Intro. [Recording date: September 13, 2019.]
Russ Roberts: Today is September, 13 2019 and my guest is writer and management consultant, Venkatesh Rao, founder and Editor-in-Chief of Ribbonfarm. Our topic for today is a piece from his newsletter about the seductive nature of our devices and social media and it is called "Against Waldenponding." "Against Waldenponding." Venkat, welcome to EconTalk.
Venkatesh Rao: Great to be here, Russ. Thanks for having me on.
Russ Roberts: So what do you mean by Waldenponding? Which is a phrase--I don't think it's going to catch on, but I loved it.
Venkatesh Rao: I don't know about that. I think it's already caught on, at least in my circles. I did a little Twitter poll and one-third of the people in my feed had heard of it from me, but a bunch of people had heard it not from me. So that's a good measure of inception[?] and the zeitgeist. But yeah, it started, like most things do with me these days--I don't know--a gentle insult to troll some of my friends in tech who I think act a little too, I don't know, solemn, [?self-?] serious about the threat of digital devices hacking our brains. So it started out as an insult. Then I did a little Twitter thread on it and realized I meant it more seriously than I was admitting to myself. Then it turned into a newsletter. Then I did another for part two. And since then I've been sort of exploring the concept all over the place in Twitter and other places.
So the basic idea is: You've got this trend of people advocating some sort of retreat from digital media, and of course Waldenponding is a reference to Thoreau's Walden. So, the idea of not necessarily literally retreating to a log cabin in the woods to meditate--though a lot of people actually do some literal version of that--but somewhere on the spectrum of being very online to being completely offline by Waldenpond, any measure of retreat along that axis is what I call Waldenponding. And the pieces I have been sort of developing as sort of a critical pieces advocating against that. There, I argue that Waldenponding is actually a bad thing and it's sort of a misframing of a problem. It's the wrong response to the, whatever is going on there; and there's more effective ways of engaging with digital technology.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I want to read an excerpt from your, I'm going to call it an essay. It's a set of bullet points really. A numbered set of points that tie together. But you say "The crude caricature"--you're talking about Waldenponding:
The crude caricature is "smash your smart phone and go live in a log cabin to reclaim your attention and your life from being hacked by evil social media platforms." It is less of a caricature than you might think. At an event I was just at, the opening keynote featured a guy who's literally done just that, and I know at least half a dozen people who have executed a Hard Waldenponding plan with varying degrees of literal fidelity. A great many more have implemented a sort of Soft Waldenponding, marked by digital retreat (aided by various amputation tools that sever or loosen your connection to digital prosthetics), but no log cabin.
So you're not literally against stepping back from some technology sometimes, we should get that straight right from the beginning.
Venkatesh Rao: Yeah, absolutely. So it's almost a critique of what you might say has become a religious doctrine around what's really just a practical matter of, on the one hand engineering design evolution on the part of tech companies, and on the part of users just getting used to a new medium and sort of swinging back and forth on the pendulum a few times before finding sort of a happy medium. And I go back to the history of technologies, and it happens with boring predictability: that you have radio and you have a generation complaining that radio is ruining our brains. You have TV, people complaining that TV is ruining our brains. You have video games, you have same complaints, right?
And it goes back to Plato and Phaedrus and him talking about writing, having the same problem of: you are atrophying your memory by using this weird new medium called writing to preserve your thoughts. So the complaint pattern is not new. Neither is this sort of advocacy of retreat. And it's not that the, those who advocate the retreat are unaware of this long history. So Nick Carr, who I think inaugurated this particular trend of when he wrote The Shallows almost a decade ago, he actually quotes Plato and Phaedrus and says, "All right, still this time it's different. Google is making us stupid." So they're aware of the tradition, but somehow they think it's different this time, which is sort of a common pattern in these things.
So, I would say when you approach this as a practical matter, not as a religious one, it's actually not that hard. It's--there are features available. You can put your phone into dark mode. You can build habits around other information consumption. The diagram I included in my thread has a little turnpike-type visualization of, on the one hand you have the X axis of increasing latency of information consumption. And on the Y axis you have the abstraction with which you consume information. So, you might have something like a book that's written several years after something important has happened. So it's several years lagging. But because it's able to go deep and analyze at higher levels of abstraction, it goes up on the Y axis as well. So that's one extreme.
And on the other extreme, you have a real life sense of what's going on on Twitter today and life sense of sophisticated conversations happening. So it's not all shared posting. So if you're able to go up and down the turnpike to suit your needs, you will sort of meet your informational needs. And I think what ends up happening when these people react against people doing just that, making their own decisions on where to be along that axis and how much attention to allocate on each part, they make the mistake of--I think they make three mistakes. The first is they overestimate their own agency as designers of the mechanisms. So you have, for example, Tristan Harris and Nir Eyal--I don't know how to say his name--but both began their careers as actual designers of web technology--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's, by the way, that's Nir Eyal. And he's coming to EconTalk in a couple months. Carry on.
Venkatesh Rao: Absolutely. You should ask him about this stuff. And I think both are great people, very thoughtful people. They've seen the design side of this stuff. They've actually worked on hacking attention-type technologies with tech companies. And then they've kind of had almost like a finding-religion moment where they've gone to the other side and sort of in their mind recognized sort of the dark side of this technology. And, they're now in this sort of evangelical mode where some of it almost sounds like an AA [Alcoholics Anonymouse] program where it's like you have to admit you're powerless and the godlike technology has hacked your attention and you have to admit that there's a higher power and you're powerless. I get a very AA vibe from it.
And I think so that's one mistake they make. Just because they've been involved in the design of this sort of attention-manipulation technologies, they overestimate the actual importance of that element of the puzzle.
The second thing they do is they underestimate the actual level of agency we, as users, bring to our information consumption choices. And I don't think that they actually stop to think too hard about the, what I think is the null hypothesis here, which is that if I'm spending say 50% of my time shit-posting on Twitter, 30% writing random little threads on newsletters and only say, 5%, working on "big, serious, solemn" papers and books, that's actually an attention allocation I might want. If I'm watching five hours of TV a day, that's an attention allocation I might want. So I think they underestimate the degree to which there is actually conscious agency here and they attribute too much to the evil UI [User Interface] designers.
And the third thing that I think is part of their big mistake is: they don't realize the extent to which the behaviors we are now experimenting with across the board are actually a response to a much bigger thing. Namely, the information environment has in fact radically shifted. So it's not just a matter of like, you know, clever UI designers are designing infinite scrolling, patterns with sub-microsecond insertions into the attention loop. It is actually, genuinely the case that several orders of magnitude more information has come online, and our old ways of processing information that were sort of evolved in scarcity environments, they just don't work anymore. So everything we are trying, from being like, you know, gonzo present in live Twitter feeds all the way to the other end where you retreat to a log cabin and only read ancient Greek classics--this entire spectrum of experimentation represents very useful and important evolutionary adaptations experiments. And you kind of have to let these things run and figure out what works.
Russ Roberts: So, a part of that--let me try to summarize that in some of the ways we've been talking about these topics here recently on EconTalk. So, one issue is this addictive question; and you're suggesting that some of that is overrated in terms of how addictive they can make it. And the second is, we have some control over it obviously. I think the question on that is, is whether we get control of it by taking it off our smartphone--a particular app that we have trouble not going to all the time--versus, say, regulating these companies. And listeners know I'm a big fan of letting cultural response to this happen. And you're making the, I think very relevant, point that this is such an early change, the idea that we're going to just stay as we are in how we interact with this technology is absurd. We're going to change in all kinds of ways and we need some time to do that. I think that's very wise.
