The Legibility Tradeoff

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

I am fascinated by organizations as a technology for agency transfer — getting people to follow some plan outside of their selves. We’re not yet very good at building such agency transformers; our organizations get gamed, taken over, taken advantage of, treated as externalities, captured by minority interests, ground down to gridlock, etc. But we’ve been getting better at it, finding better ways to influence others than the coercion and threat of violence that we started out with. In this post I want to survey the progress we’ve made, and suggest that there’s still wisdom to be milked from the old saw of “don’t micromanage, delegate.”

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From Cognitive Biases to Institutional Decay

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

The past hundred years have transformed how we imagine ourselves. Freud catalyzed a greater emphasis on the unconscious. Kahneman and Tversky inspired a lot of research into how our subconscious biases affect day-to-day decision-making. Between those tectonic shifts, our understanding of our selves has been radically overhauled.

Gone is the Cartesian, centralized mind mystically separated from the physical world. In its place we’re left with a schizophrenic brain inextricably bound to the body and, at bottom, nothing but atoms. We’re still struggling to work out the implications of this new perception for different areas of human endeavor. Building effective institutions is one of them.

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Consent of the Surveilled

I’ve been interested in the question of governance under conditions of mass physical mobility for a while. The interest is partly selfish, since I am one of those people with a romantic longing for a nomadic lifestyle. But now, there are better reasons to ask the question.

In 2012, for the first time in history, there were over a billion international tourist arrivals worldwide. Chinese tourists led the way, spending $100B of a market of over a trillion dollars. The data isn’t in yet, but it seems like 2013 might turn out to have been another record-breaking year. And that’s just the beginning. What has started as a tourism boom is likely to end as a secular lifestyle shift enabled by mobile digital technologies. In a few decades, we might be living in a world where at any given time, only half the nominal population of a country is actually living and working in that country. A world with far fewer “vacations” but a lot more (and more extended) travel. At least, I hope that’s the direction we’re headed.

Mobility, especially across jurisdictional boundaries, both domestic and international, is a problem for governments because it interrupts or complicates their ability to govern. This is why the forced settlement of illegible nomadic peoples is an essential part of any serious history of governance.

As Julius Caesar once said, “hold still dammit, so I can see and rule you!”

But thanks to surveillance technologies —  and this is the silver lining to the Snowden affair — soon we might not need to hold still. Those of us who want to might be able to become nomads without dropping out of society.

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Morality for Exploded Minds

Mike is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog Omniorthogonal.

This series of posts has explored a variety of ways in which agency – the ability of something to initiate action – can be rethought, redistributed, and refactored. Agency can be assigned to things that normally don’t have it, or we can undo our everyday sense of personal agency and think of our behavior as the output of a mechanical process. My not-so-hidden agenda is to battle against the everyday notion of the self, the idea that at the core of a person is something simple and unitary. Maybe this isn’t a battle that needs to be fought – perhaps everyone, these days, is perfectly aware that they are a conflicted assemblages of drives, that personae are fictional, that autonomy is an illusion. Isn’t that conventional wisdom by now, and am I not preaching to the already converted? Hasn’t Freud been repackaged for mass consumption for decades now?

Maybe, but it seems to me that our everyday notions about agency are so baked into our culture and into the very grammar of language that the struggle against them must be ongoing. In this final post I want to explore some of the reasons why you might want to dissect your mind, and why society conspires to make that difficult. In the course of this, we’ll explore some of the moral aspects of the unity and disunity of mind. Fundamentally and perhaps obviously, morality is tied at a very basic level to the idea of a person, so that to attack the idea of personhood can seem to be be almost immoral.

I haven’t focused too much on the pragmatics of actually performing this kind of operation – such as psychological methods for refactoring yourself, or the benefits that might be obtained by doing so. A couple of interesting efforts in that line have recently come to my attention – a therapeutic technique called Internal Family Systems, and an online group trying to encourage each other to develop tulpas, “autonomous consciousness, existing within their creator’s mind…A tulpa is entirely sentient and in control of their opinions, feelings, form and movement. They are willingly created by people via a number of techniques to act as companions, muses, and advisers.” (h/t to Kevin Simler). These efforts are quite interesting, if also somewhat alarming – with this sort of stuff, if you can’t make the leap to considering the products of your imagination literally then it won’t work, but on the other hand if you do, there are very real psychological dangers. When these independent mental entities manifest on their own, we call that schizophrenia, which is no joke.

