The Economics of Culture, Values, and Meaning: Interview with Tyler Cowen


The Economics of Culture, Values, and Meaning (With Bonus COVID19 Predictions):
Interview with Tyler Cowen


Interview by Lydia Laurenson

Photo courtesy of  Tyler Cowen
March 17th, 2020


On March 9th — a bit over a week ago — I had the pleasure of interviewing economist Tyler Cowen about how economics relates to culture, value, meaning... and coronavirus, of course.

The coronavirus sub-section of our conversation airs today on Digital Village, the longest-running technology radio show in Los Angeles. You can listen to the podcast version of Digital Village here (it's got many fascinating guest stars, not just us!). However, most of my conversation with Tyler wasn't about coronavirus — and most of it isn't in the podcast. The full interview went over an hour and was awesome.

Here’s the long version, edited for clarity. Thank you, Tyler!

LYDIA LAURENSON: Hi Tyler, it’s great to talk with you. You're an interesting figure because you're a genuine influencer, born of the indie internet — you have your own following, which you built yourself based on your blog Marginal Revolution — but simultaneously, your brand is about classic expertise. You have an official academic position at George Mason University in Virginia, and you write books published by major publishing companies. I don't think many bloggers of your generation ended up in a position like that.

TYLER COWEN: I think that's right. Many went more in the media direction. Academic blogging — I wouldn't say it vanished, but over time, people start feeling more risk-averse and stop. Or they get absorbed by a media conglomerate.

Personally, I write columns for Bloomberg Opinion, and I still have Marginal Revolution every day. I've blogged without missing a day for almost 17 years. I put the weirder parts on the blog, which I think blog readers prefer, and follow the news cycle more for Bloomberg, which I think Bloomberg readers prefer, so that's my natural division of labor.

At George Mason University, my official title is “professor of economics,” but I think of myself as an infovore. I take input from as many different parts of life as possible and make sense of them for my own curiosity — I learn better when I write or when I have dialogues from people. I do teach; that's some number of hours a week, but it's really my vacuum cleaner functions that take up my actual time. To call my focus "economics" is not wrong, but it's also not essential to what I do.

LYDIA: Do you have a specialty? I've seen you described as a “cultural economist.”

TYLER: In the academic world, I’m best known for a series of books on the economics of culture, art, music, books — how they get produced, who pays for them, how that shapes the content that comes out. In the non-academic world, I'm probably best known for a book called The Great Stagnation, from 2011, one of the earliest works to point out that the US is stagnating and the rate of productivity growth is down. 

LYDIA: There are so many things I want to ask you about! Obviously, the first thing on everyone's mind is coronavirus. How do you see its impact over the long term? Of course, there will be some immediately obvious effects, like events closing, and potential quarantine in different parts of the world.

TYLER: We're chatting on March 9th, to be clear. And there's still much we do not know, but I think most large-scale cultural performances will cease within a week or two. A lot of those theater companies or symphony orchestras — they may never quite come back. 

Even if the coronavirus ceases to be a problem within, say, three months — which may not be the correct forecast, but it's a reasonable forecast — people won't know it's not coming back. They'll be more aware of the dangers of sinking capital into staging live events. Customers will be more used to Netflix, YouTube, or Spotify, so the audience taste will shift. Sometimes you have a big, sudden event that carries along a longer-term structural train that was already underway. 

Will people still go to comedy clubs two years from now? Some will, but maybe attendance will be 60% of what it was two months ago.

LYDIA: Do you think there will be other effects that we aren't thinking about right now? 

TYLER: How people date will change, but I’m not sure how. The risk of connecting with a stranger is probably higher, and certainly will be perceived as higher. Over time, you may have people with a kind of timestamp as to when they're virus-free. 

You may have clubs that try to coordinate safe people getting together, or people who have already had the virus — if that, in fact, means you're immune for the future — we don't even know that yet, but let’s say that's the case. If getting the virus means people are less likely to get it in the future, then maybe there will be proof you had the virus and you'll wear that as a ring, or some kind of stamp or a tattoo.

