A commentary on Venkatesh Rao’s article: The Internet of Beefs
I’d like take a crack at a neologism invented by Venkatesh Rao called The Internet of beefs in his article of the same title. I’d also like to balance his idea of a beef only player, with a salad only player—to contrast the aggressive vs the passive aggressive type.
Rao’s hilarious, creative, scary, and forensic social commentary is brilliant and exhaustive—and at best I can only direct readers to his essay, and hopefully add a footnote. However, my only critique is that he makes too much of the beef only who is really just an obvious bully, without speaking enough of what I am calling the salad only who might be an even more destructive presence, despite his innocuous demeanour.
The internet of beefs is part of what Rao calls ‘crash only programming’. It is the absurd and self destructive mechanism of futile argument built into our very communication medium — a self-replicating virus of perpetual conflict without resolution or meaning, blown out of all proportion by social media.
The internet of beefs is like tribal feudalism gone mad in a virtual space: it is a veritable ‘Game of Thrones’ where almost everyone is terminated in the final season. It is medieval and it plays on the very worst tendencies of human nature.
Everybody is familiar with ‘beefs’ and knows a ‘beef only’ thinker. There is one in every virtual village, just as there is a village idiot. The beef-only thinker can only think in dichotomous, good vs evil terms; he is constantly putting people in one or the other category. You are either his friend or his cuckold, he will fawn over and flatter you or make you the betrayer of his pure ideology.
If the beef only is powerful, he is also a ‘knight’ with a mercenary army of ‘rooks’—or fawning foot-soldiers who are basically cannon fodder. So once the knight discovers an ‘error in his system’, he will unleash his rooks to help him discredit, humiliate, and ultimately destroy you.
Incidentally, to protect yourself from the beef only knight you will have to have a decent mercenary army of your own (or powerful friends). Otherwise, the smart thing to do is ignore the beef completely. This is a lesson that is usually learned the hard way.
Not that the beef only is aware he is doing this: he will fly his banner of pure goodwill as he claws your eyes out with his practiced and deadly rhetoric.
The truth is: once you get involved in the beef game you are already a loser. It’s a lose/lose game — not even a zero sum (win/lose) game. As such, it is absurd.
The ‘beef only’ types are rather obvious. They are just overt bullies. And incidentally, we don’t have to worry too much about intelligent beefers like Nassim Taleb because he is so singular and openly aggressive. No — the ones to be most wary of are those who make beefs in a passive aggressive way.
What is the passive aggressive weapon? It is ‘a mask of virtue’, it is innuendo, it is a seething rage beneath charm and politeness, it is a wall of etiquette — and may be far more dangerous than actual aggression, actual antagonism.
The salad only is a soft bully of ideology, harder to identify because he or she is so much more manipulative. The salad only cannot stand conflict of any kind; he is a total pacifist on the surface, like a vegan (metaphorically speaking) who is secretly thirsty for human blood. He or she speak softly, is polite to a fault, and is extremely sanctimonious.
The salad only never gets into an actual fight, but rather secretly sews the seeds of discord among friends. The salad only adores secret intrigue, and knows the power of gossip. Usually the beef-only knight has his salad only sidekick, who speaks in a whisper yet harbours massive malevolence, and is a secret weapon.
The salad only is a sophist and the beef only is a brute.
Zombies and Serial Killers
So what can we do about the internet of beefs (and my proposed salad only)? Rao leaves this as an open question. It has something to do with ‘internet hygiene’ and learning how not to be killed or turned into a zombie.
I would add that we need to cultivate a positive kind of antagonism, to have ‘good faith battles’ so to speak. We need to find respectful interlocutors to fight with in a wholesome way. We need to channel our natural aggression, in other words.
Personally, I don’t believe we need to retreat to the ‘cosy internet’ (another brilliant anachronism of Rao’s) as Rao suggests, but we may need to have the dignity to have our beefs in private.
Good wrestling partners respect each other, regardless of wins and losses. Wrestling verbally about stuff is not so bad and can help us get agile and strong but must be engaged in with good faith. If we don’t fight any battles we risk becoming salad only types.
The point is, there is a massive amount of passive aggression built into the internet age, because real aggression is repressed and made to be deliciously taboo. But if we don’t have any physical outlet for aggression, our brains spin around weaving dark little intrigues to compensate for the cramped spaces of our offices.
After all, there is a reason why people flail around on the internet, attacking each other wily-nily. The modern internet addict is like a predators in a cage, dying for a wholesome fight.
Take a warrior and put him in an office and you get the picture. He paces around as if in a cage. He can no longer express aggression in any way except through passive aggressive text messages, or by speaking softly or with a seething voice. And it’s extremely tiring to try to be an avatar of the virtuous and beautiful at all times.
Why else would we watch endless tv shows about zombies and serial killers — and get our entertainment through transgression? We have a problem with aggression. The aggression is turned inwards, and made into a very toxic substance.
The ironic knight
The knight’s in Rao’s universe are the locals powers, small time internet celebrities. But it should be pointed out that they are not actually real knights, but rather characters in a video game. They do not resemble the best of Japanese Bushido tradition or medieval chivalry, quite the opposite. Let’s call them ironic knights.
A real knight, as opposed to the ironic knight, is all about chivalry and service— not power for the sake of itself. The real knight is ready to lose, to bow to his victor, to learn from his mistakes. To paraphrase Bruce Lee: it’s easy to win, but it requires real character to loose with grace.