The deeper point, of course, also you make is that people enjoy these things. We like these things. It's fun. It's not addiction: that's just a word to vilify it and it's a puritanical concept to make it sound wicked or evil.
The third point, which I would also react to, about longer, deeper dives in deeper ideas: The question is whether that seems to have gotten harder. I know for me, I'm 64 and maybe I'm just getting older, but my ability to sit with a text without interrupting it, with email checking, Twitter checking and other types of distraction seems to have changed. Now, that could be because I haven't reacted correctly or fully to this new information stream. It could be, though, that there is something here to be concerned about. The question is what should we do about that concern?
And I think there's a final point I want to add onto that you make I think is the real, in many ways the punchline: We have this cornucopia, this incredible perfusion of stimulus. Some of it is very superficial and just a little dopamine hit of 'I got another follower.' Some of it as superficial as you point out, because it's gossip about somebody's habits online. They're up there with some shortcoming that people want to wave around. That feels a lot like a waste of time. But, if we're careful, that's not the way we spend most of our time on Twitter. It's not the way we spend most of our time on social media. It's not the way we spend most of our time online. There's such extraordinary riches up and down the line of depth versus superficial, which is one of the ways of thinking of the axis that you're describing.
And it's a glorious time to be alive. You know, I think moaning and complaining about how horrible it is, it's a form of virtue signaling, obviously. It's part of--you allude to that in various point, times in your essay. But I think the right way to think about this is: As individuals, let's make a choice. Here we have this unbelievable menu. Yes, there's some really fattening, unhealthy things down at this part of the buffet. But this other part of the buffett--and some of that's, it's fun. You can have an ice cream cone now and then. You don't want to eat it all day, but the rest of the time, you've got this extraordinary profusion of ideas and opportunities to learn and explore. And just the question is: How do we navigate that?
Venkatesh Rao: So I want to react to a couple of things you said because, the way you framed your response to the trends so far is almost--it's an apologist's mode of--it overemphasizes actually the very criticisms that drive Waldenponding, which I think are actually wrong. So if you actually look at the things they're recommending--so, take for example, academic papers or academic books and I come from the academic world, same as you. I spent several years in my Ph.D. and postdoc research diving into archival journals, technical textbooks. And my background is in mechanical and aerospace engineering. And it might not be as bad as say, social psychology, but honestly, 90% of all papers and technical materials I read was junk. And I hated it.
And my own papers--I'm not going to spend my career as anything great. But I think I was an okay researcher. I got maybe a few citations for the few papers I wrote while I was in academic research. But when I moved over to the blogosphere, it's so much a richer environment, and the conversation gets smarter and better so much faster. So, my best blog posts, they've gotten thousands and thousands of reactions and wonderful conversations have come out that. Things that never happened with my academic work, which kind of languish in obscurity. And most academic work, by the way, deserves to languish in obscurity. You'll see this comment a lot in sort of hard line, 'Twitter is good'-people, which I include myself in. Where you'd say things like, 'That book should be a blog post at best and the heated blog post should just be a Twitter thread.'
And this assessment that we are all coming to in my corner of the discourse is because we're starting to see that the appearance and formal structure of depth does not equal actual depth. So the, what I think of as the traditional literary industrial complex of academia, TED talks, very high gravitas, newspaper op-eds and stuff, it has the form and structure of depth. You look at it and you think, 'Hey, this should be good, deep stuff.' But it's not. I mean, you look at the New York Times op-ed section--it's like warmed over, recycled one-week-late clickbaiting that's actually picking up where Twitter leaves off. And the original conversation on Twitter ends up being, like higher signal, lower noise, more interesting and more current than the NewYork op-ed version of it. You look at half the books that come out--they're the same.
So I want to sort of point that out that so this is not a both sides-ist argument. This is actually a comment on humanity. Humans come in grades of, like, sophistication, shallowness, superficiality of interests, depth of interests. And you will find people in every medium who are going deep and doing, like, profoundly interesting things, exploring information spaces. And you will find 90% of people using whatever form the medium offers to produce honestly, bullshit.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, well--Venkat, I just want to react to that for a sec because I think you're onto something there. The part that--I know you're critiquing my critique a little bit--but, the part I want to really agree with is that a lot of this worry about social media is a form of condescension. It's basically, 'Well, I know how to handle it, of course. I'm sophisticated. I'm deep. I'm thoughtful. It's them, the masses, the rest of the folks. They need help. They need to be controlled because they can't control themselves.' There is a definite paternalism there that I do not like; and I want to make it clear that I don't embrace that.
Venkatesh Rao: Absolutely. There's several dimensions to this. So there's, the one I was going after is almost like foreign structure conflation in understanding media. You're pointing out the sort of elite-versus-commoner relationship of condescension and sort of.
Actually, riffing a little bit more on that, that's been a sort of ongoing theme for about 20 years in conversations about digital media. Right? I mean, you had Surowiecki with his Wisdom of Crowds book. I think that was 2002. So we've been having this conversation for at least a couple of decades, and we now know a lot more. I mean, this is an economics podcast and to a large extent what we're talking about really is in some sense, efficiency and intelligence of information markets. Right? And, 'wisdom of crowds' is a thing. There are times when crowds can act stupid and insane where they uncritically just repeat each other.
But there's other times when crowds are actually constituted of individuals who bring a lot of private knowledge and they're kind of adding a lot of intelligence, and mechanisms sort of coordinate and wire that information together. And a larger emergent intelligence appears.
And we are very familiar with one mechanism by which this happens, namely the economic markets, which is the focus of your world. But I think we are just seeing the emergence of an entirely different mechanism that works on the same principles. And I've written quite a bit about this as well, both in the original thread and in subsequent tweets and newsletters. But I think of this as what I call the graph mind. You can call it the high brain. I also think of it as the global social computer in the cloud.
But, the idea is that this is an extraordinarily powerful computing and intelligence-extracting mechanism that functions something like a market. It's a big distributed computer. But to participate in it, you have to be willing to let your individuality be subsumed in the larger conversation.
So, when you're on Twitter and bantering back and forth with a bunch of other smart people, what you say and what you do and the memes and the clever coinages you come up with--that matters. But who you are doesn't. So this is why one of my metrics of success for myself as a blogger and very online person is, there's nothing better than seeing a meme that you helped create, sort of propagate through the wilderness of social media and nobody knows where it came from. I'm often like really pleased when that happens.
And I've done that a few times. Like one of the coinages I have been credited with is the phrase 'premium mediocre,' which comes from an article I wrote called "The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial." That blog was a viral hit; a lot of people appreciated it. But what I loved even more was: as that idea percolated through the zeitgeist, through the global social computer in the cloud, and I do Twitter searches, a lot of people are now starting to use it in roughly the way I intended in coining it, and have no idea where it came from. And it's lovely. It's like I have added a small, I don't know, a vitamin pill of intelligence to the discourse, and it's hopefully making the competition and processing of information a little bit more efficient. So, my reaction to this is both surprise and delight at being able to do this.
