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The Meaning of Clubhouse vs. Taylor Lorenz

This is not just another Twitter beef, but a bellwether for the changing structure of intellectual influence.

Clubhouse is a “drop-in audio” chat app especially popular in tech circles. People come in and out of ephemeral chat rooms; the rooms split users into speakers and listeners, with users moving between the two.

Taylor Lorenz writes for the New York Times, mostly about how people in tech are immoral (racist, sexist, harassers, etc.). Right now Lorenz is going hard after Clubhouse.

This conflict is more interesting than it appears. First, the design of the Clubhouse app is surprisingly profound because it allows high-status individuals whose status is based on superior belief-calibration (successful founders and investors, by definition) to calibrate their beliefs privately, and also, paradoxically, to an audience.

On the other hand, for high-status individuals whose status is based on prestige institutions, their only raison d'être is the historical inability of other high-status people to calibrate and distribute their beliefs independently. Prestige opinion writers once solved a coordination problem for high-society; though not everyone would agree with any given prestige opinion writer, they provided a focal point and the basic premises which all high-society players could assume that all other high-society would respect.

Insofar as the Clubhouse app allows for private belief formation among high-status individuals, while also distributing those beliefs semi-publicly in real time, it’s hard to overstate the threat that Clubhouse poses to institutional opinion leaders. Taylor Lorenz’s campaign against Clubhouse is best understood as desperation in the face of an existential threat.

If one journalist is able to dominate the development roadmap of Clubhouse, then we have not yet reached the peak of what proponents call The Great Awokening and critics call Cancel Culture. If the Clubhouse team proves that hosting genuine high-status belief-calibration has a payoff greater than the cost of negative influencer campaigns, then we are likely past the peak. Even if Clubhouse fails for other reasons, the key question to watch out for is whether negative influencer campaigns are able to destroy the specific feature of private belief-calibration combined with real-time distribution. If not, a number of new communities may replicate this feature in a way that’s too decentralized and private for prestige journalists to even monitor, let alone attack.

The subtle genius of Clubhouse

Clubhouse is unlike any other platform right now insofar as you easily encounter a bunch of previously “canceled” people—unable to tell their story anywhere else—not only telling their story, but to diverse interlocutors who both listen honestly and challenge aggressively. It’s frankly amazing, given the current wave of hypermoralism that started suffocating public intellectual culture since about 2013.

I’ll give you a random example from my experience on the app. Take the case of Kyle Kashuv. I never even heard of him, until one day I dropped in on a chat he was in with Mike Solana and Mason Hartman, among others. After a few minutes I grokked the basics: He survived a school shooting and then became a gun-rights activist, against the grain of what one would expect. He was recently canceled for something or other. OK, whatever.

Then Kmele Foster mentioned that he was receiving messages about racist comments Kyle made in the past (in text messages when he was a kid). They talked it out, maturely on both sides. Kyle clarified his apologetic view of his past behavior, and a productive discussion was had about youth in the digital epoch. Kyle’s past use of racist language was never excused, but neither was it obsessed over with hours of collective self-flagellating virtue display. It was basically ideal reasonable human discourse, from a diverse cast of interesting personalities. Compared to what you’ll find in virtually any other public or semi-public sphere available today… I almost had to pinch myself.

That’s when I realized why there is a weirdly intense and weirdly personalized conflict between a whole platform and one institutional journalist (who is, by the way, not only active on the platform but likely in the 90th percentile of the most followed people).

It’s not just that Clubhouse allows canceled people to exist and talk, what’s most significant is the influence math. In the above example, I got an immediate and direct view on this Kyle Kashuv kid, which doesn’t let me say too much about him but it does let me quickly and confidently reject any obviously false statements about him. For instance, if I read in the New York Times tomorrow that he is a “white supremacist,” it would be psychologically impossible for me to integrate that into my neural network, and the only possible result is that my respect for the New York Times decreases drastically.

That’s one reason why Clubhouse is particularly terrifying for the Taylor Lorenzes of the world. But there’s another reason, which is more interesting.

