Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter about figuring out what we can say for sure about all sorts of weird bullshit.
Subscribers might have been notified that I paused payments today. I’ve done this because my day job of filing taxes has scheduled me for a total of 74 hours between last week and next week when I agreed to 40 and there’s just no chance I’m going to be able to keep any kind of writing schedule while sitting 8+ hours/day.
Chairtime is a major constraint for me doing stuff as I can’t really type well unless I’m sitting.
I don’t want to go on a full hiatus, but I think we’re going to have a couple of weeks of “when I feel like it” publishing.
I’m going to try and finish the Blavatsky piece soon.
Alright, that’s the bad news.
The good news is I had a successful test round of selling stickers for my Facebook page.
I’ve reordered them and will be expanding.
Here’s a post I wrote about where I want to go:
So, I sold out of stickers in about 24 hours despite Facebook. While sleeping like... 12 hours.
Here's pretty much what I want to do: I want to build a group (on either FB or discord) where I can collaborate with artists to make cool stuff, mainly stickers and pins, so this page can go back to being largely commerce free. Invite some of my rad artist friends to share their expertise and wares, and see if we can break through the psychedelic cliches of visionary art.
Something that lets us get paid while doing what we love and, ideally, helping more other people get there as well.
It's not communism (though it'll certainly be worker-owned), but it's a start.
So that’s going well.
Also, I’ve started editing the first two years’ page into an ebook. Subscribers will receive it for free. But I don’t want to publish it until I finish the Terence McKenna project so that’ll be my main focus in the coming weeks. Just have to claw past the Theosophical Society first.
Today I’ve polished up a couple pieces I wrote for the page. I wanted to get something out that’s actual content.
Demand Side Disinformation
Lots of people talk about disinformation on the supply side. And sure, it's easy to knock blatant liars like Alex Jones or David Icke.
These assholes and frauds are just symptoms.
The real problem is demand.
Tons of people are skeptical of "mainstream news".
And discussions of restoring trust in "mainstream news" rarely tackle the core of the issue: These publications regularly lie and refuse to discuss the truth.
Most people put a political spin on this, which is true to a degree. NYC and LA Liberals do have a consensus, biases, and consider themselves elite culture makers in a way that drives many of us fucking bonkers.
But their editors, publishers, owners, and advertisers also have a slew of biases that don't neatly fit into the conservative line of "Liberal Media".
A good tool to understand this is Aristotle's Rhetoric. Most people talk about either Logos (facts) or Pathos (feelings), but these are secondary issues. The game is played out in Ethos, or character. Who do you trust? Who has standing to speak with authority on a subject?
This is why the mainstream media (including Fox news before they came around on Trump) were so mystified by people who didn't care about their arguments against Trump. Trump said: Look at how they're attacking me, I must be saying something right.
And a ton of people bought that line because they'd been burned by “the media” before.
To take the most obvious example from my lifetime, the New York Times coverage of Iraq, especially the staggeringly irresponsible "reporting" of Judith Miller. Where she laundered the Bush Adminstrations’s weakest and most baseless claims about Saddam Hussein's WMD program and gave it all a gloss of deadly reality.
She had a career after that. Even after we knew that her coverage was based on lies. Lies she absolutely should have recognized, criticized, and refused to be party to.
But journalists, like UFO researchers, are suckers for access, and everyone likes being inside where all the secrets are so she didn't use the critical thinking skills her fancy education taught.
And there are plenty of other examples. An excellent insider account of the kinds of pressure brought to bear when a Journalist has a story their bosses don't want to be published is Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill. It’s about his attempts to get the story of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses in print.
This isn't a simple case of people without ethics though. Many in the industry are, in fact, highly principled people in complex systems that ask for complex compromises doing the best they can.
I'd guess that many if not most journalists really believe they're doing the right thing most of the time.
But that doesn't matter because of emergent forces that push away from certain ideas. Consider how normalized subsidies for the rich are.
That's not only an issue people on the left have. Plenty of people on the right (especially the far right) are pissed about it too. But you can't publish harsh criticisms of it because all your big advertisers take government cheese.
