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More TikTok, GPT-Philosophy, Fuzzy Maps, Cyclical History
Last week I got accidentally addicted to TikTok for “research.” I’m writing an essay on this new wave of NPC streamers, and so I installed the app and blitz wrote the absurd things that flashed across the screen. It’s a fast style of writing involving stats, quotes, analysis, facial expressions, and comment curations.
It’s like I’m a stenographer at the New Circus. I have 7,626 words of fractured cubist prosethat I need to wrangle into an essay. I probably have 150 excerpts like this that I need to decipher:
July 26th, 2023 9:05 am (ET) —
“Post its on his eyebrows, but half shredded, thousands of curly strings blocking his eyes — “Free the pandas!” — 472 people watching — Head slanted — Seems like a schizophrenic poet around “panda liberation” (?) with a new train of thought every 3 seconds, a possessed oracle — Hands bouncing in a looping motion — 480 — In one hand a finger-strength grip, in the other an Xbox controller. — The crowd is heckling. Mean comments. He speaks calmly: “I am not AI, thank you for the rose” — Red scarf, red shorts on his heads, red bicycle helmet. — Virtual panda gifts flash on the screen (valued at $0.07 each). “STOP SENDING THE PANDAS!” Fake devastation. Face in pain. Pretend anger — 500 people watching — 30k likes — 12x panda emojis = a dramatic 10 second seizure — then, leans in, slowly, and in the deepest voice of Satan, he howls “no more Pandas” — this is torture porn —some guy in Kenya is milking the Internet for its sadism.”
Even though I’m active, analytical, and self-aware through this whole ordeal, I’m not immune to the contact high. The medium is inherently hypnotic. Throughout the day, I’ll catch myself repeating catchphrases like “gang ganggg,” out loud to nobody. “Thank you for the… fuck.” There’s probably a science to this. I’ve been exposed to the Wii theme songat least 17 times at a spaced interval, and now it’s looping in my head all day as if I’m in some cartoon lounge. My subconscious is poisoned.
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During this TikTok phase, I took up another new hobby of the opposite nature: “GPT-philosophy.” Maybe this is a reaction to my brain getting flooded with soul-deafening noise, but I had the sudden urge to wield a working knowledge of all the best ideas ever thought.
August 1st, 2023 7:29 pm (ET) —
Yesterday I started making a “genealogy of ideas.” I’ll start with one thinker and use GPT to build a foundational knowledge: years alive, main books, main ideas, heroes, influence, etc. My follow-up questions help me link their concepts with the things I already know. Instead of trekking through a dense 300-page philosophy manifesto in old-English prose, I can have a simple conversation to quickly get it. Then I’ll plot them in Miro, connect them to other thinkers, and continue building the map. It’s like a family tree of thought.
I won’t claim that 10 minutes of GPT-noodling will give me a complete understanding of Kierkegaard. That’s not the point here. I’m not looking to become an academic scholar, or to acquire a new lexicon of dense fancy words to sound smart (ie: the determinism of Hegelian dialectics).
I’m a writer. I want to build fuzzy maps of knowledge across every discipline so I can connect them to my own original ideas.
If you search “hilariously wrong maps” on Google, you’ll find something like the map below, drawn by Sebastian Munster in 1569. It’s laughably off compared to the satellite images of today. But it’s close. It has the continents in the right place, some key geographic features, two oceans. It’s a lot better than the previous maps. Above all, it’s useful. I could use this map to sail to Florida, even though they’ve rendered it as a sad nub. If all I have is a proportionally perfect map of Cuba with nothing beyond it’s beaches, I wouldn’t be able to get Florida despite it being next door.
Go wide before you go deep.
So I built fuzzy maps of ~35 thinkers last week, but there’s one idea I’m going deep on: The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. The authors (William Strauss and Neil Howe) didn’t just define and name our modern generations (they coined the phrase “millennials”), they also studied every decade for the last 400 years.
They claim that history isn’t a linear chain of chaotic events. Rather, there’s an invisible cycle of 80-100 years (one human lifetime), with four generational “archetypes” that repeat themselves. Here’s my interpretation of it:
August 5th, 2023 11:43 am (ET) —
“The Golden Spiral of History”
Gen-I: As we emerge from a crisis, a new world emerges. It’s a new thesis
Gen-II: There’s a flaw in the new line of thinking, and it triggers a spiritual revolt, the antithesis of Generation 1.
Gen-III: There’s an attempt to incorporate the new ethos into the original order, and while it leads to an era of brief comfort, it’s ultimately unstable. It’s a false synthesis.
Gen-IV: We erupt into chaos, polarization, war, and a general feeling of “this is the end.” It’s a crisis, but we emerge from it stronger.
Again, this is a fuzzy but useful model of history. Marshall McLuhan says the only way to deal with information overload is to find patterns that give order to chaos. History is vast.We obviously aren’t looping in place, but maybe we’re spiraling outwards according to a pattern, with each cycle becoming larger and more complex.
A model like this is useful for connecting the past, present, and future. Take TikTok. It’s radical novelly, a product of our times. But if history rhymes, have we been here before? In the 1840s, didn’t P.T. Barnum use gimmick marketing to unleash a traveling circus of freaks, outliers, famous opera singers, deformed creatures, and automatons on America? Is TikTok just a traveling circus turned into software? What would Andy Warhol, Ernst Junger, David Foster Wallace, Lewis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan, or Erich Fromm have to say about NPC streamers?
By embodying the minds of great dead thinkers, a writer can channel forgotten wisdom to make sense of weird times.
Who are your favorite writers, artists, and thinkers that I should add to my Miro map? Why?
What is your stance on going wide vs. going deep?
Are you convinced that history is cyclical?
What other historical analogies could help make sense of TikTok?
I recently read some excerpts of “Tender Buttons” by Gertrude Stein. It was described as “cubist prose” and I though it was unreadable. It’s as if her attention is pinging around her mind and room, and she’s rushing to write down details without any attempt to orient you. TikTok is so chaotic and high-simulation that it’s tempting to venture into “non-linear” prose, but not if it sacrifices coherence. The passage below is a slightly edited, but a mostly raw version of what was captured at the moment of experience. In this upcoming TikTok essay, I want the reader to experience the chaos through the prose, but without getting confused.
Why is the Wii theme song so popular for NPC streamers? TikTok Live incentives creators to perform tricks for money. The creator has no agency. They serve as a “Mii” (a playable Nintendo character) that the crowd controls through sending (paid) emojis. The creators play into the nostalgia of Wii gaming by playing the theme song, and bobbing in place as if they are a cartoon avatar.
It’s possible to go wide or deep for the wrong reasons. Some people read for the “book count,” and others will dive into a dense text because “it feels important.” As a writer, it helps to consume with the lens of “what strategies will improve my writing practice and output?
Hegel’s concept of “dialectics’ might explain why generations build off each other in a semi-predictable way. According to Hegel, history emerges through cause and effect. It all starts with a thesis, which breeds an anti-thesis (it’s opposite), which has to be reconciled (a synthesis), but that ultimately breeds a new conflict. This repeats over and over.
I have very little personal context around the year 1841, but it makes more sense if I study it in context of the cycle I’m actually living through. Of course, the times are radically different. But maybe they rhyme.