Unflattening Hobbes

In political science, the idea of a Hobbesian state of nature, featuring an endemic war of all against all, is a notional initial condition from which civilization could plausibly emerge. A generous reading of the model is that it is not about evolutionary realism, but about the plausibility of a pristine peaceful order emerging from a primordial violent chaos, under unfavorable assumptions about human nature (selfish and innately violent). In the classical Hobbesian model, the layers of the civilizational stack are bootstrapped from conditions that constitute a “flat world” in a social sense. Peace and structure evolve in parallel from this violently chaotic flatness.

But consider a conceptual alternative to the traditional Hobbesian model: what happens when we discard the assumption that structural order and endemic conflict are mutually exclusive? Or that peace goes with order and violence with chaos? Do we necessarily run into a contradiction? Could order emerge from chaos and endure, without peace necessarily emerging from war and enduring in parallel?

What if a Hobbesian condition of endemic war of all against all does not require the world to be a materially devastated and socially flat one, populated by warring packs led by grim young men in Henleys? What if it just feels like today’s world, but gets steadily slightly worse, slouching towards dystopia without ever arriving or unraveling? A Hobbesian end to history rather than beginning?

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Dodo Thoughts

This morning at the Natural History Museum in London, I saw a stuffed (edit: model apparently, not stuffed, according to a knowledgeable commenter) dodo. As I meditated on the poor, dumb extinct bird, I was struck by an unsettling thought: All the thinking ever done by all the dodos that ever lived has been for nought. The species’ failure to continue existing is not just the failure of the dodo genome. It is also the failure of the sum of all dodo thought.

There was once something it was like to be a dodo, and think thoughts only dodos could think, but now there isn’t. The dodo is worse than extinct. In some deep way, it was wrong about everything it thought it knew.

This dodo is dead. This is a dead dodo.

When we think about the adaptive fit of a species to its environment, we think about size, speed, coloration, feeding habits, and so on, but we don’t think about thinking. Sure, we talk about brain size as though it were just another morphological variable like height, but we don’t think about thinking in Darwinian terms. Things get weird when you go there.

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How Do You Value a Human Being?

How do you value a human being?

Only two kinds of humans have a clear consensus value: first responders and what one might call first actors. Doctors, nurses, fire-fighters, cops, and modern soldiers are all first responders; valued because they defend one of the two borders of the human condition against the unknown; the border across which existential threats emerge.  At the other border, the exploratory frontier of the human condition, we find our first actors — scientists, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, mystics and (when we interior civilians are feeling particularly generous) philosophers. They are the prime movers of the human story.

First responders restore a local human equilibrium after a negative disturbance; first actors disturb a local human equilibrium in positive ways. Both are boundary actors, charged with precipitating a response to things happening at the boundary between the changeless fictive interior of the human condition and the restive chaos of the universe beyond. The value of boundary actors is assumed. The value of interior actors usually requires justification.

Boundary actors are assumed worthy. Using them as a yardstick, everybody else must make their own case.

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Refactor Camp 2018: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding Post-Mortem

refactor camp 2018

Refactor Camp: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding was a 2-day conference held in Austin Texas on May 12-13th 2018. The event featured talks, workshops, and breakout sessions focused on blockchain technology, the sociology of blockchains, and whatever other weird nonsense the speakers could come up with.

Our hope with this event was to “stretch the Overton window” a bit in terms of thinking about the implications and elements of blockchain technology and, in the Ribbonfarm tradition, facilitate some more speculative thinking and discussions than what happens at other cryptocurrency events.

Topics covered included:

  • Blockchain as Metaphor – Take some feature of a mature blockchain ecosystem and map it into another domain (e.g. Decentralization in urban infrastructure or.)
  • Sociology of Blockchain Geopolitical implications of blockchain
  • Magic, Ritual & Blockchain
  • Blockchain as an International / Multicultural Phenomenon
  • Crypto Econophysics

We were able to record most of the talks and have uploaded them to Youtube as well as embedding them below. Special thank you to all the speakers who took the time to prepare a talk. [Read more…]

Tarpits and Antiflocks

Computers used to be the size of buildings. Today my computer gets lost between the seat cushions. But two parts of the computer didn’t become a million times smaller and faster: the display and keyboard. They are the low speed, power hungry, monkey-compatible data ports. Our biology is holding us back.

Naturally, there are a hundred teams screwing around with every idea they can think of to connect directly to the brain. They are tickling neurons with magnets and brain monitors and even wires under the skull. They are training computers to pick up subvocal cues, theorizing about quantum tunneling, etc etc. Then they talk to journalists who put out breathless articles on “USB ports for your brain”.

The people who make fun of the dubious science in these projects are right. They also miss the point. Individually, each team’s approach is almost certainly wrong. But collectively they are doing the right thing. They are an antiflock, exploring a tarpit.