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent is a helpful guide to contextualize these pressures, though it needs some updating to account for the ways social media algorithms have deformed what news gets covered and how.
See also, media consolidation.
The Internet was sold to people as a way to democratize information by a mix of naive tech optimists and their profiteers.
And it's kind of succeeded at that. Even this Newsletter with less than 500 subscriptions can reach more than I could have with a zine in the 1990s.
My hope is this is a learning curve and people in 2030 will be orders of magnitude more media-savvy than people in 2003, 2010, or 2020.
Maybe with enough backlash, we can retake journalism as a commons. But before that's possible someone will need to figure out how to pay for it. And so far nobody has.
But that means pushing against a great many different forces. I don't know if it's possible. It'd require a lot of different people to put aside their other differences and try to bring back a shared mass media.
And that sucked too in its own ways.
The alternative appears to be working out a trust system for journalists publishing independently. But that requires a ton more effort on an individual level to manage so I don't think it'll take off.
Can a society thrive in the half-light of delusion? Well, its rulers certainly can. But more general well-being seems doubtful.
We'll see, I guess.
On the Brief Life Of Objective Journalism
Following up on our post about disinformation, it's *really* important to understand the history of objective journalism.
Here's a quick rundown: in the late 19th century, printing costs were going way down. So you started getting daily newspapers for dirt cheap, which were highly lucrative once you also started selling ads.
Ed note: A commenter pointed out that cheap pamphlets causing social uprisings has a much longer history than I’m going into, which is true, but I’m focused on the 20th century here.
This led to an explosion in choices and early clickbait: What we now call yellow journalism. It's the same emotional reaction triggering shit: Sleaze, crime, sex, celebrities, and ideally all at once.
By WW1 or so it was becoming clear that having all your newspapers print a ton of emotional bullshit may *not* be the ideal way of informing your civilization what's happening and by the return of peace a number of prominent journalists began campaigning for what we've come to call Journalistic Objectivity.
Most notably is Walter Lippman. Who railed against yellow journalism and propaganda.
This trend built up over the 20s and 30s, and by the end of WW2 objective journalism had largely won its place as the standard all serious journalists had to adhere to.
Yellow Journalism never really went away, of course, it just got guaranteed to the tabloids and various other fringes.
This lasted from more or less the mid-1940s until the establishment of New Journalism in the mid-1960s & 70s, where nonfiction writers would mix in literary techniques with their fact-reporting.
The most relevant of this school, Hunter S Thompson, put it like this:
"People will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful."
And this is a major point of what I mean by psychedelic class warfare: You can hide all sorts of assumptions while dressing your points up as "objective" and "purely about facts".
Getting large numbers of people to simply accept those assumptions as unquestionably true is one of the highest goals of propaganda. See capitalist realism.
And since the 1970s, we've been in a complex deterioration of Objectivity as the great standard in news. In the 1980s it somewhat came back, albeit with strong pro-shareholder value and pro-market biases.
And it was in 1987, that the FCC's fairness doctrine was removed, opening the floodgates for talk radio, and mass subjective journalism.
But even before the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Conservative propagandists like Roger Ailes were looking to put out a mass media broadcast with a strong conservative spin into the public eye.
It'd take Ailes a few decades to make it happen, but with Fox News' prominence in the late 90s any hope of 24-hour news staying within the bounds of objectivity vanished.
MSNBC and CNN quickly took their own positions to try and compete with Fox and the increasing split, which Terence McKenna was fairly early in catching, was on.
He called it the "Balkanization of Epistimoloy' because that's the kind of phrase that sounded cool in the 90s.
Where USAian society wasn't just using unrelated facts, but unrelated standards to measure them. Making communication between camps nearly impossible, thus creating further isolating them.
And all this really played out before social media came along. At which point we were basically back to yellow journalism. blah blah BuzzFeed, Facebook ad fraud, clickbait. blah blah, google is just as culpable.
Lots of people idealize the days when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in news. But Cronkite *also* spent a lot of time propagandizing, despite his apparent desire to do otherwise.
