#35: The tyranny of thinking out loud.

Musings on what happens when everything is property.

No advice, just a few thoughts I had.

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I’ve written before about how in tech Twitter circles, it feels like people are constantly in the process of mining themselves for content.

I think that a lot of the note taking trend is less about tracking what we learn, and more about commodifying our own internal monologue. We consume large volumes of information—all the time and obsessive, detailed note taking is about having something to show for it. In some circles, few people read for the sake of reading. You read so you can continue producing content.

There is something tyrannical about this. It robs us of leisure—regenerative mindlessness. Every activity asks what we can earn from it, even the quiet activities, like reading. If we don’t take notes, we highlight obsessively, screenshotting and sharing passages on Twitter or Instagram, to prove that we’re doing the work.

There’s an interesting corollary here too to the notion that millennials and zoomers value experience over objects. It’s not so much that it’s not a type of materialism, it’s just a different type of materialism. What you’re purchasing in this transaction is not the experience itself, but proof that you had the experience.

Is a performer still a performer if he doesn’t have an audience?

For someone to be a content creator, it’s also necessary for them to have an audience. This is obviously unsustainable. I’ve been toying with the idea that maybe it changes the definition of what is and isn’t intellectual property. Or maybe that’s not quite it, but something is changing here.

We’re in an era where other people can earn money or other forms of currency from sharing their opinion. But what happens when you have multiple people competing for the same attention, the same currency? Theft.

You develop this impulse to record things; to prove what’s yours is yours; to defend your ‘property’ (thoughts). People do steal content, and performance is about marketing. When “idea theft” has actual, material implications, there’s no reason to have genuine conversations. You end up in an arms race. Who has the hotter, more attention-grabbing take?  

Ironically, I do think this encourages creativity sometimes, in the same way competition in business encourages innovation. The question then becomes, what are the psychological implications of everyone selling their personalities?

Cultural appropriation.

Things that shouldn’t be property becoming property isn’t a new phenomenon.

What I’m describing here is why I think cultural appropriation holds any water. When cultural products (dances, costumes, religious events) are designed to improve community cohesion, and not be sold to an audience, sharing makes a lot of sense. But when you’re competing in a marketplace, of course, you’re going to be upset if someone ‘steals’ your culture.

I agree with many critiques about cultural appropriation and racism, but I don’t think they’re what’s most salient in that conversation. That’s what makes it distasteful, but I don’t think that’s what the heart of the problem is. Accusations of cultural appropriation are really accusations of intellectual property theft. People are angry that you’re profiting off of it, because cultural artifacts are divorced from any real community in the United States. There is an undertone of racism there, but ultimately, it’s not a racism problem. It’s a market problem.

Marketing tactics.

The other thing that happens is engineered conflict.

Remember when Coca-Cola sabotaged Crystal Pepsi? If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s what happened:

When Pepsi came out with Crystal Pepsi, they sunk a huge amount of money into rolling out a new product. According to the book Killing Giants, Coca-Cola saw that as an opportunity. It was Coke's chance to hit Pepsi where it hurt by releasing their own clear cola... and then destroying the image of them both.

It was insanely risky, and it was the brainchild of marketing guru Sergio Zyman. Zyman realized, "a way to ambush Crystal Pepsi is to do a kamikaze on them — commit suicide and kill them in the process. So I went to the company [Coca-Cola] and sold them on the idea."

They released Tab Clear, their version of a clear cola. It was never supposed to be good, it was only supposed to confuse consumers more than they already were. Tab Clear was officially marketed as a diet drink (much like the original Tab), and it wasn't great by any stretch of the imagination. It was only on the market for a few months before it sank, and the failure helped drag Crystal Pepsi down, too.

It’s obvious that people will start shit with competitors, that’s just what vying for consumers is. But you’re also seeing an increase in individuals engaging in marketing tactics like Coca-Cola pulled on Pepsi.

That is, people lighting themselves on fire so they can watch other people burn.