Mediating Consent

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series The Feed

When theologian Martin Luther debuted his Ninety-five Theses in 16th-century Germany, he triggered a religious Reformation — and also a media revolution.

1630 map of the Maluku Archipelago (Moluccas, or Spice Islands)

The printing press, invented approximately 50 years before the 95 Theses,  extended Luther’s reach from the door of the cathedral to the entirety of Europe. His criticisms of the Church were the first use of mass media: critiques of Catholic doctrine in pithy, irreverent pamphlets, produced at scale and widely distributed. As a result, Luther ushered in not only Protestantism, but an entirely new media landscape: one in which traditional gatekeepers — the church, wealthy nobles — no longer held a monopoly on the information that reached the people. The Catholic Church responded, of course, with pamphlets of its own — defending Catholic doctrine, refuting the new heretics, fighting the battle for hearts, minds, and Truth. 

The battle for control of narratives persists today, though the speed and scale have changed.

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Pleasure as an Organizing Principle

The organizing principle of the modern world is pain. 

Avoiding it, yes. But also trading in it, taking refuge in it, and using it to justify our actions. Pain has so many uses. Why would you ever give up such a versatile tool?

We trade in pain when we use it to bargain for progress. We assume that the bigger the impact we want to have, the more dramatic the change, the more we have to suffer. Isn’t that how it works? Isn’t the depth of my sacrifice a measure of how much I care?

But the pain of suffering can become its own metric, and get optimized to an extreme as all metrics eventually are. In the face of a stubborn world that doesn’t yield to our efforts, it can be easier to use the pain we are enduring as a proxy.

We take refuge in pain when we use it to hide from our problems. Pain is all-consuming, a powerful distraction from the things we don’t want to face. Pain is self-annihilating, temporarily turning off the ego that accuses us of not doing enough, not being enough. Pain can be a refuge where the overwhelming complexity of modern life is reduced to a simple, pulsating throb.

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Weirding Diary: 1

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Weirding Diary

I did a little poll asking people the extent to which they are treating the current zeitgeist as a temporary weirding (TW) versus a permanent new normal (NN).

The results got me thinking: what is the difference between the two? I think the answer is societal fun levels. A situation is a normal situation if inhabiting it is a matter of going on with your sustainable survival/existence habits, and expecting the situation to persist indefinitely. The mark of normalcy is the allocation of surplus energy to fun, after you’ve taken care of necessary present and future-oriented behaviors.

A situation is temporarily weird if you either can’t, or don’t want to, adapt to it using sustainable habits. In the former case, you cut back sharply on fun, minimize use of resources to survive, and save as much as you can for post-weirding normalcy. In the latter case, you try and exit the situation.

Wartime is the archetypal temporary weirding. Wartime civilian behaviors are sharply constrained survival behaviors. There is a limited ration of fun available to keep up morale, but in general, the wartime psyche does not incline to fun. You expect the war to end at some point, and a return to normalcy. Even if it is a new kind of normalcy that forces you to drop some old habits and form new ones.

When the situation is ambiguous, as it is around the world today, we cannot estimate the proportions of transient weirdness, new normal, and temporarily depressed old normal in the mix. In terms of an investing metaphor, we don’t know whether to go long on the zeitgeist by buying into new cultural stocks, hold on to old cultural stocks that we hope will regain their old value, or short the zeitgeist somehow.

I’m trying out a new format for exploring themes long-term. This is the first entry in my weirding diary.

The Digital Maginot Line

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series The Feed

There is a war happening. We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality. The conflict is still being processed as a series of individual skirmishes – a collection of disparate, localized, truth-in-narrative problems – but these battles are connected. The campaigns are often perceived as organic online chaos driven by emergent, bottom-up amateur actions when a substantial amount is, in fact, helped along or instigated by systematic, top-down institutional and state actions. This is a kind of warm war; not the active, declared, open conflict of a hot war, but beyond the shadowboxing of a cold one.

Section of the Maginot Line, 1940 (Public Domain)

We experience this as a state of continuous partial conflict. The theatre opportunistically shifts as geopolitical events and cultural moments present themselves, but there is no sign of abatement — only tactical evolution as the digital platforms that serve as the battlespaces introduce small amounts of friction via new security checks and feature tweaks. As governments become increasingly aware of the problem, they each pursue responses tailored to the tactics of the last specific battle that manifested in their own digital territory; in the United States, for example, we remain focused on Election 2016 and its Russian bots. As a result, we are investing in a set of inappropriate and ineffective responses: a digital Maginot Line constructed on one part of the battlefield as a deterrent against one set of tactics, while new tactics manifest elsewhere in real time.

Like the original Maginot Line, this approach is about as effective a defense as a minor speed bump.

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The Speakeasy Imagineering Network

Today I learned that the term normalcy was popularized by Warren Harding, US President between 1921-23, over the then-accepted variant normality. His campaign slogan, return to normalcy, promised a return to a Pre-World War I condition.

