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The Scourge of Austin City
A tremendously vile subculture has arisen in America, and it takes no prisoners.
Ah, where do I begin? I suppose I could jump in at the point of my personal connection, in this passage from my former collaborator and friend, Charles Rosenbauer:
The past few weeks have been a bit busy on my end; writing lots of code, starting a new media project with some cool people, and splitting up with my cofounder over some creative differences (him and I are both still building our hardware, we’re just doing it separately now).
The statement about us is polite, but wrong. That kind of thing is a big problem in my view, and one I’ll get into more later on in this article, but it’s important that I get one thing clear before we go on: this isn’t really about Charles at all, but more to do with the environment and culture he is embracing in Austin City. I am certain that he is far from alone in his kind there, too.
This distinction was one that he never seemed to be able to internalise. I have a lot of disrespect for the kinds of goings on in that city, particularly for the powerful oligarchs which are essentially running the entire show, all the way up to Elon Musk. Unfortunately, he seemed to take that criticism in a personal stride that I never levied it towards him in. I saw him as a capable and intelligent person who was being misled by unscrupulous people, and made it clear I don’t even really blame him for giving this place such a wide breadth. But that doesn’t change the fact that this place is fucked up and he is making a big mistake by rooting himself there, and I want to take this space to explain what I mean by that and why it matters.
The basic reality of how things work in Austin is, everything is controlled by the mob. This mob isn’t of the classic Italian variety, but rather it’s composed of dotcom billionaires like Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Marc Andreesseen, and several others no doubt. Back in early 2022, startup founder Ryan Breslow was singing like a songbird about this reality, until mysteriously all of his tweets on the matter disappeared. The bad press he received is still up though. Like most suckers caught up in this game, Ryan was very naïve about how deep the rabbit hole of power really goes in these kinds of things. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that they wrangled him into place.
I’ve discussed before the foundation of my rejection and disgust for dotcom mobsters on this weblog. They’re essentially useless people on their own merits – we would call them ‘idea guys’ in the fan hacking scene, pejoratively of course – that paper over their incompetence and brazen demerit with truckloads of cash. They don’t deal with people who have a conscience of any kind because at some point it will pose a massive inconvenience to their constructed reality where they are a bigger deal than they really are. And since they’re honestly so incompetent, they really need a good environment to believe in their lie that they are so certainly otherwise. Everybody got a big heaping helping of this when Elon bought Twitter, so I won’t belabour my case with sources about that. If you know, you know.
Of course, that’s all very general. I didn’t just conjure up some ridiculous political position like this for the sake of austerity. (Austerity-driven media and politics makes me tremendously angry, by the way.) No, I had more direct experiences with Austin firsthand, when I spent the entire month of May, 2022 doing a road trip with Charles in my beat-up 2022 Hyundai Sonata, where we toured Madison, Chicago, Indy, Memphis, Austin, Starbase, and San Francisco, in that order. This is where I learned a big heaping helping of truths about what I was doing with Project Anodyne and what avenues were unrealistic or just wrong to take.
In Austin, the big link we had to the scene was, unexpectedly, Razib Khan. We met up with him mostly because why the hell not, and he took us out for dinner most nights to meet all sorts of people as they were available. The way he saw it, he was doing us a big solid by helping us connect since we were nobodies, and to be frank, I respect that. Unfortunately, everyone that we met and talked with were either flakes or were struggling to find support in the exact same way we were.
I had met with people and pitched them several times, some of which I knew for a fact had lots of cash lying around. When we got to the end of it and I was poised to ask them if they had any additional concerns, they would just fall off. No one ever wanted to give us a straight answer, even if the answer was ‘no’. If that wasn’t bad enough, we even met one Googler who self-described as a ‘rationalist’ and who I am 99% positive was a clinical psychopath. We had a similarly undignified experience when Razib had connected us to Eric Weinstein in a group Twitter DM, after which he promptly ghosted us after a single message with no explanation. To me, all of these kinds of end results were tremendously insulting to us, because they were overtly cowardly, and not to mention devoid of any meaningful feedback. It’s almost like they wanted to tell us no but also wanted us to try again later when we have more to offer them.
