Complete 2019 Roundup

This has been a year of significant changes here at ribbonfarm, much of it deliberately conceived as part of a cunning grand plan, and executed flawlessly via my mediocre stroke-of-genius invention, the blogchain (an indefinitely extended, unplanned, improvised, series format). The pivot came with a new tagline: constructions in magical thinking, and a peppy new masthead. With this, we embark on the as-yet-unnamed 3rd era of Ribbonfarm (the first era, 2007-12, was the Rust Age, and the second era, 2013-18, was the Snowflake Age; new readers may want to get oriented on this page).

On to the roundup, 2019 highlights commentary, and 2020 outlook.

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Domestic Cozy: 10

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

There is an interesting emerging relationship, I think, between domestic cozy and the slightly older “trad” turn in contemporary youth culture (which I think began at the height of the recession with burned-out Millennials), complete with tendencies towards religion, social conservatism, and traditional gender roles. The term tradwife, in particular, which I first encountered a few years ago, appears to be slowly trending, after a bit of a peak in 2018. On Twitter, it’s now turned into a term of art, used ironically or unironically, generically or with fully loaded memetic potency, and with or without connotations of vaguely alt-right sympathies.

In 2019, I suspect, the trad turn broke out of the subcultural wilderness, lost its original edge-political connotations, and went mainstream.

As Gen-Z starts to establish households, I suspect trad patterns are going to spread via some sort of Fifth Wave feminism following the #MeToo era, which appears to have consolidated its claim to being the Fourth Wave (I’m going to lazily risk linking a Vox explainer for those not familiar with the wave-theoretic history of feminism; if you have alternative links, please post in the comments).

I suspect Fifth Wave feminism is going to be based on some sort of post-#MeToo reconstructed notion of domesticity that attempts to reclaim the domestic arena as a feminine-centric space, but without giving up the political and economic agency gains of the four waves of public-arena feminism. There are very strong economic tailwinds favoring such a development.

To a degree, domestic cozy is Zoomers and younger Millennials playing “house” in ways that are indicative of the patterns of adult domesticity they will be adopting soon. This New Domesticity in the US is shaping up to be 80% Fifth-Wave Feminist households, 10% non-traditional (LGBTQ+) households, and 10% HouseBro households (a category that doesn’t seem to exist yet, but is bound to emerge based on the Dirac equation of anti-archetypes). I’m still puzzling over what to make of this development. I think it will get underway in earnest in a couple of years.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt noted that the domestic sphere, historically, was a fully constrained zone of non-stop labor, where nobody, not even the master of the house, enjoyed any freedom. It was only by venturing out in public that even the master could enjoy a measure of freedom and agency. At home, there was a defined role with duties for everyone. And if you never really left the domestic sphere, you were basically never really free.

Starting in the late 19th century, as Arendt observed, increasing availability of technological conveniences made the domestic arena primarily a zone of intimacy and leisure rather than non-stop labor. Consumer products and domestic automation slowly began replacing housewifery, slavery, and servant-work. Childcare increasingly became the business of schools and television. Entertainment media — board games, the phonograph, the radio, television, effective contraception, video games — injected increasing amounts of leisure activity where there was once only labor. Shopping began to replace cooking as the prototypical housewife responsibility.

The story of feminism along the way has been one of pendulum swings (so the wave theory makes sense). In the West (and to a lesser extent outside the West), early feminists tried to cash out the technological convenience dividend, by breaking out of domesticity between the world wars. They enjoyed a peak of public life participation leading up to World War 2, but then ran into the feminine mystique era in the post-WW2 decades, which was an earlier trad turn between the first two waves of feminism. I personally attribute it to a sort of Parkinson’s Law kicking in for newly leisure-rich home economies, with domestic “work” expanding to occupy the leisure available.

Though it’s a tempting hypothesis, I don’t think we’re at the threshold of Feminine Mystique 2.0, and Betty Friedan need not roll in her grave.

I suspect what’s actually happening is that a set of economic factors — inequality and high housing and childcare costs being the big ones — have made it financially advantageous for a certain segment of middle-class households to return to a pattern of domestic organization built around housewifery. Pamela Hobart has a thoughtful take on this surprising development. It’s a huge narrative violation that feminists are going to have to grapple with. Elizabeth Warren’s actually appears to have seen this coming with her 2004 book, the Two-Income Trap (that’s another Voxsplainer link, sorry), co-authored with her daughter, making it a two-generational view.

A big part of what’s happened, I think, is that the gains in domestic convenience have hit diminishing returns, while both the financial and cognitive costs of running a “normal” household have risen dramatically. It’s now turned into a sort of high-stakes budgeting rocket science.

