Amateur Vigour

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Recognitions
Peter Brown. Shot by Ned. 1967. Oil on canvas, 137 x 107 cm.

While news of the death of the novel―or of the book, for that matter―may seem no better than clickbait, the time is nigh to ask what next. In its Western variant, the novel built momentum over hundreds of years to become the dominant literary form of the twentieth century; its popularity and penetration dependent on―and responsive to―sometimes vertiginous phase shifts in media, means, markets. In this sense, its history also reads like a (living) fossil of the modern era, from mechanisation to globalisation, from the expansion of literacy to the invention of intimacy.

Given the scope, speed and scale of transformations and disruptions we are currently faced with―many of which the pandemic will consolidate or heighten―it would be remiss of us not to imagine new literary forms coagulating within our lifetimes.

And if the precondition for new forms is, indeed, platforms

Following the increased concentration of publishing and distribution; a handful of small, aggressively independent presses are now scouting for talent not in the koi-pond of MFA or residency programs but on social media, where it can be found at its most adventurous and unembellished. Business models vary but are central in the push towards autonomy these presses share. They are not manifesto factories, but agile enterprises that are [re]s[e]izing the means of production by taking everything, from their submission software to their bookmaking, into their hands; the way others microbrew beer or cure ham. Nor are these the zines of the nineties: the DIY book has at last hit its stride as a fine art, with objects as impressive as those issued by almost any major house―and better copy editing. The writers championed by these presses are, furthermore, early explorers in peerlessness, encouraged to pursue marginal practices that might be otherwise untenable by one-man editorial orchestras who aren’t tastemakers―a role best reserved for establishment reviewers―but craftsmen and colleagues themselves.

There are precedents, naturally, in presses like Adelphi, or magazines like Sur, with one significant and telling difference: the elective affinities at work here are more exclusively literary than anytime before. These are not groups of friends with similar backgrounds who meet periodically at a café or who attended the same universities. We’re not in Bloomsbury anymore. By and large, these are cadres of strangers from all walks of life―Twitter mutuals―more eclectic in their outputs than entire university departments.

Defamiliarisation is not in the product, but part of the process.  

A New Newsletter: The Art of Gig

As some of you already know, I’ve added a new thing to the sprawling Ribbonfarm Media Empire: a paid newsletter on substack ($5/mo or $50/y) called The Art of Gig. To quote myself from the About page:

This is a weekly newsletter for indie consultants who are in the gig economy for the deep fun of it. I took the name, The Art of Gig, from a rather idiotic absurdist short story I wrote about the consulting life a few years ago, which had my regular readers groaning and laughing in equal parts. The phrase itself, as you might guess, is a joke reference to Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Read the rest of the About page to learn more. I’m now 2 weeks, and 3 issues, into it. The plan is to do at least 1 paid issue a week, and 1 free issue a month. The first issue, 42 Great Imperatives, is free to read. The second and third issues are for paying subscribers only. By way of a teaser, here is a picture of a strategometer, a device I discuss in my most recent issue.

The Strategometer

So far, I have 418 subscribers signed up, of whom 198 are paying subscribers. Clearly, readers of this list are poised to take the consulting world by storm, while funding an early retirement for me 😎.

So if you’re looking to improve your independent consulting game, or hoping to break into it, you may want to consider subscribing to The Art of Gig.

The Unapologetic Case For Bullshit

In 1986 Harry Frankfurt published the first edition of On Bullshit, the essay that, in the years that followed, was to become the authoritative take on the topic. In it, he lamented the amount of bullshit plaguing every aspect of public life, arguing that production of bullshit was tightly correlated with the increase in opportunities and (perceived) obligations for people to speak their mind, even in the absence of a strong “apprehension of reality”.

Thirty years later, this trend is anything but receding. The web in general, and social media in particular, have multiplied the number of channels where we can exercise our fundamental need to be consulted. At the same time, ‘reality’ is an increasingly opaque concept, challenged by fake news on one side and the genuine unintelligibility of a world in the midst of a technological, social and political revolution on the other.

