The Age of Diffraction

There’s a state of mind that’s been increasingly common for me lately, which I can only describe as a sense of being outdoors in time during inclement temporal weather. I’ve been searching for the right metaphor to describe this feeling, and I think it is the feeling of being diffracted. Like being a hapless, innocent electron being tortured through the famous double-slit experiment. Here’s a cool animation I found on Wikipedia (physics would have been so much more fun if these sorts of animations had been available when I was learning this stuff).

Animation by Jean-Christophe BENOIST at French Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If your state of mind is normally like that of a particle — you are here and now, thinking about this, doing that, with some uncertainty around it all — being diffracted is feeling like a wave. Like you’re in multiple states at once, with those states interfering with each other in ways that creates subjective dyschronia or timelexia.

[Read more…]

Predictable Identities: 10 – Big Updates

This entry is part 10 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

When the world conforms better to your expectations, whether through effective action or improving models, it feels great. When the world slides towards unpredictability, it sucks. So how does changing your mind feel? That depends on whether the change improves or breaks your predictions.

Look at the image below until you can make out what it is.

Got it? The moment when the picture resolves feels good because it resolves into something familiar. Random blobs are unpredictable, but you know what a cow looks like and what to expect of it.

How about this one?

Changing your mind about communism is much harder than about a picture of a cow. Whatever your current view of communism, it is a high-level model with multiple associations. It impacts many concrete predictions about nations, politics, your life and career choices, and what sort of person you will get along (i.e., cooperate) with: the Ethiopian lady picking the coffee or the Londoner consultant dude drinking it.

Updating a high-level model is a risky undertaking because it immediately breaks all the predictions that depend on it. You must have an entire alternative system of smaller beliefs and connections in place that fit the new model – then it feels like an epiphany or a long-needed paradigm shift. To convert someone to atheism, it is better first to convince them that atheism doesn’t necessitate immorality or a belief in transforming monkeys.

Without this scaffolding, adopting the new idea will promptly make the world less predictable even if it may be a better-predicting model in the long term. This feels bad, and your brain will pull out all the stops to avoid it: confirmation bias, isolated demands for rigor, flat out denial. And if the new model’s messenger is too insistent to ignore, shooting the messenger is always an option too.

Predictable Identities: 9 – How to Change

This entry is part 9 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

You’ve changed your mind and who you want to be. Your social web is having none of it. What to do?

One option is to simply power through. Stick to your (new) guns and admit that your mind is indeed changed. The “zeal of the convert” is important here: it takes extra commitment to convince those who knew the old you to change their story.

A savvier approach is to leverage common tropes and adopt a role that entails transformation. If you want to switch from layabout to responsible professional, or vice versa from workaholic to self-caretaker, it may help to have a romantic partner break up with you. “Area person reassesses life priorities after heartbreak” is a familiar story that people can get behind. “Area rationalist reassesses life after Hamming circleisn’t, even if that’s what actually happened.

But the easiest option may just be to GTFO and change the scene. I’ve reset my social web several times, usually with positive results.

By the time I learned how to be funny in elementary school, everyone had decided that I’m a boring nerd. I moved to a new city for high school and did better as the clever class clown, but these traits were not in high demand when I enlisted in the military. I eventually grokked professionalism, but it was too late to gain the trust of my officers. I emigrated. I did better in my next two stops but blew through my weirdness budgets and couldn’t shake off my reputation as a weirdo.

Finally, I came to New York, where I did not know a single soul. I took my craziest opinions out of the office and onto the internet. I started acting like the person I wanted to be seen as, not who I was before.

It works, for now.

Predictable Identities: 7 – Weirdness Budget

This entry is part 7 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

Social life needs predictable people who conform to expectations. There are common expectations which apply to every person in the group, and personal expectations based on one’s perceived role and past behavior.

Deviating from common expectations costs idiosyncrasy credits. Dressing differently, eating strange diets, watching documentaries that no one else does and not watching the show everyone talks about – these all exhaust a limited budget of nonconformity. The budget accrues to people who conform or are popular; the two often go hand in hand.

As Homer Simpson noted: “Marge, I can’t wear a pink shirt to work, everybody wears white shirts. I’m not popular enough to be different.”

When someone exceeds their idiosyncrasy budget, their opinions will get dismissed on grounds of absurdity bias and the horn effect. If you want to tell your millennial friends about crazy ideas like unfriendly AI or Ribbonfarm, make sure you are otherwise appropriate.

Personal expectations include playing out roles and simply being the same person over time. Even changes of mind that don’t violate group norms, like hating a movie that you liked last year, can be grating. If you’re not changing in ways that are fun for your friends, you’re just making yourself hard to model and get along with.

Imagine a conversation with just a few people. When deciding whether to tell a joke, you have to consider your friends’ likely reactions to the joke. But you also have to consider their reaction to everyone else’s reaction, and what it implies about everyone’s relationships and status, and so on down many layers of metacognition. If you can’t rely on heuristics of shared group expectations and consistency over time, the computational effort is overwhelming. You’re likelier than not to go look for a more predictable group of friends to joke with.

