About Venkatesh Rao

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

Worlding Raga: 1

I have found a new evil twin, my first new one in a decade. His name is Ian Cheng and he is an artist. In my 2009 post on evil twins, I defined an evil twin as:

“…somebody who thinks exactly like you in most ways, but differs in just a few critical ways that end up making all the difference. Think the Batman and the Joker”

Back then, I identified Nassim Taleb and Alain de Botton as my evil twins. I have since demoted Taleb to mostly harmless, and de Botton seems to have diverged from me. I did tentatively add Bruce Sterling in 2016, but he is really more like an evil uncle than an evil twin. I tried making Sarah Perry an evil twin, but she’s neither evil enough, nor twinny enough.

But Ian is definitely a new evil twin, starting with the fact that he crafts a mean 2×2. This one, from his art book, Emissaries Guide to Worlding, is an A+. Tag yourselves, I’m obviously top right, “emissary to the WORLD.” Portal art is the perfect term for what I like to do.

Ian’s primary interest right now is what he calls worlding, and mine is what I call escaped realities. James Carse’s notion of finite and infinite games is a foundation for his current thinking, as it is for mine. He appears to take Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as “that which does not go away when you stop believing in it” as a personal affront, as do I.

There is even a very evil-twin story to how I encountered Ian’s work (I haven’t met him yet).

[Read more…]

Elderblog Sutra: 4

The idea of hypertext trails predates the internet. Vannevar Bush envisioned trails and trailblazing as early as 1945, in As We May Think.

I am part of a long tradition of trying and failing to build trails technology. I led a team at Xerox that built a product, called Trailmeme (2008-12, RIP), that created navigable, visual trail maps of web content that looked like this.

It was a lovely product that did exactly what I wanted. We just couldn’t find a way to sustain it.

Failures stay with you in a way successes don’t. I’m still licking my wounds from that failure, but I’m also still trying to figure trails out. So are others. Every couple of years, somebody takes a fresh tilt at the problem and fails. One part of my elderblogging experiments is a second serious stab at trails, this time from the content side rather than the technology side.

The closest we’ve ever come to trails has been the special case of chronological ordering, which eventually became the stream UX metaphor. But piggybacking chronology as a way to get to trail-based organization is not only limiting, it is a kind of cheating. Like floating down a river, but pretending to be moving under your own power.

The best generalized embodiment of trail-based organization can be found on blogs, in the form of post series. But such series rarely go beyond 2-3 parts.

But we’re close to cracking trails. The key breakthrough has been the rise of threads on Twitter (an invention arguably attributable to Marc Andreessen). Twitter threads are genuine trails, even though they’re confined to a single platform. They are not chronological sequences. The key idea: trail-like structure is created during the act of authoring, not as part of subsequent curation. The trail authoring and blazing problems are coupled.

Weirding Diary: 4

The Things Fall Apart series on Epsilon Theory is an excellent exploration of the Great Weirding, particularly the “As Above, So Below” principle:

“As Above, So Below” means that our social lives are organized as a fractal, that when there is disorder in the heavens or the seats of worldly power, so is there disorder in our communities, our families, and our personal lives.”

Case in point: Recently, a Starbucks I used to frequent closed. The story was obvious to regulars: it had become an urban deadzone, more attractive to the homeless than to laptop warriors.

Over several years, the store deteriorated. You would often find homeless men parked in armchairs for hours, nursing a single grimy cup. Once, one such man got out of his armchair, and there was a pool of what I could only hope was water under him. He flipped the cushion over and left. Going to the restroom increasingly meant finding a homeless person washing up. I observed the Schelling sorting effect play out to the end, as the clientele drifted to the sort better served by a McDonald’s.

The Starbucks menu has a digital soul. It is a combinatorial consumption feast at the end of a global supply chain weaving its way from plantations, through factory-scale roasteries that  tame natural variety to nail a consistently mediocre taste year after year, to the cups of us cloud mice.

Starbucks stores, however, are firmly situated in meatspace, canaries in the neourban cores of the Weirding at the “below” end.

