The Week: indentured creators, hype houses and something truly awful

Plus: some links, as always.

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Action!

Interesting story in VICE about the creator economy leading venture capitalists to think about investing in individual people, and the social implications of taking equity in a human beings:

The decision to invest directly in humans brings about a host of legal, ethical, and moral questions that Lessin will surely need to confront head-on. The idea that someone might sign a 30-year employment contract and that society should explicitly value a human brings up questions of indentured servitude and worse—claims which Lessin sees as entirely ill-founded. (“it's def not indentured servitude,” he recently wrote in response to someone who said the legal issues seemed “daunting.”) He believes that he is setting society on a path where we are free to invest in our favorite humans through multiple venture rounds, providing young, brilliant people with the money to fund a path to success that doesn’t exist today.  

The comparison being drawn here is to indentured servitude to wealthy patrons and benefactors, but it also looks like the re-emergence of the Hollywood studio and talent system of the early 20th century, just for nebulous categories like thinkers and creators.

This isn’t a totally novel thought: Silicon Valley VC heavyweights Andreessen Horowitz have long modelled themselves on massive Hollywood talent agents like those at the Creative Artists Agency.


School of hard knocks

One thing that briefly occupied people’s time this week was the announcement of the University of Austin, an anti-woke uni which was launched with the above video. Accompanied by a sweeping orchestral score, it rattles through a list of intellectual dark web thinkers (and the occasional Jeffrey Epstein associate) who are rolling up their sleeves and bringing back the spirit of untrammelled academic inquiry in age of stultifying woke censorship. Or something like that. You get the general picture.

A couple of things I found interesting, beyond the obvious. The first is that, despite the fact it is bring pitched as a university which will presumably eventually accept students and offer degrees, everything about the way its being sold — from the video to the various conservative influencers boosting it — makes it seem more like a content collective. It feels more like a social media hype house for Gen X rationalists, or a FaZe Clan for the ultimate esport (thinking). They should do those educational TikToks where they point at floating text while making goofy faces.

The other thing that interested is how it illustrates the contradictions in the anti-woke coalition. Calls for uncensored free speech and free inquiry are common on this side of politics, but there’s an underlying tension as to what end that serves. Are free inquiry and open debate an innate good worth celebrating – as a liberal might argue – or is the alleged censorship of the social justice warriors stopping us from getting at fundamental, rigid truths? These are only compatible to a point. Sohrab Ahmari, one of the leading public intellectuals of the new post-liberal right and one of the University of Austin’s associates, was quick to clarify that he is in the latter camp, and doesn’t actually think ‘free inquiry’ is the highest ideal:

Of course, this instability doesn’t necessary undermine the project. Liberal-conservative fusionism has been very politically successful at various points in modern, and the Right has often arraigned itself in various anti-Left, anti-socialist coalitions which have been riven by contradictions and yet manage to soldier on anyway. But it’s interesting that when you cut through the anti-wokeness, there’s a lot of strong disagreement about what kind of society they actually want to build. Dave Rubin and Sohrab Ahmari do not want the same things.

I thought this piece in UnHerd was pretty good at unpicking some of these complications and disagreements within the anti-woke right, which have accelerated among the state interventions of the pandemic:

For me, this event encapsulated the NatCon’s quandary: what kind of alliance, if any, is possible between liberals and post-liberals? And, crucially, ordered to which values? Everyone on the panel was unenthusiastic about wokeness, at pains to stress that they weren’t rabid authoritarians, and seemingly unsure about how to resolve the question of how state power could align with moral values, without treading on at least some of their friends’ toes.



Meta(stasis) II

Last week I talked about the surge of interest in the metaverse after Mrk Zuckerberg’s big play. This has continued unabated. Disney is the latest to announce the creation of its own metaverse, which it did in its quarterly earnings call:

Speaking during the company’s quarterly corporate results call, Chapek added: “Our efforts to date are merely a prologue to a time when we’ll be able to connect the physical and digital worlds even more closely, allowing for storytelling without boundaries in our own Disney metaverse.”

Chapek gave no specific details of Disney’s plans on the results call, in keeping with a concept that is still very much in its early stages across the tech industry. But he indicated in a further interview on CNBC on Wednesday that the company’s Disney+ streaming service would be involved.

Peter Jackson sold his digital effects studio, Weta Digital, to video game engine company Unity for $1.6 billion in a move being contextualised as a metaverse effort.

