How does one experience an era? How much can we “feel” the time and place we are in? In the post-Covid world, it feels as though we live in a time of fear, a time of caution, a time when the future is diminished and each day is a fight through some path-dependent consequence of the last two years of pandemic-induced change.
It’s also a time of decadence, for those inclined to certain strains of analysis such as Ross Douthat’s 2021 book The Decadent Society. There’s a feeling of listless purposelessness, of everyone walking on autopilot from one Saturnalia to another, all while the core foundation of a strong nation is left unattended to crumble. Or so Douthat’s theory posits, along with a whole wing of the bookstore haranguing the intentional decline of the once great nation of America.
Of course, it’s interesting to describe the zeitgeist of a country of 330 million people. Who determines the zeitgeist? Where is it centered? Does it apply to the urban centers or the hinterlands on the periphery? Just exactly how do you “average” the feelings of so many people? In much the same vein as Benedict Anderson famously described a nation as an “imagined community” since no one can meet everyone else in the nation, is there such an imaginary as zeitgeist? Does this “feeling” or “sense” of an era have any purchase?
I recently read Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, and while the 1988 book is mostly on societal collapse per its title, one aspect of his analysis that I felt was sizzling was his denunciation of any of these squishy feelings of zeitgeist, which he assails as “mystical factors.” In his analysis, such factors are completely undefinable, and entail value judgments
The syllabus — when properly written — is one of the greatest instruments of human knowledge transfer available. Syllabi can turn an impenetrable pile of papers and books with similar-sounding titles and synthesize all of it into a well-structured hierarchy and prioritization of knowledge. It’s an important enough construct that William Germano and Kit Nicholls even wrote a recent book on the subject titled, appropriately enough, “Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything” (part of the excellent Skills for Scholars series from Princeton University Press).
So it was something of a treat to grab a copy of Megan Walsh’s new book “The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters.” It's a brief overview of the Chinese literature scene, including everything from the Nobel Prize-winning works of Mo Yan and the “fan fiction” on sites like China Literature (阅文集团) to the edges of literature like worker's poetry and LGBT writing.
At 136 pages, it’s a Herculean task to compress thousands of years of literary history and the world’s largest literature market into a slim volume. Walsh does am admirable job though, compiling what ultimately is an extended syllabus that structures many of the patterns and trends that affect Chinese literature today.
Throughout the book, there are capsule summaries of many different works, plus the occasional extended commentary on a topic of interest. While brief, Walsh has among the most sophisticated takes I have seen in print on the opportunities afforded by China’s comprehensive surveillance and censorship state, and the contours of where the lines are drawn (or just outlined since no one ever really knows where the lines are). Such constraints, while deeply disconcerting, offer room for creativity, or at least propel Chinese authors to explore other genres overlooked in the West.
I’ve always been a believer in the quip that “America has three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” It gets at the uniqueness of some terrains and urban centers and the infinite monotony of others. Having grown up in the Midwest and later moved to the coasts, I find the quip stands up extremely well.
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Miami for the first time. It’s a dichotomy of a city — a place unique in culture and people and history and its attachment to Latin America, but with an architectural style and urban plan that is just brutally, concretely, boring. And frankly impossible to use — every single trips around the city ended up requiring an Uber, and every single time that Uber was surging 2.0x or above. A single two mile trip downtown that took about 9 minutes cost $26 with fees, tax, and tip. This is a fanciful place.
The weather was absolutely pristine and enviable though, and I can see the allure. April sells Miami unlike any place I have ever been — the music, the breeze, the beaches, the polyphonies — just the vibe. I get it.
It’s a negative if not dreary book, and positively among the global warming library, it tries to expand the panorama of people who are acting and reacting to the rising tides that threaten to subsume Miami back into the swamp. Given Ariza’s cultural background from the Dominican Republic, we
One of the most important trends in American politics and media is the concentrated attention that national politics gets from voters and journalists. In book’s like The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized by Daniel J. Hopkins, there is overwhelming evidence that American voters are increasingly choosing their votes based exclusively on national issues, rather than local ones.
One thing that struck me as I checked out Vance’s campaign events was how rarely voters wanted to talk about topics of local relevance. … Yet nobody in the room — or any other event I went to — asked about drug addiction. It’s not that voters didn’t grill Vance. They just preferred to ask about his past anti-Trumpism, or his relationship with Thiel, or any number of more unexpected national concerns, such as term limits.
There are a myriad of causes for this “nationalization,” the largest of which is shifting media coverage. As local news has dried up and so-called “news deserts” have become widespread, the only sources for political and civic news is often national-focused publications or broadcasts.
While causality is often assumed here, I find it quite complicated. It’s assumed that because local news has disappeared, voters have migrated to national voices and that’s influencing their vote and behavior. The opposite though could be true: voters have lost interest in local issues, stopped reading and watching local media, and therefore local media has lost its audience and therefore profits over time?
