Weirding Diary: 9

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Weirding Diary

I’m noticing a resurgence of interest in classical systems theory that mildly worries me. I suspect it is being driven by an infectious desire to theorize the Great Weirding systematically. It is an impulse that is in some ways a natural complement to the parallel resurgence of interest in traditional religion as a mode of meaning-making (which worries me much more). Both are driven by the anomie and anxiety induced by the weirding (classical systems theory, like Singularitarianism, is a religion for people who understand compound interest).

I have a dog in this fight, which I call spooky systems theorizing (note the conjugation), occupying pride of place in the top right quadrant in my handy 2×2 of the clash of ideas here. Classical systems theory is in the doghouse at the bottom left, where I always put ideas with which I have beefs (my beefs tend to be with ideas rather than people).

A new generation of curious people is once again asking the same sorts of unreconstructed high-modernist questions that have been tempting ambitious thinkers since the 1960s. It is a disease peculiar to postmodernity, with Von Bertanfly, Forrester, Wiener, and the rest emerging as patients zero precisely at the historical moment when high modernism began to systematically fail, inviting attempts to save it through baroque mathematization.

[Read more…]

Mediocratopia: 6

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Mediocratopia

My philosophy of mediocrity really started coming together last week, in the form of two tweets. First, a graph attributed to artist Marc Dalessio floated by my feed and I tweeted this modified and annotated version:

Second, a passing tweet by me seemed helpful enough to people that I did a double-take myself to see if I’d accidentally said something deeper than I’d thought:

A very compact way to explain mediocrity philosophy is this: non-attachment to finite games (5 words). Unfortunately those who can’t process the Carse reference will almost certainly misunderstand it.

Non-attachment to finite games. There’s a lot packed into those 5 words if you have the context to unpack them. It sounds similar to “don’t get stuck in local optima,” but is actually a statement about openness of domains and unconstrained evolution in notions of utility (I did a short explainer on optimization versus mediocritization 2 episodes ago in this blogchain).

The reference is to finite and infinite games in the sense of James Carse. A finite game is when you play to win. An infinite game is when you play to continue the game. Non-attachment to a finite game means being free to reject both winning and losing. This generally happens when you are able to see and choose ways to keep the infinite game going that are orthogonal to the win/loss logic of a particular finite game. This posture can look like betrayal, cowardice, or choking to those who are attached to a particular finite game, which is why the connotations of mediocrity are invariably negative for finite gamers.

The idea of non-attachment here is critical, and is where subjectivity reshapes the meaning of “objective” cost or utility without an alternative notion of value necessarily ready at hand. Mediocrity is a leap of faith that there’s more to life than whatever is going on right now. Whatever the hill, odds are, it’s not the one you want to die on.

Taken together, the two provide a usable map and compass for a praxis of mediocrity. A map of the territory (emotional roller coaster of open-ended growth), with a depiction of a subjective path through it (modes of humor that work as coping mechanisms for each regime), and a compass to guide you through it (non-attachment to particular peaks or troughs, which are the wins and losses you must look past to continue the game).

Pleasure as an Organizing Principle

The organizing principle of the modern world is pain. 

Avoiding it, yes. But also trading in it, taking refuge in it, and using it to justify our actions. Pain has so many uses. Why would you ever give up such a versatile tool?

We trade in pain when we use it to bargain for progress. We assume that the bigger the impact we want to have, the more dramatic the change, the more we have to suffer. Isn’t that how it works? Isn’t the depth of my sacrifice a measure of how much I care?

But the pain of suffering can become its own metric, and get optimized to an extreme as all metrics eventually are. In the face of a stubborn world that doesn’t yield to our efforts, it can be easier to use the pain we are enduring as a proxy.

We take refuge in pain when we use it to hide from our problems. Pain is all-consuming, a powerful distraction from the things we don’t want to face. Pain is self-annihilating, temporarily turning off the ego that accuses us of not doing enough, not being enough. Pain can be a refuge where the overwhelming complexity of modern life is reduced to a simple, pulsating throb.

[Read more…]

Predictable Identities: 13 – Totalizing Ideologies

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Predictable Identities

One last quote from Peterson’s article:

“Totalitarian refusal to develop new skill and new modes of conceptualization when confronted with error makes life increasingly miserable.”

Who’s to blame for the misery inflicted by inflexible worldviews? The fault lies both in ourselves and in our memes.

The subconscious models in our brains know to stick to their limited domains. We have a model of how to catch balls, and the first time we apply it to a Frisbee it fails utterly. Our brains aren’t stubborn and quickly develop a new model of how discs fly.

