SSC writes a response to The Good Guy/Bad Guy Myth by Catherine Nichols. Nichols’ piece claims that good vs. evil stories are distinctly modern, older tales were more ambiguous, this was a causal factor for modern nationalism and subsequent atrocities.
On one hand, I don’t want to look a gift-horse in the mouth. I’m in favor of Old Books, they are indeed complex, thanks for the backup. Nichols’ underlying premise is worthwhile: a) Myths and epics and fairy-tales have a moral complexity and ambiguity we casually ignore; b) There has been a genuine shift in values, and while Christianity was part of it, the after-effects of the industrial revolution are much more relevant for our current society.
On the other, I agree with Scott’s criticisms. The historical argument presented is wild. The Spanish conquered most of the Americas between the 16th and 17th centuries under the pretense of moral ineptitude and evil among the natives. They had to be forced into enlightenment, which meant murder, torture, and slavery. Bartoleme de las Casas is considered more rhetorical than accurate, but he says some true things. Here’s his book A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies: there’s a lot about feeding people to dogs and slaughtering children for fun, sometimes both at once.
Then again, maybe the Spanish were just early adopters. Pierre Menard (PDF) or Miguel Cervantes wrote a book about simplistic values in literature causing illusory political actions way back in 1604:
And so, having completed these preparations, he did not wish to wait any longer to put his thought into effect, impelled by the great need in the world that he believed was caused by his delay, for there were evils to undo, wrongs to right, injustices to correct, abuses to ameliorate, and offenses to rectify. And one morning before dawn on a hot day in July, without informing a single person of his intentions, and without anyone seeing him, he armed himself with all his armor and mounted Rocinante, wearing his poorly constructed helmet, and he grasped his shield and took up his lance and through the side door of a corral he rode out into the countryside with great joy and delight at seeing how easily he had given a beginning to his virtuous desire.
The Aeon piece is factually incorrect, its timing is screwy, fine. That’s not my problem. The essay set off a very particular panic point for me.
In making the case that we have a simplistic good/evil binary, it set up its own – nationalist/liberal, politically bad/politically good, whatever you want to call it. Nazi references rule everything, it was not subtle. It argues against art as a tool for training moral values – which I happen to agree with – but makes it, instead, a political tool. Not that she wants that, because she doesn’t, but that it can do that, and thus that art which does such a thing is bad art.
Pythagoras assigned cyclical motions to the planets. Circles are eternal, and thus the motion most suited for the motions of the heavens. This essay is about circles, as well, albeit the more homely human kind. It’s about racing so far in one direction that you wind up back at the get-go.
All theories have assumptions, all assumptions lead to their own conclusions. Inconsistency is not bad for the sin of pride, it’s bad because it makes you wreck yourself in conversations. Worse is inconsistency with power for reasons that are too obvious to lay out, [Goya etching here], etc.
This blog has recently been focused on the epistemology of mathematics. It has interesting and far-reaching consequences, but it’s often ignored as meaningless specialist nonsense and/or ivory tower shit.
Those consequences are the real interest, and I’ve explicitly stated that the end is modern phenomenology. But to get to [anything modern] you need Kant, to get to Kant you need Hume, to get to Hume you need Idealism, to get Idealism you need Plato.
Platonism (in math) is, essentially, the position that mathematical objects are real. They are as “out there” as a planet is “out there” (just not in space-time, spoiler alert). Because it’s hard to really precise this, here’s (hilariously) an entire appendix of people defining it.
Naive versions of Platonism are astoundingly common when it comes to the epistemology of mathematics. These aren’t “wrong” per se, they just lead to consequences counter to what we tend to want. I’m pretty sure this is because mathematics is secure enough that it’s the very last metaphysical “thing” we want to deny. The denial also leads to tricky questions about the physical sciences, i.e. the point of this series. Thus, we’re a lot more willing to grant ontological primacy to mathematics than we are to, say, “beauty” or “virtue.”
But also: Plato himself is a necessary nightmare to talk about. He’s a great example of why one should read primary sources, because “platonism” is historically sideways. This is bad enough that I have to write two separate articles. This one is on “Platonism.” The next will be on Plato.
When we talk about Platonism now, we’re not actually talking about a 4th century BC philosophical school. We’re talking about a 20th century one. Godel absolutely stomped the early analytic schools, and everyone wandered in a daze looking for a new position. Kind of, this is bad history, don’t @ me. I’m not going to get into that because [long] and [besides the point], but it’s consistent that Godel himself was a devoted Platonist.
It’s quite popular, so note that any criticisms I make will 100% have objections and counter-arguments. Platonism is the plurality position by this survey (PDF) of philosophers. (Q: Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism? Results: Abstract objects: Platonism 39.3%; nominalism 37.7%; other 23.0%.) Since it says “abstract objects” rather than “mathematical objects”, that probably confounds full-blooded Platonism (“all abstract concepts exist”) with mathematical Platonism (“at least mathematical objects exist”), but I’ve yet to meet someone who thought that the abstract concept “beauty” is real but numbers are not. In other words, that 39.3% almost certainly covers all mathematical Platonists.