I don't think that's a helpful standard to try and return to. Especially since it only lasted a few decades and made it very easy to be complicit in a variety of global war crimes. Again, see Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.
Whatever else it is, Objective Journalism is not a stable construct for news.
What does a more viable alternative look like? Maybe a world where people are better educated about how different claims can have different degrees of certainty and journalists are encouraged to make their certainty clear on a fact-by-fact basis.
That seems pretty clunky to me. But it might work.
The problem is that Journalism is hard and the human mind works mainly around consensuses and plenty of people reflexively oppose them for the same reason others agree with them.
How long can a society go on with several large camps working off incompatible assumptions about how the world works?
Hell if I know.
Being Valued By The Machine.
On a recent episode on the "Where it happens" podcast, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian said made a prediction that Pay-To-Earn Crypto games are the future of gaming.
I think the way he phrased it is just... super telling.
"90% of people will not play a game unless they are being properly valued for that time," Ohanian claimed in the podcast. "In five years, you will actually value your time properly, and instead of being harvested for advertisements, or being fleeced for dollars to buy stupid hammers you don't actually own, you will be playing some on-chain equivalent game that will be just as fun, but you'll actually earn value and you will be the harvester."
There are two things worth noting here:
1. The phrase "Being properly valued for that time"
2. "on-chain equivalent game that will be just as fun, but you'll actually earn value."
Part of why I'm a fan of Karl Marx is because of the probing way he teased out the different meanings and implications of the word value.
Here we have a few of those playing off a dystopian implication as a utopian project.
Let's take a look at #1: This sentence uses the passive voice. The people don't play games or value their time. They're being valued.
What the fuck does that mean? Simple: It means the value of their time is measured, commodified, and tradable. External motivation.
this is actually a problem with #2. There's a large body of psychological research that suggests very strongly that external motivation extinguishes internal motivation.
Editor’s note: I originally said this assuming my psych classes from 2008 were still valid, this one kind of is but is more disputed than I realized. If nothing else a clarification for gambling addicts is necessary, since their internal motivation is all about the drama of changes in the possibility of external motivation.
If this is true, it means that even if the games themselves are theoretically as fun, the more you play for the money instead of the satisfaction of the game itself, the less you'll be able to enjoy it. Further, because the games themselves will need to be designed to create and sustain an economy, all of their design choices will need to be focused on optimizing that rather than on any actual fun.
This is going to flatten out the games themselves as they choose the best business model rather than what's the best for the game. This isn't theoretical, the last 15 years have been a masterclass in watching business remake AAA games to fit a financial portfolio.
Take the differences between Deadspace 2 and 3. The third took a singeplayer survival horror experience and reshaped it into a coop action game with a lootbox based economy, which allowed you to quickly (for a fee) make super-powerful weapons that undid the game's delicate balance between survival action and horror.
We're gonna see a ton more of that.
So, like the "open world sandbox" of the last decade, NFT games will quickly develop a same-y template that will reduce creator choices in designing experiences.
Not a great sign.
The constraints of the political economy of these games will also call into question how much value you'll actually be earning. The economics of NFT production means that to buy into a game you'll have to pay a minting fee to get started and spend your time playing the game to earn enough to get decent returns.
If you can't afford to buy in you can't play unless you get a scholarship (the game Sky Mavis on Axie Infinity has a scholarship model) or unless you get a third party to pay for your upfront costs in exchange for a revenue split.
Wait. Paying upfront costs in exchange for a revenue split. Isn't that familiar?
Yup. Looks like PTE has reinvented capitalist wage relations. Which pretty much throws out any chance of you actually getting to keep the monetary value you create.
This isn't theoretical, it's already happening on Sky Mavis. And since the economy of SM is currently dependent on prices boosted by an increasing player base, which means prices will drop once the actual market for the game stabilizes.
So if you've been paying attention, PTE economics combines the Robbing-Peter-To-Pay-Paul instability of MLMs, Ponzi schemes, and speculative bubbles, wage theft for the property-less class, and the predatory hacking of compulsive gamblers into one business model.