Predictable Identities: 8 – Roles People Play

This entry is part 8 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

We fit strangers in stereotypes, and we like strangers who fit our stereotypes and act congruently. Dealing with people we know allows for more personalized modeling, but we still want associates and companions to stick to their roles.

Most everyone in most every office resembles a character on The Office, not just in the broad strokes of the Gervais Principle but down to details of job, dress, and personality. Husbands and wives have played out “if it weren’t for you” patterns long before Games People Play described them.

The main difference from predicting strangers is that dealing with familiar people allows for active inference: enforcing others’ conformity to prediction. Valentine Smith describes this in his excellent essay The Intelligent Social Web:

You move away [from your family] and make new friends and become a new person […] But then you visit your parents, and suddenly you feel and act a lot like you did before you moved away. You might even try to hold onto this “new you” with them… and they might respond to what they see as strange behavior by trying to nudge you into acting “normal”: ignoring surprising things you say, changing the topic to something familiar, starting an old fight, etc.

This nudging is effected by thousands of small actions perpetrated by dozens of people. We receive small negative reinforcements when we do something unpredictable that causes others’ models to momentarily fail, and positive rewards when we conform to our roles. The social life of an office or a family is too complex to compute without stable roles assigned to people, the same way a brain can’t cohere a visual scene without the expectation that visual objects remain stable.

Life in the social web means that growth and change are harder than they appear. Hard, but not impossible.

Weirding Diary: 7

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Weirding Diary

The lament that the United States is turning into a third-world country is at once too pessimistic and too optimistic. What is actually happening is that a patchwork of post-industrial first and fourth-world conditions is emerging against a second-world backdrop.

Here are my definitions:

  • First world: Small, rich European countries. Islands of gentrified urbanism in the US.
  • Second world: Suburban/small-town America, parts of larger European countries, small Asian countries, parts of the Soviet Union before it collapsed, parts of China today.
  • Third world: Countries in global south that began modernizing a century later than Europe, and still have relatively intact pre-modern societal structures to backstop the shortcomings of incomplete industrial development.
  • Fourth world: Parts of the developed world that have collapsed past third-world conditions because industrial safety nets have simultaneously withered from neglect/underfunding, and are being overwhelmed by demand, but where pre-modern societal structures don’t exist as backstops anymore.

The fourth world emerges when large numbers of people fall through the cracks of presumed-complete development, and find themselves in worse-than-third-world conditions: More socially disconnected, more vulnerable to mental illness and drug addiction, with fewer economic opportunities due to the regulation of low-level commerce, and less able to stabilize a pattern of life.

Schemes like LBJ’s Great Society failed to fulfill their promises, but still prevent those facing impoverishment from fending for themselves. The fourth world is the worst of all worlds; an artifact of failed authoritarian high-modernism. A condition of pervasive dependency on non-dependable systems that eliminate old alternatives and limit the growth of new ones. The underbelly of zombie monopolistic safety nets that lack the autopoietic potential to endure through political and economic cycles as living social systems. The functionality withers away, but the negative externalities don’t.

The Great Weirding is revealing that modernization and development are not the same thing. It is a mistake to govern under the presumption that entire populations must necessarily arrive at stable 100% first-world conditions after a transient “development” period. Modernization is the evolution of both wealth and poverty into newer technological forms.

Systems designed for the lowest strata must not assume those strata will eventually go away.

Predictable Identities: 6 – Creeps

This entry is part 6 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

We’ve looked at predicting people from a distance: employing stereotypes and homogenizing outgroups. Moving a step closer to the self, consider an individual you have just met. What are you looking for in the first few minutes of interaction? Among other things, often first among them, is predictability.

A member of your tribe is highly predictable. If you share a taste in clothes and podcasts you can predict with high confidence how they’ll react in social situations, what their habits and motivations are, etc. That’s why small talk about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones isn’t a waste of time. It communicates: I am like you, you can model me well by looking at yourself, we can cooperate.

Second best is someone who fits well in a group stereotype, even if that’s not your ingroup. You may not befriend many middle-aged bearded men who speak a language you can’t recognize, but you feel comfortable getting in a taxi with one.

Now consider someone who looks like you, watches the same shows, and also eats spiders they catch around the house. Would you get in a taxi with them?

The opposite of predictability is creepiness. In the leading research paper on the nature of creepiness, the author describes it:

The perception of creepiness is a response to the ambiguity of threat. […] While they may not be overtly threatening, individuals who display unusual patterns of nonverbal behavior, odd emotional responses or highly distinctive physical characteristics are outside the norm, and by definition unpredictable.

Eating spiders by itself doesn’t make one dangerous, but it’s a signal that this person can’t be predicted well by pattern matching to stereotypes or by self-modeling (unless you’re an arachnophage yourself). We react to creepiness not with fear but with aversion. We dislike what we cannot predict.

