Bride Of Bay Area House Party
You spent the evening agonizing over which Bay Area House Party to attend. The YIMBY parties are always too crowded. VC parties were a low-interest-rate phenomenon. You’ve heard too many rumors of consent violations at the e/acc parties - they don’t know when to stop. And last time you went to a crypto bro party, you didn’t even have anything to drink, and somehow you still woke up the next morning lying in a gutter, minus your wallet and clothes. You finally decide on a Progress Studies party - the last one was kind of dull, but you hear they’re getting better.
The usual hum of conversation is punctuated by a tinny voice at minute-long intervals. You track down the hostess, who points at what looks like a kind of distant relative of an Amazon Echo.
“This is the prototype,” she tells you. “The Automated Land Acknowledger. I’ll be running a Kickstarter campaign next month.”
You’re not sure you heard right.
“Automated land acknowledger,” she repeats. “It seems so tokenist to just acknowledge land once, at the beginning of a meeting, then never talk about it again. You think the land stops being stolen from indigenous people just because you’re done with the preliminaries and have moved to reading off the minutes? The ALA has an adjustable setting for acknowledging Native land as frequently as you want, up to every thirty seconds.”
“This is the unceded ancestral land of the Ohlone people!" chirps the device.
“And it’s GPS-enabled,” she goes on, “Like, right now, we’re on the unceded ancestral territory of the Ohlone people, but if you go a few miles north, it will be the unceded ancestral territory of the Iwok or Ewok or something, I can’t remember. The ALA keeps track of it so I don’t have to.”
“I thought part of the point was keeping track of it. As, you know, a show of respect for Native people.”
“Yeah, and the more you do the land acknowledgment, the more respectful it is. It’s like those Tibetan prayer wheels attached to the watermill, where each time the mill turns the prayer wheel, you get more good karma. Except instead of something fake like karma, it’s respect and allyship.”
“This is the unceded ancestral land of the Ohlone people!" the device chirps again.
“Here, I’ll give you a link you can use to get to the Kickstarter campaign once it’s set up. If you’re one of the first ten donors, you get an automatic Gold package, which includes two ALAs for the price of one.”
“I don’t know if I have a friend who needs one of these . . . “
“It’s not so you can give it away! It’s about having them both on at once! That way it’s twice as respectful!”
“This is the unceded ancestral land of the Ohlone people! Celebrate their history and achievements with a refreshing bottle of Ocean Spray sugar-free 100% cranberry juice” chirps the device.
“Don’t worry,” says your hostess, “the Gold version is ad-free.”
Now that you think of it, you are in the mood for something to drink, so you head to the kitchen. An Asian guy seems to be handling the catering. He looks familiar. He notices you staring at him and helpfully supplies his name, which you promptly forget, and the information that last time you spoke to him he’d been talking about his alternate-history-based fusion restaurant. You ask him how it’s going.
“Terrible,” he says. “Turns out alternate history based restaurants were a zero-interest rate phenomenon.”
“So you’re back to catering?”
“But I bet you have another startup plan.”
“Yeah. I want to do the historical restaurant idea again, but this time from a different angle. Totally normal food, but the menu describes it as if you’re Emperor Nero in the year 60 AD.”
“There’s a lot of research showing that the way you describe food can affect the taste. If you think it’s rare, or special, or took a lot of work to make, you’ll like it more. And I thought - to someone in the ancient world, even our normal food would sound utterly fantastic. Like, how would you describe chocolate to the Emperor Nero?”
“A . . . weird brown bean?”
“You’re not getting into the spirit of this! On the far western edge of the world, beyond the Isles of the Blessed, is a jungle full of savages obsessed with human sacrifice. In that jungle grows a tree called theobroma, meaning “food of the gods”. It has giant fruits weighing a pound each, which are guarded heavily by the savages, who use it in place of gold. If you can reach the tree, get the fruit, and separate out the seeds, then spend a week drying it in the sun and trampling on it, you can make a magical beverage which, in addition to its unparalleled taste, briefly removes the need for sleep.”
“Okay, fine, chocolate is too easy. What about, I don’t know - a fried egg?”
“There is a bird from the jungles of Burma. Cut off its beak and claws, then keep it in a dark iron cage for its entire life, and eventually it will produce a curious round white stone. Break the stone and fry the golden liquid inside. Garnish with a black spice from Sri Lanka, and a ground-up pinkish rock mined from a cave discovered by Alexander the Great just below the tallest mountain in the world.”
You imagine the Emperor Nero, who has tasted every delicacy in the world, hearing about such wonders and considering them the pinnacle of his lifetime of hedonism. You honestly kind of crave a fried egg. “I would like to invest in your restaurant,” you tell him. “Too late,” he answers, “Peter Thiel has already taken the whole seed round.”
