Patchwork intellectuals do not protest or endorse technological acceleration; they ride the waves of destruction wrought by disintermediation. They fall forward, sacrificing the twin pillars of security and prestige (which are now only shells) for advanced experiences of the socio-technical frontier. The comparative advantage of their new knowledge is its immanence, and its tractability. They furnish something like tour-guide materials for others still anchored in institutions; they relay what's coming down the pike, in the only way possible: by being subjected to it. They have multiple, typically modest income streams linked to their tour-guide functions, entertainer functions, educator functions, and still other functions. One's mission, one's identity, one's product(s), and one's platforms are patchy. The various functions are not hidden from each other, but they are modular, ready to be inflated or deflated as temperament and market demand. They do not reflect an alienating division but the opposite, an efficient and fluid reflection of the multiples we really are…
[Disclosure: I don't actually know that much about European feudalism. Most of my posts contain a fair bit of speculative guesswork and imagination, but after finishing this I felt compelled to make clear it's almost all conjecture. Rather than make every sentence wishy-washy with too many qualifiers, I've kept many of the probably-too-firm sentences but am putting this here to qualify all of them.]
Under European feudalism, normative status hierarchies seem to have been relatively well aligned with objective character qualities and community contributions. For instance, the Lord organized, commanded, and actually fought with the army that protected the patch from external threats, thus earning the premium of admiration and respect (not to mention money) associated with his title. Social facts (the codified power distribution, titles and so on) and social values (what and who gets counted as good), seem to have been more tightly correlated than today, with both relatively well calibrated to their proper objective referents.
On the lower end of the status hierarchy, the most hard-working, responsible, patient, loyal, Serfs who cared about their family's future (all normatively positive descriptors) could save money and eventually become freemen — if they were blessed with the abilities necessary to do so. The epoch's techno-scientific inability to distinguish between inherited abilities and the above-listed character virtues was unfortunate and certainly caused much measurement error (giving too much or too little normative credit to individuals for inherited traits), but — discounting for their ignorance on these matters — the relationship between social facts and social values had to be better calibrated than it would be when mass-broadcast deceptiveness becomes possible. Drunks and brawlers presumably did not transcend their bondage, and those who avoided drinking and fighting would be more likely to gain independence. In short, good adjectives were likely applied to those producing objectively pro-social and self-rewarding effects, and bad adjectives were likely applied to those producing objectively anti-social and self-destructive effects. At least, I would infer, more so than today, when objectively bad people sometimes earn positive admiration from millions, and objectively good people sometimes receive nothing but punishment. Obviously, I'm being highly simplistic; ye old manor was no rose garden. But while there was much natural suffering and tragedy, and many typical human pathologies, it seems true that the social calibration of normative worthiness with its objective empirical referents was far less vulnerable to the kind of systematic, impervious-to-error-correction divergence dynamics we appear to be living through today.
The philosophical and behavioral backbone of the post-Roman patchwork was Catholicism. It stands to reason that this was the unique condition that allowed a high degree of fragmentation and decentralization, but nonetheless a high degree of shared identity, meaning, purpose (relative to anything we know today, anyway).
The feudal community codifies objectively existing differences in human temperament and ability, which may be natural and hardwired or arbitrary and unjust, but — with the surplus of social goodwill produced by this factual and spiritual attunement — the powerful are genuinely invested in lifting the floor of their most downtrodden subjects. The weak also are genuinely invested in — sincerely praying for, or "rooting for" (to use the contemporary term for "prayer") — the success of their Lord and his army. European feudalism therefore provides some historical evidence for the consistency of what I have previously theorized as noble communism, and it suggests that the Catholic faith may be uniquely effective in solving the coordination problems of the ideal communist model. It was the Catholic faith alone that sustained cohesion, meaning, and collective economic productivity (though admittedly not optimality) in a context that was fundamentally libertarian. It was also unique to this Catholic patchwork that only from here would we observe the intelligence explosion that we now think of as modern capitalism.
One should not ask why the feudal commune failed: it was a genuinely free communism that succeeded in generating growth behavior (to be called capitalism). It was probably only in this fragmented but high-trust context that capitalism could emerge.
In its first few hundred years, it's been like an angry tiger just released from an all-too-small cage, but on the world-historical timeline a few hundred years is nothing.
The pro-growth, libertarian Catholic communism of European feudalism was so successful that for a short period of time, several proud and arrogant generations thought they could do away with God. They tried, life eventually became unbearably empty, at the same time that scientific rationality now affirms the likelihood of a creator God at the beginning of our time, and a second coming of God in the near future. All of this is now being realized, and a return to Catholic communism may be the only path forward, on rationalist grounds, aesthetic grounds, and ethical grounds.
Another virtue of Catholic communism was that it sustained itself for hundreds of years without any race consciousness, which had not yet been invented in its modern sense. Thus the Catholic communist model offers a viable and much better alternative to ethnic identity as a principle of cohesion in the West.
