Slate Star Clusterfuck: Elizabeth Spiers on journalism, ideas, "ideas", free speech, and techElizabeth Spiers / Feb 17, 2021
This piece was originally published here.
A while ago, I did a Q&A with a venture capitalist who had formerly worked in media. The conversation took place on Clubhouse, the explosively growing audio-driven social network. The topic was the tech industry and journalism, and the discussion had been precipitated by a few weeks of turmoil on the Internet about the supposed antagonism between the industry and the press, embodied primarily by very public arguments involving New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz and tech entrepreneur and investor Balaji Srinivasan.
I was asked to participate in the Q&A because I had tweeted about the situation, but also because inasmuch as there is structural hostility between journalists and tech people, I’ve worked in both industries and, well, a tech billionaire spent $10 million to put a media property I co-founded out of business. I also know and like Taylor, but we’re not close. And I’ve known Balaji for 20 years. As a matter of disclosure in this context: we briefly dated in my early 20s when he was still a grad student at Stanford, and just before Nick Denton and I started Gawker. I’m not going to try to explain that except to say, I have always been attracted to very smart men, and I was 23 at the time. I am 44 now. I still believe Balaji is frighteningly intelligent, but I would vastly prefer that he use those powers for good than, well, whatever this is. I believe he has similar, ah, reservations about my career trajectory, and obviously believes Peter Thiel, his mentor and friend, was right about Gawker.
Now that we’ve got all of my conflicts of interest out of the way (!): I watched yesterday’s discussion of The New York Times article on the Slate Star Codex founder develop in kind of predictable ways, some threads of conversation rooted in legitimate questions about speech and others so eye-roll inducing, I may have sprained an ocular muscle. I kept doing lots of disjointed Twitter threads about it, so this is just an attempt to consolidate some of them, and work out some of my thinking better on paper. Or in pixels. Whatever.
A lot of people have misconceptions about how journalism works, and this seems banal and obvious, but there are vastly different species of misunderstanding. There is, for example, my Uncle Chico, who is the most prolific Facebook shitposter I’ve ever met, who thinks journalists who do not work at Fox have all coordinated to ruin Donald Trump’s life—which honestly gives journalists a lot more credit for organizational abilities and coherence than journalists deserve. There are a lot of people—this may even describe most people—who cannot distinguish between commentary and reporting, and this is frankly as much the fault of news organizations as it is the people who fail to make the distinction. There are people who interact with journalists regularly and still miss the basics of how journalism operates. (I wrote a thread about the Lincoln Project and those things here.)
There’s a specific kind of misunderstanding that’s pervasive in tech, and it falls in this taxonomy of fallacies somewhere between the commentary/reporting confusion, and Uncle Chico. It is like the former in that it fails to understand processes and classifications that are integral to how journalism is done, and necessary, and it’s like the latter in the sense that it attributes personal qualities to journalists that both comically overstate the level of personal investment journalists have in the people they cover, and assumes that journalists are motivated by (maybe even primarily by) assorted flavors of malice.
The malicious journalist thesis is the one that was the hardest on my ocular muscles yesterday. Scott Alexander—the figure at the center of the piece—believes this, and has advanced this theory that the journalist who wrote the piece, and perhaps The New York Times institutionally, were out to smear him. To what end, it’s unclear. (A favorite fallacious rationale: clicks! More about that in a bit.) Scott has reconstituted Slate Star Codex as a Substack publication called Astral Codex Ten. In a statement on The New York Times article, which he did not like, to put it mildly, he writes, “The New York Times backed off briefly as I stopped publishing, but I was also warned by people ‘in the know’ that as soon as they got an excuse they would publish something as negative as possible about me, in order to punish me for embarrassing them.”
Only in a bubble as insular and tiny as the SSC community would this theory be even remotely plausible. To put this in context: SSC is influential in a small but powerful corner of the tech industry. It is not, however, a site that most people, even at The New York Times, are aware exists—and certainly, the Times and its journalists are not threatened by its existence. They are not out to destroy the site, or “get” Scott, or punish him. At the risk of puncturing egos: they are not thinking about Scott or the site at all. Even the reporter working on the story has no especial investment in its subject. That reporter is also probably working on six other stories at the same time, thinking about their friends, family, what their kid needs to do in Zoom school tomorrow, the book they want to read, whether Donald Trump will get arrested, whether rats dream of boredom. They do not sit around thinking about how they’re going to “get” people they write about, and when subjects think they do, it’s more a reflection of the subject’s self-perception (or self-importance) and, sometimes, a sprinkling of unadulterated narcissism.
Here I should note that I was a reader of Slate Star Codex and have subscribed to Scott’s Substack. I think it has some meaningful value or I wouldn’t have been a reader. I look forward to reading the Substack. But it is possible to appreciate something without absurdly venerating it.
