Unflattening Hobbes

In political science, the idea of a Hobbesian state of nature, featuring an endemic war of all against all, is a notional initial condition from which civilization could plausibly emerge. A generous reading of the model is that it is not about evolutionary realism, but about the plausibility of a pristine peaceful order emerging from a primordial violent chaos, under unfavorable assumptions about human nature (selfish and innately violent). In the classical Hobbesian model, the layers of the civilizational stack are bootstrapped from conditions that constitute a “flat world” in a social sense. Peace and structure evolve in parallel from this violently chaotic flatness.

But consider a conceptual alternative to the traditional Hobbesian model: what happens when we discard the assumption that structural order and endemic conflict are mutually exclusive? Or that peace goes with order and violence with chaos? Do we necessarily run into a contradiction? Could order emerge from chaos and endure, without peace necessarily emerging from war and enduring in parallel?

What if a Hobbesian condition of endemic war of all against all does not require the world to be a materially devastated and socially flat one, populated by warring packs led by grim young men in Henleys? What if it just feels like today’s world, but gets steadily slightly worse, slouching towards dystopia without ever arriving or unraveling? A Hobbesian end to history rather than beginning?

[Read more…]

Seattle Drinks-and-Waterfront-Walk Meetup, Friday 19th

There will be a meetup on Friday the 19th, at 4:00 PM at Paddy Coyne’s by Pier 70. As with last time, we’ll hang out for a bit and get a drink to start, then go for a walk along the waterfront. Sunset is around 6:20 these days, so should be nice.

RSVP on this Facebook invite. Thanks to Weston Edwards for organizing.


Pack Experience

We experience and navigate the world in packs. Families ride in cars together. Groups of coworkers take elevators together. Dating couples go to movies in pairs.

The pack is a unit, the unit, of operational coordination and everyday problem solving in human life. Pack behaviors always involve some technology, and can involve non-human participants like dogs and cats, but they are human first. The pack is a little sociophysical robot. A transient biological assemblage animated by a tacit, embodied consensus about how to inhabit the environment, and shaped by a shared exposure to the constraints of materiality. Perhaps the strongest of these constraints is the constraint of a shared temporality: A pack is more simply defined as a transient social unit on a shared subjective clock.


The pack is where the rubber of sociality meets the road of materiality. The pack experience strongly shapes, and is shaped by, the built environment. Conversely, every kind of built environment is shaped by a real or theorized pack experience.

There is one kind of built environment that is a huge and crucially important exception. One that is growing so rapidly in scope that it threatens to become the rule. I’m talking, of course, about the internet.

[Read more…]

Refactorings Roundup 09/16/18 — 10/06/18

This roundup features posts from 3 blogs you may not have heard of, by longtime friends of ribbonfarm. Sarah Constantin’s excellent Otium covers a variety of topics loosely related to healthcare, anthropology, and evolutionary history. Ilia Gimelfarb’s Grow Wiser philosophy blog is slowly and steadily accumulating an increasingly impressive set of posts on practical ethics and philosophical praxis. Harry Potash has a cheerfully chaotic personal blog going at 7 Goldfish, which careens crazily from mysticism and life hacks to machine learning and civil rights. In other news, last week I learned about Fika. I realize my life is 90% e-fika, 10% work.

Sign on an exhibit in the new Seattle Nordic Museum

This roundup is a human-filtered subset of links and short takes aggregated by the Feed Fox bot authored by Zach Faddis, and running on the refactorcamp.org Mastodon instance. You can follow the bot directly if you want the unfiltered firehose.

New posts

  1. Dictionary of Arguments and Positions by Ilia Gimelfarb. Link
  2. Direct Primary Care by Sarah Constantin. Link
  3. Fasting Mimicking Diet Looks Pretty Good by Sarah Constantin. Link
  4. Hard Homelessness Problems by @Harry_Pottash.Link.
  5. Territory and the Maps by putanumonit. Link
  6. Against Waldenponding by @vgr. Link

Comment on this post with your blog link if you want it monitored by Feed Fox for potential inclusion, along with your mastodon (preferred) or twitter handle. 

