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Urbit and the Telos of the Creator Economy
~hatryx-lastud
~hatryx-lastud

Urbit is a new kind of networked operating system that turns your computer into a “ship” that can network and exchange data and computation with any other person or group on the network (like the current internet), but without requiring any trusted third parties like Facebook or Google to mediate these exchanges (unlike the current internet). In a world where Urbit achieves mass adoption, all of your different login credentials would disappear, you could never be "deplatformed" from anyone that subscribes to you, and you’re welcome to enjoy robust pseudonymity with the benefits of a rigorous identity and reputation system. Furthermore, Urbit address space is scarce, so Urbit represents digital land in the same way that Bitcoin represents digital money. This means that owning Urbit address space makes one the internet equivalent of a real-estate investor. If you own Urbit land, you are incentivized to improve Urbit.

Some critics say Urbit will never scale, some say it’s just an art project, others say it’s too hard to learn, and still others say it’s just too crazy to take seriously.

I say it’s just crazy enough that it might work.

In the past few months, I’ve become fascinated with Urbit, particularly from my perspective as a so-called “content creator.” Some of my recent political theory fragments have been converging around a mental model where “content creators,” in the long run, become statesmen of new polities (1, 2). At the same time, I’ve also argued that the psychological problems of the current internet are increasingly apocalyptic, especially for people working on long-term intellectual work. Combining these ideas, the unique properties of the Urbit system become significantly more legible and compelling.

What follows is an attempt to summarize my own theory of Urbit, why I’ve become more bullish on Urbit, and specifically how I think Urbit could engineer a flywheel between its real estate network and the so-called creator economy.

To set the stage, I’ll begin by summarizing the key problem that Urbit solves, explore some reasons why I think Urbit is currently undervalued, and address some of the most common critiques I’ve encountered.

The second half explains why Urbit appears particularly bullish from the standpoint of the creator economy. Platform proliferation and the prestige-defection dynamic are two key phenomena that make Urbit feel ripe for creators already, but Urbit’s real-estate economics represent the really exciting and asymmetric opportunity. I discuss a hypothetical model where Urbit land owners pay an already active creator to create exclusive content and host their community on Urbit, akin to Substack Pro; the creator then creates a DAO with a governance token, which allows patrons to support the creator except, unlike Patreon, patrons now become stakeholders. The DAO treasury is used to expand the creator’s operations, which now funds more exclusive content and creators on Urbit, thus bringing the flywheel full circle.

This is not financial advice.

The politics of the client-server paradigm

The World Wide Web sits upon several protocols that emerged in a messy, arbitrary, and partially political process. Yet given network effects, this set of suboptimal protocols was quickly locked in.

To be clear, I’ll use the word "internet" in a simplistic way, to refer to this whole set of locked-in protocols as well as the user-facing technologies and patterns that are implied by it. The experience of the internet today is, for all intents and purposes, opening a browser and jumping between a few dozen websites with separate login credentials, rules, and interfaces designed by individual firms and hosted on servers.

The client-server relationship is arguably the crux of the worst problems with the contemporary internet. Examples include having to manage many different login credentials, being exploited by algorithms outside your control, the inability to own your data, the inability to customize interfaces, and constant political battles over what servers should and should not serve. For instance, “deplatforming" and "fact checking," typically seen as two distinct phenomena, are both only mystified proxy wars to control what centralized servers serve. Deplatforming can produce new websites, with new middlemen, and new login credentials, but the problem is only kicked down the road. As for fact-checking, it will never make sense on contemporary social media sites.

Urbit is the only serious project trying to solve all of the above problems, by routing around their shared root. Urbit obviates altogether the client-server relationship. On Urbit, everyone is a server and servers communicate and network directly, peer-to-peer. Even if you consider the probability of mass adoption low, the expected value of solving all these problems in one swoop strikes me as extraordinarily high—at least enough to warrant a serious theoretical examination.

I went through all the objections on Hacker News and many of them boil down to "So it's just a glorified personal server?" or "You can already do this with X, Y, or Z." I would reject all objections of this type because what's crucial is not particular technical affordances but a system that can link technical affordances and a brand that can channel collective social energy into a network effect. For this, Urbit is the only game in town, as far as I can tell.

Social and cognitive biases underpricing Urbit

Dominant systems locked in by strong network effects always appear invulnerable to disruption, until they're suddenly not. The current internet is a particularly massive network lock-in, but given its technical debt and increasingly painful aspects (more on this below), there is no reason a disruptor at the full-stack level cannot or should not arise eventually. The perception that our current internet could never be supplanted with a novel, re-engineered paradigm leads me to believe that a working competitor such as Urbit is probably under-priced.

The architecture of the current internet is more severely stupid than we generally discuss. The value of the current internet, compared to having no internet, is so great that complaining seems ridiculous. Yet the sub-optimal aspects of our current internet are steadily rising in salience, as evidenced by recent moral panics around Russian meddling, corporate psychological manipulation at scale, and a new wave of privacy-first software startups. Therefore, the viability of an objectively superior networking paradigm is likely far greater than we are typically capable of appreciating.

The politically controversial reputation of Urbit's founder, Curtis Yarvin, is probably artificially dampening public interest in Urbit. Far dumber crypto projects receive far more positive attention in the news. If Urbit represents a correct thesis about an objectively superior way of running the internet, I do not believe any contingent details about its founders' personal opinions will prevent it from succeeding in the long run. If you think the stock price of woke politics is currently higher than it should be in equilibrium, then buying Urbit address space (i.e. Urbit "land") is a way to bet on this belief.

Sneer as a leading indicator

There is a distinct and particular kind of sneering that characterizes many of the critical blog posts and Hacker News comments about Urbit. I know this sneering well. In my experience, in the past few years of internet culture, this kind of sneering generally reflects that the object of analysis is onto something. Many of the people most active on the current public internet do not like when other people—who know how to disconnect and work on serious original projects over very long periods of time—have the gall to… successfully ship something that works. The quantity of sneering I’ve seen applied to Urbit is bullish for Urbit.

A related characteristic of Urbit critiques is that they are often contradictory. This will never work, also it is evil. This gives the impression of emotional reasoning. Again, the anxiety seems to rather reflect a fear on behalf of the author that some group of people other than the author dared to do something outrageously ambitious.

One might say it’s unfair to psychologize in this manner, that it violates the principle of charity. If this were a dinner party, sure. But mining the public internet for signal requires aggressive theory of mind, because so much of public internet communication is really optimizing for some type of immediate psychological gratification on behalf of the author. And let’s face it, a lot of dudes who write comments on Hacker News dream of constructing original, visionary systems that change the course of computing. Many of them have the horsepower to do so. But they are not constructing visionary systems, and they are not even trying, because they make good salaries working for megacorps, which they often hate. So when they hear about someone giving ten years of their life to rewrite the entire stack, and then they hear that some people are actually using the thing, and then they hear some people actually love the thing, something deep in their bodies says: “Absolutely not.” It can’t work, also it’s evil.

The difficulty of evaluating paradigm changes

At the end of the day, I do not have the technical sophistication to formulate an independent judgment on Urbit’s fundamental technical merits and demerits. I’ve encountered many engineering critiques which sound plausible, and are not sneering.

But what I can grok is that even the most plausible engineering critiques generally target specific details, whereas Urbit’s value proposition is so ambitious that—if Urbit even works at all—the payoff would be so massive that I just can’t imagine any specific detail could be such a deal-breaker.