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Armpit Futures

I’ve long been on record as an August hater. Recently I decided that August will henceforth be known as Armpit, at least in my head. Armpit is the True Name of August; it is truly the armpit of the year. My greatest fear for the future is that it will be an Eternal August. I call such possible futures armpit futures. Listless, sweaty grey timelines where history just sort of runs out of narrative energy with a whimper rather than a bang, and settles into a shitty plotless equilibrium full of T. S. Eliot’s hollow men that everybody hates, but not energetically enough to do anything about. Sometimes, I think the explanation for the Fermi paradox is simply that it is August all the time, almost everywhere in the universe.

Anyhow, why is August, I mean Armpit, so bad?

Here’s the thing, besides all the obvious things wrong with it (ranging from listlessly ugly, enervated weather  to the ugly social calendar as documented in this David Plotz anti-August rant), Armpit is when people give up on the year. It is the month of abandoned hope. The inescapable liminal passage of refractory ennui you must get through before you can peel yourself off the floor (where you will have been lying sticky and facedown for 31 days) to take another swing at Destiny.

Through the end of July, which vaguely sounds like June and so vaguely feels like you’re still in the first half of the year with a shot at salvaging something, you’re basically fine. Armpit is when you realize it’s too late, but can’t do anything about it. In September, you can formally write off the year as a deadweight loss booked in Q4, reset your horizons and start thinking about the next year or seven.

But for the 31 days of Armpit, if you have a brain, you’re in that sweaty, muggy, hopeless, newsless, atemporal state of mild-to-medium existential despair that is not even severe enough to justify active intervention. Like airplane food that is just short of bad enough to complain about. Where eating it versus going hungry seem like equally bad options. You kinda just have to get through it. It won’t be good no matter what you decide.

Europeans and VCs in America try to put lipstick on the pig by collectively going on “vacation” but as Plotz argues, the good vacation month is actually July. Armpit is when you kind of just take a weak swing at pretending to be alive to keep up appearances, since it is not polite to act dead in the West. Adults have beach-time poisoned by dreading Fall Budgeting Bureaucracy. Kids have their last few weeks of vacation poisoned by looming schoolwork. Nobody is having a good time, and most people don’t even have the energy to pretend.

Anybody who is enjoying Armpit is either clueless, or powered by energy drawn from the dark dimensions. All signs of life in Armpit are hollow and fake, a case of civilizational premium mediocrity on display (not coincidentally, I wrote that post in Armpit last year).

Armpit is awful everywhere on the planet (even the southern hemisphere I suspect), and I think the reason is that it is the truest glimpse we get of the human condition. Yes, we’re most likely to end up in an armpit future, not a dystopian or utopian one. And Armpit is the one month of the year we cannot avoid facing that fact, like Sisyphus in the moment just after he summits and watches the rock wobble portentously.

September is the dawn of new hope. Even the Eternal September of the online world, despite the generally n00b-infested, culture-warring craptitude of it, is tinged with hope and demented stupid energy. October through July we have The Struggle, when we manage to steal a shred or two of dignity from the universe.

Other naturally bad months during The Struggle, like blazing-furnace-hot July and calamitously cold and depressing January, at least have interesting social action going on. Or present the kind of urgent stress you can feel good about tackling head-on and overcoming. The plot is moving along even if most people have lost it.

But Armpit? Pure zombie month. Not even a villain of a month. The entropic heat-death month of the calendar, during which Time may or may not choose to regenerate. Beating August doesn’t even feel like a win.

Enjoy your last week of July. As with every Armpit, there’s a small chance we’ll never come out of it, and end up in an Eternal August armpit future.

Near-Deathness

In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, when someone attempts a submission—say they extend your arm and exert pressure onto the rear of your elbow joint—you have three options. The first, and the most desirable, is escape. Find a way out and continue to fight on. The second, either virtuous or stupid depending on the situation and your outlook, is refusal. Choose not to surrender. Recent examples include Romulo Barral getting his ankle snapped at the 2017 BJJ World Championship and Holly Holmes being choked into unconsciousness at UFC 196. The third option is to tap.

Roberto Abreu with a double collar choke in the 2009 Pan American Championship.

To tap is to admit defeat. It’s an acknowledgement that your opponent has you in a position that is either too painful to endure or too dominant to escape from. It’s also a consequence of the realisation that your adversary could do some serious damage.

Consider chokes, a common occurrence in BJJ bouts. They fall into two categories: blood chokes and air chokes. Air chokes occur when pressure is applied directly to the upper airway. Blood chokes occur when pressure is applied to the carotid arteries and/or the jugular vein. The former is much rougher and takes longer to come into effect than the latter, but the end result of both is unconsciousness, via restricted air flow or via restricted blood flow to the brain. Of course, depriving the brain of its essential nutrients is not something to be done lightly. Maintained for too long, chokes can result in permanent damage to the brain, and even death. That’s why you tap out. That’s why you submit. You’re asking your opponent to preserve the integrity of your anatomy and your existence. You’re issuing a polite request for the rest of your life back.

