Create small batch, artisanal knowledge
trustworthy content, locally made, right here in your social network
I wrote in my end of year newsletter that I think a good strategy for being the change you want to see in the world is to grow and tend your digital garden. I want to expand on that by discussing the value of creating content for small groups of friends and communities as opposed to the wider world, and why this will become more valuable in the next few years.
An earlier version of this essay had a lot of throat clearing and context setting about the coming wave of AI generated text - luckily, a lot of other people have been writing on the same topic. From Maggie Appleton:
Humans who want to engage in informal, unoptimised, personal interactions have to hide in closed spaces like invite-only Slack channels, Discord groups, email newsletters, small-scale blogs, and digital gardens. Or make themselves illegible and algorithmically incoherent in public venues.
That dark forest is about to expand. Large Language Models (LLMs) that can instantly generate coherent swaths of human-like text have just joined the party.
The surest sign of a market for lemons is when everything for sale is garbage, and nobody has an incentive to put something up for sale that's not garbage, because they have no way to credibly signal their offerings aren't garbage, too.
To a certain extent this has already been happening to many parts of our great global telecommunications network. For instance, when was the last time you answered a phone call from an unknown number at a time you weren't expecting a call? Back in the early 1990's it would never occur to me not to answer the phone, even though caller ID had yet to be invented, because 90% of the time it was a genuine human being someone in my family knew personally.
Kevin Munger (note the date):
GPT-3 is a communication revolution that threatens to eliminate the possibility of information about the original human intentionality behind a given text post.
The general point that they all touch on is that the introduction of these tools is accelerating the disruption of the general market of information; the proliferation of AI generated text makes it harder to trust what you’re reading.
Not only do the tools for text generation make it more likely you’re reading a bot than a human, but the traditional markers of ‘correctness’ are disappearing.
When it comes to the written word, the markers of ‘good thinking’ are costly and expensive. It’s actually really hard to write well and in a way that signals ‘sophistication’ and ‘belonging’. On a personal level I can attest that the main skill I learned in the first several years of corporate work was how to send a good email - it’s actually really hard!
Now though the costs of faking the qualities of good writing, including the totems and shibboleths of belonging to a particular groups has decreased and will trend to zero. For example, Marc Andreesen has been having fun demonstrating just how imitable mainstream opeds are.
It’s not hard to imagine a GPT plus a human in the loop workflow that gets replaced over the next two years by strictly AI generated work. It’s a sharp decrease in the cost of imitating signals of trustworthiness, and will drive it towards something like the quintessential ‘lemon market’ - you can’t suss out quality, so market transactions - in this case adopting new ideas - don’t happen.1
Given the increasing fracturing and demise of the global market of information, I think we should retvrn to privileging our local networks. Friends, family, contacts we know personally or that are nearby us in the global network graph.
I’m calling it artisanal knowledge, because a.) I like pretentious words like artisanal and b.) it’s local and derived from personal work. Think globally, read locally.
Examples of artisanal info shared by friends in the past 24 hours that I’ve appreciated:
A recommendation of a place they went to dinner.
A new video game they liked.
A supplement stack thats working for them.
These are great! Even when I don’t care about the specific info, on some level I appreciate them for building up the web of info and ideas that I can tap into from a place of trust.
Other key attributes of good artisanal knowledge is that tends to be:
Contextful: It’s rare that a friend shares information completely removed from the ongoing thread of our relationship - the choice of what to share, and how and when it’s shared, comes from that longterm shared context. That can’t be replicated, and it enhances the value of what is shared.
Motivated by love: a fundamental reason I’m interested in what my friends have to say is that I don’t think they are getting paid or have a malicious agenda in sharing it with me. Vast majority of the time it seems to be shared by a desire to help, an authentic impulse to share something cool, etc. In a world increasingly populated by intelligences, I want to be interacting with ones aligned with my values and who want the best for me.
Artisanal knowledge production declined as part of a secular trend of media technologies because often the people in our network don’t have the ‘best takes’ as measure strictly on the singular dimension of VIRALITY. But, as the rise of AI induces a breakdown of the global information market, we’ll get better returns from less efficient but more robust forms of localism.
Importantly, the tools that are breaking down the global networks are likely to empower local ones. As mentioned, writing is hard, sharing info is hard. The decrease in cost to generating media will also empower individuals who are not professional media generators, so it will be easy for local networks to create more content, and they won’t suffer from the same 'am I reading a person or a machine disguised as a person’ that the big players will.2
I feel self-conscious even writing this, because there’s a way in which it’s *very obvious* - “yes you should talk to your friends and share ideas”. But look, it’s surprisingly radical in an age of fact checkers and trust the science to suggest privileging local info over ‘approved’ sources. Many headlines push a narrative that whats app groups are sources of disinformation, people are spreading conspiracy theories on podcasts, etc. Even when institutions aren’t viewing it with suspicion, they primarily see these networks as a source of fuel - “make sure to talk to your friends so that they go out and vote!”/ “get five dollars off if you share this with five people”.
So, you're a really important part of this great big knowledge ecosystem, your friends are counting on you to learn and know and share stuff to help them navigate the world, and it’s now particularly important to practice the high virtue of empiricism and go out and figure things out in the world on your own.
If you encounter this in the internet wild, and don’t know me, don’t know the tribe I hail from, please take this essay to heart, and be skeptical of what I’ve written and my advice that you take it to heart.
In some ways this is a new form of the general problem of spam. I bet you’ve noticed Google search results getting worse: currently the pro-tip is to prepend reddit to your search queries (“best TV reddit”, “good recommendations for home dinner reddit”) because at least then you’ll tend to get something written earnestly by a person and not by a marketing agency trying to get you to buy a product.
There are other trust problems - the classic example of the friend from HS that won’t stop posting terrible takes on Facebook. The short answer is artisanal knowledge should be good for first person testing and finding out, a longer answer can’t fit in the margins and will take another post.