How do we navigate in this situation? Frankfurt, as we will see later, argues for self-restraint in lack of certainty. In a previous post, I have also put forward what I defined a ‘precautionary principle’: when faced with common talk (a sub-category of bullshit) it is better take the safe option and trust our common sense. But the more I think about methods and tools to resist bullshit, the more I become  forgiving of it.

It is easy to dismiss bullshit as pure noise. To treat it as the inevitable, and yet insufferable, exhaust of a world in decline. In doing so, however, we risk falling in an excellence trap: the belief that progress is a smooth climb towards the highest peak.

Maybe, a perfect world would not be a world without bullshit, but rather one where there is just the right amount of it. Maybe, to reach higher peaks of truth we sometimes need to descend into bullshit valleys. Traverse a knowledge fitness landscape, in other words, where bullshit can be adaptive.

Can we make an unapologetic case for bullshit, without descending into post-truth relativism?

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CEOs Don’t Steer

There is a pattern to the most influential business writing, in The World is Flat league. Especially writing that CEOs seem to like enough to exhort their organizations to read. Every such work offers one big, unqualified, unquantified, universal proposition. Usually with an obvious black-and-white moral assessment attached as an implied parenthetical [and this is a good thing]. The proposition will typically offer a big generalization covering a really vast range of things going on in the environment: An extreme, if very lossy, compression.

There are no if…then…else conditions attached. There are no temporal markers or spatial delimiters like this will be true between 2017 and 2022 in the developed world.


The World is Flat [and this is a good thing] 


Under Certain Assumptions, the World Will Likely Continue Flattening for Approximately at Least Another Decade, and This Is a Probably a Good Thing.

This pattern isn’t mere rhetorical pithiness in the title or a distaste for weasliness. It permeates the entire idea being offered. And it exists as a consequence of a CEO trait:

CEOs Don’t Steer [and this is a good thing].

Big business ideas are the way they are because they are designed to feed and nourish this CEO trait. It’s a proposition that, at first sight, sounds both wildly untrue and something that would be really bad if it were true.
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The Blockchain Man

The term Organization Man is a rich one. From it, we can conjure up an image and a life.

It’s a man, not a woman. He’s white, standing somewhere between 6’0 and 6’2. He has a strong chin and medium length light brown hair parted on the left.

He walks from one meeting to the next wearing a dark suit with a pressed white dressed shirt and dark Oxford dress shoes. His wrist holds a watch – nice, but not extravagant, with a brown leather strap and a gold-rimmed face.

More than just an image, you can conjure up a life for The Organization Man, a term coined by William Whyte in his 1956 book of the same name. Even though the novel predates Whyte’s book by 30 years, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922) established the archetype perfectly.

Today, the successor of the Organization Man — the Blockchain Man — is starting to emerge. To understand how he might evolve, let us first look back.

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Common Sense Eats Common Talk

In November 2008, with the financial crisis in full swing, Queen Elizabeth attended a ceremony at the London School of Economics. Facing an audience of high ranked academics, she posed a simple question: “Why did nobody notice it?”

How could it be that no one among the smartest economists, commentators, and policymakers in all her kingdom – and beyond – had been able to see the formation of a bubble of such dimensions?

Illustration of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Vilhelm Pedersen, Andersen’s first illustrator

And yet critical facts were readily available – facts that could have warned about the craziness of the housing market, on which an even bigger financial house of cards had been erected. A short trip to a “regular” American neighbourhood – like the one undertaken by Mark Baum in The Big Short – would have presented an endless list of properties under foreclosure, real estate agents openly bragging about the laxity of credit requirements, and exotic dancers with multiple mortgage-financed properties.1

Such evidence would have been sufficient to convince most people of the existence of a bubble. However, in London, New York and the other financial centres of the world, an entire class of experts kept blatantly ignoring the facts, anecdotal evidence, and common sense that could have anticipated what was about to happen.

This is a high profile example of a more general situation in which a narrative establishes itself and resists being disproven, even when it is clearly contradicted by information right under our noses. Like the crowd in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous parable, we watch our sovereign parading naked in the street, but are unable to see through his invisible clothes. Until a young boy steps forward and with a little common sense lifts the veil on our “common talk”.

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There are bots. Look around.

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series The Feed

“There are idiots. Look around.”