So the question is not "How could we make feudalism work today, if it couldn't work in the past?" It did work in the past, all too well! The question is rather whether secular capitalism can last, for more than a few hundred years. Feudal communism worked for hundreds of years and is generative of capitalism; secular rational capitalism has worked for a few hundred years, but its rapidly being looted by rent-seekers within and anti-western, anti-secular enemies on the outside. The human biomass that is now merely a plaything of the rational secular capitalist super-system has no will to fight for anything other than its own resentments. Any sufficiently aggressive and repressive force on the inside or outside of secular capitalism may very well destroy everything before artificial superintelligence takeoff locks in.
It is not for nothing that the threat of militant Islam again rears its head today, right when the decline of Catholic communist Europe is approaching completion. The reason why there was not much innovative art and culture in the Dark Ages is because most of the human effort went towards the military defense of the Catholic patches against pagan pirates from the north and Islam from the south. It stands to reason that Catholic communism was adaptive for keeping out regressive militant Islam, and the threat of progressive militant Islam incentivized the Catholic communism. We are only being reminded of this today after a long hiatus of lazy arrogance; that if a dignified and meaningful life is not provided to all by the noble, then the children of Europe will sooner join the Islamic holy war than resist it. And most of them will be indifferent at best.
We are well aware of the ways in which secular communism is typically not a stable game-theoretic equilibrium. We have learned this through many data points. But we are less aware of whether secular capitalism is a stable equilibrium, because it’s a unique world-system experiment with an n = 1. So far though, it's not looking good if you ask me.
Libertatem hierarchia. What we call European feudalism was the becoming–patchwork of the Roman Empire. As the control structures of the Roman Empire atrophied, and the de facto liberty of its subjects increased, those subjects sorted themselves according to their objective levels of political power. Slaves sorted into Serfdom, mid-tier Roman nobility sorted into Lordship, and Roman super nobility sorted into Overlordship, and so on. Feudalism was obviously hierarchical, but also free in the sense that each member of each level recognized themselves as rightful members of each level. Hilaire Belloc paints a succinct but colorful portrait of this hierarchy from below, summarizing European feudalism thusly:
the passing of actual government from the hands of the old Roman provincial centres of administration into the hands of each small local society and its lord. On such a basis there was a reconstruction of
society from below: these local lords associating themselves under greater men, and these again holding together in great national groups under a national overlord.
In the violence of the struggle through which Christendom passed, town and village, valley and castle, had often to defend itself alone.
For the purposes of cohesion that family which possessed most estates in a district tended to become the leader of it. Whole provinces were thus formed and grouped, and the vaguer sentiments of a larger unity expressed themselves by the choice of some one family, one of the most powerful in every county, who would be the overlord of all the other lords, great and small.
One might raise many good questions about Belloc's historical narratives, which I admit are relatively light on primary sources and heavy on romantic nostalgia. But with respect to the idea that European feudalism was a free hierarchy, this must have been the case because if any member of any level possessed greater power than their assigned status reflected, they could have just taken their rightful status: that is what the decline of Roman authority implied. If a Serf thought they were incorrectly or unfairly lumped in with the Serfs, they were perfectly free to create and secure their own manor against raiding pirates and crusading Islamic armies. Of course, having recently been slaves, they had no such power. Having no such power themselves, and having no centralized authority to physically protect their survival, it seems fair to presume they genuinely wanted to ally with someone who could raise an army.
[This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the Diffractions/Sbds event, "Wyrd Patchwork," in Prague on September 22, 2018. The video can be found here. My talk begins at around the 2-hour and 6-minute mark. I've added some links and an image.]
I want to talk about patchwork as an empirical model, but also a little bit as a normative model, because there's this idea that capitalism is increasingly collapsing the fact/value distinction. I tend to think that's true. And I think what that means is that, that which is empirically true increasingly looks to be normatively true also. Or if you're searching for a true model, you should be searching for models that are at once empirically well calibrated with reality and also one should be looking for normative or ethical consistency. And you can find the true model in any particular situation by kind of triangulating along the empirical and the normative. That's kind of how I think about patchwork.
I've been thinking about it in both of these dimensions and that has allowed me to converge on a certain vision of what I think patchwork involves or entails. And I've been writing a lot about that over the past couple months or so. So what I'm going to do in this talk specifically, is not just rehash some ideas that I've been thinking about and writing about and speaking about the past couple months, but I'm going to try to break a little bit of ground, at least in my own weird head, at the very least. And how these, some of these different ideas of mine connect, or can be integrated. In particular, I wrote a series of blog posts a few months ago on what I call reality forking (1, 2, 3). "Forking" is a term that comes from the world of software engineering. And so that's going to be one component of the talk.
