The Sunday Long Read Podcast

Q&A: Three Years Later, WaitButWhy writer Tim Urban Is Still Responding to the Chaos of 2016

We all reacted to 2016 in our own way. Tim Urban is the founder of Wait But Why and the author of viral explainers on topics ranging from procrastination and the AI revolution to romantic relationships – plus, probably our favorite on the Fermi paradox. His reaction to 2016 was to spend three years researching “The Story of Us”. Literally, that’s what his most recent series is called. It’s a deep dive into modern psychology, society and politics. With over 100,000 words now written, he joined the Sunday Long Read podcast last week to talk about his website’s history and the future of everything.

This transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity. Click here to listen to the podcast. Subscribe today to hear more great conversations!

JF: Thank you for joining us. And before we get into anything, you know, too crazy, why don’t we start with “We But Why’s” origin story? How did this website get started?

TU: Before “We But Why”, there was a very not well-known blog called “Underneath the Turban”, which I wrote for six years from 2005 to 2011. I did it is as very much a side project, but I really liked it. And I thought, like, you know, maybe if I went full time writing it would be something I wouldn’t, you know, I wouldn’t get bored of. I would maybe just actually have a really good time writing a lot more. And so that that was in my head. And then, separately, I was at the time working on a business that I’d started with an old friend named Andrew Finn. It was like a test prep business for students who want to go to college in the US. An online test prep. So that was what we were working on. And I was kind of going crazy, not doing one of my creative side projects full time, I had spent 10 years doing a lot of things. At the same time, none of them particularly well, because I wasn’t putting enough time into any one thing. I talked to Andrew about this, and we kind of came up with the idea to do a full-time blog where I would just go write all the time. And so that was the kind of the beginning it really didn’t have much of a plan other than that. I just didn’t really know what I was going to be writing just wanted to, you know…I had a lot of various things I wanted to write about and just kind of started from there.

JF: Did you give yourself six months to a year and see what happens or were you just like, this is what I’m going to do? 

TU: Well I procrastinated for a full year once the idea happened on actually publishing the first post. For a few months I’m kind of thinking okay, that’s a good plan, then I’ll do that at some point. And then, eventually, I actually went to Easter Island for a month to force myself to do this. I just tried to pick like the most isolated possible place and I went there with the goal of like has to be named and design and have the URL and I have to have everything else set up. I have to write the first few posts and then I’ll start publishing when I get back and so I did mostly did that. I still came back and took another few months to finish everything. Trying to like figure out how to get like a Facebook Share button on the site…to like, learn how to do the most basic HTML coding, which I had never done. It wasn’t a good test for a procrastinator because there was a lot of like icky little things I wanted to like do and get right for you know, things like SEO that was trying to figure out so anyway. it took a while, but then, in the summer of 2013 finally published the first post.

JF: Was the name for Wait But Why conceived among the Moai on Easter Island?

TU: I think so I think I had a huge list that I made there. And mostly I was on GoDaddy for eight hours typing in anything I could think of, dot com, to see what was available and not much is. And most of the things that are are available for a reason because they’re really dumb names so I had like a huge list of like really quite bad names. and “Wait But Why” kind of stuck out as one I liked that was also available. But you know, I sent it over to Andrew and my girlfriend and everyone seemed to agree it seemed like the best option so that was that. And now I’ve all these explanations for why it’s called that you know as you know, of course because it’s a reminder to you know, pause and question things and all but actually, it’s like it just was available and I didn’t really know what it meant, but I kind of liked it. So that’s how that got going.

JF: The perfect backstory. And so you started out your writing weekly right at the beginning and for some period of time.

TU: Actually twice a week. The initial tagline was a new post every Monday and Thursday, which I held to it for about five weeks. And so the posts were obviously very short. Some of them were written in Easter Island. And then, I wrote a post that kind of went the most viral so far. And I thought, well, this one actually I said a week on because I had taken one day off in order to finish it. I thought, you know, maybe there’s some connection there between the post that did the best and the one I spent the most time on. So maybe I’ll just do every week and I went to a new post every Tuesday, which, that stuck for almost a year. So yeah, that then it was a weekly thing.

JF: Was it a matter of success that allowed you to post less often?

TU: Yeah, I mean, it was a combo of the fact that some early readers had come in which gave me a little bit more, you know, I felt a little more relaxed about like, okay, I can, I probably can get away with just one thing a week and still have readers. Especially because…because the thing is, you know, at the time, BuzzFeed was just blowing up and sites like Upworthy. And, you know, and I wasn’t going to out quantity any of those sites. They had 100 things going up a day…. so the only game I was in is trying to out quality. You know, it’s like the one thing I could beat them at. So, I double down on that and thought, you know, what if I do one a week. But it’s better. It’s just a good notch better than the posts I would do if I did twice a week. That’s a good trade here. I think it was the right trade at the time. 

JF: The website is a little over six years old, right? It’s been like three or four, kind of internet-publishing life cycles in time that you mentioned: the push for headlines that people will click, and a million stories every hour and all that. What was your strategy? Were you concerned about creating so people would keep coming back?

