27: Friend groups

Kevin Kwok has a schtick about how friend groups underinvest in themselves. A group of people with high mutual trust, shared interests, and low coordination costs have already solved for many of the issues that otherwise prevent humans from accomplishing great things.

I've been thinking about whether friendships could be described as having a purpose beyond personal fulfillment, and I think it shares some parallels with dating. One of modern dating's great albatrosses is the hedonistic treadmill: the Tinder-induced "Welcome to Hell" of meeting, connecting, dating, and ghosting, repeated ad infinitum. Dating around is a perfectly good way to pass the weeks and months and years, but at some point, if you're not committing to something – building towards a "we" that exists outside of yourself – the initial thrill of intimacy begins to take on a saccharine, artificial quality.

Similarly, there's a version of modern friendship that feels like dating around, especially because it's extremely easy to meet new people these days. Maybe it's getting coffee with interesting people from Twitter, or grabbing a drink with old acquaintances to catch up and trade "life updates" every month or quarter. It feels good to meet people, swap ideas, connect on some superficial level, and perhaps even be a small part of one another's lives, but if you never really settle down and commit to those friendships, you're just collecting names. Over time, those names get replaced with other names, and the cycle begins anew.

(To clarify, lest you take me for a misanthrope: not all acquaintances, of course, turn into friendships. A healthy social life involves a mix of both close friends and casual acquaintances that are great to occasionally catch up with, or even "sidewalk friends" (like gym buddies, officemates, or the barista you see every day) whom you interact with regularly, but don't pursue deeper meaning with. I'm mostly curious about the odd deadly purgatory between acquaintance and friendship, where two people are making more than occasional time for each other, but not progressing towards anything deeper. Perhaps there's an opportunity for these to blossom into deeper purpose, collaboration, and meaning.)

"Commitment" in the context of friendship usually refers to things like keeping your word or showing unconditional support. But I think there could also be a implied commitment not just towards each other as individuals, but to a shared sense of self. To try on a more normative version of friendship, perhaps we could say: "A group of friends who enjoy each others' company ought to build something together."

This isn't a shill for startups; "building something together" doesn't have to mean starting a company. In its most primitive form, it might mean acknowledging the existence of a shared group identity, one that can exist outside of any individual member, and that everyone is building towards. The strongest groups I can think of have nicknames or shared rituals and practices that an outsider wouldn't immediately understand. They trade stories and maintain an oral history together.

From that shared group identity, however, more opportunities could emerge, such as:

  • Starting a company (yes)

  • Starting an angel fund, fellowship, or grant program to support people or ideas you like

  • Starting a publication or publishing arm (Reboot and Paper Gains are two fun examples)

  • Starting a public library, studio, or event space

  • Starting a group house or building a compound together

Some groups of friends are already very good at doing this. (Side note: Other Internet provides an excellent framework for positive-sum squad thinking in their essay "Squad Wealth".) In a work context, I notice this behavior most often in hiring for, founding, and investing in companies, which are often rooted in strong fraternal relationships. But it feels like there's still a lot of opportunity that's being left on the table.

“Let's buy a bar together” or “Let's buy land and move to the country and raise our kids together” are common refrains among urban-dwelling 20somethings, but very few people actually do it. I wish these interests were taken more seriously, and that we encouraged each other to act upon them, rather than thinking of them fondly as the whims of young people before reality hits.

Writing

  • “The creator economy”: I’ve been struggling with the concept of a “creator economy,” so I shared some thoughts here. I know everyone has been laying out their principles like playthings and examining them one by one, post-deep COVID, and I guess I'm no exception. For me, a question I've been stuck on is something like, “Is there inherent value in 'creating' for the sake of it?”. I guess it's partly why I haven't been publishing very much, either, even though I've been writing a lot in private.

Links

  • “Beyond Based and Cringe” (Nate Sloan): Nate draws parallels between the late 00's - early '10s irony and sincerity with today's based and cringe, which I hadn't considered before, and asks whether these labels are self-limiting.

  • There Is No Antimimetics Division (qntm): This is the best new sci fi I've read in recent memory, I think because it feels fresh and modern, tackling some of the hardest social questions that the world is facing today. It's about antimemes, defined as "an idea with self-censoring properties...which, by its intrinsic nature, discourages or prevents people from spreading it." I might write a longer piece about this later. Oh, and even cooler is the fact that this book came out of a fictional universe, SCP Foundation, that's been collaboratively developed on a wiki! (Warning: it is a bit spooky and graphic; think Lovecraftian horror.)

