The Guardian’s Inferno

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Related.

I

Justin Rosenstein is the guy who created Facebook’s “like” button. Now he’s working on a team productivity service. I don’t care enough to figure out what differentiates it from other team-trackers; I think it lets you [buzzword] which lazy employee is the laziest so they can better [buzzword] your [buzzword]. Slacking off means social media, so selling servant-keepers means fussing about the servants’ overuse of friend-keepers, and now we get to debate the psychology of Instagram. Silicon Valley is apparently Public Enemy #1, there was much froth.

The hook is “Even the inventor can’t control it!” which is basically the story of Perillos and the brazen-bull. Admittedly, I love that story. If you want to go all-in with modern man’s god-complex, note the resonance to the crucifixion; funny, but not my intended angle.

The Guardian wrote exactly what you expect: Our Minds Can Be Hijacked: The Tech Insiders Who Fear A Smartphone Dystopia:

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”

“Distracted from what?” you ask, because it’s the right question. Let it hang all over everything that follows, like a Dali clock or a shadow or a particularly ripe banana.

This is not about social media.

II

“Tech companies” (read: social networks) exploit various psychological tics to get people to use their product. This is not for the product, it’s for the attention itself. Taking Facebook as an example: of $9.3 billion last quarter, $9.16 came from advertising. Since advertising=attention=money, of course they’ll want to maximize that time. Something something dopamine and addiction, thus social media giants try to get users addicted to the service. The more time they spend, the more ads, the more $$$. For instance:

The most seductive design, Harris explains, exploits the same psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive: variable rewards. When we tap those apps with red icons, we don’t know whether we’ll discover an interesting email, an avalanche of “likes”, or nothing at all. It is the possibility of disappointment that makes it so compulsive.

This is bad for a lot of reasons that relate to one another the way Jackson Pollock’s brush-strokes relate to one another. Addiction itself, and also then the companies have more power, and also they make enough money to escape regulation, and also advertising manipulates you, and also social media causes shallow relationships, and also it makes people irrational, and also it makes people destroy democracy, and also it’s capitalism, and also it’s why Trump won. Apologies to Pollock, he had a point.

Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political earthquakes like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, they contend that digital forces have completely upended the political system and, left unchecked, could even render democracy as we know it obsolete.

Williams saw a similar dynamic unfold months earlier, during the Brexit campaign, when the attention economy appeared to him biased in favour of the emotional, identity-based case for the UK leaving the European Union.

I think their argument is that habituation to short-term rewards and overrules our capacity to think, and people who don’t think vote Trump. I’m going to return to the democracy angle later, but this is killing me: The best predictors for Trump and Brexit votes are age, race, educational attainment. Both skewed ridiculously old (Trump, Brexit) and worse educated (Trump, Brexit). Old and lower education are negatively correlated with social media use (do you really need a survey?), race looks like a wash (“Whites more likely to use pintrest,” you don’t say). I’m sure the Great Meme War scored a few rebarbative teens, but otherwise the connection between twitter use and Brexiting is tenuous.

As far as emotional and identity-based: The top google result for #Remain posters is literally threatening pregnant mothers, although it might be top because it was a controversial outlier. Better data: Clinton, quite famously, campaigned less on the issues and more on identity than Trump.

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Technically, this is a data point against Scott Adams rather than the Guardian.

The addiction angle is equally confusing: how many of those metaphors are apt? Is it addicting like “food” or like “heroin”? Is there a social media equivalent of suboxone? (Is it MySpace?) Whatever: accept it and acquiesce to the analysis for the sake of argument: what do we do about it?

Apparently nothing. One insider wants anti-monopoly laws enforced against tech giants he has shares in, which may be good or not, but is orthogonal to the article’s point. The article stresses that the problem isn’t companies, but smartphone-addiction itself. It makes us dumb or from Pennsylvania or something. Also, my instincts say that shareholders only suggest regulation if they know it will squeeze out industry-competitors but maybe he’s just nice.

