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The making of Icehenge

by Henry Farrell on April 12, 2024

Last year, I received an email asking if I would write an introductory essay for the Tor Essentials reissue of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Icehenge. It took me approximately thirty seconds to convince myself that this was not some kind of hallucination, and another three or four to type YES! OF COURSE!!! and hit reply. It was the most delightful email I’d gotten in years. Stan is now a friend, but the request had its origins in a conversation years before I’d met him. At least a decade ago, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and I were chatting about his books, and I said that Icehenge was both (a) his best novel in my opinion, and (b) criminally under-appreciated. Patrick, who recently stepped down as editor-in-chief at Tor, somehow remembered this, and asked me to pick up on the notion many years later. So how could I do anything but seize the chance?

The book is out in June, and I’ll have more to say then. When I was writing the introduction, I talked to Stan about how he had come to write Icehenge, and what it had meant to him as a writer. There was a lot about modernism! When the British Science Fiction Association’s journal, Vector put out a call for submissions on SF and modernism, I made inquiries, and they said they’d love to publish the conversation. A cleaned up version is available in the new issue (which has a ton of other great content). It’s published under Creative Commons, as is pretty well everything that Vector publishes, so I’m republishing it here. I simply can’t say how happy I am about all of this, and how much I’m looking forward to the book itself – out in just a couple of months.

There are some spoilers in the below – so if you prefer to wait for the book, wait for the book! [click to continue…]

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Dr. Pangloss’s Panopticon

by Henry Farrell on February 27, 2024

So Noah Smith has a quite negative review of Acemoglu and Johnson’s recent book, Power and Progress, a book that I myself liked very much. Before letting rip, Noah says nice things about Acemoglu and Johnson, and I’ll do the same here for him. There are a lot of people on the left who detest Noah, but I know him to be a genuinely decent person. What he says of Acemoglu and Johnson is what I’ll say about him – his heart is in the right place. Sometimes … he does not go out of his way to make himself lovable to lefties, but as someone who has been known to get involved in stupid and tendentious spats on the Internet myself, I’m in no position to heave rocks at glasshouses. What I do think (and I’ve said more or less this to him in person – my views won’t come as news) is that Noah represents a style of economics that has an overly Panglossian view of power, economics and progress. [click to continue…]

Platforms, Polarization and Democracy

by Henry Farrell on February 21, 2024

So Cosma Shalizi and I have an article (messy pre-print) coming out Real Soon in Communications of the ACM on democracy, polarization and social media. And Nate Matias, who I’m friends with, has forceful objections. I’ve promised him a response – which is below – but am doing it as a blogpost, since I think that the disagreement could be turned into something more broadly useful.

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If you’ve studied game theory, you’ve probably come across the mixed-motive coordination game, a simple one-shot game in which two representative actors have to figure out how to coordinate so as to find a mutually beneficial equilibrium – but have different interests over which equilibrium they choose. And if you studied it a couple of decades ago, you very likely have heard it referred to as “the battle of the sexes,” a term that has fallen out of common usage, for obvious reasons. But when I read Tyler Cowen’s short piece on the actual historical struggle between women and men for recognition, I was immediately was reminded of Jack Knight’s argument, based on mixed-motive coordination games, for why power is more important to the emergence of social rules than most economists think. [click to continue…]

Coasean, Schmoasean

by Henry Farrell on December 10, 2023

Back in the day, there used to be a lot more arguments across blogs. Perhaps we’ll see more of it happening again as Twitter continues its collapse into a dwarf star composed of degenerate matter.  To get things started, this seems to me to be a quite wrongheaded claim by Tyler Cowen.


In a deal months in the making, the University of Wisconsin System has agreed to “reimagine” its diversity efforts, restructuring dozens of staff into positions serving all students and freezing the total number of diversity positions for the next three years.

In exchange, universities would receive $800 million for employee pay raises and some building projects, including a new engineering building for UW-Madison.

“This is an evolution, and this is a change moving forward,” UW System President Jay Rothman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “But it does not in any way deviate from our core values of diversity (and) inclusion.”