Probably the best example of a detail-level critique, which would be nullified to the degree Urbit is in fact a superior paradigm, is perhaps the most common and plausible critique one encounters: Urbit’s programming language Hoon is too weird, you’ll never get developers to use it. It is true and well known that “developer-friendliness” is a crucial variable predicting the success of new projects—within a paradigm, aka the current internet. If you’re just building normal apps on the normal internet, you’re not going to switch into some new system if you have to learn a weird new language. The payoff wouldn’t justify it. But if there is a new f*cking internet, which works, which people are using, which would deliver a 1000x better user experience if mass adoption where achieved and developers learned Hoon? Well, then developers will learn Hoon.

The situation is very similar to Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. As Kuhn argued, within any given paradigm of scientific research, there will be anomalies, which accumulate over time. A few anomalies don’t threaten the stability of a particular paradigm, because no paradigm can explain everything perfectly. What matters is the quantity of anomalies relative to the explanatory power of the paradigm. If anomalies accumulate, while explanatory power stagnates, eventually there will be a “scientific revolution” where the old paradigm gives way to a new paradigm. The new paradigm opens new avenues for explanatory progress, but always at the cost of new anomalies.

So long as one scientific paradigm is dominant, it’s not worthwhile for most researchers to switch paradigms. Attempting to change the internet’s paradigm in a way that’s “developer-friendly” for current internet developers does not make sense. So long as there’s still some fruit in the old internet paradigm, it makes sense for most developers to keep plucking it, even if doing so requires an increasing quantity of duct tape and platform risk. You see the same thing in terminal-stage scientific paradigms, where the duct tape is non-deductive and ad hoc explanations of the anomalies. It’s only when anomalies accumulate to such a degree that the time and energy spent handling them becomes so unbearable that switching to the new paradigm becomes rational for an increasing number of researchers. Once this process is triggered, eventually everyone is forced to learn the new paradigm, whether it’s “friendly” or not. What matters is only the expected value of the new paradigm (what progress will open if we assume that it’s correct?), and the anomaly/progress ratio of the current paradigm.

Thus, most detail-level critiques of Urbit seem to misunderstand the structure of paradigm-level technical innovations.

Yet, it’s still an open empirical question whether or not the current internet’s anomalies have accumulated to such a degree—and Urbit’s long-term expected value has been demonstrated to such a degree—that now is the time for paradigm change and also that Urbit should be the winner.

Such matters are always speculative but from my personal position in the internet economy, I see at least a plausible case for why both of these conditions might soon hold—especially for creators building businesses.

Platform proliferation and the Prestige-Defection dynamic

For at least a decade now, we have been observing what I call a prestige-defection dynamic (1, 2). The value of a prestigious affiliation is decreasing relative to the value of owning the authentic attention of an audience. Thus, New York Times journalists quit to write on Substack, professors quit academia to teach independent courses online, etc. In each of these cases, prestige is traded, like an asset declining in price, for authentic attention, an asset increasing in price.

Such defections consistently reveal other aspects of a structural process. The ones that succeed typically involve a decreasing degree of political correctness, because political correctness can be understood as a cognitive tax on prestige. As demand for prestige goes up, especially among people who cannot program computers and are therefore being squeezed by skill-biased technological change, institutions exact increasingly higher PC taxes. Prestige defection is escape from an increasingly onerous tax, at the same time that it's access to a new kind of resource: Greater intrinsic motivation and a kind of emotional specialization, as one is effectively seeking to monopolize the market for the personality and demographic factors that one authentically represents. Defectors are now the big winners in the cultural economy, whether they defected from a prestigious perch or pre-defected by never entering prestige games to begin with, such as many of the younger Youtubers.

If you believe these dynamics are a short-term blip, you may see no reason to be interested in Urbit. If you believe these are structural dynamics, you have to ask what the long-run equilibrium looks like.

So long as information processing power continues to increase, returns to authentic public communication will continue to rise as returns to prestige affiliations continue to decrease. Yet the firms that are capitalizing on the facilitation of defection—Substack, Patreon, etc.—sell a basket of features, not least of which is a kind of ersatz prestige. The Patreon brand converts the low-prestige activity of asking for donations into the higher-prestige activity of gracefully accepting the benefaction of noble supporters. The Substack brand takes the low-prestige activity of email marketing and converts it into the higher-prestige activity of professional writing. Now these are coveted, high-status gigs. But because the branded platforms are partially selling prestige and social acceptability, there must eventually come political correctness.

As these platforms grow, they must eventually reproduce the same political constraints that incentivized their current stars to defect from older prestige paths in the first place. Patreon has already removed some creators, and there is already visibly swelling political agitation around who or what should be promoted on Substack. We have yet to see a large social platform that is able to avoid submission to such pressures, beyond a certain scale—at least on the current internet. Thus, eventually there must emerge a disruptor of Patreon and Substack that will facilitate more freedom and more authenticity, and defection will continue to be incentivized, at some future margin.

Insofar as these political conflicts are proxy wars for access to privileged servers, it stands to reason that their terminus can only be defection from centralized servers as such. The greatest creators of any generation are in the business of maximizing the realization of intelligence, which means decoding and escaping control structures on the one hand, and creating novel control structures that increase their freedom and power on the other hand. The prestige-defection dynamic described above assumes the networking protocol is held constant. But if the benefits of an alternative networking paradigm were to increase over time, and the cost of joining decreases, then eventually the most intelligent and ambitious creators must find it in their interest to become their own server, exactly as Substack writers realized they could become their own publication (instead of working for one), Instagram models could become their own fashion brand (instead of advertising for one), and so on.

Why send your blog posts or videos to a middleman, asking them to kindly post it from their server, so that they can send it to people who signed up to hear from you? The main reason, frankly, is that even many smart creators don't understand the current internet's architecture. But people learn fast when there is a large degree of money and power to be gained from learning something. At a certain point, the gain from moving your shop to Urbit may far surpass the gain that journalists are currently enjoying from the switch to Substack.

The telos of the creator economy

It’s amazing I can work full-time as an independent writer on the internet, but to do so most powerfully I have to manage a sprawling empire of web platforms, desktop-only apps, iPhone-only apps, paid software tools, and even paid software tools to make my other paid software tools send data to each other.

I spend more than $1000/month on: Memberstack, Airtable, Circle.so, Zapier, Ulysses, Webflow, Transistor.fm, Evernote, Streamyard, Gumroad, Bonjoro, Buffer, Teachable, Typeform, Convertkit, and Zoom. The money is not even the greatest cost. It’s the time and energy of manually uploading, downloading, and splicing data from all of these silos. I use all of these tools and each has a positive ROI, but why do I need so many tools when the essence of what I do is so simple?

It is true that I am not your average “creator.” My little budding empire is not entirely representative of normal professional creators. But there will be many more like me, who see the longer-term avenues open to them, and then chafe badly at the current internet’s affordances.

Everything I do boils down to the following. I create work which I publish to public platforms (text, audio, and video files). People click some kind of button if they like my work and want to receive my future uploads (for free). I give this large pool of people various opportunities to click some other button, enter their debit/credit card, and then receive an additional private flow of my uploads. In summary:

  • I need to upload data into a public channel
  • People who like my uploads need a way to subscribe to them
  • I need a way to take an arbitrary number of different payment types
  • I need a way to provide a partitioned data channel per payment type

Pay me through this button and I should be able to deliver you some videos, a podcast feed, and a community forum all in one place—if that’s an offering I want to design. Pay me through a different button and I should be able to deliver you a private blog/newsletter that I generate by running machine-learning summarization algorithms on my preferred writing app. To do all of this myself, I should be able to copy and paste open-source code templates called “video feed,” “podcast feed”, “community forum”, and so on.