Rosenstein wants “state regulation of ‘psychologically manipulative advertising,'” which equivocates between the platform (Facebook, Twitter, whatever) and the content. Regulating advertising would change the ads Facebook hosts, but says nothing about Facebook itself. Facebook sells nothing to users but “more Facebook” and it doesn’t need ads for that. It may then sell users’ data to advertising companies, but I wouldn’t say it’s psychologically manipulating those poor agencies. Their relationship seems pretty up front to me. I’m an idiot and I get sucked into narratives, so only after these milquetoast suggestions did I recall that all these guys still work in Silicon Valley. Don’t bite the hand that feeds, etc. You’ve probably thought of the obvious resolution to this problem; we’ll get to that later.

Technically, there is a third suggestion. The journalist appears to think it’s Full Communism Now, where Full Communism Now=our world, but with more “conscience.” I’ll have to reread Capital to let him know how Marx feels about that.

III

Rosenstein is just an appetizer. The article’s meat is a venisoning profile of Tristan Harris, “who has been branded ‘the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience’.” Weird to brand your fawn, but I guess he liked the sobriquet. It’s prominently displayed on his website and everything else he touches.

Harris has been in the news a fair amount lately (see here, here, here), all stemming from that 2015 Atlantic piece. What does a conscience do, according to the Atlantic?

Harris hopes to create a Time Well Spent certification—akin to the leed seal or an organic label—that would designate software made with those values in mind. He already has a shortlist of apps that he endorses as early exemplars of the ethos, such as Pocket, Calendly, and f.lux, which, respectively, saves articles for future reading, lets people book empty slots on an individual’s calendar to streamline the process of scheduling meetings, and aims to improve sleep quality by adding a pinkish cast to the circadian-rhythm-disrupting blue light of screens. Intently could potentially join this coalition, he volunteered.

As a first step toward identifying other services that could qualify, Harris has experimented with creating software that would capture how many hours someone devotes weekly to each app on her phone, then ask her which ones were worthwhile. The data could be compiled to create a leaderboard that shames apps that addict but fail to satisfy.

A) This is insane.

B) None of this has anything to do with smartphone addiction, because that’s not the point. It’s about optimization of time, and it’s a certificate service for which apps are better enjoyment-optimizers. The average Facebook user is on it because their friends are on it, so they aren’t going to check that it gets a terrible “56% Unhappy” at Time Well Spent before signing up. But the kind of person who cares about Silicon Valley guru certificates might.

You probably already guessed this, but Harris is hyper brand conscious. First sentence in the profile has him writing “Presence” on a nametag; we later learn that he wears a bracelet embellished with “Presence.” Yes, he did have an epiphany at burning man (spiritual but insider). Yes, he does tango and play the accordion (eccentric but disciplined). Note how subtly he outmaneuvers the Intently guys (dumb app mentioned earlier): “Intently could potentially join this coalition.” Translate: “I know that Intently is ridiculous, which is why I subtly dissed it, and because I know that you can trust that I’m not some hippie bozo.” The Atlantic notes how intense he is about time management (branding), so where he interviews and what he highlights is telling: The Atlantic, Sam Harris, TED, Financial Times, Bill Maher. Those aren’t “whistle-blower yelling about technology” outlets, they’re right-thinking insider outlets.

In other words: consumption in his targeted class is optimization is quality certificates is “all of my apps are organic and certified harm-free.” So, precisely what Time Well Spent does. Think of the MPAA for techies or something. Harris gets the power and prestige to consult for that, so he becomes necessary for anyone targeting the same class.

For what it’s worth, Harris isn’t shy about this:

“Pretty much every big company that’s manipulating users has been very interested in our work,” says Joe Edelman, who has spent the past five years trading ideas and leading workshops with Harris.

and:

He recognizes that this shift would require reevaluating entrenched business models so success no longer hinges on claiming attention and time. As with organic vegetables, it’s possible that the first generation of Time Well Spent software might be available at a premium price, to make up for lost advertising dollars. “Would you pay $7 a month for a version of Facebook that was built entirely to empower you to live your life?,” Harris says. “I think a lot of people would pay for that.”

I’m honestly somewhat relieved, because a “conscience” appears to do what I always thought it did: nothing. Still, this shouldn’t bother you, and it doesn’t bother me. Who gives a shit if some guy overcharges a corporate credit-card to chant words that have been passe since the 60s? Harris is selling artisinal Facebook, and our world is just bad enough to assure me that someone wants that.

