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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The Future of Compromise

Whether it is in stopping quarrels between children or in deciding any of the thousand issues that come up in a large household, Anita can always make up her mind and keep things moving. A family such as ours must have a strong, capable leader.
(Strong, capable tyrant, I said under my breath.)
-Robert A. Heinlein, Friday

Getting things done involves a strong dose of leading with a vision, and ignoring those that disagree. When such leaders are given the reins, the forward progress can sometimes, post-hoc, justify trampling others. Of course, when men do this, it’s called leadership, but when women do it, even when they are doing the same things, the research shows that it’s likely to be referred to more negatively . On the other hand, once given the reins, a rising tide can lift all boats . Successful leaders ensure that enough of the progress is towards shared goals, so that the rising tide compensates the trampled masses. But it doesn’t always work out.

The key difference between leaders seen as heroes after the fact and those seen as villains is the post-hoc consensus that what they accomplished was good. (Gender stops mattering in retrospect.) The tension between disagreement now and perceptions in the future illuminates the essence of how democracies fail — but also how politics can promote wider success. I think this dynamic shows deep reasons that compromise can be reached, that decisions are not impossible, and that politics doesn’t need to destroy our ability to move forward.

Of course, the US may still be royally screwed.

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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.

Crowds and Technology

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series The Feed

“There is no other hope for the survival of mankind than knowing enough about the people it is made up of.” – Elias Canetti

Two closely related themes have proved very newsworthy over the past several months: the candidacy of Donald Trump, and harassment mobs on the Internet. The overlap between them is interesting because in the past we haven’t typically associated American Presidential campaigns, no matter how close or contentious, with online mobs. This time, however, we have stories about the election intersecting with the rise of online harassment mobs, anti-Semitic Twitter trolls, and even Kremlin influence bots.

Illustration by Grace Witherell

Illustration by Grace Witherell

Although this weird election cycle has made them more newsworthy, mobs, demagogues, and populist movements are obviously not new. What is new and interesting is how social media has transformed age-old crowd behaviors. In the past decade, we’ve built tools that have reconfigured the traditional, centuries-old relationship between crowds and power, transforming what used to be sporadic, spontaneous, and transient phenomena into permanent features of the social landscape. The most important thing about digitally transformed crowds is this: unlike IRL crowds, they can persist indefinitely. And this changes everything.

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Trace of the Weirding

Today’s post is hopefully a bit of a treat for those of you who like audio and video more than text. I’ve updated my You Are Here map for 2016 (thanks Grace Witherell!) and turned it into a narrated video walkthrough. It’s basically about an hour of me talk-walking through a map. If you prefer audio, you can just scan the map to get a sense of it, and then just listen to the audio.

If you’re new to ribbonfarm, this may be a good way to get oriented — or entirely confused. I don’t know. I’m too deep in this thing. The big change in the map from last year’s version is the addition of the whole western 20% or so, and the incorporation of 2016 crazy election year motifs into the landscape. It’s still very US centric, and doesn’t satisfactorily capture some of my newer interests, but it’s a start.

What’s not represented is some of the developing influence of newer residents and their writing on either ribbonfarm or my own thinking. That’s too new, and it’ll probably get folded into next year’s map. So this is mainly me talking about my own interests, with some digressions on Sarah Perry’s stuff.

The narrated walk through was heavily inspired by conversations at Refactor Camp 2016. Here are the links mentioned in the video.

  1. High-res version of the map (5MB)
  2. Refactor camp session slide decks: Thanks to Mick Costigan, Megan Lubaszka, Renee DiResta, Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose.
  3. Blake Masters’ notes on Peter Thiel’s 2×2 
  4. My gloss on Jane Jacobs Guardian/Commerce
  5. Economics of Pricelessness
  6. Hamilton vs Jefferson
  7. Post on future nausea and manufactured normalcy
  8. A post on New Horizons
  9. My extended riff on hedgehog vs. fox
  10. Bruce Sterling favela chic/gothic high tech talk
  11. Atlantic post on climate change
  12. Some stuff on serendipity versus zemblanity
  13. Sarah Perry’s roundup/introduction on postrationality
  14. David Chapman, Meaningness
  15. Sarah’s book Every Cradle is a Grave
  16. Less Wrong
  17. Slatestarcodex map
  18. The Gervais Principle
  19. Sarah’s theme parks vs amusement parks post
  20. My post on Crash-only thinking
  21. Breaking Smart if you’ve been under a rock and don’t know I do that
  22. The Breaking Smart newsletter in tweetstorm format
  23. Tempo, the book
  24. James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
  25. My Now Reading page with a lot of background

Weird Crowds, Weird Planet

Here’s the pre-read for the third and fourth sessions of Refactor Camp.