Private formation of high-status beliefs is an existential threat to prestige editorial

Historically, the superpower of establishment journalists is that they’re able to reliably anticipate what high-status opinion will think or feel about any current event. That’s because they’ve historically owned a majority share of it.

If you have a strong read on what high-status opinion is today, it only requires a moderately capable person to profitably churn out opinions that will be enjoyed by most high-status consumers (and therefore all aspirational middle-brow consumers) tomorrow.

But what if, suddenly, high-status individuals started calibrating their beliefs in private but scalable groups, segmented by personality, industry, etc.? It destroys a key competitive advantage of prestige editorial. The cutting edge really starts to cut, and thereafter the only way for any public intellectual to think or write on it—for an intelligent audience—is to calibrate one’s own mental models against the raw data of the world, ignoring prestige middlemen as much as possible, respecting only other people with similarly uncorrelated minds calibrated to the raw data of the world.

To the degree this technology scales, journalists are no longer able to confidently estimate what exactly high-status people think at any given moment. For most of the broadcast epoch, it was easy for prestige journalists to know what high-status people will respect on any given day: roughly, what prestige journalists opined yesterday. But Clubhouse does not just remove from prestige journalists this one competitive advantage.

Burned bridges bring desperation

The Clubhouse design is an existential threat for people like Taylor Lorenz in part because the stock of cancelable truth-statements that has accumulated over the past several years has grown so large that prestige editorial is an impassible minefield for everything but the anticipation and flattery of prevailing moral fashions.

Zoom out for a moment. To postpone the obvious undermining effect of the internet on the rents extracted by gatekeepers of prestige institutions, many gatekeepers have already gone all-in on moralism over truth-telling. It has been the best career strategy since 2013 for all non-STEM and verbally gifted segments of the young-professional class.

Building an intellectual career on moralism is a bridge-burning gambit. For today’s rising stars of prestige media, there is simply no return to a truth-telling career. (Maybe ~10 of the worst offenders could do a big splashy book where they say everything I’m saying right now, confess their sins, and from the demonstrated courage of this, pivot their career into something intellectually respectable; but that would get old quick and after the 10th author of this kind, everyone will just feel bad for them like the “celebrities” you see on Cameo selling video messages for $100.)

Aside: The moralistic career intellectuals of the world can and may get by for a while on the Substack-defection model, but in equilibrium social-justice-based content plays are doomed. Moralism (without monopoly distribution) is an undifferentiated commodity. If such an author figures this out in time, they may learn how to find some kind of truth-edge that people might continue to pay for. So it’s not all doom and gloom for Taylor Lorenz, even if Clubhouse and similar communication networks threaten to vitiate the basis of her current career.

Another reason why many of today’s institutional intellectuals seem so desperate is that the public record of their morally inspired dishonesty is often massive. All the bad faith tweets, the shameless deviations from uncontroversial scientific findings, etc. The public record of these punch-drunk moral enthusiasms over the past six years almost certainly exceeds what accumulated in the Soviet Union’s now-insane-seeming public displays of love for Stalin (if only because we have more data).

Why else would someone like Taylor Lorenz be so obsessed with Clubhouse? It’s not obvious. A few years ago, if someone like Taylor reported on a place like Clubhouse being racist, they certainly never would have stepped foot in it! Notice how that’s changed.

Lorenz is an active and influential figure in the Clubhouse social graph. Could you imagine if a journalist at the New York Times signed up for a truly racist forum, like the white supremacist forum Stormfront? And also built a substantial following there? Of course it’s unthinkable, because Stormfront is… actually racist. Lorenz can do this on Clubhouse because it’s not systematically racist, or sexist, or bad at all.

Conclusion

The potential scaling of private high-status belief formation, especially when combined with real-time distribution, is an existential threat to the economic viability of prestige editorial as we know it. It’s also a personalized existential threat to individuals whose claim to prestige is based almost exclusively on a social-justice-based personal brand (“expert in feminism,” “expert in anti-racism,” etc.).

If one journalist can destroy what’s genius about Clubhouse’s subtly innovative design, expect many more journalists to do the same, for who knows how long.

