Why Books Are Fake

Every citation is either a homework assignment or a promise.

A citation, whether a scholarly footnote in an old book or a hypertext link, either promises the reader that the author has given an accurate and relevant account of the cited material, or assigns the reader to read the cited material in order to remedy the reader’s ignorance (and perhaps save the author the trouble of making a faithful summary). It may be both at once; personally, I go back and forth as context dictates.

Crawling and squirming in between the citations are the implicit citations: all those books, ideas, events, controversies, and mundane rituals of daily life that the author assumes (or pretends to assume) that the reader is already familiar with.

A book presents itself as a self-contained artifact. The form of a book (even an e-book) promises to provide a discrete chunk of knowledge. Consider the recent cult of the book – Reading Rainbow, library fetishism, John Waters’ famous admonition that if you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. As books began to obsolesce as a form, they were attributed almost sacred value as epistemic tokens. I am not immune to the fantasy that a single book can contain valuable knowledge.
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Y Tribenator

I once saw a tourist with a shirt that said, in big letters on the back, “BOMB TECHNICIAN”. Then in smaller type underneath, “If you see me running, try to keep up“. That’s basically my strategy for exploring the new. For whatever reason I don’t have the temperament to be an early adopter. To fake it I surround myself with early adopters, and watch what they do.

This method doesn’t always work. In 2012 I got paid 5 Bitcoin at the insistence of a reader. I smiled and took the digital funny money. I’m sure it’s still on a hard drive somewhere. In 2014 my early-adopter friends were talking incessantly about a different digital funny money called Ether, which you could only buy with Bitcoin. I didn’t bother to look for the file. If I had converted that Bitcoin to Ether at the initial sale price of 2000:1, today I’d be over a million dollars richer. Sometimes I wish I was more reflexively willing to try new things.

Be careful what you wish for. I’m suddenly finding myself in the middle of a kind of tribe-generating metatribe of bloggers, helping coordinate a sprawling collection of highly weird writing projects through a clever Ether-based poker game slash taskboard called Colony.io.

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Blockchains Never Forget

Just three years ago, in 2014, I wrote a little short story set in a future where most work is organized around blockchains. That story was set sometime past the 2120s, but it appears we’ll get there a century earlier than I thought. The idea of organizing work through smart contracts on blockchains has been moving ahead at a breathtaking pace.

Over the last few weeks, I had my first hands-on immersive experience of this particular piece of the unevenly distributed future. I’ll share more about the specifics of this experience, and lessons learned, but mainly I want to enter my first serious attempt at blockchain punditry into the public record: the blockchain is irreversible social computing. 

The message of the medium is this: blockchains never forget. By providing an extra-institutional base layer of irreversibly settling collective memories that cannot be erased, blockchains create a foundation for fundamentally different institutional and technological landscapes. Ones based, as I will argue, on a notion of artificial forgiveness.

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There are bots. Look around.

“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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Arguing About How the World Should Burn

After eavesdropping on a thousand Twitter arguments and reading just as many thinkpieces, I’ve noticed that there are two main ways of conceptualizing community governance. Both are normative. Both primarily arise when it comes to conflicts over free speech — or who it’s okay to punch.

glitched woman hitting neo-nazi with handbag

A glitched version of the famous photo of an old lady clobbering a Neo-Nazi with her purse. Original photo taken by Hans Runesson in Växjö, Sweden circa 1985.

One mode is to focus on content, and the other is to focus on process. These are two different paradigms that shape people’s reactions to a given controversial issue. For example, let’s say a major news event happens. How do you go about selecting the articles you’re going to read about it?

  1. Choose the outlets or individual writers who share your worldview, and see what they have to say.
  2. Seek out authors who signal thoughtfulness across the political spectrum, perhaps with an emphasis on original reporting.

Here’s another example: Computer scientist Curtis Yarvin applies to speak at a technical conference, and his talk is accepted in a blind evaluation process. After Yarvin’s speaking slot is announced, the conference organizers find out that he has an alter-ego as a blogger called Mencius Moldbug. His blog promotes views that much of the conference’s larger community finds abhorrent.

The content approach is to sever ties with Yarvin — because the content of his character has been judged to be objectionable. His work and their personality are deemed toxic or actively harmful. On the other hand, the process approach is to point out that Yarvin’s submission was selected blindly, on its own merits, and affirm that he will be ejected only via the process laid out in the pre-established code of conduct.

To put it in more abstract terms, content people focus on ends over means, and process people focus on means over ends. This is an imperfect way to summarize the principle, because the reason why process people focus on means is that they think this approach leads to better ends. But “ends over means and vice versa” will do as catchy shorthand. (The distinction is similar to the conflict between deontological ethics and consequentialism, although my emphasis is less on the philosophy and more on the praxis.) [Read more…]

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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Fluid Rigor

What made us human? It’s one of the most enduringly interesting questions, from mythology to science, because the apparent ordinariness of being human conceals an abyss of ignorance about how it works and how it came to be.

A profound answer to this question is the one provided by Darwin: natural selection made us human. Theories after Darwin must attempt to explain more specific aspects of human evolution. What was our selective environment like, and what were the crucial adaptations that allowed for the development of our special kind of cognition and social organization? In what order did they occur? Does evolution act on elements of human culture, or on human groups as superorganisms? Some examples of post-Darwinian origin stories: cooking made us human, running made us human (I’m partial to both), compassion made us human, schizophrenia made us human.

Perhaps you have heard of René Girard. He was an interdisciplinary scholar who proposed a theory of what made us human, a process he calls hominization. I have been reading Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and have found it to be a fascinatingly troublesome theory of everything. [Read more…]

One Weird Longform Trick…on the Blockchain!

Good news everyone!

We are now accepting applications for the second offering of the Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course, Summer 2017 edition. The first time Sarah Perry and I ran the course, which was last November, we had 15 participants. We also ended up with 31 people on the waitlist. This time we have an upfront application process (application deadline, Friday May 5) rather than a first-come-first-serve ticket sale.

The application process is to help us screen for participants who are most likely to both benefit from the course, as well as turn into regular contributors. Which is kinda the main point of us doing this.

The course will run in June/July on TBD dates/times based on the scheduling constraints of accepted applicants. It will be an expanded offering compared to last time (6 live video sessions instead of 4), and incorporate all the feedback and meta-learnings we got out of the pilot offering.

We’re also going to try and accept more participants this time. The main constraint there is our editing bandwidth. The most demanding part of teaching the course last time was working 1:1 with participants on their course essays. But I have some tricks planned to make that easier.

And what’s all this about blockchain? Well, read on!

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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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Idiots Scaring Themselves in the Dark

Getting lost is a special experience; usually you are not lost. On ordinary days when you are oriented (not lost), a hidden process is happening in the background: you are constantly checking your mental maps against your environment, and finding them to accord well. This constant background process creates the positive sensation of average-everydayness, mundanity, homeliness. You know where you are.

Then things start looking weird. Conflicts between the mental map and the environment start setting off alarm bells. Very gradually, you realize you are lost. You deny it for as long as you can, perhaps acting stupidly and getting yourself more lost. Then it hits you. [Read more…]