Annus Horribilis, Annus Mirabilis
2021 in Pull Request review
And here we bring our story to an end. Its literary merits must be left to the judgement of the readers: as to its truth, I should not hesitate to declare without fear of contradiction that, from the first word to the last, I have aimed at nothing else.
Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War (75 AD)
It’s difficult to view the present through the future’s eyes.
What will the future think of the tortuous year of 2021? Any self-reflection requires staring into the rear-view mirror of an as-yet imagined time and place. In this statutory genre of end-of-year review, the best we can do is take a breath, quaff some IPA, and scroll down the list of posts and Tweets and try to make sense of what happened….
(The product manager in me wishes Substack had the Notion feature of an automated top-of-page table of contents. I’ll weakly reproduce that here given the rambling nature of the post.)
A reflection on the Apple affair
Joining the Jews
Miami and Cuba
Brief interviews with hideous men (i.e. interview highlights)
Highlight reel (of posts not covered in other sections)
Technology, old and new
I’m all for a quiet life. I just didn’t get one.
What to say about my former employer and most valuable company in the world?
Here I was looking to pull off the Valley tech guy version of early retirement and work at a FAANG company, finally settling down to support my kids and be a proper father. I abandoned forever the bohemian shenanigans of the writing and off-grid life … but somehow the shenanigans found me.
In the span of 24 hours I went from thinking about the morning standup meeting to being embroiled in the tech story of the moment, and playing poker against a company with an annual revenue greater than Denmark’s GDP.
One of the dysfunctional but occasionally useful elements of my psychology is that while I’m an anxious, self-doubting mess during the normal vicissitudes of everyday life, I’m absolutely calm and calculating in wartime. As readers of Chaos Monkeys know, I’m no stranger to either being in the eye of a media storm nor being in mismatched legal combat. In a way, it was almost nostalgic: once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
A more Christian view would say that a state of divine grace descended on me during a period of worldly turmoil. I really did feel an almost uncanny sense of serene focus during it all. As when running with the bulls in Pamplona, the fear is all in the foreboding: once in the thick of the melee, it’s all pure action and reaction, coup and countercoup, bluffing and raising and calling until someone folds.
No catalog of 2021’s top tweets would be complete without the opening salvo in the AGM/Apple media battle, my five-point summary of the manufactured brouhaha.
In the end, the whole thing went down like an Israeli war: lopsided, risky, and short.
!הר הבית בידינו! הר הבית בידינו
Beyond my petty personal dramas, the story was significant as it was the first in a series of internal employee revolts that rocked Apple: first the inhumane horror of hiring the author of a five-year-old bestselling book; then wanting Apple management to take a stand on Israel-Palestine (!); then protesting the human-rights violation of having to physically return to Apple’s gorgeous billion-dollar campus to, like, actually work.
Unlike the leadership of companies like Coinbase or Shopify, both of whom took strong public stands on employee politicking at work, Apple management uttered not a peep and caved to the mob. All the while of course Apple has struck Faustian bargains with China for its own market interests, and lobbied the US government to evade potential liability for its use of forced labor in China.
If there’s one phrase that characterizes our age, it’s ‘elite failure’. Nobody is really in charge anymore; there is no secret room with all the competent people making the pivotal decisions. From the US government to The Times, the world is now run by a Zoom screen of hollow, indecisive people—absolutely scared shitless of Twitter and Slack threads—wincing from hard realities and public stands in favor of performative posturing and backroom deals; all the while, our elites shamble feebly around the institutions that a greater generation once built … including and especially the management of Apple.
The God of the Hebrews
How odd of God,
to choose the Jews.
Not so odd,
the Jews chose God.1
When asked how it is I got mixed up with the children of Abraham and Moses, I’m generally at a bit of a loss and use the children excuse: I have three Jewish kids and wanted to both encourage and participate in their religious upbringing. Living as we do in a bizarre society where the only functional organizations are corporations, I wanted my progeny to experience being part of something motivated by more than mere greed.
Less diplomatically, Mama Deux more or less told me that if the kid went to shul, I’d be taking her, so I called her bluff and joined the tribe.
Conversion became my COVID project, and thanks to Conservative Judaism’s rather permissive attitude toward Zoom, I became a regular attendee at a local synagogue. Judaism is an orthopraxic religion, which is to say, a Jew is as a Jew does: you are defined by your practice not by your beliefs. The sort of secular American who often expressed puzzlement at my sudden conversion has the specter of very Protestant, personal-faith Christianity rattling around their heads (among other unsuspected Christian beliefs).
In order to better explain this sudden and unthinkable departure from secular liberalism, I wrote a piece titled ‘Why Judaism?’ which went viral in the Jewish world and beyond. Lamenting the ‘God-sized hole at the center of liberalism’, I laid out the case for the age-old Jewish tradition in a confused, directionless age obsessed with ‘faddish academic or corporate cults’. I followed that with ‘Why Judaism?, part שני’, addressing more directly the role God or whatever is behind all this (waves hands all around), and why some form of metaphysical belief is essential for human life. If you think you don’t profess a religion, you’re almost certainly the most zealous acolyte of our age’s most popular form if it: (post) Christian secular liberalism.
