2022 Year in Review
Reflecting on accelerationism and beard growth
Happy New Years Eve, dear reader.
I was in San Francisco recently, for the first time in a while, and was fortunate to get a chance to reconnect with some old friends (sorry if I missed you, I’m still trying to figure out how to optimize the whole I’m-in-town-for-a-few-days-lets-all-do-coffee calendar invite).
We spoke about a lot of topics, as you’re want to do when catching up, but I was struck by how often we returned, independently, to a disconcerting feeling of uncertainty about the future. This frequently came up when discussing ChatGPT - which had just been released - but also in the context of other developments in tech and just a general sense of the world at large.
To steal a phrase one friend used, up until now he’s had some sense of what the future could hold, but trying to think about what his career and life will look like five years from now is like ‘staring into a mass of gray fog’. Another used the phrase ‘no firm place to stand’.
I spent the last day rereading my notes and newsletters from 2022 and that theme of trying to get oriented to acceleration is definitely present, and one of the recurring themes personally for my 2022. I think there’s a reason so many of my links were to cool-yet-maybe-worrying tech developments; yes, they are cool, that’s reason enough, but also subconsciously I’ve felt like if I can just read all the things I can about a paper or world event, I’ll somehow be able to surf the wave and not get thrown under it.
Accelerationism is, well, seems hard to define, but in my personal dictionary it’s labeled as 90% internet meme, 10% revolutionarists-of-all-political-stripes philosophy. It embraces accelerating tech, market, and societal trends to intensify the instabilities of the status quo, and reveal the ways in which it’s not working. When collapse inevitably happens, use the future moments of crisis as opportunities to enact better systems.
I, personally, am opposed to this (please, hold your applause). Like everyone I think the political system, and to a certain extent society, is pretty busted right now, but I’m not optimistic about crisis based reform. It seems like those are as equally likely to be bad as good, maybe more likely since it’s rare for people to be calm, collective, and deliberative when their world is (gosh I hope metaphorically) on fire. Radical breaks from history can sometimes look like the Napoleonic reforms that dramatically increased economic growth and legal equality in 19th century France; it can also look like Communists sending everyone who wears glasses into the countryside for re-eduction.
But, say what you will about the tenents of accelerationism, at least it’s an ethos. I worry that alternatives look like nothing; floundering.
I think it’s important we develop new institutions and cultures that can handle future shock. I’m more optimistic about ones that are developed iteratively and through slow deliberation and experimentation. Doing this gradually helps people and groups digest ideas over time, and develop a shared orientation on how to process, assign meaning, and take action on new events. Maybe you still need a crisis for the old ideas to be discarded, but you want your new systems to have been proven to work and have humane values at their core before they get adopted.
For all my talk, it’s been pretty hard for me to nail down what I or we can actually do. Like, yes, we could all join a rad-trad commune in the mountains - which look sounds cool enough that if 10% of newsletter subscribers respond in the affirmative I think we all have to do it - but I’m looking for some more practical ‘seeds’ that can germinate into positive outcomes.
My current best guess for a practical, personal strategy we as individuals and small groups can adopt to help one another orient to the future is to build networked shared collective context.
An initial inspirations for writing this newsletter - 2.5 years ago now! heck yeah! - was the idea of Digital Gardens. It’s an orientation towards online work that is less about constant publishing of new content, and more about tending your knowledge garden. Slowly growing it over time, cultivating it through interconnected links, and sharing it gracefully.
In this way you build a body and corpus of knowledge, with context intact. Instead of isolated posts and new links, everything is building on each other in a way that allows you and others to inhabit the fullness of it.
I like this a lot, for a couple of reasons.
First, it’s an implicit rejection of the constant focus on ‘new. It’s (deliberately?) disorienting to constantly be in reaction mode, trying to take in a constant stream of new events. The memory lifespan of new shocking events is 72 hours; after that we forget it ever happened. It’s impossible to take concerted directed action to affect the world when you’re constantly reorienting.
Grounded context, to me, looks like choosing to selectively ignore new events, or rather, being able to discard certain new pieces of information that are clearly not value add, or just not in your area of interest. A garden doesn’t need to be a forest containing everything, welcoming everything. Selectivity is part of it.
Second, it emphasizes connection. One of the biggest things I’ve come to understand over the past… decade? is how much of my personal ability to reason and think about things is tied to my friends and communities. For instance I feel like I was able to navigate COVID in large part through talking to people I know, thinking about how they were thinking about things, and building a ‘community map’. That ability to create joint maps is a product of deep context - you have to be able to speak the same language and gesture at the same ideas in order to work together.
Finally, it’s a tractable personal call to action. Certain strategies for trying to improve institutions and society require a billion dollars and crazy 4d chess skills. Others look more like tending your garden, creating good foundations for you and others to take positive expected value actions on the world. This is in the latter category. Working to build collective context on particular topics is something anyone can do, which makes it both deeply democratic and accessible. I’m presenting this idea through the lens of a digital garden, but the north star is really talking and sharing with others holistic models of the world in addition to ideas, news stories, and gossip.
So that’s one of my goals for 2023. On the margin more synthesis and context-building, a bit less new-for-news sake. Connected ideas over scattered thoughts. Throw new character points into wisdom first, that kinda thing. And hopefully, over the next year, develop more ideas on what ‘building collective context’ in these times actually means in practice.
