About Guest

Ribbonfarm is a longform blog featuring a variety of themes and perspectives. The common factor is the general idea of "refactored perception." If you are interested in writing for us as a guest contributor, check out this page.

Unbuilding the Wall

This is a guest post by Toby Shorin.

Although symbols are intangible, that doesn’t mean they are inaccessible. On the contrary, we routinely understand and interact with the world by interpreting and intuiting their meanings. Symbols can be created, altered, proliferated, and overthrown.

This essay will discuss one symbol and its meanings: Donald Trump’s Wall. During the ‘15-‘16 election cycle, the Wall became as much of an aspirational motif for the right as it was a corrupt one for the left. In some ways, the Wall usurped Trump himself as the central image of the election. Compared to Trump, whose innumerable controversies make him an ethically difficult figure even for many of his supporters, the Wall makes a simple proposition: in or out. This legerdemain condenses a whole lineup of wicked problems and convoluted realities into a highly condensed ideological meme, representing the entire package of Trump’s policies. Ease of compliance is visible in the rally chants of Trump followers (“build the Wall, build the Wall!”), which acknowledge and perpetuate its myth.

Of course, the Wall is not just a symbol; it is a very real political project with significant implications. But symbols are not just ideas; they are very real concentrations of meaning with political agendas and the potential for momentous adoption. For example, the key symbol of the now-dead Occupy movement, “the 99%,” has been instrumental in spreading awareness of income inequality, and nearly 10 years later remains a crucial tool of global leftist discourse. In the apparently straightforward gesture of the Wall is hidden a similarly nuanced conceptual model. The Wall defines America by drawing its boundaries, producing an exclusionary, misleading, and compelling model nation. As a symbol, it functions on three levels: the geopolitical, the psychological, and the semiotic—it fucks with meaning itself.

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Caring and Reality

This is a guest post by Kyle Eschenroeder.

From Tolkien’s palantír to Thiel’s Palantir, from early religions to superintelligence, the dream of omniscience is an old one.

CaringAndReality

Imagine having a real palantír from The Lord of the Rings, a crystal ball which gives its user a perfect view into any and every event, past and present. Such extensive knowledge tends to heighten one’s sense of power and control–which in turn lead to arrogance and over-confidence.

This over-confidence creates blind spots. The White Wizard Saruman’s discovery of the palantír precipitated his downfall. The arrogance that came with his newfound power created an opening for Sauron to take advantage of him. Our own palantírs gave Hillary a  71.4%98% chance of beating Trump. At one point, they gave the Patriots a 0.3% chance of winning Superbowl 51.

The confidence created by our palantír-ish technologies is a confidence in our measurements, not in ourselves. The more minutiae we measure, the less respect we have for taste or experience. Designers are being split-tested into insanity as mob rule decides which color they should use for the buy button. Decision makers are being confused by confident measurements of the wrong metrics.

This is an ongoing larger struggle in the world today between taste and data. Between what’s measurable and what matters. The promise is: here are numbers, let them make decisions for you. Algorithms we don’t understand interacting with, and reporting on, something we hope is reality.

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One Sacred Trick for Moral Regeneration

This is a guest post by Harry Pottash.

Post-enlightenment culture has almost completely conquered Western cities, leaving them swimming in a rich and diverse memetic soup. From within this soup a new society is emerging, its members pejoratively called “Social Justice Warriors”. To avoid falling into the trap of pre-existing connotations we can refer to this emerging society as the “Identity-affirming society.” Identity-affirming society shows a striking resemblance to more traditional religions and societies, with specific adaptations, particularly around the concept of cultural appropriation, that make it more resilient to the dissolving forces of post enlightenment culture from which it is emerging. How do unique cultures — the Amish, for instance — protect themselves from being subsumed by the surrounding culture? A clearer view of how the ideas of cultural appropriation are used can be reached by comparing it with the more rigorously mapped views regarding intellectual property, as both cover similar territory.

