The Panopticon Prism: All Facts Serve A Narrative

Technology & Culture Democratized Storytelling — Paralyzing a Generation

Confronted by a terrifyingly complex world of ambiguous competing Narratives, mainlined into our bedrooms, gyms, offices, and pockets by the highest SAT scores in Silicon Valley, we do what 22 years of schooling taught us to do: demand the unbiased truth from an authority figure. 

This is the current Narrative of Zuck, brought to you by Congress & the Old Media…

This is the current Narrative of Zuck, brought to you by Congress & the Old Media…

A brief overview:

  • The same fact/study/experience/essay can rationally be understood by reasonable people to support different pre-existing worldviews

    • Each piece of evidence adds a new Lens to the stack, and everything is seen through decades of Compound Lenses

    • Proposed solutions to any problem will be mutually incomprehensible without understanding the other’s Compound Lens

  • Intelligent response to this scary realization: Idealize “Unbiased” Facts

    • …but this fails because the mere act of selecting and the manner of presenting a Fact colors how it’s understood and creates a Narrative

    • In the real world, action is a vector: it has both magnitude and direction. Meaningless facts offer no direction, no call to action…

    • Narratives create “Action Potential” and push us forward

      • “Unbiased” Facts have no meaning in isolation — trivia is trivial

  • Meanwhile, the Internet, Smartphones, & Technology in general have Democratized access-to and creation-of many Narratives, giving the average American a louder voice than history’s average Head of State

  • Social Media then forces all these newly created Narratives into Existential Competition with each other for Engagement (Moloch applied to Storytelling)

    • Thus the natural response to being confronted by a repository of totally “Unbiased” Facts is to alt-tab and refresh Facebook — at least Zuck calibrated it to show you something that matters. Maybe you’ll even like/upvote/retweet something…

  • Social Platforms’ need for engagement pushes actions at the Personal scale to conform to the standards of the Global scale by repeatedly surfacing Personal content to the rest of the Globe for judgement

  • Which forces the inmates to self-regulate: either conform to the Globe’s Lowest Common Denominator Compound Lens that can protect them or take no action at all

    • This perhaps has costs associated with it — I leave these to you to consider & weigh vs. the upsides of bringing Global Justice to Local Communities (America’s fav. pastime)

  • The old Narrative Gatekeepers now demand control of the stories to avoid having to confront the idea that their Narratives suck

    • It doesn’t take much talent to cast Zuckerberg as the devil in this story, but those of us who’ve been given a voice and a platform that was previously inaccessible might view Technology’s Democratization of Storytelling through a different lens…

  • While this may benefit those Gatekeepers, the rest of us need something more, something that this current landscape has reduced: Great Stories

  • Everything else results in inaction

And this is the counter Narrative, brought to you by…who? Me? Social Platforms sent me >25,000 readers in the last few months. Total Cost: $0.00. God Bless the Internet.  Note to lawyers: this is all transformative satire

And this is the counter Narrative, brought to you by…who? Me? Social Platforms sent me >25,000 readers in the last few months. Total Cost: $0.00. God Bless the Internet. Note to lawyers: this is all transformative satire

What’s Black and White and Yellow All Over? 

Where Boys Outperform Girls in Math: Rich, White and Suburban Districts (New York Times, June 2018, based on a study out of Stanford). Great article. Good visualizations. Even better data. Kudos to the New York Times, this was really great. Take a look at the headline data visualization…

Note Y-axis cut off to save on white space

Note Y-axis cut off to save on white space

…and allow me to (tongue-in-cheek) suggest an alternate title: Where Girls Outperform Boys in English: 10,000 / 10,000 School Districts, Seriously, It’s Not Even Close

The article’s third paragraph, included immediately after this awesome visualization, tells us that the study suggests some interesting things (emphasis mine):

The research, based on 260 million standardized test scores for third through eighth graders in nearly every district in the country, suggests that local norms influence how children perform in school from early ages – and that boys are much more influenced than girls.