The whole notion of how virtual space relates to what’s sometimes called "meatspace" — we're in for big upheavals. We will be less happy. We derive so much joy from interacting in physical spaces doing pointless things, which we pretend are practical errands but they're really not. A lot of that will go away, and we'll have cabin fever. That will make us restless and anxious, and probably more irritable. 

There are already results from China of husbands and wives divorcing each other after they spend a few weeks living together 24/7. It's like, "Hey, I didn't sign up for this. I don't actually like you." To me, that is striking. You're going to find stressful decisions put in front of almost everyone, and a lot of us won't handle it well.

LYDIA: Some of my friends and I are doing disaster planning, and we are starting to pre-plan ways that we can be of service when the crisis really hits. We've wondered whether this might be an opportunity for communities to come together in increased resilience.

TYLER: I think they will. Volunteering to test people, bringing aid and assistance to the elderly who might be having problems or even have the virus, helping people restock — there will be more of an outpouring of cooperation than, say, people going around with shotguns making threats. Yet it will be very focused, and in some ways, it will divide us from each other: You'll go and help someone who really needs it, but you won't actually build up the communities you enjoy. It's worth making that sacrifice, but I don't think it will unambiguously boost community either. The idea of a San Francisco salon, 20 people getting together at a mid-sized space and speculating about something, that's going to shut down.

LYDIA: At The New Modality, and among my friends in the Bay Area, we’re already starting to double down on online community and virtual gatherings. In the past, those directions haven't been as developed as they could be, because meatspace has been more fun. But if meatspace is off the table, there are ways to make online spaces into genuine salons.

TYLER: Products like Skype and Zoom are good, but they could be better, so I think you'll see more startups solving this problem. The idea of what is synchronous, or how do you sense body language, will in some ways be communicated through online media — it will become a closer substitute for the meeting itself. So in the long run, there'll be fewer meetings, fewer face-to-face interviews. People from distant locales, other countries, they'll have a better chance in relative terms. If they can't be there, it will be like, "Oh, well, here's the new souped up, super-effective Zoom call. Let's just do that." So the changes will have some egalitarian features.

The strength of your personal network will be somewhat frozen. People won't get better and better networks during the crisis; they'll just work the networks they have. It's kind of a big restart on many aspects of life.

LYDIA: Any other long-term coronavirus predictions?

TYLER: Telemedicine will become much bigger very quickly. And we will lose much more of our privacy, very quickly. There will be a desire to monitor people for health reasons in addition to all of the other anti-privacy trends, and now, the importance of the health factor will end that debate. Probably not in a good way. When they sense fear, most people will simply give up on privacy.

Online education will get a big boost. People will realize it's often as good as going to a class with a boring professor who doesn't meet with the students anyway, and that probably will be permanent. Online education for higher education will be at least 20% of the sector, and it will be quite robust. There will be national, even international courses, which hundreds of thousands of people will take. I don't think everyone can learn that way, but an awful lot of people can. That will be a fiscal drain on our mainstream colleges and universities, if they're not the market leaders.

Those changes won’t come next month, but they’re not 20 years away — they’re within the next three to five years.

I also think politics is just going to get crazier and more divorced from reality. That’s not a result of the virus, but the two topics intertwine. Look at our current situation — you’d think, "Oh, it's a national emergency. We all need to come together, put in place a very practical plan." Eventually we'll do that, but at the same time, we'll spin unique and off-base stories about what really happened, and we'll each stick with our story. I wouldn't call it "polarization." More a dispersal of opinion, and a lack of interest in sharing a common narrative.

LYDIA: What do you see happening with emerging political identities, in general? It all feels hard to pin down. Even words like "neoliberal" — these words feel like they're totally up for grabs. I feel like I never get a solid, shared definition when I talk to people about them.

It’s on both sides of the political divide. I see conservative websites trying to figure out how to integrate the alt-right, and by conservative, I mean the center-right groups. Obviously the center-right parts of the Republican Party have struggled with their relationship to President Trump. On the progressive side, I see people talking about ideas like “neoliberalism” or “socialism,” but all of this seems poorly defined.

