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).

Evaluating Exit Modes: Resign or Be Fired? (How Academia Got Pwned 11)

This is the eleventh 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.


I am considering the benefits and drawbacks of simply resigning, compared to being fired in my hearing tomorrow. One of the reasons I’m finding it hard to decide is because I suspect it matters quite little in the long run. Yet I've often insisted on deliberate and disciplined internal accounting about one’s motives and decisions, so I can’t help but think it through. But because it hardly matters to me, I have to zoom-in all the more microscopically on details, to find the pros and cons. Even if I resign, they might still fire me, so that’s another layer of it hardly mattering. Well, now that I’ve got you enthralled by the profound importance of this decision, let’s proceed.

In my mind, the most important factor inclining me to resign is simply that it feels the most honest and authentic way to exit at this point — the simple truth is that this disciplinary imbroglio has radicalized my disillusioning and given me 4 months to prepare for exit. So if I’m now eager to exit — in principle, emotionally, and even practically (I’ve ended my lease as of today and we’ve reduced all our belongings to what fits in our backpacks) — then I should tell them I am done. Clearly, I’m done. The main reasons to let them fire me are all instrumental. And if you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that here at Other Life instrumental rationality is the root of much evil. That’s not to say I’m above it, not at all — it’s a root of evil precisely because our survival is largely conditional on it. It would certainly be a new drop in the bucket of academia’s self-destruction, my case would probably become an official milestone in absurd administrative repression. That would be good, funny, and politically desirable. But things are already at that milestone, anyway; the event of a formal dismissal might trigger some kind of category click in the minds of people who think in discrete variables. In reality, most variables are continuous variables, and I’m already about 99% fired. There are also other instrumental reasons to prefer dismissal, such as notoriety/media/sympathy, but as soon as anyone starts optimizing for those things — you’re doomed.

More than a few people seem to think everything I’m saying and doing is for notoriety/media/sympathy, all of which are ultimately convertible to cash. I generally don’t care what idiots guess about me, but given this objection is the exact opposite of my core vision, I feel somewhat motivated to minimize it. Just to pwn the haters, I am inclined to resign with purposeful quietude, minimizing the probability of both infamy and sympathy. The mainstream media revolve around discrete events, and getting fired is an event, so if I get fired then the chance of receiving phone calls from all the Tucker Carlson types probably shoots to what? At least 25%, conservatively, I would think. If that level of media buzz arrived, especially given that my type of person is quite capable of milking it for all its worth, it would have a long-term expected value of what? At least several thousand dollars probably, at least? Of course, media is stochastic, it’s perfectly possible I am fired and nobody cares. On average, though, in the long-term, there would probably be a fairly large, positive financial upside to being formally fired.

Another reason I’m disinclined to the dismissal->outrage->media->money strategy is that I genuinely can’t access any feelings of indignation, victimhood, outrage. And these seem to be performative requirements of the contemporary media charades. From the beginning, I have said that this a hilarious and wonderful experience in which a once-prestigious institution has become so paranoiacally bureaucratized that it is actively empowering me to leave it behind while it further destroys itself. When you were a kid, did you ever do that thing kids do, where they take the hand of a sibling and make the sibling hit them in order to scream to mom, “Johnny’s hitting me!!!” I feel like the university is doing that with me. I’ve never once set out to harm the university or academia as a whole, but they keep grabbing my hand and smacking themselves with it. I can hardly be faulted for enjoying it!

When I try to tell my story outside of the aggrieved/indignant framing, instead asserting my contentedness with it all, I suppose it must read like monstrous or ridiculous gloating or delusions of grandeur or something. I was recently invited to submit an article somewhere, and I wrote up my perspective but with historical backing that would make it more than just a personal thinkpiece — citing precedents for the model of life I am seeking to live — and it was rejected. That was an interesting signal. I could try to perform yet another rendition of the persecuted academic, there seems to be insatiable demand for such stories, but unfortunately that’s not my story. It’s quite possible my actual story is either too dumb, or too idiosyncratic, or not interesting/valuable enough to succeed in even the para-institutional meme pool. But my story is my story, and I’m sticking to it. That's where blogs excel, in fact. My whole wager is that anyone who does this with sufficient intensity wins in the end, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to soften up now!

