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This essay appears in audio format at the beginning of The Portal Podcast, Episode 39.


Hi, it’s Eric with this episode’s audio essay. The subject today is “optics”. I want to try to use this essay to formulate a simple law for social media, but to do so, I would like to put it within a context of other such laws to which it is akin. In the first place, we have a theory within economics stated using only five words, and known as Say’s Law, after Jean-Baptiste Say, which states simply this: supply creates its own demand. That is to say, if you have a truckload of some object for which there is demand, say chairs for example, its sale will result in increased demand for other goods from the profits obtained. And thus, Say’s Law links the concepts of aggregate supply and demand, which may have previously been thought by some to be independent. A similar law in the theory of communications was that of Marshall McLuhan, whose famous five word adage, “the medium is the message”, can be interpreted as saying that the vehicle of communications is actually likely to be the principal constituent of the payload it delivers.

While these laws are well known, they are not often connected, despite having a similar flavor. In both cases, they link two concepts which are traditionally considered as connected complements. In this spirit, what I would like to experiment with here is the introduction of a five word law for social media. It may be stated either as “the optics are the substance”, or “optics create their own substance”, depending upon whether one wishes to follow McLuhan or Say, respectively.

Now what do I mean by this? Well, consider the effect of a smartphone on human cognition. To be clear, we must acknowledge that such a remarkable device gives us the ability to dive deeply into any subject we care to investigate, but, if we are honest, we must admit that it is even more likely in practice to distract us constantly and dilute our attention than to be the tool that we hope we will utilize for noble means. Thus, we very seldom do dive deeply into any of the subjects which come across our feeds, searches, and screens. And even if we do pursue a news story or update into the weeds, it is very unlikely that large numbers of other users will do so alongside us.

Thus, the most important aspect of a story may well not be its underlying substance or truth, but its optics instead. That is, our intuitive sense of an update may well be expected to be the extent of our engagement with that story. Specific five word specializations of this as-yet unnamed law might be “the headline is the article”, or “the publisher is the politics”. Knowing that an unedited video was leaked to appear on James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas is presumably sufficient to make sure that it is not taken seriously by any center-left institution. The optics of the United States’ cleverly named Black Lives Matter movement are stated clearly in the title. To oppose this organization for its platforms, the self-declared Marxist agenda pushed by its founders, or its bizarre foray into the politics of the Middle East, where there are very few black American lives, is not possible under this law of social media without becoming a racist in the eyes of the internet. Why? Because the optics are in the title, and thus the implied substance of the organization is designed to make it impossible to oppose without catastrophic cost to those reacting to the nuance found in the details.

But what, then, is the new role of what we would have previously considered the substance before the advent of the smartphone and the social internet? Well, this remains a curious question. Let us, for the remainder of this episode, take a radical stance and call this “legacy reality”. You see, in legacy reality, all sorts of things are happening that contradict our new five word law. For example, in legacy reality, a white man named Tony Timpa was killed in Dallas under almost identical circumstances to those in which George Floyd in Minneapolis later lost his life. Timpa was held down on camera for a comparable amount of time: 11+ minutes for Timpa to the 8+ minutes in which Floyd suffered, but he was white, while Floyd was black. Yet there’s bizarrely no concept of Timpa’s death being significant, except in one regard: it shows that we have, as yet, no ability to say which of these deaths is provably racially motivated in the absence of further evidence, and thus, to raise the issue is to question the optics of Floyd’s death.

In short, Floyd’s death was, optically, a lynching. Therefore, in the era of social media, it was in substance a lynching as well by our new law, and the introduction of Timpa’s death is to use legacy reality to question modern substance. Now, the reason I say “modern substance” here is that the implied racism of Floyd’s death as an example of a clear optical lynching was sufficient to propel millions into the streets. And, truth be told, the issue of structural racism and the differential application of policing, trial, sentencing, and incarceration along racial lines has a long and nauseating history from the era of slavery into the present. Thus, the nonsense that powerful Americans have traditionally used to avoid looking directly at the shame of differential treatment within our criminal justice system, particularly for nonviolent drug-related crimes, was matched by the new substance of an optical lynching. Organizers were effectively saying to us, “So what if we don’t know for a certainty that it is a lynching in legacy reality? It was, at a minimum, a much needed optical lynching to galvanize the real change we need, and for which we have waited far too long.”

