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When not to go with the flow

The task of identifying the line between good and evil is like infinitesimal calculus. Mere intuitions are insufficient, which is why "going with the flow" so easily ends in evil. Many marriages fail this way, as sincerely innocent intentions to "make friends" or enjoy "a rich private life” all of a sudden become adulterous affairs or irrecoverable distances. To keep innocence from turning to guilt requires strict and formal tools, just as one cannot eyeball the derivative of a curve, but when it comes to good and evil the objects of analysis are typically difficult to measure. This is the genius of socially conservative Christian norms around sex and marriage, which are often seen as stupidly strict prohibitions, e.g. never having alone time with a member of the opposite sex. Secular cosmopolitans today laugh at this norm, but are the scoffers and mockers really doing so well? In the context of this particular example, marriage, one error on the side of adultery does more damage than several errors on the side of foregone other-sex friendship experiences. As a result, some educated cosmopolitans run around with many "friendships" and failed marriages, scoffing at the paranoia of Christian family values, although the latter include some superior, evolved formalities to deal with overly complex identification problems we are incapable of solving intuitively "in the moment." Whenever a fatal point on a map is hard to detect, it makes sense to prohibit any entrance into the smallest definable region around the undetectable point. Unconditional prohibition may be the most sophisticated rule in contexts where many hidden chutes toward the netherworld are known to exist, even if a sizable range of perfectly innocent and desirable experiences must be forgone.

Algorithms and prayers

The mild-mannered socialist humanist says it's evil to use algorithms to exploit humans for profit, but the articulation of this objection is an algorithm to exploit humans for profit. Self-awareness of this algorithm may vary, but cultivated ignorance of one's own optimizing functions does not make them any less algorithmic or exploitative. The opposite of algorithmic exploitation is not moralistic objection, but probably prayer, which is only — despite popular impressions — attention, evacuated of instrumental intentions. One point of worshipping God is that, by investing one's desire into an abstraction of perfection, against which all existing things pale in comparison, one may live toward the good and still live as intensely as possible. Secular "good people" often makes themselves good by eviscerating their desire, de-intensifying their vitality to ensure their mundane algorithmic optimizing never goes too far. But a life of weak sin is not the same as a good life. Prayer, the practice of de-instrumentalizing attention, does not feign superiority to the sinful, exploitative tendencies of man (like socialist humanism). Prayer is code. Prayers have never hidden their nature as exploitative algorithms — "say these words and it will be Good" — but they exploit our drive to exploit, routing it into a pure and abstract circle, around a pure and abstract center. Secular solutions to the problem of evil typically involve lying about human behavior, whereas a holy life is the application of one's wicked intelligence to the production of the good and the true.

Semantic Apocalypse and Life After Humanism with R. Scott Bakker

I talked to fantasy author, philosopher, and blogger R. Scott Bakker about his views on the nature of cognition, meaning, intentionality, academia, and fiction/fantasy writing. See Bakker's blog, Three Pound Brain.

Listeners who enjoy this podcast might check out Bakker's What is the Semantic Apocalypse? and Enlightenment How? Omens of the Semantic Apocalypse.

This conversation was first recorded as a livestream on Youtube. Subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the bell to receive notifications when future livestreams begin.

Big thanks to all the patrons who keep this running.

Download this episode.

Pathologies of Secular Cosmopolitanism with Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith (@BDSixsmith) is a British writer based in Poland. He has a new book out, called Kings & Comedians: A Brief History of British-Polish Relations. His work has appeared in The Catholic Herald, The Spectator US, and Quillette, among other places. I find Ben interesting because he writes sympathetically of religion, although he's not religious. We talk about this, being immigrants, Brexit, and other topics relating to the pathologies of secular cosmopolitanism. Find Ben's website at bsixsmith.wixsite.com/home.

This conversation was first recorded as a livestream on Youtube. Subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the bell to receive notifications when future livestreams begin.

Big thanks to all the patrons who keep this running.

Download this episode.

When does blogging become worth it?

A misconception about blogging is that one needs X number of readers before it's worthwhile, where X is some dauntingly high number. But actually, you only need Y readers, such that when you write something good, there is a non-trivial probability that it will get shared to X number of readers. You don't need assurance that all of your good pieces will reach X number of readers; a glimmer of reasonable possibility is more than enough to motivate your gameplay. Cue that study about mice working more for probabilistic rewards than certain rewards. Thus, blogging becomes worthwhile dramatically sooner than the popular misconception has it.

I never expected to write so much, but I discovered that once I had a hammer, nails were everywhere, and that supply creates its own demand. I believe that someone who has been well-educated will think of something worth writing at least once a week; to a surprising extent, this has been true.

