Two visions for the future, inadvertently juxtaposed: Nell Zink and Marc Andreessen

Last week’s New Yorker inadvertently offers two visions for the future: one in a profile of the writer Nell Zink and the other in a profile of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. Both profiles are excellent. One of their subjects, however, is mired in a fixed, contemporary mindset, while the other subject looks to a better future.

This is Schultz’s description of Zink: “Zink writes about the big stuff: the travesty of American apartheid; the sexual, economic, and intellectual status of women; the ephemerality of desire and its enduring consequences.” Is any of that stuff really big? Does it matter? Or is it just a list of somewhat transitory issues that obsess modern intellectuals who are talking to each other through magazines like The New Yorker? The material well-being of virtually any American is so much higher than it was in, say, 1900, as to diminish the relative importance of many of the ideas Zink or Schultz considers “big.” At one point Zink “delivered a short lecture on income stagnation: a bird ridiculing its fellow-bird for stupidity.” But global inequality is falling and, moreover, the more interesting question may be absolute material conditions, rather than relative ones. One gets the sense that Zink is a more parochial thinker than she thinks. I sense from The Wallcreeper that she writes about the motiveless and pathless.

Here, by contrast, is Andreessen as described by Tad Friend:

Andreessen is tomorrow’s advance man, routinely laying out “what will happen in the next ten, twenty, thirty years,” as if he were glancing at his Google calendar. He views his acuity as a matter of careful observation and extrapolation, and often invokes William Gibson’s observation “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Jet packs have been around for half a century, but you still can’t buy them at Target.

and:

The game in Silicon Valley, while it remains part of California, is not ferocious intelligence or a contrarian investment thesis: everyone has that. It’s not even wealth [. . . .] It’s prescience. And then it’s removing every obstacle to the ferocious clarity of your vision: incumbents, regulations, folkways, people. Can you not just see the future but summon it?

Having a real vision counts, and it seems that too few people have a vision for the future. Andreessen is thinking not of today but of what can be made better tomorrow. I would not deny the impact of slavery on contemporary culture or the importance of desire on life, but I would ask Zink: if the U.S. is doing things poorly, who is doing them better? And if the U.S. is doing things poorly why then is Silicon Valley the center of the future?

One of these people reads as an optimist, the other as a pessimist. One reads as someone who makes things happen and the other as someone who complains about things that other people do. One reads as a person with a path. The other doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked The Wallcreeper when I read it a couple months ago. I didn’t have much to say about it on this blog because it seems kind of interesting but left me without much feeling. But I can’t help thinking that Andreessen’s vision for the future is big, while Zink’s vision of the present is small.

As a bonus, check out “All Hail the Grumbler! Abiding Karl Kraus,” which is poorly titled but describes Jonathan Franzen’s relationship to art, technology, and other matters. He’s in the Zink school; perhaps something about studying German inculcates an anti-technology backlash among writers, since Germany and the U.S. are both among the most technophilic societies in the world (for good reasons, I would argue). From the article:

Kraus’s savage criticism of popular newspapers, suspicion of technology, and defense of art all appeal to Franzen, whose nonfiction essays strike similar notes. For instance, in the spirit of Kraus, Franzen has attacked the intrusiveness of cellphones and the loss of private space as people bark out the dreck of their lives.

But even “privacy” is a relatively new idea: being alone to read books only really got going in the 18th Century, when books got cheap enough for normal people to borrow them from libraries. The luddites of the day lamented the withdrawal from the private sphere into onanistic privacy. They asked: Why wrap yourself in some imaginary world when the big real world is out there?

As you may imagine I’m more neutral towards these developments. Like many literary types I think the world would be a better place with more reading and less reality TV, but I’ll also observe that the kind of people who share that view are likely to read this blog and the kind of people who don’t aren’t likely to give a shit about what I or anyone like me says.