With that said, the very real changes that are likely to come about as a result of an optical lynching may or may not be for the good, but a sudden injection of unwanted legacy reality is extremely likely to result in buzzkill and the mood spoilage of any movement that is being coordinated not through groupthink, but groupfeel.

So why have optics been so successful in overtaking legacy reality of late? I believe that for a variety of reasons, we’ve changed what would be called the recursion depth were we in computer science here, rather than the politics of civil society. Well, I trust that most of my readers are well aware as adults that an irrational number such as π cannot be computed from a simple fraction. Some of us can still remember the first time we were told that this is not true, and that 22/7 solves the problem. In fact, 22/7 seems equal to π, but only to two decimal places of accuracy, before the two decimal expressions part ways once and for all.

Far fewer of us know that the so-called “perfect fifth” in western music is in fact not perfect at all. It is ever-so-slightly flat and below the pure Pythagorean fifth, producing a ratio of the frequencies of “so” to “do” of approximately 1.4983, rather than 3 to 2, or 1.5.

Now both these examples show us that we can be easily fooled into thinking we understand a situation by not carrying out an investigation beyond a certain limit. In fact, we cannot afford to give infinite attention and resources to investigating every problem. And so, we must cut off our investigations at some point. Sometime between 1971, when Herb Simon started thinking about attention economics, and 2001, when the attention economy concept finally gained enough momentum from Davenport, Beck, and others to propel it into greater mainstream awareness, a huge opportunity was missed. That opportunity was the study of the corresponding market for inattention. For example, in the news media business, many people think that there is always a search for the most eyeballs, yet there also arose a concept called “the Friday news dump”, which sought to find the spot in the week where people would give the least attention for the dissemination of bad news. Likewise, print media writers learn to hide their true underlying stories by “burying the lede”, when the main story had to be told but was not favorable to the paper’s way of thinking. This would sometimes be handled in what is internally called the “to be sure” paragraph, where the author too often effectively confesses the mitigating truths that they had hoped to avoid, at least until the penultimate paragraph many layers deep.

Well, what happens when you can actually calculate where your audience will stop reading, listening, feeling, or thinking? Studies have suggested that just over half of all people spend 15 seconds or less reading an article while digitally grazing.

Likewise, nearly three out of five link sharers have not so much as clicked on the headline that they are passing on. These dispiriting findings for professional writers would be akin within computer programming to finding out that somebody had reset the Python byte-compiler’s recursion limit, which is usually initially set by default to something near a thousand out of the box, to a single digit number.

This, however, creates a fantastic opportunity for those whose ethics are sufficiently flexible. A particular form of our five word law, when applied to news media, would be “the headline generates the story”, or “the headline is the story”. Once this has been discovered, we see that increasingly, the purpose of the article in our era is not to inform, but to minimally support the desired headline for wide dissemination. Other forms of this principle are that, at least in the eyes of the weak and the dim, “the slogan is the platform”, “accusation generates its own conviction”, “the indignation is the refutation”, “swarms generate their own consensus”, “the messenger is the message”, and “the aspiration is the implementation”. This also explains the underlying wisdom of the moronic phrase, “not a good look, bro”. It is often a warning that you are saying something in legacy reality without regard for the optical limits of the situation.

Here, the most important word may well be “bro”, as a corruption or shortening of “brother”, letting you know that you are now in an informal world where barely the first three letters will be read before the word becomes too cumbersome to complete. In an attempt to sum up, then, I will leave you with this:

There is not only a market for your attention, but one for your inattention as well. Your smartphone may well put all the world’s information at your fingertips as is so often remarked upon, but unlike the fabled Library of Alexandria, it puts all the world’s disinformation, misinformation, noise, and distraction as well. And what our CEOs and technologists have learned is that your emotions are responsive to optics and not substance when there are cat and GoPro videos to be watched.