  • “Uniswap Research Report: Discord, Governance, Community” (Other Internet): I'm consistently surprised that there aren't more ethnographers flocking to crypto right now, so I'm happy to see that Other Internet has started tackling ethnographies of Discord communities, starting with Uniswap.

  • Funding the Commons: This summit from last week, hosted by Protocol Labs and friends, is chock-full of interesting questions and ideas about funding public goods.

New post: The New American University

First month of job freedom has been great so far. I spent a couple of weeks in Redondo Beach, a quiet beach town filled with retired and military people, which is basically the perfect place to get creative work done. (Also teaching myself how to rollerskate, which is hard! Well, more scary than hard. But scary!)

I just published a lengthy post about Arizona State University, which is the anti-Ivy League: a school that significantly improved its rankings by increasing its acceptance rate (86%) and accessibility.

The idea that prestige is established through exclusivity is so deeply engrained in my mind that finding a strong counterexample really broke my brain. It has implications not just for those who are interested in university reform, but anyone thinking about building cultural institutions, status games, or networks.

I spent way more time than I'd like to admit digging into their model to understand how it works. Enjoy!

P.S. I’m experimenting with a lighterweight newsletter format, which also means doing this obnoxious thing where I include an excerpt but not the full post, because I send email through Substack but host my own blog, and I don’t like having my writing live in two places. Do you hate it? Does it suck? Let me know.


The New American University

I had the pleasure of stumbling upon the work of Michael Crow, Arizona State University’s president, earlier this year, and I so enjoyed his thoughts on knowledge production that I immediately wondered how his philosophy would translate to ASU as an organization. Turns out, President Crow was many steps ahead of me and not only co-authored a book about it in 2015, Designing the New American University, but has been leading the charge in higher education to rethink the modern university.

If you were like me, applying to college over a decade ago, you might remember ASU’s reputation as a party school for hot people. In 2002, Crow was appointed ASU’s 16th president, and he set about both developing and implementing a vision for reform. Today, ASU ranks as a top 100 research university worldwide [1], and has managed to do so while increasing affordable access to higher education.

ASU is an example of what President Crow and his colleague, William Dabars, call the “New American University”, a model that they hope other public research universities will emulate. There are a bunch of interesting aspects to this model, but the most striking, in my view, has been to throw away the Ivy League playbook, rejecting the idea that a university’s prestige is defined by whom they exclude. Instead, ASU has significantly improved their rankings while accepting and graduating more students.

Given the widespread critique of academia, especially within tech, I was surprised that, after asking around, none of my peers had come across ASU as a case study for reform, despite its reputation among university administrators. So I’m summarizing what I’ve learned about ASU here in hopes that it might help others learn from their efforts. [2]

Read this post

26: I'm back, sort of

I started writing this as a journal entry, but I found myself wanting to hear from others (the irony?), so I’ve decided to share it here instead.

First things first: sorry for the silence. The last post I sent out was in October of last fall, breaking the monthly cadence I'd kept up for the preceding three years.

I don't really know why I stopped writing. Frankly, I just didn't have very much going on in my head. Perhaps it was a symptom of late-stage pandemic. On some subconscious level, I think I needed to signify to myself, somehow, just how royally wrecked the last year was. After a bumpy summer filled with riots, wildfires, orange sky, police curfews, book launch, and hypergrowth, the idea of sitting down and writing a monthly newsletter felt like a frog-boiling mockery, which I started to chafe against. My offline life had turned completely upside down; why try to maintain a false sense of normalcy in my online life? No more newsletters. No more notes. No more tweeting.

Anyways, I guess my little artistic tantrum is over, and I've come out of it in a different place, literally. I moved to Miami in April. And, as of last week, I no longer work at Substack.

I left my job partly because I miss writing. I have a new research project I want to dive into (more on that later, after I've had time to dig in). And I generally miss being in the headspace of tinkering and exploring and manipulating ideas.

The thing I'm struggling with is what it means to return to "public" writing life. A friend and I were joking the other night about the old adage of "Don't take time off between jobs, because you don't want a gap in your work history," and how to us, that feels inverted. I think of my baseline work as writing and research, where occasionally I work a "real" job in order to understand my topic better, during which time I don't write or produce very much (in public, that is). That means I'm just coming back to work again now, relearning how to type words onto a screen that other people will read.

