The Weekend Zeitgeist – 3.30.2019

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories. On the weekend, we leave finance to cover the last week or so in other shifting parts of the Zeitgeist – namely, politics and culture. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it.

But these are articles that have struck a chord in narrative world. 

Satine Phoenix’s Rise From The Ashes: 5 Storytelling Lessons From A Top Dungeon Master [Forbes]

I loved this bit from our surprising most connected non-finance article this week.

It is also an unintentional repudiation of a pretty lame axiom proposed by usually-less-insipid tech founder / entrepreneur and thinker Naval Ravikant earlier this week:

This comment spawned a slightly modified response of a sort from another (otherwise usually insightful) serial founder of tech companies:

There is a well-known tendency in Silicon Valley to believe that its solutions are the solutions to everything, and that its answers are the answers to everything – that it’s just a matter of time before the rest of us idiots just embrace it. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that this philosophy and belief would apply to art and performance, fields which have already yielded years of thought, writing and scholarship from philosophers, artists, historians and thinkers, too.

And I know what they’re saying: authentic creation can benefit from us being less beholden to the edge-smoothing, mushy consensus-driving influence of others’ opinions. Sure. There is art – both traditional and technological – for which that is true. AND there is great, authentic art and creative potential to be found in collaboration and connection, in what Ben calls reciprocity. Your collaborative production – you work, whatever it is – does not become non-art, it is not banished to the pejoratively created false world of ‘performance’ just because the audience is part of its creation. Far more often this choice causes it to become more powerful, more meta-stable.

I’ll put it another way: anyone who thinks that art which gives to and takes from an audience is less authentic or less art for that, is wrong. For those who care about protecting a functioning culture, too, the common knowledge we build together is far more likely to result in cooperative games than the Deadly Theatre of exquisitely designed set-pieces from the writer’s closet.

In the Russian tradition of Stanislavsky, the actor says, ‘I will tell you a story about me.’ In the German tradition of Brecht, the actor says, ‘I will tell you a story about them.’ In the Vietnamese tradition, the actor says, ‘You and I will tell each other a story about all of us.’

Le Hun

Douglas MacKinnon: Why Trump’s unconventional approach will help him win big in 2020 [FoxNews]

Look, I’m all for people expressing their opinions in support of their favored political candidate. But if the next year and a half is going to be dueling “Donald Trump will win because he has no ego or negative emotion” and “Joe Biden will win because he is not at all creepy” fan fiction, I think I’m going to need more whisky.

Media figures defend coverage of Trump and Russia [The Hill]

This is CNN’s depressing post hoc rationalization of its particular flavor of Fiat News, same as it ever was: “We didn’t run anything that was explicitly false. That means we did our jobs. It’s not our job to figure out if the facts are actually facts.”

I’m not sure if the Zuckers and Murdochs of the world truly think that we are all too stupid to see the spike in analysis journalism. Perhaps they think we don’t get how the quantity of coverage of different topics influences how people interpret the underlying issues, or that we don’t see how headlines, positioning of facts in a story, or the selection of quotes can influence the average person’s takeaway from the story.

Or maybe those gentlemen know as well as anyone that so long as we agree with the implicit conclusions a reasonable person would take from a selective presentation of facts, we just won’t care that it is Fiat News. When we write about Fiat News, you know what the most common email we get is? “Yes, but have you seen what this other publication is doing?”

Cory Booker says if elected president, he will bring fight against NRA like it ‘has never seen’ [Fox News]

And yes, like clockwork, we see the evidence that the right does Fiat News plenty too. It just controls fewer outlets, although the ones it does influence, like Fox, are enormously powerful. There is no false statement in this lede, but the intent is very plainly to diminish your view of the person whose quotes you are about to read.

Separately, both sides of this topic tend to be heavily cartoonified, not least because of broad knowledge gaps about guns AND current gun laws by all involved. Nearly every discussion is a discussion of ideas that are only vaguely related to current or hypothetical legislation, and even more loosely related to any reality of how any laws would influence the practical availability of weapons. This means that the best case scenario is usually to fuel either a mirroring or rage engagement. And in general, gun laws are rage engagement bait for the right more than they are mirroring opportunities for the left. To wit, plenty of left-leaning sites covered Booker’s remarks, but the most popular of them yielded just over 1% of the social engagement of this Fox article.

