Refactor Camp 2016: Weird Political Economy

Since 2012, we’ve been holding Refactor Camp as an annual offline event in the Bay Area. This year, we’re trying a new format. Refactor Camp 2016 will be an online-only event, in the form of four 2-hour evening sessions, spread over the last 2 weeks of July. You can register here. We will be using the Zoom videoconference system, which has a limit of 50 participants.

The theme this year is Weird Political Economy (tagline is inspired by this great post). Over four sessions, each structured as a short introductory talk (~30 minutes) followed by a discussion (~90 minutes) we will cover four major themes. All 4 sessions will be 8:00 to 10:00 PM US Pacific Time, on the listed dates.

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Session #1: Tue July 19: The Weird State of the State (Venkatesh Rao)
Session #2: Thu July 21: The Weird State of Capitalism (Mick Costigan)
Session #3: Tue July 26: The Weird State of the Crowd (Megan Lubaszka and Renee DiResta)
Session #4: Thursday July 28: The Weird State of the Earth (Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose)

The idea is to have well-prepped discussions about the general sense that “things are getting weird” in global affairs with a meaningfully broad/rich context. Are we really not in Kansas anymore, or do we just lack the context to grok the patterns in things going on right now? Is it time to apply the principle, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”? Hopefully we’ll generate some interesting, situated thinking.

The four session topics: state, capitalism, crowds, and earth, will hopefully serve as four good overlapping global canvasses for discussion.

A slide deck overview of the theme will be posted a few days before each session, as required pre-read. The idea is for ALL participants to actually review these pre-read decks (should take maybe 30min each) so we can have a discussion where everybody is better prepared than usual in these sorts of symposia.

If you are interested in doing reading beyond these upcoming decks, here are some anchor references the session leaders will be using.  Though session leaders will be drawing on multiple sources, and we expect many participants will be coming from other perspectives, these should give you an idea of the level of discussion we’re hoping to hit.

Meta-Skills, Macro-Laws, and the Power of Constraints

Nearly every science-fiction novel seems to agree on one thing: in the future, work will be indistinguishable from art. Such wide agreement suggests that work is far more than a means of income generation. Even in a robot servant utopia, with all our practical needs taken care of, human work will still have a purpose. To find or make meaning, to know thyself, to create beauty or value in the world. Productivity is helpful in these deeper pursuits because the fundamental questions it seeks to answer—how order arises from disorder, complexity from randomness, and ends from means—are the very same questions essential to understanding sentience, life, the universe, and everything.

It’s been noted that the best writers know the rules of writing well enough to break them in creative ways. The rules in this way are more than rules. In the beginning, they are crutches. Later, they become guides and useful defaults. Eventually, they become springboards. They crystallize the moments where a writer has to decide what she believes, who she isn’t, and by process of elimination, who she is.v7.001

This is the same role, I believe, that “tips and habits” play in productivity: rules that are designed to be broken in a journey of self-discovery. They resist a little bit, asking “Are you sure you want to choose your own adventure?” Which is helpful, because many times you shouldn’t. This changing role makes it irrelevant whether a piece of productivity advice is “right” or “wrong.” What matters is how fruitful of a domain it circumscribes, and thus whether it’s worth the effort to redesign it. It’s not important whether you “believe in it” or not, but whether you can articulate how it fits (or doesn’t) within your personal system of truths.

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How to Take Your Brain Off-Road

The more you read, the more you know how to read, and the harder it is to get lost in reading. When you’ve read only a few things, it is not possible to get very lost because each book, article, blog post or tweet stands in isolation. You are not very sensitized to how infinitely intertwingled everything is. But the more you read, the greater the chances that you will have developed a map that obscures the intertwingling. Even if you resist various subtle map-territory confusions, you will slowly grow blind to many things. Which can be a pleasant state, especially if it endures through the rest of your life.