TYLER: All the views we’re used to are in trouble. They will continue to exist, but they'll limp along as niche views, and we'll see a politics that is largely celebrity-driven. It may create its own celebrities, but they will be blunt speakers who are good with social media, television, and YouTube. They'll carry along ideologies for naming purposes, but they won't actually be socialists, or alt-right, or whatever words they use. Those are the trappings. 

It will be charismatic, divorced from reality, and strange — very creative, and in some ways entertaining — but quite dangerous, because I'm not sure it will put us in a good position to solve problems like nuclear proliferation, climate change, combating global poverty, and so on.

LYDIA: So you think the current lack of political definition is going to continue?

TYLER: It'll get much more extreme. Again, politicians will use the words, like "libertarian" or "socialist." And they won't be insincere. But they'll really be defined by who their followers are, which interest groups back them, and their method of delivering their messages. You'll get politicians in the Trump mode of being a weird blend of ideas, maybe with a mixed background having come from the other party. They'll be effective communicators and a lot of people will hate them. They won't necessarily be good at running things.

Already, we see this in so many countries all around the world. All these weird European figures, many of them not elected yet, but their parties are getting 10% to 20%. The bigger parties in western Europe are fracturing. There’s a kind of chaos on the horizon. Boris Johnson, for example: Highly unusual figure. Very strange hair. His fiancée is pregnant. He's back and forth with the Royal Family about the royal brand. Meghan is going to move to Canada, and who has the branding rights? [Editor's Note: The English Prince Harry and his American wife Meghan Markle abdicated their royal roles in January and moved to Canada, occasioning much scandal.]

What's royalty? What's a politician? What's celebrity? All this is blurring together. Again, we're seeing this now, so I consider this more of a description than a prediction.

LYDIA: So it’s just going to be less idea-driven from now on.

TYLER: Those are ideas in a sense, right? One of the biggest places ideas are processed in America is the comedy club, the comedy special, comedy on Netflix. Entertainment and ideas are closely related, but it's a different vehicle for carrying ideas from, say, the thought-provoking book that might have been published in 1977 and debated by New York City intellectuals over coffee. That world is dead.

LYDIA: Speaking of clear ideas, I know you're tangentially connected with the rationalist world — the community around Effective Altruism, for example. I feel like you're in the same sphere as LessWrong.

TYLER: That's correct. When I'm out there in the “normal,” “real” world, I feel that the real world so desperately needs more of these ideas — for example, applying reason to the problems of how to give away money or change policy. With that said, when I meet actual effective altruist groups or rationalist groups, I become hesitant. 

The rationalist community can itself be a kind of religion. I don't think that has to be bad, but I don't view them as the most rational people. I once sat down as an exercise and I tried to ask myself, "Of all the different classes of people I know, who are the most rational?" I think my answer was rabbis. Now, I'm not Jewish. I don't intend it as religious commentary. Rabbis have people come to them all the time with their problems, and they have to give advice or help people solve those problems. That makes them very rational. You could say, "Well, rabbis, by a rational standard, they have all kinds of beliefs that wouldn't pass muster." Maybe that’s true. I don't even believe in God myself, but at the same time, isn't it odd that rabbis are perhaps the most rational people as a class?

That kind of point, it seems to me, has not sunk in enough with the rationalist community. They think they are the most rational people, and somehow I doubt that. I'd love to see a study measuring the decisions people who identify as rationalist make in their romantic personal lives, for example — how rational those decisions are, compared to other individuals. I suspect they’d come out slightly below average.

It seems to me there's something about common sense morality, and an understanding of the imperfections in real world institutions, that should be refined in those communities. In that sense, I'm more influenced by Adam Smith and David Hume. Tradition has embedded wisdom, even though you can't always defend or justify it.

Whatever margin you're at, you don't have enough of something. Clearly most of the world is at margins where they need more rationalism, and more effective altruism. In that sense, I'm a big fan, and I wish those groups had way more influence, and I do my best to support that.

LYDIA: I broadly support rationalism as well, but I agree with you. Rationalism feels like a movement that is incredibly valuable as a thread, but it can become pathological if it starts getting dominant in a given culture.

