You’ve heard me talk about crash-only programming, right? It’s a programming paradigm for critical infrastructure systems, where there is — by design — no graceful way to shut down. A program can only crash and try to recover from a crashed state, which might well be impossible. I came up with a term for the human version: beef-only thinking.
A beef-only thinker is someone you cannot simply talk to. Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation to conflict. From there, you can only crash into honor-based conflict mode, or back away and disengage.
The connection to crash-only programming is more than cosmetic, but it will take some set-up before I can establish the conceptual bridge.
Online public spaces are now being slowly taken over by beef-only thinkers, as the global culture wars evolve into a stable, endemic, background societal condition of continuous conflict. As the Great Weirding morphs into the Permaweird, the public internet is turning into the Internet of Beefs.
The Internet of Beefs, or IoB, is everywhere, on all platforms, all the time. Meatspace is just a source of matériel to be deployed online, possibly after some tasteful editing, decontextualization, and now AI-assisted manipulation.
If you participate in online public life, you cannot entirely avoid the Internet of Beefs. It is too big, too ubiquitous, and too widely distributed and connected across platforms. To continue operating in public spaces without being drawn into the conflict, you have to build an arsenal of passive-aggressive behaviors like subtweeting, ghosting, blocking, and muting — all while ignoring beef-only thinkers calling you out furiously as dishonorable and cowardly, and trying to bait you into active aggression.
Your only other option is to retreat to a shadowy network of private spaces defended by blocks, restricted feeds, secret-group gatekeeping boundaries, and subscribers-only paywalls. A sort of underground Internet that I’ve previously called the CozyWeb.
Beefing is everywhere on the internet. Bernie and Warren beef with each other and with Trump, different schools of economists beef with each other over trade policy, climate hawks beef with climate doves. Here you see Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson taking their beef offline. There you see Ben Shapiro attempt to bait Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into a live beef for the hundredth time. And over on that side, we find Jesse Singal beefing with trans activists.
And in one corner by himself, of course, is Nassim Taleb beefing with all comers on all topics.
Taleb muddying the factional boundaries of the culture war is one of the few genuinely amusing theaters of the conflict on the IoB. The blast radius around his twitter feed is not a safe space for anyone besides members of his own cult of Mesopotamian personality.
And this is just the North American, English-language theater of the IoB (the other major one I’m familiar with, the Indian theater, is much worse).
Mooks and Knights
The most important beefs though, are not between celebrities at all, but among the anonymous masses who face off under their banners.
Conflict on the IoB is not governed by any sort of grand strategy, or even particularly governed by ideological doctrines. It is an unflattened Hobbesian honor-society conflict with a feudal structure, at the heart of which is an involuntarily anonymous, fungible, angry figure desperate to be seen as significant: the mook.
The semantic structure of the Internet of Beefs is shaped by high-profile beefs between charismatic celebrity knights loosely affiliated with various citadel-like strongholds peopled by opt-in armies of mooks. The vast majority of the energy of the conflict lies in interchangeable mooks facing off against each other, loosely along lines indicated by the knights they follow, in innumerable battles that play out every minute across the IoB.
Almost none of these battles matter individually. Most mook-on-mook contests are witnessed, for the most part, only by a few friends and algorithms, and merit no overt notice in either Vox or Quillette. Beyond a local uptick in cortisol levels, individual episodes of mook-on-mook violence are of no consequence.
In aggregate though, they matter. A lot. They are the raison d’être of the IoB.
The standard pattern of conflict on the IoB is depressingly predictable. A mook takes note of a casus belli in the news cycle (often created or co-opted by a knight, and referred to on the IoB as the outrage cycle), and heads over to their favorite multiplayer online battle arena (Twitter being the most important MOBA) to join known mook allies to fight stereotypically familiar but often unknown interchangeable mook foes. They come prepared either to melee within the core, or skirmish on the periphery, either rallying around the knights riding under known beef-only banners, or adventuring by themselves in unflagged, unheralded side battles.
