It’s said that thinkers are either foxes and hedgehogs. The fox knows many things, and the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ever since I heard about this I’ve known that I am a hedgehog. My one big idea is the idea of moral ecosystems: decentralized systems of moral belief and their relationship to our technological media environments. Since 2016 I have been exploring this idea and have made many attempts to explain it in different essays. None of these attempts have fully captured it, but I think the idea is so important and so explains certain features of our world that I keep trying again and again. In this piece I want to briefly outline how I arrived at this idea and developed it across my body of work.

1. Preliminary Conceptions

In 2015 and 2016 I became very interested in what a brand is and why people are attracted to them. My early explorations of the idea of “hype” as some kind of artificial scarcity or exclusivity did not on its own lead to a satisfying explanation of why brands mattered and exerted the influence they do. Closer examination led me to the idea of importance itself, or meaningfulness, as the right frame for understanding peoples’ attachment to brands. The frame of meaning had the advantage of not pathologizing the connection consumers have with brands, which I found helpful. Where many peers critiqued brand and the culture of consumerism they induced, this perspective helped me view the consumer’s affections more neutrally and search for the specific reasons in any case: why skaters like Vans, or design-conscious consumers like Braun products.

It was around this time that I started reading Magazine B, a Korean periodical dedicated to analyzing iconic brands. One issue inspired me in particular: the issue on Tsutaya bookstore in Japan. Tsutaya had been known for its downmarket used bookstore and video rental business and for its widely used loyalty points system. Their flagship store in Daikanyama changed all this. The Daikanyama T-Site is divided into sections where books are aligned with hobbies or lifestyles. In the same section, Tsutaya also sells objects related to that hobby or lifestyle. So next to a bicycle book section they literally sell bicycles; camera books with cameras and a knowledgeable camera salesperson; books about coffee next to the in-store Starbucks. Japan has long had strong hobbyist subcultures, so this move made particular sense in Japan, and has been very successful, serving as the model for future Tsutaya stores. But primarily it helped me see that between brand and consumer lay a mediating concept or entity, the lifestyle. Then I understood that brands do not succeed only because they codify certain product benefits to the consumer, but also because they signify of point to the lifestyle and its meanings. The lifestyle was then a broader community formed around aspirational consumption, but also consisting of certain social norms and ideas about what makes a participant part of it. Kevin Simler published a similar idea in his contemporaneous essay Ads Don’t Work That Way, in which he argued that ads work by telling the consumer what type of person ideally consumes the product.

A final influence on me during this period was Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s monograph Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation in Communities of Practice. This book was going around circles at the time, and Gary Chou had separately introduced me to the idea of communities of practice. Reading it was life-changing, as it opened up so many important ideas in one text. The relationship between social construction, affordance theory, identity formation, and community building were all described perfectly in this short book. The master stroke is Wenger and Lave’s reframing of all of socialization as learning. In particular the chapter detailing Alcoholics Anonymous as a community of practice was a revelation. To paraphrase the authors: people join AA as drinking non-alcoholics, and through participation become alcoholic non-drinkers. They achieve this through the storytelling practice of the community. In this sense what the AA community of practice is involved in producing is the identity of the alcoholic.

With this last reference, I had all the ingredients. Wenger and Lave’s learning theory was the final piece, which allowed me to see that lifestyles and brands together formed decentralized pseudo-communities of practice, where the product at stake was an idealized consumer type, metaphorically represented by a starter pack meme. Through their interactions with other consumers and brands, people learn towards an ideal type, very much indeed like the AA case study. This perspective also led me to greater respect for the incipient meanings and sense of importance that the lifestyle offered.

2. The Moral Component

In 2018 I published After Authenticity, which was my first good work and the beginning of real intellectual development. The key to the piece was understanding the moral system that manifested itself in early ‘00s hipster behavior and how that moral system propagated, changed, and exhausted itself. My real innovation was that I didn’t just assume “authenticity” meant something fixed; instead I went about looking at the behaviors of the population that used this language and to whom it clearly meant something, and what those behaviors demonstrated about participants. Authenticity thus revealed itself as the byword for an ethical system.