I'd also be lying by omission if I did not include some instrumental reasons for resigning. To be honest, the only slight negative emotion I have about any of this comes from thinking about my PhD supervisors, and everyone else who invested in my career as an academic. Getting fired could arguably tarnish them. I don't think any of this will have any real effect on them, ultimately, but I would feel bad — a combination of guilty and embarrassed, I suppose — to have to tell them all that I was fired. Same thing goes for my parents, and in-laws, and so on — all the normal people to whom I would like to give a clear and straightforward accounting of myself. "I decided academia is not for me" is much shorter and sweeter than "I was fired but..." As I said, I could still be fired even if I resign, but if I resign I can immediately after inform my family and mentors, simply and honestly, that I've decided to resign and that will be that. If the university fires me the day after nonetheless, I'm not obligated to send everyone an update. If they ask or read about it in the papers, I would tell the truth. This is, admittedly, a pretty superficial and instrumental reason to favor resignation. It's not the main reason, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a reason.

Another benefit of resigning is that it will improve the generalizability of my practical enterprise model for exiting academia. If getting fired and receiving publicity and sympathy increased my patrons and book sales and so on, and then I’m successful in my plot to achieve a financially successful independent intellectual model, in the future people could say that my plan for exiting academia is not realistic or practical for most people. And they could be right, in that case. So exiting quietly, and succeeding without any huge brouhaha, would make the social value of whatever I’m able to make greater, and more impactful.

Finally, I’m just tired of talking about myself — believe that or not. I’d like to get back to work, on projects that are not just telling the story of this protracted controversy. If I get fired, it kind of makes the story more interesting and longer and spicier, but I'd rather it be over sooner than later.

What would you do?

Early Days of Defacing the Currency (How Academia Got Pwned 10)

This is the tenth 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.


For such an extraordinary idea, with a lot of anecdotal empirical support behind it, it’s curious that the concept of “defacing the currency” remains so obscure. Many authors have approached the phenomenon in different ways, and there have always been people trying to practice it, but nobody has quite yet pinned the idea down. One finds echos of it in Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values and in Georges Bataille’s “general economy.” Jesus pursues a very Cynical strategy, and there’s some evidence suggesting he may have been exposed to some Cynics. Rousseau seems to channel Diogenes, to some degree. Once you develop an eye for it, you start finding it all over the place (ever hear of Arthur Cravan?). But its formal mechanisms remain utterly mysterious to most people. For now, I would just like to tell you about my earliest experiences with the idea.

I first made contact with this idea when I was about 21, as an undergraduate; I inched my way a little bit closer to its explosively illuminating core in the first years of grad school; became utterly convinced of its general empirical reality; and was excited to work on it as a possible PhD dissertation topic. But I had to shelve it, in order to learn stats, in order to have any chance of landing a tenure-track academic job. Interestingly, however, the idea was vindicated for me in the experience of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and it lived on inside me after this in part because of the socialization effects Occupy exerted on me. The insurrectionary anarchist tradition behind Occupy is still today one of the best living, breathing descendants of Diogenes’ discoveries, even if they are now sadly watered-down. Through the militant conversion experience of Occupy, Ancient Cynicism became lodged in my body and character much more than it would have, if I had merely written a dissertation on it.

At around the same time, after years of social investment in the DIY music and art scene in Philadelphia, I carried out my first year-long performance art project to destroy all bourgeois hypocrisy. I lost most of my friends and became persona non grata because this project required many unwelcome speech acts. But I gained new friends and ultimately had much more impact than any of the artists I knew at the time. To get a sense of what I was doing and how I thought about it, take a gander at my “artist statement,” written in 2011, which you can still find on my old website from that time period. I am very embarrassed by much of my work from this period, of course, and my current self would correct my former self on many particular points, but on the whole I am pleasantly surprised to see so much continuity…

Having forgotten about this distant episode, upon revisiting it I am amazed how much of my current philosophy was already laid out by my 24-year-old self:

I am an outsider artist with no training whatsoever but only an irrepressible desire to destroy everything that currently exists and do everything over again better…

At the beginning of this summer I was just an ordinary PhD student studying not Art with a modest monthly stipend. But during the first month of the summer when I began running out of stipend money, I had started writing a book of fiction and making a film and using drugs and just generally doing anything I wanted because I had just enough money to do so. Then I realized that all of my friends were artists and it is easy to be an artist if you just make stuff… I suddenly learned that my real passion in life is just doing anything I want, doing and creating everything I can think of that is good, without having to work a job but while also being rich, not just in spirit but literally rich in money. (Although I don’t care at all about money, which is why people have begun to just give it to me. Please see my writings/lectures for more on this point, which has confused many.)...