On the labor-demand side, new gadgets add far less marginal convenience compared to refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, and vacuums (the Big Five from the early consumer revolution). And on the consumption side, shopping has gone from being a pleasant social routine at the local mall and grocery store to a very demanding budgeting and purchasing optimization activity that is approximately as complex as being COO of a small business. And it is done largely at home, online, with social aspects increasingly limited to online communities built around consumption, such as Yelp reviews.

A good household manager — and it is almost always a woman taking this role on, whether or not they adopt the tradwife identity — can effectively double the household income simply through canny shopping, deal-stalking, and maintaining strong awareness of consumption trends. And as housing becomes less affordable, all other areas of consumption require all the optimization they can get. Women who are good at this are probably responsible for holding major cities together, by figuring out ways for households to continue existing in increasingly unaffordable urban cores.

(I’m neither condoning, nor criticizing this emergent role, merely observing that it has emerged as a function of necessity, with mostly women filling it).

In a way, the trajectory observed by Arendt is reversing itself. Homes are once again becoming entirely constrained spaces, where leisure and intimacy have a diminishing role to play, and there’s a lot more work for everybody to do. It’s just that instead of making their own soap, tradwives now have to find the coupons and deals that buy the desired soap at the available income. It’s almost as much work.

These economic forces, of course, are affecting non-traditional households too, including groups of friends living together.

The Venmo public feed (Your Source for Domestic Cozy Voyeurism) is a striking window into the emerging patterns of New Domesticity. It’s no longer just people paying each other to split restaurant checks. They are paying each other for rent, household expenses, transportation, cleaning services, and all sorts of other things. Commercial transactions with service workers are mixed in with an endlessly varied stream of friend-to-friend transactions. An entire future is taking shape there. The Venmo economy of today is going to be the mainstream economy of 2024.

Disassembling the Empathy Machine

This entry is part 17 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, Bryan Lehrer talks about the idea of VR as an “empathy machine”.

Making Meaning

This entry is part 16 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, Matt Maier talks about the new religion he’s trying to create, and the systematic approach to making meaning he’s developed (talk ends at about the 15:30 mark, and the rest of the video is pitches for the workshop sessions and Q&A)

The Ovaltine Moment

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk Jay Bushman talks about futuristic transmedia storytelling attempts and the moment they tend to fall apart, which he calls the ovaltine moment, when the bubble bursts and the excitement fades into disappointment.


This entry is part 14 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, Chenoe Hart explores space in VR and AR from an architecture perspective and why there are no easy answers.

Elderblog Sutra: 10

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series Elderblog Sutra

I’ve been thinking about the context in which writing, or any kind of creative work that makes a public appearance, lives (for the author of the work rather than the consumer).

I often make up pseudomath equations to help me see the structure of an interesting question, even if it’s unlikely that there’s any actual interesting mathematical structure there. Here’s my pseudo-math attempt to model the idea of “work in context” (blue) as a convolution of aliveness (green) and general environmental context (brown).

As the blank blue graph suggests, I haven’t actually “solved” this pseudo-math problem to yield an evolving view of work in context, but lemme explain what I’m trying to poke at here.

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The Other Simulation Hypothesis

This entry is part 13 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, Tiago talks about Lisa Feldman Barrett’s constructivist theory of emotion and connects it to science fiction and the pleasure activism of adrienne maree brown to posit an “other” simulation hypothesis based on emotional experience. Also check out the post , Pleasure as an Organizing Principle, which Tiago wrote based on this.

The Galactic Numerology Collision

This entry is part 12 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, David Sneider, who made up the Galactic Tick Day tells the bizarre story of how the idea went viral and ended up getting entangled with conspiracy theory subcultures, and draws lessons from the experience.

Mediocratopia: 9

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Mediocratopia

We often conflate quality with excellence, to the point that the term quality mediocrity seems like an oxymoron, and mediocre quality seems like the same thing as poor quality. But quality and excellence are not the same thing, and mediocrity and quality are not mutually exclusive. Excellence is synonymous with quality only under behavioral regimes governed by an optimizing sensibility, operating on a closed and bounded notion of what the kids these days seem to be calling fitness-to-purpose. What does it map to when you’re mediocratizing rather than optimizing? I have an answer: fatness. Or for the kids, fitness-to-purposelessness.

Public domain fat cat caricature. From Trade Union Unity Magazine (September 1925)

Fatness is the systemic condition created by a mediocre response to abundance. In the opener for this blogchain, I linked to a bunch of my older writing about fat thinking, but I didn’t construct a notion of quality out of that attribute. Let’s do that now.

The short version: Fatness is embodied abundance. Or if you like clever lines: Fatness is future-fitness.

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