“Hey,” says someone you don’t recognize. “Did I hear you say you were looking for something to invest in?”
You groan. The sharks have tasted blood. “Not . . . in full generality,” you say, but you know it is already too late. He introduces himself as Amad. “I’m working on a reality show about dating.”
“Aren’t there already a million of those?”
“No, only 448. Unless you count the matchmaking ones, then there’s 670.”
“Do viewers really need a 449th or 671st reality TV dating show?”
“No! Viewers don’t need anything! That’s the genius of it. This is a reality TV dating show that nobody will watch.”
You wait for him to explain the genius.
“Nobody knows how to meet romantic partners anymore. Nobody goes to bars these days, nobody in California is religious enough to meet people at church, it’s Problematic to ask out co-workers, and dating apps are hell. That’s part of why reality TV dating shows are so popular. There’s always a segment where the person says ‘I felt a little silly trusting this reality TV dating show for love, but after failing on the apps so many times, I thought, what did I have to lose?’ And then they match them up with a beautiful rich tall dark stranger and it all works out. Reality TV dating shows are the only model of successful healthy dating that a lot of people ever get exposed to! All that’s left is to pick up this giant $100 bill the studios have left on the ground.”
“You’re talking about a reality TV dating show, marketed to singles, as a dating strategy.”
“Yeah. We’ll film it, maybe we’ll even upload it to YouTube or something, but that’s not the point. The point is that people joke about how 90% of reality TV relationships fail. But a matchmaking company with a 10% chance of getting you a real lasting relationship is actually great. People routinely charge four to five digits in matchmaking fees with less of a track record than that.”
“So, which reality show are you going to copy?”
“Oh, I don’t know, we might switch it around. One of those ‘you have to marry someone without meeting them first’ ones to start, that’ll let us inflate our statistics on how many of our clients end up married. After that, who knows? So, are you in?”
You are not in. In fact, you’ve already wandered off into the main room, looking for more fertile conversational topics, when you hear a name you recognize.
“Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing, are you Max Roser?”
“I thought you were in Britain or somewhere! I love Our World In Data, thank you so much for starting that!”
Max looks uncomfortable. You ask if he’s okay.
“So ‘Max Roser’ is just - I didn’t start the site. I was looking up econ development statistics on there a few years ago, and I something seemed off, they listed the GDP per capita of Mongolia in 2004 as being $5,820, but all my other sources were saying it was more like $5400 or so. I couldn’t reconcile it, so I wrote them an email asking if they’d made a mistake. A few days later, these people in robes show up at my door. They told me I had caught the last Max Roser in a mistake, so now by ancient tradition I was the new Max Roser. Apparently it’s not even a given name, it’s a Rosicrucian title - I think ‘Hans Rosling’ is another one, like a second-in-command. It’s like the Dread Pirate Roberts in that one book. I tried to tell them no - I was working for Google at the time - but they were very insistent. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. So now I’m Max Roser and I run Our World In Data. It’s an okay life, I guess.”
“Huh,” says one of the people who was in the conversation earlier. You recognize him as Ramchandra, who you often see at parties like these. “So it’s like Lindyman?”
“Lindyman is also a Dread Pirate Roberts type situation?” asks Max.
“That’s what I’d heard,” Ramchandra says. “If you kill Lindyman, you’ve proven yourself lindy-er, which makes you the new Lindyman. That’s how Skallas got it - he killed Taleb. Of course, Taleb was too antifragile to die - killing him just makes him stronger. That was his plan all along. He passed the Lindyman curse on to Skallas. Now Skallas is stuck. Too cringe to live, too lindy to die, he wanders the earth, plagiarizing and offending people in the futile hope that one of them will take his life and grant him the peace of oblivion. It’s sad, really.”
“I guess that makes sense,” you say. “I couldn’t stand him, but I just unsubscribed from his Substack and forgot about it. Not much you can do beyond that.”
“Oh, that’s about to change,” says Ramchandra.
“What? What do you mean?”
“You remember the antifinance company I was telling you about back in January? Well, unfortunately antistocks were a zero-interest-rate phenomenon. But it all turned out well in the end. We got bought by Substack! Now we’re about to ship the greatest innovation in social media since the ‘like’ button. The antisubscription!”
He checks to see if you immediately recognize his brilliance. You don’t, so he continues.
“Everyone says that negative polarization is a stronger force than positive. People might like Biden a little, but they really really hate Trump. It’s the same with writers. You might have some online pundits who you like, but you probably have more who you hate, and the hate is stronger. Until now, Substack was only able to profit off the liking - a certain cut of every paid subscription. Well, that’s why we’re introducing the antisubscription. You pay Substack the same amount as a subscription, and it neutralizes the subscription of one supporter. The blogger ends out with zero. If 10,000 people subscribe to Bari Weiss, and 4,000 people antisubscribe to her, then on net Bari gets paid for 6,000 subscriptions.”
