Weirding Diary: 10

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Weirding Diary

It is now clear that the intellectual class has been caught entirely flat-footed on the wrong side of the Great Weirding in the US. Almost all discourses at higher levels of abstraction — national grand narratives, military, foreign policy, and economic doctrines, cultural canons, technological visions — are breaking down (generally following the “gradually, and then suddenly” Hemingway bankruptcy pattern). The institutions and social networks that are home to those discourses are also collapsing. So it’s not just the shallow, fast-paced narrative layer represented by the news media that is collapsing into noise and fakeness. The deeper, slower narrative layers underwriting the news (via access journalism) are also collapsing. The most vulnerable are what I recently dubbed “glamorous institutions” on Twitter, with the MIT Media Lab being Exhibit A of many to come.

I’m tempted to classify glamorous institutions as premium mediocre, except that most seem to lack the self-awareness that phrase signifies, and the concomitant healthy fear of their own fragility, and culture of preparedness for trouble. Glamorous institutions, unlike merely premium mediocre ones, have a dangerous tendency to buy their own bullshit, and believe in their own myth-making. This creates a false sense of security, and a characteristic set of vulnerabilities. Glamorous institutionalism believes there is peace. Premium mediocre institutionalism only pretends to.

I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect the MIT Media Lab will turn out to be merely the first of many dominoes to fall. What do we have to look forward to here, in this coming chapter of the Great Weirding?

Whether the collapse of the MIT Media Lab it is entirely organic, or partly manufactured as a diversion from darker things, as some are suggesting, is irrelevant. The lesson is that it was ripe for collapse and it is collapsing. If it can come back from this at all, it will be as a pale shadow of its former self. The Epstein infection did more than inflict recoverable damage. It revealed a fundamentally flawed constitution and triggered irrecoverable unraveling.

The Media Lab is probably done. It has not just been canceled by the woke mob, it has been revealed as having very little to come back with, and standing for very little worth bringing it back for. Even among people generally hostile to woke cancel culture, I sense a sentiment that there is not much to regret or try to save here. There is just not much rescue energy in the air.

What does this portend for institutions with a similar glamorous DNA?

Underdefended Underproductivity

I feel bad for some of the good people (some of whom I know) caught up in the unraveling of an institution that was weaker than it looked, but I don’t feel particularly bad for the Media Lab itself.

The lab (which I will admit I was never a fan of, and am predisposed to be hostile to) was a typical example of a prominent, charismatic neoliberal institution within a broader literary industrial complex.

As far as I can tell, about 50% of its function was production of neutral-to-bad-faith manufactured consent fodder in support of prevailing technological grand narratives. About 30% was largely derivative tech-cheerleading. Perhaps 15% appears to have been pure theater for internal consumption: self-entertainment. Perhaps 5% was interesting intellectual output that has a shot at making life better for everybody and earning a place in the history books. That 5% yield rate was perhaps 25-30% for institutions a generation or two up the ancestry tree of the lab (like Cold War era labs).

Surprisingly, almost none of the lab’s activity was counter-programming of the ideological competition, as far as I can tell, which is why they seem blindsided. The lab appears to have evolved under a sense of assumed monopoly over its chosen discourses. This was a lab built for ideological peace, on the winning side of the last ideological war, unprepared for the next one, and unaware (institutionally) of the existence of new adversaries and carpetbaggers in its environment.

I call this condition underdefended underproductivity. Why would an institution end up in such a clearly vulnerable state? Because it is easy to do so. And pleasant. And because you believe there are no credible threats in the environment so you might as well use the money to have fun.

In that respect, the Media Lab is typical for a glamorous institution. So secure, for so long, its defenses were down. Both to predation from the likes of Epstein, and internal breakdowns. There appear to have been no vigorous and robust defenses, based on the sort of ongoing hard internal introspection and monitoring that real competition provokes, and monopoly does not. There appears to have been no recognition of the wisdom and selfish value of accountability and checks-and-balances for an institution’s survival. No self-preservation instincts leading to looking gift horses in the mouth. No suspicion of free lunches. I’m inclined to think this was more stupidity than malice. This was a case study in formal structure as myth and ceremony. An institution designed to carefully avoid looking wherever it might actually find problems that might need fixing.

