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On status in modernity
It's unstated, but no one cares you drive a BMW or wear a Rolex here. It's great you enjoy them. We care about your ideas and contributions.
In an era where luxury cars and extravagant timepieces once symbolized success and prestige, a profound but quiet transformation in our values has taken place. No one talks about it much, our modern cinema and music ignore it because they’re incentivized to, but the internet forced a change here — you see it on display constantly. I believe strongly in the thesis material possessions have ceded dominance to the virtues of mentorship, the free/open exchange of ideas, the art of creative expression and other intangibles. In essence: we’ve moved past status being biased to financial achievements and once again care more about intangibles (the transcendental). If you’re not here yet, you should join us. It’s way more fun. If you’re reading posts on this Substack regularly you likely know what the rest of this will say.
What has fueled the departure from conspicuous consumption, and what forces have contributed to this change in our values? More importantly, how can we encourage and accelerate this shift towards more profound forms of social significance? I think this is important to talk about more if we’re to unstuck culture from our various sleeping institutions faster.
Decline of unfettered materialism: more for the sake of more is mid
The diminishing influence of materialism as the prevailing societal value is influenced by several factors: the most obvious of which is the rise of technology, which has flattened the ability for all to acquire knowledge, revealing a lost, but fundamental truth: real wealth resides not in the accumulation of possessions but in the cultivation of wisdom (I fear this was lost on the baby boomer generation, who lived the easiest lives in the history of humanity). Their value set is different.
Combined with this, the prices of things like flat screen TVs, ability to summon a car with just a few taps on an app, and reasonable travel has flattened experiences once reserved for the elite. So at this point, if you really cared enough to do this, one could easily impress the least self-aware, empty humans by flaunting bling or hotel pools via cringeworthy Instagram posts. I’m still not sure what the point of this is.
The world is now marked by complex challenges and I believe this will force a collective reassessment of our priorities. Hard times create stronger people. The relentless pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake is now under scrutiny as we recognize it’s an empty chase, and the people playing this game (and have the depths of a sun-shower puddle) are miserable, addicted, compulsive individuals. Who wants to live like that?
Mentorship (1:1, intimate groups, etc)
There’s a growing reverence for mentorship, not just 1:1 but in intimate settings like group chats or at larger scale via MOOCs. Success is great. Lifting others up after you’ve achieved it is our highest calling. No longer are celebrities the epitome of success, if they ever were for the self-aware: there is now a heightened admiration for everyday people across sectors who dedicate their time and expertise to guide others. Mentorship embodies the idea that success is not a finite resource but rather a shared journey. It's about passing on knowledge, empowering the next generation, and fostering a culture of collaboration rather than just cutthroat competition. Because of the internet, and ability to do this at scale, there are intrinsic and extrinsic rewards here now. We can begin this type of tree planting again, which I believe we suffered from a scarcity of (you see this manifest with the gerontocracy, it’s the antithesis of real leadership to not empower and pass the torch).
Related, the notion of ‘getting rich, then getting off the grid’ as some on fintwit love to say is deeply nihilistic. These are lost individuals. Affix your oxygen mask, then lift others up. Stay on the grid and help shore up our shared infrastructure, take off the VR and join the rest of us in base reality.
Sharing of ideas without expectation of return
We should value competence and mastery, and generously sharing the skills we’ve acquired with others, as the highest of status.
So when people say things like ‘there’s too many podcasts’ as one example, they couldn’t be more wrong. There’s not enough. It’s like saying ‘there’s too many web pages’ or ‘there’s too many YouTube videos.’ This deeply misunderstands the internet. Anyway, 90% of podcasts don’t get past episode 3. That’s 1.8 million who quit. Of the 200,000 left, 90% will quit after 20 episodes. That’s another 180,000 gone. To be in the top 1% of podcasts in the world you only need to publish 21 episodes. There’s too many people who don’t continue with their podcasts.
Podcasting is just one example of course — whatever the medium it's undeniably cool to see folk across industries volunteer time to provide their perspectives on news or work of peers. Some see this negatively (there’s a meme how athlete’s should ‘stick to sports’ but I think the those who say this are sad humans, it’s great to see full spectrum of someone’s humanity on display). In the age of information abundance, the ability to distill complex events and trends through the lens of personal vantagepoint not only provides perspectives and understanding, but also fosters a connection between professionals and the world. This practice adds nuance to issues and underscores the importance of individual voices in contributing to a more enlightened society. And since you don’t need the blessings of institutions, this is a status game that benefits everyone, and everyone can play.
Health and fitness
It’s an odd quirk in modernity we went from people starving to having too much great (or at least delicious, if not always healthy) food. In a society where self-care and well-being are increasingly prioritized, maintaining one's physical health holds particular importance. According to recent statistics, the prevalence of obesity in America has reached alarming levels, with over 40% of the adult population grappling with this health issue. Being in shape not only represents a commitment to one's own health but also signals a profound level of self-awareness and discipline. This reflects a seriousness of purpose that we can all aspire to and respect, and people signaling this publicly has even helped me personally exercise more.
A return to art
Whether it's visual arts, music, literature, or any other creative outlet, making art has transcended the realm of self-expression to become a powerful means of connecting with others and reflecting on the human experience at internet scale. I still believe everyone has the ability to make art, it’s an inherent gift to our species. Doing so and a willingness to make it available publicly is an act of bravery, particularly as it stands up against an industry that does everything they can to optimize for averages (AI does the same).
Art inspires, challenges, and engages people on a both logic and emotional levels. It encourages introspection and fosters empathy, making it a valuable tool for societal progress. I do not need to extoll the external benefits further to readers here. I believe the few artists left are at least quietly respected. At least, I view them this way. I can’t be alone on this one.
Memes and humor
I also believe memes and humor have emerged as perhaps unintentional avenues for signaling high status. The ability to craft and appreciate witty, culturally relevant humor reflects a deep understanding of the zeitgeist, making individuals who excel in this art form stand out against an all too frequently dark backdrop. Memes, with their ability to distill complex ideas into bite-sized, humorous packages, serve as a form of cultural currency, allowing those who wield them effectively to make us smile and easily digest what’s happening. Thus, they signal a user’s social acumen and adaptability.
Humor has always been a respected means of communication, transcending mere entertainment and acting as a subtle marker of one's place in the social hierarchy. AI probably can never do this with the same style of a human, because it’s not a processing speed/efficiency problem. On a long enough timeline, given energy and material abundance are inevitabilities, perhaps anything the AI can’t do well is what we will value highest.
To fully move beyond banal and ostentatious forms of social signaling, we must continue to celebrate and promote a mix of new and traditional values. Education and awareness are the obvious things that play a crucial role in shifting societal priorities, but how we structure incentives matters most. I’m unsure how to better amplify this other than writing about it, because a lot of the incentives are still the antithesis of the above. I think doing this will get many who have become lost or disenfranchised to the point of embracing socialism to desire capitalism with better end goals which is of course much preferred. The shiny lures still do work on plenty of people of course. But really, they boil down to abyss distraction.
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