TU: I wasn’t concerned about not having.. I just knew it wasn’t going to be the kind of site people are just like…they go on a refresh and they come back after lunch and they refresh again.  The more things you know, it wasn’t going to be that site ever for anyone. No matter what I did, because it was unless we decided to go a whole different route and hire a bunch of writers and actually try to you know, quantity or at least compete with those companies. 

And so instead, I wanted to….I know out there it’s a big world on the internet is there’s literally billions of people…If you take a sample of 1000 random people on earth, one person in that thousand is the one who would like my posts the most. I mean, I’ve 1001 of them is going to like, absolutely love what I’m doing. I don’t know, I don’t know how many more than one but at least one will probably super like it right? Because you basically can find one person that likes anything that’s reasonably high quality. There’s one person that happens to be obsessed with it…

That one in every thousand that happens to like my stuff the most is 7 million people on earth, that’s a 7 million person potential audience of people who happen to be super… they click perfectly well with my sense of humor and my interests and style and whatever. And so that was kind of the thinking was like, I don’t have to be broadly appealing, I have to crush it for someone. And so I always thought of myself as the target audience. I said, Look, you know, I know exactly what I would like if I’m the one person in the thousand…I know the things that I probably like more than any other person in that thousand. And I’m going to try to write those things because I know is that if I would feel that way and some other people too. So, I tried to pick topics that I would like to read about and, and, you know, be visual about that style or whatever and put fun facts and that might bore a lot of people. 

But…I just kind of went down that line of thinking… of just using myself as the focus group basically. And so there’s certain things that I like, more than any of my friends, like, I find something interesting, I’ll tell it to everyone in my life…some of them would like it more than others, but I would be the most interested in this thing. And that’s the cool thing about again, the internet is you actually can find the exact people who happened to be that person in their group of friends again and again. So, yeah, it’s just by publishing, even once a week, if you can collect those people, they’re so into it, that they will not just…read the post. But they’ll subscribe to your newsletter and…let you contact that mill. They’ll follow you on social media, and they’ll share your stuff and they’ll become evangelists for the site. And so I just, that was it. It was just… picturing that audience of people and writing to them. And figuring that if they found that they would like it enough that once a week would be plenty for them to, you know, say, ‘Oh no, I sure want to read everything else from this site…

JF: I don’t know if it feels this way to you, but from my perspective, one of the things that makes Wait But Why unique was how successful it was so quickly.  And that’s a great thing. But I’m curious, you know, what kind of burden that (it) put on you as you’re figuring it out yourself and whether there’s, you know, issues of perfectionism along the way?

TU: Yeah…because on that old blog, I’d actually written 300 blog posts, they were much shorter, but I was writing, you know, once or twice a week for six years. So I kind of found a voice that I was comfortable with, and I figured out you know, on that towards the end of my time running that blog, I like drawing stick figure drawings to, like supplement the writing. And so the heads on that worked out but yes… 

I’m already kind of a perfectionist. I think like anyone who procrastinates it’s there’s something going on maybe multiple things going on it’s very few people are just plain lazy and they just would rather do this than worked at me there’s something psychological usually going on if it’s a serious thing. And for me, one of the things that leads into it is, is perfectionism is this kind of compulsive…

There’s the seven year old version of me in me still who was like, would have like a little internal fit if like, he couldn’t do things like the perfect way he wanted to, was like, you know, you know, who just would get really satisfied by doing something perfect, and that that kid is somewhere still in making a fuss and so yeah, when you have a bigger audience, yeah, the stakes feel higher. And you the beginning you know, you just feel like hey, let’s just like I’m just going to write some things throw them on the internet. Also there was anonymous for a while after the, you know, the kind of the second post that went viral and like, you know, quite viral. I said, Okay, I’m not going to be anonymous because I’m getting requests to do interviews. And it’s just too complicated. And I just want to connect to this readership.

There’s pros and cons to being anonymous and to not. And if you’re anonymous, it’s cool in some way because the mystery is interesting. It makes people very intrigued and no one can put you it’s hard, much harder to put you in a box of any kind. People can’t make assumptions. And you don’t have to worry about you know, your reputation. You just can do what you actually want. But I thought that that, that what you lose is that there’s a distance between you and readers. And if you can just be an open person, they can also hear you in interviews, you can, they can know about your life a little bit and you can talk to them about you can just relate, you know, you can relate your experience as a human that I thought was more valuable than the kind of mystery and intrigue of and kind of protection of being anonymous. So, stop being anonymous. And so now that that’s a little extra pressure, you know, it’s like, okay, you know, this is actually my name. I’m before before when when I was anonymous, some people would send us I would get someone would email me or one of the posts that you’d like this and I thought that was hilarious. Without knowing that it was me, so it was fun, but I am. But yeah, now it’s like it’s out there. So yeah, the perfectionism ramps up and also there’s a natural kind of tendency, I think with this kind of thing, too. If you’re going up on some metric, whether it’s the posts are getting funnier or longer or better researched, or whatever the metric is for any site, I think you want to outdo yourself. And so I would always feel like the posts I wrote a month ago are aren’t good enough. And you know, I now you know, if I did something new that really went well, well, that’s the new bar that I want to hit every time. So that also can get to a weird place where you start just like every for every post, it’s just it’s like epic dread of having to do this thing that you think is great and supposed to just being like, Hey, I’m going to write a blog post and some of them will be good and some will be bad. So yeah, definitely added something.