That is how I became an artist and that is what I believe art is. It is doing anything you want that is true and good, no matter what, never obeying a single law of any kind, and not having to work a job but still being rich, not just in spirit but in money, although you really would not mind even being homeless. I believe that if you just do everything you want to do and do it just absolutely well and you tell the truth about everything then that is true Art. The real thing is just to do everything and never ask permission and just do it really well because you can do it, because that is genius and genius is the only goal.

Barclay Shields
Philadelphia, 2011

Defacing the Currency (How Academia Got Pwned 9)

This is the ninth 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.


"Interesting points," you might be thinking, "but why must you speak and act in ways so obviously doomed to get you in trouble?" Am I an earnest but naïve young man, who seriously thought he could act and speak this way without getting fired? Am I trying to become a martyr to win donations of pity and sympathy? Am I a cynical manipulator enacting a Trumpian gambit to gain power, or what?

I could just tell you how I understand myself, but you wouldn't believe me, and you'd be wise not to. We don't always understand ourselves, first of all, and even when we do, we love to lie about ourselves.

All I can say is that, whatever it is I am doing right now, it's something I've done at least three times before in my life. A few stories about how this particular political-behavioral pattern has recurred periodically throughout my life should be enough to assure you that — whatever I am doing — it is no opportunistic ploy or gimmick. In no way does this guarantee the goodness of my life choices: it could very well be a consistently perverse, pathological thread in my life. But if this thread turns out pathological, I am sure as hell not going to let anyone think it's merely a short-term, opportunistic paroxysm of pathology. No sir.

I will tell you the story of my life, but it will take a while, because it starts in Ancient Greece.

I am engaged in what the Ancient Cynics called “defacing the currency.” There is a whole secret history of this practice through the ages, which I can give you if/when these posts get compiled into a book. For now I just want to give you the basic schema of this strange operation. The phrase is most famously associated with Diogenes of Sinope, and the practice is understood as something akin to killing false idols, or altering widely held social values, especially those that are false or hypocritical, and typically through some kind of transgressive behavior. Otherwise the idea remains poorly understood in academic philosophy — when it is even considered a philosophical idea, which is rare. The concept is even less understood by social scientists — when it is even considered as a political mechanism, which is never, as far as I know. Well, there is this (shameless self-citation).

“Defacing the currency” is a type of political action: a particular set of individual-level behaviors, which under certain conditions, produce predictable society-level consequences. Defacing the currency is a demonstrable, and replicable tactic for concretely overthrowing institutions. One act of defacing the currency does not necessarily overthrow an institution, of course. Rather, defacing the currency is a tactic that produces real empirical effects tending toward the actual overthrow of institutions.

Here’s how it seems to work.

Step 1: Invest in a group of people, genuinely, wholeheartedly. The concept of social capital is useful here, for investing in a group means you are growing your social capital in that group. If all you’re doing is looking for social capital, that is not genuinely investing in the group, which will reveal itself, and then you won’t gain social capital. But if you are genuinely committed to the group, unconditional on the instrumental value of your social capital (i.e. what you can get or do with it outside of immanently enjoying it), ironically this gets you the most social capital. Why exactly things work this way must remain somewhat mysterious for now, but as far as I can tell this is a general and real empirical phenomenon.

Step 2: After you have accumulated social capital, performatively demonstrate a lie that the group tells itself. All groups tell themselves lies, for the in-group cannot be different from the out-group without at least some hidden fiction somewhere (in the words of E. E. Schattschneider, “organization is the mobilization of bias”). You can’t just speak the lie to the group, because talk is cheap. Game theory shows that cheap signals are uninformative. In practice, “uninformative signals” are signals that fail to move bodies. Cheap talk leaves things unmoved, whereas costly signals have the strange property of altering the state of the world, and therefore altering behaviors, whether people like it or not.

Step 3. The consequences. The results will depend on a few variable magnitudes, but we’ll focus on two. First, how much social capital did the actor accrue in Step 1? Two, how impressive was the performance? By impressive I mean some weighted function of how big and deep were the lies it revealed, and how grandiose, costly, and aesthetically forceful was the performative activity? As the actor’s initial store of social capital increases, and as the performative magnitude increases, the result is increasingly likely to deface the currency.The implication of a defaced currency is that the truly operating norms, predicated to some degree on lies, become less effectively operative. Their empirical, operating reality decreases, potentially to the point of vanishing. In short, “defacing the currency” is the only theoretically and empirically sophisticated form of protest behavior worthy of normatively positive adjectives such as “progressive,” “emancipatory,” etc., that is known to history (as far as I can see). But in any given case, to any bystander, it just looks like some crazy asshole shitting on a stage. Diogenes of Sinope literally shat on a stage at the Isthmian games, by the way. I have a post in my drafts that will tell this story later.