Which I found surprising, because local norms don’t seem to show up anywhere in that awesome data visualization. “Richer Parents”, being nerdy and data-driven and therefore quantifiable along an X-axis, doesn’t quite translate. Still, sometimes these things show up in the underlying study and don’t make the graphic, so I went to the study and ctrl-f’d for “local norms” and bingo:

This paper has several limitations…Another is that we do not have good measures of local norms, expectations, stereotypes, or of how boys and girls are treated in school and home and community. Because of this, we cannot rule out the potentially important influence these factors may have on gender achievement gaps that we may be unable to observe with our coarse proxy measure.

Local norms may or may not cause the trends we see in that chart up above, but they weren’t tracked in any scientific way in this study. This study also doesn’t appear to have any data on which gender was more or less influenced by such things (since they didn’t measure such things in the first place), so the follow up punch in the Times’ summary of this research, “boys are much more influenced than girls“, caught my attention.

Not necessarily because it’s untrue, but because it suggests a reading of this study that’s colored by knowledge from elsewhere, to such a degree that this study is taken as further evidence in support of that prior knowledge base. Since the article had not yet given me, a normal Times reader, any info on which gender might be more or less influenced by various norms, their summary sparked a brief moment of incongruity. I try to notice those moments, as they often signal a deeper difference in the lens someone else uses to look at the world…

Looking Through The Prism

“It was sort of surprising because a lot of highly educated, liberal folks might think that they are more egalitarian and they express more egalitarian norms, but it looks like they are producing less egalitarian outcomes in math,”

…said Sean Reardon, a Professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and the lead author of the study.

And yes. It’s definitely possible that highly educated, white, suburban liberals (who reads the NYT again?) are acting sinfully — it wouldn’t be the first time. It’s unclear to me why the smaller socioeconomic-slope in Math is less egalitarian and the consistent ~8 month gender divide in English is more egalitarian. Have we all just collectively decided that Math matters more than English? That communicating isn’t important? Should I drop this writing hobby and get to work solving P=NP? (yes, of course I should)

But we were talking about noticing lenses, so it’s worth noticing that while the study measured test scores vs. “Socioeconomic status”, the study’s lead author has proxied his X-axis to “highly educated, liberal folks.” Education status and political affiliation aren’t exactly the same thing as “Socioeconomic status”, so I thought I should also go check what his study actually defines as “Socioeconomic Status” before continuing:



Apparently working in the Math-heavy disciplines of Finance or Engineering confers twice as much Socioeconomic Status on a district as Household Income (0.376 vs. 0.186)…Yikes. I wonder who’s gonna tell the New York Times authors of this piece, Claire Cain Miller (2018 Pulitzer Prize winner btw!) and Kevin Quealy what Stanford thinks of their Socioeconomic Status?[0]

But still…there’s nothing about politics in there, which means Professor Sean Reardon is letting us see some of his own lens when he shortcuts the X-axis of his own study as “highly educated, highly liberal.” Namely:

Employed in Finance or STEM => High Socioeconomic Status => Highly Educated => Highly Liberal => Egalitarian => Raises Girls the same as Boys => Girls Attain Same Scores as Boys

As lenses go, it’s certainly a reasonable one. I’m not saying this is a bad heuristic for America, although his definition of Socioeconomic Status places the highest premium of all upon “Management, Business and Financial Occupations” and I think I have a slightly different perspective on the politics of the finance industry after working on Wall St.[1]

My point in diving into this study isn’t to to challenge it (the data is super good) or call out Professor Sean Reardon for having his worldview (and not a bad one at that). Nor is it to call out the New York Times for having theirs — every publication has one,[2] and that’s a good thing. Having multiple worldviews that can compete with each other is healthy.