But for a lot of people, the reaction when this happens is utter dismay. They feel they've been appropriated; they feel their best thinking has been diluted and leaked out into the wilderness rather than captured and monetized.
And I think that comes from the sense of what I've been calling 'fear of being ordinary.' So you've got 'fear of missing out,' which is a syndrome we sometimes think of people like myself having, which is we're online all the time and are afraid we'll miss some exciting new thing that happens. But fear of being ordinary is when you let yourself be that online sort of gonzo present in social media, you kind of lose your individuality and you become just part of this computational soup. And great things come out of the computational soup, but chances are you're not going to get what you think of is the appropriate level of credit for that. So Waldenponding in one sense is a retreat to reclaim your individuality.
So, I have been playing around with metaphors like: you're doing an attention stock buyback and shrinking sort of your presence even at the expense of doing less in the world; You claim more credits for what you do in fact do. So there's a fear of being ordinary. You want to live in a domain where you can claim authorial credit--authorship for the ideas you come up with. You want to be a legible part of a tradition you want to associate yourself with. Like, I looked up your work and you're--what is it?--a fourth generation Chicago school economist, right? And that's a well known legible tradition. You can draw genealogy of generations of economists who worked on a set of ideas and you can trace the descent of ideas.
So that's one kind of idea space where you can kind of trace the provenance of ideas. And that's great. And it's a kind of idea space we are very comfortable being in. It has a calculus of merit and credit and appreciation and advancement and rewards. But on the other hand, you have this great new thing coming up. It can compute answers to questions that are much more complex and subtle than we could ever compute with either the academic tradition or the market tradition or the journalistic tradition. And we have to get used to working in that mode. So my reaction to this is delight; but for a lot of people it's fear of being ordinary, fear of sort of having their individuality lost, even if the output is extraordinarily enlightened insights.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, I'll just add a couple things to that. I think that's a very deep thought actually. And I liked--you talked about the essay FOMO and FOBO--Fear of Missing Out and Fear of Being Ordinary. And my first thought was, when I read that was, 'Well, I'm not really afraid of being ordinary. I have my followers on Twitter. They see what I write. My name's attached to it.'
But you're making a deeper point. I want to try to, let me try to expand on it a little bit. So, somebody gave me your name or I saw a reference to something you wrote on Ribbonfarm, maybe two years ago. And I looked at it, and I thought, 'You know, I'm not sure that's going to make a good EconTalk, but I wish it did. It's interesting, but I'm going to leave it alone.' I put it down and I forgot about you. And then, somewhere along the line, somehow--I don't know how--this Waldenponding piece got referenced to me.
I didn't see you in the hall and say, 'What have you written lately?' and you said, 'Oh, You'll like this.' Somehow, and my wife always says, 'How'd you find out about X?' I always say, 'How do I know?' I don't know how to answer that. Twitter, email, suggestions. I get emails from listeners. So, let's pretend somebody actually sent this to me. It's possible. I've forgotten. I haven't keep track of it. So it's a nice idea to say, 'My guest today is Venkatesh Rao and I want to thank so-and-so for suggesting it.' I've forgotten that.
Worse, I have a quote in my Adam Smith book that starts off 'The universe is full of dots.' And I'm not going to quote it verbatim here, but gist of the quote is: the secret is not what you can do by connecting the dots. The real question is why did you leave out all the other dots you could have included? It's a deep and beautiful way to talk about cherry picking. And people think I said that, because it's in my book; it gets quoted on Twitter all the time. I didn't say it. Sam Thomsen, who I don't know; but I like to point it out. Because it's such a wonderful quote, I like to give him credit.
But as you're pointing out now, you can argue that it's really not important who gets the credit. Now, our egos want the credit. And you could argue as an economist--I'm not going to--that by giving credit, we encourage people to look for more ideas. I think that's kind of silly. I don't think that's why we're generating ideas and clever thoughts. Some of it it's ego. Some of it it's just the part of being human and the delight we get in wordplay.
So Waldenponding--I don't think you sat around saying, 'This is going to make me more money. I'm going to get to be on more media and I'm going to be able to charge more when I speak.' You just enjoyed the phrase. You thought of it. It was a moment of eureka.
But the other point I want to make--and I think this, to come back to your, this idea of the fear of being ordinary--I think there's a tribalism and an identity issue here. So, I'm much less of a Chicago economist than I was when I came out of graduate school. I've sort of shucked off some of that identity. It's kind of a, more like my town than where I live now. And I kind of like that. I'm proud of it because it is this heritage and tradition; and I kind of like that I've moved away. I've made my own distance from it. But I have a new identity. I have a new set of clothes, a new set of style.
And I think what you're suggesting is, is that when you we are on the internet, when we're in these social media clouds and soups and stews, and we have all these wonderful words to try to capture this emergent phenomenon called the wisdom of network conversation--when I'm in that, I kind of don't have an identity. And I think that's your point. I don't have that tribal feeling. And I do think--although I could have my tribes within it, of course: I can't help myself there. I tend to find tribes on my social media, and I think that's a human impulse we have. But ultimately, I'm submerged in the tribe. I'm submerged in Twitter.
And what you're suggesting--and I'm going to try it out and see what you think--kind of suggesting: 'Okay, Twitter is--there's some really bad neighborhoods in Twitter. And there's some high rise apartments that look really beautiful, but once you get inside them, they're not so great. But there's also this wonderful back and forth. There's this neighborhood bar, that's virtual, where I can go hang out. And it's--unlike the bar in "Cheers," nobody knows your name. They know it literally because they see what your Twitter handle is. But, you're creating something.'
And I think the idea that that is something noble, that that is something human, that that is something that's actually productive even, is--it's a novel idea. I think most of us think of it as just entertainment. And that's totally wrong. And I think one of your many insights here is that, you're actually participating in something quite grand that you're not even probably aware of, as is true of any emergent phenomena. We always use the ant and the ant colony. The ant knows nothing about the purpose of the ant colony. It just has this very narrow task of, say, dropping pheromones for other ants to follow to the trail of where the food is. They don't realize what the consequences are, don't think about it. So here we are, just kind of fooling around, yelling. Got my megaphone--it's a very small megaphone--on these social media platforms. And, as we all talk together, we create something unique.
So I think it's a really beautiful idea and it's not an easy idea to sell, but I like it. And I think the fear of being ordinary, the FOBO worry, that I'll be submerged in this soup and only be a virtual cog of some sort. is part of what's going on here.
Venkatesh Rao: Yeah, and you're right. It's one of those things that I think a lot of us are realizing at the same time, that there's something much deeper going on.
And I want to sort of go back to a couple of things you said, like, think of the idea of like the dots you didn't connect or the fact that I pegged you as a Chicago school economist and you clarified that you've kind of drifted off that. So a lot of this idea of, like, ego-validating narrative construction that we think of as the history of an intellectual tradition or tradition of ideas--it's pure myth-making. It's just a pretty story we tell ourselves about what actually happened. It's a narrative on top of a lot of phenomenology. And, arguably it's a false sense of sort of historical clarity on top of a tradition that was never not murky. So Twitter has just made it impossible for us to lie about the truth of our intellectual tradition and histories. You might credit one person with sort of taking you down a bunny trail. You don't know about the six other people who are involved in the soup, and you just could not see the soup before. Now you can see the soup. You can see every connection that the soup is making.