Gwern

It is difficult for me to estimate values for X and Y, as these values are contingent on your aspirations and areas of interest. But I can certainly say that for me, the threshold where regular blogging became naturally self-motivating, when it turned from an aspiration and exercise in discipline to an active appetite, came sooner than I was planning for.

How many people do you need in your "audience" for your writing effort to feel worthwhile? I have high intrinsic motivation, so I think for me that number has always been relatively low. If yours is higher, then adjust my calculations accordingly. Three years ago, I might have thought the following (of course, these figures change over time due to hedonic adaption, etc.). I always expect most people to skip my weirdest or worst stuff, but if I could know that about 100 people would read all my best pieces, that would have been enough to keep me pumped for quite a while. I mean, aspiring writers before the internet had to write for a very long time with virtually no readers before they had any chance of gaining even 100 readers, so even just 100 readers should really feel like an extraordinary privilege and motivation.

Now, if you start with zero readers, let's say a brand new blog and you don't know anybody. A desired audience of 100 readers might seem unattainable, but remember, you don't need 100 people to know and like and read all your blog posts. All you need is a non-trivial probability of winning 100 readers in order for this desired audience to trigger effective motivation. So how do we estimate Y, the number of guaranteed readers you need to have a non-trivial probability of winning 100 readers total? And how do we define the non-trivial probability? Well, it will depend on the influence of the Y readers. A small number of people who can get it out to a large number of others, or a larger number of less influential people who will get it out to the same number of others. It will also depend on your personality characteristics, such as intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.

Let's say you can find only 10 people of the 7.5 billion people in the world, who will at least take a quick look at whatever you write. Virtually anyone can get this from some forum on the internet, like a subreddit related to the themes of your writing. A very quick Google says that the average Twitter user has 200 followers. Accounting for Twitter's unpredictable algorithm, let's say a random retweet from a random person is worth 5 views of your post. Pulling this out of my ass, but trying to be conservative. Let's assume you write something really good, which we'll define as being irresistibly compelling to the few people in your initial targeted audience base. Still, some will be too busy or distracted to share it, so even if it's irresistible, let's say only 20% of them share it with someone via Twitter. What this means is that when you write something good, it will very likely be read by at least 20 people (the first 10, then 2*5, so 10+10=20). Now, 20 people is not yet close to your desired 100, but the insight is that you're already 20% of the way to your goal and you literally just started from nothing. Now factor in the tail chance that one of those tweets gets retweeted by someone influential, and it's perfectly possible your post might randomly hit your 100-reader goal right out of the gate. But that's still rare at this point, this isn't quite yet a non-trivial probability of getting 100 readers. Yet, you can already see it on the horizon of attainability. If you are blessed with high intrinsic motivation, even this small glimmer of external hope might be enough to keep you churning.

Aside: Having analytics on your site really helps with the gamification. I suppose at some margins it could be perverse or destructive to get overly obsessed with the traffic data, but starting out I think it's hedonically productive on net.

If you have less intrinsic motivation and you need better chances than this to consider blogging a worthwhile venture, you could try to increase the initial number of people you give your work to. Or you could try to impress one person who is a little more influential. You could increase your volume. You can pursue any number of specific methods, suited to the strengths of your temperament, and avoiding the weaknesses of your temperament, to raise these numbers.

And of course, we're talking only about your genuinely good posts. Some, and perhaps many of your posts will go nowhere, but that's normal.

If your response to my perspective here is that it's hard to come up with so many ideas for posts, or that you're not getting even these small numbers of readers for your best posts, then maybe you just don't have that much to say, or you have nothing of value to offer anyone. Even still you're not yet hopeless: you could still try increasing your intrinsic motivation, and put all your eggs in the basket of enjoying the process and not caring what people think. Some figures have turned this into a very high art form, winning many readers in the long run. If you can't do that and you need external validation to keep writing, and you can't win for yourself these minimal quantities of nearly guaranteed external validation, then you're not a writer. You're a needy dumbass. You might still be qualified for a career in journalism.

But if you have even a few things to say, blogging is probably more worthwhile than you think.

Audience structure on the Left and Right of new indy media

It looks to me like the audience structure of public intellectuals and/or "content creators" differs across the Right and Left. Right-leaning writers/creators in contemporary culture seem to enjoy a larger variety of wide pyramids (anti-establishment populism), whereas left-leaning writers/creators produce for a smaller number of taller pyramids (prestige hierarchies). As Oliver Traldi recently discussed — I think his article was the proximal trigger for this post — Jordan Peterson and Chapo Trap House may even have an oddly overlapping target market. But whereas right-leaning figures — e.g., Mike Cernovich, Scott Adams and many, many others one or two notches down — enjoy huge audiences of lower-status people, there seem to be way fewer left-leaning content creators who eek out decent little livings from obscure Youtube channels or whatever.

