pmarca's reading list
All I've got is a hammer engraved with There Is Nothing Outside of the Text
Earlier this week, internet rich guy pmarca posted a manifesto on his pal Musk's web forum, which he then reposted on his personal web log. I enjoy manifestos as a genre, so I immediately downloaded "The Techno-Optimist Manifesto" onto my phone and then used text-to-speech to read it to me at 2X speed while I stuck cling-stick monster decals to my front windows.
As a manifesto, it's just OK. The opening lacks the punch of classics like "A spectre is haunting Europe" or "'Life' in this 'society' being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of 'society' being at all relevant to women" or even "The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race." Nonetheless, I read it all even though nobody threatened to send a bomb if I didn't.
Why read it at all? #
It's useful to read primary sources. When everyone is yelling about a thing, I want to read the thing instead of just second hand accounts to better understand its influence. Like I said a while ago about reading Derrida:
"I think it's important to read books whose influence has permeated your discipline so that you know where the ideas came from."
And when a powerful and influential person publishes a thing like this, it's also useful to know what ideas they are pushing so that I can see how their influence filters through. However, when you read a manifesto it's important not to take its meaning at face value, or even to respond to the arguments it purports to be making, but to instead examine its rhetorical structure and see what it says about its meaning. What do the inherent contradictions in the structure of the text reveal about its meaning? A manifesto is a modernist form, like collage or the city plan of Brasilia, and so it is particularly generative to apply an early postmodern form of reading to it, that is, deconstruction.
In that spirit, I didn't find much to engage with in the body of the manifesto. It's straight up California Ideology and there is little danger that even a naive reader will pick up any new ideas I need to bother refuting. It's neither uniquely terrible nor uniquely brilliant. Other people have dealt with it better than I can, nearly 30 years ago.
The reading list or whatever it is #
However, what struck me as interesting was the list of names at the end. pmarca introduces it like this
Patron Saints of Techno-Optimism
In lieu of detailed endnotes and citations, read the work of these people, and you too will become a Techno-Optimist.
A list of 56 names in alphabetical order by first names follows.
Like a lot of the manifesto this statement has some weird rhetorical slippage. Is this a syllabus or a list of saints? Which of their works are you supposed to read? What does it mean to "read" somebody like Warhol whose output was mostly visual arts and hosting parties? What does it mean to "read" Von Neumann, whose mathematical proofs and scientific papers most people wouldn't understand without years of preliminary education?
Is this really a list for reading or is it a list for signaling allegiance like those tedious reading lists that hustle culture grift entrepreneurs and MBA bros post on their dating profiles to show they are srz bznz?
What is that first name alphabetization supposed to mean? Is it some kind of shitposter signal that you just put the names into Word and hit "alphabetize"? Is this part of thumbing your nose at academia? Surely a grown-up man knows it's usual to alphabetize names by last name and it means something, right?
Also, that's a lot of patron saints for an area of endeavor. Normally you get one, and you often have to share them with other professions. For example, St. Lucy is the patron saint of the blind and eye problems, and of authors, cutlers, glaziers, stained glass workers, laborers, peasants, and salespeople. (I always thought she was the patron saint of ophthalmologists, too, but maybe that falls under eye problems).
Even popular and old professions like shepherds or sailors get a dozen patron saints, max.
At 56, this isn't a list of patron saints, it's enough saints to populate a calendar. Are we starting a religion here or what? The body of the manifesto tries to signal its rationality with dryness, but the fact that we have 56 saints at the end indicates a certain rapture of the nerds vibe.
Baffle 'em with bullshit #
There is also a rhetorical technique to giving an overwhelmingly long and incoherent "reading list" to your ideological enemies. It's a great way to waste people's time or discredit their counterarguments. Any time they disagree, you can say, "oh well, if you only read all the works of all 56 of these people, you'd agree with me so come back when you have if you want a good faith argument."
Back in the 2000s, when I was at the tail end of my decade of arguing intensely with people on the internet, there was this guy on a mailing list I was on who would say the most preposterous things. He would be willing to go a round or two, but when his arguments started to buckle, he would resort to this one ploy over and over. It went kind of like this "Oh, well, you see it's just that you don't understand esoteric concept X because you haven't read doorstoper volume by famously impenetrable author yet so come back to me when you have." And while I was too impatient to go read the books this dude suggested--which were mostly out of print, too heavy to carry on the bus, and frankly really boring--I naively assumed that he had read the books he was recommending. I mean, he was an educated guy, and over 10 years older than me, and he sounded pretty authoritative, even if half of his attitude was puffery, he must have at least read the books himself, right?