So that's one point to keep in mind: that it was always false. It's not that it became false now, but the soup has always been the actual foundation of the discourse.
Another interesting idea is, you've got the famous Harry Truman quote--what is it? --'It's amazing what's possible when you don't care who gets the credit'?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, it's a good example because Harry Truman didn't say that.
Venkatesh Rao: Exactly.
Russ Roberts: It's gets attributed to Ronald Reagan who certainly--if Harry Truman said it, it probably didn't start with Ronald Reagan. Although it's a deep and obvious truth. So it could have been thought of by more than one person.
As far as I know, the first example that I know of the coining[?] is in David McCullough's book on the Panama Canal. The engineer who built the canal said that; and I'm blanking on his name, which is perfect for this conversation, right? I'm not giving him the credit. I'm going to confuse him with the guy who built the Brooklyn Bridge. But the guy who built the Panama Canal, which took an enormous team of human beings in all different capacities said that, I think at least before Harry Truman. Carry on.
Venkatesh Rao: So that's actually a wonderful example, and it's great that it kind of organically emerged in our conversation [?inaudible 00:32:26]. And interestingly, that phenomenon has a name. Have you heard of Stigler's Law of Eponymy?
Russ Roberts: Of course. He was on my--
Venkatesh Rao: He didn't come up with that.
Russ Roberts: He was on my Committee, and I actually--my Ph.D Committee. But it's George Stigler we're talking about. And it's funny that you mention it because it crossed my mind about six minutes ago and I thought, 'Should I bring that up? Nah, I'll leave it alone.' Explain what it is.
Venkatesh Rao: I think it's perfectly pertinent and it's wonderful that Stigler's Law of Eponymy was not actually coined by Stigler. And it's--you see this sort of thing all over the place. Like, these days when I do actually write a serious longer essay or book chapter and I actually do try to go and look for the provenance of various quotes, I'm amazed at how often that I find, like, True Quote Investigator or one of those sites, just how deep the bunny trail behind every false-attributed quote goes. It's like versions and versions and versions and in the end it gets lost in some murky thing 100 years ago. And I love that, because it tells me that books written 50, 60 years ago where you couldn't do this kind of research as easily are likely absolutely chock full of misattribution. So it's like rotten all the way through, the citational sort of web there. So it's kind of good that we're backing off from that.
Russ Roberts: But describe--you say what it is, Stigler's Law of Eponymy. It's: Things named after people weren't discovered by them.
Venkatesh Rao: Exactly. And I wouldn't sort of generalize that to all ideas. So, not just name things like children's or ideas, just in general. Like take Waldenponding. I know I thought of it independently, but I haven't actually done the research to see, like, in the 100-plus years since Thoreau, whether somebody else came up with that kind of satirical [?]--
Russ Roberts: Well, it's also possible that someone else thought of it; you saw it, didn't notice it; and it somehow rose in your brand. That happens to me with other people's work; but it happens to me with my own work. I think of what I think is a novel idea, and I thought of it already, but I forgot about it.
Venkatesh Rao: Yep. So all of this, I think what we're both getting at is the absolute richness of thought and intelligence-mining that can come up if you sort of let your identity, not necessarily be dissolved--it's not like we're all joining Twitter as a cult--but sort of set it on the side. It's not like you're losing your identity. You're just not using it at the moment. And you're diving in. So much is possible. And, when you look at the opposite of vector that a lot of people are encouraging us to go on, which is Waldenponding--which ironically, by the way, the biggest evangelists are former technologists who had a hand in designing that end. And this is like a historical pattern. The biggest evangelist for religion are the ones who left the opposing religion. Right? And it's when you've talked to--
Russ Roberts: Sure. More Catholic than the Pope. That's where it comes--that's what that expression is about. Right? The convert is more Catholic than the Pope. It's a real thing.
Venkatesh Rao: And you see, when you talk to, like, regular people who are not part of the Silicon Valley tech economy like we are, they're actually not as--I don't know--they don't take this as seriously. They're just rolling with it and figuring it out as they go along. And most of them are doing a reasonably good job.
Now, this doesn't mean there aren't elements of what they're doing that aren't valuable. I do think, whereas the overall shaming campaign of shaming the tech companies into like broad manifesto-ish stuff that's, like, not helpful. There may be specific ideas of, 'All right, turn off this dark pattern; have this ability to clear dark mode.'
All those are maybe good, but I do want to point out one exception to this general critique, which is: when you have these large, bottom-up platforms of, like, participatory conversations, and something like national cybersecurity agency with like very trained operatives gets in and they are running the equal end of information special ops and misinformation campaigns and things like that, that's something that you do have to kind of take seriously and as a special case of what's happening.
So, hacking of election discourses and things like that is what I'm getting at. So there, yeah. But that's a very special case and that's not something the general Waldenponding, [?] retreat, works on. But the reason I'm bringing that up is if you look at this conversation we've been having it for about 15, 20 years--Nick Carr, Cal Newport on Deep Work, all that stuff. But it got particularly acute in the last three or four years for a couple of unrelated reasons. One is, you've got all this political-grade [?] and just the general PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] of being online at a toxic time. And a lot of that is caused very deliberately by focused bad actors. So, that's one thing that's getting conflated. And the other is that whether it's caused by Russian spies or, you know, generally a lot of toxic baggage being aired, part of the retreat is a pattern of healing rather than actual adaptation to a new information environment. And this, I think, is actually a legitimate thing. So, if you are, say, in, particularly in the politics part of Twitter and you're a good fit and you've been enjoying being part of the big soup computer since before 2016, but in 2016, it just got a little too toxic and you retreated--I think that's a good thing. That's a kind of information-processing hygiene that we all have to develop. We have to learn to retreat when the psychological stress is too much and then go back in when we've kind of recovered and healed a bit. So, managing your sort of emotional reactions to the discourse is actually important.
But this again I would argue is just more intense and democratic right now. But it's always been the case. Like you could have been in an academic seminar 30 years ago where a rude older faculty member sort of said something rude and you had to go away and go on a vacation to recover from the trauma, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. You got beat up. Yeah.
Venkatesh Rao: It's a learning process.
Russ Roberts: I want to give an example of that. And then I want to challenge your--might want to draw the boundary in a different place. So, I'm pretty active on Twitter. Sometimes I worry I'm too active. I do think if I'm not careful, I'm down in the bottom left-hand corner of your diagram on small-minded things--it's more like gossip rather than the deep exchange of ideas. And I recently--it's just it's bizarre, but it took me this long to have this cultural response--I recently started blocking people. And I feel bad--which is funny. Somebody comes online, who follows me on Twitter, somebody tweets; they are nasty. Potentially sometimes antisemitic. They are, at a minimum, rude. And the thing they do that starts to bother me so much that I now put it in my profile on Twitter is: they assume the worst about me and don't bother finding out what I actually think or say.
Russ Roberts: And I just block them. I want to say it's in my profile: I say I now block people who do that. And at first, I thought, like, 'It makes me comfortable.' But what it's really like is a guy is, you're out in your yard and a guy comes down the street, his windows are down in his car and he yells some antisemitic or grotesque insult to you. And it's one thing to say, 'Well, just don't listen to it.' But that's hard to do. It's really hard to do. It's much better just to say, 'I'm going to go inside now. I'm not going to let this guy bug me. I'm not going to let him get at me.' And so now I just block him; and it's fantastic. It is a way to cope with this emotional part of this that I think we're really unprepared for it.
