A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars

I am basically a pacifist, inclined to what in India is sometimes derisively referred to as Gandhigiri (loosely “LARPing Gandhi”). If I don’t check the tendency, I naturally retreat from, and go into denial about, unpleasant and violent realities. But it’s time to admit it: the United States is in the middle of the worst culture wars I’ve seen in my life, either in my 20 years in the US, or in the previous 20 years in India (which in the 90s saw equally ferocious, but less digitally mediated, culture wars). And for once, you can’t blame Trump. He’s more consequence than cause.

To endure through a war without either retreating from the fray, or developing crippling PTSD from losing too many poorly picked battles, you need a good map of the battlefield, a sense of the movements of various combatant groups, their objectives, tactics and strategies, awareness of recent battles and their outcomes, current live battles, and emerging flashpoints. Here’s my first draft attempt.

I’ve used the popular politics 2×2 meme (left versus right, authoritarian versus libertarian) as a basic canvas for this map. Let’s start with the numbered key to the conflicts before launching into some commentary.

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2018 Annual Letter

I’ve been increasingly lazy about doing some sort of annual letter (I think I last did one in 2014). So I am overdue for a roundup of a bunch of housekeeping items and updates. My excuse is that it’s getting increasingly hard to do a State of the Rhizome, especially in the middle of a global culture war. We’re in that weird awkward growth phase between an overgrown pimply personal blog and a professionally run media operation with, you know, an actual editorial process, business model, graphic arts department, and rude receptionist.

This isn’t really a true annual letter, more of a grab-bag of ribbonfarm update stuff mixed in with personal stuff. Anyway, here we go.

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Make Your Own Rules

We seem to be in the middle of a renaissance of rules for life. Not since Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten (1987) and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits (1989) has there been such a peak of interest in such rules. Then, as now, we were going through a period of deep global changes, and everybody was very anxious because nobody knew what the new rules for the new normal were.

The proximal trigger of this current wave is I think, Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules, as well as the late John Perry Barlow’s 25 principles, which have both been doing the rounds. But the root cause is growing market demand for anomie-busting.

Well of course if there’s a gold rush of this sort on, I have to sell pickaxes. And my pickaxe is a DIY template for making your own set of life rules. Here’s an in-progress snapshot of the pickaxe in action in my own notebook (cleaned-up version with readable annotations key further down, but I wanted to share the working version, which includes several technical mistakes). My model may be a bit hard to grok if you haven’t been reading me for a few years, but the good news is, it’s color-by-numbers easy to use. And all it takes is pen and paper.

I only have one actual imitable rule to offer in the marketplace of life rules: Make Your Own Rules. But I do think I have a good theory of life rules, and a meaningfully systematic procedure for generating them that I’m hoping to sell to the Deep Mind team for making well-behaved AIs.

In the short term, other people’s rules can get you through a rough patch. In the medium term, you have to at least adapt them to your own life. But in the long term, only making your own rules works.

Because, to snowclone what Eisenhower said about plans, rules are nothing, but rule-making is everything.

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The Elephant in the Brain

Long-time contributor and editor-at-large Kevin Simler has a great new book out, The Elephant in the Brainco-authored with Robin Hanson. A bunch of us over here in the refactoring lair have been reading it of course, so you can expect to see the ideas in the book seeping into future posts. There’s a couple of excellent reviews out already if you want to get oriented in the snowballing conversation around the book (the book website has a running compilation) .

The book tackles our blindspots regarding our own motives:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains are therefore designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means.

But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better. And thus we don’t like to talk — or even think — about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain,” an introspective blind spot that makes it hard to think clearly about ourselves and the explanations for our behavior.

Kevin of course needs no introduction for long-time readers, but for those who came in late, he’s the author of past hits like Minimum Viable Superorganisms and Anthropology of Mid-Size Startups. His home blog, Melting Asphalt, has been one of our oldest blogosphere neighbors (some of my favorite posts there include Neurons Gone Wild and Personhood).

So go grab the book. It’ll be required reading around these parts. And while you’re at it, go poke around in Kevin’s other writing. You’ll thank me later.

Boat Stories

Last year, I discovered Ursula LeGuin’s fascinating talk, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, (transcript) by way of Donna Haraway’s equally interesting talk Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene. Both have been nagging at me for a year now.

The theory, building on the significance of containers (bags, baskets) to early humans — the default human here is female of course — in forager societies, offers a model of narrative as a “carrier bag” of community context and its evolution. It is a model that stands in radical opposition to the hero’s journey model of narrative.

Panels from Asterix and the Great Crossing, a boat story.

Thinking about the two opposed theories, it struck me that between the carrier bag story and the hero’s journey, there is a third kind of story that is superior to both: the boat story. A boat is at once a motif of containment and journeying. The mode of sustenance it enables — fishing, especially with a net, a bag full of holes — is somewhere between gathering and hunting ways of feeding; somewhere between female and male ways of being. It at once stands for the secure attachment to home and a venturesome disposition towards the unknown. It incorporates the conscientiousness and stewardship of settled life, and the openness to experience of nomadic life. A boat is a home, but a home away from home. A boat story is a journey, but one on which you bring home, and perhaps even Mom, along with you. But it isn’t an insular home, even though it has a boundary. It is a territory but it is not territorial. It is socially open enough to accommodate encounters with strangers, and is in fact eager to accommodate them. Xenophobes do not generally go voyaging.

Boat stories, like hero’s journeys and carrier-bag stories, are a good way to understand the human condition. They are especially good as a mental model of blogging.

