Jay Hoffmann

Books, movies, and code

#21: The art of letting go

This week’s post is brought to you by the letter L. It’s all about letting go.

My wife and I did a weekend project (including not one, but two trips to IKEA) to straighten up and declutter our playroom. Years of accumulated toys, junk, and forgotten happy meal trinkets had piled up and it was time for a much-needed purge.

Right away, I needed to let go. First I needed to let go of things on behalf of my two sons. As I sifted through the piles of clutter, I had to make a decision about what goes in the donate pile, with very little input from my two sons. Letting go, on behalf of another, is a pretty unfamiliar feeling.

But there was a different kind of letting go, of my own need for control and order. My wife’s method of quick and decisive action sometimes clashes with my own much slower and methodical nature. Both have their advantages for different kinds of projects but it’s clear that a quick burst directed at decluttering was going to be far more effective. So we did it her way and it was pretty successful.

So in a lot of ways I spent much of the weekend letting things wash over for me. But it can be terrifying to cede control to others and let nature take its course. Of course the only alternative is to gather everything around you until it suffocates you into submission.

In my life, I have found that I am a collector of digital debris. My computer is a mix of assorted notes, workflows, lists and various stashes of makeshift junk drawers in this application or that. I don’t know why I do it or who it’s for. But if I think too hard about it I’m forced to confront my own mortality and think about where it will all go when I’m gong. So mostly I just kind of avoid thinking about it at all.

But learning to let go is a good thing. And that’s why I like this blog. It provides a bit of finality to an idea or a loop in my head. Writing helps me think it out. And these words hold more meaning than the hundreds of forgotten notes I have stored away. Writing helps me make sense of the debris. It helps me to let go.

I saw this tweet from Dan Brooks recently

Which was a banger. And so that got me to read the linked article, a profile of billionaire Bill Ackman and his descent into social media fueled mania and paranoia over the last six months to a year.

Look, Ackman isn’t especially stupid. Some of his ideas, particularly about the insular and single-mindedness of elite liberal arts institutions, are not without merit. But he’s also not especially smart. And he more or less got to where he is coasting on waves of luck and opportunity funded by generational wealth.

When he was confronted by a new generation of people who had different ideas than the ones he built his fortune and empire—people who simply did not give a shit who he was, mind you—he snapped.

The writings of John Michael Greer are, well, complicated. He is obviously prolific and has very strong, important ideas. But he can also be such a frustrating read for me because he is so beholden to his own fatalistic view of the future (which he has proved to be right about, on occasion).

But I was really impressed by a recent article called The Three Stigmata of J.R.R. Tolkien. It describes how modern political events are viewed through the lens of intentionally binary and contrived fiction, and therefore leads to fallacies in our understandings about the world.

The Great Fiction of AI. I first saw this Verge article mentioned by Dave in a dozen thoughts about AI.

There’s a lot to say about this article, which was fantastic. It highlights the issues created by the tech industry’s over-dependence on scale and algorithms. But now it’s the tech industry, again, that are selling the “solution” to that problem (the one they created) by pushing AI downstream to every other industry.

So they follow readers to the microgenres into which Amazon’s algorithms classify their tastes, niches like “mermaid young adult fantasy” or “time-travel romance,” and keep them engaged by writing in series, each installment teasing the next, which already has a title and set release date, all while producing a steady stream of newsletters, tweets, and videos

Platforms like AMazon and social media have been prioritizing frequency over quality for years. It compelled writers to create at a more rapid clip. Now, AI enters the picture, promising to expedite the writing process but paradoxically feeding off the creativity of the writers themselves. Now we have a swirling mass of uninspired content generated by AI which is, in essence, consuming itself.

That is, they’re using it not because they have something to say but because they need to say something in order to “maintain relevance” — a phrase that I heard from AI-using novelists as well — on platforms already so flooded with writing that algorithms are required to sort it. It raises the prospect of a dizzying spiral of content generated by AI to win the favor of AI, all of it derived from existing content rather than rooted in fact or experience, which wouldn’t be so different from the internet we have now.

I wonder what snake oil the tech industry will have for us in another decade as a solution to a web polluted by algorithmically generated Markov chains disguised as AI content.