This is what is lacking in the beef only and salad only types: they can’t stand losing. They will never atone or humbly admit that they are wrong. They would rather ‘cancel’ other people wily nily, than own-up to their own mistakes. Therefore they have no character.
The beef only and the salad only are in the game of shameless self promotion and they can often rise in the ranks as petty tyrants. The good news is that all of their victories are temporary. They are easily replaced in the next round by new ironic knights and attendant algorithms.
The reason Nassim Taleb is so entertaining, as Rao points out, is that he gives us a window into real aggression. Nassim is what aggression looks like when it has been freed from the bonds of shame. The entertainment value Telab provides allows us to feel real aggression through proxy.
Taleb is ‘antifragile’—in other words he can’t be defeated—because the more aggression he puts out the more entertainment value he provides. He is an ironic knight. A smart ironic knight certainly. And he thrives on the mountain of virtual corpses he creates all around him.
And then there is Donald Trump, the number one ironic knight. He has learned to play the internet of beefs to perfection. Any kind of controversy he turns around to his benefit, including his impeachment.
The bigger a beef you have with The Donald the bigger a knight of beef he becomes. His greatest power is to cause his enemies to go into paradoxisms of terror/loathing/fear and reaction through disgust. Trump (and his brother Putin) win every game by keeping the rooks in a constant state of chaos, confusion, and perpetual beefs.
Its always a shock to see that the ever-naive progressive world refuses to learn the lesson it should—and ends up inadvertently adding new rooks to Trump’s army. Again, the thing to do with an aggressive knight of beefs, is to ignore him, even if he happens to be president of The United States.
In the internet of beefs the biggest buffoon wins. The fragile gets crushed. And everybody gets more and more hysterical or ‘permaweird’ — another of Rao’s great neologisms. Have we reached maximum permaweird? Not yet.
Can we do something about it. Yes. For starters. Don’t be a salad only. Don’t be a beef only. Ignore those who shout too loud or who whisper too softly in your ears. Get smart, play fair, and don’t go to King’s Landing if you are Ned Stark — as Jordan Hall brilliantly puts it. Stay with the local, the real, and the meaningful.
The internet of beefs and salads is a land soft horrors, and meaningless drift. It is like ‘samsara’, a spinning meat wheel of relentless conflict based on hope and fear, hunger and disappointment, elation and aggression, fame and disgrace — favours and flattery. (See the image of the wheel of life and death above). It is not good for your psychological health, to understate the case — but if you are a human being there is no real way to avoid samsara.
Actually, as Rao points out, beefing is not about winning, but about keeping you in a state of never-ending distraction. It’s like the biggest casino in the world, where you waste all of your precious coins, and even if you have the illusion of winning, every bet leads to bankruptcy. To make a beef gives you a bit of attention, you feel that you are important, that you are winning, that you have a voice—but it is all an elaborate illusion. You never really win even if you do have a few pyrrhic victories.
How to escape the internet of beef? How to win its beef? Your victories are all short lived. The expensive Kobe steak of ‘the realm of the jealous gods’ melts in your palate, but eventually you find yourself homeless and eating your own children, metaphorically speaking. The internet of beefs will make you a literal zombie.
So we need to learn to stay alive during this veritable zombie apocalypse called social media. Better build our virtual cabin, stockpile our resources, find a good faith community, learn martial arts —don’t go anywhere near the overbearing beefers or the poisonous salad patches.
Of course, you may think I am being hyperbolic here — that the various beefs that go on in the internet are nothing new. However, while that may be true, samsara keeps getting more and more intense.
What is novel about the internet of beers is how sustained, relentless and omnipresent they are, Rao points out. And also the size and scale of this upside down pyramid of beefs, where the maniacs rise to the top, and the proles click and salivate and begin to throw themselves off a cliff, like the most dedicated cult members. As Rao points out: the fights are insignificant. But are disturbing in how pervasive they are.
Why else would suicides be skyrocketing, since instagram, facebook, and the iPhone have entered our lives. Many are unprepared for big and aggressive beefs — which attack their very nervous system with all kinds of manipulations and nasty subterfuge — and there is no more wall around the castle of innocence.
The End of History
Venkatesh Rao is one of the few thinkers these days to defend Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History—as Rao points out that Fukuyama himself has jumped ship on his own idea. However, Rao has an interesting interpretation of this infamous term. The end of history is not an accomplishment, it is a place where we are stuck. We actually need to find a way to reboot history, so to speak.
In a mood of endless pseudo conflict, relentless beefs—a sound and fury signifying nothing—it is hard to believe in a future, or to see that there is any direction to history. You can only complain, become a doomsday prophet, make a list of the endless existential threats we face, get lost in an endless round of complaint and ennui.
However, while Rao paints a very dark picture of our communication ecosystem, there is some hope—something could arise from the rot and static. Rao would like to see history re-booted—he is not a post modern nihilist. He actually believes in a grand narrative (although he doesn’t call it that)— he believes in history.
Obviously history doesn’t ends until the world ends. Those who lived during the black plague thought they were seeing the end of history, but they were only seeing the end of themselves. And if we don’t destroy the world completely then history can be rebooted. Or, perhaps it would be better to say, our sense of history and time can be restored.
And even though Rao’s essay often does have a flavour of detached ennui at times, I perceive a hidden passion, a heat in his coldness. Rao might actually be a real knight — not of the ironic, video game, or virtual knight. He knows that the outcome of the game is of secondary importance. And what matters to a real knight is real chivalry, dignity, and old fashioned sportsmanship, not the game of thrones at all. This means cricket or Akido—not mixed martial arts with no rules.
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