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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…

Radical Europeans of the Twentieth Century — In Color

Machine-learning techniques for automated colorization are increasingly effective and accessible. I came across a Python library by Algorithmia that makes colorization very easy. If you have a working installation of Python, all you need to do is install the package and get an API key. Then just a few a few lines of code will colorize any image.

So I naturally started searching my mind for black and white photos I've never seen colorized, of interesting people who lived before the advent of widespread color photography. Europe gets a bad rap nowadays, but I've always had a soft spot for twentieth-century European political radicalism — thinkers and actors. Narrowing my focus to this domain, I did some searching for high-resolution black-and-white photos of exemplary figures, which have never been seen in color before.

The colorization model works impressively well right out of the box. I made no tweaks to the default options. One can spot a couple of weird shadings here and there, but all of the colorized photos below look very natural and plausible in my opinion. There were a few duds I excluded, but they were mostly due to low-resolution in the original photograph, I think.

Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault. Likely 1972. Via Charnel House.
Simone Weil. Likely around 1936. Via Awestruck Wanderer.
Theodor W. Adorno. 1958. Via The Philosopher's Mail.
Theodor W. Adorno. About 1958 (guessing; unknown). Via Rien ne veut rien dire.

The most beautiful colorization here is the 1949 photo of Simone De Beauvoir, below. The one that's most surprising or incongruous is the one of Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, also below: while the original black-and-white lends them some mystery and gravitas, the colorized version makes them look like a family-friendly department store advertisement.

Simone De Beauvoir. 1949. By Elliot Erwitt for Magnum. Via Huguette Bouchardeau.
Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet. 1975. By Marie-Laure Decker. Via Graham Harman.

Andreas Baader. 1967. Via RAF: No Evidence by Arwed Messmer.

The colorization of Andreas Baader in late 1960s Berlin is perhaps the one that adds the most vibrancy and cultural context. It's well known that many of the left-wing terrorist movements of the late twentieth century trafficked in hipster aesthetics, but my mental images of left-wing terrorist fashion revolve mostly around leather jackets and other black-chic garments. Little did I know that Baader wore the same kind of thick red lumberjack shirt that many leftist hipsters wear today! I can't tell if Baader's shirt is flanel or perhaps polyester, which was probably in, or coming in, at the time? I have no idea what's going on with his eyes though; he's either been beat up or it's a problem with the original image. The original black-and-white is a negative from the Berlin police archive — I think those are police trailing him — so that might explain it.

Bronze Age Perversity with Mike Crumplar

Mike Crumplar (@mcrumps) is one of many strange people who have entered my internet orbit in recent months. I can't tell you much about him because I can't understand or remember anything about anyone I interact with on the internet. In this video chat I will hopefully learn more about him. He recently wrote an essay in Jacobite about Bronze Age Pervert. That will be the initial pretext for our conversation. Where it goes from there, only time will tell.

This conversation was originally livestreamed on Youtube on June 25, 2018.

Mike's article on Bronze Age Pervert

Mike Crumplar's website

You can now support the podcast at

Download this episode.

The rich are more communist than they're allowed to be

When I talk about aristocratic communism — the idea that a functional communism might be achieved by organizing and enforcing respect for the rich, on condition they distribute wealth — many people scoff and say "that's already the hell of neoliberal capitalism!"

But in fact, today, it's increasingly difficult for the wealthy to enjoy  their nobless oblige, in part because it's so mediated by large sclerotic institutions. Wealthy nobles once upon a time redistributed their wealth as a kind of art form; they were like painters painting on the grandest canvas, and the enjoyment of this creative control, as well as the glory that came from being directly and visibly linked to it, were likely major incentives encouraging redistribution.

Today, the wealthy donate a lot of money through Big Philanthropy, but Big Philanthropy is better thought of as a huge bureaucratic blockage to the real social-psychological attractions of philanthropy.

