Elderblog Sutra: 10

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Elderblog Sutra

I’ve been thinking about the context in which writing, or any kind of creative work that makes a public appearance, lives (for the author of the work rather than the consumer).

I often make up pseudomath equations to help me see the structure of an interesting question, even if it’s unlikely that there’s any actual interesting mathematical structure there. Here’s my pseudo-math attempt to model the idea of “work in context” (blue) as a convolution of aliveness (green) and general environmental context (brown).

As the blank blue graph suggests, I haven’t actually “solved” this pseudo-math problem to yield an evolving view of work in context, but lemme explain what I’m trying to poke at here.

The Decision to Create

Last week, I met up with a reader-turned-client who remarked that my new blogchain format feels less “moreish” (the Britishism for tasty food that you want to keep eating more of). I told him it was a deliberate choice to get away from serving up that kind of writing. I’ve been thinking since about why I chose to mess with a formula that had been working well for a decade. After all, a lot of writers, many vastly more successful than me, stick to a single, gradually maturing style all their lives, steadily accumulating a vast oeuvre that ages and mellows like a fine wine.

The answer is ultimately pretty simple. For work to work, it has to first work for the worker, before it works for anyone else. Otherwise it is not sustainable. So my old approach to blogging had stopped working — for me, and blogchains have been my way of looking for a new approach that works — again for me.

As far as I could tell, the old insight-porn/refactored perception approach was still working for readers. I could probably have continued in the old style indefinitely, and expected the usual return rate of one viral hit every dozen or so blog posts, albeit with an increasingly insular audience that was growing old along with me. Hell, forget that broad style, I could probably have turned the The Gervais Principle into a formula and narrowed my schtick into a lifetime of television-show close-reading pop analysis (as many readers were asking me to, back in 2009-12).

Why mess with a formula that works? Because the choice is never between a proven style and an unproven style. That’s a reader-centric way of looking at it. From a writer-centric perspective, the choice is much more existential: between not writing and writing.

So how do you shake up an approach to creative work when it has stopped working for you? The key, I think, is to think about the context rather than the text.

Life and Death in Creative Work

Context is important not just because it determines how work is conceived, shaped by environmental influences, executed, and received, but because it determines whether the work is done at all in the first place.

The most basic choice you make as a creator does not concern content, medium, themes, sources of inspiration, or styles. The most basic choice is to create rather than not create.

This is especially true of work that is offered up publicly, since work done in private is often driven by necessity. You’ll do it so long as life looks like a better prospect than death. You don’t choose biological life, but you do have to choose to keep living every day, and choosing not to is kinda painful and irreversible.

Creative, public life is not like that. It is rarely the case that a life of public creation is forced on you by necessity. And in those rare cases, it is even rarer for anything good to come out of it. Think of the forgettable works of Nicholas Cage, financially distressed aging actor, as opposed to the memorable works of Nicholas Cage, early-stage actor who acted because he wanted to.

There is a deep, zombie deadness to public creative work driven by necessity, as is the case with the Zombie Simpsons, driven purely by the business necessity of squeezing the last advertising dollar out of a cash-cow media property, decades past all life leaving it. When you care about the creator, such works also make you embarrassed on their behalf, like seeing a friend reduced to homelessness, forced to go about meeting their private needs in public view.

To his credit, Matt Groening cycled off The Simpsons into Futurama, and then into Disenchantment, reinventing himself at exactly the right times to stay creatively alive. Each of those, unlike Zombie Simpsons, is a live work, authored by a living author. Whether or not you and I, as consumers, think of them as good or bad works is irrelevant. They are works that work for their creator.

So a public creative life is something you choose, and giving it up is a sort of social/public death (not in the reputational sense but in the choice to appear/not-appear in public). It is a softer, less painful, and more reversible decision than biological suicide, but it is still a death-like passage (social death by reputational murder or cancelation is of course much worse, but still not as bad as biological death).

I’ve had at least 3 distinct “public lives” (and deaths) within my biological life so far, in the sense of choosing to do things in public versus killing off a public self and retreating into a more private shell. Looking back, whether or not I chose to write (or otherwise appear) in public during a particular period of my life was a strong function of how alive I felt, and the context I was in. These are the two components of my pseudo-math model.