The other example, the other metaphor I like for this--and you can steal this, thank God, and use it in your own: pretend you thought of it--is, to me, Twitter is like somebody putting a bumper sticker on my car. Right? I'm driving down the street. All of a sudden somebody slaps a bumper sticker on my car about my identity or myself. And it's like, 'No, no, no. I get to decide what bumper sticker goes on my car.' And I think that's the dark side of Twitter. And I just block people who put bumper stickers on my car that aren't really describing what kind of person I am. Okay. So, you want to say something: Go ahead.
Venkatesh Rao: Oh, yeah: I think that's a very important point. And I actually made this point in a couple of newsletters ago: that social media has an addictive bias. You're encouraged to acquire followers, post more and more. And it has very few subtracting mechanisms like blocking and muting. And the ones that we do have are primitive and kind of a nuclear option.
So, I would actually state your point in an even stronger form. I also initially did not like blocking because it seemed uncivil; and I think I had the wrong calibration of what civility is. But I've since gone beyond like just blocking rude people or people who are just very objectionably ideologically too far from me, and simply blocking anybody with whom I have too much problem just getting through and it's simply not worth the trouble.
So, I love Jeff Bezos's line that Amazon is willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time. So, I adopt that attitude in my role in places like Twitter, which is: I am willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time. I'm part of some very productive social media, hive-mind competitions, and that I like and I want to be there and I want to be part of that conversation. But other conversations, things I might say very casually and quickly without, like, trying to be very clearly understood by people who don't know me, I am going to be misunderstood. And I'm okay with that. And quite often there's going to be an asymmetry on the part of my relationship with people who I end up confusing. So, I might have very little interest in making sure somebody else understands me correctly, but they might have a very intense interest in making sure they understand me correctly.
And often they get annoyingly, almost jokingly, where they're like constantly dogging me to self-clarify, add detail. And I'm like, 'Sorry, this is not a useful part of a conversation for me and I'm not doing.' So, this is like a market. It's ultimately selfish individual motives. 'I'm not being altruistic here. I'm participating in conversations that are productive for me as well. And if it's not, and you're being a little too annoying, I'm going to mute or block you.' So I've done that multiple times and I become very liberal with that and it's almost become like, it's not a personal thing any more. And most of my blocks and mutes are in fact not about civility at all any more. I would say eight out of 10 of them are, 'You're just being annoying. The conversational gap between our respective computational processes in this global social computer are just too far apart. Let's not bother. It's just not worth trying to cross-pollinate intelligence across these two conversations.'
So that's my reaction. But another sort of related phenomenon I want to point out is, I think of the most productive conversations in places like Twitter as ones that are not tribal. That don't degenerate into tribal derping. So, for me it's like confirmation and disconfirmation are the two least useful things to do on Twitter. The most useful thing is to actually find a new dimension and vector of a conversation that's neither confirmatory nor dis-confirmatory. And a lot of people don't like that. They are in such strong, you know, beef-only mode or psychology or are constantly beefing along tribal lines, all they're interested in is confirmation and dis-confirmation. And that's just not interesting because it's a kind of computation that can be run on, like, the New York Times op-ed section. It's a primitive kind of discourse. I'm just not interested. I'm interested in the more sophisticated discourses that Twitter is capable of.
Russ Roberts: What we need is a website where there would be a microphone; you would say something like 'I like mushroom pizza,' and there would be an enormous roar of like a football stadium size crowd. You know, so that you can get fix of ego and tribal sentiment. You could have different kinds. When you say, 'I don't like so-and-so,' some political figure, the crowd would not just roar, but angrily roar and sound violent. Anyway.
Venkatesh Rao: I think you describe Instagram.
Russ Roberts: Instagram. I'm not much of an Instagrammer, so I can't fully respond to that.
Russ Roberts: I want to ask you a different question. I think there are two places where I disagree with you in a more fundamental way. And I'll let you react to this. So the first one is, we've never met. You and I have never met. I have an instinctive liking for you based on the way you write and your flamboyant style. The fact that you have all kinds of insights--some of which I don't understand, by the way. Which is fun. That's a plus. That's feature, not a bug. Right? So I've read a few of your pieces before and I like them a lot. So we could imagine in the old days you'd have an article in a magazine, and I would enjoy that, and I would write you a letter. And I would say, 'Dear Mr. Rao, I really enjoyed your piece on Waldenponding. I found it very thoughtful.'
And then I might say something like, 'I wrote a piece that's related to that you might enjoy, if your library has it, blah blah blah.' So that's a 1950s, 1970s interaction. And you'd get that letter to be fun. My father used to write poets and other people, other authors whose work he liked, and they would often write back. Here's a letter from Robert Penn Warren, which shocked me that Robert Penn Warren bothered to respond to my dad--who's in a different part in the soup. But he had time and was either flattered or thought it was important--for whatever reason he responded. It was really sweet. So that's the old style.
Now, today, you and I could have a Twitter friendship. We could go back and forth on Twitter. We haven't, I don't think, much. I did just before an hour or two before the conversation: I tweeted an article about Thoreau and Walden that you, I saw you liked that. I thought, 'That's nice. He's paying attention. That's good. And maybe he'll read it before we do this interview. It's by Kathryn Schulz--and if we don't get to talk about it, we'll put a link up to it--where she explains Thoreau is a wicked and despicable person and a hypocrite. And the whole Waldenponding thing is nonsense.' But it's a great piece, by the way. Very thoughtful and entertaining and written with great, fervent style as Kathryn Schulz often does. So I just mentioned that in passing
But, we could've responded. Instead of having you on EconTalk, we could have gone back and forth on Twitter. But now we got to a new level. We're having an actual conversation, audio. We video-Skyped for a minute when we started this and we could see each other.
And then the fourth level--this is what I want to focus on. The next level would be, the next time I'm in Seattle or you're in the Washington D.C. area, we could sit down and have coffee, and that would be kind of fun just to see each other face to face. But the real, I think the more important thing would be if we could have coffee regularly--and I have friends I have coffee with regularly--a different type of conversation emerges. A different type of human experience emerges. Some of it, by the way, is overrated. Some of it is--Tyler Cowen recently defended social media versus parties. Parties are face-to-face but often loud, empty and superficial. And he's got something to say there. But, at the same time, I don't think we want to underrate deep human face-to-face connection. And I do think that the digital revolution has challenged that. And, there is a temptation to stay in my room all day, flicking through Twitter if I'm not careful. So you didn't mention anything like that. Do you want to say anything about that?
Venkatesh Rao: Oh, absolutely. I think that's because you have, most of your life still in traditional institutions. I believe you are at Hoover. So right now, by the way, I'm not in Seattle: I'm in Los Angeles on a fellowship at the Berggruen Institute, but I've spent much of the last 10 years out in the wild, so to speak. And a lot of what you describe, for me it has happened a lot more intensely out here in the social media wild than it ever did in my institutional settings. So, for four years before I became a free agent consultant blogger, so 2006-2011, I was working at Xerox in their research group and I had like hallway interactions. And before that I was in academia for almost a decade, and I would have the same kind of hallway interactions and extended frequent coffee or lunch dates with colleagues and coworkers.