But what does it mean to write today? On a macro level, we might look back at this time and call it a renaissance for writing, thanks to companies like Substack, Ghost, and Mirror that enable writers to take control of their destinies. And that renaissance is happening in the midst of a greater "creator economy" boom, where creators are increasingly dictating the terms over platforms.

Somehow, though, I can't help but feel like this isn't really a renaissance for writing, at least not the way I'd imagined. There's more writing, to be sure. I can barely keep up with everything I'm subscribed to. But is the writing...better? Is it memorable? What's the best new essay you've read in the past 6 months? I don’t mean this as a critique of the writing—I've read plenty of beautiful and stirring pieces—but perhaps it’s more that I feel like I'm no longer reading with the world. When did someone last write something that made something else happen? Where is the writing that kicks off a dialogue, not just yet-another-great-essay that I can pull off the stack of unreads and archive in my Pocket?

The edgiest ideas are no longer being published for public consumption, which is the next logical outcome of both a hostile public environment and finding your 1000 true fans. Maybe everyone just writes for their own tribes now, but what’s left is a void of writing that’s changing our public narrative, filled instead with memelords leering from dark alleyways and snake-oil salesmen spouting platitudes in abandoned town squares.

I don’t know that that’s bad, necessarily. The notion of a unified public dialogue isn’t guaranteed to every generation. It’s just harder to see where society goes from here—how progress gets made—when we’re all stuck talking to ourselves. And so when I think about kicking off a new research project, I can’t help but wonder how this state of things affects, or should affect, the quality and format of my output.

It's not just that the world is different. I'm different, too. I'm less enthusiastic to step back onto the content treadmill than I used to be. It's not that I don't want to write. Despite my best efforts to enjoy a bit of vacation and not think about what's next, I can already feel this next research problem curling its tendrils around my consciousness, and it feels good. But then I look at everyone around me, running on those treadmills until the fat slips off their bones, and it makes me shrink back a little.

If I were me, embarking on an independent research project in (checks watch) 2021: how do I do it in a way that feels authentic to myself, and to the times we're in?

I'm not sure yet. But that's what's on my mind. I’m trying to use this time to zoom out and reconnect with my intuition, figure out what feels right, and not just repeat the same habits I had before.

As of now, I’m not planning to resume writing a regular monthly newsletter. But I'll still send out an occasional missive. I've become pretty familiar with the subscription model, but I'd like to explore other formats, too. I might write a couple of longer-form essays; if I do, I'll share any writing I publish here. And of course, when I kick off NewResearch, I’ll share more about that, too. In the meantime, I'm still here, just squirreled away in my new home in Miami and buried in books and scraps of notes, trying to make sense of the world again.


Links

  • “Hiatus” (Applied Divinity Studies): The pseudonymous Applied Divinity Studies, whose blog is one of the few good things to come out of this past year, writes about weird internet bloggers, and concludes that “either you toil in obscurity until you die, or you become popular enough to get doxxed by the New York Times.” I really resonate with this post, which captures this strange tension between loving writing, while also vaguely finding it to be a worthless exercise.

  • The Dubrovnik Interviews: Marc Andreessen: (Niccolo Solo) This interview reminds me of what Playboy interviews used to be: breezy, irreverent takes from people you don’t usually expect to hear from. It’s great to see people—both interviewers and their subjects—having fun in the media again.

  • "On Miami" (Katherine Boyle): Katherine explains the allure of Miami far better than I can, and why this humid, swampy, inhospitable environment inevitably attracts people who care about making things happen in the world.

25: Space Mountain

I went to Disneyland with a few friends at the beginning of this year. For those who've never been, Disneyland consists of multiple mini-parks that branch off of "Main Street, U.S.A." It's meant to feel like stumbling out of the real world into various fantasy versions, whether a Western-themed Frontierland or futuristic Tomorrowland: each with their own themed rides, soundtracks, and eateries.

Last year, Disneyland added a new, Star Wars-themed mini-park to the map, called Galaxy's Edge. It was the first park they’d built since 1993, and progress made in the past 25 years is visible in its manufacturing and design. Galaxy's Edge, with its long winding forest path, swaying Moroccan-esque lamps, and dazzling full-replica starships, looks like it belongs at a cosplay convention rather than at Disneyland, whose older parks now seem a bit faded in comparison.

