A Reading List for the End of the Heroic Phase

Inside a hardcover book is a small keyboard and a backlit screen. To the side a CD-ROM ejects out.
Kyle Bean - The Future of the Book

Welcome back to the Amazon Chronicles, a newsletter about Amazon and the companies, communities, and technologies in its shadow.

First, some housekeeping: I had expected to send this newsletter out more than a week ago, but I managed to contract a non-COVID illness that briefly put me out of commission. No problem, I thought, I'll put the newsletter out midweek and everything will be fine. Then we got a telephone call from a dog breeder letting us know that, contrary to our expectations when we joined the queue, a new Boston Terrier puppy would be available for us as soon as the next week.

So instead of putting out a newsletter on Tuesday, I drove from Philadelphia to central Pennsylvania and picked up the puppy now known as Orzo.

A black-and-white Boston Terrier puppy stares soulfully at the camera.
Nobody understands you, but Orzo does

On top of that, the Eagles are playing the 49ers in the NFC Championship game this weekend, throwing my home city into an orgy of football-induced euphoria and possible civil unrest. With luck, newsletter production will soon return to a post-new-puppy, post-Eagles-bound-to-the-Super-Bowl normal. (Inshallah.)

Two more pieces of non-Amazon business:

First, members who are being billed through Substack, please bear with me for a little longer. I am still hoping to do an automatic transition through everyone's Stripe account so you can be subsequently billed through Ghost, but virtually all the players involved are not making this process as easy as it was advertised to be. At this point, Stripe/Ghost has all the account information from Stripe/Substack, but not the billing history. I would assume this would not be necessary for future billings, but apparently, it's crucial. If all else fails, I may ask subscribers to migrate manually, but I (and presumably you) would rather not do that. Hoping this will be resolved soon.

The last bit of business is more fun: as many of you know, I frequently guest-host for Jason Kottke at his venerable blog Kottke.org (and was also his newsletter editor for some time). This week (Monday, January 30th through Friday, February 3rd), I'll be sitting in for Jason again, so if you like that old-fashioned blogly goodness, navigate to the site, point your RSS readers to kottke.org, or follow along on Twitter or Mastodon.

For this week, I thought I'd do something a little different: instead of links of Amazon news, or another essay about tech giants in their long decline, I thought I'd split the difference and share some links to other books and essays I've been reading that seem to be coming at the same thing from different angles.

First, some books: as I mentioned in the first piece of the series, I've been reading a lot of Georg Lukács, which has been a pleasure: a first-rate philosopher who also takes literature and culture extremely seriously. If you're going to read just one Lukács book, I'd probably recommend History and Class Consciousness, which is heavy on the philosophy side but extremely useful if you want to use the word "reification" in a sentence correctly.

If what you really love are books, and love 20th-century takes on commodity fetishism slightly less, then The Theory of the Novel or The Historical Novel are for you. The Historical Novel has been particularly fun, since it's both about a specific kind of novel (the metagenre known as the historical novel), and also more generally about the inclusion of historical detail, characters, and movements in literature (not just in the novel, but also in drama and poetry as well). It's also where a lot of Lukács's thinking about the "heroic phase" of the bourgeoisie (and to a lesser extent the "tragic phase" of the aristocracy) comes in.

But let's suppose your tastes are less literary, your attention span, more limited; where can we get our intellectual juices flowing in the form of an online essay? I have some recommendations here as well!

The Billionaire Era in News is Fizzling, by Ben Smith:

To be a billionaire is to be immune from failure in any normal sense… “Everyone thought the billionaires could save us — clearly, they're not engaged,” grumbled one executive at a billionaire-owned newsroom. “It's not a good model because they lose interest or they get pissy.”

ChatGPT, Galactica, and the Progress Trap, by Abeba Birhane and Deborah Raji:

Model builders and tech evangelists alike attribute impressive and seemingly flawless output to a mythically autonomous model, a supposed technological marvel. The human decision-making involved in model development is erased, and a model’s feats are observed as independent of the design and implementation choices of its engineers. But without naming and recognizing the engineering choices that contribute to the outcomes of these models, it’s almost impossible to acknowledge the related responsibilities. As a result, both functional failures and discriminatory outcomes are also framed as devoid of engineering choices—blamed on society at large or supposedly “naturally occurring” datasets, factors the companies developing these models claim they have little control over. But the fact is they do have control, and none of the models we are seeing now are inevitable. It would have been entirely feasible to make different choices that resulted in the development and release of entirely different models.

Breaking Unions With the Language of Diversity and Social Justice, by Lee Fang:

Virtually none of the presenters [at a virtual conference on union avoidance] identified explicitly as anti-union agents. Many described themselves or had professional biographies emphasizing their role as DEI experts, developers of “human capital,” and champions of workplace “belonging.” The industry has undergone somewhat of a rebranding, with many labor relations executives now identifying as “people experts” and diversity executives.

We used to get excited about technology. What happened? by Shannon Vallor:

The saddest thing for me about modern tech's spiral into user manipulation and surveillance is how it has just slowly killed off the joy that people like me used to feel about new tech. Every product Meta or Amazon announces makes the future seem bleaker and grayer... There's no longer anything being promises to us by tech companies that we actually need or asked for. Just more monitoring, more nudging, more draining of our data, our time, our joy.