Stuff We Read

  1. The Power of Generative Metaphor. Link. ht @mark
  2. Deep adaptation. Link. ht @vgr
  3. Reducing the rate of C-sections. Link. ht @vgr
  4. Climate migration is already here in America. Link. ht @vgr
  5. Compositionality is not just the ability to compose objects, but the ability to work with an object after intentionally forgetting how it was built. Link. ht @mark
  6. 2×2: Cultural vs economic capital in food. Link. ht @mrgunn
  7. “Fake miniatures depicting Islamic science have found their way into the most august of libraries and history books.” Link. ht @adrianmryan
  8. “Trying to understand superstition rationally is like trying to pick up something made of wood by using a magnet”. Link. ht @britt
  9. Ideological sorting by occupation, lots of data on how occupations lean one way or the other. Only a little speculation as to why. Link. ht @britt
  10. “The important call to make is that Apple is making a bet that sustainability is a growth business.” Link. ht @Elmkast
  11. How the hardware store orders things, neighborhoods, and material worlds: “Community Plumbing” Reach for the hammer at: Link. ht @lhwilkinson
  12. I honestly had no idea that Post-Meritocracy was a thing. Link. ht @Harry_Pottash
  13. Neural networks work because the universe is kinda easy? Link. ht @vgr
  14. Human-level intelligence or animal-like abilities? Link. ht @vgr
  15. World’s tallest atrium…These pictures are beyond incredible. Link. ht @Elmkast
  16. Evolution beyond neo-darwinism: a new conceptual framework_
    denis noble 2015. Link. ht @makiaea
  17. Monasteries of the Future. Link. ht @tasshin

If you are on the refactorcamp mastodon instance, you can tag links #heyfeedfox so they’re picked up by Feed Fox.

Short Takes

All economics is heavily ideological, it’s a question of if those beliefs are implicit or explicit — @Harry_Pottash

If you are on the refactorcamp mastodon instance, you can tag short takes #heyfeedfox so they’re picked up by Feed Fox.

Light of the American Whale

It’s fun to use  phrases like “the nineteenth century,” as if there existed some vantage point from which one might apprehend one hundred years of life for over a billion people. To say “the nineteenth century” is to pretend that there’s a mountain, if only a figurative one, from which one can look down on the topography of a hundred years’ time, and somehow come away with a general picture of it. Furthermore, to casually mention “the nineteenth century” is to suggest that one personally visits this vantage point, as one does, to keep an eye on the entire century.

When I think about the nineteenth century, most of what comes to mind seems to be cinematic in nature: “costume dramas.” In movie consciousness, the past is primarily a kind of fashion. (“Movie consciousness” is the kind of being that dominated reality during the 20th century, until the rise of social media.) There might be exotic modes of transportation (train, horseback, carriage), special ways of speaking, and archaic architecture, but primarily, there is a particular kind of fancy dress. These cues together – the sound of the train whistle, say, and the way women move in heavy skirts, and perhaps a formal, clipped interaction between parties of distinct social class – these items of cinematic vocabulary are enough to suggest the American Western nineteenth century, as it is known at the end of twentieth century Hollywood movie culture. The nineteenth century in China, as it is known through twentieth century Hong Kong movie culture, has altogether different fashion, accessories, speech, mannerisms, architecture, etc., but the signs add up to meaning in the same way.

Some movies deal with specifically nineteenth-century moods and problems; others use archaic trappings as a kind of “skin” (in the video game sense) to make an essentially modern story look more interesting. One groans when a nineteenth-century police officer administers Miranda rights to a suspect, or when a nineteenth-century person says “I’m sorry for your loss” verbatim. It’s not authentic to merely transport modern concerns and mannerisms into historic fancy dress. But who is to know what’s authentic and what is not, other than through epistemic accident?

[Read more…]

Dodo Thoughts

This morning at the Natural History Museum in London, I saw a stuffed (edit: model apparently, not stuffed, according to a knowledgeable commenter) dodo. As I meditated on the poor, dumb extinct bird, I was struck by an unsettling thought: All the thinking ever done by all the dodos that ever lived has been for nought. The species’ failure to continue existing is not just the failure of the dodo genome. It is also the failure of the sum of all dodo thought.

There was once something it was like to be a dodo, and think thoughts only dodos could think, but now there isn’t. The dodo is worse than extinct. In some deep way, it was wrong about everything it thought it knew.

This dodo is dead. This is a dead dodo.

When we think about the adaptive fit of a species to its environment, we think about size, speed, coloration, feeding habits, and so on, but we don’t think about thinking. Sure, we talk about brain size as though it were just another morphological variable like height, but we don’t think about thinking in Darwinian terms. Things get weird when you go there.

[Read more…]

Refactorings Roundup 09/02/2018 — 09/15/18

We’re slowing this roundup post down to fortnightly, so it’s now twice as well curated  😎. We have 6 posts by friends of ribbonfarm, a dozen links from elsewhere (particularly good haul this fortnight), and a couple of short takes.

Bulk carrier waiting to load up near Seattle Pier 89

This roundup is a human-filtered subset of links and short takes aggregated by the Feed Fox bot authored by Zach Faddis, and running on the refactorcamp.org Mastodon instance. You can follow the bot directly if you want the unfiltered firehose.

New Posts

  1. AWS Amplify, React, Babel, and Webpack Setup by @jamescgibson. Link
  2. The Scent of Bad Psychology by putanumonit. Link
  3. How to Beat Neo-Nationalism in Three Moves by @stefanozorzi. Link
  4. Report: The Diminishing Marginal Value of Aesthetics by @telos. Link
  5. Destruction is a Choice by @vgr. Link
  6. The Constant Consumer by Drew Austin. Link. ht @vgr

Comment on this post with your blog link if you want it monitored by Feed Fox for potential inclusion, along with your mastodon (preferred) or twitter handle. 