While in Galaxy's Edge, we stood in line for a ride called Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run. With at least a 30 minute wait, the in-line experience is designed to keep riders busy. As the line progressed, we were taken through a spaceport onto the Millennium Falcon itself. Our path was filled with thoughtful details, like an unfinished sabacc game behind a few crates, or Porg nests in the rafters. Upon boarding the starship, we were herded to a loading dock, where an animatronic Hondo Ohnaka gave us our instructions.

I'm not a Star Wars fan, and even I was impressed. The ride's designers had taken great care to satisfy the enthusiastic fans that have made Star Wars so popular for the past near-fifty years. Waiting in line was even more exciting than the ride itself! Entertaining as it was, however, I couldn't help but compare it to our experience waiting in line for Space Mountain the night before.

Of all the rides I'd heard about before going to Disneyland, Space Mountain was by far my most anticipated. Space Mountain isn't the most intense rollercoaster in the world (get outta here, Six Flags!), but it is one of the most well-known.

As we made our way through Tomorrowland to Space Mountain, I was a flutter of excitement. All day, we'd been inundated with colors, lights, sounds, and imagery—and so what I found most remarkable about Space Mountain, when we finally reached the line, was its refusal to pander to my enthusiasm.

Space Mountain, this most iconic of rides, didn't try to coax us with the bells and whistles of its ganglier distant cousin. Instead, it loomed unapologetically in the middle of the park, a silvery-blue alien object dropped into Disneyland like the inscrutable monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

While other rides crammed as much entertainment into their line experience as possible, Space Mountain offered us next to nothing. Waiting in line resembles walking through an airport, a series of clean white hallways that eventually open into to a wide, flat rooftop.

In a park where every inch is spoken for, Space Mountain’s empty rooftop is a rude violation, like spilling water onto the sandy soil of Arrakis. Not only is there nothing to look at, but you’re forced to contemplate this profligate display of austerity as you traipse along the rooftop with all the other hopeful riders.

Millennium Falcon's line experience was designed for its fans. Its designers, breathless and frenetic, worked hard to keep their riders entertained, with plenty of inside references that only a Star Wars fan would appreciate.

Space Mountain, by contrast, casts its withering sphinx glance at the rest of Disneyland's sticky-fingered maximalism. Space Mountain knows why you're there: you want to careen into a sky full of stars. And it knows that’s worth the wait in line, so it doesn’t try to cater to you.

The tradeoff to Millennium Falcon’s "Made by us, for us" philosophy is that when people are encouraged to actively participate in the show, their differences can become that much more apparent. Galaxy's Edge, the park that houses Millennium Falcon, is the only place in Disneyland where you'll suddenly become self-aware that you're wearing a T-shirt and shorts instead of Jedi cosplay.

At the rest of Disneyland's parks, the themes are all different, but each mini-park feels the same in terms of guest behavior and attire. Everyone is wearing Disney clothing: not, say, Toontown- or New Orleans-themed clothing.

The most universal symbol of Disney—a pair of mouse ears—croons with its honey voice that we can smooth away our differences by simply “getting your ears on.” Ears are not an unattainable luxury, but if you put them on, you’ll instantly fit in.

But in Galaxy's Edge, mouse ears suddenly seem a bit gauche. Instead you'll find yourself ogling your neighbor's $200 custom lightsaber (which is a thing you can do there) and feeling a bit envious that you didn't get one yourself.

I guess some people would look at Disneyland’s “mouse ears for all” battle-cry and find the demotion of self-expression depressing. But I found that I didn't mind relinquishing a bit of myself when the vision offered to me was something much grander. Disneyland, from its navigation to its bathrooms to waiting in line, never flinches from its personal standard of excellence. It is, after all, "the happiest place on Earth."

Since returning from Disneyland, I've started seeing these two versions of the world in everything. I thought about it again this past week, as debate fiercely raged on Twitter about what company culture is supposed to offer its employees.

How we choose to spend our days is an important part of one’s identity. Deciding where to work, and what to work on, is also a matter of deciding whose vision you want to buy into.

There's something to be said for the Millennium Falcon way of doing things. For many people in tech, this promise is clearly embodied by Burning Man, a festival of more than 70,000 people in the desert that's entirely organized by volunteers, whose founding principles emphasize the idea of "radical participation." At Burning Man, there are no spectators, only participants. Burning Man is Millennium Falcon.

