About Venkatesh Rao

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

Ten Years of Refactoring

Today marks the 10th birthday of ribbonfarm. I launched this blog on June 13, 2007 (with a book review). The first comment rolled in a few weeks later, organically, on July 4. That was also the day I formally “launched” the blog, by spamming my email address book.

To commemorate and memorialize the historic occasion, our resident alpha hacker Artem Litvinovich put a bit of birthday graffiti on the bitcoin blockchain. Notice the pair of leading 42s on the transaction id? That required some special low-level uber-hacking. It’s not something standard bitcoin applications can do. In his words, “You need to control the innards of the ECDSA signing code to do something like that.” I have no idea what that means, but I’m very pleased to get a special bespoke-magic-engineered birthday card here.

Two 42s is actually kinda nice. One for Douglas Adams, one for me. I was a clueless 32-year-old when I started this blog.

So here we are now, 10 years later.

618 posts later.  9797 comments later. 5 Refactor Camps later. 17 repeat contributors later. 20 guest writers later. 2 blogging courses later (well, 1.16; the second one is underway and will conclude next week).

Hundreds of Facebook discussions later. Thousands of tweets later. Multiple slashdottings and hacker-news-front-page-ings later. Dozens of meetups and couch-surfings later. Thousands of road-tripping miles later. I could go on.

If Google is to be believed later, 4 million sessions later, 2.5 million visitors later, 12 million page views later. 3 books later.

1,346,678 words later. At an average of just over 2179 words.

983,764 words by me. 102,983 by Sarah Perry. Just under 260k by other contributors. And I’m not even counting the comments. There’s probably several hundred regular commenters who’ve been with us off-and-on over the entire decade, dropping pearls of add-on wisdom in the comments section.

There are also words themselves. Dozens and dozens of useless neologisms, gleefully unhelpful abstractions, time-wasting archetypes labels, a steady stream of gratuitous insultings, entire bunny trails lined with thoughts nobody should waste time thinking, and so on.

And don’t forget pictures. A steady parade of ugly illustrations, collages, and cartoons (and a few pretty ones) has kept the torrent of words company.

And where have we arrived? I have no idea, but I think there’s a there there 🙂.

It took long hours, years of sweat and selfless toil and….alright who am I kidding, it took none of that.

I hate to disappoint people who like to see gritty toil behind long-evolving projects, but to be honest, in many ways, this has been the most effortless and entirely self-indulgent thing I’ve ever done. Play that worked, as I put it in a recent Breaking Smart newsletter. I just started writing one day, and forgot to stop. Everything else followed. Like they used to say about the British Empire, the Ribbonfarm Empire was created in a fit of absent-mindedness.

And speaking of Breaking Smart, there’s also a messy, rhizomatic sprawl of half a dozen domains, and a complex slum of infrastructure behind this rolling Internet carnival.

Over the last decade of high-ADD discursive wandering, ribbonfarm has steadfastly refused to have a focus, and outlasted hordes of blogs (and blogs about blogging) that earnestly advised everybody to “find a niche” and “focus.”

Nuts to that. ADHD ftw.

(nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah!)


So what do we have ahead of us for the next decade?

There is a ton of stuff staged and kinda hanging around, waiting to be rolled out over the next few months, to help set the course for the next decade. I’ll be posting more about all those things in next few weeks to months.

But for now, Happy Birthday to us!

Thingness and Thereness

For months now, I’ve been thinking about a whole mess of related ideas with the aid of a Penrose triangle visualization of three key, interconnected loci that frame a sort of canvas on which life scripts (whether canned or improvised) play out. The three vertices are home, public and frontier. This is the simplest version of the visualization:


Between home and public you find subcultures of being and identity, defined by the question, is that a thing now?  Fidget spinners are a thing right now. Gangnam Style was a thing a few years ago.