There is no higher honor for a mook than to be noticed by the knights they fight for. As a result, the fealty of the mook is the currency of the manorial economy of the IoB. Mookcoins are mined by knights through acts of senpai-notice-me. Call it proof-of-favor. And on mookcoins runs the economy of the IoB.
A mook once animated by a grievance is hard to destroy.
Loyalties might shift through knightly sell-outs and betrayals, and mook allegiances might shift individually or en masse in ideologically incoherent ways, but once the psyche of a mook becomes animated by grievance-power, there is no going back. It is an almost irreversible sort of dehumanization.
The more mooks a knight of the IoB can maintain in a stable state of combat-readiness, the bigger a player they are on the IoB. If you are blessed with a better, beefier class of mook in your army, capable of sustaining and dishing out more damage points, they will even win over mooks from adjacent theaters of conflict for you, and perhaps even bait a few frustrated non-combatants (not the same as NPCs, who are in fact a class of combatant present on all sides) into joining the conflict. To the seasoned knight, it doesn’t matter whether a new mook joins on their side or the other side; the point is to grow and sustain the conflict rather than win (more on that later).
And to be a knight, of course, is to have a recognized name, and a storied reputation as a beef-only thinker to be reckoned with; one capable of owning opposed knights (and “absolutely eviscerating” them in strategically edited YouTube clips). Knights might be affiliated with a known imperial banner, or less frequently, freelancers like Taleb (the term freelancer comes from mercenary knights, with no fixed loyalties, in the medieval era).
The centrality of mooks is an important point that is often overlooked (often by knights and mooks themselves) because of the obvious insignificance of any particular mook in isolation. In aggregate, however, mook power is what the IoB is about. If the relatively peaceful web of the 90s and aughts was about civilian eyeballs, the IoB is about mook-on-mook combat clicks, and is now entering its second decade (Searing Twenties is the eyeball-roasting name I’ve entered into the naming contest; fite me irl if you disagree).
The technology of the IoB is the technology of pitting crowds of mooks against one another, as Renee DiResta presciently pointed out in her 2016 post, Crowds and Technology (now the trailhead of a 4-part primer on the IoB; read the whole thing if all this is new to you).
Conflict on the IoB is shaped not by the strategic intentions of its nominal leaders (who largely have none, beyond keeping the conflict profitably alive and growing), but by emotional energy flows in the field of mooks. The best knights on the IoB, such as Trump, operate by an entirely reactive philosophy: “there go my mooks; I must find out where they are going, so I can get out in front and lead them.”
Actual belief is a liability on the IoB. The more a knight of the IoB genuinely believes in whatever principle they think they are fighting for, the less effective they are as wranglers of fickle mook energy. Sincerely ideological players routinely overestimate the depth of intellectual coherence required to accumulate and wield mook power, producing nerdy intellectual edifices where mere covfefe gestures would not just do the job, but actually do it better.
The very best knights of the IoB carry on their beef-only cultural conflicts only because the mooks make it profitable for them to do so. For the mook, the conflict is a means to an end, however incoherent. For the knight, the conflict is the end. Growing it, and keeping it going, is something like an entrepreneurial cultural capital business model (one with no exit from the hell-market of other people; Sartre would be proud).
If conflict in any particular theater shows dangerous signs of actually resolving itself, another must be spun up to take its place, much as businesses that hope to survive must replace markets in decline with new ones.
As a result, on the IoB, the only meaningful transaction is the pitched battle between armies of mooks, the equivalent of a viral hit. The bloodier and stupider, the better for the instigating knights on all sides. The greater the futility, the more useful, since it reinforces a disposition towards conflict for the sake of conflict.
Strategy is not just absent, it is an outright liability, since it might encourage negotiation and compromise, lower the social-death body-count of faceless mooks, inhibit GDP growth in the mook manorial economy, and worst of all, potentially end the conflict.
A common posture among the Knights of the IoB — one that is more often clueless than disingenuous — is that the mooks are not important.
That the knights are neither responsible for what the mooks do, nor accountable for the views held by mooks who fight under their banners.