JF: The last question I want to ask about the evolution of the businesses is the business. So you mentioned Andrew a little bit, your Patreon page, and the hesitancy you guys had to ask readers for money, but has there been evolution there in terms of supporting an independent site like this? Especially over, as I said, various forms of the internet as we’ve seen it.

TU: Yeah. So originally, Andrew is going to be like the business side of this. We had this other company, and we still have this other company. And he was the main job was being the CEO of that company and continuing to grow that company. And it has a lot in the last, you know, since I started wait for why he’s been he’s been busy doing that. So he was a part time network on the business side of this blog. And then I started to drive him crazy because I wouldn’t want to do anything like marketing to the email list or ads, I was very anal about not like doing anything that wasn’t within like the perfect little universe of kind of creative world that I wanted it to be. And every time he would have an idea, I would just say what later and so eventually, I think you kind of checked out with that. mission because he wasn’t really letting him do his job in any any reasonable way. So we we didn’t have a business side for a while. And we were able to, you know, get away with that because we had this other company that could fund this project early on, we couldn’t go on forever wasn’t fair to the employee, the other company if that if we didn’t pay that company back and we had we had to, you know, figure something out.

We did have ads for a little while. They were fine. But we replaced that with a store with just simple products like t-shirts and posters with the images from the site on them and, and that day, it was about the same revenue as the ads were bringing, and so that that was a lot better. It felt a lot less annoying to me to have a store than ads and and then yeah, there was, there was stuff like Patreon that I heard about, but both of us were kind of Auntie that idea for a while it felt just we just did not want to ask anyone for money. We just you know, if you wanted to buy something from the store for your own selfish reasons, or because you really want to support the site great, but like, Patreon is a directly saying like, you know, can you support the site and we’re not getting anything in return. And it just seemed icky. 

And then my friend Philip, who runs the site Kurzgesagt (k-u-r-z, gesagt) on YouTube. So, a German name but it’s the best site ever. And he started the site around that same exact time before I started, he reached out a couple months and we collaborated on one project. And he became a good friend and his site is currently I think, like the seventh highest Patreon patronage that exists there. They’re like, hugely popular now. And he was persuading me for a while. You gotta do this, just trust me. It won’t feel bad. Readers have all this goodwill towards the site that you’ve never asked for anything like people will be happy to go. And I said, Okay, okay, I’ll try it. So I put up a little video into Patreon. And yeah, he was right. Like, there was just a lot of people again, you think it’s about this person, it’s one in 100 of the people who read the site or happened to be the people who like supporting, you know, like donating to two things they like on the internet. And so that added up to enough people where it’s a monthly donation that that turned into a really nice, you know, steady, reliable revenue stream because you’re not going to lose all your patrons in one day. It doesn’t happen like that. You’ll lose some every month and gain some every month and it becomes this pretty stable income that actually allowed us to hire someone in addition to paying my salary so and and and funding our, you know, hosting, there’s a lot of little costs for the bloggers hosting. 

There’s these Facebook ads because Facebook wouldn’t let you reach your own readers, your own followers without paying. And there’s glitches on the site inevitably and other things. And so and then it all, you know, covered that an employee. So we hired Alicia, who’s still working with us. She’s been here for almost four years. And a huge part of the site now. So yeah, it’s been that, that that turned out to be a really good model for us. And then and then we try to supplement it with other things where we can, sometimes they’ll be, someone will request me as a speaker and that that you know, we use that to fund Wait, but why and there’s there’s little things here and there that all cobbled together to support the site just fine. And it’s great. It means that there’s a long runway here, we can do this for a long time and we don’t have to worry about you know, doing things that are that can make more money, you can just focus on what’s creatively most kind of exciting. Yeah, absolutely. 

JF: How, if at all, does the fact that you guys are using Patreon affect the stories you write? 

TU: It doesn’t affect it at all, because the cool thing about Patreon is, you know, it the only people who do it are already hugely into what you’re doing. It’s the people who were really supportive of exactly what you’re doing and what I find what they want is things I’m making out. And I find what they want is just for me to do a lot of writing exactly the way that I’ve been doing it. And so it’s, it’s really, I don’t feel any pressure from Patreon other than my own guilt if I’m not working hard enough, which is great. It’s it just you know, I Will never just take like a month off between projects and just relax and think about what I want to do next. I just feel like that that’s, you know, that’s not it, when you get it when you’re doing Patreon monthly, it’s like, I want to be doing something, you know, all the time. And it’s, you know, it’ll always be my full time job as long as as long as there’s Patreon so it’s good. It just I just think it’s it helps me be disciplined.