Here is the full story, via HB, it is rare that the real world is actually so Coasean.

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CT Seminar: The Political Ideologies of Silicon Valley

by Henry Farrell on November 29, 2023

Back in April, Johns Hopkins’ Center for Economy and Society and Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences held a workshop on the political ideologies of Silicon Valley. It was a great event, in large part because it brought together a somewhat disconnected community. People had been thinking about Silicon Valley in history, in sociology, in cultural studies and political science among other disciplines. They had read across disciplines out of necessity, to keep up with the ideas – but they often hadn’t had a chance to meet the people they were reading. So this gave them an opportunity to talk. And as an unanticipated by-product of the meeting, we invited people who attended the meeting, and a couple of others, to write short pieces about their understanding of the ideology or ideologies of Silicon Valley.

If you want to read the seminar as a PDF, it is available here. If you want to remix it (it is made available under a a CC BY-NC 4.0 DEED AttributionNonCommercial 4.0 International License ), then click here to download the .tex file. If you want to link to the entire seminar, it’s all at you want to read the individual posts online, you can find them all below.

The participants in the seminar are as follows:

What OpenAI shares with Scientology

by Henry Farrell on November 21, 2023

When Sam Altman was ousted as CEO of OpenAI, some hinted that lurid depravities lay behind his downfall. Surely, OpenAI’s board wouldn’t have toppled him if there weren’t some sordid story about to hit the headlines? But the reporting all seems to be saying that it was God, not Sex, that lay behind Altman’s downfall. And Money, that third great driver of human behavior, seems to have driven his attempted return and his new job at Microsoft, which is OpenAI’s biggest investor by far. [click to continue…]

The Religion of the Engineers; and Hayek Its True Prophet

by Henry Farrell on November 13, 2023

Marc Andreessen’s recent “tech optimist manifesto” is one of the most significant statements of Silicon Valley ideology. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s actually less a political manifesto than an apostolic credo for the Religion of Progress. The words “we believe” appear no less than 113 times in the text, not counting synonyms.

The core precept of this secular religion is faith in technology. From Andreessen’s opening section: “We believe growth is progress … the only perpetual source of growth is technology … this is why we are not still living in mud huts … this is why our descendents [sic] will live in the stars.” [click to continue…]

In order of relative clout. I’ve been meaning to do some version of this for years …

Last September, Abe Newman, Jeremy Wallace and I had a piece in Foreign Affairs’ 100th anniversary issue. I can’t speak for my co-authors’ motivations, but my own reason for writing was vexation that someone on the Internet was wrong. In this case, it was Yuval Harari. His piece has been warping debate since 2018, and I have been grumpy about it for nearly as long. But also in fairness to Harari, he was usefully wrong – I’ve assigned this piece regularly to students, because it wraps up a bunch of common misperceptions in a neatly bundled package, ready to be untied and dissected. [click to continue…]

Debt: 4,102 days later

by Henry Farrell on July 8, 2023

As Chris suggests, one of the most memorable disasters at Crooked Timber was the seminar on David Graeber’s book, Debt. Timothy Burke described it at the time as conveying:

that feeling of grad school as Hobbesean nightmare, of small arguments quickly and casually intensified into thermonuclear exchanges, losing all potentially meaningful disagreements along the way.

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Shoggoths amongst us

by Henry Farrell on July 3, 2023

Picture of the shoggoth meme

It’s over a week since the Economist put up my and Cosma Shalizi’s piece on shoggoths and machine learning, so I think it’s fair game to provide an extended remix of the argument (which also repurposes some of the longer essay that the Economist article boiled down). [click to continue…]

The Correct Way to Argue with Richard Hanania

by Henry Farrell on June 28, 2023

Attention conservation notice 1 – a long read about a simple idea. When reading trolls, focus on the anodyne-seeming starting assumptions rather than the obnoxious conclusions.