IV

Silicon Valley is not my enemy, nor is Harris. He’s a smart guy, I wish him well. The Atlantic article is only interesting because it tells you what the Guardian doesn’t say. If “opinion of Silicon Valley” is on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is Ray Kurzweil and 10 is Ted Kaczynski, the Atlantic is a mere 4 to the Guardian’s 6. In other words: the Atlantic can quibble with Harris’s solutions (“inequality”), but the Guardian can barely say what they are: Time Well Spent is an “advocacy group” trying to “build public momentum for a change in the way big tech companies think about design.” Not identical, but similar enough to why Nike tries to build public momentum.

That would also be why they fail to expand on Harris’s model to the obvious hypothetical: why don’t Facebook and Twitter and [others] just start charging? All of them, not just the exclusive ones Harris wants. The issue isn’t that they want your attention for nefarious purposes, it’s that they’re reliant on your attention. Attention=advertising=profit, change the profit model and change the needs. Facebook records two billion monthly users, if they pay $5 a month then they won’t need to addict you. Avoiding the attention-apocalypse is cheaper than a pack of cigarettes, I guess.

“Are you an idiot? People would stop using it! They’d migrate to a free competitor!” Exactly my point. “But brand loyalty.” Doubtful, but even so: if loyalty conquers all, why not start doing that now for more money? Is Mark Zuckerberg’s motive not profit? “He’s a nice person with a good heart.” There are four lies in that sentence.

This is not a viable solution, but it does make you question the premise of [everything above]. All these articles and TED talks and exposes are about the nefariousness of the platform. Facebook’s like button addicts you, Twitter’s feed-scrolling addicts you, Instagram’s [something] addicts you. “They’re like cigarettes!” but apparently none of that is so addictive for them to risk charging 1/30th of a smoker’s budget. These features are patented, so the free competitors wouldn’t have them, which means the features are less important than [something else]. Thumbs-up symbols are cool, but an app that variably awarded you them on its own wouldn’t sell. Or: No one likes when bots fave their tweets.

Our society absolutely manufactures new and addictive alien wants, but “human interaction” is not one of those. (In a far wiser essay on addiction, Paul Graham notes that new addictions are variants of older addictions.) Insider-criticism from the tech industry (as above) is barely-concealed bragging. “Look at how well I can manipulate these plebs! <sub>Feel real guilty, btw.</>” They probably should be proud, but hubris has that nasty effect of blinding you to reality. Social media has all sorts of tricks to draw you in, and it has all sorts of tricks to make you share yourself, but the primary draw “is and always will be” other people. Of course, the primary draw re: other people is identity. You get to blast Who You Are to the world, which is intoxicating, but it’s not intoxicating because of the technology. Related: we’ve been killing each other since the stone age, guns just made us better at it.

Nothing is free, which everyone knows and then forgets. The price for using a free app is that it demands your you in other ways, and occasionally as a thing for sale to people who know that nothing is free. “Jokes on them, I’ve never clicked on their ads!” Jokes on you, adopting “not following targeted advertising” as a core identity trait means you spend too much time around it. You’re the mark, Mark.

“Why doesn’t the Guardian suggest that?”

A) Because then they’d have to make “evil service drives away customers” into an anti-capitalist statement. (The Atlantic actually tries that; they’re unsuccessful.)

B) It would aggravate exactly what it’s trying to palliate: the nagging suspicion that too-much-social-media says something bad about you. [Target demo] socializes across too many networks, want to be told it’s not their fault, but their first instinct would be outrage at the suggestion they pay for it. No, the critique isn’t “freeloaders”, it’s self-worth. If social media isn’t worth $5/mo, then what does that say about how you value your time? “All my friends are on it! They write interesting things!” Ok, then how little do you value all your friends’ time? “Jesus. Harsh, bro.”

C) Then you’d have to think about the fact that you’re reading a free paper, which is itself dependent on advertising.

Oh.

V

Smart-phone apocalypse articles are monthly, advertising-apocalypse articles are weekly, Silicon Valley apocalypse is daily. The genre isn’t problematic. It’s unnerving, in the same way that Antichrist’s fox scene is unnerving. Screaming about the dark lord is whatever, but autophagia is a terrible thing to witness.

Journalism can barely hang on right now. There’s no more captive audience, people won’t pay, subscriptions and pledge drives are gone. All that remains is advertising, see: the Guardian’s cartoonishly bloodthirsty op-ed about their lesser competitors. Attention=ads=money, which means they have identical incentives to social media. Their job is to pull you in and keep you in by breathlessly denouncing smartphone-gimmicks. Yes, “variable rewards” is my experience with the press as well.