But higher-level conscious models endeavor to become absolute and all-embracing. Religions are ostensibly about the divine, and yet rabbis must opine on every topic from eating your own snot (not kosher) to jaywalking (kosher). Political ideologies, whether progressive, conservative, or libertarian, end up providing answers to matters of pure science like climate change projections. And every philosophy answers the most important question: who’s with us (those who share the belief) and who’s against

Peterson himself is guilty of the cardinal sin of all philosophers — never refusing to pass judgment on a person or topic.

Philosophies evolve towards becoming totalizing ideologies by natural selection. A philosophy (or guru) that leave room for unanswered questions invite competition and will find themselves displaced by more totalizing rivals. After all, it is easier to remember a single ideology than many — or to watch a single YouTube channel.

A single meaning-making ideology is comforting, pleasant, and seductive. It provides easy answers as long as one doesn’t think too hard and keeps ignoring the discrepancies. But as the errors pile up, the ideology fights back, convincing the wavering believer that they are at fault for doubting the cosmic plan. Ideologies don’t disperse gently, they crumble in an avalanche of pain, fear, and confusion.

Elderblog Sutra: 7

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Elderblog Sutra

In the opener for this blogchain, I mentioned Edward Said’s idea of a late style and argued that elder blogs need to be the opposite of that. I found some clarity on what exactly the “opposite” of a late style is in this reflection by Argentine novelist César Aira whom I’ve never read or even heard of before. Aira has this lovely reflection:

Also, after the happy recklessness of youth, when things get done, if they do, in spite of the doer’s aspirations, it’s counterproductive to persist in striving for quality. I have always subscribed to the idea of High or Highbrow Culture, Art with a capital A. And art is not something that should be done well. If doing it well is what counts, it’s craft, production for sale, and therefore subject to the taste of the buyer, who will naturally want something good. 

Aira’s response to the siren song of “quality” was to reset his sights internally on a private project that is impossible to finish by construction: an encyclopedia. That way, all actual output becomes marginalia around the core, invisible, black-hole project. If you’re solving for an invisible infinite game at the core of your work, then the finite games around the periphery cannot turn into mind traps.

I felt a shock of recognition reading this essay. It mirrors my own thinking in an uncanny way, down to my own private, half-serious idea of an encyclopedia (though I’ve been thinking of it as a glossary for a private language), and the associated psychohistory project as the core of what I’m up to. It also harmonizes with my growing suspicion that mediocrity is The Way.

The heuristic here is the opposite of “live every day as though it were your last.” For creative work, it makes sense to live every day as though you were going to live forever, even though that’s obviously not true. That’s how an elderblog can avoid the trap of late style.

(ht Matthew Spencer, for the Aira link, in response to one of my mediocratopia posts, so some nice thread crossing there)

Semi-Annual 2019 Roundup

The first half of 2019 has been a period of transition here. Between a changed tagline, and a revamped approach to blogging, this has turned into a very different sort of blog than it was 6 months ago. The soul of the change is what we’ve been calling blogchains — extended, improvised, multi-part explorations of a theme, typically in 300-word chunks. These have evoked a mixed response, much to my satisfaction.

I mean, if at least a few people aren’t confused and infuriated by a change, is it even a meaningful change?

Most of the comments/responses have been at least guardedly positive. The most flattering response: Warren Ellis is doing a blogchain capturing his thoughts on newsletters (currently weighing in at 5 parts).

I have a few meta-comments to make on the format, with 6 months of experience (and 46 blogchain parts by 4 authors, across 7 blogchains) under our belts, but let’s do the roundup first. I assume at least a few of you are going to take advantage of the long weekend to do some catching up.

[Read more…]

Regenerations

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Regenerations

Tomorrow, along with my wife and cat, I’ll be getting on a plane on a one-way trip to Los Angeles, where I will be living for at least a year. As I mentioned in passing last week, it’s for a year-long fellowship with the Berggruen Institute (details in this Twitter thread). I’ll hopefully be working on a second book. But as big geographic moves always are for me, this move is also a convenient excuse and opportunity to regenerate.

And for the first time in my life, I find a part of me doesn’t want to regenerate (which is of course the best reason to do so).

It is that part of me that wants this particular Seattle chapter of my life to continue uninterrupted. I have been happy here for 7 years, the longest I’ve lived in one place as an adult, and I suppose I don’t want to interrupt a stream of consciousness that appears to be working.