You'll see it. It's very obvious how that connects to the idea of patchwork. And I'm also going to talk about this vision for a communist patch a lot of us have been interested in. And I've been talking with a lot of people about this idea of the communist patch and soliciting, you know, different people's impressions on it. And I also have written a few blog posts recently talking — kind of sketching, kind of hand-waving, if you will — at what a possibly communist patch might look like. A lot of people think, to this day, that patchwork has a very kind of right-wing connotation. People think primarily of Moldbug and Nick Land when they think of patchwork. But I think it's not at all obvious that patchwork necessarily has a right-wing flavor to it.
I think we can easily imagine left-wing patches that would be as competitive and as successful as more authoritarian patches. And so that's kind of what I've really been thinking a lot about recently. And even Nick Land himself told me that, you know, there's nothing wrong with trying to think about and even build a communist patch — it's all fair play. He's much less bullish on it than I am, but be that as it may. So those two ideas I'm going to discuss basically in turn and then try to connect them in a few novel ways. I have a few points or comments or extrapolations or connections between these two different ideas I've been working on, that I've never really written down or quite articulated yet. So that's what I'm going to try to do here.
So first of all, I was going to start this by talking a little bit about how patchwork I think is already happening in a lot of ways, but I deleted many of my bullet points because Dustin's presentation basically covered that better than I possibly could. So I'm not going to waste too much time talking about that. There's a lot of empirical data right now that looks a lot like fragmentation is the order of the day and there's a lot of exit dynamics and fragmentation dynamics that we're observing in many domains. And yeah, Dustin articulated a lot of them.
One thing I would say to kind of situate the talk, though, is that it's worth noting that not everyone agrees with this, you know... There's still a lot of integrative talk nowadays. There's a lot of discourse about the necessity of building larger and larger organizations. Especially when people are talking about global issues and major existential threats. Often in the educated discourse around preventing nuclear threats, for instance, or AI, things like runaway inhumane genetic testings, things like that. You could probably think of a few others. Climate change would be the obvious big one, right? A lot of these major global issues, the discourse around them, the expert opinions, tend to have a kind of integrative, centralized tendency to them. Actually just this morning I happened to be listening to a podcast that Sam Harris did with Yuval Harari. This guy who wrote the book, Sapiens, this mega global blockbuster of a book, and you know, he seemed like a nice guy, a smart guy of course, but everything he was saying was totally integrated. He was talking about how we need things like international organizations and more global international cooperation to solve all of these different problems and Sam Harris was just kind of nodding along happily. And that got me thinking actually, because even if you read people like Nick Bostrom and people who are kind of more hard-nosed and analytical about things like intelligence explosion, you find a lot of educated opinion is the opposite of a patchwork orientation, you find "We need to cooperate at a global level." Anyway, the reason I mentioned this is just to put in context that the ideas we're interested in and the empirical dynamics that were pinpointing are not at all obvious to everyone.
Even though, when you really look at all of the fragmentation dynamics now, I think it's increasingly hard to believe any idea, any proposal having to do with getting all of the nation states to cooperate on something. I just... I just don't see it. For instance, genetic engineering, you know China is off to the races and I just don't see any way in which somehow the US and China are going to negotiate some sort of pause to that. Anyway, so that's worth reflecting on. But one of the reasons I mention that is because I kind of have a meta-theory of precisely those discourses and that's what I'm going to talk about a little bit later in my talk when I talk about the ethical implications, because I think a lot of that is basically lying.
Okay. One of my theses is that when people are talking about how we have to organize some larger structure to prevent some moral problem — nine times out of ten, what they're actually doing is a kind of capitalist selling process. So that's actually just a kind of cultural capitalism in which they're pushing moral buttons to get a bunch of people to basically pay them. That is a very modern persona, that's a modern mold and that's precisely one of many things that I think is being melted down in the acceleration of capitalism. What's really happening is all that's really feasible in so many domains. All you can see for miles when you look in every possible direction is fragmentation, alienation, atomization, exits of all different kinds on all different kinds of levels.
And then you have people who are like, "Uh, we need to stop this, so give me your money and give me your votes." I think that's basically an unethical posture. I think it's a dishonest, disingenuous posture and it's ultimately about accruing power to the people who are promoting that — usually high-status, cultural elites in the "Cathedral" or whatever you want to call it. So that's why I think there are real ethical implications. I think if you want to not be a liar and not be a kind of cultural snake-oil salesman — which I think a lot of these people are — patchwork is not only what's happening but we're actually ethically obligated to hitch our wagon to patchwork dynamics. If only not to be a liar and a manipulator about the the nature of the real issues that we're going to have to try to navigate somehow.
I'll talk a little bit more about that, but I just wanted to kind of open up the talk with that reflection on the current debate around these issues. So, okay.
The one dimension of patchwork dynamics or exit dynamics that we're observing right now, that Dustin didn't talk about so much, is a patchwork dynamic that's taking place on the social-psychological level. To really drive this point home, I've had to borrow a term from the world of software engineering. I'll make this really quick and simple.