The old media tactic was to sensationalize everything, catastrophize the world, etc. because they had few competitors. All they needed was “exciting new information” and/or a way to manufacture it. If there’s a crisis, you turn on the television, and that’s all they needed. Now they have a thousand competitors, which means everyone needs a niche, and niche=identity=brand.

The classic critique is that media “tells you what you want to hear.” This is true, but clickbait means someone has to click, which means it has to be somewhere clickable, which means social networks, which means you putting it there. Social network and media may compete for advertising, but they mostly interact. Putting it all together: media tells you what you want to hear, but sharing it means it has to tell others what you want them to think about you. Sharing this article tells your friends that you’re the kind of guy who shares Important Articles Like This. Why this sends the media into a spiral is that they want you to share more. So go on their site and “We saw you linked to [opinion piece], can we interest you in blaspheming against the human intellect with [these pieces]?” And, of course, those best have the same branding.

The Ur-Groups are political, but all of those have subcategories, and all of those subcategories have their own media. Sharing that signals in-group loyalties, sure, but it also cements you to the outlet. Share a story because it was branded for you, and it becomes you. When you emotionally identify with a group, when the world is a titanic struggle between your identity markers and [other]’s, then whatever attacks those markers becomes So Important. How could it not? It’s an attack on you. You’ll savage a friendship of two decades to save the reputation of a journo you’ve never met, there is no other option.

This is a self-fulfilling cycle: [your group] is under threat, and we can show you all the ways this is true. Without fail, you’ll identify more with [group], which means you then search out more stories. If this happens enough, every outlet becomes more and more pegged to one group. They become partisan, or identitarian, or [other word]. By my count, this “happened enough” in about 2000. In turn, any single one of those outlets now has an even easier time finding the enemies who want to crush you: all they have to do is type in a competing brand’s URL, and do some write-up as to why [outgroup] is lying to you about the most important story of the year.

Chicken or egg whether identity or partisan media came first, the only certainty is that you choose the narrative that suits you and that becomes your entire world.

VI

Anyone interested in the addiction article either has a problem or wants to gloat. Focus on the problem-ed: they need to understand why they keep doing a thing that does not satisfy them. Further, they need it explained in such a way that they are not to blame. This is precisely what Tristan Harris offers the Guardian: an explanation for why you have no power, why some other has it. Expiation is passe: how can you be guilty if you don’t have a choice? For an article about the threat to democracy, this is a pretty interesting characterization of the demos:

Finally, Eyal confided the lengths he goes to protect his own family. He has installed in his house an outlet timer connected to a router that cuts off access to the internet at a set time every day. “The idea is to remember that we are not powerless,” he said. “We are in control.”

But are we? If the people who built these technologies are taking such radical steps to wean themselves free, can the rest of us reasonably be expected to exercise our free will?

Articles offer narratives. We are looking for a meaning. This one is bad. See: “Why do you not want to have power?”

What makes the lunatic promenade of “Social Media addiction” articles so nefarious is who they target. The person who needs to share this article is the exact person who spends too much time on social networking, which means the person who brings in the most ad revenue. The Guardian knows this or not, it doesn’t matter, selection effects govern the world. Their brand might be “hating Silicon Valley” but their brand is also “liberal and well-educated”, which is unsurprisingly the main social media demographic.

“The media lies.” They don’t need to lie, it’s too hard, they’re not smart enough. Just tell the facts in the accepted manner. The more facts, the more So Important it is, the quicker it will get shared. But the only people for whom it’s So Important are people who recognize themselves and their friends in the article. See also: guy who wants to gloat about how little he uses social media by infecting his friend-group with this pablum.

The media can never resolve a problem because resolving the problem means less advertising. Maybe their instinct is pure profit, but who cares what their instinct is? A helpful outlet that manages to help customers with their media addiction will disappear. They will have impoverished themselves.

Note well that the Guardian may consider themselves #radical, but real radicals hate the Guardian. This does not exempt real radicals from falling into the same grotesque self-parody. The more outrage you work up, the more froth you roil, the better you are at your job, the more money you feed right back into it. Get a million outraged clicks and the share-holders will cherish you forever, “I loved that article about what troglodytes we are. Did you see its hit count?” The better you are at hating them, the better it is for them.

