The man whose software ate the world

Marc Andreessen on building, COVID, and how the Internet is taking us back to previous forms of thinking

I’ll tell you how old I am without telling you how old I am: my first sight of the World Wide Web was at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, running something like Netscape 3.x while watching the ‘throbber’—a looping, pixelated animation of a planet-straddling ‘N’ getting hit with a meteor shower—for longer than a minute while a page loaded. The thought I’d one day earn my living in the world that then-clunky application created, or that I’d be standing here writing about my interview with one of its inventors and architects, never even vaguely occurred to me.
Reviewing Andreessen’s past accomplishments and present associations here would be redundant for your typical Pull Request reader, so I’ll abstain. More recently, Andreessen’s venture firm A16z launched Future, a site ‘by and for people building the future’.

You pounded out your essay ‘It’s time to build’ in a single evening in a bout of angry inspiration, and it went über-viral the next day.

It made me think of the 19th century and Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. There’s a scene where the English gentleman protagonist and his valet are crossing what would become United States in a complete novelty: a transcontinental railroad. The train gets to a decrepit bridge that clearly can’t handle the length and weight in question, but in a very democratic and feisty way, the American passengers decide that they’ll just fly across fast as hell and hope the bridge doesn’t buckle. Off they go and just make it, the bridge crumbling the moment they get across. Everyone cheers, and the French author thinks they’re all crazy.

It's funny that in the 19th century, the soon-to-be hegemonic power that was doing all this crazy but admirable stuff was the United States relative to Europe. And now it seems like it's almost China relative the United States (and Europe doesn’t even seriously enter anyone’s plans). Your essay embodies that very American spirit, but what went wrong? How did we get here?

I think the historical comparison to Jules Verne is very apt. This is going to be simply explained by stages of economic development. As you're alluding, America was the dynamic new force on the economic stage at that point. And there was actually a money flow component to it, which was that the build-out of America was financed from old Europe. All of Europe had been what you were describing for 300 years or so. But by the time the US came along, that spirit was starting to fade. So what they did quite literally was put all their money in the US. The way JP Morgan got established was that his father Junius Morgan ran the leading merchant bank in London, and then set up his son Pierpont to run a correspondent bank in New York, and the two of them basically funneled money from the UK to the US to build everything in what was known as the Second Industrial Revolution.

So is this a changing of the guard to China or is it just China's turn to build out? From that standpoint it makes sense that Western money would flow into the developing world in search of higher returns. It's also indicative from that standpoint that when we talk about China's “miracle”, the things they build super fast are still literally things like train stations, right? They're not building fusion reactors super fast, they're not building things we don't have super fast. They're building things that we were building a hundred years ago…super fast.

This reminds me of some viral Twitter video I saw showing some snarl of highway ramps; it might even have been from a Chinese government account. They were so proud of this, and I wanted to tweet-reply: you know, Americans were excited about this sort of thing in the 1960s.

I'm in favor of everyone having train stations and freeway systems, it's all good. But the American freeway system got built out starting in the 1930s; it's been a long time since that kind of thing has amazed us.

That's kind of a historical view on it, then you get to the cultural and there something did happen.

Ironically, that change gets pegged right around to the year I was born, 1971. There’s this kink in all these curves, where things really started to slow. We as a society decided that basically the build out of the frontier was over. What was the literal frontier for a long time, and then it was whatever JFK termed the New Frontier, we just kind of decided that that frontier mentality was over. We decided to transition to what you might call a softer culture, inaugurated by the hippies and the environmental movements and all the other changes in the 60s and 70s. From a sweeping historical standpoint maybe that's called for, maybe there should be a balance between hard and soft. Maybe there needs to be a balance between aggressive expansion and environmentalism, or maybe there needs to be a balance of hard-edge capitalism and safety standards and support networks.

I think you also have to ask the question, okay, what about progress? What about actually getting to the future? For the environment, just the most striking thing that keeps jumping out, which I just still can't believe it's not the topic of daily conversation is: ok, if you want to eliminate emissions, we actually have the technology for doing that, it's nuclear fission power. It's actually highly safe, certainly compared to the myth and legend and compared to the alternatives. It's just like a kill shot for carbon emissions. And yet it’s completely ruled out from the environmental movement. It's representative of the fact that we do have the technological capability to fix a whole bunch of problems that we all agree that we have, and we also lack something in the national spirit or national character right now that really wants to actually fix these things. We want to complain about them; we just don't want to fix them.

We do have the technological capability to fix a whole bunch of problems that we all agree that we have, and we also lack something in the national spirit or national character right now that really wants to actually fix these things. We want to complain about them; we just don't want to fix them.

The final thing that led to the 'build!’ essay is when New York City [during the height of the COVID crisis] put out the call for rain ponchos to be used as surgical gowns in hospitals. And it's like, okay, something has tipped where not only can we not build nuclear power plants, but apparently we also can't build surgical gowns in a crisis. And apparently we can't make our own drugs. And we can't make our own medical equipment, and we can't make our own N95 masks. Honestly, this is where you can get cynical, because we don't even go in for train stations anymore.

California has had this incredibly absurd period…you could make a Terry Gilliam movie about high speed train construction in California. Like a sequel to Brazil or something, set in the California bureaucracy and political system where you spend billions and billions of dollars and absolutely nothing happens. What would be the most obvious thing in the world is a high speed train between San Francisco and LA. All of these programs exist, they've been authorized, with taxes and all kinds of stuff and like nothing.

It does seem to be the case that at least in the blue states we have lost the ability to even build train stations. This is where the China critique does get, I would say, increasingly biting.

This is a choice, it's a collective choice, but it's a choice. We have the capability, we have the technology, we can do these things. We could have had the Moderna vaccine rolled out a year earlier.

We can accomplish miracles like nuclear power plants and completely eliminate carbon emissions in the US; that's an actual thing that we could do and so it's a choice not to do that.

There’s just this extraordinarily high cost of infrastructure in the US. Tyler Cowen mentions it one of his podcasts, and even he can’t explain it. Take the Second Avenue subway in New York, which I think just got completed and has been under construction for longer than the original entire subway system was, and it’s just one line of it.

Part of this is either gross inefficiency or cronyism or some form of capture when it comes to building. But part of this, and you see it broadly in the West not just the US: the precautionary principle has taken over our entire lives. If you look at the history of perhaps the biggest scientific triumph for the past couple of years, which is the COVID vaccine, we could have had that in March of last year and stopped this whole pandemic slideshow from the start. We chose not to do so. It's very unusual and certainly not how, say, Salk developed the polio vaccine which was rolled out in a trial trial of a million children, including his own children. By contrast, the German government paused their own delayed AstraZeneca vaccine rollout because there were reports of a few blood clotting issues…

This is a choice, it's a collective choice, but it's a choice. We have the capability, we have the technology, we can do these things. We could have had the Moderna vaccine rolled out a year earlier.

We can accomplish miracles like the nuclear plants and completely eliminate carbon emissions in the US; that's an actual thing that we could do and so it's a choice not to do that. Yeah I think you’re right, I think it's the precautionary principle. I think it’s also the vetocracy, where the number of people who can say no to something has just exploded.

I often tell the story about when I was an intern at IBM in 1990, before the mass layoffs, when they were at peak IBM with 440,000 employees. In the mid-1980s, IBM was so powerful they were 80% of the market cap of the entire tech industry; they were way more dominant than Google is today, and they had evolved a consensus-based management system that they used to call ‘concurrence’. Basically, any decision that you wanted to make, including changes to products, had a formal concurrence checklist on the order of 35 or 40 names of people who had to sign off on the change.

Any one of them could—the term they used was ‘non-concur’—any one of them could say ‘non-concur’, and if you couldn't get all the names in the list signed off you couldn't make the change. This was the method used to administer an empire, which brought decision-making to an absolute halt.

It was a choice; they decided culturally we're going to wire the system so that nothing happens, and then lo and behold nothing happened, and then all these upstarts came along and ran circles around them. It was just amazing to watch because it was a choice; complete catastrophe followed, including hundreds of thousands of layoffs, lives destroyed…just major, major consequences.

Ok, so what do you do?

Step one: Point out that it's a choice we are making.

Step two: We really need to decide at an individual and collective level if this is how we want to live.

At least right now right now the answers seem to be ‘yes’.

What I was trying to do in the essay, and there’s inevitably a political lens and a partisan lens on this because the left and the right have very different diagnoses about what's going on, but what you could enforce in common is this: let’s just agree on how to score the result. If you're on the right, you should measure yourself by performance, which means for example no crony capitalism, no entrenched interests, and no regulatory capture.

On the left, you think the government should be doing all these things? Ok, you know government spending is now near to WWII levels and we’re nowhere near WWII level performance. So what are we getting for the money? Where are the trains?

If we could get to the point where we can score the results that would be a way to maybe break through the gridlock.

You have this clear and obvious gerontocracy, where these people in both parties stumble out on stage and blink at the lights and wonder where they are. At what point do you go from this being the esteemed senior politician representing a coalition to it being elder abuse? We're somewhere in that zone.

It definitely seems that when change is more threatening than promising, everyone collectively hits the brakes. I'm not sure if that's a lack of imagination, or perhaps even a correct risk-adjusted calculation. People just have less faith in the promise of change.

The other thing is, and I’m suspicious of sweeping cultural generalizations, but there is something to the baby boomers theory. Starting in the 1980s, they took control of all the institutions, just from a generational change standpoint. When you look at the statistics, it is really striking to the extent to which the boomers aren't releasing control. If you look at like the average age of university presidents (this is one example Eric Weinstein points this out), they're basically all boomers. At the corresponding point like 30 years ago, that wasn't the case. You see the same thing in politics to the point of absurdity. You have this clear and obvious gerontocracy, where these people in both parties stumble out on stage and blink at the lights and wonder where they are. At what point do you go from this being the esteemed senior politician representing a coalition to it being elder abuse? We're somewhere in that zone.

When you’ve got senators in their 90s running for re-election, and you’re the party of hope and change? The voters get a choice; they chose to vote for the gerontocracy, and that's what they're going to get. But they certainly shouldn't expect dynamism on the other side of that.

My second question is around how the COVID pandemic was one of these just bizarre bombs dropped into into the plot line. It just hit the fast-forward button on every budding social and technical trend. As one example, the fraction of commerce that's online basically doubled in about six weeks, and advanced as much as it had in the 20 years before. Or consider the general trend of work from home among tech companies. There are a lot of mega trends here that accelerated due to COVID.

So I'm curious about the longer-term effects. There’s this notion in science called hysteresis, which is if you put a shock to a system in one direction, and then put a shock in the other direction, the state diagram doesn’t look the same going back to the starting state. It happens when you magnetize metals for example: you magnetize it one way, and then magnetize the other, and you get this gap in the magnetization curves which is the hysteresis gap. It shows how history is path-dependent, and future shocks unfold differently depending on past shocks.

I'm curious how hysteretic this COVID shock is, now that the vaccine numbers have taken off like crazy, and the lockdowns and mask orders are over. How much of this goes back to “normal”?

I'll confess to being shocked and stunned by how well things worked. I thought last March, when we decided suicidally that we were going to basically shut the economy down. I was like, oh shit, this is really going to be a horrific depression. What's the worst possible depression you can have? It's one where you have simultaneous blows to the supply and demand side and you kill the engine and stall the plane.

And then as you saw, the stock market came back, like really fast, and the stock market intuited something that turned out to be really true, which was this time is different. Had this happened 20 years ago, this would have been potentially Great Depression 2.0 kind of stuff. But it turns out the Internet works.

We spent the last 20 years like putting broadband everywhere, putting screens everywhere, pretty fast computers everywhere, putting all this amazing software everywhere, and it turns turns out you could just go home and set up video conferences and be in all the meetings. Was it the same? No. It merely didn't suck. Did it work? Absolutely.

Any company that was running a physical plant had to shut down that plant, but any company running on knowledge work, and all of the companies that have any knowledge-work component, kept working. Car companies had to stop making cars, but they were able to keep designing cars. The Hollywood studios could no longer film on set, but they could continue to do post production and animation. Basically there is not a single case I know of a company whose knowledge work operations were disrupted by this. The entire financial system kept working, the stock exchanges have worked, the banks worked, the Internet kept working, all these things just kept working.

And then there’s the individual consumer side of this. People went home and, like I said, it sucked for lots of reasons. Whatever role the business world could play making it suck less, they played really well. The food delivery companies scaled enormously and really made up for the fact that people couldn't go get food, then drug delivery, and then online education, and all kinds of things just started to instantly drop into place.

I think it's been this collective realization of: Oh shit, this stuff all actually works. So anyway, back to your question. It’s going to be like people are coming out of a war and people are going to have a good time. There's going to be a snapback to that real world stuff because of bottled-up demand. However, I think everybody's gotten the lesson which is like, okay, there are new ways of doing things; there are new ways of doing things that work much better than we ever would have thought, and we now know how to do things that way. I think the implications of that to your question are going to be quite profound, and lasting.

There is not a single case I know of a company whose knowledge work operations were disrupted by this. The entire financial system kept working, the stock exchanges have worked, the banks worked, the Internet kept working, all these things just kept working. I think it's been this collective realization of: Oh shit, this stuff all actually works.

I think the biggest change in the past three centuries of human history was the decoupling of the movement of information from the movement of matter, of bits from atoms. It’s intriguing because they both happened roughly at the same time and via the same means: the telegraph lines were built following the railroad tracks in the westward expansion. And like every major historical process, it actually took decades or centuries. We're both old enough to remember a time in which most people communicated over long ranges via physical artifacts called letters. You wrote a thing on a piece of dead tree, put a stamp on it and it got there four days later, and the person had to mail another one back to get a reply. But even right before COVID, as little as a year ago, we hadn’t decoupled most workaday information flows from the movement of physical atoms yet. Somehow occupying the same space in an office was considered essential for productivity. You played an instrumental role in that transition, but it’s like the last chapter of that just happened.

I think the biggest thing to think about is: to what extent are people going to choose to change how they live? Exactly to your point, there's a lot of things right now that we're able to rethink. By the way, every CEO I’ve talked to is saying: this is the chance, this is the chance to re-engineer and re-design how our companies work in ways that we never imagined. There's going to be an enormous amount of economic transformation that kind of comes out of this.

The other thing is, to your point, it’s always been the case that if you’re young and ambitious and want to make your way in the world, you've always got had to go to a city to access the top opportunities. For like 3,000 years, you had to get to a city and there was always this incredibly stark divide between urban and rural, in terms of where the economic opportunity was. That has basically been factor in the evolution of Western civilization as we know, it, including the ongoing fracturing of old-style social networks and the formation these sort of more atomized nuclear-family-oriented ways of living, with very serious lifestyle and health and education and child raising tradeoffs.

It really does look like in some fundamental way, this is a break in the process of forming a civilization; people may now have access at scale to top-flight economic opportunities without having to be physically co-located. The consequences of that in terms of how people are going to choose to live, and the kinds of communities that people are going to want to be a part of and (something probably close to your heart) where do people find meaning in their lives. People use to find meaning in their community and in their family. Then over time, people found meaning in their work, which leads people to take work too seriously, where literally everything that matters happens at work. Including by the way, dating and marriage, which is an increasingly tenuous proposition in these somewhat more Puritan times.

This idea that you can now make actually independent choices about how you live on the one hand, and how you work on the other hand, and you can actually decouple those things. You can imagine America 30 years from now that has, let’s use a trendy word, with much greater ‘diversity’ of choices for people around how to work and live, and yet everybody and their kids still have access to top-flight opportunities through the screen. This could be a really big deal.

Let’s transition to what I thought would be our immediate question, which is the question of orality and textuality, which is the subject of my second book. I know it’s somewhat of an abstract concept so I’ll lecture for five minutes to frame the idea.

Maybe the best way to explain it is actually something that's near and dear to both of us, which is the app Clubhouse where we both co-hosted a show for a few months. I've often said that Clubhouse is actually the first real form of digital oral media, and not other forms of audio like radio or podcasts. What I mean by that is related to Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying: the media is the message. I actually would reverse and say the message is actually the media. In the sense that if you're listening to a podcast that's been edited as an essay would be, with a transcript that's searchable, that's really not fully oral media; that's at least half textual media even if it’s flowing in via sound rather than characters on a page. You’re engaging with it as you would, say, this Q&A, then it’s intellectually a textual experience.

Clubhouse [as well as copycat Twitter Spaces] is different in that it's not recorded, it's not scripted, there’s no editing, and there’s no way to search or index it. We've done all these shows with all these big names, and I can't send a link to anybody to share what happened after the fact. Whatever culture spun out of that exists only in our memory of it, plus whatever else we orally share about the oral performance…as almost all of human culture did before the rise of mass literacy and the printing press. Just as a random example, I mentioned earlier the movement of bits and atoms, matter and information, and how technology like print and especially the Internet decoupled them. Well, with social audio as with real oral culture, you have to be in the same timezone to participate. As a side note, timezones themselves were only invented in the late 19th century to deal with the quickening pace of both matter and information thanks to (once again) the railroads and the telegraph strung alongside. But with Clubhouse, for all the seeming digital sophistication, you have to be in roughly the same longitude to even listen to our show. I had people DM’ing me about certain shows saying: Damn, it's a shame because it's such a strange hour for me, I’d really like to listen.

Sorry, man, but that's how media used to work. If you weren't within shouting distance of me, you and I just didn't interact. Clubhouse simply virtualizes that. But it's still the case that there's a feeling of impromptu simultaneity which is characteristic of oral media and not of textual media.

More broadly, you often cite the book The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joe Henrich, which I found fascinating because a lot of what he covers in that book was intuited by very abstract media scholars like McLuhan and Walter Ong way before modern brain imaging even existed. In his book, Henrich presents the neurological evidence showing that heavily textualized people, like you and me who’ve gone to school and stood in front of screens staring at text for decades now, our brains actually look different than people more oral backgrounds. We're actually physically different than people from less fully textualized cultures. And this continues cross generationally, for centuries now. Such a rewiring of your brain changes the entire way you look at the world.

Why I find it interesting, if you look at the full ramifications of it, is that this textual rewiring of your brain makes certain things possible that otherwise wouldn’t be.

The notion of scientific objectivity, for example, or an encyclopedic notion of knowledge; those are purely textual concepts that have existed for a very short window of time. Before literacy and text, there was no way to record any convoluted piece of information, or ‘look something up’. The limits of human culture were the limits of collective memory, as transmitted directly from parent to child for most of human history. The very notion of a reference text that describes a thing or records a series of events alongside a set of reference citations, none of which were transmitted to you via direct personal experience or the direct experience of someone personally known to you, is a radically new notion. So much of what we consider to be modern life—rule of law, or even the nation-state itself—emerged in the wake of our post-Enlightenment textual explosion.

There's nothing wrong with oral media, by the way. There are many things that oral cultures could do that we cannot; for example, reciting most of the Iliad from beginning to end, something none of us can do now and yet which was how epic poetry propagated before the Greek adoption of the alphabet. We can't do any of that anymore1.

So it's not to say that orality is a poorer form of culture, but that it supports certain organizations and certain cultural artifacts, that we no longer really indulge but which do live on in limited form. If you look at the transition from orality to textuality, whether it be the Greeks or the Jews who compiled the Talmud or even our own culture, you've got these residues of orality inside textuality, but now we have the reverse. We have residues of textuality in orality, as we kind of flip back.

One of the most kind of amazing things that I realized, in kind of a shock: turns out Socrates was right. Specifically where he condemns the written word on cultural and social grounds2. As he said, we Greeks—Western civilization at that point—transmit everything that we know and everything that we understand and everything that matters via stories. We tell the stories, and it's in the process of telling the stories and hearing the stories discussing the stories that information transfer happens and civilization is maintained.

Written language however was two different things. Number one, what changed was the emotional load or the emotional impact of the stories, going from emotion to intellect. It changes the nature of how people learn about the world, and to Socrates’ argument, not for the better.

His other critique was that the written word can't talk back3. It never changes, no matter how many times you read the same story, it's always the same. Whereas if you told me the story, then we can actually have a discussion around it. It's like, oh shit, I always thought he was the first Luddite, but it’s probably not surprising that he figured this out sooner than most.

The other thing I'd say is that in the West, and probably globally also, oral culture has been dominant this entire time. If you had to make a pie chart of culture, let's just say culture in the West over the last 3,000 years, how big a slice of the pie has textual culture ever gotten, in terms of overall culture? What percentage of people naturally orient themselves around reading, say, a hundred books a year? The answer to that is that most people don't. Arguably, we've been continuously living in a dominant oral culture throughout this whole period, including through our lives. The written ancestral culture has been important to people like you or me as individuals, it's been important to things like the progress of science and politics and so forth. But it hasn’t been dominant. We might be talking about the gradations of the minority position.

I think that’s right. If you actually look at the history of, for example, how textuality crept into Greek culture, it took the Greeks 300 years to adopt the alphabet. It's not like there was a switch flipped in 453 BC and suddenly they were a literate culture. It was obviously a gradual evolution.

Things obviously happen faster now, but we’re still living in this cultural estuary (to use a nautical example) between textual and oral culture; we’ve just moved the knob controlling the oral/textual mixture a bit one way toward the oral side.

Just to back up to what you said about Socrates: it’s funny because the critiques that Socrates lodges against the alphabet are precisely the critiques that an oral culture would used to attack textual culture. Oral literature is performed individually if not outright sung by a given performer; the thought that there was some sort of canonical text that was the definitive Iliad was an unknown concept and one invented by textual culture much later. Every performance of the Iliad resulted in a slightly different work; before it was transcribed in the 8th century BC or so there was no canonical text whatsoever, not even the concept of one. In oral culture the definitive Iliad is the one recited by so-and-so yesterday at the pub. His version is better than this other guy's because he can improvise better, and riff of the repeated motifs better.

The other thing oralists abhor about text is how it exists on its own. Oral culture is agonistic in nature: you say a thing, and I counter with another thing, and we engage in a dialogue. This was of course the Socratic method and the very definition of intellectual inquiry at the time. The thought of sitting there and quietly reading wasn't even common in the West until the late 19th or early 20th century; books or papers were typically read out loud in a group setting like a drawing room or salon. Even typographic conventions like punctuation started as aids to pronunciation4—the text serving as mostly as a crutch for the dominant oral culture—not as something intellectually valuable on its own. Language was still something mostly consumed by sound rather than sight, and that changes your entire perception of it.

Getting back to the Greeks, it’s clear that Plato actually disagreed with Socrates; ironically, it’s only because Plato wrote all this down that we even know about Socrates’ screed against the alphabet. In Plato’s Republic, it's the poets that he bans from his idealized polis, because he thinks they're too emotive. Recall again ‘poetry’ here means the performed metrical verse of Homer that would have emotively drawn in an audience, not the flat version we have in our textual world. The reason why you need emotion in an oral culture is because humans only remember if they have strong emotions around something, which is why oral literature is so hyperbolic and even grotesque. Everything in the Iliad is violent, colorful and larger than life. It had to be or it would have been forgotten. The notion of a 500-page Jane Austen novel subtly telling some complicated story wouldn't even have been possible for most of human history. The human mind could not have conceived of nor recorded such a thing.

You see that today in dealing with conspiracy theories. If you ever find yourself as somebody who's oriented toward a textual culture and you’ve read all the books on some topic, you have what you believe to be a dispassionate, analytical view of something. And then you talk to somebody who has an opinion on that same topic, and it's sort of the classic kind of conspiracy theory idea, but via oral transmission instead of print stories. It’s something else altogether.

One of the reasons why talking somebody down off a conspiracy theory is really hard is because you have to talk them down off the emotional high. It’s like no, no reality is not actually that interesting and dramatic and compelling. It's actually much more boring and prosaic, which is the explanation for why most conspiracy theories aren't true. So you’re literally trying to get somebody off of their emotional high they've gotten through the oral transmission of the stories and it’s almost impossible to do because, who wants to come off that high?

I have more faith now in mechanism design and guiding behavior than I used to, because now I see it in action. The fact that everybody is outraged on Twitter all the time, I increasingly think is a design choice. The Clubouse guys quite deliberately set out to not do that. You can't control people; this isn’t mind control technology. But in terms of how behavior is channeled and encouraged, I think you're getting much more positive results from the mechanism.

Maybe we look back in the fullness of time, and Twitter was just this extreme outlier.

Oral culture isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Where the current devolution to orality scares me is that we’ve gotten to this extreme edge of textual society: we have a nation-state with 300-plus-million people over four time zones, with all sorts of complicated stuff that makes it run from fractional reserve banking, financial derivatives, rule of law, all of this completely built on textual culture. And we’re abandoning the intellectual moorings that made that possible. Oral cultures cannot support the level of social complexity we currently have: the Greek polis for example was never more than a few tens of thousands of people. That’s the part where I start getting a little nervous.

The other ironic thing, right, is that this retreat to oral culture is being driven by literally the most textual thing there is, which is computer code. The fact you can auto-merge code in git, or unambiguously compile it according to ironclad syntax unlike human language, or the fact there’s no poetry of computer code or any oral component whatsoever. And yet it’s what all this virtualized orality on steroids, Twitter or Clubhouse, run on.

It seems the world has diverged between those mostly mired in an oral culture, and then those who are actually anchored in the textual culture of code. What’s really odd is that the digital forms of oral culture are essentially controlled by those who inhabit the textual world of code, and it starts to vaguely resemble medieval peasants getting dragged into wars started by the bickering clergy scribbling in the scriptorium (or technologists clacking away inside tech companies).

The reason I think to be less alarmed is that the US has almost always been a mostly oral culture. Put it this way: it's not like everybody was sitting around reading Proust, either now or in 1962 or 1932 or 1902. Most people were centered on an oral culture then as well. And we had all sorts of commentators equally alarmed about things then as we are of the Internet now. They were alarmed about talk radio, which is obviously oral, they were alarmed about radio propaganda in the 1930s. Some of the names are lost in the mists of time—everybody remembers FDR and his fireside chats—but there was also Father Coughlin and a full-on battle of oral vs. oral via radio. Going further back, there was enormous panic around new religious movements, which were all oral phenomena, and so on.

Maybe it makes you feel better or worse, but textual culture has always been the outlier, it's always been the exception. It's always been basically the realm of the elite, and the highly educated and the sort of abstract thinkers. By the way, even those people aren't that good at it, even those people collapse back into oral culture at the drop of a hat.

Textuality has been the engine of a lot of progress in the last 300-400 years, but it's never been dominant. And yet, we've made progress anyway. The Internet is a double-edged sword on this one, because the internet does also spread written culture. Where you and I agree is that Twitter looks textual, but it's actually oral. But the Internet also spreads writing, including much long form-writing, much more easily than in the past. Take the existence of Wikipedia, which is one of the great technical accomplishments of all time. I keep marveling at how Wikipedia keeps getting better and better.

It's so amazing, because there have been all these articles over the years about how the whole thing's going to shut down, and there's certain Wikipedia articles where things get politically hot so they get a little silly. Generally speaking though, the average Wikipedia article is shockingly good, right? It’s like the Lindy Effect in action. The fact that it exists and is free is just a major accomplishment, a major advance in textual culture.

I guess I'd make one final observation: The thing I find most striking about Clubhouse, in terms of this discussion, is that finally at long last we have the counterfactual to Twitter. We’ve all been suspicious for a long time that Twitter is designed to generate maximum hostility and outrage. That’s what it felt like but it's been hard to prove because, ok, what are you going to compare it to? Twitter and Clubhouse kind of run hand in hand because you generally have people who want to have public conversations, the Clubhouse graph is even based on the Twitter graph, and people discuss hot topics on Clubhouse just like they do on Twitter. It’s really striking how many Clubhouse rooms that are on these very tense topics that can go for hours and hours and hours without actually blowing up. Whereas on Twitter, they would have detonated three minutes in.

I have more faith now in mechanism design and guiding behavior than I used to, because now I see it in action. The fact that everybody is outraged on Twitter all the time, I increasingly think is a design choice. The Clubouse guys quite deliberately set out to not do that. You can't control people; this isn’t mind control technology. But in terms of how behavior is channeled and encouraged, I think you're getting much more positive results from the mechanism.

Maybe we look back in the fullness of time, and Twitter was just this extreme outlier. To your point, Twitter was the fullest instantiation of all the bad parts of oral culture without the good parts. Maybe that was just a historical aberration and it's now time to correct that.

