[Note: Navel gazing about this blog and how and why I write it.]
With 2017 another year of blogging ended and it’s now exactly two years ago I published my first post. Unlike 2016 when not a lot happened here, this year is deserving of a proper summation.
I wrote 26 posts totaling 68900 words, compared to 21 and 31000 in 2016. That makes 99900 words in the first two years. If only I’d added them all up before publishing my last post of 2017, I could’ve inflated it a little and celebrated 100k along with the new year.
That was a hundred words, pushing me over the line. Nice.
So I wrote about a novel’s worth of blog posts this year. I think that’s pretty good, especially since three of my posts from the year before were variants of complaining about how difficult I find it to get some words down. There’s been none of that this year, which suggests I’m getting better. And it does feel like I am. It comes easier now.
Volume isn’t what really matters, though. Mediocrity is mediocrity, even if I produce novel-loads of it. But I am a firm believer in the idea that doing more will make you do better as well — you can’t help building skill if you practice a lot. That appears to be true, by my own judgment. What I write today is better than what I wrote a year ago, which was better than what I wrote two years ago.
Despite things getting easier I’m nowhere near the productivity I’m aiming for. When coming back from a four month hiatus in late 2016 I said I had 35 text files in various states of development (idea, outline, draft, disordered paragraphs, etc.) in my notes folder. Now it’s more than twice as many, including about 20 marked “high priority”.
The more I write, the more I fall behind.
So why do it at all? Those files are weighing on me and I could just walk away and tend my garden, literally and figuratively. Well, for one, social reinforcement is pretty powerful. Getting readers, engagement and encouragement provides enough dopamine hits to tolerate the restlessness.
Indeed, traffic has gone up significantly over the year, mostly in two spurts. After growing in March and April with Science, the Constructionists and Reality, Reactions to Infinite Jest and People Are Different, things plodded along over summer with my lengthy Erisology of Self and Will series until another jump in mid-October. I have most of that to thank a few successful articles (The Big List of Existing Things, The Nerd as the Norm, A Lament on Simler Et Al and to a lesser extent The Signal and the Corrective) that got some attention mostly from being recommended by David Chapman on Twitter. December closed the year by bringing in 1300 visits, and while that’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things, to me it’s progress. And I do like that this blog I barely dared think would interest anybody has managed to get an audience, however modest.
Yes, 2017 has been good. A year ago I wouldn’t have thought I could write a response to an editorial article on Ribbonfarm and have the author come by and discuss it with me. That’s nice.
While increases in output, self-perceived quality and audience signifies success for the time being, I still don’t know what my “endgame” is.
That’s bothered me a few times this year. What do I ultimately want with this place? One view is that as a hobby the activity should just be its own reward. That makes sense, there is certainly a lot of satisfaction in writing and gettings things out of my head. But I’m a goal-oriented person and blogging (specifically, trying to produce a relatively steady stream of decent quality output) has a large enough cost in time and effort that there should be some goal on the horizon to justify it.
Not that I spend an inordinate amount of time writing as such (even if it is significant considering how little time I have, because being an adult kinda sucks). But thinking about what to write and keeping up with the reading required for that thinking takes up so much time and mental energy that I wonder if it’s worth it. I’m often exhausted, my mind never shuts up and when I have a little time that ought to be used for some restorative relaxation there’s always a voice in my head going “You should write! When else are you going to do it?”.
It also draws attention away from my real job (and my real life), which is boring in comparison. I’m unsure of the direction of causality: does my job bore me because blogging is more interesting or do I blog because my job is too unengaging to keep my interest? Either way it’s a problem.
Despite these issues, giving up blogging would mean losing something rare and valuable. I’m a pathologically promiscuous hobbyist and my past ever since childhood is a scrapheap of aborted creative work: drawing, carpentry, sewing, music, fiction, board games, quizzes, card games, computer games, computer art, simulations, theater, bonsai, pottery, poetry, photography, infographics, recipes, comics, comedy, conlangs, writing systems, and more, including some weird artforms that don’t exist. All sampled, all enjoyed, none of them compelling enough to make me put a ring on its finger and forsake all others (which is what it takes to really get anywhere).
Except this. Everything Studies is the first hobby proejct for 15 years that’s been able to keep me creating without losing steam as the first fit of “what’s the point of it all?” comes along. That’s not something to just throw away.
One candidate for Ultimate Point of this blog is spreading what I judge to be valuable ideas into the memetic environment. Many posts are the result of me describing ideas and mental tools I think would be good for people to have access to and use to interpret the world. This with the ultimate purpose of helping prevent and dissolve some of the dysfunctional yet hypothetically functional disagreements I see playing out over and over and over again.
I wrote this in my very first post two years ago:
When people discuss ideas and exchange opinions it fascinates me, not just great ideas and well thought out opinions (which aren’t always so common), but also the remarkable differences between people, how they experience and think about things in such radically yet sometimes subtly different ways.