Aliveness

Writing in public is in some ways the admission that your private life is not large enough to contain your particular sense of aliveness. So it must spill over into a public context,

The green graph shows the “aliveness” function of a basic real person. You are at 0 before you are born and after you die, and you grow from unbornness to full aliveness and decline to full deadness.

You can get fancy here, and think of being “pre-alive” if your birth is, for instance, cast as the coming of a True Messiah, like J. Krishnamurti’s was. And you can have a non-zero aliveness function after you’re death if your work is highly influenced by concern for your future legacy, (and you expect to have a significant estate managing it according to your wishes).

On the other hand, if you’re like Barthes and think the authorial context and intentions do not matter, (“death of the author”) you can set aliveness to be a step function that goes from 0 to 1 at the author’s birth and stays there. The only role the life of the author plays is via the bare fact that they existed at all. Their intentions and personal life ultimately add no enduring information content to the meaning of their work. Everything is a function of the environmental context converging on the discerning critical reader. The writer is merely an instrument whose influence on the work is easily disentangled (or deconvolved) from its meanings, like the lens of a telescope whose optical characteristics can be easily accounted for and canceled out, leaving only the images of distant galaxies and planets.

But let’s keep it simple. In the picture above, the author is not dead in Barthes sense, and has a non-trivial aliveness function between birth and death shaping the work-in-context, via entanglement (“convolution”) with the environmental context. Work-in-context is the peculiar pattern of entanglement between writer and context that lends it meaning, a meaning that would not exist without the author being alive.

Worked example, using myself:

I was born in 1974, and I assume I’ll be dead by 2074 at the latest, and the example aliveness graph indicates a depressing sort of early-peak/slow-decline aliveness pattern I think I’m on, though I’m not sure if I’m pre or post-peak yet.

I wish I could believe in a sort of rising sawtooth with a sharp cliff at the end, but my subjective experience suggests this is wishful thinking. It will go downhill overall. Maybe not fast, and maybe with interesting fractal resurgences, but it’s going to be downhill.

Context

The “context” is the product of several things, and the time constants in parentheses are my sense of how often a particular thing changes qualitatively (via periodicity or discontinuous change for example). Four components I think are particularly important:

  1. Personal context (like where you live, who you interact with, how you make a living),
  2. Generational context (a proxy for the historical epoch)
  3. Media context (the technology environment you work within)
  4. Symbol-environment context (basically the soup of active and remembered “content” of culture your work will live in)

Continuing the worked example:

For personal context, my various moves among cities/countries, work life and relationships etc. would make for some sort of choppy graph with certain rhythms but few accumulations. I think there’s a 10 year regeneration cycle in there. The story there is largely that of a rolling stone gathering no moss.

For generational context, I was born in the middle of Gen X, leading to the 80s, 90s, 00s, and 10s, having distinct feels for me depending on the shifting pattern of Gen X relationships with other generations, as all of us aged through our life stages. Here’s an unrelated picture I made for a thread of commentary on a different aspect of generational stuff. By this cartoon model, the Gen X generational context contribution, as of 2010, is a sort of oxbow lake spectator position, detached from the main current of inter-generational warfare. So you could say all my writing is a kind of spectatoring, due to the shaping by the context of a spectator generation. I am just one watcher and witness within a watching and witnessing generation.

For media context. When I was a kid, it was a paper environment. Then it became a paper+TV environment around 1985. Then it became a paper+TV+internet environment around 1995. That’s just my personal experience of media context though. The objective evolution of media seems to have a time constant of about 30 years. Every 30 years or so, a significant new medium gets added to the stack.

For symbol-environment context, I went from scarce text, to scarce text plus scarce TV, to scarce text plus abundant TV, to abundant text plus abundant TV. In the process, this aspect of the context went from “pull” (I had to go out and seek information I wanted) to “push” (I had to filter a growing firehose of information seeking me out). Here I’m part of a privileged generation. Symbol environment contexts rarely change radically within individual lifetimes. The last time we saw a similarly radical change was in the 1890s, when the proliferation of offset printing made textual content very cheap and (relatively) ubiquitous.

Work-in-Context Scenarios

This model is not empirical enough to make trying to actually compute with it a useful exercise, but the structure helps imagine some interesting scenarios. That’s work-in-context scenario modeling.

For me, selfishly, a good question is whether my reach/influence is going to decline in lock-step with my aliveness function, or acquire a bit of a life of its own, providing some compensatory leverage.