Like my videos but dislike my podcasts? You prefer reading newsletters on a custom app your friend designed instead of your email inbox? The followers of creators should have equally arbitrary control over how their subscribed data flows are handled, manipulated, and re-arranged. The difference would not be 10x better than the status quo. In a fully evolved Urbit ecosystem, the difference would be maybe 1000x better, or more. It’s hard to even imagine, which is why we generally don’t.

When you think about it, there is no good reason why there should be arbitrary constraints on what kind of data I can upload to any given channel. It’s data. This is the whole reason data is cool and powerful. The price we pay for apps on centralized servers is a kind of retrophysicalization of data. Instead of being infinitely fungible at near-zero marginal cost, some data files can only be uploaded and downloaded over here at the global Barnes and Noble, and some data files can only be uploaded and downloaded over there at the global Movie Theatre. I don’t want to go to your Movie Theatre. They screen so many movies that suck so bad it takes two hours just to find one that doesn’t completely suck, at which time my movie-watching time allotment is exhausted. I want my own planet, my own private but global biodome where only the smartest and funniest people I know can write texts, record videos, co-record podcasts, have threaded dialogues, and build apps all in one place with no limits to how they want to engineer the criss-crossing of their data flows. What I’m describing shouldn’t sound crazy and futuristic, it’s what the internet would already be, now decades after it’s arrival—if it hadn’t got stuck in its current equilibrium.

My friends and I waving to The Institutions from the bay window of my Urbit group, ~hatryx-lastud/other-life.
My friends and I waving to The Institutions from the bay window of my Urbit group, ~hatryx-lastud/other-life.

Today’s retrophysicalization of data is the neutering of its essential characteristic, the only thing that makes it attractive in the first place, which is it’s cheap fungibility. The current internet is so deeply and bizarrely sub-optimal that most of us don’t even have the words to describe why, hence the many epiphenomenal scapegoats (“privacy,” “addiction,” Russian troll farms, Cambridge Analytica, etc.)

So why do I need ten distinct but architecturally redundant CRUD apps to do the same essential activities across all of them (create, read, update, delete)? It’s because of the client-server paradigm, as I explained above. This paradigm produces economic incentives for teams of engineers to capture and lock-in users on specific websites. Each app does solve a problem for me, and it’s cheaper than coding something custom, so that’s fair; I’m not complaining so much as suggesting that it must eventually give way for the same reason that scientific paradigms give way. The most ambitious and successful creators will have the resources and the incentives to exit this archipelago of rented servers with arbitrary constraints and increasing platform risk, even just on a greater-than-zero probability of a new paradigm offering them their very own Biodome. The Copernican model did not actually provide superior results in the first instance; it mostly solved certain accumulated anomalies, and produced a research agenda that only offered a way out of the stagnating Ptolemaic model. If the realized value of Urbit, for a creator, would be 1000x higher than the status quo, you only need a glimmer of plausibility for ambitious content creators to invest in it.

Not to mention the social welfare loss of so many brilliant engineers duplicating effort by perpetually re-engineering the same basic application structures, all managing databases, user login credentials, etc. Urbit obsolesces all of these tasks with a novel structure that alleviates engineers from having to manage identities and separate databases. People cry about the energy consumed by Bitcoin mining, wait until they learn about the energy consumed by megacorp human resource mining.

Additional factors related to the prospect of mass adoption

The big question remains: What are the conditions necessary to see growth in Urbit adoption, and what is the likelihood that such conditions will arrive?

One factor that’s bullish for Urbit is the increasing prevalence of cryptocurrency, probably an epochal vector of social and technical change. If Bitcoin continues to see institutional adoption as a leading inflation-hedge asset, and Ethereum continues to generate impressive use-cases for the creator economy—both of which seem increasingly likely—then crypto could very well be the vector through which Urbit becomes more profitable for creators than the current internet. Using cryptocurrency on the current internet is quite clunky and limited, and it will probably remain that way for some time. If crypto continues to penetrate society and Urbit is able to offer smoother, crypto-native networking and communication, this strikes me as a very plausible pathway to a sudden adoption cascade. The Urbit network features extremely interesting economics, which we'll explore in more detail at the very end of this essay.

An under-appreciated aspect of the crypto-economy's flourishing is that it's a massive redistribution of wealth from old, mainstream institutions toward independent thinkers. There are now about 100,000 Bitcoin millionaires, and there will soon be quite a few crypto billionaires. We’re going to have a new financial elite, competing with the old, and these are fundamentally different types of people. They are, by definition, weird people who make big bets on unpopular truths they judged to be true by their own independent cognitive effort (plus a few drug dealers and gun runners, it's true, but these will not be the biggest winners). Where do you think they'll want to invest their money? The "creator economy" is now a well-known niche in the VC world, with a few VC funds specializing in creator platforms. But when crypto wealth comes to investing in the creator economy, do you think they'll want to build crypto into Substack and Patreon, working through mounds of technical debt to further entrench "trusted third parties"? I doubt it. I think they'll want to invest in a whole new paradigm that's crypto-native, which shares the same philosophical and political presuppositions as crypto.

We are living in a context of mass preference falsification, where people are constantly misleading each other and underlying truths emerge non-linearly, like bats out of hell. Like the later stages of the Soviet Union, most people today will profess certain viewpoints in public, which they explicitly disavow in private. But if you study this closely, mass preference falsification does not give way gradually—it collapses suddenly (Kuran 1995).

Stacy and Becky pay a visit to ~hatryx-lastud/other-life.
Stacy and Becky pay a visit to ~hatryx-lastud/other-life.

More generally, we are living in a context where power laws and non-linear takeoffs already reign supreme. NFTs were close to nothing a few months ago, now Beeple is worth more than most fine artists in the world. Redditors were never able to manipulate stock prices even slightly, until they were suddenly able to overpower a whole hedge fund. In general, I think these facts should make us especially interested in logical, functional outsider projects with strong fundamentals but seemingly implausible adoption pathways. The seemingly implausible adoption pathway just makes the underlying assets under-priced, until the global neural net identifies the hidden value and suddenly throws it into the stratosphere, as all the normie conformists change their tune and walk like sheep into whatever they thought was impossible the day before.

On the merging of intellectual, political, and financial activity

Social theory, social activism, and financial investments are increasingly blurred into one activity. It's really interesting, and incredibly under-appreciated. Look at Michael Saylor, the CEO of MicroStrategy, who has been buying billions of dollars of Bitcoin while also establishing himself as an influential thinker and speaker. He creates content that is erudite and reflects an original theoretical perspective, and he is probably the person who convinced Musk to buy Bitcoin with the Tesla the balance sheet. In the act of expressing and betting on his own theoretical perspective, he is increasing the probability that his perspective comes to fruition, and getting rich in the process.

This is an extreme example, but I think it's fractal and you'll see this structure at all levels: Good social theorists will increasingly be influencers, and influencers will increasingly be investors, and the returns will be a function of how good is your judgment, how distant you are from conventional beliefs, and how effectively you can allocate resources to the production of what you think is true. In some sense, this is what the indie thinker model captures. What this basically boils down to is, if you see something that looks more true than others generally express, you should research it, and make content about what you see, which will earn you respect and an audience if you turn out to be right or at least interesting; but if you really believe what you're saying, you can also try to produce the future you think is under-priced. This means that I think we should be particularly interested in under-priced truths that we can also participate in and contribute to. So I'm interested in Urbit for this additional reason, that if it's really an under-priced project, it's a prime candidate for this kind of triple opportunity—an intellectually, financially, and practically attractive project.