Here’s an anecdote:
In October of this year, I attended the largest rabbinical gathering in the world: the Chabad movement’s Kinus Hashluchim. These are the black-hat Orthodox Jews who run synagogues around the world; you may have seen some trying to put tefillin on passers-by in cities like Jerusalem or New York. It’s an absolutely spectacular event I’ll be writing about in more detail soon.
When I introduced myself to one of the many schluchim (emissaries) I met at this riotous event—can’t recall his name, I met so many—he cocked his bearded head and asked ‘Antonio Garcia-Martinez??’ Astonished he’d even recognized me, I waited patiently as he dug into his black coat, pulled out his phone, opened a WhatsApp group he maintained with other Chabad rabbis, and showed me a much commented-on link to my post ‘Why Judaism?’
“A wonderful reflection on Judaism. Many blessings to you, friend.” He smiled, and disappeared back into the jovial mob of black-coated emissaries.
I did lots of Jewish podcasts and got lots of writing invitations after ‘Why Judaism?’, but my proudest moment was a Chabadnik saluting this bumbling convert’s rumination on the religion to which he had dedicated his entire life.
Miami and Cuba
Miami and Cuba represent either side of an historical coin: the once (Cuba) and current (Miami) entrepôt between the Anglo and Latin worlds, populated by an imperious and scheming caste of Cubans. One has fallen into tragic ruin and the other is having quite a moment. The weird backwater of my youth, which I fled the very instant I could, has apparently turned into a center-of-gravity metropolis thanks to one tweet from my former middle-school classmate and current Miami mayor Francis Suarez.
As soon as the Miami meme took off, I posted the Pull Request download:
Meanwhile, languishing Cuba got a shock to its sclerotic system in the form of network-enabled smartphones, something it had never really had until recently. The protests that erupted in early July were like nothing the country had seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. I had a quick react piece on it ‘The contrarevolución will be livestreamed’, that’s an updated version of the WIRED piece I did (reporting illegally from Cuba) on the weird Cuban Internet situation.
I also wrote an oped in The Washington Post about the protests, as well as ‘The Invisible Boot’ on seeing the brutality of the Cuban dictatorship emerge publicly again. I also spoke to former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and current FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr about what it would take to run Internet to Cuba (WiFi balloons!).
Like it or not, part of my brain and soul are still in South Florida. For those Miamians who write asking about when I’m next there (there’s a surprising number of you), I’ll be at Founders Fund’s Hereticon in early January and probably again some time in Q1/Q2. The Singapore of Latin America isn’t done with me yet.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
…the psychological need to believe that others take you as seriously as you take yourself. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, as psychological needs go, but yet of course we should remember that a deep need for anything from other people makes us easy pickings.
David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
When Casey Newton did his post-first year review of his Substack, one of his interesting conclusions is that interview were terrible for reader engagement.
Whether due to differing subjects (or a different interviewer), I’ve found that readers love interviews and they’re some of Pull Request’s most popular posts. They also absorb an exhausting amount of time to transcribe and edit, and in fact I’m still behind on posting my interview with Glenn Greenwald (Glenn, you’re coming out in 2022, I promise you).
Engagement aside, it gives me an excuse to bother interesting people with importunate questions, something I love to do.
On the audio side, many of these interviews went out live on Callin, and you can get a whole list of them here. We had:
On the text side, here are my favorite interviews of the year, in no particular order:
Marc Andreessen is one of the very few VCs with an actual intellect who reads books outside the (small) business-oriented ‘thought leadership’ canon of Medium-level procedural bullshit. How someone manages to balance wide-ranging intellectual interests with running a firm that seems to have vertically-integrated every element of entrepreneurship from funding to hiring to media, I have no idea.
Times columnist and author Ross Douthat is one of my very few must-read authors: if he authored an IKEA furniture construction manual, I’d read it. Fortunately his topics are much more engaging. His The Decadent Society is a sweeping diagnosis of our cultural malaise, written by a true aesthete who probes everything from superhero films to the state of the novel. His more recent The Deep Places is a moving reflection on illness and its overcoming, whether via medical quackery or religious faith.
I’ve known Zeynep for a couple of years, and mostly in the context of the social media impact on politics and media. Her transformation into one of the most prominent, independent authorities on COVID has been fascinating to watch. This interview dates from her first forays there and discusses how a professor of sociology became a disease expert.
In this Substack podcast, probably the two smartest people in mobile and advertising tech discuss the new coming world of on-device data on the Apple and Google mobile platforms (as well as plenty of other venting).
Historian, podcaster and BBC presenter Tom Holland is one of our finest public intellectuals, and his book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World is an absolute must-read on the influence of Christian religion and morality on our secular age.
