Naming the Nameless

Epistemic status: political, opinionated, personal, all the typical caveats for controversial posts.

I was talking with a libertarian friend of mine the other day about my growing discomfort with the political culture in the Bay Area, and he asked why I didn’t just move.

It’s a good question.  Peter Thiel just moved to L.A., citing the left-wing San Francisco culture as his reason.

But I like living in the Bay, and I don’t plan to go anywhere in the near future. I could have said that I’m here for the tech industry, or here because my friends are, or any number of superficially “practical” reasons, but they didn’t feel like my real motivation.

What I actually gave as the reason I stay was… aesthetics.

Wait, what?

Let’s Talk About Design

I’m not a designer, so I probably don’t have the correct vocabulary to express what I see.  Please bear with me, while I use simple and ignorant language; if any of my readers have a more sophisticated understanding, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Stuff that’s marketed to Bay Area bourgeois bohemians has a coherent appearance.  You see it in websites that are all smooth scrolling and gradients and minimalism — see the sample websites on Squarespace, for instance.  You see it in the product design on the labels and menus of cafes and juice bars and coffee shops — The Plant Cafe is a good example.  You see it in the almost-identical, smoothly minimalist layouts of every tech-startup office.

Professional designers may be getting bored of this “light-contrast, minimalist elegance” or “objectively beautiful, but mostly unremarkable, templates”, and are trying out more deliberately jarring styles like Brutalism.

But for your typical consumer, the generic California/BoBo style works fine.  It signals elegance, which means, more or less, that it’s designed for educated, high-Openness, upper-middle-class, urban people.  When I enter a space or a website with this aesthetic, or buy a product with this branding, it’s shorthand for “Ahhhh, this place is run by competent professionals who know how to give me a pleasant experience. I will not feel harried or inconvenienced or confused here; I will be well taken care of.  I will easily be able to slot my existing behavior patterns into the implicit “rules” of how to use and navigate this place or device or website.”

Apple products are, of course, the archetype of this kind of “good” design.  Smooth, urbane, almost childishly easy to use.  Most computers are still PCs; office workers, older people, hardcore programmers and gamers, and the price-conscious still go for PCs.  It’s among the style-conscious (who skew affluent, educated, aesthetically/socially sensitive, and slightly more female than male) that Macs are universal.  When I asked a Marine from Texas what kind of computer he used, he scoffed, Do I look like a Mac guy?

Let’s look at one of my favorite things to buy, GT’s Kombucha.

This is pretty much the most BoBo thing in the world. It makes a nod to Buddhism (“Enlightened”, the mandala-like radially symmetric logo), psychedelia (the rainbow label), Human Potential Movement-ish self-improvement (“SYNERGY” and “renew, rebalance, rebuild, reclaim, rekindle, recharge”) and environmentalism (“organic”).  But the design is simple and clean enough to seem like a modern company run by professionals.

In this case, it’s not just a pretty label: the probiotics in fermented foods like kombucha are probably good for you, kombucha is lower in sugar than juice but pleasantly tangy and fizzy, and in my experience it’s uncannily good at settling an upset stomach.  But the branding is a big part of what makes it delightful.  And, I’m almost embarrassed to say, being able to buy kombucha at the nearest drugstore is a non-negligible part of why I like living in this neighborhood.


I have a friend who’s very good at digging up evidence of crime and scam artistry.  It’s part hobby, part crusade; give her a public figure and she can investigate with great speed and accuracy what kinds of shady dealings he’s been involved with.

Once, she showed me some companies she had proved were fraudulent, and my first reaction was “I could have told you that in seconds; their web design looks scammy.”

Of course, it’s not really the same thing. She had hard evidence; I only had an intuition, and intuition can be wrong.

But, for instance, this penis enlargement website just looks noisy. It’s jam-packed with content, it’s screaming about sales and deals, there’s a bright red “Buy Now” button with a ticking countdown clock.  It’s not classy.  Even if you didn’t know anything about the product, you could see that it’s being packaged (pun intended) much differently than this website selling relationship workshops.

But my friend, like a lot of nerds, couldn’t see that difference in branding at a glance. She couldn’t see the difference in connotations that different aesthetic choices evoke.  She was almost completely style-blind.

Some people claim that aesthetics don’t mean anything, and are very resistant to the idea that they could.  After all, aesthetic preferences are very individual. Chinese opera sounds beautiful to people raised with it, and discordant to the untrained Western ear.

So, claim the skeptics, all descriptions of what aesthetic choices “mean” are basically pseudoscience. When design experts tell us that red evokes passion and blue evokes calm, they’re using associative thinking, which is no more fact-based than the Four Elements or the five colors in Magic: The Gathering.

Clustering things based on associations and connotations is risky.  It’s going to differ from individual to individual, and even more from culture to culture.  It’s easy to take intuitive leaps for granted and quickly get to the point where people are talking past each other.  So it’s safer just not to talk about what aesthetics connote, right?

To my view, the skeptics have a good point, but they’re too epistemically conservative. There’s obviously signal being carried through aesthetics.  Colors don’t have intrinsic meanings, of course, but they do have shared connotations within a culture.

