About Venkatesh Rao

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

The Art of Gig Books

My 2-volume collection of essays about independent consulting and life in the gig economy, The Art of Gig, is finally out. It is available in paperback and Kindle ebook form on Amazon.

For those of you who have no idea what this is about, between 2019-21 I wrote a limited-run Substack newsletter on the indie consulting life and the gig economy. About 2/3 of the newsletter issues were non-fiction essays. These are compiled into the two volumes above. All the essays have been carefully edited, updated, grouped into hopefully useful sections, and sequenced. The material flows surprisingly smoothly, if I do say so myself. The images and diagrams have been up-res’d, updated, and in some cases, entirely redrawn for the books.

As the subtitles suggest, Volume 1 establishes some foundational ideas, and Volume 2 builds on those foundations. Both volumes are at a roughly intermediate level of sophistication, and should be accessible to anyone with at least a year or two of work experience. If you’re in the gig economy, are considering diving into it, or have been unceremoniously tossed into it by layoffs and such, I suspect these volumes might be useful to you. They should also be valuable to recent graduates thinking about alternatives to traditional career paths, though I suspect the material will be harder to grok without at least a little work experience under your belt.

Since we’re just heading into the holiday season, you might want to consider gifting these books to any friends and family members who need a bit of a kick in the pants to think more creatively about their careers.

This is my first foray into print since Tempo 11 years ago, and it took quite a bit of effort to get the paperbacks done (it’s like 3x more work than ebooks alone). So everybody who’s been bugging me to do print editions of my books had better buy them. If this works out well, I might consider going back and doing print editions of my older ebook-only volumes.

Thanks to my collaborator, publishing veteran Jenna Dixon, I think both the ebook and print volumes turned out beautifully. Grace Witherell, my long-time artist collaborator, made the covers. I think she nailed the Sun Tzu Art of War homage I was going for perfectly. And huge thanks to the ~4k readers of the original newsletter. I’m not great at just going off by myself to write book-length things. I need weekly doses of validation to write, and the newsletter subscribers provided that in spades. The concluding section of Volume 2 has 3 chapters worth of Q&A, and I’ll be sending out complimentary copies of the books to people whose questions are featured.

Here’s the link to the page with both formats of both volumes again: The Art of Gig. The Kindle editions are $9.99 and the paperbacks are $18.95 each.

I’ll get around to making these available via more distribution channels eventually (non-Amazon paperback distribution, other e-readers). The Kindle versions should be available worldwide, but the paperbacks will currently only be available in markets where Amazon has print-on-demand fulfillment going.

Boosting, reviews, sharing on email lists etc. would be much appreciated. If you host a podcast on themes related to the books (gig economy, free agency, consulting, creator economy etc. etc.) I am happy to come on to shamelessly shill them, and talk shop. At least until I run out of social energy. Depending on timing/location, I may also be able to take on speaking gigs based on the books.

Many people have asked, but I currently have no plans to convert the material into an online course. But I might make a video or something. Or at least a nice slide deck (the books have a lot of diagrams in them, which I kinda want to do more with). If you run a course for which this material is relevant, I’m open to dropping by to do a guest session or Q&A. I’m not entirely sure this stuff lends itself to live delivery formats, but I’ll try at least a few experiments.

But Wait, There’s More!

The newsletter also featured an absurdist sci-fi/fantasy consulting fiction series (I think I invented this genre) set in a universe I call the Yakverse. This material is not included in the two volumes above.

I have different, more experimental plans for getting that material out next year. I know many of you were looking forward to that material in particular, but I suspect you’ll enjoy whatever I come up with better than if I’d just turned them into a third volume.

As you may know if you’ve been reading me for a while, this whole newsletter project was inspired by my 2015 short story, The Art of Gig, which was later retconned into the fiction series as a prelude. So you can read that online now for a taste of the Yakverse stuff to come.

I also have other random collateral stuff sitting around from the newsletter project, like a card game, a set of 100 consulting tips (included in Volume 2 as an epilogue) that I made into a learning deck, and silly Yakverse artifacts like coins. I’m still mulling what to do with all that. Suggestions welcome.

I have a rudimentary Book/Project Website at artofgig.com. Right now it just has the basic stuff about the books, but any future developments will unfold there.

One of the most rewarding things to come out of this whole project so far was the Yak Collective, our 3-year-old band of indies doing random creative projects together. If you’re looking for somewhere to go to chat about the themes and ideas of the books, there’s no better place. We have study groups going on interesting topics, a rover-building project, and more.

Anyway, thanks again to everybody who made these books possible. Now go buy them.

