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On Intellectual Twitter Beefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What am I doing?

Many different people are asking me what's going on with me. In different languages, sometimes gleefully and sometimes worriedly, I have been asked some variant of "what are you doing?" so many times in the past couple of weeks that I figure I should just write one thing that I can give to anyone who asks. The chorus seems to be approaching a crescendo at the moment, with friends, strangers, coworkers, and now even students, and therefore bosses (that was quick!) joining in. So here's what I'm doing, as succinctly as I can put it.

It's not complicated. It's not profound. It’s not heroic or impressive. In fact, it's possibly the simplest decision I've made, or action I've taken, in the past eight years. It's very important to me personally, but it's something anyone can do, something many people should do, and something countless people do every day, with no fanfare.

I've never liked carving myself into separate sections, and strategically presenting myself to one audience here and one over there. People will say, "But of course, everyone has to do that!" Maybe that's correct, but maybe it's just a useful fiction for people who have made their life about optimizing something other than the truth (how they are perceived, their status, their income or financial stability, etc.). For my part, I believe that any mature adult who claims to be an intellectual must insist upon the widest possible latitude to think and speak in their own tongue — in a way that they are content to let stand for any interested party. Comfortably accepting any latitude less than the greatest latitude they can force open for themselves is fine — it just means you are living a different kind of life than the intellectual life. To think one thing and say another, or to say one thing to your peers and another thing to your students and another thing to the public, is — I believe — a truly abominable, cardinal sin for anyone who says to the public that they are in the business of truth-seeking. I understand that some people must live like this, because of their own unique web of obligations, which is why I am not judging others — but it doesn't mean I must like it, or live my own life that way. I am relatively young (32) and highly skilled; I don't have kids yet; my wife is even younger, and she supports me 100% in saying and doing whatever I need to do. One reason she supports and even encourages my freedom is because, over the past few years of being a tight-lipped, well-behaved prestigious professional, I have been a boring, stressed, shell of myself. If my vision of the intellectual life is impossible or "impractical," so be it. For the moment, I can afford to take my chances, and so what I am doing now is taking my chances, because it is my honest view that continuing life as a normal, respectable academic feels like a much bigger risk to me. I have also been delighted and emboldened by those who value my work enough to throw me money on a monthly basis. It doesn't match my salary from academia, but it's certainly enough to make me wonder what would happen if I pulled out all the stops.

People will think I am being ridiculous because, of course, what I am criticizing is the norm in academia and the intelligentsia more generally. First of all, it is exactly the normalcy of deceptiveness in academia that makes the stakes feel so high to me. Maybe, just maybe, this has something to do with the large-scale semi-international backlash of right-wing populists. Gee, I wonder [scratches head]. Additionally, in the contemporary fragmented media environment, trying to think and write honestly while also pleasing your family, bosses, students, and the public is just prohibitively energy consuming. As an academic, you can easily spend most of your days strategizing how to present yourself in different spaces, and never get around to thinking or saying anything worthwhile. If you want to seek the truth, as a life project, you must at nearly all cost find your own language that you can speak to all comers. Or else, you'll never get around to finding out anything interesting, let alone sharing it. I'm aware that all of these patterns I'm enumerating here are utterly banal to observe. As I said, I'm not making a genius argument, I am just explaining why I am now refusing to behave as I have behaved in the past few years.

What I am doing is simple. I am just thinking and saying whatever I feel like. I'm no hero and I'm certainly no martyr (academia looks much more vulnerable than I feel). I'm not asking for anyone's permission, I'm not asking for sympathy, and I'm not asking for more freedom. I'm not even defending myself on the grounds that I have something especially valuable or important to say. I am taking what belongs to me, for the trivial and even frivolous reason that I want to enjoy the right to make mistakes, to be rude, to occasionally overshoot and occasionally undershoot, perhaps even wildly — to try different ideas and performances on for size, sometimes for the sheer pleasure of doing so. I believe that such irresponsible leisure is a truly necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the more important forms of intellectual liberty that are easier to market. But I refuse even the obligation to market my liberty-taking as something more noble than it is. I don't want to justify what I'm doing with reference to these larger values, because my whole point is that I don't want to be constantly playing this rearguard game of having always to justify my own freedom. I did not get a PhD to live my life trembling at what a student or bureaucrat might think or feel about whatever it is I feel like saying. My mother always taught me that as long as I'm not hurting anyone, then I should do what I want.

