Nostalgia for Network Effects

The reality of the Biden inauguration hasn’t yet sunk in. It’s not exactly a return to anything resembling normalcy or even a new normalcy (and I don’t expect such a return even after Covid is behind us and Trump is forgotten), but it’s definitely an unmistakeable phase shift to a new regime. Perhaps this is the official first day of what I’ve been calling the Permaweird.

Looking back at the last 4 years, something striking leaps out at me: the big thing that’s been missing in my life since the Trump inauguration — and which hasn’t magically returned today — is some sort of network effect in my activities. A sense of a snowballing accumulation of meaningfulness over time.

Now, on the first day of the Permaweird, I find myself nostalgic for network effects, and wondering if I can ever tap into them again at a personal level.

The key indicator of a personal life network effect for me lies in my writing. Specifically my writing here on ribbonfarm. Bear with me while I walk you through this rather self-absorbed example. The larger point I’m trying to get to has nothing to do with me personally.

Personal Network Effects

The way a personal network effect manifests for me here is that new posts link to, and build on, old posts in a way that generates a sort of compound-interest momentum in theme development (this is something that really only happens on a blog; newsletters seem to lack that affordance). Something like this, I suspect, is true for anyone producing anything steadily.

When a theme snowballs in my writing, I can put together good essay collections after a few years of letting it run. The last such “network effect” collection I published, Crash Early, Crash Often (CECO) contains 15 essays written between 2013 and 2016. The collection represents what is, in my own opinion, my best writing. It lacks the rawness of the older collections (pre-2013) and has a snowballing network-effect feel to it, an extraordinarily satisfying sense of a big, illegible idea building up on itself over years. Much more satisfying than the feel of a linear, serial thread of writing (like a blogchain or newsletter) or an isolated viral hit.

Notably, even though I feel like CECO is my best writing, none of the included essays in that collection are among my top one-off viral hits, or form a clear scripted sequence with numbered parts. I am fairly sure none of these essays is widely known beyond people who regularly read me, unlike the viral hit stuff which tends to be stand-alone. These essays only “work” as part of the larger unfolding networked theme. Writing CECO felt like sipping a fine bottle of scotch over years. By contrast, writing a blogchain feels like working through a six-pack of beer over a week, and a viral hit feels something like getting very drunk over the course of a single evening. While fun in their own ways (both for me and for people watching), neither of those experiences is as pleasant as networked theme writing.

To abuse the network effect metaphor a bit, CECO represents a couple of Moore’s Law doublings worth of my own development as a person.

The last essay included in CECO is Speak Weirdness to Truth, which I published on Sept 22, 2016. shortly before the election that gave us Trump.

Then regime change happened — a cultural regime change, not just a new President — with the Great Weirding arriving decisively on American shores. And something in my internal network effect just broke.

While I continued to write at the same rate, and some of what I wrote was even pretty good (including two of my biggest all-time hits, Premium Mediocre and Internet of Beefs, both of which were written in the Trump era and were in part responses to it), the writing lacked the thematic snowballing character that is clearly evident in CECO. I was definitely not on a roll, ever, during these four years. I was grinding through a valley.

More importantly, despite their popularity, these isolated hits were not very satisfying to write. Like getting very drunk, viral hits are only fun once or twice when you’re young enough. The viral hit posts were works of reaction to the environment, and I’m fundamentally not a very reactive type. For me the most satisfying type of activity is stuff that builds up organically and internally, ab initio. Things that start as the merest wisp of a thought, turn into a seed, and then grow into large tree-like edifices over several years of steady, unhurried accumulation. That’s the feeling of riding an internal network effect. Internally, it feels like a steady, low-effort stroll barely distinguishable from a random walk. From the outside (a perspective I’m able to adopt when I look back to sequence and edit collections) it looks like a growing snowball.

I’m nostalgic for that feeling. The Obama years (2008-16) coincided almost exactly with the period during which my writing felt like it was nearly continuously riding a free, public-access network effect. Though there were random viral hits through those years (which were almost distracting), the main “show” was this overall compounding development of themes big and small, like big and small avalanches (aka ebooks) sliding off a growing sandpile.

Initially it was just me, then it was me and a bunch of contributors who, I believe, also experienced this sense of tapping into a collective unconscious network effect. If you read the work of Drew Austin, Kevin Simler, Sarah Perry, Tiago Forte and David Manheim, who were active through 2012-16, the mini network-effects developing in their work is unmistakeable. While I’m pretty proud of having hosted them (and many others) here, I personally had nothing to do with whatever they tapped into. It was something in the water supply during that period that drew Moore’s Law type snowballing thinking out of anybody willing to surrender their minds to it.