Unsurprisingly, the company whose employees I'd consider to be most intertwined with Burning Man culture—Google—is also Millennium Falcon. (Embodying this vision, for me, was Google's big marketing push for Android in 2014, built around the slogan, "Be together. Not the same.")

But then there's the Space Mountain version of organizational culture. Space Mountain, and Disneyland itself, promise a future so exciting that people will happily put their "other selves" aside to bring it to fruition. It requires strong leadership, because you're asking people to submit to your vision of the world, and a good leader takes that responsibility seriously. Apple, the most secretive of big tech companies with arguably the most iconic technology executive in history, is Space Mountain. (When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, they told us they’d "reinvented the phone," a claim about as bold as "the happiest place on Earth.")

Bitcoin is Space Mountain. Ethereum is Millennium Falcon. Clojure is Space Mountain. Rust is Millennium Falcon. (If you've read Working in Public: stadiums, or communities formed around a single creator, are Space Mountain. Federations, or communities made by many contributors for many users, are Millennium Falcon.)

If Galaxy's Edge is any indication, an overemphasis on participation can exacerbate the perceived differences between us, because it's not possible for everyone to bring their whole selves to work without bumping up against someone else's version. I don't think these merge conflicts are necessarily a bad thing. Some companies embrace those conflicts and make active participation part of their core values. Burning Man wouldn't work if nobody pitched in.

That’s one way of doing things. But I can't help but feel enticed by the cool wash of relief offered by the enigmatic Space Mountain: an invitation to stop flooding my brain with more inputs, and instead focus on getting to the stars.

Notes

Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • Going to school, but instead of paying tuition to someone to teach you, getting paid by your readership/audience to learn in public and document your learnings

  • Ways of creating serendipity online - are stadium-style communities particularly well-suited for this? (Specifically in terms of addressing the serendipity q, i.e. meeting ppl outside of your known social circles) I feel like they’re well-primed bc you’re in a high-context situation and also you’re both “watching the stage,” so you have this built-in activity you’re already doing together. Small group chats are block-y, but stadiums can be porous and help naturally facilitate some of that serendipity

  • Games that help us teach virtues to kids. Ex. Telephone teaches kids that what you say isn’t always what’s heard. What are other examples?

  • Companies as Schelling points for impact (again, “great prophet” rather than “great founder” theory). Instead of “it’s a great founder who drove this forward,” it’s more like “this is happening in the world whether we like it or not and you guys happen to be at the center of it”

Links

  • "Bring Back the Bison" (Santi Ruiz): Why we should save the American bison. In addition to the reasons you'd expect, like climate change and economic development, I was particularly intrigued by Santi’s treatment of an unlikely source of support: megafauna nationalists, "a form of meme-friendly esoteric politics [who] dream of rewilding the country." Conservation efforts (and environmentalism more generally) historically draw supporters from across the political spectrum (think John Muir vs. Rachel Carson), so I enjoyed seeing that reflected in digitally-native political culture as well.

  • "Me, Myself and my Multiple Avatars" (Jill Carlson): A short story about living in a future where we're all hiding behind avatars. In addition to being a great read, I just love that Jill did this; I wish more of my peers wrote fiction or explored creative outlets in public (I know, I know, be the change you want to see in the world…)

  • "Formality Considered Harmful: Experiences, Emerging Themes, and Directions" (Frank M. Shipman III and Catherine C. Marshall): This piece argues against overly-opinionated user interfaces that get in the way of non-linear thinking, particularly in unstructured creative work like writing and design. As much as I'd like to use any of the formal note-taking systems out there, I'm always wary of adopting someone else's way of thinking, and this helped me articulate why. (h/t Andy Matuschak, who wonders if building these “non-linear release valves” could actually improve linear output.)

  • "On the use of a life" (Colin Percival): Colin, a mathematician and FreeBSD developer, explains why he spends his days working on Tarsnap, a for-profit online backup service, instead of working in academia.

  • "Recreating the local newspaper in digital form" (Andrew Wilkinson): I try not to link to Twitter threads, but I wish this had been a full post! Andrew describes how he started what became the leading local newspaper in his hometown of Victoria, Canada. I do wonder if there will be a land grab of mini-Jeff Bezoses itching to build their own local news fiefdoms. Feels like someone could spreadsheet the opportunity to find local news areas that are low-competition, high ability to pay from at least some of its residents, and a big enough market of potential subscribers. (Not saying if that’s good or not, just...interesting?)