Note that the M:TG color “meanings” and the design/marketing color “meanings” are very similar — not because everyone is tapping into some magical collective unconscious, but because Magic is a game designed in contemporary America, by designers who probably share the same color associations as the designers of websites and product labels.

When Pantone says their 2018 color of the year, Ultra Violet, “communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking”, they’re not just making up random nonsense.  Pretty much any present-day English-language “color meaning” summary for designers or marketers will associate purple with something like creativity or imagination or spirituality. I don’t know where this meme comes from originally, but it’s certainly not unique to Pantone or chosen at random.

Our physical environment is built primarily by corporations which employ designers.  Those designers draw inspiration from artistic or creative subcultures. Design has a life cycle in which it starts as an original aesthetic trope being used by some individual artist, to being imitated by other artists, to becoming trendy, to becoming ubiquitous.  Tastemakers may be a tiny minority of the population, aesthetics may not be a big deal for everyone, but everything manmade you see around you has its origins in someone obsessed with aesthetics.  Designers “rule” our visual world in the same way writers “rule” our verbal world, in the same way that “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”  In this sense, aesthetics very much mean things, and you have to look to their origins and contexts to understand what they mean.

This essay, worth reading in full, calls the process “subcultural sublimation” and tracks how Pantone’s 2016 colors, Rose Quartz and Serenity, drew inspiration from seapunk (a musical subgenre with an online visual aesthetic). Seapunk aesthetics propagated through fashion blogs, the NYT style section, and pop stars’ music videos, all the way to the Pantone Institute, which sets the tone for fashions in mainstream commercial design. The popularity of pastels began with feminist artists interrogating softness and femininity, propagated through Tumblr “aesthetic” blogs, and likewise eventually reached Pantone. Aesthetic tropes are “commodified” over time; they drift from artistic or countercultural milieux towards corporate branding.

Mostly implicit in the article, but worth mentioning, is that commercial design ultimately borrows from creatives who are politically opposed to business and resent this commercial appropriation.  More on that later.

If you’re style-blind, you’ll look at Rose Quartz and Serenity and say “they’re just colors! they don’t mean anything! all this cultural criticism is just pretentious noise!”  If you’re mildly style-sensitive, like myself, you’ll notice that the colors seem Tumblresque, and you’ll note that Pantone’s description makes a nod to “gender blur” and “societal movements toward gender equality and fluidity”.  If you’re actually an expert, like the author of the article, you can concretely trace where the popularity of that color scheme came from.

“Subcultural sublimation” runs on ordinary, non-magical cause and effect, the propagation of memes from their originators towards mass popularity.  It can be understood and analyzed.  You can isolate where aesthetic tropes come from, why they’re used, what their creators believe, and what channels govern their imitation and spread — and that tells you something about their “meaning” that’s not purely subjective.

Politics and Aesthetics

Artists tend to be on the political left; arts and media occupations are among the most heavily weighted towards Democrats over Republicans.

It’s not clear to me why. Maybe it’s a temperamental thing — high openness to experience drives both an interest in aesthetics and a preference for left or liberal politics.  Maybe it’s explained by education, which both inculcates interest in the arts and left politics.  Regardless of cause, it’s a real and important phenomenon.  And it’s a problem for anyone who’s not on the left, as Rod Dreher, the original CrunchyCon, pointed out years ago.

Beauty matters to people. So does health and emotional wellbeing. So does everyday kindness.  Living well, in other words. Quality of life.  You can’t cede all of that to the opposing political team without losing something valuable.

Rod Dreher points out that, while, say, organic vegetables are coded liberal, they also taste better and are healthier than processed food.  Yet conservatives often have a knee-jerk condemnation of anything “green” or “pretentious”, which means they’re boxed into being cultural philistines who miss out on flavor and beauty and health.

“It’s a PR disaster for the Right to allow discussions of fun and beauty and poetry and nature to be owned by the Left,” says a New York publishing executive and closet conservative. “The right wing just looks unappealing. Do they not understand this?” 

If you like the arts, if you’re temperamentally high-Openness and aesthetically sensitive, you’re going to be drawn to coastal cities and educated social groups, and those environments tend to skew left-wing. It’s hard to leave without giving up something intangible that’s hard to convey to people who don’t share your sensibility.

Dreher, a conservative Catholic who values tradition, can with some justice argue that beauty and art properly belong to his culture; after all, it was Catholics who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Libertarians are, if anything, in a tougher position, because we’re not traditionalists, and because strong individualism runs counter to even being able to talk about shared cultural sensibilities.  Ask a libertarian “Why don’t we have any good songs about our values?” and there’s a good chance that you’ll get the response “Ew, who’d want one?  That’s too collectivist for me.”

But the result is that you’re living in an aesthetic environment that’s largely created by your ideological opponents, and subjected to constant subliminal messaging that your values are uncool. This causes an evaporative cooling effect where the only people willing to express libertarian views are “style-blind” and sometimes even socially blind, people who do not perceive that they are being mocked or that their aesthetic signaling is clumsy.