But if the team at Clubhouse can weather this storm, and maintain the specific feature of allowing high-status individuals to honestly think and judge for themselves what’s happening in the world—despite whatever prestige journalists say about what’s happening—then all these bad-faith crusades might just go away. At that point, the public narratives generated by cells of independent thinkers would become the focal points around which the rest of high-society must take its cues. The disingenuous moral crusaders would find themselves stranded, their personal stock price down to zero. Fortunately for them, innovation and reinvention is always possible on the internet.

Intelligence as a political cleavage

Intelligence is increasingly a political cleavage, thanks to the phenomenon of skill-biased technological change.

If your income is earned through competition on an open market, intelligence is an unambiguous good. You need it, you want it, possessing it makes you succeed and lacking it makes you fail. The continued development and maximization of artificial intelligence is an obvious and mundane reality of business development.

If your income is earned through a bureaucratic office of any kind, success in that office increasingly requires opposition to intelligence as such. Unions were always essentially anti-intelligence structures, defending humans from innovative insights that threatened to displace them. But unions were defeated by the information revolution, which was a kind of global unleashing of distributed intelligence. Now, atomized individuals within bureaucratic structures spontaneously converge on anti-intelligence strategies, in a shared sub-conscious realization that their income and status will not survive any further rationalization.

How else do you explain the recent co-occurrence of the following?

  • Mass political opposition to mundane psychology research on intelligence
  • Evangelical public moralizing against competence as an increasingly visible career track (in journalism, some academic disciplines, the non-profit sector, etc.)
  • Social justice culture in general as a kind of diffuse “cognitive tax.” It is a distributed campaign to decrease the returns to thinking while increasing the returns to arbitrary dicta.
  • The popularity of pseudoscientific concepts serving as supposed alternatives to intelligence, e.g. “emotional intelligence,” “learning styles,” etc.

Finally, it is no surprise that many of these symptoms are rooted in academia. This is predicted by the theory. The authority and legitimacy of the Professor is predicated on their superior intelligence, and yet their income and status is predicated on anti-intelligent cartel structures (like all bureaucratic professions). It is no wonder, then, that increasing intelligence pressures are short-circuiting academic contexts first and foremost.

Once upon a time, professors could enjoy the privilege of merely slacking on competitive intelligence application. These were the good old days, before digitalization. Professors could be slackers and eccentrics: a low-level and benign form of anti-intelligenic intellectualism. They didn’t have to actively attack and mitigate intelligence as such. Today, given the advancement of digital economic rationalization, humanities professors work around the clock to stave off ever-encroaching intelligence threats.

The difficult irony is that anti-intelligence humanity professors are acting intelligently. It is perfectly rational for them to play the game they are playing. Not unlike CEOs, they are applying their cognition to maximize the profit of the ship they are stuck on.

Calling all indie thinkers (literally)

Over the past week, I’ve conducted more than ten private Skype interviews with a diverse group of internet intellectuals, “content creators” of the higher-brow variety, cancellation-vulnerable professionals, and lesser-known upstarts aspiring to be one of these…

The reason I organized these Skype calls is that I spent the past month studying all the best practices that have emerged from lean/agile tech-startup culture. After nearly exhausting all the relevant Y Combinator and Indie Hackers content, it became apparent that one of the most important ways to succeed in building something effective and financially sustainable on the internet is to talk with the people for whom you plan to build it.

In my case, all I know is that I seem to find myself at the center of something quite new (conducting a financially sustainable academic career purely on the internet) and a decent quantity of people are now contacting me for various forms of advice. This seems to suggest I am in a position to create something of value for people, but I’ve never seen myself as an entrepreneur or “founder” and I’ve never really had any visionary business ideas.

But I really need to start making money lol. I’m now fully 6 months out from exiting academia and, while Patreon and freelancing odd-jobs are currently enough to pay the bills, it would be nice to put some caviar on my nachos.

So I figured I would learn everything about how and why startups succeed/fail, and then transfer that knowledge to the “content creator” game.

