Weirding Diary: 10

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Weirding Diary

It is now clear that the intellectual class has been caught entirely flat-footed on the wrong side of the Great Weirding in the US. Almost all discourses at higher levels of abstraction — national grand narratives, military, foreign policy, and economic doctrines, cultural canons, technological visions — are breaking down (generally following the “gradually, and then suddenly” Hemingway bankruptcy pattern). The institutions and social networks that are home to those discourses are also collapsing. So it’s not just the shallow, fast-paced narrative layer represented by the news media that is collapsing into noise and fakeness. The deeper, slower narrative layers underwriting the news (via access journalism) are also collapsing. The most vulnerable are what I recently dubbed “glamorous institutions” on Twitter, with the MIT Media Lab being Exhibit A of many to come.

I’m tempted to classify glamorous institutions as premium mediocre, except that most seem to lack the self-awareness that phrase signifies, and the concomitant healthy fear of their own fragility, and culture of preparedness for trouble. Glamorous institutions, unlike merely premium mediocre ones, have a dangerous tendency to buy their own bullshit, and believe in their own myth-making. This creates a false sense of security, and a characteristic set of vulnerabilities. Glamorous institutionalism believes there is peace. Premium mediocre institutionalism only pretends to.

I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect the MIT Media Lab will turn out to be merely the first of many dominoes to fall. What do we have to look forward to here, in this coming chapter of the Great Weirding?

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Mediocratopia: 8

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Mediocratopia

I came up with a good negative definition: Mediocrity is not being a completist about anything. Finishing for the sake of finishing is not your thing.

Life is too short to finish everything you start. You’re probably not going to “finish” life itself. I like the ensō to symbolize this ethos. You draw a circle with a single brush stroke, with no corrections or do-overs, and it doesn’t really matter if you complete the circle. You can make another ensō if you like, or just go have a beer instead. Very wabi-sabi. An effort that embraces its own irreversibility, mortality and temporality.

A Google image search for “enso” generates a nice museum of mediocre circles.

Looking back, most things I’ve done have been ensō-like, but I’ve only recently become strongly conscious of the fact. For example, I’ve been experimenting with short, unedited, single-take podcasts on my breaking smart email list. Initially I thought I was just taking the lazy way out, but now I think of them as oral ensōs 😇. It is my most mediocre publishing experiment yet. I hope to have this ethos percolate more through all my efforts.

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Predictable Identities: 17 – Midpoint Review

Predictable Identities is 16 posts in, which is going much better than I would’ve predicted. It’s time to review what we covered so far: the principles of predictive processing and how we apply them to other people.

Our brains constantly predict sensory inputs using a hierarchy of models. Learning new and better models improves our predictive ability in the long term but can be so painful in the short term that we will fight against updating, and often fight the people who force us to update. It’s important to take all models with a grain of salt and resist the lure of all-explaining ideologies.

We predict the world to exploit and act on it, and the same applies to other people. We need to know how to get people to do nice things for us, using stereotypes for strangers we don’t know and more detailed mind-simulations for people we do. We don’t need detailed models for people unlikely to be nice no matter what, and we’re creeped out by people who don’t fit our models at all like those who blow their non-conformity budget. We encourage those around us to conform to our narratives and predictions of them, which means that changing one’s opinions and behavior takes great effort in the face of the expectations of your social surroundings.

Finally, our predictions of ourselves interplay in complex ways with how others see us, since our minds are neither transparent to us nor opaque to those around us. For example, to be treated nicely we must honestly believe that we are nice, even if that is self-deceiving. Our models, predictions, and beliefs about our selves form our identities. This will be the topic for the second half of this blogchain.

Thanks for joining me on this journey, I predict exciting things ahead.

Elderblog Sutra: 8

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Elderblog Sutra

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the general problem of why creative work gets harder over time, beyond the specific challenges of elderblogging, and how that growing difficulty manifests. I give you: The Elder Game loop, or why Act 2 is harder than Act 1.

Very few people have ever beaten the Elder Game Loop in history (outside of feel-good movies like Rocky V and Rocky Balboa).

The short version of this is that creativity is easiest with cleared decks, and it gets harder to clear decks as you age. Or in one word: baggage.

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Worlding Raga 7: Worlds of Worlds

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

In his last installment, World to Live, Ian offered a kitchen-sink short story (with interleaved commentary) that took on the challenge of going beyond imagining a specific world to imagining a proper world-of-worlds called New Nature. The story itself is simple: the narrator simply wakes up and takes his two dogs for a walk. But New Nature is a complex enough environment that a great deal of phenomenology can be projected onto this modest narrative canvas.

Ian’s story got me thinking about one of my favorite modeling dichotomies: Eulerian versus Lagrangian microstate models of fluid flow, and how it might apply to modeling a complex world-of-worlds.

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Predictable Identities: 16 – Newcomblike, Part II

This entry is part 16 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

A super-predictor millionaire child may seem like a fanciful example, but the general principle of Newcomb’s problem applies to almost every social interaction. People do nice things for you if they predict you are trustworthy, and the only way to be predicted as trustworthy is to be so: leave the cash, work hard, maintain the apartment.

Why not just deceive people? Lying is hard. People put significant cognitive resources into reading your mind, from processing your uncontrollable microexpressions to explicitly simulating your behavior. They also do so as a group, sharing information about your reputation. Conscious deception requires keeping track of two separate stories about your intentions. This imposes an extra cognitive burden when you are already facing a lot of combined brainpower that’s trying to predict you.