So said economist Larry Summers in a paper challenging the idea of efficiency in financial markets, a cornerstone of American capitalism. We’ve hit a point where the same can be said of efficiency in a cornerstone of American democracy, the marketplace of ideas:

“There are bots. Look around.”

The marketplace of ideas is now struggling with the increasing incidence of algorithmic manipulation and disinformation campaigns.

Something very similar happened in finance with the advent of high-frequency trading (the world I came from as a trader at Jane Street): technology was used to distort information flows and access in much the same way it is now being used to distort and game the marketplace of ideas.

The future arrived a lot earlier for finance than for politics. There are lessons we can take from that about what’s happening right now with bots and disinformation campaign. Including, potentially, a way forward.

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A Priest, a Guru, and a Nerd-King Walk Into a Conference Room…

…The funny thing is it’s as though they are playing a game of Sardines, all trying to crowd into the corner of the room labeled “strategy”. But the other corners are just as necessary and affect each other in interesting ways.

Tech companies function much like the Roman Republic. Your influence is more or less proportional to your equity stake, which is itself proportional to how early you arrived. The Republic assigned voting power and civic privileges proportional to one’s wealth and pedigree. The bulk of voice and power went to the gentry, somewhat less to smallholders, and so on. At the bottom were those citizens with nothing of value but their labor. They were called the “capite censi”, literally the “headcount”.

Philosopher-gurus are the exception. They sit to the side of the main social structure, but within whispering distance of the top. Half of their value comes from this otherness, enabling aristocrats to argue ideas outside of the rules of the hierarchy. A wink from the ruler is as good as a nod, and it’s tiresome to have your underlings scramble their plans, get spooked, spread rumors, or generally misunderstand when you are simply working through an idea. Talking with a guru is a holiday from intrigue.

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Entrepreneurship is Metaphysical Labor

“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians…”

–Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

We were days away from closing a fresh fundraising round when our CFO pulled me aside to tell me the company did not have enough cash to cover the next payroll run.

“Never miss payroll” is the most uncontroversial of all the startup advice out there. We held this hard-and-fast rule in mind and used our gross payroll figure as a fixed expense in forecasts. Black-and-white issues are rare in startups, yet once you get down to practice, you find that even this simple advice is not so black-and-white.

We called an urgent meeting of the executive team to discuss our cash emergency. The solution we came up with was for everyone on the management team to take a drastic pay cut, but leave all other employee salaries the same, allowing payroll to squeak through at just under our current cash balance. A week later we closed our round and soon things returned back to normal.

So, were we faithful followers of the startup maxim? Did we still “make payroll,” even though several management employees got paid less than their usual wage?

Even if you answer in the positive, the best you could say is something like “Yeah, you made payroll, but…” It’s not 100% clear cut. We only just made payroll because we redefined what it meant to make payroll, and shifted some atoms in the world (that month’s salary calculations) to make the outcome “Did employees get paid?” come out true.

In the annals of entrepreneurship, this tale is a dime a dozen. Every entrepreneur worth their salt can relate with a story of their own company’s near-death experience. In fact, because this story is so common, I believe it sheds light on the defining skill set of entrepreneurship.

Just as emotional labor is arguably the foundation of work in the service industry, I posit that the shared work domain of entrepreneurs the world over is one of metaphysical labor.

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Prescientific Organizational Theory

Organizational Theory isn’t a science, though it would like to be. Unfortunately, building a scientific approach requires understanding from a number of fields that themselves are still only aspiring to be sciences. Because psychology, economics, and sociology are a mish-mash of rules of thumb and vague, non-predictive, and generally unfalsifiable “theories”, organizations are reduced to ad-hoc rules and guesswork: critical, but prescientific.

For now, to abuse the parable of the blind men and the elephant, organizational theorists are still groping at their respective elephants, unable to figure out that the trunk is next to the tusks, or even that they are part of the same animal. It’s not a science: if anything, it’s a field of engineering, albeit one without a grounding in physics or Asimovian psychohistory to draw from. Precisely because the field isn’t scientific, understanding the engineering rules of thumb that were developed over time is fantastically useful for a practitioner.

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