About Venkatesh Rao

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

Weirding Diary: 9

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Weirding Diary

I’m noticing a resurgence of interest in classical systems theory that mildly worries me. I suspect it is being driven by an infectious desire to theorize the Great Weirding systematically. It is an impulse that is in some ways a natural complement to the parallel resurgence of interest in traditional religion as a mode of meaning-making (which worries me much more). Both are driven by the anomie and anxiety induced by the weirding (classical systems theory, like Singularitarianism, is a religion for people who understand compound interest).

I have a dog in this fight, which I call spooky systems theorizing (note the conjugation), occupying pride of place in the top right quadrant in my handy 2×2 of the clash of ideas here. Classical systems theory is in the doghouse at the bottom left, where I always put ideas with which I have beefs (my beefs tend to be with ideas rather than people).

A new generation of curious people is once again asking the same sorts of unreconstructed high-modernist questions that have been tempting ambitious thinkers since the 1960s. It is a disease peculiar to postmodernity, with Von Bertanfly, Forrester, Wiener, and the rest emerging as patients zero precisely at the historical moment when high modernism began to systematically fail, inviting attempts to save it through baroque mathematization.

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Mediocratopia: 6

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Mediocratopia

My philosophy of mediocrity really started coming together last week, in the form of two tweets. First, a graph attributed to artist Marc Dalessio floated by my feed and I tweeted this modified and annotated version:

Second, a passing tweet by me seemed helpful enough to people that I did a double-take myself to see if I’d accidentally said something deeper than I’d thought:

A very compact way to explain mediocrity philosophy is this: non-attachment to finite games (5 words). Unfortunately those who can’t process the Carse reference will almost certainly misunderstand it.

Non-attachment to finite games. There’s a lot packed into those 5 words if you have the context to unpack them. It sounds similar to “don’t get stuck in local optima,” but is actually a statement about openness of domains and unconstrained evolution in notions of utility (I did a short explainer on optimization versus mediocritization 2 episodes ago in this blogchain).

The reference is to finite and infinite games in the sense of James Carse. A finite game is when you play to win. An infinite game is when you play to continue the game. Non-attachment to a finite game means being free to reject both winning and losing. This generally happens when you are able to see and choose ways to keep the infinite game going that are orthogonal to the win/loss logic of a particular finite game. This posture can look like betrayal, cowardice, or choking to those who are attached to a particular finite game, which is why the connotations of mediocrity are invariably negative for finite gamers.

The idea of non-attachment here is critical, and is where subjectivity reshapes the meaning of “objective” cost or utility without an alternative notion of value necessarily ready at hand. Mediocrity is a leap of faith that there’s more to life than whatever is going on right now. Whatever the hill, odds are, it’s not the one you want to die on.

Taken together, the two provide a usable map and compass for a praxis of mediocrity. A map of the territory (emotional roller coaster of open-ended growth), with a depiction of a subjective path through it (modes of humor that work as coping mechanisms for each regime), and a compass to guide you through it (non-attachment to particular peaks or troughs, which are the wins and losses you must look past to continue the game).

Elderblog Sutra: 7

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Elderblog Sutra

In the opener for this blogchain, I mentioned Edward Said’s idea of a late style and argued that elder blogs need to be the opposite of that. I found some clarity on what exactly the “opposite” of a late style is in this reflection by Argentine novelist César Aira whom I’ve never read or even heard of before. Aira has this lovely reflection:

Also, after the happy recklessness of youth, when things get done, if they do, in spite of the doer’s aspirations, it’s counterproductive to persist in striving for quality. I have always subscribed to the idea of High or Highbrow Culture, Art with a capital A. And art is not something that should be done well. If doing it well is what counts, it’s craft, production for sale, and therefore subject to the taste of the buyer, who will naturally want something good. 

Aira’s response to the siren song of “quality” was to reset his sights internally on a private project that is impossible to finish by construction: an encyclopedia. That way, all actual output becomes marginalia around the core, invisible, black-hole project. If you’re solving for an invisible infinite game at the core of your work, then the finite games around the periphery cannot turn into mind traps.

I felt a shock of recognition reading this essay. It mirrors my own thinking in an uncanny way, down to my own private, half-serious idea of an encyclopedia (though I’ve been thinking of it as a glossary for a private language), and the associated psychohistory project as the core of what I’m up to. It also harmonizes with my growing suspicion that mediocrity is The Way.

The heuristic here is the opposite of “live every day as though it were your last.” For creative work, it makes sense to live every day as though you were going to live forever, even though that’s obviously not true. That’s how an elderblog can avoid the trap of late style.

(ht Matthew Spencer, for the Aira link, in response to one of my mediocratopia posts, so some nice thread crossing there)

Semi-Annual 2019 Roundup

The first half of 2019 has been a period of transition here. Between a changed tagline, and a revamped approach to blogging, this has turned into a very different sort of blog than it was 6 months ago. The soul of the change is what we’ve been calling blogchains — extended, improvised, multi-part explorations of a theme, typically in 300-word chunks. These have evoked a mixed response, much to my satisfaction.

I mean, if at least a few people aren’t confused and infuriated by a change, is it even a meaningful change?

Most of the comments/responses have been at least guardedly positive. The most flattering response: Warren Ellis is doing a blogchain capturing his thoughts on newsletters (currently weighing in at 5 parts).

I have a few meta-comments to make on the format, with 6 months of experience (and 46 blogchain parts by 4 authors, across 7 blogchains) under our belts, but let’s do the roundup first. I assume at least a few of you are going to take advantage of the long weekend to do some catching up.

