About Venkatesh Rao

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

Weirding Diary: 10

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Weirding Diary

It is now clear that the intellectual class has been caught entirely flat-footed on the wrong side of the Great Weirding in the US. Almost all discourses at higher levels of abstraction — national grand narratives, military, foreign policy, and economic doctrines, cultural canons, technological visions — are breaking down (generally following the “gradually, and then suddenly” Hemingway bankruptcy pattern). The institutions and social networks that are home to those discourses are also collapsing. So it’s not just the shallow, fast-paced narrative layer represented by the news media that is collapsing into noise and fakeness. The deeper, slower narrative layers underwriting the news (via access journalism) are also collapsing. The most vulnerable are what I recently dubbed “glamorous institutions” on Twitter, with the MIT Media Lab being Exhibit A of many to come.

I’m tempted to classify glamorous institutions as premium mediocre, except that most seem to lack the self-awareness that phrase signifies, and the concomitant healthy fear of their own fragility, and culture of preparedness for trouble. Glamorous institutions, unlike merely premium mediocre ones, have a dangerous tendency to buy their own bullshit, and believe in their own myth-making. This creates a false sense of security, and a characteristic set of vulnerabilities. Glamorous institutionalism believes there is peace. Premium mediocre institutionalism only pretends to.

I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect the MIT Media Lab will turn out to be merely the first of many dominoes to fall. What do we have to look forward to here, in this coming chapter of the Great Weirding?

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Mediocratopia: 8

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Mediocratopia

I came up with a good negative definition: Mediocrity is not being a completist about anything. Finishing for the sake of finishing is not your thing.

Life is too short to finish everything you start. You’re probably not going to “finish” life itself. I like the ensō to symbolize this ethos. You draw a circle with a single brush stroke, with no corrections or do-overs, and it doesn’t really matter if you complete the circle. You can make another ensō if you like, or just go have a beer instead. Very wabi-sabi. An effort that embraces its own irreversibility, mortality and temporality.

A Google image search for “enso” generates a nice museum of mediocre circles.

Looking back, most things I’ve done have been ensō-like, but I’ve only recently become strongly conscious of the fact. For example, I’ve been experimenting with short, unedited, single-take podcasts on my breaking smart email list. Initially I thought I was just taking the lazy way out, but now I think of them as oral ensōs 😇. It is my most mediocre publishing experiment yet. I hope to have this ethos percolate more through all my efforts.

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Elderblog Sutra: 8

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Elderblog Sutra

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the general problem of why creative work gets harder over time, beyond the specific challenges of elderblogging, and how that growing difficulty manifests. I give you: The Elder Game loop, or why Act 2 is harder than Act 1.

Very few people have ever beaten the Elder Game Loop in history (outside of feel-good movies like Rocky V and Rocky Balboa).

The short version of this is that creativity is easiest with cleared decks, and it gets harder to clear decks as you age. Or in one word: baggage.

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Worlding Raga 7: Worlds of Worlds

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

In his last installment, World to Live, Ian offered a kitchen-sink short story (with interleaved commentary) that took on the challenge of going beyond imagining a specific world to imagining a proper world-of-worlds called New Nature. The story itself is simple: the narrator simply wakes up and takes his two dogs for a walk. But New Nature is a complex enough environment that a great deal of phenomenology can be projected onto this modest narrative canvas.

Ian’s story got me thinking about one of my favorite modeling dichotomies: Eulerian versus Lagrangian microstate models of fluid flow, and how it might apply to modeling a complex world-of-worlds.

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Multitemporality: 1

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Multitemporality

Today I officially start my fellowship at the Berggruen Institute, working on my multitemporality project. At the moment the plan for the project is to write a book, but who knows. It might morph into a comic book or an interpretive dance, as I’ve been telling people who seem inclined to form oppressively burdensome presumptions about what I’m up to. I don’t want to ruin this pleasant snowflake buzz I have going on here by committing firmly to a particular output form too early. But it’s probably going to be a book.