But we’ve got to be aware of our lens, how it colors the conclusions we draw from new evidence, and even how it shapes the sort of evidence we go looking for in the first place. If you construct an X-axis that discounts the socioeconomic status of these 3 guys, you & I might be experiencing a very different America:

Selecting a Different Lens

My point is just to show the Prism in action. In comes a single, solid, beam of light (the study). Out comes a rainbow of beams at different wavelengths (conclusions).

My interpretation of the New York Times’ take on the study is: local norms implicit in rich, white, suburban culture push boys to work harder on Math and/or push girls away from it. Later in their article, the Times expands on this view by linking to other studies that suggest exactly that:

There is also a theory that high-earning families invest more in sons, because men in this socioeconomic group earn more than women…

In the districts in which boys do better than girls in math, they also have a smaller gender gap in language arts – so it might be that they get more encouragement to do well in school in general. Boys’ grades, behavior and future earnings seem to be more influenced by the circumstances in which they grow up, research has found.

And of course I have my own lens too! I wouldn’t have picked this example if it hadn’t struck me so hard. Like I said earlier, my first response on seeing their awesome visualization was to ask: 

Wtf!? Why the hell are boys performing so terribly in English? Almost a whole-year behind girls all over the country — regardless of socioeconomic status, isn’t that crazy? Why does this not matter to anyone? Given that communication occurs throughout the day and Math is confined to a mere ~45 minute class block once a day, do 8th grade boys just seem mind-numbingly stupid to 8th grade girls every waking moment?

All my female friends laugh and tell me that boys did, in fact, seem (paraphrased) cognitively-stunted, and I feel better about my own memories interacting with 8th grade girls.


And yes, this lens of mine means that the gender gap that first catches my eye — the English one — seems like a BigDealTM. “Perhaps the most important one! It’s certainly the largest — and it doesn’t even go away if you add money! What else in the whole world can you add more money to without getting more performance?! Oh, right, we’re talking about Education.”

But that’s how lenses work. Observing (easy) and understanding (very hard) other people’s lenses after you spot them in the wild is a good way to learn to find new ones and practice the ability to see through them again later.

I’m not saying I’m very good at it yet. And (hot take here) it’s possible to understand someone without agreeing with their prescriptions. But maybe if I invert just three-and-a-half words in the Times’ title, I can show you what it looks like when you look through a fourth lens:

Where Boys Underperform Girls in Math: Poor, Black and Urban Districts


Considering The Whole Spectrum

“Is this just a rerun of the familiar old story of America failing its young black males. Does that story even get clicks anymore?”

This is America , afterall…

This is America, afterall…

I don’t know, I’m not asking anyone to agree, and this lens does not challenge the other lens’ data on parental-investment-by-gender across the socioeconomic spectrum. Interpretations are only mutually exclusive if you’ve got to write your answer in 2 pages, double-spaced, with reference to the text and extra credit for appealing to your teacher’s biases.

This lens requires its own unsupported assumptions and more studies. For the English-test data to show no socioeconomic gender-gap-trend, you’d probably want to look for other studies suggesting that the bulk of Language-skills-acquisition is done outside of the classroom and somehow in a gender-differentiated way (on average), but I’m no scientist. I just do quick Google Scholar searches to confirm that I could at least drop appeals to authority citations in support of my lenses if push came to shove. “Buy Access To This Study For: $42.00”thanks, but like everyone else: I already read the title & the abstract.

I’ll take us back to the section from the Times I quoted earlier:

…Boys’ grades, behavior and future earnings seem to be more influenced by the circumstances in which they grow up, research has found….

When you actually follow each of those links, you find the research has found something a little more specific than that quote implies:

A Disadvantaged Start Hurts Boys More Than Girls

Low-income boys who grow up in high-poverty, high-minority areas work significantly less than girls.

We find that, relative to their sisters, boys born to disadvantaged families have higher rates of disciplinary problems, lower achievement scores, and fewer high-school completions. Evidence supports that this is a causal effect of the post-natal environment; family disadvantage is unrelated to the gender gap in neonatal health. We conclude that the gender gap among black children is larger than among white children in substantial part because black children are raised in more disadvantaged families.