Now that I've mentioned it, my family looms large in what I'm doing now. The bastard brat of an Irish-American roofer, I was never supposed to enter the official cosmopolitan intelligentsia — and when you sneak into a place, it looks very different than it does to those who are supposed to be there. I'm only here because I learned early how to hack social firewalls and I made up for my modest IQ with extra piss and vinegar (two things I did inherit amply). My dad and brother both have what the DSM calls Oppositional Defiance Disorder; I'm pretty sure I'm on that spectrum too, but I was blessed with enough self-control to sublimate my rebelliousness into a patient, longer game. Through intellectual work I could eventually prove that all those institutional authority figures were wrong, so I would do that instead of acting out and getting punished. My dad never finished high school, running away to hitchhike and eventually join the Marines. My mom, also Irish-American, also had no education and little earning power, but that didn't stop them from having four kids. Two of my siblings are recovering heroin addicts.

That's who I am, I am these people — and I'm quite tired of acting like I'm exactly the same as every other rootless hyper-educated citizen of the world. The typical cosmopolitan professor today — if she was giving my mother personal advice in 1986 — would have advised my parents to abort me. She would be disgusted by the latent racism and sexism she would have found embedded unconsciously in their vernacular. If my parents were "smart," they probably would have divorced each other at some point, in search of greener pastures. But they didn't abort me, and they spoke how they spoke, and they didn't break the family, all for reasons I have been too educated to understand. Until lately. The last time I visited my family was in the run-up to the US Presidential election. My grandmother, a former teacher who is educated and fiercely intelligent (and disagreeable), told me she was going to vote for Trump. I articulated my reasons for why that upset me, and she looked me in the eyes like she never had before, with a coldness unlike her, and she said, "I do not care what anybody thinks." I was horrified and upset at the time, but this was one of my best friends growing up, and I never, ever would have become a successful academic without her. I didn't vote for Trump and I'm still no fan, but her words on that day have been echoing in my head like crazy since then. I may have recalled these words every single day since then. All of my own traits and accomplishments that I like and value the most about myself, I got from my family. They have backbones far stronger than most people I've met in my extensive travels among the international intellectual class. I haven't yet made sense of all this, but sometimes life forces you to make broad wagers, on ill-defined questions you don't fully understand. I needed to give you all of this background, but in conclusion, all I can really say is that I have already invested far too much into academic respectability, and not enough into honoring my family. And I've never been good at half measures, so now I'm going to see what happens if I bet the farm on "I do not care what anybody thinks."

If my bosses think that any of this is inconsistent with my employment, then I will just infer that their employment is inconsistent with a real intellectual life. I am a highly skilled researcher and lecturer, with good publications, and a fine track record in every aspect of my academic career thus far. If the person I truly am, and aspire to become, does not fit into academia, I would much prefer to learn this now rather than later. In fact, it would be a most profound discovery regarding the real limits of higher education today. That would give me something to think and study and write about for years. For intellectuals, huge surprises are hugely valuable;  they're good news, exciting.

If academia can tolerate me, that would also be good to know. But if I can't be truly free to think and say what I want right now, while I have more respectable prestige points than perhaps I ever will, and while I have tenure (the British version, anyway), then I'll certainly never be granted such liberty in the future. I am just going to cease calculating, as much as possible anyway. Sometimes that will mean saying the smartest thing I can think of, sometimes that will mean saying the funniest thing I can think of, and maybe sometimes it will mean saying the dumbest thing I can think of, if in that moment I feel like not bearing the burden of sophistication. As I said, I don't need you to like this, or even understand it, let alone praise or forgive it. But you asked, so here is my answer for now.

Why Write One Book When You Can Speak 18 Volumes?