I still don’t know what, exactly, I’m going to build. So I’m just doing the one thing that everyone in-the-know says you should absolutely do first: I’m having one-on-one conversations with people in my orbit about their “pain points” (I know you like that business-speak baby). I’m trying to figure out the problems encountered by other internet-based intellectuals, cancelled or cancellable academics, and higher-brow “content creators,” and then I’ll try to solve them with something that people want to pay for.

I have no idea if this will work. After talking with people, I honestly now feel like I’m starting to see a vision of something that could really work, but entrepreneurs are notorious for their irrational over-confidence. Discounting for that, I feel utterly clueless about whether I’m really onto something.

So I’m just going to keep moving forward, in very small steps, trying to converge on an objectively data-driven idea. I’ll keep you posted, of course.

One positive result that’s already emerged from this exploration is I’ve come upon a possible catch-phrase to summarize this weird, pregnant-but-not-yet-born niche I’ve been theorizing. It’s simple, natural, short, and unpretentious. It is at least 10x better than all the awkward and cringey phrases I’ve been using until now, for lack of any better options. Instead of repeatedly saying things like “internet intellectuals, content creators of the higher-brow variety, and cancellation-vulnerable professionals,” from here on out I’m just going to refer to us all as indie thinkers.

By the way, if you feel this describes you, I’m still conducting interviews. if you’d like to setup a short Skype call. I'll just ask you a few questions about your problems. Who doesn't want to vent about their problems?

Technocommunist Vectors: Radar Edition

When I first laid out my idea for a neo-feudal technocommunist patch, I only waved my hand at the coming technological pathways to my proposed polity. In that first talk, I just hypothesized that Rousseau's concept of the General Will could be engineered by Internet of Things + Smart Contracts.

But "Internet of Things" is really just a popular shorthand for the deepening integration of our physical and digital worlds. So it's easy to point at such a general class of coming technologies and say "something here is certainly going to solve [insert hitherto unsolvable problem]." One could very well have questioned my original talk on the grounds that what I was describing is not really feasible, or will not be feasible anytime soon.

The technology necessary to make communism game-theoretically stable seems closer than I thought.

One pathway on the sensor front is radar. Google has produced a new sensing device called Soli, which uses miniature radar to measure "touchless gestures." It's basically a tiny chip that holds a sensor as well as an antenna array, in one 8mm x 10mm rectangle:

Though Google's intended applications revolve around hand gestures, some people are already finding more general applications. (A flashy new prototype from a megacorp is one thing; but when some other entity starts tinkering with interesting results, that makes me pay more attention.)

A team of academics at the University of St. Andrews recently used Soli to explore the...

counting, ordering, identification of objects and tracking the orientation, movement and distance of these objects. We detail the design space and practical use-cases for such interaction which allows us to identify a series of design patterns, beyond static interaction, which are continuous and dynamic. With a focus on planar objects, we report on a series of studies which demonstrate the suitability of this approach. This exploration is grounded in both a characterization of the radar sensing and our rigorous experiments which show that such sensing is accurate with minimal training.

Exploring tangible interactions with radar sensing

Take a minute to watch it in action, before we embark on a little thought experiment.

It's easy to imagine — without much extrapolation — how one could use this technology to enforce collective honesty and ethical performance optimization. Consider a large multi-family compound. One individual in one of the families is, by far, the most productive chopper of firewood. But he's a little dumb, and earns little money on the market. Then some other individual is by far the most productive software developer; he makes a lot of money on the market but he sucks at chopping firewood. Of course, rich software developers can already pay dumb manual laborers to produce their firewood, but currently no smart and rich person can enjoy the much more valuable and scarce luxury good of living in genuine harmony with a manual laborer.

So our wood-chopping expert hooks up some Soli chips to the pile of chopped wood he maintains for the community. Whenever a piece of wood is removed, he gets a ping on his phone, or maybe a digest at the end of each week. It tells him how many pieces of wood were taken, their weight, which person took them, and how many tokens were transferred to him by the associated Firewood Smart Subcontract (subcontracts are like clauses added to the original founding Smart Contract established at the founding of the polity; they can be constantly added and taken away by consensus, typically as new people enter or leave the group, or if/when individuals' skills/traits/needs change substantially). The richer the person taking firewood, the more they pay per piece of wood via the Smart Contract, according to a steeply progressive taxation rate agreed and programmed into law previously.