“Why are you just attacking the left?” I’m not. See who Breitbart hates and then where they get shared. Same money, same problem.

VII

This is, bluntly, why identity will never change anything, neither politics nor person, at least not in the way participants desire. “Said that before, guy.” At least broken records can’t play ads.

I’m not saying that [identity group] doesn’t have a valid complaint. They do. Kind of the problem: Anything can be considered from any perspective, “Why is [x] important to [identity group]?” may be dumb, but it’s never wrong. I’m dead positive that Himalayan Pink Salt is somehow related to Libertarian Wiccans, and that’s at least five articles counting Bezos’ Whole Foods merger. Thus, infinite essays for every single identity, a Borges library for every American demographic.

But if you identify with the infinite, then you can’t do anything. Torpidity, stasis, profound and certain idleness. All you can do is consume more information, get ever closer to an infinitely distant solution, Zeno nearer and nearer to something infinitely far. There needs to be an organizational method, a way to determine which So Important is the So Important, and if your So Important has an outlet attached then that is “everything.” The problem with advertising and media and Tristan Harrises is not that they fail to provide what you want. It’s that they give you exactly what you want, and all of it all the time. You just wanted the wrong thing. But there’s enough terror in the world to drag you back to information until you die.

This is hell. I mean literally: this is what Dante’s Inferno is about, from the very moment they meet the gates. #Branding, it’s on the package:

DIVINE POWER MADE ME,
HIGHEST WISDOM, AND PRIMAL LOVE
BEFORE ME WERE NO THINGS CREATED
EXCEPT ETERNAL ONES, AND I ENDURE ETERNAL.
ABANDON EVERY HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER.
-Inferno, Canto 3

What makes Dante’s Inferno disturbing is not that people are condemned, but that they choose to remain condemned. The sinners’ punishments are the very thing that they desire, and they don’t stop desiring them once they realize they’re in hell. “Primal Love” is hell gives it to them. They could walk out at any moment if they stopped, and you know this because Dante walks out. But they cannot stop, because there is a hole in them that they are trying to fill in all the wrong ways. That void is not unique to the damned, but their responses are. They try to fill an infinite hole with finite things, and to try to satisfy that need they kept repeating unsatisfying acts over and over, as though some new variant will be the thing that finally sticks.

Dante’s damned cannot stop talking to him, they refuse to be silent, someone must know that they feel bad. They blame others, sometimes themselves, discuss why they never changed their ways. When they talk to Dante they ask up the world above: “Is [Italian politican] dead yet?” Some cower away and beg him not to tell the living their names. If there is one overarching sin, it is the belief that information will change their situation, a confusion between knowing and doing. That repeating the same stories, acquiring more facts, will somehow make them be a different person, when the problem is not the person but the behavior.

Advertising may manufacture wants, but it uses media (social or otherwise) to get there. Sitting on Facebook=waiting for information about others. Obsessively following every story the Guardian prints=waiting for information about others. Those are different, one relates to friends and one to a larger entity, but they’re expressions of the same defensive want, which the article is also a defense of “I regret this action which I will keep doing, here’s why.” Information is not the end but the means. Confuse this and you find yourself repeating your story over and over to the damned. God is dead, there is no hell, this is the 21st century. Fine. Repeating your story over and over with appropriate commercial breaks.

The media cannot solve this problem, because all it can provide is more information, and the entire problem lies in the belief that information has some mystical use on its own. Worse: it needs you to want nothing but information. It isn’t the information you take in but the way you organize it, but organization takes personal time.

“Final thoughts?” Yeah, don’t trust Marlboro studies on lung cancer.

VIII

This is a personal problem, and it’s about action vs. identity. It’s probably (certainly) narcissism, that’s a deeper problem than social media, I’ll leave that to the expert. But narcissistic defenses are responding to a specific problem: the inability to accurately judge your actions. Good, bad, ugly? Who knows, no one, which is why everything collapses into identity. In other words, it’s this: “We’re distracted,” and narcissism is the shocking reveal that there’s a follow-up: “Ok, but from what?” to which you have no answer. You have no valuation to meet the moment.