Stuff We Read

  1. Culture wars 2.0 and memetic tribes. Link. ht @vgr
  2. “Leap seconds are far from the only ongoing uncertainty about time…” Link. ht @msweet
  3. Earth’s Future: Planetary Park or World-Wide Exclusion Zone?  Link. ht @vgr
  4. Can mindfulness reduce pain? Link. ht @aRandomCat
  5. Podcast on Bayesian thinking among other things. Link. ht @bkam
  6. Urban food production is always coming up against zoning laws. Link. ht @Bert
  7. Brutalist websites. Design inspiration. Link. ht @mrgunn
  8. The past was not as smelly as you think. Link. ht @adrianmryan
  9. Another internet celebrity sees the light (video, on quitting the Internet). Link. ht @miljko
  10. Tight vs loose and honor vs dignity cultures. Link. ht @vgr
  11. Traditional Euro-bloc: what it is, how it was built, why it can’t be built anymore. Link. ht @Elmkast
  12. A detailed assault on the book Sapiens. Link. ht @britt

If you are on the refactorcamp mastodon instance, you can tag links #heyfeedfox so they’re picked up by Feed Fox.

Short takes

In any online argument about a problem, there are some people who are only having the argument because they want to fix the problem, and there are other people who are only talking about the problem because they want to win the argument. — @nindokag

Irreversible choices have 2 aspects besides not being able to go back: the fateful option leading to uncharted regimes, and do-overs being costly/impossible.If future is like past, or you can do-over cheaply, irreversibility is moot. Like Coke vs Sprite at a vending machine. — @vgr

If you are on the refactorcamp mastodon instance, you can tag short takes #heyfeedfox so they’re picked up by Feed Fox.

London Visit Next Week, Three Events

I’ll be in London for Sept 19 – 24. This trip, I’ve built in some slack to meet more people and do some leisurely exploration. The main thing I’ll be there for is the Work Marathon, organized by the Serpentine Gallery and held at the Royal Geographic on Saturday 22nd (all-day event). In the words of the organizers:

The 2018 Work Marathon invites artists, sociologists, anthropologists, writers, musicians, architects, scientists and philosophers to address the complex and timely questions of work, labour, automation and leisure.

My talk is titled Archetypes for the Anthropocene. Tickets £15, but I do have 2 guest passes left to hand out for the first two people who ask.

I will also be doing a small informal lunch talk/discussion at Entrepreneur First on Friday, 21st around noon on Anthropocene-Rules Institutions (you may be noticing a theme here). If you’re interested in attending, let me know.

And finally, I’ll be hosting, along with Zhan Li, a small dinner meetup on Wednesday the 19th at 6:30 PM in Bankside. We’ll be limiting this to about 10, and there’s a few spots left if you’re interested. The theme for the meetup is Amateur Hour in the Intellectual Wilderness. 

Besides these 3 events, I should have time on Thursday 20th, Sunday 23rd and the morning of the 24th to meet up with a few people, drop in to visit offices, etc. I am particularly interested in visiting workplaces, since I’m always curious about business culture in other countries.

I also plan to carve out some time for a few touristy things (British Museum, Transportation Museum, Westminster) and would be glad to have company for these excursions.

Contact me by email if you’re interested in one or more of the above.

Think Entangled, Act Spooky

I like the concept of the Anthropocene. It finesses or postpones at least some of the conflict around the idea of climate change, broadens the conversation to include all human impact on the environment, and grounds thinking in geological (heh!) time without overloading it with burdensome sentiments like guilt or fear. The term leaves the future open to both positive and negative possibilities. It acknowledges human agency as the most powerful force currently reshaping the planet without getting too judgmental about what that means.

The Ash Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I find existing definitions of the Anthropocene unsatisfying though. Most of them, reasonably enough, focus on planet-scale external markers, ranging from the birth of agriculture to the first nuclear tests and climate change. But this seems too open narrative arbitrariness and not open enough to insight. If we turn inward though, there is a rather natural and fertile definition that immediately suggests itself:

The Anthropocene begins when survival in the built environment is as cognitively demanding as survival in the natural environment of evolutionary adaptation.

Note that “as cognitively demanding” is not the same thing as “as hard across the board”. It means you you have to think as hard for the same survival probability, but many other things might get easier.

A good illustration of this is life in a major city versus life in a small town. The former is more cognitively demanding but many things besides thinking become a lot easier. Nobody ever moved to a bigger city in search of a simpler life. A less emotionally stressful life, perhaps. A less impoverished life, perhaps. A more comfortable and convenient life, perhaps. But not a simpler one.

Now let’s apply that reasoning at civilizational history scale.

[Read more…]

Social Media Consciousness


The most amazing consequence of the recent transition to social media consciousness is nothing. [Read more…]