Between home and frontier you find subcultures of doing and creation, defined by the Gertrude Stein question, is there a there there? There currently seems to be a there there around cryptocurrencies. Opinion is divided about whether there was a there there around Big Data, but we may move beyond that question to the question of whether there’s a there there to Deep Learning, without ever figuring out the thereness of Big Data definitively.

Our lives are shaped by how we relate to thingness and thereness, and how those two qualities relate to each other.

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Blockchains Never Forget

Just three years ago, in 2014, I wrote a little short story set in a future where most work is organized around blockchains. That story was set sometime past the 2120s, but it appears we’ll get there a century earlier than I thought. The idea of organizing work through smart contracts on blockchains has been moving ahead at a breathtaking pace.

Over the last few weeks, I had my first hands-on immersive experience of this particular piece of the unevenly distributed future. I’ll share more about the specifics of this experience, and lessons learned, but mainly I want to enter my first serious attempt at blockchain punditry into the public record: the blockchain is irreversible social computing. 

The message of the medium is this: blockchains never forget. By providing an extra-institutional base layer of irreversibly settling collective memories that cannot be erased, blockchains create a foundation for fundamentally different institutional and technological landscapes. Ones based, as I will argue, on a notion of artificial forgiveness.

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One Weird Longform Trick…on the Blockchain!

Good news everyone!

We are now accepting applications for the second offering of the Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course, Summer 2017 edition. The first time Sarah Perry and I ran the course, which was last November, we had 15 participants. We also ended up with 31 people on the waitlist. This time we have an upfront application process (application deadline, Friday May 5) rather than a first-come-first-serve ticket sale.

The application process is to help us screen for participants who are most likely to both benefit from the course, as well as turn into regular contributors. Which is kinda the main point of us doing this.

The course will run in June/July on TBD dates/times based on the scheduling constraints of accepted applicants. It will be an expanded offering compared to last time (6 live video sessions instead of 4), and incorporate all the feedback and meta-learnings we got out of the pilot offering.

We’re also going to try and accept more participants this time. The main constraint there is our editing bandwidth. The most demanding part of teaching the course last time was working 1:1 with participants on their course essays. But I have some tricks planned to make that easier.

And what’s all this about blockchain? Well, read on!

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Nobody Expects The Mongolian Earthship

As a kid, I enjoyed thinking about my address in the universe. You know — the one that extends your regular postal address with Planet Earth, Solar System, Orion Spur, Milky Way. I think we like this game as kids because it provides us with a comforting sense of being at home in the universe. When you know your whole address, there is no foundational ambiguity left in the human condition, cosmically situated, as you experience it. Moral and ideological relativism may leave you disoriented with respect to loftier aspects of it, but at least you know that you’re home relative to material reality. And that there are no horizons beyond which lurk unnamed, unplottable horrors, threatening to refactor that determinate condition. You’re in a universe with a place for everything, and everything is in its place. Including you. A universe where true surprise is profane.

Betty Bowen Command Deck of Spaceship Earth. Coordinates: tidy.advice.curry

Addresses though, are for plants, and at home in the universe is a sessile way of thinking. Real Humans™ are defined by their mobility more than they are by their stationarity, and there ought to be a way to relate to the universe that emerges from a fundamentally mobile, nomadic outlook on life, the universe, and everything. A Hitchhiker’s Metaphysics of the Universe, so to speak, based not on the home metaphor, but perhaps on something closer to the Spaceship Earth metaphor popularized by Buckminster Fuller: the entirety of the planet construed as both a literal and figurative vehicle for the shared human adventure.

Allow me introduce you to my version of Spaceship Earth: the Mongolian Earthship. Its defining feature is one shared by the Spanish Inquisition of the Monty Python universe: nobody expects it.

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Bourbon Crossing

Late one night, wandering drunk through the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, far from the cell towers and bright lights of Gatlinburg, Karim al-Marin tripped over a root, flailed his arms wildly, and sat down hard.

“Ouch,” the famous qalandar of the Muir tariqat muttered to himself.

