The Industrialization of the Mind
Reflections on the judicious use of social media.
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What was once called Arts and Letters would later be called media.
What was once called media is now called content.
It seems we are embarked on a gradient descent toward the industrialization of the mind.
What should we do?
Today, I’d like to share with you some reflections on one of the most underestimated questions in the world.
The New Factory
Within the “content” industry, there are essentially two buckets. To achieve massive distribution with ideas, it can seem like there are only two options: Indignation, or advice.
You’re either opposed to a particular, sensational moral atrocity threatening to destroy sacred values, or you are entertaining individuals with inspiring suggestions for improving their life. Advice content is not education but comfort, it is almost never used as a playbook for action the day after, but rather it provides happiness and hope only in the experience of consuming it. This is the only tenable interpretation of the genre because its most successful practitioners accrue large audiences of loyal, persistent fans. If the essence of this sub-genre was transformative education, the most successful practitioners would have the smallest audiences—as every newcomer quickly graduates into leaving the content behind.
These two buckets represent two selection filters for massive distribution, i.e., widely recognized success on large algorithmic platforms.
But between or beneath these two buckets is a hidden space where many errant info-workers hang out. There are many brilliant and original writers who are not trafficking in indignation or advice, but pursuing sophisticated and nuanced research agendas, seeking only to build a unique and truthful perspective on certain topics of great interest.
In the short term, it might look like they are not finding as much success as higher-profile figures, but it’s far from obvious how long-term impacts will shake out. Much of what is algorithmically successful is, by definition, servile. Studying and assiduously practicing a tweet format that is likely to bring rapid follower growth really does work to build a substantial audience, but I’m not sure we reflect deeply enough on the price we pay with such a strategy.
Be Careful What You Compound
As Aristotle knew very well, “It is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.” The life of the mind is no different: It is by reading, thinking, and writing good thoughts that one becomes a worthy writer; without doing these, no one would have even a prospect of becoming a good writer.
What seems like a minor compromise, when executed multiple times every day, quickly becomes a part of your character. One begins by saying “Oh, let’s go over here and let’s try this phrase and see how this resonates with others, but only as a short-term tactical compromise to grow the audience, and then I’ll eventually share with them all of my profound and original knowledge.” But that’s a lie: You’ll never have any profound or original knowledge to share because profound and original knowledge requires patient cultivation for a very long time.
Especially in the digital context, everything is about compounding. Whatever you do compounds more than you realize, and effective compounding of the correct things is often the key to outsized long-term success. When you write words to maximize follower growth, you are compounding one metric but is your underlying private edge compounding? You are purchasing growth by essentially computerizing yourself, which means you are only racing to the place where humans will no longer have an edge. You might gain some power by getting there first, but what will you really have when everybody finally arrives there?
Aristotle understood compounding, too: “The pleasures arising from thinking and learning will make us think and learn all the more,” he says.
Be careful what you compound.
Accelerate Computers, Decomputerize Yourself
As others rush to computerize themselves, fighting for scraps off the mega-mechanical table, I am rather seeking to decomputerize myself. We should rush not to where the ball is, but to where the ball will ultimately land. In that place, I expect that everything will be determined by our own original and private stores of knowledge, plus our human relationships. For these will be the only things not fully commoditized by the megamachine, and hence our only remaining leverage over the megamachine.
Whatever you’re reading and writing on a daily basis, today, is really who you are. This is why I’ve always eventually terminated all of my tactical “content” experiments, over the years; nothing ever feels right; even when it shows signs of succeeding, I become very anxious, knowing that I’m dissipating myself at a dubious altar I don’t fully understand. With every iteration, all I’m ever trying to do is get closer to bedrock, to create a compelling frame for simple and unpretentious research and expression in a way that feels true—open enough to feel free, delimited enough to have force.
I haven’t built a huge audience but it’s a quality audience; and I’m quite content as one humble, errant worker in this new factory. If you write what you think, in your own words, for long enough, you’ll eventually get a hearing. What more do you need?
How to express oneself on social media is a dramatically underestimated and under-discussed philosophical puzzle.
I urge you to play the long game.
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