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Category: Social Systems

Solastalgia in the 2020s

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.

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Dark Euphoria in the 2010s

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.

Transcript of Reboot 11 speech by Bruce Sterling, 25-6-2009



  • According to Sterling, the twenty-teens are defined by Dark Euphoria, a cultural temperament of exhilarating unthinkableness.
    • I associate this temperament with the opening of a torrent of alternative narratives that undermine the authority of our traditional information gatekeepers, h/t Martin Gurri‘s book.
  • 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.

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Idiots Are Not Necessary

“It’s hard to grasp that other investors have different goals than we do, because an anchor of psychology is not realizing that rational people can see the world through a different lens than your own.”


I have held positions that are at odds with my position now. I think I can still pass the Ideological Turing Test on those ideas, but I’m less sure of that than I used to be- when you’re settled in a way of thinking, the uniqueness of that framing becomes harder to see. Your set of assumptions feel true and unalterable. Making your foundational beliefs genuinely alterable is uncomfortable and taxing.


One difference I can grok about my mindset now versus maybe a decade ago is that back then I could see failure around me but couldn’t really appreciate Chesterton’s Fence. As a result, I lived with an assumption that behind persistent problems were probably just dumb people. This is a bit of a straw man, but I didn’t have the hands-on experience to understand the sheer hairiness of even pretty common problems. Andrew Sullivan’s blog introduced me to Burkean conservatism. Over time, and especially through my work, I’ve discovered that really smart people are behind many many more large-scale shitty things than I had previously supposed, often because nature is indifferent, communication is unreliable, incentives are misaligned, and fighting chaos is generally exhausting. I think that was the theme of my earliest musings on this blog, really- for me, it was fertile ground for metacognition back in 2012-2013, and now has cooled into just another set of ‘true things about the world’ that frame how I see almost anything.


To be clear, there is plenty of arational/irrational behavior out there. But irrationality is not always a sufficient condition for large-scale, persistent problems.

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Notes on ‘The Complacent Class’

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.

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Fukuyama: Political Decay

Next time I publish notes on a book, I’ll be more careful to frame why it’s actually interesting to me. It’s been a pretty dry month for this blog. The notes took a particularly long time because I lost my little offline copy of quote transcriptions, and a significant amount of willpower with it.

A few more posts coming this week.

1. Why Institutions Fail to Adapt

1.1 Intellectual Rigidity:  Humans “follow institutional rules for reasons that are not entirely rational”- and I’m sure that you’ve thought of several reasons before even finishing this sentence.

1.2 Elite Capture: Political incumbents vote for stasis.”Political institutions develop as new social groups emerge and challenge the existing equilibrium. If successful institutional development occurs, the rules of the system change and the former outsiders become insiders.” Modern states are vulnerable to “insider capture”. Even in democracy, elite insiders generally have better resources and information to protect themselves with.

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Notes on Graham Harman

Did I finish the Fukuyama dive this week like I said I would? No. Are you gonna do something about it? Nope.

These notes are pulled from a few online lectures I’ve listened to by Graham Harman. I still haven’t read any of his books but the signals are good that he’s a person worth reading directly. In the meanwhile, hat tip to Jordan Peacock, the high priest through whom I have seen Harman’s Word.

These notes are light sketches of Harman’s thoughts and philosophy, and maybe in time I can run through again with a darker pencil and hash the details out.


1. The 20th Century, as seen from the 23rd Century

In one lecture, Harman makes some broader claims about the big influencers of the last century that I thought were helpful. In the broadest of broad strokes, the 1900’s will likely be defined in the sciences by relativity and quantum theory and the earliest attempts to unify them. In the humanities, though, Graham claims that it was figure-ground interplay that would define the century’s thought:

  • Sigmund Freud’s emphasis on the [background] unconsciousness translating into [foreground] noticeable behavior and thought. The truth value of the theory is irrelevant, it’s been a tremendous influence, a source of reaction for major schools directly afterwards and an intellectual break from what preceded it.
  • Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message”, which from our relative proximity still kinda goes in and out of style, is considered by Harman to be currently underrated.
  • Clement Greenberg, who oversaw the movement of the artistic avante-garde from Paris to New York City prior to WWII, and who defended Jackson Pollock and early prominent American artists who demonstrated awareness of the canvas on which they worked. Apparently in some circles he is currently seen as kitschy, which might be the sign of his ultimate success. More on him later.
  • Martin Heidigger, who reversed Husserl’s phenomenology. Husserl argued that one should focus not on the hidden objects but instead on the details of experience. Heidigger claimed that we deal with equipment as hidden and withdrawn backgrounds. These tools and details usually only emerge into view when they’re broken: a sudden cough, or a strange noise brings background processes to the forefront.