Storytelling — End-Times Tales

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Narrativium

It is perhaps a bit of a conceit, but I don’t like posting anything on this blog that doesn’t feel timeless. This does not mean ahistorical. In fact, timeless to me means acutely historical. The epics for example, are stories about very specific historical periods and events. They are timeless because of their immortal relevance, not because they are exercises in abstract thought ungrounded in time. Mathematics is timeless because we keep finding currently relevant properties of numbers in every era. Purely abstract ideas divorced from time are often the most transient and empty ideas of all.

History is, in a way, a test of the timelessness of the DNA of current events. To generalize Benjamin Graham’s idea about markets, in the short run, history is a voting machine, in the long run, it’s a weighing machine. And almost everything I think about these days feels very much situated in time in a… very lightweight way. Lots of votes for everything, but very little weight to anything.

It certainly feels like there are typical kinds of historic things going on, but it is hard to talk about them in an appropriately timeless way. The upcoming US elections smell historically significant, as does Musk’s messy takeover of Twitter. But it’s not obvious what the underlying historic big story is. One I’m playing around with is that we are at the tail-end of an up-cycle in de facto monarchism that began with the charismatic presidency of Ronald Reagan, and the charismatic CEO-ship of Jack Welch. In this view, the timeless thing going on is Trump, Musk, Xi, and Putin bringing up the rear of a half-century flirtation with monarchist social orders built around political cults of personality and billionaires, and that we’re heading into an anti-monarchist half-cycle.

Or perhaps the monarchist cycle is beginning rather than ending. I could argue either case. That’s the problem. There is no compelling reason to buy any particular attempt to historicize current events into timelessness through appropriate kinds of frame stories. When every half-assed story sorta fits, none of them actually works.

It’s this very insubstantiality of historical speculation that makes me feel like we are living in a not-very-timeless time. Every just-so story like my two alternate monarchist-cycle theories feels sort of arbitrarily made up. And I could make up a dozen more invoking various obviously important things — climate, AI, crypto, the end of Moore’s Law, gender culture, and so on — that would pass a basic sniff test but wouldn’t be deeply compelling. We are in the sort of era that’s easy to forget in longue durée history writing. It’s an interregnum. A liminal passage full of sound and fury signifying nothing. And we’re all ghosts for the time being, looking for identity-anchoring structure in circumstances where there’s only the clutter of chaotic transition.

A darker thought I’ve had is that perhaps the sense of timelessness is harder to find because we are, in fact, running out of time, and that our mortal civilization is ending. Not just in a Fukuyama end-of-history way, but literally.

A funny related notion I’ve been toying with is that we are drowning in a sea of reboots, reruns, and recycled stories on television and movie screens for the same reason dying people supposedly see their lives flash before their eyes. The story is ending. Despite living through arguably the greatest era of storytelling technology in history, we have no new stories to tell ourselves.

Now this is not entirely true. I’ve found the occasional fresh new story. Station 11 is an example, a lovely recent TV show, but rather tellingly, set in a post-apocalyptic world where for some reason the survivors perform budget Shakespeare reboot productions in a slightly nicer Mad Max world (really? the world ended and Shakespeare is still the source of the most interesting stories you can tell yourself?). And there are formal innovations too. I suspect the metamodern turn I wrote about last time has at least a little substance (though the latest Taika Waititi Thor movie is a big disappointment). But it feels like too little, too late.

So overall, I can’t shake this sense that the difficulty we face telling fresh new stories, about both real and fictional events, is a sign of the End Times.

I’m fairly certain this sense is entirely wrong. There are big problems in the world, but not world-ending ones. Even in the worst-case climate futures, we are not talking about the world ending. We are talking about a very tight evolutionary bottleneck which might lead to severe depopulation and de-complexification (though not back to stone age primitivism). The fraught political events are well within the historical range.

But definitely, something is going on that has temporarily shut down our ability to access a sense of the timeless in order to construct stable notions of ourselves in relation to it. For the time being, we seem to be eternity blind, unable to see past the sound and fury of reboots and reruns of our collective memories.

Ark Head

This week is probably the closest we’ve ever gotten in my lifetime to the brink of nuclear-powered World War 3, yet people seem strangely indifferent to the developments. I share in this under-reaction. Shouldn’t we, I don’t know, have a stronger collective reaction?

There’s of course other stuff going on–a potentially extreme climate-change-amplified hurricane, the UK economy collapsing, and so on–but all that does seem to be categorically of a lower order. Visa shared this meme that gets at this feeling of curious under-reaction.

As Steve Walsh said in a reply, “I suspect this is actually how people in 2022 would receive UFO’s.” I agree with that assessment. Aliens landing would be at least a couple of levels of weird past nuclear World War 3, but I don’t think we have it in us anymore to generate reactions a couple of levels more intense. There is something exhausted about the collective human psyche right now. It’s been battered so relentlessly for so long with things calling for reactions (either practical, or in the form of futile derangement syndromes) that we’re at saturation. We can’t respond any more strongly. We can’t get any more deranged than we already are.

