I recently listened to Tyler Cowen’s interview of Sam Altman from 2018. Tyler Cowen is one of the best interviewers out there and Sam one of the most interesting people to interview, making this a treat. In it, Sam expresses his complete disdain for coworking spaces:
Coworking spaces have two big classes of problems. Number one, they are a band-pass filter. Great ideas are fragile. Great ideas are easy to kill. An idea in its larval stage — all the best ideas when I first heard them sound bad. And all of us, myself included, are much more affected by what other people think of us and our ideas than we like to admit. … The other thing is the average level of ambition and willingness to work hard at a coworking space is incredibly low. There’s this reversion to the mean that is not what you want in your life.
This struck a chord for me. A bandpass filter, to some extent, has some equivalence to reversion to the mean. And as a lifelong, card-carrying contrarian, this kind of filter is the sickle of the reaper. It will eliminate all the bad ideas, but it will kill the amazing ones too, and they initially seem bad. These sorts of environments are a sort of default in our society. The larger the social circles we create, the more mass the mean carries. This is why the company we keep is so important and why we should initially be protective of our (possibly great) nascent ideas.
It’s also true that this is what Twitter has become. Ideas thrive on Twitter, but the bad ones are all destroyed - some by deliberate censorship - and the great ideas seem to be too. Or rather, if great ideas do show up there, they’ve germinated elsewhere. People like Naval (1m followers, 0 following) or Eric Weinstein or Paul Graham don’t start things on Twitter, they bring things to Twitter. Couple that with the fundamentally virtue-signaling nature of the way the reversion to the mean occurs and you get a wasteful, virtriolic conconction of social and intellectual angst.
Twitter is the coworking space of the internet.
Which means the time I have started to spend there feels intellectually productive but actually isn’t, a recurring theme for social media. I’ve killed my use of Facebook successfully, I’ve started using Instagram for my own stream of consciousness rather than for consumption, and now it’s time to eliminate this cesspool. There might be good reason for public figures to be there and to debate, and there also may be good reasons for normal folk to listen in, but until better incentive systems exist to better foster the formation of ideas it’s best to pass.
Make no mistake, we already live in the Noosphere. What seemed a futurism in the 20th century is real now. We need better fitness functions for the evolution of ideas than the mobile vulgus.