Increasingly, there will be a war on anyone found to be attempting to traffick in higher recursion limits. I recently remarked on Twitter on the situation in Portland, where the nightly battle over the federal courthouse is generating two separate false narratives. In one narrative, increasingly found on the right, the city of Portland, Oregon is sloppily described as burning and constantly at war, which it is not, as the ritualized battle is now confined to a single massive federal building as I write this, into particular hours of the night. In the other narrative, peaceful protesters protected by moms and veterans are being attacked by federal fascists without provocation. Unfortunately for those pushing the latter narrative, any honest review of the videos circulating from citizen journalists will quickly dispel the illusion that a non-political mainstream media is dispassionately reporting all the news that is fit to print. What actually seems to be going on, which I have worked out with my brother who has first hand knowledge of the situation on the ground in Portland, is that each side is trying to get attacked above a certain level before responding. That sounds crazy, of course, but the value going into the election is to generate video that optically moves the needle. As crazy as that sounds, the fatality count is so far thankfully absurdly low in the Pacific Northwest given the violence, because both the rioters, as opposed to the protesters, and the federal agents, seem to be competing to be attacked.

After all, it bizarrely appears that there is nothing more powerful in this media era than being a victim. Everything is reversed. And, in a presidential election year with the country in turmoil, the rule of the land is victim takes all. So what did I say on Twitter that is worth discussing? That the behavior and absence of a cognitively declining Joe Biden from the national scene, and the extreme nature of the radicalized left, seems to be creating a collection of people that I never thought that I would see: the never-Trump Trump voter. It seems that almost every day, people write to me and tell me that they voted for Hillary and/or Bernie, despise Trump, see him as evil, dangerous, and mentally impaired, but now, paradoxically, view him as the last remaining alternative to the party of Mayor Wheeler of Portland and Mayor Jenny of Seattle, currently experimenting with the abolish-law-enforcement movement, which is now both seen and denied everywhere by the Democratic Party and its allied media. I have conversed publicly with such never-Trump Trump voters on my Instagram Live Q&A walks which I’ve been doing under Covid. I’ve even generated a video with Joe Rogan that has been seen by 6.5 million people on YouTube alone, where Joe said that he would vote for anyone over Biden despite having no love of Trump.

Yet, I found myself besieged by thousands of accounts that I had never heard of for daring to insist that this phenomena, that can be easily seen and validated, is in fact seeable. “Name one person who was left of center and would vote for Trump over Biden!”, came the challenge from the swarm. This bewildered me at the time. Then I saw thousands of almost identical tweets with the same weird meme. “Cool story, bro. Did you hear this hanging out in a hipster coffee shop? That totally happened, right?” I must admit I was relieved. This was coordinated, as it turned out, by someone with 13 million followers on Twitter, who ran what was termed a “pod” that coordinated swarming behavior. The fact that all of these tweets could be instantly invalidated was not the point. No one cared about their credibility. The point was that the optics are the substance, and that a swarm is sufficient to generate the optics needed. At some point I saw that the swarm included not just internet trolls, but verified accounts, including one of a Stanford professor.

“A Stanford professor?” I just shook my head. The recursion limit was now set at one on a bright warm day in July, and the clocks were all striking thirteen. But it was alright. Everything was alright. The struggle was finished.

This essay appears in audio format at the beginning of The Portal Podcast, Episode 37.


Hello, it’s Eric with a few thoughts this week on the coming US election before we introduce this episode’s main conversation. Now, I should say upfront that this audio essay is not actually focused on the 2020 election, which is partially concluded, but in the election of 2024 instead. The reason I want to focus on that election is that, precisely because it is four years away, we should know almost nothing about it. We shouldn’t know almost anything about who is likely to be running or what the main issues will be, and we should be able to say almost nothing about the analysis of the election. Unfortunately, almost none of that is true.

