Let Alexandria burn.

The burning down of the Ancient Library at Alexandria is often cited as one of the great tragedies of human history, right up there with smallpox in the Americas, the Shoah, and any comedy Dave Chappelle made after he came back from Africa.i

And yet who the fuck learns anything from books in the first place? I obviously don’t mean “learn” as in “regurgitate back onto scantron sheet,” I mean learn as in integrate knowledge within the context of a mental framework, modify framework as required to adapt to new knowledge, and then apply the updated framework to make more accurate and productive decisions in the real world.

Is this a controversial definition? Sometimes I swear it is!

“But Pete” you say, “what about giga-brains like Elon who teach themselves rocket physics from flipping through dead tree manuals by themselves?” Well Timmy, I hate to break it to you but Elon’s the kind of one-in-ten-billion genius that could learn to seed clouds with silver iodide just from watching Rainman. You and I unequivocally are not! Also, even Elon bounced his book learnings off of the best and brightest in the world before applying his framework to solve real-world problems. No man is an island, possibly least of all Mr. Musk. It’s actually hard to name a better coordinator of human talent and ambition than that man. So maybe you should pick better examples, Timmy!

“But Pete,” you continue, entirely unfazed, “explain how you can possibly be anti-book when you have shelves upon shelves of beautiful hardcovers that you deeply adore and seem to glean so much from, doesn’t that make you sorta kinda hypomacritical?” Well, Timmy, I’m glad you pointed that out because it’s certainly true that I bear a great affection for my eclectic book collection and that I have absolutely no intention of quitting it anytime soon,ii but it’s also true that I have no misapprehensions as to its productive (or at least commercial) value, certainly not in isolation.

You see, being a curious sort of person who aspires to elevated acculturation isn’t about linear value extraction. So even if I’m reading art history and it just so happens that I manage to glean something from a Georges Duby’s title on Venetian painting that informs an NFT purchase, chances are actually quite good that those particular NFTs will underperform in the market, not overperform. Is that counter-intuitive? I’d suggest not. Or else we’d expect the most knowledgable tradart chaps running around the crypto-space to also be the most successful degens in terms of financial ROI, when in fact we see almost the exact opposite! What we see instead is that sharp young men with much less tradart education bias but with sophisticated economics and trading backgrounds – people like NFTier and KBM – are the ones who materially outperform the rest of us when it comes to zeroes in bank accounts.

While each end of the spectrum is optimising for different things – money people for financial performance (and possibly also adrenaline), and artsy people for social performance (albeit one within very strict confines) – both ends of this spectrum possess tokens to token-gated networks, and if there’s anything remarkable at all about this it’s how little overlap there is between the two (and possibly how unproductive they both are).iii And that’s okay! Because at the end of the day it’s all about human networks, and what’s clear to see is that the respective participants are operating within the contexts of their given contexts to maximise value creation and retention therein.iv

It’s therefore to retention that we must turn our gaze to next, and what retention comes down to is this: when in our lives do we really learn anything? Arguably, it’s when we’re quite young, possibly even pre-literate, that we learn most of what we know about the world and become most of who we are as adults. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules, it’s just how it is. So accepting that potentially blasphemous premise (at least for the reformists in the audience), we need to look very closely at how young children learn. What we can see is there are two primary didactic components: modelling and narrative.

Modelling is straightforward enough: monkey see, monkey do. Dad abuses mom, mom yells at dad, and innocent kid models violent out-bursts for the rest of their lives no matter how much therapy they go to. Narrative is similarly straightforward: listen and play along. Santa Claus is coming with gifts so we’d better be good little boys and girls this year.

These being what they are, have you noticed that neither involves regurgitating Le Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture, Blackstone’s Commentaries of the Laws of England or Lee Kuan Yew’s From Third World to First? All of books are very interesting! (Or else I wouldn’t have them on my bookshelf) but it must be said that they’re ultimately just window dressing – mere social signalling for whoever might stumble into your home office – if that content isn’t processed, internalised, and then tested against the world. This testing against the world is the crucial thing. 

This is why Samo Burja and others and so rightly obsessed with a culture or society’s “social technologyv ; because ultimately, there’s no durability without continuity, and there’s no continuity unless knowledge is passed down from mentor to mentee through the generations.

Books don’t pass along information, people pass along information. The idea of “auto-didacticism” is indeed a quaintly individualistic concept with unrealistically reductive assumptions about how society and networks function and maintain themselves. There is nothing of value, after all, apart from what emerges from networks. So if the useable contents of a book live only within a single node and nowhere else, then that knowledge is doomed to die when that node dies (only to be reborn and re-“discovered” hundreds if not thousands of years later).vi

So really, what good are all these books? Maybe all we can say is that books aren’t much use for future generations. As Russ Roberts keenly pointed out in a recent interview with Marc Andreessen, nobody really wants our books (or our other collected junk) when we’re gone. Chances are good that our direct descendants will almost certainly care more about their own collections of whatever knick-knackvii than anything we might physically or digitally pass down to them, which really calls into question the whole materialist premise in the first place, or at least its latter consumerist form. Per Edmund de Waal’s exquisite explorations,viii we know only too well that physical objects have memories and energies that survive through the ages, but that only reinforces the quality > quantity truism, and that books aren’t the only way to tell stories.