Much later in the essay its author, Russell Jacoby, writes: “Denouncing capitalist technology has rarely flourished on the left, which, in general, believes in progress.” I get what he’s saying, But denouncing technology in general has always been a fool’s game because a) pretty much everyone uses it and b) to the extent one generation (or a member of a generation) refuses a given technology, the next generation takes it up entirely. Franzen may not like technology circa 2015 but he is very fond of the technology of the printing press. At what point does Franzen think “good” technology stopped?

I’m reminded, unfairly perhaps, of the many noisy environmentalists I’ve known who do things like bring reusable bags to grocery but then fly on planes at least a couple times a year. Buy flying pollutes more than pretty much anything anyone else does. A lot of SUV-drivers living in exurbs actually create less pollution than urban cosmopolitans who fly every two months. By the same token, the same people who denounce one set of technical innovations are often dependent on or love some other set of technical innovations.

Almost no one wants to really, really go backwards, technologically speaking, in time. Look at behaviors rather than words. I do believe that Franzen doesn’t use Facebook or write a blog or whatever, but he probably uses other stuff, and, if he has kids, they probably want smart phones and video games because all their friends have smart phones and video games.

I’m not saying smart phones and video games are good—quite the opposite, really—and I’m sympathetic to Zimbardo’s claim that “video games and porn are destroying men.” But I am saying that the claims about modern technology doing terrible things to people or culture goes back centuries and has rarely if ever proven true, and the people making such claims are usually, when viewed in the correct light, hypocrites on some level. Jacoby does hit a related point: “Presumably, if enough people like SUVs, reality TV, and over-priced athletic footwear, little more may be said. The majority has spoken.” But I want to emphasize the point and say more about not the banal cultural stuff like bad TV (and obviously there is interesting TV) but the deeper stuff, like technology.

The Andreessens of the world are right. There is no way back. The only way is forward, whether we want to admit it or not. The real problem with our cultural relationship to technology—and this is a Peter Thielian point—is that we’re in denial about dependence, need, and the need to build the future.

Novelty, art, business

“[T]he most important task in business—the creation of new value—cannot be reduced to a formula and applied by professionals,” as Thiel says in Zero to One, which, if you haven’t read it, you should stop reading this post and go read it instead. Read properly it’s about art as much as business. The most important task in art may also explain why art schools bother us (sample: “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.?“>): they take what might be successful master-apprentice relationships and make them professional—that is, more like consultants than like artists. Maybe the best consultants are artists, but that’s rare.

There’s more evidence for this: Genre writers often bother literary writers, perhaps because genre writers tend to execute a formula rather than innovate (the word “tend” is key here). If genre writers do come up with a new formula, they tend to iterate on that formula rather than seeking to discover a whole new one; while this might be admired in science and to some extent business it rarely is by artists, who often value noble, large-scale failure over commercial success. It’s easier to scorn what people want than it is to give them what they want, or make what they want.

Many writers of literary fiction are attempting to be novel, though I would argue that most attempts, even those that are highly praised, are actually bad. They may be bad in a way likely to provide tenure for future English professors, but the badness remains, and it isn’t clear that MFA and related programs help inculcate the idea that the most important task is the creation of new value, which by definition can’t be foreseen ahead of time. If someone foresaw it, they would execute, and the value would be there. Unpredictability may also be why so many artistic careers are difficult: you don’t know if you’re really creating value until it’s too late. Efforts at standardization are futile. Value may not even be recognized in your lifetime. You really are Sisyphus. When I first read the core part of The Myth of Sisphyus, in high school, I thought it stupid, yet it remains with me because it touches something at the core of not just art but life.

As Jonah Lehrer wrote, “although we are always surrounded by our creations, there is something profoundly mysterious about the creative process.” That mystery exists across fields.

