Weirding Diary: 5

This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series Weirding Diary

In the South Lake Union part of Seattle, where Amazon has its campus, there is a “community banana stand” where anyone can grab a banana for free. Each time I walk by, I read the sign as a philosophical suggestion for the Weirding. When the going gets weird, the weird go pro, but normies go bananas.

But there’s a deeper lesson in the banana stand.

Most people (including me) who grab a banana are not exactly needy, so to the extent “community” suggests a representative sample of Seattle, including the poor and homeless, the banana stand is in the wrong place. It’s a perk for tech-workers, and the service class surrounding it, with a bit of communitarian lipstick.

As elite hypocrisies go, this one is pretty benign, and I’m happy to participate in it. But why do we even need it? Why narrativize free bananas as a “community” perk.

I think the answer lies in the is-ought fallacy operating among elites to counter-program a self-awareness of their own mediocrity: “These free bananas, which we share out of noblesse oblige, demonstrate our exceptional nature!”

This is an elite rationalization, but the urge to deny rather than embrace a sense of mediocrity is a human universal. In fact, I would define normie as “somebody with an urge to deny their mediocrity.”

Mediocrity denial is using exceptional environments to “prove” your exceptional nature to yourself. It leads to bad theories of weird worlds.

The mediocrity-embracing solution, which is a necessary condition to go pro weird, is to resist the urge to ideologically narrativize bananas. Grab a free banana when you can, pay for your banana when you must.

Weirding and mediocrity are entangled in my head. I haven’t entirely sorted out how, but one dimension is certainly the is-ought fallacy in identity formation.

Domestic Cozy: 1

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

I made a prediction on Twitter on February 6th: If Millennials (b. 1980 – 2000) were the premium mediocre generation, Gen Z (b. 2000 – 2020) is going to be the domestic cozy generation.

I was waiting for the perfect image to start blogging the idea, and last week supplied one: the Celestial Buddies plush toy that rode on the Crew Dragon test flight. The symbolism is perfect: an oddly satisfying little squeezable nugget of comfort within the disorienting, weird domesticity of a spaceship.

Domestic cozy is in an attitude, emerging socioeconomic posture, and aesthetic, that is in many ways the antithesis of premium mediocrity. Unsurprisingly, it takes its cues from the marginal shadow behaviors of premium mediocrity.

It finds its best expression in privacy, among friends, rather than in public, among strangers. It prioritizes the needs of the actor rather than the expectations of the spectator. It seeks to predictably control a small, closed environment rather than gamble in a large, open one. It presents a WYSIWYG facade to those granted access rather than performing in a theater of optics.

Premium mediocre seeks to control its narrative. Domestic cozy is indifferent both to being misunderstood and being ignored.

Instagram, Tinder, kale salads, and Urban Outfitters are premium mediocre. Minecraft, YouTube, cooking at home, and knitting are domestic cozy. Steve Jobs represented the premium that premium mediocrity aspired towards. Elon Musk represents the relaxed-playfulness-amidst-weirdness at the heart of domestic cozy.

Premium mediocre looks outward with a salesman affect, edgy anxiety bubbling just below the surface. Domestic cozy looks inward with a relaxed affect. A preternaturally relaxed affect bordering on creepy. One best embodied by the rise of the ASMR-like sensory modality (which even the NYT has noticed) that has come to be known as oddly satisfying.

Premium mediocrity is the same everywhere, every patch of domestic cozy is domestic cozy in its own way.

Premium mediocrity expends enormous energy preserving the illusion of normalcy. Domestic cozy slouches into the weirdness and simply ignores it, preferring to construct sources of comfort rather than trying to make sense of the weirdness in the environment.

Premium mediocrity strains to pretend it understands what is going on. Domestic cozy openly acknowledges it has no clue, and simply seeks to preserve equanimity, if not sanity. Premium mediocrity is edgily neurotic. Domestic cozy is blissfully psychotic.

