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On Intellectual Twitter Beefs

Smart and capable people spend vast amounts of time engaged in useless, circular debates on a platform that is arguably designed to thwart intellectual illumination. Why? No sane person would ever consciously choose or agree to participate in these monstrous wastes of effort, and yet even smart people do it all the time. Either everyone is insane, or there are deeper social-psychological and behavioral forces at work. Here are some thoughts.

1 — It's a well known feature of our universe that destruction is much easier than construction. There are many ways to be wrong, only a few ways to be right. It requires a long and difficult process to link multiple ideas into a plausible and coherent perspective. And the greater the perspective, the more moving parts vulnerable to objection. There is thus an obvious asymmetry between the works of disciplined intellectuals who produce large tomes, and freewheeling intellectuals who produce a high volume of short digital emissions. The former type of work is a costly and therefore credible signal, which earns respect and sustained attention. The latter type of work is much cheaper, so less credible, and people give less attention and trust to it.

2 — Given academic disciplinarity and insularity, there are diminishing returns to academic specialism and increasingly large potential returns to forging creative, cross-disciplinary webs of conjectures. I use the word "conjectures" rather than, say, "insights" or "truths" simply to denote that they don't really become insights or truths until they are repeatedly questioned, tested, pruned, and tilled over time, ideally by adversarial interlocutors (but these are the labors of discipline).

3 — Forging creative cross-disciplinary conjectures is more fun than getting one thing really right. The former runs on dopamine, the latter must run on something other than dopamine, because its rewards are more distal. The latter therefore involves lower time preference. Lower time preference is positively correlated with IQ and other obvious things such as savings rates. Thus many of the people today who are cultivating the funnest and highest-potential-value intellectual terrain (creative cross-disciplinary conjectures) will likely have more disordered lives, and those cultivating the more tedious spaces of diminishing returns will likely have more stable and "successful" lives.

4 — It seems unfair that the cultivators of academic discipline — who do nothing more than till overworked soil to extract increasingly tiny shards of value — tend to enjoy more influence and more wealth. This is likely to cause resentment — and understandably, I almost want to say rightfully, so — among the smart, independent person who is discovering potentially huge, never-before-documented relationships between Spinoza and modern information theory! The perception of an unfair and malignant situation is exacerbated by #1 (costly signals receive more attention).

5 — The reality is that the cultivators of academic discipline are not better rewarded for their intellectual discoveries, which are as politically and monetarily impactful as the eccentric generalist's — almost all of them are equally Sisyphean ventures commanding the same price of zero dollars. Rather, they are differently constituted individuals, and the blessing that endows the disciplinarian with more influence and money is also the curse that makes them till increasingly dead soil. And the curse that dooms the eccentric generalist to less influence and money, is also the blessing that allows them to live on the thrilling edge.

6 — The grass is always greener on the other side, and each type wants to enjoy the benefits of the other type. This is the proximal cause of many intellectual Twitter beefs, or at least the kind that appear to be increasingly common at the moment.

7 — Disciplined and influential intellectuals want, and increasingly need, to be on social media because almost all humans have now averted their gaze from the top of prestige hierarchies to whoever best reflects their personal preferences in the very long tail of the digital market. Disciplined intellectuals give their whole life to earning eyeballs via prestige, only to suddenly realize their prestige no longer brings any eyeballs, so they are currently in a slow mass migration to where the eyeballs are.

8 — On the other hand, eccentric generalists are constantly on the prowl for large, disciplined hot-air balloons they can quickly and brilliantly pop with their disorganized and dopamine-drenched stockpile of undisciplined insights. For them, Twitter is a gift from God; it's like if you dropped a deer hunter in a beautiful, infinite forest where the deer are automatically replenished every time one is killed. Twitter is Westworld for undisciplined intellectuals, except it's already here and it's fully operationalized. Disciplined and influential intellectuals have to be on there now, so there are several thousands of them roaming in the open, all in one place at the same time (your screen, whenever you want). As per #1, the asymmetry of destruction vs. construction guarantees virtually limitless easy wins, and — here's the kicker: on the medium itself, lengthy disciplined constructions are banned. The medium installs an impenetrable glass-ceiling on the intellectual firepower of the disciplined, while removing all traditional limits on the effervescent performance of undisciplined brilliance.

9 — For many traditional intellectuals, Twitter intellectuals are seen as too bad to be real. "How do all of these idiot amateurs have more influence than me?!" For the undisciplined intellectual, however, social media is too good to be true. "I can hardly finish a blog post, let alone write a book, but on Twitter I dominate two philosophers and a scientist every damn day biotch!" The reason these views seem too bad/good to be true is that they're both false. Few, if any, of the eccentrics and dilettantes (and worse) have influence; they earn some short attention spans through their constant, low-effort, high-volume displays — but influence requires deeper audience investment over longer periods of time. As per #1, very few of these people are "owning" anyone. They are mostly just performing entropy. But together these two types increasingly enter into dances that mutually reinforce each others false perceptions.

10 — Unfortunately, these illusions have asymmetrically negative implications. For the undisciplined internet intellectual, who is already more likely to suffer from a disordered life (as per #3), the illusion of constantly dominating more disciplined intellectuals is an experience of unmitigated positive feedback, which appears to frequently produce mental health crashes. (Anyone who does not understand that they have been owned can be blocked). My evidence is purely observational and anecdotal, but I think this tendency is publicly visible and cyclically repeated. It seems true that some of the smartest and most interesting Twitter intellectuals have brilliant bursts of activity followed by periods of extreme irritability and cruelty, followed by periods of deactivation and radio silence (and presumably, hopefully, recovery). Friends of mine have expressed serious objections to my commenting on the mental health of internet people, but if you see patterned behaviors that predictably produce terrible outcomes for someone — I think it's cruel and inappropriate to not state it, even if it's admittedly speculative.

11 — Someone should experiment with novel ways to make these different temperamental strengths and weaknesses interact productively. Perhaps someone could start hosting live conversations with a variety of these different intellectual types, contributing some longer-form disciplinary pressure onto the effervescent brilliance of eccentric generalists, while offering a public dopamine trough to the most interesting among the highly disciplined. Such a project would point toward an intellectual life that avoids the sterile disciplinary waste of energy on diminishing marginal returns, but also avoids the trap of sinking dopamine-addled flights of brilliance into archives that nobody can even find — let alone appreciate or build on — one day later. Such a project may even represent a reproducible vector toward a kind of other life in general…

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