2020 Decade-Ender, or, the Isidore Option
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Categories: Modern, Not an expert

2020 Decade-Ender, or, the Isidore Option

The Brenner Pass, Schloss Ambras, and a crossroads downstream from Innsbruck.

So, it is 2020. It has been an odd year in an odd decade. And while I am tempted to just note who was king and the most exciting thing that happened in the heavens, I want to finish this section of my chronicle. The conjunction of Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter in May was exciting but there are other things to write.

As promised, I published a book! I got a journal article in press, finished another with sources in nine languages, and need to find a new venue for a third due to personal friction in the pandemic year. I sent five or six articles to print and web magazines.

I sewed two embroidered cloaks and a fulled cloth vest (and a stylish mask labelled in proper cuneiform so nobody gets confused whose it is!)

I continued to cook new Vietnamese and trecento recipes, and discovered a new bakery in Innsbruck with good chocolate doughnuts (not Marillenkrapfen!)

I discovered the Life with Althaar audio drama and Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, and re-acquainted myself with Charles Oman and Lawrence Watt-Evans and Terry Pratchett.

I got to visit a new castle with a real Bergfried, although not the other one I was hoping to see.

I had opportunities to master replacing the chain and inner tube on my bicycle (so much practice!) and I answered a request for an unusual Sumerogram (I am not sure whether I should have suggested KI.DUG5 instead of KUR.BABBAR for “fair ground” but that is why Nisaba invented bilingual lexical lists).

I got called some exciting new names which I stuck in my file of things to read when I feel low and need something to laugh at (“gutless,” a “prima donna,” and a “virtue signaller” forsooth!)

{tug2}GADA ša2 PAN {m}Ša2-ma-an “linen cloth for the face of Sean” and a paṭru “knife” by Tod Cutler

Not everything this decade was so joyful. My father died, I had to travel suddenly away from Austria and am not sure when I will be able to return, and I do not have a full-time job. I am now in the only one of the five largest states on earth which is not governed by a strongman (and the next tier of countries like Poland, Turkey, and Ethiopia is not doing so well either). Most of the communities I care about are in trouble, not always self-inflicted, and are having trouble explaining why their way of seeing the world is valuable.

I have spent an unwise amount of time trying to list and make sense of all the events this year. Like a lot of people with my neurology, I have feel powerful emotions but have trouble talking about them. The closest to sense I can make out of it is this.

I started these posts by noticing that people on the Internet were telling each other that 2016 was an especially bad year. At the end of this decade, I think we have to accept that this is the new normal. The climate is not going to start cooling in my lifetime, our broken political systems will not repair themselves overnight, there are not going to be good jobs for everyone. I see some people doubling down and imagining that if they just assert their authority loud enough, identify the right foreigners to blame, and put the right people in charge of censoring everything, they can bring the 1990s back.

When times are frightening, it is tempting to become authoritarian. But I think this is a mistake. Fortune’s wheel always turns and the high will be made low. If you build systems which let people exercise arbitrary authority, they will be taken over by people who like power not people who share all your opinions. A lot of people died this year because the officials they appointed were too rigid to see that Taiwan and South Korea were places to learn from or that their theory of government was failing catastrophically.

A late 14th century wheel of fortune by a local sculptor in the Castelveccio, Verona

I also see people who don’t have the capacity any more to execute their offices, or can’t believe any longer in the missions they are paid to serve, but refuse to step down. Quite a few universities don’t seem to believe that sound research methods are important, and want professors to become something like vloggers creating six-minute videos or vocational instructors (and some researchers seem to treat research like a game where all that matters is the ping of a peer-reviewed publication). One powerful country’s federal government is dominated by septuagenarians and octogenarians, and the Free and Open-Source Software world also seems sunk into this mud (Canonical [Ubuntu], Mozilla [Firefox], The Document Foundation [LibreOffice], and the Gnu Image Manipulation Program are all locked in internal struggles, short on cash or volunteers, or seem to have abandoned their mission).[2] A lot of people are scared that if they admit that the world has changed, they will slide down the greasy pole they spent their life climbing or lose the power to keep their community from moving in new directions. But even the king can’t stop the tide or keep his body natural from decaying.

The past decade has seen an industrial revolution of the Internet, with the rise of large-scale web applications undermining and erasing the revolutionary, flat potential of a networked structure. As we see new trust hierarchies and increasing control over networks in the name of stopping crime, terrorism, or merely uncomfortable speech, we see our chances of using the Internet to create a new kind of freedom slipping away.

Eleanor Saitta, “Venture Warlordism” 2011 https://dymaxion.org/essays/venture_warlordism.html

An nescis, mi filii, quantulá sapientiá regitur mundus? “But don’t you know, son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?”

Axel Oxenstierna, letter c. 1648

When everyone’s dropping dead after drinking from the punch bowl, you are allowed to take a pass on the Kool-Aid. When the people standing in line for the ride are coming out the other end as ground mince meat, you have permission to jump the fence and go elsewhere.

C. Johnstone, “You Have No Obligation To Conform To A Wildly Sick Society,” 14 December 2020 (link) N.B. when Putin invaded Ukraine for the second time in 2022 and disproved the hypothesis that Europeans and North Americans have nothing to fear from Russian foreign policy, Johnstone refused to update her views to fit the new evidence. Sad!

