I have quit my job, and I’m moving to Mumbai for at least six months.
In the future, I’m sure I’ll spend more time talking about the project that has captured my imagination and compelled me to do this. There are also a number of other factors that have pulled (& pushed..) me towards this decision. It has been a whiplash of a year, politically, financially, and in a hundred other ways.
I have been grappling with this decision to move forward with this project abroad for a while. This project has been at the back of my mind all year, and I think it seeps into my writing here. One common theme on the blog this year was about comfort and complacency, and my own life script. There is another theme that shows up particularly in some [unfortunately] unfinished posts, about wicked problems and inadequate equilibria.
A broader through-line on this blog has been about thinking more broadly about institutions and alternate technology trees. I went to Mumbai last April to dip my toe in the water and to see my options. I’m now excited to jump into a new environment and have my maps and ideas thoroughly invalidated.
“I’m a traffic cop. It’s a job. Somebody’s got to do it. I don’t even represent myself when I’m working. If I was representing myself, I’d let everyone off with a warning. I represent a system. Did I design the system? No. I just enforce it. It’s not for me to decide the system. We elect the people who decide the system. When I write a ticket, everyone tells me a reason that they don’t deserve it. If I gave a warning to everyone with a reason, I wouldn’t give any tickets, and the system wouldn’t work. I don’t get any joy by giving a ticket. And I’m not upset if you beat it in court. It’s not personal. It’s my job.”
–Police Officer, Humans of New York caption
Old one, just stuck out in my notes.
a/n: I don’t think the idea is fully fleshed-out yet, but I can always add and revise.
- According to Sterling, the twenty-teens are defined by Dark Euphoria, a cultural temperament of exhilarating unthinkableness. This is the topic of the preceding post.
- The tone of Sterling’s speeches in the past couple of years has moved on from anxiety to exhaustion.
- Solastalgia is the feeling of dislocation without having gone anywhere, as a result of damage (natural or artificial) to your ecosystem.
- Cultures can learn and adapt, which is why Sterling is a short-term declinist but not a doomsayer, fitting in the “Stagnated Future” category in this old taxonomy I used a few years ago.
Bruce Sterling has a knack for coining/adopting rich phrases to describe cultural sensibilities. I watched some of his recent (2017) talks, and I wanted to record some notes on them to share. I figured a good place to start would be on his earlier talks on the current cultural moment.
Bruce Sterling’s talks on “Dark Euphoria” span from roughly 2009 to 2012 or so. During this era, he coined some unique categories about our cultural moment and the activity of the Stacks (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), and while I won’t go into the Stacks bit here, a Youtube search on his name will bring up hours of engaging rambling.
I start with some concepts he has been tossing around for about a decade now, to set the scene, with some personal annotation and some tie-in to some great Ribbonfarm addenda. In a sequel post I’ll share notes on his more recent talk.
- According to Sterling, the twenty-teens are defined by Dark Euphoria, a cultural temperament of exhilarating unthinkableness.
- Sterling defines four broad demographics, the two larger narratives about the “Shock of the Old” (Crisis Capitalism among the old+global rich, and Development without Progress among the emerging semi-poor) and two new generational demographics under Dark Euphoria: Gothic High-Tech and Favela Chic.
- I tie these ideas to a thread from Ribbonfarm about life scripts that spoke to me, and a thread from Gurri about the Nihilist, which I think is still an underrated archetype.
- Within this cultural sensibility, it is worthwhile to examine our relationship with our work, with our government, and with our belongings.
Tyler Cowen’s “The Complacent Class” isn’t a big book, but it is spawling, touching on a thousand different angles on the same idea. Subtitled “The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream”, it’s easy to draw a clear line from Cowen’s previous book, The Great Stagnation.
You can think of this book as detailing the social roots for the resulting slow growth outcome and explaining why that economic and technological stagnation has lasted so long and why, for the most part, it has failed to reverse itself.
Cowen’s succinct self-summary of The Complacent Class [brackets mine]:
I’ve discussed a number of main elements driving the trend toward a more static, less risk-taking America. These include the collapse of fiscal freedom [e.g. the growing share of government expenses that are non-negotiably directed towards entitlements programs, reducing overall flexibility of the government to deploy resources] and democratic process, lower residential mobility, less building in America’s most productive cities, more segregation by income and status, a much greater concern with safety and risk, the coddling of our children, and fewer start-ups and slower growth in living standards, among others. These forces have led to an America that is calmer, safer, and more peaceful, at least in the short run. But it is also an America that is losing the ability to regenerate itself, reinvent itself, and create new sources of dynamism. And as the years pass, it seems increasingly obvious that the social and economic stagnation of our times is more than just a temporary blip; instead, that stagnation reflects deeply rooted structural forces that will not be easy to undo by mere marginal reforms.