For our session tomorrow, Tuesday the 26th on The Weird State of the Crowd, we are running a bit behind, so have a partial pre-read for you in the form of  this short summary document on Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. The session will be led by Renee DiResta and Megan Lubaszka. I’ll add the summary deck, which will also cover Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believerto this post, once I have it. Apologies for the delay.

Update: the slides are in!

And for our final session on Thursday the 28th, which will attempt pull it all together via the capstone theme, Weird State of the Planet, here is the slide deck. This session will be led by Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose.

Screenshot 2016-07-25 21.29.21

The Weird State of Capitalism

This is the slide-deck for the second session of Refactor Camp 2016, on Thursday the 21th. If you’re attending, please make sure to carve out at least 45 minutes beforehand to review this. This session will be led by Mick Costigan. The deck is on Google Docs and you’re invited to add comments to it.

 

Screenshot 2016-07-20 09.41.45

The Weird State of the State

This is the slide-deck for the first session of Refactor Camp 2016, on Tuesday the 19th. If you’re attending, please make sure to carve out at least 45 minutes beforehand to review this.

Welcome to Nixonland

Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008) is something of a biography, something of a history, and something of a quest to answer the question people have been asking about the 1960s since, well, the 1960s: what the hell just happened? This book is especially relevant to the world of 2016, which has so many tragic echoes coming hard and fast. We don’t have tanks patrolling Pennsylvania Avenue or whole neighborhoods on fire, but each day seems to make it less unthinkable.

Nixon’s career is a vast & billowing revenge play that could have been written by Dumas. There are early triumphs, humiliating defeats, and years of secret plotting in the wilderness. Then there is the “new” Nixon’s calculated reappearance after everyone thought him dead and gone, freely spending treasure of dubious origins, cavorting with highly weird & talented outsiders, making intricate moves within moves, shoving aside lightweights like Reagan, stepping over the bodies of Kennedys, and taking out his enemies with delicious patience, one by one by one.

But Richard Nixon isn’t the star of Nixonland. If he were, the book could be 1/3 as long and titled something like The Count of Yorba Linda. The bulk of Nixonland is about the land: the people in turmoil, from radicalized college student to marching black to shocked & resentful blue-collar worker. It’s about how they found their voices, how their personal identities adapted to the times, and how all that energy was deliberately harnessed by Nixon to serve his drive to power, creating the fractured political world we live in today.

An amazingly large segment of the population disliked and mistrusted Richard Nixon instinctively. What they did not acknowledge was that an amazingly large segment of the population also trusted him as their savior. “Nixonland” is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together.

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Refactor Camp 2016: Weird Political Economy

Since 2012, we’ve been holding Refactor Camp as an annual offline event in the Bay Area. This year, we’re trying a new format. Refactor Camp 2016 will be an online-only event, in the form of four 2-hour evening sessions, spread over the last 2 weeks of July. You can register here. We will be using the Zoom videoconference system, which has a limit of 50 participants.

The theme this year is Weird Political Economy (tagline is inspired by this great post). Over four sessions, each structured as a short introductory talk (~30 minutes) followed by a discussion (~90 minutes) we will cover four major themes. All 4 sessions will be 8:00 to 10:00 PM US Pacific Time, on the listed dates.

Screenshot 2016-07-05 15.52.57

Session #1: Tue July 19: The Weird State of the State (Venkatesh Rao)
Session #2: Thu July 21: The Weird State of Capitalism (Mick Costigan)
Session #3: Tue July 26: The Weird State of the Crowd (Megan Lubaszka and Renee DiResta)
Session #4: Thursday July 28: The Weird State of the Earth (Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose)

The idea is to have well-prepped discussions about the general sense that “things are getting weird” in global affairs with a meaningfully broad/rich context. Are we really not in Kansas anymore, or do we just lack the context to grok the patterns in things going on right now? Is it time to apply the principle, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”? Hopefully we’ll generate some interesting, situated thinking.

The four session topics: state, capitalism, crowds, and earth, will hopefully serve as four good overlapping global canvasses for discussion.

A slide deck overview of the theme will be posted a few days before each session, as required pre-read. The idea is for ALL participants to actually review these pre-read decks (should take maybe 30min each) so we can have a discussion where everybody is better prepared than usual in these sorts of symposia.

If you are interested in doing reading beyond these upcoming decks, here are some anchor references the session leaders will be using.  Though session leaders will be drawing on multiple sources, and we expect many participants will be coming from other perspectives, these should give you an idea of the level of discussion we’re hoping to hit.