Scott is not the first subject who’s unaccustomed to being on the receiving end of journalism who, confronted with a portrayal he didn’t like, attributed all forms of bad faith to the person who produced the portrayal. In fact, it’s pretty common among people who haven’t been profiled before. Even the most generous profiles will include things that the subject doesn’t like. Those are the only things the subject pays attention to. They also often think a journalist is obligated to privilege their version of what’s happening, however self-serving it may be, or however unreliable a narrator they are of their experiences. (And everyone is an unreliable narrator when they articulate their own experiences. No doubt some people reading this will read this essay and note areas where I might be saying things that are self-serving or self-indulgent. We all are, to some extent.)
On Negativity Bias
There’s also a related fallacy that’s not universal, but inasmuch as it exists, it seems uniquely endemic to tech: the idea that tech journalism should support the tech industry. This interprets journalism as public relations, which it is not. Journalists are not supposed to cheerlead the industry; they’re supposed to cover it, and that means writing the good things and the bad with no overriding preference for one over the other.
“But tech journalism is overwhelmingly negative!” I hear a self-described empiricist whining somewhere on Twitter. No it is not, my friends. You just don’t notice it when it isn’t. This is a cognitive bias: your brain is wired to perceive threats in a way that it does not perceive neutral or positive information. If tech journalism were overwhelmingly negative, tech culture would be very different. Entrepreneurs with mediocre ideas would not be hailed as innovators. The tech industry itself would not be able to claim repeatedly, with a straight face, that everything it does is “changing the world.” People would not aspire to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, even though Zuckerberg has many disturbing qualities that should not be replicated outside of computer simulations.
You also would not know about all of the things that the industry actually does produce that are wonderful, and exciting, and making things better. When you do know about these things, it’s usually because some stupid malicious journalist wrote that story in a publication you read. People are largely unaware of where they get their information because so much of it is consumed ambiently and without conscious direction. But the act of making previously private information public in a formal way—reporting and publishing—is the engine underlying much of the dominant narrative. And last time I checked, the dominant narrative about the tech sector is that it’s a desirable place to work, full of smart people who specialize in innovation, and responsible for a big chunk of our progress as a species. And tech media reflects that far more than it doesn’t. The Times article referred to the tech industry as a community of iconoclasts, and somehow that is not flattering enough to some people. (My own experience of the tech industry is more akin to what Harold Rosenberg referred to as a “herd of independent minds.”)
This demand for unalloyed positivity is exacerbated by a reactionary grievance culture in some corners of the tech industry that interprets critique as persecution, in part because of a widespread belief that good intentions exculpate bad behavior. Why be critical of people who are just trying to change the world? (Through their casual gaming app that allows people to group digital candy in sets of three, or their gig economy platform that has the effect of driving wages well below standard minimums, or their social network that may be responsible for an active decision to algorithmically distribute disinformation because that’s what the customer apparently wants?) Why be so negative all the time? Why be negative at all?
Which brings me to an ancillary point: negative pieces are not de facto “hit pieces.” I work in politics now but I worked in journalism for 17 years before and for too many publications to list here. The only time I’ve seen anyone assign a piece with the intent that it be explicitly negative was at a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, and it was a tiny celebrity gossip item.
When I was the editor-in-chief of The New York Observer, my boss Jared Kushner tried a couple of times to talk me into doing “hit pieces” in the paper, and I refused. He even suggested I do one on someone who had bashed me publicly and I had to explain to him that real journalists do not do “hit pieces”; they follow the reporting wherever it goes. Jared thought they did because he conflated negative portrayals with malicious portrayals, much like some people are doing here, albeit in a less obviously stupid way.
Jared’s father, a convicted felon who once tried to blackmail his own brother, was covered negatively by the New Jersey newspapers. In Jared’s view, they were “out to get” his father. In Jared’s mind, because this is the narrative that makes sense to him and is also the most self-serving, his father did nothing wrong. He was railroaded by Chris Christie and the media, the latter of whom wanted to take him down.
On a very human level, I understand Jared’s impulse—wanting to believe that his father is not who news outlets say he is. I am sad for that version of Jared Kushner, who is a kid when all of this happens. But that doesn’t mean the news orgs are wrong, or that the news orgs were out to get his father.
Ideas! Ideas! Ideas!
Slate Star Codex was often interesting, provocative, and smart. I am sympathetic to critiques of The Times piece that say the piece did not capture the depth of it, and I think in a longer treatment, it might have. The article was not a particularly long piece and sometimes brevity leads to oversimplification. It leads to selecting examples that are representative but not universally applicable.
People who focus on the things about it they didn’t like might miss the way it articulated why the site was powerful and compelling for a lot of people, though I think Sam Altman’s quotes make that clear. Instead they focus on a line of critique that’s been there from the beginning, which is that discussions around free speech often ignore the role of power in determining who gets to be an absolutist and who doesn’t.