“I don’t know, that seems kind of exploitative.”
“Nah, we’re thinking of it as a sort of ultimate defense of free speech. Imagine deplatforming someone for supporting racism or pedophilia, when you could rake in big bucks from collecting antisubscriptions to them instead! All of a sudden, those people are cancelproof. And we’ll exempt some categories of sympathetic writing, like charity and personal diaries and the like.”
“And housing advocacy, right?” interrupts a newcomer to the conversation. He is dressed in all black, and his eyes are black instead of having normal iris and sclera. You, Max, and Ramchandra groan. A member of the Urbanist Coven! “Shouldn’t you be over at the YIMBY party?” Max asks.
He frowned. “I couldn’t get in. It was too inclusive.”
“How does that work, exactly?”
“A few months ago, a right-wing blogger came to one of our parties. People on Twitter complained and said his presence might make minorities uncomfortable and that as a movement that valued inclusivity we needed to kick people like him out. So next time we instituted a rule: no right-wing bloggers. But then some people who commented on right-wing blogs showed up, and the Twitter people said their presence was exclusionary too. One thing led to another and now all our parties have an Inclusivity Monitor who checks your social media presence before they let you in. A few months ago I complained on Facebook that crime was out of control. I guess I must have used the wrong phrasing or something.”
“We’re not even the worst. You know that big group house on Masonic Avenue? I heard last month they threw a party that was so inclusive that nobody could get in. The hostess ended up sitting all alone with ten boxes of pizza.”
“Wow. Big inclusivity win.”
“Yes. I just regret I can’t be at the YIMBY party to deliver my report to the rest of the coven.”
“Can you tell us what you’ve been working on?”
“I guess . . . yes . . . sure. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to build more houses without disrupting people’s precious precious home values.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Canadian government got in trouble recently for promising to make cheap housing available for all without lowering anyone’s land values. People thought it was contradictory. But it isn’t, really. It’s just price discrimination, something businesses have understood for centuries. You need to price discriminate so that anyone who can afford older houses buys them at their existing price, and anyone who can’t buys new houses for much cheaper.”
“You have to make the new houses worse somehow. We don’t want them to be less liveable. So instead, we make them uglier. So ugly, that no self-respecting person would live in one by choice. The needy will grudgingly choose them over homelessness, but rich people who want to signal class will still prefer the old houses, letting them keep basically all their value. As a bonus, it prevents gentrification and ensures the houses go to poor people who need them.”
“Sounds like it might work.”
“That’s what we thought. But when we took the proposal to the mayor, she said it wasn’t even original. Apparently the whole United States has been doing this for the past seventy-five years!”
“In fact, it’s even worse than that. When they started seventy-five years ago, they did those Brutalist apartment blocks, which they thought were the ugliest they could possibly get. But then they’d built a lot of them, the landlords who owned the Brutalist blocks became NIMBYs and wanted them not to go down in value, and there were still lots of people who needed new housing. So they spent billions of dollars to gather together all the worst architects in the world, the veterans of those CIA programs where they made bad art to psy-op the Soviets, and did a Manhattan Project to try to design a style even uglier than Brutalism. They came up with that “cute”, “playful” style you’ve been seeing everywhere lately. But it’s not bad enough! Sometimes upper-middle-class professionals who could in theory afford a pre-1950s house still rent them! Nobody knows why! The CIA worries that maybe the Soviets psy-oped us somehow.”
“Too bad,” you say.
“It’s not ‘too bad’. Housing is a human right and it’s our duty to fight for it. We must develop styles that are uglier, more annoying, and more anti-human than past generations could imagine. Here, I have a prototype drawn up - “ He takes a notepad from his pocket and flips to a sketch.
“I think they built that in Oakland a few years ago,” you say. “It won an award.”
The urbanist cursed. “Foiled again! But I’ll figure it out, mark my words!”
“This is the unceded ancestral land of the Ohlone people!" interrupts the Automated Land Acknowledger. You thought it had been turned off, but they must have just changed the settings.
You decide you have had enough Progress Studies Party for one evening. Have you learned something about progress tonight? Is there some sense in which the arc of history has moved from people who do not acknowledge land, to people who do acknowledge it, then to people who acknowledge it every thirty seconds on an automated loop forever? From dates contingent on freak coincidences of bar and church attendance, to the carefully-scripted warmth of reality shows? From flawed first drafts to ever-lindier Lindymen, ever uglier apartments, and ever more inclusive parties? Is the Rosicruceans’ great project still on track?
You wonder if there is anywhere open at this hour that will serve you a fried egg.