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The Eighth Dispatch
Thoughts From Quarantine
I got COVID recently, despite being vaccinated. Rather than risk spreading it to my elderly parents, I self-isolated. For five days, I only left the couch to use the bathroom, and my amazing wife left me bags of delicious and unhealthy fast food at the threshold.
For three of those days, I couldn’t sleep, and I caught up on every movie I missed in the last five years. (I can’t recommend any.)
I am not a negative person by nature, but like a lot of middle children, I am an accomplished cynic. Some of the following are 3 a.m. thoughts from my exile. Others I’m revisiting. Don’t read if you’re in a good mood.
Extroverts are like prions, the invasive protein particles that cause degenerative mental disorders. Prions go around trying to turn everything into copies of themselves, slowly driving their hosts mad, in much the same way that extroverts do.
God loves the country with the bigger army more.
Going by the record, technologies vacillate between periods of explosion and control. In the early days of the internet, for example, there was little to no control. There was no content moderation; you could say or post anything. Government presence was limited to placards and announcements, and law enforcement had trouble connecting online actors with real persons. There was a hope, such as during the "Arab spring," that the internet would become a moderating and democratizing force.
Of course, with such little control, that meant terrorists could post beheading videos, and racial trolling and sexual harassment were a genuine problem, not to mention the predation of children, as popularized by the TV show Dateline.
With those twin excuses—terrorists and pedophiles—governments and their corporate agents spent the next 15 years extending their control over most of the online world such that today, everything the average person says or does online is now recorded and used against them. The largest country on the planet has instituted a “social credit” scoring system. Harassment by individuals has diminished, but mass harassment, organized and directed by political interests who raise mobs online, regularly deprives people of dignity or income without due process or recourse, and institutions like universities and three-letter agencies spread disinformation and suppress dissent on an industrial scale.
(Whether a person prefers the new hazards to the old tracks well with their authoritarian tendencies.)
I’ve said before that Orwell was practically an optimist. He assumed governments would force people to install listening devices in their homes, where in fact, people will not only pay for and install them themselves for the sake of a few conveniences, they will carry them everywhere, even sleep with them.
Similarly, the cyberpunk writers of the 1970s and ’80s assumed giant corporations, such as the ones that emerged from Silicon Valley over the last generation, would buy out democracy. That was the premise of countless novels, movies, and TV shows, from Neuromancer to RoboCop to Max Headroom. But in fact, it is regular people who are demanding corporations enforce an extra-legal orthodoxy.
Whether you agree with that orthodoxy (in its curent guise) is irrelevant. What’s interesting, what matters, is where those actions originate, which is not the boardroom. If we live in a dystopia, it is not a cyberpunk one. Very little of what was imagined by that movement has come to pass. But we like to think it has, we like the myth because it provides cover for our baser instincts. It means the villain of the story is not us, and we can continue paving the road ahead with our very best intentions.
The question, as always, is not whether people should be punished for saying terrible things. Of course they should. Rather, it’s who gets to decide. In the 20th century, there was a concerted push to award that power to juries, under rule of law, because prior experience taught us to fear the alternative, a warning echoed through two centuries of literature, from The Scarlet Letter to The Crucible, and repeated by Holocaust survivors and exiles from the Gulag.
“The mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.” —Victor Frankl
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” —Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
We all like to think that if we were alive in, say, the Napoleonic era that we would be apalled by slavery or the serf system and work to destroy them. Biology and history suggest otherwise. There is very little that separates us from humans who lived a mere three lifetimes ago.
If the trend of technology persists, our current period of control will be followed by one of innovation, where clever humans will find a way to slip the noose woven by their comrades. If so, one wonders how the real villains of the 21st century will respond.
Despite their apparent differences, social justice activists and grumpy old men share one very important trait: nostalgia. It’s impossible to believe certain narratives without first forgetting that robber barons, yellow journalism, slavery, child labor, and actual fascism were ever a thing.
Here’s today’s Russell conjugation:
If it supports my ideology, it’s a bold statement by a fearless speaker of truth.
If it opposes my ideology, it’s deliberately inflammatory and in poor taste at this sensitive time.
“Just be yourself” has got to be the most consistently touted bad advice in the world. Subjecting a near-stranger to the unfettered you is like throwing a six-year-old into the deep end and shouting “Good luck!”
It isn’t that you’re anything to be ashamed of. And hopefully you each will find someone who shares your kind of weird. It’s always better to be authentic in your close relationships.
But not everyone is going to be that person, and there is a point where “keeping it real” is just an excuse for shifting the burden of social interaction—because there is a burden—onto everyone else.
We shouldn’t say absolutely everything that comes into our heads. I don’t need to know that you think bald men are gross, or that you like to watch. Tact is the grease of fellowship.
Popular people have problems grasping why the rest of us might not want to “be ourselves” because, by luck or practice (more likely the latter), their views and behaviors extend cultural norms. That’s the very reason they’re popular: They epitomize the social construct.
Just at random, most people are not going to. We're not going to be complete heretics either. Most of us are a mix, with the latter best saved for appropriate company.
Teenagers intuitively get this. They spend all day being told to act differently: sit still, pay attention, act your age. But the moment they express any anxiety about how to behave around others, they’re told to “Just be yourself.”
You literally spent all day telling me not to!
There is no teetotaler like the former drinker, no anti-smoker like the ex-smoker. No one is more devout than the convert, no one more bigoted than the man secretly gay. There is hidden hypocrisy behind every passionate cause.
When you’re exposed to something long enough, you begin to see its patterns. I have no special insight into strangers, but there are some kinds of people I know from experience are very unlikely to enjoy my books, and I’m always at a loss when one of them declares their interest.
