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Month: October 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Tiny Subculture Wars, Part 29348927

Last week Jeremy Southard offered up this prompt in the chat group:

what about gatherings/collectives? The cyberfuture is now! Online or otherwise, more and more groups of diverse people are coming together and sharing their interests in tech, the future, and their own projects. This slack is one of many. There’s local makerspaces (I can submit pics from the one I’m a member of if you’d like), thingiverse, osh park, adafriut, hackaday.io, sparkfun, etc… Then deeper from “just tech” to body mods like the NFC implants and 3d printing limbs like openhandproject.org.

See also: biohack.me and eight zillion subreddits.

In fact, this gathering-of-semi-obscure-enthusiasts phenomenon is the effect of the internet that I am personally most stoked about. I get to fraternize with people who share my niche obsessions, and I don’t even have to leave my house?! Paradise.

It sounds cheesy to say “I just want to make friends!” — and truth be told, I also want to be widely read. However, making friends is a big part of why I go around shouting into the void all the time. It turns out the void has other shouting people in it, and if we’re shouting things that mesh well, we can cluster and shout together.

On the other hand, subcultures breed drama. They’re sort of like small towns. This isn’t unique to the internet at all — join a local punk or anarchist scene and you’ll be awed by the amount of interpersonal conflict — but it’s particularly easy to observe on the internet. Everything is documented in comment sections or Twitter threads or what-have-you. Usually the detritus is messy and hard to follow, but you can piece things together. I enjoy watching drama from the outside, but having it happen to your own community is horrible.

What happens more quickly on the internet than IRL is subculture dilution. Anyone can access any information effectively instantaneously, so cultural distribution speeds up. There’s an iconic Meaningness article called “Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution” that outlines some of the problems that inevitably arise. (“Mops” are casual fans.) Anyway:

Fanatics want to share their obsession, and mops initially validate it for them too. However, as mop numbers grow, they become a headache. Fanatics do all the organizational work, initially just on behalf of geeks: out of generosity, and to enjoy a geeky subsociety. They put on events, build websites, tape up publicity fliers, and deal with accountants. Mops just passively soak up the good stuff. You may even have to push them around the floor; they have to be led to the drink. At best you can charge them admission or a subscription fee, but they’ll inevitably argue that this is wrong because capitalism is evil, and also because they forgot their wallet.

Mops also dilute the culture. The New Thing, although attractive, is more intense and weird and complicated than mops would prefer. Their favorite songs are the ones that are least the New Thing, and more like other, popular things. Some creators oblige with less radical, friendlier, simpler creations.

The dilution process is really disappointing to the hardcore fanatics, and the creators have mixed feelings about it. This reminds me of another excellent analysis of subcultures, “Social Gentrification” by Simon Penner:

[T]here’s a class conflict between the people already there and the people coming in. The people coming in are mostly middle- and upper-middle class folks with safe, stable lives, money enough not to be living precariously, etc. (Analogy: the people participating in nerd culture, now that it’s mainstream, always had other communities and social outlets that worked for them.) The people who are already there, on the other hand, have poor, hard lives because life screwed them over (analogy: the existing “real” nerds, for the most part, have suffered serious physical and social bullying that has severely impacted their life for the worse). More importantly, the people who are already there have nowhere else to go; they can’t afford the rising rental prices around here (analogy: the “real” nerds, being social outcasts, don’t have any other social communities they’re welcome in). […]

The end result is that every time I find a community or activity I like and enjoy, and try to get involved in it, it inevitably gets yanked away from me once people figure out that it’s cool.

Penner goes on to say, “I know two people who would have killed themselves if they didn’t have 4chan as a social support network (which sounds insane to everyone who hasn’t been a /b/tard, and obvious to all who have).”

I don’t think there’s any obvious solution to this problem of “social gentrification” — there might not be any solution as all, since people getting more empathetic in aggregate is a development I have doubts about. I dunno, what do you think? (Just reply to this email.)


The header image is a screenshot by ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓.

A Grand Theory of Cyberpunk

Today I’m supposed to disseminate my steadfastly cyberpunk take on empires. Conveniently, today is also the pub date for my Ribbonfarm guest essay, “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” — it lays out the philosophy that I’ve been developing via Exolymph for almost a year. Unsurprisingly, that philosophy has plenty to do with government. A taste:

Protesters’ advantage is their ability to take over the news cycle, simultaneously in every part of a given country, because the internet means information travels instantaneously. Many of us have smartphones that ding us every time something new develops. “Did you see… ?!”