Through this essay I saw that moral life has a powerful influence on human behavior. The shape of what is conceived as ethical, right, or good will determine the behavior of entire populations, and as I showed, ethical systems change over time. With this realization in hand I began to notice ethical systems everywhere and their relationships to products, as I had done in After Authenticity. For instance, I gave a talk at Ribbonfarm’s Refactor Camp explaining medieval sumptuary laws with this framework: the controlled distribution of clothing guaranteed the correct order of hierarchical society.

Around this time I started exploring Charles Taylor’s work. I was aware of his book A Secular Age from reading L. M. Sacasas’ blog, among other places. I happened to borrow his book The Ethics of Authenticity from a friend, and never gave it back. And Joe Edelman shared with me his 1977 paper “What Is Human Agency?” with me. Taylor was doing large scale philosophical histories of meaning—of moral ideas or moral sources as he calls them—in Western culture. What I managed on a very limited scale in After Authenticity, Taylor had perfected in his masterworks Sources of the Self and A Secular Age. **I learned from Sources about the the three main moral sources active in Western cultural life: Christian theology, utilitarian rationalism, and romantic expressivism. Over time I began to see these sources everywhere in contemporary culture. My ideas about authenticity, and my new thinking about the moral stances of crypto communities, was greatly enriched by Taylor’s ideas. He has left an indisputable mark on my thinking.

This interest in the moral provided something my previous conception of lifestyles had not. Part of what lifestyle participants were learning, incipiently at least, was some sort of moral idea. There is an idea in each lifestyle of what it means to live the good life, how one ought to live well. That said, I recognized, the branded versions of these networks could never deliver on the promises of moral action often set up in premise by “brand values” statements. Much later I would read Alasdair McIntyre’s book After Virtue, which would provide a better framing for the moral notion in a lifestyle. In sports, hobbies, and games, there is some embedded notion of excellence or higher good. For chess mastery excellence looks like one thing, for skate it looks another way, but both pertain not just to technical mastery but also the personality and attitudes of the master, or what Wenger and Lave would call an “old-timer” in a community of practice. Brands gesture to these ideas of excellence, but they are only lived out, or fulfilled, by the lifestyle participants themselves.

I did not have this notion of the excellence immanent to an activity back then, but the disjuncture between the promise of brands and their lived fulfillment was clear to me. That gap implied that a more direct fulfillment of moral life or higher forms of excellence was indeed possible. This became the subject of my essay Life After Lifestyle. This essay took these ideas and pointed to what could go beyond the lifestyle mode of organizing people, ideas, and goods. Not that lifestyles are intentionally organized; they are rather the natural outgrowth of subcultures, hobby groups, the companies that grow to support those formations, and advertising networks. But could they be organized more intentionally?

In my early explorations of brands I had been interested in their difference from cults, as the comparison was always made favorably by marketers and disfavorably by critics. Through a workshop at Pioneer Works I developed an idea of what any cultural system is made of, whether brand, lifestyle, or cult. At this point I called any such formation a system of meaning. My ideas were naturally coming together, and I was now imagining systems of meaning that would be more robust than lifestyles, which would deliver on their moral premises: something more cultish, made up of intangibles like a brand, but involving more sincere moral engagement. (It has been pointed out that the term sincere does a lot of heavy lifting in my body of work. Briefly, what I mean by it is an engagement with an activity or theme or way of life that is taken up wholeheartedly—not necessarily without reservation but without any holding back, without *avoidance* or ironic distancing and also without facade or artifice. Brand values are not sincere; a hiker’s love of hiking and pursuit of the outdoors is.) The comparison to religions was a natural one, and I said as much in Life After Lifestyle. It must be mentioned that Aaron Z. Lewis, my friend and intellectual colleague, was well ahead of me in these respects. His 2019 essay Metaphors We Believe By demonstrated clearly how worship and sacredness, gods and demons, still enchant the world, especially technological communities.