Societies are finite games, games that introduce goals, rules, constraints on behavior and provide a scoring system. They are among the games we engage in so completely that we forget participation is optional, and the rules arbitrary. Most fully formed societies attach their rules to six instinctively used pillars of ethical behavior, each a thematic set of constraints that participants in the society must follow (or flaunt). Durable societies use these constraints to reinforce
boundaries between societal insiders and outsiders.

Vice and Virtue in the Age of Whole Foods

Post-enlightenment culture is not a durable society. It is a highly virulent pattern which swept the earth like wildfire, embracing just three of the six pillars: fairness, liberty, and compassion. Obedience, loyalty, and purity, the three pillars ignored by post-enlightenment culture, are most readily associated with boundaries and individuation of the society. That these would be re-emerging fits thematically into the zeitgeist of our era, a period dominated by a focus on boundary issues.

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Shift Register Code Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

This is a ghost post by Nolan Gray

“Fuck You I won’t post what you tell me” – Rage Against Deus Ex Machina

Be aware that when accessing the internet, the panopticon of the online world sees you slogging your Smartless™ baggage through the Terminal. Your online personality is like a suitcase without wheels dragging behind you, scraping and scratching through the veil of security. We all sit at the bar watching your avatar self wander by with your assumptions bag over packed for a two day trip that turns into a lifetime. Taunted by the gatekeepers of the ungrounded world their signs designate that you are only allowed to bring the approved personality items in specified sizes. 3oz of snark, No liquid optimism, a single liter of judging disapproval and nothing that looks like humility through the machine. It’s for your own safety and those of others sharing the flight from AAS* to ACD*. These traits are tightly regulated. In the security line we see the humiliating items hidden in your baggage on our monitors. You too, while waiting for coffee or bored in the yoga lounge can see our embarrassing items on your personal screen every time we log on to the social media wing of the Terminal.

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Games, Videogames, and the Dionysian Society

This is a guest post by Chris Reid.

The destinies of cultures can be read in games.

–Roger Callois, Man, Play, and Games

Before it was stolen, patented, and sold to the Parker Brothers, Monopoly was “The Landowner’s Game,” a Georgist propaganda piece meant to illustrate the unfair behavior of the landowning class. The game accomplished this by setting up rules and fictions (game mechanics) that generate a reliable system behavior (game dynamic) which produced the intended experience (aesthetic): That aesthetic, frustration, has disrupted family game nights for decades. The dynamic is familiar to nearly anyone who has played it: those who manage to own more property have the money and power to be better insulated against chance, and those who don’t are likely to lose even more. The game spirals out as losers are burnt down to nothing and winners become even more powerful. Winners might find the game fun. Losers are deliberately irritated by a slow, nearly unavoidable death. In theory, the game mechanics could be adjusted to produce a ‘smoother’ outcome for more players, but it was never the point. It wouldn’t be “Monopoly” otherwise.

Monopoly’s rude feedback loop, illustrated in Hunicke et al., MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research.

Monopoly’s rude feedback loop, illustrated in Hunicke et al., MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research.


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Lies, Caffeinated Lies, and Operating Systems

This is a guest post by Tim Herd.

Computer science is not about computers. It’s about computation, a much wider subject. Creating abstractions, essential representations of things, be they objects, processes, ideas, and manipulating those representations. Manipulating these representations and letting their movements inform and power the outside world. These representations are organized in the computer, but there’s no law saying they have to be. The organizational principles and structures are more fundamental, and can be applied to anything. A cafe, perhaps?

CaffLies

Right now you’re reading this on a computer, and that computer is running an operating system. Windows 10, macOS, one of a billion different linuxes. But what is an operating system?

Modern operating systems do a million things, but their fundamental job is to lie to programs. Each and every program running on your computer thinks it is the only program running on the computer. Programmers like me write programs assuming that no other pesky programs will get in the way. It’s the Operating System’s job to make sure the farce is believable.

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How to Dress for the Game of Life

This is a guest post by Pamela J. Hobart.