It’s hard to argue to a skeptic why this even matters. Why care about aesthetics and culture? What do you care what other people think?  Surely an independent-minded person would simply refuse to succumb to social pressure — and the cultural connotations of aesthetics are inherently relative to social context, so maybe the best way to keep your independence is to choose style-blindness as a cognitive strategy.  What you can’t see, you can’t be manipulated by!

But I think it’s unvirtuous to choose blindness or ignorance. And it’s also ineffective. What you can’t see can sneak up behind you.  People who think they’re immune to social pressure get manipulated all the time.

Scott Alexander is honest enough to admit that it happens to him:

Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy. Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement.

Now, I could say “just don’t do that, then” — but Scott of 2009 would have also said he believed in being independent and rational and not succumbing to social pressure.  Good intentions aren’t enough.

And I’m seeing people in roughly my demographic going silent or submitting to pressure to conform, and it’s worrisome.

I think it’s much better to try to make the implicit explicit, to bring cultural dynamics into the light and understand how they work, rather than to hide from them.

Defensive Postures

There are a number of defensive strategies people (of varying political views) adopt against the cultural dominance of the left.

Reaction is what, say, Ann Coulter does, or, or the Donald Trump campaign.  It’s defiantly anti- progressive, rejecting the “mainstream media” and “coastal elite” tastemakers.  It’s happy to be perceived as tacky and rude.

The problem with reaction is that it has no positive vision.  It’s just “the opposite of what my opponents want.”  It’s uncreative and it can easily descend into spitefulness.

Respectability politics is a different tactic, and, in this context, usually takes the form of (not very credible) claims to be apolitical.  Early forms of this include “Keep Your Identity Small” or “Politics is the Mind-Killer.”  By declaring the importance of not taking sides, you’re already asserting that you’re not wholly on one side; a progressive can reasonably infer that any avowedly “apolitical” person disagrees with them at least somewhere.

Claims of aloofness from politics have always, correctly, been identified as evidence of covert dissent from “good” politics: “formalism” was a political offense in Soviet Russia.  There are many thinkpieces like this one observing (rightly) that Silicon Valley culture is nominally apolitical but implicitly capitalist.

And then you see obviously defensive moves by the tech industry to distance itself from that allegation, like YCombinator’s announcement of its New Cities  project:

Just to get ahead of the inevitable associations: We want to build cities for all humans – for tech and non-tech people. We’re not interested in building “crazy libertarian utopias for techies.”

Once you have to defend against a stereotype, you’re already losing the messaging war.  As with reaction, there’s no positive vision, only the frantic assurance that you’re not really the bad guy.

Cooptation doesn’t seem to be that popular, and might be underrated.

It’s a kind of judo where you claim to be the true exemplar of the goal your opponents want.  They hate capitalism?  Well, you note that what most people think of when they hear that word is crony capitalism, which is indeed terrible, and that you are bitterly opposed to the system in which unfair legal privileges give vast wealth to a few and deprive everyone else.  C4SS does this, quite well in my opinion, but hardly anyone outside of libertarian-world has heard of them.

It’s still not fundamentally creative, though. You’re borrowing your opponents’ tropes and aesthetics, not building your own.  And if you get too good at it, you end up being easily confused for believing things that you don’t actually believe.

The Opposite of Defensiveness

One of the things I like best about Ayn Rand is that she staked out aesthetic and cultural territory without resorting to any of these defense mechanisms.  She actually made art that was fundamentally in a different style than that of the cultural establishment.  Of course, this left her vulnerable to the allegation that it was bad art — there are 52 million Google results for “ayn rand bad art.”

But most of the common criticisms — of black-and-white thinking, didacticism, utopian optimism, overly heroic characters, and so on — are based on implicit presumptions about the nature of life and the role of art which she explained (or, at least, began to explain) why she did not share.  She brought the dissent into the light, into explicit discourse.

If you take something about yourself that’s “cringeworthy” and, instead of cringing yourself, try to look at why it’s cringeworthy, what that’s made of, and dialogue honestly with the perspective that disagrees with you — then there is, in a sense, nothing to fear.

There’s an “elucidating” move that I’m trying to point out here, where instead of defending against an allegation, you say “let’s back up a second” and bring the entire situation into view.  It’s what double crux is about — “hey, let’s find out what even is the disagreement between us.”  Double crux is hard enough with arguments, and here I’m trying to advocate something like double-cruxing aesthetic preferences, which sounds absurdly ambitious.  But: imagine if we could talk about why things seem beautiful and appealing, or ugly and unappealing.  Where do these preferences come from, in a causal sense? Do we still endorse them when we know their origins?  What happens when we bring tacit things into consciousness, when we talk carefully about what aesthetics evoke in us, and how that might be the same or different from person to person?

Unless you can think about how cultural messaging works, you’re going to be a mere consumer of culture, drifting in whatever direction the current takes you.

The Arts and Imitation

Let’s go back for a moment to subcultural sublimation.