Basically, when you're developing software and you have a bunch of people contributing to this larger codebase, you need some sort of system or infrastructure for how a bunch of people can edit the code at the same time, right? You need to keep that orderly, right? So there's this simple term, it's called forking. So you have this codebase and if you want to make a change to the code base, you fork it. In a standard case, you might do what we call a soft fork. I'm butchering the technical language a little bit; if there are any hardcore programmers in the room, I'm aware I'm painting with broad strokes, but I'll get the point across effectively enough without being too nerdy about it.
A soft fork means that you pulled the codebase off for your own purposes, but it ultimately can merge back in — is the simple idea there. But a hard fork is when you pull the code base off to edit it, and there's no turning back. There's no reintegrating your edits to the shared master branch or whatever you want to call it. So I use this kind of technical distinction between a soft fork and a hard fork to think about what's actually going on with social, psychological reality and its distribution across Western societies today. The reason I do this is because I think you need this kind of language to really drive home how radical the social psychological problems are. I really think that we underestimate how much reality itself is being fragmented in different subpopulations.
I think we're talking about fundamental... We are now fundamentally entering into different worlds and it's not at all clear to me that there's any road back to having some sort of shared world. And so I sketched this out in greater detail. The traditional human society, you can think of it as a kind of system of constant soft forking, right? Individuals go off during the day or whatever, they go hunting and do whatever traditional societies do, and at the end of the night they integrate all of their experiences in a shared code base. Soft forks, which are then merged back to the master branch around the campfire or whatever you want to call it, however you want to think about that. But it's only now that, for the first time ever, we have the technological conditions in which individuals can edit the shared social codebase and then never really integrate back into the shared code base.
And so this is what I call the hard forking of reality. I think that is what we're living through right now. And I think that's why you see things like political polarization to a degree we've never seen before. That's why you see profound confusion and miscommunication, just deep inabilities to relate with each other across different groups, especially like the left vs. right divide, for instance. But you also see it with things like... Think about someone like Alex Jones, think these independent media platforms that are just on a vector towards outer space — such that it's hard to even relate it to anything empirical that you can recognize. You see more and more of these kinds of hard reality forks, or that's what I call them. I'm very serious.
I think educated opinion today underestimates how extreme that is and how much that's already taking place. It's not clear to me once this is underway, it's not clear to me how someone who is neck-deep in the world of Alex Jones — and that is their sense of what reality is — how that person is ever going to be able to sync back up with, you know, an educated person at Harvard University or something like that. It's not just that those people can't have dinner together — that happened several decades ago probably — but there's just no actual technical, infrastructural pathway through which these two different worlds could be negotiated or made to converge into something shared. The radicalism of that break is a defining feature of our current technological moment.
And that is an extraordinary patchwork dynamic. In other words, I think that patchwork is already here, especially strong in the socio-psychological dimension, and that's very invisible. So people underestimate it. People often think of patchwork as a territorial phenomenon and maybe one day it will be, but I think primarily for now it's social-psychological and that should not be underestimated because you can go into fundamentally different worlds even in the same territory. But that's what the digital plane opens up to us. So that's one half of what I'm bringing to the table in this talk.
There are a few antecedent conditions to explain, like why I think this is happening now. One is that there's been an extraordinary breakdown in trust towards all kinds of traditional, institutionalized, centralized systems. If you look at the public opinion data, for instance, on how people view Congress in the United States, or how people view Parliament or whatever, just trust in elected leaders... You look at the public opinion data since the fifties and it's really, really on the decline, a consistent and pretty rapid decline.
And this is true if you ask them about the mass media, politicians, a whole bunch of mainstream, traditional kinds of institutions that were the bedrock of modernized societies... People just don't take them seriously anymore at all. And I think that is because of technological acceleration, what's happened is that there is unprecedented complexity. There's just too much information. There's so much information that these modern institutions are really, really unwieldy. They're really unable to process the complexity that we now are trying to navigate and people are seeing very patently that all of these systems are just patently not able to manage. They're not able to do or give what they're supposed to be giving with this explosion of information that they were not designed to handle. So it's kind of like a bandwidth problem, really. But because of this, people are dropping their attention away from these institutions and they're looking outwards, they're looking elsewhere, they're looking for other forms of reality because that's ultimately what's at stake here.
These traditional institutions, they supplied the shared reality. Everyone referred back to these dominant institutions because — even if you didn't like those institutions in the 60s or 70s or whatever, even when people really didn't like those institutions, like the hippies or whatever — everyone recognized them as existing, as powerful. So even opposing them, you kind of referred back to them. We're now post- all of that, where people so mistrust these institutions that they're not even referring back to them anymore. And they're taking all their cues for what reality is from people like Alex Jones or people like Jordan Peterson or you name it, and you're going to see more and more fragmentation, more and more refinement of different types of realities for different types of subpopulations in an ever more refined way that aligns with their personalities and their preferences. These are basically like consumer preferences. People are going to get the realities that they most desire in a highly fragmented market. Anyway... So I think I've talked enough about that. That's my idea of reality forking and that's my model of a deep form of patchwork that I think is already underway in a way that people underestimate.