Steps forward

For the reasons outlined above, there is a straightforward case to be made that any serious and ambitious creator should, at the very least, obtain a planet on Urbit. Check it out, kick the wheels, consider starting a group and let your more technically intrepid followers find you there. Why not? Think of it is a nuclear bunker for systemic platform risk on the clearweb. A planet is not expensive and it’s not a speculative asset, it’s just a ship for exploring the network.

For my own part, I’m more bullish—on Urbit, but also on myself. I have been personally suffering from platform proliferation, so I just personally want to see a world where Urbit wins. So I’d like to help it happen.

I need to reduce the number of sites I manage.

I don’t really want “donations” from “fans," I want contributions from stakeholders in the Other Life mission, and I want those stakeholders to see upside in the continued growth and success of Other Life. Some people are already doing this with token-permissioned Discord servers, but Discord is obviously not the endgame.

Why build on Discord when you know with near certainty that within a few years you’ll have to move to the next hot platform? Or worse, get kicked off as soon as you become powerful, as happened to WallStreetBets. I’d rather be early on the platform aiming to be the platform-to-end-all-platforms—where the probability of mass adoption is unclear but the payoff would be stupendous—than toil on rented land where one knows with certainty that it’s not supposed to be like this. Skate to where the puck is going, not where it is at this moment. And even if Urbit is not the future, I’ll still be farther into the future than I will be if I dedicate myself to being a… Discord moderator.

In addition to feeling intrinsically aligned, I’m also attracted to Urbit land as an investment asset, for all of the reasons enumerated above. When intrinsic motivations intersect with unpopular perceptions of future value, what better omen is there to invest oneself decisively? All of the big economic gains are going to weird people correctly seeing value in weird projects before they gain status. If you’re not looking to invest yourself into something weird, you probably don’t stand to win in the 21st century.

Step 1: Platform consolidation

By this time next week, I will have officially shut down my Patreon and my Discord server, in favor of hosting a an Urbit group. Instead of marshaling my supporters toward Patreon, then marshaling them onto a Discord, they can join my group and throw me some sats with the new Urbit-native Bitcoin wallet—all in one place. This is my own little gesture toward one of the use-cases that a fully fledged Urbit would provide: personal API aggregation (or at least, for now, for me, consolidation).

Over the past two weeks, I’ve given one free Urbit planet to each of my past and present patrons. The Urbit group ~hatryx-lastud/other-life is now the exclusive home of the Other Life community. All of the paywalled content on Patreon will now be archived in the Urbit group.

"Fine, if you want to manage 10 different web apps doing the same thing, do whatever you want. But don't ask me to follow you on Clubhouse also. Oh, and if your Discord gets shut down one more time, I'm leaving you and investing in a creator who provides me permanent and censor-proof digital land on Urbit."
"Fine, if you want to manage 10 different web apps doing the same thing, do whatever you want. But don't ask me to follow you on Clubhouse also. Oh, and if your Discord gets shut down one more time, I'm leaving you and investing in a creator who provides me permanent and censor-proof digital land on Urbit."

In the short term, it’s true that I’m suddenly losing a non-trivial monthly cashflow and making it harder for normal people to enter the Other Life universe. But in the long term, I see some ways to unlock ridiculously greater value for myself and members of my community. This is where things get really interesting. I haven’t ironed out the details, but I’d like to sketch my current thinking. In part to solicit feedback and involvement from anyone interested in joining the project, but also possibly to inspire other creators who might want to start thinking about such possibilities for themselves.

Step 2: The Other Life DAO

The unique economics of the Urbit network are jet fuel for a public-goods DAO. Currently, for-profit DAOs such as MetaCartel Ventures are legally complicated given the regulation of securities. Public-goods DAOs, like Moloch DAO, are significantly more straightforward since they just give grants. But owners of Urbit address space are more incentivized than usual to give grants, because they stand to gain indirectly over the long term, as the value of their land increases.

I think I see a way to accelerate Urbit and make long-term intellectual work financially sustainable for discerning creators looking to exit the social media hustle.

I’ve created an ERC-20 token, $LIFE (contract), with help from my friends at Roll. This token will be a utility token and a governance token. The token provides utility insofar as exclusive Other Life content on Urbit will be accessible only to $LIFE holders (via Mintgate). Then, my intention is to create a DAO, probably a Moloch DAO via Daohaus.club, which will give $LIFE holders collective control over a $LIFE treasury.

There is a max supply of 10M $LIFE. The DAO will be launched with something like the following splits, to be discussed and finalized. This is just a first public brainstorm.

  • Treasury: 60%
  • Past patrons: 10%
  • Select aligned Urbit devs: 15%
  • Core team: 15%

What the DAO seeks to do is for the DAO to decide, but given the nature of its construction and its members, the DAO will be highly motivated to increase the value created within ~hatryx-lastud/other-life. This could mean funding creators to produce exclusive content in the group, funding someone to produce public content for the Other Life brand, it could even mean funding Urbit developers to improve Urbit faster, or in a direction that prioritizes the needs of creators. Incentives could not be better aligned among myself, the Other Life brand, Urbit, and the individual members of the DAO.

Step 3: The Urbit creator flywheel

Where things really get interesting will be the demonstration effect. If I pull off something like this, with good results, I currently work with about 400 other creators who will be asking me how they can do the same. In this scenario, we could imagine hundreds or thousands of creators siphoning their fans from the clearweb onto Urbit.

In short, the unique economics of the Urbit network allow for a flywheel between high-quality, long-term content creators and Urbit “real estate developers.” The long-term nature of value accrual on Urbit aligns with the long-term nature of higher-quality content creators who don’t want to chase algorithmic growth on large social platforms. Urbit land owners are incentivized to pay creators to create exclusive content and community on Urbit, the new creators attract an increasing number of Urbit users, and the new users (DAOified) spend their money to fund… more content and community on Urbit, or even, potentially Urbit development. The Urbit land owners initiating this flywheel are remunerated by the value of their land increasing. The creators gain from their initial grants and for all of the general reasons I outline; they may also become land owners, which redoubles the flywheel. Creators’ patrons benefit substantially insofar as they spend the same amount of money, or less, to support their favorite creators but now receive a censor-proof identity and a share of governance tokens.

Leave the internet for a new one at https://exit.otherlife.co
Leave the internet for a new one at https://exit.otherlife.co

exit.otherlife.co

Disclosures: This is not financial advice. A draft of this essay was first circulated privately around March 16, on the IndieThinkers.org forum. I drafted it about a week after recording an episode of the Other Life podcast, where we discussed the bull case for Urbit. At the time I wrote that draft, I had no relationship with anyone at the Urbit Foundation or Tlon. Since then the Urbit Foundation has provided some material support to help me onboard interested people from my audience. I do not currently own any Urbit address space, but for the reasons I’ve outlined I am in the process of securing some and expect to possess some shortly.

St. Augustine, the Kernel, and the Long Run

Some real quick housekeeping before we get to 1k words on some scientific overtones in St. Augustine, the first great galaxy brain of Western Christianity…

I just announced a new course we’re running at the end of July: The Philosophy of Ivan Illich, taught by my dear friend the British philosopher Nina Power. Join the waitlist and we’ll send you our 18-page study guide so you can start reading the great social theorist and Roman Catholic priest right away.