Today, I’m working out of a Starbucks in laptop-warrior zone, because the other Starbucks I frequent is also closed, for President’s Day, a surreal holiday that makes no sense in the flexwork economy embodied by Starbucks. And Howard Schultz is running for President.

As above, so below.

 

Breaking Smart Season 1 Online Workshop

After 3 years of dragging my feet, I’ve finally gotten my act together to put together the online, recorded version of the Season 1 Breaking Smart workshop, on how software is eating the world.

For those who came in late, Breaking Smart is my other site. It’s a technology analysis site that I launched in 2015 with a set of essays (Season 1) on “software eating the world,” based on a year of work with a16z. There is also an email newsletter with 6300+ subscribers. The content there is somewhat different from Ribbonfarm in tone and intent, and the audience/community is also somewhat different.

Through this weekend (until midnight Sunday, Feb 17), you can sign up for the workshop at the launch price of $200, (20% off), by using the discount code RIBBONFARMER


This is the online, self-paced version of the in-person workshop I conducted 7 times during 2015-16, based on the original Season 1 essays. In this version, I have adapted the material for online, self-paced consumption, and more importantly, updated the lecture contents to reflect the world of 2019.

We have now seen the software-eating-the-world phenomenon evolve a complete cycle, from the sunny and optimistic cultural springtime of 2011, when Marc Andreessen coined the phrase, to the dark and gloomy winter time of 2019. In preparing this version, I’ve tried to capture the full-cycle character of a revolution that will likely last as long as the industrial revolution, and evolve through many more such cycles in our lifetimes.

All the core content of the in-person workshop is now online. I also plan to add a few special topics and Q&A videos in the future, and as/when I do that, the list price will go up in proportion.

This is a course I hope to keep adding to and improving over the next few years, both to keep it current, and to increase the breadth and depth of relevance. So rather appropriately for a course on software eating the world, it will be in perpetual beta.

If you are interested in group access pricing for your workgroup, company, or a class at an educational institution, please get in touch. Depending on your needs, I may be able to create a customized version of the course for your organization or industry, or supplement the recorded course with a live, interactive session with your group. Having done the in-person workshop for audiences in banking, investment, entrepreneurship, government, and the arts, I have a good sense of how to customize/supplement the core material for those audiences. For other audiences, I’ll need to put in a bit more extra prep.

So, here’s the link again, and looking forward to seeing you in the workshop.

This is the second serious course I’ve put together at the Ribbonfarm School on Teachable. You may also be interested in the course we published last year, The Art of Longform, which has me and Sarah Perry teaching the longform style we practice here.

I hope to put together a couple more good courses this year, so stay tuned for more on this front.

Mediocratopia: 2

Regular heroes are excellent people. Mediocrity is an anti-heroic ethos, but not along either of the usual dimensions of anti-heroism or villainy. The antihero and villain embody excellence of a sort similar to the hero’s. They merely bring different goals and values to the party.

The anti-excellence hero is the comic hero.

In Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield we encounter Caius Pusilanimus, perhaps the most elemental example of a mediocre comic hero (though he’s a side character in the story).

Where the hero reluctantly accepts his own exceptional nature, the mediocre comic hero eagerly embraces his own unexceptional nature and schemes to gain rewards out of proportion with its potentialities.

Where the hero embodies fight, the comic hero embodies flight. Where the hero puts in 110%, the comic hero gets by with 60%. Where the hero aims to win honorably, the comic hero aims to survive by any means possible, and live to flee another day. Where the hero’s moments of weakness are marked by self-doubt and fear (usually on behalf of others, rather than for themselves), the comic hero’s moments of weakness are marked by a failure to be mediocre. An embarrassingly heroic act, for example. Or idealistic fervor descending as a momentary madness.

My new favorite example of a mediocre comic hero is the wizard Rincewind in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

For the mediocre comic hero, impact is a function, not of exceptional traits, but of surviving long enough to get lucky in exceptional environments. This comic from webcomicname.com gets at this numbers-game aspect.

All excellence is exceptional, though not all that is exceptional is excellent. Exceptionality can be attained by either being highly present and situated in a complex environment, or by being exceptional in any environment (though sometimes, exceptional character can be canceled out by an exceptional environment).

