Constructs, meta-constructs, and shared cognitive spaces

    Posts like this one by Venkatesh Rao are like catnip to me. He explores the concept of the ‘real world’ as a construct shaped by collective human beliefs and values, arguing that it is, of course, anthropocentric and inherently absurd.

    All worlds created by humans, such as fandoms and nationalisms, have more or less consequence in shaping the ‘real world’. In other words, there are constructs which serve to help shape the meta-construct. This, in essence, is a shared cognitive space for humans.

    Well worth reading if you’re in the mood to question the nature of reality, explore the power of collective belief, and ponder the transient nature of what we consider to be ‘real’. It’s a complex examination of how human perception shapes the world we live in, and how that world, in turn, shapes us.

    Matrix-style vertical green text
    Accounting for consciously shared worlds like religions, fandoms, and nationalisms, as well as commonalities that arise from obvious and lazy lines of thought or imitation, there are perhaps a few thousand to tens of thousands of non-trivial distinct inhabited worlds out there. Of these, perhaps a few hundred are significant enough to require accounting for in any analysis. The rest are, at best, butterflies flapping in the chaotic weather-systems of history, hoping to cause hurricanes.

    Of the few hundred that are significant, perhaps a couple of dozen matter stronglyand perhaps a dozen matter visiblythe other dozen being comprised of various sorts of black or gray swans lurking in the margins of globally recognized consequentiality.

    This then, is the “real” world — the dozen or so worlds that visibly matter in shaping the context of all our lives, with common knowledge of such shaping constituting a non-trivial part of the visibly mattering. The consequentiality of the real world is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own reality. Something that can play the rule of truth. For a while.


    The real world, in other words, is a fragile, unreliable, dubious, borderline incoherent, unsatisfying house of cards destined to die. Yet, while it lives and reigns, it is an all-consuming, all-dominating thing. A thing that can seem extraordinarily real compared to any more fragile, value-based private delusions we may harbor. To the point that we typically refer to it unironically as the real world, to be contrasted with self-indulgent fantasies, and characterize belief in it as pragmatism rather than just a grittier delusion.

    Source: This is the New Real World | Venkatesh Rao

    Image: Marcus Spiske

    Saving the world using a 2x2 matrix

    I’m a fan of Venkatesh Rao’s writing, and in this post he explores what we mean by ‘saving’ when we talk about ‘saving the world’. To do this, he uses a 2x2 matrix, categorising people’s motivations along two axes: biological scope and temporal scope. He identifies four types of “worlds” people aim to save: Civilisations, represented by ethnocentrists; Technological Modernity, represented by cosmopolitans; Modern Nations, represented by patriots; and the World as Wildernesses, represented by Gaians.

    Rao himself identifies as a “cosmopolitan with Gaian tendencies,” advocating for a world that is rich in both contemporary technological potentialities and natural history. He argues that the focus should not be on saving the world but on “rewilding” it so that it becomes self-sustaining and doesn’t require saving.

    Worlds constructed with biologically narrow scopes (which I’d define as somewhere between family/kinship groups to ethnicities and races, with perhaps a few animal species of cultural significance included, but always falling short of including all of humanity, let alone all of the biosphere) have all sorts of analytical problems that makes them intellectually fragile. But my main problem with them is that they are boringly impoverished to the point of deadness. Even if I could, with careful construction, make them “work” as worlds-to-save, and imagine sustainable futures where they are the entirety of the world, I don’t see the point.

    But apparently, a significant portion of humanity disagrees with me on this front. Many are attracted to the idea that their world-to-save can expand to become all that is; replacing a messy, illegible pluralism with a gloriously insipid and legible monoculture that reigns supreme with a firm, dead hand. I suspect the very intellectual fragility of these worlds is part of their appeal, much as fragility is part of the appeal of house-of-cards games.


    For a cosmopolitan with Gaian tendencies, to save the modern world is to rewild and grow the global web of already slightly wild technological capabilities. Along with all the knowledge and resources — globally distributed in ways that cannot be cleanly factored across nations, civilizations, and other collective narcissisms — that is required to drive that web sustainably. And in the process, perhaps letting notions of civilization — including wishful notions of regulating and governing technology in “human centric” ways — fall by the wayside if they lack the vitality and imagination to accommodate technological modernity.

    Source: What we seek to save when we seek to save the world | Ribbonfarm

    Rationalising work for the 40+ brigade

    Buried towards the bottom of an update about the Breaking Smart newsletter, Venkatesh Rao includes this diagram and links to a post where he commits to longer-term work.

    In an associated Twitter thread, one tweet talks about one way of telling whether a project is a new TLP (‘Top Level Project’) or part of an existing one: does it require a new name or domain name? Interesting.

    I’m trying to rationalize all my activities to be simpler and easier to manage. An important first step for me was shutting down my other newsletter, Art of Gig, a month ago. Another was adopting 2 long-term rules across my projects — no new top-level projects, and minimum 10-year commitments.
    Source: Upcoming Changes | Breaking Smart

    Volume of work

    This definitely speaks to me:

    Quantity has a quality all its own as Lenin said. The sheer volume of your work is what works as a signal of weirdness, because anyone can be do a one-off weird thing, but only volume can signal a consistently weird production sensibility that will inspire people betting on you. The energy evident in a body of work is the most honest signal about it that makes people trust you to do things for them.
    Source: Venkatesh Rao (via Tom Critchlow)