[EconTalk] Venkatesh Rao on Waldenponding

Venkatesh Rao on Waldenponding

04/11/2019 by EconTalk: Russ Roberts

Web player: https://podplayer.net/?id=85930545
Episode: http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2019/RaoWaldenponding.mp3

Writer and management consultant Venkatesh Rao talks about Waldenponding with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Rao coined the term Waldenponding to describe various levels of retreating from technology akin to how Thoreau extolled the virtues of retreating from social contact and leading a quieter life at Walden Pond. Rao argues that the value of Waldenponding is overrated and that extreme Waldenponding is even somewhat immoral. Rao sees online intellectual life as a form of supercomputer, an intellectual ecosystem that produces new knowledge and intellectual discourse. He encourages all of us to contribute to that intellectual ecosystem even when it can mean losing credit for some of our ideas and potentially some of our uniqueness.

Listen Date: 2020-01-28


  • This was one of the episodes where just reading the description made me raise my eyes in alarm. Fortunately, the actual episode was better than expected. But not by much…
  • The guy who wrote the rambling and bloated articles on premium medicority and Hamiltonian vs Jeffersonian technology has a nerve talking about books that should be blogposts and blogposts that should be twitter threads.
  • Overstating the power of product design by its designers – well, okay, maybe it isn’t all powerful. But what I got thinking about was compound interest. It doesn’t have to be twice as powerful at hijacking your attention as any previous technology. Even if it’s 10% more powerful, over time, that’s enough to make a significant impact.
  • Underestimating the level of agency of users – okay, fair point. But all of Rao’s examples are twitter driven; and Twitter is an awful example considering that neither the writer nor the reader of tweets has much agency in how to present or sort them. You have to jump through hoops to filter your timeline in a way that you didn’t with blog feeds. To the extent that you want to increase your agency, you’re better off with other platforms.
  • The third point about how we are responding to a completely new environment – maybe it’s true, but is this a falsifiable claim?
  • The point about regulating social media companies seems like a strawman to me since I’ve never seen anybody calling for turning Twitter off from the top down. Cal Newport, who gets mentioned, wrote a self-help book in which the emphasis was on turning Twitter off yourself.
  • I am mystified at the argument that Twitter is good and most of academic output is useless. Most of Twitter is useless too; and negative results are important.
  • Venkatesh Rao kept talking about Twitter being a giant social computer without giving a single example of what exactly it had outputted.
  • The point about the chain of credit – I disagree massively. Not giving credit to individuals and everything just slipping into the zeitgeist with no authorial linkage is an assault on human dignity. And the argument of “Everything was miscredited anyhow” seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
  • I wonder if this whole Twitter evangelism by Venkatesh Rao has come out because, like me, he’s terribly socially awkward in real life; and the shared context of Twitter lets him get over the early crisis of how to make friends and connections. I sympathise with that altogether, as I do with his experience of the stultifying social norms of polite Indian society. But in that case, his whole defence of information firehoses and infinite scrolls rests on a benefit that is applicable only to himself and a few others – talk about generalising from a sample of oneself.


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