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Fukuyama: The Spread of Democracy

Previous Book  (Origins of Political Order)

Political Order and Political Decay

This is Part Three, notes and quotes (1) on Class-based analysis of the development of modern states, (2) about how the political franchise has expanded historically, (3) arguments against democracy, (4) the Arab Spring, and (5) where Marx went wrong.

I’ll try to get the last part (on “Political Decay”) out next week.

0. Waves of Democracy

Between 1970 and 2010, the number of democracies in the world had increased from 35 to 120 (or 60% of the world’s countries).

  • First Wave of Democracy: 1820s to early 20th century, as Europe and the United States opened up their political franchises. It’s a slow and clumsy wave, with periods of recession. It’s accepted to have peaked and receded during the interwar period.
  • Second Wave: After World War II into the late 1960s before receding.
  • Third Wave of Democracy: 1970 (Spain, Portugal, then Latin American countries, then Asia, then the collapse of Communism). Arguably receded in the 2000’s.
  • The “Fourth Wave” is the less compelling label for the Arab Spring.

The question Fukuyama poses is why it happened in some places rather than others.

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Fukuyama: Foreign Institutions

Notes on Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order.

Part One of Political Order and Political Decay.

(This is Part Two)

I’ll try to get the next part out next week.

I’ve been pretty bad about writing lately. I haven’t been traveling consistently (my preferred writing time). I also got a new cat. I discovered an allergy to her. I am the Czar of Russia in a grueling stalemate in a weeks-long match of Diplomacy (1 turn per day). Some habits were broken and others were formed. That’s life.


0. Foreign Institutions

Fukuyama examines the development outcomes in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia, exploring climate, geography, and colonial legacy as potential factors that explain why we have what we have today.

He opens with Nigeria. Nigeria is atypically corrupt for Africa. Fukuyama suggests that the country is being choked by Dutch Disease, weak institutions and clientelism. The politically active parts of the population are members of the clientelistic networks, so information about corruption has little effect.

“The roots of Nigeria’s development problem are institutional; indeed, it is hard to find a better example of weak institutions and bad government trapping a nation in poverty. Of the three categories of basic political institutions- state, rule of law, democracy- lack of democracy is not the core of the country’s problems. However poor the quality of Nigeria’s democratic institutions, substantial political competition, debate, and opportunities for the exercise of accountability have existed since the end of military rule in 1999.”

Nigeria’s state is weak and incapable of providing services transparently and impersonally, and further it suffers from a lack of legitimacy. Fukuyama asks why this is, and explores a variety of options.

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Fukuyama: The State and Clientelism

Not long ago I posted notes on Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order. Here are some quick notes on the first third of his recent book, Political Order and Political Decay.

As noted before, there are three pillars of political development: a strong central State, Accountability, and the Rule of Law. Fukuyama argues further that the order of these institution’s development create interactions that strengthen or inhibit other institutions and affect national development in different ways. These patterns are not meant a single consistent story of “stone age to modern states”

I built these charts below based on illustrations in the book:



I. Prussia as an example path to the Modern State


Not all good things go together.

Many of the earliest and most effective bureaucratic states have a developmental history of authoritarianism and warfare. Fukuyama focuses on one of the first “modern states”, Bismarck’s Prussia, once described as “an army with a state.” The State developed first of the three pillars of Political Development, out of existential necessity [Step 1, above]. The supposedly absolute Emperor ruled through an increasingly institutionalized bureaucracy that provided a level of transparency and regularity. The institution of “Rule of Law” was further developed.

The culture provided a landscape that allowed this. “Rule of Law”, Fukuyama has argued, often has its roots in religious authority and traditions of a hierarchy actively interpreting religious doctrine. “In Christian Europe, following the Catholic church’s revival of Roman law in the eleventh century, a wide range of legal institutions were created centuries before the first absolutist monarch began accumulating power in the late sixteenth century.”

According to Fukuyama, Prussia is an example of a common [but not inevitable] pattern of modern, nonpatrimonial states evolving out of military competition providing pressure on states to be effective, somewhat meritocratic delegators of complex tasks. Similar patterns can be found in Qin and Han China two millennia before Prussia, and also in Japan and in Europe in Sweden, Denmark, and France.

The strong central military-birthed state was not particularly conducive to the institutions of Accountability, as one might expect. Countries that developed democracy before a strong State had a different set of challenges.

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