This kind of experience continued in San Francisco when we met up with Wolf Tivy, the editor-in-chief of Palladium Magazine: after we had laid out the plan and pitched it all, his response was, “Good luck! I gotta get back home to build furniture with my family.”
There was one big exception to this experience, and the subtleties of it I doubt Charles picked up on at the time. It was with the one connected person we met who was not in this Austin tech bro social web, a building manager in SF named Yoli. I was introduced to him by my husband, who rented from him for 4 years while he was an international student studying there. My in-laws are fairly well-connected, so it’s kind of a given that they are able to network with fellow Indonesians who are notable or powerful in these ways.
The big thing Yoli did for us that no one else had the balls to was give us a grounded ‘no’. When I actually popped the question, he was honest, and earnest: “I’m not really interested.”
The reality was, we were behaving incredibly desperately, and Yoli picked up on that in a big way. He gave us several pieces of advice, because as much as he was repulsed by our approach, he still viewed us as young enough and believed we simply didn’t know better yet about how things work in business. He was completely right about that, and looking back now, he is still someone I would be happy to collaborate with later when our business endeavours are more substantiated than they were back then. After all, he works directly under some American billionaires who own the buildings he manages in SF.
I had a lot of insider first-hand experiences with the real world of business when I was 20, because I married the son of an Indonesian businesswoman. I sat in for sales and marketing meetings where everyone in the room were directors and executives of billion-dollar corporations like Suzuki, MNC, and more.
When we traveled to Singapore I was absolutely enthralled to witness these two worlds that seem to coexist: the fake, pay-to-play Westernised business world, and the actual Asian business world. This reality was burned into my brain when I came to Marina Bay Sands in black SUV taxi from the airport and watched as our luggage was unloaded for us in the cellar. Everyone here were Asian businessfolk and their families, taking reprieves and holidays; I was the only white Westerner in sight. And on the ground floor, it was filled with white people. Literally like night and day. We were paying nothing to stay there because my mother-in-law had credits for free nights due to her high roller status at the MBS casino, and these white people were doubtless paying thousands of dollars per night to enjoy the same thing. I will never forget that divide for as long as I live.
This sort of experience never manifested for us in the United States. I suppose it’s not surprising, because after all, we were outsiders. The truth is, our proposition in Austin was just like the proposition those ground floor tourists had at Marina Bay Sands: pay-to-play. It’s a bad deal all around. It’s not something that anyone with dignity or financial common sense bases their career around. In the case of a hotel, you just go there because you really do have that kind of money to burn. But in the case of Austin, being an outsider is a by-product of being poor. The only winning move is not to play.
Of course, things are not that simple, and the reality about Austin is much more falsely inviting. When we talk about tech, the diagnosis of Austin is simple: it’s a fake San Francisco run by a single mafia, where competition of ideas doesn’t meaningfully exist. In SF, companies like Uber and Lyft could be arising at the same time and you wouldn’t know it until after the fact. In Austin, there is no patience for such wastes of resources. In their view, a good idea will be thoroughly disseminated long before it’s ever realised, if it’s ever realised at all. In SF, you have a big hub to the rest of the working world: Asia is right over the Pacific, and Washington isn’t too far away either. Everyone who does real business work in this world knows that Europe is an economic sideshow. Austin is not only not politically strategic, it’s straight up isolated from the rest of the country and the rest of the planet. I wonder if that wasn’t deliberate from the get-go.
So in this ridiculous caricature of SF, what’s the pitch? It’s the same pitch we’ve all heard before out of tech, whether it’s through the guise of startups or cryptocurrencies: “give in to FOMO, and you too can get yours.” Nevermind that this has ended in what amounts to legalised robbery 11 times out of 10. The aversion European programmers have to all of this stuff is one of the biggest bones of admiration and respect I have for their culture (which I certainly do not find to be without faults). Someone has to mention the turd in the punch bowl here.