JF: So let’s talk about that work a little bit. You mentioned that internal pressure to outdo yourself, and I think it’s fair to say that you’ve set a new bar with this most recent story. When did that project start for you in your mind?

TU: Truly It started when I was in college… Dealing with and just being annoyed with the political culture at the college…I think since then there’s been a lingering feeling…I’ve had a lot of confusing feelings when it comes to politics. One is just typical partisanship left wing partisanship. I spent the 2000s watching The Daily Show laughing at George Bush along with a lot of other people I know. And then there was also like a general kind of irritants with the left that I think started in college and kind of built and then there was also separately this insecurity about my own political beliefs and always feeling like I didn’t actually know very much. I just was saying what I was supposed to say. I didn’t understand how other people had such strong viewpoints about these issues, like where did they do the research on this stuff? When did they learn so much? Or are they kind of full of shit too?

I think these were all kind of kicking around my head and then the last few years happened …just across the board things going crazy. It was finally as a blogger, there was the feeling that this was you know, not religion, not criticizing the U.S. There was all these things. None of those were scary to me as a blogger. I would write about personal things. I would write about me I wasn’t even married I’d write about married You know, there’s a lot of things I just like I was pretty fearless. I would take on AI without having ever been an expert on that before and this was the one topic where I felt like a pressure from the world to not write about this. That this would be just an overall negative right about you know, not even talking about your specific political issues you know, I wanted to write it. I thought it’d be really interesting to write a post on Israel-Palestine. A really interesting thing to write a post on abortion like these are just interesting topics. I think the final straw was all this stuff with campus assault and rape, and it’s this like, really, really hard topic. I still don’t know what the solution is for something really complicated and there’s a spectrum there and where… lines be drawn and, and I was thinking about writing something. I talked to a few people who were, you know, just unequivocally like, ‘do not write about that’. Yeah, absolutely. That’s the worst thing you could write about. And I’m thinking, what does it hit me that every other blogger out there who is considering writing about this especially everyone who’s considering writing about it in a nuanced way if I were writing about it saying, you know, saying you know, you know, rape culture is awful and men are awful and men need to change and men need to wake up and women need to protect it if I’m just saying just the the most down the middle like safest things you can say about a topic like that, then yeah, those writers are writing but all the people who wanted to say something nuanced and just really get into like, what’s really going on here if they all are going through my thought process, which is just okay, anything else? Let’s move on from that topic and not write about it. Well, what happens that means that now the only things that are being written about that topic are the down the middle Very, you know, very specific, you know, specific society approved or the topic. Sorry viewpoints on it. That’s not good. That’s a real big problem. What other topics are like that what other topics right now? Or is everyone’s scared to write anything nuance to Bob. And that’s a huge problem. And it also kind of made me angry as a blogger. I’m like, you know, I can talk about this stuff at nuance with my friends, I know that most of my readers would resonate with this. It’s not that my readers I knew I know my readers pretty well. And it’s not that they will be outraged or me, they approve, they read they read it, but why? Because they like nuance. They are more nuanced than I am, I read the comments section and they find little crevices of nuance that I didn’t notice. So it wasn’t them. It was it was a small group of people, probably not even people who really read my blog, who I was really scared about, and that was that necessitated me. quite angry. I was like, what? Why are those people bullying me into not writing about something that I want to write about my readers want me to write whatever I’m interested in? So who are these people? And why are they? What’s their problem? And that kind of started me on a long road. That was so that was now that this now is like three years ago, middle of 2016 somewhere. And I realized that the, you know, I’d rather than get into any one topic, whether it’s abortion or Israel Palestine campus assault or any of the other comp, you know, hot political topics, immigration, you know, whatever they are, rather than get into the weeds of any of those because frankly, I’m still the same person who’s insecure about my beliefs. I don’t know what I think about a lot of those. The more I read, the more I developed some viewpoints, but I still always think of it is, you know, …when I hear people arguing about minimum wage. To me, that sounds like people arguing about whether like the new Boeing aircraft to us like that. This, you know, this cylinder engine or that cylinder engine? And I’m like, I don’t know. And if everyone had a strong opinion on that, and it was like, you’re supposed to obviously think this. There’s a lot of pressure to say that, but I was like, I haven’t I don’t know that much about engines. And even if I, you know, researched a decent amount, I still wouldn’t be like, Well, I’m not going to advise Boeing on what to do. They’re like there’s people spent their lives in this topic. So when it comes to something like the minimum wage, and like, how does everyone else have a viewpoint on this? 

