The physical world around you matters more than your virtual connections.
Every week I highlight three newsletters.
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Noah Smith has a piece on social capital and vertical communities and bowling alone that is worth reading not just because he’s right, but because he’s a techno-optimist who nonetheless understands the importance of meatspace:
At first glance, the result of “Public perceptions of local influence”, by Joshua Hochberg and Eitan Hersh, seems pretty minor and innocuous — most people can no longer name individuals who they think are influential in their community. Back in the 1950s, most people would name local businesspeople.
One reaction is: So what? Maybe big companies have just muscled out small businesses, so that now it doesn’t mean much to be a local businessperson (in fact, this is one of the authors’ main candidate explanations). But another, more ominous interpretation is that Americans have become disengaged from their local communities, hunkering down in their houses and failing to interact with the people around them.
Interjection: That sounds awesome. Can we do more of that? Okay, back to Noah:
In fact, there is some pretty well-known evidence that this is happening — the political scientists Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol have both documented a major decline in Americans’ participation in civic organizations, local clubs, etc. Maybe the reason we can’t name important community figures is because we don’t really have communities anymore at all.
But I’m not so pessimistic. In fact, I think the kind of communities we inhabit has simply changed. In the past, our communities were primarily horizontal — they were simply the people we lived close to on the surface of the Earth. Increasingly, though, new technology has enabled us to construct communities that I’ve decided to call vertical — groups of people united by identities, interests, and values rather than by physical proximity.
Read the whole thing. Noah’s great.
His essential point is that the internet liberated us having our “community” defined by geography and happenstance. Instead, everyone now makes their own (digital) community and these can be arranged in ways to optimize value for the individual. If you value identity, for instance, you can create a community of people who share your identity. If you value activities, or politics, or lifestyle—you can build your community around them.
And he points out that the old horizontal communities were stifling, because they greatly curtailed choice.
I don’t want to idealize the Good Old Days. And I’m sure that every community in history was stifling to some degree.
But the thing is: We are incarnate beings. We exist in meatspace. That’s where we live and eat and have babies and get old and die.
And for all of those things, the incarnate community that is physically around you is paramount.
The aggregation of friends in your model-train subreddit cannot watch your baby while you go to a doctor’s appointment. They cannot help you up the stairs after you break your hip. They cannot sit with you on your deathbed.
Birth, life, suffering, death—those are the big parts of the human experience and they’re why we create communities. Because they’re too big for any individual to confront on his or her own.
I’m not saying that vertical communities are bad—they’re not. For precisely the econometric reasons Noah points out, they can be a source of value for people. But Noah—and here is why it’s relevant that he’s a techno-optimist—understands that there is tension between vertical and horizontal communities:
Some economists argue that “artificial states” with arbitrary post-colonial borders struggle to provide public goods because of the eternal infighting between disparate ethnicities that don’t really want to share a country with each other. Those same economists hypothesize that the U.S.’ inefficient and highly contested welfare state is dysfunctional because of racial resentment.
What if vertical communities exacerbate these divisions? What if we talk and socialize and cooperate and fall in love with the people from our online crowds, and grow terminally apart from the people next door? What if we begin to feel our primary allegiance is toward people who share our race or our religion or our interests, rather than toward the people who share our country and our city? What if we go to the PTA or the planning board meeting and discover a bunch of strangers we despise and disdain?
In such a world, how will government get anything done? How will we decide what roads to build, what housing to allow, what universities to fund, or how to reform the police? How can we build a country together with neighbors with whom we no longer share any sort of common bond?
In his 2020 book The Great Demographic Illusion, the sociologist Richard Alba expresses hope that many of the identitarian cleavages of the 2010s will become less severe as racial boundaries blur and racial consciousness shifts toward a new “mainstream”. He tells a hopeful anecdote of going to a funeral where a very diverse set of people all interact peacefully and cordially as they all come to pay their respects. But his hope is fundamentally based on horizontal homogeneity; it’s all offline. In their pockets, the people at that funeral had cell phones that increasingly define their social interactions. And each of those cell phones was a portal its own world — its own set of personalized vertical communities. Being in the same building might have meant coming together in 1990; in 2023, that proximity itself could be the illusion.
