8 New Year's resolutions for The Intrinsic Perspective (and 1 for me)
A look behind, a look ahead
The number one most common mistake when writing is to tell people in advance what you are going to write. This fosters an immense and unconquerable boredom in the reader. It is too reminiscent of grade-school essays, where “I will next discuss” is the phrase of death. And it applies, in a more meta way, to bloggers and online writers and newsletter runners, who all too often fall to solipsism, to summarization, in the same way.
With that admitted, I’m issuing myself a brief pass for an informal meta-discussion in the New Year. For I want to reflect on this past year and the newsletter’s growth, and also outline the future of The Intrinsic Perspective (TIP). This includes some of the new topics I expect to cover, changes to format, how it will grow, etc. My hope is that everything about TIP improves to a noticeable degree this next year, all without losing its essence.
Resolution 1: Continue TIP’s 2022 growth
At the start of last year, TIP’s total subscribers numbered only ~2,000. Total subscriber count is now closing in on 20,000.
A mind-boggling thought is that if TIP underwent the same order-magnitude growth again by 2023’s end there would be 200,000 subscribers. This feels obviously impossible to me, but who knows?
Resolution 2: Beat 2022’s five top-performing posts
Obviously I do expect to “beat” most previous posts in terms of reach and views, since that’s the nature of growth. So that’s not quite what I mean. Rather, I was lucky enough to palpably feel that my writing last year made a difference. I’ve heard from more than a few people now that TIP changed how they raise their kids, or changed how they thought about morality, or human history, or how dangerous AI seems, and so on. That’s the greatest honor for a writer, and in a strange way, quite humbling, since you become aware of a responsibility to make sure the work is good and sound and true. By that standard, here were the top 5 best-performing posts last year.
Why we stopped making Einsteins: Aristocratic tutoring I: Explaining the decline of genius.
The gossip trap: How civilization came to be and how social media is ending it.
AI art isn’t art: DALL-E and other AI artists offer only the imitation of art.
Karens and the nature of evil: On the necessity of the Karen meme.
Goodbye academia, hello Substack: The Intrinsic Perspective goes paid.
Resolution 3: More topics
TIP covers a range of topics, from AI to literature, but I’m always looking to add more. Some of the things I’m most excited about this upcoming year involve fields I’ve worked in and yet have not written in-depth about here, like the latest in consciousness research. Additionally, one or two posts this year will be previews of chapters from an upcoming book of mine that makes the scientific case for free will (published by Simon & Schuster, out summer of 2023—more on this soon). But there’s so much I want to do for TIP next year: I want to interview my mother about how she ran a successful independent bookstore for 50 years, I want to trace Tolstoy’s influence of pacifism and nonviolence and ask why it’s no longer popular today, I want to try to express what Burning Man is like (an impossible task), I want to create a guide for young men to avoid video game addiction, I want to research the pernicious effect of gossip in early societies—and so much more, but I won’t spoil them all here. Overall, I wrote more than I ever have last year, and a huge part of that has been TIP.
Resolution 4: More series
In 2023, I’ll be starting a couple new officially linked series of essays that jointly flesh out a subject, even though each entry is readable independently. Ongoing series will act as important flagships of TIP, like the Aristocratic Tutoring series on the historical education of geniuses (parts 1, 2, 3).
Why do this? Newsletters have many advantages, but too often even the most successful ones are pulled toward scattered commentary and hot takes. In the process, they lose all sense of advancement or originality, all sense of vision. Series on TIP act as a form of non-fiction serialization, encouraging me to dig deep and write the equivalent of a monograph or short book on a subject, and therefore offer forward something actually original, yet in a form that still allows TIP’s readers to follow along its development.
Resolution 5: Deeper research
There’s a growing movement, albeit one still scattered across the internet, looking to change something fundamental about how papers and citations are done. It is concerned with how papers, the engine of advancement in science and ideas, are currently terribly written. They are staid, boring, strangled messes, narrated in an unnatural passive voice, and dominated by jargon. They are soporific rather than awakening. But it wasn’t always thus. Papers, particularly prior to the institution of peer-review in the 1960s, used to be full of clever turns of phrase, enlightened metaphors, and honest subjectivity (“First I thought this, but that can’t be right, so it must be this other way”). It is far more engaging to read the scientific literature prior to science’s increasing institutionalization in the 20th century—dipping into the past as a scientist is a joy and a delight, and I’m not sure what we gain via the circumscribed genre that the paper is today. And when a scientific field moves very quickly, like AI over the past ten years, it naturally becomes done primarily via pre-prints, conference presentations, and blog posts, with peer-reviewed publication a long and boring academic afterthought.
So while essays will still be the vast majority of TIP (none of these resolutions are major shake-ups), I expect this year to publish a few posts that veer toward being more like academic papers, except in my regular writing style (these will go on arXiv as well, a pre-print server). Substacker Adam Mastroianni is already doing precisely this. Expect that, just like how TIP publishes fiction a few times a year (e.g., “The invincible human moth” last month), in 2023 TIP will, also just a few times a year, put out content that’s as in-depth and researched as a scientific paper—in fact, it will be a paper, but written in more conversational and engaging style, exactly the way I wish scientists would write.