Now, obviously, we can’t know all of the particulars. However, we still know a great deal more than we should. And that is because the ritual is not what many suppose it to be. A simple, nationwide open contest, to be held on a single day, after several unrestricted long form debates, with unbiased rules enforced by trusted referees. What is most important is that, prior to the 2024 election, there will have to be an appearance of a primary election.

So what actually is a primary election and what function does it serve? It’s hard to say. But if you think about it, this is really the awkward disingenuous and occasionally dangerous ritual by which a large and relatively unrestricted field of candidates needs to be narrowed to the subset that is acceptable to the insiders of the parties, their associated legacy media bosses, and the party megadonors. Now the goal of this process is to, in the famous words of Noam Chomsky, manufacture consent from us, the governed, so that we at least feel like we have selected the final candidates, who, in truth, we would likely never have chosen in an open process. I’ve elsewhere compared this ritual to the related process referred to by professional illusionists as “magician’s choice”, whereby an audience member is made to feel that they’ve selected something, like a card from a deck, out of their own free will, but that the magician has actually chosen from a position of superior knowledge and control, long before the trick has even begun.

In the modern era, of course, “consent” has become a much more interesting word, especially of late. And perhaps that fact is important in this context too, as the constellation of issues carry over surprisingly well. To bring in more terminology from the national conversation on consent, the party rank and file are groomed, if you will, by the party-affiliated media, as to who is viable, and who should be ignored and laughed at, through a process of what might be termed “political negging”. The candidates are also conditioned by being told that they can only appear in party-approved debates, which must be hosted exclusively by affiliated legacy media outlets, which emphasize sound bites and theatrical gotcha moments over substance, despite the internet’s general move towards in-depth discussion made possible in large part by the advent of independent long form podcasts like this one. Thus, both voters and candidates are prevented from giving informed and uncoerced consent by the very institutional structures most associated with democracy itself.

Now, why am I saying all of this? Well, it goes back to a video I’ve not been able to get out of my mind for four years. As some of you may remember from the 2016 election, Jake Tapper was asking democratic national committee chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz, about why Bernie Sanders would be leaving New Hampshire with an equal number of convention delegates after trouncing his old rival Hillary Clinton in an historic upset.

Tapper asked, “What do you tell voters who are new to the process who say that this makes them feel like it’s all rigged?”

Now, what was odd here was the idea that only those new to the process needed to have this explained. As someone then in his early 50s, I can say that I certainly felt that this was rigged at the time, even though this was hardly my first rodeo. But I digress.

Wasserman Schultz was in fact prepared for the question, and she replied, “Well, let me just make sure that I can clarify exactly what was available during the primaries in Iowa and in New Hampshire. The unpledged delegates are a separate category. The only thing available on the ballot in a primary and a caucus is the pledged delegates, those that are tied to the candidate that they are pledged to support. They receive a proportional number of delegates going into our convention.”

Now this was confusing. Why are there any unpledged delegates at all? And why not call them Super Delegates, just like everyone else? And why was she asserting that availability was a settled question? This is like an emergency room administrator explaining to someone having a heart attack in real time that what is available is a vending machine down the hall rather than the nurse or physician chatting idly beside it. I remember thinking, “I don’t care what you say is available, you crazy, crazy lady.”

But of course, she wasn’t crazy. And this wasn’t about availability. It was about naked power, and its public rationalization. Wasserman Schultz attempted to explain further that it was all due to a need for—and I swear I’m not making this up—diversity and inclusion. She continued, saying,

“Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that the party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists. We as the Democratic Party, really highlight and emphasize inclusiveness and diversity at our convention, and so we want to give every opportunity to grassroots activists and diverse committed Democrats to be able to participate, attend, and be a delegate at the convention, and so we separate out those unpledged delegates to make sure that there isn’t competition between them.”

Did I hear that right? This is about diversity and inclusion for Super Delegates? Oddly, Tapper responded that while this obviously made no sense to him, either, they should both move to the next question,

“I’m not sure that that answer would satisfy an anxious young voter. But let’s move on.”

