State of the Studio 2022
Annual roundup. 50% better than all the other roundups
I’m very pleased with how the Ribbonfarm Studio newsletter has evolved this year. Two years in, I think it has finally found its groove, shed its past,1 settled into a steady rhythm, and established a coherent and stable relationship with my older WordPress blog, Ribbonfarm. I’ll be posting the annual roundup for the blog next week, but if you’re unaware of its existence, and interested, you can go explore it starting with the For New Readers page. It has its own (free, auto-generated from RSS) email list.
I now have a much clearer idea of what this Substack newsletter is, why I am writing it, and how. I might say more about all that in a future issue, but this issue is the dreaded round-up issue. Round-ups are generally the boring 1-person self-Oscars of writing online, primarily intended for the writers themselves, but I think this one will actually be useful to you, the reader. Especially newer readers who might not have the context of my older stuff.
Since there’s been a sharp jump in the number of subscribers in the last few months (due I think to the Muskening of Twitter, Substack network effects, and my own cunning paywall shennanigans), I figure it’s a good time to both properly (re)introduce myself and this newsletter. If you signed up randomly for this newsletter, or were forwarded this issue, you can get the basic dossier at venkateshrao.com.
If you’ve been meaning to introduce someone to this newsletter, this might be a good issue to forward.
This round-up is structured somewhat differently from what you may be used to, since this newsletter is built around a portfolio of longer serialized projects, which mostly go on for longer than a year. Let me say a few words about that.
How this Newsletter Works
Newsletter issues either advance an ongoing serialized project (which get written over months to years), or are one-offs that may or may not coalesce into serialized projects in the future.
Each serialized project has a home page (you can find them all in the right sidebar of the main page), featuring a main sequence of essays and some side quests indexed as research notes. Some also feature prequels — essays that predate the series and have been retconned into it. I generally have to explore topics somewhat unconsciously over a few essays before I realize there’s a longer project there. Serialized projects emerge when I “pave the cowpaths” of emergent themes.
For those of you who also read my blog, this serialized project model is a lot more structured and planned than the blogchains I write there, which are much more freestyle/improv threads. Here, I usually have a specific arc in mind that I want to explore, some sense of how long the project is going to be, and a vague idea of how I want to carve it up into essay-sized chunks.
In 2022, I had 48 newsletter issues, of which 33 were part of various serialized projects, and 15 were one-offs (and I see a couple of potential series themes bubbling up in them).
But before we get into it, heads up on a new feature. I’ve signed up for the beta of a community chat feature Substack is piloting. Paid subscribers can start threads, all can participate (as far as I know). More details at the bottom, after the round-up.
Now for the round-up, serialized projects first, one-offs second.
I currently have 5 active series going, and 1 completed one. They range in coherence from rough working-in-public notes to a polished book project. In terms of length, they will all probably range from novella length (~20k words) to fat book (~80k words) by the time I’m done with them all. So this is basically a portfolio of book-length projects evolving in parallel. I think my bandwidth for active projects is probably 5-6, so the portfolio is kinda full right now, and I probably should not start new projects until I finish a couple of old ones.
Each of these projects is also a long now project, in the sense that each is situated (and repeatedly re-situated as I write) in current events. But thematically, each also spans a longer period centered on the present. These longer periods range from decades to centuries, with the exact duration being a function of the time constants of the topic.
Here are brief introductions to the projects, with notes on 2022 developments.
On Lore: This is a finished (for now) 7-part series about a school of management and organizational thinking that’s emerging primarily around crypto technologies. It should be of interest even if you don’t care about crypto or even if you are hostile to it. I started and finished it this year, setting a personal record for project speed. It was a quick, high-tempo series written in a single continuous 7-week sprint between March 11 and April 23. The dates are significant because it coincided with the most recent peak of exuberance in the space. After the crash in May, as broader interest dissipated and the dirty laundry part of the cycle kicked in, discourse in the space turned from exploration and expansion to consolidation and retreat. But looking back, the ideas are holding up surprisingly well through the troubled times. Lorecraft-based management is steadily plowing along through this crypto winter, and I think the next time we circle back to this topic, we will see not just a wave of intellectual expansion, but a winter-hardened and experience-backed deeper understanding of what we’ve already learned.
