My Insights

Thermodynamics, Pynchon and Meme

Thermodynamics, Pynchon and Meme

. . .  these follow-ups were no more disquieting than other revelations which now seemed to come crowding in exponentially, as if the more she collected the more would come to her, until everything she saw, smelled, dreamed, remembered, would somehow come to be woven into The Tristero.
Thomas Pynchon, Crying of Lot 49

If web3 is propelled by the power of meme, and the edges of how a community builds, sustains and operates around it, then Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 is an extremely effective allegory. Fiction provides us a playbook for these new models we haven’t yet tried. Pynchon explores how communities transmit and share information, and the subcultures that emerge around these narratives.  Written in 1966, it is a pre-web narrative of web3’s ethos.

Pynchon’s more recent work, Bleeding Edge is set in the weeks before 9/11/01, but his characters’ travels through the dark corners of the internet reflects my experience, one late night, successfully bridging matic from mainnet to polygon, or falling deep into an etherscan transaction. Pynchon’s discombobulating style evokes the feeling of early web3, and the themes he explores show an understanding of its ethos that came far before even web1. Crying of Lot 49 is just short and snappy enough to read repeatedly, and discover a new layer every time.

On its surface, the plot follows Oedipa Maas as she attempts to execute the will of a past lover, Pierce Inverarity, all the while uncovering symbols and patterns that are either: real, meaningful keys that unlock a deeper understanding of Inverarity’s life and the secret society, The Tristero, he belonged to - or - an elaborate, fabricated, gaslit journey.

In order to properly carry out her work as executor, she dutifully follows the patterns as they progress from simple (a stamp collection) to increasingly coded and complex (a machine that defies the laws of thermodynamics, an underground counterculture postal delivery collective).

Joining a DAO is not so dissimilar. On the surface, there is a simple call to adventure. Then, there are the memes that accompany this call, memes that become more powerful, more specific, more distinguishing and more classifying, the more time one spends within.

Oedipa discovers many such memes the deeper she goes, though it becomes dizzying when and where she encounters these myths and legends. The muted post horn, the story of Trystero, the charcoal filters sourced from the abandoned bones at the bottom of the Italian waters. . .  these emerge and appear even, or especially, when she is not actively looking.

Early on, Oedipa tries to reference the meme herself, thinking she understands it, only to discover that she is far from fluent. Her failed attempt only causes those inside to close ranks, and makes clear that not only is she not yet a part of the community, but also surfaces doubt over where and whether the community may exist and what it is.

Anyone who has ever joined a discord has experienced this. Regardless of how effective and well designed an onboarding process may be, we are still so early. Our tools are imperfect, resulting in friction, at times intended, at times accidental, as we attempt to enter and understand where the community is, what it is, and what it means to be within it.

As Oedipa starts seeing signs of Tristero/Trystero everywhere, similarly, the deeper we go inside these memes, especially as we go there together, the more frequently and ubiquitously we see the patterns. Indeed, it is through our collectively noticing patterns that we start to crowdsource and define what “type of guy” we are, and, thus, how we find collective belonging and then propagate the meme that signals that belonging.

These highly specific, and yet open to interpretation, symbols allow a DAO to emerge its meaning and its making. The power of DAOs is that they are collectively, decentrally owned. In almost all cases, DAOs do not yet know exactly what their sustaining value model will be, but they do know that there is positive sum power in cultivating and propagating a meme and a meaning together, and that at scale, greater value is created as that meme propagates further. Communities own their meme and meaning, and thus they should own the value that the meme generates.

Thomas Pynchon offers, in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and other novels [Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Mason and Dixon (1997)], the pun as an energy-generating alternative to entropy in its ability to multiply meanings, to proliferate “output” from a single source, a word, or an image. In Pynchon’s usage, the pun, even more than Maxwell’s Demon, defies the second law of thermodynamics: it actually creates energy, causing a word to do the work of several with minimal effort.
Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds, "Thomas Pynchon, Wit, and the Work of the Supernatural"

Hinds’ use of “pun” here is interchangeable with how we now use meme. When used well, memes create energy far beyond their one word or phrase, creating something out of nothing. Within Lot 49, this is a meta metaphor, as Pynchon plays with thermodynamic principles through Maxwell’s Demon in a fictitious “Nefastis Machine”. This machine conceivably captures energy through a “sensitive” who can see and sort where particles should go, not unlike the sorting done by employees in Severance.  This binary process relies entirely on what we now refer to as: IYKYK (if you know, you know). You either know it when you see it, or, you don’t. You’re in or you’re out.

Tweet that says: Web3 is GMI because people care deeply, work hard and, yet, aren’t precious or egocentric.   The memes and gm’s and jokes are a feature, not a bug.   The ability to get shit done without taking yourself too seriously is a magical combination.

The meme of Seed Club’s TomaDAO, the Rotten Tomato of web3, propelled community members to review and curate applications with care and purpose for Seed Club’s accelerator cohorts. The power of the meme, and importantly, of understanding and belonging to the meme, generated additional energy resulting in a collective sense of ownership, responsibility and action.

In Lot 49, the keys, clues and patterns are spread and scattered everywhere. The meme is fully decentralized, which is what makes the entire plot so mysterious and compelling. Like a benevolent dog whistle, they are both indistinguishable to the untrained eye and then suddenly, everywhere and all-meaning (or meme-ing?). Oedipa purposefully wanders at random through San Francisco one night, encountering members and symbols of Tristero in bathroom stalls, under bridges, in children’s games. There is no way that one now-deceased person could have coordinated all of these clues and surprises, but, how then do they appear everywhere she turns?

This is the power of meme: automatic, entropy-defiant, a headless brand that anyone can reference, fork (Trystero => Tristero) or deploy, without cannibalizing the power and enthalpy (internal energy) in the original entity.

No hallowed skein of stars can ward, I trow, / Who's once been set his tryst with Trystero.

DAOs leave room for emergence and interpretation, and empower their community to spread and expand the meme, while continuing to anchor their members around the core purpose and long distance destination. How the members actualize the DAO’s progress varies, as membership changes, as technology evolves, as markets fluctuate and as leaders progressively become one with their community.

We are at a critical point, where we are grappling with the question of “why own the meme”, simultaneously, wondering how value flows back to its owners as the meme decentralizes, and designing technologies as best we can that reflect our current and future understanding.

Where revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul’s talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself.

To say the obvious, Pynchon’s Tristero is an exploration of a DAO. How does a call to adventure become actualized, and what does it look like when that work is carried out autonomously.

Cleverly, Pynchon leaves us just as Oedipa is sitting down at the auction for “the crying of lot 49”, Inverarity’s collection. We never find out the value and true meaning of his work and narrative, of Tristero. We are also at this point in many DAOs, at the edge between successful meme propagation and discovering if the meme is real, and how much it is worth.