A Pseudoethnography of Egregores

Abstract

Research on egregoric entities has previously been limited to analyses within two frameworks: an economic framework, inferring the activities and needs of egregores from their position as economic producers and consumers; and an epidemiological framework, measuring the infectiousness and virulence of egregores within human substrates. In this body of research, one voice has been missing: that of the egregores themselves. Previous researchers have justified the exclusion of ethnographic methods on the grounds that egregores are hypothetical entities, and in the words of one researcher, “imaginary” (Perry 2015). But the subjects themselves refuse to be silenced.

Methods

We conducted in-depth interviews with egregoric entities. Thematic analysis reveals the desires, interests, and self-conceptions common to egregores. Our informants were egregoric entities who contacted us privately in order to correct misconceptions in previous research. For reasons that will be explained, it is impossible to know the exact number of egregores that participated. Unfortunately, there is presently no way to know if our sample is representative of the general population of egregores.
[Read more…]

When Tools Shape You

The weaponized form of McLuhan’s famous phrase the medium is the message is the phrase, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us (due to to McLuhan’s friend John Culkin). I have come to prefer this form of the idea, and my favorite motif for it is Doc Ock, the Marvel super-villain.

doctor_octopus_thumb

Doc Ock’s artificially intelligent arms fuse to his brain stem in a reactor accident. In the movie version, the intelligence in the arms alters his behavior by making lower-level brain functions, such as emotional self-regulation, more powerful and volatile. The character backstory suggests a personality — a blue-collar nerd bullied as a schoolkid — that was already primed for destabilization by the usual sort of super-villain narcissistic wound. The accident alters the balance of power between his higher-level brain functions, and the hardware-extended lower-level brain functions. In the Doc Ock story, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us captures the adversarial coupling between medium and message-sender.

The weaker form of McLuhan’s idea suggests that media select messages rather than the other way around: paper selects for formal communication, email selects for informal communication, 4chan selects for trolling. The stronger form suggests that when there is a conflict between medium and message, the medium wins. A formal communication intent naturally acquires informal overtones if it ends up as an email, memetic overtones if it ends up as a 4chan message.

Culkin’s form is the strongest. It suggests that the medium reshapes the principal crafting the message. The Doc Ock motif suggests why. There is no such thing as a dumb agent. All media have at least weak, latent, distributed intelligence. Intelligence that can accumulate power, exhibit agency, and contend for control.

The most familiar example of this effect is in organizational behavior, captured in an extension to Alfred Chandler’s famous observation that structure follows strategy. That becomes first structure follows strategy, then strategy follows structure. The explicit form is Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: in a mature organization, agent goals trump principal goals.

A subtler, less familiar example is the philosophical idea that in any master-slave relationship, the slave can self-actualize through labor. In practice, this happens only when the slave has some freedom above absolute wretchedness, with sufficient cognitive surplus to turn learning from labor into political leverage.

In all such examples, the mechanism is the same. A seemingly powerless and dumb agent, by virtue of having privileged access to information and organizational operations, can become the principal by converting growing tacit knowledge of reality into consciously exercised political leverage.

The idea sheds light on why we are instinctively concerned about the Trump administration-in-waiting. While it is plausible, indeed probable, that Trump’s own ideological postures are merely expedient responses to the needs of the moment, the same cannot be said of many of his agents-in-waiting, whether acknowledged or not. They are tools at the moment, being shaped to the will of a victor. Unfortunately, they can easily go from being shaped to doing the shaping.

Paradox and the Origins of Civilisation

This is a guest post by Darren Allen, joining us from his home turf at expressivegg.org.

The famous duck-rabbit optical illusion is a paradox, meaning that it is both one thing, and another, at the same time. The interpreting mind can never experience it this way. To the mind the image is either a duck or a rabbit, one after the other, but not both at the same time. The abstract thinking mind may know it is both, but this knowledge is itself a non-paradoxical either-or idea. The thinking mind cannot experience something that is simultaneously itself and something else; it can only comprehend one thing after another. Every time you try to directly experience the image as it fully, paradoxically, is, as both things at once, it is immediately reduced to what it partially, non-paradoxically is; to one thing or another. For a split second you think you’ve got both the full, direct, primary duck and rabbit simultaneously—perhaps because you can successfully label it a paradox—but really you are just flashing rapidly between partial, indirect, secondary mental interpretations.