And for those of you interested in video as a medium, we are running a practical workshop with Chris Gabriel aka MemeAnalysis on How to Grow a Theory Youtube Channel to 100k Subscribers. It’s not easy to do social theory and also pull big numbers on Youtube, but Chris has carved out an impressive niche for himself using Carl Jung and other philosophers to explain popular memes today. He’s going to explain everything he’s learned and take whatever questions we have.

Portrait of Saint Augustine of Hippo by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century
Portrait of Saint Augustine of Hippo by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century

In The City of God, St. Augustine points out that philosophers can very well establish a rational system of ethics, but we humans suffer from infirmities that prohibit us from consistently executing such a system on the grounds of rationality alone (Book II: 7).

It is tempting to say that this is why religion is needed: to socially enforce a system of ethics with norms, rituals, and rewards/punishments in the afterlife. But this is a trap, for it baits Christians into a Machiavellian ‘noble lie’ position, which is the diametric opposite of Christian ethics. This view would suggest that religion is only good because it is useful for some instrumental purpose. It would submit to Marx’s famous dictum about religion being an opium of the masses—or as we would say today, cope—and it would miss the much more compelling and radical insight of religious, and especially Christian, ethics.

There is a much more interesting riff on St. Augustine’s observation, but it requires a quick detour. Eventually we’ll arrive at the remarkable insight that religious ethics are more rational than rational ethics. But to get there, let’s start with how secular rationalists generally deal with St. Augustine’s critique.

Today, many intelligent individuals have grown skilled at backfitting a rational system of ethics to their own drives and appetites. In my view, this describes utilitarians like Sam Harris and many of the Effective Altruists. Polyamory, divorce, pornography—these types of things are perfectly justified because sex is pleasurable with no clear harm to others (so do as much as you want without harming anyone), marriage is just an agreement (so anyone can exit if it’s no longer maximizing utility), etc. We naturally want certain things, e.g. sex, so there’s nothing easier than adopting a system of ethics that says we should maximize the things that all people naturally want.

This is certainly one solution to St. Augustine’s dilemma! But it sneaks a faith-based or essentially religious assumption in the back door.

Utilitarians have to answer the question of why we are so lucky that unfettered personal preference is perfectly aligned with the Good. Isn’t it just a little too convenient? If it is truly the case that the correct system of ethics is so fully aligned with what intelligent people naturally desire, when there is no reason that this must be the case, then it is something of a miracle. Such a worldview therefore contains a God, in the sense that, for some cause or reason we do not understand, our personal drives and appetites are so profoundly aligned with social and cosmic order.

Utilitarians will argue that this alignment was generated by chance and evolutionary selection; millions of other potential civilizations have been generated by the universe's random number generator, but we've never heard about them because they were stillborn by the lack of this alignment. Ours seems like a miracle, but that's just an illusion caused by this selection effect.

Yet even here the rationalist is presuming the existence of an invisible lottery machine somehow operating since the beginning of time. It is not clear that this assumption is any more rational, or less faith-based, than the assumption of a personified creator God. Everyone has, at the end of their chain of reasoning, some agency or machinery that they posit at the beginning of time. In computer science, this would be called the universe's "kernel."

And now for my more traditional Christian friends, I should note that calling God the kernel of the universe is not any more sacrilege than for the Apostles to use the words "Counselor" and "Spirit of Truth," and many other labels, to refer to God. The fact they describe God at all is already a capitulation to the legitimacy of abstract computational formalization of the objective entity.

So utilitarian secular rationalism is arguably as faith-premised as Christian ethics, but perhaps it is superior because it is more consistent with what people really want.

High-IQ people who can consistently rationalize utilitarianism as the Good and not devolve to obviously atrocious behavior nonetheless face St. Augustine’s dilemma when it comes to lower-IQ people. Lower-IQ people are known to be less cooperative and more violent, on average. They are also more likely to indulge in a number of vices. They also have lower time preference, and cooperation mostly pays off in the long run, so it is often naively rational for lower-IQ people to steal, fight, etc. For this problem, utilitarians will say that we need rational governance, basically social engineering, which constrains and guides the masses toward optimal behaviors. From this viewpoint, devices ranging from minor paternalistic deceptions all the way to population-level eugenics are rational.

The result is a reign of Noble Lies. The lower-IQ masses will not organically abide by sophisticated arguments, and they cannot all be jailed or killed, so the secular rationalist is forced to commit, on the political plane, to Noble Lies. Basically whatever slogans or statements or media that are required to guide the lower-IQ masses into ethical behavior.

The City of God and the Waters of Life by John Martin, 1850
The City of God and the Waters of Life by John Martin, 1850

The problem is that once the Noble Lie reigns, middle-IQ people who may not be able to devise their own system of ethics will at least notice contradictions in the reigning system of legal and moral directives. Rightfully annoyed by an elite that presumes the mantel of rational social control while telling fibs, the midwit class will inevitably arrogate to itself the right to generate Noble Lies for their people. Why wouldn't they? Noble Lies are good and just according to the more knowledgeable and more powerful. Any purportedly logical system containing even one lie or contradiction can generate justifications for any statement whatsoever, and certainly the reigning Noble Lies will never maximize the interests of every single class equally. Therefore, ironically, it is under rationalism that epistemological chaos is most inevitable. What today we call "conspiracy theories" and "fake news" do not represent a decline of rationality in society. They are rather the necessary results of secular rationalism.

In the City of God, St. Augustine shows that the Christian system of ethics is the only system that, on average, generates advantageous results for the individuals and communities that adopt it, without introducing contradictions that corrupt Christian societies later. The price is that it requires the constant work of constraining our drives and appetites, periodic short-term persecution of believers, and explicit submission to a very particular theory about the universe's kernel.

From the perspective of our natural and automatic preferences, these attributes of the Christian system are sub-optimal indeed. We might be inclined to wish the universe was otherwise. But if the Christian system is correct in its theory of the kernel, then the advantage is that every layer of the human stack is logically consistent and each layer thrives in the long run.

When we refer to the long run, we are referring to the game-theoretic conception of the long-run equilibrium. The long run is the state of the world we expect to observe after infinite rounds of the game have been played. The words heaven, hell, and afterlife correctly capture that the long-run technically never arrives on Earth, although its mathematical reality is coherent, meaningful, and generative of predictive leverage.

Digital technology increases the speed with which human situations equilibrate toward their long-run. Hence the concept of accelerationism as well as the more mundane observation, noted by many, that life subjectively feels as though it moves faster nowadays.

The implication is that adopting allegiance to the correct belief-and-practice stack matters more with the onset of the digital revolution than before the digital revolution. Choose correctly and you spiral upward (the City of God), choose incorrectly and you spiral downward (the earthly City).

At this point, everyone must make their own wagers. Faith is no longer an option, the only question is where one decides to place one’s faith.

Signs of Life, May 2021: Truth is a Schelling Point
“When someone reminded him that the people of Sinope had sentenced him to exile, he said, 'And I sentenced them to stay at home.’” —Diogenes
“When someone reminded him that the people of Sinope had sentenced him to exile, he said, 'And I sentenced them to stay at home.’” —Diogenes

Hey folks! A few thoughts, links, and upcoming events for you. I’m glad I retired the weekly curatorial newsletter. Now when you receive one, you’ll know it’s because I actually have some stuff I want to share, not because I’m trying to hit a weekly quota.