It's so striking the minute podcasts took off, you started seeing three-hour interview podcasts become popular. And who the fuck knew because, talk to anybody who produced television and they're like look, the enemy is always the changing of the channel; people have other choices. It turns out, no, that's wrong. Actually you were making people stupid—you the producers, you the people who ran the format—were creating that problem.

I often say Twitter is actually the union of worsts. It's the worst parts of oral culture, but then also the worst parts of textual culture. As with textual culture, everything is indexed, and I can look up something written ten years ago and use it to cancel someone. Even though the medium feels impromptu and ephemeral, which just lulls you into an unguarded candor.

If you look at an app like clubhouse, they’ve designed it correctly; it’s not textualists thinking “oh, let’s kind of do an audio thing”. That’s how you get podcasts. Instead, they're actually thinking like real oralists: there's a pseudo-in-person social fabric there and nobody speaks unless invited. I’m moderating the shared moment, so if someone gets out of hand I throw them out of the room just like you would at a dinner party, etc.

The reality is that most humans are not sociopaths, and if you confronted a speaker with the person they’re addressing in some real-seeming format, where one can hear the tremor in their voice as they respond to a critique, things wouldn't get as nasty as they do on Twitter. Again though, Twitter has the perfectly-wrong elements of textual culture, in which you're not emoting with a person right in front of you, but it doesn’t have any of the norms and gatekeeping that textual culture typically imposes. You’d think that, like Twitter, social audio would just default to a Jerry Springer-like experience, but it doesn’t at all. On the contrary, it’s way more polite than Twitter.

Yeah, I'd also add a related point, which relates directly back to the textual thing, which is that compression makes us stupid. The classic contrast on that is TV interviews versus podcast interviews. As a historical thing, it may be that we were just all kinds of uniquely stupid for the period of television.

Television forced all of the arguments on anything that mattered to become so compressed as to lose all nuance and ultimately all meaning and convert everything to people shouting over each other, in that Crossfire format, in so many sound bites. The minute podcasts started, it's so striking the minute podcasts took off, you started seeing three-hour interview podcasts become popular. And who the fuck knew because, talk to anybody who produced television and they're like look, the enemy is always the changing of the channel; people have other choices. So if you go longer than four minutes on a given topic, people are gonna tune out. It turns out, no, that's wrong. Actually you were making people stupid—you the producers, you the people who ran the format—were creating that problem.

I can't watch television, news or commentary or anything like that anymore. It's just too much of an alienating and frustrating experience; I'd much rather go listen to three-hour podcasts. Forcing people to compress all thinking into 280 characters is just going to make everyone stupid. Would you rather have a Twitter rage war with 280 character tweets, or would you rather listen to a Clubhouse that goes into detail, you know, for two hours into a topic for people who actually want to learn and understand and engage? There's clearly a better way.


There are lots of things we can’d to anymore due to the death of oral culture and the industries it drove. You’d be pressed to find anyone who can still build a 19th-century San Francisco Victorian house, with all the fine woodwork and mouldings, as they were manual crafts almost none of which were recorded textually. Not that you can learn such crafts purely out of books; the knowledge was transmitted orally and in-person via apprenticeships. Never mind trying to building something like a Spanish galleon now. You simply couldn’t find enough humans with the knowledge to re-start a wooden shipbuilding industry; the complex craft that was once of geopolitical importance is now almost wholly lost.

Everyone in the Disinformation Industrial Complex whines about YouTube, but YouTube is probably one of the greatest intellectual boons in human history. So many manual crafts that might be lost or otherwise known to a select few—how do you buck and split a log? how do you hand-stitch? —are now taught and preserved via that digital form of oral media, YouTube.


“And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. That which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” Phaedrus, by Plato.


“I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.” Phaedrus, by Plato.


The inventors of chirographic word-spacing were 7th-century Irish monks who were transcribing Latin texts, a language they did not speak fluently and therefore needed help reading aloud. Before that, scripta continua was the norm in the Classical world. Even well into the age of the printing press, typographic conventions existed mostly to facilitate the oral experience. Yet another example where the message is really the medium; oral is as oral does, and only recently did we become a primarily textual culture (at least among elites). The Internet is taking us back into deeper orality, rather than forward (except Pull Request readers of course).