This condition leads not just to corruptibility, but heavily compromised productivity. Even glamorous institutions that have managed to escape systemic corruption are probably producing very underwhelming output relative to the grandeur of their visions. The cost of glamor and charisma is overpromising and underdelivering, and making sure the inspection, monitoring, and instrumentation is tuned to not detect the condition. Do it for too long, and people stop paying attention. If you don’t die of Epstein disease, you will die of simply being ignored and losing the “cool” factor that enables you to stay solvent. The music stops, and the show cannot go on.

Epidemic Unraveling

I first wrote about this sort of pattern back in 2013, in my post, The Unraveling of Scripts, but what was then a pattern of isolated collapses seems about to turn into an epidemic. Re-reading that now, I feel like I failed to draw daring-enough conclusions about the potentially epidemic pace of the unraveling. I seem to make that particular mistake often: seeing things coming, but underestimating the speed and epidemic force of the arrival, once it starts. Gradually, then suddenly, is a bitch for us prognosticators. We tend not to see how things we see might feed on each other and accelerate. It is easier to predict the automobile than the traffic jam, which is why Frederik Pohl had to point out that the latter is in fact the actual job.

Peeking further backstage, it’s not just glamorous institutions that are weak and vulnerable (though they are certainly the canaries in the neoliberal institutional coal mine). All of them are, even the ones with wonky, high-gravitas, low-theater, shadowy reputations.

Each has a different mix of activities, but two features are common.

  1. Actual production of useful intellectual output is too small a fraction of activity (an order of magnitude lower than the previous generation of similar institutions)
  2. Absence of robust defenses based on the presence of serious competition, taken seriously (that role was played by the Soviet Union until the 1980s I suppose, which is why Cold War labs were better defended and more productive).

Such institutions unravel because they cannot defend themselves from threats, and don’t produce enough valuable output to motivate outsiders to come to their aid.

I count at least eight literary industrial complexes, each with a characteristic DNA/mix of activities, and dozens of individual member institutions networked together in a broader web.

  1. Glamor-DNA techno-futurist complex.
  2. Wonky-analysis-lobbyist complex.
  3. Quasi-intelligence-gathering think-tank complex.
  4. Access-brokerage complex.
  5. Business intelligence complex.
  6. Arts-and-culture complex.
  7. Banking-and-economics complex.
  8. And of course, the literary branch of the OG military-industrial complex from which all of these are partly descended.

The names of the heads of the hydra don’t matter. What matters is that it is huge, many-headed, and historically has had a capacity (now in serious doubt) to grow two heads where one was cut off.

I’ve been enough of a tourist (sometimes paid, sometimes not), in all of these hydra heads, that I have no faith in the robustness of any of them. All of this is vulnerable. No exceptions. This entire landscape is in trouble. It hasn’t merely lost a single political battle — the 2016 Presidential election — it is in the process of losing a generational civilizational war. Merely voting Trump out of office and installing Warren or Biden in his place won’t turn the tide.

Though I don’t entirely buy the idea that history is written by winners, it is certainly much harder — psychologically, and financially — to intellectualize things from the losing side. For one thing, there are fewer cushy institutional loci from which to do the intellectualizing every day. Broad, open intellectual curiosity has a habit of drying up for most self-styled intellectuals when they are forced to sustain it on their own. Most people are only curious for pay. Whatever my own sins, I’m glad I’ve spent as much time in the extra-institutional wilderness, being intellectually active without pay, as I have on the inside. It’s prepared me to weather this environment in a way I suspect many can’t or won’t.

What can we expect as the unraveling proceeds? Well, for starters, a lot more unceremonious collapses like that of the MIT Media Lab. And perhaps as many takeovers by metastasized wokeism, which is a distinction without a difference as far as the productive future of the institution is concerned. It’s game over in either case.

