Longreads + Open Thread
Builders, Figma, Scientific Counterrevolution, JUMP, Japan, Shari'a
Welcome to the weekly longreads / open thread, a collection of pieces I either highlighted in the daily edition of The Diff or thought would be of interest to readers.
Cultures that Build: Marc Andreessen says it’s “time to build,” but there’s an object-level problem with this and there’s a meta-level problem with that object-level issue.
Why Figma Wins. A tour de force! Since tech is made of alternating layers of commodity and monopoly, it’s never obvious who’s competing with whom. Figma looks like it’s winning share from Photoshop and Illustrator, but it’s actually taking share from Dropbox. (Disclosure: long DBX, still; the more intellectually stimulating a negative thesis about a company is, the more time you have before it’s obvious to the market.)
The Coronavirus and the Right’s Scientific Counterrevolution: this essay obviously takes a side, but it tries to be fair to the side it disagrees with. Which means there are two Straussian readings: maybe it’s an essay about how science is on one side in an American political context, and the other side only makes vague gestures towards empiricism. Alternatively, it could be an essay on how science never answers political questions, but politics corrupts science. (Why doesn’t science answer political questions? Because you can’t build a coalition out of stating the obvious, but you can build one from denying it—if your beliefs are crazy, you can spot members of the ingroup. So most scientific questions are irrelevant to politics, and when they’re relevant, politics wins by default in the short term, even if it loses long-term. To build a coherent and healthy ingroup, you need beliefs that are crazy but don’t lead to bad decisions.)
And addressing the same concept from the opposite direction, Michael Solana’s JUMP. The market of ideas is more liquid than ever, and that selects for transmissible ideas over healthy ones. As Solana says, “For the first time in history, we actually have to find a way to manage our impulse toward meme-induced hysteria.”
This week I read and reviewed Japan as Number One and Rising Sun. Neither one is really worth reading on its own merits, but they’re both interesting works of retrofuturism. It’s easy to forget what the mainstream thought, even in the very recent past. That’s part of the value of older pop-culture: the surprise today is what was unsurprising and conventional a few decades ago.
Ahmed at Post-Apathy has a post on state capitalism and shari'a, a very interesting perspective. It’s often instructive to look at intellectual traditions that developed on their own, far outside of the academic mainstream. They have rough edges, and sometimes fundamental flaws (there is a meaningful possibility for credit to represent an investment in producive growth, rather than pure rent-seeking), but they also explore ideas that would be easy for the mainstream to miss.
One way newsletter economics can work is by replacing the trade magazine. Are there any good examples of this yet?
In every part of online media I’m familiar with, there’s a long tail of individual writers and a couple huge aggregators (manual ones like Techmeme and algorithmic ones like Hacker News and Twitter). This wasn’t true a decade ago. What happened to the blogosphere’s middle class? (Arguably, that middle class could emerge for the same reason the middle class did in the mid-twentieth century: politics makes large institutions afraid to wield their power, so they devolve it down.)
And, as always: what are some good long-form pieces you’ve enjoyed in the last week? And what stories this week are mis-covered or under-covered?