I’m not certain what we’ll do after the year. Perhaps we’ll return to the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps we’ll like SoCal enough to stay. Perhaps we’ll head off in a new direction.

What is certain though, is that there is no coming back as such. One can only go back to a place (and only sort of), not to a time. Which is why moving with big jumps in space is so valuable. It forces you to catch up with time.

[Read more…]

Predictable Identities: 12 – Fear, Myths, and the Outgroup, Part II

This entry is part 12 of 13 in the series Predictable Identities

In Neuropsychology of Group Aggression Jordan Peterson, before anyone knew or hated him, inadvertently describes why some people will passionately hate him when they find out.

The article talks about high-level models keeping anxiety and fear of the unknown at bay. When these models are challenged by new data, people whose frameworks are already straining will react to the challenge with hostility. They will engage in “confirmation extortion” and attack the messenger.

[…] the tendency to demonize evidence of conceptual insufficiency, or the bearers of that evidence, and to ‘morally’ attempt to eliminate it or them from existence.

Making a distinction between “reporters” and “journalists”, the latter’s job is not to describe facts but to interpret their meaning. Meaning-making involves applying stock narratives, the primary one often being “the outgroup is evil and all the same”. For journalists whose outgroup are conservatives, Peterson highlights the acute “conceptual insufficiency” of that narrative.

Conservatives are not supposed to be humanities professors at Harvard, but Peterson was. Conservatives are supposed to say that life begins at conception, but Peterson’s takes a full minute to think of what to say on abortion, and five more to say it.

In his most notorious interview, journalist Cathy Newman repeats “so you’re saying…” dozens of times as she tries to cram Peterson’s idiosyncratic worldview into a familiar narrative – quintessential confirmation extortion. When he’s not around to interview, journalists often engage in “moral elimination” by associating him with the worst of his fans.

Why not attack the worst of his arguments instead? I think it has less to do with the strength of Peterson’s arguments and more with the journalists’ own anxiety. The financial anxiety of a struggling industry, the status anxiety of alternative outlets stealing attention, and the ideological anxiety of their narratives failing in the face of a weirding world full of weird people like Jordan Peterson.

Reflections on Refactor Camp 2019

Last weekend, we held the 7th Refactor Camp, in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, at the lovely (and for our purposes, aptly named) Philosophie offices, on the very au courant theme of Escaping Reality. Here are a couple of early reflection posts, from John Palmer and Lisa Neigut. Another participant, J. Chris Anderson, sent me this succinct reflection over email that I think hits the nail on the head:

The biggest unspoken theme for me was how coherent the zeitgeist is. It’s not like the theme constrained the topics. I bet a conference on escaping reality would have a totally different set of concerns in five years / after reality has been permanently escaped.

You can find links to the raw recorded livestreams at the refactorcamp.com website, and catch up on the conversation via the #refactorcamp2019 hashtag on Twitter. You can also follow this Twitter list of participants. Edited individual videos will be available on the Refactor Camp YouTube channel in a few weeks.

Among the interesting new elements were a chalk mural created by artist Gracie Wilson during the event, and a schwag book of mazes courtesy Dan Schmidt (who has a guest post this week, connecting his interest in mazes to the themes of the event). And to round out the theme of the week, Ian Cheng (who couldn’t attend in person) has a very apropos post this week in our Worlding Raga collaborative blogchain.

I just realized I haven’t actually posted personal reflections since the very first Refactor Camp in 2012. Many of this year’s younger attendees were still in high school then.

It’s all turned into an entangled 7-year blur of online and offline conversations I can’t reconstruct. I’m going to have to go back and dig up other people’s reflections for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018 (we skipped 2017). If you wrote a reflection for any year, I’d appreciate a link in the comments. Anyhow, let me capture some thoughts for 2019 while they are still fresh in my head.

[Read more…]

Mazes as Mirrors of Creation

This is a guest post by Dan Schmidt of mazestructure.com. His booklet Maze Structure was distributed as schwag at Refactor Camp 2019.

When I was a child, I drew mazes (like the one below) to “wow” people with complexity. A psychotherapist friend of my parents said I was externalizing my brain on paper. Others liken my maze drawings to intestines. I prefer the brain comparison.


There is a difference between creating for self-expression and creating with a purpose. When you create purely for self-expression, the reward is seeing something from your head outside in the world. The externalization is itself the end, regardless of its effect. When you’re creating with a purpose, in contrast, success depends on the outcome. With each iteration, you try to bend reality one step closer to your vision while adjusting your vision to your evolving understanding of reality.

[Read more…]