If I get around to talking about the analytics (way later), I’m going to have to return to Platonism, i.e. this is incomplete. I’m much more interested in arguments mustered for naturalism on Platonic grounds, both as a personal preference and for subsequent articles. Less in arguing for or against Platonism than in showing some of the consequences, and for those we basically assume it’s true. After all, this series begins with the question: “Why does math work in reality?” and Platonism is an answer to that question. It works because math is real, it doesn’t matter how frail the human mind is, somehow we frailed our way into the Truth of the World, take it and run.
Still, there’s a reason that a shocking number of otherwise-impartial descriptions of modern platonists use phrases like “bite the bullet” to describe their admissions. The consequences of the argument are wild, and for that one actually can turn back to Plato. It matters less whether he himself believed it than it does that he develops some of the results and, even if ironically, these went on to have some super weird consequences.
You might ask why start with Platonism, then. Long story short: [history] happened, modern Platonism is enough like what pre-modern philosophers were responding to that it’s basically fine. There was a long historical bit here, but it’s been banished to an appendix for taking up space without moving the argument forward.
I’ve praised the virtues of careful philosophical argumentation. In an act of stunning hypocrisy, I will now write a very reckless article about Plato and Platonism.
Let’s start this with an obvious question: “Why are you so concerned with math?”
It has to be answered for any description to make sense. Looking back, it does appear that my interest is just because of Kant’s interest. No, and:
It’s not good that our root instinct is a lazy Cartesian skepticism, but it does make my job easier. That was something earlier writers had to inflict; it being the default lets us move quicker.
Ask a college kid what Truth capital T is and they’ve already absorbed the right lessons: truth is a construct determined by your culture’s valuations and epistemic suppositions, therefore we’ll never be able to actually arrive at the Truth. “It’s subjective.” Moreover, logic is dependent on language, which is dependent on culture; reason needs categories to manipulate, which are dependent on [relative thing]; trying to interpret the empirical world is a problem because you can never step outside yourself, data isn’t “there,” it must be uncovered, hence the flaws of naive science.
I say this like I’m mocking the arguments, but I do really mean this is the correct way to start. Not only are we in the cave, that cave is in a metacave. Don’t trust yourself to trust the outside world, reason splinters out of a bunch of psychological flaws and biases, inner fickledom influences outer fickledom, there is a great gnashing of teeth.
Nietzsche, who I will quote this once and then avoid until [distant post]:
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.
One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature.
We should be extremely skeptical that the human intellect can touch on anything True, much less even vaguely functional. I do mean that as a starting point: get as deep into skepticism as you can, or else what follows won’t be as baffling as it should be.
If human reason were worth a damn, there would be no question about the status of math. Only in light of its complete and total vapidity do we realize how baffling it is that Leibniz can think about geometry real hard, Maxwell can apply that hard thinking, and now we have computers. Continue reading “On a Particularly Difficult Question”
It’s something like a condensed version of the Uruk Series, and much shorter than most essays here. (I didn’t ditch this blog for other publications; I’m working on them, more posts here in a few days.)
People coming from Aeon: Hi. Thanks for reading. The Aeon essay is (kind of) a condensed form of a series I wrote here (the index of which is here), and a few odds and ends.
The most relevant pieces are this one on Seeing Like a State, this on Karl Polanyi, and this on gri-gri. All of those are much longer than the Aeon piece (and my tone is less neutral). Eventually it goes into Eric Hoffer, Christopher Lasch, and some other stuff.
I haven’t addressed Nietzsche very explicitly (although I mention him at the end of the series), nor differing conceptions of nihilism. I plan to in the future. Sorry.
At the moment, I’m writing a new series. It’s about Kant and mathematics, and how that leads into early phenomenology. The first post is here. It will likely make people with different philosophical commitments angry.
I feel like people are going to ask this, so: Qohelet’s Ossuary is intended to be a list of quotes pulled from history books. I’ve been bad about updating it.
My email is luukeep at outlook.com if anyone has questions.
This blog has recently been grasping at the notion of values, either directly or by reference to nihilism. I’ve mostly failed, because I need vocabulary that I don’t really have, because the question isn’t really the question it looks like. This is an oldnew question, in precisely the way that most things are oldnew questions.
This is the old form of it: Socrates asks Meno what virtue is. Meno, reasonably, replies with a list of actions that are good things to do. Socrates, reasonably, answers that there must be some essence of “virtue” that connects all of these things, a value or judgment or faculty of judgment that determines the “good” from the “bad.”
No one can figure it out, which leads to the Meno problem. The Meno problem is this:
A man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows–since he knows it, there is no need to search–nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.
So, it seems that knowing virtue is impossible. Socrates then leading-questions a slave boy into doing geometry, which proves something about inborn knowledge, and Socrates suggests that knowing things maybe comes from reincarnation. Kind of. Either way, knowledge of “virtue” is, at least plausibly, as objectively valid as mathematics. To really drive the point home, Socrates relays a series of poetic invocations of the gods and tells a myth about the afterlife. Meno asks him how true any of that is, and Socrates responds by saying “Eh.” and also “We’ll be better men if we think it is, because it will make us brave enough to question things.”