…Do you actually, like, look at all of the different studies? Some of them are saying minimum wages should be in a higher minimum wage helps. The poorest people lower minimum wage, some people say, actually, it’s better for the poor people…Where does this conviction come from? So I still feel like that and I said, you know, rather than me spend a ton of time digging into right about one topic, I’d rather write about this bigger thing, which is why I feel scared to write about this. And that that led on a three-year rabbit hole that took me all the way back to our evolutionary psychology and to the concept of liberal values and constitutional democracy. And then the last 30 years leading up to today and the backdrop for these crazy years and then the crazier themselves what’s actually going on out there right now, you know, of course, social media is a part of it and, and it’s been really interesting, torturous, it’s been a giant topic that is just very hard to capture all at once. But it’s important to me to talk about the entire topic because and all the different angles of it because that’s, I think, where the clarity will come from. It’s a lot of people writing short op eds about this, but I think that you kind of need the full picture to fully kind of see the deal here and so that’s what I’m working on at least. So yeah it’s like you said it’s partially published and will soon be published and it’s been it’s great to get it finally out there it’s been really and it’s been it’s great to get it finally out there it’s been really frustrating how long it’s taken and how big a topic it’s been…I miss having written on way but wives I really was, yeah, you know, quiet on there for a long time. So it’s great to be publishing now. 

JF: I look around the US and other parts of the world today and I worry that something is off in the chaos of rapid advances in technology and media, maybe our worst tendencies quietly breaking free. That jumped out to me because as a longtime Wait But Why reader I think one of the consistent messages of your many posts, especially when it comes to technology, is –  this may seem crazy in the short run, but in the long run, this isn’t that big of a deal we’re going to figure this out like we figured everything else out. So I’m curious, you know, what your optimism level has been throughout this three-year research project and maybe just kind of breaking down that that philosophy a little bit? 

TU: There’s kind of two lines of thought with any thing that seems scary. One is well look at the past and this could go for people being scared of for example, ai technology they can say look at the past, everyone was scared of the know the Luddites were scared of the loom. And people were scared of this the Industrial Revolution and then people were scared of electricity. People thought that cars were super scary for a while. Then in England…there had to be someone walking in front of the car waving a flag to clear the way it was people thought this was a really dangerous thing, which you know, of course it has killed a lot of people in car accidents. When you invent the car. You also invent the car accident. I forget where I heard that quote. But you know, but we wouldn’t we don’t want to get rid of all cars, planes, I’m sure people were scared of obviously, people were scared of computers. And then they’re all these horror stories about, you know, of course, nukes, which still are scary, but the consistent theme is not that there is damage these things do cause harm. But the consistent theme is that people…once they have these things, no one wants to go back to them. Or very few people. 

Which is a sign to me that’s a litmus test. You know, there’s, that’s not always true. If you’re a Jew in Germany in 1935. And someone says, Would you like to go back to 1915? And they’d say, yes, probably. That’s rare, usually, in least for like an American in our history. Almost no one wants to go back and undo technology. We don’t want to the pre internet world, the pre mobile phone world, the pre TV and an airplane and car accident car world even though these things have problems, so that line of thinking would make you say, the AI is another one of these things, everyone’s scared. Here we go again. Everyone’s scared, everyone’s creating horror stories. And then it’ll be here and the end, it’ll be incredibly powerful. It’ll be good and bad, but on the balance, much better than it is bad and no one will want to go back to the world where humans are doing all of these menial things when AI hasn’t cured cancer and figured out poverty and you’re good at climate change and helped us live you know, way longer if not, you know, as long as we want we’re getting to choose when you die and these are the crazy things that I could do. No one would ever want to go back to before that, okay, that’s one line of thought. 

The other line of thought here is that you know what, like, if it’s a civilization somewhere in the universe is getting more and more technology and they’re getting better and better with their technology, and at some point, they create a technology that actually does them in. They would have that thought they would think well, so far, it’s always been fun. So they would get this arrogance about it, they would get comfortable with it. And maybe that’s why they would keep going until they eventually this what Nick Bostrom calls it, like each technology is pulling out a marble out of an urn, and one of them is like the black ball. And that’s that that’s the one that does you. If your whole record is, well, we haven’t picked the black ball yet, you’re going to start to maybe feel like that’s a rule where there is there. All of these marbles are fine. marbles in general are fine. When if there is a black ball, yeah, then it’s going to hit you and you’re not going to see it coming. So the question is, is something like AI? Like, is it a potential black ball? Or is it another one of these and you know that it’s hard to know. So I would say this Same thing goes for a lot of the social patterns I see right now. So you’ve got all of these you’ve got this what I see as a uh, I think we ebb and flow in kind of grown up in this I think first of all every human ebbs and flows and grown up in this you know, you know, you’re having even just looking at your parents, there’s some things your parents are so wise about, you know, that they’re just wise you respect them for it. And there’s other things where you feel like you have to raise them. It’s were inconsistent in our grown up ness. And even on a good day, you know, you just are being you’re just being a wiser person and on a bad day, you’re kind of you’re doing stuff you end up regretting. Well, I think society is the same way I think we ebb and  flow. I think that the day after 911 in New York City, you know, the week after and everyone is strangers are hugging strangers, everyone is helping each other. And it just feels like that wasn’t because everyone feels like being nice. 