This kind of FOMO gets to the heart of the issue I take with this place and the culture that it embodies. Charles went into Austin trying to sell a code editor, and now he’s had the thumbscrews put in by interlocutors of Thiel so that he’ll be writing a magazine instead. He claims that all of these things have overlap, and maybe conceptually they do, in a very abstract way, but that doesn’t magically translate into a real concrete relatedness of work like he suggests. I had tried in vain to explain to him this difference of reality using examples from the world of Indonesian business, but he could not tell that apart from wishful thinking.
At the bedrock layer of it all, every ambitious person has a certain level of self-delusion. The ones who are sane and grounded understand that on the one hand, it’s necessary to actualise our goals and aspirations, and on the other hand, it’s necessary to remain unattached to the means that such things get realised, because until you succeed, you just don’t know if things are going to work out that way. The wall I hit with Charles was essentially a failure of that groundedness – his solution was to insist that this must work out, even when he cannot know that. Insisting that something is so does not make it so.
This is where things take a nasty turn for the worse: in the course of his distraction from the things he is great at by powerful people looking to take him for what he’s worth to them, the worst outcome is one that they are more or less guaranteeing: that his whole magazine endeavour will work out. He comes out of the deal relieved and assuaged, thinking that finally he is getting some kind of recognition for his genius, when the reality is a lot more mundane. I was even told that the ultimate source of his funding went sight unseen in the course of his negotiations. If that’s not a giant red flag, I don’t know what is.
So he’ll continue with this stuff for a little while, under the false impression that there is some greater basin of interest in his magazine that doesn’t actually exist. And at the point that he may near discovering this fraud, the people stringing him along will give him a new idea, to keep him on the treadmill making real content that legitimises their power as an unaccountable mafia. This is a very common pattern seen in scams, even showcased front-and-center in the infamous movie The Wolf of Wall Street:
It’s all a fugazi. You know what fugazi is?
It’s a wozzy, it’s a woozy, it’s a fairy dust, it doesn’t exist, it’s never landed, it is no matter, it’s not on the elemental chart, it’s not fuckin’ real!
Stay with me. We don’t create shit. We don’t build anything.
So we got a client who bought stock at eight. And now, it’s at sixteen. And he’s all fuckin’ happy, he wants to cash in, liquidate, take his fuckin’ money and run home! You don’t let him do that, ‘cause that would make it real!
No, what do you do? You get another brilliant idea. A special idea. Another situation, another stock to reinvest his earnings in and then some. And he will every single time, ‘cause they’re fuckin’ addicted, and you just keep doing this again, and again, and again.
Meanwhile, he thinks he’s getting shit rich, which he is, on paper. But you and me, the brokers? We’re taking home cold hard cash, via commission, motherfuckers.
This is the core dynamic at play with content creation and business politics in general with the people that colour Austin City as we know it today. Here’s an interesting fact: I once pitched an article for Palladium, one of the most central magazines to this network of power! It was called The false walls of the walled gardens, and as much as Wolf claimed to have liked it, he told me he wouldn’t have it published because, he said, “they focus on more technical analysis type of stuff.” I don’t remember the exact wording since these guys are so wishy-washy about how they phrase things, but that was basically his reason.
It didn’t take me long to search up countervailing evidence for this supposed publishing policy of his. Here’s a certain writer who has bylines, and all three of their articles are highly personal op-eds. What’s the difference here? Arguably, my work was more analytical than this! So what’s the measure, then? What really makes or breaks this kind of thing? Could it possibly have anything to do with her connections that she has, which apparently landed her a spot in some irrelevant New York Times sponsored award show?
Yeah, the truth is that my stuff didn’t get published not because it wasn’t great material that was very much within their wheelhouse. It didn’t get published because I’m a nobody. I don’t have any cred with these people. And that’s the true currency at play here. This is what they all trade in! If you look at Razib’s Substack as a naïve outsider, you might think from how broadly unknown most of his interviewees are that he is simply operating on merit and charity and putting up voices that deserve to be heard, but I’m here to tell you that isn’t true. A little internet sleuthing will let you discover a vast underworld of clout, and every public post is a trade where both parties believe that the transaction is selfishly, if not mutually, beneficial to both parties. My countervailing evidence for this is the manner in which he claimed to ‘help’ Charles, by letting him crash on his couch for months on end. If Charles’ ideas were really as great as he thinks they are, then Razib should recognise that and do some kind of op-ed, because that’s his job and he makes north of $30,000 per month doing it anyway. There’s no downside whatsoever for him to fling this poor Rust Belt reject some chump change recognition expecting nothing in return. In fact, that’s what everyone assumes he does! Unfortunately, nobody who matters in Austin practises that kind of charity.
