Context is king 👑

This year, I’ve finally come to appreciate high-context relationships. It’s hit me that, for the first time, I have friends whose lives I will always want to be a part of, regardless of our shared interests or goals. Our long history together is a meaningful in and of itself. These friends could—and have—become totally different people over time, with goals and interests completely different from my own.

This is a major change from how I usually operate. I tend to connect with people at a interest- or goal-oriented level, putting very little weight on history, context, or conventions. The concept of “tradition” or defining my identity by the people who happened to be around me never felt natural. I never quite understood how so many people have had the same best friend since kindergarten, or why my peers seemed confined by the boundaries of a social clique like the jocks or nerds in an ’80s high school flick. The result is that I’ve spent the last quarter century flitting between different friends and social groups, dismissing their boundaries and moving along as my goals changed. It was the what that I focused on much more than the who.

The dark side of this tendency is that I’ve tended to neglect friendships once we began to diverge in our interests. I’m not in touch with any of my closest friends from my primary school or even from my college years. Sure we’re friendly with each other, I care about how their life is going, and I still have their phone numbers memorized… but as soon as our interests drifted apart we effectively became strangers who speak maybe once every few years, and even then only when we run into each other at the supermarket when we both happen to be in town for Thanksgiving.

This year, I realized I have a mode of friendships that’s new to me: these days, some of my relationships are predicated on the sheer fact that we know each other so well. Whereas before it was some shared goal, curiosity, or instrumental value that held us together, now it’s hard to imagine exploring the world without bringing these friends along or at least sharing what I’ve found with them. Before, I’d never quite grasped why people operated so differently from how I operate, why they seemed to put so much weight on the history and context of a relationship. Now, I finally get it, and it feels great!

I’ve realized that when people value context in relationships, it’s not just a sense of obligation that binds them together. I now realize that connection is more an intuitive one, where you simply know the other person so well that you can’t help but care for them and wonder how they’re doing.

I recently realized that I’ve now known a few of my closest friends for over 6 years. The reasons our friendship first sparked have since turned into embers, and yet we care about each other and talk more than ever. (I like that when they read this they’ll know who they are. 😊) This is frankly probably a much more normal way of relating to your loved ones, and I probably sound like a total weirdo for describing this as such an exotic thing, but it’s a big shift for me. I’m excited to have a front row seat in watching them grow and change as people—not just despite of this divergence but because of it.

High-context newsletter experiment

In that theme, a friend gave me an idea that I quite like: I’m considering making this a paid newsletter as a way to curate a more deliberate, high-context channel. I don’t intend to make money from it. If I do this, I’ll donate any proceeds to GiveWell charities. The purpose would simply be to create a different kind of space to connect with friends and strangers on the internet, where I know everyone is invested.

To be sure, the opposite—a conversation with zero upfront cost, financially or otherwise, to join—is also deeply valuable. I derive so much meaning from Twitter and my email penpal habits. The paid newsletter model would just be for a different, not better, purpose. Apples and oranges. 🍎🍊

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this idea! I’m also interested in hearing other ideas you might have for creating that sort of space (e.g. a private Twitter account).

Essays I’ve written recently

On [there being more than] liberty

A major shift in my views this decade was in how much I value individual liberty. As a teenager, I believed it was the single value society should uphold above all else.

Since then, I’ve realized I overweighted its importance… though it is important! This post is a rundown of the 8 key reasons my views changed.

Vacuum tube nostalgia

A pattern I’ve noticed more recently is that, sometimes, old technology imposes delightful constraints. Then when it’s replaced by something new and “better”, we miss and re-create in the new medium some of the originally-unintended but now-beloved effects.

The key is to incorporate the best parts of historical accidents into our modern practice, to make them our own, and—most importantly—to know when they’ll add to the aesthetic and when they’ll just constrain your expression.

(This has some parallels beyond technology that I didn’t get into but I think are interesting and challenging to consider. Curious to hear if any jump out to you while you’re reading it!)


Here are interesting things I’ve recently read, heard others say, or contemplated that have lodged into my brain:

  • “Google is an operating system of sorts, but the system is not a PC but rather the entire web; what ties things together are not APIs, but links.”

  • “We forget that the American Revolution was intended a return to the real British tradition, rather than a break from the past.”

  • “Getting older is about learning to appreciate rituals.” (This one ties in with my newfound appreciation high-context relationships, too. Nadia’s post about taming is a good read on this topic.)

  • A problem with Effective Altruism is that it treats a starving child here and 5,000 miles away as morally equivalent. This doesn’t take into account transaction costs—both literally for getting there, but also for gaining enough information for doing the right intervention. If you’re too far away, you just plain don’t know what they need. You’re going to be able to make a far greater impact on someone’s life if you have more context.

  • “When we had fights, we’d become caricatures to one another.”

  • My manner of taking photos feels more like taking a screenshot of my reality than portraiture or photography. While I do share some of my photos, my primary motivation is as a prosthetic for my memory, a sort of visual diary of sorts, to remind myself where I’ve been and how it felt.

  • “Crime and mafia shows are super compelling because the characters operate in this deeply complex web of local knowledge that is largely off the grid.”

  • “State-making as a form of «internal colonialism».”

  • “The Internet of Things is a vast, distributed media-production apparatus.”

  • “Javascript is the slums if open source, both in the positive sense that there’s tons of bottoms up experimentation and do-it-yourself, but it’s also a chaotic mess held together by duct tape.”

  • “Descartes had aspired to bring us to a mode of knowing that was impersonal, visual, and outside of time [and place]… What Pickstock was accusing Descartes of doing, was what Jane Jacobs accused the urban planners of her day of doing. They substituted a living, very rich and subtle order with something that was visually flashy and comprehensible, but was outside of time and therefore dead.”

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