It was dark. The sort of intense forest darkness that the unaided drunken eye cannot easily penetrate. Fortunately, Karim had enough juice left in his phone to turn on the flashlight.

He saw at once that though he was still on the trail, it had narrowed sharply at that point. He was deep inside the woods. All around him were trees, the creepily lush, full-of-life kind from horror movies. His ankle was caught in a tangle of hard, crooked roots poking out of the ground. The roots had spread across the trail, forming a sort of low, woody wall across it. As he began to carefully extricate his foot, aided by some minor sawing with his handy Leatherman, a stern grandmotherly voice rang out.

“Ouch!” it said theatrically, but with real anger.

Karim stopped his sawing and looked around warily. To his surprise, the root he’d been sawing at uncurled, slowly and with apparent pain and effort, releasing his foot. He withdrew it at once, and stood up.

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The Winter King of the Internet

On May 23, 1618, in Prague, three Catholics, named Slavata, Borzita, and Fabricius, got themselves thrown out of a window by a bunch of Protestants. That marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War. About eight million died in what was the bloodiest — and arguably most pointless and unnecessary — religious war in European history. It was also, unfortunately, a war that was triggered by a set of conditions that are uncannily similar to those that prevail today, 400 years later, in the Western world of 2017.

Defenestration of Prague, Public Domain photograph from period woodcut.

Curiously, the Thirty Years War, and the events leading up to it, are discussed far less today than the event that ended it: the Peace of Westphalia. Over the last decade, the “Westphalian nation-state” has become the official spherical cow of Internet futurism. To murmur ominously about how the the rise of the internet and the blockchain presage the impending “death of the Westphalian nation-state” is to establish credibility in certain internet thought-leadership circles. In these circles, the Peace of Westphalia has become a notional origin-myth for an equally notional mental model of the modern nation-state.

Yet, it is the Thirty Years War that is the more interesting story for today. In the immediate aftermath of the Defenestration of Prague, for a brief period, an obscure minor noble, Frederick V of the Palatinate, known in the history books as the “Winter King” of Bohemia (and therefore, ex officio, of the Reformation), played a brief but pivotal role in triggering the Thirty Years War. His role bears a remarkable resemblance, with features not captured by other analogies, to the one being currently played in our own time by Donald Trump: The Winter King of the Internet.

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Sulking Through a Subprime Presidency

I’d like to pretend that the long silence since my last proper post — that was November last year — has been due to the long queue of contributions we’ve been briskly working through, but truth be told, I’ve been sulking.

Sulking. Not depressed, fearful, angsty, or anxious. Sulking is really the only word for the tenor of my thoughts after the election of Trump and its aftermath. Not schoolyard sulking directed at jeering victors, but a deeper sort of philosophical sulking directed at the universe. For forcing me to think once more about things I thought I was done thinking about in my twenties. Things that I didn’t particularly enjoy thinking through the first time around, but believe I got roughly right and, more importantly, out of my system. Things that are fundamentally uninteresting to me, despite their importance to others who are less fortunate or more masochistic.

While I am not particularly coy about my political sympathies (or rather, antipathies) elsewhere, I like my politics to be illegible on this blog. When I write about matters societal, I like to tack between conceptual models and narratives a couple of levels of abstraction below politics and ideology.

Unfortunately, we may be headed into a future — a subprime presidency — where maintaining such a healthy creative distance from politics becomes impossible even in the best case. Fortunately, I’m beginning to find that philosophical sulking is not an entirely infertile state of mind.

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The Computational Condition

Over the past few months I read Hannah “Banality of Evil” Arendt’s difficult and idiosyncratic (somewhat unnecessarily so) but highly rewarding 1958 classic The Human ConditionThis slide-deck is a deep-dive attempt to apply her philosophy to the post-software-eats-world human condition, which I call the computational condition. Maybe digital condition or post-technological condition would be better, but I like alliteration.