Graph Minds Notebook: Also new this year, and now standing at 8 parts, mostly written in a single sprint. This series explores the phenomenology of large, networked groups of humans, with and without computers in the mix. I call them graph minds to distinguish my specific models from looser related notions like hive minds, Gaias, Borgs, and egregores. This is probably the second-hardest topic I’m trying to explore in this newsletter, but also the one where I’ve set the lowest standards for myself: merely a working-in-public notebook. The state is rather messy right now, so I need to do something of a clean-up and recap before proceeding, especially since there’s now an adjacent newer series about…
…Mediocre Computing: The newest formal series (2 parts in), but pretty old in terms of the prequel material (10 prequel essays) I’ve retconned into it. This includes really old (like decade-old) material from the Ribbonfarm blog. The goal here is to explore the ongoing convergence of frontiers of computing, in particular AI and crypto, from an opinionated perspective rooted in the premise that mediocrity is the governing vibe, design sensibility, and phenomenological core of what is going on. This series is probably the most contrarian uphill battle I’m fighting. Not only are are many people skeptical about there being any fundamental convergence potential here, but there is also an active culture war going on, with AI and crypto being the Capulets and Montagues of my proposed Romeo and Juliet story. And it doesn’t help that I’m blundering in at a time when one side is at a cyclical bottom (crypto) and another is luxuriating in a triumphant cyclical peak (AI). But we’re interested in the long now here in this newsletter, not just a season. Both AI and crypto are rapidly developing frontiers, with at least a decade each of exploration completed, and at least a decade of rapid developments left in each. There are many more peaks and troughs left to navigate in each story. And the case for mediocre computing looks a lot more interesting over a 10-year horizon, as robots and metaverses join the party.
The Clockless Clock: This is a proper serialized book project, currently 5 chapters and 5 research notes in. The book is about a theory of time I call multitemporality, and a perspective on the changing nature of time in our time, due to the shift from industrial to post-industrial temporalities (confusing, I know). The project was mostly on the backburner this year, and I only added a couple of research notes to it. It’s probably both the deepest topic I’m working on, and the oldest, since it is a follow-on to my book Tempo (2011), which itself came out of my postdoc work (2004-06) that predates even the Ribbonfarm blog (2007). It’s also the topic where I probably set myself the highest standards of thoroughness, which means it’s slow going. I think, because of the sheer difficulty of this project, every other project in this newsletter could be regarded as a kind of displacement or support activity. When I don’t feel up to the challenge of working on this project, I work on one of the others. If and when I finish the book, this newsletter will probably have an existential crisis, since it kinda exists for me to finish it. Fortunately, it looks like that will be a while. But I’ll target at least a couple of new chapters in 2023.
The Great Weirding: This is the muddiest, most current-events based project, even though it’s a history project: a close-to-events account and theory of what the hell happened to the world in 2016-2020, a period that begins with the death of Harambe and concludes with the start of the pandemic (and with it, the start of what I dub the Permaweird). What makes this project so hard is that this is very live, unsettled history, with very little consensus about the meaning of it all. Every few months, some new development changes the meaning of the Weirding. Beyond some broad agreement that the death of Harambe and the start of the pandemic are convenient bookend events, there is no settled consensus about anything else. I didn’t touch the series in 2022, but I hope to wrap it up in 2023, since there’s only 2.5 essays left to go in my planned 6 (each essay is multi-part though, so the 6 essays will probably end up spanning a total of about 12 newsletter issues by the time I’m done).
After Westphalia: This is thematically the longest-scope of the projects in the portfolio, in the sense that the subject matter spans almost a millennium: the present ± 450 years. From the Peace of Westphalia (1648) to whenever all this shit we’re talking about today—from city states and network states to Neal Stephensonian Diamond Age stuff and Mad Max apocalypses—works itself out. Which I expect will be around 2548. This one is slow going (I haven’t added to it since 2020), but on the plus side, I don’t expect the state of the play to evolve particularly fast, even though we do seem to be going through a period of particularly rapid evolution. Perhaps even a phase-transition from Westphalian to post-Westphalian regimes. There are 2 completed essays, 1 research note, and notes for 3-4 more essays. I have a particular throughline I’m pursuing, having to do with the evolution of the notion of a “public” through this 900 year period, and it is one that is oddly sensitive to current events. For example, the role of Twitter in the story of the evolution of the public now needs some rewriting.
I had 15 newsletter issues that don’t fit into any series (not a bad record — it means I got distracted from series work by shiny new themes only 15 times). Some show signs of gelling into future serialized projects. We’ll see.
Derangements: The first essay of the year looked at the phenomenology (epidemiology? symptomatology?) of “derangement syndromes” drawing inspiration from the Wordle craze that was peaking around then, and Hercule Poirot’s peculiar (for English-speakers) use of the word “derangement.”