On the left, most intellectual/entertainment attention is channeled into a smaller number of institutions considered legitimate, namely academic institutions, a small number of presses such as Verso, a small number of big podcasts such as Chapo Trap House, and a few small outlets such as Jacobin and the like. These left-leaning attention pyramids seem more premised on institutionalized forms of cachet. Whether that cachet is found in academic credentials or socialist hipster capital, it seems that individual lefties seem to distribute their attention in a way that is more conditional on what the other comrades consider good. People who are as far right as DSA members are far left watch whatever batshit Youtuber most satisfies their individual, idiosyncratic palates, but seemingly all the lefties on the hunt for something a little naughty converge on Chapo, rather than a whole bunch of different Chapos for their various consumer predilections.

Assuming my observation is at least partially consistent with the data, which I haven't checked, the question is why?

Leftists will say "capitalist ideology" and Koch-brothers funding and so on, and there is often some truth in some of these common takes.

I think the main explanatory factor is that social status conditions intellectual attention and deference very differently on the Left and Right. Roughly, it's a crucial and ineluctable principle of selection and attention on the Left, but less so on the Right. (Each one obviously has internal status hierarchies, I'm just talking about the degree to which social status = attention). Because the Left is supposed to be morally enlightened relative to the status quo, then within the Left, that which is the most morally enlightened deserves the most attention and deference. "Enlightened" or "moral" is interchangeable with "cool" or cultural capital, these are really just different labels for social standing. There is a particularly interesting and perverse layer here, which I might comment on briefly without getting too sidetracked, which is that one of the factors shaping what's cool on the Left is how likely something is to gain power (it's not really enlightened morally unless it's a real threat to capitalism, or appears to be closer to threatening than all the rest of the stuff that has no teeth). For this reason, simple coolness/fashion dynamics get loaded with intellectual and moral gravitas: if some radical Left thing gains cachet, well of course you see through mere fashion appeal but if the kids are excited about it then it's your duty to support it, because to win we need something that catches on...

In other words, I am kind of curious how many of the Chapo patrons are young men who would quite prefer something a little edgier, but this is as edgy as they can get away with while keeping their feminist-careerist wife or that philosophy grad student they're sleeping with. The people who watch the cacophony of figures from Alex Jones all the way to mild-mannered liberal Dave Rubin are not any less concerned with their social identity, as if they are above such concerns, it's just that they're generally more detached from competition for high status. They're more or less adapted to whatever status they have, whereas very many activated leftists are status insecure, trying really hard to be upwardly mobile (e.g., their parents were poor and they'll say and do anything not to be), or negotiating inescapable downward mobility (e.g., their parents were comfortable profs and they tried but will not be). The activated left is just filled with these types of people, who fight tooth and nail for the lowest rungs of high status. If you've never been there, you cannot understand the amount of constraint and discipline it imposes on your personal lifestyle choices, especially around intellectual and entertainment consumption choices, because these are one of the coins you can trade up for admiration, sex, jobs, etc.

This might be why the left contains a smaller number of intellectuals/creators and each will enjoy proportionally larger audiences (proportional to the population with that degree of ideology) in part because those audiences are somewhat "captured" by the risk-aversion enforced by intense competition for high status. This is why there can only be a few big-money podcasts such as Chapo, whereas there seem to be way more right-leaners making that kind of money or more: There is only so much DSA / socialist Brooklyn cultural capital to go around before creative forking efforts would dilute that capital to structurally unsustainable levels — for the dilution of one's Left status to structurally unsustainable manifests concretely as a vague defection to right-wing populism, no matter what the actual beliefs of the person involved.

You can syphon off a subset of the Chapo patron base with a "Chapo but for IQ realists" or "Chapo but with a taste for Moldbug" — trust me, I'm trying. 🙂 But then you can't stay in good standing on the Left (meaning even if some leftists like you, most can't tell their friends about you, which for people in cut-throat competition for the low rungs of high status, means they just can't listen to you). You can syphon off a subset of the Chapo patron base while staying in good standing on the Left, but your room for differentiation is so constrained that you'll have a hard time constituting a fundamentally unique product different than what Chapo is providing. This is why you do see a few Chapo-like podcasts out there but they are tiny or they fade out. Anyway, this is my best shot at a possible explanation for why the Right can somehow fund a huge number of idiosyncratic intellectuals/creators with big populist audiences but the Left appears to have only a few. I'm not even too sure about the data, to be honest, so caveat emptor — I just wanted to lay out some of these hypotheses I've had for a little while now.

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