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Complete 2017 Roundup

It’s been a disorienting pivot year of mayhem and chaos here at ribbonfarm. I am going to pretend it was entirely by design. I decided at the beginning of the year that since I was personally feeling rather annoyed and upset by all the disturbances in the Force, I ought to spread the cognitive pain around. If I can’t enjoy a pleasant, harmonious life of the mind, why the hell should you? We practice grievance-driven blogging around here. “With malice towards one and all” as my old writing idol Khushwant Singh used to put it.

And since we observed (“celebrated” seems like a stretch) our 10th anniversary this year, it was high time anyway to blow things up and put the pieces back together in a new way. Mission 50% accomplished. We’ll get to the “put together again” next year.

Main symptom of the blowing-up: After years of cautious growth in number of contributors, we had a whopping jump: 32 contributors bringing in 62 posts (not counting administrative ones), with traffic holding miraculously roughly steady. By comparison, in 2016, we only had 13 contributors for 57 posts. Much of the increase was due to the spectacular output (in terms of both quality and quantity) from the longform writing course Sarah and I taught twice in the last 12 months. That course may or may not have benefitted participants, but it sure helped stir things up for us.

One effect of this step-function increase in the number of contributors is that I have effectively lost the editorial plot. In a good way though. To create a new order, you first have to create chaos.

Read on for a tour of the debris and a big list of the 62 posts.

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A Glitch in the Theocratic Matrix

When I was a kid — I was about 12 I think —  and relatively new to atheism and its social burdens, I had a little run-in with a sincerely religious classmate. He simply would not believe that my non-belief in religion was even possible. He was sure I was lying or being provocative for the hell of it. As a test, he pulled out a little picture of his favorite god from his wallet, and dared me to tear it up. I did, and he was suitably shocked. After a moment of stunned speechlessness, he said something weak, like “err… oh wow!”

I was reminded of this little episode when a little clip from CNN did the rounds a couple of days back. It features a religious conservative being visibly stunned speechless by the revelation that you do not need to swear on the Bible to assume an elected office in the United States. Ted Crockett really appeared to believe that a Muslim politician could not hold office because “You have to swear on a Bible to be an elected official in the United States of America…a Muslim cannot do that, ethically, swearing on the Bible.”

Like my old schoolmate, this guy was genuinely shocked to learn he was wrong in a fairly trivial way. Unlike my old schoolmate, however, we’re not talking about a 12-year old boy. We’re talking about a man who appears to be in his late fifties or sixties, and has held an elected office.

Like many others, once I was done chuckling, I found myself wondering: how is it even possible to arrive at, and hold, this particular sort of bizarre false belief, about swearing-in ceremonies being necessarily tied to the Bible in a non-theocratic state?

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Prolegomena to Any Dark-Age Psychohistory

When I think about history, the picture in my head is that of a roiling canvas of many choppy, intertwingled narrative streams, enveloped by many-hued nebulous fogs of mood and temper. Star-like cosmic irruption-events, ranging from discoveries to disasters, wink through from the void, disturbing the flow of human affairs and forcing steering imperatives onto those living through them. The picture is as much a portrait of a sentimental sense of history, as it is a map of an unfolding gestalt of events.

When I try to capture this poetic mental image in a drawing however, all I get is the kind of crappy cartoon you see below.

It’ll  do to get the idea across though. This particular sample from my doodle files is what contemporary American history looks like to me today: a generally well-defined low-fog Blue story, getting interrupted by less well-defined, high-fog Red tendrils.

It is this kind of image that is conjured up for me when I ask myself the question many are asking today: Are we in a Dark Age?

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CEOs Don’t Steer

There is a pattern to the most influential business writing, in The World is Flat league. Especially writing that CEOs seem to like enough to exhort their organizations to read. Every such work offers one big, unqualified, unquantified, universal proposition. Usually with an obvious black-and-white moral assessment attached as an implied parenthetical [and this is a good thing]. The proposition will typically offer a big generalization covering a really vast range of things going on in the environment: An extreme, if very lossy, compression.

There are no if…then…else conditions attached. There are no temporal markers or spatial delimiters like this will be true between 2017 and 2022 in the developed world.

Compare:

The World is Flat [and this is a good thing] 

to

Under Certain Assumptions, the World Will Likely Continue Flattening for Approximately at Least Another Decade, and This Is a Probably a Good Thing.

This pattern isn’t mere rhetorical pithiness in the title or a distaste for weasliness. It permeates the entire idea being offered. And it exists as a consequence of a CEO trait:

CEOs Don’t Steer [and this is a good thing].

Big business ideas are the way they are because they are designed to feed and nourish this CEO trait. It’s a proposition that, at first sight, sounds both wildly untrue and something that would be really bad if it were true.
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How to Make History

In the past year, I’ve found myself repeatedly invoking, in all sorts of conversations, a hierarchy of agency with three levels: labor, making, and action. Here’s a visualization. The annotations on the left characterize the kind of agency. The annotations on the right characterize the locus where it is exercised, and the associated human condition.

The hierarchy is based on Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition, so I’ve named the visualization the Arendt hierarchy.

A mnemonic to remember the distinctions is mark time or make history. In everything you do, from posting a tweet or buying a coffee to running for President or tackling the Riemann hypothesis, you must choose between two extreme contexts: to either mark time with labor, or make history with action. In between there is a third context, where you can choose to slow time, which includes any sort of making, including art and trade (which is making in the sense of market-making). Naturally, Arendt thought (as do I) that you must choose action and history-making as much as possible. That is what it means to be fully human.

The scheme is non-intuitive, but once you’ve internalized the concepts, they turn out to be weirdly useful for thinking about what you’re doing and why, whether it is futile or meaningful, nihilistic or generative.

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