And as sure as things fell apart between Charles and I, he very thoroughly decoupled his online brand from mine. It turned out to be less of a bona fide friendship and more of a symbiotic alliance, which is the last thing I was interested in. I don’t believe that people grow by surrounding themselves with fake friends that happen to be useful to them. I’m not interested in living that kind of life no matter what siren people put in front of me about it. And I certainly won’t believe devils who claim that it’s some kind of necessary evil for becoming wealthy or famous. I know better firsthand.
A similar kind of breakdown of values ensued during the time I used to frequent the Discord server of Katherine Dee, between me and some of the more active members. I make no secret my disrespect for Urbit, a technically pointless unicorn and cult object, and after a point people got tired of feigning politeness about that and started to personally attack me. This isn’t something new to me, having been on the Web since I was nine, but it certainly wasn’t anything less than a tremendously shitty and toxic experience that left me with a sour reminder of how monstrous ideologically motivated people can be. Once again I piss people off for insulting their idols, even though I never have a comment about them or their association with it. Sacred cows are dumb.
To bring this all together, these are the major elements that have combined lately to make Austin City one of the worst places on Earth:
Enforced deference to memetic reputational games
Mafia-oriented business operations
Work, creativity and innovation are simply not a real thing, but more of an object to net in suckers who strive to become like their owners while being milked. Everyone is always trying to raise a funding round in the hopes they can then defer all the real work to grunts, being recognised for their genius like Sam Bankman was. No one wants to do anything mundane; everyone wants to play Jesus.
I’ll leave you with one last anecdote for the road to bring it home. It was actually the subject that the last argument I had with Charles began over: apparently, he was as some bougie party where the CTO of Signal was present, and everyone was falling over themselves to convince the guy to make a Discord clone or whatever other harebrained idea everyone and their mom currently has in ‘tech’ today. I immediately pointed out to him that this was celebrity worship and openly expressed my disgust, to which he made things personal by telling me “I wasn’t even there.” Not an issue since I have the ability to do inductive reasoning, but still a very worrying thing that someone would be this defensive about goings on that they have no stake in!
More broadly my character assessment of that situation checks out, not just on my own analysis about Austin, but even more broadly about the business character of Signal. Moxie has been notoriously shitty and opaque with his insistence that Signal never federate with competing apps, and making it so that Signal users cannot talk with non-Signal users at all. Drew DeVault broke this down bluntly in his article entitled I don’t trust Signal:
Moxie knows about everything I’ve said in this article. He’s a very smart guy and I am under no illusions that he doesn’t understand everything I’ve put forth. I don’t think that Moxie makes these choices because he thinks they’re the right thing to do. He makes arguments which don’t hold up, derails threads, leans on logical fallacies, and loops back around to long-debunked positions when he runs out of ideas. I think this is deliberate. An open source software team reads this article as a list of things they can improve on and gets started. Moxie reads this and prepares for war. Moxie can’t come out and say it openly, but he’s made the decisions he has made because they serve his own interests.
I can only figure that it’s the same sort of opaque interests that animates many, many people in the Austin tech scene.
So no, we did not separate over creative differences. Our ideas about computing are highly complementary, and Charles cannot accept the fact that I will never come and join him in Austin.
Anodyne would have been that much better with his ideas combined into mine, but it won’t be, because I will not sacrifice it on the altar of egomaniacal dotcom mobsters who have done nothing but rape our industry and our economy with impunity for the past twenty years. They’re crooked people, Austin has become a crooked place, and there’s no strategy for honest men with a proposition like that. The world is a much bigger place, and they really don’t matter as much as they think they do anyway. I’m going to say something that Ryan Breslow thought he could say to these motherfuckers but really couldn’t: fuck you!