Pulling Back the Curtain

What startup aesthetic can tell us about our future and the implications of the Internet.

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The offices of the startups we know — not all of them, but many — are curiously devoid of ceiling panels that would otherwise mask the organized chaos beneath; the pipes and tanks and nozzles and gauges that are sometimes shining and sometimes red and brown and rusted, but working, moving the things we’ve consumed and the air we breathe in and out and around, an inorganic biology, at once, exposed. To see it all is to be faced with a reality that most avoid, and yet this is our world: necessary ugliness masked by cosmetic beauty, or if not beauty, cover-up. That the latter — the ceiling panels — is all we notice is a reminder of a human bias that psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, termed WYSIATI, an abbreviation for “what you see is all there is,” or the idea that when making decisions, we tend to focus only on the information that is immediately available, or put more simply, what we see happening.

Of course, the ceiling tiles are relevant only because they remind us what isn’t worth paying attention to; they are a signal that someone else has a comparative advantage in understanding what lies beneath, and fixing it, should something go wrong. And at a startup, everything typically does, at one point or another. To be a successful one is to conscious of not only what is going wrong but also what has and what could, and this is why most people don’t work for them: direct accountability means an inability to simply cover up and thereby ignore that which they otherwise might—metaphorically, the plumbing, but realistically, a threat, or an otherwise unpleasant reality.

There is an important truth here: most people would rather not be exposed to how something works, or why something doesn’t; most people don’t seek out accountability at scale, or truths they’d rather not know. It is easier, after all, to reap the benefits of a world in which things go right, and if they don’t, someone else is accountable making sure they do. An absence of ceiling tiles, after all, isn’t always pretty. Neither is knowing the origin of the things we so often take for granted: our clothing, or our food, or our freedom. We specialize, then — and insulate ourselves from everything else — to avoid unpleasantness outside of our direct realm of influence. To work in a startup — and be exposed to everything, including the plumbing — is to be habitually reminded that the world is not as simple as it appears; that there is an immense complexity to its inner workings that we so often forget is there because we can’t see it. This is not a reality most of us are willing to face, but of course we could, if we pulled back the curtain.

From here, we can begin to observe the human tendency to build the bias of focusing only on the immediately obvious into systems such that we are hidden from realities we’d rather not consider. This is a coping mechanism; our brains are not designed to handle even a fraction of the massiveness of reality. It is also an explanation for why we cover plumbing with ceiling tiles; for why restaurant kitchens and the slaughterhouses that supply them are separated from dining rooms; for why the salespeople at the department store you’re shopping at don’t disclose the salary or working conditions of the person who did the cross-stitching on your Christmas sweater as they present you with it in a plastic bag whose environmental impact you’d also rather not consider.¹ The nuance of reality is a pill that most of us would prefer not to swallow, and we have designed the systems within which we exist such that we are so detached from said reality that behaving in accordance with it is nearly impossible. Most of the time, we simply don’t know what we don’t know, and the systems within which we operate are designed to keep it that way. Ignorance, after all — and the certainty that comes with it — is bliss.

But now, something’s changed. The Internet has given birth to a profound and nearly inescapable awareness of the oftentimes ugly nuance that exists just beneath of the surface of what we see. It is this same awareness has eroded our certainty of reality and has forced us to realize that what we see is decidedly not all there is; that there is so much more, so much that we have hidden for so long, consciously and unconsciously, with things as simple as ceiling tiles and as complex as power dynamics.

Combine a species that is excellent at finding faults with society with the frictionless transmission of information enabled by the Internet — a literal glass house in which everything that could go wrong and is going wrong is exposed all at once — and it is no surprise that our relative perception of the state of the world has never been further off-base, and that so many articles are being written with titles like “Is It Just Me, or is the World Going Crazy?” or opening sentences like this one in a recent review by The Economist of Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now:

“To anyone who reads a newspaper, this can seem a miserable world.”

It’s not — not relatively, at least, and the above articles are evidence of that — but the Internet is sure making us think that it is. At its core, the Internet is a facilitator of complete transparency among those engaged with and connected to it, and increasingly, everyone is. Facebook just hit 2 billion users; YouTube, 1.5. We are all here. And yet, being “here” on the Internet is more than being “here” on Earth; to exist on the latter does not entail immediate digital connection with billions, or even knowledge of their existence. Existence on the Internet, however — and on Facebook, specifically — does.

To exist here, then, is to be a node within a network of everything that everyone connected is willing to share, and increasingly, it is clear that the threshold for what they are is lower in the digital world than it is in the physical one. That the rise of the Internet has coincided with the emergence of profound social upheaval should not be surprising. It is, after all, no less than a global conscience, an antidote to our tendency to design systems such that we see only what we want to see and simultaneous reveal that — surprise! — humanity is capable of both profound good and unimaginable bad, and of course both are far easier to observe from the glass house that the Internet is than from systems that we designed to allow us to hide from reality.

And so it is almost poetic that the economics of startups — many of which were birthed by the Internet — has given way to a consistent spacial aesthetic within their confines that reflects the Internet’s effect on society more broadly: the digital world, unlike its physical counterpart, exposes humanity to its best and to its worst by removing the barriers to both — the ceiling tiles, and holding what sits just beyond — literally and figuratively — over our heads. This exposure may, in the long run, be a good thing; that humanity is going through such a process of self-examination may mean a brighter future for subsequent generations. The great contradiction of the modern era, however, is that while things have never been better, they have never — at least in recent memory — seemed worse, given everything that has come to light, and the inevitable improvement of humanity has never seemed less inevitable than it does today. And so it is that we may have to shift our worldview both as a species and as individuals to understand the reality that is this: the world is not getting worse — in fact, it is getting better — it is simply that as a collective, we have never been more aware of everything — both the good and the bad — than we are today.

Depending on the individual, the Internet has either been a profoundly welcome blessing or a vicious—and in many cases, deserved—curse. Its effect on us, however—on humanity as a whole—is, as of yet, unclear. And the implications of this matter. If, as a collective, we cannot come to terms with what the Internet has taught us about ourselves and also continue to believe in the possibility of a better future, we may allow ourselves to be convinced that the ugliness of society exposed by the Internet is a harbinger for what society will become. It is not, but if we buy into the story that it is, it may be.

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Acknowledgements: Thanks to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Daniel Kahneman, Jordan Ellenberg, Henry Wismayer, Ben Thompson, and James Allworth for inspiring the thoughts that lead to articles like this. Thanks also to David Perell, Desmond Dahlberg, Tyler Kimble, and Jason Cinti for their feedback.


¹ A minor caveat that I am pleased to be able to make: last year, Chicago instituted a tax on bags — paper and plastic — and while it’s minor ($0.07 per bag), it is a small but undeniably potent reminder of the bags’ environmental impact, and a small step towards reminding people of something they might otherwise not want to consider. (Though admittedly, I have yet to start bringing my own.)

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