The Internet was created by people like me: nerdy, bookish, looking for people who shared our special interests. In this decade, our open Internet came up against corporate social media. We were defeated in every encounter. We were defeated as people opened twitter accounts and stopped posting their blog posts on the web a few months later, we were defeated as people build their new sites in a maze of third-party trackers and surveillance scripts instead of simple HTML backed by a static site generator, and we were defeated as people abandoned their mailing lists and forums for Facebook groups and Reddit. A very large percentage of the remaining Internet is hidden behind services like Cloudflare or Project Shield or Google Captchas so that those services can track visitors and cut off traffic.[1] Our curious, collaborative, conversational culture has been replaced by an eerie parody of Old Media culture where people gather around authorities telling them what to believe and how to bully anyone asking awkward questions or coming from a different perspective.

Some people have embraced these new sites and have the gift of creating things which spread well on them. Writers like Bret Devereaux, Eleanor Janenga (warning: sweary!), and Peter Samsonov and vloggers like Meg Lewis and Dr. Josh of Digital Hammurabi, armoured fighting vehicle scholar the Chieftain, (warning: YouTube) and sword-seller Matt Easton (warning: YouTube) are spreading historians’ and archaeologists’ facts and ways of thinking to a far larger audience than I will ever reach. But I think it is a mistake to accept the values which those corporations offer us without questioning them- values like seeking fame, performing outrage, short time horizons, competition, and money and productivity as the only things which are good for themselves (bona in se). These are values which help a few people to get and stay very rich, not values which create the good life for whole communities. “Content” is an idea for newspaper owners who need something to hold the ads and propaganda apart, not one which helps creators.

If we accept that the 20th century world dominated by a handful of colonial states is falling apart, but that empire is not necessarily the same as civilization, then we have the power to shape what this new world will look like. For some people, a dark age is the time to draw arms and build a kingdom. For others, it is time to scatter to the land and discover the joys of good food, fresh air, and the rhythm of the seasons. But I am no warlord, and I love books as much as birdsong. So I chose to be Isidore of Seville. I can’t bring back the communities on the open Internet which felt right for me. But in this coming decade, I can take their work, condense it, and put it in print on paper so the next community of antiquarians a century from now can find it. Scholarly Atlantis-believers are still angry about L. Sprague de Camp’s Lost Continents (1954, second edition 1970 [Dover Press reprint]) but people with grand theories of history have forgotten his magazine articles and interviews with journalists and broadcasters.

Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me, and to new visitors, and to everyone who has sent an email, a comment, or a donation. In the coming decade, I plan to keep writing at least every second Saturday about books, swords, and the curious things people do with them. I will keep connecting different people and ideas that don’t move in the same circles, even if sometimes when I extend a hand in friendship they turn it into a judo throw. And I am glad that I found this topic to research and went to Innsbruck.

[1] Mandatory statistics: unique visits and page views to my site increased 60-78% this year, the largest annual increase since 2015. From 1 January to 24 December, about 9485 referrals came from search engines, whereas one fifth as many came from the main corporate sites (1920 referrals from Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter) and another one fifth as many came from two blogs, two forums, and Hacker News (1985 referrals). The data I have does not support the claim that its essential to be on closed social media to find an audience. Attempts to outlaw private communications and control what people can communicate or pay for over the Internet continue, but are just riffs on old melodies; let us pass over names like KoPlG and MindGeek and SISEA and whatever people with Instagram accounts are talking about in silence. Processors of online donations such as Paypal and Patreon have processed much more money in 2020 than 2019 (about a 50% increase on Patreon according to Graphtreon). The subscription sites which are being aggressively promoted this year seem to be OnlyFans and Substack. ⇈ back to text

[2] Edit 2021-04-14: The Free Software Foundation is also in trouble after the board reinstated Richard M. Stallman, a person who was important in the free software movement in the 20th century, to its board of directors. Stallman has a history of behaving in ways which many women, disabled people, and survivors of sexual violence find threatening, such as suggesting that all fetuses with Down’s Syndrome should be aborted or telling a woman that he would kill himself unless she went on a date with him. He was president of the organization from 1985 to 2019 (!) A number of board members have resigned and Red Hat has withdrawn its sponsorship. It looks like the board did not read Aurora, Gardiner, and Honeywell’s essay No More Rock Stars on how to make sure no one person can hold your community hostage by withholding knowledge. ⇈ back to text

Edit 2021-05-12: Scott Alexander, “The Rise And Fall Of Online Culture Wars,” Substack: Astral Codex Ten (https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/the-rise-and-fall-of-online-culture) has useful contrasts between debate culture and social media culture, and between the geeky evidence-based culture of the early Internet and the more mainstream culture of corporate social media, but also takes the position that the Internet is a place for young geeky Anglo-Americans to squabble their parochial squabbles not for people around the world to connect and share. His history does not even have much room for greeky Brits or geeky Canadians to set agendas.

Edit 2022-08-04: Added note on one person who disgraced themself after the second Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022

Edit 2022-09-13: Jason Scott of the Internet Archive realized the need for the Isidore Option later than I did https://nitter.ca/textfiles/status/1569701695877177347#m

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2 thoughts on “2020 Decade-Ender, or, the Isidore Option

  1. Writing for the Curious – Book and Sword says:

    […] realize they don’t have the influence which they used to believe they had, some of them just brandish their authority harder and try to shut down debates. Some people dismiss the Centuries of Darkness project because its proposed solution has problems, […]

  2. 2022 Year-Ender – Book and Sword says:

    […] Isidore Option was the right policy for me in 2020. But I liked the me who tried many new things, met many new […]

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