Artistic trends have a life cycle, of creation, expansion, and destruction, or more specifically, the artist, the marketer, and the critic.  First, the artist creates a new thing. Then, a succession of tastemakers and creatives imitate that thing and scale it up, from a subcultural scene to mass-market production.  Finally, the critic notices that it’s become commoditized (in the literal economic sense: if it’s exactly the same everywhere and anyone can copy it, its price goes to zero) and deflates the hype.

This isn’t specific to the arts, of course.  Companies are created, expand, and eventually succumb to competition.  Empires are founded, expand, and succumb to invaders. It’s a human-organization pattern.

But expansion in particular is enabled by mechanical reproduction processes dating to the Industrial Revolution.  We can systematize “scaling up” much easier and faster than pre-industrial peoples could.

Commerce is ancient — in different times and places, trade has been more free or less so, and it became somewhat more free in the West with the introduction of classical liberalism and economic theory at the end of the 18th century, but trade itself is as old as the first anatomically modern humans, living 300,000 years ago.

Invention is ancient — the Greeks had it, including more advanced science than modern stereotypes would assume. Archimedes probably knew calculus.

What’s modern is scaling-up, the ability to make many copies of things, from physical objects to social systems.  That’s what allows for mass culture.  That’s what allows startups to grow exponentially.  For the past two hundred years or so, we’ve been living in an era where the expander of the reach of a creation is more powerful than ever.

Expanders sometimes like to present themselves as creators, but they’re not.  The creator makes the first prototype, the original. No scale at all. “Zero to one.”  In fact, creators often resent expanders for taking credit for their work or diluting it for the mass audience.  This is why seapunk artists were frustrated at being imitated in music videos:

also, why aren’t y’all frustrated AT ALL at the rihanna thing? that performance marked the commodification of an aesthetic movement…— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

…which means all taste-makers have to start all over. it’s a lot of work. clearly ur not doing shit but consuming if ur not peeved by this— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

“wow amazing rihanna performance i love seeing my tumblr on SNL” why? that Aesthetic served as an exclusive binder for URL counterculture…— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

…tomorrow, when it enters Phase Three and Forever 21 puts a price tag on it, it will no longer be exclusive. its purpose is gone.— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

My own addition to the pile of theories on “why don’t creative professionals like capitalism?” is that creators feel defrauded by expanders, and the core of modern capitalism is superpowered expanders.  Expanders capture most of the economic value and social credit from scaling up things originated by creators.  Expanders are sociopaths, in the “geeks, mops, and sociopaths” trichotomy.

And we don’t really have good tools for fairly compensating people for intellectual originality.  Intellectual property law is a kludge, with a lot of problems.  Creators don’t really know how to extract “fair market value” for ideas, possibly because they’re intrinsically motivated to create them and the kind of “payment” they want is more like appreciation or kindred-spirit-ness than money.  Standard startup ideology says that ideas are of low value: “If you go to VC firms with a brilliant idea that you’ll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost.  That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA.” That may be true, but you could also interpret it as markets not knowing how to price ideas, in the same way that markets can’t price natural resources until you figure out a way to define property rights over them.

So, whenever you encounter a piece of media — words or images or music or anything representational — no matter how many levels of imitation or expansion it’s been through, you’re still hearing some distant signal from its originator.  And its originator probably feels ripped off and undervalued.  When you go looking for good art, you’re looking for art that’s closer to its creative source, and that means you’ll hear in it the voice of the frustrated creator.

In a sense it’s inherently paradoxical to enjoy something like GT’s Kombucha — it’s a product produced by a process (scaling-up) which the hippies who inspired its aesthetic would have vehemently opposed.  To like it knowledgeably is to partly dislike it.

I think there may be some kind of necessary project in the vicinity of “making amends between creators and expanders” that would be required for creative work not to have the dynamic where scaling up is seen as selling out.  I think scaling-up is probably net good — it allows more people to have nicer things.  But there may well be legitimate grievances with it that deserve to be addressed.  That’s another one of those cases where dialogue and making the implicit explicit would be really helpful.


45 thoughts on “Naming the Nameless

  1. Interesting! A few quibbles:

    Cost never really goes to zero because at the very least there is opportunity cost: if you choose one aesthetic that means you’re not choosing another one, and different aesthetics appeal to different audiences. Even for marketers that can create products with multiple aesthetics, there’s a limit to how many varieties they want to deal with.

    Also, “selling out” seems to be resented even if it’s the original artist doing it so they *are* getting paid well?

    • The anti-“sell-out” sentiment you mention is often attributed to the “crabs in a bucket” mentality. Following a link on that page, I found this explanation of the very similar “tall poppy syndrome.” Basically the idea is that in-group prestige is a positional good.

      Another explanation that is perhaps more charitable, is that people involved in a scene may derive value from it being obscure and non-mainstream, and fear change.

      • I think you’re right, but I’d add that the process of expanding a cultural phenomenon inevitably involves making it more palatable to the mainstream. The people who loved it the way it was often don’t appreciate the changes. The mainstream version often seems like a bland, anodyne parody of the real thing.