The moderator problem: How Reddit and related news sites decline

Online communities often go from a small, enthusiastic, intelligent niche group that is relatively self-policing to a larger, amorphous group that becomes stupider at a rate that’s an exponent of the number of users (the linked book is excellent on this topic). Initial moderators are usually enthusiasts and small groups are more like communities than cities. Later moderators are usually adversely selected: What kind of person would voluntarily spend lots of time and energy policing a community for no money? Consequently, online community decline is often exacerbated by the moderator or moderators who eventually take over or seek power.

The psychology of someone who is willing to moderate a Reddit subsection—or any similar site, like many mailing lists—is probably not good. It takes someone willing to spend a fair amount of time at a thankless task that is hard to do well and rarely if ever remunerative.

A lot of the people who start at that task do so optimistically but quit as their lives change or the task becomes more onerous. Who gets left? People with axes to grind; people with no sense of perspective; petty tyrants; and so on. I don’t use Reddit much for many reasons, but low moderator quality is one. I rarely bother messaging them because doing so is largely a waste of time.

The problem with moderators is not dissimilar from the problem of users: People who regularly have something interesting to say and the means to say it well get blogs, as I wrote in Social news sites and forums should encourage users to blog. Those who don’t stay on Reddit. The average contributor to Reddit doesn’t have a lot of stake in long-term reputation—as bloggers, journalists, and academics often do—and that shows in the quality and quantity of posts. That may not hurt the site—the popularity of bad TV shows over many years demonstrates lowest-common denominator issues—but it should hurt it in terms of high-quality users.

A form of Gresham’s Law applies to social sites and to moderators: bad commentary pushes out the good, and smart people flee stupid comments. One could alternately call this a tragedy of the commons, in which communal spaces become overrun with spam or commentary so stupid that it might as well be spam.

Reddit and similar sites can have an orthogonal problem, however, as they become so afraid of self-interested commentary or posts that they forbid it—thus causing smart people to go elsewhere with their thoughts, and leaving the dregs unwilling or able to create standalone communities or blogs.

This may be part of the reason why Reddit—even on the “good” subsections—tend to be better for beginners: anyone who gets past the beginning stages needs more expert advice than Redditors can provide. The same is happening to Hacker News, too, or it has already happened, though not as severely: Hacker News has an advantage in that its survival and the intelligent commentary on it is tied to a business that is in turn tied to ideas. Its moderators have a stronger incentive to get it right, since they’re not driven primarily by ego or overwhelming fear of “spam.”

That being said, anyone who has seen an unmoderated forum is aware of the fact that unmoderated forums are unusable. So getting rid of moderators is not a solution. In general the mechanisms of exit, voice, and loyalty, as described by Hirshman at the link, apply on the level of online communities. But constantly shifting for newer communities where smart people congregate is at best difficult and at worst a waste of time in and of itself. Reddit has to some extent worked on this problem through the sub-Reddit system, which is a better-than-nothing solution but not a great one.

Maybe there is no good solution to this from the perspective of smart users other than withdrawal. Better blogs written by smart individuals or groups are better than virtually any online, Reddit-like community I’ve found. Which is too bad. But I doubt most people in latter-day moderator positions are even willing or able to read this post, and, if they are, I don’t think they’ll understand it, and, if they do, I don’t think they’ll accept any of it.

Does IKEA enable mobility?

In “How Ikea took over the world” Beth Kowitt writes:

In the furniture world there’s an oft-cited statistic that we have our sofas longer than our cars and change our dining room tables as frequently as our spouses. Furniture can be its own kind of ball and chain. It’s passed down from generation to generation, or it’s so expensive that people feel it’s forever. From the get-go, Ikea shook up that paradigm. “It traumatized furniture retailing,” says Martin Toogood, who has run several companies that have competed against Ikea over two decades.

Ikea kept its prices down with an obsessive focus on costs. It might skip an extra coating of lacquer on the underside of a table that people never see or use. The company has also stripped out as much labor as possible from the system, pushing tasks that were once done by traditional retailers onto the customer. Flat packed furniture made it easier for customers to take purchases with them, cutting out the expense of stocking and delivery. (Ikea figured out flat packing in 1956, when a designer took the legs off a Lövet table to get it in his trunk.)