If you were confused, let me offer to translate. This isn’t supposed to be an election. “One man, one vote” is nowhere in evidence, obviously. And this isn’t the party of the rank and file. This is the party of the insiders. Perhaps it is weirdly easier to discuss this in the consent paradigm. She was saying, in effect,

“Come on, Jake. You’re a big boy, so don’t be so naive. Obviously lifelong rank-and-file, card-carrying party primary voters are just asking for it by coming to the polling place and voting provocatively in the presence of super delegates. Hey, if they weren’t into it, they wouldn’t flock to the voting booth like moths to a flame now, would they, know what I mean? Look, since we both know our place here, let’s move on to your next question so we don’t kill the buzz, shall we?”

To be clear, and most of us really never understood what the invariant phrase “diversity and inclusion” really means in such settings. I’ve always marveled at why both inclusion and the word diversity initially strike most of us and certainly me as positive concepts, but the now ubiquitous “diversity and inclusion” soundbite leaves many with a vaguely sick feeling. If I understand correctly, there’s both the meritorious part of the primary process which involves having to win at the ballot box by listening and appealing to voters, as well as the corrupt part of the voting, which is guaranteed through superdelegate quotas. And bizarrely, the diversity delegates she refers to here are the unpledged delegates. That is, in the twisted logic of the modern Democratic Party, it is actually the insiders who are the vulnerable diversity and inclusion delegates who must be protected. And, as you must have guessed, in the mind of the party operatives, only a bigot would argue with diversity and inclusion.

So is that the extent of it? Well, not even close. While the parties are not exactly shy about making sure that truly fair primaries are structurally impossible, they still have to leave at least a formal possibility that the people could choose a candidate hostile to the rent seeking insiders and donors. If an upset were not formally possible, the rank and file would be expected to balk at calling this arcane process a primary election, and they would be expected to reject the final candidate pushed by insiders, yet leaving that possibility formally open is dangerous to the mandarins, as it is exactly what led to Donald Trump becoming the Republican nominee in 2016.

Thus, there are two more important steps to controlling the process to prevent a Trump like coup against the insiders in the future. Perhaps the most disturbing to observe is the constant harassment of popular candidates by party activists who live inside what is supposed to be independent news media, and who pose as journalists and news people. This is the second juggernaut to stop popular candidates, by ignoring their outperformance and positive reception, by dropping them from graphics, misspelling their names, ignoring their successes, standing in front of their likenesses on green screens and even inexplicably using someone else’s photograph just to troll them. Particularly egregious here was the all out war that MSNBC appeared to be waging on Andrew Yang in 2019 and 2020, which showcased the exact same tactics that had been used previously against Bernie Sanders in 2016, and Ron Paul in 2012, when the Pew Research Center on journalism in the media concluded, “The same could be said of the narrative in the news media of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who received the least coverage of any candidate overall. The difference with Paul is that he has received by far the most favorable coverage of any candidate in the blogosphere, 48% positive and only 15% negative”.

In Yang’s case, MSNBC was forced to comically apologize on multiple occasions for both suppose that errors and claimed emissions. When dropped from a visual the network dutifully tweeted, “Earlier on, we aired a poll graphic that inadvertently left off Andrew Yang. This was a mistake that we have since corrected on air. We apologize to Mr. Yang,” said MSNBC when they mysteriously dropped the candidate from their visuals. Yet when inexplicably screwing up Yang’s first name they said, “Earlier tonight on The Beat, we made a mistake in a segment about Andrew Yang. While we fixed his name during the segment, we’d like to apologize Andrew for the error.”

