Venkatesh Rao Profile picture
17 Nov, 17 tweets, 3 min read
There’s an episode of Star Trek: Voyager (S5E1, “Night”) where they’re crossing a vast void with no stars visible because black clouds shroud starlight. The crew is going crazy. Then stuff happens, but it’s the set up that interests me: featureless darkness as a psychic stressor.
It’s a nice allegory for why a dark age might be stressful even if things are otherwise fine. The lack of macro patterns makes microstructure of life start to empty of meaning and purpose. The Voyager doesn’t need visible stars to navigate but the crew needs them for sanity.
Ancient cultures made up constellation maps and astrology out of otherwise mostly useless night sky landmarks to create macro patterns I suspect. Limited navigation and calendars needs don’t explain the overfitting of mythologies to the skies.
Memes are like stars. Major memeplexes are constellations. Looking back, I think I navigate life in part by spotting major current constellations. They tend to last 3-5 years.
Here’s why I think we’re in some sort of dark age: It’s become harder to spot stars and constellations in the zeitgeist to navigate by. I don’t mean memes like “jealous boyfriend.” I mean broad themes like sociopathy or premium mediocrity that are all over zeitgeist for a while.
I’m getting older but I don’t think I’m losing my edge when it comes to spotting zeitgeist constellations. In fact I’ve kept up my production rate of 1 big one every year or two. But it’s getting harder. There are thicker clouds. There are vast patches of “dark memetic matter.”
There’s a lot of stuff, but it Durant cohere into broad macro sweeps the way it used to. Instead it is dark, soupy chaos. As a personal experience what I called the Great Weirding is not do much a new pattern but a pattern void.
There are fewer patterns and they’re harder to spot. This acts as a self-reinforcing thing because fewer people then navigate by those patterns. And the few patterns that ARE spotted tend to attract unreasonable overindexing attention.
My 2-3 big calls in the last few years (premium mediocre, internet of beefs, domestic cozy) have attracted imo like 3x more attention than they would have in 2012, adjusting for me being better known. When there sky is hazy or light polluted, only the clearest constellations pop.
This is literally true. Go into the countryside on a dark clear night. “Easy” constellations like the Big Dipper and Orion will be harder to spot than in a light polluted city because there’s so much more going on. You can even see Milky Way (many urban dwellers don’t know this)
I think, like the Voyager, we’re in a narrative dark patch. Most people are not consciously sensitive to this stuff since they’re not in the business of memetic constellation hunting. But they sense the macrodark and respond with stress.
Initially I thought I was getting old, or just not in tune with moods. Maybe I’m just better at spotting the satire-eye patterns in an optimistic age. But I don’t think so. I don’t see anybody doing it well now. There were dozens of us churning this stuff out 6-7 years ago.
Younger and presumably more plugged-in people are increasingly not even bothering to try at the macro scale. They’re strategically focusing on the meso and micro scales. Local weather so to speak. Or even just turning inwards. Cozy web, dark forest, whatever you choose to call it
Initially I thought maybe it was a good thing that an age of pattern-spotting TED-talking blowhards (myself included, though I never did a TED talk, I’m proud to say) was ending. Giving way to more substantial and serious things. But I think a baby got tossed with the bathwater.
I’ll admit I’m going slightly nuts due to not having spotted a major thing in nearly 2 years (internet of beefs was published this year but I spotted it in 2018 or so: just didn’t blog it though I tweeted about it a bit)
One thought I am mulling is if fiction takes on a different role in a dark age. Instead of holding up a mirror to society to capture the macro patterns, it begins to play more of a wayfinding role.

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More from @vgr

17 Nov
bluecheck invasion ruining substack a bit 😬
I have more hope for the platform than for Medium or Patreon (that's why I'm on it). It has less of a top-down cultural feel, and little to no cross-talk/cross-flow across newsletters, which is a good thing. Sacrifices content-network effect for diversity.
Basically the bias-variance tradeoff writ large. An aggregator platform will either have a large bias or a large variance. So far, unlike Medium or patreon (or livejournal or tumblr or what have you) substack is heading towards higher variance. x
Read 40 tweets
17 Nov
Anyone actually enjoy the zoom-conference circuit? I’ve pretty much entirely avoided it. I’ve realized that to the limited extent I enjoy conferences at all, it’s 100% about getting to travel to places I want to visit. Take that out and it’s just feels like work to me.
The one thing I enjoyed was a very lowkey set of maker-skill demos hosted by a local repair cafe.
Looking back on a couple of decades of conferences, the memorable things I actually remember are the local side trips.
Read 4 tweets
17 Nov
I’m getting good enough at spotting very precise tropes now so I spoil tv shows for myself. 😖
The one that inspired this tweet: a passenger left alone in a car while driver goes into a store will discover a secret in the glove compartment. It’s not really a trope but a shot clue: if they show the left behind person rather than follow the other character there’s a reason.
An annoying one: in a detective show, a recognizable character actor showing up in an early scene in a minor role with unnecessary lines is probably the murderer. You don’t need to know the plot to guess that they wouldn’t use a speaking role established actor as an extra.
Read 4 tweets
17 Nov
Ok I’m not starting any more projects. At least not top-level projects. From now on I’m only finishing projects or killing them.
My biggest achievement of the last couple of years was effectively ending Refactor Camp the conference on a graceful high note. Second biggest was handing off the refactorcamp dot org the mastodon server to someone more able to keep it going
Feeling very post-mid-lifey, leeward sloping. Turned 46 last week. Maybe act 1 is starting all possible projects, act 2 is shutting them down at the natural times.
Read 8 tweets
16 Nov
“It is 2020. 250k are dead from a raging pandemic; a private space company is launching crewed missions NASA can’t. A mad president is live-tweeting a painfully slow psychotic break, refusing to leave office. The planet boils.” —Blurb from “2020” obscure sci-fi book from 2007.
I seriously couldn’t have imagined this plot in 2007
Actually I can’t imagine it right now either, even though it’s literally happening all around.
Read 6 tweets
15 Nov
brrrcore: the thing that goes brrr, assuming it exists, when you remove deadening constraints, complexity, ornamentation, and superfluity from a thing, and distill the rest to it’s essence. The id or kundalini of the thing. For eg, the tweet is the brrrcore of the blogpost.
brrrcores are pure and unstable. Unstable positive feedback loops at the heart of anything that shows signs of exponential aliveness. The (auto)poiesis principle animating it. Getting to the brrrcore is the essence of any alchemical pursuit. Eg Network effect in product adoption.
Once the brrrcore is uncovered and allowed to energize itself, you can gradually add back the “impurities” you threw away while looking for it.
Read 6 tweets

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