Posts of varying effort on technology, cybersecurity, transhumanism, rationalism, self-improvement, DIY, and other stereotypical technologist stuff. Crazy about real-world functional programming.

The New York Times Test

One code of conduct professionals follow is “The New York Times Test”: you must never put anything in writing that you could be embarrassed to see printed on the front page of the New York Times.

The risk is, if your company or business is ever in the news, and your embarrassing comments are central to the story, you can expect to lose bigly: your job, your reputation, your career. The message is clear: when in doubt, don’t put it in writing.

This sounds banal and obvious and normal, but I contend this is bad because the chilling effect is profound. It means working professionals avoid putting their candid thoughts in writing because there’s almost never any upside. Aside from requiring all professionals to use dehumanizing “professional speak”, it also means they cannot blog about anything interesting in their own name, which is essential to lending credibility to what they’re writing about.

Additionally, because of the particularly high risks of doxxing, they will probably not be able to blog about it anonymously either.

Is anonymous blogging really that high risk? Yes. If you have access to sophisticated investigative resources, like I presume most journalists do, you can figure out who any anonymous person on the internet is if they blog long enough because you only need around 33 bits of information to narrow 7 billion people down to 1. That is, assuming each bit of information splits the population 50/50, you need only take 2^33 to cover ~8.4 billion people.

In practice it’s easier than this. People usually blog about the ways they’re exceptional, not the ways they’re the normal, so the information they give out probably distinguishes them 10:1. I’m not trying to be anonymous here (or am I?), but if I reveal that I’m a Sicilian descendant male living in the US, I’ve already reduced the search space by 1000x, from 7.8 billion people to 7 million people.

This is a sad state of affairs. Because of The New York Times Test, it guarantees that most posts on the internet are written either by crazy people, people with “fuck you” money or people who have nothing left to lose.

Everyone else, by which I mean the grand majority of sane professionals with a stake in the system and reasonable thoughts, stays out of the conversation.

To quote Scott Alexander “I’m not sure what we think we’re gaining by ensuring the smartest and best educated people around aren’t able to talk openly about the fields they’re experts in, but I hope it’s worth it.”

I don’t mean to single the New York Times out here as particular evil or something; having any reputable paper feature your unflattering candid thoughts would be mortifying, but it would be especially mortifying if one with the New York Times’ high reputation and massive reach did it.

I don’t mean to single all media out either. There’s some kind of underlying dynamic at play here that media feeds off of; some combination of outrage culture, intolerance for heterodox ideas, and a low sanity waterline that makes it dangerous to be candid.

The First Amendment is an important back-stop on what the government can do, but government is not the only power in the world, and this other power says you really aren’t permitted to speak freely, not if you’re invested in the system.

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