So I’m worried about the future of our public goods. I’m worried that the online space will fragment and degrade horizontal communities, but will never manage to fully replace them either. We need to find some way to get along with the human beings who live within physical proximity to us, even as we continue to spend much of our time online. Vertical communities must make their peace with horizontal communities…somehow.
I’m worried, too. Because the only real solution, I think, is to hug it out with your neighbors. Whoever they are.
2. Podcasts Are Dying
Okay, that’s not actually true. Podcasts are growing! We believe in podcasts at The Bulwark, which is why we have a roster full of great pods, from Charlie’s flagship show to Sarah’s Focus Group to Mona’s Beg to Differ to Sonny’s Bulwark Goes to Hollywood to Shield of the Republic and TNL.
So many podcasts!
But the gold rush, in which big corporations thought they could monetize the crap out of podcasts . . . that era is ending.
Here’s the Ankler’s Entertainment Strategy guy:
A couple of weeks back, driving around town, I heard a radio ad — repeat: radio— for a new podcast, an episode-by-episode breakdown of the TV series Hey Dude.
A podcast advertisement. On terrestrial radio. About Hey Dude. A 1989 Nickelodeon sitcom.
Yes, this thing exists. And people are paying real dollars to advertise it in Los Angeles. . . .
Back in 2019, Spotify planned to aggressively take over the podcast market, and spent billions (yes with a “b”, as reported by Bloomberg) to get market share. This meant paying at least $230M for Gimlet Media, at least $196M for Bill Simmons’ The Ringer podcast network, more than $100M for Joe Rogan, $50-100M for Parcast, $60M for the Call Her Daddy podcast, big deals with the Obamas and Harry & Meghan, and over $60M for Anchor Media. Meanwhile, subscription podcast company Luminary managed to raise $100M with the pitch “we’re the Netflix of podcasting”. . . .
Like streaming’s market correction in 2022, podcasts quietly had their own downfall. . . .
That’s how I feel about Spotify’s big podcast acquisitions. Will the podcast producers they acquired make money? Yes. In some cases, a lot of money? Sure. Were they worth nine figure deals? Probably not. Some of the podcast companies were making something like $5-20M per year in revenue. Paying 15 to 50 times a company’s revenue (not profit — revenue!) requires insanely high growth rates.
And podcasting doesn’t really have that.
Again: The point here isn’t the podcasts are dying, but that the big corporate bet that podcasts could be locked into and monetized by a dominant platform—We’ll be the Uber of Podcasts!—was a dumb bet and everyone watching it knew it (or should have known it) at the time.
And the reasons for this are precisely why podcasting has grown and why a place like The Bulwark can come in and succeed in the medium.
I am a medium-level espresso nerd, which is to say that I only use fresh beans out of a burr grinder on a machine that lets me play with the pressure in the portafilter so I can get the level of extraction I want.
But that’s as far as I go. I do not have a Marzocco that costs as much as a car. Nor do I have the water supply plumbed into the machine.
Those are the disclaimers before I say that Nick Whitaker runs a newsletter called Works in Progress and he knows a lot more about coffee than I do. Here he is talking about going after the perfect espresso shot:
The ideal was a “superautomatic espresso machine” or “bean to cup machine,” where the user simply added beans, pressed a button, and got an espresso. The first of these, the SuperAutomatica, was produced by Saeco in 1985. But these machines face a tricky mechanical problem: How do you grind coffee, move it into position, push water through it, and discard the coffee, without making a massive mess in the machine? If any of these steps fail, the machine will need constant cleaning and maintenance, not to mention produce subpar espresso.
Some of the new bean to cup machines are okay, but none are excellent. They still need lots of maintenance and cleaning. The settings are opaque, so the user has little control over their drink. The espresso usually ends up bitter or sour, and sometimes a bit rancid from the mess in the machine.
