ve been reading me for a while, can you tell which one is mine, and which one is Ian’s?

A world is a thought without a thinker that defeats almost all your efforts to escape it.


Simulating its futures is innovating an infinite-enough game engine for the world — its characters and ecology — to perpetuate itself without its original supervising author.

It’s okay if you can’t, but the thing is, in a few years, wouldn’t be able to (one of the consequences of writing a shit ton is that you often can’t recognize your own words if they’re quoted back at you after a few years). They are similar thoughts, either of which could have germinated in my head. One is just an evil-twin version.

Now imagine this sense of uncomfortable deja vu, “I’ve seen this thought before, possibly in my own head,” every other line, and you get what it’s like to read an evil twin.

I mean consider this passage where Ian’s thought, the second one, features (mine is the first one, which I tweeted yesterday before reading this).  The whole passage reads like something I might have written, if you squint a bit, only more eloquent.

Finding a new evil twin is a good feeling. A sense of looking at yourself in a funhouse mirror; of seeing double. A sense of somebody having gotten inside your head; inside your OODA loop. It doesn’t happen to me often.

Anyhow, since I’ve been served, in honor of my new evil twin, I’m going to steal the term “worlding” for titling this new blogchain, in which I will explore thought spaces where we must ultimately battle. I’m calling it Worlding Raga since it is a set of themes, which I think about in musical terms, that I want to play with. Something between a scale and a melody of themes. A raga in short.

Series NavigationWorlding Raga: 2 – What is a World? >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. “one of the consequences of writing a shit ton is that you often can’t recognize your own words if they’re quoted back at you after a few years”

    The (authoring) self is uncanny.

    I experienced this multiple times and not only with my diploma thesis which I’m unable to comprehend but also with many lighter notes and comments. This is not a matter of self-disagreement, of changed ideology or that some other people cease to work on my mind. It is also not self alienation masked with conventional narratives such as “personal development” which I’ve little to do with. There is a popular coder advice: express yourself as clear and simple as possible s.t. you are still able to understand your code in a year. I try my best but sometimes it only takes a week to lose the Gestalt. It is not amnesia that makes past identity conjectural but multithreading: closing or hibernating some threads while others get more attention, more computing power, more memory, more everything. It can also happen that an older thread gets suddenly relaunched and deserialized and an intelligent machine, rendered by my brain, one which will soon be me, is engaged in a small tech talk and it is a pleasure listening to it with curiosity. What else could one expect from a stable person?

    Subconsciousness is real but it isn’t stratified; the latter is a conceptual fiction, one of the known issues of predicative language. I’m optimistic about it. The work on non-linear algorithms such as artificial neural networks gives hope for a true advancement, but mankind is not there yet: the current output looks like having an exciting new kind of building block, a block for recognizing faces, one block for playing masterful Go and one for Chess, a block for generating images after Monet, a block for writing news that write themselves etc. and this is soothing, not uncanny, because it allows conventional engineering to go on. There is still a master of all the blocks, a master who is needed, a master with job security as a premium !11! But eventually we could radicalize the approach and imagine that the circuit, linking disparate blocks together is yet another of those blocks, that the blocks do not really exist and that the Cartesian split is a useful fiction that got us here but becomes an obstacle on the way ahead … It is like facing a huge loss, the loss of structure, something we like to identify with decay and death. But here we come closer to the source of structure, that which enables structures to exist as stable fictions and platonic ideas. A model of the source of Being as the output of scientific and engineering efforts? Maybe, why not?

  2. I attended Ian’s talk on his exhibit ‘Emissary Sunsets The Self’ at the Carnegie Museum of Art a couple year’s back. Great lecture; I’d never come across an artist whose work was so deeply informed by theory. In any case, not bad for an evil twin. Dude could have been a model if the whole artist thing didn’t pan out.