Do you work in Venture Capital? I need a reviewer for a long upcoming post. Email me for details.

About Applied Divinity Studies

Applied Divinity Studies is going on hiatus, effective immediately.

Some people ask why he’s screaming on “I Am a God.” It’s not like a James Brown scream — it’s a real scream of terror. It makes my hair stand on end. He knows they could turn on him in two seconds.

Lou Reed

Applied Divinity Studies began 3 months ago, and so far, it’s going well:

Growth is generally consistent, with two obvious anomalies.

Can you guess what they are? I’ll give you a hint. It is not “spent a lot of time and effort writing a very good post”.

It’s getting featured by Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution.

Okay, but maybe subscribers aren’t my objective function. Maybe what I really care about is making money. Here’s another chart of cumulative revenue.

The vertical line is getting an Emergent Ventures grant. Also from Tyler Cowen.

From this analysis, I conclude that there is no point in joining Twitter, writing clickbait [1], or anything else. I am free.

Having Money as Existential Crisis

I’m kidding, but only a little bit.

Obviously getting featured on MR or winning an EV grant produces its own incentives, but they’re largely ones I already agree with.

I suppose the expectation is that I’ll just save the money or spend it on rent. The implicit assumption being that I have a burn rate, this defines my runway, and money is used to extend the time I have to continue to do what I’m already doing.

But that’s crazy. This isn’t how any ambitious person spends money, nor is it a path to long term growth. Surely there’s some way I can spend this money to actually do better work, earn more money, and grow exponentially?

As Peter Thiel once said:

In a definite world, money is a means to an end. Because there are specific things you want to do with money. In an indefinite world, you have no idea what to do with money, and so money simply becomes an end in itself. Which seems always a little bit perverse, you just accumulate money, and you have no idea what to do with it, that seems like sort of a crazy thing to do.

I’m also reminded of Auren Hoffman’s post about the notable lack of ambition in venture capital. Firms seem largely incapable of deploying their cash reserves to win a competitive advantage. A large firm might hire a few more analysts, but mostly they just take profits, pay them out to partners, and call it a day.

This is held up in contrast to startups who are encouraged to aggressively reinvest their capital as quickly as possible to accelerate growth. [2]

So surely there’s something I can do with the money other than give it to my landlord?

This ends up being a fundamental question about the purpose of this blog, and about my life more generally.

If I care about getting more page views, I could spend the money on ads. If I’m specifically targeting high-status people, I could advertise in The Diff.

If I care about writing output, I could hire a research assistant or an editor.

If I wanted to be a snappier writer, I could pay $150 for David Perell’s How to Crush it on Twitter or $6000 for David Perell’s Write of Passage or $2000 for OnDeck’s Writer Fellowship.

The problem is that I don’t actually want any of this.

Startups often claim to be mission driven, meaning that they exist to fulfil some external purpose. In stark contrast, my inability to spend this money productively suggests that I have no external goal. [3] As it turns out, I am writing this blog entirely for my own pleasure.

Be Nice Until You Can Coordinate Meanness

Either you toil in obscurity until you die, or you become popular enough to get doxxed by the New York Times.

If you’re incredibly lucky, maybe you become popular enough to sell out, work on Substack and become a boring person catering to an analytics-mediated audience. [4]

This isn’t really a complaint about money though, the point is just that if you try to do anything important, people will try to kill you.

If you try to introduce any minimal amount of nuance into a conversation, they’ll slander you as a pedophile apologist. If you invent something great, they’ll sue you until you die of exhaustion. If you try to open access to scientific knowledge, they’ll sue you until you kill yourself. [5]

If I have persecution anxiety, maybe it’s because they’ve persecuted all my heroes. [6]

So I don’t really see the point in trying to be the second coming of SlateStartCodex. I’m not a coward, but I’m also not a martyr.

As Scott once wrote, it is not worth acting unilaterally. Instead, you should act in the shadows, build support for your cause, play respectability politics, and maybe a few generations later you can declare victory.

But wait, isn’t now the time? We have coordinated! Scott’s pseudo-death was a rallying cry, and now the community is united unequivocally in favor of weird internet bloggers. Not only are we aligned, we have powerful voices behind us.

And yet, the attempted boycott has had no discernable effect whatsoever. Scott still lurks in the shadows. Substack tried to fund him (kudos), but whatever the amount, he’s decided it’s not worth it. Apparently, his view from the mount of success has been horrific, and he’s climbing back down.

Even if the undertaking was risky, it could be worth it for sufficient upside. Academic researchers take on risk, but if successful, their work is widely lauded. Startup founders have a high failure rate, but get rich if they succeed.

For weird internet bloggers, there is no throne.

The Unrivaled Joy of Scholarship and Unrivaled Pain of Existence

There’s a wonderful moment from Agnes Callard’s interview with Tyler:

COWEN: …I’m skeptical, but let’s just say I were to live forever. How bored would I end up, and how do you think about this question?

CALLARD: [laughs] I think it depends on how good of a person you are.

COWEN: And the good people are more or less bored?

CALLARD: Oh, they’re less bored… By bad, I don’t just mean sort of, let’s say, cruel to people or unjust. I also mean not attuned to things of eternal significance.

….if we’re talking about eternity, or even thousands of years, you’d better find something to occupy you that is really riveting in the way that I think only eternal things are.

I think that what you’re really asking is something like, “Could I be a god?” And I think, “Well, if you became godlike, you could, and then it would be OK.” [emphasis mine]

I’m not concerned with biological immortality, but even this life is long enough to make me worry. I am already living in that eternity. I can summon any food in the world to arrive at my doorstep, watch any movie, listen to any music. Upper-middle class Americans are already as gods, we just aren’t godlike.

And of course, this is accentuated by social isolation. [7] The vast majority of my time is spent either asleep, or at my computer. I am already in the eternal deathless state Callard describes.

Having lived there for almost a year now, I’ve found that all I really want is to participate in the unrivaled joy of scholarship without the well-documented burdens of institutional academia. To the extent that I have a mission at all, it is merely to prove that this way of living is even viable.

Unfortunately, there’s a danger to this kind of triviality as well.

In What is an Explanation?, I give a two sentence summary of meta-rationality. Language is subjective, but not arbitrarily. If you ask a question, first clarify what kind of answer would even be satisfying to you.

The purpose-dependence of truth also happens to be the central failure of internet blogging.

If a “satisfying answer” is just the hottest take or most controversial justifiable opinion, you won’t do good work. A real martyr needs a cause, and dying without one means an afterlife excluded from intellectual Valhalla.

In my defense, my own valuelessness is largely a product of our collective lack of compelling narratives. Everything that was once great is now problematic, everything once eternal now lacking in foundations. As far as I can tell, there are really only three compelling visions for the future:

  • Various Authoritarian Dystopias: Right-wing fascism, surveillance states, left-wing censorship. Things are arbitrarily bad.
  • Left-Wing European Environmentalism: We all bike and recycle. Things are basically the same but with lower consumption.
  • Various Retro-Futuristic Utopias: We have space exploration (but why?), flying cars (but to go where?), higher GDP (to consume what exactly?) and the iPhone 12 (but again, why?) Things are better, but not in a way that matters.

For some reason, we seem to have confused “compelling vision” with “vague overconfident manifestos”, but I don’t think that’s how this works at all. I don’t want someone to tell me what 2030 could look like.

I just want the US to be able to build trains, approve the vaccine, not have the world’s highest incarceration rate, allow high-skilled immigrants to get indefinite work visas, and do more to prevent a Uyghur genocide.

So the joy of scholarship is a good start, but it can’t be the whole thing. As Elon should have said, “Our existence cannot just be about reasons to live. There need to be solutions to one miserable problem after another.”

Hiatus

Looking back, I’m happy with what I’ve written, but it’s also clear to me that the important work lies ahead. I need more time to read, do proper research, and contribute actual knowledge instead of quick takes.

That might sound self-deprecating, but it shouldn’t imply that any of this has been a waste. It is only thanks to these last 3 months and their success that I have the confidence, willpower and practice to undertake more daunting projects.

Thanks for all your support, and I hope you’ll look forward to reading Applied Divinity Studies in 2021.


[1] You might argue that posts only get featured on MR because Tyler hears about them, and so it is still worth growing virally. This is empirically true (Agnes Callard tweeted Beware the Casual Polymath before it was featured on MR), but there’s no reason it has to be. Tyler’s email address is public, and it is still free for you or I to inject content directly into his brain.

For what it’s worth, there is some organic growth, but I have no idea how much. Since the “see mail => get annoyed” loop is faster than the “see mail => read mail => forward mail” loop, the short term effect of every email I send is a net loss in subscribers.

[2] Though if you believe Chamath, “Startups spend almost 40 cents of every VC dollar on Google, Facebook, and Amazon”, supposedly in the form of ad spend or AWS costs. And then you have to include the cost of user acquisition through “competitive pricing”, i.e. selling at a loss.

[3] There are basically two reasons someone might start a blog, neither of them good. Either you’re so arrogant that you feel your every thought must be shared with the world, or you just don’t value your time at all, and there’s no next best alternative.

As far as I can tell, this is why people use Substack. Even if you don’t monetize, writing on Substack at least allows you to pretend that you’re doing it for the sake of networking, improving your personal brand, or one day making money. And so these selfish motivations end up being far more trustworthy than the motivations of a blogger, and Substack ends up being a higher-status option.

[4] The most successful writer I’m actually interested in is Gwern, who makes $1300/month on Patreon. That’s fine, but he’s much more popular and prolific, so this feels like an upper bound. At the rate of $15,600 annually, I would be better off working a corporate tech for 2 years and living off interest. (EDIT: someone else who’s writing I respect tells me they make significantly more on Patreon, and Gwern is probably just not trying very hard.)

[5] Just to be extra extra clear, “they” is not an anti-semitic thing. For what it’s worth, Scott Alexander and Aaron Swartz are Jewish.

[6] Or maybe I’m post-hoc attracted to martyrs? That’s true for Wilbur Wright, but the other three I followed pre-prosecution.

[7] This is also a good time to note that this blog would never have been possible before COVID. Without social isolation, it would have been too hard for me to write without FOMO and too hard to embark on something as inherently silly as blogging without immediate and constant validation.

More practically, starting a blog anonymously would have meant lying to all of my friends pretty much constantly. It’s easy to say I’m “just hanging out” during the pandemic. Much harder to constantly make up stories about what I’ve been doing all weekend.