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This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Regenerations

Tomorrow, along with my wife and cat, I’ll be getting on a plane on a one-way trip to Los Angeles, where I will be living for at least a year. As I mentioned in passing last week, it’s for a year-long fellowship with the Berggruen Institute (details in this Twitter thread). I’ll hopefully be working on a second book. But as big geographic moves always are for me, this move is also a convenient excuse and opportunity to regenerate.

And for the first time in my life, I find a part of me doesn’t want to regenerate (which is of course the best reason to do so).

It is that part of me that wants this particular Seattle chapter of my life to continue uninterrupted. I have been happy here for 7 years, the longest I’ve lived in one place as an adult, and I suppose I don’t want to interrupt a stream of consciousness that appears to be working.

I’m not certain what we’ll do after the year. Perhaps we’ll return to the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps we’ll like SoCal enough to stay. Perhaps we’ll head off in a new direction.

What is certain though, is that there is no coming back as such. One can only go back to a place (and only sort of), not to a time. Which is why moving with big jumps in space is so valuable. It forces you to catch up with time.

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Reflections on Refactor Camp 2019

Last weekend, we held the 7th Refactor Camp, in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, at the lovely (and for our purposes, aptly named) Philosophie offices, on the very au courant theme of Escaping Reality. Here are a couple of early reflection posts, from John Palmer and Lisa Neigut. Another participant, J. Chris Anderson, sent me this succinct reflection over email that I think hits the nail on the head:

The biggest unspoken theme for me was how coherent the zeitgeist is. It’s not like the theme constrained the topics. I bet a conference on escaping reality would have a totally different set of concerns in five years / after reality has been permanently escaped.

You can find links to the raw recorded livestreams at the refactorcamp.com website, and catch up on the conversation via the #refactorcamp2019 hashtag on Twitter. You can also follow this Twitter list of participants. Edited individual videos will be available on the Refactor Camp YouTube channel in a few weeks.

Among the interesting new elements were a chalk mural created by artist Gracie Wilson during the event, and a schwag book of mazes courtesy Dan Schmidt (who has a guest post this week, connecting his interest in mazes to the themes of the event). And to round out the theme of the week, Ian Cheng (who couldn’t attend in person) has a very apropos post this week in our Worlding Raga collaborative blogchain.

I just realized I haven’t actually posted personal reflections since the very first Refactor Camp in 2012. Many of this year’s younger attendees were still in high school then.

It’s all turned into an entangled 7-year blur of online and offline conversations I can’t reconstruct. I’m going to have to go back and dig up other people’s reflections for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018 (we skipped 2017). If you wrote a reflection for any year, I’d appreciate a link in the comments. Anyhow, let me capture some thoughts for 2019 while they are still fresh in my head.

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Refactor Camp Livestream This Weekend

Day 1 Live Stream recording

Day 2 Livestream recording

Just a heads-up that Refactor Camp 2019, on the theme of Escaping Reality, is this weekend in Los Angeles, on Saturday and Sunday. We have a great program lined up, and there will hopefully be a live stream if there are no technical glitches (update: WE DID! Livestream recordings embedded above!). You can follow the @ribbonfarm twitter account and the #refactorcamp2019 hashtag to review the conversation.

We should also have video recordings of most of the talks available a few weeks after the event.

Mediocratopia: 5

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Mediocratopia

In a world that runs on ceremonial expectations of optimal performances, but where it is rarely in your best interests to actually deliver optimal performances, practicing mediocrity necessarily involves capability masking: the act of hiding the true extent of your capabilities.

Capability masking is the opposite of “fake it till you make it” behavior, and comes in two varieties, illustrated below, both of which are involved in the behavior commonly referred to as sandbagging.

Capability masking has to be done in a subtle way. You can’t just pick a suboptimal performance level that’s in your own best interests and then nail it precisely without breaking a sweat. Sandbagging is an artistic performance, not a throttle setting, and it’s worth learning to do well.

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The Age of Diffraction

There’s a state of mind that’s been increasingly common for me lately, which I can only describe as a sense of being outdoors in time during inclement temporal weather. I’ve been searching for the right metaphor to describe this feeling, and I think it is the feeling of being diffracted. Like being a hapless, innocent electron being tortured through the famous double-slit experiment. Here’s a cool animation I found on Wikipedia (physics would have been so much more fun if these sorts of animations had been available when I was learning this stuff).

Animation by Jean-Christophe BENOIST at French Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If your state of mind is normally like that of a particle — you are here and now, thinking about this, doing that, with some uncertainty around it all — being diffracted is feeling like a wave. Like you’re in multiple states at once, with those states interfering with each other in ways that creates subjective dyschronia or timelexia.

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Weirding Diary: 8

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Weirding Diary

Elections in India and EU, and the US-China trade war, have sparked a fresh round of prognostications in my feeds, on the expected length of the global reactionary swing. Here’s a thread of representative opining from Yascha Mounk.

Weirding is not the same thing as the global rightward swing, but I believe it is going to be co-extensive in time with a generation of extremist politics, with the initiative sparking back and forth between far right and far left across the horseshoe gap, with far right having the overall advantage. Centrist positions are underwater in terms of viability.

I’ve come up with an estimate of my own: the weirding will last another 21 years, or until 2040. Counting from 2015, that makes it a 25 year half-cycle, which triangulates well with the 25 year neoliberal half cycle that came just before, making for a 50-year full cycle. If I’m right, I’ll be 66 by the time we’re done with the weirding, so I might as well get comfortable.

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