But the police and other fiat institutions have the same advantage they’ve always had — the ability to lock people up, sometimes justified but often not. What’s new to the law enforcement arsenal is being able to sort and target high-impact targets at scale. […]

Cyberpunk highlights the power of vigilante hackers, sure, but it also points to the power of institutions, whether stultified or moving fast and breaking things. The balance between these two types of entities is what’s fascinating and crucial to watch.

So go read that! I’m quite happy about how it turned out, but I’m also very interested in your feedback. (As always!)


Header photo by Spencer.

Absolute Worstest Worst?

So today the task I’ve assigned myself is talking about the worst case scenario for modern empires. Luckily the heat death of the universe will come for the human race eventually, but maybe we’ll be wiped out by global warming before then?

Or knocked back to medieval levels of civilizational development. But wait, maybe first the Zika virus will spread everywhere! (By the way, read Spillover. Your paranoia levels will shoot up.) All kinds of exciting possibilities!

Arcology. Artwork by Robin Weatherall.

Artwork by Robin Weatherall.

In the near-term, I think it would be pretty bad for basically the whole globe if Donald Trump won the US election, but not as catastrophic as the Twitterati sometimes makes it out to be.

For someone who often shares links with captions along the lines of “I CAN’T BELIEVE HOW DYSTOPIAN THIS IS”, I have little to say about worst-case scenarios. Truthfully, I’m an optimist. My views roughly conform to the Exponent podcast’s latest episode.

I think the internet will have a positive long-term effect. But yes, of course, settling into the next economic paradigm will be painful.

“[I]t is important to understand that technology always is situated and gets developed within a particular set of political and economic institutions — institutions that from time to time must be reconfigured in order for a country’s political economy to be able to maximize the productivity benefits of emergent technology platforms.” — Nils Gilman

I mean, really, just go read Gilman’s essay.

Hinting at Globalism

In response to my floundering last week, reader Michael Dempsey suggested:

I think that you could take a look at a weekly concept and go deeper as to the best case, worst case, and cyberpunk outcomes in each. Would allow you to avoid constant negativity while also writing about how our future very well could splinter based on outcomes.

And reader Jan Renner suggested:

Several millennia in the past Europe was the cradle of innovation and cultural development. In my opinion this came to be by chance, since the climate was always very balmy in middle Europe, which made survival much easier compared to other parts of the world. Alongside with some easy to domesticate animals this gave early Europeans a lot of free time for thinking, innovating and developing in all areas of life. This resulted in rich kingdoms and such, which lead to colonization of most of the world, which lead to various other things in turn.

So, I don’t agree with this entirely. Europe and its offspring did end up being globally dominant — see Guns, Germs, and Steel plus current American hegemony — but European empires weren’t the first of their kind and there were other large-scale powers concurrently. Many scientific and cultural advances originated elsewhere before being coopted by Europeans. That said, Renner is broadly correct. (This isn’t a reflection of the quality of European people, but rather luck and first conditions snowballing into surprising end results.)

Tying the two suggestions together, this week I’m going to look at the best case, worst case, and cyberpunk case of today’s empires. I am definitely coming at this from an American perspective, since that’s where I live and what I know best. YMMV.

Image via Salon; originator of the ~cyber~ edit unknown. This is Frank Underwood from House of Cards, played by Kevin Spacey.

Image via Salon; originator of the ~cyber~ edit unknown. This is Frank Underwood from House of Cards, played by Kevin Spacey.

Let’s start the week on an optimistic note, eh? I actually think we’re pretty darn close to an optimal setup, assuming we can keep multinational trade deals intact. That may reflect my cynicism re: what the best-case scenario can be.

On a macro level, political outcomes are largely important to the extent that they affect economic outcomes, and I expect Hillary Clinton (the overwhelmingly likely winner, but please still vote) to be pretty pro-trade, whatever her stump-speech rhetoric. She’s a neoliberal and from what the disgusted leftists tell me, neoliberals like free markets.

The great thing about trade is that it’s win-win for the parties who are directly involved. From Nick Szabo’s long essay about the origins of money:

Because individuals, clans, and tribes all vary in their preferences, vary in their ability to satisfy these preferences, and vary in the beliefs they have about these skills and preferences and the objects that are consequent of them, there are always gains to be made from trade. Whether the costs of making these trades — transaction costs — are low enough to make the trades worthwhile is another matter.