TYLER: There's something geographically specialized about it. There's so many people from that community out where you live in the Bay Area. I'm not sure I can articulate why that is; it somehow feels right. 

I actually love geographically specialized points of view, but they ought to be thought of as such. For example, parts of the American South have their own geographically specialized point of view about martial valor, and honor, and particular ways men and women should treat each other. That's further from my personal approach, but there's still something there you can learn from.


“There are big reasons for optimism... We've mobilized so much more human talent, and that, possibly, will outweigh everything that’s going on. I'm not sure of that, but if I had to bet my money, I would bet on optimism.


LYDIA: This comes to questions about values, which I always find very interesting. The New Modality — this project is extremely values-driven. From the beginning, I’ve tried to clarify our values, set them out, and run the organization by them, and it’s a challenge. A worthwhile challenge, but still a challenge. 

I was thinking about this in relation to your work because I was looking at the Emergent Ventures grant [a small philanthropic grant that Tyler administers]. I saw that you said it’s a “pop-up grant,” that you're trying to remove a lot of the bureaucracy in traditional philanthropy, which I think is brilliant. 

Philanthropy is a wonderful thing, of course. It does a lot of good. But often, the world of institutional philanthropy moves slowly. It has a hard time funding up-and-coming ideas, or small emerging groups, often the ones that need the money most. I've spoken to philanthropists who want to solve this problem, and they often have a hard time within their paradigm. That’s why I think this pop-up idea is so cool. And one of the things you say, in your writing about Emergent Ventures, is that you're trying to fund people with good values. I'm curious about what you meant by that.

TYLER: We fund people who want to build things. People who do not want to tear down others. People whose natural propensity is to cooperate, and who cherish something about the human spirit.

Our application form is quite short. It's capped at 1,500 words, but one of the key questions we ask is an inversion of the old question: "Tell us your most absurd or most controversial view." Instead, our question says: "Tell us one mainstream view that you really agree with." So it's asking people not: "How are you different?" but rather: "How do you fit in? What do you stand for? What are your values?" 

When you go on social media, so much of the communication is people tearing each other down. At Emergent Ventures, we’re not interested in supporting that. I feel there's too much of it.

What is your main value, as a person?

LYDIA: Mine, as a person?


LYDIA: Often, when I think about this question, I think about something like compassion. When I wrote down the values for The New Modality — which is a really personal project and is hard to disentangle from myself — one of the top values for the organization is respect and empathy.

I agree with you that in the media, there's a lot of tearing down, and that's specifically something that I want to not focus on. I think critique is an important role for the media to play, especially if no one else is playing it, but right now, we have a situation where everyone's competing to do critique. It's how you get points in the media ecosystem right now, it's how you get ahead, and sometimes it’s truly vicious. I don’t think we’d be healthy without critique, but I don't think the current situation is healthy, either. I prefer a worldview where, even when you critique things, people, or ideas, it comes from a place of profound respect and empathy. 

Another of our three core values is truth, which sounds simple, but isn't. I try to stick by that in my life, and of course, NewMo is partly journalism, so truth and transparency are critical. But what does that mean in practice? Sometimes you get at truth just by being transparent about where you're coming from — you can't always be sure you're telling the truth, but you can outline your process for getting there. Of course, this all becomes a question of epistemology and there are bigger questions within that. You, Tyler, mentioned that you don't believe in God. But you can have a conversation with someone who does believe in God, like me. And we can find many truths together, even though there's one dimension on which we’re not aligned, right? That has to do with the ground conditions in which we are discussing the world, our shared epistemology.

I think a lot about, “What does it mean to be true and authentic to yourself, and also, what does it mean to tell the truth?”

The third value that I wrote down for The New Modality was stewardship — using sustainable practices and preferably regenerative ones. Again, this project is hard to disentangle from myself, and these are values that guide my life, or at least I try to be guided by them. But if I had to pick one specifically for myself, it would probably be empathy.

TYLER: Well, good luck with all that. It sounds wonderful.

LYDIA: It's interesting that you say “building something” as a value. That's cool.

TYLER: I want to fund people who are out there doing something, who have a project and are seeing it through, and who identify with some purpose larger than themselves. In that sense, my mode of thought is quite religious. I often feel I'm more religious than a lot of the religious people I know.

