When quaint becomes cult

Apologies for last week's wonky links and subscription problems. There was an infestation of river reptiles. Your normal, irregular service has resumed.

Microserfs is now thirty years old, dating back to its initial appearance as a short story in Wired. Douglas Coupland’s heart-warming/breaking portrayal of lost-and-found geeks captured the zeitgeist of a new subculture, down to his digitally-inspired epistolary format.

The book is alternatively sweet and savage, bringing to life the nascent culture of coders (broadly) and Silicon Valley (specifically). It is the story of outsiders building a new inside; a fumbling awareness of one’s own weirdness, and an attempt to find a place in the world.

Looking back, Coupland’s portrayal is very gentle. The book is deeply sympathetic to its oddball cast of characters, and forgiving of their eccentricities. But, even taking into account artistic license, its accuracy remains undiminished and in his novel, we can see the first seeds of a spin-off culture, one that is not only aware of its incompatibility with the rest of society, but also revels in it.

Maybe thinking you're supposed to 'have a life' is a stupid way of buying into an untenable 1950s narrative of what life supposed to be. How do we know that all of these people with 'no lives' aren't really on the new frontier of human sentience and preceptions?

Douglas Coupland, Microserfs (1995)

Microserfs is both empathetic and terrifying. It captures the social and emotional fragility of the Silicon Valley ‘geek’; smart, lonely people who feel out of touch with the bewildering conventions of broader society. The characters’ ferocious intelligence is underpinned by their desire to belong somewhere, to someone. What Coupland shows is how that need is being assuaged by strange and artificial environments composed by corporations.

The book perfectly captures the feeling you don’t belong, and the outsider’s ensuing willingness to flutter towards any available flame. But in the gently self-aggrandising philosophing of Microserf’s characters, we can also see the dawn of a more extreme worldview. What if I’m an outsider because I’m better than everyone else? That’s undeniably reassuring, but there’s binary thinking implicit: either they’re better or I am.

We all had good lives. None of us were ever victimized as far as I know. We have never wanted for anything, nor have we ever lusted for anything. Our parents are all together, except for Susan’s. We’ve been dealt good hands, but the real morality here, Todd, is whether these good hands are squandered on uncreative lives, or whether these hands are applied to continuing humanity’s dream.


In both Microserfs and reality, tech’s corporate culture has come to encourage that division. Why foster a moderate belief that, actually, there are all sorts of lives and normalities that can mix in broader society when instead you can recruit ‘unappreciated geniuses’ by playing to their insecurities? Come to an exclusive place that understands how very special you are. We’ll even do your laundry.

Microserfs, with its cast of coders obsessed with flat foods and blind worship of ‘the Bill’, paints a faintly tragic picture. But thirty years on, it now feels a lot less quaint, and a lot more frightening.

From the start, the industry has hand-picked people, encouraged them to jump through hoops. It demands they prove themselves through a gauntlet arcane tests by mastering specialised knowledge. Once the candidate has ‘earned’ it, they’re removed from the rest of society and secluded on an isolated campus. In-between corporate indoctrination sessions and grueling sequences of 20+ hour workdays, their clothes are washed and their refrigerator is refilled. The doctor and the gym are on-site, and you can even nap in your office. It is isolation for profit. How else do you work them to the bone? The methodology bears a striking resemblance to the way other, even more nefarious organisations, find and indoctrinate recruits

You try not be different just to survive- you try to be just like everyone else- anonymity becomes reflexive- and then one day you wake up and you've become all those other people- the others- the something you aren't. And you wonder if you can ever be what it is you really are. Or you wonder if it's too late to find out.


This long-read on a Rolling Stone writer’s visit to an AI convention shows how quirkiness has led to flat-out cultic extremism. (It is also amusingly remiscent of that hilarious Goop takedown from a few years ago.) I’m not going to go into the particular horrors of the convention itself - the article does that brilliantly. But I think there’s a broader point here about how capitalism has (un?)intentionally fuelled the growth of toxic subcultures. When Lawful Evil intent creates Chaotic Evil outcomes.