Hunter S. Thompson famously remarked that when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Well, we can’t turn any more pro at this point.

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Tangle Logic

The word tangle is generally used pejoratively in the English language, as in Walter Scott’s line, Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. Or at least disapprovingly, as in tangled mess. Darwin’s usage, in the last passage of The Origin of the Species, is the only famous example I know of where the word is used in an approving way:

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

The Darwinian notion of a tangle can be understood as a snapshot of a robust, open, evolutionary process, with all the optimality and efficiency properties that entails or doesn’t (I would summarize it as “a mediocre slouching towards continued existence”). Darwin goes on to link his evocative observation directly to his theory of natural selection, but I think the idea of a tangle is more general, and has roots in the fundamental mathematical structure of reality. Take for instance, this picture of various optimal packings from a great thread of many such examples by Daniel Piker (thanks to all who responded to my twitter prompt looking for this sort of thing):

These are very simple examples of a large class of things I define to be proper tangles: complex things that are efficient but not orderly. And you know what these pictures remind me of? Traffic in India.

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ε/δ Thinking

We live in a world shaped by, and highly conducive to, discrete or 0/1 thinking. But not so long ago, we lived in a world shaped by, and highly conducive to, a kind of thinking you could call continuous, or ε/δ (epsilon/delta) thinking.

The basic idea behind ε/δ thinking is to think of the world primarily in terms of change, and secondarily in terms of extremely smooth, in fact infinitely smooth types of change. The symbols ε and δ are known as infinitesimals — quantities that can approach zero arbitrarily closely. The δ refers to an arbitrarily small input, while the ε refers to the corresponding arbitrarily small output.

The discrete, or 0/1 view of the world is fundamentally built around the fiction of being. Things either are or aren’t. Change is an illusion. “Things” merely get “created” and “destroyed.” 0s turn into 1s and 1s turn into 0s. There are no gray areas, merely insufficient bits of precision. There is no smoothness, merely ontologies beyond resolution limits. Reality is quantized.

The continuous, or ε/δ view of the world is fundamentally built around the fiction of becoming. Things always are (or equivalently, never are; in a becoming-centric view, it doesn’t really matter). There is no creation or destruction. Things just become more or less beingy.

Thinking about this stuff always reminds me of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, which goes from being a 0/1 cat to being an ε/δ cat:

“Did you say pig, or fig?” said the Cat.

“I said pig,” replied Alice; “and I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.”

“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

I suspect Carrol intended this as commentary on discrete/continuous mathematics, including the little bit of wordplay about pig/fig (which reads to me like a joke about ε/δ adjacency ambiguities exposed by comprehension noise in a notionally discrete symbol space). There’s a world of philosophical fun in this one passage.

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September 2022 Blog Update

I haven’t been in a creative blogging mood for a month, thanks to oven-like conditions in Los Angeles these past few weeks, and of course the general Augustiness of August, the Armpit of the year. August gets Augustier every year thanks to climate change. Even the less demanding kind of writing I now reserve for my newsletter (periodic reminder — I have a paid substack called Ribbonfarm Studio that is stylistically downstream of the R&D mode of this blog) has been hard to do.

Anyhow, the funk seems to be lifting a bit now. I just landed in India for a long-overdue visit with my parents, and in what feels like a sign of the times, it’s actually much cooler and pleasanter here. California is enduring mega droughts on a millennial scale, while South Asia is experiencing extreme rain and flooding. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Anthropocene is here in earnest now. If I had to pick a poison, I’d definitely pick too much rain over too little.

2 views from balconies

Though the trip here was not exactly fun (post-Covid international travel has its burdens), I’m already feeling productively knocked out of the claustrophobic uncreative rut I’d gotten myself into over the last few years. For starters, the view from my parents’ balcony (the one on the left) is a refreshing change from the view from my own back in LA.

Anyhow, just dropping this quick note here to keep the lights on here at ribbonfarm while I proceed to Seek Inspiration and get at least one of several experimental drafts across the finish line.

Narrative Slipstream Effects

This entry is part 13 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

Drafting is a behavior in bird-flock-like systems where one agent rides the slipstream of another in a way that delivers a collectivizable benefit, usually net energy savings. The instantaneous savings rates from drafting can be very non-trivial, ranging from 5-50%, depending on the agent geometry, formation topology, physics of the situation, and other conditions. Birds, bicyclists, race-car drivers, long-distance runners, and truckers on highways do it. It is possible to do it with airplanes, though the technology hasn’t been commercially deployed yet, as far as I know. Autopilots capable of maintaining the precise wingtip-to-wingtip formations required, for long periods (which human pilots can’t do), were developed in the early 90s. It is possible to do it with driverless cars. The reason only race cars do it today is that it requires precision bumper-to-bumper driving in platoons (linear formations of several cars) at high speeds, which ordinary drivers can’t do. A project back in the 90s, the Berkeley PATH project, demonstrated this with specially kitted-out Buicks on specially modified “smart” highway segments. Teslas today have the hardware and software capability to do it. The main blocker is not technological, but legal: who will be held liable if a platoon crashes?