LYDIA: Do you have spiritual beliefs, or is it more that you identify with the religious framework?

TYLER: Some people will say, "I'm spiritual but not religious." I would sooner say, “I'm religious but not spiritual.” My cosmology is maybe agnostic, tending not to believe that there's a God as commonly understood, but I have this core American idea that you have values, you go out, you build things, you do things. You take on projects, and those projects should help other people. You're very committed to this, you see it through. I'm a big believer in that.

To me, that comes from a particular kind of Protestantism in American history, so it's very religious. Whereas the New Age-y, touchy-feely aspect of spirituality — none of that resonates with me. I get it works for many people. I'm more to the point and blunt, like, "Let's go do something." 

LYDIA: Which religious systems have the best frameworks?

TYLER: The major religions of the world have the best and stickiest frameworks for those ideas. Obviously each religion is different and contains many strands, but it's not an accident that those are the stickiest ideas, right? Those are what carry culture more effectively than, say, political philosophy or the great books of the ancients. I spend a lot of time with the great books, but those are minority interests, whereas I would guesstimate that maybe half of humanity is reasonably religious. And one ought to study the potent ideas, whether or not you believe in the God part.

LYDIA: On the topic of American ideas, many of the ideas you deal with are about progress. One of the recent Emergent Ventures grants went to Jason Crawford and his Roots Of Progress blog. And in many of your books, you talk about growth and economic concepts around progress. 

What’s your perspective on the way society is thinking about progress? In some ways, the very notion is up for discussion lately, often for good reasons. People are concerned about what different notions of corporate progress have brought into society, so you have some folks creating new notions of GDP that measure different things, stuff like that.

TYLER: I'm all for people innovating with new measures. I once wrote a Bloomberg column about all the new measures I’d like to see us experiment with. But it's still striking to me that, at the end of the day, the countries I would consider living in are the high-GDP countries, oil principalities aside. 

That’s by a very crude measure of GDP that has a lot wrong with it. Most of what the critics say is correct, but if you ask, "Where could you imagine living? Which countries? Which states?" It's western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, maybe Japan, the US, Canada. You, Lydia, your favorite state in the United States seems to be California, right? It's our wealthiest state, and the largest economy in the world. So the mileage one gets from the crude measures has, I think, become underrated. 

The wealthiest places are supporting a lot of the experimentation with understanding wealth better, because it is true: Wealth, per se, does not make you happy above a certain level.

LYDIA: What’s the most interesting thing about progress studies?

TYLER: For several decades, the United States — aside from the tech sector — has seen relatively little change. If you enter an American room now versus, say, 1973, other than the computer, it's oddly like 1973. That has not been the case for any comparably long period in American history ever before. 

Today there's a renaissance of interest in getting the rate of progress to be higher again, and I've been amazed and delighted just how many people care about this topic and think progress is meaningful. People have a notion of one state of affairs being objectively better than another. Many feel a personal mission to help the world make more progress. The ideas are often condemned as naïve, or as tools of imperialism, but I think we need more progress thinking, and I've been trying to support it.

LYDIA: How is that different from the history of science, as a field? It sounds like — maybe this is the wrong word, but it's almost more ideologically driven, like it has a commitment to a perspective, in a way that the history of science doesn't.

TYLER: It has more of a problem-solving bent than a lot of history of science. Much of the history of science is about publishing another paper in an academic journal — which is fine; I do that myself — but it's limited in terms of synthesizing knowledge the way, say, an old-style corporate research lab might have done.

To some extent there's no difference, though. I just want things like the history and economics of science to be better known, to be done by more people, and to have much higher status within the professions of history and economics. If you look at economics, I don't think even 1% of economics is the economics of science! It should be at least 10%. 

That this is an odd view shows how static our world has become. I talk to many people who, when they hear this, they think, "My goodness! This is right. The economics of science should be at least 10% of economics.” Once people open their minds to it, it sounds obvious. It's not partisan; you can have whatever political views, and agree with that proposition.

