I tried an experiment this week: daily posts on a single theme. “Tech and culture” is a lame, overdone idea; Joe Weisenthal, the High-Frequency Take machine, says so. And yet, so much “tech and culture” commentary is just autoethnography about people who spend all day semi-focused on screens. To understand how technology affects culture, you need to step outside tech culture—or at least turn off push notifications and read a physical book. Extremely Online types will not understand the Internet, just like salmon won’t derive the Navier-Stokes equations any time soon.
The right way to think about media and culture is as a supply chain of attention. There are people who can write, shoot videos, record podcasts, etc. There are people who want to consume them. There are advertisers who want to insert themselves in between these parties, and there are indirect pecuniary interests (writing something because it will get you a job) and nonfinancial interests (writing something you know will piss off your ex-boss or your ex). Some people even love the craft—too bad for them, as they’re selfishly performing for an audience of one.
An economic framework, mapping books and music and email to call options and property rights and transaction costs, is reductionist. But it’s also pretty much right. People think of economics as a study of how money gets spent, but it’s a study of how anything gets spent, and unless you’re a lucky mutant you have exactly as much time to spend as anyone else. Since wealth varies a lot, money-economics helps you explain broad phenomena you can’t personally affect; time-economics tells you a lot more about what you, personally, can do.
On day one of Culture Week, I look at one way to shovel big piles of your time into an incinerator: playing engrossing strategy games. Don’t do it! You’ll learn something, sure, but why play historical simulators when you can learn history the legitimate way?
Day Two: how the changing economics of content-free greetings gave rise to the email newsletter boom.
Day Three: Do you wonder why recipe sites always have a long narrative preamble before the recipe? Wonder no more: it’s an SEO thing. Then start wondering again: maybe it’s a copyright thing instead.
Day Four: A pseudonym is a cheap call option. Straussian writing has the personal advantages of pseudonymity, but requires proof-of-work that blunts the distortive effects of underpriced options. Dissemblers, assemble!
Day Five: Read. Smart people read. Informed people get informed because the absorb reams of text. Video, conversation, graphic novels—these only work in hyper-specific domains, and they work best with a text-heavy knowledge foundation.
The good people at Other Internet have posted a recap of the workshop series. I hosted one on financial manias, which was great fun: hosting a reading group is the exact opposite of writing a blog in that it’s only worthwhile if you pay attention to every single comment. I’d do it again.
Palladium asks: Who Has Authority in the American State? As Steve Jobs put it: “When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.” He was talking about TV, not politics, but that’s just one level up the supply chain.
Some great 2020 predictions. Over the next year, I’m going to read up on the Cold War. Specifically, I’m going to read as many contemporary views as I can, especially to see what people told themselves in the late 40s to avoid believing in a Cold War. Also, don’t miss the bit about the risk of future Epsteins.
In last week’s edition, I noted that I’m available for a very specific kind of consulting arrangement: writing definitive takes on why a particular business is worth working for. I’m also doing some other consulting work—but not right now. I’m pretty booked through the end of January, but beyond then, we should talk.