The first section below is more about something a couple of asides that Cowen made that connected to some of the ideas already recorded in this blog. The second section are more direct notes from the text, detailing who the Complacent Class is and why they may have become complacent.
This is not a review of Netflix’s “Fuller House”. You knew when you first heard about it whether you would like it or not. It delivers exactly what it promises, although maybe from a slightly more left-leaning tribal allegiance than I would have guessed.
I took a heavy dose of the show one Friday evening with my girlfriend. There is something eerie about it.
Part of this eeriness is easy to identify- it’s the old sitcom conventions, the laugh tracks, the cringeworthy catchphrases, etc.. But even within the world of the characters, there’s something creepy about the idea of a confluence of events sucking the Tanner family back into this huge (but unsellable?) house and forcing them to persist nearly 3-decade-old relationships exclusively. The opening credits are nearly shot-for-shot with the original. There are even shot-for-shot scene recreations. I did not know Full House well enough to know this, but luckily the show brought it to my attention by providing the original scene to juxtapose at least once.
This is a world where whoever you thought you were and whoever you met in high school were your destiny, and your childhood neighbors never move away. Everyone on the social graph just collapses into one isolated, self-referential net. It is probably how I thought of the future as a kid- all of the same people, same values, but with better technology and a chain of related personal and professional successes. Myopic. Cringe-y. It now sounds to me like a horror show.
I almost wish the new-generation children had the names and attributes of their grandparents One Hundred Years of Solitude –style.
In his recent work, Francis Fukuyama argued that [functional] humans come pre-installed with two main pro-social mechanisms: kin selection and reciprocal altruism. These behaviors (trusting cousins and taking care of those who take care of you) reliably result in band- and tribe-level societies. The technologies that enable organizational capabilities beyond that were not ‘natural’ in the biologically-developed sense: languages, cultures, and other cognitive tools adapted us to survive at a rate beyond what our biological toolkit alone could equip us with. The case is made that humans are animals [indisputably] and the “tyranny of cousins” is our default social situation [probably], barring cultural technologies.
Although our feelings about it being an unhealthy obsession makes some sense, social media seems almost like a return to normalcy. On the scale of human behaviors across time, “sitting alone in an apartment reading a book by yourself” is a weird, sterile, clinical act. Technical considerations aside, there is something very natural about swimming in stream of social media and allowing yourself to be bombarded with whatever ideological pathogens your hometown and college friends and coworkers are coughing up. The big unique thing about ‘social media’ over the old band-level societies is the sheer quantity of potential pathogens available. (Well, that and the fact that with ‘social media’ our bonds are more intentional and less incidental.)
Much in the same way that my cultural cohort has grown from monolithic “germs are bad” sentiments to a more mature appreciation for a well-cultivated microbiome, I suspect that we will collectively come to terms with this aspect of our lives in the near future.
It’s hard for me to say who I spend most of my time with. Like a lot of people, I have a cyborg existence- a good chunk of my social life is online. On the internet, there are groups of semi-strangers whose opinions I read regularly; there are groups of people I’m in regular contact with but who I nearly never see in-person.
As a business traveler, my meatspace life is dominated by weak social bonds on weekdays- coworkers, clients, the set of service workers I see regularly (hotel staff, bartenders, etc). On weekends, I’m home with my girlfriend. I go out for drinks or dinner with closer friends maybe once or twice a month- these are folks I’ve known maybe from college or a bit since then. I have my close friends from the distant past who I might see ‘roughly annually’, but who I try to keep up with through internet mediation.
I turned 26 last weekend. As that cute Wait But Why article demonstrated, in some sense most of the wick of my time with old friends and family has already been burnt up. I’ve been building a life for 30-year-old me who will have even less of that resource. Circumstances in the past few months have had me thinking about that a lot.
I’ve talked before about the idea of institutional “escape velocity” and the idea that for the first quarter-century of our lives, the distance between our institutional life phases is roughly 4 years (elementary school, middle school, high school, college). It has now been four years since college, so perhaps I unconsciously am looking for some kind of new story.
Another year gone. I could basically produce a rehash of my “New Year’s Day Message” from last year and it would basically still model my thinking today.
- I wanted a leaner information diet, which is a resolution that I easily chalked up as a failure back in October– Politics ruined my consumption habits. This year, I am changing my newsfeeds by selectively muting or unfollowing some of the spammier news sources. I’m attempting a sort of ‘barbell’ approach, skimming headlines and enjoy longform content but with less sense of immediacy on either one. I’ve found that the OneTab extension for Chrome is my best friend, because it reduces the anxiety I feel by having a slew of unread browser tabs that drive me to read excessively (which is not as productive as it feels). I think more scheduled and deliberate longform reads should help me get back into writing this year. I’ve learned better than to make promises about writing here, though…
- My low-hassle approach to investments have been rewarding me so far. At the end of 2015, I set a personal Net Worth goal for the end of 2016, but I blew past it in June(!) and had to re-adjust my end-of-year Net Worth prediction upwards by 30%, which I then surpassed in late December. I recently determined that this year, I’ve invested more money than I have spent on everything else combined. Barring one minor contingency (coming up), I expect to repeat this performance this year. Also, I’m not sure if I’ve promoted this (to, like, all five of you reading this) but Personal Capital (link) is amazing and has drastically changed the way I think about my finances. I’ve been on it since 2015 and now I can’t imagine life without it.