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Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason

I have a sneaky trick I use to figure out the murderer when watching mystery shows. If there’s a random background character — say a doorman or a random neighbor — who gets insufficiently motivated screen time and lines in an early scene, they’re the murderer. If the role is being played by a mildly famous actor rather than a bit-part nobody, then you can be doubly sure. My hack exploits a human-character special case of the fact that good storytellers tend to follow, the Chekov’s gun principle:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

This isn’t an entirely fair trick of course, especially if you use the mildly famous actor clue, since it’s an extrinsic structural clue that’s outside the narrative proper, and one that won’t necessarily lead you to further guess the motive, or means. The lesson of the trick though, is that the assumption that there are no insignificant details in a story (or equivalently, that there is a good author behind the story) is an extremely powerful one. One that allows you to solve the mystery faster than if you had to sort out the significant details (as you would have to in a real murder). Of course, a great author, as opposed to a merely good one will distract you with a plausible alternative explanation for the Chekov’s gun that will lead you astray,.

The fact that Chekov’s gun can be used as a cheat points to why the corresponding idea in metaphysics, the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), made famous by Leibniz, is so controversial.

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Reality Maintenance

The idea that reality is something that is constructed by our minds out of sense experience, and therefore requires design, programming, and maintenance, is a curiously divisive one. To some people — myself included — it is the most obvious, even banal idea in the world; a basic starting assumption required to do any sort of interesting metaphysical thinking. As I’ve argued before, all realities are escaped realities, and the interesting question is, what is the direction/degree of escape?

To others, it is a horrendously toxic attack on all that is Good and True and a French Cultural Marxist Conspiracy Against Enlightenment Values. These people are known as normies.

Setting aside these debates, it’s interesting to try and trace how we construct and maintain realities. Here’s my picture.

Turns out, if you start with sense experience as primary (the blue/gold dress is just the tip of that iceberg of worms) there are at least three distinct well-posed notions of reality — objective, subjective, and social — each of which is best understood in terms of a particular experience of time, or to use a bigger word, a particular kind of temporality. In my previous post on escaped realties linked above, I associated the three with atoms, qualia and bits, but the three kinds of temporality is a more satisfying mapping.

As you might expect, there are Greek gods for all three. Very roughly, you have Chronos for objective time, Kairos for subjective time, and the least-known, Aion, for a sort of outside-of-time eternalism. With each of these notions you get a particular manner of constructing the self (material, introspective, and social), and from that, everything else in the reality gets bootstrapped.

Of course, each of us inhabits a reality that’s a mix of the three kinds of escapism and temporality, so reality maintenance involves ongoing non-degenerate action along all three vectors. Falsification and update of material beliefs is the most familiar kind of reality maintenance (more narrowly referred to as truth maintenance). The other two might be called stream of consciousness maintenance and recognition maintenance.

It is perhaps simplest to think of each kind of reality construction in terms of its associated kind of reality destruction, or death. So you have material death, death by loss of appetite for life (or will to live), and social death by loss of being seen by others in a social reality matrix. I

This gives us 7 degrees of death, based on whether 1, 2 or all 3 kinds of reality maintenance processes have collapsed for you. So there are 6 kinds of zombie, 1 kind of fully alive person, and 1 kind of complete corpse. I’ll leave you to work out the details.

Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre

I have a theory about why the notion of an arms race between human and machine intelligences is fundamentally ill-posed: the way to survive and thrive in an environment of AIs and robots is not to be smarter than them, but to be more mediocre than them. Mediocrity, understood this way, is an independent meta-trait, not a qualifier you put on some other trait, like intelligence.

I came to this idea in a roundabout way. It started when Nate Eliot emailed me, pitching an article built around the idea of humans as premium mediocre robots. That struck me as conceptually off somehow, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the problem with the idea. I mean, R2D2 is an excellent robot, and C3PO is a premium mediocre android, but humans are not robots at all. They’re just intrinsically mediocre without reference to any function in particular, not just when used as robots.

Then I remembered that the genesis form of the Turing test also invokes mediocrity in this context-free intrinsic sense. When Turing originally framed it (as a snarky remark in a cafeteria) his precise words were:

“No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.”

That clarified it: Turing, like most of us, was conceptualizing mediocrity as merely an average performance point on some sort of functional spectrum, with an excellent high end, and a low, basic-performance end. That is, we tend to think of “mediocre” as merely a satisfyingly insulting way of saying “average” in some specific way.

This, I am now convinced, is wrong. Mediocrity is in fact the sine qua non of survival itself. It is not just any old trait. It is the trait that comes closest to a general, constructive understanding of evolutionary adaptive “fitness” in a changing landscape. In other words, evolution is survival, not of the most mediocre (that would lead to paradox), but survival of the mediocre mediocre.

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