The Story of "A Thousand Miles" by Vanessa Carlton. Surprisingly enjoyable I found this follow-up on the life of Vanessa Carlton. She enjoyed one international megahit as a teenager about 20 years ago (2002), before disappearing from the limelight. Though Carlton is a quintessential "one hit wonder," she never stopped working as musician. We meet here the demeanor of a true artist, neither proud nor apologetic, neither giddy nor resentful. She made a fortune on her one hit song, but it didn't really help—or hurt—her destiny. Though she owns a loft in New York, this video shows her living with her parents in tranquil detachment. Not your typical VH1 Behind the Music story, Carlton appears to be a genuine, humble, persistently independent artist who cashed out once, but to the greater glory of her quiet searching. You love to see it.

All-In Podcast E31. The United States could produce all the synthetic animal protein for the world by spending ~$400B USD on fermentation tanks on 40 square-mile tract of land.

How To Teach Yourself Piano: IndieThinker's Workshop. May 12 at 12pm Central. Workshop on teaching yourself the piano with simple patterns, hosted by Daniel L. Garner. Daniel is an experienced piano teacher, musician, and the creator of the pattern method.

“In the absence of distinguished salient intermediate points along the uniformly continuous trade-off between maximally accurate world-models and sucking up to the Emperor, the only Schelling points are x = ∞ (tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) and x = 0 (do everything short of outright lying to win grants).” —Speaking Truth to Power Is a Schelling Point

Going Viral on TikTok’s For You Page Seems Like Serendipity. It’s Not. "A group of American social media influencers sued the Trump administration, charging that the ban would violate their constitutional right to free speech. It appeared to be a grassroots effort, led by a fashion designer, a comedian, and a musician who had about 8 million TikTok followers among them... In fact the lawsuit was orchestrated by TikTok and ByteDance... The company recruited the creators, connected them with a well-known First Amendment lawyer, and helped craft the legal tactics."

The Romantic Reaction: IndieThinker's Workshop. May 19 at 4pm Central. Workshop on the concept and influence of the Romantic reaction, hosted by Timothy Wilcox. Timothy has a Ph.D. in English and draws connections through our literary past, present, and future on his blog PreCursor Poets.

Thoughts on Marriage. What secular Western people struggle to fathom is that it doesn't matter too much who you marry. What matters is the decision to love, and never leave. Any 2 people capable of this will eventually love each other and be happy.

Marriage is like praying. As Pascal put it, you don't have to believe in order to pray. It's sufficient to just start praying—eventually you will believe. You don't have to love before marriage. It's sufficient to tie the knot—eventually you'll love them, it's your only choice.

Something people don't understand about marriage is that, for it to work, divorce must be unthinkable. If it's thinkable, it's inevitable. If it's unthinkable, deepening your love is the only survival strategy. This is the trick, the sacrament, the only way it works.

The Hour of Nihilism. "Political nihilism—the negation of the regime as an end in itself—has become a driving force of contemporary culture. Can liberal democracy rise to the challenge?" Thoughtful first essay from a new blog/newsletter called Think the Limit, about philosophy, futurism, and political theory. Another promising project coming out of the IndieThinkers.org membership. On Leo Strauss, Martin Gurri, the Dirtbag Left, and more.

Exponential Satanism: Girard and Digital Technology

Christianity invented the concept of defending the victim. In pre-Christian societies, collective violence against innocent scapegoats was commonplace. With the revelation that humans would kill God himself if given the chance, Christianity reveals the dignity of the victim (Girard 2001).

Though religious faith is not necessary to grasp the long-term social value of assigning dignity to victims, faith is necessary to respect potential victims in contexts where rationality dictates the abuse of victims. In the context of modern individualism, abusing victims is often a rational decision, especially if refusal to abuse a victim increases the probability of becoming a victim. The dignity of victims is an essentially extra-rational and extra-logical concept, philosophically and historically rooted in the tradition of Christian revelation.

Western civilization is inconceivable without this dignity assigned to victims. Over time, a pro-victim posture becomes a necessary condition for public claims to gain moral legibility at all, let alone sympathy or support.

The overarching gambit of modern secular progressivism is that one can do away with the revelation of God, while remaining invested in the defense of victims. The result is pre-Christian dynamics of collective violence—sublimated with keyboards—fueled with a missionary zeal and moral confidence that only two thousand years of Christianity could generate.

Modern, secular progressivism is therefore a kind of Satanism squared: The conscious drive to reject God, combined with the exploitation of the Christian inheritance for moral cover.

Our saving grace today is that, currently, dynamics of collective violence play out mostly over keyboards, in a kind of live-action role-playing of ancient collective murder. An open question is whether digital pacification is a sustainable sublimation or an unsustainable suppression.

It is possible that the current digitalization of mob violence leads to physical violence. Digital networks would then convert the once slow and clunky formations of physical violence into instantaneous, non-linear formations of physical violence. Remember the short-lived trend known as the “flash mob?” Imagine woke crusaders —or paranoid nativists—reviving the flash mob, leveraging fully encrypted messaging and anti-surveillance clothing. From there, it would only take one person throwing one stone for mob murders to rediscover their historical normalcy. I’m not saying this is imminent, I’m only pointing out that it’s surprisingly feasible technically and conceivable culturally: Apollonius of Tyana (3 BC - 97 AD), a widely admired sage often compared to Jesus, advised the Ephesians to stone a blind beggar in order to end a local plague (Girard 2001).

Adding insult to injury, the poor man’s natural reactions to the stoning were adduced as evidence against him:

“And as soon as some of them began to take shots and hit him with their stones, the beggar... gave them all a sudden glance and showed that his eyes were full of fire. Then the Ephesians recognised that he was a demon, and they stoned him so thoroughly that their stones were heaped into a great cairn around him.” —Philostraus, Life of Apollonius

Before Christianity, this is what social justice looked like.

It’s also possible that digital technologies have so completely pacified modern man that pre-Christian collective violence is no longer possible in the West. In some way, this might be worse: If we want to kill each other but we don’t because we are too weak, we accumulate all the bile of murderous resentment without the pro-social consequences of collective physical violence. As Girard frequently reminds us, the temptation of murdering a scapegoat is that it works, at least in the short term, to alleviate social frustrations and restore harmony among the murderers.

Ken and Karen of St. Louis defending their home after a mob smashed one of their statues. They were later charged with felony weapons count, for their "eyes were full of fire."
Ken and Karen of St. Louis defending their home after a mob smashed one of their statues. They were later charged with felony weapons count, for their "eyes were full of fire."

There is a third option, a combination of the two above. Perhaps the digital sphere is like a rubber band, currently being stretched further and further, invisibly accumulating potential energy in the form of escalating paranoia and bloodlust. In this scenario, modern individuals in the West are indeed too weak to kill each other, until the bile reaches its boiling point. When released, such a rubber band would snap with unprecedented social force, revealing itself to be not a pacifying impediment but a grand incubator of collective violence.

I believe the third model is most likely, and yet my outlook is overwhelmingly optimistic. Why?

There are other players in the game.

The public mainstreaming of runaway social psychosis may turn out to be the greatest gift ever given to those who trust in the straight and narrow path.

In the long run, groups that coordinate on the truth always beat groups that coordinate on collective delusion.

Before the technological acceleration of Satanism, all the straight-and-narrow pathwalkers who would prefer to coordinate on the truth could live fairly well amidst those who preferred to coordinate on delusions. Maybe such people were unlikely to be best friends, but they could enjoy each other at the bowling club and share niceties about the nightly news. This made truth-seekers a little dumber and weaker, but it made the delusional smarter and stronger.