That the existence of mooks is merely a sort of unfortunate and unavoidable natural side-effect, rather than the whole point.
That the work of mining more mooks through senpai-notice-me marks of favor is innocent noblesse oblige towards an oppressed population that one reluctantly leads, rather than a profitable grievance mine that one lives off.
That the excesses of one’s own mooks are both overstated and forgivable as crimes of temporary, misguided, and justified exuberance, while those of the other side’s mooks embody the spiritual, if not biological, end of humanity.
That they are engaged in high-minded cultural battles for the soul of society against dishonorable opposition fatally compromised by bad faith, while themselves only reluctantly entering the battlefield out of a sense of duty, and bound by a code of reasonable, unbiased, balanced conduct, even if it means nobly marching to martyrdom.
I call this posture mook manorialism.
The posture is similar to, and indeed overlaps with, the postures of revolutionary leaders who instigate what has come to be known as stochastic terrorism. The difference is that the Lord of a Mook Manor maintains a sanitary ideological distance from his mooks while keeping them tactically close on the IoB: close enough to hear dogwhistles and take tactical cues from their own marquee jousts, distant enough for plausible ideological deniability. Unlike the leaders of ISIS, IoB knights are not particularly eager to take responsibility for terror attacks under their banners, only to profit from their consequences.
Mook manorialism is an economy based on axe-grinding. As the peasantry, mooks do more than fight other mooks. They are also responsible for keeping grievances large and small well-nursed and alive. Occasionally, through an act like whistleblowing or leaking of confidential communications, a mook might briefly become a named player in a particular theater of conflict, but the median mook is primarily expected to keep everyday grievances alive and fight under the glare of algorithmic lights when called upon to do so, unrecognized by history, but counted in the statistics and noticed by the AIs (senpAIs?).
Importantly, unless you do something dumb that makes you vulnerable to being drawn into the mook-manorial economy against your will, such as saying something that can be used against you while in a position of authority in an important institution, the IoB is an opt-in conflict arena.
You only opt-in to the Internet of Beefs driven by a sincere grievance if you are mook enough to want to. If you aren’t, and you haven’t fallen into the IoB by becoming vulnerable or compromised in some way, you are there either because you’ve been baited in, or because you are profiting from its existence.
The arsenal of baiting techniques on display is impressive. At the lowest level, mooks are created primarily through the taunting and mockery of pre-existing mooks, and the rare notices of beefing senpais (and viral-celebrity creating senpAIs). At the highest level, women (and some men) play a particularly important role, as thirst-trap players in ideological clothing, drawing in wannabe knights eager to fight for, among other things, their honor and a higher-value currency of attention. If senpai-notices power the mooks, thirst-trap notices power half the knights. If the mooks are maintained in a state of continuous partial grievance by the knights, the knights are maintained in a state of continuously parched replyguy frustration by the thirst traps in their high towers.
And of course, behind the scenes there are organized state and non-state actors, from Putin on down, adding fuel to every convenient fire, and occasionally starting fires where there are no convenient pre-existing ones.
Cultures of Conflict
Among the most grimly amusing aspects of the IoB is that the endemic conflict unfolding endlessly and pointlessly on it is called a culture war. So what exactly is cultural about the culture war?
The nominal bones of contention, such as representation in movies, or the status of the Western canon or enlightenment values in higher-education, appear to simply be convenient recruitment hooks that conform in fairly obvious ways to mook identities. The culture wars are no more identitarian and cultural by virtue of the content than any other war, as far as I can tell. And certainly beefing on the IoB does little to satisfyingly settle questions of identity one way or another.
Given that it has few literal casualties, perhaps the conflict itself can be viewed as a form of artistic cultural production?
Maybe you enjoy the show, but I suspect most observers are with me in concluding that the Internet of Beefs is largely bereft of aesthetic merit, and infinitely more capable of producing cortisol than art. Even the actual patterns of conflict are devoid of the sort of visible strategic artistry that might warm the souls of connoisseurs of the military arts. The IoB is just relentless, ugly, shittiness, unredeemed by any actual cultural production.