That force dissipated almost overnight in November 2016. It wasn’t just me, and it wasn’t just people who disliked Trump enough to suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome. It was bigger than that. It was an effect of the larger Great Weirding arriving on American shores. Trump’s election was just the climactic moment.

The network effects party was over.

The End of the Party

The years of riding a network effect that had seeped into the water supply were over. Everybody — whatever their ideological leanings — seemed to shut down a bit. Writing turned into work. It was no longer mere channeling of environmental energies. The only people who could still blithely ride network effects were the psychotically dissociated QAnon types, and their party got shut down last night too. In other words, you had to be crazy to access network-effect cultural energies after 2016 (and yes, I’m aware that to many outside of Tech’s gravity field, we seemed as bad as QAnon in the preceding decades).

Perhaps not coincidentally, Moore’s Law itself kinda ran into trouble during those years, as the doubling phenomenon stumbled a bit, and measures like smartphone penetration worldwide began to plateau.

I wrote last year (MJD 59,163) that we of Gen X in particular, are network-effect people:

GenXers are Moore’s Law people. We came of age during its heyday. Between 1978-92 or so, the personal computer (pre-internet) was growing up along with us….

I think some of the message of the silicon medium rubbed off on us Gen X’ers. We got used to the primary thing in our lives getting better and cheaper every single year. We acquired exponential-thinking mindsets. Thinking in terms of compounding gains came naturally to us. For me personally, it has shown up most in my writing.

In the last 4 years, network effects began failing all over the place. They didn’t work for me, and didn’t work for most people and entities consuming the effects of Moore’s Law at the last mile. Chips still managed to shrink from 14 nanometer to 5 nanometer scale, only slightly behind schedule (thanks to Asia picking up the ball dropped by the US), and a few backend things like AI performance saw secondary network effects (though, arguably, they were just catching up to the ceiling of Moore’s Law capability), but at the last mile, the effects kinda vanished abruptly.

At the human level, at the last mile of software eating the world, something seemed to break. It’s not just that Tech ran into political headwinds and a muscular phase of the techlash. A certain vital internal energy, a network-effect energy we’d all been riding uninterrupted for 25 years, seemed to fall apart. Perhaps the most visible sign was that most of us stopped thinking we had to update phones and laptops every couple of years.

Post-2016, the startup sector continued on its course, and continued to use the same 25-year-old language of its familiar normalcy — unicorns, exponential growth, early adopters, network effects — but the embodiments of those ideas began to seem increasingly underwhelming. The conversation began to sound like initiates of a closed-off inner culture talking to themselves, even as reality itself transformed. This is one of the reasons I haven’t felt any urge to join Clubhouse, though it is now the preferred hangout for a lot of my friends in Tech. It represents the wrong energy for my current mood; an inwards-turned version of an old, more open kind of energy. The more closed-in tribal feel of all audio media doesn’t help. I sincerely worry that the rise of Clubhouse represents a sort of 1992 talk-radio Rush Limbaugh moment in Tech. The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 energized and seeded a conservatism that felt besieged and had metastasized into Trumpism by 2016. There is a distinct possibility that the rise of the techlash will do something similar to Tech, seeding a sort of tech-under-siege paranoid culture. I sincerely hope I’m wrong to fear this.

The financial energy flows have continued unabated — the deal-making continued at a brisk pace. New players joined the VC party, Softbank and PE firms began eating Silicon Valley, and the seeds of things like SPACs were planted. But the underlying technological energy seemed to run into trouble. What had previously been just a sense of open-ended “Moore’s law magic energy” in the water supply turned into much narrower technical effects (in AI, and blockchain technology in particular). The magic was now confined to specific ley lines, so to speak. You now need a map to find them, magic-geologists to guide you, and powerful drills to tap into them. The Bay Area struck me after 2016 as increasingly giving off a New York/Wall Street type energy, which I found harder and harder to vibe with. To enjoy Silicon Valley post 2016, you had to enjoy the primarily financial game that was now its center, but had previously been merely an enabling, active, boundary condition. That’s partly why Silicon Valley is starting to feel like New York now.