I know what you’re thinking, what could this possibly have to do with me? “Didn’t you just get popped doing drugs and calling people retards? How dare you place yourself in some illustrious history of subversive philosophers and revolutionaries! You can’t just do that, you have to, like, publish in New Left Review ten times at least. You can’t just become a significant revolutionary, how criminally narcissistic can a person be? A publisher will never give its stamp of truth to such delusions of grandeur…”

Oh but I do dare, I am so arrogant, and criminally narcissistic, disgustingly so, as most intellectuals are, and no publisher should or could ever tolerate it, except that I am the publisher. I am indeed participating in a grand history, though I would be the first to admit I am only a minor and recently enlisted combatant in this millennia-long war on the world. All that is new with me, perhaps, is the degree of engineering transparency with which I am conducting these campaigns — or rather, with which these campaigns are conducting me.

Soon I'll tell you how I've done this all before, on a few different occasions.

Remodeling the Units and Flows of Intellectual Production (How Academia Got Pwned 8)

This is the eighth 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.


[This post dives deeper into some back-of-the-napkin financial projections for a different kind of intellectual production model, fit for a new kind of high-brow but radical and truly independent, internet intellectual. It speaks to the question of what I plan on doing next, but it might be applicable to others also. If you're not interested in this aspect of How Academia Got Pwned, you can feel free to skip this one, as you'll probably find it quite boring.]

Let’s say we start with the idea for one book. What is the best, most important book one could start writing today, if one knew in advance one would never need permission at any time from conception to publication? Develop the idea simply to the point where one can draft a full outline. To fix ideas and generate some forecasts later, let’s assume we’re talking about a high-brow non-fiction book with a word-count in the conventional range, but on the lower end (erring on the side of brevity for harebrained schemes is probably best). Say, 50k words total. To keep numbers tidy, say the book has 10 chapters of 5k words each, and each chapter has 5 sections of 1k words each. To say that you “have an idea for a book,” means you can sit down and simply outline the one main point of each section, in each chapter. You don’t need to know how exactly, and obviously it can change as you go, maybe drastically, but let’s say this is what it means to officially have the plan for a book. Anyone with experience writing long stuff — if they have an idea for a book — could probably do this part in a day or two.

And once you can do this, you pretty much also have a course syllabus. For each chapter, just rewrite the chapter headline into something that sounds more like a lecture title. Of course, the hard part is having and executing the content. But a book outline, like a syllabus, is just a skeleton for planned content. We’ll come back to this later.

At this point, you have to throw up a website for the project, just because you need some place for people to go if they come across your stuff and want to learn more. Don’t overpromise though, because you don’t know where it’s really going to end up. Ideally, a website would simply allow people to receive updates about the project.

On this point, here is a long aside (skip the whole paragraph if you’re not interested by the next sentence). In a world where people can get kicked off any social media platform any day, radical intellectuals should privilege email. It’s funny how one of the most direct, decentralized, and non-corporatized channels of digital communication is dominated by businesses and scams. If you work a demanding professional job, what I’m about to argue will be inapplicable to you, because your inbox is already overloaded (that’s not an argument against email, it just reflects the degree to which demanding professional jobs crowd out free communication). Email gets a bad rap because it is the medium of choice for spammers, but that’s just because smart, evil people are usually the first to exploit what works the best. I’m signed up to tons of email newsletters by weird creative people and bloggers and I love them, much better than checking websites, or my RSS reader, which is higher-volume. I never miss anything new, unless I just don’t feel like reading that day, in which case I can skip and delete in only a second. I would really like to see email newsletters become more popular among radical intellectuals. If we’re trying to create independent work, we want to make it as easy as possible for interested readers/watchers to sign up for email updates, without becoming marketers. No manipulation, no overly aggressive popups, minimization of distasteful instrumentalism without foregoing strategic (instrumental) intelligence, which would be tantamount to exiting the meme pool. If one sticks to these rules of thumb, we shouldn’t cross the line into distasteful or exploitative or corny, like marketers and self-help gurus often do. I don’t mean to be drawing hard rules here, and one of the wonders of life on the internet is you can experiment with dozens of different methods at any time, but these are the rules I’ve followed as I’ve built up my systems so far. I’ve put a lot of effort into making it easy for people to sign up for email updates, for instance, but I’ve put equal care into not doing most of the ugly stuff shameless marketers do. If I ever deviate from this I expect one of you to tell me with immediate and brutal honesty! True intellectuals cannot allow themselves to become marketers because it is directly contradictory to their mission (indeed this is a major failure mode of our project, because the temptation will always be great). On the other hand, we cannot afford less than optimal communicative efficacy, and for obvious reasons, the current tools of the marketer represent the current perfection of communicative efficacy.