Chinese titan Tencent also flagged its interest in an earnings call. “Anything that makes the virtual world more real and the real world more rich with virtual experiences can become part of the metaverse,” said CEO Pony Ma.

Obviously, this is all surfing on Meta’s tailwind, but I honestly find it mildly surreal that so much airtime is being given by all sorts of companies to a concept that is still pretty nebulously defined and does not exist in an appreciable way.

You can see a parallel in video gaming companies jumping on the NFT and blockchain conversation without really being clear a) why they’re doing it or b) what actual benefits it will provide players:


Obligatory ape update

Also: Universal Music is trying to recreate the Gorillaz, except they’re Bored Ape NFTs. As a certified fan of apes, monkeys and chimps, I’m having a real “Not like this! Not like this!” moment about how they’re colonising the culture.


Truly something awful

Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka, founder of Something Awful, is dead. By most accounts a pretty troubled guy, especially in his later years, he likely won’t be eulogised anywhere prominent, despite the fact the influence of his website on internet culture (and therefore the culture more broadly) was substantial.

I spent an inordinate of time lurking on SA and its forums throughout the early 2000s and it was pretty foundational to my sense of humour. A lot of the retrospectives being posted online right now, like the above, point to the material expressions of SA’s influence on internet culture, like its incubation of now ubiquitous forms of content like image macros and Let’s Play videos, as well as the later creation of 4chan and everything that came with that.

But the thing that endures most for me was that it was the first website and forums I read1 which started to comprehend and quantify the fundamental weirdness of the internet and its constituent oddball communities, and suffused that into a kind of language which persists today. Here’s a crude excerpt from an oral history retrospective in VICE which I think captures a lot:

A long time ago, if somebody said they really wanted to fuck a pillow with anime on it, if they went out in public and said that, they would be laughed at. There would be some element of shame. They would keep that inside and say, 'Well, I want to fuck a pillow with anime on it but I can't tell anybody.' But then the internet came along and they could get on a webring or whatever it was back in the day. Go to rec/all/fuckanimepillow or whatever. Then other people would say 'I want to fuck anime pillows, too.' You had this community of people who were very intent on fucking anime pillows. The typical person does not want to fuck a pillow with anime on it. This, of course, was back when fucking anime pillows was fresh and new.

I found it to be very interesting that these subcommunities would sprout up and their numbers would grow and pretty soon it's Pillowfuckers United, Inc. And I found that whole process back then—it was even happening in the usegroup days—I found that whole process incredibly interesting, how the groupthink would manifest itself and increase exponentially over time. It was something that all the media outlets were ignoring at the time.


Elsewhere

  • I thought this was a neat bit of critique — or, at least, some unstructured thoughts — on Web3. Liked this quote

Many Web3 boosters see themselves as disruptors, but “tokenize all the things” is nothing if not an obedient continuation of “market-ize all the things”, the campaign started in the 1970s, hugely successful, ongoing. In a way, the World Wide Web was the rupture — “Where … is the money?”—which Web 2.0 smoothed over and Web3 now attempts to seal totally.

  • Despite the fact crypto is often sold as a disruption of the existing financial system, much of the uptake is by speculators who don’t really have any real distrust of the system as it is right now, or at least don’t care much. Good bit on this.

  • A fun read on the 90s dad thriller.

  • I liked this on the ‘lying flat’ trend of Chinese youth. Including this wonderful quote from a 26-year-old on Baidu: “Lying down is my philosophical movement. Only through lying flat can humans become the measure of all things".

  • A post on ‘crypto cities’ from Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin.

  • A critical view on NFTs from Ed Zitron.

  • Cool thread about cave diving.

  • Enjoyed these two essays on Marxist ecologist Andreas Malm, both in the London Review of Books.

  • From WIRED: “Substack Is Now a Playground for the Deplatformed”. (I’m just getting ahead of my deplatforming.) Makes a good point: if the creator economy has presented an opportunity to escape the click-driven outrage model of media on the social web, why have so many prominent Substackers arrived at a subscription-driven outrage model anyway? What changes?

  • Someone shared this August blog post from Niantic founder John Hanke about the metaverse, which calls it a “dystopian nightmare” and calls for something more humanistic. It’s interesting because Niantic’s game, Pokemon Go, is exactly the sort of augmented reality experience the metaverse is supposed to encapsulate.

1

I’m a tad too young to have been involved too much in earlier IRC and Usenet, so this is really just my personal experience.