"venkatesh rao"

Why are we curious?

Another great ramble from the always-fascinating Venkatesh Rao entitled "The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal," considers several explanations for our species' curiosity, and asks whether our weird, ubiquitous artificial life-forms (corporations) share this trait, and why:

Alone among the curious animals (though this seems like a conceit that more research might invalidate), we seem to be curious about clearly useless things. Or at least, things that have no obvious and immediate use. Humans seem to frequently poke at things that yield returns, if at all, only generations later. And often in ways unsuspected by those who do the poking.

We stare at the stars, we peer through microscopes, we climb mountains and we dive to the ocean floor.

This behavior, so natural to humans, is incomprehensible to human organizations. So things like space programs or other pure curiosity driven efforts have to be justified by politicians on the basis of “will improve life here on earth through the discovery of new materials and advances in medicine.” This is probably the mother of all idiotic fictions. Fortunately, we don’t seem to require our institutional fictions to be credible. Merely sufficient to stop conversations we don’t want to have.

There is an interesting symmetry here. Organizations naturally try to avoid pain — the pain of business model obsolescence or national decline for instance – through institutionalized “curiosity.” They find joy-seeking unnatural and in need of justification (hence the paradoxical notions of “efficient” innovation with high “yield” or “impact” and the relentless war on waste).

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Waste, abundance and ideology: the Singularity versus Collapse

The always wonderful and thought-provoking Venkatesh Rao has a typically spot-on analysis of the ideology underlying the idea that we are heading for a world of either collapse or abundance. Along the way, he drops all kinds of great thoughts, like the Generalized Godwin’s Law: "Every discussion within an online community converges to a zero-information signal characterized by empty assertions concerning the foundational dichotomy of that community."

A resource gets cheap enough to waste when it is cheap enough that you can leave it out of the strategic cost calculations for most products and services that it is a part of.

This is a relative definition of cheap. Global shipping is an example of a wasteable resource today, for value-added manufactured goods. Relative to manufacturing and other costs, the costs of shipping something from China to the US (say) are so trivial that as a first approximation, you can ignore them. You can think about business models and strategic positioning issues without thinking about transport (your accountants still have to include it in their book-keeping of course). The design space for your business model shrinks in useful ways.

Not all resources are wasteable in all industries. Electricity is something you can waste in many contexts in the developed world, but not in the data center business, where it is a big enough cost component that it pays to locate data centers near cheap power.

This suggests a good measure for development actually. A nation or region is as developed as the resources its economy views as wasteable (in the good+strategic sense).

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Unevenly-distributed futures considered harmful

Here's a typically chewy, dense, thought-provoking essay from Venkatesh Rao, ruminating on the nature of the future and futurism. Rao describes the future as arriving through a "manufactured normalcy field" that prevents us from perceiving it, and proceeds from there to indict futurism as focusing on the part of the future where it is not yet "technologically boring," which is the point at which the future becomes commercially exciting. Also, Rao thinks we're still living in the 15th century. Sort of.

Engineering is about finding excitement by figuring out how human behavior could change. Marketing is about finding money by making sure it doesn’t. The future arrives along a least-cognitive-effort path.

This actually suggests a different, subtler reading of Gibson’s unevenly-distributed line.

It isn’t that what is patchily distributed today will become widespread tomorrow. The mainstream never ends up looking like the edge of today. Not even close. The mainstream seeks placidity while the edge seeks stimulation.

Instead, what is unevenly distributed are isolated windows into the un-normalized future that exist as weak spots in the Field. When the windows start to become larger and more common, economics kicks in and the Field maintenance industry quickly moves to create specialists, codified knowledge and normalcy-preserving design patterns.

Time is actually a meaningless organizing variable here. Is gene-hacking more or less futuristic than pod-cities or bionic chips?...

...We aren’t being hit by Future Shock. We are going to be hit by Future Nausea. You’re not going to be knocked out cold. You’re just going to throw up in some existential sense of the word.

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Hacking as a broad phenomenon and the hackstable future

The always-interesting Venkatesh Rao turns his attention to the shopworn phrase "hacking" (as in "body-hacking," "college-hacking" and so forth), and concludes that it is actually underused. Hacking, in Rao's view, is "a pattern of local, opportunistic manipulation of a non-disposable complex system that causes a lowering of its conceptual integrity, creates systemic debt and moves intelligence from systems into human brains." And yeah, that's got a lot of obscure and difficult ideas in it, but the essay in which he unpacks it is, as ever, well worth your attention, especially for the idea of "hackstability," which Rao says is "an alternative to collapse."

