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On Being Fired (How Academia Got Pwned 12)

This is the twelfth post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. This will probably become a book. If you'd like to hear about that when it happens, be sure to subscribe. In fact, now that I'm living out of a backpack and I have received a few invitations, a book tour seems to be spontaneously self-organizing. If you'd like for me to come through your area, please let me know and I'll see what we can do.


[The numbering below does not reflect any formal order or logic. It's just to indicate the relatively stand-alone nature of each item, and the somewhat random chronology in which they came to me.]

1. Many theorists say that social reality is splintering, but how many theorists gamble their life on this claim?

2. Different types of people see predictably different streams of media, have predictably different interpretations of objective facts, and repeat what they learn in predictably different ways, with predictably different consequences, in predictably different subspaces of society. One of the most significant categorical differences among individuals, in this regard, is the difference between those who genuinely search the data of the world for an increasingly true understanding, versus those who scan the data of the world looking for rewards.

3. When one's grasp of these predictable differences reaches a certain threshold, it becomes possible to tell one story — honestly and clearly, with no irony or gimmicks — while also producing systematically different interpretations in different heads. To admit this reality, and to choose one's words accordingly, is not cynicism or dishonesty, but classical oration with digital sophistication. There is dishonesty in speaking to the world as if every person will receive every message in the same way, or at all.

4. There are three different audiences in the theatre of my life. My first audience is composed of the people in my personal life, to whom I have obligations I consider just and binding. Call it Level 1. The second is composed of the people who read my blog and watch my videos and hangout in my server; I've heard it called the Murphyverse, let's call it Level 2. The third are all the normies of the world who happen to have some vague and distant interest in me and my affairs. For instance, other academics aware of my work but also the random person who read one of the Daily Mail headlines about me. These people are Level 3. Who sees what, when, and where, and how they interpret it, differs vastly but predictably. Having observed this closely throughout my protracted 4-month controversy, I now possess a highly granular communications infrastructure. To give you just one concrete example, if I say something significant in the 46th minute of a generically titled Youtube video, it will only ever become known in Level 2, and quite quickly by nearly everyone in Level 2. (Unless it's something scandalous, which always has the possibility of getting picked up by Level 3).

5. I've labeled the Levels to reflect the rank ordering of my ethical obligations, as far as I can see them. There is rarely a defensible reason to make any significant life decision with any respect to Level 3. These people could not care less about you, first of all, and any lifestyle at all dependent on the vicissitudes of Level 3 is worse than fragile. For a real intellectual, it is nothing short of doom. One should generally be as icy as possible toward Level 3, which is composed mostly of idiots following idiots. Level 2 is like extended family, you must love them and give them your all, but also keep enough distance that you don't spread yourself too thin. Level 1 deserves the most undivided and unconditional care. When life becomes complicated and priorities are difficult to sort, truly good and honorable people generally use the simple algorithm of deferring to Level 1.

6. Warhol was wrong about the future, when he predicted that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. In the words of Momus, "In the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people." In 1953, of the American families that owned a TV, about 72% of them watched I Love Lucy at its highest point. That was about 44 million viewers. By one estimate, a popular episode of The Joe Rogan Experience might reach 190 million people, or 12% of the English speaking world (and that's with unlimited playbacks on multiple devices at any time). Therefore, what's impressive and significant about one of the world's biggest podcasts is not how many people watch and listen, but how few. Outside of a few particular occupational or social milieus, there is no location in the English speaking world where you can assume anyone in your Level 1 has watched or heard any particular episode, or even knows anything about the show. What's most interesting about famous people today is that nobody has ever heard of them.