Millennium Falcon photo: WDWMAGIC
Space Mountain photo: Wikipedia

24: Monasteries

I wrote about the crash of our social markets at the start of the pandemic. While much has been made of the recovery of our financial markets, considerably less public discourse has been allocated to discussing a recovery plan for knowledge.

Knowledge work regards us from high upon Maslow's hierarchy over the crook of its bespectacled nose; it's easy to miss right now, in light of more pressing basic needs (food, income, where to live, daily mood). But the volume and quality of our creative output has undeniably declined this year: a warning that, left unchecked, could lead to civilizational backslide.

There's a passage in the fictional The Memory Police, which I read this month (see “Links” below), where the narrator describes how she and her neighbors passed their days during an extended period of crisis:

A deep stillness was rapidly spreading over the island. The gap grew ever larger between the rates at which old things decayed and disappeared and new ones were created....the restaurants, movie theaters, and parks in town were deserted.

Among the new things to be created were small crops of daikon radishes, Chinese cabbages, and watercress that poked their way out of the earth, some sweaters and lap robes made by the ladies who worked at the knitting factory, and a supply of fuel that came by tanker truck from somewhere. Not much else.

It's not just the loss of creation, but also the insidious way in which that loss has been normalized, that I find so concerning. We’re making things, but the things we make don't further our collective knowledge and skills. We're merely treading water while our heads slowly sink beneath the surface, the hot sun winking out of sight.

There is something disturbing about the passivity and lack of introspection with which we've accepted this present state. The flippant "It's hard for me to think right now" remark has become as commonplace as the "I've been busy these days" of yore. It's understandably a coping mechanism in the short term, but long-term damaging for progress.

I was reminded of this passivity during the California fires that have swept—are sweeping—across the Bay Area these past few weeks, negatively impacting our air quality and forcing us to stay indoors. When the same thing happened in 2018, public reaction was completely different, in that, we actually had a reaction. This year, on top of everything else that's going on, it seems we’ve barely batted an eye.

My mom lived in Jakarta for much of my childhood, while I mostly grew up in Pennsylvania. 1998 was a tumultuous year for Indonesia, following the Asian financial crisis that impacted the entire region. In May of 1998, the long-reigning president Suharto resigned, and rioters took to the streets, targeting Chinese-Indonesians, an ethnic minority (like my mother), in particular.

Most of her peers had evacuated Jakarta at that point, but my mom, who worked in finance, stayed and worked. I had only a child's grasp of what was going on, but one image stuck in my head: as rioters took to the streets outside her apartment complex, my mom told us she was sleeping with a backpack of emergency supplies in case anything went wrong. As a kid, I was struck by the dissonance of what it must feel like to show up to work every day while also fearing for one's safety on such a basic level. It seemed absurd and incomprehensible. I thought about it last week while wearing an N95 mask indoors with stinging eyes while trying to meet a work deadline.

We're so obsessively focused on getting through a normal day-to-day that we can't even see how much we've lost. Even now, I'm typing this while trying to figure out which daybed to order for my living room and whether to enroll my new cat in kitten kindergarten. Kaczynski would call these "surrogate activities": hobbies that work toward artificial goals, but are ultimately unsatisfying.

In times of crisis, we imagine ourselves as heroes. In reality, the quotidian outpaces the sublime. When I arrived to Jakarta in June of 1998, a few weeks after the riots had died down, I was surprised by how “normal” a crisis could really seem. We've constructed fragile, tattered lean-to's of surrogate activities to distract ourselves from the raging destruction outside, but if we continue to stay here, there will be nothing left to come back to.

What would it look like to take the preservation of knowledge work more seriously? I think about the monasteries that survived through wars and social upheaval, or Rivendell in Lord of the Rings: the idea of physically removing oneself from the daily machinations of man in pursuit of long-term, clear-eyed thinking. Monasteries in Europe were safe havens for scholarship, preserving manuscripts and texts that were otherwise destroyed in the Middle Ages, which later helped give birth to the Renaissance.