I’ve read that IKEA might enable greater mobility by making moving cheaper. Rather than buying a bunch of expensive furniture and then spending thousands of dollars to haul it, IKEA allows people to quickly, and with low search costs, buy functional stuff when they move—and sell or throw away what they don’t use. I’ve been the beneficiary of lightly used stuff: Kowitt says that “One Billy bookcase, an Ikea classic, is sold every 10 seconds,” and the couple of them in my apartment came from Craigslist, either free or for $10.

A modern person looking for a job might find it easier to pack a laptop, a Kindle, a (few) paper books, some pots and pans, and clothes into a couple boxes, ship them, and re-buy everything else on the other side. Being able to focus more experiences, and spending on experiences, might be enabled by IKEA. And with more and more other stuff available cheaply online—Tuft & Needle beds are my favorite pet example—a lot of people can be substantially more mobile. Craigslist may be a substitute for U-Haul.

Furniture isn’t “forever” anymore, and I’ve met “minimum furniture” people who seem very happy with not much stuff: usually they want a desk of some sort, a bed, and maybe a small table and chairs. They rarely have friends over, or if those friends do come over it’s to pre-game, and the apartment is mostly for the big “S”es: sleeping, showering, or sex. Why bother with more?

EDIT: In “A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Chris Dixon About Venture Capital and Startups” Tren Griffin writes:

McKinsey placed little or no value on what Craig McCaw called the ability of people to be “nomadic.” The mobile phone had each of the attributes Chris Dixon noted above. Some people thought of the mobile phone as a toy. Since my first mobile phone cost more than $4,000 dollars I actually felt awkward using it in some social settings. Talking into a mobile phone in some pubic settings would cause people to frown at you.

To continue my example, Craig McCaw was also an enthusiastic personal user of what we then called “cellular” phones. Craig McCaw loved working out of the ‘mobile office’ – meaning cars, planes, boats and ships. Which meant he was a natural enthusiast for the product. When the time came to sell his cable TV business in order to double down on the mobile phone business, the choice was made easy by his love of the mobile phone.

Mobility seems like a long-term secular trend. Cheryl Strayed glamorizes it in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Her writing is as excellent as her life choices are dubious yet revealing of modern character. Bet against a wandering lifestyle at your own peril, and invest in it when you can.

The Friendship Challenge

The Limits of Friendship” is primarily about the Dunbar number, and the article’s attendant Hacker News discussion evolved or devolved toward discussing friendship more generally (“Reading the comments, I’d say many members of HN should probably invest more time fostering friendships”). Both remind me of discussions with friends, about the nature of friendship, and how most people seem ill-prepared for social life after school.

In American and perhaps Western society as a whole like-minded people at similar life stages continuously mix together from age five up to at least age 18 and often well into the 20s through school. Then people often stop routinely mixing with new people, different people find themselves in different stages of life, and the friend machine often stops.* Yet it doesn’t have to, but making friends and meeting people becomes a skill more than a side effect of being.

A friend observed that I have a “gift” for talking to strangers, which would probably be a funny observation to my family or people who knew me in high school. Still I thought the comment was awesome because I’m quite the opposite: when I was a teenager I was pathologically shy for a lot of my life, and it’s taken a lot of effort to cultivate the ability to be social with strangers. I wrote to the friend that casually and regularly making friends is a learned behavior for me.

I used to never do it (flirting with women was also a learned behavior, as extensively and embarrassingly discussed here). Now that I do, however, I’ve noticed that people think I’m automatically good at it. A lot of things people now identify as characteristic Jake behaviors are really, really learned. I think that the temptation to see them as innate is attractive because it excuses us from doing the work necessary to cultivate and practice them.