Perhaps a few gentle unwindings and resurrections — think one in five at best — for institutions wise enough to see the writing on the wall and begin pivoting hard and early towards greater substance and tougher defenses.

Going by the ones I’ve been privy to either directly or from people who were involved (none as high-profile as ugly as this one though), I’m not hopeful. The sheer collective momentum of the epidemic unraveling is turning out to be harder to contain by the month. The more institutions collapse or hollow-out, the harder it gets to reclaim the ones with life left in them.

And perhaps most importantly: the harder it gets to justify the effort.

This is a landscape with much of its value at the network level. A bunch of isolated institutions left standing would be like a bunch of disconnected fax machines with no peers to talk to. Each fax machine that goes offline lowers the value of the rest. Metcalfe’s Law playing out in reverse, with vengeance quadratic.

New New Institutionalism: Paranoid Style

If wokeism and dank corruption are fighting over the remains of the collapsing, shrinking, unraveling old institutional order, can we expect to see a competing set of literary industrial complexes emerging from elsewhere?

Specifically, might we see one emerge on the winning ideological side of our times (loosely speaking, the reactionary ethnonationalist, authoritarian, conservative, and libertarian coalition against progressive neoliberalism)? After all, the winning side has its young literary-industrial complexes too, with their own production capabilities.

Even though the emerging competing institutional landscape it’s only perhaps 1/10th the size, in terms of both people and financial resources, it certainly seems ambitious. It wants to grow into a landscape of the scale, scope, and complexity of the one that is unraveling.

But here there is a great asymmetry. The newly ascendant institutional landscape is also systematically averse to, and contemptuous of, intellectualism, as a matter of values (lion values over fox values in terms of Pareto’s theory of circulation of elites). To the extent that intellectualism is valued at all, its function is seen in terms of the preservation of a handful of approved traditions (which are not necessarily in harmony, but are temporarily united by their shared detestation of the world that is collapsing) — “classical” liberalism, various flavors of reactionary politics, protectionism, and so on.

The emerging world is one built on the principle, Everything We Need to Know, We Learned in Europe’s Kindergarten.

The labels and intellectual contents of this aspirational landscape are largely uninteresting, since they point to dead and mummified traditions for the most part, rather than alive curiosities. But they are important to note as the flags around which new literary-industrial complexes could form. What might these look like?

The great asymmetry, guarantees that this landscape will never grow much, due to its inherent hostility to living traditions of thought, and valorization of loud actions. Especially blustery action within a theater of raw power. There’s only so many people you can employ in defense of tradition and celebration of power, and in the production of dull culture, based on reboots of “classics”.

One way to tag the difference is this: the activity pie chart looks different.

A typical neoliberal glamorous institution activity pie chart, as I suggested, is 50% justification/consent manufacturing, 30% cheerleading, 15% self-entertainment, and 5% real output.

A typical emerging institution: 50% justification/consent manufacturing, 30% zero-sum beefing with enemies, 10% failed authoritarian theater and tedious parades, 10% production of intellectual armaments for the volunteer mook armies. Actual production of broadly useful intellectual output is notably absent.

This is the paranoid style of American institution building, born of fragile, identitarian culture warring, and designed to sustain it with always-on mass movements. Don’t hold your breath for maturation into a mellowed, open, pluralistic, curiosity-driven landscape interested in things other than increasingly weaponized beefing with enemies real, imagined, or custom manufactured. This emerging institutional landscape is a permanent Hobbesian battlefield, with activity levels determined entirely by the threat levels, which are the raison d’etre for growing it at all.

Prognosis Janky

So where does that leave us intellectual reprobates who insist on a self-indulgent lifestyle based on thinking for the sake of thinking, whether institutional landscapes are governed by Pareto Foxes or Pareto Lions? While speculating about this on Twitter, I suggested one possible future based on an ethos of Jankiness Worth Fixing. JWF.