But if you read a lot in a certain disorderly way, you can retain an ability get lost in your reading and prevent knowledge from turning into blindness. I call this approach taking your brain off-road. With a few exceptions, my brain has been off-road, and lost, for decades. You know when your brain is off-road because you are forced to navigate the world of ideas by gut-feel alone. I used to like the metaphor of the gyroscope for this, but now I like the metaphor of Pacific Islander wave navigation, which combines intrinsic and extrinsic, global and local, in interesting ways.

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Pacific Islander wave pilots used self-made stick maps of swell patterns between islands (like the ones above) to navigate. One of my time-wasting projects is to actually understand how this was done, and perhaps learn to do it myself. Interestingly, this required literally using your gut: lying on your back at the bottom of the canoe to feel the swells through your body.

There is an opposed, more common way of reading a lot, which is much more orderly. Orderly readers unconsciously prioritize things that they know how to read, which means they never get lost. This is mainly because they are doers, and for doers, being lost is a bad thing. Because you don’t know what to do next, which means you are wasting your life.

To disorderly readers, being lost is not a bad thing, because many interesting things can only be seen nestled in disorder. And you can see disorder only when you don’t know how to read it.

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Examining the Accidental Life

I only have two basic moods accounting for most of my waking hours: one marked by mild to severe ennui, and the other by a rushing energy. Refractory state and burst state. I seem to have largely random-walked through an accidental life so far, imposing barely any discipline on this basic, ungoverned, binary life process. I have no thoughtfully constructed scaffolding of habits and rituals in my life, just a few accidentally set ways. My biggest adult achievement in that department is learning to floss regularly.

I do have a rare third state though, one that only seems to appear only when I am in certain kinds of places, like off-season beach resorts. Like Cannon Beach, on the Oregon coast, a couple of weeks ago. Or the Outer Banks several years ago (which inspired my 2009 post, How to Think Like Hercule Poirota personal favorite).

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By definition, off-season means most humans don’t like these places during these times. Most waterfront businesses are closed. There are no peak-season activities on offer. You’re out on a mostly empty, slightly chilly, grey, and cloudy beach. It’s a satisfyingly atemporal environment.

Something about such outings deeply relaxes me. And after years of doing such trips, I think I am beginning to understand why. I think it is because my natural home state is being peacefully lost. Going to a place that, temporarily, doesn’t know what to do with itself,  is one good way to be at peace with being lost. An environment that doesn’t know what to do with itself, and is in no particular hurry to find out, is an an environment that doesn’t know what to do with you. And much of the stress of being lost, after all, comes from the environment pestering you to do stuff.

I like not knowing where I am, where I am going, why, or how I am going to get there. And I like it when the environment leaves me alone in that state.

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Immortality Begins at Forty

I discovered something a couple of years ago: Almost all culture, old or new, is designed for consumption by people under 40. People between 40 and Ω (an indeterminate number defined as “really, just way too old”),  are primarily employed as meaning-makers for the under-40 set. This is because they are mostly good for nothing else, and on average not valuable enough themselves for society to invest meaning in.

Immortality

The only culture designed for people between 40 and Ω is prescription drug ads and unreadably dense literary novels. Between age Ω and ∅, the age at which you die, there is only funerary culture. That second link is to an app for managing your own death called Cake. Why cake? Your guess is as good as mine.

But there’s a plus side. Forty is when immortality begins.

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Human-Complete Problems

Occasionally, I manage to be clever when I am not even trying to be clever, which isn’t often. In a recent conversation about the new class of doomsday scenarios inspired by AlphaGo beating the Korean trash-talker Lee Sedol, I came up with the phrase human complete (HC) to characterize certain kinds of problems: the hardest problems of being human. An example of (what I hypothesize is) an HC problem is earning a living. I think human complete is a very clever phrase that people should use widely, and credit me for, since I can’t find other references to it. I suspect there may be money in it. Maybe even a good living. Here is a picture of the phrase that I will explain in a moment.

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In this post, I want to explore a particular bunny trail: the relationship between being human and the ability to solve infinite game problems in the sense of James Carse. I think this leads to an interesting perspective on the meaning and purpose of AI.