Eventually I got some hints he had not read all of the things he insisted other people must read before they were qualified to argue with him. You would think I would have figured it out sooner. I'd gone to grad school by that point and was well aware of the practice of reading just enough of the thing to discuss it in a seminar, but nope, I assumed everyone else actually did all the reading and I was just the one baddie faking my way through critical theory.
Anyway, my forum nemesis was way more eloquent than pmarca and definitely better read, so if I apply my lesson from arguing about the Church Universal And Triumphant with internet occultists, I am inclined to doubt that he or most of his followers have actually read the works of the people on the saints/syllabus list.
Unfortunately for me, I've got a bit of a Columbo-like tenacity about just checking up on a few background details so uh, I looked up every one of those names, and I made a table. So you don't have to. You're welcome and/or I'm sorry.
Around "John Von Neumann" I ran out of energy to give color commentary, because the list is so long and there were just so many Austrian and Chicago school economists which, like the SCUM manifesto says is "at best, an utter bore." Thus I leave further interpretation of this handy table as an exercise for the reader.
|@BasedBeffJezos||Anonymous twitter shitposter; accelerationist||Dude?|
|@bayeslord||Anonymous twitter shitposter; accelerationist; probably "Less Wrong" rationalist||Dude?|
|@PessimistsArc||Project/alt of @louisanslow||Dude|
|Ada Lovelace||19th century. Theorized the use of a universal computational machine, but it's not clear if anyone actually reads anything she wrote or do they just list her because she's a lady programmer? Also, only legitimate child of Lord Byron so that's cool.||Lady|
|Adam Smith||18th century philosopher interested in ethics and economy. Known for The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). Do people actually read The Theory of Moral Sentiments?||Dude|
|Buckminster Fuller||20th century. Geodesic dome mystic, kind of cool||Dude|
|Calestous Juma||20th century scientist and economist||Dude|
|Clayton Christensen||20th century business mormon, part of the MBA grift||Dude|
|Dambisa Moyo||20/21st century, inspirational speaker about being rich||Lady|
|David Deutsch||20/21st century computer scientist, actually a scientist||Dude|
|David Friedman||20/21st century anarcho-capitalist writer, economist, and medieval reenactor||Dude|
|David Ricardo||18/19th century economist||Dude|
|Deirdre McCloskey||20/21st century economist||Lady|
|Doug Engelbart||20/21st centory computer scientist, invented the mouse||Dude|
|Elting Morison||20th century historian of technology||Dude|
|Filippo Tommaso Marinetti||
|Frederic Bastiat||19th century economist, developed the idea of opportunity cost||Dude|
|Frederick Jackson Turner||
|Israel Kirzner||20/21st century economist, Austrian School||Dude|
|Johan Norberg||20th/21st century thunk leader, Cato Institute||Dude|
|John Von Neumann||
|Joseph Schumpeter||20th century economist; Austrian school||Dude|
|Julian Simon||20th century economist; Chicago school||Dude|
|Kevin Kelly||20/21st century, founding editor of Wired magazine||Dude|
|Louis Rossetto||20/21st century, founder of Wired||Dude|
|Ludwig von Mises||20th century economist, Austrian school||Dude|
|Marian Tupy||21st century Cato Institute thunk leader; apparently not notable enough for a Wikipedia page||Dude|
|Martin Gurri||21st century, former CIA analyst, blogger||Dude|
|Matt Ridley||20/21st century member of hereditary British aristocarcy, banker, pro-brexit, hobby economist||Dude|
|Milton Friedman||20/21st century economist, Chicago school||Dude|
|Neven Sesardic||20/21st century, Croatian scientist trying to rehabilitate scientific racism||Dude|
|Nick Land||21st century philosopher, "Dark enlightenment," basically a neonazi||Dude|
|Paul Collier||20/21st century economist||Dude|
|Paul Johnson||No idea which dude he means||Dude|
|Paul Romer||20/21st century economist,||Dude|
|Ray Kurzweil||20/21st century computer scientist||Dude|
|Richard Feynman||20th century physicist||Dude|
|Rose Wilder Lane||20th century writer, libertarian||Lady|
|Stephen Wolfram||20/21st century computer scientist||Dude|
|Stewart Brand||20/21st century, editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, founding member fo the WELL||Dude|
|Thomas Sowell||20/21st century economist||Dude|
|Vilfredo Pareto||19th/20th century economist, free market, Mussolini fan||Dude|
|Virginia Postrel||20/21st century writer, libertarian||Lady|
|William Lewis||Unclear which one||Dude|
|William Nordhaus||20/21st century economist||Dude|
This is the worst syllabus I have ever read.