- There’s still work to be done regarding daily personal habits on basic stuff like eating and exercise. I’ve been exercising regularly, and I think it has improved my energy level throughout the day, but it isn’t terribly intense. I cooked a lot this year to save money, and I have been shifting away from eating pigs and cows regularly, although I am too spoiled to entirely give them up yet. My girlfriend is an ethical vegetarian who has provided some support on this issue, too. Generally, I have been keeping a lot more lists in the past year, sometimes using Trello, Google Calendar, or just notepad to organize my thoughts. At the end of the day, I think community (often ‘virtual community’, in my case- lurking blogs, forums, etc) is the key technology for changing my mind and my habits.
- I did not go public with most of my tinkering after all. I did wrangle some people into building some fun stuff, but then we largely packed our toys away when the assignment was over. I need to do better about preserving our work. Two good friends and I are thinking about pursuing a potential business venture. That would definitely ruin my investment goals if I went for it, but it’d be a unique adventure to write home about.
- I’ve been doing implementation-side work with the same client for 12 months. As a consultant who usually does month-long strategy engagements, it has been eye-opening. But no, I don’t think I want to do it again.
- This past year, I entered a couple of contests, facilitated some workshops, and signed myself up to talk at some smalltime events. I also officiated a wedding! My girlfriend and I did a little traveling in Europe (Switzerland, France, Monaco). We also spent leisure time in Las Vegas, the Poconos, Chicago, Houston, and my childhood home in Atlanta. This coming year, I expect to vacation in Mumbai for a bit.
My newsfeed is starting to agree with the Archdruid’s belief that civilization is on its way out, but personally life has been good this year (and I maintain that globally, beyond the headlines, last year was the best year on record to be any random human). I want to continue to clarify, simplify, and automate my life because I enjoy the sense of freedom it grants me.
Best of luck this year, or whatever year you’re reading this from.
Game Design Competition
I read The Power Broker as a prerequisite for a game design competition revolving around the book. I did finish the book, but never got around to organizing my notes to post. We did build a game (several, actually, in pursuit of a good mechanic) and though we landed on something we liked, the clock ran out before we could get much polish on it. Though we didn’t win the competition (and the actual winners are very impressive looking!) we’re proud of our game’s weirdness, and are considering if/how/when to get it to a publishable point.
I expected to write a post-mortem about the game, our process, and some lessons learned. The key thing was that I think our process was good and our mechanic had promise, but we didn’t allow ourselves the time we needed to get from 90% to 100% done- or what we call “the other 90%” of production. It’s a common enough problem, and one that was exacerbated by our team being scattered to the four winds.
Despite losing, this was a good use of my time.
Overloaded on Politics
I have to admit that I’m ashamed by how much attention I’ve given this election season. I flagrantly violated my information diet with high-calorie nonsense for months. I’m bursting at the seams with useless trivia. Hours of my life have been lost, in exchange for information that is 99% useless beyond the cheap thrill I get out of it (and maybe the water cooler conversations).
No new information has changed my mind about how to vote during this election. I guess I have grown firmer in my decision, but I suspect that would have happened regardless of how much trivia I consumed. My grasp on some policy details have probably incrementally improved, but at a pretty steep cost in terms of time (and probably health, yeah, a little bit?)
People close to me knew how I was drowning myself in this dreck, and instead of pulling me out they asked me why I didn’t pull everyone I know into it, too. Ugh.
Anyway, of course I will vote because I do think it’s important. I’ll use some of my time, money, and energy to try to mobilize people- especially people who are prone to vote the way that I will vote. I won’t focus much energy here or almost anywhere else to try to publicly convince anyone who doesn’t agree with my voting preference because I’m trying to respect both of our time.
Money Blogs That Aren’t A Waste of Time
– “Money Stuff” column in by Matt Levine. Light and often humorous recaps of money stuff that has happened that day.
– Most things by Morgan Hausel, who now writes on the Collaborative Fund blog. His themes are very consistent, which I appreciate. The basic principles of “being humble” and “keeping your head on” cannot be repeated enough to me to be boring, and his take is usually fun and interesting. Generally, to me, this kind of material is like going to church. You don’t go to learn something new. You know the stories and can pull out the meanings. meditate on the meaning,
– “An Afternoon in Early Autumn” by Greer