Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, August 22, 2014

stock and flow: the metaphor that keeps on giving

Last night I posted to my tumblelog some thoughts about what Rod Dreher calls the Benedict option: a kind of Christian retreat from engagement with the larger world. Among other things, I said that 

the life of Jesus embodies a kind of systolic/diastolic alternation between public ministry and private retreat — with intermediate stages in the company of the Twelve or his friends.

Each of us needs such alternation, and it seems likely that communities do too. Sometimes batteries need to be recharged, energy regained, ideas and options considered. Nobody, and no community, can live in the thick of things all the time, and it is foolish to try.

All this reminds me of a fantastic post Robin Sloan put up in 2010 about some concepts he learned as an economics major: stock and flow. 

There are two kinds of quantities in the world. Stock is a static value: money in the bank, or trees in the forest. Flow is a rate of change: fifteen dollars an hour, or three thousand toothpicks a day. Easy. Too easy.

But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill.

People choose the Benedict option, or choose digital disconnection (or less connection) because they feel that they’re getting overwhelmed by the flow and have been insufficiently attentive to the condition of their stock. 

I am feeling that way myself right now, about the digital world anyway, so I’m trying a few things: putting Twitter out of sight, taking my RSS reader out of my Dock, deleting some apps from my iPhone. I need to spend some time replenishing my stock. 


  • I don't like the stock/flow metaphor because they're both inputs. I prefer feeding and digestion. Whereas one can digest while continuing to take in food, if food intake becomes too great, indigestion (or worse) is the result. Information intake is not so different, and the tragedy of modern communications is that it's all intake, some of which comes predigested (with obvious implication). If one seeks to preserve a core of authenticity to the self/psyche, one cannot attend uninterrupted to information inflow and never pause to digest.

    One example is the TV news, which proceeds at its own pace and drags viewers along without pause to digest. So we get whiplash transitions between horrific world and local events, coverage of gladiatorial games, and soothing human interest. The messages are so mixed and crossed that the average viewer cannot contextualize anything properly.

  • Somewhere in hell, Heidegger is smiling. Ruefully.

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