And in Scott’s post he unwittingly demonstrates that even his thinking is sometimes muddied on that front. “I have repeatedly blogged about studies suggesting that women are underrepresented in tech not because of explicit discrimination on the part of tech companies,” he writes, “but because women lose interest in tech very early, at least by high school (high school computer science classes are something like 80% male, the same as big tech companies).”
The idea that women lose interest, in the context of what Scott is saying, implies that they just, I dunno, get bored with it. In fact, they are explicitly discouraged and in some cases heavily disincentivized to pursue it. Even studies put out by big tech companies acknowledge that it’s not about innate interest in the topic; it’s about social dynamics: peer pressure, lack of role models, and the fact that girls are punished more heavily for failure, which is a problem when learning to code is about failing repeatedly and learning from it. Is this a nuance worthy of distinction? A lot of women think so, and sociological explanations tend to be heavily discounted on SSC.
And for all of the talk on SSC about advancing broad discussions and provocative ideas, there are a lot of recurring themes and not much deviation, which isn’t a problem inherently, but puts the lie to the claim that this is all really just about unimpeded discussion of ideas.
Here I’m going to double down on the self-indulgence and talk about me. More. Sorry.
On Me. (Me, me, me.) And personal ideological shifts.
In 2017, I met with a Silicon Valley billionaire to discuss a media property I wanted to build. He asked me the famous “Peter Thiel question”, which is some variation of: what do you think is true that no one else thinks is true? I told him I thought media fragmentation is good, and ideological bubbles were the product of flaws in distribution. This is an extraordinarily boring answer, but was highly relevant to my “theory of change.”
I thought more about the question later that day, and tried to remember instances in which I had a minority viewpoint in a homogeneous community. This is not, by the way, inherently a good thing. Sometimes you have an unorthodox viewpoint because you’re just wrong.
In my early 20s, I was what I called then a socially liberal and fiscally conservative libertarian. My first job out of college was at an early social network, and then I worked for a colorful (if ethically challenged) hedge fund guy, covering tech equities as an analyst. This is around the time I met Balaji and just before Nick and I started Gawker. I would have been an SSC super-fan at the time, if SSC had existed.
I am now what SSC fans would probably derisively call an SJW, the implication being that caring about justice is some kind of weakness, or superficiality, or a posture, something that can only ever manifest as performance. My ideological shift happened incrementally, over years. Most people never shift ideologically. The biggest predictor of what your ideology is now is what your parent’s ideology was throughout your childhood. (A notable and important exception is when your parents shove their beliefs down your throat, but mine didn’t particularly, at least not as much as the parents of some of my peers.)
Anyway: I grew up in a deeply conservative and reactionary Evangelical community in rural Alabama and did not meet an honest-to-god liberal until I went to college at Duke in 1995. And contrary to the warnings of my relatives, the liberals did not immediately and forcibly indoctrinate me, surreptitiously replacing my Bible with a copy of Marx. But I had some culture shock—less because there were so many new ideas to be explored than because most of my classmates were very, very rich, and I was not.
I also grew up around people who had very strong ideas about abortion and guns, and periodically liked to remind me, an adoptee, that I was lucky I had not been aborted myself, which was not quite the beautiful sentiment they thought it was. My hometown was ideologically homogeneous, and heavily influenced by a white uniquely American Evangelicalism that loathes failures of manners more than it loathes injustice. (I wrote about that, and Jerry Falwell, Jr., for the New York Review of Books, if it interests.) The school I went to taught creationism alongside evolution, and our history textbooks stated that the Civil War was about states’ rights. No one considered these things abnormal because there was no alternative, no alternate point of view. Ideology permeated every aspect of the environment.
And I stayed conservative(ish) for most of college. I wanted to work in international security and my mentor in the political science department was a Republican former member of the National Security Council who had been protege of Samuel Huntington’s at Harvard. (We’re still in touch and I love him, even though we no longer agree on … most things.) My early ideological shift away from a very right wing conservatism was mostly precipitated by reading and interrogating my own ideas once I had access to, well, more things to read.
But later it was more heavily influenced by real world experience. One of my younger brothers was a veteran who was in and out of prison for a while, and that rammed home to me the inequalities in our criminal justice system and how abusive it is, particularly to young Black men. It also underscored how ill-equipped we are as a society to address issues of mental health. When he began hearing voices and telling people he could predict their futures, the VA could only help him in limited ways, through no fault of the people who tried--it was overburdened and under-resourced as an institution. All of these factors contributed to his death, at the age of 36, in 2015. And he had more help and more advantages than a lot of people—including family who were willing and able to suspend their own lives and potentially bankrupt themselves to deal with it.
These were not failures of individual responsibility on the part of people who suffered. They were structural problems, often rooted in discrimination.