Whatever you think of Critical Race Theory (CRT), Christopher Rufo is one of the most interesting people in media today. Starting his career as a pretty mainstream documentarian (his America Lost is worth watching), he has become a one-man media army against the institutionalization of CRT in American schools. Nobody has so single-handedly changed a national conversation than Rufo has, all of it via writing and tweeting. If our current discourse is endless memetic warfare, Rufo is one of its virtuosi.
Another public intellectual I unashamedly crush on is Niall Ferguson, author of many bestsellers, Stanford professor, and more recently founder of a new, heterodox University of Austin. We had a long rollicking conversation covering everything from Fukuyama to why the Jews need to be more violent like the Scots. When I called him about the university thing, it turned into a whole other interview about universities and the future.
When I cracked open Shapiro’s books to see how canceled I would be if I interviewed him, I discovered his politics were as radical as those of a Boca Raton gastroenterologist. He’s your basic conservative Orthodox Jew, politics-wise, even if his online persona (like anyone who makes a living in The Spectacle) is more than a bit trollish and snarky. Rather than ask him about his politics, which would be redundant given he’s built an entire media empire to expound them, I asked him about his very public Judaism (which resulted in a lecture on my conversion) and whether elite media really matters anymore (oh, and Facebook).
Rod Dreher is one of the most outspoken and prolific conservatives intellectuals writing today. His The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation is a rallying cry for Christians convinced the liberal wold is unsalvageable. I’ve known Rod for a while, and as his star has risen in the media firmament (and he writes more bestselling books), we sat down to discuss his evolution from a New York-living bohemian, to Catholic and now to an Orthodox Christian bemoaning the state (as I sometimes do) of secular liberalism.
Plus! Austen Allred of Lambda School (now Bloomtech) on the state of American education, Kathryn Paige Harden on progressivism and genetics, and more…
‘We Are No Longer A Serious People,’ on the Afghanistan pull-out debacle and what it means about our governing elites, was one of the most viral posts of the year.
‘Bad Apple,’ my first public statement after The Apple Affair, was understandably popular. More on Apple below.
My post about moving to the high desert outside the Reno/Tahoe area, “Fear and Loathing in Reno”, turned more than a few heads as apparently nobody pictured me as a warlord of the Mad Max plains. C’mon now…
I penned a paean of praise to my Tesla 3 in ‘The Soul of a New Driving Machine’. That of course meant I had an army of Elon-haters in my mentions sternly declaring that absolutely, positively the car that routinely drives me over mountain passes for hours on end is not even remotely autonomous.
Technology, old and new
One of my first posts in the rebooted Pull Request was about the major changes afoot with ads and privacy, specifically the moves by Apple and Google to completely invert the going architecture of many years and billions of dollars of Internet development.
This took a particularly odd twist when Apple announced a new child-pornography filtering system (a noble goal if there ever was one) that sparked a backlash among users for precisely its ‘on-device’ architecture. I still think the long-term vision for conventional (non-Web3) mobile computing is shifting to on-device, barring some force majeure. If that move to on-device happens, then the last building block of the tottering digital advertising edifice that I and many others have helped build will finally be in place. It will then be on to other formats and other ways of wiring human brains to each other, and other ways of packaging and selling the resulting attention.
Or perhaps not.
I also had very initial and tentative posts on the (M/m)etaverse and how Web3 and advertising could (or could not) work. I plan on spending more time on Web3 going forward in Pull Request. Yes, agm.eth is becoming a bit of a crypto-believer: if Web3 lives up to only a tenth of its promise, it’ll be a big deal. Look for much more of that in 2022.
A reader could scan the entire list of posts, and not necessarily think Pull Request a nerdy tech newsletter. I certainly depart from my esteemed competitors (e.g. Ben Thompson) in tackling some of the squishier and non-technical issues in society. Religion, politics, media, identity…they’ve all been grist for the Pull Request mill. Readers seem to like it based on feedback; possibly even prefer it to yet another take on some fleeing piece of tech news.
Ultimately, culture and politics are downstream of economics, and all of it is downstream of technology. Technology is the most vital and fertile sector of society right now; be they in the form of bits or atoms, technology’s offspring are undermining elites, eroding old institutions, and completely warping a modernist Western worldview that dates back to that other great technological upheaval, the printing press.
It is my view that we are still at the very earliest days of a new and radical transformation, where information and human thought are completely untethered from the physical and political realities that have framed human life for half a millennium. Much of it fills many of us with trepidation. In the car of humanity we’re all riding in, the liberals are stomping on the brakes to stop the dizzying acceleration of technological change, while the conservatives look for a reverse gear that doesn’t exist. Technologists are the only ones in the car with a wild expression on their faces, stomping on the gas and shouting the only way through is through!
May we all arrive at whatever New Enlightenment awaits us relatively quickly, and with the car more or less in one piece.
Finally, I’d like think the various people who have made Pull Request possible:
My editor Kevin Conley, who manages to turn around posts despite my utter last-minute timing
The Substack founders, Chris Best and Hamish McKenzie, who finally convinced me to do Pull Request time
You, the readers, without whose support this wouldn’t be possible
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