Boys at the bottom of society — i.e. the far-left of the X-axis on the chart that began this whole essay — appear to be more negatively influenced by their "local norms” than Girls, having disproportionately worse outcomes than we might otherwise expect and being particularly at risk for a range of behaviours that have low odds of increasing life outcome (measured however you like).

Looking through this lens implies very different categories of solutions to the problem presented by the initial graphic, and implies time & money should be spent somewhere very different from rich, white, suburban America…

Gambino is a mastermind

Gambino is a mastermind

The Power of Compound Lenses [Citation Needed]

The trouble with lenses is that they compound almost as well as money. Bayesian Inference (translation: updating your worldview in either direction as each additional point of evidence is added) is pretty damn cool, and I’m all about building a coherent rational understanding of reality. But each additional point of evidence is always interpreted and understood in the context of your pre-existing worldview — your lens.

Very small deviations in foundational-level lenses — whether they come from Culture, Upbringing, Lived Experience, Family, Early Relationships, Schooling, Religion, or even Language itself — can influence how all subsequent data points are perceived. That’s pretty basic, I think everyone gets it on some level.

What’s hard to understand is how this can compound entirely rationally into wildly different prescriptions. It’s the bold part of that sentence that’s hard to swallow — much easier, far simpler, to believe that wrong different prescriptions are the result of incorrect “facts” and a flawed thought process than to attempt to understand someone else’s Compound Lenses. But missing out on those Compound Lenses can be “outrageously expensive.”

The idea that the same fact/study/experience/observation/presentation/book/movie/song/essay can rationally be understood by reasonable people to provide Bayesian evidence in support of both their pre-existing worldview and ours is terrifying: always, we hope, the saner and more intelligent people in the audience can be convinced once we show them our Facts, capital-F.

Always, unfortunately, those Facts are Filtered through 10-80 years worth of prior Facts, each colored by a prior Lens. It’d be easier to just show them the whole stack of Compound Lenses than any single Fact, but how to do that without making them watch your whole life in VR? 

And even then, it’d be a passive experience: no choices == no skin in the game…

And even then, it’d be a passive experience: no choices == no skin in the game…

This is inescapable — and this is also why Great Fiction has real power. By cherry-picking certain Facts into a coherent Narrative that can be understood by people who otherwise might have rejected isolated facts and missed the value of the forest because they didn’t like the way a single tree looked, something approaching communication becomes possible, or at least a niggling gut-deep sensation that perhaps another human being might possess enough agency to teach us something. That or I get a lot of acid reflux.

Great Fiction comes in many forms: Religion, Scientism, the S&P500, Newspapers, Harry Potter, The Avengers Movies, Steve Jobs & Elon Musk, the History books you read in school, Instagram, and Venture Capital Pitch Decks

Sadly-but-not-coincidentally Fiction is the only category of book Adults aren’t buying anymore

Today’s Greatest Fiction: The Idealism of Unbiased Facts

One response to the reality of competing Narratives is to disparage them for being fiction and reach for a more perfect world, a Platonic Ideal of Truth, a world where all Facts are “unbiased”. Maybe that could work. Perhaps it could work better if humans weren’t so…human. It would certainly work better if we could all just agree to have the same foundational base of knowledge from which we could interpret these new “unbiased” Facts…

We could call it Culture? Identity? Re-education camps?

This response fails because even the selection of which Facts to present and how to arrange them, how to weight them, language choice, what colors you put on the jacket of the book, the musical accompaniment, the Identity markers of the presenter, and the sum total of all Facts that come before, during, and after this One True Fact — all those and more shape the understood meaning of your “unbiased” Truth.

Language note for my few thousand British readers: don’t tell your American girlfriend/boyfriend:“I’ll miss you when we break up for the summer.”