Yet this string of seemingly focused errors and omissions targeted on Yang continued unrelentingly, despite being extensively documented by the campaign. If these super delegates, staggered primaries, apparently deliberate errors, and endless targeted emissions were not enough to keep popular candidates from gaining serious support, the last major rigging of the election takes place by saying who can and cannot hold a debate. In 2020, all three of the most ferociously independent, and therefore dangerous candidates to Democratic Party insiders—that would be Sanders, Gabbard and Yang—were welcomed on Joe Rogan’s extremely popular long form podcast. Additionally, Sam Harris and I both interviewed Yang, and Dave Rubin, I believe, interview Both Yang and Gabbard, yet we were told that there were various strict rules to prevent multiple candidates from appearing at once in real discussions outside the standard format of legacy-media-run, media soundbite and gotcha spectacles termed “debates”. The main benefit of having, say, a Joe Rogan or a Sam Harris hosted discussion or debate is that the candidates could actually develop long trains of thought with nuance and subtlety to go well beyond the bumper sticker level complexity so loved by legacy media. But inside the bizarre upside-down world of official debates refereed by legacy media, the candidates that do the best in free long form discussions are systematically given the least time.

To sum up, the more you thrive with bold ideas and positions and actual policy discussions, the less time you are given and the bigger your handicapping. It’s essentially that simple. Thus, that long form format that we use on this show would almost certainly spell the death of most of the “focus-group candidates”. So why bring up 2024, when the election of 2020 has not even taken place? Because it is always going to be the same so long as we are fighting the current and last wars rather than the next one.

Personally, I don’t want to go through this idiocy ever again, just like you. And, like you, I’m tired of voting for the lesser of two evils, just for the privilege of blessing the candidate that the insiders can count upon to be hostile to my interests, because I have nowhere else to go. I would likely have voted for any candidate who would have told Debbie Wasserman Schultz that she should be fired immediately, and to stop hurting democracy. We need to recognize that in a country stuffed to the gills with both talent and ambition, there is no conceivable world in which a creepy 74 year old reality television celebrity with an enormous ego but no previous interest in government would be running against a relatively disinterested 77 year old with obvious progressing cognitive decline, for the most demanding job to be found on Earth.

There is no plausible world in which all five of the final five major candidates—that would be Biden, Trump, Bloomberg, Warren and Sanders—would all be born in the 1940s. That just isn’t something that would happen in a country where no president outside of that list was ever past the age of 70 at first inauguration in the history of the Republic, going back to its founding. With no precedent for such an aged ruler, are you really telling me that suddenly in 2020, we have five four or five septuagenarians without significant outrage or commentary?

Really?

Come on.

So what are we saying here? Really, then In short, there is no primary. And with no real primaries, there is no meaningful election, per se, and it is time to overthrow whatever structure is supporting an abomination posing as an election. If the parties donors and media maintain levers that are sufficient to control the elections, then a foreign power can also scheme to control the same levers the parties and insiders have given themselves to avoid democracy. We can’t afford to give the party and media insiders these levers even if we thought that they were trying to use them for our benefit, which they obviously are not.

It is time to clean out the innards of the parties and their media enablers. We need an independent media that isn’t trying to elect anyone in particular, but it’s instead animated by reporting whatever is actually happening. And we need to know that the party insiders aren’t choosing the candidate before we can even get a chance to enter the voting booth. Right now, many say that we are a democracy in decline, but I disagree. We are instead a republic that is not sure that it is safe to experiment with democracy at all. And there’s nothing less safe than a rigged an bittering superpower that will do everything it can to make sure that those with their snouts already in the trough are allowed to feed in uninterrupted splendor by the people they both parasitize and claim to represent.

The purpose of this essay is to say this: I may or may not vote the lesser of two evils in 2020, but we as a nation should be immediately focused on gutting these monsters parties and their affiliated media before 2024. There is no reason to cycle endlessly around the strain. It is time to overthrow and fire those who have taken over the DNC, RNC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, New York Times, etc., and repurpose them to spectacular effect against us all. Let these anti-patriots of both the left and right search for work elsewhere before we sign up to do this every four years. Before we move on to slates of octogenarians or young wild eyed utopians with little real world experience, it is time to end the national charade of pseudo democracy so that we can find out whether the real thing that is actual consent is any better than being groomed and nagged by the creeps hanging around the ballot box. I can’t promise that it will be, but don’t you think it’s time we found out?

Of course, I’m a bit worried about what we might get. But it’s unlikely to be worse than this. So, I’m game if you are.