Elderblog Sutra: 3

When you walk, your typical step is a step along the path you’re on. Steps that exit down a new path are exceptions. On the web, exit clicks are the default, voice clicks — which keep you in the current conversational context — are exceptions.

This exit bias of hypertext makes it difficult to match the deepening-attention experience of the printed book. In a book, page-turnings far exceed book switches. A page-turner is a a thriller that reinforces the  stay-on-the-trail bias of print. Even the most difficult books tend to sustain 2-3 page turnings per session. Online page-turners by contrast — think Taboola listicles with one titillating nugget per page — fight a losing battle from Link One. Even if you don’t supply outbound links, there are always open tabs lurking in the background: competing books within thumb-reach.

My hyperlinking philosophy has always been to avoid fighting the medium. Successful online content works by deepening the stream of consciousness rather than fighting the exit bias. Three models do this particularly well: single-page longform, streams, and threads.

Single-page longform works like a meditative-attention gravity well that gets harder to exit the deeper in you go. My longest post is 14,422 words, 4x a typical magazine feature. It would need ~30 page turnings if it weren’t on a single page.

Streams work by letting topic-level attention go stochastic, and deepening conversation-level attention. Twitter and Facebook invite you to swim upstream in place, always in the now, modulo some atemporal algorithmic vorticity. The archives of an elderblog invite you to swim downstream into long-term settled memories via internal links.

The thread (sutra in Sanskrit) is the youngest and most exciting innovation. You deepen the stream of consciousness by working with the smallest possible chunks. Originally 140 characters.

Of the three, the thread is the most likely to disrupt the printed book.

Mediocratopia: 1

I’m fascinated by mediocrity as an aspiration, understood as optimization resistance and withheld reserves. Mediocrity is slouching towards survival. Mediocrity is pragmatic resistance to totalizing thought. Mediocrity is fat in the system. Mediocrity is playful, foxy improvisation.

If premature optimization is the root of all evil, mediocrity is  slightly evil.

Mediocrity is the courage to be ordinary.

The increasingly mediocrity-hostile zeitgeist — witness this schwag t-shirt, ht Andy Raskin — has only made me double down.

Mediocrity has been a keynote theme for me for a decade, central to bookend viral hits nearly a decade apart: The Gervais Principle (2009) and The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial (2017).

In the former, I argued that Losers are self-aware minimum-effort slackers, while Sociopaths get to the top by avoiding the lure of excellence and practicing strategic incompetence on the way up.  “Excellence” is for the Clueless middle.

In the latter, I argued that much apparent excellence is just signaling in an economy wired to reward mediocrity with a veneer of excellence, and that this is a good thing (many perversely missed that latter point).

Mediocrity makes an appearance in many personal favorites: The Return of the Barbarian, The Gollum Effect, and The Calculus of Grit (2011), Fat Thinking and Economies of Variety (2016), and the posts collected in Crash Early, Crash Often (written 2014-2017) In 2018, I began exploring it explicitly, in Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre,  and Why We Slouch.

Sadly, Hugh MacLeod, whose Company Hierarchy inspired The Gervais Principle, has gone dark-side with an allergic-to-mediocrity 2018 cartoon.

Et tu Hugh? 😢

It’s lonely where I stand, but I will continue to thought-leader humanity as we slouch towards a mediocracy utopia: a mediocratopia. A long-lived world built out of good-enough parts, including, and especially, human ones.

Can we get there? Yes we can, if we stop hustling so damn much.

Elderblog Sutra: 2

A necessary, but not sufficient, condition for an elderblog to exist is an underlying pristine blog that is old enough, and contentful enough, to serve as a landscape on which an elder game can be played. Ribbonfarm is at 11.5 years, 715 posts, and nearly 1.6 million words. The numbers are merely skin in the elder game. The spirit of the condition is that a coherent pristine game — “refactoring perception” in our case — should be winding down.

Elder-blogging possibilities obviously depend on the nature of the pristine landscape. Newsy blogs suggest history-based elder games. Blogs based on transient subject matter, such as product or fashion blogs, suggest trend-mining elder games.