So now I want to talk a little bit more about the ethics of patchwork because I think the observations that I just prevent presented, they raise ethical questions. And so if I am right, that reality itself is already breaking up into multiple versions and multiple patches, well then that raises some interesting questions for us, not just in terms of what we want to do, but in terms of what should we do.
Ethics and Patchwork
What does it mean to seek the good life if this is in fact what's happening? It seems to me that, right now, you're either going to be investing your efforts into somehow creatively co-constituting a new reality or you're going to be just consuming someone else's reality. And a lot of us, I think, do a combination of this. Like all the podcasts I listen to, and all the Youtube videos I watch, that's me outsourcing reality-creation to other people, to some degree. But then the reason I've gotten on Youtube and the reason I've gotten really into all of these platforms and invested myself in creating my own sense of the world is because I don't just want to be a consumer of other people's realities. I want to be... I want to create a world. That would, that sounds awesome. That would be the ideal, right? But the problem is that people are differently equipped to do so, to either create or consume realities and I think that this is difficult and very fraught. This is a very politically fraught problem. The left and the right will have debates about, you know, "the blank slate" versus the heritability of traits and all of that. And I don't want to get into that now, but however you want to interpret it, it is an obvious fact that some people are better equipped to do things like create systems, than other people. To me, this is the ethical-political question space.
The default mode right now is the one that I already described at the top of my talk: it's the moralist. It's the traditional left-wing (more or less) posture. "Here's a program for how we're going to protect a bunch of people. All it requires is for you to sign up and give your votes and come to meetings and give your money and somehow we're going to all get together and we're going to take state power and protect people" or something like that. As I already said — I won't beat a dead horse — but I think that's increasingly revealing itself to be a completely impractical and not serious posture that plays with our... it suits our moral tastebuds a little bit, but it's increasingly and patently not able to keep up with accelerating capitalism.
That's not gonna work. Why I think patchwork is an ethical obligation is because, if you're not going to manipulate people by trying to build some sort of large centralized institution, by manipulating their heartstrings, then what remains for us to do is to create our own realities, basically. And I think that the most ethical way to do that is to do it honestly and transparently, to basically reveal this, to reveal the source code of reality and theorize that and model that and make those blueprints and share those blueprints and then get together with people that you want to get together with and literally make your own reality. I feel like that doesn't just sound cool and fun, but you kind of have to do that or else you're going to be participating in this really harmful, delusional trade. That's my view anyway.
Now I'll just finish by telling you what I think the ideal path looks like ethically and practically. I've called it many different things, I haven't really settled on a convenient phrase to summarize this vision, but I think of it as a neo-feudal techno-communism. I think the ideal patch that will be both most competitive, most functional, most desirable and successful as a functioning political unit, but also that is ethically most reflective and consistent with the true nature of human being is... It's going to look something a little bit like European feudalism and it's going to be basically communist, but with contemporary digital technology.
Let me unpack that for you a little bit. You probably have a lot of questions [laughing]. One thing is that patchwork always sounds a little bit like "intentional communities." And on the Left, the "intentional communities" kind of have a bad rap because they've never really worked. You know, people who want to start a little group somewhere off in the woods or whatever, and make the ideal society, and then somehow that's going to magically grow and take over. It usually doesn't end well. It doesn't have a good historical track record. It usually ends up in some kind of cult or else it just fizzles out and it's unproductive or whatever. I think that the conditions now are very different, but I think if you want to talk about building a patch, you have to kind of explain why your model is different than all the other intentional communities that have failed.
One reason is that the digital revolution has been a game changer, I think. Most of the examples of failed intentional communities come from a pre-digital context, so that's one obvious point. I think the search-space, the solution-space, has not all been exhausted. That's kind of just a simple point.
But another thing I've thought a lot about, and I've written some about, is that, in a lot of the earlier intentional communities, one of the reasons they fail is because of self-selection. That's just a fancy social science term for... There's a certain type of person who historically has chosen to do intentional communities and they tend to have certain traits and I think for many reasons — I don't want to spend too much time getting into it — but it's not hard to imagine why that causes problems, right? If all the people are really good at certain things but really bad at other things, you have very lopsided communities in terms of personality traits and tendencies. I think that that's one of the reasons why things have led to failure. So what's new now, I think, is that because the pressure towards patchwork is increasingly going to be forced through things like climate change and technological shocks of all different kinds, because these are fairly random kinds of systemic, exogenous shocks, what that means is it's going to be forcing a greater diversity of people into looking for patches or maybe even needing patches. And I think that is actually valuable for those who want to make new worlds and make better worlds, because it's actually nature kind of imposing greater diversity on the types of people that will have to make different patches.
