Frontierland

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Disneyland is the most important place in America, and Frontierland is the most important part of Disneyland. By area, it is the largest part of Disneyland. The design of Frontierland occupied a special importance for Walt Disney himself (Richard Francaviglia, Walt Disney’s Frontierland as an Allegorical Map of the American West). Even as the Imagineers had trouble keeping the futuristic buildings of Tommorowland looking “futuristic,” the archaic appeal of Frontierland never faded. Frontierland does not refer to just any frontier: it presents an immersive narrative about the American western frontier, a narrative centered on popular myth and literature. (There is no American Indian genocide in Frontierland, because Frontierland is not about the historical reality of the American frontier.) But its appeal reaches far beyond the American West, drawing visitors from all over the world and self-replicating in Japan, Hong Kong, and France. As the American frontier ceased to exist as a geographic and political reality, in myth it transcended space and culture.

As much as it is composed of myth, theater, and simulation, Frontierland is actually the real frontier.

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960


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A Better Art Vocabulary, Part 2

To recap, in my last post I talked about some of the things people mean when they say a work of art is “good”:

  1. A display of skill awed me
  2. I had a heightened experience
  3. The work gave me animal pleasure
  4. It is morally good that this work exists
  5. The work accurately described reality

Today I’m going to drill down on #4, the big M, m-o-r-a-l-i-t-y. What do we mean when we say (or think, or imply) that a work of art is morally good or bad? Is talking about morality with respect to art a necessary mode or a failure mode? That is, does it matter? How much?

When I was in high school, smart kids would eagerly remind you that Oscar Wilde said “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all”–and feel very clever. I had the entire preface to Picture of Dorian Gray in my Facebook quotes from 2005-2009  so I know what I’m talking about here. But even Oscar Wilde doesn’t really get into what he means by ‘moral’. And this is a problem because just about anyone can clearly perceive that art can have effects that are bad or intents that are good, and those things seem related to morality. So let’s taboo the word ‘morality’ and replace it with some other concepts.

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Technopaganism and the Newer Age

Ryan Tanaka is a resident blogger, visiting us from his home turf at http://ryan-writer.com.

Elon Musk, in response to the popularity of HBO’s hit comedy Silicon Valley, once remarked that Hollywood doesn’t “get” SV culture because it doesn’t understand what Burning Man is all about.

Most of us here have seen the pictures and heard something it, but what exactly is Burning Man, anyway?  Why are pictures of the event posted in the hallways and offices of the Googleplex, and why is it a topic of conversation that comes up over and over among those working in tech?

Burning Man

Photo by Kyle Harmon from Oakland, CA, USA. (Accessed from Wikipedia – 05/10/15)

Beneath the confusion and craziness, Burning Man can be seen as a manifestation of the sentimentality and spirit of the Bay Area, compressed into an intense, week-long ordeal: techies, hippies, individualists, creatives/artists and progressives all living in close proximity, thrown together into an uncontrolled mix. A giant social experiment of sorts, organized into a ceremonial ritual, conducted year after year.

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Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture

Sarah Perry is a resident blogger visiting us from her home turf at The View from Hell.

A selective sweep occurs when a new, beneficial gene mutation appears and quickly sweeps across a population, erasing the genetic diversity that existed prior to the sweep. Similarly, languages have “swept” across continents as the cultures they belonged to gained unbeatable advantages (often agricultural or military), resulting in losses of language diversity from earliest human history to the present day. Today, half the population of the world speaks one of only thirteen languages.

These are not controversial claims. More controversial is the idea that human prehistory (and even history) hosted a wide variety of human consciousness, not just language, and that these disparate kinds of subjective consciousness were destroyed upon contact with new forms of consciousness. Most dramatically, Julian Jaynes famously argued (in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) that human consciousness changed drastically in the past few thousand years, from an archaic bicameral form in which one side of the brain shouted orders and the other obeyed, to a modern, introspective form. My claim is not so extreme: I simply argue that there are and have been many forms of human consciousness, varying in particular ways, that we retain the “hardware” capability for many forms of consciousness, and that humans are constrained into particular mental states by their cultures, especially through group ritual (or lack thereof). In order to explore this claim, it is helpful to think about our own form of consciousness in detail – a form of consciousness that is novel, contagious, and perhaps detrimental to human flourishing compared with more evolutionarily tested forms of consciousness running on the same hardware.

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Geopolitics for Individuals

Kartik is a 2014 blogging resident visiting us from his home turf at akkartik.name.

I recently spent a month playing a board game called Diplomacy, and it turned out to be a surprisingly mind-broadening experience. Pretending to be the German Empire before the First World War, exchanging missives all day with the other “great powers” of that time, finalizing troop dispositions before the daily deadline, and then seeing everybody’s moves revealed at once, finding out who lied, who was betrayed, it’s all very dramatic and addictive. It took me a while to realize (rationalize?) why its hold over me was so persistent: it was because it was getting me to grow intellectually as only a few other games have done in my life. Chess taught me to think “a few moves ahead” past the immediate exigencies of any situation. Poker taught me to manage risk when the future is uncertain. Diplomacy is starting to teach me to extend these ideas past the “kiddie pool” of games where you’re playing against coherent opponents. It repeatedly exposes one, like a school of hard knocks, to stable situations that are rendered unstable by the entrance of a new player.

There’s a faint echo of this effect in the chess-like two-player game of Go.

Go position

“Go is to Western chess what philosophy is to double-entry accounting.” — Trevanian

Learning Go, you repeatedly find yourself in situations that seemed stable, where you were holding your own, that are thrown into disarray by distant parts of the board.