Can this end well?
I would say, no.
Now, that doesn't make it any less likely to be a successful business model. Especially in the short to medium run. Especially if the returns are high enough that investors abandon funding other kinds of games to any degree,
But is this a good thing?
Nope! And that's without counting the human cost here since this will inevitably create the same sweatshop conditions that MMO gold farming operations went to almost seconds from their creation.
Is this the future of gaming? Finance certainly hopes so. It's the Neoliberal creed: Commodify and Marketize all things. And if it's something that can't be measured or traded like, say, human happiness or quality of life, who cares?
If you can't measure it, the rulers of the world say, it doesn't exist.
Pity they're wrong about that.
Trust The Chain (don’t)
A thing The Problem with NFTs brings up that's been at the core of my distrust of Blockchain technologies is that because their main value is speculation and since the main advocates almost always hold financial stakes in the projects and systems they're advocating... well, they can't be trusted.
Literally, Bitcoin or Ether could be the worst investments in the world and they'd have just as much incentive to convince people they're the best investment because the value of their investments depends on how people judge the technology.
So to analyze any blockchain project you need to muddle through obtuse technical papers written by... the same kind of person with the same stake in the outcome. Which means your real only option is to toss some money you can lose in and see what happens.
I've done this a few times over the last decade, usually making a modest return.
I wanted to liquidate my position in NOIA by Syntropy (a blockchain technology that seemed to have some real utility in speeding up and encrypting internet communication), and found that because of the high variability of ether transaction costs ("gas fees"), it'd cost me over $800 worth of ether to return the $70(Bought at $40) of NOIA I held.
Today, NOIA has fallen under the price I bought it at.
Now, if my original guess was right that the project had long term value, none of this matters and the price will climb back up.
Or the whole project could collapse. I don't really know, and I don't really care.
From my PoV, even knowing that gas fees and thus transaction costs were highly variable, the core here is I fell prey to bellcurve thinking in a Pareto distribution world. In short, I figured transaction costs might swing within 2-5x either way, when they're swinging by magnitudes instead.
Well worth losing $50.
This is causing a whole slew of middlemen creating offchain services to get around the high transaction fees and long minting times. Which post both significant security flaws and also completely undermine the point of blockchain itself.
If even the biggest projects using BC have to rely on off-BC infrastructure to function, maybe this blockchain isn't such a good idea to build the whole infrastructure of the world on.
This begs the question: Why are so many rich entrepreneurs trying to sell it as the new standard infrastructure of the web? Web3, that is?
Maybe I'm just jaded, but this looks like the same kind of gold rush we saw in the 00s towards social media walled gardens. That is, despite all the claims of decentralization, cryptocurrencies represent a vast INCREASE in wealth inequality.
I originally posted a link below here to try and measure the wealth concentration of crypto. Which I super misread. On a closer reading: Inequality on crypto chains ranges from low for niche coins like DASH (lower than any nation) to moderate for Bitcoin (roughly comparable to Australia) to high for Dogecoin, but not as high as some nation-states.
Even though I was wrong in how bad the problem is, the basic point that it’s not pushing against inequality holds.
It may be possible to create a blockchain based currency, but so far we don't have one remotely near mass adoption.
What we have are currency themed speculative investments. And that sucks.
Well, that wag a fun romp through some questionably relevant topics.
I've been thinking what this newsletter really is under it all.
Rambling? Journalism? History? Dumping neurodivergant special interests? Occult/fringe blogging? Memoir by way of things that caught my interest?
Something all and none of those, I guess.
Who even knows.
I spend a lot of time looking for “wicked terms", important and common words with violently different definitions.
Mainstream is a good example. Who is mainstream? What does that mean? It’s a phrase we often pass over symptom assuming we know what it’s referring to but you can hide a navy in the holes in leaves.
Much of the discord of politics is about people trying to assert their definitions of words. Often without realizing it.
Tricky stuff to manage.
Anyway, I've been trying to finish this section at work for 5 hours now. Busy day.
Be seeing yall later.