One of the useful effects of the internet is pushing transaction costs lower and lower. Transaction costs are intimately tied to distribution, of both goods and ideas. The internet has “disrupted” the geography-bound analogue world in which distribution was slow and full of gatekeepers. We all bounce together so much more often now.

The unfortunate things about trade are 1) environmental externalities and 2) HR externalities.

Manufacturing wreaks a lot of environmental havoc that the perpetrating companies are never held accountable for, often in countries with nonfunctional governments. (Think mineral mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) And then from the human resources perspective, a corporation moving to [insert country with lower labor costs] is good for both the corporation and the workers in the place they relocate to. But it’s hard for the place they relocate from, at least in the short term.

I don’t see a quick solution to either of these problems. We need strong governments so that we can pressure large companies not to do the heinous things that they love to do absent regulation, and we need free trade to fully express comparative advantage.

What’s really missing is easy movement of labor — if individual humans were able to migrate at will, they could go to wherever the jobs were until we reached a supply-and-demand equilibrium.

I said a few paragraph ago, “political outcomes are largely important to the extent that they affect economic outcomes” — this is an example. A pro-immigration, not-explicitly-racist president is crucial because that kind of executive may ease restrictions on workers’ ability to relocate according to their financial prospects.

Does all of that make sense? Am I too callous, zooming out to focus on economics?


Reader JM Porup disagrees with me re: multinational trade deals. He previously wrote an article about his thoughts on the matter, which you should read if you’re interested!

Ready for Your Perfect New Digital Life?

For those of you who aren’t familiar, ClickHole is a parody of the cliché parts of BuzzFeed and all those vapid quiz sites that people love on Facebook. It’s owned by The Onion.

ClickHole publishes gems like a guide to arguing online — “Find out what kind of spider your opponent is most scared of, and mention it in your argument to throw them off their game” — and the touching saga, “This Man Lost His Entire Memory. Can You Explain To Him What Leather Is?” (Spoiler alert: JKJK, I can’t bear to spoil it.)

I’m sharing this “Clickventure” today because of the golden future it allows you to enter:

Unlike real life, which is plagued with wars, battles, and violent fighting between armies, life inside a hard drive can be customized to be blissful. No longer will there be poor people or hungry people — in the Singularity, everyone will be happy. The best part is that nothing will ever, ever go wrong, because the people who invented the Singularity ran a Norton AntiVirus trial on it and no viruses came back.

I’m so stoked for computers to solve all our problems! Thanks, free Norton AntiVirus trial!

Yes, that Ask.com toolbar is permanently installed on your vision. The default mental search engine is both Yahoo! and Bing — your memories will only be queried if no online answer can be found. I’m sorry, you’re asking about configuration? The options menu? I’m afraid I don’t understand.

Playin’ as PewDiePie

YouTube star PewDiePie, who vlogs about video games, launched a mobile game called Tuber Simulator, in which the player roleplays as a professional YouTuber. Gita Jackson writes:

Because of the way these mechanics work, the life of a Tuber (as presented in-game) is less about being passionate and following your dreams than endlessly churning out content and doing what’s popular.

Well, yeah. Welcome to the working world. Art (to use the term loosely) is very rarely about just doing what you love, unless you’re content to have a day job at the same time. And now playing games is sometimes about mimicking someone else’s day job!

I wonder if Tuber Simulator would be fun for a professional YouTuber to play? It amazes me that we’ve gotten to the point where digital careers are legitimate enough to imitate. I guess I would enjoy trying Freelance Writer Simulator. Maybe I would be better at the game version of my own job! Would that be heartening or depressing? (Ugh, don’t answer.)

I want to quote something I mentioned when I wrote about Game Dev Tycoon:

In his book Play Money, journalist and MMORPG expert Julian Dibbell talks about this trend — the convergence of work and play — in what you might call “post-developed” countries. He hypothesizes that it’s a condition of late capitalism. When your daily tasks consist of manipulating symbols on a computer screen, the content of work starts to closely resemble the content of recreation. Or vice versa?

Just for fun, in the “cheerfully unhinged” category, this was the first review forTuber Simulator when I looked at the App Store page:

screenshot of a Tuber Simulator review on the App Store

WALLS! BATHROOMS! NO MORE SQUARE ROOMS! KITCHENS! LIFE!

Luckily No One Else Knows What They’re Doing Either

When I first launched this cyberpunk newsletter, I think my desire was to be a weirder version of Ben Thompson’s Stratechery. I usually describe him as a tech-biz analyst, but it’s probably more accurate to say he’s a business futurist. Thompson looks at the trends embodied by companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, then extrapolates where they might take us in five years, ten years, or twenty years.