Now that the patients run the asylum, generous pathwalkers cannot even donate their wisdom to the delusional if they wish to. It's either prohibited as offensive or rejected as false. I am baffled by those who continue to burn precious cognition on crying about patently dumber people who insist they know best. One should be rather grateful to these lost souls who give others ethical license to leave them behind.

The divide between those who coordinate on truth and those who coordinate on delusion will inevitably pull the rest of society into its vortex. Most people do not care much whether they coordinate on truth or delusion, as long as it's easy and they are able to carry on with their lives. But now, if you don't have a missionary zeal to coordinate on increasingly implausible collective delusions that change by the week, you will be forced to coordinate on the truth. It's the only other Schelling point available.

The political situation could not better for those who believe that the truth is what sets one free.

PS: We’re launching an 8-week course on René Girard starting in mid-June. Download our beautiful 20-page study guide and we’ll send you an email when we open enrollment. GirardCourse.com.

Samo Burja and the New Private Intellectual

I just published a new episode of the podcast. Here I collect some of its best insights, in text for your convenience. From Other Life Episode #129, Samo Burja on Intellectual Legitimacy and His Business Model as a Private Researcher, you'll learn about:

  • The dangers of a rebel mentality
  • Great Founder Theory and the similarity between great rulers and great intellectuals​
  • The best nootropic
  • Intellectual legitimacy and testing the social status of ideas
  • Ignoring The Discourse, and what to do instead
  • The business model of the Private Intellectual

On the dangers of a rebel mentality

I caution the audience to show off less. It's very important to have substance first. Why should we go with the thoughts of an intellectual that straightforwardly hates us? That's why the bitterness of isolation of thought is poison. I think to truly have your ideas flourish, you must love society. You must love the people in it and genuinely try to be kind of benevolent, to be positively oriented. And I think rebellion is a useful thing to start with but it ultimately limits growth. A rebel always assumes that they will be destroyed. I would claim that subconsciously, very quietly, they assume that eventually they're going to get me and I’m going to be this tragic figure like Galileo or Jan Hus or whatever… I’m going to be burned at the stake, and I’m like, okay, so it feels like you've already written your play, why don't you write a better ending to it?

On the similarity between great rulers and great intellectuals

Great Founder Theory proposes that there are particular individuals that could be considered almost inventors of particular civilizations, or worldviews, or what I call social technologies. A social technology being culture, but viewed kind of instrumentally in this functionalist perspective. If we were to try to pigeonhole this into the academic approach, I think a functionalist sociology perspective is about closest to the way that I think about this stuff. I think that for example, Charlemagne is a great founder. Patton is not a great founder, the World War II general. So merely being a great man, a great individual isn't enough to be a great founder. Why does Charlemagne, a successful conqueror king in early medieval Europe, get that title, in my opinion? Well, it's because he does deep and wide-scale social reforms throughout his empire. He reintroduces the study of Latin and reintroduces Roman law to a system that had mostly been relying on tribal law. He creates modern feudalism in the big picture. Medieval feudalism out of a much simpler, previous tribal structure, defining how Europe will do inheritance and political power for 1000 years. He differentiates Western Europe from say, the Byzantine Empire from the Orthodox world, gives the Catholic Church a new lease on life. I could keep on listening things, but you see how, what he's doing is grabbing the big systems of society and reshaping them.

I would argue that Confucius and, arguably, also Aristotle both qualify, where I note that Aristotle is not just a philosopher. He is a tutor to Alexander the Great. So arguably his views about politics, society, the intellectual projects that he valued, deeply affected Alexander... So you could debate maybe the real founder there is Alexander rather than Aristotle. But I think the flourishing of Hellenistic science actually is a piece of evidence towards Aristotle because they build on him...

On the best nootropic

Smart people are the best nootropic, if you can afford the leisure of it, in the sense of the Roman concept of otium, the concept of leisure that improves you. Set aside a day and have six back to back conversations with the smartest people. I guarantee you're going to be full of new, seemingly unrelated ideas a few days later. The best explanation I have for this is that it just does stimulate your brain that much. And especially if you take detailed notes, it's by far the best possible education. It’s the best way to hit the cutting edge of research. One of the things I also do, it's just vital to my intellectual project, is reaching out to top intellectuals of various kinds and just talking to them. That's something that takes up some of my time as well, and I feel it's unskippable.

On intellectual legitimacy and testing the social status of ideas

What feels like impartial natural responses are very much partial responses. We're social creatures primarily. In fact, most of our thinking is outsourced rather than insourced. Most of the ideas we share we got from somewhere else, so in a way if you really want to engage deeply with your own thinking, you have to accept the extent to which perhaps you're not a pure individual. And if you start to do that, interesting phenomena happen. You start to make these observations about… There are things everyone knows but no one says. There are things everyone knows and everyone says when they want to do some vice-signaling. There are things that almost no one knows but if you say them everyone recognizes, this inner logic of ideas explodes into these playful social experiments you can perform. I encourage people in the audience to really consider what does it say about a person to bring up a topic, what's the explicit text, and what's the subtext. Now having said all of these, I still believe that there is such a thing as truth.

On ignoring The Discourse, and what to do instead

I think people's brains are scrambled by the internet but it goes both ways. I said earlier the world's smartest people are the best nootropic. Well, guess what? Some of the world's smartest people are pseudonymous Twitter accounts or anonymous commenters. So people's brains being scrambled by forums 10 years ago or by Twitter right now or maybe clubhouse if you're being a little bit more verbal IQ oriented, it's like a blessing and a curse. The curse is, the algorithm is what decides what you'll talk about next. You'll be focused on the discourse. If you look at like all my public material it kind of ignores the discourse. I don't care where the discourse is going. I know what the next interesting question is. I learned about it in last week's conversation or I came up with this question six months ago, it's what I’ve been like thinking about. I’m not going to be derailed by a small political event though people might ask me about the political event that that you kind of have to distance yourself from that. But having said this, it's very important to maintain the best intellectual relationships you have, like one of the top 10 people that I value, whose input I value the most, when it comes to say topics of political science and industrial policy and economics, is just a pseudonymous Twitter account who I have no idea who they are, which is like have a DM going where I ask him or her or they, I ask, so what do you think about this? I wrote a draft here. What do you think about this draft? And then they anonymously go through it and check it out. Those you maintain. So on the internet, maintained relationships disregard narrative.

On the business model of the private intellectual

I built my business in order to run a successful research program, including for the analysts that work at Bismarck. The priority often there is intellectual growth, accumulation of this type of human capital; basically research progress if it can be achieved, but of course, it's also a for-profit entity. So there is a question of, well, is there research that is close enough to applicable to be something that might be profitable for clients, or at least of supreme interest to them?

So I vaguely classify these two big buckets of stuff. One, research that is on specific organizations, institutions, where the correct answer is useful enough for their ongoing efforts, their ongoing strategy; in that case you actually have to know quite a bit about the client. On the other hand, it is something that you could consider philanthropy but it's almost like fundamental intellectual curiosity, like things that just, in an ideological sense to the person in question, they would want to hear answers. They would want to understand.

