Being Your Selves: Identity R&D on alt Twitter

This is a guest post by Aaron Z. Lewis

I grew up in cyber spaces where legal names were few and far between: RuneScape, AIM, Club Penguin, Neopets, and the like. But when I turned 13, Facebook opened up its floodgates to teenagers across America and washed away our playful screen names. My online social life slowly migrated to Facebook’s News Feed and, before long, I stopped thinking about all the alter-egos I had during my childhood. My digital identity became finite, consistent, persistent, unified. I was Aaron Lewis — nothing more, nothing less.

In 2018, I started feeling nostalgic for the pseudonymous internet of my youth. I decided on a whim to create a “fake” Twitter account, a digital mask to temporarily shield my First Name Last Name from the strange spotlight of social media. What started as mindless entertainment slowly morphed into a therapeutic exercise in identity experimentation. I always thought that masks were for hiding, but I’ve learned that they often reveal as much as they obscure. They allow you to explore a new identity even as you retreat from an old one.

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MJD 58,866

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Captain's Log

An idea can leak to the extent it has a name that is meaningful within a larger context. A name is, in a sense, a key that unlocks the significance of the contents of the interior of the named idea in terms of signifiers that exist in the exterior environment. But a name also binds and reshapes a new idea to forms that already exist, via metaphor, symmetries, isomorphisms, or rhymes. What one might call idea-socialization mechanisms.

In the Rick and Morty multiverse, our universe is “Dimension C-137 on the Central Finite Curve”. The logic of the vaguely topological sounding pseudomath name appears to have eluded fans so far. It is a name that only makes sense at the multiverse level, where the context of reference is a plurality of universes. Our universe wouldn’t even need a meaningless number without a multiverse reference context. But a number is a rather empty context in a sense: one that contains nothing but reference pointers to subordinate universes. It’s a pure addressing layer, with all actual content and structure, including distinguishable Ricks and Mortys, existing at the leaf level. The alphanumeric designator vaguely suggests two dimensions, and “central finite curve” suggests some sort of manifold within a higher-dimensional space of possibilities (Reddit suspects it is the subset of realities where Ricks exist).

The same kind of logic also applies to our own non-fictional universe. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the address of our home galaxy acquire a new level of named referencing. The Milky Way is no longer just part of the “local group” and “Virgo supercluster” (now an appendage). We are now part of the larger Laniakea supercluster, which puts us in some meaningful patterns of weirdly synchronized galactic rotations created by large-scale structures of hydrogen and dark matter apparently.

To go from meaningless reference number to meaningful name is to have an idea leak from its original container and enter into a condition of entanglement with neighboring realities. The synchronization of galactic rotations within the Laniakea supercluster, due to large-scale structure, is a leakage of the idea of the Milky Way galaxy, a sort of broader smearing of its identity. And with it, a smearing of your identity.

You, individually, are rotating in synchronization with galaxies 120 million lightyears away.

If you, like me, once wrote down your full cosmic address as a kid, with your name on the first line and “Virgo Supercluster” as the last line, that address now has a new last line, and it actually says something meaningful about you: how you are rotating.

The Internet of Beefs

You’ve heard me talk about crash-only programming, right? It’s a programming paradigm for critical infrastructure systems, where there is — by design — no graceful way to shut down. A program can only crash and try to recover from a crashed state, which might well be impossible. I came up with a term for the human version: beef-only thinking.

A beef-only thinker is someone you cannot simply talk to. Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation to conflict. From there, you can only crash into honor-based conflict mode, or back away and disengage.

The connection to crash-only programming is more than cosmetic, but it will take some set-up before I can establish the conceptual bridge.

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Predictable Identities 24: Anti-Identity

This entry is part 24 of 24 in the series Predictable Identities

Identity is a set of habits of thought. The very idea of identity is just another habit you picked up. The good news: once you realize that, you can build your own from scratch. The bad news: it will troll you.

Countless clichéd people want to be a writer and start cultivating that identity. They install Scrivener. They read research papers and inspiring novels. They plan how the book’s cover will look. They introduce themselves as a writer. They don’t write much.

There are many diagnoses of this common malaise. The predictable identities one is: adopting X as an identity makes you optimize for being predicted as X, rather than for X itself. If you tell people about the book you’re writing they’ll predict that you’re a writer and will treat you accordingly, reinforcing your identity. If you merely accumulate words in a draft file, they won’t.

If I hear someone identify as a “truth seeker” I know that they’re a devout Christian, devout skeptic, or both (i.e., Jordan Peterson). “Truth seekers” love public debates, they love researching arguments and counterarguments, they love talking about the importance of truth. What they rarely seem to do is actually change their mind about anything — the invisible action that doesn’t reinforce their “truth seeking” identity.

The first step to escaping the trap of identity is to build an identity of fluidity, corrigibility, and small verbs rather than big adjectives.  

—  “Are you a writer?”  

—  “I’ve been writing this blogchain.”   

—  “Will you turn it into a book?”  

—  “Probably not, but I may change my mind.” 

—  “So you’re not really a writer.”

—  “Never said I was.”