Now let’s say you commit to writing 1k words per day, 5 days per week. For the average person this might be a bit of a slog, but for an academic suddenly released from all the other nonsense, it’s not hard at all. On this schedule, it will only take you 10 weeks to write a first draft of your book. In large part because you wasted no time asking anyone about anything.

Now, let’s assume you really went off the rails and this monstrosity you’ve drafted is hopelessly undesirable to any currently existing publisher. You could sell it directly to readers who are as off-the-rails as you, but you have no readers yet. No problem, just go get some. This is where the massive efficiency gains and positive externalities come in. In these 10 weeks, you’re not just writing a book, you’re also making lecture content at the same time. I’ll explain…

If you think it's impossibly difficult to gain readers, you don’t understand yet. By virtue of the very fact that you are sabotaging your own prestige by slumming it in the digital ghetto, you’re going to get at least a few eyeballs giving you a peek, if only to understand what’s wrong with you. Over time, the ones that are temperamentally/ideologically adjacent to you will stay and the others will go, and you’re disproportionately likely to win continued attention by virtue of the fact that if you’re doing this you probably have something real to say. Everything I’m laying out is for people who have real work to do; that’s why this isn’t a self-help commodity I’m writing here, because I’m not at all pretending that anyone can do this. If you’re not smart and disciplined with real intellectual work to do, nothing I’m theorizing here can make you “succeed” and I won’t take likes or dollars to feed anyone that impression.

Also, you can’t be pessimistic from looking at current academics who occasionally blog. For most academics who blog, their blog doesn’t quite develop into much (in terms of content quality or following), but that’s in large part because it’s often a safe, sterile, side-project given only the scraps of energy left-over from an already too exhausting career. So you can’t compare what I’m sketching to such examples you might have in mind.

Getting followers isn’t complicated. Having things to say is the hard part, but if you do, then all it takes is consistency and time. It basically boils down to posting original and interesting content consistently (note, it only has to be original and valuable to a tiny fraction of the internet population for you to eventually have a respectable audience of loyal and highly interested readers).

How convenient for blogging that your book outline is really just a long list of things you want to write. And how convenient it’s already broken into chunks of one thousand words, about the average length of a thoughtful blog post. So there you have it, you will blog 1k words per day, 5 days per week, for 10 weeks. Each 1k bit should be written for blog readers in mind, but all the blog-specific parts can just be cut out at the end, when you turn your collection of blog posts into the book. Make sure your blog gives people an option to sign up for updates, only if they want to, of course. You could mention the book and course project in your blog posts but in my experience, ambiguity here is your friend; it keeps the blogging fun and unencumbered when don’t feel externally committed to some long-term result (you should be long-term committed to your plan, in your own mind, but when it feels like something you owe the world, it can have negative effects I think.) Unless you are very confident it will happen, in which case it’s probably good to let people know what’s coming (like with these posts).

It would be amazing if there was some way to convert this 1k chunk each week into another piece of content, also weekly, that had all of the following properties. It can’t require too much heavy cognitive lifting, because 1k words every day will take its toll. This second derivative should mostly require simple labor. It should allow for some improvement/revision/addition on the 1k words. It should be accessible to a different type of person, on a different social network, and therefore provide new value relative to the 1k words, even if it’s admittedly somewhat derivative. Finally, and crucially, it should also represent a piece of content that could enter (either directly or indirectly, after editing) into the course corresponding to the book. It turns out that the genre known as the Youtube video has the virtue of meeting all these criteria. Every week, post one video presenting a summary of that week’s 5k words, bonus points for lecture slides or visuals edited into the video, but just do the best you can. At first you won’t receive many views, though you’ll get some, and the real value comes later. Just like the blog, make sure your videos give people an option to subscribe via email, if they want to. At the end of the 10 weeks, you’ll also have 10 lecture videos. You already have a syllabus. This means you pretty much already have a course, and you didn’t even need to put your pants on, let alone shower every day of the week.

Getting an ebook and paperback on Amazon is nearly instantaneous, once you’re happy with the final product. Price the ebook for a few bucks, and the paperback for about $15, which is pretty conventional. You will make about $4 of that $15 for each copy sold. Add some extra content or editing to the course videos, or cut off the last few minutes of each Youtube video, slap a modest little paywall on the course. Email your subscribers to let them know.

