May You Live in Epic Times

At most times, in most places, history is busy rhyming with itself. The same holds true of the future: at most times, in most places, the future is busy rhyming with itself. There are always golden and dark ages in the past. There are always utopias and dystopias just beyond the horizon.

The fact that histories and futures rhyme so much, or as I like to think of it, are in rerun mode so much, allows us to inhabit escaped realities that are effectively outside of time. The sort of timeless time that the Greeks associated with their least-known third god of time: Aion. Unlike the better-known Chronos and Kairos, Aion personifies neither objective time, nor subjective time, but timelessness. Aion is the god of the nontemporal eternities, utopian and dystopian, golden and dark. He is the god of cyclicalities and finite games, symbolized by the ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail. Asian time, arguably, is entirely the ahistorical shadow of an Aionic world. Karma is Aion in disguise.

When Aion is ascendant, you can choose to escape reality and live inside the rhymes of the past and future, inhabiting time via Fourier transform, rather than living in the present. In fact, when Aion is strongest, your escapes can be so complete, you even lose awareness of their being escapes. Because there’s nothing new in the present and everything can be found in the rhymes. You can check out completely.

Most humans spend much of their lives living in the commodity non-time of  the Aionic realms, inhabiting escaped realities. Time is something that happens to other people.

But when the future is not like the past, the present becomes unique, and you must actually live in it. At least for a while.

Such times are interesting times. Such times are epic times. And depending on the part you’re called upon to play, they may be cursed times, or blessed times. [Read more…]

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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Pack Experience

We experience and navigate the world in packs. Families ride in cars together. Groups of coworkers take elevators together. Dating couples go to movies in pairs.

The pack is a unit, the unit, of operational coordination and everyday problem solving in human life. Pack behaviors always involve some technology, and can involve non-human participants like dogs and cats, but they are human first. The pack is a little sociophysical robot. A transient biological assemblage animated by a tacit, embodied consensus about how to inhabit the environment, and shaped by a shared exposure to the constraints of materiality. Perhaps the strongest of these constraints is the constraint of a shared temporality: A pack is more simply defined as a transient social unit on a shared subjective clock.


The pack is where the rubber of sociality meets the road of materiality. The pack experience strongly shapes, and is shaped by, the built environment. Conversely, every kind of built environment is shaped by a real or theorized pack experience.

There is one kind of built environment that is a huge and crucially important exception. One that is growing so rapidly in scope that it threatens to become the rule. I’m talking, of course, about the internet.

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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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Think Entangled, Act Spooky

I like the concept of the Anthropocene. It finesses or postpones at least some of the conflict around the idea of climate change, broadens the conversation to include all human impact on the environment, and grounds thinking in geological (heh!) time without overloading it with burdensome sentiments like guilt or fear. The term leaves the future open to both positive and negative possibilities. It acknowledges human agency as the most powerful force currently reshaping the planet without getting too judgmental about what that means.

The Ash Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I find existing definitions of the Anthropocene unsatisfying though. Most of them, reasonably enough, focus on planet-scale external markers, ranging from the birth of agriculture to the first nuclear tests and climate change. But this seems too open narrative arbitrariness and not open enough to insight. If we turn inward though, there is a rather natural and fertile definition that immediately suggests itself:

The Anthropocene begins when survival in the built environment is as cognitively demanding as survival in the natural environment of evolutionary adaptation.

Note that “as cognitively demanding” is not the same thing as “as hard across the board”. It means you you have to think as hard for the same survival probability, but many other things might get easier.

A good illustration of this is life in a major city versus life in a small town. The former is more cognitively demanding but many things besides thinking become a lot easier. Nobody ever moved to a bigger city in search of a simpler life. A less emotionally stressful life, perhaps. A less impoverished life, perhaps. A more comfortable and convenient life, perhaps. But not a simpler one.

Now let’s apply that reasoning at civilizational history scale.

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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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Quiver Doodles

I don’t know if this is still true, but I once read about exploited workers in the ship-breaking industry who were worked so hard, and paid so little, they could not even afford to buy enough calories to sustain themselves. They were slowly starving to death. I call this phenomenon entropic ruin, a generalization of the idea of gambler’s ruin to open-ended games that can be non-zero-sum and need not involve gambling. In this case, it’s a deterministic death march. If you systematically consume fewer calories than you expend long term, you will die a premature death.

Entropic ruin gives us an interesting way to measure the quality of a strategy. Here’s a 12-point reference scale based on the idea.  Entropic ruin is represented as a reference circle in all 12 cases. A bunch of arrows shows the set of activities that are trying to outrun ruin. I call the drawings on the scale quiver doodles (think of each as a quiver viewed from above).

Trivially, in the long term, we all face the ultimate case of entropic ruin, death, but what’s interesting about non-trivial cases is that you don’t even beat the house in the short term. So entropic ruin can be defined as predictably dying faster than you need to. No matter what you are doing, you can draw a little circle of entropic ruin around your activities. If you’re inside that circle, you’re heading for premature death.

If you have (or are generating) abundance on every resource you might need in relation to your goals, you don’t need a strategy. The circle can shrink to zero. This is the other end of the spectrum from entropic ruin: entropic flourishing. A wealthy person who is earning more in interest on their capital than they can spend in a day is an example. The scale is really more of a 6-point scale that zig-zags between entropic ruin and flourishing up 6 levels between complete chaos (Brownian motion) to complete order (laser beam).

If you’ve been through the ups and downs of enough projects, the 12 quiver doodles on the scale probably make intuitive sense to you, but let me offer a bit of additional explanation for those who need it.

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