But this was not the end of my Big Idea’s development.

3. Technological Transformation

2019 was an intellectually generative year, and also the year I began working in the cryptocurrency industry in earnest. I had had a few prior consulting engagements in that space, but in 2019 I started working as Jesse Walden’s writing coach and editor. This was my introduction to many new ideas. I also spent the summer of 2019 in Berlin as a research resident at Trust, where I found intellectual community with the artist-technologists and theorists exploring similar themes. I spent the summer lecturing on the theme of agency and was invited to a crypto unconference by someone who had seen one of my talks. I brought along Laura Lotti and Sam Hart, who already had much more crypto knowledge than me. When the opportunity came to give impromptu talks I proposed we share a panel on the only thing I knew a lot about—this brand theme. We did a five minute rehearsal and the idea of a brand as a consensus system, comparable to blockchain protocols, seemed to hold up. It tracked with my earlier ideas and proved remarkably good for explaining Bitcoin. We decided to write up the talk and this became the essay Headless Brands.

What we described in Headless Brands was a flavor of what I had in mind all along: decentralized community meaning-making around central tenets and themes. I had not written Life After Lifestyle yet, and in fact I thought I had given the game away when many people responded asking if a religion was a headless brand or vice versa. (No, I responded—it largely misses the moral component. But Bitcoin’s later heavy adoption by Christian missionaries proved me wrong here.) My worries were unfounded though, as agencies and marketers responded to Headless Brands simply by continuing the trend of generative brand identity systems. Adaptive brand identities are brands with heads, even if the face changes slightly. I have always tried to clarify that a headless brand, like a lifestyle, cannot be designed. It is created by disparate actors responding to crypto’s technologically-encoded incentive networks.

Thinking about the incentives involved in creating large crypto token ecosystems pointed to a new puzzle however. Since the 2016 election, ideas of filter bubbles, red pills, and radicalization via ideological funnels had been very popular. There was a general awareness that algorithmic incentives were responsible for these funnels. I now started to think about incentives on a broader level.

Any given brand tries to affiliate itself with a lifestyle by pointing to it. It wants to be the ideal expression of that lifestyle. And there will be an ecosystem of companies feeding on any given lifestyle in this way. Some companies’ hold on a lifestyle will be so complete that it is incentive-compatible for them to grow the overall adoption of that lifestyle. Vans’ relationship with skate culture, Rapha or Giro with biking, or even Pioneer with DJing are examples. Because price stratification means that in many categories one can find a product at any price point, certain brands will cater to growing the pie, while others will target deepening the relationship with consumers. This dynamic environment of different companies may look like competition, but it is in fact cooperation: cooperation to create an overall funnel for that lifestyle. Of course, radicalization still happens here; movement deeper into the funnel offers a semblance of cultural coherence in our confused times. But when a person gets radicalized into a lifestyle or subculture, we don’t call them a radical, we call them a type of guy.

Competition reemerges, however, at the level of funnels themselves: the funnels are competing with one another to produce types of person that are profitable. This was clear to me in several ways. I had already seen since Tsutaya a literalized version of that funnel, and since the direct-to-consumer movement it was apparent that every company unavoidably was becoming a lifestyle brand. But other funnels were becoming more visible, for instance Alex Jones monetizing his red pills by selling supplements. My sense was that people became extruded into strange identity shapes as they progressed through these funnels, all the while feeling the hole was made for them. Finally, there was emerging what my friend Kara Kittel calls the “classification impulse:” the tendency to categorize anyone one sees online as a type of guy. That phenomenon was discussed well by Justin Smith in his essay It’s All Over. Overall, this funnel theory confirmed my understanding that successful brands would be the ones that point to strong ideological funnels rather than trying to encompass lifestyles entirely; the latter trend was documented and neutralized by Naomi Klein in No Logo.