Nestlé’s Nespresso system debuted a year later, in 1986, with its signature capsule approach. The new approach avoided the messy process of transferring coffee by keeping all the grounds contained in a convenient (and well-patented) capsule. Nespresso machines also avoided the terror of the La Pavoni: Rather than use a steaming, pressurized vessel, Nestlé found a clever way of mimicking the taste and concentration of espresso without building up the traditional 9 bars of pressure necessary. Nespresso machines became a luxury home item, a taste of Italy in the 1980s upper-class kitchen. Since then, they’ve found ubiquity in hotel lobbies and homes across the world.
Side note: I had NO IDEA that Nespresso dates to the ‘80s!
But Nespresso doesn't quite satisfy like traditional espresso, as anyone would notice with the two side by side. Traditional espresso is more viscous with a ‘body’ to it, from the tiny particles of coffee (‘fines’) that escape the basket into the cup and the soluble fats from the beans. The flavors are richer and more nuanced. Plus, though the machines are cheap, Nestlé’s branded capsules are extremely expensive: 300 grams of coffee can easily cost $40, whereas even the fanciest coffee shop would usually charge you closer to $25, and a typical supermarket would want around $5.
There is another alternative that has become common since Nespresso: home espresso machines that are essentially miniature versions of the modern commercial machine. These are usually ‘semi-automatic machines’, as opposed to the super-automatics with one button and the manual machines which you have to pull. When someone says, ‘I have an espresso machine,’ this is usually now what they mean. They range from about $450 to $5900.
That’s me. The semi-automatic guy and we’ll just leave that price range right where it is and not say anything about it.
Works in Progress isn’t about coffee, per se. It’s a real digital magazine about . . . well, progress. But you can read Nick’s whole thing about espresso here and subscribe to the Substack version.
I highly recommend it.
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Wow, ok, Noah's stuff is great and thanks for recommending him long ago. Vertical/horizontal thing is for more deeper contemplation on the Tree of Woe. But podcasts, I generally dislike the format. Too many - mostly I'm exposed to those which involve my hobbies - are mostly brutal affairs with 10 or 15 minutes of educational content stretched across a 45 or 60 minute rap session. I much prefer the tightly organized written out product of someone's ideas. Just had to take the podcast shot since it came up.
Re: “meatspace and the importance of horizontal communities”
Noah’s piece about the benefits of very communities was really good. But even accounting for his concern that vertical communities will never fully be able to replace horizontal communities, he misses an important point.
He links to Bill Bishop’s 2009 book “The Big Sort”. The social worker, researcher and author Brené Brown also quotes Bishop to explain how Americans have “geographically, politically and even spiritually sorted ourselves into like-minded groups in which we silence dissent, grow more extreme in our thinking, and consume only facts that support our thinking - making it easier to ignore evidence that our positions are wrong.” This, she says, reminds her of Veronica Rothy’s dystopian novel “Divergent”, in which people choose factions based on their personalities. The axiom was “Faction before blood”. More than family, our factions are where we belong.”
Rather than Noah’s positive spin, she finds this idea horrifying. “Walking away from people we know and love because of our support for strangers we really don’t know, can barely believe, and definitely don’t love, who for sure won’t be there to drive us to chemo or bring over food when the kids are sick - that’s the shadow side of sorting”.
But perhaps most damning is that counterintuitively, all the sorting by politics and beliefs we’ve been doing hasn’t led to more social interaction or a deeper sense of connection with our like-minded friends. According to Bishop, *at the same time sorting is on the rise, so is loneliness*. In 1980, about 20% of people reported feeling lonely. Today, it’s closer to 50%.
So yeah, the data totally supports JVL’s concern here. I don’t know if we’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole that we can still fix things by “hugging it out”. But I pray we haven’t and we should do everything we can to try to connect to our actual families and communities while we still can. Loneliness isn’t just problematic- loneliness kills.