This does not mean there are no Facts. I’m not saying there’s no objective Truth, and I’m not saying that it can’t be understood and articulated and reasoned about — I’m an Engineer, I like my systems well-defined and internally consistent and with Energy Conserved, and I’m well aware that the correct response to an imperfect map of reality is building Tolerance into the system. You learn that shit in the 2nd year of undergrad. A map is not the territory, but that doesn’t mean the territory doesn’t exist, nor that the map cannot be useful, nor that some maps are not more useful than others…

What I’m saying is that Facts have no meaning, no value, in isolation — trivia is trivial. A single contour line on the map needs others around it to be useful.

And to take Action in the real world (prescription) requires first understanding a network of related facts (diagnosis):


That requires both taking and giving meaning to some Facts & their context. And once you’ve arranged a network of Facts, you’ve built a Narrative. Two points make a line, three make a story, don’t bury the lede, hit that Subscribe button.

Action is a vector: it has both magnitude and direction. “Unbiased” Facts would be facts without context, without Narrative, without meaning, without any action-potential and therefore of only academic value.[3]

So This Really Is A Post-Truth World?

The Post-Truth folks are today railing against a fiction without even being wrong (irony). Their peculiar Fiction is the first word: Post.

At one time we had truth and lies…

Post-truthfulness builds a fragile social edifice based on wariness. It erodes the foundation of trust that underlies any healthy civilization. When enough of us peddle fantasy as fact, society loses its grounding in reality.  Society would crumble altogether if we assumed others were as likely to dissemble as tell the truth. We are perilously close to that point.

Every danger diagnosed in that book is real, the examples emblematic of a phenomenon that exists today, like the New York Times data visualization that began this essay, and yet…

The Diagnosis (“At one time we had-”) is made based on a Compound Lens, a Worldview of the Past. I have to ask: How could you ever have a group of creatures as diverse as humans who viewed the same Facts with the same Meaning and pushed for the same Course of Action in response?

You couldn’t. Not unless you focused the historical lens tightly, narrowed the group: the same Culture, the same Religion, the same Life Experiences, the same Identity.

"People interpret the same facts in different ways!” is not a result of some new and nefarious force undermining your Truth and changing things for the worse. It’s a consequence of you being exposed to more people who before might have been a part of your Outgroup — people who you didn’t even notice and perhaps still prefer not to — a consequence of exposure to more Narratives.

You can have a Homogeneous Conforming Culture or a Heterogeneous Progressive Culture. Don’t expect them to behave the same way, and make sure you know what you’re pining for when you celebrate the past for its shared Truth.

I’d rather have the fractal intersectionality of Tumblr than these chucklefucks — and this is the “best”-case-scenario. Read Orwell for more details.

I’d rather have the fractal intersectionality of Tumblr than these chucklefucks — and this is the “best”-case-scenario. Read Orwell for more details.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that people today aren’t lying and spinning and manipulating and weaving truly creative fictions (hi Theranos)Great Fiction has always had power: has become by convention a sort of representative of demand; and this is why it has the name 'money' (nomisma)-because it exists not by nature but by law (nomos) and it is in our power to change it and make it useless

…This is why all goods must have a price set on them; for then there will always be exchange, and if so, association of man with man.

That’s Aristotle on Money as a Great Fiction to bring men together and also as within his our power to change. A Fiction with purpose. A force for good, a force for Justice, capital J — he wrote this in his book on Ethics.

The Counter Narrative on Money ends: “…the root of all evil.”

Millennials,  here’s Don Draper  lecturing you on your place in the office, which he has to do because you keep asking for all this extra shit that his generation never got — or at least that’s the writers’ Narrative. Our Counter Narrative begins: “In 2008…”

Millennials, here’s Don Draper lecturing you on your place in the office, which he has to do because you keep asking for all this extra shit that his generation never got — or at least that’s the writers’ Narrative. Our Counter Narrative begins: “In 2008…”

As Technology (if you’re reading this, it’s for you because the internet) and Politics continue to Democratize Power in America, the number of potential Narratives we’re all exposed to increases, many of them unscripted, unedited, and unapproved. Those Narratives which outcompete the others and rise above the noise will be the ones that shine brightest through the Compounded Lenses of the audience.