All other things equal, I would spare them, but if I say that, the natural response will be to ask why, and I don’t know why. I only know that folks like them tend not to enjoy my work, and I would be very surprised if they did. Nothing further is implied, although they might reasonably think so.
AI is like that. It has absolutely no insight. It can only quantify relationships. Like a psychopath, it is completely blind to the nature of those relationships and their meaning, which is why, after seeing you bought a casket, it pesters you for weeks to buy another.
I'm not sure the average person is aware of just how many highly paid, ostensibly intelligent people are presently preparing armies of these machines to do more and more of our thinking for us, from logistics to customer service to education to health care, nor how that will impact the long-term prospects for human happiness.
I keep hearing some version of the idea that clever people can say things in such a way as to maintain plausible deniability.
I doubt it. Your average befuddled politician or milquetoast HR mouthpiece is not particularly clever. They're simply dishonest and practiced at their dishonesty.
Ambiguity is easy. Clarity is hard.
Human wetware automatically updates with the latest shared delusion. If you don’t like this reality, don’t worry. When it changes tomorrow, it will have always been that way.
The news cycle is deliberately amnesiac. It’s designed to pump you so full of the latest breaking news that you’ll feel good about yourself for being so well-informed, especially versus all those dullards out there. I mean, how could you not be better when you always have the latest, greatest facts?
It doesn’t matter what news you’re getting. The people claiming election fraud now want you to forget that they brushed aside those very same concerns in 2016, and the people in charge now want you to forget they seriously and repeatedly raised the issue before.
Facts seem intrinsically valuable. After all, they're facts! But absent context, facts are at best trivia, at worst misleading, a point famously satirized by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when it was revealed the answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42. As facts go, none could be more important. And yet, by itself, 42 is not just meaningless, it’s absurd.
This is why life in the 21st century also feels absurd, despite that we generate more facts, more data, more information in an hour than could be collected across the whole of the 19th century—all of it immediately available to us.
So with the news, which simply repeats the number 42, a nominally important but context-less fact, over and over and over in various guises.
And so, too, with the FBI, who, in a sick pantomime of a 1950s police drama (“Just the facts, ma’am”), seriously believed after 9/11 that the problem was an absence of intelligence, when in fact it already possessed all the facts it needed. What it lacked was accountability.
The people complaining about the FBI now want you to forget that they were the ones who skirted that accountability, instead tacking off the shackles, and the people in charge of the FBI now want you to forget that it ever had shackles or why.
The people complaining about the FBI now want you to forget that they were fine when the targets of its illegal tactics were “communists” and civil rights activists, and the people in charge of the FBI now want you to forget the Church Commission was ever a thing. (Indeed, it's hard to imagine a world where Congressional committees challenge the three-letter agencies instead of egging them on.)
There will always exist people willing to pay for certain news not to be delivered. If you aren’t paying for the news you consume, you will always be outbid.
We've turned the world into a sitcom. Every crisis breeds a moral that we forget before the start of the next episode, when everything is exactly as it was before, which is why, despite all the crises of the last 15 years, nothing seems to change.
A lot of people I consider very intelligent seem to have an almost messianic faith in crypto, even as we watch it get capitalized in real time. This seems to me like a bad rerun of the ’90s, when against the warnings of people like me, there was widespread belief that information technology was going to be a kind of amulet that enlightened and liberated mankind just for the wearing of it.
If it seems odd to you that all these NFTs are suddenly selling for millions of dollars, you don’t know much about money laundering or tax evasion.
On and off, I’ve spent a good chunk of the last year researching the newsletters on Substack, trying to get a sense of what takes off and what doesn’t and why. The first and foremost cause, as always, seems to be chance. Not much to do there. But below that, a clear theme emerged.
To understand it, you first have to accept that something takes off because it’s shared, not because it’s liked. There may be a correlation between liking something and sharing it, but if so, I expect it’s weak. It may even be negative in that what people love most is to hate on things.
Liking is private. It’s the secret in your heart. Sharing is a public statement of identity, even where that statement is something simple like “I think this is funny.” It makes the conversation about the sharer. When others feel the same, identity is validated and in-group bonds are reinforced, which feels good. Thus, the most explosive and widely shared newsletters don’t simply cover a topic. They cover it sympathetically (or critically) as an expression of a specific but often not stated group identity.
For example, one rapidly growing newsletter about the difficulties of dealing with mental illness had the clear subtext that other people—the out-group, presumably those without mental illness—make it especially hard. In other words, it’s everyone else’s fault. Another newsletter about the challenges of making it as writer had the subtext that no creative endeavor is as difficult, but fear not: the author was going to figure it out, thereby hinting at a secret sauce.
One political analysis newsletter that exploded in just weeks was an occult out-group attack. While it appeared to wrestle with the complexity of things, it was never to an indeterminate conclusion, which you would expect if the world were actually complex. Rather, it always seemed to find fault with the bad people—in one case at least, even where they weren't directly involved!
Importantly, all of these outlets were very well written and expertly researched. I’m not suggesting they lack quality, or that some measure of skill isn’t also a reason for their success. You do have to know your stuff and be able to explain it clearly.
But it’s precisely that professionalism, and the corresponding appearance of impartiality, that underwrites the identitarian validation. Like the fourth wall in fiction, it maintains the illusion that what’s on offer is anything but mental masturbation.
So, if you want to have a successful publication, you have to be shared, and if you want to be shared, don’t write anything that challenges your audience. Instead, consistently challenge their opponents while maintianing the fourth wall. If you can do that, you’ll most likely have a winner.
It’s only been seven years, but I’m beginning to suspect that fortune cookie was a lie.
Finally, here is this month’s picture of Henry and Sadie, replicating how I felt on the couch.
More chapters of ANACHRON are coming.
That’s it for this time. I’m glad you’re here.