LYDIA: I'm interested in futurist ideas in the economic space. I'm curious about the trends you track, or the thinkers you're following who have their finger on the pulse of where things could go in a long time — not just tomorrow or in 10 years or 50 years, but over a vast future.

TYLER: I don't feel we live in an age of thinkers. So it's not like Freeman Dyson, who just passed away, or Buckminster Fuller — these people who had fully mapped-out visions of how things will evolve. We live in a world of bits, where you fish for little bits and you put them together in your own picture. It's more about, "How good is your fishing net?" and not, "Here are the six thinkers who see where the world is headed." 

In a way, we really downgraded the thinker. It's about the firehose, right? The flow of stuff coming at you, and you're just trying to catch parts of it. So I don't have any thinkers to recommend. Maybe people who are aggregators in some manner, but there's even a fishing net for aggregators, in fact. Too many aggregators. 

LYDIA: Are there other areas of economics that you think are underappreciated, aside from the economics of science? What would your overvalued / undervalued table look like for economics?

TYLER: We’ve reached the point where, finally, we are doing enough development economics. It was undervalued for a long time, but the recent Nobel Prize went to three people in development economics. Still, even in development economics, too much of it is in the English-speaking world. 

Labor economics used to be undervalued. Now it’s where it ought to be.

The economics of what makes people happy has become more popular, but it's still not very good. What, in your economic life, actually gives you satisfaction? Is it the things where you enjoy the process? Things where you enjoy the status? Simply when you earn money flat-out? Times you enjoy working with other people? How do people think about those trade-offs? It's not purely economics, but economics has the best understanding of trade-offs out of any social science. We've made progress, but it seems to me that this is very knowable information, and we're still falling short. If you knew what made you happy as a person, you could have a much better life.

I'm not convinced most people have happiness as a priority. I asked for your priority. You said empathy. You didn't say happiness, so maybe there's plenty of cases where you will give up happiness for other ends, and that's fine. I don't think I've met a person who just wants to be happy.

LYDIA: I think meaning matters much more than happiness.

TYLER: People will take on commitments that might make them less happy to have more meaning. I wonder, though: When people turn their backs on meaning, what are they doing?

What are the trade-offs you make? When do you decide against meaning? When do you just say, "Oh, fuck the meaning. I'm just going to be happy”? Because that does happen sometimes. How do we think about those choices? When does meaning not have enough meaning for us, so to speak?

LYDIA: It looks to me like people have those breakdowns when they feel betrayed, or like meaning has broken down in a specific high-cost scenario. They've committed to something, possibly they sacrificed for it, and then it turned out to be a bad idea or wrong, or it had an outcome that they didn't expect, and they lose faith.

TYLER: There can also be more positive scenarios where you reject meaning. Maybe like how when you try too hard to get to sleep, you don't sleep very well. If you try too hard to pursue meaning — if you're always asking, "What's the meaning of this?" — it might be very hard to produce meaning. But if, say, a quarter of the time, you just throw meaning to the winds, you might end up with better meaning or more meaning.

It doesn't seem to me we understand that logic very well.

LYDIA: It reminds me of notions of play. We understand that children play, but when you talk about adults, it's often difficult to get at notions of play among adults. We all intellectually know that play is still important for adults, but it's hard — especially for really motivated adults — to give themselves time for it and dedicate resources to it. The frame in which the people I know are capable of putting time into play is, like, "I feel comfortable putting X number of hours towards play today, so that I will work more effectively for the rest of the day."

TYLER: I wonder about when children reject play. So much of the time, children don't play. They might obsess over repetition, for instance, and maybe some of that is play, but a lot of it seems to be repetition for its own sake. They'll re-watch the same video or the same TV show, or they'll put things in a row in the same way and keep on doing it. It's as if they're deviating from play, or maybe rebelling against it. Like, "You're not going to make me be free and spontaneous. I'm going to be rigid here."

LYDIA: I think of play as something that I'm trying to work on, as ironic as that sounds. I'm even trying to highlight play with this magazine — but also in life, trying to make sure that people value it as much as I think it is valuable.