Atemporal longform blogs like Ribbonfarm, like cities past a founding era, suggest metatextual  or infratextual games. Skyscrapers on regraded or reclaimed land that reshape territory, versus new roads, tunnels, or bridges that conform to existing territory.

The two are not mutually exclusive. Seattle for example, features many examples of both kinds of urban-planning elder games. These have been played since the city’s pristine game ended with the Klondike gold rush in 1900. Last weekend, my wife and I walked the newly opened Seattle SR-99 tunnel. Over the next few months, the old Alaskan Way viaduct that the tunnel replaces will be demolished. We’re living through a major infratextual porn chapter of Seattle’s elder-game era.

I favor infratextuality. Tunnels over skyscrapers. Infratextuality weaves a landscape into a landscape. The pristine landscape is still there, modulo weathering, aging, falsification, and decay effects. Infratextual elements recode and grow the landscape while preserving memories. Metatextual elements, on the other hand, have a tendency to erase memories and rewrite history.

If you know of good elderblog candidates, I’d appreciate links in the comments, perhaps with a short comment on what elder game is going on there, if any.

Weirding Diary: 3

A sense of weirdness in the environment can be understood as unfactored reality. A blooming, buzzing confusion of sensory input that impinges on awareness without the mediating effects of conceptual thought. This is the same thing as the void, but we typically conceptualize the void as a featureless black hole. The reason is that our cognitive reaction to unfactored reality is to seal our minds off completely. Eyes wide shut. When the going gets weird, the mind shuts its eyes. If you keep your mind’s eyes open, translucent, legibilizing models descend to manage the cognitive response.  As the eyelids of the mind descend, some variety of magical thinking takes root. Normalcy is just the majority sect of magical thinking.

In my 2012 post, Welcome to the Future NauseousI defined the idea of a manufactured normalcy field (MNF). An MNF comprises both the models in your head, and elements in the built environment meant to encourage it to stabilize in your head. A stable MNF keeps the sense of weirdness at bay, and normal people functioning as adults. When the field destabilizes due to models crumbling in your head, reality acquires a surreal character. When it destabilizes due to the built environment crumbling, you have an anxiety response. When both crumble, you experience weirdness. In all three cases, functional behaviors required for survival get disrupted.

A filter bubble is a special case of a manufactured normalcy field comprising curated information flows. I dislike like the term because filtration is not the essence of what’s going on. The essence is the active construction of adaptive, magical-thinking, escaped realities. So I like my alternate term: reality escape pods. Normalcy is just the biggest such escape pod, illustrated by the track of the pink circle in the picture above.  The white ones are subcultures.

Elderblog Sutra: 1

I learned about elder games from the classic Steve Yegge post, The Borderlands Gun Collectors Club  (ht Chris Reid). The idea is that in a complex game, after most players have finished a first full play-through, the mechanics might still leave interesting things for them to do. An Act 2 game-within-a-game emerges for experienced players who have exhausted the nominal game. A game dominated by such second-order players  is an elder game. In Borderlands, the elder game was apparently gun collecting.

An elder game tends to be more open-ended than the nominal game. In the ideal case, it is a mature infinite game that can go on indefinitely.

Blogging is now an elder game. After a decade of pursuing virality (out of the corner of my eye — direct pursuit is a recipe for burnout by pandering), the inside of my head now looks like the picture above. A vast mess of unsystematically explored territory, with flags planted on a few legible patches. That’s what organic virality is, epistemologically: a communicable patch of legibility in an ungoverned thought space of interest to many.

An elder game can be contrasted with a late style, which is a style of creative production taken to an extreme, past the point of baroque exhaustion, in a sort of virtuoso display of raging against the dying of the night. Late-style game play is an overclocked finite game resisting the forces of mortality. An elder game is a derivative infinite game, emergent immortality hacked out of mortality.

Old blogs must choose: should they turn into elder blogs, or should they turn into late-style blogs? One does not preclude the other, but you must decide what you solve for.

I don’t grok the ribbonfarm elder game yet, but I do know it’s time to ask: what comes after virality?