Theory-Shaped Debris: This essay looks at the weird phenomenon of pseudo-theoretical rubble littering public discourses, and explores a speculative model of how it works, and why we consume it.
Teeth and Identity: A short piece, randomly riffing off an Elias Canetti idea from Crowds and Power. I’m not quite sure if or how it fits into any larger theme, but the idea has been stuck in mind for a while.
Transaction-Cost Utopias Reconsidered: An assessment on Coasean/transaction-cost economics nearly two decades into our internet-era fascination with it. In particular, arguing that the idealistic visions attached to the theory 15 or so years ago haven’t quite panned out.
Ozymandias Problems: Essay inspired by seeing too many Neom ads, and resulting thought-trail on charismatic Big Man types trying to cement their legacies in history. There’s a definite thread of anti-Big-Man theorizing emerging in this newsletter, that’s somewhat entangled with the Silicon Valley vibe shift line of thought. Not sure I want to make a serialized project out of it though.
Getting to Gnome Mode: Taking note of the goblin mode meme from earlier in the year, and its less well-known antithesis, gnome mode, and thinking about the end of Covid in those terms.
Memiads: An essay on mental hyperobjects inspired by Stephen Wolfram’s concept of the Ruliad. Considered alongside the Derangements essay, and the new mediocre computing series, this feels like the germ of a series on stuff like puzzles, automata theory, and other such nerdy matters, but set within a larger cultural context than is typical for such topics. We’ll see.
The End of Alpha: An attempt to reframe Francis Fukuyama’s End of History theory as an End of Alpha hypothesis, understood in terms of the growing difficulty of telling ourselves stories based on Great Man hero’s journeys.
Globalism 2.0, Service Pack 3: An essay about how we seem to be in an over-extended era of globalization that’s clearly past its sell-by date, because nothing better has come along to replace it.
The One Trading System: A skeptical view of glib post-neoliberal visions of getting away from the current China-centric global supply chain, and arguing that the real scale of the challenge involved is far greater, and akin to scripting the next few centuries of global history. Written at Changi airport.
Scintillation Points: A little meditation on the point of stimulating in-person gatherings, scenes, and resonance seeking, inspired by my first post-Covid outing to a big conference (Ethereum DevCon in Bogota).
Vivid Abstractions: A defense of “fragile” kinds of abstract thinking, of the sort that has become increasingly deeply unfashionable, thanks in part to the excesses of the TED era, and the increasingly violent attacks on abstract thought by Taleb &co over the last decade.
Silicon Valley Vibe Shift: A broad “take” on the cultural peaking and vibe-shifting of Silicon Valley, written just as the Twitter drama was getting underway, and a broad wave of layoffs and grim developments, reminiscent of the 2000 dotcom crash, kicked off. This may get turned into a new series if I can finish up one of the older ones. Possibly within a broader scope that includes the ideas in the Ozymandias Problems essay.
The Muskening, Part 1 and Part 2: A two-part limited series on events at Twitter, and my own decision to disengage. If I end up making a series out of the Silicon Valley Vibe Shift, this will end up as part of it.
Two Black Holes: A weird reflection on the year, that I don’t quite know what to make of myself. Clumsily exploring the sense of the year as being dominated by reruns from a black-hole like zeitgeist zone trapped by history, and unable to get beyond it.
That’s it for the round-up. I hope you enjoyed at least some of it, and are following 1-2 of the serialized projects. Let me know what you think. Speaking of which…
Substack is rolling out a richer chat feature attached to publications. You’ll need to download their reader app to use it. I previously kicked the tires of the chat feature, and some of you participated in the tire-kicking, but they’ve aiming to level it up a bit.
Previously, only I could start threads, now all paid subscribers can (and I think all subscribers, paid or not, can participate). If you are a paid subscriber but don’t see the “Start a Thread” button, you may need to update your app.
If interesting conversations ensue, and the moderation burden is not too high, I’ll keep it going. This is primarily for you guys to talk to each other, not to me or even about me/my writing (the comments section is good enough for that).
So content-wise, no particular constraints. Talk about whatever you want (but keep it PG-13 please). Obviously, topics related to this newsletter are more likely to spark conversations, but I don’t have an “off topic” filter idea, at least not yet. So have at it.
The only rule is — don’t make me make a rule. Email me if you see bad behavior, since I won’t be monitoring the chat very closely.
With that, I wish you all Happy Holidays. I’ll be taking next Friday off, so we’ll kick off the New Year with the January 6th issue.