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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The Winter King of the Internet

On May 23, 1618, in Prague, three Catholics, named Slavata, Borzita, and Fabricius, got themselves thrown out of a window by a bunch of Protestants. That marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War. About eight million died in what was the bloodiest — and arguably most pointless and unnecessary — religious war in European history. It was also, unfortunately, a war that was triggered by a set of conditions that are uncannily similar to those that prevail today, 400 years later, in the Western world of 2017.

Defenestration of Prague, Public Domain photograph from period woodcut.

Curiously, the Thirty Years War, and the events leading up to it, are discussed far less today than the event that ended it: the Peace of Westphalia. Over the last decade, the “Westphalian nation-state” has become the official spherical cow of Internet futurism. To murmur ominously about how the the rise of the internet and the blockchain presage the impending “death of the Westphalian nation-state” is to establish credibility in certain internet thought-leadership circles. In these circles, the Peace of Westphalia has become a notional origin-myth for an equally notional mental model of the modern nation-state.

Yet, it is the Thirty Years War that is the more interesting story for today. In the immediate aftermath of the Defenestration of Prague, for a brief period, an obscure minor noble, Frederick V of the Palatinate, known in the history books as the “Winter King” of Bohemia (and therefore, ex officio, of the Reformation), played a brief but pivotal role in triggering the Thirty Years War. His role bears a remarkable resemblance, with features not captured by other analogies, to the one being currently played in our own time by Donald Trump: The Winter King of the Internet.

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Sulking Through a Subprime Presidency

I’d like to pretend that the long silence since my last proper post — that was November last year — has been due to the long queue of contributions we’ve been briskly working through, but truth be told, I’ve been sulking.

Sulking. Not depressed, fearful, angsty, or anxious. Sulking is really the only word for the tenor of my thoughts after the election of Trump and its aftermath. Not schoolyard sulking directed at jeering victors, but a deeper sort of philosophical sulking directed at the universe. For forcing me to think once more about things I thought I was done thinking about in my twenties. Things that I didn’t particularly enjoy thinking through the first time around, but believe I got roughly right and, more importantly, out of my system. Things that are fundamentally uninteresting to me, despite their importance to others who are less fortunate or more masochistic.

While I am not particularly coy about my political sympathies (or rather, antipathies) elsewhere, I like my politics to be illegible on this blog. When I write about matters societal, I like to tack between conceptual models and narratives a couple of levels of abstraction below politics and ideology.

Unfortunately, we may be headed into a future — a subprime presidency — where maintaining such a healthy creative distance from politics becomes impossible even in the best case. Fortunately, I’m beginning to find that philosophical sulking is not an entirely infertile state of mind.

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One Sacred Trick for Moral Regeneration

This is a guest post by Harry Pottash.

Post-enlightenment culture has almost completely conquered Western cities, leaving them swimming in a rich and diverse memetic soup. From within this soup a new society is emerging, its members pejoratively called “Social Justice Warriors”. To avoid falling into the trap of pre-existing connotations we can refer to this emerging society as the “Identity-affirming society.” Identity-affirming society shows a striking resemblance to more traditional religions and societies, with specific adaptations, particularly around the concept of cultural appropriation, that make it more resilient to the dissolving forces of post enlightenment culture from which it is emerging. How do unique cultures — the Amish, for instance — protect themselves from being subsumed by the surrounding culture? A clearer view of how the ideas of cultural appropriation are used can be reached by comparing it with the more rigorously mapped views regarding intellectual property, as both cover similar territory.

Societies are finite games, games that introduce goals, rules, constraints on behavior and provide a scoring system. They are among the games we engage in so completely that we forget participation is optional, and the rules arbitrary. Most fully formed societies attach their rules to six instinctively used pillars of ethical behavior, each a thematic set of constraints that participants in the society must follow (or flaunt). Durable societies use these constraints to reinforce boundaries between societal insiders and outsiders.