In one scenario, I might stop writing entirely today, but my writings strike some sort of nerve in 2020 (perhaps riding a resurgence of interest in The Office and sociopathy) and the archives continue to be read by growing numbers of people, keeping me satisfactorily plugged into culture and the economy. I very much doubt it, since the vast majority of my writing appears to have a shelf life of a few years at best. So I’m going to have to keep at it, one way or the other, unless I get lucky and rich enough to be able to afford total irrelevance. The trick is to outrun the forces of necessity so it is still a choice.

In another scenario, I strike a rich new vein that renders everything I’ve done so far juvenile and trivial by comparison. One can hope.

The pseudo-math also suggests some possibilities for how to re-engineer either the context, the aliveness function, or both, in interesting ways.

For example, what if I packaged up my best stuff in glossy, well-edited, updated paper volumes and marketed them heavily, while producing no new material? That’s amping up the personal context function to compensate for declining aliveness function. Sounds horrifying to me, but it’s an imaginable scenario, and I see some people happily doing things like that. Productizing themselves after first prototyping and developing themselves in a lab for a few years. They may no longer grow with their work, but are able to draft off its continued artificially extended life.

Or I could do a pseudo-daring artistic grand gesture thing and simply delete and unpublish all my work, and only do avant garde self-indulgent stuff nobody likes. And then a slowly dwindling number of readers circulate my good stuff in the form of saved copies (like old Cat Stevens music), while my contemporary efforts are dismissed as aging-zombie crap. Also sounds horrifying to me. But again, I’ve seen people successfully pull that kind of thing off.

Or what if, as some people (including me) think, long-form textual culture is turning into a sort of obscure antiquarian pastime, with real culture happening on podcasts and Gen Z TikTok or something. Perhaps I will drive my longform shtick into the ground as a Late Style body of irrelevant has-been ok-karen essays that only 5 people read. This seems like an actually plausible null hypothesis scenario to me. One I’d have to actively maneuver to avoid,

Or what if, some of my weirder new experiments actually pay off, and my work context re-forms around a fundamentally new definition of “work” that is not “writing”. Maybe an Act 2 built around game development.

Many more scenarios seem possible when you envision the future in terms of work-in-context rather than work-in-isolation.

Confinement or Liberation

When I began this blogchain, I was primarily concerned with refactoring my understanding of my own past blogging, and arriving at a liberating analysis that would perhaps shake up my future writing in a generative way. Which is a long-winded way of saying I was trying to write myself out of a growing sense of being in a rut. Now, 10 parts in, I’m beginning to think most of such an understanding has to come from the context.

The past always serves as a context for the future, but whether it serves as a confining context (rut) or a liberating one (groove) seems to depend on how you look at it, and a year ago, I was apparently looking at it in a lousy, confining way. Whether or not it worked for you, ribbonfarm had become a rut for me, and I had to either turn it into a groove, or stop writing it.

It’s sort of worked I think. At least, I’ve continued wanting to write in this blogchain format.

One result of this self-reflection blogchain has been that I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a writer. I did a twitter thread about that yesterday. But the gist of it is that self-authoring can sometimes mean giving up on the notion of “author” as a thing separate from its context, and instead looking at it as a pattern of entanglement with context.

This pseudomath bunnytrail is about understanding the structure of that entanglement and figuring out where and how it allows for interesting kinds of surgery that can turn confining understandings into liberating ones.

Can I escape this maze I’ve woven around my own thoughts over a decade, with myself trapped at the center? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Series Navigation<< Elderblog Sutra: 9

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. This process of developing and deploying conceptual tools for self awareness is essential. Thank you for adding one to my psychic toolbox.

  2. The Author in his Labyrinth?

  3. From your cited Twitter thread:

    “Writing is just not a powerful enough medium to be *the* foundation of communication and cognition anymore. We’re evolving into a postverbal species. Writing today feels like programming in assembly did back in undergrad electronics class: a skill on its way out.”

    When I started to care about programming language design in the late 1990s, I was told that programming will soon be dead, because programmers will be superseded by architects who are naturally inclined to use diagrammatic techniques, such as UML. UML was on the rise until TogetherUML came out. Suddenly, everyone who was into UML, also used Together. Why? It offered complete roundtrips between code and diagrams and the diagrams it rendered from code were acceptable after some minor corrections. After roundtrip was established, UML declined sharply, because no one had to draw diagrams anymore. Software devs could return to coding, to words and special characters instead of lines and boxes, which is just what they always wanted.