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Our Diurnal Civilization

As a kid I used to be afraid of the dark. I grew out of it, as most kids do. Now, as an adult, I find it hard to sleep if it isn’t pitch dark. Being a diurnal species with greater vulnerability to nocturnal predators, the association between fear and darkness has some basis in reality. It takes thousands of safe and undisturbed nights to flip that genetic predisposition through conditioning.

As Marshall McLuhan observed, industrial civilization is a highly visual one, based on an extension of sight over other senses. This suggests that any inherent biases in our visual processing are likely to show up in our larger-scale, collective civilizational behaviors. In particular, I am convinced that the metaphor of darkness is how we viscerally process uncertainty of any sort. We turn any lack of conceptual visibility into stories of hidden dangers real and imaginary. We prefer high-visibility conditions, even if they represent greater real dangers.

In other words, our civilizational itself is a diurnal one, partly driven by fears of monsters lurking under beds at night. We have a fear of dark ages.

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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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The Gooseberry Fallacy

Tolstoy’s 1886 parable, How Much Land Does a Man Need has been on my mind recently. In the tale, the debt-ridden peasant Pahom rises to the status of a small landowner but remains dissatisfied, unable to let go of the idea that if only he had more land, he would not even fear the devil.

The devil of course, takes him up on his challenge. Pahom is presented with an unusual land-grab opportunity by the apparently simple-minded Bashkir family. For a thousand rubles, he can have as much of their land as he can run around, between dawn to dusk. If he manages to return to the starting point, the land is his. If not, he forfeits the thousand rubles.

In the story, Pahom overestimates his stamina and attempts to claim too much land. As dusk nears, he realizes he has over-reached, and desperately races back to the starting point. He makes it back, but dies of exhaustion at the finish line. He is buried in a six-foot grave, providing both an answer to the question in the title and a moral for the story derived from Tolstoy’s late-life pacifist Christian-anarchist views.

By preaching a morality of modest, self-limiting aspirations, the good Count was trying to have his feudalism-cake and eat serf-emancipation too. It is a response to destabilizing patterns of opportunity that has become all too familiar in our own time.

I call it the gooseberry fallacy. Let me explain.

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The Exercise of Authoritah

I have this comic fantasy of some day being in a business situation where a client comes to me with a tricky problem. I ponder impassively for a moment. Then I pick up the phone and make one cryptic phone call. I then look at the client and say, “Go home, it will be taken care of.” This Godfather fantasy of being able to deliver on firm promises with a single phone call cracks me up because it so absurdly out of whack with the way I actually operate. Phone calls like this can only happen in the context of an asymmetric mode of relationship management I call collecting. In real life, I am more likely to be on the receiving end of such a call. 

Unlike normal adult patterns of relating, which I’ll call connecting, collecting is a mode of relating that is asymmetric  at a psychological level. Even when two people know each other personally, if it is a collection relationship, one party — the collector — defines the relationship unilaterally and strives forcefully to make that definition prevail. This striving is the essence of Eric Cartman’s signature line on South Park: “Respect my AUTHORITAH!”


Once authoritah has been effectively imposed, it can be exercised in dramatically leveraged and highly deterministic ways. A single phone call can move mountains, without tedious consultation, arguments, second-guessing or questioning. Connecting is for normal, nice people. Collecting is for people who are headed for either world domination or madness.

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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’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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The Quality of Life

The idea of quality of life is very twentieth-century. It sparks associations with ideas like statistical quality control and total quality managementIt is the idea that entire human lives can be objectively modeled, measured and compared in meaningful ways. That lives can be idealized and normalized in ways that allow us to go beyond comparisons to absolute measures. That lives can be provisioned from cradle-to-grave. That an insistence on a unique, subjective evaluation of one’s own life is something of a individualist-literary conceit.

I suspect the phrase itself is a generalization of the older notion of modern conveniences, a phrase you frequently find in early twentieth-century writing. It referred to the diffusion of various technologies into everyday pre-industrial life, from running hot and cold water in bathrooms and garbage collection to anesthetics and vaccines.

That conception of the quality of life, as the sum total of material conveniences acquired and brutalities of nature thwarted through technology, seems naive today. But with hindsight, it was much better than what it evolved into: baroque United Nations statistics that reflect institutionally enabled and enforced scripts, which dictate what people ought to want.


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