As much as there was a perspective suddenly everyone had a delusion was Blast in this room was splashed in the face their delusion was gone for a second and all and you think about is like, I love these people. We’re all in this together. You’re another human . Give me a hug basically. And I feel like it was wisdom there was there wasn’t a delusion there. I think people were seeing reality for a second and just remind remembering that that like, we’re all a bunch of basically like you’re just a bunch of atoms who happened to have consciousness and invest space and time these other people happen to be the same thing as you in the same time in the same exact place. It’s this crazy thing that they’re here also. And that the hate spending on hating other other versions of is so silly. It doesn’t make any sense. You should all be in awe of the fact that we’re here and like trying to help each other, you know, do the best we can. Now I’m saying this and I’m not some guru. I forget this like everyone else. It’s just that there’s moments when we’re reminded and we have this wisdom. 

So I think it’s society itself goes up and down where, you know, I think this this before World War One. I wasn’t around but from what I’ve heard about it, it was probably a time in Europe where we had gone down we had gone we had started to the country’s had the nationalism gotten out of control and people had forgotten about the costs of war and and you ended up in this awful it spiral downward, you know until something snapped and it exploded and you know, 50 million people die. And in the aftermath and the rubble, there’s probably a, the air is cleared of some delusion for a while and there was probably I would imagine that, you know, the 20s were period of wisdom, the 50s after World War Two, I imagine there was some level of coming together in a way, you know, at least in some parts of society. So I don’t know, those are just my guesses, but to me right now we’re spiraling down. We’re starting towards it started again. You know, obviously 3040 years ago, politically it started to get more contentious and I million specific reasons for that. But there’s a lot of reasons we haven’t had a common enemy in a long time. In the US there hasn’t been a Hitler you know, in a long time or even a Soviet Union. 

There are people moving into more politically uniform neighborhoods now the people move more when people start moving, that they have that preference to move into their neighborhoods with people like them then suddenly that there’s this great interactive on the site and case. Nicky Case’s site. I forget the exact .com or whatever, but it’s an amazing interactive about, you know, when you have just a little preference to live with around people that either look like you or think like you, once people are moving a lot that quickly turns into every neighborhood is uniform for lots of complicated reasons, even if people only want that a little bit. So that’s been happening. 

Then you have the media turning from more national media to more tribal specific party media. You’ve got social media, of course riling up everyone’s childish side. And that’s like an epidemic, it spreads and then everyone’s acting more childish, and then you know, and then that begets more of that at. So there’s many more reasons and you end up with a downward trajectory and I think it spans the West I think. I don’t know what’s going on in Japan or wherever but in Europe, I feel like it’s a similar trajectory is going on, probably for similar reasons. And you end up going down to a point where now I think about Okay, again, in the past we’ve done this. The 1890s were hideously politically polarized time in the US we had the Civil War, you know, whatever is happening now we’re not we’re we’re physical war with each other. And then you had things like, you know, World War One and two…Those things were awful. But the big lesson is, well, we survived. 

You know, it’s sometimes almost like someone’s that needs to happen, you know, this is what this is the pattern and we go down and if something bad happens, and then we come back. And the question is, is that like that? Or is this time different? If we spiral down now with this level of technology that we’ve got, which is a whole different level, do we not have an outcome that we can survive? You know, and again, I’m talking about point G, just say on this and we’re right now at point D, maybe it would, but but we’ve gone from B to C to D in the last 30 years. And each of those steps feels natural at the time, you know, point G seems unfathomable, but point he doesn’t seem like fathomable anymore from point D You know, man whenever I paint point he is a time where it’s even more polarized. 

There’s there’s, there’s you know, there’s actual talking potential civil war in the US even though it’s not happening and and, you know, I don’t know there’s there’s a lot more violence in the street, you know, things like that that’s point II, maybe we can envision that now in a way we couldn’t when we were back on point B or C. But you can’t really pick your point F yet and once you’re on point E, and the point after. It’s crazy, before you know it worked you’re on G. which is a place where with today’s technology, we end up into some kind of that super war or less awful than that we just don’t have our wits about us at a time when we’re creating stuff like, like super intelligent AI, and, you know, trying to figure out the genetic engineering plan here, and brain machine interfaces and all these other crazy you know, paradigm shifting technologies that can be really really good or really, really bad. And we we need to have our wits about us. We’re like a lab technician creating this powerful thing. And we’re getting drunker as we’re doing it we’re keep drinking we’re getting we’re getting we’re getting more childish we’re getting less clarity right now and and because of this and that’s an action A really awful trend. So going back to your that’s what I was talking about in that quote you said, which is that, you know, I look at the technology that’s that’s both scaring people and exciting people and bringing kind of, and maybe some sometimes making people just fog up with excitement. So they’re not thinking that hard about it. But also there’s technology like social media that has unintended and then tended, unanticipated consequences. We haven’t done this before. We can’t look back and say, Oh, well, in the 1300s, when social media started back in that time, you know, we saw that, you know, that was, there was the Wild West. And then we saw how that panned out. Well, this is the different kind of wild west on the internet right now. And we’ve never done it before. We have no idea this is something that and if this happens a lot throughout the universe, talking about the ferry paradox and different civilizations. We don’t know if this is a trademark moment when everything goes to shit, or whether this is a normal bump in the road. And so it’s a trademark moment when everything goes to shit. We don’t know that and we’re going to we’re not going to see it probably to look too late unless we have like, immense clarity, and immense courage to stand up to some of the people that are bringing, helping to bring the trajectory down. And, and so that’s, you know, I think we need those kind of two things like, kind of clarity right now and courage. And that’s hard. So that’s part of why I’m writing this. I’m trying to like help at least nudge. I’ve tried it, you know, I’ve spent three years building my own clarity and and trying to, you know, now do that courage part and actually put it out there and help. At least, my readers just see this story the way I’m seeing it, and see if they agree, and if they agree, then maybe they can also be getting out there and spreading this, this idea that that like, This is not the time to be politically polarizing more and more. It’s an awful, awful timing to be hating each other more and we need to be focusing on it reminds me of Game of Thrones. It’s Like we’re all fighting each other and like forgetting about the White Walkers. And it’s like I’m trying to write a post about the White Walkers basically. And how how fighting each other makes absolutely no sense right now. And it doesn’t make sense anyway, it’s a very primitive impulse, right doesn’t actually map on to society.

JF: I think one of the antagonists of the story, I suppose, is this tendency towards echo chambers, which you outlined in your most recent post as of this recording. I’m curious if that was something that you identified early on. And I’m also curious for you personally, if you’ve, you know, recognize maybe echo chambers you didn’t previously see yourself as being part of this during your research.

TU: We all you know, know the term echo chamber but one of the things that kind of hit me a while writing this, this post is that I can think of echo chamber as a community of some kind that is an echo chamber, meaning they all are saying the same thing or they’re all not allowed to say anything other than the same thing. I’m really happy that it’s better. It’s more accurate to say it’s an intellectual culture. And any group of people, you know, a couple of your friends, a church community, a classroom, and then all the way up to a whole, a whole political party or whole movement or a whole country or whatever. Any of those Can, can, can have an echo chamber culture, when it comes to certain topics. Some have a general echo chamber culture where it’s like, disagreeing is not cool. And disagreeing seems rudeness. It’s seen as the same as rudeness. And so you know, everyone agrees all the time. There’s friend groups like that, where if you go to a movie and someone likes it, you know, everyone’s saying, Oh, yeah, yeah, me too. You know, everyone’s trying to figure out what everyone else thinks they can say the right thing. That’s general echo chamber culture. Other times you can have a culture that’s not like that. I call it an idea lab culture, IDEA Lab, which is the opposite. It’s like people use ideas as experiments like little machines and they kick each other’s ideas and they think with them and they play with them, trying to make them better. So no one gets offended when someone disagrees with them. It’s seen as a virtue it’s seen as if you’re disagreeing with someone, it is a it is interesting, and it’s helping everyone get smarter. And it’s interesting (what) people do is they of course, they disagree all the time. So I think some things are entertainment culture in general, and some are actually pretty good idealize. But when it comes to a certain topic, whether it’s religion, or whether it’s something in politics, or whether it’s a particularly sensitive issue, or whether it’s the kind of music that’s cool or an apple, it that that converts the community convert to an echo chamber on that topic, or no one’s allowed to disagree with that. And I think once you kind of think of it this way, you course you notice echo chambers all over the place. You noticed them in your own life, sometimes, someone’s imposing them on you. Sometimes you’re the one imposing the echo chamber. Actually, people are saying this thing because they know you’ll freak out if they say something different. Everyone is you know, no one is free of this tendency. And again, it makes sense, because in the ancient world, there needs to be ways to glue people together into larger kind of organisms. You know, these tribes that are I think of as almost like an ant colony, like a larger animal that could beat the other large animals, you needed to glue a lot of people together to cooperate and to fight together and to help each other. And Family Ties was a decent way to do that. But a better way to do that is with ideas if you can all have the same sacred God or the same beliefs. We can you know, that can that can be our queen bee that can tie a bunch of people way more than family ties can together. And that that’s the glue. 

And so we have this tendency to glue around ideas and and the community bonds around agreement itself. That is a real tendency all of us have, even though it doesn’t make any sense today, it’s way more interesting to bond around common values and disagree with each other on ideas. Because no one is that right? We all get a little bit less wrong doing that. But it’s like how we had the same tendency I use the example Skittles, we all have the tendency to eat a bunch of candy. And part of our brain knows that makes no sense in today’s world, but back then, when we evolved, yeah, it made sense to eat dense, calorie rich food whenever you could find it. So it’s an error. It’s a glitch today. And I would say the same thing. These echo chambers are a glitch today. They’re a mistake that is making our society worse, that makes our communities worse, that makes our brains worse. But if we don’t, and this is again, coming back to if we see it, if we have clarity, we see this culture when it’s happening, and encourage to actually stand up and try to buck that culture. We can change it. If you have those two things, then we can fix things. But most of us are not very conscious of this. I certainly wasn’t before writing this. I wasn’t thinking about it nearly as hard. So yeah, I think it’s something to look out for forever.

JF:  I want to ask you in terms of takeaways, and also looking forward, you wrote a little bit about about 2016 and 2016 in terms of the debates and the results. Do you have plans in 2022 to cover or to write about the topics and discussions that should arise during the election?

TU: So I don’t plan anytime soon to actually get into the weeds of actual politics and start saying, Here’s why this is the right immigration policy. Here’s why this is the right trade policy. That’s fine. Those are totally doable. Like I if I wrote about AI, there’s no reason I can’t write about trade, I would do the same thing. I would dig it in for a bunch of weeks, I would read about the history of trade, and I’d read about all the implications, and I read a bunch of people on both sides, I start to try to develop either a viewpoint or at least be an explainer on how it works. So those are all possibilities, but I don’t want to I’m not going to come out with anything without that level of research. And I don’t see myself wanting to dig further into politics right now because I’m politics out Hoping to finish this series. And other than making fun of debates, I wrote a mock debate thing after the last one of the town hall 16. That’s and that was fun just because I’ve been making fun of campaigns. It’s fun, but I don’t want to. Yeah, I even if I write about something, you know, like some exciting technology, I then want to do something totally different after I get really sick of it. So, no, I think I will not be weighing in on the debate very much. Yeah. But yeah, but I think I think hopefully that this series can give people tools to think a little clearer about the election. And about just like actually, you know, what about the discussions they’re having about the election, the implications of all that?

JF: Yeah, the other, I think big shift or change while you’ve been away from the internet has been a large tech backlash for 2017, 2018 and especially 2019. Most of all, against monopoly powers and against some of these specific technologies and platforms. And you describe technology as ‘A Monster God’ in the past, which, for better or for worse, I’m curious how you how you’ve taken in the shift and conversation and how it affects your thinking and your writing going forward.

TU: Yeah, I think. I think in some ways…we again go back we have all the time and very little changed. So we can really, really wrap our heads around the world the way it was, and we could all the wisdom could build up, it’s like an accumulation. If six generations 10,000 years ago, in a row, six generations are lived on the same piece of land with the same kind of values. It’s like a trial and error thing where eventually they get really good at, they get really good at living life that way, and go wisdom builds up, which is kind of an accumulation of truth. is wisdom and now the world from two generations ago, you know changes so rapidly like I, my grandmother gives me advice and on the universal things like love and commitment relationships and, and you know, family and whatever she’s the wisest person I know, on things like what I should be doing with my career she didn’t she knows she has absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. And it’s not her fault. She became wise for a world that’s no longer here. If you were advising me about careers in 1942. I should be right on I’m sure. But right now she doesn’t because that’s this weird situation where the world’s changing so fast that wisdom doesn’t have time to build up. That’s not exponentially, going even faster. So it’s 10 years ago, the world was totally different. You know, VCs are trying to scramble to figure out what what the how the world’s changed from two years ago. No clue. Your advice today should be totally different than career advice five or 10 years ago, um, that is crazy. We’re not good at this. Like, we’re actually pretty wrong as people people are wrong generally. 

And the reason that we can get right is because we have enough time for all the wrongness to balance out and so what scares me is you know, something like I looked at like Facebook it’s it’s Facebook is just trying to figure out what the hell they’re building and what it means and what it means in a changing world. And I feel for them I don’t criticize any of those people I think that they did not anticipate to be in the situation and now they’re doing the best they can and and so I does scare me in that I see. I just I just don’t think we’re very good at this rapid when things change this quickly. and tuck you know, something that we don’t have the wisdom to know about tech monopolies yet. The Trust Buster era with you know, you know, Teddy Roosevelt. I don’t know that much about this. But I know that, you know that that took over 100 years in the US to figure out that that was a good thing to do. There’s going to be something if we just stagnated this world for 100 years, that in hundred years, we’d say, oh, here’s the deal with tech, here’s how you have to, you know, break up these companies or not, we don’t know that yet. All we can do is guess. And meanwhile, there’s new companies being built that are exploding upwards. And so we really need to be clear headed and courageous. 

That’s all I can say is just come back to that. It’s like if you if you need to be clear headed, just try to our best to, you know, go over our pay grade and see what’s going on in real time as it’s changing. And then have the courage to say that when you think something because it’s really the status quo has a fear survival instinct doesn’t like to be challenged. There’ll be people for all different reasons that will come out and be mad at you if you challenging the status quo. So you always need courage. In this kind of line of thought. 

JF: Fantastic—courage. That’s a good note to end on. 

TU: Easier said than done. 

 

0 comments on “Q&A: Three Years Later, WaitButWhy writer Tim Urban Is Still Responding to the Chaos of 2016

Leave a Reply