All you can hope for is to keep hacking and extending its life in increasingly brittle ways, and hope to avoid a big random event that triggers collapse. This is technological deficit economics.

Now extend the argument to all of civilization as a single massive technology that can never be thrown away, and you can make sense of the idea of hackstability as an alternative to collapse. Maybe if you keep hacking away furiously enough, and grabbing improvements where possible, you can keep a system alive indefinitely, or at least steer it to a safe soft-landing instead of a crash-landing...

So what is the hackstable future? What reason is there to believe that hacking can keep up with the downward pull of entropy? I am not entirely sure. The way big old cities seem to miraculously survive indefinitely on the brink of collapse gives me some confidence that hackstability is a meaningful concept.

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Tempo: transformative, difficult look at advanced decision-making theory

As I've noted here before, Venkatesh Rao is a thought-provoking, profound thinker, and I always welcome his long, fascinating blog posts. When he sent me a copy of his slim book, Tempo, I was very excited to see it turn up in my mailbox.

Tempo is Rao's attempt to formalize many years of study into human decision-making. Rao spent two years as a Cornell post-doc doing USAF-funded research on "mixed-initiative command and control models," part of the research on decision-making that includes such classics as Chet Richards's Certain to Win. Rao taught a course on decision-making theory at Cornell that included many of his theories, metaphors and advancements on the subject, and he reports that students found the course entertaining, but disjointed -- a "grab bag" of ideas. Tempo is meant to turn that grab-bag into an orderly, systematic argument explaining Rao's overall view of how and why we decide stuff, how we can change the way others behave, and how to look at the history and future of humanity's individual and collective decisions. Heavy stuff, in other words.

Rao does not entirely succeed in making an orderly argument out of his grab bag. My relationship with Tempo was tumultuous. It's heavy going, abstract, and makes difficult (for me) to follow leaps from one subject to the next. I would normally read 150 pages of academic text in a day or two, but after two days with Tempo, I was still only 40 or so pages in. Read the rest

Population streams: globalization results in liquefaction

Venkatesh Rao (one of my favorite provocative thinkers) noodles around with the idea of "streams" -- demographics of people who follow a particular international course, in long, stable, weird, nearly invisible arcs. Rao calls this "Globalization as liquefaction" and says, "Globalization signifies an incomplete process, not a state. For a long time I was convinced that there was a bit of semantic confusion somewhere. Why is there a becoming without discernible being states before and after? The reason is that the word globalization works like the word liquefaction. Liquids aren’t a transition from one solid state to another. They are a transition from a fundamentally static state to a fundamentally dynamic one. The world is not getting flatter, rounder or spikier. It is liquefying. There you go, Thomas Friedman, that’s my modest little challenge to your metaphor."

For most of the last decade, Israeli soldiers have been making the transition back to civilian life after their compulsory military service by going on a drug-dazed recovery trip to India, where an invisible stream of modern global culture runs from the beaches of Goa to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh in the north. While most of the Israelis eventually return home after a year or so, many have stayed as permanent expat stewards of the stream. The Israeli military stream is changing course these days, and starting to flow through Thailand, where the same pattern of drug-use and conflict with the locals is being repeated.

This pattern of movement among young Israelis is an example of what I’ve started calling a stream.

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A Brief History of the Corporation: understanding what an attention economy is and where it comes from

Venkatesh Rao's tour-de-force blog-post, "A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100," is an attempt to synthesize several accounts of economic trends and the institutions that fuel and benefit from them, primarily corporations. Beginning with the age of mercantilism and the East India Company's many bubbles and busts (not to mention ruthless conquests and brutal consolidations); Rao moves onto the "Schumpeterian" era where growth was driven by innovation and the "colonization of time" in the form of "labor-saving" devices that let corporations capture more value from their workers. Rao concludes with a brief section on the current era, the "Coasean" period in which individuals, coordinating among each other, are at center stage -- basically, maker culture. Part history lesson, part economic speculation, Rao's essay is provocative, a little esoteric, well-written and challenging.
Take an average housewife, the target of much time mining early in the 20th century. It was clear where her attention was directed. Laundry, cooking, walking to the well for water, cleaning, were all obvious attention sinks. Washing machines, kitchen appliances, plumbing and vacuum cleaners helped free up a lot of that attention, which was then immediately directed (as corporate-captive attention) to magazines and television.

But as you find and capture most of the wild attention, new pockets of attention become harder to find. Worse, you now have to cannibalize your own previous uses of captive attention. Time for TV must be stolen from magazines and newspapers. Time for specialized entertainment must be stolen from time devoted to generalized entertainment.

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