Barbarians Past the Gate

Legacy institutions are at war with distributed collective intelligence, but the legacy institutions are losing—badly.

2 million full-time “content creators,” outside any professional sanction; the election of Donald Trump against an airtight media consensus certain of its impossibility; mass, hysterical preference falsification due to a normalization of political correctness, with silent mass migration into countless private communities; Big Tech’s capitulation to censorship on all major social platforms; the resilient rise in the price of Bitcoin and a proliferation of durable social currencies on Ethereum; and most recently, an unprecedented execution of decentralized social intelligence, which minted more than a few millionaires out of thin air, by a niche internet community hacking the source code of finance capitalism.

Most of the essential requirements for a functioning polity—fiat currency, leaders, laws, and shared identity—have been fully decoded and open-sourced in the form of cryptocurrencies, content creators, Smart Contracts, and fandoms. It seems inevitable that our roughly 195 nation states must increasingly give way to thousands of digital micro-polities, as these embryonically political structures grow in economic and psychological power.

The only other defining characteristic of autonomous polities—a monopoly on the use of force—is increasingly obsolete as the payoff to peaceful trade raises the opportunity cost of physical violence. Hence the relative dearth of interstate war since the end of World War II.

If you doubt the claim that “content creators” are budding politicians—whether they know it or not—consider the curious case of Mr. Beast.

The most powerful Youtubers are accidentally rediscovering the nature of Aristocracy, a type of social role we like to think we abolished.

Mr. Beast is a Youtuber who currently enjoys 52 million subscribers and earns somewhere in the ballpark of $20-30 million annually at the age of 22. Jimmy Donaldson built one of the most influential and economically successful Youtube channels through a specific concept: Outrageous and conspicuous acts of generosity. His typical video involves him gifting large sums of money or lavish objects to random people, poor people, or friends.

As true aristocrats have always known, and as contemporary elites have forgotten, lavish generosity towards the needy demonstrates one’s authentic nobility, wins public attention and admiration, and genuinely improves society while increasing the political and economic power of the donor.

The so-called “creator economy” is only a becoming-liquid of the circuit connecting noble traits, admiration, and capital, such that the previously abolished form of Aristocracy re-appears in a distributed and ungovernable format. You could try to govern it, but you would need someone as organically admirable as the target, or else Mr. Beast fans will never even hear about your new law, let alone respect it (especially after they upload themselves full-time to the Mr. Beast VR pod and earn all of their income through Mr. Beast’s branded gaming engine). National law enforcement does not generally excel in the domain of authentic nobility, ergo the new form of distributed Aristocracy will not be put back in the bottle.

I am not suggesting Mr. Beast will become the effective President of a new country within the United States. I am suggesting Mr. Beast will be one of thousands who effectively constitute micro-polities, each one optimizing for different personality types and demographic buckets. Power laws dictate a small minority of creators will enjoy audiences far larger than the rest, but I suspect at least several thousands of creators will operate all-inclusive weltanschauungen for audiences of several thousands. I am pulling these specific numbers out of thin air, but I am directionally confident; I would encourage someone to explore more sophisticated modeling of this question.

If you still doubt that someone like Mr. Beast is an embryonic statesman, you might be impressed to learn about his long-term goal. His stated goal is to create a nation-wide system of homeless shelters and food banks. That’s right, he’s going to build a national system of public housing. I see no reason why he cannot succeed, given that he has already proven a business model that turns charismatic philanthropy into attention, admiration, and wealth for himself. Given that the USA Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t even try to create housing any more, it is not particularly speculative or sci-fi to suggest that Mr. Beast is on his way to becoming a kind of shadow Secretary of Housing in the United States. It’s there for the taking, it’s his stated goal, and he’s on track to do it. If he falters, it’s hard to imagine that the next generation of creators will also fail to appreciate such historic opportunities in front of them.

Bitcoin feeds directly into content creators becoming governors, not additively but multiplicatively—in a few ways. This means you should watch out for non-linear takeoffs, where things seem to be unfolding gradually, gradually… and then all at once.

First of all, Bitcoin is becoming the leading inflation-hedge asset as the US government engages in unprecedented money printing. Censorship-resistant and inflation-proof money is becoming increasingly accessible, normalized, and trusted at the same time that legacy institutions are doubling down on… censorship and inflation. It’s not inconceivable that eventually the US government needs Bitcoin—and the intellectual/communication services of leading content creators—much more than anyone needs the US government. If the US government’s balance sheet gets worse, and Bitcoin continues to get better, this alone could trigger a non-linear event where all smart money rushes into Bitcoin rapidly, and the US government’s balance sheet collapses with equal rapidity.