There is obviously no political harm to a Democratic candidate making gun control a plank in his or her platform. Making it a central identity issue, however, ignores that polls don’t always capture the intensity with which people are attached to ideas. Unlocking both the sources and evidence of that intensity is so much of why we are passionate about the potential of the narrative machine.

US Vessels Transit Through Taiwan Strait, Defying China [WSJ]

You’ll read a lot of takes telling you that sending a Coast Guard Cutter and a single Arleigh Burke-class destroyer through the Taiwan Strait is a shot across China’s bow and a show of support for Taiwan.

Meh. Maybe.

I think it’s fairer to say that the audience for this theater is you and me, folks. The White House wishes us to see Chinese trade and tariff disputes as national security issues. As initially unpopular as the tariffs were, I think this common knowledge is setting in. The fact that some of the trade issues are national security issues just serves to assist in the conflation of the broader association. That’s the power of abstraction. Once you demonstrate the risk of an unchecked Huawei, once you’ve got stories of the U.S. Navy steaming fleets through the Taiwan Strait, it’s much easier to use the gravity of those issues as a proxy for every other perfunctory element of a US-China trade deal.

The ending of ‘Us’: Jordan Peele on who the real villains are [LA Times] <Spoilers!>

I doubt if Jordan Peele and I would agree very much on politics, but he is a gifted filmmaker and someone who I think understands one of the root causes of the widening gyre in all of us.

I make it a point to watch everything he makes, even if it makes me mad or confused.


  1. I didn’t vote for Trump or Hillary as (and I know many hate this view / call it a copout) the message I was sending to both parties was you won’t get my vote until you put up a respectable candidate. Okay, so hopefully, you get I’m not a blind pro- or anti-Trump guy. I try (and know I fail) to just call them as I see them and I see the CNN justification as insulting.

    Even if I take it at face value, wouldn’t the then or now interesting thing for a “we are journalists” organization to pursue the what, when, why, how and who that sparked an unprecedented Justice Department investigation of a rival party’s presidential campaign? To emphasize, if evidence comes out that Trump colluded with Russia - prosecute him to the full extant of the law; but if a sitting president used his Justice Department to aid his party in an upcoming election, then that, too, should also be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

    Maybe it’s the result and not the cause, but that each side is only interested in pursuing the parts of any story that advance its political agenda is widening the gyre. I get it was never perfect, but we seem to have lost the cultural norm that when candidates become elected officials they tone down their partisanship when executing the responsibilities of their office - just like we’ve lost the cultural norm (which was never perfect) of journalists putting their political biases aside when pursuing a story/ the truth.

    I don’t have the answer, but neither side is going to club the other one into submission. Somehow, someway, we need to change our culture norms - reeducated all of us - on how mature politicians and journalists are suppose to go about doing their jobs for the benefit of all of us. If every single institution - congress, the media, the justice department, etc. - is viewed as another weapon and not a honest entity protecting our laws, then what stops the gyre from widening?

    If we can’t say, “that’s been investigated and proven true or false by this honest paper, that honest government department,” then there is nothing to stop the whirling. It’s why ET’s clear-eyes / full-hearts view sings to me - but I’m despondent as to how that gets translated into a cultural shift.

  2. Avatar for nick nick says:

    The commentary on collaboration really resonated with me here. I’ve had some experience producing “collaborative art” in several different contexts:

    -Writing & editing articles and fiction

    -Writing for a couple (pretty amateurish) stage productions

    -Writing and performing sketch comedy (with some light improv) back in my college days

    -Producing investment research

    -Sitting on investment committees

    The best experiences have always emerged out of atmospheres of mutual trust and opennness. The two go hand-in-hand. You have to trust one another’s ability and instincts, as well as your full-hearted commitment to the success of whatever project or performance you’re working on. You have to be open with ideas and critical feedback. And it’s a two-way street. (Reflexivity again!) You can’t build trust without openness and vice versa.

    When I think about failed projects in art, politics (lol) and business, there always seems to be a decisive lack of trust and openness. A zero-sum worldview dominates. Which makes sense, right? It’s an essential difference between cooperative and competitive games.