The effect has been perhaps most visible in the behaviors of the latest cohorts of young people to enter the network-effect energy fields of the tech scene. In 2000-16, wild-minded young people tended to tap right into the public, mainstream flows of the energy. It was a youthful frontier restlessness actively seeking out the heart of the action, the part that could grow into big tech companies, big open source projects, and so on. The kind of energy embodied by Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Wikipedia, WordPress, Linux, Arduino, and so on. Starting in 2016, it felt like a massive single river had turned into a diverging delta headed for a vast ocean. The aggregated, massed flow of early-stage tech had fragmented into a number of technological subcultural rivulets winding their way through mangrove swamps. At the same time, people with financial, domesticated mindsets began to increasingly make inroads into tech culture, while wilder minds began to stay away or look elsewhere for welcoming milieus. There’s as many wild-minded young people today as in 2003, but they no longer itch to go to Silicon Valley.

At every level, from my own writing, to the behaviors of younger people, to the dynamics of technology and economic trends, it felt like something big was happening. Something comparable to magic retreating from Middle Earth. Somewhere, unknown to all, Frodo had dumped the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. The other rings stopped working. Magical spells began to sputter and grow unreliable. Elves began boarding ships headed elsewhere. Larger missionary fellowships began to get disbanded, with members heading off on their own or in smaller, less-missionary groups.

Starting in 2016, the era of unbridled network effects began drawing to a close.

The Silicon Curtain

Don’t get me wrong. Network effects still exist. Unicorns continue to emerge, and create fortunes and shape the story. But they run along more well-governed, and well-guarded channels now. The natural fury of great rivers has been dammed. And they are no longer the most important thing shaping the world. Like ancient Egypt was defined by the annual flooding of the Nile, ancient Silicon Valley was defined by the flooding caused by ungoverned surpluses and spillover effects. Like Ancient Egypt, Ancient Silicon Valley is history now. All we have is memories of the hydraulic empire that made us.

Unlike what one might call the prime movers of network effects — technologists who develop the next generations of chips and networking protocols, and entrepreneurs who create the next generation of powerful networked media — I’ve primarily been a consumer of network effects for 20 years. And the unregulated, open, public supply seems to have dried up.

Now, to tap into it, as I’ve noted, you have to drill down to a specific ley line like AI, which is a lot more work than something like getting going on WordPress or YouTube. Often you have to actually pay for it, which seems outrageous to long-time free-riders of the public commons energy like me. Or worse, you have to know people to access it, just like on the East Coast. The fact that Clubhouse is running the most extreme artificial-scarcity invites economy I’ve seen, is I think revealing. Equally remarkable is how insular its growth trajectory has been. As someone who the network “sees” as an insider, people keep asking me if I want an invite. At the same time, tons of people seem to be hungrily seeking invites from the outside, but unable to get them.

There is a sense of a sort of Wall or Iron Curtain (Silicon Curtain?) having descended around Silicon Valley that is more than mildly depressing to witness. Network effects don’t play well with walls or curtains. Whether curtains are descending because network effects are dying, or the causality goes in the other direction, the headline is the same: network effects are no longer in the water supply, touching and shaping everything of consequence that is going on.

So now, I don’t know about you, but I’m left with this nostalgia for an easier life of an open frontier shaped by free network-effects energy. When doing what felt like meaningful things was simply about the One Weird Trick — find the latest network effect that’s blowing up, surrender to it for a a few years, while it has serious energy flowing through it, and pretend to have superpowers when all you really did was put yourself in the right place at the right time.

That meta-process of surfing one network effect after another broke during the Trump years. It wasn’t Trump’s doing — his rise was far more an effect of network effects breaking down than the cause — but it happened on his watch.

Can the network effect era be resurrected? Should it be resurrected?

Those on the tech-critical, humanist side of the fence (both on the Left and the Right) have absolutely no doubts — to them, it was a cancerous era that accelerated the late-industrial neoliberal destruction of all that was good and worthwhile — namely things that Old Culture did. To them, it’s a good thing that the network-effects party has wound down. Far from being the savior of the world from the sclerosis of the industrial age, to the critics, “Tech” was merely the final, most corrupt stage of the evolution of the old. To them, software eating the world was the last chapter of a story that began with steam engines eating the world, not the first chapter of something much better.