Second, most of the leading content creators have hardly even begun utilizing cryptocurrency. They will. Given the mimetic nature of financial value, leading Youtubers could single-handedly increase the price of any given cryptocurrency, simply by promoting it, using it, and whipping their fans into a frenzy.

Just recently Elon Musk put the word “Bitcoin” in his Twitter profile and the price of Bitcoin immediately rose 15%. If for any reason Bitcoin becomes fashionable among leading creators, the result will be non-linear. The creators would be making themselves even richer, simply by adopting Bitcoin and triggering price increases, so I consider this to be a game-theoretic inevitability (even if many don’t want to take this opportunity at time t1, rising creators who do take this opportunity at time t2 will dominate the others, which means it is hard to imagine a future in which this opportunity is not taken).

Just as we watched the Reddit community Wallstreetbets pump the price of Gamestop on the stock exchange, without a leader, any community with a leader will be all the more capable of such a feat. The Robinhood app was able to halt purchases of Gamestop, but there already exist decentralized crypto exchanges, on which nobody has the power to halt trades. Technically unstoppable versions of the Gamestop pump therefore seem inevitable on decentralized exchanges, meaning communities will eventually have unprecedented power to affect the value of assets by sheer belief and collective will.

There is already a new breed of avant-garde content creators—small compared to Mr. Beast but large enough to be dangerous—investing heavily in crypto assets and infrastructure. Consider Trevor McFedries, creator of the first CGI influencer Lil’ Miquela. He’s minted his own social currency $FWB on the Ethereum blockchain, and its value has been rising steadily as the value of his community increases. If he and his community continue to create value inside the community, the value of $FW will continue to rise, and everyone in the community will see their wealth increase in proportion to their $FWB holdings. It is hard to imagine that there will not eventually be a creator as big as Mr. Beast and as crypto-savvy as McFedries, who runs a private digital community with a market cap as great as the GDP of many countries.

The most influential content creators will build cabinets of advisors and shareholders drawn from different domains: A chief technologist drawn from Silicon Valley, a chief financial officer drawn from Wall Street, etc. This is when the political nature of content creators will become unmistakable. These companies will look and feel like small national governments, running a combination of revenue-generating enterprises for profit and philanthropic enterprises for citizen-recruitment, all organized around their own state-sponsored media.

The nation state may well persist, but only as a shell of its former self, and mainly by hitching its wagon to the leading micro-polities. One can imagine a scenario in which Heads of State and leading content creators broker an informal bargain that allow Heads of State to save face on condition they defer to the new power-holders. In the near future, the relationship of the US President and leading American Youtubers may be analogous to the relationship between the Queen of England and Parliament.

Many micro-polities will initially appear to mainstream observers as religious “cults,” driven by “conspiracy theories,” led by charismatic “grifters,” operating massive “pyramid schemes.” Eventually it will be realized that such things have always been the building blocks of nations. As the myth of Romulus attests, the founding of a nation is always a crime—until it’s the law.

There are no humans on the internet

The best way to build community and make friends on the internet is to treat all internet interlocutors as if they are real humans in a real-life, local village. If you do this, over time many people will like you and want to form an alliance with you. Because most internet behavior is so atrocious, if you abide by traditional inter-personal norms (reciprocity, manners, courtesy, etc.), you quickly become a strange attractor. You become a kind of weird avatar from another time and place. Of course, you will encounter many haters in the short-run. They will interpret your quaint earnestness as an ironic performance, or “soy boy” pusillanimousness, or some kind of 4-dimensional hyper-grift. But in the long-run, traditional interpersonal ethics are irresistibly attractive because they are, in fact, good and superior.

Now, of course, there is a reason why average internet behavior is so atrocious.

It is seemingly impossible to abide by small-village norms on the internet, simply because those norms evolved in contexts where villagers had no choice but to play iterated games and everyone could remember everyone else’s behaviors. On the internet, neither of these conditions hold: nobody is forced to remain in any grouping over time, and there are so many people that nobody can remember everyone else’s behavior. There are strong incentives to exploit others, and no obvious reason to invest much care into others. So if you treat every potential interlocutor with care, you’ll quickly waste all of your resources and be exploited into nothingness.

However, it is feasible to apply traditional ethics to everyone who enters your personal sphere for the first time, and then simply ignore them as soon as they fail to reciprocate. In game theory this strategy is called “tit for tat,” and in my contexts it is found to be the best possible strategy. Many people seem to follow a variant of this strategy, in their “blocking” behavior. On Twitter, many people will block someone at the first indication of their enemy status. But most of these people are not really playing traditional-ethics tit-for-tat reciprocity because usually they’re usually also lobbing hand-grenades into the enemy camp for fun and profit on a daily basis. I’m saying one should treat the entire universe of internet denizens on a courteous, tit-for-tat basis: If they’ve done me no wrong, then I won’t do them any wrong. If they come into my sphere, I will treat them as a real friend until evidence of bad behavior, in which case I will not retaliate but simply ignore them.