It’s totally valid to attack certain Narratives as #fakenews, as dangerous and harmful to society, and when the “facts” are “alternative” I’m all for shooting them down. It sure feels good. Just keep in mind that while you’re mowing fake-facts down on the internet like a less-roided Rambo, you’re fighting the symptom not the disease. The fake-facts might be an infection, but the Compound Lenses are open wounds — if you care about an outcome, your time is usually better spent telling stories of your own.

Of course, those stories will need to be calibrated to penetrate through society’s collective Compound Lenses if you want to outcompete and be the Signal that breaks through the democratized Noise…

…which is exactly why the system has become what it is. Moloch, God of Existential Competition, says hello!

The Panopticon

The scheme of the design is to allow all (pan-) inmates of an institution to be observed (-opticon) by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. (Wikipedia)

And at last we return to Social Media.

If The Medium is the Message, what’s the message of the Social Medium? One answer: action, or more specifically, engagement. In contrast to the passive or subliminal advertising world of Mad Men, the modern consumer is an active participant in their own productization. Our actions tell businesses exactly what to show us to win our likes upvotes retweets dollars, and most of my friends & people plugged into Silicon Valley prefer it this way.

“What, you mean you’d rather see untargeted ads for shit you don’t need?”

Not at all — I remember my childhood and the endless car insurance ads squeezed between flashes of cartoons. Next Time on Dragon…Ball…Z: 0% APR for the first year!” I resented it then, the forced reduction in utility, the distraction, the psychological manipulation. And I resented the brands that did it and resolved never to buy their shit.

Today’s reduction of resentment does not imply a reduction in psychological manipulation, and the prize is still the same: Greenbacks and Bluefaces. Not out of my wallet — out of the advertiser’s. They’re the ones paying Facebook, and the more I hit refresh, the more impressions my content generates, the more engaged I am, the more engaged I make others, the more Facebook gets paid.

People whose girlfriends made them Facebook accounts in the Fall of 2005 (hi that’s me) or who remember the dark (surprise-soundtrack-filled) days of MySpace will know that the default home page of these sites was not an all-access feed to society’s firehose of toxic memes. You used to just login and see your own profile. Narcissistic? Yeah, but that was in the name: MySpace. If you wanted to see something else, you had to go looking for it…

Now this almost sounds useful! I’ve met so many interesting people in SF over the last few years who were friends of friends of friends…I wonder how many connections I’m missing out on. Contact link is up there ^

Now this almost sounds useful! I’ve met so many interesting people in SF over the last few years who were friends of friends of friends…I wonder how many connections I’m missing out on. Contact link is up there ^

But now?

Now my homepages at Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and YouTube are dominated by the Narratives which have resonated most strongly across the largest number of shared Compound Lenses. Lowest Common Denominator Narratives, applied to the entire internet. There are no small gated communities because there are no gates strong enough to keep the Internet at bay, no privacy, even your group chat messages get shared and reblogged and viewed in the most inciting context, rewarding the share-er with the most precious social currency: attention.

The Social Medium demands action, engagement, proactive consumption (it’s like production except someone else gets paid), and then surfaces your action back to Skynet The Algorithm to see if it can induce even more engagement in others because that’s the metric that matters. “The algorithm itself incites to deeds of engagement.” I think Homer said that one.

In many ways the best Tech companies are little Paperclip Maximizers of their own, turning VC dollars into the metric on the Pitch Deck’s primary slide. Fine by me — Aristotle said money was Good, after all, and you’ve got to grow if you want to survive ‘til the IPO. And then you’ll meet Wall St. and realize you’ve got to keep growing forever, actually, so please keep the metrics going up. That’s the game and it’s actually a pretty fun one most of the time, no matter which side of the table you’re on.