On the other hand, if Mr. Bunyan is not keeping the stock replenished, which leads to some individuals suffering very cold evenings, a certain number of tokens are transferred from him to whoever suffered a cold evening. This transfer can be automatically triggered whenever the data show the wood stock to be beneath some threshold, and the temperature data from a particular house to be beneath some threshold, on the same day. And again, these thresholds can be agreed consensually.

Aside: It might seem that this technocommunism sure does require a lot of group decisions — won't it fail like Occupy failed, because democracy is too much work?! Not quite. First, other than the basic preference thresholds defined in the contracts, there is no discussion or deliberation whatsoever. The code is sovereign, and removes the need for regular meetings and debates. My references to consensus only refer to periodic updates. Second, you know what requires a million decisions? The construction of a modern website. And yet it's easier than ever to make one, even with a group. Why? Because code evolves. With code, future people let the smartest and most successful past people make decisions for them. Over time, the larger global community of neo-feudal techno-communist polity hackers will converge on templates: kits containing a variety of sensor devices with a corresponding code repository, containing all the device+subcontract components found in almost all of the most successful previous patches to date. Groups will add new modules if they enjoy hacking, but many will just use the default settings. Or upon initiation, each person completes a short survey gauging basic traits and aptitudes, which plugs into the template optimal values for the various preference thresholds.

Depending on the use case, perhaps a video rig combined with image detection algorithms would work better than radar. Perhaps multiple, redundant methods leveraging different dimensions (video, radar, sound, etc.) might be used at once, in especially tricky and sensitive cases. Perhaps it turns out that 67% percent of the most destructive community offenses occur in kitchens, so the kitchen is loaded with every method and a heavyweight ensemble model. With some problems our tolerance for false positives might be greater/lesser than our tolerance for false negatives, so perhaps the statistical cutoff for inferring a violation would be set higher or lower accordingly.

Meanwhile, while the wood-chopper's system is managing itself, the rich computer programmer might leave a huge stock of old-fashioned USD greenbacks out in the open, available to all for immediate, interest-free, cash loans. Why? Because the risk approaches zero: Just as you can watch in the video above, all removals and returns are fully identified and recorded with radar, and if anyone fails to repay, the owner of the cash stock will be automatically credited from the taker's account after some agreed time (if the taker doesn't have it, a small portion will be taken from all of the others, all of whom have agreed to guarantee each other).

The only question right now is, what are currently the best technologies available for getting started? That and,

The non-linear effect of ability on earnings in the computer age

A reader/watcher/listener has brought to my attention another paper, which shows that, for college-educated individuals, earnings are a non-linear function of cognitive ability or g — at least in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1979-1994. The paper is a 2003 article by Justin Tobias in the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics.

There may be other studies on this question, but a selling point of this article is that it tries to use the least restrictive assumptions possible. Namely, allowing for non-linearities. In the social sciences, there is a huge bias toward finding linear effects, because most of the workhorse models everyone learns in grad school are linear models. Non-linear models are trickier and harder to interpret and so they're just used much less, even in contexts where non-linearities are very plausible.

A common motif in "accelerationist" social/political theories is the exponential curve. Many of us have priors suggesting that, at least for most of the non-trivial tendenices characterizing modern polities, there are likely to be non-linear processes at work. If the contemporary social scientist using workhorse regression models is biased toward finding linear effects, accelerationists tend to go looking for non-linear processes at the individual, group, nation, or global level. So for those of us who think the accelerationist frame is the one best fit to parsing the politics of modernity, studies allowing for non-linearity can be especially revealing.

The first main finding of Tobias is visually summarized in the figure below. Tobias has more complicated arguments about the relationship between ability, education, and earnings, but we'll ignore those here. Considering college-educated individuals only, the graph below plots on the y-axis the percentage change in wages associated with a one-standard-deviation increase in ability, across a range of abilities. Note that whereas many graphs will show you how some change in X is associated with some change in Y, this plot is different: It shows the marginal effect of X on Y, but for different values of X.

