Domestic Cozy: 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 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?

[Read more…]

Predictable Identities: 2

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Predictable Identities

One sentence recap of Part I: our brains are constantly trying to make true predictions about the world. We do it in two ways:

  1. Assembling good models that make accurate predictions.
  2. Changing the world to match our predictions.

When Apple released a buggy version of Maps, The Onion joked that “Apple is fixing glitches in Maps by rearranging Earth’s geography”. That’s exactly what our brains do.

Actions are driven by predictions propagating across different levels. We shoot a basketball by forecasting the flight of the ball, which leads to predicting that we will lift the ball and push it, culminating in precise anticipations of the required tension in the arm muscles. We are satisfied when the ball flies according to our projection and upset when it doesn’t

That’s why predicting well is so important to our evolved brains – when we predict well we know how to act to achieve our goals. A predictable environment is an exploitable environment.

Of course, basketballs are not a big component of our milieu, and our ability to predict them isn’t crucial. What is vital for us to model above all else are people, from faraway strangers to neighbors and friends. Also ourselves: prediction happens at different parts of the brain simultaneously, and each module has to predict what the others would do, now and in the future.

Predictive processing expert Sun Tzu observed:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

We observe other minds, interrogate them, and push them to conform to our models of them as best we can – all to maximize our predictive power and capacity to act effectively. This is a powerful lens through which to observe how we interact with others, and how we build our own predictable identities.

Worlding Raga: 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 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).

[Read more…]

Predictable Identities: 1

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Predictable Identities

Can you predict the last word in this sentience? It’s not “sentence”. The last word in sentience research is that most of what our brains do is try and predict the signals they’re about to receive, like the words you read on a page. Prediction shapes our perception, which is why that word appeared as “sentence” the first time you read it.

Our brains implement predictive models at multiple levels, from general worldviews to detailed patterns. When reading a text, your brain starts predicting the language and theme based on its model of the publication. This drives the prediction of sentences based on a model of grammar, prediction of how words should be spelled, and finally a detailed prediction of how characters should display.

Consider:

  1. This looks weird.
  2. This looks wiedr.
  3. Looks weird this.
  4. Your mom looks weird.

Our brains optimize for predicting incoming signals over our entire lifetime. This is achieved in two ways: doing a good job of predicting inputs right now, and learning new models that will allow us to make great predictions in the future. Does reading the post so far feel unpleasantly confusing? That’s because the content was too unpredictable, and contradicted too many of your existing models of how brains work. Did it feel awesomely mind-blowing? That’s the joy of acquiring a new model that offers a condensed explanation of what you already know, and thus a promise of better predictions to come.

In either case, you should learn more about the predictive processing paradigm of cognition from this series of articles or this book review; this blogchain is mostly done covering the established science. Instead, we’re going to forge forward irresponsibly and use predictive processing to explain political polarization, identity, war, and adjunct professorship.

Do you think you know what’s coming?

Elderblog Sutra: 4

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Elderblog Sutra

The idea of hypertext trails predates the internet. Vannevar Bush envisioned trails and trailblazing as early as 1945, in As We May Think.

I am part of a long tradition of trying and failing to build trails technology. I led a team at Xerox that built a product, called Trailmeme (2008-12, RIP), that created navigable, visual trail maps of web content that looked like this.

It was a lovely product that did exactly what I wanted. We just couldn’t find a way to sustain it.

Failures stay with you in a way successes don’t. I’m still licking my wounds from that failure, but I’m also still trying to figure trails out. So are others. Every couple of years, somebody takes a fresh tilt at the problem and fails. One part of my elderblogging experiments is a second serious stab at trails, this time from the content side rather than the technology side.

The closest we’ve ever come to trails has been the special case of chronological ordering, which eventually became the stream UX metaphor. But piggybacking chronology as a way to get to trail-based organization is not only limiting, it is a kind of cheating. Like floating down a river, but pretending to be moving under your own power.

The best generalized embodiment of trail-based organization can be found on blogs, in the form of post series. But such series rarely go beyond 2-3 parts.

But we’re close to cracking trails. The key breakthrough has been the rise of threads on Twitter (an invention arguably attributable to Marc Andreessen). Twitter threads are genuine trails, even though they’re confined to a single platform. They are not chronological sequences. The key idea: trail-like structure is created during the act of authoring, not as part of subsequent curation. The trail authoring and blazing problems are coupled.

Weirding Diary: 4

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Weirding Diary

The Things Fall Apart series on Epsilon Theory is an excellent exploration of the Great Weirding, particularly the “As Above, So Below” principle:

“As Above, So Below” means that our social lives are organized as a fractal, that when there is disorder in the heavens or the seats of worldly power, so is there disorder in our communities, our families, and our personal lives.”

Case in point: Recently, a Starbucks I used to frequent closed. The story was obvious to regulars: it had become an urban deadzone, more attractive to the homeless than to laptop warriors.

Over several years, the store deteriorated. You would often find homeless men parked in armchairs for hours, nursing a single grimy cup. Once, one such man got out of his armchair, and there was a pool of what I could only hope was water under him. He flipped the cushion over and left. Going to the restroom increasingly meant finding a homeless person washing up. I observed the Schelling sorting effect play out to the end, as the clientele drifted to the sort better served by a McDonald’s.

The Starbucks menu has a digital soul. It is a combinatorial consumption feast at the end of a global supply chain weaving its way from plantations, through factory-scale roasteries that  tame natural variety to nail a consistently mediocre taste year after year, to the cups of us cloud mice.

Starbucks stores, however, are firmly situated in meatspace, canaries in the neourban cores of the Weirding at the “below” end.