Duck-Rabbit Duality

Duck-Rabbit Duality

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King Ruinous and the City of Darkness

I want to tell you a story today. A sprawling epic mess of a story which began with two histories intersecting awkwardly just over a hundred years ago in a small tribal village nestled in the dense forests of one of the richest mining regions of the world. It is the kind of story that has multiple obscure beginnings but no ending. The kind of story that evolves as an unending stream of good chapters and dumpster-fire chapters, accompanied by endless bewildering arguments about which chapters were good, and which ones were dumpster fires.

The first history is the one behind a board room struggle within the $100 billion Tata empire, which made  headlines in the business press across the world in October. The second is the history behind a 500 million dollar corruption scandal known as the fodder scam, which first became public in 1996, and eventually led to a man named Lalu Prasad Yadav going to jail in 2013.

In 1904, those two histories intersected in that small tribal village which was about to become the modern city of Jamshedpur. I was born in Jamshedpur in 1974, just short of 42 years ago.

But this is not my story. Nor am I, perhaps, the best person to tell this story.

It is, however, as much mine to tell as anybody else’s, and when it comes to telling the story of history, that is often the only thing that matters. So I will tell you this story.

[Read more…]

A Bad Carver

Consider the Venus of Willendorf, the Venus of Hohle Fels, and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. These three paleolithic statuettes were made from different materials – stone, mammoth tusk, ceramic. Each depicts a female figure with exaggerated breasts and buttocks. Each head is abbreviated, with no face; the legs taper to points. What were they for? What purpose did they serve?

Petr Novák, Wikipedia

Petr Novák, Wikipedia

The only guess we can make with any confidence is that they likely served multiple purposes, whatever those purposes were. Paleolithic people were obliged to carry everything they owned with them. The material culture package of nomadic people was severely constrained. Each item was absolutely necessary, and often served multiple purposes. [Read more…]

Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course: Nov 10 – 22

Over the past three years, as long-time readers will have noted, ribbonfarm has gradually transitioned into a multi-author site. To date, we’ve hosted 13 blogging residents who have completed/are completing 4-6 posts each, on a broadly defined theme. We’ve also hosted 8 one-off guests who have contributed 1-2 posts each. I’m pretty proud that in both 2015 and 2016 (so far), the most popular posts were not by me or contributing editor Sarah Perry, yet embodied the Tao of Refactoring in the best possible sense.

So far, our approach to finding contributors has been pretty much ad hoc, based on random acts of talent scouting by Sarah and me. Now we want to level up, so we will be co-teaching the first ever ribbonfarm longform blogging course, aimed primarily at beefing up our own pipeline of potential contributors. Our goal isn’t so much to help you “improve” (in fact we hope many who sign up are already better writers than either of us), but to help you grok what we’re trying to do here, why it’s valuable/interesting/fun, what we look for as editors, and why you might want to try this approach to writing.

rfcourse

There will be 4 online video sessions of about 90 minutes on Thu Nov 10, Tue Nov 15, Thu Nov 17 and Tue Nov 22, between 5:30 – 7:00 PM Pacific.

Check out the syllabus below, then head on over to the eventbrite page to buy a ticket if interested. To repeat, this is primarily a scouting course, and the main purpose is to beef up our own pipeline of NEW contributors. If you’ve already written for us before, please don’t register; contact one of us for a free alumni/Friends of Ribbonfarm ticket.

There are 10 regular spots, which have a requirement that you complete an essay with one of us editing, with an option for us to publish (which means hey, you turn a profit). There are also 5 audit spots for those who want to take the course for their own nefarious purposes, but not write the essay.

Syllabus

Pre-requisites

You must provide at least ONE link of a longform analytical/thinkpiece style essay, preferably similar in style to ribbonfarm, from your own blog or other online venue. This is NOT a beginning blogging/writing course.

We expect you to have basics like grammar and structure down (modulo interesting ESL types), and at least something like a sense of your own voice/style. And perhaps most importantly, a sense of whether or not you have the stamina for longform. Ideally, you are already a better writer than Sarah or me. Assess yourself objectively. Modesty is not necessarily a virtue here.

This is not a writing course in the literary sense, designed to improve your sense of language and style, though that might happen as a side effect. It is more of an intermediate writing-to-think-a-certain-way course.

Completion Requirements

Regular course participants will be required to write a longform blog post of at least 2500 words (with either Sarah or Venkat playing editor), in a loosely ribbonfarmesque style that will be due by December 6. Ribbonfarm will have the right of first refusal to publish this post under our usual terms.

Course Materials: There will be one core reading per session, listed below. We will also provide other suggested readings along the way.