Depending on your current audience, this first production cycle might make you only peanuts. Personally, I like to concoct my own schemes always assuming the worst case scenario, but allowing oneself the motivational gains from pondering the best case scenario, as well. There is obviously a lot of uncertainty in this kind of exercise, but we can account for that uncertainty explicitly with this great new tool called Guesstimate.

Guesstimate is just a spreadsheet that lets you input distributions rather than individual values. Have you ever tried multiplying distributions? It’s prohibitively time consuming to do in Excel or by programming it yourself, so Guesstimate does it all for you in the background (Monte Carlo simulations). It’s really great for thought experiments such as this, where I have no idea how many books/courses I would sell each month, but I could much more confidently guess an interval within which the number probably lies.

For units sold, we'll set the minimum very conservatively low (0), and the maximum to the low end of what I would consider good but realistic. For books, you can get a rough estimate of base-rates by estimating sales from Amazon rankings, using tools such as this. I’ve seen pretty random non-fiction authors achieve 100 copies/month, so let’s go with that as the best-case scenario. Some notable examples by Bronze Age Pervert, Elizabeth Sandifer, or Vox Day have exceeded this significantly, and I don’t see why such results would be out of reach, but I'm trying to be harshly realistic so I'm not even going to consider these known success cases. For courses, the number of units likely to sell is harder to estimate because most successful online courses today have some direct money-making value. I have a lecturer friend who made a pretty random political science course on Udemy and he reports that it does better than you would think. Let’s say my course would sell somewhere between 0 and 20 units per month, on average. We’ll tell Guesstimate to use a log-normal distribution, which means lower values are much more likely. We’re thus being doubly conservative and biasing the estimate downward, to discount for the well-documented over-confidence of entrepreneurs.

Now we need to input expected earnings per item. Most paperbacks are priced about $15; Amazon offers a royalty rate of 60%, minus shipping. Since they do all the printing and all the shipping, this is about $4, which means there is about $4 leftover for you, per copy. Many online courses have succeeded at very high price points, but that’s usually for learning content that will make the buyer money somehow. I’m interested in the market for disinterested truth-seeking content, so presumably people are willing to pay less for such content. So let’s imagine, conservatively, that I could produce a course worth only $20 (one-time purchase).

Run some Monte Carlo simulations, and we can produce a confidence interval for our annual income derived from our one book+course combo. From left to right, the image below shows how Guesstimate converts our inputs to an estimate.

Independent intellectual production model for book and course

The featured number in the center of each box is the mean value, and the range represents the 95% confidence interval. You can see the model (and I think copy and edit it) here.

According to this, in the worst case scenario, this 2.5-month exercise makes us only $520/year but at the higher end of a not-inconceivable range of possibilities, it could be making $7400/year. I feel comfortable with the plausibility of this model because the projected results are really not great, so it feels realistic. The best guess, the mean, would be about $2300/year. If I could do this amount of work for a whole year, then I could do this four separate times. That would mean that I could reasonably expect to be making $9,200/year after the very first year, and it’s not inconceivable I could be making up to $29,000/year after the first year. As I said, I like to assume the worst, so let’s take it for granted that I will actually be making $2080/year after the first year.

There are two realizations that started to make this kind of vision irresistible to me: Even in this latter case, which seems virtually guaranteed as the worst that could possibly happen, I would consider such a year of my life subjectively worthwhile. Sure, we’d make next to nothing for a whole year, but the intrinsic value of producing totally autonomous work for a whole year is very high to me. I already have about 3 books outlined with parts drafted to varying degrees of completion, and I suffer a lot from not having the time or permission to get them out there. Aside from money, I would be tremendously satisfied to get them done and in print. Even if it financially fails, it seems worth it to me. If I have to get a real job afterward, that’s fine because I got three damn books done and I can do my future books at a slower, and more contented rate on the side of a real job. The past five years I’ve been so restless and frustrated at constantly doing career-maintenance work and waiting on others. There's no way I could write more than one book every 3-5 years doing everything the old-fashioned way as a career academic is supposed to.

The second point is simply to recall that, after the work is produced, the future income it produces is passive. So even just $2k/year starting this year will make $100k for my family over the next 50 years, even if I have to get a real job one year from now. So even if it fails to become financially sustainable this year, it’s not like this one year of writing would be one big selfish waste of time. This point also raises the possibility that, if I’m only partially successful in the first year, I could end up doing quite well by carrying on this work with some additional part-time paid work on the side. Given the cumulative and passive nature of this income, a few years of hustling on this as well as part-time paid work could get me to writing full-time, say, after 5 years of building my back catalogue, maybe.