I also worked in industries that said they were meritocracies but consistently promoted less qualified white men at the expense of women and people of color. (Tech is terrible about this and in denial.) I got the sense that a lot of men in tech viewed women as NPCs—Non-Player Characters—who were simply incidental to their own narrative arcs, and not capable of self-actualization themselves. They valued credentials that could easily be bought or gamed by people with money.
I saw the libertarian policies that were supposed to work in theory to elevate the best things, entrench power and quash innovation and competition at its natal stages. Libertarianism came to seem like a form of codified naïveté that assumed people made rational economic decisions on the whole, and behaved in a way that took personal responsibility for adhering to ethics, and not causing harm to others. It also had a fantastical definition of freedom that asserted that absolute freedom was both socially desirable and possible, and denied that absolute freedom for some is contingent upon being willing to harm others. And that absolute freedom, in its extreme incarnation does not exist and no one wants it, not even the libertarians.
Even anarchists have norms these days.
Slowly, I began to believe that justice issues matter and affect everything. I never thought of myself as privileged—my dad was a local lineman for Alabama Power, my birth mom is a high school dropout, i was the first person in both my biological and adoptive family to go to college—I mean, you’ve heard this kind of story before; it’s not extraordinary. But I began to see that I had a lot of structural advantages that were not apparent to me when I was trying to figure out how to fill out a FAFSA or what I would do when my parents told me I might have to drop out of college because the money wasn’t there, even with financial aid. I got the dumb credential and it gave me far more advantages than my parents had.
And there are obvious things: I am not going to get stopped and frisked in NYC, or arrested because I happen to live in the wrong public housing unit. While I have had people suggest I’m a token woman hire, I don’t get the derisive “affirmative action” crap nearly as much as my friends who are not white. I don’t have to work around endless roadblocks to have a family the way my gay friends do, and have never been prevented from getting married. To be an absolutist about free speech, you have to basically say these things don’t matter, or you’re not responsible or complicit in them, or they cause no real world harm.
Now I skew very progressive, though not so much as say, my business partner, a pollster and Democratic Socialist who went to his first protest at the ripe old age of 10, and I am convinced exited the womb reading a copy of Rules for Radicals. I would identify as a Stiglitz-ish progressive capitalist, which many Dem socialists believe is a contradiction in terms.
And maybe at some point, I will be successfully convinced that it is. I’m not dead yet, and have changed my mind before.
But at any rate, my shifts were precipitated not just by exposure to ideas, but exposure to the real world and how most people experience it. There is a huge swath of the tech industry whose only experience of real world inequality is tiptoeing around homeless people on the way to work. And it’s easy for them to continue to live in that bubble and entertain the delusion that absolutist ideas—both good and bad—can be implemented when they can’t.
Ideological shifts are rare. My firm does messaging and persuasion, and true persuasion is difficult, rare, and incremental. You can sometimes persuade a person to change a vote based on a few specific variables but persuading someone to shift their entire ideological perspective over the course of an electoral cycle is nearly impossible.
I hope that in the new incarnation of SSC, people think about these considerations more--and I am not saying they never come up. They do. But the brand of techno-futurism that is most predominantly reflected on the site is not new. It grew out of the counterculture movement in a way, and just feels a little more modern and shiny now. If the point is to interrogate your own orthodoxies, it’s important to consider what SSC leaves out.
I hope that someone does a longer more comprehensive story on the Rationalist community and the site—selfishly, because I love this sort of thing. But I’d also like to see people who self-identify as Rationalists be a little more self-aware about when they are letting their emotions trample their logic—when they’re tempted to argue that questions of justice are ancillary to question of progress, and when they, for example, get angry and project all manner of emotion onto reporters whose reporting they don’t like.
But mostly, I want them to be more rigorous: to acknowledge that ideas are meaningless in a vacuum that does not include real world material conditions, and that people pursuing innovation are not the only people who matter, or even the people who matter most. And another structural reality is that organizations—companies, say, startups—are terrible at policing themselves. What journalism seeks to do is illuminate the areas where destructive means are being utilized to achieve ends that might actually be virtuous or worthy in some other way. This is useful, in the public interest, and good for the tech industry in the long term. It mitigates things that are destructive to the industry, and destructive to society.
It makes a lot of people uncomfortable when they can’t control their self-presentation, and this extends to journalistic portrayals. This is especially true of smart people who are accustomed to believing that they can manipulate their own narratives at will via a process of rational self-engineering and diligent application of the right KPIs. People like Balaji, for example. Surely journalism can be gamed and / or nipped in the bud!
I suggest an easier route than summoning an army of bots, oppo researchers, Dark Enlightenment (ironic labeling for whatever that constitutes) warriors, etc., to go after journalists whose work you don’t like: pay careful attention to what you’re afraid they’re going to write, and why you wouldn’t want it to be public. Then apply some rational thinking.