According to the Guardian, the problem is that you’re distracted from reading the Guardian, hence a thorough Trumpsplaining. “Of course they would say that.” It helps their brand, yes, but they genuinely have to say that. Nothing else can explain why this is a bad thing.

Value is a loaded word, so let’s go with “organizational tools.” That’s what they are. This thing goes in the good category, and that thing in the bad category, based on some valuation. Were the Guardian in Dante’s time, they would explain how social media addiction leads to sin. “Oh, so that’s why it’s bad.” We do not have those values anymore, they are gone. The Guardian knows that being distracted is bad but they cannot explain why. We don’t have any shared values of a high enough order to address that problem. Hell, they even try the family thing with some suburban critic, but they can’t risk alienating the free spirits by suggesting that it harms familial relations. Much better to alienate half of America, they aren’t interested in your ads anyway.

There needs to be a political angle, because we are nothing anymore but politics. That’s the closest we have to a high enough value, the one way we can say “bad, but like, universally bad.” See also: insults. It doesn’t work, because the Trump angle is ridiculous, because the issue is something other than politics. Doesn’t matter, the press cannot understand it any other way. Also why all identities fall under a larger political umbrella. This personal problem becomes a problem for everyone else because of that. Politics are everyone else, and using national therapy as personal therapy has only one effect.

True to Dantean irony, ridding ourselves of “judgmental” values addicts us to judgment.


to be continued: terminal values and hypermoralism, Machiavelli vs. Politics

top still from Man Bites Dog by Rémy Belvaux

 

 

 

Disambiguation on the Stone

I

I wrote a post that was near-unanimously decried as obscure. My first instinct was to ignore that. The post was intended as being a rough introduction to a couple after it, so it doesn’t need to stand on its own. Also, I hate being wrong.

I tried to write a simplistic breakdown of the post to show that it was making pretty clear points, at which point I realized that it genuinely was way, way too dense. I then realized why so dense. What I’d written was basically a mission statement for this blog. I’m not sure if I would call it “leaping to conclusions” or even “asking you to take a leap with me.” It’s probably closer to “already having leapt, standing across a chasm, and screaming back that there is no chasm and there is no leap, we’re next to each other and you are insane.” That’s pretty bad.

This is an attempt to write that with the old post as a guide, which is kind of helpful. I know I’m not the best writer, and I also know that what I’m trying to talk about is really obscure, and one of those has to change for me to make intelligible points. Since the classification “things that are obscure” is everything important to me, it’s reasonable to instead try to be a better writer.

I’d wanted to write an introduction post, both to avoid the “you’re hiding the end game” criticism and to provide some structure. This isn’t exactly that, but what I wrote accidentally came close. It was just so dense that it obscured the end game and the mid game and definitely the starting kick. Classical Mesoamerican cultures are famous for both their ball games and their astronomy, and I’m famous for my dense and extended metaphors, so we’re going to say that last post was a total eclipse over the field, and I’m going to choose to interpret it as a propitious sign. As a sacrifice, I offer dignity and ironic detachment. This is as earnest as I’m going to get until someone really breaks my will.

This is still pretty dense and pretty abstract, but it’s a lot more coherent. This isn’t really an introduction (I have to talk about the Book of Samuel for that), and later posts will be way more specific. This is just an attempt to state a few things plainly. Continue reading “Disambiguation on the Stone”

Selection Bias in the Quarry

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towards a positive view of politics

(epistemic status: really, overly vague attempt to connect a few things. doesn’t really succeed. you should read this instead.)

I

So you’ve managed to Solve The Problem.

I assume the grand theory has data and pie-charts, likely a bunch of Fraternity-Sorority mixers, maybe a prediction or two. I’m already sold, give me thirty solutions yesterday. Still, your friend reads the manifesto and spins around like the exorcist girl. Only when he starts cackling “God is dead” do you recall that he dropped Phil 101 two weeks into last semester and hasn’t been the same since. Just your luck; in the quest to formalize humanity (working title: “Melpomenometrics“) you ran into a “philosopher” who “theorizes” by calling himself a “Nietzschean” (working title: “Foucault”).

“But are people rational?”

Philosophy starts debating the nature of human consciousness. Sociology was already  Exploding Brain, but now it’s ascended. Economics hides and starts repeating the Invisibly Handed Lord’s prayer (just the word “marginal” over and over).

To the first approximation: no.