So I had all that. In fact, there used to be a law called the 50-Foot Law, which was most collaboration happens within 50 feet. This is pre-internet. And one of the first things I ever wrote about Twitter, when I first saw Twitter--this was 2007 or 2008, one of my earliest blog posts about Twitter was the 50-Foot Rule has been sort of refactored online, and now your 50-foot zone is actually global. So now you have to reimagine that 50-foot zone as the zone of what you can think of as intimate conversations on Twitter that are likely to escalate into long, extended relationships that will actually get as intimate as physical distance and geography allows. So there are people who've literally gotten married off Twitter. So that's an extreme case.
But yeah, over the last 10, 15 years, when I look back, I started a conference around my blog. I've had a huge number of wonderful friendships and collaborations emerge from it. There's people I meet as regularly as I can. There's Facebook groups, slacks[?], extended email threads, lots of consulting gigs have come out of this. So I would say, for my sort of extra institutional feral lifestyle for the last decade, the kind of things you say are valuable and precious about the old institutional life, I've experienced them about two x, three x more than I ever did in institutional life. So I think the reason people don't realize this is they still have enough invested in the old institutional life that they have no need to kind of develop it in the social media world. And what ends up happening if you're forced to do that is you discover that it's possible to do that stuff in a lot more deep way and a lot more flexible way. And it's only a question of how imaginative you are and how much you actually want it.
Russ Roberts: So I think if Nick Carr--whose book, I apologize to Mr. Carr, I have not read--as you say, I think you alluded to earlier, I think he's the guy who said Google is ruining your brain. And he did have a book called The Shallows. I do remember that. What he might respond--and I'm going to disagree with him after I give his fake response, and then you can see if you agree with either of us. You might say, 'Okay, that's all nice. But the truth is, is that our face-to-face interactions have deteriorated as the internet has arisen because now our attention span is shorter. We might be face to face, but we're more likely to check our phone, respond to a text, flick through Twitter, find it hard to stay focused on a person face to face because I want to get back to my email and back to my Twitterverse.'
And what I'm going to disagree with him, and I'm going to use your metaphor: I think that there's some truth to it, by the way. I don't think it's absurd. I think that it is harder for people to sit still at dinner. And we have a rule in our house: we don't answer the phone or look at our phones during meals. I think those are some good rules. I think that's okay. But I think there's a range of face-to-face, a range of physical interaction. You've inspired me: we'll call it--I'm sure there's a cleverer version--brick and mortaring. As a human, I need to get a pun on 'brick,' like friend and mortaring. We'll figure it out later.
But, I have lots of face-to-face interactions that are superficial and somewhat sterile. And then we have really deep ones. We have really extraordinary connections we make with people online and then also face to face. And I don't think we've lost those. I don't think we've lost the ability to have the deep ones. And it's like your continuum of sort of gossipy superficial conversation down in the left-hand corner, and up in the right-hand corner is a profound exchange of ideas that changes the way you look at the world, that connects you to another human being in a way that creates a great emotional reward and delight.
And I think those, if I could take the most charitable view of the internet, is that--and I can say this as the host of EconTalk--I've met more interesting people in the last 10 years face to face, certainly online, certainly over interviewing people. That's been an amazing gift and privilege to be able to do that. But the face-to-face times that I interact with people are still deeply moving and profound. And as you say, I think you're right. I think I have more of them. I have exposure to more interesting people than I did in a world where I'd have that 50-Foot Rule and only interact with the people on my corridor.
Venkatesh Rao: Absolutely. And I would, again, I seem to be in a pattern of taking your points and refitting them in an even stronger form. But I would say, when you talk about brick and mortaring, look back at the reality of our pre-internet sort of highly brick and mortar social life. And, like Tyler Cowen said, many parties are empty. But I would elaborate on that and say: We remember the interactions that are lovely and wonderful face-to-face interactions, but we kind of block out of our memories the ones that are not. And I remember growing up, so many damn boring visits to my parents' friends, ceremonial culture of norms. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. We used to live in a culture of norms where there was an expectation of sort of polite participation in vast hours, countless hours of like really boring, tedious face time. And I hated it.
And one of the most wonderful things that has happened as a result of the internet is that those online internet norms of 'If I'm bored, I'm going to leave,' they're actually percolating into meatspace. And the way that's happening is--for example, this became the Law of Two Feet in what used to be called open space technology and then became BarCamps. Where, when you do an unconference, you don't have the old academic conference approach of, just because of a respected elder professor is doing the keynote, you're sort of forced to sit, stay in the room, and pay attention even though bored out of your mind. You should leave. So modern unconferences have the internet-like Law of Two Feet, which is: If you're not actually interested in the conversation, if the person is boring, you get up and leave. Do something better with your time.
And I like that that norm is shifting in a more online way. I think Nir Eyal in his book, one of his points--I'm still looking through it--he talks about, I think he calls it a phubber or something. So somebody who is, like, snubbing you with a phone at dinner. So you're at dinner and apparently you're boring your dinner partner. So that person pulls out their phone and starts checking email at the slightest interruption. Right? So that's phone snubbing, or phubbing, as he calls it. But look at what that signifies. It tells you that you're in a fundamentally boring conversation you don't want to be in.
And though the sort of actual behavior may be obnoxious, of pulling out your phone and actually checking out literally, wouldn't it be so much nicer to not have that lunch meeting at all and to be able on Twitter to actually triage that and say, 'All right, it's been fun chatting with you for three minutes on Twitter, but I'm going to say no to coffee with you because you're probably going to bore me and I'm going to end up checking my phone. So let's not go there and insult and snub each other.' Right?
So, I love that that has now become a possibility and we're able to make our more intimate, deeper exchanges more high yielding. More of them are meaningful ,and the ones that are meaningful are more meaningful. Right?
And this is actually probably the biggest meta-critique I have with Waldenponding, which is it fetishizes an old style brick and mortar--and it's actually, by the way, that's actually as perverse a kind of attention hacking as the social media platforms do to you. So the social media platforms might be throwing clickbait at you and dragging you to useless articles you don't want. But equally there's all these sort of evangelists of Waldenponding who are hacking your attention with, like, ritual descriptions of 'Oh, what game nights! Wonderful world campfire lights, wonderful world, like family dinners, wonderful.' And they try to suck you back into that world and you realize that, 'You know what? That's romanticizing the past. And it never actually was that great. And I hate this freaking game night I've been sucked into.'
Russ Roberts: That's awesome. Now, you remind me of my dad who often when he would, we would describe a dinner party, he would often say, 'Nyeah, I wish I'd been upstairs with my book.' It was gauche in the 1950s and the 1960s or '70s or '80s to take out a book in the middle of a conversation. But there were times when my dad would just say, 'I need to go lay down.' And he'd go upstairs and just read his book. Sometimes in the middle of a social gathering. Which had some kind of influence on me, I'm sure.
The other thing that I have to point out, Venkat, which is unbelievably great, is that about four minutes ago you said the word 'meatspace,' didn't you?
Venkatesh Rao: Yup.