Consider Tyler Cowen's recent column on Jeff Bezos, who just announced a $2 billion gift to help preschool education and homelessness.

…the gift is unlikely to take the form of Jeff Bezos dictating terms, even if he is the world’s richest man. Bezos and his team will have to work through many institutions — not just preschools and homeless shelters but other organizations that help them do their work. Even brand new preschools and homeless shelters, funded entirely by Bezos, will have their own charters, missions, staffs and fiduciary responsibilities.
Any wealthy person who wants to give away money will find that incentives and the nature of decentralization and bureaucracy impose their own set of checks and balances.

Tyler Cowen, Has private philanthropy become underrated?

This supports my contention that perhaps the only thing the rich cannot get their hands on today is the invaluable experience of genuine nobility — which comes from generously and creatively supporting others and receiving respect and admiration in return. If we could engineer a way for some rich people to enjoy such true, disintermediated nobility, I think they'd become quite open to supporting a community of common folk in a fashion that approximates the classical communist ideal.

And now that I think about it, who is blocking the rich from exercising their nobless oblige? Most of the bureaucrats and meddlers working in philanthropic and humanitarian agencies and organizations generally see themselves, and present themselves, as morally progressive agents. If Bezos wants to give $2 billion to solving some big social ill, there will be dozens if not hundreds of groups who already claim to be the nobles "working on it." But these people basically own the poor and working people they seek to represent and "help." If Jane wants to give me 20 bucks but John insists that she must give it to him first, and then John gives me 10 bucks — John is not my helper. He is my owner, and he is using me to make money for himself. In short, modern society is overrun with fake nobles, who do not have resources to distribute but quite the opposite: they push the moral buttons of the populace and pull government levers to extract money from the wealthy, primarily for their own careers and identity, and only secondarily to help others. This ordering of priorities is clearly legible in the balance sheets of these organizations, which generally show most of the money going to staff and overhead. They claim to be promoting redistribution, but they happily place themselves in the way of rich people who would like to be more communist, if only they were allowed.

Fascism over yourself is called autonomy

When I recently sketched out a system for bootstrapping a libertarian communist society from a combination of AI and blockchain, I was genuinely surprised to receive so many indignant accusations to the effect that I'm an authoritarian. I was called a Duginist, a neoliberal, and even a fascist, etc.

Of course, in retrospect, I can understand the optics. Anything that involves the use of technology to monitor behavior is, in some sense, quite invasive — so a proposal to do this intensely, with a distribution of resources conditional on it, sounds pretty authoritarian.

The reason I was surprised by these accusations and the reason why I'm still unconvinced by them, is that my proposal involves a purely voluntary protocol. The parameters are decided by the individuals involved. All individuals are free to exit at any time. How fascist could a proposal be if it has all these criteria? Perhaps the most charitable I can be to these accusations is to say that, if my proposal is somewhat fascist, then I would say that these crucial, libertarian design features effectively remove the undesirable aspects of fascism. The main reason why fascism is now synonymous with horrific evil is that, historically, it's highly correlated with a drive to impose a program on a large number of people, often at the nation-state level, and often violently.

Given that my proposal is decidedly not imposing anything on anyone against their will, and given that it features benign failure modes, the accusations of fascism suggest to me only that my proposal sounds overly harsh, rigid, or controlling, to a degree that people find undesirable or offensive. If someone just dislikes my idea, then of course that's fine, they'll never be forced or even pressured to join (although I do fear that life outside of novelly engineered communitarian lifeboats will soon be the most horrifying place to be...).

When it comes to one's own will over oneself, I would submit that harshness and rigidity are necessary for the kind of human constitution that is capable of saying no to fascism. It seems possible to me that fascism at aggregate levels (ethnic groups, nation-states, etc.) is a pathological reaction to modern humans becoming insufficiently constituted at the individual level. Fascism rails against the modern weakness of will, and seeks to solve the problem at a higher level of social organization. I rail against the modern weakness of will, but I want to engineer solutions at the level of individuals' component parts. The components of an individual constitution are the other people in one's primary group and one's own drives or sub-personalities. When individuals exercise sufficient authority over themselves, they will be less likely to submit to intoxicating herd behaviors, and there will be less demand for violent over-compensations at higher levels of organization. 