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The Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral

/* Zapp: prepare to continue the epic struggle between good and neutral */

Let’s say you are a member of the proud Red tribe, enjoying a ritual communal feast. There is mirth and joy in the air. There is eating, dancing, and various other sorts of revelry in progress. Everybody is enjoying the priceless feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Suddenly, a young buck of your tribe runs into the camp ground, exhausted, wounded and bleeding. He delivers news of a grievous insult to your tribe dealt by the chief of the hated Grey tribe, and dies.

Now a different sort of priceless feeling of being part of something bigger descends on your tribe. This feeling is not derived from festive joy, but from infinitely outraged honor. Joy races against rage in every head. Hot heads and cool heads, young bucks and grey eminences, all start talking at once, to process the emotional calculus.

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Eventually, a consensus narrative emerges and a course of action develops. The narrative has done its job: helped you decide how to feel, allowing action to cohere and precipitate.

How should we understand the unfolding of this course of events? The answer lies in a principle it’s taken me quite a while to formulate to my satisfaction: narrative abhors a vacuum. 

What sort of vacuum?

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Can You Hear Me Now?

The fundamental question of life, the universe and everything is the one popularized by the Verizon guy in the ad: Can you hear me now?

This conclusion grew out of a conversation I had about a year ago, with some friends, in which I proposed a modest little philosophy I dubbed divergentism. Here is a picture.

divergentism

Divergentism is the idea that as individuals grow out into the universe, they diverge from each other in thought-space. This, I argued, is true even if in absolute terms, the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing. Because the sum of beliefs that are not shared increases even faster on average. Unfortunately, you are unique, just like everybody else.

If you are a divergentist, you believe that as you age, the average answer to the fundamental Verizon question slowly drifts, as you age, from yes, to no, to silenceIf you’re unlucky, you’re a hedgehog and get unhappier and unhappier about this as you age. If you are lucky, you’re a fox and you increasingly make your peace with this condition. If you’re really lucky, you die too early to notice the slowly descending silence, before it even becomes necessary to Google the phrase existential horror.

To me, this seemed like a completely obvious idea. Much to my delight, most people I ran it by immediately hated it.

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Distinctions and Differences

The Rumsfeld epistemology of ignorance, along with Taleb’s popular expositions of it, has been one of the more useful additions to the zeitgeist in the last decade. Here’s my 2×2 version, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock since 2003.

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This is possibly the most basic map of external, objective realities you can make up.

I’ve long felt that it should be possible to make an equally basic map of internal, subjective realities. I think I have one now.

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Alice and Bob Discover Capitalism

Capitalism has historically been defined by its opponents rather than its proponents, and in terms of its consequences rather than its mechanisms. Specifically, it tends to get defined primarily in terms of its intended malicious effects and unintended/unaccounted damaging effects: oppression and social costs.

To navigate by such definitions is to deeply misunderstand the nature of the beast, so I want to propose a definition of capitalism (or if you prefer a less loaded term, commerce) in terms what I will argue is its essential mechanism:

Capitalism is the indirect manipulation of illegible human relationships, through the peaceful manipulation of decision contexts.

In practice, capitalism often operates with directness and violence, but the point of this definition is to get at the sine qua non that distinguishes it from other societal mechanisms. The role of “capital” is actually peripheral, since capital plays a role in defining the mechanisms of politics, kinship and war too.

The central fact about the mechanism of capitalism is that it needs neither capacity for direct action on a system, nor violent means, to influence it. This is not just a claim about an idealized model of capitalism: it is a claim about the real thing. Capitalism in our world has arguably gotten less direct and less violent over time. Today the visible motif that best captures the spirit of capitalism is not the East India Company warship, but advertising: messaging mechanisms that work to shape the background context of decisions.

Let me attempt an exegesis of my definition with a parable about the It Couple of geekdom, Alice and Bob.

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