As an aesthetic, domestic cozy superficially resembles the hipster aesthetic. There is a focus on craft and production, and it can appear artisan-like due to the focus on small, individual scale. The key differences are that the locus of the aesthetic is domestic rather than public, and it has no particular affection for retro traditionalism. Both knitting and Minecraft can be domestic cozy.

The key is that the activity must be conducive to an oddly satisfying state of mind within the weirding.

The oldest Z’s are just about enter adulthood. Unlike premium mediocrity, which I called at its peak, I’m calling domestic cozy just as it is getting started. So I’ll track it as a blogchain.

Markets Are Eating The World

For the last hundred years, individuals have worked for firms, and, by historical standards, large ones.

That many of us live in suburbs and drive our cars into the city to go to work at a large office building is so normal that it seems like it has always been this way. Of course, it hasn’t. In 1870, almost 50 percent of the U.S. population was employed in agriculture.[1] As of 2008, less than 2 percent of the population is directly employed in agriculture, but many people worked for these relatively new things called “corporations.”[2]

Many internet pioneers in the 90’s believed that the internet would start to break up corporations by letting people communicate and organize over a vast, open network. This reality has sort-of played out: the “gig economy” and rise in freelancing are persistent, if not explosive, trends. With the re-emergence of blockchain technology, talk of “the death of the firm” has returned. Is there reason to think this time will be different?

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Worlding Raga: 1

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

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).

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Elderblog Sutra: 1

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Elderblog Sutra

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?

Weirding Diary: 1

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Weirding Diary

I did a little poll asking people the extent to which they are treating the current zeitgeist as a temporary weirding (TW) versus a permanent new normal (NN).

The results got me thinking: what is the difference between the two? I think the answer is societal fun levels. A situation is a normal situation if inhabiting it is a matter of going on with your sustainable survival/existence habits, and expecting the situation to persist indefinitely. The mark of normalcy is the allocation of surplus energy to fun, after you’ve taken care of necessary present and future-oriented behaviors.

A situation is temporarily weird if you either can’t, or don’t want to, adapt to it using sustainable habits. In the former case, you cut back sharply on fun, minimize use of resources to survive, and save as much as you can for post-weirding normalcy. In the latter case, you try and exit the situation.

Wartime is the archetypal temporary weirding. Wartime civilian behaviors are sharply constrained survival behaviors. There is a limited ration of fun available to keep up morale, but in general, the wartime psyche does not incline to fun. You expect the war to end at some point, and a return to normalcy. Even if it is a new kind of normalcy that forces you to drop some old habits and form new ones.

When the situation is ambiguous, as it is around the world today, we cannot estimate the proportions of transient weirdness, new normal, and temporarily depressed old normal in the mix. In terms of an investing metaphor, we don’t know whether to go long on the zeitgeist by buying into new cultural stocks, hold on to old cultural stocks that we hope will regain their old value, or short the zeitgeist somehow.

I’m trying out a new format for exploring themes long-term. This is the first entry in my weirding diary.

The Digital Maginot Line

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series The Feed

There is a war happening. We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality. The conflict is still being processed as a series of individual skirmishes – a collection of disparate, localized, truth-in-narrative problems – but these battles are connected. The campaigns are often perceived as organic online chaos driven by emergent, bottom-up amateur actions when a substantial amount is, in fact, helped along or instigated by systematic, top-down institutional and state actions. This is a kind of warm war; not the active, declared, open conflict of a hot war, but beyond the shadowboxing of a cold one.

Section of the Maginot Line, 1940 (Public Domain)

We experience this as a state of continuous partial conflict. The theatre opportunistically shifts as geopolitical events and cultural moments present themselves, but there is no sign of abatement — only tactical evolution as the digital platforms that serve as the battlespaces introduce small amounts of friction via new security checks and feature tweaks. As governments become increasingly aware of the problem, they each pursue responses tailored to the tactics of the last specific battle that manifested in their own digital territory; in the United States, for example, we remain focused on Election 2016 and its Russian bots. As a result, we are investing in a set of inappropriate and ineffective responses: a digital Maginot Line constructed on one part of the battlefield as a deterrent against one set of tactics, while new tactics manifest elsewhere in real time.