If you dislike the idea of enforcing your own will on yourself, the algebra can be rearranged to say that you like the wide margin of ethical slothfulness you are afforded under contemporary postmodern relativism and social anomie. Today, nobody really minds if you say one thing and do another; you are permitted and even encouraged to have goals or ideals that you do not work your hardest to embody. It is hard and difficult work to become who you are, and liberalism is the political philosophy that nobody should be forced to do it.

It is certainly desirable that centralized political institutions do not enforce overly strict discipline according to overly regimented criteria — such as patriotism or ethnicity or religion — for purposes of statecraft. But that does not mean we should not seek to enforce strict discipline on ourselves, by ourselves, according to whatever we believe to be the truest ethical principles. There is no other method of soulcraft; there is no method for constituting a true life other than the ethical work of self-discipline (askēsis). Just because the infamous slogan upon the gates of Auschwitz said that "work sets you free" does not mean that certain forms of work cannot, in fact, set you free. If I say that I am a Catholic, it is in part because I believe that the truth is what sets one free, and the truth is produced through the work of frank speech (parrhesia), a form of askēsis. If I say that I am a communist, it is because I believe that everyone is intrinsically and equally valuable, and anything that inhibits anyone from becoming who they are must be destroyed in the same way and for the same reason that a philosopher or scientist seeks to destroy all errors and all mistakes.

Perhaps under contemporary liberalism we have become so "antifascist" that we would gladly choose to die if only enough people brought to our attention that fascists once sought to live. If the Nazis ever stated that work will set you free, then the refined cosmopolitan of 2018 will never work to be set free. That'll show 'em.

If I am a fascist over my own soul, so be it: fascism over oneself is called autonomy.

[The second installment of the Diffractions/Sdbs workshop on patchwork just took place yesterday. You can watch it here.]

Now Wars Start Themselves

Major wars have become less frequent, but a curious feature of the wars we still observe is that almost nobody starts them. When wars occur today, they appear to start themselves, or are started by some unknown entity. I learned this from a new article by Hathaway et al. Here are selections from the abstract:

This Article is the first to examine “war manifestos,” documents that set out the legal reasons sovereigns provided for going to war from the late fifteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. We have assembled the world’s largest collection of war manifestos—over 350—in languages as diverse as Classical Chinese, German, French, Latin, Serbo-Croatian, and Dutch...

Examining these previously ignored manifestos reveals that states exercised the right to wage war in ways that would be inconceivable today. In short, the right to intervene militarily could be asserted in any situation in which a legal right had been violated and all peaceful channels had been explored and exhausted. This Article begins by describing war manifestos. It then explores their history and evolution over the course of five centuries, explains the purposes they served for sovereigns, shows the many “just causes” they cited for war...

Hathaway, Oona A. and Holste, William and Shapiro, Scott J. and Van De Velde, Jacqueline and Lachowicz, Lisa, War Manifestos (September 15, 2017). University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 85, 2018 Forthcoming; Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 617. Available at SSRN:

Self-defense is the most popular justification for war throughout the period studied, but it's interesting that its prevalence steadily grew from the middle of the twentieth century. Most traditional justifications for warring have become obsolete. Religion was once a fairly common reason for going to war, but now explicitly religious wars among states are virtually extinct.

Don't be fooled into thinking that interstate aggression has been humanized. Quite the contrary, these data only suggest that war is an increasingly algorithmic process, increasingly devoid of human agents: When every player in the game invokes "human rights" to blame it on some other guy, this is not evidence that human rights have been normalized; it is evidence that humanity has been evacuated from the underlying process, through the cold and calculated manipulation of human emotions for ulterior purposes. 

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