The cumulation factor is worth pausing on. In the self-publishing world, most people report that your back catalogue of books gains in sales when future books come out. You are learning how to do things every cycle, so presumably your work increases in quality and value each cycle. And each time, your audience is somewhat larger. If there are multiplicative interactions among any of these increases, then even a very modest initial start could sooner than later produce an inflection point in your income growth rate (e.g., one of your videos takes off in the Youtube algorithm, drives many new email subs, which makes your next release more successful, which makes your back-catalogue more successful, and as a result your one random spike on the Youtube algorithm is giving you some non-linear takeoff in your bottom line.). It’s not about seeking superficial virality (a surefire way to never say or make anything that matters), but quite the opposite: it’s about having in place a sturdy machine that allows you to produce high-quality work over time while also absorbing the randomness of virality or platform-anomaly into the productive apparatus, rather dissipating in Twitter beefs that go nowhere.

In my own personal case, I wager that my financial projections are a bit rosier than this, because I have other sources of income support, such as 52 patrons and 10 participants in my private seminars. If these increase even modestly each month, then that’s another pathway to pwning academia no doubt, but I have tried to explain my thinking with reference to a more general production model that could potentially be taken up by any educated and disciplined person with knowledge to share, regardless of whether they have patrons or other income streams. I also have the advantage of already having a lot of writing and teaching materials sitting on my hard drive, which I can use out of the gate. While this makes my own experiment not totally applicable to any person interested in such a path, it does speak to my point about how academia, specifically, gets pwned. For academics are uniquely capable of defecting effectively and sustainably. Well, if my calculations are correct, that is...

Rethinking intellectual production models (How Academia Got Pwned 7)

This is the seventh 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.


You’ll recall from my last post that one of my goals is to rethink the production model for what I was clunkily calling serious, high-brow, radical intellectual production. I need a better shorthand for that, but I’m just referring to the small percentage of every generation that is smart, educated, and possessed by that particular lust for knowledge beyond what is considered reasonable or appropriate by bourgeois society (and beyond what is marketable to mass audiences). I argued that nobody has quite yet nailed down a model for doing this in a way that is financially sustainable over a lifetime, in today’s digital context. Some brave souls are figuring it out quite impressively, but it’s not yet really nailed down. If someone does have it really figured out, they have not yet open-sourced the model, because as far as I know, there does not exist any known path for doing this. This is what I want to do, this is what I am trying to do. In the last post I sketched some generalities, but in this post I want to start sharing the concrete details of my logistical calculations.

What I’m going to share here is only one, pretty arbitrary, back-of-the-napkin exercise. The model I will present may turn out to have some erroneous assumptions, that will need to be corrected along the way, but the beauty of innovating a radically independent and idiosyncratic lifestyle experiment is that I can be very quick to update and iterate the model as I go. Also, in practice, my life over the next year is almost certainly not going to be as neat as this model looks. I’m sure there will be unpredictable roadblocks and snags of all kinds, so I don’t intend to project a dishonest degree of certainty, organization, or formality that never really existed until I sat down to write this. I have no idea how things will really work, this is just one quick effort to formalize the kind of thoughts I’ve had in the shower every damn day for the past three years. These are the same conjectures that Other Life has been built on, and they seem to be working according to plan, but I’ve never really sat down to sketch out the idealized model. This will take a few posts, which I’ll intersperse with the other plot.

By the way, just yesterday, I was assigned to a new investigation meeting. This is strange given that a hearing was already announced, but I suppose they want to squeeze in all the incriminating evidence they can. And boy is there a lot of it now! The new charges? Basically they’re all for writing this very string of blog posts. The evidence file is just copypasta from what you’ve been reading the past few days. That’s right, I just broke the fourth wall. You’re now a supporting character in this grand narrative. How does it feel? It will be fascinating if they go and include this post in the evidence against me. That’s like breaking the fifth wall. Also, the new charges are quite creepy to be honest. One of them is: “breached the implied duty of fidelity.” I couldn’t produce better language for this absurdist drama if I were an actual novelist.