    • i have a sore spot about this crap; in may 2013 i moved to denver from northridge in the sfv, at the time i was paying 850 a month for my large single apt; when i came back in nov 2014, the same apt was 1500; look, i know lots of russian and chinese money is there; and of course you know domestic money(cheap int rates) thanks to the fed blah blah; but my point is specifically this: right around that time 2015ish, you statted reading of lots of nocal tech aholes coming down to “silicon beach’ in venice/culver city/basically the enitre westside – so i feel like the ahole “disrupters” neofeudal “platform” read middlemn rentiers, from up north invaded an already incredibly tight rental market and in the process screwed regualar people trying to survive in the post-2008 collapse from which many of us who werent tech or finance et al; had not recovered from. so oyou wanna move down here now? first of all youre late. but go ahead; la is a shithole of misery and unless you make at minimum 100k AFTER taxes; youre still mired in the traffic the over crowdedness(korea town has a higher population density than brooklyn); so what im saying is unles you can work at home and live in the marina peninsula or malibu or you know basically work at home in a good neighborhhod; moving down here is crap. my morthless 2 cents..

  2. You might want to remove the link to the spammy site. I think I accidentally clicked on it while scrolling on my phone, and caught malware. Now I get redirected to a spammy site whenever I visit your blog. (Specifically, this happens when I click (well, tap, bc phone) anywhere on your site.) I don’t see how else this could have happened.
    (Also, help?)

  3. “Why don’t we have any good songs about our values?”
    Because libertarian values don’t lend themselves well to aesthetic expression. Environmentalism and Catholic traditionalism, for example, have some positive vision of what people are supposed to do, which can be depicted in art: people living in nature (depicted positively), or beautiful cathedrals and large families. But a large part of freedom is a rejection of prescriptive positive visions, and how do you draw “Person Doing as They See Fit”? Historical commerce (e.g. bustling harbors) can be aesthetized positively, but that can be awkward when those same harbors were used to sell slaves or plunder, and contemporary commerce often looks like a guy sitting at a desk.
    To the extent that Rand succeeded, much of it was by importing positive values (e.g. productiveness), and even she had to depict her heroes against a background of villains who were representatives of illiberal mores/institutions/ideologies.
    It’s sometimes possible to express libertarian values by positively portraying a significant and obvious deviation from mainstream culture (like “I want gay married couples to be able to use guns to defend their marijuana farms”), but then it’s decried as degenerate, disloyal, callous, or elitist.

    • Rand was fiercely anti-libertarian. She wasn’t importing productiveness to Libertarianism as a value. She was advocating something completely opposed to Libertarianism and in favor of productiveness. (and of the things endorsed in the Romantic Manifesto and presumably of all of the things she depicts in Galt’s Gulch)

  4. This was fascinating. 10/10 A++.

    I think the personality-traits explanation of why artists tend to lean left politically is probably correct, but in any case the link to higher education just reduces the question to why academic culture is left-leaning.

    I hadn’t read anything by Evgeny Morozov for quite a while. I think he would make a much better left-wing foil for Rationalists than Nathan J. Robinson–less snarky, seems like there’s more intellectual substance there (though I admit I’ve only read a small sample of either writer’s output).

    I’m mostly extrapolating from my own reaction to it here, but I don’t think bad aesthetics is nearly as big an obstacle to Blue Tribe acceptance of libertarianism as its Ebenezer Scrooge reputation is. And honestly, I’m fine with that. I know not all libertarians are like that, but a lot are (including Ayn Rand; I could have used her name in place of “Ebenezer Scrooge” above and people on the left, at least, would interpret it the same way). Libertarians who support UBI or some other form of mandatory wealth redistribution to aid the poor might have a chance with the Blue Tribe, if they can establish a separate brand to distance themselves from anti-welfare libertarians.

    • Related to the previous comment, all the serious ‘legit’ Libertarians, such as Hayek and Friedman supported a basic income a lifetime before it recently reached 48% support within the US. Rand didn’t because she’s explicitly optimizing something different from ‘Liberty’. These days, even straight-up Republicans, the ones who are pro-intellectual like Charles Murray or who otherwise support positive values rather than simply being crypto-fascists, are in support of a basic income, so yeah, if someone doesn’t support it you should probably regard them as something other than a Libertarian regardless of their claims, most likely a slightly atypically thoughtful Republican unthoughtful Anarchist.

      • That’s interesting. I guess the problem I’m trying to gesture at is that when Blue Tribespeople think of a typical libertarian internet comment, they think not of something like your comment, but of something like this, which I happened across earlier today. (I guess that’s what you meant by unthoughtful anarchism?) More generally, some of the first associations that the word “libertarian” calls to mind for me are Ron and Rand Paul and noted Trump-endorser and democracy-withholder-of-endorsement Peter Thiel, so I expect that label to remain toxic to most of the Blue Tribe for a long time to come. From the outside, debates over what it means to be a True Libertarian are irrelevant. Libertarianism is just the ideology of the most visible people who call themselves libertarians.