I don’t want to be one of those people who hit 30 and are like, “Gee, I don’t have any friends anymore…” Part of the challenge comes from friendships being defined by time-of-life. Single people want to party and mingle with other single people. Couples (often) with couples, since single people can be threatening to relationship stability. Parents of young children rarely hit the bars at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday night.

Generalizations are obviously not universally applicable to all people all the time, but they exist for a reason. People with kids identify with other people with kids and so on. Parents talk about babysitting and their children’s shitting habits (I seriously hope to never do that). Your best friend at 20 might have nothing in common by 30 depending on when / where / how you evolve.

I see more and more lonely people who are like “Why am I lonely?!?” Let me be harsh for a moment and say they’re like fat people who are like, “Why am I fat?” and “I want to lose weight.” Some people have medical or medication issues, but for most the answers are straightforward: “Stop eating cookies and drinking soda and do some pushups and ride your bike instead of driving your car.” The response is usually, “I don’t have time blah blah blah.” Problems have solutions and there are many ways to falsely divide people into two groups, and one of those ways is between people who do the shit necessary to be effective and the ones who don’t.

Everything I have learned I feel like I have learned the hard way, through enormous amounts of error. That’s one reason I’m not too pissed about being told I’m a novice lifter at the gym. Chances are the trainer is right and I need to practice. Practice is everything. I suck at everything until I try, really hard and really repeatedly, to get better at it.

Friendship also isn’t quantifiable, which probably dissuades some high achievers who want everything measured in grades, dollars, or some other metric (that Facebook can be measured in this way may be one problem with it). There are still guides to becoming better at people. For example, How to Win Friends and Influence People is surprisingly good. I heard about it through reputation and assumed it would be stupid. I was wrong. Read it, annotate it, read it again in three months. There is a reason it has endured for (literally) generations—I think it first came out in the 1920s or 1930s—and that’s because its advice is timeless.

How to Be Polite” has one or two paragraphs that are brilliant (it also has some other paragraphs):

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

The resources are there. The challenge is implementation. Let me repeat myself: Making and keeping friends is a learned skill, which many of us never learn and some of us learn much later than we should.


* (Adolescence is hard because it scrambles all the rules and principles learn about friendship from approximately toddlerhood to say age 12. Tom Perrotta’s Election has a great line in which a character observes that sex habitually turns friends into strangers and strangers into friends. Francine Prose’s young adult novel Touch hits similar themes. It may be that many people are unhappy that we never really return to those pre-puberty rules and roles because our desires and incentives change, and we have powerful evolutionarily shaped drives to do certain things and behave in certain ways.)

Life: The purpose of life edition

“I may think socializing is a way to waste time,” Zhang says. “Also, maybe I’m a little shy.” [. . .]

Seven days a week, he arrives at his office around eight or nine and stays until six or seven. The longest he has taken off from thinking is two weeks. Sometimes he wakes in the morning thinking of a math problem he had been considering when he fell asleep. Outside his office is a long corridor that he likes to walk up and down. Otherwise, he walks outside.

“What is the purpose of life” is a question everyone answers with their life.

The blockquote is from “The Pursuit of Beauty: Yitang Zhang solves a pure-math mystery,” and the article is itself beautiful and brilliant. Edward Frenkel gets name checked, and his book Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality could be profitably read in tandem.

Sometimes when I read articles about income distribution and fights over slicing up the massive economic pie I think of articles like “The Pursuit of Beauty.” What would a world in which people signaled less and did more look like? But the preceding sentence is itself signaling, so I’m part of the problem by saying so.

The Dan Savage Interview Problem

Dan Savage’s Playboy interview is interesting for many reasons (among them: Playboy still exists?) and he gets many things right in it and the interview is worth reading. Nonetheless he gets one important thing mostly wrong:

Sex negativity is imposed on us by religion, parents and a culture that can’t deal with sex. [. . .] Judaism, Christianity, Islam and almost every other faith have constantly tried to insert themselves between your genitals and your salvation, because then they can regulate and control you. Then you need them to intercede with God, so they target your junk and stigmatize your sexual desire. If you have somebody by the balls or the ovaries, you’ve got them.

