MJD 59,004

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve been thinking a lot about experiments. In an interview last year, James Mattis described America as “this great big experiment of ours.” I made a 2×2 to think about this. America falls in the Grand Design Experiments quadrant. The x-axis is self-explanatory, the y-axis is ordinary versus extraordinary in the sense of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I wrote about this before in Extraordinary Laboratories.

As an experiment, America is a set of extraordinary (and not coincidentally, exceptionalist) claims about the nature of government.

Arguably, the experiment did deliver fairly extraordinary evidence. Witness the vast prosperity created globally by American industry for example. But this evidence has not been compelling enough to convince everybody of the even more extraordinary claims made for what one might call the Theory of America. Claims believed to be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt by constitutional originalists, for example.

Those claims about are rejected with particular force by those who see the condition of Black America as a decisive bit of evidence showing that the experiment has failed relative to its most critical claims. According to them, the American Experiment proves a lot of important things, but not the most important things originally claimed. That argument will go on longer than America itself lasts. I don’t yet know what to think about it, but I want to talk a bit about smaller scale, more modest experiments at the scale of my own life. The sort that fit in the lower half of the 2×2.

This period we are in is not friendly to small experiments — artificial or natural — because really big ones are underway. I feel this personally. Ribbonfarm is my public experimentation space. The original tagline was “experiments in refactored perception.” The current one is “constructions in magical thinking,” which I still understand as an experimental writing posture, albeit a synthetic rather than analytic one. Among my writing projects, it’s the one that has slowed down the most. Ribbonfarm is not going brrrr. Analytic or synthetic, refactored perception or magical construction, ribbonfarm-style writing is very hard to do right now.

Much of my writing energy has been diverted to Art of Gig and Breaking Smart, which are much less experimental projects. While I’ve written a few longer essays since the pandemic began (Leaking into the Future , Liminality?…Well, there’s a free sample!, and Plot Economics) I think of them as cheating, since they’re really outtakes from my much-less-experimental book project. I haven’t written a truly ribbonfarmesque thing since January (Internet of Beefs). Even my blogchains, which should be easier than full essays, have been hard to continue.

My most experimental projects, too uncertain even for public play on ribbonfarm, are entirely stalled.

Experimentation is hard in a time of very high uncertainty. Even routine everyday things we’ve done for decades, like washing hands, have become things we now do in experimental new ways. We interrogate every small movement. We think through the logic of every possible chain of contamination. We read about how long viruses live on copper versus plastic versus cardboard. How are you supposed to work on creative experiments at the edge of human experience when familiar everyday life turns into an exhausting, never-ending experiment?

While I’m enjoying the attention I’m devoting to my less-experimental activities, I’m fundamentally an experimentalist, not an executor of developed concepts. I like tinkering and prototyping way more than I like turning them into developed, scaled things. It’s draining to not be able to do all the experiments I want to do because my experimental energy is being sucked away by experiments I don’t particularly care for.

One of the things that makes it easier is company. A lot of my voluntary experimentation energy is now operating in social mode. The Scorpio Season podcast I’m doing with Lisa is very experimental, and the Yak Collective is also very experimental. Collaborative experimentation is a very new mode for me. Working closely with others doesn’t come naturally to me.

Collaboration in experimentation is one aspect of “we’re all in this together.” That hackneyed phrase has a certain depth to it if you unpack it. “We’re all in this together” at every level from accepting a decade or more of a huge shared burden of national debt, all the way down to stuff like social distancing or collaborations between 2 people. Some of this natural impulse towards group action is a natural response to a stressful environment, for collective security. But some of it, like collaborative experimentation, has a less obvious logic to it.

If experimentation is like exploration, experimentation in a high-risk environment is like exploration in a horror movie. You know the guy who ventures out alone to investigate why the power went out is going to die. So you explore in teams or groups for as long as you can until circumstances force you to go out alone, at which point the monster gets you. Unless you’re the black guy in the horror movie, in which case, as the cliche goes, you must be the first to go out alone and die. A cliche that’s being validated at scale by both Covid and cops right now.

If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble into collaborative experimentation that you actually enjoy, and will continue past the crisis. If you’re unlucky, you’ll hate it, and it won’t actually scratch the exploratory/experimental itch, and you’ll abandon it when the environmental risk subsides.

When this period gives way to a more secure period where we all feel comfortable and secure enough in everyday life to get individually experimental again, I suspect we’ll all experience something of a reaction, and go a bit nuts in the other direction. We’re all in this together, but our actual attitude to that condition is one that belies the shiny-eyed schmaltzy piety with which the phrase is typically trotted out. Usually by hyper-social collectivists who’ve never had an independent thought in their lives. They can’t see the dark side of “all in this together” — the loss of individualist experimental energy. Not all of us like being “all in this together.” At least not all the time.

But we’ll get that kind of world back — a world secure enough for experimentation and exploration on a frontier away from the safe core. The only question is how many years of life we will lose in the meantime. At 45, going on 46, it’s a particularly gloomy prospect for me. Supposedly, 54 is currently the creative peak for men these days. If this drags on for say 5 or even 10 years with no effective vaccine, a deglobalizing world, and a deep economic depression, it will suck. Years I was looking forward to, to devote to what I think of as my “mature” experimental projects, will be lost if things continue in these dark directions.

On the other hand, I’m better off than people in their teens and early 20s who might end up so traumatized by this, they might turn into an extremely risk-averse and non-experimental generation. That happened to the Silent Generation, currently the oldest one alive, which grew up traumatized by the Great Depression and World War 2. It might happen to Gen Z.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. When this period gives way to a more secure period where we all feel comfortable and secure enough in everyday life to get individually experimental again

    Periods of experimentation are just as unpredictable as everything else and they surely do not require a state of “domestic cozy”. Think about the interwar years a century ago, which were experimental on almost all levels. The political experiments overshadowed at least the following 3 generations. The same can be said about artistic experimentation and the birth of high modernism with its, initially, revolutionary fervor. It was a Hobbesian kind of experimentation with no sense of peaceful coexistence. Experiment or die. This got later dis-stressed when the consumer society got traction and postmodernism took over. We became used to worship diversity but only because the stakes were low, old material was recycled and not much of everything really made a difference. This was the state “after the orgy” Baudrillard was talking about and it isn’t over yet. We only began to feel exhausted by the vacuum of meaning which it left and attempted to fill the void with all kinds of weird tribalisms and emotional outbursts ( Cancel Culture, IoB, Trumpism, #MeToo … ).

    It also took a while for “software eating the world” and new media experimentation with its almost unlimited bandwidth ( space for everyone ) to get compressed into various platforms and big communities and their politics. Ingenious eccentrics in software and systems design came under pressure during the last decade and their age basically ended with the purge of Richard Stallman. In times of decline of the individual voice your blog was a minuscule counter current.

    Not sure what comes out of COVID-19 but the latest news and pictures from the US tell me that “social distancing” was yesterday. However, it may still inspire some neo-bourgeois etiquette. “We are all in this together” indicates a moment of classless togetherness, which was, paradoxically, expressed through distancing. It has just evaporated. Good for the virus.

  2. I think in this time of constant experimentation, it’s a great time for generating hypotheses; see if particularly absurd methods of coming to conclusions can hold out given the speed of events. (And importantly, do it more than once)

    I suspect the fox metaphor has been well and truly buried from overuse, but nevertheless, trying to bundle together a mutually inconsistent set of predictive strategies strikes me as a quite productive response to current events; 10 ludicrous predictions per week, based on depreciated forms of knowledge somewhere in your reading history.

  3. “hyper-social collectivists” 😄❤️

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