Drafting offers a very fertile metaphor and mental model for social systems comprising individuals who “travel together” in a conceptual space with political, cultural, and economic dimensions. Something like Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model might be a suitable metaphoric space for thinking about societal formation flight. The equivalent of the shared travel path is the shared grand narrative, and we can think in terms of narrative slipstream effects delivering the benefits of drafting.

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A Dreaming World

This entry is part 12 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

I haven’t written a truly interesting general trend piece since approximately 2017, when I wrote Premium Mediocre. I don’t count Internet of Beefs (2020), since it is less of a trend piece, and more of a “there are no more trends” end-of-history type argument. The closest I’ve come is probably my Superhistory, not Superintelligence essay on AI (on the Ribbonfarm Studio newsletter). But though large in scope, that’s more a reframe essay than a trend piece. Another close-but-no-cigar piece was the pandemic-themed first chapter of Clockless Clock, my serialized book-in-progress. Again, large in scope and sweep, but more metahistorical than historical.

But it’s not just me. If it were I’d conclude that maybe I’m just growing old and worse at this game. Thing is, I haven’t even read a truly interesting general trend piece in the last 5 years. One that makes me feel attuned to the fate of the world. I’ve read many insightful essays about specific topics like Covid or Russia, slice-of-the-local-zeitgeist impressionist pieces, subtle technology analyses on things like AI or crypto, good explainers on why certain specific things like the real estate boom or the chip shortage are happening (and how to bet on them), ambitious manifestos about the way the world ought to be or become, but not truly interesting general trend pieces. And I think there is a reason: we are living through a liminal, dreamlike period of world history marked by what I’ll call psychohistorical tenuousness.

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Tubeworld

This week, my inventory of scavenged cardboard tubes increased from 9 to 36, grew 6x in total length (from 13′ to 84′), and 23x in total volume (0.36 cf to 8.5 cf), thanks to a job lot of free tubes my wife happened to find for me. Here’s the current hoard — the 7 large and 20 medium size tubes are from the new find.

And here’s a spreadsheet view:

Why, you ask, have I been building up a hoard of scavenged cardboard tubing for years? Fair question. And the answer is: because the tubes are there to be scavenged.

But I finally know what I am going to do with it. I’m going to build a Tubeworld!

Elon is building hyperloops and tunnels under LA. Mohammad bin Salman is building The Line, an arcology that’s part of his Neom Ozymandias project, so why can’t I have a Tubeworld? Huh?

So what is a Tubeworld?

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Storytelling — Tellability

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been reviewing my own experiments with fiction (the stand-alone ones are on a separate fiction blogchain) to try and understand what makes an idea for a story tellable. I got to thinking about it because I was recently asked whether writing was a “particularly fluent” experience for me. The answer is: with nonfiction it definitely is, but with fiction, it isn’t. At least not yet.

I think it’s because “tellability” of stories is a more complex phenomenon that takes longer to turn into muscle memory where it feels like a fluency. Fiction fluency is to non-fiction fluency as riding a unicycle is to riding a bicycle. Developing this fluency, so I can go from idea to story in one sitting, with little to no metacognitive overhead, is kinda what I’m aiming at for now. I don’t really care about whether the stories are “good” as such, or meet other people’s formal notions of what a story ought to be. I just want to develop a fluency in “telling” so I can log the big wordcounts easily, while enjoying myself doing so. I want to learn to balance and ride the unicycle, and worry about getting somewhere later.

It’s not a point I’ve seen addressed in any of the storytelling material I’ve read so far, perhaps because it’s so obvious to people with natural fiction fluency. A story gets told if it is worth telling to the would-be teller, and is tellable. Just as an essay gets written if it is essayworthy to the would-be essayist, and essayable. It’s like whether a flight plan gets flown. The flight plan has to be tripworthy it for the pilot to do the actual flying, and the plane has to be flyable. Skill matters only after these two conditions are met, and the second one is the more basic one. Even a skilled pilot can’t make a bus fly. Not even if you put a gun to his head to make it worthwhile.

Tellability of a story

Tellability is not about whether the story is good or bad. It is about whether the storyteller can literally sit down and (almost unconsciously) work out how to tell it at all. In whatever medium — screen/stage, comicbook, live oral performance, or prose. Skill is usually medium-specific, but tellability is a property of the story idea. If a story idea lacks tellability, the story won’t get told. As with essays, there can always be major edits and surgeries later, and first-dump drafts might get abandoned. But the point is, the basic story idea has to be worth telling and be tellable in order to get told.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

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