7. To constitute an intellectual life necessarily involves strategic navigation of the meme pool, and yet optimizing for memetic reproduction per se is to betray the intellectual vocation. There is nothing sinister or superficial about memetic fitness; any intellectual you admire enjoyed memetic fitness, by definition, because you learned about them in the first place. Given the utter domination of the memetic landscape by the coarsest players today (marketers, essentially), the very possibility of a non-sinister and non-superficial intellectual life in the 21st century hinges on real intellectuals comprehending the memetic landscape (and risking themselves on this comprehension). The global terrain of the meme pool, divided into increasingly shallow but porous pockets, is increasingly complicated and opaque. The function that should be optimized by a true 21st century intellectual has not yet been established, but assuming you can talk to everyone equally is certain to be a losing strategy.

8. Political correctness has become sufficiently suffocating that, strangely enough, getting fired from prestige institutions has become a badge of honor, and a credible signal of noteworthiness. If you find yourself in trouble, there is a good case to be made that getting fired is the preferred exit mode, in part because it provides a catapult into higher pockets of Level 3. "Dude, you could get on Joe Rogan." But as we've already noted, Level 3 should be the lowest priority for any good person with a long-term intellectual agenda.

9. The flattening of the broadcast-based, central prestige hierarchy into a bewildering quantity of smaller pyramids (with larger absolute numbers given population growth and global delivery) is accelerating. The hundreds of speaking and writing people roughly at Joe-Rogan-level are the fruit of a previous stage of splintering. Divide the Tom Brokaw personality (a generic broadcaster optimized for a captive, mass audience) into a few hundred sub-personalities specialized in different traits and interests, and you'll get a few hundred personalities who are still rich and influential, although their audiences are smaller percentage-wise than Tom Brokaw's.

10. To compete in a meme pool characterized by accelerating segmentation, therefore, one cannot aim for what is currently adaptive (which guarantees you'll be a day late and a dollar short). It seems to me that a promising rule of thumb, consistent with the informal case study data available at this time, is for intellectuals to jump as far ahead as they can into the most precise and obscure depths of their own genuinely motivating curiosities, passions, and temperamental strengths, while escaping as recklessly as possible every occupational and social constraint on these depths. The high-brow intellectual is obviously a different type than most of the writers/speakers currently at the top, no doubt, but the trick is to infer what the intellectual equivalent of the prevailing players would look like. What we do know is that Joe Rogan did not become the Joe Rogan Experience by trying to earn an interview with Tom Brokaw or by trying to be the next Tom Brokaw, he became the Joe Rogan Experience by doing the weird non-lucrative things he liked to do, doing them intensely forever, and then getting selected in a stochastic distributed search process (a market). In 2019, if your goal is to get on Joe Rogan or be the next Joe Rogan, the only guaranteed outcome is that you certainly won't be the intellectual equivalent of Joe Rogan in 2040. When the world's biggest symbol-producers have audiences of only 10,000 people, those winning symbol-producers will be a huge set of people who, in 2019, were maximally disengaged from mimetic rivalry and building out as effectively as possible their even weirder mix of ideas, interests, and aesthetics.

11. Mainstream media can only report on events. I can report non-events.

12. I successfully avoided being fired by the University of Southampton on Wednesday. To this day, I have never once been disciplined, or even warned, for any problematic behavior as an academic. I managed to secure an additional 3 months of pay, which I would not have received had I been fired, and I did not have to sign any non-disclosure agreement whatsoever. To anyone who asks, I can provide a short and sweet account of myself, with my chin held high. I am quite pleased.

13. As the author of this non-event, I am spared the obligation of any social campaigning. No lawyers, no calls from journalists, no pressure toward personal image maintenance, no crying for pity donations. For Level 1, a short and honest message. For Level 2, all the juicy details, reflections, and observations. And for Level 3: nothing. They'll either forget, or guess the ending (probably incorrectly). Except those floating around Level 3 interested enough to hear me out, patiently and openly, which means I've converted them to Level 2. If that's you, thanks for reading this far, and welcome to the Murphyverse. I would be stunned if any Daily Mail journalist could find a lede buried this deeply, though nothing is impossible.

With the conclusion of this long preface, now the real story will begin. My next posts will build out a section of the book I would like to call 12 Rules for Ruining Your Life (To Get a Better One).

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