Like the original Maginot Line, this approach is about as effective a defense as a minor speed bump.

[Read more…]

The Speakeasy Imagineering Network

Today I learned that the term normalcy was popularized by Warren Harding, US President between 1921-23, over the then-accepted variant normality. His campaign slogan, return to normalcy, promised a return to a Pre-World War I condition.

Harding’s administration, however, also saw the beginning of the Prohibition era (1921-33). So presumably he meant a return to normalcy, but without the alcoholism, rampant domestic abuse, and corrupt saloon politics of the pre-War era. During the Roaring Twenties, to the extent it needed alcohol as fuel, the American romantic imagination (and here I mean the tumultuous Sturm und Drang of uninhibited subjectivity rather than the tepid nostalgia of pastoralism) either had to go abroad, to Europe, or hide in speakeasies.

I’ve been thinking about our own contemporary condition in light of the complicated relationship among cultural production, the romantic imagination, and Prohibition in the twenties, an era which rhymes in somewhat messy ways with our our own.

In particular, looking at the 2010s through the lens of the 1920s, I got to the interesting conclusion that what requires protection during times of overweening reactionary moral self-certainty is not the truth, but imagination.

The truth can take care of itself better than you might think, but without imagination, it cannot take care of you. And imagination, unlike truth, requires a degree of tender loving care, room for unconstrained expansive exploration, and yes, a reliable supply of Interesting Substances and safe spaces to consume them.

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Pack Experience

We experience and navigate the world in packs. Families ride in cars together. Groups of coworkers take elevators together. Dating couples go to movies in pairs.

The pack is a unit, the unit, of operational coordination and everyday problem solving in human life. Pack behaviors always involve some technology, and can involve non-human participants like dogs and cats, but they are human first. The pack is a little sociophysical robot. A transient biological assemblage animated by a tacit, embodied consensus about how to inhabit the environment, and shaped by a shared exposure to the constraints of materiality. Perhaps the strongest of these constraints is the constraint of a shared temporality: A pack is more simply defined as a transient social unit on a shared subjective clock.

 

The pack is where the rubber of sociality meets the road of materiality. The pack experience strongly shapes, and is shaped by, the built environment. Conversely, every kind of built environment is shaped by a real or theorized pack experience.

There is one kind of built environment that is a huge and crucially important exception. One that is growing so rapidly in scope that it threatens to become the rule. I’m talking, of course, about the internet.

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Think Entangled, Act Spooky

I like the concept of the Anthropocene. It finesses or postpones at least some of the conflict around the idea of climate change, broadens the conversation to include all human impact on the environment, and grounds thinking in geological (heh!) time without overloading it with burdensome sentiments like guilt or fear. The term leaves the future open to both positive and negative possibilities. It acknowledges human agency as the most powerful force currently reshaping the planet without getting too judgmental about what that means.

The Ash Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I find existing definitions of the Anthropocene unsatisfying though. Most of them, reasonably enough, focus on planet-scale external markers, ranging from the birth of agriculture to the first nuclear tests and climate change. But this seems too open narrative arbitrariness and not open enough to insight. If we turn inward though, there is a rather natural and fertile definition that immediately suggests itself:

The Anthropocene begins when survival in the built environment is as cognitively demanding as survival in the natural environment of evolutionary adaptation.

Note that “as cognitively demanding” is not the same thing as “as hard across the board”. It means you you have to think as hard for the same survival probability, but many other things might get easier.

A good illustration of this is life in a major city versus life in a small town. The former is more cognitively demanding but many things besides thinking become a lot easier. Nobody ever moved to a bigger city in search of a simpler life. A less emotionally stressful life, perhaps. A less impoverished life, perhaps. A more comfortable and convenient life, perhaps. But not a simpler one.

Now let’s apply that reasoning at civilizational history scale.

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