The Right thought Tech destroyed the “Real” America (or whatever “Real” reactionary ideal ruled your neck of the global woods), while the Left thought Tech was destroying livelihoods and the environment. Right-wing polemics against censorship, immigration, and offshore profits vied for attention with left-wing polemics against Bitcoin energy usage, under-the-API labor conditions, and racist AI training data problems. The charge in both cases being led by the bluecheck knights of old media from both sides whipping up a frenzy of culture-warring on new media. Unsurprisingly, in response to this techlash, Tech itself seemed to discover its inner reactionary streak through the Trump years.

That’s what being besieged by people who think you’re the devil incarnate, when you thought you were doing good, will do to you. You’ll try to retreat to a time when you were the unquestioned heroes of the story.

While the two political sides of the culture war reserved their most virulent hatred for each other, each managed to carve out a big chunk of emotional energy to hate on everything unleashed on the world by Moore’s Law in general, and Silicon Valley in particular. Retreat from all things digital — what I call waldenponding — was the most popular professed (if not practiced) religion of 2016-20, including, and especially in Silicon Valley itself. The Twitter-vs-Parler free-speech drama is a sideshow. The big story is the spreading desire to retreat from all things Very Online, replace tweets with hand-written postcards, programming with woodworking, and blogs with zines.

I suppose it goes without saying that I personally think the techlash crowd on both sides has been almost entirely full of shit these last four years, spinning up deeply disingenuous narratives that make technology the scapegoat for their own increasingly un-maskable failings. But that’s just me, your friendly neighborhood tech and neoliberal shill who happens to think software eating the world is the best thing that has happened to it in centuries 😇😎.

But I think everybody missed the biggest story. The people inside the network-effect magical normalcy field, its biggest fans, failed to notice that the field had collapsed, even as they began putting up walls and curtains to try and preserve some of it, unwittingly inviting reactionary sensibilities to their hitherto steadfastly open and liberal party. That the magic had retreated to a subcultural, subterranean network of weak ley lines. I’ve been calling this the CozyWeb, but that’s lipstick on a pig to a certain extent. Domestic Cozy is, at heart, a forlorn effort to trying and hang on to a vanishing world of natural magic by walling off small puddles containing its reactionary dregs.

The techlash crowd too, failed to notice that they were fighting mighty battles against a cultural force that had largely largely collapsed of its own accord by 2016, when they first took serious notice.

Now What?

So where does that leave us now, on the first day of the Permaweird, with Joe Biden, a blast from decades of neoliberal governance past, at the helm of world affairs, as veterans of the Clinton-Bush-Obama years stream back into the institutional rubble of Washington, DC, to “build back better”?

I don’t know.

I just would like this sense of personal nostalgia for network effects to go away. I am not a nostalgic type, and it’s not a pleasant sensation for me. I’m not sure I want the network-effects feeling to actually come back, at least into my life. Been there, done that. But I’d like this nostalgia gone, displaced by whatever new life-affirming mood is a suitable replacement for me. I’m not worried. I’ll find something. I always do. But in the meantime, this nostalgia is an annoying thing for me to endure.

While I feel sad that the young people of today might never experience anything like the heady years Gen X and older Millennials did, I don’t know that I personally even have the constitution to handle more riding of network effects. It tends to really test you. Paradoxically, it is like being part of high-g maneuvering in a fighter plane at the same time that it feels like being a random-walk stroll. The energy you have to expend is a gentle trickle drawn from your internal reserves. But the energy you ride is anything but gentle. I don’t know that I have the tolerance for that anymore. But that’s just my privileged choice as a 46-year old who had his turn on the roller coaster, and is looking for more sedate new adventures and pleasures. It would be a pity if younger people were denied their turns on the roller coaster because it’s simply shut down for everybody. In 1996, 22-year-old me entered an adult world that felt like basically heaven on earth, at least on the surface. A quarter century later, today in 2021, the typical 22-year-old must feel like they’re entering an adult world that is basically hell on earth.

I do think widespread, public network effects will return, but it could take decades before they do. In the meantime, other slower kinds of phenomena, with very different moods and energies, are shaping the narrative of the world.

Tapping into them requires significant reorientation. Finding an internal network effect to ride is, in some sense, necessary for a very significant fraction of humans to flourish and find meaning in what they are doing. So nostalgia for network effects is a kind of existential pain that perhaps as much as 33% of the population feels during historical periods that lack them in the water supply. This third of humanity (which, like reality, has a well-known liberal bias) is going to be slightly miserable for a while, confined to small, costly, domestic-cozy subcultural puddles and network effect rivulets, being poisoned by growing reactionary sentiment, yearning for the vast energies of the Amazon or the Nile.