Currently, mature academically-oriented intellectuals produce a few types of products and services, in order to shape the culture and earn an income. Scholarly research articles presenting novel theoretical or empirical findings; academic books doing the same at greater length; mass-market books doing the same but making them accessible to a popular audience; teaching lecture-based courses (transmitting their knowledge); teaching seminar-based courses (facilitating mature students’ independent development); one-on-one mentorship/support/advice for students. I and others have written extensively about how extraordinary are the costs and taxes on providing these products and services through currently existing institutions, so I’m not going to make that case at all here. I’m just going to show you what I hypothesize to be the optimal way for any academic (or any sufficiently smart, educated, and productive person) to offer this whole suite of products and services in a way that is radically liberated from nearly all political correctness and institutional constraints more generally; more productive of true knowledge; more efficient; more satisfying; more fun; more ethical; and, I believe, financially sustainable over a lifetime.

Right now, there is a big heavy anchor hiding beneath the surface of every academic intellectual’s entire life. It’s whatever they did their PhD on. This is the center of the diagram from which almost all of their later intellectual products and services must flow. In the institutional game, very little is possible that gets too far from this. Certainly most of your novel contributions to research knowledge, your courses, but also most of your public-facing work too. (There is a vanishingly small set, in the highest strata of the cognitive elite, who may, after at least a decade of paying dues, have an influential career writing and teaching on truly diverse topics; these people enjoy such rare gifts of intelligence plus conscientiousness that it’s best to ignore them as outliers irrelevant to the comparisons and choices made by the much larger set of mere mortals, like me). In so many ways I cannot begin to explain here, this whole framework for an intellectual life is just hopelessly sub-optimal.

In my model, the central unit of intellectual production will be the individual, stand-alone book. This has always been seen as the primary unit of high-brow intellectual content, so it makes sense to start here, and ask: How can we design a life for the optimal production of these objects over time — where “optimal” refers to some weighted function of truth-content, intensity, quantity, cultural impact, or whatever, conditional ultimately on the strengths, weaknesses, and preferences of each particular author. How can one write the most significant, most original, most impactful books — and as many as possible — in a way that is financially sustainable? To be honest, that’s all I ever set out to do with my life, and here I am with a “secure” academic career, no shortage of ability or discipline, but still not even one book published. This is why I’m here, screaming from the rooftops.

Culture changes so rapidly today, that we also need our model to be as nimble and agile as possible. Here serious intellectuals on a mission to shape the culture need to steal from tech startup culture: Most of what succeeds in the world today leverages rapid prototyping, minimum viable products, constant experimental (“a/b”) testing, and the capacity to update/pivot, sometimes dramatically. The underlying principles are constant flows of measurable, external feedback and everything organized to be capable of updating swiftly and responsively. This is not capitulation We want our visions to look far ahead, and we want our whole project locked unshakably on the truths we see as far ahead as possible, but the problem is we don’t really know what those are, exactly, already. The feedback we are concerned with is not “sales” or “customer satisfaction” levels, rather we need signals from the outside about what is really true and what makes truth resonate. These factors are very likely correlated with metrics such as sales and website traffic, but this does not invalidate the distinct authenticity of the intellectual warpath — it only reflects why these other criteria are such dangerous temptation-traps that have captured and neutralized so many radical intellectuals of the past.

The solution is not to mock and avoid the measurement of “key performance indicators (KPIs),” as if your lazy half-assed writing career is really destroying neoliberal governmentalities because you heroically don’t understand how to setup Google Analytics. Lazy academics and so-called critical theorists have made a whole cottage industry around how they are too good to have any idea about the effects, consequences, success, or failure of anything. This doesn’t make them good, it rather ensures they will not accomplish anything, and makes them feel noble for what is only a confused and helpless fidelity to all currently existing institutions. The solution is better KPIs, custom fit for a mature and militant intellectual enterprise. I have much more to say here (such as this, but this suffices for us to proceed with the basic logic of the new model. We each want and need an individual vision, to which we hold tight over the long-run, but while minimizing path-dependencies that lock us into incomplete models of the world. Thus, an attraction of the book as the primary unit around which we should wrap everything else, is that it’s a good compromise between patient, focused commitment to something substantial, while also permitting virtually unlimited change between books.

I should say up front that I am assuming a previous history of research experience, a personal library (in the mind but also on the computer), solid writing skills and speed, etc. What I’m going to describe is certainly doable for people who do not yet have these as much as they would like, but my time estimates will need to be increased for such cases. This is actually one of my points, insofar as my project is a call to arms for other academics and bourgeois professionals: academics have built up a lot of skills and resources that would make them very effective, very rapidly, if and when they could just free themselves from all the fetters.

That summarizes a few key points about the background logic of where I’m going with this. But it’s already too long for one post. Tomorrow we’re going to start immediately with the model itself. I’ll start to give you estimated numbers, sequences, and projections.

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