So nevermind the Library at Alexandria. I mean, the “indigenous” peoples of the world had no books to speak of, and yet they still understood wormholes, continental driftix, the integrative power of trading daughters with neighbouring tribes,x and how to live the good life! Is it any wonder that countries like Canada and Switzerlandxi are trying so hard to elevate ancestral forms of knowledge passed along by oral tradition?

It’s really all there’s ever been.

___ ___ ___

  1. Seriously, as far as I’m concerned, Dave died after leaving Chappelle Show, ideally in a freak giraffe hunting accident while on safari.
  2. I’m also one of those numbered people “people of the book” so, y’know, nihil fit ex nihilo.
  3. Can either understand how a refrigerator functions, much less design and build one? No, of course, it’s only the Chinese and Mexicans who know how to do that anymore. Knowledge economy ftl!

    That being said, productivity isn’t just useful in industrial societies, as CryptoArt legend Herbert Franke points out:

    The reception of art is only one side of my consideration. For the reception happens in the moment. With works of art, however, an effect takes place that extends beyond the moment of first perception. That can only be ensured from the creation side, which I have described with a multi-level model. The question is, how can the artist achieve, from an information-aesthetic point of view, an effect beyond the moment of reception? Until now, the artist mainly used intuitive, unconscious methods for this. But information cybernetics offers a rational grammar as a guideline. It is based on the fact that humans are able to selectively concentrate on different levels of meaning. If each level is now configured according to the conditions for optimal perception, the work, when presented again, offers the extraction of other, previously unperceived data. With the help of this multi-level model, it is possible for the artist to serve different levels of effect.

    Incidentally, from the considerations described above, an insight into the social benefits of art can be derived: In today’s civilizations, successful perceptual processes no longer have the same significance as a means of survival as they once did for humans in the wild. Nevertheless, even members of modern communities often find themselves in situations that require the ability to perceive contexts in order to cope with them. The perception of works of art, which psychologically represents nothing other than a learning process, contributes a great deal to ensuring that these perceptual abilities are preserved for mankind in the future.

    So maybe there’s hope for us in the post-industrial world yet!

  4. Of course there are also the builders like Snowfro who massively outperform financially while also having yuuuuge skin in the game as platform developer, curator, community lead, and artist, but there are far more of us on the outside looking in at such remarkable individuals, trying to ride the coattails of their success, than there are those who are actually firing on all cylinders creating. Indeed, it’s been said before but it bears repeating: it’s a creative’s world and we’re all just living in it.
  5. Archived.
  6. Archimedes was way more advanced in mathematics than previously thought. He had calculus nailed a thousand years before Newton and Leibniz, so it’s not unreasonable to think that the Babylonians had calculus figured out a thousand years before that! Oh wait, we already have the clay cuneiform tablets to prove that too… go go gadget modernism! 
  7. Including your CryptoPunks! While it may make for a cute idea that you’re “simply holding onto your Patek Punk for the next generation”, the simple fact of the matter is that giving an 18-year-old the equivalent of a Bugatti Centodieci before they go to college is like giving them a dump truck full of Colombia’s finest China White and hoping for the best. You might want to sell the Punk to pay for their post-secondary education, and that’s fine, but don’t assume that 1) they’ll even be interested in wasting 4-10 of their prime years strapped to a desultory desk, and 2) that University will be such a given in a decade or two hence. 
  8. If you haven’t read The Hare With Amber Eyes yet, this bear market is the perfect opportunity. The title comes mega-recommended!
  9. The world living on the back of a turtle really is a beautiful metaphor for the almost imperceptibly slow movement of continental landmasses, don’t you think?
  10. Just like European nobility!
  11. Switzerland is doing the same thing as Canada, just focused on the watch industry, as Rexhep Rexhepi’s independent uber-brand Akrivia demonstrates by their recent partnership with legendary casemaker Jean-Pierre Hagmann:

    Located directly across the street from Akrivia’s main watchmaking atelier, Hagmann, 81, leads a three-person team of craftsmen who build each of the company’s cases by hand, using old-world machinery. Traditional casemaking for high-end timepieces is a lost art these days – although there are some wonderful watch cases being produced throughout Switzerland, they are invariably completed through a blend of computer-aided design and CNC-assisted manufacturing.

    That’s not what Hagmann is about. He won’t touch a computer, preferring to use only a pencil and graph paper to sketch out and design each of the individual components used, for instance in the case of the recently announced Chronomètre Contemporain II. His expertise and ability are absolutely legendary

    “In watchmaking, when you put all your [movement] components together, it will always be a flat [surface] under a flat [surface],” Rexhepi says. “You take a component, it’s flat, and you assemble it on a baseplate; it’s easier. On a case, however, you need to make the lugs work together with the rest of it. It’s a totally different job, you know? It’s really a métier; and if not for Hagmann and these guys, it all disappears.”

    via Hodinkee (archived). 

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