I'm typically critical of the siren song of escapism as a lifestyle, and skeptical of attempts to build utopian kibbutzes, because I think social ecosystems flourish best when they're not in isolation. But in pandemic times, fears of waldenponding seem less applicable. It's not about building a new city or society, but a transient, protected retreat. (Think Recurse Center or Pacific Science Institute, not seasteading.) True to Maslow's hierarchy, it is harder to focus on scholarship while navigating a crisis. It seems valuable to shield these sorts of endeavors from an environment that's increasingly hostile to knowledge work.

P.S. I've been thinking about monasteries because—masochist that I am—I have a new research project I'd like to work on. I’m not able to retreat to a monastery in my current life situation, and I've never done research as a side project before, but I also feel a growing moral imperative to contribute to our crumbling knowledge repositories.

Writing

  • "Not voting as a form of protest": I wrote about voter abstention and why it should be considered a legitimate form of civic engagement. I didn't tweet this one out because I didn't really want to get into touchy territory with strangers, but I figured I'd share it here, where we have a bit more context for each other. (And of course, you're welcome to share it as well; it's not private, just nestled in a dark forest.)

Notes

Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • (from a convo) “Idea laundering” as a concept (like money laundering, but for ideas you don’t want to share under your own name). Could happen via anonymity, pseudonymity (alts), or (most interesting to me) funneling your ideas through other ppl

  • (from a convo) Online communities that are tied to a physical identity (ex. Nextdoor, alumni communities) function differently bc it’s harder to defect and leave. But they’re also not necessarily “high-context” communities in the sense of, say, a small town or meetup group. They’re sort in this in-between limbo space, where drama can be worse bc you intuitively assume shared values based on physical identity, but actually at a certain scale there isn’t that level of context at all. Kind of like the “jury duty” effect? You would expect that 12 randomly-selected San Francisco residents would be somewhat familiar to you in terms of identity/values, but actually they’re shockingly different from what one might’ve guessed

  • I think there’s a diff between “content moderation” and setting expectations for civil interactions, and the latter does, or at least can, fall in the purview of what a platform should be tasked with doing, bc it’s basically what any gov’t does as well (creates and enforces laws that foster a safe, civil society). If we focus on doing more of the expectation-setting stuff well, I wonder if that would help reduce the majority of what is actually concerning to ppl about "harmful" ideas (inciting violence, harassment, etc)

  • Thinking about how so many things from this time will be recorded bc live online events are much easier to record, so ppl do it without thinking / for the sake of it. Wonder if having so many of our activities recorded from this era, that otherwise wouldn’t have been, will have any long-term effects (good or bad)

Links

  • The Memory Police (Yoko Ogawa): A novel about a woman living on an island where memories mysteriously disappear every day. New disappearances on the island are normalized, even as they became more extreme. I inhaled this book pretty quickly. It's hard to elaborate without revealing too much of the plot, but this book is sad and haunting and remarkably relevant, I think, to our day-to-day.

  • The Yellow Arrow (Victor Pelevin): I’ve been swallowing myself in Japanese fiction and Russian sci-fi right now (please send recs!). Japanese fiction transmits this empty sadness that I find strangely calming, while Russian sci-fi is like your friend at the bar that slaps you on the shoulder after a hard day and slides another shot your way. In The Yellow Arrow, society takes place on a train that's hurtling towards a ruined bridge. They've been there for so long that nobody ever asks why they're on the train anymore. This novella is a brooding, philosophical foil to The Memory Police, a single note drawn across the strings of a cello.(Somehow I can picture it being made into a Wes Anderson film…maybe it's the train thing).

  • "Co-buying property with friends” (Phil Levin): To paraphrase Phil: lots of people want to buy property with friends, but few people actually do. A detailed and practical guide to co-buying property; certainly the most comprehensive resource I've come across.

  • "The Last Message Sent on AIM" (Justin Tan): Short but sweet essay from a software engineer who sent the very last message on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) before it shut down at the end of 2017.

  • "Orthographic media" (Robin Sloan): Robin conceives of social media as orthographic, where all objects appear to be the same size, regardless of their distance from the camera. For example, on your Twitter feed, you’ll see mundane tweets presented at "full size" alongside more serious ones. I like thinking about this concept as a successor to context collapse. Cocoon, a v2 group chat app, has pointed out the design problem presented by the orthographic nature of messaging apps (e.g., seeing all your texts appear alongside your close friend and group chat discussions).

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