        Maybe it’s best to deemphasize labels, since they prompt people to think about politics in terms of tribal affiliations. It also occurs to me that talking about politics in terms of first principles (which libertarians never seem to tire of 🙄) might have this problem too, since it’s often a long journey from first principles to specific policy preferences, and readers will be tempted to take the offramp to the Which Tribe Does This Pattern Match To? Motel before they get there. So probably the best way to sell libertarian ideas to the Blue Tribe is to keep things concrete and pragmatic. Think Matt Yglesias on land-use restrictions, for example. Even Yglesias-types turn off some Blue Tribespeople by coming off as privileged elitist technocrats, though (a sentiment widely shared with the Red Tribe). Maybe such people are unreachable, but The Unit of Caring’s approach (e.g. here and here) is the most promising I’ve seen. And yeah, getting back to Sarah’s original point, I suppose it probably helps if your aesthetics are more Jony Ive and less scam/malware website.

      • Interestingly, The Unit of Caring seems to me to be a blog which might conceivably be Objectivist in values, but definitely not Libertarian. I think that both it’s author and Rand misunderstand Capitalism to the latter’s benefit and I don’t think they are necessarily differing in other points.

      • ok, now I am confused. explain how TUOC is non-libertarian? iirc she’s a utilitarian ethics-wise, thinks free markets + redistribution are the best way to increase utility, thinks civil liberties are good, and may have self-described as libertarian, I don’t recall.

      • I happened across the answer to that last question while I was trawling the archives looking for those other two TUoC posts:

        “I don’t actually call myself a libertarian. Left-libertarian, sometimes, that being a occasional label for people who think the government should do basically nothing except redistribution of wealth …”

        I must say I’m bemused by the polarized reaction Ayn Rand elicits. I’ve only read a few excerpts, reviews, and plot synopses myself, but that was enough to convince me I’d be with the anti-Rand faction both politically and aesthetically, so I have no plans to further fill in that space in my mental map. (Also I allocate zero time to reading novels in general because they bore me.) I really like TUoC, though. She seems like an existence proof that rationality doesn’t *necessarily* trade off against empathy, even though it seems to for most people. So I’m curious what you (Michael) think she and Rand have in common.

      • The core of Rand’s Objectivism, more or less, is that a) there is an objective reality/morality/epistemology/aesthetics, and b) the government is evil. Disagreements are larger with Libertarians, who don’t agree about there being an objective epistemology and morality, than with Communitsts, who disagree about its content but at least claim that it can be discovered rationally. Also, the point about government being evil, not just misguided or needing to shift in a Libertarian direction is a critical difference. Basically, are you a full-blown dissenter from the system or an advocate of reform?

      • Oh, ok, then you group TUOC with Rand because she believes in objective morality & epistemology and thinks the government is evil? Ok, that clarifies things a lot.

  5. You lost me at “I’m staying in the Bay Area because aesthetics.” Are you saying the Bay Area does a *good job* at the kind of aesthetics you like? That it values them more than other places?

    If I wanted a place that’s aesthetically coherent in a way that caters to libertarians, I would move to Colorado.

    (… spoiler: it is possible I will actually do this. Haven’t ruled it out.)

  6. Interesting. Two thoughts.
    First, I disagree immensely with your suggestion that somehow we aren’t compensating people enough for ideas. I mean we compensate them enough to ensure they get created and to insist on more compensation would impose costs on everyone else which would probably be utility negative.

    More generally, just because someone believes they should get more money or stamps their foot and insists that its their ideas that should be valued more by society doesn’t mean we should value them more. Sure, IP law is a nasty kludge but no reason to believe it generally undervalues rather than overvalues.

    So yah, I suspect you are onto something about why creative professionals don’t like capitalism. But maybe the right answer is: tough they are just being selfish and want a bigger piece of the pie despite the fact their own ideology would say the welfare of those with less advantages means more.

    Second, I think a good deal of this post clearly establishes that those on the left are probably also missing out on tasty fun things because it is too red coded. I mean there are any number of very tasty artificial things I know some lefties avoid and there are also all sorts of ‘low class’ fun and entertainment they avoid. This is kinda beside any point you were making but I wanted to mention it.

    • Presumably the total amount we pay people for creative work roughly corresponds to the value we collectively expect to get from it, but we might be willing to pay more if our incentive systems were better aligned to reward creators for creating things that we would value more. For example, the popularity of amateur fanfic and fanart suggests that there’s a lot of market demand for derivative works that is going unmet, because it’s hard for such work to be legally compensated under existing IP law. Also, the replication crisis is probably mostly attributable to misaligned incentives in the funding and publishing of scientific research.

      It’s hard to get those incentives right, because, as Stewart Brand said, information wants to be free, but it also wants to be expensive. The recent rise of crowdfunding does suggest that innovation in this problem space is possible, though, and there’s always hope that IP law could be improved. I wonder if economists have any useful models to forecast the costs and benefits of different IP regimes. The debates I’ve seen about things like copyright terms, piracy, software patents, etc. have always been carried on in moralistic language about rights and freedoms, without any attempt to quantify the inevitable trade-offs. Of course, even if a given IP reform proposal were theoretically optimal, that wouldn’t guarantee that it would become law, because of incentive problems in politics.