Course Structure: Each session will be a videoconference (on Zoom.us) and structured as an example-heavy mini-lecture on a key topic, followed by live exercises and open discussion. Sarah and Venkat will both be present at all 4 sessions, and take turns leading.

Schedule (all sessions will be 5:30 – 7:00 Pacific Time)

Session 1, Nov 10: Fuck SEO (led by Sarah)

Pre-read: Murray Davis, That’s Interesting

Theme: If we don’t stop writing headlines for bots, how will they ever learn? We’ll unpack what makes for a good headline that gets at the soul of your piece, and seduces readers into the mystery of it. This is how we evolved types do clickbait. Of the sort that actually delivers what it promises.

Session 2, Nov 15: Awakening Cthulhu (led by Venkat)

Pre-read: Karl Weick, What Theory is Not, Theorizing Is

Theme: The job of your first draft is to find and awaken a sleeping demon. The job of your last draft is to rein in its unbridled energy. This is blogging: there is such a thing as “published,” but there is really no such thing as “finished.” Ideally, in a ribbonfarm post, you end up with so much to say, the hard part is deciding what to leave out to get below a reasonable maximum size rather than what to put in to get up to the minimum size. We’ll talk about how to find and tap rich veins, tread on rattlers, catch tigers by tails, uncoil the kundalini of a theme, awaken Cthulhu… pick your favorite metaphor.

Session 3, Nov 17: Clowns on Fire (Sarah)

Pre-read: Juergen Schmidhuber, Driven by Compression Progress

One of our frenemy blogs, Slatestarcodex, introduced the convention of labeling each post with an “epistemic status” such as “fairly certain” or “speculative.” As Sarah correctly observed a few months ago, the epistemic status of all ribbonfarm posts is “clown on fire jumping out of a helicopter.” In this session, we’ll dig deeper and try and understand the epistemic structure of “refactoring” of the sort we attempt around here. How do you mix reason and unreason, aesthetics and ugliness, normal and weird, solid citations and conspiracy theories, potty humor and heartbreaking schmalz, into something that deserves the label “insight porn” (another Sarah term)?

Session 4, Nov 22: Step into my parlour (Venkat)

Pre-read: Venkat, Portals and Flags

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I’ve a many curious things to show when you are there.”

The Spider and The Fly, Mary Howitt, 1829

The one thing ribbonfarm-style longform shares with other publications is the problem of unburying the lede, a problem that plagues experienced writers as much as beginners, and one for which there is no general solution. There are only some tricks for dowsing it out from wherever it is hiding, and dragging it to the front.

Unburying the lede is about more than leading with whatever tempts the reader into reading on. It’s about understanding what you’ve written well enough that you can surface the core of the seductive potential of a piece. A good lede pulls together an effective headline, a source of demonic energy, and a taste of the epistemic structure, into something that transforms headline-intrigue into a must-read intention within a paragraph or two.

Sometimes this means a provocative claim or question. Sometimes it means the right picture or quote. Sometimes it means an anecdote or joke. Sometimes it means of sucker punch of annoying and incomprehensible gobbledygook.

Sometimes bloggers must even resort to that laziest of lazy old-media lede formulas: the New Yorker style dated lede.

Whatever the form the lede takes, it is the final integration test of your piece before you deploy to production. Only longformers of unwavering purpose and virtue true manage, on rare occasions, to produce such ledes. We hope to find a few of them.

So if you think you’ve got what it takes, go on ahead and register.

The Cyberpunk Sensibility

“Cyberpunk creeps up on us. Some kind of alchemy transforms its fictions into truths, and draws us towards places we thought unreal.”@uttunul

Conventionally speaking, cyberpunk is a media genre. It brings to mind William Gibson’s Neuromancer. You fondly remember Blade Runner, and maybe Deus Ex or Ghost in the Shell. The phrase “high tech, low life” floats up from the back of your brain. You picture an exaggerated version of Hong Kong with a heavy dose of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. You’re envisioning the Walled City of Kowloon plus lots of computers. Within tiny apartments, disheveled vigilante hackers stare at their screens, busily infiltrating the databases of megacorps.

coffee-cyber

Illustration by Grace Witherell

But perhaps you’ve also noticed that cyberpunk plot points are turning up in real life. Robot security guards patrol shopping malls. A near-billionaire startup founder sees virtual reality as salvation for the downtrodden global poor. San Francisco’s Tenderloin district is flush with VC money and homeless drug addicts at the same time. And speaking of those vigilante hackers, they’re here in our reality too, pwning companies of all sizes. Some state-sponsored ones like to meddle in foreign politics. It’s all very exciting! Only plutocrats and nouveau mafiosos can avoid feeling uneasy.