So what exactly does neo-feudal techno-communism look like? Basically it would have a producer elite, and this is where a lot of my left-wing friends start rolling their eyes, because it basically is kind of like an aristocracy. Like, look, there's going to be a small number of people who are exceptionally skilled at things like engineering and who can do things that most other people can't. You need at least a few people like that to engineer really sophisticated systems. Kind of like Casey said before, "the mayor as sys-admin." That's kind of a similar idea. You'd have a small number of elite engineer types and basically they can do all of the programming for the system that I'm about to describe, but what they also do is they make money in the larger techno-commercium. They would run a small business, basically, that would trade with other patches and it would make money, in probably very automated ways. So it would be a sleek, agile kind of little corporation of producer elites at the top of this feudal pyramid of a patch society. Then there would be a diversity of individuals including many poor unskilled, disabled, etc., people who don't have to do anything basically. Or they can do little jobs around the patch or whatever, to help out.
The first thing you might be thinking — this is the first objection I get from people — is why would the rich, these highly productive, potentially very rich, engineer types want to support this patch of poor people who don't do anything? Isn't the whole problem today, Justin, that the rich don't want to pay for these things and they will just exit and evade?
Well, my kind of novel idea here is that there is one thing that the rich today cannot get their hands on, no matter where they look. And I submit that it's a highly desirable, highly valuable human resource that most people really, really, really want. And that is genuine respect and admiration, and deep social belonging. Most of the rich today, they know that people have a lot of resentment towards them. Presumably they don't like the psychological experience of being on the run from national governments and putting their money in Swiss bank accounts. They probably don't like feeling like criminals who everyone more or less kind of resents and wants to get the money of, or whatever. So my hypothesis here is that if we could engineer a little social system in which they actually felt valued and desired and admired and actually received some respect for their skills and talents that they do have and the work that they do put in... I would argue that if you could guarantee that, that they would get that respect, and the poor would not try to take everything from them. If you could guarantee those things, then the communist patch would actually be preferable to the current status quo for the rich people. My argument is that this would be preferable; it would be a voluntary, preferable choice for the rich, because of this kind of unique, new agreement that the poor and normal people won't hate them and we'll actually admire them for what they deserve to be admired for. So then the question becomes, well, how do you guarantee that that's going to happen? This is where technology comes in.
The poor and normal people can make commitments to a certain type of, let's call them "good behaviors" or whatever. Then we can basically enforce that through trustless, decentralized systems, namely, of course, blockchain. So what I'm imagining is... Imagine something like the Internet of Things — you know, all of these home devices that we see more and more nowadays that have sensors built in and can passively and easily monitor all types of measures in the environment. Imagine connecting that up to a blockchain, and specifically Smart Contracts, so that basically the patch is being constantly measured, your behavior in the patch is being constantly measured. You might have, say, skin conductance measures on your wrist; there might be audio speakers recording everyone's voice at all times. I know that sounds a little authoritarian, but stick with me. Stick with me.
Basically, by deep monitoring of everything using the Internet of Things, what we can do is basically as a group agree on what is a fair measure of, say, a satisfactory level of honesty, for instance. Let's say the rich people say, "I'll guarantee you a dignified life by giving you X amount of money each month. You don't have to do anything for it as long as you respect me, you know, you don't tell lies about me, you don't plot to take all of my money" or whatever. So then you would have an Alexa or whatever, it would be constantly recording what everyone says, and that would be hooked up to a Smart Contract. And so if you tell some lie about the producer aristocrat, "He totally punched me the other day, he was a real ignoble asshole," and that's actually not true. Well, all of the speech that people are speaking would be constantly compared to some database of truth. It could be Wikipedia or whatever. And every single statement would have some sort of probability of being true or false, or something like that. That could all be automated through the Internet of Things feeding this information the internet, and basically checking it for truth or falsity. And then you have some sort of model that says, if a statement has a probability of being false that is higher than — maybe set it really high to be careful, right? — 95 percent, so only lies that can be really strongly confirmed... Those are going to get reported to the community as a whole.
If you have X amount of bad behaviors, then you lose your entitlement from the aristocrat producers. It's noblesse oblige, the old kind of feudal term for basically an aristocratic communism, the [obligatory] generosity of the noble. So that's all very skittish. A little sketch of how Internet of Things and Smart Contracts could be used to create this idea of a Rousseauean General Will.
The reason why this has never worked in history is because of lying, basically. People can always defect. People can always manipulate and say they're going to do one thing but then not deliver. That's on the side of the rich and also on the side of the poor. But what's at least in sight now, is the possibility that we could define very rigorously the ideal expectations of everyone in a community and program that in transparent Smart Contracts, hook those up to sensors that are doing all of the work in the background, and in this way basically automate a radically guaranteed, egalitarian, communist system in which people do have different abilities, but everyone has an absolutely dignified lifestyle guaranteed for them as long as they're not total [expletive] who break the rules of the group. You can actually engineer this in a way that rich people would find it preferable to how they're currently living. So to me that's a viable way of building communism that hasn't really been tried before. And I think it really suits a patchwork model. I think that this would be something like an absolutely ideal patch, and not just in a productive, successful way. This is the ideal way to make a large group of people maximally productive and happy and feel connected and integrated. Like everyone has a place and everyone belongs, even if there's a little bit of difference in aptitudes. The system, the culture, will reflect that. But in a dignified, and fair, and reasonable kind way, a mutually supportive way. I could say more, but I haven't been keeping time, and I feel like I've been talking enough.