Weirding Diary: 6

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series Weirding Diary

Weirding is related to uncanniness, as in uncanny valley: a near-subconscious sense of map-territory misregistration. I think there are two varieties, A and B.

Type A uncanniness, which Sarah Perry explored, evokes an “emotion of eeriness, spookiness, creepiness” that you notice instantly, but cannot immediately isolate or explain. Here’s an example:

Human lookalike robot Repliee 2, detail from image by BradBeattie, CC BY-SA 3.0

Type B uncanniness, which Sarah Constantin explored, does not necessarily evoke those emotions, but may provoke a double take. Here are examples from an article on recognizing AI fakes.

Sample faces generated by a GAN, from How to recognize fake AI-generated images by Kyle McDonald

Two increasingly important domains — markets and AI — exhibit both kinds. Free markets and deep learning AIs generate more Type B uncanniness. Markets distorted by regulation, and GOFAI (including humanoid robots) generate more Type A uncanniness.

Kahnemann’s System 1/System 2 model is useful here.

Type A uncanniness is pattern wrongness, detected by System 1, evoking an immediate emotional reaction. If you aren’t fleeing, a slower System 2 response might kick in and supply a satisfactory explanation, and possibly creepiness relief.

Type B uncanniness is logical wrongness (unexpected facial asymmetry or incoherent grammar for example), prompting the double take (and possibly a delayed creeped-out reaction). You have to re-engage System 1 to reconstruct a narrative around the actual prevailing logic rather than the assumed one.

Too-symmetric faces are Type A uncanny. Mismatched earrings on a face are Type B.

Drug prices shooting up 10x suddenly is Type A. Bond markets defying “normal” logic is possibly Type B (I need a better example).

Markets are eating the world, and AIs are eating software. In both, we’re seeing a shift from Type A to Type B. Less creepy, more double-takey. It’s easier to get used to creepy patterns than unexpected logics.

What If We Already Know How to Live?

This is a guest post by Oshan Jarow.

Sometimes, an event seismic enough to rip a fault line through history forever divides time into two equally infinite halves: before said event, and after. Among the previous divisive events in time, I can think of fire, and language. Suggesting the internet did so for society is nothing new, but I suggest the digital age did so for the most basic, insoluble of human questions: how to live. The question is a pure expression of philosophy, distilled and stripped of distractions. I view digitalization on the seismic scale of fire and language, forever changing the landscape of the question, splitting the history of our existential strivings into before and after.

Philosophy is, in part, kept alive by ever-changing sociocultural circumstances that demand new lived responses to its question. But the changes brought by the digital age are of a magnitude beyond the routine vicissitudes of history. The global distribution of knowledge is arming, perhaps overloading us with more information than ever before, and the proliferation of digital interfaces is reprogramming how we experience life itself, our attentive and perceptual faculties.

Annie Dillard asked in 1999: “Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?” Asking the same question now is a new inquiry, for things are no longer as they were. That was all before. Inaugurated by information abundance & global connectivity, philosophy begins a new timeline. The ‘after’ has just begun. How has our inquiry into how to live metamorphosed? What new challenges animate our search for a fullness of being? What is philosophy after the internet?

[Read more…]

Predictable Identities: 5 – Outgroup Homogeneity

This entry is part 5 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

There are more ways for someone to be different from you than to be similar. But psychologically, it works the other way around. We perceive those like us as uniquely distinct and the outgroup as undifferentiated. It’s called the outgroup homogeneity effect.

This effect extends to physical appearance (e.g. faces of other ethnicities looking the same) and mental traits (e.g. people of the other gender all supposedly wanting the same things). Surprisingly, the effect is unrelated to the number of ingroup and outgroup members one knows; it’s not about mere exposure.

I recently wrote about a remarkable case of the outgroup homogeneity effect: Ezra Klein’s strange attempt to make the case that liberaltarian podcaster (and Klein’s co-ethnic) Dave Rubin is a reactionary.

Klein starts by looking at the network graph of podcast appearances which links Rubin to several unsavory reactionaries. But Klein himself is just two podcasts removed from Richard Spencer, so that’s not great. He then defines “reactionaries” narrowly as those who seek “a return to traditional gender and racial norms”. Of course, most of Rubin’s flagship positions (gay marriage, drug legalization, abortion access, prison reform, abolishing the death penalty) have to do with gender and race norms. Specifically: changing them.

I think what happened is that Ezra Klein picked up intuitively on the one important similarity between Rubin and conservative reactionaries: they both strongly dislike him.

People legislate the distinction between pies and tarts and between plums and nectarines, but only geologists care about telling apart inedible rocks. Same with people: it’s important to keep track individually of potential cooperators, reciprocity relationships, etc. But once you model someone as a defector, you don’t need more detail to predict that they’ll defect. The outgroup is good for writing snarky articles about. For this, you don’t have to tell them apart.