So I ask again, what is cultural about the culture wars?
I suspect it is the centrality of beefing — a stylized, theatrical pattern of conflict designed to present a theater of moral righteousness, signal virtues, visibly strive towards a declared utopian condition, and most importantly, resist meaningful resolution. The conflict must be as impossible to terminate as the notional utopias being sought are impossible to actually attain. Beefing, in other words, is a lousy way to conduct or resolve an unsustainable conflict, but an excellent way to perpetuate and grow a sustainable one.
The Nature of Beefs
Let me offer a definition, inspired by Huizenga’s treatment of pre-modern conflict in Homo Ludens:
A beef is a ritualized, extended conflict between named, evenly matched combatants who each stand for a marquee ideological position, and most importantly, reciprocate each other’s hostile feelings in active, engaged ways. A beef is something like the evil twin of a love affair. A beef must be conducted with visible skill and honor (though codes of honor may be different on the different sides), and in public view. Each combatant must be viewed, by his or her supporters, as having picked a worthy adversary, otherwise the contest means nothing. The combatants fight not for material advantage, but for a symbolic victory that can be read as signifying the cosmic, spiritual righteousness and rightness of what they are fighting for. So the conflict must be at least nominally fair, hard to call decisively, and open to luck, cunning cheating, and ex-post mythologizing by all sides, in terms favorable to their own champions.
A IoB beef is not mere trash-talk among people who are obviously friends, accompanied by laughter and signs of affection. Whether real or staged, a beef must present the appearance of a genuine conflict to the mook audience. Umbrage must be taken and seen to be taken. Insults must be hurled. The venom must seem real. The mutual dislike must be palpable.
The beef then, is ideally prosecuted via a series of ideological coin-tosses, conducted with emotional sincerity and an honorable display of prowess by the worthiest and most well-matched combatants, designed to discover what the gods will for the future of humanity, and which tribe of mooks they have picked out as the chosen people, destined to survive the culture war and come out the other end (date TBD) with identities intact.
It is, of course, an absolutely silly way to conduct a conflict one intends to decisively win and replace with a pragmatic peace. In a real conflict, you would seek an overwhelming advantage, and ideally, to win without firing a shot, at no cost. On the IoB, knights seek balanced matches, actual fighting, and no outcome, at the highest cost possible.
You cannot predict the course of a culture war by trying to understand it as a military conflict. You can only predict it by trying to understand it as the deliberate perpetuation of a culture of conflict by those with an interest in keeping it alive.
Here it is useful to look at beefs in the artistic and sporting worlds.
The Beef Element in Culture
Beefs, of course, are a staple of the arts, in which we can include sports. Artists must war with words to make their presence in the world felt. As this excellent essay by Hua Hsu argues, beefs, rather than actual works of art, are the dominant currency of the creative world. You are only as good as your beefs.
Counterintuitively, to increase the beef quotient of an art or sport, you have to reduce the level of the actual conflict and skill in favor of the staged kind. That’s how you get from wrassling to professional wrestling. You have to head towards more mannered, stylized, genre forms of cultural production.
The more a scene shaped by artistic or athletic beefs conforms to a mannered and generic aesthetic, the easier it is for mook consumers to appreciate the formulaic, legible artistry on display, and tediously imitate it in their own anonymous beefing on the sidelines. What little actual taste the mook has requires highly legible conventions and tropes to feed on. Subtlety and nuance are lost on the mook. To demand imagination from a mook is to render him less effective on the battlefield. Only near-robotic programming will work.
Of course, the presence of a beef does not always indicate the presence of beef-only thinking. It might be scripted or improvised theater, it might be incompetently pursued real conflict, or it might be something in that zone of quantum indeterminacy known as kayfabe. But I suspect beefing in the creative world is more serious than people suspect. It is easier to imagine poets actively hating each other than football players.