The other two-thirds, of course, is going to be much happier. To them, we are the assholes, and this is their time. A time when frenzied exponentials in the environment, and the childish people riding them, have been reined in and shunted aside. A time for Serious Adult Humans to finally start doing all the Serious Adult Things they’ve been insisting for decades ought to be the first priority.

As far as they’re concerned, the world is finally on the right vector. The Serious Adult vector. Maybe past the end of history, life is going to be a cyclic affair as Serious Adult Energy and Childish Network-Effect Energy play an eternal yin-yang game with each other. Maybe that’s what the Permaweird is.

We’ll see how it goes.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. Marc Hamann says

    Geez, man. This sounds like a boomer telling me how great the 60s were. ;)

  2. Actually it was the 80s. Those were the real best years. 😎

    • Was it because the 80s were the glamorous stage of liberalism?

      In the 90s “political correctness” was invented. The liberating energy of postmodernism was turned into a new inquisition, something which always looms behind all “critique of ideology”. From then on liberalism went downhill, though one could argue that the upcoming internet stopped and reversed that move until it accelerated.

  3. I’m also a GenXer, but my view is quite different. Maybe it’s because I’m a working class Midwesterner, rather than a techie in some coastal creative hub or wherever. Honestly, I don’t see the techlash as important as it gets portrayed on either side or as it gets portrayed in your view here. That isn’t to say it’s not important. It’s just the real momentum of change, I suspect, is partly to be found elsewhere. Also, there is a more general change in media, a proliferation of voices. Whatever it is, I didn’t resonate, in particular, with one point you were making:

    “The years of riding a network effect that had seeped into the water supply were over. Everybody — whatever their ideological leanings — seemed to shut down a bit. Writing turned into work. It was no longer mere channeling of environmental energies. The only people who could still blithely ride network effects were the psychotically dissociated QAnon types, and their party got shut down last night too. In other words, you had to be crazy to access network-effect cultural energies after 2016 (and yes, I’m aware that to many outside of Tech’s gravity field, we seemed as bad as QAnon in the preceding decades).”

    My own blogging has followed your description of the network effect. I have a number of ideas and themes that have developed and built up over the years, ever since I began blogging in the Aughts. My mood and motivation shifts a bit over time, but nothing dramatically in terms of my writing itself, other than focusing less on overt politics over time. Most of my favorite topics, though, remain the same. And my output remains fairly steady. I’m still riding the network effect without being into QAnon or being crazy, at least no more crazy than I was in the past.

    Maybe it’s a difference of life experience and perspective. My life is extremely stable, even during the COVID situation. This a college town and largely got shut down for a period of time, but my job was unaffected as I’m a unionized city government employee. Plus, living in Iowa, it’s a generally stable place in general. For example, during the 2008 recession, the Iowa economy was almost entirely unaffected. The times may be good or bad in the rest of the country. It doesn’t have much impact on rural states dependent on farming and natural resources. Iowa has always had lower rates of poverty, unemployment, and inequality. We don’t feel the extremes of changes as much as other Americans.

    This is seen in cultural ways as well. The BLM protests here caused some minor property damage with grafitti, but there were no arson, killings, violent counter-protesters, police clashes, etc. Despite going to Trump, Iowans have maintained their moderate sensibility. I remember a Tea Party leader in Iowa who specifically advocated moderation. There is less extremes of right-wing and left-wing politics here. Consider how Iowa has a high rate of gun ownership but a low rate of gun violence. There is no gun culture here. People don’t carry guns around nor do they have gun racks in their trucks. Confederate flags also are a rarity.

    So, as the rest of America felt like it was going mad, Iowans mostly kept on going about their business. A farm economy never stops or shuts down. And the farm industry never gets either the negative or positive focus drawn by something like the tech industry. Not too many people associate farming with the salvation or destruction of American society and Western civilization. There is maybe a social and psychological advantage to being in Flyover Country. I get all the advantages in living in a liberal college town but without most of the craziness going on elsewhere. As such, what you describe just doesn’t resonate here, but I fully understand how much it would resonate for other Americans, particularly those in the tech industry.

  4. It seems that you are very close to explaining what has fundamentally been going on the last 5 years, the true zeitgeist of the era. It’s been a few decades in the making, and we can hope it’s now the low water mark.

    My close observation, based on a multi-decades long project that involves working with “professionals” and their ability to tap into similar network effects, is that everyone’s gotten a lot dumber and less able to use network effects.

    And in fact, the our “social operating system” has evolved to reward stupid at the expense of network effects that raise general intelligence.

    While “network effects” are most obviously used as a tech distribution term, like “virality”, you describe the very basic mechanics of common humanity, the 1+1=3 of the most basic human-to-human activities.

    Those “banal” network effects that you miss are the same we’ve all lost in our own ways over the last years, and certainly the last four. Instead of being energized by aligning with a clear, swift stream or river, we’re now more likely to be wallowing around in a murky delta.

    The zeitgeist of the times is not just anger, but the lowered network effects of human intelligence and interaction. We’ve gotten stupider, which frustrates us and drives us into the irrationality of tribalism. The polarity is the symptom, the loss of network effects and the way they elevate our intelligence and humanity, is the cause.

    Thanks for your work.

    • Premium mediocre (or “crapification”) is a profitable business model, as long as it is only compared to itself.

  5. At least you have several acronyms to hang on for future posts.

    SAHSAT – serious adult humans serious adult things leading to the SAV -serious adult vector.

    And in time lead to SEA & CHEEP – Serious Adult Energy and
    Childish Network-Effect Energy play”
    (CHEEp is cheap).

    Great post. I too surfed during the late ’80’s eraly ’90’s, ” the One Weird Trick — find the latest network effect that’s blowing up, surrender to it for a a few years, while it has serious energy flowing through it, and pretend to have superpowers when all you really did was put yourself in the right place at the right time.” – big data and system dynamics modelling.

    I didn’t think I had superpowers, yet I was the connect node for them and rivulet channel builder /bridger. So smarter than me in their network,  yet hardly able to cope with the full network or sully their cozy or intelligence with the pond dwellers. Today I’d be ai & IoT mad. And still pushing models.

    You may find these interesting;

    “Story ate the world. I’m biting back.
    “A piece I wrote elsewhere in March is doing the roundsagain. ‘The Prodigal Tech Bro’ is about the privileged place in professional interactions and public discourse given to men who used to work in senior positions for tech platforms and are now surprised and disturbed by what those companies do. It points out how the ex-tech executives’ “I’m was lost, now I’m found; please come to my TED talk” redemption arc misses out a key part of the narrative groove they use to slide back into our good graces.”

    …”(2) This is no longer true: around half of all employment is now related to human services, information services and finance, and these are at most indirectly related to goods production.”…

    “Time to join the generation game? Definitely
    by JOHN QUIGGIN on NOVEMBER 7, 2018
    “A little while ago, I partially recanted my long-standing rejection of the idea that “generations” are a useful way of thinking about such issues as political attitudes. The UK elections showed a very strong age effect, reflecting the way that the politics of nostalgia, represented by Brexit, appeal to the old and appal the young.

    “The same appears to be true of “Make America Great Again”, at least according to the exit polls. In every racial group, there’s a clear cohort effect, with the younger cohorts favouring the Democrats”…

    Sometimes, after climbing out of a valley, the hill was actually the gateway to higher vectors plain. Thanks.

  6. confusedTurtle says

    I had never thought about this narrative and, honestly, it makes a lot of sense. Many things that I framed as strictly personal decisions and positions now seem part of a larger cultural narrative.

    But I think you’re wrong to say “66%” of the world is going to be happy with the shift. The end of the Silicon Valley era is bad news for those who were part of the scene or enthusiastic about, but it’s no good news for those who were against it in the first place. I believe if the process of software eating up the world is finishing, it’s only because the world has already been eaten and everything the anti-tech tribes wanted to preserve from the Internet era (whatever that was, since I wasn’t there to see it) is already devastated.

    The end of the Silicon Valley era means opportunities to rise in the scene are scarcer and probably new ideas are going to be too, so the race is over, but there are winners to it. I mean, it’s no secret that Google, Facebook and Amazon’s powers are getting bigger and bigger, even if the services they provide haven’t been a novelty for many years already. And I really doubt governments have the strength (not to mention the will) to fight that power growth. You say Silicon Valley’s discourse is now much more about economics and, in the services the winner companies provide, that means becoming more and more algorithmic centered. If I remember well, it was precisely around 2015-2016 when the chronological order was replaced by the big data-fed personalized feeds. So even if great innovations aren’t that obvious today in beg tech companies, the algorithms are getting more and more precise as the amount of data they work with grows as well. I don’t think we’re going to get back any of the interesting features of the pre-steam engine world, but we’re entering a post-tech revolution scenario: the tech wonderful world is over, but its trash is going to be around for a long time. And that’s a lot of trash.