    • There are nice things that the left doesn’t like because they are coded as elitist or cruel (fur, for instance, or (unfairly) hunting), but nothing I can think of that’s coded as red more strongly than as elitist or cruel. For the most part, things coded Red and avoided on the left are actually just catering to extremely undiscerning people, literally the least common denominator. Some of them may be good for kids, for all I know, but literally none of them are tasty or fun. Nobody avoids barbecue or fried chicken because of politics. For the most part, when people on the right have cultural elements which are appealing to someone conscious, it’s because those people are religious, and the thing is coded with some particular religion.

      • Maybe look harder? While this is far from universal, vegetarians and vegans aren’t going to be happy about fried chicken, and more generally, being sensitive to your guests’ dietary preferences (rather than assuming everyone is open-minded about food) codes as liberal.

  7. Most people who know me think I’m Aspergian, including me, and I do seem to be blind to the kind of associations that you’re talking about. For example, to me that beverage label contains one word that I was unfamiliar with (“kombucha”) and many words that are obvious lies (this fluid will probably not “reclaim” or “rebuild”). After a third look I saw the word “foods”, which at least tells me that I’m supposed to pour this down my throat. To the extent that I can extract any meaning from the package, it seems to be tea, probably overpriced.

    I also hate Apple computing products, and tolerate Windows but prefer Linux. And I suspect that saying these things will make me look bad to you, but I have no particular reason to care about that. I do tend to pay more attention to the exact meaning of words, so when you said that Silicon Valley was “implicitly” capitalist I boggled; if that’s implicit I’d hate to see what explicit capitalism looks like.

    So yes, there are people in the world who don’t process these associations in anything like the way that you do, and a great many live in the Bay Area.

      • I expected it to be a fairly strong signal that I’m not in the same “tribe” as you, and that often puts people off. But I’m a bad judge of such things, and people vary. Thanks.

      • Having said that, I’m not in a hostile tribe either. I’m less inclined to tribal behavior than most people, AFAIK.

  8. Good wikipedia link: ‘Visual Design Elements and Principles’:

    (Elements) Color, Line, Shape, Texture, Space, Form
    (Design) Unity/Harmony, Balance, Hierarchy, Scale/Proportion, Dominance/Emphasis, Similarity & Contrast

    My wiki-book on Axiology (171 links):

    Some great wikipedia links on aesthetics there! Aesthetics seems to be a big part of Japanese culture; they have more concepts to talk about it than English does. See the central Japanese idea of Wabi-sabi:

  9. The writer notices that things that exist in the world vary in quality.

    The writer notices that people differ in their ability to discern quality.

    The writer notices that people differ in the amount of effort it takes them to discern quality.

    The writer notices that a particular political ideology is strongly clustered among people who are bad at evaluating the quality of things.

    The writer does not draw an explicit inferences from this.

    A third party observes that the political ideology in question is part of the writers “personal identity,” which has not been kept small.

    A third party suspects that inferences could have been drawn if identity issues were not in question.

    • I *have* noticed, and I have thought about it, and spilled a fair amount of worry over the years there.

      But it’s actually a very ambitious claim to suggest that some people are better at evaluating the quality of “things” generally! I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say that.

    • A fourth party notes that things vary in multiple dimensions of quality that are weighted differently among multiple observers.

  10. I’m surprised you associate those website designs (so much dead space–or as described by its proponents, “air”), Apple products, startup offices, kombucha bottle, etc. with quality. They all read strongly to me as “too modern-mainstream, and thus overpriced, over-focus-grouped, and unlikely to have anything substantial beneath the surface”. Essentially Venkatesh Rao’s “premium mediocre” (but I think Zvi’s version was better than Rao’s).

    Aesthetic designs I actually like:
    Ibanez RG550
    Pre-90s electronics’ user interfaces–visible screws everywhere, indented block lettering, everything made of high-quality metal

    And for “good songs about Libertarian(/individualist) values”–Rush springs immediately to mind. 2112, Anthem, Tom Sawyer, etc.

    • I think we’re pointing at the same cluster, I just put the opposite valence on it. “Overpriced and focus-grouped” ought to correlate positively with “a class marker” or “highly optimized by marketing,” which is pretty much what I’m responding positively to. Design that screams “LOVE ME” causes me to love it, just because I like to comply.

  11. It is slightly amusing that you mention high openness [to experience, presumably] three times in a post about how much you love things that feel familiar and comforting.

  12. Are you sure the reason you don’t think there’s red tribe aesthetics is because you don’t live in the south, don’t go out of your way to consume red tribe culture, and otherwise avoid it because its not your thing?

    Despite the hubabaloo in the media, the prevailing message in Hollywood is that “guns are cool” and “if somebody shoots your dog, kill that guy and all 200 people he knows” (“John Wick”, since that sort of movie isn’t your thing). Nor are there a lot of video games about giving to the poor and avoiding triggering people. There are tons of video games that are literally sponsored military propaganda, several popular titles about christian crusades and knights (the Assassin’s Creed series specifically is about stabbing elites to increase the amount of FREEDOM in the world, and even has a title taking place in the American revolution), and honestly out of the ones I play that don’t involve violence of some kind, are about abandoning city life to go live on a farm!