You can get all sorts of interesting research funded. You can get research funded on the distant history of mankind, when exactly civilizations arose, the question of in which conditions political violence arose, which kind of straddles the border between this large intellectual curiosity and something very practical. Obviously, you need to think about how stable is a country, how stable are the conditions in a country. You might be especially targeted if you stand out in some way. You might get anything funded from research into the distant history of mankind, research into what are the bottlenecks on technological research in the modern era, which western governments are perhaps the most flexible and are the likeliest to undertake serious reform or stuff that's oriented towards questions of nuclear war or global pandemics or any of that other stuff that starts becoming more conventionally philanthropic over time.

And a lot of these people, they're very alive, especially if they are self-made in some sense like if they created their own fortunes, which in Silicon Valley is often the case; very intelligent, passionate about questions and often they're just really short on time. They're really short on people. So these are the two big buckets. One of them requires you to know a little bit more about the person. The other one requires you to know a little bit more about the world and also make a differential case that you in particular are the correct person to solve this puzzle or at least to contribute to it substantially.

Listen to the whole episode and subscribe to the Other Life podcast.

PS: The IndieThinkers community is hosting three great events in the next few weeks. Study and discuss the literary and philosophical revolution of Romanticism with member Timothy Wilcox (PhD) on May 19. Learn how to teach yourself piano with member Daniel Garner, inventor of the Pattern Method, on May 12. And finally, member Geoff Shullenberger will be teaching an 8-week course on René Girard, starting in mid-June; download the reading list and you'll receive an email when we open enrollment.

The time to withdraw

Being, as the most unique and most rare, in opposition to nothingness, will have withdrawn itself from the massiveness of beings, and all history—where it reaches down to its proper essence—will serve only this withdrawal of being into its full truth. Yet the successes and failures of everything public will swarm and follow closely one upon the other, whereby, typical of that which is public, nothing will be surmised of what is actually happening.

Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy

I've built a decent audience across several social media platforms, but I can't shake the feeling that something fundamental is going rotten.

For people doing longer-term and more sophisticated work, such as writing serious non-fiction, participating in the "creator economy" is something like settling an unmapped foreign jungle: the irresistible allure of adventure, the enchantment of pioneering unchartered territory, and hundreds of things that could kill you.

Constant public posting produces a set of negative psychological side-effects we continue to underestimate.

I do believe it's necessary for indie thinkers to build a public audience, and this requires a certain amount of systematic public sharing of work. The error in my thinking has been my presumption that the independent intellectual life would maintain audience growth as a constant goal and metric. In retrospect, this makes no sense because the comparative advantage of genuine thinkers—disciplined, erudite seekers of disinterested truths—is the capacity to conceive and deliver truly original, researched, and socially de-conditioned insights. Obviously this is impossible if one is frenetically glued to the same screens, and the same Discourse, as every other pedestrian of the information superhighway. For the indie thinker, maximizing audience growth in the long run must require periods of extreme detachment, distance, and solitude.

So how is one to know whether one should be building an audience via public posting, or withdrawing to work patiently in detached focus?

In the early days, when your audience is nil, some kind of systematic public posting is essential to achieve one's basic existence in the public sphere. This period requires great discipline, intrinsic motivation, and self-confidence (or else some support from a private community such as IndieThinkers.org).

But if you have something real to say, you'll inevitably earn your way onto the radar of at least a few discerning people.

The first important milestone is when your audience grows large enough that you feel extrinsic motivation to post. The number of expected recipients is large enough that it feels worthwhile to post, even if you're not naturally overflowing with the internal drive to post.

This milestone represents an exciting turning point, as it becomes easier to regularly post. But this is also where one's mind enters into a bargain with the devil: Insofar as external recognition feels like a tailwind, it is to the same degree a straight-jacket. As soon as thinking aloud becomes dopaminergic, thinking aloud starts optimizing for dopamine. The mind can hardly do otherwise; it is an unconscious dynamic that is, to a certain degree, irreducible. Once thinking starts optimizing for dopamine, it starts optimizing for positive social feedback, which means it enters the gravity well of popular opinion, which guarantees a long-term endpoint other than objective truth. For the indie thinker, falling too far into this gravity well is nothing short of doom, for it takes away the only edge that honest and patient thinkers have ever enjoyed: that Truth is always unpopular and difficult, but therefore scarce and hard to fake.

I am now of the view that, once this milestone of extrinsic motivation is reached, one should enjoy the victory but immediately step away from it. One should begin a specific, longer-term project that involves deep focus and prolonged distance from the public web altogether! Not forever, one will return; but only after reaching the next level dopamine-free. As one makes progress on the project, one will periodically post chunks to the public web, but without caring or engaging or watching the results. For this detachment is necessary to produce the work that rises to the top on the public web. And the truth is, patient work in psychological detachment is increasingly hard to perform, even for the educated and literate classes. As scholarly patience becomes increasingly difficult and rare, the simple achievement of frequently reading real books and writing real ideas will increase the price commanded by indie thinkers, given the increasing quantity of undifferentiated opinion.

One hour of truly focused attention is significantly more valuable than 25 hours of scatter-brained Twitter posting.

One hour of focused attention is sometimes sufficient to conceive one original idea, write it down clearly, and do something purposeful with it, such as post it to your blog. The quality of the idea, the quality of the decision about what to do with the idea, and the basic follow-through—all of these are more valuable, and harder than we appreciate.

When I'm scattered, I can have many good ideas and not write most of them down. Of the couple I manage to write down, one is posted on some public abyss like Twitter, and one is posted in some writing app and forgotten. The one posted to Twitter was substantively and lyrically poisoned by some degree of inescapable algorithmic competition psychology. The one posted to the notes was only half-baked anyway; when I wrote it, I was thinking partially about the last tab I saw and partially about the next tab I want to "check."

In a state of attention, I can write one decent idea and also overcome the bit of anticipatory anxiety surrounding the "submit" button on my blog. At the time of this writing, my blog posts go out to about 6k people. I could very feasibly publish good ideas on my blog a few times per week, if I wanted to and decided to. Many smart people read them, opportunities consistently drift my way from these posts. And yet I haven't been publishing blog posts half as much as I could, if I simply decided to. Why not? The calendar and the email and all the tabs are just so absorbing, one partially forgets that higher-value activities even exist, and are viable candidates for what one should be doing. Blogging somehow feels irresponsible; the tabs and apps feel like moral obligations and blogging a kind of self-indulgence. And yet, the reverse is true—but it takes a quiet mind to see this, and a focused mind to act on it.

When you're in the rhythm of bouncing around between podcasts, Youtube videos, Twitter, and all the rest, the decision to stop in favor of reading and writing is more devilishly difficult than any educated person wants to admit. It is perhaps the most underestimated social harm afflicting the literate classes today, in part because it's embarrassing to admit it.

I'm a pretty disciplined and productive person, on average, but I've been extremely embarrassed to confront just how stubbornly mushy my mind and media habits have become over the past year. Several half-baked attempts to correct course have been attempted, and they've failed.

The problem is much more insidious and significant than I previously appreciated. It's a form of mental capture so severe that it's self-effacing, a kind of usurpation where you're really not steering your own ship anymore and the quiet moment where you realize you're not steering your own ship never arrives, unless by some exogenous accident.

I will continue writing and publishing to this email list, here—indeed, this is where I should be writing and publishing most consistently—but I will tell you: I am planning a period of withdrawal from the public web. I'm going to write my second book and I'm going to institute a systematic re-ordering of my time and attention, away from all the tabs and metrics and replies.

I'll send you more details soon.

In the meantime, if you're interested in René Girard, we've produced a nice PDF study guide that will guide you through all of his key ideas in 8 weeks. You can download it for free at GirardCourse.com.

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