Of course, Real Life for actual humans is a series of Iterated Games, which means all of us who participate in the Social Medium are aware that we might, at any moment, be put on blast by the entire fucking world, viewed only in the context of whichever Narrative put us on that Global Stage by “virtue” of giving us the greatest penetration through the largest number of Compound Lenses.

That sentence was a mouthful, so here’s Cap’ explaining it simply

That sentence was a mouthful, so here’s Cap’ explaining it simply

This process — taking the personal and repeatedly making it global, which then forces the personal to conform to the global — might be a metaphor for that stuff I mentioned earlier: “As Technology and Politics continue to Democratize Power in America-” The upside is that each of us gets more power (thanks for reading, follow me on Twitter!), the downside is that nowhere is safe because each of us is surrounded by more power than any individual has held since Truman (hyperbole). The downside is the power’s ubiquity makes us feel more constrained, not less, and the only protection is to conform or to not act at all.

"Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now.” - Said everyone who ever ended up on the Internet

This is what Kanye West meant in that crazy interview when he said were all living in a simulation (timestamp 7:37): we’re all constantly calculating in our minds how our actions will be perceived, judged, and responded to by everyone around us, and we modify our actions to avoid pain.

The Social Medium makes that Global: implicitly threatening to put everyone around us, all the time. Simulate that!

That’s the Panopticon Prism. Inaction as a result of self-regulation based on simulated models of everyone else’s competing Narratives and the potential outcomes of falling under the focus of society’s Lowest Common Denominator Compound Lenses. 24/7, 52/76.

As redditor /u/DinoInNameOnly put it: Most of What You Read on the Internet is Written by Insane People. Of course it is — all the sane folks self-regulated.

Analysis Paralysis

It’s not a coincidence that I only published my writing after starting my own company. I’m neither the smartest nor the most articulate of my friends. The best conversations in Silicon Valley, the best insights, the most compelling arguments — they all happen in a galaxy far, far, far away from the Internet. It doesn’t take a genius to simulate the downside risks of being (mis)interpreted online and decide that nothing is that worth it.

I’m not claiming this essay is an entirely original articulation, I’m just thinking out loud and connecting dots into a Narrative. This has been covered more deeply by others and the lessons of Seeing Like A State (spoiler: the map at the Global scale is a poor representation of reality at the Local scale, beware of acting in one scale with a map from the other) apply to an ever wider pool of people as the State’s power over Diagnosis and Prescription is handed to the rest of us plebs by Technology and we find that our daily lives can cross from Personal to Global and back again in a heartbeat:

Back in 2016, human meme Ken Bone earned a backlash for the contents of his Reddit history, which was ridiculous—if tepid politics and softcore preggo porn are the worst of your vices you deserve to be sainted—but raises the question, could any of our chat logs take the heat? Doubtful. The circles of hell have been built deep over the past fifty years, the list of sins writ in blurred legalese. I’m not worried about Black Mirror histrionics, but rather about how this plays out in the micro, with millennials paralyzed by the pointlessness of pursuing any action that wilts under scrutiny, which is all of them, how dare you be happy when 10,000 children are sold into sexual slavery each year? “actually, i’m not happy. i have anxiety.” Well, whatever works.

Spoiler : it’s not working

Spoiler: it’s not working

As I said, Gambino is a mastermind, and if you want this essay in a more digestible format, just listen to That Power on repeat until you understand the outro:

I told you something. It was just for you and you told everybody

So I learned cut out the middleman, make it all for everybody, always

Everybody can’t turn around and tell everybody, everybody already knows, I told them

But this means there isn’t a place in my life for you or someone like you

Is it sad? Sure. But it’s a sadness I chose

The cost, if you missed it, was [ _ _ _ _ ].

That’s Depressing — What’s The Solution?

I don’t know. Everyone has their own prescription these days. But here’s what I think as of January 2019:

To those with megalomaniacal tendencies, a yearning for the 1950s and prior decades, a not-so-secret crush on the idea of a tyranny of The Elite (incl. yourself, ofc), and an optimistic take on your ability to fight the relentless march of the Democratization of Power in America…

…I suggest a reactionary political demand for Control of the (Social) Media.