Attention conservation notice 2 – This is also available via my Substack newsletter, Programmable Mutter. I’ll still be writing on CT, but I have a book with Abe Newman coming out in a few months, so that there will be a lot of self-promotion and stuff that doesn’t fit as well with the CT ethos. And do pre-order the book, Underground Empire: How America Weaponized the World Economy, if you think it sounds good! We’ve gotten some great blurbs from early readers including Kim Stanley Robinson, Francis Spufford, Margaret O’Mara, Steven Berlin Johnson, Helen Thompson, Chris Miller, and my mother (the last is particularly glowing, but sadly not likely to appear on the back). Available at and Amazon.

I’ve often had occasion to turn to Daniel Davies’ classic advice on “the correct way to argue with Milton Friedman” over the two decades since I’ve read it. The best white hat hacker is a reformed black hat hacker, and Dan (dsquared) knows both the offense and defense sides of trolling.

Dan (back in 2004!):

I’m pretty sure that it was JK Galbraith (with an outside chance that it was Bhagwati) who noted that there is one and only one successful tactic to use, should you happen to get into an argument with Milton Friedman about economics. That is, you listen out for the words “Let us assume” or “Let’s suppose” and immediately jump in and say “No, let’s not assume that”. The point being that if you give away the starting assumptions, Friedman’s reasoning will almost always carry you away to the conclusion he wants to reach with no further opportunities to object, but that if you examine the assumptions carefully, there’s usually one of them which provides the function of a great big rug under which all the points you might want to make have been pre-swept. A few CT mates appear to be floundering badly over this Law & Economics post at Marginal Revolution on the subject of why it’s a bad idea to have minimum standards for rented accommodation. (Atrios is doing a bit better). So I thought I’d use it as an object lesson in applying the Milton Friedman technique.

In the same friendly spirit, I’ll note that Jonathan Katz flounders a bit in his rebuttal of Richard Hanania. None of this is to blame Katz – Hanania is not only building on his knowledge of social science (he has a Ph.D.), but some truly formidable trolling techniques. Years ago, I upset Jonathan Chait by suggesting he was a highly talented troll of the second magnitude, if a bit crude in technique. Hanania is at an altogether different level. He’s not blessed with Friedman’s benign avuncularity, but he is as close to masterclass level as we are likely to get in this fallen world. [click to continue…]

Disinformation and the Intercept

by Henry Farrell on June 8, 2023

There’s a backstory behind this Washington Post story on Republican persecution of academics, and it’s one that doesn’t make the Intercept look good.

Jordan’s colleagues and staffers met Tuesday on Capitol Hill with a frequent target of right-wing activists, University of Washington professor Kate Starbird, two weeks after they interviewed Clemson University professors who also track online propaganda, according to people familiar with the events. Last week, Jordan (Ohio) threatened legal action against Stanford University, home to the Stanford Internet Observatory, for not complying fully with his records requests. … The push caps years of pressure from conservative activists who have harangued such academics online and in person and filed open-records requests to obtain the correspondence of those working at public universities. The researchers who have been targeted study the online spread of disinformation, including falsehoods that have been accelerated by former president and candidate Donald Trump and other Republican politicians. … Last month, the founder of the conspiracy-theory-prone outlet the Gateway Pundit and others sued Starbird and Stanford academics Alex Stamos and Renée DiResta, alleging that they are part of a “government-private censorship consortium” that tramples on free speech. …
“Whether directly or indirectly, a government-approved or-facilitated censorship regime is a grave threat to the First Amendment and American civil liberties,” Jordan wrote.

The claim that these academics are part of a “government-approved or-facilitated censorship regime” is complete bullshit. But it is bullshit that was popularized by a grossly inaccurate story at the Intercept, which purported to discover a secret collaboration between academics and DHS to censor the American right wing. [click to continue…]

In the Zone: Quinn Slobodian’s Crack-Up Capitalism

by Henry Farrell on June 1, 2023

Quinn Slobodian’s new book, Crack-Up Capitalism is an original and striking analysis of a weird apparent disjuncture. Libertarians and classical liberals famously claim to be opposed to state power. So why do some of them resort to it so readily?

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