Jankiness Worth Fixing is an aspirational ethos that is in some sense the evil twin of Ideas Worth Spreading. One that trades both glamor and premium mediocrity for a sort of inward focused, domestic-cozy culture of intellectual production that is more clever hacks than flashy demos, more intimate salons than glamorous labs, more privately circulated zines than flashy conferences, more underground password-gated network than above-ground rallying flag and open invitation. I previously called it the Speakeasy Imagineering Network.

Jankiness Worth Fixing is the tagline of a bootlegger intellectualism, and an understated, self-effacing approach to design and production of things based on ideas.

Something like this has appeared a couple of times in history (the last such period in the Americas was probably the inter-war period of 1920-40, which, not surprisingly, roughly coincided with Prohibition).

Is this the future? Are there other possibilities? I guess we’ll find out.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. Feels like there’s a contradiction between the claim that the old institutional order is dying and will be replaced by reactionary nationalists and the notion that the old institutions did their best work when they had the threat of communism to motivate them. Maybe there’ll be a window in which reactionaries will make ground, but they’ll be out-thought by liberal institutions in the long run simply because as you pointed out reactionary thought pretty much ends at “go check the holy books for answers, distrust anything new.”

    • I’m not saying the reactionaries will succeed. I’m saying they’re pretty much the only ones who have a shot right now. The old liberal institutional elites are trying hard but have very little credibility.

  2. One that trades both glamor and premium mediocrity for a sort of inward focused, domestic-cozy culture of intellectual production that is more clever hacks than flashy demos, more intimate salons than glamorous labs, more privately circulated zines than flashy conferences, more underground password-gated network than above-ground rallying flag and open invitation.

    Maybe you can invite Jacob Rees Mogg to become the chairman of you new founded, private club?

    I don”t see how you won’t struggle with democracy just like our NRx-ers, except that you not right wing. “Domestic cozy” is just your way to encode an exit from society as it is. In a way you have begun to refactor the ideas of the new conservative revolution just as you did before with postmodernism.

    There is much to agree about your analysis of the the Media Lab but it ain’t struggle with being a deprecated celebrity institution but with contact guilt. There is much black magic and voodoo around us, spooky actions from a distance and the ghosts of the paraverse like contact guilt a lot. Of course the Media Lab was placed on the other side of magic, white and glamorous, which makes it easier to let it fall.

    Paranoid? Everything about the paraverse is crazy but what exactly is “right wing” about it? Maybe it is the rights distrust into reason and enlightenment. They fear the raw peoples power much like the demons and they think it is silly to believe that some intellectuals in their clubs and universities, working on their papers and their encyclopedia, could get done with it.

    About “tradition”. This word doesn’t mean a lot, so everyone can use it just as desired. For me for example it means to have books and own stuff.

    • Domestic cozy is observation on my part, not prescription. It’s something I think is happening (and yes, it’s a particular form of coded retreat) on a large and pluralist scale.

      I do think classical democracy is in trouble. I don’t have any particular ideological response to it though. I’m still just watching what’s happening.

  3. This was written for a friend, as an attempt to explain one of my positions on Venkatesh Rao’s writing. Posting here in case anybody finds it useful.

    In many ways, Venkat is writing in a different language. For better or for worse, his writing is dense with neologisms, many of his own creation. From a 2400 word blog post (Weirding Diary: 10) we get this: ~20 relatively unconventional mental models / neologisms. Venkat’s own are separated from those of others.

    Manufacturing Consent (Chomsky)
    Hemingway bankruptcy pattern – gradually, and then suddenly (Hemingway)
    Lion Values vs. Fox Values (Vincent Pareto)
    Hanlon’s Razor = Stupidity over Malice (Hanlon)
    Circulation of Elite (Vincent Pareto)
    Metcalfe’s Law (Robert Metcalfe)
    Free Lunch (Gambling / Economics)
    Hobbesian battlefield (Thomas Hobbes)
    Hydra (Greek Mythology)

    Premium Mediocre (Venktesh Rao)
    Great Weirding (Venkatesh Rao)
    Glamorous Institutions (Venkatesh Rao)
    Vision Surplus (Venkatesh Rao)
    Charisma Engineering (Venkatesh Rao)
    Underdefended Underproductivity (Venkatesh Rao)
    Literary Industrial Complex (Venkatesh Rao)
    Counter-programming of ideological competition (Venkatesh Rao)
    Script Unraveling (Venkatesh Rao)
    Jankiness Worth Fixing (Venkatesh Rao)

    This form represents a demonstration of the ‘latticework of mental models’ style of analysis and creativity proffered by Charlie Munger, Shane Parrish and umpteen others.

