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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Justice Fantasies

Justice is seen mostly clearly in its absence. It is easier to notice injustice than justice, and when people talk about experiencing justice in positive terms, they usually mean that a previous injustice has been remedied.

The experience of injustice spans behaviors ranging in severity from rudeness and negligence to violent crime. But it can also include the distribution of property, as when it is alleged to be unjust that some are very wealthy while others are very poor. If justice is what is revealed by negotiations of injustice, then it is a very broad category, including not only all behaviors, but also the distribution of income, wealth, roads, transportation, housing, food, clothing, fresh water, pollution, education, art, fun, and much more. Bad actions may be judged to be unjust, but even good actions are targets for justice talk when they are considered suboptimal; consider how many people berated Elon Musk for frivolity in sending a car into space, implying that he had a duty to use his resources to solve certain social problems instead (such as buying houses for poor people). Injustice is simply the state of a misfit between the fairness expectations of a group of people and reality.
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Glitches, uh, find a way

Core scientific theories often sound tautological, yet we keep them around because they lead to useful ideas. The prime theorem of biology is that life comes from life. Life coming from life doesn’t mean that spontaneous generation is impossible. It had to have happened at least once. But it’s so much less efficient than reproduction that it no longer has a chance. Before two amino acids can start rubbing together in just the right way on the road to making Life 2.0, some version 1.0 bastard comes along and eats it. That leads you to the idea of natural selection, evolution, dimorphic sex, and the rest of it.

The prime theorem of computing is that any computer can simulate any other. But for all of the talk about “artificial life”, the two mechanisms are subtly different. Lifeforms compete by turning each other into food. Computerforms compete by turning each other into memes. [Read more…]

Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences

When I first started writing about religion for Ribbonfarm, I argued that humans have the capacity for interesting mental states that have become harder to access during the transition to modernity. Here, I focus on the core mental state at the heart of religion, the sacred experience.

When I first read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I was disappointed by his focus on “personal religion” (the subjective experience of conversion or of the divine), rather than on ritual, tradition, and organized religion. After many years, I now think his focus on subjective experience is exactly correct. Rituals vary and evolve because the sacred experience is itself the success criterion for the ritual, and as the context changes, the form of rituals must change to continue to produce sacred experience.

I define the sacred experience as follows:

Sacred experience: a subjective experience of unusual emotional arousal, especially in a social ritual context, potentially including negative emotions such as terror, guilt, or hopelessness, followed by unusual calm or euphoria, in the presence of a sensed metaphysically problematic entity or principle.

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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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Feeling the Future

In After Temporality, I wrote about the phenomenology of the ordinary, healthy experience of time. I wrote this as an outsider, because my own experience of time is not normal. Here, I focus on the phenomenology of time in psychopathological states (prefrontal brain injury, schizophrenia, mania, and depression). What can breakdowns in the experience of time reveal about how the brain constructs time under ordinary circumstances?

In my previous article, I used the word “chronesthesia” to refer to the sense of time: awareness of one’s past and future, coupled with the ability to do “mental time travel,” assembling appropriate memories and projecting the self into imagined possible futures. This is a rather cognitive and bloodless way to describe an alleged sense. But the psychopathological time experience suggests that the experience of normal time is produced and guided by emotion. We feel the future as much as we think it. The feeling of time is instantiated in our bodies out to our skin, and beyond, in the felt bodies of others with whom we synchronize.

In the phenomenological account, there are two modes of being that are relevant here. The first is the absorbed state: proficiently using tools without awareness of the tools as such. Picture driving a car. One is not aware of the motions of one’s hands and feet, or of the internal workings of the automobile. One is simply absorbed in going someplace, and possibly thinking of other things, or even socializing. The second mode is the breakdown state, initiating conscious awareness of oneself and one’s equipment. The brain “wakes up” to some aspect of the environment, because it has failed to accord with previous unconscious predictions. Imagine the gas pedal stops working and the car slows to a halt. Now one pops out of absorbed state into a state of simply using the car, and becomes aware of the car as a thing (a broken thing).

It is the same with time. In the ordinary case, time is invisible. The experience of time is one of absorption. Only when there is a problem do we become conscious of time, and of ourselves in time.
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The Blockchain Man

The term Organization Man is a rich one. From it, we can conjure up an image and a life.

It’s a man, not a woman. He’s white, standing somewhere between 6’0 and 6’2. He has a strong chin and medium length light brown hair parted on the left.

He walks from one meeting to the next wearing a dark suit with a pressed white dressed shirt and dark Oxford dress shoes. His wrist holds a watch – nice, but not extravagant, with a brown leather strap and a gold-rimmed face.