People put sunscreen on their eyeballs to guard against the eclipse. Is the claim that those same people consume products with full knowledge of their influence on a demand curve? “Yes, but those are marginal eyeballs.” What a helpful way to think about it, really opens my margins.

Sticking just with econ: Maybe people have bounded rationality and are limited by their information (obvious but trivial). Maybe everyone is naturally greedy and zero-summing their way to the truth (less obviously true). Maybe humans are just utility-calculators with digestive tracts (doubtful). Any of these could be right, presumably something is right, nihil ex nihilo and all that.

I understand why people respond this way, but it’s the wrong response. It’s responding to what the question thinks it’s asking, and the question isn’t actually asking what it thinks it’s asking.

Sorry, too convoluted, let me rephrase that: humans are rocks, which is why we have reason and free will. Continue reading “Selection Bias in the Quarry”

Propositions on Immortality

a fable

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a fable

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He talks with his hands but the timing is off and the motions are grotesque. It would be an undignified tic did it not appear so composed. I consider first that he’s punctuating a different speech, some previous lecture that stayed too long and makes its presence known in the extremities, the way ghosts haunt attics and basements. I then wonder whether it evidences something more ominous, some vestigial character trying to break free of his current intellect, hostile to it, pantomiming the man he never became. Last, I allow myself to picture a lamp behind him and a sheet before him, that these instruments discover a perfect shadow theater in his gestures, that the shadows illustrate what the naked hand doesn’t, that only our dim light conceals the hieroglyphs.

Right now there are no lights and there are no shadows. There is a weak sun, and whatever puppets it casts are swallowed by a monolithic black table before the professor. At the other end students watch his hands open and close and dart around his hair, digits trying to savage the content of his thought.

He says, “Matter’s nature is interaction. The decomposing body feeds other organisms, supernovas build planets, energy leaps from body to body. The world is continuous. Consciousness refuses to conform.”

He says, “It is isolated,” and his hands burst into frantic activity. He says, “Certainly, we talk about our inner states, we can relay them through speech acts, we can name them and categorize as desired. But that’s only sound, and each party experiences even the loudest sound differently. We can never penetrate the experience of another. We cannot communicate, we can only translate; the experience is neither given nor received.”

The hands are all wrong and he says, “Death is thought to resolve its own problems, but the living should worry. Without some grounds for interaction, it is not clear how we might even die.” One hand closes into a fist and the other opens its palm. He says: Continue reading “Propositions on Immortality”

The Thresher

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Finale.

“We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence.”
Darwin, On The Origin of Species

I

I wrote a brief summary of the books and terms and the way they interlock. I’ll assume you read it or the series itself and ignore recap.

I don’t think this is even close to a description of modernity (much less a full political theory). I’m personally committed to calling this the Uruk Machine inasmuch as some of these issues are just civilization itself. The only book tied to our era is Lasch, because narcissism is tied to nihilism and those are only possible with a certain amount of tech. Still, if what makes “modernity” modernity is partially in technology, then the Uruk Machine will be updated and whirring at unfathomable speeds, the thresher to Gilgamesh’s sacred club. In other words, all of that but more. And I’m pretty sure that that’s exactly what we see.

Still, “modernity” is not exactly the point. When I started this series, I claimed that all of these books were about the same thing. That thing is power, and all of them are about facets that someone else has and you don’t.

II

I’m going to separate “individual power” and “mass power”.

Individual power is self-determination. Power is always over something, and this is “yourself” and also “the outcome of your actions”. It’s incredibly hard to find the right term for it, but everyone knows it when they see it. The best words for it are “agency” and “self-possession”, and those are the ones I’ll use. Of those, “self-possession” might actually come closest, because it implies ability, self-control and political power. It’s the ability to do something on your own, with all the knowledge and confidence that implies. No matter how much external power you have, it’s your foundation. You need to know how to accomplish something to actually accomplish it. On a slightly larger level, it’s the power of a community for self-determination. I still connect this with agency, though, because those smaller communities are self-governing. I associate it with metis, but it’s not limited to that, and episteme provides plenty of agency (depending on context). I think that individual power is pretty obvious up close, but it’s much harder to see from a distance (everyone in a disaster knows who to turn to, but that’s not always the person who actually has a prestigious or political position in the society).