Have you ever wondered how and why The Life of Samuel Johnson is so damn long (and influential), even though he's just rambling like a livestreamer on adderall? Some thoughts on the current frontiers of idea production.

Organic conversation is one of the most effective ways to generate thoughts; and passive audio recording of organic conversation is one of the most effective ways to convert thoughts into an external output. But audio is highly sub-optimal for searching, arranging, or creatively aggregating recorded fragments into higher-level projects. This is one of the major bottlenecks that has, so far, prevented the explosive production efficiency of podcasting/livestreaming technology from flowering into a proportionately explosive renaissance of independent book publishing in the more sophisticated intellectual domains.

Whoever can solve this bottleneck, or I should say, whoever is at the front of iteratively solving this bottleneck right now, may very well enjoy a unique and substantial intellectual-political edge, perhaps not unlike that enjoyed by Luther. Or so it seems to me, at least — which is why I've been investing some time into testing the current frontiers of speech-to-text technologies (here, and here).

I recently used Youtube's editing tool to split off a 5-minute clip from a recent conversation I had with Michael James, just because it felt like a not-so-bad draft of something I've been thinking about recently but never yet even tried to jot down. Then, for the trivially low cost of $0.1, I had Temi transcribe it. It took me about 10 minutes to edit it, and post it as a blog post. For now, it's not yet worthwhile to transcribe every audio/video conversation I conduct, but as the transcription gets ever more accurate, it will be trivially easy and cheap to make perfect full-text versions of any recording. Put them in a folder, tag the sections, identify higher-order patterns, cut the chaff; repeat until something substantial emerges, concentrate where necessary, extend where necessary, and extraordinary things might be produced more efficiently than ever.

The implications are potentially profound for intellectuals and creative folks. It's also a potential opportunity for internet upstarts to achieve a substantial edge over legacy establishment intellectuals. Those people will be very late to this game. Three crazy people and a little bit of adderall could easily produce a damn interesting book in one weekend, plus a few days of editing and arranging, or just pay a freelance editor on fiverr or upwork...

Thus, here is my proposed answer to the original question, namely, how and why is The Life of Samuel Johnson so damn long (and influential)? It's because Samuel Johnson just rambled for days on end, used James Boswell as a transcription AI, and self-published an 18-volume monstrosity on Amazon.com. Although it was probably only read by .001% of the people who claimed to read it, everyone nonetheless was forced to concede, "Wow, this guy must be freakin' legit!"

Sell Outs and Sell Ins

It's interesting to note that, since I've shifted a lot of my intellectual energy to autonomous work on the internet, I've received a fair number of accusations about "selling out" or "pandering."

It's very strange because academia pays me to constrain my intellectual ability into a highly ideological and politically defanged kind of work. Being a "radical academic," that is, a normal academic in the softer social sciences and/or humanities, is the purest conceivable form of intellectual selling-out or pandering. It's because of my grappling with this unfortunate fact that I've shifted a great deal of my waking hours from my academic responsibilities, to completely autonomous public work on whatever topics seem most important to me, in the most transparent and direct, honest style I know how to practice. And I've literally made no money at all. (The only payments I can possibly think of are extensions of my academic cog-function, not my autonomous projects, namely 'honoraria' for articles or interviews in mainstream media. I did set up an Amazon affiliates count just for the hell of it some time ago but it's raised nowhere near enough to even be paid out yet lol.)

What does it mean that precisely in an autonomous and principled move away from selling out I am receiving the only accusations of selling out I've ever received? One thing this says to me is that, in doing anything public, one will probably receive a quantity of such objections in proportion to the publicity, no matter what path you take. The accusation seems to be indexed simply to my intensity levels and orthogonal to any meaningful judgment about motives and authenticity; perhaps the harder one pushes on anything, the more likely someone will infer bad motives. And perhaps this is a reasonable heuristic, given that intense productivity in capitalist culture is often correlated with dubious motives.