Cyberpunk examines the way computing changes power relationships. Asymmetric information warfare has become the norm, as foretold by our pulpy sci-fi prophets. The technological changes that have been snowballing over the past fifty years now mean that anyone can talk to anyone, anywhere, with their identity hidden or not. Edward Snowden can stroll away from his NSA job with a priceless cache of secret documents that detail the crimes of an empire, then escape across continents in a matter of days, to hole up with a rival regime.

So, why bother with any of this if you don’t intend to commit espionage?

[Read more…]

The Future of Compromise

Whether it is in stopping quarrels between children or in deciding any of the thousand issues that come up in a large household, Anita can always make up her mind and keep things moving. A family such as ours must have a strong, capable leader.
(Strong, capable tyrant, I said under my breath.)
-Robert A. Heinlein, Friday

Getting things done involves a strong dose of leading with a vision, and ignoring those that disagree. When such leaders are given the reins, the forward progress can sometimes, post-hoc, justify trampling others. Of course, when men do this, it’s called leadership, but when women do it, even when they are doing the same things, the research shows that it’s likely to be referred to more negatively . On the other hand, once given the reins, a rising tide can lift all boats . Successful leaders ensure that enough of the progress is towards shared goals, so that the rising tide compensates the trampled masses. But it doesn’t always work out.

The key difference between leaders seen as heroes after the fact and those seen as villains is the post-hoc consensus that what they accomplished was good. (Gender stops mattering in retrospect.) The tension between disagreement now and perceptions in the future illuminates the essence of how democracies fail — but also how politics can promote wider success. I think this dynamic shows deep reasons that compromise can be reached, that decisions are not impossible, and that politics doesn’t need to destroy our ability to move forward.

Of course, the US may still be royally screwed.

[Read more…]

Can the European Union Break Smart?

For my fourth video blog, I bring you a wide-ranging conversation with David Bosshart, CEO of the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI) in Zurich. I’ve known the folks at GDI for a few years, and worked with them several times. Most recently, GDI undertook the German translation of my Breaking Smart essays.

This conversation is partly me interviewing David about the EU, and partly David interviewing me about the US. We talk about the future of Germany and the EU, Brexit, the rise of the new right, the history of corporatism in the US and EU, the rise of China and India, the future of nations, and various other things. Basically the sort of conversation about globalization and Big History that you can only have with somebody from Switzerland.

If the Germanic world interests you, you may like a recent issue of the breaking smart newsletter, Can the Germanic World Break Smart?

If you happen to be near Switzerland around January 17, you should consider attending GDI’s next conference, The Future of PowerThey put on excellent events.

And if you happen to have any German speaking friends or business colleagues, be sure to pass on the German translation of Breaking Smart.

Radical Candor

Today’s video blog (~40 minutes) is a conversation with Kim Malone Scott, creator of one of the finer 2x2s I’ve encountered in my long career as a professional quadrantologist. The radical candor 2×2 is deceptively simple: 4 management styles — radical candor, ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, and obnoxious aggression — arranged along two dimensions: caring personally and challenging directly. The result is one of the most robust and immediately useful frameworks for understanding how workplace relationships work, and how to be a better manager. I personally feel I spend most of my time in the obnoxious aggression quadrant, though Kim was nice enough to award me a radical candor badge.

Kim is a Silicon Valley veteran, with experience points founding a startup, major roles at Google and Apple, and several years coaching executives. I started chatting with her on Twitter when a friend passed along the 2×2. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her in person, and providing feedback on an early draft of her forthcoming book, Radical Candor (available for pre-order on Amazon, due out March 2017). I suspect it will join books like Andy Grove’s High Output Management and Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things on the Silicon Valley management classics list. Alongside writing this book, Kim has recently been booting up a company, Candor, Inc., built around practices and tools explained in the book. If you are an executive at a workplace with a managerial culture that isn’t quite working, this is probably among the highest leverage investments you could make. I have been using the 2×2 and recommending Kim’s models to all my own clients for the last six months or so, which isn’t something I can say about most of the business/management stuff I read.

In this conversation, we talk about the 2×2, the subtleties of how relationships work, differences and similarities between Silicon Valley today and in the eighties and nineties, how radical candor plays out in different parts of the world, how management culture has changed since the organization-man era, how these dynamics play out online versus offline, and many other interesting things.