TYLER: I'm not sure my own project here is transparent to myself. Am I trying to play more? Play less? Improve my play? I don't even know that about myself. That's how much of a fog I'm in. It's not that I haven't thought about it. That tells us something.

Maybe I'm bad at play. I don't know. Should I try to be better at it or should I just, "Oh, I'm bad at that?" Sort of like soccer; I'm bad at soccer. I'm just not going to play soccer. Maybe I'm bad at play too.

LYDIA: Your work contains a lot of play, right? You get to hang out and talk with people a lot of the time. From my external perspective, one way of interpreting the way you've set up your life is that you've created enough space for you to play exactly how you want, and it's all very integrated.

TYLER: It's possible, but again, I'm not sure I understand myself what I've constructed. I'm not sure I would be better off if I understood it. There's some kind of mystery, maybe a self-deception. Maybe that keeps me motivated. 

LYDIA: Fair enough! Now, is there anything else you wanted to talk about? 

TYLER: Have a good day. Survive the virus. Stock up on whatever it is you need. You probably have already.

LYDIA: Yes. My housemates and I are mostly working from home now and we aren't going out very much. Our projection is that we're probably going to be under some sort of official quarantine soon, like within the next two or three weeks. My sense is that it won't be literally that we can't leave our houses, like over in Wuhan, in China. But it probably will be something like non-essential travel is discouraged, most places are closed, that kind of thing. [Update: The Mayor of San Francisco issued a "Shelter in Place" order on March 16th, one week after this conversation happened.]

TYLER: And we'll have to think new thoughts. We're not used to the siege mentality in America. I've been reading a bit about quarantines and the history of pandemics and sieges and so on. I'll read more, but it's unfamiliar territory for this country. Though there’s history — like in 19th century novels, it's all over the place. Authors like Charles Dickens, everywhere. There's cholera, there's typhus, there's typhoid, there's meningitis, there's smallpox, there's leprosy. All in these novels. It's an obsession, in fact. We almost don't notice it when we read those novels today, and now we're back to that. Very strange.

I want to reread some of Dickens on various plagues, like in Bleak House.

LYDIA: Do you see any reason for optimism?

TYLER: There are big reasons for optimism. If you take the world in general and ask a simple question, "Are there more talented people today working to solve problems?" there are many more, by a large order of magnitude, compared to 20 or 30 years ago. In China, India, Nigeria — so many places in the world — there's more opportunity, and those people are creators, scientists, migrants, innovators. We've mobilized so much more human talent, and that, possibly, will outweigh everything that’s going on. I'm not sure of that, but if I had to bet my money, I would bet on optimism.

And I don't see anything ending that. A lot of the empowerment is the internet, and I think the internet will get better at finding those people. Who's really smart? Who's potentially a great writer? Who's potentially a great programmer? We're just scratching the surface for using the internet to find and mobilize those individuals. Whatever it is you've ended up doing has happened because of the internet, right? That will be systematized, more commoditized. There will be a more formal search. We'll bring machine learning and artificial intelligence to bear on this. So the people in, say, West Africa who have the most potential to do a certain thing, their chance of being mobilized will be much higher soon.

When will Issue One of The New Modality come out, in print?

LYDIA: May, assuming nothing completely off-the-wall happens.

TYLER: I wouldn't assume that, but it could still come out in May.

LYDIA: I know, right? But this operation is pretty small. Everyone already works remotely. The main existential threat to NewMo is if I die. Then the project probably ends, though maybe not — I've tried to leave enough info that someone else could pick it up. If I have to go to the hospital, or care for dying loved ones, or maybe our art director gets really sick, or if our printer becomes unable to print magazines, the project will be significantly delayed. Those are the major points of failure. It's not like we're supporting a big office. So our timeline could be delayed, but it's less likely than some organizations.

TYLER: Sounds good. Well, good luck. Take care.

LYDIA: You too. Take care.

• Part of this interview AND a lot of other great stuff will be included in Issue One of The New Modality. Pre-order your print copy or subscribe to the magazine here.


Process Notes

This interview was conducted and edited by Lydia Laurenson, editor in chief of The New Modality. It was not fact-checked. Learn more about our process and our transparency policy at our page about truth and transparency.