The funnel idea is very alarming, and I haven’t worked out all its consequences. It begs that we look into spaces where such radicalization or type-of-guy production clearly occurs, and to map out the financial incentives at play across the entire funnel, not just any one brand or platform’s algorithms. This task I leave to more detail-oriented puzzle-solvers than I.

Yet the notion of the technological infrastructure of the funnel, lifestyle, or post-lifestyle construct has stayed with me, and finally led me to the current form of the idea.

4. Moral Ecosystems

The funnel theory and Life After Lifestyle both left me with a persistent question concerning the resilience of the ideological spaces I was now documenting—Effective Altruism, TPOT, QAnon, Lainite crypto cults, and increasingly health communities. By 2022 combative Twitter discourse had largely sorted people into various camps, and the different networks, each with its own moral impulse, were now visible to many. Still, I felt these communities were potentially fragile. In conversations with Aaron I referred to them as the scum that forms on the top of the pond, or algae blooms. They are products of or media ecosystem, but are merely floating on top of it. They do not themselves control it. If a supply chain shock or other extended crisis happened, I doubted these communities could organize their own response. They have power online, but limited power to control resources and goods in the world of institutions, law, servers, and sustenance.

Last year I made some progress on this thought when I sat down to write about whether there is still a “mainstream” in any meaningful respect. It seems to me that a mainstream culture barely exists; what is mainstream if anything is the media technologies, algorithms, and software products which produce these very different and sometimes quite niche communities. Likewise, the institutional infrastructure that upholds the built environment, legal system, political organizations, food provision, and so forth are used by everyone. But culture seems to have evacuated these institutions, which now operate in a siloed and rent-seeking way—universities being the exemplary case. On the other hand, these online funnels and post-lifestyle constructs, whether they operate in political, faith, historical, or scientific idioms, are now doing much of the socialization that formerly would have been provided by civic, educational, or formal religious institutions. I originally thought of calling these post-lifestyle networks “spiritual cultures” because I saw how at the heart of each is some strong notion of how life ought to be lived. Even in the case of the materialist (non-transcendent), atheistic, and secular cultures, like ancestral dieting or Effective Altruism, there is a notion of the good life. But I didn’t like how that phrase sounded in my mouth. Plus, I wanted to indicate that the substrate of institutional infrastructure they all rely on had largely abandoned its moral and civic promises. Ah!—to contrast with our amoral societal infrastructure: moral ecosystems.

I need not further explain what a moral ecosystem is. It has been my object of study for the last 8 years. I have documented the development of this idea here. I can now happily abandon the clunky “post-lifestyle construct.”

But let me offer a few last thoughts. I mentioned before that there is work to be done unpacking the incentive structures that make up a moral ecosystem, recruit and retain its members, police its boundaries, and shape its most committed participants. That is one task. But other large questions remain and are yet to unfold. The limitation of these moral networks, I have said, is their inability to interface with the local, with life on the ground, with the IRL, and with the institutions and physical resources which make them possible. The “pop-up city” and “network state” are two attempts to answer how they might do this. But there will be many more answers, and more efforts to bring them to ground are needed. No further online ideation is needed: these efforts must rely on-the-ground experimentation, trial and error. I participated in one such experiment called a schoolscape. The time for internet preaching and demagoguery has concluded. Your job, and mine, is to seize to the ground.

Beyond the hyperlocal, two further questions. Given this divide between moral ecosystems and institutionalized infrastructure, how must institutional change happen today? I would welcome the comments of Mr. Chris Beiser on this topic. Finally, these moral ecosystems must escape their status as mere discourse and idea: they must escape into the body, into the practices and the actions of the body, the body in local space. That is how the moral premises finally become fulfilled. But this is already happening, with the moral ecosystems that form around health and wellness practices. To document this I have started a new project called Care Culture. It is there that you must now follow me. I want you to see what I see, to understand and to become a part of our changing world.