Hello! This weekly newsletter was last sent out according to MailChimp on Thursday, Dec 31, 2020 at 4:40 pm ET. Well, 53 weeks later, it’s now Jan 8th, 2022, and that means it’s time for another weekly edition of this annual report (I believe the British call this a fortnight or something).
The personal news from me: I departed TechCrunch as managing editor in November to become head of editorial at Lux Capital, a multi-stage, deep-tech venture firm based in New York City and Menlo Park, CA. I’m mostly writing on the same subjects, but they’re now on the Lux Capital homepage and our new newsletter “Securities.”
But with another year down, here’s my annual wrap-up of the best articles I wrote and read as well as my favorite books from 2021. As always, feel free to reach out anytime!
Another year, and another extraordinary period of in-depth journalism, voluptuous profiles, and incisive analysis. The news media is under constant vituperative attack, so I’m always astonished at the immense quality and erudition writers bring to bear on their work. Writers might suffer from economic percarity, but we live in an era of bold and limitless imagination.
Every year, I go over all the articles I saved and read (this year, a bit more than 1,600 essays and pieces) and pick my favorites. Unlike my slightly plangent note last year, I found that writing in 2021 returned to some semblance of “normal” — the daily history being made has become quotidian, and writers ventured outside the news obvious beats to explore interesting subjects.
All choices here are capricious and arbitrary. As always, New Yorker pieces (which there are many great ones this past year) aren’t included since I read it entirely on paper and never save the links.
This was a gorgeous and original piece on well-trodden territory. Swanson travels as a “foreign correspondent” to Los Angeles in order to explore the rise of hype houses and the influencer world, running into a cast of teenagers whose antics and psychologies become enmeshed with those of our society at large.
It’s not just a good yarn, delightfully told. It’s also the kind of deeply-layered piece that allows for re-reading and pondering over many months. It’s about individuals and the pursuit of happiness and wealth. It’s about the clash of personalities between kids as well as kids and their parents, the latter of whom are often the driving force behind some of these influencer careers. It’s a comment on culture, marketing, narcissism and the exchange of “high”
I wrote a lot in 2021: 194 articles (including TechCrunch: Equity podcast episodes), one major think tank report, and a grand total of about 125,000 words. That’s pretty much half of what I wrote in 2020, a function of both changing jobs (I didn’t write anything the past two months) as well as a focus on more researched, longer-form projects as opposed to straight news.
Last year, I slowed my pursuit of U.S.-China supply chains and enterprise infrastructure to spend more time on climate change, disastertech, existential risk, and geospatial startups. These themes are increasingly percolating across all of my conversations in the tech industry, as more and more people come to grips with the harsh dangers our world intends to throw at us in the coming years.
First Place: The Future of Technology and Disaster Response series
One of my biggest projects this year was around building a community and beat around “disastertech” or startups working on the global response to natural disasters. Once a bit of a fringe topic (like all great new tech trends), now several dozen startups have gotten underway in the market, with several getting serious funding from top firms. From wildfires and flood simulations to geospatial mapping platforms to satellite systems, there are all kinds of approaches to this nascent market.
After dozens of interviews with founders, investors and emergency management officials, I brought the subject together in a series of analyses that I dubbed The Future of Technology and Disaster Response series. It covers the challenges of selling into emergency management agencies (among the worst sales cycles you can imagine), the rise of AI in response to disasters, internet connectivity, and how humans are being organized to respond.
As with all good reporting projects, even after conducting several
This year, I read 52 books or so, including 14 novels with the balance non-fiction. This metric has gotten more complicated to compute over the years — I have deliberately attempted to re-read some books and ditch others faster, so a true census is infeasible.
There were two recurring intellectual themes across my reading. The first was around climate change and natural disasters, which I was heavily reporting on at TechCrunch before decamping to Lux Capital. The second theme centered around the future of truth and reason (and by extension, democracy). The two actually have a lot of overlap, and it was enjoyable to juxtapose them together.
While I was fortunate to read many amazing books, there were also several that didn’t meet my admittedly high expectations for them. I don’t generally highlight things I don’t like (why bring attention to them in the first place), but they were sufficiently interesting to ponder on their flaws that I felt it right to include them at the end.
First Place: A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne
This was a surprisingly staggering work from the late 1970s on the history of the French-Algerian War. Over the past two years, I have been reading most of Albert Camus’ bibliography, and I wanted to get a broader understanding of the milieu in which he lived. This is one of the canonical books on the conflict in English, and so I purchased it without much expectation. What I got was a masterpiece of historical writing, and a paragon of what great narrative history can offer.
Horne has a critical advantage compared to most historians in covering a contemporary war: access to nearly every player on all sides of the conflict who are remarkably open about their motivations and actions during the