Russ Roberts: That is a phrase I use all the time or used to use as an example of a word that did not catch on. I use language as an example often as an emergent phenomenon, which I think I probably stole from either Hayak or Thomas Sowell. I think both used it. I probably thought I thought of it. Maybe I did, maybe I didn't. But language is emergent. 'Waldenponding' is a beautiful thing. It may catch on. If it does, it will be only because of--really, what we would call--Word of Mouth. People saying it, or sometimes writing it.
And other phrases die out. I use the word 'behoove.' Every once in a while, 'behoove,' you'll hear it. But it's in trouble. 'Behoove' is not doing well. 'Eleemosynary,' which is a word I heard come out of Milton Friedman's mouth a number of times--it just means charitable. It still is used in legal documents having to do with donations and other things I think, and use of property. But 'eleemosynary' is dying out. 'Behoove' is dying out.
And I said, 'google' is--it's here. Nobody decided 'google' should be a verb, but it's unstoppable. Google tried to, in early days I think, keep people from using it as a verb. But now everyone uses: to search on the internet, to google. And then I'd use as an example 'meatspace' as a word that didn't catch on it. It's an example of brick and mortar. It means, as opposed to virtual space or cyberspace, there's meatspace. I think we need Meetspace, 'M-E-E-T.' That would be this friendship thing. Or maybe it's Meatface, 'M-E-A-T-F-A-C-E'. I'm still trying. It's hard to do. It's hard to create a phrase that catches on.
Venkatesh Rao: And you have to recalibrate your target. Like, one of the reasons I don't bother with assessments like it's catching on or not catching on is: we no longer have a canonical, mainstream discourse where that phrase even make sense--
Russ Roberts: Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary. Whether it makes it in there or not, it's not important.
Venkatesh Rao: Oh, okay. It's not important. It's not important by the Walter Cronkite uses it in his 19[?90?] broadcasts. If it's a useful term in the particular subculture where global social computer computation is going on and it does a useful job there, then it's a good thing.
So 'meatspace,' you might say it's not caught on at a fairly mainstream level of mass media, newspapers, and television. But it's a completely common usage in the subcultures I run around in online, and it's a wonderful and useful word to use there, and that's all I need from it. I'm fine with it being just a conversation, context-specific term and I'm actually, like I said, not just happy to be misunderstood. I'm happy for a lot of the conversations I'm interested in being really obscure to the mainstream because that does not mean they don't produce value for the people participating in them or second-order value beyond. So it actually doesn't matter whether those things catch on so long as they actually make computation more efficient.
Russ Roberts: I like how you point out that there's an ironic use of the trademark symbol, TM. So you could start putting, when you use the phrase Waldenponding, you might put TM in there. But everyone knows that's a joke. It doesn't mean that we have to get your permission to use it or we need to pay you a royalty or anything.
But let me try a different tack on a disagreement. And this one, I think, I feel a little stronger about, although I like how I'm getting sucked into romanticizing the digital world as a way of justifying my mindless use of Twitter and other places. But this is about, I would say, transcendence. There are a couple of places in your essay where you make, mock, literally not just as a metaphor, the idea of being a monk. The idea of abandoning this world and isolating yourself for a religious motive and say, contemplating a candle or whatever. And you use that as an example. And I'm sympathetic to part of that. I do think if all you do is look at a candle, you've kind of failed as a human being, even if you get really good at looking at a candle. Because you've failed to transform the world, and, I think, be fully expressive of what makes you human. So, I'm with you on that.
Where I want to disagree, or at least here your reaction is this idea of transcendence. In my experience, the world of--the frenetic world of social media--the pace is exhilarating at times; and it's also a little bit degrading. It also does tend to turn me into a bit of a Skinnerian rat, hitting the lever for the immediate return of something that produces pleasure.
And I don't want to be a rat. I forgot who said it--I've already forgotten: Nobody wins the rat race. I don't want to pursue just what gives me pleasure or what gives me ego satisfaction. I don't even want to just be happy being in the soup, the quantum soup you've been talking about. Sometimes I want to get in touch with something greater than myself, something larger. There's some dangerous aspects to that, potentially. We understand that in the tribal world, there can be beautiful things about it when it's done well. But I do worry sometimes that the frantic pace of the internet and change, and the information fire hose that I drink from and which I love drinking from, that sometimes that makes it harder for me to get in touch with things that I would call transcendent. Without trying to put that into more detail yet, react to that. 1:04:18
Venkatesh Rao: I think--I don't think we disagree on this. So, the sort of joke about making fun of very naive, monastic reactions to the world at large--so, not just the internet, I mean this is a long-running conversation in mystic traditions and meditative practice traditions of: is it better to retreat to the mountains, to a beautiful monastery and meditate for 10 years and achieve enlightenment? Or is that in some sense--
Russ Roberts: Or say cure cancer in the lab.
Venkatesh Rao: Yeah. Or any of those sort of deep-retreat modes. Or is it, in some sense, a flawed accomplishment because you've retreated from the world to achieve it and it is too fragile to actually bring back to the world? So, in mystic traditions, often you have tropes about drunken masters and enlightened figures who come back to the city and live as, you know, beggars and crazy people in the city. But they are actually wise behind their appearances.
So this is a not a new question. It's been addressed in different ways. So I would say, on the one hand: yeah, anything that requires deep, specialized attention, you should give it deep, specialized attention. If there's only three other people in the world who understand some obscure mathematics theorem that needs to be solved, then those three people are maybe the only people you need to talk to for 10 years in order to go somewhere. And pick the medium appropriate to that.
So there is an element of, 'Pick the medium appropriate to where your attention is going and very aware of where your meditative transcendence is taking you.'
So that part, I have no per-thought[?] quarrel that I think that's the smart thing to do. But when you first step back from those kinds of specialized things where you have to kind of do a specialized form of retreat and talk about more general things of, from broader salience to a lot of people--like, say, thousands rather than tens--then you have to ask, all right, you're doing the sort of Skinnerian lab thing where you're in a stimulus response loop at the lowest of Twitter level of the conversation. And perhaps a part of you is saying, 'All right, maybe I should retreat from this and write a deeper paper after reading and thinking a lot more.'
So, I like to think of those within a market metaphor of: Your attention is a sort of asset you want to allocate, and you allocate it according to the intelligence you have available.
So, if you have found now[?] found like a hot stock that you know to some reliable means is going to population, maybe you should invest in that individual stock. If you don't know any better, you should go invest in an index fund. Right? So that's kind of conventional investing wisdom; and you translate it to attention allocation, you reach the same kinds of conclusions. Which is, if I'm not actually obsessed with a clear mathematics-prize-level problem and I'm not one of the appropriate people to be solving that, then I don't need that kind of attention management and allocation in, like, a single stock. I can be in an index fund, which might be a Twitter conversation.
So that's something to think about in terms of allocating attention appropriate to what you're thinking about in terms of medium and social context.
The other aspect of that, which is conflating--I don't know--a pleasure principle: Immediate hedonism as a stance towards information consumption worsens production--there's two layers to that. One is of course the sexless reproduction kind of angle. Which is that there is no necessarily zero sum relationship between having fun versus actually producing something. So, you know, sex is pleasurable and sex produces babies as well. And both functions are important in evolution. So there's that aspect of Twitter; a lot of people have called it idea sex. And it has both those connotations of it's pleasurable and it produces perhaps great rewards.
Russ Roberts: I do think we want to be careful. I don't think we should romanticize Twitter too much, Venkat. I do think there are useful things that come out of Twitter. I'm not sure how profound most of them are.