This deck should serve as a decent introduction to Arendt’s philosophy of action, which is already part of the zeitgeist to a much greater degree than you probably recognize. It is dense and wordy, 88 slides long and full of big (thematically bucketed and curated) block quotes along book-ended and interrupted by my own heavy-handed commentary and summary sections, but trust me, it’s a 100x easier to digest than the book itself. But that’s not my main purpose in creating it.

The main purpose is this: With some significant augmentations and modifications (a few of them drastic enough to alter her basic philosophical posture in an irreversible and unforgivable way, the irony of which she’d have appreciated as you’ll see), her ideas actually work really well as a foundation for constructing what I think Silicon Valley needs badly right now: a solid political philosophy built on the foundation of the folk philosophy that already defines tech culture: doerism. So here’s my stab at it. Post a comment if you are interested in a sort of video salon on the topic, in either seminar or discussion format (specify which interests you more). I haven’t yet decided whether to do one, or attempted to present this deck. I suspect it would take me 2-4 hours to present this depending on how prepared people are.

In my own modest way, what I’m trying to do here is get a stone soup going, to cook up a political philosophy for Silicon Valley that is not embarrassingly juvenile/sophomoric. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, this should be a good starting point for you. Even if you dislike doerism (in the sense of the lived political philosophy of Silicon Valley), dislike Arendt (there is much to dislike about her), and are suspicious of any attempt to combine the two, this is in a way the most obvious steel-manning of what is already the tacit political philosophy of Silicon Valley. So your alternatives to it should probably understand what it might possibly be right about.

When Tools Shape You

The weaponized form of McLuhan’s famous phrase the medium is the message is the phrase, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us (due to to McLuhan’s friend John Culkin). I have come to prefer this form of the idea, and my favorite motif for it is Doc Ock, the Marvel super-villain.


Doc Ock’s artificially intelligent arms fuse to his brain stem in a reactor accident. In the movie version, the intelligence in the arms alters his behavior by making lower-level brain functions, such as emotional self-regulation, more powerful and volatile. The character backstory suggests a personality — a blue-collar nerd bullied as a schoolkid — that was already primed for destabilization by the usual sort of super-villain narcissistic wound. The accident alters the balance of power between his higher-level brain functions, and the hardware-extended lower-level brain functions. In the Doc Ock story, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us captures the adversarial coupling between medium and message-sender.

The weaker form of McLuhan’s idea suggests that media select messages rather than the other way around: paper selects for formal communication, email selects for informal communication, 4chan selects for trolling. The stronger form suggests that when there is a conflict between medium and message, the medium wins. A formal communication intent naturally acquires informal overtones if it ends up as an email, memetic overtones if it ends up as a 4chan message.

Culkin’s form is the strongest. It suggests that the medium reshapes the principal crafting the message. The Doc Ock motif suggests why. There is no such thing as a dumb agent. All media have at least weak, latent, distributed intelligence. Intelligence that can accumulate power, exhibit agency, and contend for control.

The most familiar example of this effect is in organizational behavior, captured in an extension to Alfred Chandler’s famous observation that structure follows strategy. That becomes first structure follows strategy, then strategy follows structure. The explicit form is Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: in a mature organization, agent goals trump principal goals.

A subtler, less familiar example is the philosophical idea that in any master-slave relationship, the slave can self-actualize through labor. In practice, this happens only when the slave has some freedom above absolute wretchedness, with sufficient cognitive surplus to turn learning from labor into political leverage.

In all such examples, the mechanism is the same. A seemingly powerless and dumb agent, by virtue of having privileged access to information and organizational operations, can become the principal by converting growing tacit knowledge of reality into consciously exercised political leverage.

The idea sheds light on why we are instinctively concerned about the Trump administration-in-waiting. While it is plausible, indeed probable, that Trump’s own ideological postures are merely expedient responses to the needs of the moment, the same cannot be said of many of his agents-in-waiting, whether acknowledged or not. They are tools at the moment, being shaped to the will of a victor. Unfortunately, they can easily go from being shaped to doing the shaping.