Worlds in Waiting

I learned the phrase Keep the Lights On (KTLO) several years ago in a consulting gig with a big company, where it’s an official planning term. Projects in that company are spoken of as having a claim to a “KTLO level” budget to keep them alive and at least minimally functional. KTLO level is not the same as maintenance level. Maintenance level investments keep a thing functional at the current level of functional capacity. KTLO activities can sink lower, to hibernation levels of metabolism.

I now think of my activities as being factored into three buckets: living, archival, and KTLO. You probably also have a KTLO bucket even if you don’t call it that. Attention devoted to KTLO activities is dark attention (ironic, huh?). There’s more of it than you probably realize, both in your individual life and in the world.

KTLO is both a set of practices (identifying life-critical processes that constitute the life of a thing and devoting scarce resources to them first) and an interesting sort of goal that says something about your values. We live in a barbell world that focuses visible attention strongly on things that are either obviously dead (but beloved) or obviously thriving and bursting with life. Things that call for either loving preservationist attention or lusty growth attention. This latter category dominates attention overall. Projects that are proceeding at a brisk pace, happening scenes, growth stocks, fads heading towards a peak, and so on.

In the middle are things that are not quite alive, but definitely not dead. I’m not talking about zombie things being kept alive out of sentiment or sunk-cost fallacies. Those are activities you just haven’t admitted are archival. I am talking about things that are sort of adjacent to living, and might enter (or reenter) the realm of the living at any time. This is the universe of KTLO things. KTLO-space, or K-space, is sort of like the dungeon dimensions of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Fantastical things lurk there that might burst into our world at anytime.

There’s a deliciously Lovecraftian quality to K-space. As the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred says:

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

One relatively well-understood (and non-fantastical) category of such things is options. KTLO for options is a very legible matter. In a market, you have to pay a regular fee to keep an option alive. The longer you keep it alive, the higher the return from a potential payoff has to be for it to be worth it. It is a bit weird to think of options investing as a kind of KTLO, but that’s what it is You’re keeping the lights on in a narrow adjacent possible world of investment outcomes that only a minority of people believe in. You might even be the only inhabitant of the possible world represented by your options portfolio. And investments don’t have to be explicitly structured as options to be KTLO: A stock that’s listed at junk-level prices and barely trading is being held in K-space. The cost there is of course the opportunity cost of being invested in livelier things.

But it’s easier to see the essence of K-space with less legible things. I’m very invested, in more ways than one, in two things that are currently in KTLO mode — the blogosphere and the cryptoeconomy.

The blogosphere has definitely taken a battering from the rise of newsletters (which despite Substack’s efforts to appropriate the term blog, are definitely not blogs), generational churn (blogs are something of a Gen X medium), the rise of competing visual and audio media, and perhaps most importantly, the retreat of the public social web as a means of distribution (in which category I include both RSS as a retail protocol, and Old Twitter). The rise of the Cozyweb as a check on the capture of public spaces is nice, but is not enough to keep the blogosphere out of the KTLO bucket.

But the blogosphere is something that to me is obviously worth putting in the KTLO bucket, as long as something like WordPress exists. I can’t pretend this blog hasn’t taken the backseat to my substack, but I definitely enjoy keeping it going at KTLO levels.

Even without the subscription income, the distribution power of substack alone is priceless in a post-Twitter world. Still, Substack lacks something the blogosphere, even in KTLO mode, still has. Earlier this year, I identified blogs as a saltwater medium where things like Substack (and private platform media in general) are freshwater media. That’s probably part of the logic of why blogs are worth keeping going in KTLO mode. Another part of the logic is the sense of owning over renting. A third part of the logic is that there are forces that have openly declared they’re out to kill blogs in the conventional sense, such as the newsletter industry and the static website industry. I applaud the economic dynamism behind such bloodlust, but I also have a contrarian streak that has me defending blogs simply because there are people determined to kill them. I personally think blogs will outlive most current challengers.

But there’s more to it. I don’t know what, but there’s more than sunk cost and sentiment keeping this blog going. I don’t need to figure it out though. I just need to trust my instincts that there’s a Cthulhu-like creature (Blogthulu?) lurking in the depths of the blogosphere that “can eternal lie.” I’m like a member of one of the degenerate Cthulhu cults that show up in Lovecraft stories.

The cryptoeconomy is a somewhat different beast from K-space. It has historically gone through booms and busts (or “winters”) every few years, and people who’ve lasted in it (and I suppose I’m one of them) tend to trot out “winter” behaviors and keep at it. You could say it pops in and out of K-space as predictably as cicadas (though hopefully this winter won’t last 17 years). Though I have much less personal agency there than in the blogosphere, and much depends on the creative efforts of others, it too feels like something I’ll always want to keep alive in my KTLO bucket.

In both cases, these things belong in my personal KTLO bucket because they are more than projects or subcultures. They are proxies for entire adjacent possible worlds I’d personally like kept alive indefinitely.

Blogs are an indicator species for a world that features a robust public commons. Not just an indicator species, but a charismatic megafauna type indicator species. The health of blogs says things about the health of the public sphere the way the health of polar bears says things about the health of the North Pole. Even where they replicate the affordances of blogs, newsletters and static websites represent other worlds that I don’t care for as much (platform media world and cozy world respectively).