One way to lessen the effort of deception is to keep track of only one version — the wrong one. Self-deception is indispensable in social situations, believing yourself to be smarter, better informed, more talented and moral than you really are so that other people treat you as a smart, informed, talented and moral. But for self-deception to successfully affect people’s predictions about you, it must not leak into your conscious awareness. You must sincerely believe you will leave the cash on the ground at least until the child disappears.

If you make it too hard for people to predict you well, you will not be presented with Newcomblike opportunities in the first place. The child wouldn’t offer you money if they couldn’t hack your phone to study you. You won’t get the job offer if you refuse to drink at the networking event and “get to know each other”. The reason I write personal things on the internet every week is to make it easy for faraway strangers to predict my thoughts and values, and to occasionally offer me nice things.

Multitemporality: 1

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Multitemporality

Today I officially start my fellowship at the Berggruen Institute, working on my multitemporality project. At the moment the plan for the project is to write a book, but who knows. It might morph into a comic book or an interpretive dance, as I’ve been telling people who seem inclined to form oppressively burdensome presumptions about what I’m up to. I don’t want to ruin this pleasant snowflake buzz I have going on here by committing firmly to a particular output form too early. But it’s probably going to be a book.

What, you ask, is multitemporality? YOU HAD TO ASK HUH? YOU COULDN’T LEAVE ME ALONE?? Well, you asked for it.

This mind map represents the actual state of the project in all its inglorious messiness, after two years of back-burner nudging along in stolen moments here and there. It now needs to go front-burner. Since some of you have, in the past, expressed curiosity about my Certified Creative Genius™ working methods, I figured I’d start a blogchain as a way to track my progress on this project, as well as to put some social pressure on myself to stay disciplined and moving along.

For starters, lemme share my plan to tame this mess I’ve made.

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Meaning as Ambiguity

I can’t even tell if I was wrong or not. Maybe you’ll have better luck:

In June at Refactor Camp I gave a talk about voids (How To See Voids). The hook for my talk was a pretty picture of late afternoon conifers in the woods outside Truckee, California, and a mystery: why does the wolf lichen, a three-dimensional lace of radioactive yellow, grow in evenly-spaced rings around the trees like that?

connifers covered with bright yellow rings of lichen in the late afternoon sunlight
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Predictable Identities: 15 – Newcomblike, Part I

This entry is part 15 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

“Do you like money?”

You spin around to see a strange child. You could’ve sworn you were alone on this street just a second ago. “Everyone likes money, kid,” you reply, “but I’m not getting sucked into another MLM scheme.” 

“This isn’t MLM, it’s LDT!” The child presses an envelope into your hand. “Open it.”

You do, it contains several $100 bills. “What’s the trick?” you ask. “And what’s your name?”

“The name’s Newcomb, and the trick was hacking into your phone last month.” The child smiles. “I’ve studied your behavior, and made some predictions. Specifically, I predicted whether you will take the envelope or leave the bills on the ground and go straight home after you hear me speak. If I predicted you would do the latter, I deposited $1,000,000 into your bank account 5 minutes ago. If I predicted you’ll take the cash, I retweeted Trump from your Twitter handle. By the way, I’ve been playing this game for a while and never got a prediction wrong. Goodbye!”

You look down at the cash. “Wait, what if…” but as you look up, the child is gone like an expired snap.

Do you take the cash or leave it and go home? Or do you hate philosophical thought experiments? Alright, let’s talk about something completely different.

Your employer decides on bonuses in December, but the bonuses are only paid out (and found out) in March. If the company predicted that you would slack off in Q1, your bonus is small, and if they thought you’d hustle it’s generous. You planned to quit at the end of March anyway, how hard do you work until then?

A leasing agent says she has another application for your dream apartment, but she’ll let you rent it because she feels you’ll work extra hard to maintain the furnishings. Do you?

Domestic Cozy: 7

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Domestic Cozy

Domestic cozy is something of a pre-emptive retreat from worldly affairs for a generation that, quite understandably, thinks the public sphere is falling apart. I’m not sure that’s wrong. The world looks forbiddingly difficult to break into today compared to when I turned 22 in 1996, or even compared to a few years ago. More to the point, it increasingly does not seem worth the effort.

The Zoomer slogan appears to be: the world is not mine oyster, I don’t have a sword to open it with, and there are no pearls to be found out there anyway.

I don’t entirely blame them. They have it far harder than the smug older generations — and this increasingly includes the oldest Millennials — yelling at them to toughen up. Software eating the world has made a lot of little things much easier, but a few big things incredibly tougher. Net, everybody above 25 had it easier, by a little or a lot.

The contrast between the 2019 zeitgeist, and the heady excitement of the dotcom era propelling me and my peers out into the world circa 1997, convinced we were going to have great lives, is just wild.

What is domestic cozy a retreat from? To probe the question, I tweeted a prompt asking for antonyms of cozy, and got a variety of intriguing responses, which I’ve attempted to plot in this word cloud.

The suggestions seem to cluster into four groups, representing retreats from discomfort, ceremony, deprivation, and danger respectively. There were also three proposals for archetypal antipodes to the domestic cozy condition, which map well to three of the four clusters. Domestic cozy is not an airport (discomfort), or a minefield (dangerous), or a mansion (ceremony). I added desert as a fourth archetypal location representing deprivation.

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