I found out recently that — hat tip to my friend the Jaymo — the town of Tombsboro, Georgia is right now for sale, for only $1.7 million. I think that's a pretty good deal. It comes with a railroad station, a sugar factory, all kinds of stuff and you could easily build a little prototype patch that I just described. If you have a bunch of people and it's a major publicized project, it wouldn't be that hard to raise enough for a mortgage on a $1.7 million property. Especially if you have a compelling white paper along the lines that I just sketched. I'm not quite there yet, but that's what I'm thinking about, that's my model or my vision of the communist patch. So I'm going to cut myself off there. Thank you very much.
I was recently approached by Diffractions Collective in Prague, who are working with a group called Sdbs, about hosting a discussion event on my livestream. The topic is patchwork. I don't know exactly what to expect, but naturally I said sure. They will be hosting a semi-public IRL event in Prague, and will join the livestream with one account. They will have people speak, I'll be on one account, and I believe we will also be joined by Xenogothic.
The live chat will be open to the public, and I'll be keeping an eye on it for interesting comments and questions, to bring into the discussion.
This event will take place this Saturday, September 22nd at 2pm UK time (9am in NYC). Like all my livestreams, it will be automatically archived for watching later.
The watch/chat page will be at bit.ly/wyrdpatch. You can go there now and request to receive a reminder when it goes live.
As a livestreamer, you ignore the entire world to focus your attention on a subset of people who are genuinely interested in you. Entrance into the practice of livestreaming immediately leads you to ask yourself questions such as: Why should I pay any attention, or have any interactions physical or virtual, with people who are only vaguely interested in me, who expect me to modulate my organic intensity levels to a normal range, and who only hang-out with me for incidental reasons of geography and sociology? Since I've started livestreaming, it's become very difficult to find answers to this question.
My very modest livestreaming audience does not pay attention to me for incidental reasons such as living nearby or because the relationship benefits their career path. I am exactly as I want to be, and every time a small number of regulars are always there, watching and listening for no reason external to the transmission itself, for the simple reason that they have nothing to win or lose by watching me or not watching me. This absence of an external reason for watching is the definition of sincere attention: they are watching me to learn why they are watching me, a radical and pure form of openness to the other. If they are drawn to my world, they'll stay and/or return. If they are not attracted to my world, they might leave and never come back — but even still, for the short time they were watching me, they were not doing it for any reason other than some strangely unadulterated interest in what I was saying or doing. There's just no other reason, good or bad, because I'm not famous, or obviously representative of anything in particular. I'm not especially entertaining, I'm not even especially smart, but they'll watch and listen for hours while I be as I wish to be.
If attention is, in the words of Simone Weil, the "rarest and purest form of generosity,” to livestream is to immediately incur a profound debt. Your first viewer is a gift of which you are not yet worthy; they are gambling a precious resource on you. The same could be said of the book shopper who reads the first line of your book, but the key difference — and there are many — is that the book author does not experience this gift. The relationship is so institutionally mediated and temporally chopped-up, that the communicative investment runs only from book author to reader, with so much skimmed off the top by various brokers. In a strange way, the livestreamer is bootstrapped into motion by the investment of attention coming from the audience, and only from there does the livestreamer take up the reins. One learns this most clearly when you initiate a stream and nobody enters; it feels wrong even trying to begin, and if you do, it feels uniquely stupid and motivation dwindles rapidly, even though it's no more lonely than writing an essay.
As for physical humans, I have my wife and my family — by far the most important human beings in most individuals' lives, ultimately — with whom I have dedicated and sincere relationships. Other than these few deep bonds, do I really still need a typical network of normal friends?
In contemporary Western society, any given person's network of normal friends — characterized by periodic face-to-face interaction in geographically localized milieus — seems increasingly evacuated of authentic emotional investment: a convenient web of polite dissimulation, hidden disappointments, lowered expectations, spinelessly lax ethical relativism. Who today could say with a straight face that maintaining all of these weak ties is still of any ethical or practical importance? By all means, build local relationships, especially in case "shit hits the fan," but if shit really hits the fan, the overwhelming majority of one's social "friends" — especially in young adult urban milieus — will be as good as strangers, and they'll line up however self-interest dictates. Getting drunk together ~4-9 times a year will not substantially alter the cleavage structures into which you and your "friend" will be sorted in the event of a severe crisis. And as for the common idea that this type of half-assed face-to-face interaction with semi-strangers makes life a fuller and more joyous experience, to be celebrated and preserved for its own sake — well, maybe a little bit, but if it's so intrinsically valuable then why will people only do it on condition that they can also spend the whole time sating their basest appetites in the most decadent way possible, such as drinking alcohol or eating prepared foods. "Having friends in real life" strikes me as an increasingly hollow proposition. This sorry excuse for "community" is merely the dead skin of a bygone social form.