Harding’s administration, however, also saw the beginning of the Prohibition era (1921-33). So presumably he meant a return to normalcy, but without the alcoholism, rampant domestic abuse, and corrupt saloon politics of the pre-War era. During the Roaring Twenties, to the extent it needed alcohol as fuel, the American romantic imagination (and here I mean the tumultuous Sturm und Drang of uninhibited subjectivity rather than the tepid nostalgia of pastoralism) either had to go abroad, to Europe, or hide in speakeasies.

I’ve been thinking about our own contemporary condition in light of the complicated relationship among cultural production, the romantic imagination, and Prohibition in the twenties, an era which rhymes in somewhat messy ways with our our own.

In particular, looking at the 2010s through the lens of the 1920s, I got to the interesting conclusion that what requires protection during times of overweening reactionary moral self-certainty is not the truth, but imagination.

The truth can take care of itself better than you might think, but without imagination, it cannot take care of you. And imagination, unlike truth, requires a degree of tender loving care, room for unconstrained expansive exploration, and yes, a reliable supply of Interesting Substances and safe spaces to consume them.

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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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A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars

I am basically a pacifist, inclined to what in India is sometimes derisively referred to as Gandhigiri (loosely “LARPing Gandhi”). If I don’t check the tendency, I naturally retreat from, and go into denial about, unpleasant and violent realities. But it’s time to admit it: the United States is in the middle of the worst culture wars I’ve seen in my life, either in my 20 years in the US, or in the previous 20 years in India (which in the 90s saw equally ferocious, but less digitally mediated, culture wars). And for once, you can’t blame Trump. He’s more consequence than cause.

To endure through a war without either retreating from the fray, or developing crippling PTSD from losing too many poorly picked battles, you need a good map of the battlefield, a sense of the movements of various combatant groups, their objectives, tactics and strategies, awareness of recent battles and their outcomes, current live battles, and emerging flashpoints. Here’s my first draft attempt.

I’ve used the popular politics 2×2 meme (left versus right, authoritarian versus libertarian) as a basic canvas for this map. Let’s start with the numbered key to the conflicts before launching into some commentary.

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The Leaning Tower of Morality

Don’t hate the player, hate the game. — Ice-T

Game theory is asleep, cooperate for no reason. — Deity of Religion

There’s an image that’s taken root in my mind recently that I can’t seem to shake. I picture humanity living in a large, rickety tower, tilting at a precarious angle to the ground — like so:

The tower represents our capacity for moral behavior. Lower levels are more base; higher levels, more virtuous. We don’t need an exact floorplan, but here’s the kind of thing I’m imagining:

  • Ground floor: Perfect zero-sum selfishness. Aggression and exploitation. The war of all against all.
  • Middle floors: Various flavors of mutualism. “I’ll help you if you help me.” Reciprocity. Tit for tat.
  • Higher floors: Empathy and compassion. Turning the other cheek. True virtue (not just signaling). A tendency to cooperate in one-shot prisoner’s dilemmas.
  • Penthouse: Perfect self-sacrificing altruism. A willingness to give time, energy, money, or even one’s life to help a stranger for nothing in return.

Now, some people inhabit higher floors than others, but with the exception of bona fide psychopaths, all of us live somewhere in the tower, happily above ground.

Here’s the question I want to explore today: How does this structure remain standing? On what ultimate explanatory principles do our moral instincts rest?

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Cloud Viruses in the Invisible Republic

Q: What do an air-gapped private datacenter, a public cloud offering rented servers, and a botnet all have in common?

A: Sooner or later, they’re all wormfood.

That probably requires some explanation. There are technological and environmental pressures that force spook shops and criminals to carry out permanent infiltrations into the computing infrastructure that the world economy depends on. It’s possible that the attack/defense cycle will produce an infrastructure that has better “antibodies”, and even co-options, but will never rid us of the infection. Meanwhile these pressures will continue to produce truly weird beasts. Can you guess what the pink beast plotted on the 2×2 below is?

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Bourbon Crossing

Late one night, wandering drunk through the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, far from the cell towers and bright lights of Gatlinburg, Karim al-Marin tripped over a root, flailed his arms wildly, and sat down hard.

“Ouch,” the famous qalandar of the Muir tariqat muttered to himself.

It was dark. The sort of intense forest darkness that the unaided drunken eye cannot easily penetrate. Fortunately, Karim had enough juice left in his phone to turn on the flashlight.

He saw at once that though he was still on the trail, it had narrowed sharply at that point. He was deep inside the woods. All around him were trees, the creepily lush, full-of-life kind from horror movies. His ankle was caught in a tangle of hard, crooked roots poking out of the ground. The roots had spread across the trail, forming a sort of low, woody wall across it. As he began to carefully extricate his foot, aided by some minor sawing with his handy Leatherman, a stern grandmotherly voice rang out.

“Ouch!” it said theatrically, but with real anger.

Karim stopped his sawing and looked around warily. To his surprise, the root he’d been sawing at uncurled, slowly and with apparent pain and effort, releasing his foot. He withdrew it at once, and stood up.

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