The Emerging Tech-Lash, by John Ganz:

Something like a class-consciousness of the most reactionary section of the tech bourgeoisie now appears to be crystallizing and, with it, a concomitant set of political practices and ideologies. (Musk and Thiel formed PayPal together.) The ideology, stripped of all its mystifying decoration, is actually pretty simple and crude: it says “bosses on top.” This is the unifying thread that runs through Yarvin’s tedious peregrinations from radical libertarianism to monarchism: the authority and power of certain people is the natural order, unquestionable, good. It is, to borrow a term from the history of apartheid, baaskapp—boss-ism.

The Age of Peak TV Is Ending. An Age of Austerity Is Beginning, by Lucas Shaw:

The industry made 559 scripted shows last year, up more than 200 since 2013, the year “House of Cards” debuted. That doesn’t include all of the unscripted programs, including competing docuseries on the same subject... “The days of the drunken sailor spending are gone,” one agent said this past week. “I’ve never seen so many shows canceled and returned"…  Certain sanguine Hollywood executives have been predicting a market correction for years. To someone like FX chief John Landgraf, it seemed obvious that services were spending too much money on too many shows without regard for quality or profit.

TikTok's enshittification, by Cory Doctorow:

Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a "two sided market," where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

Extinction Internet, by Geert Lovink:

Extinction Internet is not merely an end-of-the-world phantasy of digital technology that one day will be wiped out by an electromagnetic pulse or the cutting of cables. Rather, Extinction Internet marks the end of an era of possibilities and speculations, when adaptation is no longer an option. During the internet’s Lost Decade, we’ve been rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic under the inspirational guidance of the consultancy class. What’s to be done to uphold the inevitable? We need tools that decolonize, redistribute value, conspire and organize. Join the platform exodus. It’s time for a strike on optimization. There is beauty in the breakdown.

Software and its Discontents, Pt. 1, by Kellan Elliott-McCrea:

Layoffs have been one of the largest stories in tech this year. Companies have been quick to explain this trend as due to over-hiring during the pandemic. More quietly some have pointed to a shifting focus on profits over growth. But also privately and sometimes publicly the sentiment is that engineering teams just aren’t as productive as executives expect them to be, that the over-hiring represents bloat not just miscalculated ambition. It’s hard to overstate what a dramatic shift this is from how executives spoke about their engineering teams a decade ago, which piqued my interest.
Senior engineers meanwhile are feeling both frustrated and stuck. There is skepticism about whether early career folks are coming into the industry as well prepared as they used to (or into roles where they can be successful whether or not they’re prepared), but “kids these days” has a long history in our industry not to mention in every other human endeavor. Some of the increased pitch of frustration though is coming from the senior engineers’ own struggle to be effective. They feel “stuck”, with “entire chunks of [the] organization working on problems that feel self-inflicted and deploying skilled generalist engineers to seemingly low-value hyper-focused projects.”

A year of new avenues, by Robin Sloan:

I want to insist on an amateur internet; a garage internet; a public library internet; a kitchen table internet. At last, in 2023, I want to tell the tech CEOs and venture capitalists: pipe down. Buzz off. Go fave each other’s tweets.
It’s plain that neither the big tech companies nor the startup financiers are going to produce the “ways of relating” that will matter in the next decade. Almost by definition, any experiment that’s truly pathbreaking and provocative is too weird and tiny for them to suffer. They are trapped in their stupendous scale; lucky us…
Make a thing that talks about the thing… Back in the 2000s, a lot of blogs were about blogs, about blogging. If that sounds exhaustingly meta, well, yes — but it was also SUPER generative. When the thing can describe itself, when it becomes the natural place to discuss and debate itself, I am telling you: some flywheel gets spinning, and powerful things start to happen.
This is related to my opinion that the very best movies are about movies, the very best books about books.

None of these links are full-throated endorsements: some of them seem to me to be missing pieces of the puzzle, others searching for (and unsurprisingly finding) too much signal in the noise. But they're all circling around the same set of problems, which is that something feels stuck — not only do the old solutions no longer work, but the old problems seem to have been always ill-defined, and certainly not fit for use in this moment. And where that kind of mismatch used to point to wide-open possibilities, it now seems more like we're stuck grinding our gears, held captive by a huge strategy tax over an entire industry that couldn't change its ways even if it wanted to try.

Now, personally, I tend to read such mismatches of problems with solutions symptomatically, not just of tech industry dysfunction, but of deeper problems within the organization of society itself and all the tools a society uses to manage itself: social and material economies, law and justice, cultural practices, and ideological beliefs. We're not just, like, overleveraged in the wrong development languages or UI assumptions; the contradictions, the rot, goes much deeper.

Otherwise, normal technology (I'm drawing a cognate with Thomas Kuhn's idea of "normal science") would be fine. My suspicion is that normal technology is not fine, just as normal politics are no longer fine, and we actually need some more paradigm-busting thinking to get out of this — or, plunge headlong into catastrophe. (No, AI is not the answer, decentralization is not the answer, Bitcoin is not the answer — they are all symptoms of bigger problems.)

Take some time with these readings if you can, and stew on them a little — I know I have. I should have a new installment of the Chronicles next week, on top of my Kottke posts. Tune in, we'll have fun. Enjoy your weekend!