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Algorithmic Governance and the Ghost in the Machine

This is a guest post by Sam Bhagwat from Moore’s Hand.

 Moore’s Law has granted to 21st-century organizations two new methods for governing complexity:  locally powerful god-algorithms we’ll call Athenas and omniscient but bureaucratic god-algorithms we’ll call Adjustment Bureaus

As an example of an Athena, consider this case:

Eighteen months ago a Buddhist convert in Los Angeles named Rick Ruzzamenti donated his kidney. It was flown on ice on a Continental red-eye, to a retiree in Newark in need of a transplant. The retiree’s niece then sent her kidney to a woman in Madison. The woman’s ex-boyfriend sent his kidney to a secretary in Pittsburgh. The secretary’s boyfriend sent his to a young father in San Diego.

When the chain halted six months later, in December 2012, with a final transplant in Chicago, sixty operations had taken place, enabled by an algorithm that crunched through billions of match possibilities.

And for an example of an Adjustment Bureau, consider this case:

For several months in 2011, including the holiday sale season, JC Penney was at the top of a curious number of Google search results. “Dresses.” “Bedding.” “Area rugs.” “Skinny jeans.” “Home decor.” “Furniture.” Even “grommet top curtains.”

The placement generated huge traffic – 3.8 million monthly visitors just for ‘dresses’ – and  revenue in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.  Then an enterprising reporter noticed thousands of paid links in link directories, and brought the matter to the attention of Google’s webspam team, which flagged the site:

At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, J. C. Penney was still the No. 1 result for “Samsonite carry on luggage.”

Two hours later, it was at No. 71.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Penney was No. 1 in searches for “living room furniture.”

By 9 p.m., it had sunk to No. 68.

In other words, one moment Penney was the most visible online destination for living room furniture in the country. The next it was essentially buried.

Wide-eyed advocates of ‘algorithmic governance’ (Tim O’Reilly) beware: each god may grant you your local optimization, but their intervention is far from free.

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Projected Presence

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God. — Exodus 20:4-5.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity. — P.T. Barnum.

I.

I’ve always been puzzled by idolatry. From the Greek eidos (form or shape) + latreia (worship), idolatry suggests a mindset I find almost impossible to fathom.

How could a basalt statue, or a small wooden figurine, command such power and attention that it would come to be worshipped? What kind of human would “bow down” to such an artifact, or attempt to “serve” it? And how could the practice become so common, in the early-historic Levant, as to require a special injunction against it — in no less privileged a location than the Ten Commandments?

In his mind-rending epic The Origin of Consciousness, Julian Jaynes offers an answer to all of these questions. It’s an answer that’s hard to take seriously, but worth examining — if for no other purpose than to expand our hypothesis-space.

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Stone-Soup for the Capitalist’s Soul

The fable of Stone Soup is probably my favorite piece of European folklore. In the Russian version, which I prefer, called Axe Porridge,  the story goes something like this:

A soldier returning from war stops at a village, hungry and tired. He knocks on the door of a rich, stingy Scrooge of a woman. In response to his request for food, she of course claims she has nothing. So the canny soldier asks her for just a pot and water, claiming he can make “axe porridge” out of an old axe-head he spots lying around. Intrigued the woman agrees.

You know how the rest of the story goes: the soldier quietly hustles a bunch of other ingredients — salt, carrots, oats — out of the old woman, under the guise of “improving the flavor” of the axe porridge. He does this one ingredient at a time, offering an evolving narrative on the progress of the porridge (“this is coming along great; now if only I had some oats to thicken it.”)

The result is some excellent porridge that they share, while applauding the idea of axe porridge together. The shared fiction that soup can be made out of an axe-head results in the fact of real porridge for all.

There are some deep insights into the psychology of wealth and the nature of progress in this fable, insights that are very relevant for our times.

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Eternal Hypochondria of the Expanding Mind

The story of neurasthenia or “invalidism” is a curious mid-nineteenth-century chapter in the story of the emancipation of women. As Barbara Ehrenreich argues in Bright-Sidedit was almost entirely a social phenomenon:

The largest demographic to suffer from neurasthenia or invalidism was middle-class women. Male prejudice barred them from higher education and the professions; industrialization was stripping away the productive tasks that had occupied women in the home, from sewing to soap-making. For many women, invalidism became a kind of alternative career. Days spent reclining in chaise longues, attended by doctors and family members and devoted to trying new medicines and medical regimens, substituted for masculine “striving” in the world.

What makes this curious, and rather ironic, is that invalidism was becoming widespread just as new possibilities were being opened up to women, through the slow substitution of fossil fuels for muscle power.

This was not a coincidence of course.

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Schumpeter’s Demon

For a while now, I’ve been dissatisfied with our shared mental models around the creative destruction being unleashed by the Internet.

On the one hand, we have coarse-grained and abstract models based on long-term historical cycles and precedents. This is the sort of thing I’ve explored quite a bit in previous posts. It involves careful analogies to previous technological revolutions. It involves debates around whether or not technological progress is stalling and whether a return to growth is possible.

On the other hand, we have detailed situational models, full of incomprehensible minutiae, that seem to develop around specific important decisions. An example is the  set of mental models that drove the “fiscal cliff” farce, which just played out in the US Congress.  Another is the set of mental models in evidence around the SOPA/PIPA debate last year.

The first kind of mental model is so large-scale in its concerns, it is effectively a fatalistic level of analysis. The other kind is ineffectually preoccupied with each immediate situation in turn. It quickly drives itself into a dead-end each time, and defaults to buy-more-time decisions.

I’ve thought of an allegory for understanding economic creative destruction, that I’ll call Schumpeter’s Demon. It just might be capable of informing meaningful action.