    There was a Cracked podcast the other day about how there are no comedians on the Right. And David Wong was like “But there are, you just don’t think they’re funny because they offend you”. And the entire panel ignored him and then went on to try and prove “no, its impossible to be a comedian unless you’re on the Left”. They were so convinced of themselves too. Is that not absurd? To think that only one side has comedy? Or is it more likely you just don’t enjoy the same things, or see value in them? I think video games are 100x the art that poetry will ever be. Interactive entertainment is more enriching for the brain than passively consuming it. Its fine that you disagree and like different things- I don’t believe in badwrongfun. I’m just letting you know that others disagree with you- bigly.

  13. This is interesting, but I think you are conflating (or combining) “art” and “design” in cases where I would prefer to split them.

    The two are, obviously, related, and many designers are often capable artists. (And I know next to nothing about such things, anyway.) But it seems to me like they are diametrically opposed in at least one way: design generally tries to escape conscious notice (while still affecting the viewer), while art tries to draw conscious attention. Generally, if a designer’s work makes the casual (as opposed to highly design-conscious) viewer immediately think about the fact that design has taken place, the designer has already failed. It’s easy to be “blind” to design, as things go, because it tries to maximally shape your experience while obtruding minimally upon your conscious awareness.

    When I watch a UX designer mock up an interface, say, I notice immediately how natural the mockup looks, compared to the sort of thing I might produce (in my fumbling past experiments with CSS, Photoshop, etc.) Everything is deliberate, but nothing looks deliberate, and in fact much of the deliberation goes into making deliberate things not look deliberate. When I look at a “well-designed” website or walk into a “well-designed” building, a sort of overall impression washes over me, but does not seem localized in any individual elements; every element seems easy to ignore, “exactly how it should be” given the rest, and so the last thing on my mind is the craft that has gone into each and every element (largely, though not entirely, so as to put such things out of my mind). Film editing is an extreme example of this sort of thing: it’s a cliche that if the viewer notices the editor’s work then the editor has failed, yet seeing through the eye of a film camera (with regular cuts) is extremely unnatural, and editors must work hard to make themselves disappear.

    I belabor this because I think it shows why we mustn’t conflate “design” with “style” or “aesthetics” or “art.” This way of making an overall impression while hiding one’s detail-work is itself a sort of aesthetic, or goes along with one. My gut reaction to your first section was “you’re describing the aesthetic of ‘design,’ which is a perfectly fine aesthetic to like, but not the only aesthetic.” Moreover, I think that to conceive of oneself as an artist making art one has to — to some extent — deviate from the design aesthetic, and I think this, not just commercialism, is fueling the artist vs. expander tension. Artists, broadly speaking, want you to consciously attend to their work — not just by having your eye “grabbed” as you scan the aisle, but further, by encouraging you to attend to individual details, to ask “why did they do that?” or at least notice and marvel at such choices. The GT Kombucha bottle is not just the result of individual originality scaled up to mass production and thereby diluted into ordinariness — it wants to blend in, in a way the individual originators would never have wanted to.

  14. jumping on one thing here, -hope the length of my ramblings isn’t mistaken for vehemence, or for antipathy towards the essay as a whole, which I otherwise [complimentary things]


    “But I think it’s unvirtuous to choose blindness or ignorance. And it’s also ineffective. What you can’t see can sneak up behind you. ”

    “Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy.”

    Um, doesn’t the quote directly contradict the claim it’s meant to prove?

    -Because Scott was not oblivious of the vastness of sentiment arrayed against him, his fragile human soul was moved to cringe and lurch along with the rest, like a villager after a witch. Like, I can think of no better recommendation than this horror story of the virtues of not gazing into an abyss at which you may prove unable to shrug.

    Also I suspect the main point here is that it’s a confession of something aberrant- common yes, surely, but clearly low, undignigifed and unpleasant. Not something one would choose to suffer. “if Scott admits it, then hey, maybe I reader can be a little less ashamed of my hyena-ish impulses, maybe they’re more something that people are saddled with and suffer under than something they necessarily earn by lack of virtue and must lash themselves for”.

    Then there’s also the imo-major confounding factor that Scott is an advocating/crusading essay writer: If presenting himself as a normal sensible guy is useful for him to have the time and credibility to preach his own heresies, which I think it probably is, then he has a definite incentive to tolerate such degrading/low but shrewd reactions.

    So it’s quite plausible that Scott could jettison this reaction if he had it as his purpose, because he’s in the position of someone who dives into mein kampf to make fools of nazis, -wanting to understand his enemy, only in this case the enemy is grasping hyena-like conformity.

    Last point- Is Scott really “politically oblivious guy”? Apart from the specific objections above, he just doesn’t seem like an appropriate champion/test case for the “immunity through ignorance” school of thought.

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