John Muir wrote that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe“, and this is how I feel about the ideas expressed in this post. I would love to polish them a little more, but I have a newsletter to ship, so here goes:
Some problems are handled by talking your way out of them, and some are solved by interacting with the physical world. People who deal exclusively with one class are missing the whole puzzle. Simplifying the demarcation into career stereotypes:
- Politicians, career academics, journalists (and others) are able to go entire career without touching “base reality”. Every problem and challenge they face is about ensuring consensus around them. Their performance is judged by a comitee, so they work with the narrative. They are very concerned with what other people think, and they often resort to expert opinion to make their arguments.
- Engineers, programmers, mechanics and so on work with base reality. Their problems are indifferent to the narrative and while they need other people, they prefer to work with matter or numbers. The numbers either work, or they do not. There is little opportunity to spin a failure into a narrative, and they wish human interactions worked this way too, treating subjectivity as inefficient.
We relied upon a feudal system throughout human history: a caste of consensus-seekers overseeing the reality solvers because working with the matter was not scalable. Since consensus seekers were “higher in the stack”, they were seen as superior, and their culture “purer”. It has become fashionable (and desirable) to do no manual labor since people that did none dealt all the cards.
As technology becomes more powerful, it serves as a scaling alternative to consensus-seeking. Now, reality solvers can muster the same resources as consensus seekers, threatening their position (most evident in the case of traditional journalism). Technologists can replace whole industries without anybody’s consent – a process referred to as disruption.
While many technologists are classically educated and take their time to analyze the human impact of their creations, others are as graceful as teenagers rejecting the habits of their fathers to replace with “new, which is always better”. This, of course, leads to Chesterton’s Fence problem: the old and calcified institutions and traditions may or may not serve their purpose well. Consensus seekers gravitate towards tradition due to status-quo bias, and reality solvers seek improvement in tearing it down because it is easier to build from scratch than to work with a complicated legacy system.
If you become good with the hammer, you come to seek nails everywhere. As I wrote in don’t use your work voice at home, once you are successful at problem-solving, it becomes hard not to overapply this solution:
Turns out, sometimes people sometimes want you to listen to them. Shocker, right? They don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want their problem solved, they just want to get their emotions out.
You need to embody both sides for effective leadership on a micro level and functioning society on a macro level.
I am an engineering manager, and my work consists of roughly 50% of consensus-seeking, 30% of road mapping, and only 20% of actual problem-solving.
That 20% is crucial – without it, I would lose the tangible connection to the problem domain and rely on hearsay to make my decisions. Abstraction is always lossy, and you have to touch reality once in a while to realign even the best representation because the map is not the territory.
More broadly, modernity has made it entirely possible to live your life as a consensus-seeking urbanite intellectual who has never done any manual labor (or even cooked their dinner) yet still claims to have a right to tell others how they should spend their days. On the other hand – career problem solvers have no shortage of opinion too, but their historical (lack of) influence on the media has precluded them from going into the mainstream just yet. Both of these extreme sides are alienating, and walking the tightrope is the way forward.
The pandemic (I sure hope I don’t have to specify which one) was an example of a two-pronged problem, which problem-solvers and consensus-seekers failed to address in unison:
Consensus-seekers were scared by the lack of a coherent narrative, engineers annoyed by the lack of coordinated action, and almost nobody stepped in to provide both.
Shape Rotators vs Wordcels
Roon has been peddling a similar Shape Rotator vs. Wordcel dichotomy, mainly as a throwaway joke, but seems to have stumbled upon something real. As he explains in his fantastic “A Song of Shapes and Words“:
The demarcation isn’t just between STEM and humanities — you will absolutely find wordcels in the STEM domains — rather, it’s about modes of thinking. It’s about realism, thing-orientation over people-orientation, and investigative grounding in the tangible world.
I see his demarcation line roughly translating into my consensus-seekers/problem-solvers mapping.
In Roon’s words, shape rotators are those scoring high on the “visuospatial” tests. As somebody who can clearly picture working machinery in my mind to figure out the angle of the support beam that will best handle the load, I can tell you this is a thing. Perhaps the most illustratory and extreme example of this is Nikola Tesla:
“I soon discovered that my best comfort was attained if I simply went on in my vision further and further, getting new impressions all the time and so I began to travel; of course, in my mind. Every night (and sometimes during the day), when alone, I would start on my journeys – see new places, cities and countries; live there, meet people and make friendships and acquaintances…
This I did constantly until I was about seventeen, when my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I need no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind… I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea, I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop.”
Another fantastic shape rotator is Albert Einstein, who has been conducting his experiments entirely in his mind. He was so far from consensus-seeking that his famous paper “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies” has not been “peer-reviewed” at all, despite being one of the most important scientific papers in history. From Roon:
The initial insights of Einstein (“what if I was riding on a photon?”) (“gravity is indistinguishable from acceleration”) were world-historic shape rotation magic
Shape rotators are prone to forgetting about the human side, to their detriment:
The struggle of the shape rotator, the pursuit of technical progress, the mastery of realist competence is an alienating struggle that will not be seen as altogether honorable or romantic by broader society. The run-of-the-mill rotator may produce incredible amounts of value and fail to capture most of it, though many of them are kept well-compensated enough to not complain.
Wordcels are all-in on the societal abstraction and status games. They feel very confident in social settings, but their talents are wasted when not surrounded by others willing to listen:
While some of these types will become presidents, poets, priests, the vast majority will live and die producing little value, chasing down rhetorical dead-ends, with their scholarship forgotten. This is the central tragedy of the wordcel.
it’s also a socioeconomic classifier that refers to people whose verbal ability borders on self-sabotage (thus the “-cel”). Perhaps they’re driven mad by political rage, postmodernism, and disconnection from reality. It might refer to the priestly figures who work in the culture factories of the New York Times with their incomes and social prestige both precipitously declining only for the unperturbed masses on the internet to tell them in unison: “learn to code”
Roon urges us to treat his demarcation as a joke and seems a bit surprised how well this metaphor has landed:
my actual claim to fame turned out to be a memetic repackaging of funny cognitive patterns that ended up activating an incredible underbelly of tribalism that we didn’t know we were missing until now
And land it did! The creator of the original internet browser has chimed in:
Creator of Ethereum felt compelled to explain that web3 is not a “Shape Rotator” field:
And the discussion keeps evolving. Per Roon:
There is clearly some low-hanging fruit of social understanding here that was previously left untouched.
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I write about the psychological and technical aspects of the Internet, focusing on remote work, online economy, and cognitive load. Every monday.