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Shift Register Code Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

This is a ghost post by Nolan Gray

“Fuck You I won’t post what you tell me” – Rage Against Deus Ex Machina

Be aware that when accessing the internet, the panopticon of the online world sees you slogging your Smartless™ baggage through the Terminal. Your online personality is like a suitcase without wheels dragging behind you, scraping and scratching through the veil of security. We all sit at the bar watching your avatar self wander by with your assumptions bag over packed for a two day trip that turns into a lifetime. Taunted by the gatekeepers of the ungrounded world their signs designate that you are only allowed to bring the approved personality items in specified sizes. 3oz of snark, No liquid optimism, a single liter of judging disapproval and nothing that looks like humility through the machine. It’s for your own safety and those of others sharing the flight from AAS* to ACD*. These traits are tightly regulated. In the security line we see the humiliating items hidden in your baggage on our monitors. You too, while waiting for coffee or bored in the yoga lounge can see our embarrassing items on your personal screen every time we log on to the social media wing of the Terminal.

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The Computational Condition

Over the past few months I read Hannah “Banality of Evil” Arendt’s difficult and idiosyncratic (somewhat unnecessarily so) but highly rewarding 1958 classic The Human ConditionThis slide-deck is a deep-dive attempt to apply her philosophy to the post-software-eats-world human condition, which I call the computational condition. Maybe digital condition or post-technological condition would be better, but I like alliteration.

This deck should serve as a decent introduction to Arendt’s philosophy of action, which is already part of the zeitgeist to a much greater degree than you probably recognize. It is dense and wordy, 88 slides long and full of big (thematically bucketed and curated) block quotes along book-ended and interrupted by my own heavy-handed commentary and summary sections, but trust me, it’s a 100x easier to digest than the book itself. But that’s not my main purpose in creating it.

The main purpose is this: With some significant augmentations and modifications (a few of them drastic enough to alter her basic philosophical posture in an irreversible and unforgivable way, the irony of which she’d have appreciated as you’ll see), her ideas actually work really well as a foundation for constructing what I think Silicon Valley needs badly right now: a solid political philosophy built on the foundation of the folk philosophy that already defines tech culture: doerism. So here’s my stab at it. Post a comment if you are interested in a sort of video salon on the topic, in either seminar or discussion format (specify which interests you more). I haven’t yet decided whether to do one, or attempted to present this deck. I suspect it would take me 2-4 hours to present this depending on how prepared people are.

In my own modest way, what I’m trying to do here is get a stone soup going, to cook up a political philosophy for Silicon Valley that is not embarrassingly juvenile/sophomoric. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, this should be a good starting point for you. Even if you dislike doerism (in the sense of the lived political philosophy of Silicon Valley), dislike Arendt (there is much to dislike about her), and are suspicious of any attempt to combine the two, this is in a way the most obvious steel-manning of what is already the tacit political philosophy of Silicon Valley. So your alternatives to it should probably understand what it might possibly be right about.

Robert Martinson and the Tragedy of the American Prison

This is a guest post by Adam Humphreys based on a documentary he’s making. This is an early version of an evolving story, and this post may be updated as ongoing research uncovers more details.


The idea that prisons should do more than hold people and that criminals might be reformed, or corrected, collapses endlessly under the pressure of human experience, but persists nonetheless. Among its first American proponents was a man named Zebulon Brockway.

As superintendent of several prisons in the middle of the nineteenth century, Brockway came to view crime as a kind of disease, and the prison as a kind of hospital. He wrote, “to reduce crime a true prison system should recognize the criminal classes for what they are, and bring to bear upon them the forces necessary to modify their behavior.”


Brockway experimented with several such forces—vocational training, rewards for good behavior, so-called moral education—but it wasn’t until 1876, as superintendent of Elmira Reformatory in Elmira, New York, that he was given the latitude to implement his most daring conceit: the indeterminate sentence.

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The Strategy of (Subversive) Conflict

The strong do what they will, the weak do what they must, and the manipulated do what they think they must (which is what the strong or weak will). Manipulation — influencing behavior by altering another’s viewpoint in a manner indifferent to whether or not the alterations are true or desirable — is one of the most important aspects of social conflict and competition.  While you may not be interested in manipulation, manipulation is interested in you (though it may disguise this interest beneath layers of dissimulation).  In this post I provide a selective overview of the theory and practice of manipulation. Why does this matter? Whether in geopolitics or at home, we must either understand and confront manipulation or be victimized by a Machiavellian Mini-Me.

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