State of the Studio 2023
Annual roundup. 50% better than all the other roundups
You know that horror movie trope where the monster/serial killer/evil doll seems to have been defeated in the end and the protagonists are relaxing and celebrating, and BAM! it comes back to life and takes one last victim?
Annual roundups are kinda like that. A horror movie pile-up of zombie lists of mostly forgettable writing that keeps gaining momentum until Christmas Eve, at which point it seems to stop. And then BAM! Somebody messes with you by dumping an annual roundup in your inbox during what ought to be a quiet, roundup-free holiday week, when you thought it was all over.
A couple of editorial notes before we get into it.
This newsletter is primarily a set of serialized projects, ranging in coherence from book projects you should read beginning to cursor, to loosely themed randomly accessible essay sequences. You can always find the current list of projects on the right sidebar of the main home page. But I also do stand-alone essays.
There were 45 newsletter issues this year, of which 16 were stand-alone, and 29 were part of serialized projects. In 2022 (see 2022 roundup), the numbers were 48, 15, and 33. Pretty steady, huh?
If you want to introduce other people to this newsletter, this would be a good issue to forward. By way of introduction, if you don’t know who I am, you can get the basic dossier at venkateshrao.com.
For those who came in late, this newsletter is an offshoot of an ancient (founded in 2007) WordPress blog with a separate, elderly track of writing on it, Ribbonfarm. It has its own (free, auto-generated from RSS) email list. You’ll find a broader roundup of my extended universe activities there.
On to the 2023 roundup.
Protocol Narratives was a new series for the year, and there are 15 entries in it. It sort of forks off from my Great Weirding series (which saw no action this year) via a lighthouse essay defining the concept of the Permaweird properly (and trash-talking competing WRONG notions like the polycrisis). It really came into its own with the essay Disturbed Realities which introduced my personal favorite new framework among the ones I’ve invented in recent years, the Labatutian-Lovecraftian-Ballardian historical cycle. A rough theoretical scaffolding emerged with Never-Ending Stories. While the series was loosely inspired by my ongoing work running the Summer of Protocols program, from a personal perspective, it is best understood as a major fork of my writing on time and narrative in the Clockless Clock project. I will probably merge a compressed version of the ideas in this thread into that book project somehow. I think I’ll probably be able to put a bow on this after a couple more essays, and merge the ideas in some form into other things.
Mediocre Computing, the series I started late last year aiming for a conceptually integrated thread on four computing frontiers (AI, crypto, robotics, metaverse), mostly got pwned by AI this year, but I’m very happy with the essays that landed here. I added 6 new essays to it, and 2 new research notes. My personal favorite was Oozy Intelligence in Slow Time, which I think establishes the ontological foundations I want to build on (ooze!), but the popular favorite appears to have been A Camera, Not an Engine, which establishes what I think is an effective reframe of what AI is, in relation to the popular but wrong-headed frames of today — as a discovery rather than an invention, with intelligence being a property of data rather than a processing mode. A research note, Boundary Intelligence, which lightly repackages an old twitter thread, is likely going to be my starting point in 2024 for continuing this thread. There was one non-AI technology essay, Magic, Mundanity and Deep Protocolization, that kept the broader focus alive, and provided a bridge to the Protocol Narratives series. I think, in 2024, I’m going to try and weave the four strands together properly and unify the roots somehow, but grand unification may be premature to attempt. We’ll see.
The Clockless Clock, my ambitious book project, is apparently too ambitious. I added only two research note to it, History After History and Thick Time (also included in Protocol Narratives) and made no progress on the main text. I have a cunning plan to refactor it next year for more rapid progress.
Other incomplete serial projects saw no progress at all in 2023: The Great Weirding (a history of 2016-20), After Westphalia (longue durée history of the future), and Graph Minds Notebook (on human hive-mind type cognition). In one way that’s good I guess, since I was focused on moving just 2 threads forward, and galloped along on those. But in another way, I kinda don’t like it. I don’t like to have my attention cornered by too few things. Especially too few new things. We’ll see where we go with these next year.
This year, I think a sort of meta-structure of cross-linking among the serialized projects started to emerge, and I took a stab at mapping it out earlier, but got distracted. I’ll probably do that in 2024. I want to do this via posts that are crossovers in 2 or more series (Thick Time is an example of this pattern). The result skein-like structure should be interesting. I want to keep the writing here mostly flowing in serialized ways, but a few weak ties between small idea worlds should be helpful.
As always, there are some nascent themes that emerge in stand-alone essays, and I have to decide whether or not to reify them into explicit serialized projects. One I’ve decided not to reify is a bunch of posts that I wrote about newer developments in the culture wars (marked below). Elements of the ideas there may get absorbed into the After Westphalia series as grist for the longue durée mill. I also had 2 vaguely climate-themed posts that may or may not turn into a project. I’m thinking not. I don’t have a worthwhile novel hook into the topic as yet.
The one significant stand-alone essay, and my favorite, was Truth in Inconvenience (#14 below), parts of which probably belong in both Protocol Narratives and Mediocre Computing. But the main point of that essay is to situate zeitgeisty things, including protocols and AI, in the post-ZIRP socio-economic context.
Here’s the list, with quick notes.
We Just Have to Set Up the Planetary Dev Environment: Year-end reflection.
In Search of Hardness: Retrospective on my Summer of Protocols work.
The War of Incredulous Stares (culture war)
Istanbul Diary: Trip report from DevConnect plus broad and lazy historical musings.
A Tale of Two Cycle Memes (culture war)
A Whole New Cope (culture war)
Sweating Solarpunk: Trip report from Singapore plus more lazy historical musings.
My Climate Posture: A rather pedestrian but surprisingly popular post that a lot of people seemed to appreciate for some reason.
The Titan Affair: Remember the submarine that sank? I had Thoughts.
Book Review: Slouching Towards Utopia: What it says. A review of’s book.
The Priest in the Arena (culture war)
Silicon Valley Generation Shift: What it says.
The Bones of Time: A preview of the Summer of Protocols. Pair with In Search of Hardness, and read the Protocol Narratives series if you’re interested in my personal (non-managerial) takeaways from it.
Truth in Inconvenience: Probably the lighthouse post of the year for me personally.
Economic Reveries: More opening throat-clearing for the year.
Contours of Thawing Time: Vibe-setting and throat-clearing for the year.
That’s it for 2023. Let me know what you thought of this year’s essay harvest. See you next week to kick off the New Year.