The peculiar mix of sensitivity and insecurity in the artistic psyche is a recipe for genuinely beefy sensibilities. As Hsu observes:
It stands to reason that artists who possess a sensitivity to human nature would themselves be hypersensitive people. And it makes sense that those with gifts for storytelling and narration are capable of shaping petty jealousy into something noble and epic.
Unfortunately, unlike the worlds of art and sport, where beefing is traditionally part of the game, and central to the production of culture that enriches the life of the spectator, the Internet of Beefs produces neither great works of art, nor enthralling spectacles. It is beefing for the sake of beefing.
The use of the emoji merely indicates an active beef in progress, and some potential for schadenfreude, but you’re better off reading as a marker of crossfire danger than movie-like entertainment.
The Internet of Beefs, unlike the worlds of sport, faux-sport, and art, is full of artless, productless beefing rife with genuine, sometimes deadly, hostility. The most dangerous players are not the most celebrated knights, but the mookiest mooks, animated by a sincere belief that they too, are knights, unable to recognize their own essential inconsequentiality, and mistaking their literacy in a discourse for ironic above-the-ordinary-mook stature.
The IoB is, at its core, a vast zone of wartime fan fiction generated by copypasta mooks LARPing knightly patterns of conflict, and attempting to write themselves into the end of history as heroic Mary Sues, one meme at a time.
Being After Time
What separates the knight from the mook, of course, is not a nerdy literacy in a particular beef-only discourse, but a capacity for a profitable originality within it. The mark of a knight of the vast round table of the Internet of Beefs is the relentless pursuit of the Holy Grift. A mercantile mission for the end of history.
This is not a novel observation. Every non-combatant observer of the culture wars appears to have arrived at this conclusion, and many prominent knights have admitted it in private. The signs of a core economy of profiteering and carpetbagging are just too unmistakeable. This does not mean that there isn’t a core of actual missionary sentiment driving most knights. It just means, push come to shove, that the grifting motive will rule behavior rather than ideological ends.
The grifters keep the culture war going, but did they create it? This might be the most basic political question of our times, and I believe the answer is no.
A basic mistake made by many watchers of the culture war is to assume that grifter knights did in fact create the mook manorial economy that sustains them. That it is not only being sustained top-down, but was in fact created top-down, by design.
The story goes: state actors, media empires, and technology platform companies enable the IoB infrastructure level as an economic sector. The knights of the IoB, whether missionary axe-grinders, mercenary freelancers, or something in between, use that infrastructure skillfully to downgrade innocent humans into mooks, and keep them profitably angry and fighting.
While the mooks fight, the knights make money. While the knights make money, state actors and technology companies reshape the map of the world to rule it better.
It is a tempting theory.
There are even stylized patterns of conflict that suggest such a top-down designed order beneath the chaos of the conflict. There is the brinkmanship of cancel culture. There is the insistent baiting of “civil debate” culture. There is the presence of supposedly addictive UX patterns. There are powerful state cyberwar agencies. And everywhere, all around, there is the constant, exhausting cosmic background radiation of relentless, sleepless, slightly panicked mockery of the outgroup led by the knightly class. It is tempting to believe that this is a world in which your average mook has no agency.
Tempting but wrong; it is a theory that flatters the conceit of the knightly class and state actors that they, rather than the zombie mooks, are in fact in charge.
Mooks believe this too, because it is a pleasant conspiracy theory that lets them off the hook: regular human beings are naturally nice and peaceable, and evil powers-that-be dehumanize them into zombie-mook armies through their evil Bond-villain ex-machinations. And the only reason they are fighting on Side X is because the worst of the Bond villains are on the other side. They are merely honorably choosing the least among many evils.
Sadly, this is mere self-congratulation by self-important knights and mooks. If it were that simple, a round of tasteful guillotining would achieve peacemaking miracles, liberate the mooks, raise their consciousness, and produce the kind of utopia yellow-jacketed France is not.
State and non-state actors act to enable the IoB because the existence of the knights makes it valuable to do so. The knights exist profitably because the mooks enable them to. The IoB is an economy of opportunity created by the human condition at the end of history. It is a consequence rather than the cause.