The cryptoeconomy is not yet truly real in the full sense of the idea. Dedicated stans point to trading volumes and the few narrow thriving use cases like global remittances in times of war and strife, but if that’s all that the cryptoeconomy ends up being, regardless of how big it gets and how much market share it takes away from gold and fiat monies, it is not interesting. It is merely a sideshow tent technology. I’ll be happy to bank returns from investments in it, but I won’t be excited about it. The cryptoeconomy is not particularly interesting as an isolated functional technology. It is truly interesting only as a radically different kind of economic-computational-informational foundation for the world. That’s why it belongs in the KTLO bucket through successive winters. That’s why hodling is an act of faith in a world that might be rather than a rational investment management strategy.

There are several other things in my KTLO bucket, and each of them is a proxy for an entire possible world. Cosmopolitan globalism is one. Secularism is another. Modernism is a third. Belief in diversity and pluralism is a fourth. There are non-isms too. Our world is somewhat on-edge and increasingly humorless right now, but humor, as a central phenomenon in the world, is definitely in my KTLO bucket.

Then there are more personal things, like a couple of fiction projects that are in KTLO mode, and the vague ambitions I’m harboring of home mansion-ownership and being a “real maker” who builds robots that can get past the crawling stage. While they are not proxies for worlds that look different to others, they are for me. A world in which I have written one of the novels I want to write, built one of the robots I want to build, and am living in my own home mansion, is very different for me than one where I never escape the gravity well of my current abilities, limitations, and un-mansioned privation.

It is also interesting to think about things that don’t make the cut for the KTLO bucket. I was personally surprised by how unsentimental I was about essentially walking away from Twitter/X. I even had an affectionate Lovecraftian metaphor going for my once energetic posting activity there: Threadthulu. The Threadthulu is dead now, and my Twitter history is an archival project. Turns out, push come to shove, there wasn’t actually a thing that “can eternal lie” lurking under the Twitter surface. As a privately owned corporate platform in the skin of a protocol, the thing simply doesn’t have the kinds of structural depth within which my kind of Ancient Slightly Evil™ can lurk indefinitely. It’s depth-limited by Elon Musk’s social media imagination and corporate debts. Even if he were a very different person, it wouldn’t be any different. The reason Old Twitter was capable of harboring entire worlds was that it was too big to fit the imagination of any one individual. Musk managed to fit it into his imagination by shrinking what it used to be, not by expanding his mind to god-size capacity.

While I’m still nominally present on Twitter, and tweet my links, my activity is definitely far below KTLO levels, and I’m largely indifferent to the rapid algorithmic hollowing out of my once significant reach there (it’s really funny to watch the follower count remain the same while the effectiveness of tweets declines sharply).

If a thing is not a proxy for an entire possible world (or three), it doesn’t go in the KTLO bucket for me, regardless of how big and impressive and alive it seems. That’s perhaps not rational, but I’ve never been particularly rational about such things.

I’d say my current attention distribution is something like 40% living activities, 50% KTLO activities, and perhaps 10% preservationist activities. I’m not much of a sentimentalist or nostalgic, but I’m apparently content to mostly live in the adjacent possible. In worlds-in-waiting that could one day turn into worlds that are.

Stepping back, I do wonder about how much energy the world has in its collective KTLO bucket, and how that is trending. The more we have in there, individually and collectively, the more we’re living in adjacent possible worlds rather than the actual world. This draining of energy is not cost-free for the actual world and those invested in it. Actuality starts to acquire a ghost-like quality when people fundamentally uninterested in its offerings withdraw sufficient energy from it to pump into K-space.

This can be hard to spot, because ghostly actualities can be full of sound and fury, and K-space by definition is a quiet and barely visible kind of space. Some signs of withdrawal of energy are noticed (“quiet quitting” anyone?) but ignored. But eventually, if the attention drain to K-space continues, actuality gets too ghostly to sustain itself, and one or more worlds-in-waiting burst through from the adjacent possible. And a new reality is born.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. KTLO resembles a radio call sign, itself a technology in KTLO mode (specifically west of the Rockies

    Motel 6 (a housing technology in KTLO mode) radio spots offered to “always keep the light on for you”

  2. John Labovitz says

    Love that word ‘actuality’! It makes me think of perhaps its opposite: ‘potentiality,’ which I think is another term for your K-space. I’ve lived in communities where it took me a long time to realize that people were more into potentiality than actuality; for some, it’s way more fun to imagine something than to do it. It turns out I’m the opposite, which creates problems if I find myself in a largely-potential space vs. a largely-actual space, and don’t recognize the difference. I’ve tried to learn to be more conscious of that as I move through various places/spaces.

  3. Great write up. You got new wheels of cognition turning here. It’s as though Mafee was secretly recording Taylor during their weekly dinner dates and started in on a new version of the Business Insider.

  4. like this post (and i work in the cryptoeconomy). it’s true the zeitgeist focuses itself on high growth spheres. i wonder if KTLO subjects would remain KTLO for less time if we did focus on the KTLO more than growth.

    had a question, can you clarify the distinction between living and preservationist activities (perhaps with examples of each)?

    many thanks – and thank you for KTLO with the blog. from an always happy reader.

  5. Nice concept that makes sense to me – i have lots of KTLO stuff hanging around. I often thought it was ‘extra bagage’ I needed to drop, but now I see it might just be unrefined ore.