The Vibes Are Off
Very brief history of a very brief golden age 🌧
in this world
gazing at blossoms
— Kobayashi Issa1
In early 2020, the physical world shut down, and many of us migrated online to a semblance of social life. We were stuck home, terrified and restless. It was a weird time, a time when remote work from a laptop became the norm, when we all learned to perform Zoom calls and try to have fun in virtual gatherings, when we realized just how important it was to take care of our social life. We were going crazy, and our only escape valve was the Internet.
And then something amazing happened. A new culture bloomed. No, not a new culture, but many of them, hundreds, thousands of online subcultures whose seeds had already been planted, but for which the pandemic provided a sudden influx of water, light, and fertilizer.
My own entry point was, as for many, Twitter. I began lurking on Twitter in 2019, as it was the place to follow some interesting topics in real-time. Like many, I followed politicians and journalists at first. Then I began tweeting — something I used to find insanely stressful! — in the summer of 2020. Eventually I got a few viral tweets, and tasted the sweet nectar of follower growth. But more importantly, I stumbled upon a subculture. It has variously been called “ingroup,” “post-rationalism,” or “This Part of Twitter” (TPOT). None of these labels are great; the group is notoriously difficult to define, and always changing. But it is real, and contains so many good people. It led me to places like Interintellect and Vibecamp.
At the same time, some idea machines — intellectual movements — were being assembled, ready to run at full throttle. I wrote about them last June, in one of my personal favorite posts on this blog. Effective Altruism, Progress Studies, Archeofuturism, Metascience. There is something rejoicing about a bunch of people finding one another online to discuss problems and try to find solutions. Websites were set up, organizations were founded, money was acquired. Effective Altruism, in particular, became extremely well-funded, and therefore an attractive movement to think about. I contributed some thinking.
And then there was crypto, or web3. For a time it was the talk of the town: people were going crazy for NFTs, fortunes were being made, new companies sprang up. Some thought it was all cringe at best and fraudulent at worst — but again it was at least an instance of people having fun and building for the future. I got involved in the periphery of that whole ecosystem, just enough to understand what a blockchain is and have some very cool experiences like Cabin.
All of this was happening primarily online, and of course that meant that tech companies were making a killing. Stock prices rose. Big tech hired. Salaries increased. My online social scene is largely coterminous with tech, and though the world as a whole was going from a disturbance to the next, it made sense, if you were a programmer or something adjacent, to be optimistic.
In the subculture(s) I was part of, the era from 2020 to early 2022 was, weirdly enough, and contrary to much of the “real” world, a golden age.
even the beggar
hopes to get rich...
God of Wealth singers
The other night, I was riding my bicycle in the early darkness of post-daylight-savings November, in an unfamiliar part of town, muttering to myself, repeatedly, “the vibes are off.”
Elon Musk bought Twitter, wreaking chaos. It might very well end up being good chaos. Creative destruction and all that. But right now, the vibes are off. It seems that every other tweet, for a time, was about Musk. It became less fun to tweet, less fun to simply be there. I’ve gone back to lurking, mostly. The subculture I mentioned above is still there. But the vibes are off.
FTX has collapsed. FTX was until a few days ago the second-largest crypto exchange, i.e. a centralized place to go to make cryptocurrency transactions. Its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, made a fortune in the several billions. Now he is considered a fraudster who lost billions of people’s money. For many, the vibes around crypto were already off, and they feel vindicated, because the vibes are now off for a whole lot more people. Some are openly speculating about the death of crypto as a whole, fair and square.
But the FTX disaster has major ripples elsewhere. Sam Bankman-Fried was the poster child of Effective Altruism: a man who was eventually going to give his entire fortune to doing good, and the most good. Many a charity, many a project in the EA ecosystem was funded more or less directly by FTX. Now all of this is in jeopardy. But worse, the vibes around EA have taken a dive. I was already worried about those vibes: I wrote two essays to say that effective altruists should be way more intentional around their aesthetics. I think the current events are, to a limited extent, proving me right. EA had never developed an aesthetic vision, and it has in the process made itself vulnerable. Now the guilt by association to crypto fraudsters — though I think it is overplayed — may be fatal. Like piranhas attracted to a drop of blood, the critics of EA have swarmed to attack. Everybody hates altruists, after all, since they make everyone else look bad.
EA is largely about ignoring vibes in favor of rational calculations. I wonder if such an ideology, though attractive to a certain kind of people, may be predestined to always fail. Vibes may very well turn out not to be optional. When they’re off, you’re in a dangerous situation.
The vibes are off in the wider world, too. We have inflation, and the specter of a recession. Big tech companies, after having risen to new heights, have stumbled down: their high valuations were perhaps an artifact of the pandemic. Some have laid off workers by the thousands. Others have frozen hiring. It’s no longer a great time to be a programmer.
The vibes are off, I muttered to myself. It was a dark, but strangely warm November night. It was a week ago. It felt like everything that we’d built over the last two years was threatening to come crashing down.
under cover of darkness
As I write this, I have regained some of my lost optimism. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m just a fundamentally optimistic person.
It seems entirely possible that the 2020-2022 era will go down in history as a highly weird time. A strange golden age of intellectual movements enmeshed with a reconfiguration of how we organize work and life. Now that work and life are returning to normal, perhaps it is expected that this golden age ends.
So maybe crypto will die, or undergo a long winter. Maybe Effective Altruism will return to its boring (but positive!) earlier focus on reducing global poverty and disease, or maybe it will die, to be replaced by something else. Maybe Twitter will change for the better under Musk, maybe it’ll wither and die.
Or maybe all of this was an early herald of things to come. It seems entirely possible that the world will get increasingly weirder, thanks to AI and whatnot. Will we undergo faster and faster vibe cycles, alternating between optimism and malaise?
I don’t know. But I remain optimistic. Bad vibes — bad aesthetics — are one of our mechanisms for self-correction, and perhaps our best one. The vibes are off, but that’s good: it’s a sign that we’ve been doing some things wrong, and now we can fix them.
I say but then
go to sleep
Thanks for reading Atlas of Wonders and Monsters! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.