If I do it right, the Newsletter should reflect that. If I do it wrong, it won’t reflect that, and we’ll never speak of this again.
Ironically, after praising the value of knowledge that is presented with context, I will now list a bunch of context-free ideas, beliefs, and observations from 2022. In my defense, these came from reviewing my journal entries; I’m not sure yet how to share personal context and private observations in a way that feels good and right - add it to the research agenda I suppose.
22 lessons from 2022 I'm hoping to bring with me into 2023
Counter-party risk - the risk another person might not hold up their end of a deal - is everywhere. Quick execution of trades and clear defined handoffs minimize aspects of it, but you can’t avoid all of it, which is where it’s good to be robust to random shocks.
If you feel stressed and like you can't prioritize, spend twenty minutes cleaning and organizing your physical space.
Minoxidil is great for beard growth. The FDA doesn’t allow Rogaine to advertise for beard growth because they hate cool guys with respectable length beards.
There's value to operating in secret, but for the most part you should try and be open and transparent about what you're doing, and should lean (probably more than you're comfortable with) into expanding your public presence, to increase the chances of fortuitous connection.
Taoism is a great philosophy for navigating turbulent times. It’s like Stoicism, but has more of an emphasis on engaging with feelings and emotions and letting them orient you to true things.
Meat-and-potatoes rationality: Do basic reflection before a task or project, ask yourself what’s the most important part, what could go wrong, and who should you ask for advice, and then when the project is done look back at how you did and what to do better next time. This has been the greatest driver of personal growth vis a vis work.
Coherent Extrapolated Virtue Ethics: Would the best version of the best person I know do this? If not, maybe rethink it?
The value of groups and orgs is often to take some of the weight off your decision making, so if you have a hard choice you can rely upon the moral framework and support of the group to make a choice. Group think, where no one person is taking ownership, is the pathological form.
Background aesthetics set the tone and culture for organizations and people. Make your place and your organizational vibe reflect the values you care about.
One way to speed up a tough decision is to allow yourself to mourn, and carve out time at the start to process letting go.
Move from ‘wants’ and not from ‘fears’. If you can’t do that, at least make sure the fear is simple and straightforward.
Documentation in any form is great; it’s going to become even better as the price of good search and automated indexing decrease with better AI. Having ad hoc journal entries now will be more useful a year from now.
You can get better at dancing by asking a friend who is good at dancing to show you how they dance.
Peak happiness is long conversations with friends in pretty places.
Currently I think the key to determining if a side project is a good idea or a distraction is to check if it’s a.) something I genuinely want b.) and aligned with some longer term vision. I’m still pretty uncertain about how to routinely do this.
Operational excellence == integrity, and you can be in the top… 5%? of operators by acting from integrity.
There’s a type of person who is really particular about finding the actual right word to use to describe something, and they’re willing to sit and stay with it as long as necessary until they find the right word or set of words. That kind of mindset seems to be shared by a lot of good writers and thinkers, which is the only reason to forgive them for how annoying this tendency otherwise is.
Memory reconsolidation is an important and natural way the brain works. When your brain keeps bringing up an old memory, embrace it, and replay it as the version of you now.
It won’t be clear until much later - if ever - whether an event was good or bad, so do your best to roll with it. Also known as the parable of the old man losing his horse.
The desire to be in the inner group - the inner ring - of a group, community, or culture is behind a lot of seemingly irrational decisions and interpersonal conflict. I don’t think this can be avoided, but legible standards for “okayness” (if you meet this standard, you are OK and a good person and won’t be excommunicated) are a good place to start.
Living in accordance with your long term beliefs and values is hard, and only maybe worth it, but as a guiding north star it’s still probably the best we’ve got.
If minoxidil doesn’t work, try adding microneedling to enhance the growth factor.
And, in case you were worried, I carried out the annual tradition of burning all our collective regrets in a piñata.
May you have a happy and joyful New Year.
One heuristic: the best ideas tend to be ‘scale-free’ - the core of the idea works whether it’s being put into practice by one person, a thousand, a million, etc. Think globally, act locally, as our GenX forefathers taught.
Though I suspect it’s important to be aware of and appreciate how to build collective context in an internet-native way.
This is a 2023 resolution of mine - in future newsletters I'll try to give more detail on what I'm doing day to day and what my hopes and dreams are. While I’m currently estimating a 22% chance of public shaming, these are the risks we take for connection!
“EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE. THIS NEED IS WHY THEY *CAME*. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET *WILL* LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO *FAILURE* – THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS *OVER*. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE *NEXT* SCENE” — David Mamet
Also: “one of the most interesting ideas at Parc was: every invention has to be engineered for 100 users. So if you do a programming language or a DTP word processor, etc, it has to be documented for and usable by 100 people. If you make a personal computer, you have to be able to make 100 of them. If an Ethernet, it has to connect to 100 devices, etc.” - Alan Kay]
Note that this is in contrast to the popular CBT advice to set up triggers and actions to suppress or move away from the memory. I think you’re better off letting it happen and, in some sense, re-living it as the you today who can do the right thing.
The backstory is, per tradition, we fill out our regrets and put them in a piñata, and then light the piñata on fire. This year, I came to develop a deep emotional connection to the piñata in my journey up the mountain. The regrets were independently, successfully set aflame. The song comes from Better Call Saul, my favorite TV show of the year.