Today, I’m working out of a Starbucks in laptop-warrior zone, because the other Starbucks I frequent is also closed, for President’s Day, a surreal holiday that makes no sense in the flexwork economy embodied by Starbucks. And Howard Schultz is running for President.

As above, so below.

 

Breaking Smart Season 1 Online Workshop

After 3 years of dragging my feet, I’ve finally gotten my act together to put together the online, recorded version of the Season 1 Breaking Smart workshop, on how software is eating the world.

For those who came in late, Breaking Smart is my other site. It’s a technology analysis site that I launched in 2015 with a set of essays (Season 1) on “software eating the world,” based on a year of work with a16z. There is also an email newsletter with 6300+ subscribers. The content there is somewhat different from Ribbonfarm in tone and intent, and the audience/community is also somewhat different.

Through this weekend (until midnight Sunday, Feb 17), you can sign up for the workshop at the launch price of $200, (20% off), by using the discount code RIBBONFARMER


This is the online, self-paced version of the in-person workshop I conducted 7 times during 2015-16, based on the original Season 1 essays. In this version, I have adapted the material for online, self-paced consumption, and more importantly, updated the lecture contents to reflect the world of 2019.

We have now seen the software-eating-the-world phenomenon evolve a complete cycle, from the sunny and optimistic cultural springtime of 2011, when Marc Andreessen coined the phrase, to the dark and gloomy winter time of 2019. In preparing this version, I’ve tried to capture the full-cycle character of a revolution that will likely last as long as the industrial revolution, and evolve through many more such cycles in our lifetimes.

All the core content of the in-person workshop is now online. I also plan to add a few special topics and Q&A videos in the future, and as/when I do that, the list price will go up in proportion.

This is a course I hope to keep adding to and improving over the next few years, both to keep it current, and to increase the breadth and depth of relevance. So rather appropriately for a course on software eating the world, it will be in perpetual beta.

If you are interested in group access pricing for your workgroup, company, or a class at an educational institution, please get in touch. Depending on your needs, I may be able to create a customized version of the course for your organization or industry, or supplement the recorded course with a live, interactive session with your group. Having done the in-person workshop for audiences in banking, investment, entrepreneurship, government, and the arts, I have a good sense of how to customize/supplement the core material for those audiences. For other audiences, I’ll need to put in a bit more extra prep.

So, here’s the link again, and looking forward to seeing you in the workshop.

This is the second serious course I’ve put together at the Ribbonfarm School on Teachable. You may also be interested in the course we published last year, The Art of Longform, which has me and Sarah Perry teaching the longform style we practice here.

I hope to put together a couple more good courses this year, so stay tuned for more on this front.

Mediocratopia: 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Mediocratopia

Regular heroes are excellent people. Mediocrity is an anti-heroic ethos, but not along either of the usual dimensions of anti-heroism or villainy. The antihero and villain embody excellence of a sort similar to the hero’s. They merely bring different goals and values to the party.

The anti-excellence hero is the comic hero.

In Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield we encounter Caius Pusilanimus, perhaps the most elemental example of a mediocre comic hero (though he’s a side character in the story).

Where the hero reluctantly accepts his own exceptional nature, the mediocre comic hero eagerly embraces his own unexceptional nature and schemes to gain rewards out of proportion with its potentialities.

Where the hero embodies fight, the comic hero embodies flight. Where the hero puts in 110%, the comic hero gets by with 60%. Where the hero aims to win honorably, the comic hero aims to survive by any means possible, and live to flee another day. Where the hero’s moments of weakness are marked by self-doubt and fear (usually on behalf of others, rather than for themselves), the comic hero’s moments of weakness are marked by a failure to be mediocre. An embarrassingly heroic act, for example. Or idealistic fervor descending as a momentary madness.

My new favorite example of a mediocre comic hero is the wizard Rincewind in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

For the mediocre comic hero, impact is a function, not of exceptional traits, but of surviving long enough to get lucky in exceptional environments. This comic from webcomicname.com gets at this numbers-game aspect.

All excellence is exceptional, though not all that is exceptional is excellent. Exceptionality can be attained by either being highly present and situated in a complex environment, or by being exceptional in any environment (though sometimes, exceptional character can be canceled out by an exceptional environment).

Elderblog Sutra: 3

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Elderblog Sutra

When you walk, your typical step is a step along the path you’re on. Steps that exit down a new path are exceptions. On the web, exit clicks are the default, voice clicks — which keep you in the current conversational context — are exceptions.

This exit bias of hypertext makes it difficult to match the deepening-attention experience of the printed book. In a book, page-turnings far exceed book switches. A page-turner is a a thriller that reinforces the  stay-on-the-trail bias of print. Even the most difficult books tend to sustain 2-3 page turnings per session. Online page-turners by contrast — think Taboola listicles with one titillating nugget per page — fight a losing battle from Link One. Even if you don’t supply outbound links, there are always open tabs lurking in the background: competing books within thumb-reach.

My hyperlinking philosophy has always been to avoid fighting the medium. Successful online content works by deepening the stream of consciousness rather than fighting the exit bias. Three models do this particularly well: single-page longform, streams, and threads.

Single-page longform works like a meditative-attention gravity well that gets harder to exit the deeper in you go. My longest post is 14,422 words, 4x a typical magazine feature. It would need ~30 page turnings if it weren’t on a single page.

Streams work by letting topic-level attention go stochastic, and deepening conversation-level attention. Twitter and Facebook invite you to swim upstream in place, always in the now, modulo some atemporal algorithmic vorticity. The archives of an elderblog invite you to swim downstream into long-term settled memories via internal links.

The thread (sutra in Sanskrit) is the youngest and most exciting innovation. You deepen the stream of consciousness by working with the smallest possible chunks. Originally 140 characters.

Of the three, the thread is the most likely to disrupt the printed book.