    Since then I’m skeptic about the replacement of writing / coding for anything but lower skills, expositions, art and entertainment. Of course I could be wrong. Any idea how to put this on test?

  4. It is somewhat odd to just consider this but you lacked a sense of time and timing. Sometimes you like you would resign to spend the rest of your life as an intellectual day traders, living in the eternal-now of Twitter.

    The blog-chain may be a way out, as it is some form of portfolio management. Instead of letting all the great shots go nowhere because they are slaves of the timeline of the blog, the blog-chain allows to re-enter and advance. What I’m missing yet though is intensity or artfulness. In television series one invented the cliffhanger to keep people interested but this somehow implies that the show is ahead of the time relative to its viewers by at least one piece of the chain. They maintain a polarity, not risking that the next block doesn’t exist. They have become so well versed at it that they lack the skill now to create completions. The ends are tacked on.

    As I said in the previous comment, I believe the claim of the end of the text is premature. It scales well, it is recursive, it has abstractiive power ( in particular naming and referencing ) and edit operations (i.e. create, delete and change) are present and cheap All bots will like it once they understand the stuff they are made of.

  5. It amuses me to think that the death of the author is represented by an immortal author function.

    Although actually, I think that would be wrong; if the context function with which it is convolved is one that weights the contributions of previous past events to the present, then you’d be looking at a delta function for the author, a momentary impulse, followed by culturally driven reverberation patterns, echoes etc.

    In fact, this would literally be an acoustic model in some weird space, where the contribution of some author is prefiltered to a single burst, with all future messages discounted, or perhaps that could be fitted into the context, like a kind of frequency dependent reverb, that picked out one particular contribution for continuation and let the rest decay.

    This conception of aliveness suggests that what you are aiming for is a kind of sense that you work is producing chain reactions in a broader constellation of discussion systems, possibly not that it has a larger audience, though that would be nice, but perhaps that it is a contributor to a particular kind of discussion system that has itself atrophied or moved out of alignment with your interests over the years. (Or perhaps that still exists, but you now feel differently enough about that you want to substitute it for another one)

    You have an audience, you have discussion partners, you have small communities, but if those constitute a bonus, and not the secret reason that you write, then those beneficial effects will not in themselves lead to you wanting to write more.

    Lazy possibilities:

    You simply aren’t involved in business enough to have easy access to it’s absurdities and internal deceptions such that you can write about it in veiled and abstracted but comprehensible ways. (Context, business writing, people with actual experience of business)

    You don’t have access to media that strikes you as sufficiently under-theorised to make it entertaining to rework it. (Context, watchers of crime drama series with an interest in human nature)

    There is some dissolution of the techno-optimist milieu that makes creating antihuman or inhuman explorations of technical determinism less transgressive, or a diminishing of unconscious technical patterns in social progress that makes raw human emotional politics seem more dominant in a less interesting way (technical progress and social transformation is stalling because the politicians are forming a kind of bottleneck).
    (Context, tech writing, futurism and anthropology/media analysis)

    The first two were questions of input, in the sense of available unexploited opportunities, free energy, if you like, with an assumed audience. The second is a question more of the audience itself shifting, with culture generally seeming a less satisfying conversation partner, less likely to be sensitive to an interesting discussion of infrastructural aesthetics when infrastructure itself is dying, or likely to be replaced by intentional political programs (the green deal for example, is interesting in the sense that it’s “just transition” foregrounds the relationship between tech and the humans that work in it, but also less interesting in that there will be a lot of eyes on it, angrily disputing those connections).

    Another completely different option is that your work has become more political itself, or more consequentially constructive, meaning that it needs to be broken into fragments rather than intentionally constructed theses to retain the appropriate sense of play rather than become preoccupied with handling those consequences (external context remains the same, but the push from previous material requires a shift, and so potentially a new version of the old context that would accept that shift; is there still an audience? Or can different ideas be broken up to reflect an older audience?).

    In the last one, the blogchain as an organising concept would reflect an embrace of the now pretty old idea of the eternal public beta, an excuse to be unfinished in the way that a series seems not to have.

    Also, you might just need to get curious about some stuff in more detail, and get a big phd’s worth of cognitive backlog you can gainfully apply to a range of different things.

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