Tobias 2003, pp. 13.

The implication of the above graph is pretty clear. It just means that the earnings gain from any unit increase in g is greater at higher levels of g. An easy way to summarize this is to say that the effect of X on Y is exponential or multiplicative. Note also there's nothing obvious about this effect; contrast this graph to the diminishing marginal utility of money. Gaining $1000 when you're a millionaire has less of an effect on your happiness than if you're at the median wealth level. But when it comes to earnings, gaining a little bit of extra ability when you're already able is worth even more than if you were starting at a low level of ability.

The paper has a lot of nuances, which I'm blithely steamrolling. My last paragraph is only true for the college educated, and there are a few other interesting wrinkles. But this is a blog, and so I mostly collect what is of interest to me personally. Thus I'll skip to the end of the paper, where Tobias estimates separate models for each year. The graph below shows the size of the wage gap between the college-educated and the non-college-educated, for three different ability types, in each year. The solid line is one standard deviation above the mean ability, the solid line with dots is mean ability, and the dotted line is one standard deviation below the mean ability.

Tobias 2003, pp. 23

An obvious implication is that the wage gap increases over this period, more or less for each ability level. But what's interesting is that the slope looks a bit steeper, and is less volatile, for high-ability than for average and low-ability. There is a lot of temporal volatility for the class of low-ability individuals. In fact, for low-ability individuals there is not even a consistent wage premium enjoyed by the college-educated until 1990.

Anyway, file under runaway intelligence takeoff...

Why Write One Book When You Can Speak 18 Volumes?

Have you ever wondered how and why The Life of Samuel Johnson is so damn long (and influential), even though he's just rambling like a livestreamer on adderall? Some thoughts on the current frontiers of idea production.

Organic conversation is one of the most effective ways to generate thoughts; and passive audio recording of organic conversation is one of the most effective ways to convert thoughts into an external output. But audio is highly sub-optimal for searching, arranging, or creatively aggregating recorded fragments into higher-level projects. This is one of the major bottlenecks that has, so far, prevented the explosive production efficiency of podcasting/livestreaming technology from flowering into a proportionately explosive renaissance of independent book publishing in the more sophisticated intellectual domains.

Whoever can solve this bottleneck, or I should say, whoever is at the front of iteratively solving this bottleneck right now, may very well enjoy a unique and substantial intellectual-political edge, perhaps not unlike that enjoyed by Luther. Or so it seems to me, at least — which is why I've been investing some time into testing the current frontiers of speech-to-text technologies (here, and here).

I recently used Youtube's editing tool to split off a 5-minute clip from a recent conversation I had with Michael James, just because it felt like a not-so-bad draft of something I've been thinking about recently but never yet even tried to jot down. Then, for the trivially low cost of $0.1, I had Temi transcribe it. It took me about 10 minutes to edit it, and post it as a blog post. For now, it's not yet worthwhile to transcribe every audio/video conversation I conduct, but as the transcription gets ever more accurate, it will be trivially easy and cheap to make perfect full-text versions of any recording. Put them in a folder, tag the sections, identify higher-order patterns, cut the chaff; repeat until something substantial emerges, concentrate where necessary, extend where necessary, and extraordinary things might be produced more efficiently than ever.

The implications are potentially profound for intellectuals and creative folks. It's also a potential opportunity for internet upstarts to achieve a substantial edge over legacy establishment intellectuals. Those people will be very late to this game. Three crazy people and a little bit of adderall could easily produce a damn interesting book in one weekend, plus a few days of editing and arranging, or just pay a freelance editor on fiverr or upwork...

Thus, here is my proposed answer to the original question, namely, how and why is The Life of Samuel Johnson so damn long (and influential)? It's because Samuel Johnson just rambled for days on end, used James Boswell as a transcription AI, and self-published an 18-volume monstrosity on Amazon.com. Although it was probably only read by .001% of the people who claimed to read it, everyone nonetheless was forced to concede, "Wow, this guy must be freakin' legit!"

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