You also notice certain standard failure modes. Discussions predictably break down and turn into shouting matches or stalemates born of baffled confusion. And it’s often totally avoidable if the participants can find the real sources of their disagreement. It seems to me that people don’t get mad when other people disagree with them, they get mad when they’re not being understood.
Reading forums gradually became a kind of disaster tourism for me. The same stories played out again and again, arguers butting heads with only a vague idea about what the other was saying but tragically unable to understand this. Something had to be done.
When an engineer-brain sees a particular type of problem occur predictably, it begins to try to fix it. Now, I can’t fix online discourse (but if I could, I think I’d deserve the Nobel Peace Prize), but I felt I could at least create some resource that would make it easier to identify pitfalls, maybe defuse a fight somewhere, sometime, and have someone walk away with a more, rather than less, nuanced view of the world.
That’s (applied) erisology.
Any nontrivial success at this is of course a lot more difficult than just writing hobbyist essays in exchange for some satisfaction from a job moderately well done. I don’t think I ever seriously believed any actual “impact” was going to result, and every time I remember that I get one of those “what’s the point?”:s and have to wait for it to blow over before I can go on. But, unattainable as it may be, I need that goal to keep moving. Googling “strategic self-deception” doesn’t give a lot but I think that’s what I’m doing.
My one-sentence description of erisology is “the study of disagreement and intellectual difference”. One part of that is looking at exactly how and why public discourse is predictably terrible. Related but distinct is the idea that intellectual and cultural specialization is splintering societes into partially non-communicating, fractal-like structures of sub-sub-subcultures (more reading on that). This process has been wonderfully liberating for nonconformists, absolutely, but also alienating and nihilism-inducing. I wrote about that this year in All the World’s a Trading Zone and All the Languages Merely Pidgins, a little at the end of Reactions to Infinite Jest, and put some criticisms of intellectual specialization in both Science, the Constructionists and Reality and Mass-producing Hansons.
They both border a bigger issue I wish I was in a position to dedicate my life to. In order to build taller intellectual and cultural skyscrapers we need sturdy foundations and tools to effectively build on top of existing peaks. That means less emphasis on rule-breaking and novelty and more on constructing canons of common understanding. A quasi-schizophrenic world-brain with no coherent collective self to integrate its thoughts cannot do much. So we’re limping into the future.
A few months ago I tweeted this:
By a knowledge logistics problem I mean that more knowledge, insight and culture is produced than ever before, and the bottleneck to what somebody more woolly-headed than me might call an “enlightened civilization” is not production volume but packaging, indexing, compression, synthesis and distribution of ideas.
A dream of mine is that all relevant facts, models, narratives and perspectives are available to everyone at all times. When debate, discussion or just communication happens, everyone would know the gist of what has already been said on the topic, by anyone, ever. Instead of working with insights on a level comparable to carrier-pigeon tech, everyone taking part in public discourse would be equipped with state-of-the-art understanding in the same way people in modern societies have access to the very best digital services in the world.
As a fantasy I guess it’s odd. Why care so much? I don’t know. I’m at once a rationalist and a romantic and I find the current state of discourse deeply unsatisfactory on an emotional and aesthetic level. Practical too, but if to be honest that’s not the part that motivates me. In practice, there are many more important issues that simply don’t motivate me the same way. I accept this.
So I have my fantasy. And a fantasy it is. In order to achieve anything vaguely resembling what I described, not only must the necessary ideas be created and made available, they must also be spread throughout the population. But mere exposure is not enough, an idea must me installed in a person in such as way as to make it activate at the right time. Because just like there is little point for knowledge to exist in a book somewhere if nobody reads it (looking at you, academia), there is little point for an insight to be present in a mind if it isn’t activated and applied to what that mind encounters. It mustn’t lie waiting to wake up on command. It must take initiative.
Everything needs a name so I’ll call this “proactive ideas”. People Are Different was an attempt to write a piece that could transmit such a proactive idea. While it was fairly appreciated (one of my most successful articles at that time) it is, of course, big picture wise, of no great consequence (if someone felt it changed their thought patterns in any way I’d love to hear about it.)
That’s the problem with pursuing a ridiculously ambitious goal — the chance of making significant progress is low.
I did have a plan of sorts: try to get the general concept of “erisology” out there, and use that as scaffolding to hang individually useful ideas on. It’s going so-so. There are my articles, a Twitter hashtag I occasionally use, and a small subreddit with a 100 subscribers. I’ve been thinking I should start a big project finding, curating and systematizing erisological writing by others, but since I don’t have the time it would mean less focus on writing, which is honestly something I like better. To give erisology the attention it deserves I might have to become a cryptocurrency millionaire or something.
On an unrelated note: tell all your friends to buy cryptocurrencies. Raise those prices.
I have no great proclamation for the year 2018. This post is not here to present a bold new direction or a big new plan. The policy remains: keep developing ideas and build on what I (and others) have. As long as it feels rewarding and I’m making several kinds of progress, I think I’ll go on.
Happy new year.
• • •