It’s all about the mooks. It’s always been about the mooks. About the economic and political opportunities presented by the curse of downcycled human resources available for one last, long harvest before the machine butlers replace them. To mint a mook is not an act against history. Just a gentle nudge to accelerate an almost inevitable outcome.
So the question really is: where did the mooks come from? A speculative answer I’m working on takes the theories of Francis Fukuyama to a conclusion he himself has been reluctant to take them lately: The mooks were born of the End of History, as zombie Last Persons; pale shadows of dead archetypes drawn from many imagined histories. Histories that are all thirty years past their terminus.
That then is the mook: a Last Person fighting soullessly over the right to perpetuate a dead identity as a Mary Sue protagonist of unbearably bad fan fictions of nothingness.
Events, even seemingly historic events, continuing to happen does not mean history is continuing past its end. I am convinced — even as Fukuyama himself (come at me bro) walks back his theories — that history did in fact end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that the emergence of vast mook classes around the world is a natural consequence. History ends not when the stream of apparently historic events ends, but when the world loses a sense of a continuing narrative, and arrives at what psychologists call a sense of a foreshortened future.
That happened in 1989, even if took nearly 30 years for everybody to get the memo, and get Very Online to beef about it, leaving lonely billionaires dreaming of space colonies peopled — and roboted — by a less disheartening post-historical transhuman species.
The rise of the Internet of Beefs, as a direct consequence of the end of history, presents a difficult challenge for those of us who haven’t been entirely mookified yet and aren’t billionaire enough to dream of living on Mars, served by identityless robots.
Because the only way to end the endless Hobbesian war of all against all at the end of history is to reboot history.
This is not a trivial undertaking.
It is not a matter of teaching the uncouth mooks some civility.
It is not about beefing knights debating with civility and arriving at a new imaginative consensus understanding (or even a harmonious dissensus understanding) of the human condition and announcing an armistice to the grateful and exhausted mooks.
It is not about a return to broad-based prosperity driven by the reversal of climate change, the promise of space exploration, nanotechnology, quantum computing, and CRISPR.
It is not about contrite Robber Baron oligarchs suddenly growing a conscience thanks to the sermonizing and shaming of ethicists, and designing more humane technologies into their neoliberal capitalist platforms.
And it is not about guillotines, universal basic incomes, progressive taxation, free college, or debt jubilees.
We are not beefing endlessly because we do not desire peace or because we do not know how to engineer peace. We are beefing because we no longer know who we are, each of us individually, and collectively as a species. Knight and mook alike are faced with the terrifying possibility that if there is no history in the future, there is nobody in particular to be once the beefing stops.
And the only way to reboot history is to figure out new beings to be. Because that’s ultimately what beefing is about: a way to avoid being, without allowing time itself to end.
Being and Beefing
The end of history is why beef-only thinking is crash-only thinking for humans. The IoB is a way of shorting our collective humanity and crashing old ways of being entirely, with no promise of recovery and reboot.
To participate is to lose.
But building and maintaining increasingly costly defenses in the form of progressively thickening skin and strengthening force fields of passive aggressive resistance is also unsustainable.
And to retreat into what I call waldenponding or to the CozyWeb is to cede public spaces entirely to the mook-manorial economy and accelerate the crash.
It is a no-exit, hellish condition.
The conclusion is inescapable: the IoB will shut down, and give way to something better, only when we know who we want to be — individually and collectively — when the beefing stops, and regenerate into that form. Only that will allow history to be rebooted, and time to be restarted.
So where does that leave us?
We who seek to discover a future again, and ways of being that reboot history, by giving ourselves to history as beings for it to be about?
We who are Very Online and destined to eventually die on the Internet of Beefs, but do not wish to?
Like all the best questions, this one is at once intensely practical — all about digital hygiene and how to design and use devices of connection to think — and intensely philosophical — about finding ways to be reborn without literally dying.
I don’t have answers, but I like that I finally at least have a question.
About Venkatesh Rao
Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter