Friday, June 11, 2021

Ross Douthat defends real experience [Andreessen’s been out in the sun too long]

Ross Douthat has an important column, Decadence and Andreessen's Dilemma (Reactions, June 10, 2021). The piece begins:

Early in the pandemic era, the Netscape founder Marc Andreessen published a manifesto that was so on-point for the themes of The Decadent Society that I cited it in the paperback. His argument was that many of the institutional debacles in the West’s response to the coronavirus reflected a longstanding failure to build, a comfort with stagnation and sclerosis visible everywhere from our physical environment to our regulatory apparatus to our transportation infrastructure and education system.

But what kind of building, Douthat wants to know? Building physical things in the real world, but also people and institutions, or cruising the internet to build in virtual reality?

This question divides anti-stagnationists: Figures like my AEI colleague James Pethokoukis or the bullish-on-America Bruno Maçaes tend to regard Silicon Valley and its virtual realities as integral parts of a more dynamic future, while people in the orbit of Peter Thiel are more likely to regard Big Internet in its current incarnation as an obstacle to real-world forms of industry and growth, and in need of some kind of political and social management to become a spur to dynamism instead. Personally I’m mostly on the Thielword side of the debate: Without going all the way to the Butlerian Jihad, I think human civilization needs to exert a kind of mastery over the internet and the virtual, a disciplining and putting-in-its-place, if we want to both preserve certain basic human goods and make non-virtual leaps forward more likely — because left to its own devices the internal techno-logic of the virtual realm will pull us deeper into decadence.

As important as the internet is to me – I suspect that it’s more important to me than it is to Douthat – I’m with him on this. He goes on to quote a recent interview in which Andreessen defends the coming primacy of virtual world:

A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date. These are also *all* of the people who get to ask probing questions like yours. Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege – their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.

After giving Andreessen’s point due consideration, acknowledging for example that “I can find people who share my obscure interests in an instant” – Douthat argues:

But there’s a problem: There are a lot of experiences — call them “core experiences” — that people still prefer to have in the world of flesh and blood, ranging from the banal (real drinks >> Zoom drinks) to the transcendent (visiting Chartres Cathedral >> doing a virtual tour of Chartres Cathedral), from the excitement of travel or the thrill of concert-going to the physical-cum-emotional intensity of falling in love and having sex (not necessarily in that order). And there are core experiences that just don’t translate into virtuality at all: You can some kind of sexual intercourse on the internet, depending on how elastically defined, but you can’t bear and raise a child.

Now say what you will about 20th century America, but it did a pretty good job of democratizing these kinds of core experiences. Whereas while the age of the internet has clearly expanded the range of available experiences, for core experiences democratization sometimes seems like it’s in danger of going into reverse, with experiences in reality, from the museum to the ballpark to the classroom, becoming the high-cost “premium” experience, while a mediocre virtual equivalent is offered the masses and the proles.


Why the internet is important to me

While I have a variety of interests and talents – I’m a good musician, and a good photographer, and have spent countless hours on both – I am primarily an intellectual, a thinker, explorer, and a writer. I got my Ph.D. in 1978 for a dissertation entitled, “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory,” years before anyone else in literary studies way paying attention to the cognitive sciences. I got a faculty position and The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, and was turned down for tenure in, I believe, 1985. I spent two or three years trying to get another academic post and failed. Since then I’ve continued doing my intellectual work while doing a bit of this and that to make a living.

The internet afforded me the opportunity to build an intellectual life that would have been impossible without it. Not only has it given me access to books and articles, but it has given me access to people and avenues for publication that don’t require me to jump through the hoops of academic convention, though I do publish in the formal academic literature every now and then.

Back in 2006 I started blogging at an academic group-blog called The Valve. I posted articles and commented on articles by others. The Valve went bust in 2012 or so, by which time I’d created New Savanna. But I remain in touch with some of my colleagues from those days even though we’ve never met in person. I’ve set up pages at three sites for the distribution of academic papers,, SSRN, and ResearchGate. And then there’s Twitter. And more, much more.

But I’ve made my point. Without the internet I would be an isolated intellectual. The internet has given me the means of actively functioning in an international intellectual community.

But none of these experiences compare with a core experience I had in graduate school. While I was enrolled in the English Department at SUNY Buffalo, I got my deepest education in the Linguistics Department under the tutelage of David Hays. I was a member of his research group for four years.

We met weekly at his house, Twin Willows, on the shore of Lake Erie. At the beginning of the meeting each participant, student, faculty or, for that matter, visitor, was allowed to put one item on the discussion agenda. We then moved through the agenda in order around the table. If we didn’t finish the agenda, the remain items went to the head of the agenda for the next meeting.

Depending on when we held the meeting in the morning or afternoon, we’d prepare and eat a meal together. Hays would search the kitchen for comestibles, point out what was available, and we’d set to work fixing a meal. When it was over, we’d wash the dishes. The shared meal was essential to the group’s functioning.

We accomplished real intellectual work in those meetings, unlike what happened in the graduate seminars I took, which, despite the small class ‘discussion’ format, were primarily opportunities for faculty to expatiate on whatever. I can’t imagine that happening in a Zoom meeting, or some similar online format.

And I certainly cannot imagine the kind of discussions Hays and I subsequently had, after I’d graduated, taking place online. We continued to work together. He’d left Buffalo to live in New York City, so it was easy to travel there from Troy, New York (where I remained after I’d failed to get tenure). We’d talk and talk, often in his apartment. But we’d also go to Fort Tryon Park nearby and chat while walking the park. As you know, peripatetic discussion is an ancient and venerable intellectual tradition. It works.

Our most profound interaction, however, took place when we were all talked out but had not been able to resolve matters. Hays would take a seat in one place, me in another, and we’d each lean back and think. And think. One of us would hazard a remark or a question, we’d have a little discussion, and that it was back to our reveries. When things went well, which happened often enough, but not always, one of us would have an idea that the other could take up. We’d toss the ball back and forth, reach some conclusions, and Hays would sit down at the computer and write up some notes. Then we’d break out the scotch – four fingers worth in a tumbler – and drink while preparing the evening’s meal.

I can’t imagine doing such a thing in a virtual meeting, I don’t care how high the visual resolution, how good the sound, or how fast the internet connection, you just can’t get the highly personal and idiosyncratic interaction that is necessary.

And then there’s music

It seems that I have been a musician all my life. Many of my deepest and most profound experiences, both joyful and, to be honest, a bit terrifying, have happened either while making music or listening to live performances. I will only mention two occasions and then let my band mate Rick Rourke speak.

In the early 1970s I played in a rock bank called St. Matthew Passion. It was out last gig. During the introduction to “She’s Not There” I went blank. The music got more and more intense until Wham! I felt myself dissolve into white light and pure music. It felt good. I thought about that experience for days, weeks, months, and years afterward. I might even say that I’ve never fully ‘recovered’ from that experience. What could ‘recovery’ possibly mean? It changed me.

In 1987 David Hays and I went to hear Miles Davis perform at Avery Fisher Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center. The band was hot, the performance was stunning, and Miles and his band left the audience in grateful shock. “Time After Time” was the strongest song in a set of strong performances. The tempo was slow, very slow, and the dynamics were low, mostly, for there were times when the sound swelled to fill the hall. But the music was so powerful it filled the hall no matter how loud or soft the sound. Even at its softest, which was very soft, Miles’ sound was so intense that you’d think it could suck sound right out of the air. When Miles and the band had finished performing “Time After Time” the audience was completely and actively silent. It took us a few moments to return sufficiently to ourselves so that we could offer up the customary applause.

During the mid-1980s I was a member of The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band. We gigged in upstate New York, mostly in Troy, Albany, Schenectady, and Saratoga Springs. We played small clubs and not so small clubs, private parties, weddings, and major concerts (e.g. opening for B.B. King). Here’s a video that Steve Rosenbaum, then of Our Town Television, now Managing Director of NYC Media Lab.

That’s me on trumpet (c. 0:29). We’re playing at The Metro, in Saratoga Springs, one of our regular gigs. A bit later Rick Rourke, who’d been on the road a number of years as a full-time musician, sums it up (c3:19): “It’s the closest you can get to really being feeling totally happy with yourself.”

The closest you can get to really being feeling totally happy with yourself. That’s core experience.

If Andreessen doesn’t understand this, then he has no business talking and writing about the future of internet technology. He may be brilliant, he may be rich, but I fear that he is not wise. He doesn’t understand the limitations of his experience.

I hear he’s a tall man. Perhaps his brain has spent too much time too close to the sun and, like Icarus, he’s falling. Or perhaps he has spent too much time surrounded by people who defer to him because of his wealth and power. Whatever the problem, we cannot allow ourselves follow him and his fellow digerati down that rabbit hole to perdition.


  1. "We speak with more than our mouths. We listen with more than our ears." -- Fred Rogers