What I find most valuable about it is the discovering of people and ideas and articles I didn't know about. The back-and-forth is I think less satisfying, but it's part of the game. And so we all play that back-and-forth part. I may have mentioned this before: I know a lot of people right now, numerous folks working on different ways to have conversations online that would be different from Twitter. And a couple out there right now that are already functioning are letter, letter.wiki. There's also Pairagraph "P-A-I-R", Pairagraph. Where people are trying to create modes of conversation. But there are others that are not ready yet, but I think they're going to be interesting variations on Twitter. Maybe Twitter will respond to those. I think there's issues about portability of our connections that we have on these platforms that are interesting, we're going to talk about down the road, I hope, with other guests.
But I want to close with the last few points that you make and give you a chance to expand on those. You're talking about someone who is adept, an adept--somebody who's skilled. And about the importance of distinguishing between a monk who's adept and somebody out in the actual world. You say:
A real adept oughta be able to meditate on the angriest, most toxic twitter stream, consume the bile, and turn it into nectar: actionable insight you can bet on in the real world.
A real adept ought to have strength-trained attention so they can spend an hour either reading a tweetstream or a once-in-a-generation history-disrupting philosophy book. No hack designer or advertiser should be able to lock them down in the 0.1-10 second range.
So stop blaming the media platforms for your own wallowing in small-minded twitter gossip about people. Strength train to the point where you decide whether to be there or elsewhere. May the FOMO be with you, and may you have the strength to resist FOBO.
So you're saying: May the fear of missing out be with you. You think that's a plus: Get in the game. So I love all that.
And I think one response would be--and you talk about it, so I want you to talk about it here: How do I get there from here? I mean, that's really hard. How do I deal with the temptation to stay in the half-a-second or three-second range? How do I get to that hour concentration? How do I strength train my mind? And you give some suggestions in the essay. Talk about those now.
Venkatesh Rao: Yes. The criticism of Twitter that a lot of it actually is a form of degenerative rotting of the brain--there is actually some truth to that, but it actually doesn't have to do with Twitter, the medium. And that's why even though I appreciate all efforts to expand the options and try different variants of that kind of technology, I have a feeling that's like only 10% of the solution. So even if somebody most thoughtfully designs a healthy-conversation Twitter and, I don't know, something else--the Swedish government throws $1 billion at it so it can be funded and it doesn't ever seek profit--I don't think that would still solve the problem. Because, fundamentally the problem with sort of our collapsing into the degenerative smallest-minded version of the conversation is in the human brain rather than in the technology.
And the reason that happens is: that you only strength-train your attention to do bigger and better and deeper things if there is something you care about enough to work on.
And I like to make this distinction between being a pure consumer versus being a producer. And it's very, very important to be a producer as well. So a lot of what happens on Twitter--or, I keep saying Twitter because it's sort of the earliest and best example of the kinds of things we're talking about, but it's all social media and all old media as well. But there is a way you can sort of play Twitter, where you think you're producing, but you're actually consuming. All you're doing is reacting or retweeting or liking or reproducing derpy arguments that other people have taught up. You're not actually producing, even though you're going through the motions of typing and producing letters, you're not actually producing new thought.
So, if you do not have a vector along which you're actually trying to produce new ideas, you will never actually get into that strength- training loop where you are challenging yourself to go bigger, faster, stronger every time you circle back to an idea.
Like, take Waldenponding. It started out as, like, a casual insult directed at a friend on Twitter. It grew into a newsletter. It's grown into a couple of other scattered things. I might turn it into like a more polished piece later. But there's a vector along which I'm actually trying to produce a new idea starting with the seed.
And if you look at a lot of what people complain about on Twitter, what's missing is not a technological mechanism. What's missing is not the intellectual capacity to strength train or the interest in doing so. What's missing is that one seed of productive insight that sort of hooks you more addictively than the worst designers in Silicon Valley can achieve. It hooks you and turns you into sort of a passionate bunny down a bunny trail where you're going down and trying to actually build something new. I think that's what rescues people from this malaise.
And I don't know how to actually encourage this, but if you want to become like a true adept, capable of doing what I said--you know, consume the bile and turn it into nectar--the only way you can do that is by becoming obsessed with the feed[?] of production. Creating something new.
Russ Roberts: But you also suggest you should bounce back and forth between more superficial stuff to harder stuff. And I do think, it's important to stretch. And it's weird, but, you know, in the old days, stretching meant reading a hard book rather than an easy book. Reading is a virtuous activity for many of us. We think of it as some form of higher practice. But there are different kinds of books. There are books that you can read in a setting without giving it any thought. They're just candy. They're the equivalent of candy. And then there's deeper, thoughtful, intellectual meals that are the books that change your life. And, the idea that you should get into the game as a producer and not just as a consumer is, I think, is one way to do that. And particularly with longer form. I think the--my worry, again, on these type of issues--I spend, now I spend too much time on Twitter tweetstorms, than writing a nice essay on Medium. Because, it's just easier. And I get an immediate response, and it's nice. But I have to discipline myself. I think a lot of what I write on Medium is more important, often, and I just, I have to take responsibility.
Venkatesh Rao: Yeah. And it's going to be a period of calibration, a period of learning to make better judgments of what belongs where. A period of letting go, sort of what I think of as formed-content vanities. Like, just because it would be better for my personal plan to write something up as a blog post doesn't mean it's most valuable contribution to the information economy is as a blog post. Maybe it should be fact be a live Twitter thread that injects directly into the live conversation as it's happening. Right? So you have to learn to make judgments about Medium and also sort of be self aware about your motives on why you're doing what you're doing. And I think this is a process of collective learning that'll take the world about 10, 15 more years. And it's going to be stressful.
Russ Roberts: Well, you might want to meditate, so that you can be aware of when you need that quick hit and fix of ego, so you can step back. So, I want [?] to put in a plus for meditation. It's not your favorite thing, I can tell.
Venkatesh Rao: Well, I mean, I just have a broader conception of what it means to meditate. Like, I meant that meditating on a toxic Twitter stream literally. Like, in some ways, like you said, testing yourself with a more challenging thing. Yes, one way to do that might be to read a dense philosophy book. But, another way to do that might be to actually try to live-process a really toxic but important conversation on Twitter that's gone on for thousands of tweets, but is getting at something really important, and a lot of toxic baggage is being aired and processed, and there's a lot of fake news, misrepresentation, bad faith, good faith; but something very important is being thought about, and it's actually a stress test to your thinking. A meditative stress test that might be even harder than reading a philosophy book--which is to process several hours' worth of tweets and understand what's happening in the world as evidenced by that.
Russ Roberts: Well, I often have guests on EconTalk who I don't agree with. I try to, in fact, have guests that I don't agree with. And sometimes listeners will say to me, 'How could you be so calm when he was saying those horrible things?' And I always respond, I say, 'Being the host of EconTalk is a great builder of character.' It teaches--it makes me respond. I try to respond with, I don't always succeed, but I try to respond with grace to arguments I don't agree with. And I think it's made me a better person. So maybe everybody should have their own podcast.
Venkatesh Rao: Heh, heh, heh.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Venkatesh Rao. Venkat, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Venkatesh Rao: It was lovely being here. Thank you, Russ.