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This week: apocalyptic prophets, dating apps and art movements
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The end is nigh
A fun thread here about r/Superstonk, a meme stock subreddit which pitches itself as being a place for “theoretical discussions about business” — with a particular, and some might argue maniacal, focus on GameStop. I have also been keeping an eye on it for the past year or so, and yes: it has over time evolved into something which strongly resembles a millenarian cult.
Here’s the short version of the bizarre eschatology adopted by r/Superstonk. You will surely remember the events of 2021, when GameStop’s heavily shorted stock started to explode in value as an army of shitposters and self-described degenerates — whipped into a frenzy by analysis in r/wallstreetbets and Discord — piled into it. Investors who were shorting GameStop took heavy losses, with one, Melvin Capital, eventually forced to close its doors in May this year as a consequence. Some retail investors made a lot of money jumping off the rollercoaster at the right time, whereas others were left holding the bag when the stock eventually crashed back down to normal levels.
Naturally this led to a whole lot of discourse, most of it annoying. Was this an outburst of financial populism, revenge for the failure of Occupy Wall Street in the noughts? Was the crackdown by platforms like Robinhood on meme stock trading evidence of the unseen hands of a hostile elite? Or was this all completely meaningless — pandemic money sluicing through a red hot economy, powered by the same arcane internet dynamics that drive other viral videos and online trends?
Whatever your view at the time, it’s quite likely you are no longer dedicating much of your mental bandwidth to GameStop. But there remains a very sizeable community of people who still hold the stock, and think the events of 2021 were merely a prelude to the Mother of All Short Squeezes (MOASS) — an apocalyptic event which will unwind the entire corrupt financial system and leave the keepers of the faith with wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Posters on r/Superstonk author novel-length dissertations overflowing with esoteric language to spread their doctrine, and argue endlessly about a proposed timeline for when it might actually happen, with the general consensus being “as soon as tomorrow”. (The virtual bookshelf they’ve built to organise and display their sacred texts is truly something to behold.)
On the one hand, you can read this — as Olson does in his thread — as a kind of nuclear-level cope by people who were swept up in the GameStop mania but didn’t actually make off with the spoils. They have a long position in a brick-and-mortar video games retailer which, while attempting to innovate out of its fundamentally doomed core business and dabbling in new products like a digital assets market and crypto payments, has not yet revealed itself as a genuine reservoir of deep and untapped value. Conjuring a scenario in which GameStop is a loadbearing Jenga block for the entire global financial system is how they resolve that.
But it’s also worth thinking about it through the lens of the same phenomenon that powers just about everything else now: fandom. Strip away the populism, and you find a highly organised subculture of GameStop fans who have organically generated a mythology, language and meme ecology to support the natural camaraderie around their favourite thing. While undeniably cultish about its weird belief system, it only looks a little fiercer than what you find on many of the shitposting subreddits dedicated to the video game IPs GameStop retails.
In short: never underestimate a bunch of guys with the same obsession hanging around in a chatroom together all day. It was ever thus.
Labour of love
Plenty of laughs were had online this past fortnight with the launch of The Right Stuff, a dating app pitched at American right-wingers which pitches itself as a ‘non-woke’ version of Tinder. Its developers argue that the current generation of dating apps (like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge) have gone woke, disadvantaging right-wingers who use them to find partners. To that end, it offers prospective users the scintillating promise of “profiles without pronouns” and connecting with “people who aren’t offended by everything”. Shockingly, only straight pairings are supported here.
The Right Stuff sits comfortably as part of the current generation of ‘alt tech’ startups that are attempting to build a competing right-wing platform ecosystem to Big Tech, to varying degrees of success. All of them operate on the assumption that existing platforms enable liberals and persecute conservatives through moderation policy and algorithmic selection. Whether or not you think that is true, it’s hard to deny these alternative platforms inevitably they run into two fairly significant hurdles. The first is that the existing platforms generally have a scale and technological sophistication that’s very difficult to challenge from a cold start, and the second is that it’s a serious challenge to peel off users to a competitor once their network effect has accumulated.
But I find the alternative dating app universe fascinating on its own merits. Apps like Tinder have had a significant and under-described impact on the social order in the countries in which they are popular. They play an important role in relationship formation — particularly among younger people — and have largely supplanted whatever vestigial remnants of old courtship rituals survived the onset of network technology. To the extent dating apps play a systematised role in the way family units are formed and therefore how society is organised, they’re obviously naturally political, even if the broader impact can be difficult to observe. If you’re inclined to think the dominant dating apps have an entrenched ideological bent opposed to your own, then that’s a much thornier problem for you and your movement.
I was thinking about this when I read this article in Compact from academic Jon Askonas, who argues the modern conservative movement has failed because it doesn’t account for the radically disruptive impact of new technology. “As new technologies enter a society, they disrupt the connections between institutions, practices, virtues, and rewards,” he writes. “They can render traditions purposeless, destroy the distinction between virtuous and vicious behaviour, make customary ways of life obsolete, or render their rewards meaningless or paltry.” It’s not hard to see that applying to the new dating technology we face.