Anyone who abides by this strategy will be surprised by how quickly a meaningful community emerges around them. This might seem obvious, even trite, but what’s not is how to scale this strategy. Most people who operate this strategy find themselves in relatively tiny clusters. And almost inevitably, they form their own imaginary out-groups and all the pitfalls of group-psychological bias emerge. What I’m really interested in is how to make this strategy scale, without limit or cessation.

I think I have figured out why this strategy is so hard to scale. The solution is hidden behind a deeply counter-intuitive paradox. It’s so counter-intuitive that it’s too psychologically difficult for most people to execute. But in certain ways I think I have been learning to do it, which is how I’ve become conscious of it.

The paradox is that to treat internet denizens humanely at scale, one must cultivate a brutal coldness toward all of the internet’s pseudo-human cues, which are typically visual (face pictures and text) applied to your sense organs by corporations for profit. These pseudo-human cues are systematically arranged, timed, conditioned, and differentially hidden or revealed to you by absolutely non-human, artificial intelligence.

Your goal should be to hack this inhuman system of cues on your screen, with a brutal analytical coldness, in order to find and extract humans into potential relationships. One must stop seeing the internet as “a place to connect with others,” but rather see it as nearly the opposite: It is a machine that stands almost impenetrably between and against humans, systematically exploiting our desire for connection into an accelerating divergence and alienation from each other. It is only when one genuinely cultivates this mental model, over time, that it becomes psychologically possible to treat one’s computer for what it is: An utterly inhuman device for conducting operations on statistical aggregates, a device which only accidentally comes pre-packaged with an endless barrage of anthropomorphic visual metaphors.

Those are not people “behind” the avatars on your screen, those are functions in a machine. When we speak of “the algorithms,” we generally imagine them as code behind apps, but the difficult fact to admit is that “the algorithms” are primarily other people, or at least those names and face-pictures we “interact with.” The codebase of the Facebook app doesn’t really manipulate me, the code is not “gaming” me, because I have no biological machinery that allows complicated lines of technical language to trigger changes in my behaviors. It is ultimately the creative energy of other human beings, uploaded to the machine, that is the driving force of what is manipulating me; the codebase only provides a set of game-rules through which other human beings are incentivized to apply their creative effort.

The horror of big social network platforms is not to be found in “technology” or “capitalism,” it is to be found in what we have become. Capitalism is only the name of that which aggregates from the raw reality of what we really want, of what we really do. The solution is to desire differently. Desire is amenable to updating and collective organizing, at least to a degree, which cannot be said of advanced capitalism.

We must get to work, with icy discipline, creating systems to extract humans from the machine, which means to produce human relationships from what we do have in abundance: data. Human relationships are no longer given to anyone by default, so if you want them you must produce them through engineered systems, or else pay someone who can engineer them for you.

As an aside, “independent content creators” are somewhat misleadingly named; perhaps they are primarily community engineers. Truly independent creative effort, which successfully differentiates itself from the passively extracted “creative effort” of social media sheeple, is like a lightning rod that organizes around itself other like-minded humans looking for an exit from the machine. But of course, the independent community is its own machine, and successful “content creators” are essentially disciplined entrepreneurs running often rather sophisticated systems.

We should seek to build independent systems that are even more aggressively inhuman than big social network platforms — because they hack desire with even more precision — but they should output relationships and experiences that are far more authentically human than anything else currently available. And they should be able to do this at scale. More artificial intelligence, more automation, more precisely optimized processes, but engineered by individuals and small-groups against, rather than for, the pseudo-human web.

Heidegger, Ecstatic Time, and the Community of Mortals with Johannes Niederhauser

Johannes Niederhauser recently completed his PhD at Warwick University for a dissertation entitled, "Heidegger on Death and Being." Check out his Youtube channel here.

Johannes says his dissertation is on Heidegger's entire philosophy but death is the key to his thought. I hung out with Johannes in London recently and his takes on Heidegger are very germane to my own interests, so it was a no-brainer to invite him on the show. We will discuss what Heidegger's philosophy & problematic life have to teach us about the critique of linear time, an alternative conception of ecstatic time, Exit as the thinking of concealment, replacing "resistance" with "releasement," and the construction of true and authentic communities.

If you'd like to discuss this podcast with me and others, suggest future guests, or read/watch/listen to more content on these themes, request an invitation here.

Big thanks to all the patrons who help me keep the lights on.

This conversation was first recorded on April 6, 2019 as a livestream on Youtube. To receive notifications when future livestreams begin, subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the little bell. 

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