It’s hard to go overboard with an identity of breaking-habits and keeping the self small, since your natural inclination will always pull you towards consistency, and others will assign labels to you whether you want to or not. Adopting an anti-identity can get you to a middle ground, and that’s a good place to start.

MJD 58,855

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Captain's Log

When I was a kid, several of my friends owned a kind of toy remote control car with only one control: forward/backward. These cars had three wheels, and the third rear wheel was a caster. The car went forward in a straight line, but backwards in a circle. You steered by backing up to reorient, then going forward again. The caster was either left or right-handed, so backing up always turned you in a consistent direction. To go the other way, you’d have to back up more than 180 degrees.

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MJD 58,854

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Captain's Log

To be present in a seat in a movie theater is to pay attention to a movie for a couple of hours, tuning out the few distractions, and giving in to the carefully crafted temptation to escapism. To be present, outside of a vehicle, in the middle of a busy, high-speed intersection, is to pay attention to half a dozen largely unrelated things every second, with the set of things changing every few seconds, while everybody gets mad at you.

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MJD 58,851

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Captain's Log

I’m starting a new experiment: blog entries in a blogchain without a declared theme or proper headlines. The blogchain itself is called Captain’s Log, since I don’t want to be too Dada about this, and a Star Trek reference sounds like fun without being thematically confining. But I won’t use that phrase within post titles. Entries will be titled MJD xxxx, where MJD stands for Modified Julian Date, and xxxx is the day number in that scheme. I thought of using the Star Trek star date convention, but turns out that’s not actually very coherent. My other too-clever idea was to follow a naming convention based on a) writing a post b) computing a hash from the text to serve as a title, as a cleverly self-referential True Name. This seemed too much work so I’m going with an uncommon date-based convention that only specialists like astronomers will be able to read intuitively.

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Complete 2019 Roundup

This has been a year of significant changes here at ribbonfarm, much of it deliberately conceived as part of a cunning grand plan, and executed flawlessly via my mediocre stroke-of-genius invention, the blogchain (an indefinitely extended, unplanned, improvised, series format). The pivot came with a new tagline: constructions in magical thinking, and a peppy new masthead. With this, we embark on the as-yet-unnamed 3rd era of Ribbonfarm (the first era, 2007-12, was the Rust Age, and the second era, 2013-18, was the Snowflake Age; new readers may want to get oriented on this page).

On to the roundup, 2019 highlights commentary, and 2020 outlook.

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Predictable Identities: 23 – The Self

This entry is part 23 of 24 in the series Predictable Identities

In reality there are only atoms and the void, but in our mind exists the self. This thing here is part of me, this thing there isn’t. The concept of self serves the same purpose as all others: it makes good predictions. Or perhaps it made good predictions at some point, and got stuck.

Self-identification gets off to a good start. A baby notices that when it wants the toy to move by itself the toy doesn’t budge, but when it wants its hand to move the hand immediately obliges. It begins to identify the body: that which is immediately moveable in the intended way by thought alone.

As a child grows, more and more things are reinforced by the world as part of its identity. This toy is yours, the other one isn’t: one can be grabbed with predictable good consequences, while grabbing the other one will trigger unpredictable retaliation. This essay was written by you and this is your grade for it, go back to your seat. The process is extended to one’s mind: the thoughts and feelings you recognize in your mind are yours, and other people have their own.

It is at the level of thought that the model of the unified self starts to buckle under the strain of contradictions. Careful introspection reveals that your mind comprises a multitude of independent subagents influencing your behavior and emotions in ways that your conscious self can’t access, let alone control. Careful study of societies reveals that our thoughts are shaped by memes, myths, and egregores, cognitive processes that run in vast groups, not individuals. This post was written by my conscious model of the self, a mild anxiety in my stomach, Alberto Albero, and Buddhism. In what sense is it mine?

Once we notice the breakdown of the rigid self as it relates to thought, we can see it in other contexts as well. Roles, blame and praise, personalities — these are merely conventions, as is private property. This even extends to the body: partnered dancers have as much control of their partner’s limbs as their own, while the most control you can exert over your appendix is chopping it off.

None of this means that drawing a circle around some things and calling them “myself” is always wrong. Just that there’s no clear “self” that matches reality in all contexts. This is good news, it means that the self is a thing to be played with.

Mediating Consent

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series The Feed

When theologian Martin Luther debuted his Ninety-five Theses in 16th-century Germany, he triggered a religious Reformation — and also a media revolution.

1630 map of the Maluku Archipelago (Moluccas, or Spice Islands)

The printing press, invented approximately 50 years before the 95 Theses,  extended Luther’s reach from the door of the cathedral to the entirety of Europe. His criticisms of the Church were the first use of mass media: critiques of Catholic doctrine in pithy, irreverent pamphlets, produced at scale and widely distributed. As a result, Luther ushered in not only Protestantism, but an entirely new media landscape: one in which traditional gatekeepers — the church, wealthy nobles — no longer held a monopoly on the information that reached the people. The Catholic Church responded, of course, with pamphlets of its own — defending Catholic doctrine, refuting the new heretics, fighting the battle for hearts, minds, and Truth. 

The battle for control of narratives persists today, though the speed and scale have changed.

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