There are rival dating apps popping up which are more explicit about having a broader political vision beyond just pairing right-wingers with other right-wingers. These seem to take a much more actively revanchist goal; using technology to walk back the sexual revolution and reinstitute older moralities. Take Keeper, which says its mission to enable human flourishing prioritises “long-term meaning over short-term gratification” and doesn’t “deny nature”. From its website:
We are the result of millions of years of natural and sexual selection. These evolutionary pressures have created intersexual dynamics that dictate how relationships form. Because of this, men and women behave differently when they look for a partner, from the things they want, to how they feel about short-term vs. long-term relationships. We are conscious of the incentives and limitations hardwired into all of us. For example, because men are visually primed more easily than women for short-term pursuits, Keeper built our user experience for men differently.
So it’s quite obviously wearing its politics on its sleeve. Nonetheless, it makes you wonder whether it’s even possible to build tech that reinstalls older value systems like this, or whether more casual, fleeting human relationships are hardwired into the technological and communication systems we’ve built.
Today in weird tech jobs
Art for art’s sake
Watchers of the rapidly developing AI art world will have seen one name pop up perhaps more than anyone else: Grzegorz ‘Greg’ Rutkowski. The Polish digital illustrator, who isn’t particularly well-known in the artworld at large, has seen his name quickly become one of the most widely-used prompts on AI art platforms like Arthub and Lexica. The MIT Technology Review reported last month that use of his name as a prompt far outstrips objectively more iconic artists like Picasso and Van Gogh.
He is not a big fan of his newfound position as prompt du jour:
Rutkowski was initially surprised but thought it might be a good way to reach new audiences. Then he tried searching for his name to see if a piece he had worked on had been published. The online search brought back work that had his name attached to it but wasn’t his.
“It’s been just a month. What about in a year? I probably won’t be able to find my work out there because [the internet] will be flooded with AI art,” Rutkowski says. “That’s concerning.”
What makes Rutkowski’s artwork so popular in this space? He’s best known for his classic-style fantasy art, which is basically a modernised, video-gamey amalgam of decades of fantasy paperback covers. You know: giant fire-breathing dragons, snow-capped mountains, cloaked warlocks, the works. His work has appeared in trading card games like Magic: The Gathering, and he’s created concept art for games like Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Because his work is competent, clear, uniformly styled, and captures the general vibe of ‘epic fantasy art’, it has become useful prompt shorthand for people who want to make images in that style. Thinking programatically, it’s almost like a function which applies the aesthetic vibe of the last twenty years of fantasy cover art to an input. The other takeaway is that the overwhelming majority of enthusiastic AI art creators are geeks with an aesthetic sensibility gleaned from video games rather than museum pieces, but I think the fact an insane amount of AI art is basically ‘conventionally beautiful women in spacesuits’ makes that abundantly clear.
I’m sure being heralded as the standard-bearer for a whole art style is somewhat flattering, but it does result in the AI art rapidly supplanting Rutkowski’s own work in search:
I’m not sure where this particular trend ends up. But it’s not hard to imagine a future where particular (organic, human) artists become famous not so much for their work but for their role as signifiers which can be easily fed into the algorithm for wider interpretation and creation.
Legs are here. Finally, we can feel truly embodied in the machine.
People have been sharing this 1995 article by engineer and early internet pioneer Robert Metcalfe, in which he predicts the utter collapse of the internet in 1996. He didn’t get it right, but many of the things he predicted as being fatal are things we still argue about.
On RealPage’s YieldStar, a software product which aggregates private and public data to assist landlords in setting rents, and boasts it can help them “outperform the market 3% to 7%”. The story doesn’t convincingly make the case that YieldStar is currently exacerbating to the current rental crisis in the US (except perhaps in some narrow markets) but there’s some interesting implications there in data being leveraged to create something that looks like a pricing cartel.
This from Fabricated Knowledge is an interesting read on the market for timekeeping, including the variable cost of essential goods like quartz crystals.
A skeptical take on VR from a self-described technology enthusiast: “And as much as VR might be able to make massive improvements in speed and graphical fidelity, it’s hard to see how it can overcome the fundamental friction involved in strapping a thing on your face that blocks out the world.”
On the online fascination with “images of commodities in the process of destruction". Finally someone has intelligently addressed the bizarre viral video format of objects being destroyed by a hydraulic press.
A post from 99% Invisible explaining the Irish roots of airport duty-free stores.
An investigation into refugees using TikTok livestreaming to beg for donations, while the company takes up to 70% of their earnings. “In the camps in north-west Syria, the BBC found that the trend was being facilitated by so-called "TikTok middlemen", who provided families with the phones and equipment to go live.”
A convincing argument that conservatism as a broad political philosophy is failing largely because its proponents rarely account for the impact of technology. “As new technologies enter a society, they disrupt the connections between institutions, practices, virtues, and rewards. They can render traditions purposeless, destroy the distinction between virtuous and vicious behavior, make customary ways of life obsolete, or render their rewards meaningless or paltry.”