I wanted to do the same thing but with a focus on sociocultural power dynamics. Of course that includes a heavy dose of economics, but it also encompasses government, day-to-day oddities, the nouveau riche — all sorts of bits and pieces. I’ve dabbled in micro-fiction (and to be honest it seems like many of you would prefer if the main thrust of this newsletter were fiction).

I knew from the outset that there was no way I could write even 500 words every time, so I let myself keep it short and tried to have that be a feature rather than a bug. Exolymph is morning-cup-of-coffee length and that’s the intended use-case. I chose a pulpy sci-fi name because I wanted to evoke the classical cyberpunk aesthetic, which I also try to maintain with the images I choose to accompany my words.

I’ve been surprised and delighted by how many people are interested in this area of exploration. 596 readers is not a lot in the grand scheme of the internet, but it’s more people than have ever consistently paid attention to me before. I think this is mostly a product of the zeitgeist, especially in the US — life feels increasingly dystopian and it helps to marvel at that. Okay, “marvel” isn’t quite the right word. Maybe “gawk” fits better.

Exolymph will be coming up on a year in December, and I wonder if I’ve said everything that I want to say. Currently I’m working on a longer essay for another outlet that will lay out my Grand Theory of Cyberpunk, and maybe that would be a natural closing point.

On the other hand, the cyberpunkness of our world keeps intensifying. (Cyberpunkitude?) I like pointing that out. But I’m not sure that I’m adding anything intellectually anymore.

What do you think? Any ideas for how I could change things up? Comment below or tweet at me or whatever.


Header image by Candace Nast.

Uninformation Campaigns

So, this is fun! A black-hat “reputation management” firm seems to be filing illegitimate lawsuits in order to get judgments that will force Google to take down unflattering search results. The case-by-case details are worth reading, but here’s a taste of what Washington Post reporters Eugene Volokh and Paul Alan concluded:

Google and various other Internet platforms have a policy: They won’t take down material (or, in Google’s case, remove it from Google indexes) just because someone says it’s defamatory. […] But if they see a court order that declares that some material is defamatory, they tend to take down or deindex the material, relying on the court’s decision. […]

Who is behind these cases? For many of these, we don’t know. As we mentioned, many of the plaintiffs might well not have known what was happening. They might have hired a reputation management company, expecting it to get the negative posts removed legitimately (e.g., through a legitimate libel lawsuit, or through negotiation with the actual authors).

(Bold in original. Story via @counternotions on Twitter.)

Mostly I find this amusing, but I also feel a touch uneasy. For one thing, the courts appear to have verified nothing. So this is a case of slimy lawyers tricking the state into suppressing free speech, solely because their clients paid them to. The state went along with it happily (except for one skeptical judge). Systems that only work when everyone acts in good faith… well, those systems are easy to break.

You can argue that Google is not the government and it’s not a legal free speech issue for them to exclude whatever they see fit from their search results. And to be honest, I don’t know where the official line falls. But I do think it’s notable that Google is only deindexing this material because a government entity has instructed them to, however indirectly.

I guess that wouldn’t be a problem if the court were acting competently?


In other news, some modern humans find themselves in this situation: “Still haven’t had a first cup of tea this morning, debugging the kettle and now iWifi base-station has reset. Boiling water in saucepan now.”


Header image by Sean MacEntee.

Filters or Madness with Your Entree, Sir?

Sending this Exolymph dispatch from my phone because I’m super 2016 like that 😬 lol millennials amirite ✌️️

@sargoth / Johanna Drott quote.

@sargoth / Johanna Drott quote.

So. I watched the second presidential debate. My head is full of that tonight. But don’t worry, international readers, this is not about the *content* of US politics.

We watched Trump and Clinton trade barbs. Everyone around me was upset — both IRL viewers in the same room and a substantial portion of my online companions (who were present via Twitter and the #democracy channel of the Cyberpunk Futurism chat group).

Maybe my reaction to the whole rigmarole is blasé because I’m far too jaded now. Maybe it’s because I’m still certain that my preferred candidate will win. It’s certainly not that I don’t care!

For me, functioning on a day-to-day basis requires filters of the kind mentioned in the @sargoth / Johanna Drott quote I opened with. Sustaining my baseline of mental health through election season might require heavy-duty filters. Perhaps my brain set them up instinctively and tags everything election-related as memes.