The irony is that I would quite like to have people criticize me whenever I might be guilty of selling out. I kind of wish smart, radical intellectuals shamed me for being a sellout academic, pressuring me to do more radical autonomous work. I receive almost none of this. Getting lost in ignoble temptations and base motives is a huge problem, a fatal trap for authentic intellectuals, and I'm far from perfect so I have to imagine that periodically I must be as vulnerable to this pitfall as anyone else. It'd be great if hearing these accusations could be a reliable signal I'm doing something wrong. Unfortunately, receiving them at present will only have the unfortunate, ironic effect of making it harder for me to know in the future if I am losing my way, given that so far such accusations are inversely correlated with all objective measures of selling out.

This odd experience has also had the salutary effect of making me somewhat less allergic to money. If I'm going to receive a dose of sellout accusations when my creative work could not be more fully insulated from the scourge of money, it makes me think: Well, now I might as well start thinking about how to make some money with it… This should also be filed under "data points increasing my sympathy for the 'free market anarchism' school." Maybe the entrepreneurial vector is the line of flight, and the modest salaried bureaucrat professing anti-capitalist viewpoints is the one guilty of reproducing institutionalized oppression and injustice. Perhaps the salaried bureaucrat receives critiques of "selling out" if he does anything to potentially attract value on the open market, because such a path devalues and destabilizes the conservative cartel of salaried bureaucrats who only pretend to value radical disruptions of the status quo.

In any event, receiving these accusations when they could not be more demonstrably false is a useful inoculation for my psychological processing of resentful internet-age opprobrium.

Bear Traps

It is very clever how Moldbug chooses extra-provocative phrases and examples—for instance, extended reflections on the successful infrastructure projects of the Third Reich. He likes to purposefully trip social justice trip-wires, as if he's a literal Nazi naïvely unaware that certain rhetorical choices are way beyond problematicHe's playing a two-level game. Any calm, half-intelligent person with the patience to hear him out will see he has no interest in white supremacy or Naziism, but anyone at all inclined to outrage will be so quickly overwhelmed with the smell of evil that they'll turn away. These latter individuals will be rendered either speechless and therefore innocuous, or they will be launched into expressing something somewhere (always a win for any project of public communication). The only people who won't be scandalized by such ridiculously bad "optics" across such long texts will be, by definition, above-average in discernment and conscientiousness.

Compare this devilish rhetorical strategy to all of the public intellectuals today who seek to criticize overly sensitive outrage tripwires, such as the Intellectual Dark Web clique. These folks dedicate the utmost care and attention to not tripping the trip-wires they are criticizing: such souls continue to be surprised and saddened when they realize they've accidentally tripped one, probably because its threshold was turned down a notch since they last checked. Go directly to jail. Do not collect $200 for your impeccable commitment to not breaking any rules whatsoever. Contemporary, mainstream public intellectual life is like a large forest with so many open bear traps scattered everywhere, that you can't tip-toe around one without hitting another.

People such as Moldbug — and Nick Land, too — seem to grasp the underlying, actually operative rule of what is and is not acceptable to express: 'thou shall not approach what is unacceptable.' Intuiting the long-run equilibrium of such a rule, and realizing that for any seriously thinking person it would be worse than death, they choose to run, jump, and do a big ol' somersault right into the center of the biggest bear traps they can find. It turns out these bear traps have a weird design flaw, in which they fail to kill large bipeds who land on them with sufficient force.

#1 - Aria Alamalhodaei

Aria Alamalhodaei works on art history and sells groceries for a wage. Her writing has appeared in the journal History of Photography and online outlets such as Blind Field. Her website is alamalhodaei.tumblr.com. (Aria is also my spouse, which is probably the main reason she agreed to humor me for this first test run.)

Also thanks and credit to Aria for making the cover art for this podcast. 🙂

Notes

Why I'm starting this podcast.

How we're so cool and smart.

Are Jay-Z and Beyonce actual lovers or just a corporate ruse?

Can jet fuel melt steel beams?

If you're cool or interesting and want to be on the podcast, or know someone who might want to be on the podcast, please hit me up. Or if you just want to tell me what you think about this podcast or anything else in the future, it's my goal to actively respond and sincerely engage with people who are interested in all the things I am thinking about. 🙂

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