Resolution 6: I’m assembling a team
The best intellectual work is almost always a group effort. Even if the ideas are original to the team leader (in academic language, the “PI,” or Principle Investigator) it’s impossible for one person alone to carry forward all the implementation, check all the leads, etc. Therefore, most PIs govern a small team. I was a member of such a team all throughout graduate school, the “theory group” that worked on developing Integrated Information Theory. The group model works, and exists for good reasons.
What would a team look like for TIP? It’s an idea that intrigues me. The first step would be an official research assistant for TIP. It’s bound to be a strange hodgepodge of a job, things like helping me sort through historical sources for the Aristocratic Tutoring series, or helping me make a graph, or it might even be data analysis or data entry. The research assistant would then receive some of the proceeds of TIP (some of which now goes to Alexander Naughton, the resident artist, who illustrates everything). Necessary background for the position: Serious previous research experience (like having attended graduate school), knowledge of statistics and programming, a wide variety of interests, enthusiasm for TIP and its subjects. Please reply directly to this email if you’re interested.
Resolution 7: Add more perks for paid subscribers
TIP only exists because of amazing paying subscribers. So beyond the consistent locked posts, I’m going to be trying out some additional perks for paid subscribers over the next year—these might be things like audio versions of essays, an occasional podcast with a guest I publish here, etc.
As always though, more than half of the content will be accessible to all, so the free version of TIP will remain worth staying signed up.
Resolution 8: Changes to moderation
I’m still dwelling on how best to moderate TIP. I love reading the discussions here, and I want to keep the intellectual freedom and free-flowing nature of it. But it’s also large enough that occasionally someone breaks from the salon-esque intended nature of it and gets hostile, or runs to bring up controversial political stuff that has nothing to do with the topic, and so on. It’s still rare enough to not be a major problem, and it’s something that every online community faces, so I don’t expect to solve it in any fundamental way. But eventually there will likely be a moderator for TIP who is not me, who can make objective judgements and stay on top of all new comments as well as manage any repeat offenders, etc. If you happen to have an interest in this role, again, respond to this via email, particularly if you’re Lawful Neutral in alignment and have been something like a Reddit moderator, or have some experience being apolitical and fair of judgement.
More resolutions for TIP?
If you have any other ideas for further improvements, or what you’d like to see most, please let me know in the comments.
Lastly, a personal resolution: Notice more.
A former student of David Foster Wallace, one of my favorite essayists, described him as a “noticing machine.” In the 90s, Harper’s Magazine would come up with something slightly absurd but also very normal (a luxury cruise, a state fair) and send Dave, without any instructions, to document it. And the result would always be amazing, because he would just notice so damn much about the experience, and he also happened to be one of the few people in the world best able to articulate all those noticings to others.
To run a newsletter requires a similar skill. It is a strange skill that cannot really be trained; it arises from a pressure that can only truly be understood when one is determined to produce, say, a good essay a week. You become a noticing machine.
And this is, in my opinion, the biggest perk of this job. You constantly notice things in your life that would make good essays, good “Substacks,” either in and of themselves, or as possible dimensions or parts. Some of these noticings take place in a very specific sphere (e.g., it’s easy to notice big advancements like ChatGPT) while others are extremely abstract (e.g., noticing the similarities between fictions and dreams). A new book to review, a paper to overview, all things of that sort can obviously be Substacks. My favorites, though, and what I’d like to do more of this year, are noticings that have a less utilitarian flavor—the ones more like a possible atomic element of some future untitled essay, but you’re not sure exactly what it’s about yet. Such noticings often involve a particular phenomenology concerning how things are, or feel. Gray hairs in the mirror? Perhaps a Substack. The tree that almost crushed my house? In its split body there is a possible Substack. The way a baby smells could be a Substack. Or a red evening, when the halving sun dissolves right down into the nearby lake. Or the desolation of the winters here in Cape Cod, when the tourists leave and the towns feel like a movie prop in their emptiness—even the clerk taking a cigarette break outside in the cold, the one old enough to no longer be working at the local store just as their teenage job, who in their shuffling is overhung with their own small-town life and its private dramas.
Who are you? Perhaps you are a Substack.
Deeply skeptical about a Burning Man essay
I receive plenty of articles on interesting topics - I'm not short of reading material. The monthly fee you charge is modest and I won't feel shortchanged if I hear from you only , say, six times a year.
My point is this: Please write only when you have something interesting and new to say. You won't and can't summon up interesting material to a schedule. Leave that to regular columnists.
If you have a fallow period, just go with it and I'll still follow you even if I don't hear from you for months on end. I'd far rather get something rarely and irregularly and hardly contain myself to start reading it, than get a regular flow of meh-material produced to meet a schedule, material that I make myself open, until suddenly, I don't.