In Russell Hardin’s “The cripped epistemology of extremism”, he talks about radicalisation through the lens of ‘knowledge economics’. Extreme groups become increasingly more extreme as their members have less and less contact with non-members. As the group’s circle becomes more closed and more insular, the moderate members (an ever-relative term) will continuously depart. This further accelerates the group’s departure from moderate points of view.

Batshit manifestos saying “Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder.”* are no more or less stupid than putting a jade egg in your hoohah, but both these hijinks are an inevitable result of these fringe groups becoming increasingly isolated from the norms of ethics or sanity.

It isn’t really a shock that an environment deliberately estranged from the rest of humanity becomes a Petri dish for cultic, extremist behaviours. Non tech-centric functions like legal and safety teams are the professional lifelines that thether tech organisations with the rest of the world. And they’re also the first against the wall; seen as non-essential or non-productive. Without them, there’s no voice of moderation within these organisations at all; nothing keeping the cultists from drifting away entirely.

I used to care about how other people thought I led my life. But lately I've realized that most people are too preoccupied with their own lives to give anybody else even the scantiest of thoughts.


The fact that tech culture is torn between the two towers of accelerationism vs effective altruism is, in hindsight, a completely foreseeable scenario. Given absolute wealth, absolute power, and absolutely no contact with actual humans, the islanders will start erecting golden statues of Harry Potter fanfic. When you free people from the ‘distraction’ of living in the world, you create a microsociety of human-shaped aliens. You start seeing other people only as users, as wells of data, as sheeple, as walking blood-banks.

*This is, as the article goes on to point out, Roko’s Basilisk all over again, which is all the more entertaining. Cults are obsessed with inventing their own apocalyptic outcomes, and this one is no exception.

more not nice things:

… and speaking of AI people going all-in their own destruction, this piece from Garbage Day on also uses the c-word to talk about Google. (‘Cult’. What were you thinking?) In essence, Google is setting out to use AI to scrape search results and present them to search-ers in a chatbot-style format. Which is nice, except a) nobody wants this, b) the information is unsourced, unverified, algorithmically-curated and a fucking minefield of misinformation, and c) it actually nukes Google’s own business model of selling clicks to websites (to whom Google also sells ads to click off those websites again, because that’s the circle of life). Also, again, a) nobody wants this.

On the other hand, that clickity-click ecosystem is already broken, thanks to people gaming it to feed the algorithms. AI helps here as well, of course. HouseFresh talks about how the product recommendation sector is utterly useless thanks to people working tireless not to test products, but to game the algorithm. 

This is another reason to point folks to what Cory Doctorow calls the ‘enshittification’ of the internet. The existing internet socio-economic-cultural infrastructure rewards speed, not quality, and very-short-termism is the business model - ‘gaming algorithms to recommend broken products’ makes a profit. Product testing does not.

Not to profit from disaster, but, hey, if you’re interested in more imaginative technologically-inspired soothsaying from 100-odd different geniuses...

some nice things

This is a very cool AMA with Adam Darowski, talking about Negro Leagues baseball. As you may (or may not) remember, stats from the Negro Leagues were finally, recently added to the official baseball historical record. Darowski talks a bit about that process, and why it was so difficult, but also highlights some of his favourite players. It is a fun chat.

I’ve been sharing this piece on diversity initiatives in publishing from (checks) the Durham University student paper around with my friends over the past week. The line “as thrilled as I was to discover that these spaces even existed, it begged the question, how effective can they be if they require people to seek them out?” really clicked.

These photographs by Edward Burtynsky are beautiful pictures of horrible things. That river is beautiful! Oh god, that’s because it is filled with radioactive hell-sludge! If you want very pretty nightmares about environmental armageddon, click away.

My friend Lavie Tidhar is very strange. His new project looks magnificent. (He stopped by for a chat last year, which was fun.)

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