    So now what? Idk. I think the larger cultural narrative is now going to be half-asleep, half fucked up, and the interesting stuff is going to be happening at individual or small-community levels of resistance. Just like the early 70s were a big hangover of the 60s high, but unlike the 60s people with their dream, we’ve more or less gone through the tech dream, so getting back to “square 0” will probably be harder.

  7. Nai Chi Cheng says

    If you expect slower growth and intelligence filtering results, won’t you be better at predicting the far future?

  8. @Venkat, pleasure great reading, as always. I was left wondering though, what effect do you think the Greenspan era of low rates and lots of capital sloshing around had on the last 25 years? How much do you think you’re feeling the emergent effects of politics vs economics?

  9. “In 1996, 22-year-old me entered an adult world that felt like basically heaven on earth, at least on the surface. A quarter century later, today in 2021, the typical 22-year-old must feel like they’re entering an adult world that is basically hell on earth.”

    yeah basically this + the awareness that there’s nothing indicating things will materially/structurally change in terms of what lead us to arriving here. the class system pyramid from your ‘premium mediocre’ piece only seems more rigid & fixed, all you can do is hope you hit on some shitcoins

  10. Thanks Venkat, excellent article, whether it eventually snowballs or not.

    Call me the “tech-critical, humanist side”, but I think ConfusedTurtle above is pretty spot-on.

    What if the entire moral universe of Liberal-capitalism is played out?
    What if the problem is even deeper than that?

    It must have been this election morass, after that whole 4-year fiasco (on every side) that has gotten me wondering: What is the appeal to being powerful? What is desirable about being the head of a powerful organization and telling lots of people what to do? Can any sane person really want to be the president of the US? Or want to be Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk or any of those thousands of other nameless sociopaths? I understand the benefits of being rich, but well before the first billion it just becomes a pissing competition.

    It seems to me that the urge to power (and thus also great wealth) is a personality pathology that only brings affliction to those who are plagued by it.

    My daily experience is much like Benjamin Steele describes above. I live in a college town in flyover, and my life is very pleasant (except for that pesky plague). I wield almost zero social power, have very few responsibilities, and my life is really easy. I can do just about whatever I want, techwise or otherwise. I have plenty.

    What if (as you appear to cringe at) the new networks will be hand-delivered face to face? There will certainly be ample appetite for such, once we can face to face again.
    What if the new tech is all about how to live well without money or power?
    What if we are starting to wake up and notice that all those smaller, cheaper transistors and the vast capital infrastructure that made them possible were not nice friendly things built with our interests at heart?
    What if we take back control of our tools?

    I know it is fun surfing the impact wave of the financial asteroid collision(s), but the clean face is gone and the slush wave looks petered out and the debris is starting to wash back out to sea.

  11. I met Allan Kay in 2010 when I was doing a research project on Doug Engelbart and the development of GUI computing. I asked him what he though about the current state of tech then. He said, in so many words, that deep digital tech development stopped in 1972 when ARPA became DARPA. The large pools of money for undirected research disappeared and were replaced with a lot of small tactical projects — the long exploration phase became a diminishing return exploitation phase. It was like jettisoning an enormous rocket thruster on a spaceship. You still have all the velocity but the acceleration is gone, along with your ability to do any macro navigation.

    How much of this change you’re talking about do you think comes from lack of a rocket booster like this? The places I look around and see the kind of network effects you discuss here are all bio or bio-adjacent. Tens of billions of undirected funding got invested in bio and we got CRISPR. Bio’s booster rocket is clearly firing full blast. Just look at the various COVID vaccine efforts.

    There’s never really been a post-ARPA source of rocket booster-level acceleration in digital tech and it’s hard to imagine how one could come from anywhere other than a governmental source — there’s simply no other entity that can afford the size of the investment needed and has so little expectation for short-term returns. Outside of bio the most obvious location of this kind of energy in recent memory has been China’s economic (and especially urban) boom. Again, government funding/planning playing an obvious and major role.

  12. Chris Phoenix says

    Years ago I read up on Ken Wilber’s “Spiral Dynamics.” From what I remember, it’s about a slow pendulum between individual and collective social structures at increasingly larger scales. It may be relevant to this blog post.