This is really weird. It’s not obvious that math is anything like virtue. Moreover, it’s not clear that math is itself objective, which is underlined by the fact that it’s reliant on a mythical interpretation that presupposes its own existence. Finally, Socrates forces acquiescence by calling it “better” to believe in true knowledge, but the point about not knowing about knowing is that it means you can’t tell what’s “better” and what’s “worse.”
I don’t really do links pages. I did one, once, but decided against continuing it. The links that I’d post are directly taken from links pages of other blogs, which feels more than a little parasitic.
Instead, I’ll post an annual list of my favorite articles. Since it’s hard to remember all of the articles of the past year, there’s no possible way this is fully accurate, which really makes this a list of articles that left a lasting impression. It’s by no means fair or objective; most of these are personal reading habits that I’m pretty sure a lot of my readers share.
The cuneiform documents of the end of the second millenium and the first half of the first millenium B.C. contain a number of isolated indications which, taken together, reveal that a small number of old and important cities enjoyed certain privileges and exemptions with respect to the king and his power. They apparently had legal status which differed in essential points from that of any other community. In Bablyonia, these cities were Nippur, Babylon, and Sippar; in Assyria, the old capital Assur and, later, Harran in Upper Mesopotamia. In principle, the inhabitants of these “free cities” claimed with more or less success, depending on the political situation, freedom from corvee work, freedom from military service […], as well as a tax exemption which we are not able to define in specific terms. […]
The privileges of the inhabitants of these cities were under divine protection. Their legal status was referred to as the kidinnūtu (“status of being under the aegis of the kidinnu,” probably some kind of standard) […]
Revealing the status of these privileged city-dwellers is a passage in the ritual texts describing the ceremonies performed during the New Year’s festival in Babylon. On that occasion, the king was permitted to enter the innermost sanctuary, but he could do this only after the high priest had taken from him all the insignia and indumentaria of kingship and humiliated him by slapping his face and pulling his ears.
If an atheist appeared in Sippar, how would they be perceived? Let’s say they’re materially all-in with the Sipparians: hates Nebuchadnezzar, wants Sippar to be truly free, sees the state religion as merely one obstacle to that end. Maybe that’s not even a big deal, it’s just some small part of the general ideology, “I mostly care about economic concerns, but sure, atheism is a part of that.”
coming from here, but much more abstract. epistemic: mostly endorsed, but kind of vague and occasionally overgeneralizes
Values get used as axioms in debates, shorthand in conversation, symbols of judgment. x is bad because y because that leads to idleness, x is bad because y which is basically docetism, x is the worst because y was Hitler.
The problem with Godwin’ing is that it’s too blunt, but the underlying concept is genuinely desirable. It’s inefficient to restate every axiom; one wants to reduce the conversation to shared values and move on. Often we sense that something is bad, and then later justify that by a more socially known value. Hence, my description of them as organizational tools. We categorize and argue based by moving backwards towards a common term.
What these are is trickier. “People just want safety, food, comfort, a good place to raise our family.” True, but also true of badgers. None of those are high enough to resolve most of our problems.
Smart phones are bad because they distract you from x, but that x isn’t an easy nod at Maslow’s lower levels. People aren’t forgetting to eat over Instagram, if not simply because they need to take their foodie pics. “Distraction is bad” for reasons that don’t apply to mustelids. According to [newspapers] that’s political, as in “distracted right to the voting booth with a MAGA hat.” That’s not an accident.
Older norms are gone (religious, etc.), and our nice, “ethical” platitudes collapse on themselves here: “Do what you love!” But what if I love gorging on snapchat? “You only live once, enjoy it!” If I genuinely like spending all my time on facebook, then shouldn’t I be doing exactly that? Hence, Trump. Politics are the last high value high enough to answer the question. It’s the highest organizational tool we have (we have a vague metaphysic of “truth”; connecting these is for a longer piece) that’ll respond to this kind of concern.
See also: aesthetics. “They’re subjective.” They definitely aren’t, at least not how you mean that, but whatever. I can’t think of a single “important” (read: good) work of culture that wasn’t “important” (read: ingroup politics) in direct proportion to its political content. If it gets slammed, then it failed to live up to those. One googles: “We need to talk about [artist]” and 9/10 the top hit is a problematic list of problematics. Someone is going to start screaming about the academy awards and diversity ignoring the quality of the art, and fair. But the right does this too, e.g. “I loved American Sniper!” It’s probably unfair to judge a nation by the ineptitude of its propaganda, but…
I’m not trying to be obtuse, art has political content, duh, clear, mind blown. That doesn’t change that fact that political content is often the least interesting aspect of art, and English departments reading more theory than English is almost certainly the third seal pretending to be a “deep, compelling” look at the seventh. It’s neither deep nor compelling, it’s lazy and obvious. A fucking eighth grader could tell you that “there are some themes of gender in Hemingway”, why do you need a bungled continental to do the same?
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, therewasmuchfroth.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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”