  4. The coming recession is going to hit a lot of those same institutions that don’t produce much hard as well. The “digital upstart” media companies are gonna get hammered especially bad (actually probably all media companies).

    Throwing economic deprivation into this weirdness is going to create something really strange.

    • I realize my own complicity with a recession ( if not a crisis ) as a potential clearing process, even if it personally harms me as a collateral damage.

      Throwing economic deprivation into this weirdness is going to create something really strange.

      The only thing I find strange at the moment is the complete absence of all economical events from the financial markets. There was a funny incident right after the drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. A “financial journalist” ( probably a bot ) on investing.com was faster than the events and wrote about a big crash on the Wallstreet. A commentator said laconically, that it might count as a crash today when the S&P 500 drops for 10 points. The one issue which keeps the markets up and doesn’t let them fall asleep is interest rate speculations and Trump tweets.

      The other crisis, the environmental crisis dominated the media this summer and a drought like 2018 was bitterly expected by those who desperately seek a goal in their life, something to fight for and we almost got it after some hot days in June. But the drought that was pleased to come, didn’t stay. Instead there is now an explosion of green, at least here in Bavaria. It is the wrong kind of regression, not the regression into the wilderness of the desert but a deep dive into an exuberant flora, into Carbon, not Perm. Objective irony or the expected result of increasing levels of CO2? My last thoughts will be devoted to holy Greta before I get eaten by a huge dragonfly.

  5. About Europe’s kindergarten. Every attempt to resurrect the ancient Greeks from the dead ends up in some sex scandals involving teachers, poets, intellectuals … and under aged boys. Germany has gone through this multiple times during the past century. The last of these incidents had been covered by the media just a couple of years ago. The bright light of the ancients, their aestheticism, had been an effective attractor for shady figures with brilliant minds.

    Although I sympathize with those who attempt to cultivate their narcissism through an attachment to the classics, I would look if they are devoted to more severe Gods than Eros and Dionysos, watching over them. The laws, the customs …. I do understand the furor against the dumbness of a moderate, clueless, conservative civilization, the mediocre absolute, with no goal other that infinite self-perpetuation and reproduction, which harms the fine minds and higher souls. In fact many took notice and destroyed, together with unleashed market forces, much of the bourgeois life-world. In retrospect one might ask if that was really necessary to get modern medical supplies, cars, computers, electronic toys etc. Wouldn’t the theoretic curiosity about the working of the world, originating in the 15th century – basically after God became too detached from worldly affairs – been enough?

  6. A bit of a tangent on the zero-sum beefing that these new institutions find profitable. Why do zero-sum arguments resonate with people? I’d argue that zero-sum beliefs arise when the opportunities and challenges of a given situation are not made available to all.

    Throughout I’ll use the example of how immigration affects real estate. Immigrants make a country wealthier overall, but it is a mix of pros and cons. Everyone benefits somewhat when an immigrant starts a business. When an immigrant buys a house in a crowded city it benefits existing home owners and strongly detriments those in the market to buy.

    Those saddled with the challenges will adopt zero-sum beliefs while those who enjoy the opportunities have a moral hazard. Immigration is a net economic negative for a first time home buyer but a boon to someone with four houses to sell. Instituting a land value tax would correct this by averaging the opportunities and challenges across all parties.

    Averaging of opportunity and challenge has two beneficial effects. It immediately reduces inequality and with it societal strife. Secondly, in removing moral hazard it harnesses our natural greed to make choices that benefit the greater good.

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