What, you ask, is multitemporality? YOU HAD TO ASK HUH? YOU COULDN’T LEAVE ME ALONE?? Well, you asked for it.

This mind map represents the actual state of the project in all its inglorious messiness, after two years of back-burner nudging along in stolen moments here and there. It now needs to go front-burner. Since some of you have, in the past, expressed curiosity about my Certified Creative Genius™ working methods, I figured I’d start a blogchain as a way to track my progress on this project, as well as to put some social pressure on myself to stay disciplined and moving along.

For starters, lemme share my plan to tame this mess I’ve made.

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Domestic Cozy: 7

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Domestic Cozy

Domestic cozy is something of a pre-emptive retreat from worldly affairs for a generation that, quite understandably, thinks the public sphere is falling apart. I’m not sure that’s wrong. The world looks forbiddingly difficult to break into today compared to when I turned 22 in 1996, or even compared to a few years ago. More to the point, it increasingly does not seem worth the effort.

The Zoomer slogan appears to be: the world is not mine oyster, I don’t have a sword to open it with, and there are no pearls to be found out there anyway.

I don’t entirely blame them. They have it far harder than the smug older generations — and this increasingly includes the oldest Millennials — yelling at them to toughen up. Software eating the world has made a lot of little things much easier, but a few big things incredibly tougher. Net, everybody above 25 had it easier, by a little or a lot.

The contrast between the 2019 zeitgeist, and the heady excitement of the dotcom era propelling me and my peers out into the world circa 1997, convinced we were going to have great lives, is just wild.

What is domestic cozy a retreat from? To probe the question, I tweeted a prompt asking for antonyms of cozy, and got a variety of intriguing responses, which I’ve attempted to plot in this word cloud.

The suggestions seem to cluster into four groups, representing retreats from discomfort, ceremony, deprivation, and danger respectively. There were also three proposals for archetypal antipodes to the domestic cozy condition, which map well to three of the four clusters. Domestic cozy is not an airport (discomfort), or a minefield (dangerous), or a mansion (ceremony). I added desert as a fourth archetypal location representing deprivation.

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Mediocratopia: 7

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series Mediocratopia

I’ve had a rather stressful week due to a family emergency, and one of the things that’s been most helpful is the one day at a time and it’s a marathon, not a sprint genre of aphorisms. At first sight, the thought seems tautological and empty. After all you can’t literally live more than one day at a time. Or can you? Yes you can. The trick is to think in terms of gaits rather than time periods.

Credit: Stephen Cunane

Stephen Cunnane made this great video explaining various gaits in animals, and the gif above is a clip from that.

I want to talk about the gait appropriate for a life posture of mediocrity. This gait, I argue, is the amble.

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Domestic Cozy: 6

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Domestic Cozy

Playing with textures has long been a staple of modern art (I recall seeing an exhibition of odd objects like coffee mugs wrapped in fur and cloth nearly 20 years ago) but domestic cozy seems to adds an element of everyday utilitarian plausibility to the textural mods. Danielle Baskin is a Millennial, but her idea of sweaters for drones is pure domestic cozy (this is from 2016, so she was a little ahead of the curve). If teapots can have tea cozys to keep the tea warm, why not drone cozys to keep the drones warm?

In a related vein, Chenoe Hart recently noted the rise of the use of fabrics and other natural materials in the design of electronic products. This though, seems to be a broader trend intersecting with domestic cozy.

And to round off this vein of twitter-outtake thoughts with one of my own, it struck me that in many situations, domestic cozy adds an element of real comfort to situations where premium mediocre adds an element of theatrical faux-luxury. If premium mediocre is extended legroom on a plane, domestic cozy is bringing your own pillow. I suspect you can make many such apples-to-apples comparisons.

And finally, I was recently informed that the term “comfy” has seen a sudden uptick of broadened usage in places like 4chan. Twitter seems to have a lot of comfy thoughts as well.

Weirding Diary: 9

This entry is part 9 of 10 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 8 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).