Mass power, on the other hand, is obvious from the outside. I don’t think this is epistemic power (again, there are plenty of people who use episteme for agency), but it tends to rely on it. Mass power is always power over another, the power to make someone do something. I’m going to call it “command”, but bear in mind that that’s imperfect shorthand. Someone with command might be a king, a CEO, an elected official, a [bleh], but they might also be as part of a mass movement. In fact, I’m pretty that command is precisely what mass movements give, and also why most of them fail to cure frustration. (Even moreso if you have some kind of voice over the mass.)

These two things go best together, and when I talk about “real power” I mean both. It doesn’t matter how self-possessed you are, without any mass power a larger entity will prey on you. On the opposite side, being incompetent in a position of command just means that actually-competent people use the slightest weakness to pounce.

There are entire libraries devoted to the observation, “Overpowered people sometimes do bad things.” That doesn’t interest me, and I don’t think it really interests any of these authors. They’re making a different argument: power imbalance isn’t just an issue because the Crown abuses it. It’s an issue because power is a positive good for the populace. The Man could be a lecher or a saint but if he has all the power and the community has none, then it doesn’t matter.

For Scott, power is good because metis is much more adaptive to local conditions and the people who live there. It’s more efficient and generally “pleasant”, while providing people with a more interconnected and “vibrant” world. For Polanyi, power is good because it allows people to maintain communities and enjoy the not-really-priceable goods that that involves. It allows for a kind of certainty, a sense of meaning, and a general traditional safety. For Hoffer, power is good because it allows people to engage in meaningful labor, to avoid frustration and the subsequent madness of the mass movement. For Lasch, power is good because it makes you a full human, and it makes you much less likely to demand the kind of “pleasures” that only entrench you further in the entire epistemic catastrophe. As a bonus, it makes the elites with command more likely to be competent.

The problem here is that “power” has to include both types, and a whole lot of nation building is a trade between agency and command. That’s not bad or good, it just is. I suspect that a lot of political arguments are basically translation issues between these two kinds of power. So Alice says: “The people have no power to do [thing they want to do].” Bob responds: “They live in a democracy! Was it better under kingship?” Both of them agree on centralization being a key feature of modernity (globalization included, inasmuch as it’s one central economy), which is bizarre because that fact alone shows that both of them are right. Even Rome passed out citizenship to save the empire, but that doesn’t mean that the provinces had more autonomy under Rome. Having power over the central authority is different from being your own central authority and really? We’re still arguing about this?

I don’t want to play the “who was happier or freer at [time]” game. I’m not sure it makes sense to compare modern social-contract freedom to whatever liberty meant in 6th century pre-Burma, and I’m skeptical of how we measure “happiness” (Hotel Concierge does part of the groundwork for me; the rest in another post). It should be clear that pre-modern communities were more independent, if not simply because “walking time” was a meaningful measure of distance and it’s difficult to hyper-centralize by foot.

Modernity isn’t bad, no matter how often people want me to be saying [luddite thing], but everything has tradeoffs. Episteme is also not bad, even if I’ve spent way too much time attacking it. Have you noticed how often I rely on epistemic knowledge rather than communal knowledge? As recompense to the gods of book learning: the First Amendment seems obviously epistemic to me, inasmuch as “freedom of belief/speech/thought” isn’t even a coherent thing to discuss in most traditional societies.

I probably don’t need to point this out, but assume that the Uruk Machine basically wants control and knowledge. What limited it before was travel, distance, safety, and wealth. Now add modern tech, a modern economy, the modern-nation state. But if modernity is the Uruk Machine in overdrive, then it makes sense to assume that much more agency is going to get traded for command. The effects of that trade get very weird. Continue reading “The Thresher”

The Uruk Machine

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This is just a recap of everything in the series before. Continued by and paired with The Thresher.

I

Believe it or not, the original plan with this series was to make my writing less dense. These four books are meant to provide early propositions to build on. You need a foundation, after all.

I assumed that would take about a month and be around four posts. Now we’re three months and ten posts on.

To try and recapture some of that original pragmatism, here’s a rough schema of the series as well as the jargon that I use from each book. This isn’t meant to be conclusive, and the linked pieces (obviously) go into more depth. Then again, the series itself isn’t meant to be conclusive. I’m not trying to explain all of politics or modernity or [whatever], much less “solve” it. As always, these are attempts. Continue reading “The Uruk Machine”