To the degree any of "my friends" read this and speak to me personally about it, that could be considered falsification of this particular thesis. If none of "my friends" read or care about this, that would be evidence consistent with the thesis. Typically, none of "my friends" know or care much about what I think/write/speak online. You might say that's normal, and you'd be right, but stupidity and evil are also normal, so you're not helping your case.
If there are people online who care about what I think/write/speak, while "my friends" do not, then why should I not simply fire "my friends" and redirect the time and energy I once gave them to those who are actually interested in that which is most me? That is what this comes down to: most of your normal friends do not really like you, and they never have. They generally don't want to know what you think or feel, except in very short and infrequent doses, which they are merely willing to tolerate. If even one person is watching your livestream, even for one second, that one person in that one second is more genuinely interested in you than probably all of your normal friends put together throughout your entire life.
Stream theory mercilessly disenchants meatspace, diverting enchantment to the livestream relation and endowing it with correspondingly redemptive potential.
To normal people who still take it for granted that "real life" is the base and cyberspace a superstructure, livestreams just seem dull, but for those who have gone all-in on the livestream relation — for whom it can be said that the stream is the base and "real life" but a superstructure — the stream is the very possibility of life amidst a dead world. If you think it's "boring" it's because you incorrectly compare it to bourgeois entertainment media. Bourgeois entertainment media serve a consolation and restoration function for the modern person whose everyday life is absorbed by alienating IRL labor. The livestream experience serves the function of life itself for those whose life is no longer absorbed by alienating IRL labor, either because of unemployment, underemployment, or socio-emotional flatlining. If the IRL political economy deals you a bad hand, there is now a fairly transparent and reproducible mechanism for defaulting on God-forsaken meatspace and reversing your fortune. Go all in.
I came across some profound corroboration of this thesis, in the testimony of a doctoral student, Dino Zhang. Zhang's work focuses on livestreaming culture in China:
...seen from the outside (often through only a few distracted glimpses), zhibo [livestreaming] is mostly boring and meaningless, and is regularly disregarded as the lowest tier of Chinese cultural consumption; yet, many people who enter a zhibo channel with this prejudice still get hooked and go back to it regularly. Is it boring? If you look at zhibo generically, of course it seems absurd that anyone would be watching this sort of stuff regularly. But if you start engaging with individual users, the situation becomes way more nuanced. For example, I was talking to a livestreamer called Yuwen who is a disabled young man living in rural Sichuan. His life, according to most standards, is quite tragic. Despite the often abusive comments he receives in chat, Yuwen still carries on streaming because zhibo is an important opportunity for him to speak to a broader audience and receive some money through donations. Yuwen’s zhibo is extremely slow due [to] the long pauses and interruptions resulting from his precarious Internet connection, the resolution of his webcam is very low and even his voice is barely heard over the microphone, yet he speaks in his own capacity and patiently responds to his viewers’ questions. The banality of zhibo contents can be a difficulty because genuine reflexive moments are buried by the duration itself – a six hour-long livestream may contain five minutes of extremely revealing and inspiring conversation about contemporary working life in the Chinese countryside, but only few people would be there to witness, record and publish them. How can we accuse livestreamers of producing “endless banal entertainment” if we have not yet tried to sit there and watch a six hour livestream in its entirety?
"Is it boring?" Or is it camouflaged, sneaking moments of life into the nether-regions of a social fabric where life is supposed to be on lockdown, by sandwiching it in between pauses and interruptions too long for forces of suppression to even get through? When one realizes that the livestream is a mechanism for converting IRL misfortunes into spiritual/interpersonal and even monetary fortunes, suddenly you are watching something very different. A disabled Chinese peasant with bad WiFi might not sound very fun to watch, but a disabled Chinese peasant who has discovered a mysterious technology for making himself a charismatic national figure earning good money — who would not want to watch such an extraordinary magic trick?
The livestreamer, although accountable to the audience, is radically unaccountable to all competing reality-programmers, ranging from other entertainers to legislators and law-enforcement. The streamer is an audience-bootstrapped sovereign who inaugurates a new plane of immanence. There are no rules outside of those set by the streamer within the bounds accepted by the audience. Facts, norms, laws, and incentive structures from institutional society are easily ignored, altered, and even regularly manipulated or overthrown by streamer-audience feedback loops that overflow their container in ungovernable ways. Entire conspiracy-theory universes are now old news, spectacular crimes are regularly committed by livestreamers on air, and the biggest streamers are frequently "swatted," which means receiving a home invasion by a SWAT team after an audience member reports a bomb threat. Media consumers order real-life SWAT teams to perform live-action role-plays in their favorite livestream and the livestreamer gets paid for the SWAT team's slave labor, by corporate advertisers who are running out of options.
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