More than just an image, you can conjure up a life for The Organization Man, a term coined by William Whyte in his 1956 book of the same name. Even though the novel predates Whyte’s book by 30 years, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922) established the archetype perfectly.

Today, the successor of the Organization Man — the Blockchain Man — is starting to emerge. To understand how he might evolve, let us first look back.

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Rectangle Vision

It’s probably not a good idea to look directly at the rectangles.

If you get into this mode – Rectangle Vision – you wake up in the morning on your rectangle. You lift your head off of its rectangle and toss aside the rectangles wrapped around you, still holding your body’s warmth. You pull a string to lift the sheet of rectangles covering the rectangle in the wall and let the light stream in. You pick up your rectangle to check the time, and perhaps touch a rectangle inside of it, to see all the latest rectangles to make you mad.

You step through a rectangle to leave the bedroom, step through another to wash (perhaps using a cuboid of soap), dry your skin and hair with a rectangle, and check out your reflection in the rectangle. Make your way to the kitchen and open up the rectangle that shields the cold things; perhaps open another rectangle to warm something up. Take it from the counter rectangle and eat it on the table rectangle, sitting on a rectangular platform. Wipe your face with a rectangle. Leave the house through the rectangular portal, making sure you carry your necessary rectangles for identification, payment, work, and entertainment. Then you really enter the land of rectangles: the walls, the steps, the parking spaces, the sidewalk blocks, the signs, the crosswalks, the vents and gratings, all the windows, and every discarded wrapper of a rectangular eyeglass wipe.

Where did all these rectangles come from? There are few rectangles in nature; those that do form (e.g., tessellated pavements) are objects of wonder and mystery, precisely because rectilinear forms present to us as the work of man. This is why the rectangular cuboid monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey is so evocative: without saying so, it’s understood that a regular cuboid like this is the work of intelligence like ours.
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The World As If

This is an account of how magical thinking made us modern.

When people talk about magical thinking, it is usually as a cognitive feature of children, uneducated people, the mushy-minded, or the mentally ill. If we notice magical thinking in ourselves, it is with a pang of shame: literate adults are supposed to be more sophisticated than that. At the same time, magical thinking is obviously rampant in the world. It’s hard not to be fascinated, even if it’s a horrified fascination.

Matthew Hutson’s popular book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking attempts to get beyond the low-status connotations of magical thinking, as indicated in the subtitle (How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane). Hutson notes that the concept of magical thinking is vague and problematic. He quotes Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin:

[T]he variety of things to which [magic] refers is far-reaching, ranging from a social institution characteristic of traditional societies, to sleight-of-hand or parlor tricks, to belief in unconventional phenomena such as UFOs and ESP, to sloppy thinking or false beliefs, and even to a state of romance, wonder, or the mysterious. One must at least entertain the possibility that there is no true category here at all. Instead, the term “magic” in current usage has become a label for a residual category—a garbage bin filled with various odds and ends that we do not otherwise know what to do with.

(Nemeroff, C., an P. Rozin, 2000, “The Making of the Magical Mind,” p. 1)

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The Rust Age: A Four-Volume Collection

Back in 2012, I selected, clustered, and sequenced the best posts from the first five years of ribbonfarm (2007-12) into 4 collections, which I collectively dubbed the Rust Age. New readers frequently land on the Rust Age page, get lost and annoyed in the link jungle, and email me asking for this early content in ebook format. Thanks to some stellar production and editing work by Jordan Peacock, and cover art by Josiah Norton, the 4 collections have now been turned into 4 Rust Age volumes, available as Kindle ebooks. The books include a glossary and a map to help you navigate.
The revamped Rust Age series page, with short blurbs for each volume, can be found here. Each individual volume also has its own page with links to the included posts (I’ve just updated the 2012 collection posts to include the respective ebook links).

Note: these collections do not include The Gervais Principle, which is also part of the Rust Age and is its own ebook. The Rust Age also includes two books of non-ribbonfarm content: Be Slightly Evil and Tempo.

Damn, that’s SEVEN books out of 2007-2012. And I was holding down a full-time job too then (and wasn’t slacking off at it). I don’t know where I got the energy. When I write my memoirs, I’ll call that period my roaring mid-thirties.

With this beautifully e-boxed four-volume set done, Jordan and I are now turning our attention to the Snowflake Age (2013-17). As you know, we’ve already put out the first of the Snowflake Age volumes: Crash Early, Crash OftenWe are currently working on a second volume, which will be a compilation of Sarah Perry posts, and trawling through the archives looking for more good compilations we can pull together.

Compilation suggestions from long-time readers welcome. We’ve probably missed some patterns backstage here.