Being basic involves wearing regular stuff for being regular’s sake. And “normcore” is the practice of choosing certain clothes to blend in, instead of to stand out. What makes basicness and normcore very different from other fashion trends is that they must be understood referentially, in comparison to what other people are wearing, and psychologically, in terms of why a wearer chose the look (instead of being a characteristic inherent in the clothes themselves).

Over the past couple of years, the concept of normcore (as initially conceived by trend forecasting group K-Hole) has been mocked and bastardized, all while quietly taking hold anyway. Its motivation — a frustrated need for belonging — is still felt keenly, and fashion cycle exhaustion is only worsening in a wired, 24/7 world. Models who might have hit the runway a few times per year have given way to fashion bloggers who change outfits multiple times per day. A quick scroll through Instagram is all you need to figure out the hard truth: there’s nothing new to wear under the sun.

The promise of normcore

The promise of normcore


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Cannon Balls, Plate Tectonics, and Invisible Elephants

This is a guest post by Hal Morris.

For our pre-technical ancestors, the clockwork at the bottom of the material world was so clothed in messiness that hardly a trace of it appeared on the surface.  But you could say that three exposed bits collectively formed a Rosetta stone to the mathematical language of nature:  a thrown rock, a pendulum, and the solar system, revealed by the night sky.  The last had to be viewed from such a difficult angle that reams of tables, centuries worth of exact observations, and a huge advance in mathematics were required to see it, but it was there to be seen.

Antique Orrery, source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons 20

The concept of machine pervades our culture, and has driven many philosophical debates for centuries.

For example, it is often argued that living organisms, or the human mind, are “ultimately just machines”. I.e. underlying all the messy organic complexity of the world’s surface is a level at which things function with mechanical or mathematical precision.  Sometimes it is then too blithely concluded that this proves we can eventually replicate anything, including the human brain.

But if “everything is a machine”, it can’t contribute anything to any argument  because it doesn’t distinguish anything from anything else.

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Rolling Your Own Culture and (Not) Finding Community

This is a guest post by Timothy Roy.

In economically advanced democracies, whose universities teach some sort of Enlightenment tradition and technocratic specialty, societies often do not share in common (and do not teach) certain important cultural cores.

These cores, which I think of as modules, include personal conflict resolution (how do we disagree? how do we apologize?), personal finances (how do we spend our money? how luxuriously should we live? how much should we save?), personal fitness (how do I maintain my body? what athletic skills should be practiced to promote health and strength?), and emotional or spiritual growth (more on this later).

rollyourown

These cultural modules are important because they address large parts of day-to-day life and overall lifestyle. They are also important because each module or chunk of teachings/practices can be fairly extensive, and hard to derive from scratch. Individuals, and entire societies, may take a long time to rediscover some of these helpful practices.

Fortunately for those of us bred in educational systems which run light on these cultural modules, there are lots of gurus around which are not too hard to discover. By taking a guru here and a guru there, you can form a complete personal culture, a complete lifestyle.

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Robert Martinson and the Tragedy of the American Prison

This is a guest post by Adam Humphreys based on a documentary he’s making. This is an early version of an evolving story, and this post may be updated as ongoing research uncovers more details.

I. ELMIRA, ELMIRA

The idea that prisons should do more than hold people and that criminals might be reformed, or corrected, collapses endlessly under the pressure of human experience, but persists nonetheless. Among its first American proponents was a man named Zebulon Brockway.

As superintendent of several prisons in the middle of the nineteenth century, Brockway came to view crime as a kind of disease, and the prison as a kind of hospital. He wrote, “to reduce crime a true prison system should recognize the criminal classes for what they are, and bring to bear upon them the forces necessary to modify their behavior.”

excerpt

Brockway experimented with several such forces—vocational training, rewards for good behavior, so-called moral education—but it wasn’t until 1876, as superintendent of Elmira Reformatory in Elmira, New York, that he was given the latitude to implement his most daring conceit: the indeterminate sentence.

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