10: Memory palaces

One of the loveliest things about living in a city is going back to old haunts - a neighborhood, a bar, a restaurant - and realizing how much you have changed. If you were to draw a line from your old to new self, the difference can be measured by the startling gap between memory and reality.

I had this experience recently, meeting a friend at a dive bar located four blocks from my first San Francisco apartment. I remembered it as a dim, cavernous hideout, filled like a pirate’s cove with my early city secrets. It was the bar of choice for drinking whiskey neat, stomach-flopping first dates, and strange Mission encounters.

Years later, walking into the same bar, the first thing I noticed was the smell of stale smoke and the telltale line of lonely men drinking beers at the bar. The light winked out on my pile of gold. I felt...out of place. The bar hadn't changed, but I had changed. I felt an urge to leave. But I stepped through the door, and thus began the process of merging: reconciling the diff between my past and present selves.

Cities are literal memory palaces, where you can physically re-enter a space filled with artifacts that remind you of who you were and why you used to come here and all the things you wanted to be. Cities are always changing because we are always changing. The artifact is a liquid mirror; it blurs when we reach our hand out to touch it.

Growing up in a suburban town, I visited the same places more frequently. As I grew, they grew with me. I graduated from high school and saw my teachers at church every Christmas for the next 10 years, their faces growing leaner and their children taller, until my family moved away. By contrast, our lives in cities are denser and more sequestered. You may live in the same city for 10 years, but your desire paths are scribbled all over the place.

People are memory palaces, too. They can be revisited like old neighborhoods, after long periods of estrangement, calling up memories that were previously forgotten. There is no erasing your past self, because everything you’ve ever been is sharded and stored among all the people, places, and artifacts you've interacted with.

I was reminded of this while wandering the park with a friend I swore I'd never speak to again. We sat on the same bench that sparked our friendship, our fight, our reconciliation. We mused what it’d be like to sit on that bench in another 5 or 10 years. Remember that time I was a bull and you were a matador, and I charged you and smacked right into the wall? Remember the time you told me I should always try to be more like Nadia, and never more like anyone else?

Someone recently told me that he thinks of meeting new people like starting a counter at zero. I think of it as putting a felt-tip marker to paper and dragging a line. When I meet someone new, I drop another marker, and I walk down the length of the paper. That line may drag on and on for years, through neighborhoods and jobs and relationships and friendships and babies and marriages and fights and divorces, but somewhere, years and years later, someone might bump my arm at a cafe, and I’ll look over and pick up my marker, because there they are again, standing next to me.

Posts I’ve written this month.

  • “The perks of patronage”: I wrote about why we fall in love with a stranger's work online, and why reward tiers don't work for patronage.

  • “City as liturgy” (podcast): We spun up one more episode to interview Timothy Patitsas, a theologian who describes cities through the lens of liturgy, and who Jane Jacobs called “the best interpreter of my work that I’m aware of” (!). In contrast to the Cartesian interpretation of cities as static objects, the liturgical interpretation treats cities recursively (as “the work of the people”). I've been separately trying to apply this idea to software, so this was a fun conversation. Also, I was delighted to find how many of Timothy’s arguments provide a theoretical framework for decentralization. My favorite was subsidiarity, a Catholic organizing principle that “matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized competent authority” -- which gets to the “governance only at the first sign of conflict” idea I wrote about last month.

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

  • Mario Kart as modern application of Aristotle’s peripatetic doctrine

  • Thinking about how social media can be viewed as “content over time” rather than just “content”. The strongest value being exchanged in social media is not the content itself (commodities), but the value of “person who curates content over time” (reputation)

  • I wonder if all subcultures can be defined as variance in response to trauma (diff coping mechanisms, responses to rejection, ways of seeking validation, etc)

  • Jane Jacobs, but for elevator dynamics (optimizing how people use/manage/adapt our environment within buildings, not just between buildings, i.e. cities). There should totally be a Brand-Jacobs mashup of this. “The city inside the city: death and life of how great American buildings learn”

  • Sociology is basically mythology in terms of its purpose to society. Many ideas like tragedy of commons continue to persist, despite being repeatedly discredited. They last not bc they are true, but bc they reflect who we perhaps want to be / how we see each other


Useful articles I’ve read this past month.

  • "Status as a Service" (Eugene Wei): A really fantastic piece on measuring and valuing social capital today. Reading this felt like finding water in a desert: there’s such a dearth of good writing on this topic that feels both deep and contemporary. Worth the long read.

  • “Valuing infrastructure spend: Supplementary guidance to the Green Book” (HM Treasury): I’ve been digging around for literature on how to calculate the economic value of infrastructure. I enjoyed this framework from the British government as a high-level overview of the traits that make infrastructure interesting.

  • “The New Social Network That Isn’t New at All” (Mike Isaac): Welcome to the newsletter ouroboros, where you’re currently reading a newsletter that recommends an article about newsletters, because newsletters are great, which I know you already know, because you’re subscribed to this one.

  • “Where the Wild Thoughts Are” (Venkatesh Rao): Stumbled upon this beautiful essay from 2011 about why Venkat doesn’t believe the future of blogs is paywalled content, which he compares to a zoo. Instead, he envisions Ribbonfarm as a “protected nature preserve for Wild Thoughts”, which is open to the public.

  • “Request’s Past, Present and Future” (Mikeal Rogers): A quick post from Mikeal about why he’s deprecating a Node.js module that he maintains, despite its popularity, in order to let newer modules flourish. Flagging this because it’s rare, and highlights a unique challenge of digital infrastructure, where there is no central governing body. How do we incentivize not just maintenance, but coordination *between* projects, to act in the best interests of the ecosystem?

Relevant books that I’ve read this month.

  • Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy (Carl Shapiro, Hal Varian): I’ve been spending quality time with this book lately, published 20 years ago, to figure out where we lost the thread on information economics. Their thesis is there’s nothing really new about the internet, using classic economics to explain how firms will capture value from information. Although they failed to anticipate many of our emerging questions today, I've got mad respect for Shapiro and Varian, as I imagine playing the anti-hype men was a bold move in a feverish dot-com bubble. There is also plenty they did get right. Most notably, I think they did a good job explaining why we should expect monopolistic markets in tech.

  • Dreaming in Code (Scott Rosenberg): A tale about why software is so hard to build, told through the story of Mitch Kapor’s pet project, Chandler. If you’ve read a lot of open source history, this probably won't feel new, but it’s an entertaining read nonetheless.