About Venkatesh Rao

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

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.

King Ruinous and the City of Darkness

I want to tell you a story today. A sprawling epic mess of a story which began with two histories intersecting awkwardly just over a hundred years ago in a small tribal village nestled in the dense forests of one of the richest mining regions of the world. It is the kind of story that has multiple obscure beginnings but no ending. The kind of story that evolves as an unending stream of good chapters and dumpster-fire chapters, accompanied by endless bewildering arguments about which chapters were good, and which ones were dumpster fires.

The first history is the one behind a board room struggle within the $100 billion Tata empire, which made  headlines in the business press across the world in October. The second is the history behind a 500 million dollar corruption scandal known as the fodder scam, which first became public in 1996, and eventually led to a man named Lalu Prasad Yadav going to jail in 2013.

In 1904, those two histories intersected in that small tribal village which was about to become the modern city of Jamshedpur. I was born in Jamshedpur in 1974, just short of 42 years ago.

But this is not my story. Nor am I, perhaps, the best person to tell this story.

It is, however, as much mine to tell as anybody else’s, and when it comes to telling the story of history, that is often the only thing that matters. So I will tell you this story.

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Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course: Nov 10 – 22

Over the past three years, as long-time readers will have noted, ribbonfarm has gradually transitioned into a multi-author site. To date, we’ve hosted 13 blogging residents who have completed/are completing 4-6 posts each, on a broadly defined theme. We’ve also hosted 8 one-off guests who have contributed 1-2 posts each. I’m pretty proud that in both 2015 and 2016 (so far), the most popular posts were not by me or contributing editor Sarah Perry, yet embodied the Tao of Refactoring in the best possible sense.

So far, our approach to finding contributors has been pretty much ad hoc, based on random acts of talent scouting by Sarah and me. Now we want to level up, so we will be co-teaching the first ever ribbonfarm longform blogging course, aimed primarily at beefing up our own pipeline of potential contributors. Our goal isn’t so much to help you “improve” (in fact we hope many who sign up are already better writers than either of us), but to help you grok what we’re trying to do here, why it’s valuable/interesting/fun, what we look for as editors, and why you might want to try this approach to writing.


There will be 4 online video sessions of about 90 minutes on Thu Nov 10, Tue Nov 15, Thu Nov 17 and Tue Nov 22, between 5:30 – 7:00 PM Pacific.

Check out the syllabus below, then head on over to the eventbrite page to buy a ticket if interested. To repeat, this is primarily a scouting course, and the main purpose is to beef up our own pipeline of NEW contributors. If you’ve already written for us before, please don’t register; contact one of us for a free alumni/Friends of Ribbonfarm ticket.

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Can the European Union Break Smart?

For my fourth video blog, I bring you a wide-ranging conversation with David Bosshart, CEO of the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI) in Zurich. I’ve known the folks at GDI for a few years, and worked with them several times. Most recently, GDI undertook the German translation of my Breaking Smart essays.

This conversation is partly me interviewing David about the EU, and partly David interviewing me about the US. We talk about the future of Germany and the EU, Brexit, the rise of the new right, the history of corporatism in the US and EU, the rise of China and India, the future of nations, and various other things. Basically the sort of conversation about globalization and Big History that you can only have with somebody from Switzerland.

If the Germanic world interests you, you may like a recent issue of the breaking smart newsletter, Can the Germanic World Break Smart?

If you happen to be near Switzerland around January 17, you should consider attending GDI’s next conference, The Future of PowerThey put on excellent events.

And if you happen to have any German speaking friends or business colleagues, be sure to pass on the German translation of Breaking Smart.

Radical Candor

Today’s video blog (~40 minutes) is a conversation with Kim Malone Scott, creator of one of the finer 2x2s I’ve encountered in my long career as a professional quadrantologist. The radical candor 2×2 is deceptively simple: 4 management styles — radical candor, ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, and obnoxious aggression — arranged along two dimensions: caring personally and challenging directly. The result is one of the most robust and immediately useful frameworks for understanding how workplace relationships work, and how to be a better manager. I personally feel I spend most of my time in the obnoxious aggression quadrant, though Kim was nice enough to award me a radical candor badge.

Kim is a Silicon Valley veteran, with experience points founding a startup, major roles at Google and Apple, and several years coaching executives. I started chatting with her on Twitter when a friend passed along the 2×2. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her in person, and providing feedback on an early draft of her forthcoming book, Radical Candor (available for pre-order on Amazon, due out March 2017). I suspect it will join books like Andy Grove’s High Output Management and Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things on the Silicon Valley management classics list. Alongside writing this book, Kim has recently been booting up a company, Candor, Inc., built around practices and tools explained in the book. If you are an executive at a workplace with a managerial culture that isn’t quite working, this is probably among the highest leverage investments you could make. I have been using the 2×2 and recommending Kim’s models to all my own clients for the last six months or so, which isn’t something I can say about most of the business/management stuff I read.

In this conversation, we talk about the 2×2, the subtleties of how relationships work, differences and similarities between Silicon Valley today and in the eighties and nineties, how radical candor plays out in different parts of the world, how management culture has changed since the organization-man era, how these dynamics play out online versus offline, and many other interesting things.


Mapping Organizational Realities

I have another video blog for you today: a salon-style conversation on mapping the external and internal realities of organizations. It’s about an hour and fifteen minutes, and significant portions involve non-trivial visuals, so you may want to grab a drink or your lunch, lean back, and watch like it’s a TV show, rather than listening like it’s a podcast.

My guests are Simon Wardley, whom I met back in 2012 on a gig with the Leading Edge Forum, where he is a researcher, and Dave Gray, whom I met at the LIFT conference in Geneva in 2013, where we were both speakers. Since this is my first true video blog, I don’t yet have a transcription workflow. But I do have some brief show notes below.

Show Notes

Simon has developed, over the last decade, a very interesting mapping technique called Wardley Maps (slowly turning into a book on Medium), which are a way of visually modeling and mapping the context an organization operates in. Dave has written a number of books, most recently Liminal Thinking and The Connected Companyand among the things his consulting firm XPLANE does is reduce some of the thinking in the books to practice using a tool for culture mapping.

I figured it would be interesting to chat with Simon and Dave at the same time and explore the connections between mapping external versus internal realities. I am not much of a process person myself, but I often cobble together bits and pieces from people who do enjoy inventing processes in my own consulting gigs. So I’m constantly, if lazily, scanning for interesting new tools that I can then appropriate and abuse for my own needs.

This conversation came about thanks to a tweet by one of the earliest guest bloggers on ribbonfarm, Marigo Raftapolous who contributed a post on enterprise games back in 2008 before gamification of enterprises was cool. Funny how these things come together. Curiously, all four of us are consultants, so this is also a glimpse into how we consultants talk, think, and network when there are no clients around.

In terms of content, in a meandering, discursive conversation (what else do you expect from a salon moderated by me?) we touch upon:

  1. The mapping techniques used by Simon and Dave in their work
  2. Boydian thinking, OODA loops, orientations etc
  3. Comparisons between military and business cultures
  4. The problems with thinking of company culture as a single thing rather than a collection of distinct subcultures
  5. The pathology of thinking about culture as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as opposed to just a matter of ‘fit’ with the environment
  6. The role played by time, and how different cultures grow at different speeds
  7. How organizational evolution in relation to the market affects its position and play externally…
  8. … and its culture internally
  9. The idea of wartime and peacetime CEOs
  10. How Amazon is a great model for nearly all these ideas at their best

Apologies for any rough edges in the video production quality. I’m kinda new to this particular game.