For everyone else:

Tell some fucking better stories.


Preferably something aspirational? And may I suggest a target demo of Gen Z boys & girls? You’ll get the bonus of quick feedback (thanks to Instagram or w.e the kids are using now) and at least your attention might make things better even if your stories suck.

One solution to paralysis in the face of decision making under extreme uncertainty, ambiguous data inputs, small n, and the threat of intense social sanction is to make sure people have a destination they care about reaching: to raise the cost of inaction at the Personal scale.


[stuff might get said on HackerNews or Reddit or Twitter, and if it’s good stuff I’ll put it here]


  • Credit to Niall Ferguson for his quote from an interview. I don’t think his prescriptions are right at all, but the diagnosis is pretty on point:

I would describe the Network Platforms — as presently constituted — as engines not just of confirmation bias…it’s worse than that. They don’t just put you in a filter bubble and keep you there. They want to move you out along the spectrum, because the more “out there” you are, oddly enough, the more engaged you tend to be… 

…the goal was just engagement, but we’ve created in Silicon Valley Network Platforms that are accentuating the divisions in our society in a way that I think is profoundly dangerous.

I argue that the degree of competition for attention alters whether media is able to deliberatively articulate a purposeful message to the masses or whether the fascinations of the masses – that is what draws their attention – dictates the content that the media produces. The competitiveness of the attention market is shaped primarily by the logic inherent in the dominant technology of distribution: what Marshall McLuhan refers to when he says that “the medium is the message.” 

When it comes [to] meaning in media, we are confronted with an unpalatable choice. Either stable meaning imposed through deliberative control by the few (as tyranny) or the autonomous, impersonal and invisible hand of the attention market, which, in the end, results in the “liquidation of meaning”. Any point in between is an unstable equilibrium. And one can at least negotiate with a tyrant.

Paper filed by the author under “Frankfurt School, Social Theory” prefers tyranny to democracy, News at 11, don’t tell 4chan, it turns out this stuff is intentionally indigestible to those outside the Ivory Tower or we’d all riot — or at least sign a strongly worded petition. Still, as with Niall Ferguson, the prescription is off but the diagnosis is very on point: what makes the Media’s competition Molochian is the necessary sacrifice of that which it cares most about (a purposeful message).

Something something horseshoe theory.

[0] I understand that these might be the most relevant factors which were backed out of the data, but I wanted to highlight that Engineering and Finance are (to my knowledge) currently seen as professions with a strong Math component and a strong gender-gap. To the extent that this study & the NYT article are discussing the impact of “local norms” on child development, and ultimately on English & Math performance in the 8th grade, the employment of a parent in a highly-gender skewed professional environment based on Math strikes me as a confounding variable.

The X-axis in the NYT’s awesome data visualization wouldn’t make as much sense if it read: “One Parent Employed in Male-Dominated Math-Based Professional Environment ->”. Or perhaps that would make sense? Depends on your lens, I suppose.

[1] A different Stanford study suggests things are at least somewhat muddy:

This uses the standard Left-Right scale that we all know and love, Y-axis scales are adjusted, academics & lawyers have the most donors

This uses the standard Left-Right scale that we all know and love, Y-axis scales are adjusted, academics & lawyers have the most donors

[2] Consider the front pages of the Wall St Journal and The Economist and the BBC at the time of writing, and you’ll note that only the WSJ puts Chinese economic underperformance on the frontpage, only The Economist discusses European leaders from their own perspective instead of as unnamed bit-players who exist only in relation to US/UK leaders, and only the BBC has news of an actual unfolding disaster in Europe. It’d be quicker to play “spot the similarity” than “spot the difference”:

[3] Naturally, Academics tend to be big fans of this idea — along with anyone else who might claw back power over the sum-of-all-action-potentials by reclaiming control of a Narrative.