  3. “There is a well-known tendency in Silicon Valley to believe that its solutions …” Hey, there - is Silicon Valley a place (“in Silicon Valley”) … where a hugely diverse population of several million live? Or is it Goggle/AppApp/Fakebook/Generic-Entrepreneur/Stanford_Grad_Scammer (“its solutions”) ??? I’ve lived and worked here since 1972 in software development and as a math instructor in community college, and none of your simplistic uses of the term Silicon Valley holds any water (and we’ve had lots of water this winter - hooray!). Couldn’t you find more useful terms to characterize your favorite villains? Knock that Silicon Chip off your shoulder and stop using generic characterizations when more precise names are more to the point. Clear Eyes, even from CT to CA and back again.

  4. Sigh. Well, while you count up my many indiscretions, feel free to add to your list of my offenses that I order hamburgers without consulting the good people of Hamburg, Germany on whether they, in fact, claim this particular restaurant’s manifestation of their invention as a legitimate product of their once free city. Furthermore, I eat burgers with french fries without once feeling I need to remind everyone in earshot that they were, in fact, named without the consent of a single Frenchman or woman. I call the United States of America simply America sometimes, even though in the rest of the New World that would be considered an ambiguous term. I use Wall Street, Washington, Madison Ave, Hollywood and Silicon Valley as shorthands, too. Why? Because every person who hears them knows what I mean, and for that, they are useful terms.

    I am not going to start saying, “The complex of venture capital investors and early-stage companies, principally in software businesses but to lesser extents in computer hardware and biotechnology, who in general, but not uniformly, are headquartered in the region generally corresponding to the geologic Santa Clara Valley between Palo Alto (or, alternatively and more expansively in some definitions, San Mateo) and the south end of San Jose (or, for those for whom that real estate was unapproachable, including towns in the geographic valley as far as Hollister)” just because many of the people who live in those areas are lovely people who do or don’t work for technology companies, because anyone who chooses to be offended or confused by the fact that the placename is now a widely accepted term of its own is being willful in their offense.

    Sometimes the general term is the useful term, because I don’t mean to say that “Company X” seems to think that software is the solution to every problem. I mean to say exactly what I did, which is that the technology and software industries largely financed by venture capital in the South Bay area tend to think that.

    Precision doesn’t mean pedantry.

  5. I’ve had experiences of both. When I used to write music, it was always alone. I hated to have people listen to it before it was done in ink. And that worked for me, because the more challenging ideas would probably have been killed in the iteration, and they usually ended up being the most important. Similarly, when we write, Ben and I rarely share notes until we are ready to publish, because we think it is valuable to have an independent voice. But sometimes there’s a topic where we need that collaborative spark, and it creates a new and different kind of magic.

    But even that is a “joint work product” and not necessarily a product of performer and audience. The latter is a special thing that exists in theatre, live performance and research - including investment research - and you’re right. It’s a powerful thing!

  6. Yeah, I don’t have the answer either. You and I are pretty close politically, but I think I’d say that “President might have colluded with a foreign power” is a much bigger story than “Political party tries to use legal/judicial system to claim other side cheated,” not just on its own, but because the latter seems like politics-as-usual.

    In other words, I don’t really blame the individuals and politicians on the left THAT much for their role in this, because I (rather depressingly, I suppose?) don’t see it as all that unusual for either party. The media? Yeah, I think they bought the story and didn’t do a fraction of the work they would have done to fact-check it or restrain themselves from the strength of their claims if the parties involved had different political leanings. (And on the other side, I don’t think Fox, for example, treated it with the gravity and seriousness it deserved when the outcome was uncertain)

  7. I’m realizing more and more that (1) the “like” button on the ET site will never work :slight_smile: and (2) my avoidance of TV news - CNN, Fox, etc. - while good for my mental health, leaves me less than fully up to speed on the narrative wars and MSM battles.

  8. Hah, yeah, it’s on the list. It’s tough to reproduce why it gives that weird frowny-face error in some circumstances, but trying to fix it.

    I actually find it very helpful that I get to consume so much as part of the narrative research. Get the benefit of seeing something closer to the full picture from enough of a distance that I don’t get too riled up by my own rage and mirroring temptations.

  9. “… tend to think like that”? This is based on your automated analysis of media reports, including fiat news stories? OK, Rusty. Go with that. It’s only two degrees away from understanding. And keep on saying exactly what you mean. No problem.

Continue the discussion at the Epsilon Theory Forum


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