Let me channel Jonathan Haidt and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt writes that “Groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.” Religions serve or served a lot of purposes, and as Savage and Haidt both note regulation was one of them, and sexual regulation exists, as far as I know, in all cultures that have produced writing.

Regulation and control aren’t just about control for their own sake; they’re about solving coordination problems that allow people to act within a system with some expectation of how others will act. Religious regulations weren’t just about stigmatizing desire: they were about trying to create functional societies that minimize jealousy, wasteful resource fights, and so on, while maximizing the chance that the society’s members actually survive and reproduce. Religions act as operating systems for societies (which is a metaphor I’ve stolen from Neal Stephenson). The surviving religions have literally been battled-tested.

Stigmatizing sexual desire happens because desire can be overwhelming and destructive. That was particularly true in an age before birth control, antibiotics, and the many other lovely technologies we take for granted. Even then, a lot of desire found a way towards expression.

It is true that a lot of modern religious figures don’t understand that good guides to life in the year 1000 may not be particularly relevant in post-industrial societies, or that technology may be rapidly reconfiguring what rules make sense and what rules don’t. Robin Hanson has argued in a variety of places (like here and here) that pre-modern foraging societies and farming societies had very different sets of values based on their respective needs. Each group tends to think that its morality is eternal and unchanging, but its morality, rules, and codes may actually arise in response to the conditions of the society. Hanson thinks we may be moving back towards “forager” norms, since we’re now much wealthier and much more able to collectively bear the costs of, say, single motherhood, members of society that don’t produce more than they consume, and so on.

The major Western religions (Christianity and Islam in particular, and Judaism to a large extent) arose or developed in farming societies, and their times have marked them. That sort of idea didn’t of course make it into the religion—one way to enforce religious thinking is to argue that the thinking is eternal and unchanging—and it couldn’t: the Industrial Revolution was impossible to predict before it happened. Values battles of the last 50 (and really more like 100 – 150) years have occurred because social changes lags and sometimes impedes technological change.

We may also see religious systems persist today because followers of religious systems may simply leave many more descendants, who in turn follow the religion, and than those who don’t. I don’t have a citation for this off the top of my head, but it’s fairly well known in social science that religious people have more children, and start having children at younger ages, than secular people. Children tend to act like their parents to a greater extent than is commonly realized.

Given those facts, we may see religions persist because they still enable people to create more people faster than those who don’t participate in such a system. Europe may be a societal-wide example of this phenomenon: it’s probably the least-religious place on earth, and yet the continent is facing serious demographic challenges because of the age distribution of its population and the fact that native-born Europeans are not having enough children. As always there are many other factors at play and I don’t want to isolate religious belief as the sole factor, but there is likely more than correlation going on too.

Note that I’m trying to be relatively value-neutral and descriptive in this post. The amount of value-neutral commentary on these issues is in my view much too low, which may be why we see a lot of ignorance and shouting in public spaces, while people otherwise quietly go about their lives.

I’ll also note that as a religiously indifferent person myself, I find it odd to write this quasi defense of religion. Nonetheless Savage is looking at a small piece of a larger whole and mistakenly thinking that the piece is the whole.

Here is Tyler Cowen on related matters. Here is my earlier post on religion in secular life. The extent to which religious behavior is driven by feeling is underrated. Sex and religion are also fields that some people choose to make their defining characteristic. The religious tendency in this  direction is well-known, but as Katherine Frank writes in Plays Well in Groups: “This is at some level a hobby, sex for fun. As with any hobby, you will make friends, acquaintances and even enemies as you partake. Sex is easy—insert tab A into slot B—but friendship takes time to development” (64). “Hobbies” generally don’t define people, yet how many of the religiously inclined would describe religion as a hobby? Is friendship a hobby?

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