MJD 58,854

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Captain's Log

To be present in a seat in a movie theater is to pay attention to a movie for a couple of hours, tuning out the few distractions, and giving in to the carefully crafted temptation to escapism. To be present, outside of a vehicle, in the middle of a busy, high-speed intersection, is to pay attention to half a dozen largely unrelated things every second, with the set of things changing every few seconds, while everybody gets mad at you.

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MJD 58,851

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Captain's Log

I’m starting a new experiment: blog entries in a blogchain without a declared theme or proper headlines. The blogchain itself is called Captain’s Log, since I don’t want to be too Dada about this, and a Star Trek reference sounds like fun without being thematically confining. But I won’t use that phrase within post titles. Entries will be titled MJD xxxx, where MJD stands for Modified Julian Date, and xxxx is the day number in that scheme. I thought of using the Star Trek star date convention, but turns out that’s not actually very coherent. My other too-clever idea was to follow a naming convention based on a) writing a post b) computing a hash from the text to serve as a title, as a cleverly self-referential True Name. This seemed too much work so I’m going with an uncommon date-based convention that only specialists like astronomers will be able to read intuitively.

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Complete 2019 Roundup

This has been a year of significant changes here at ribbonfarm, much of it deliberately conceived as part of a cunning grand plan, and executed flawlessly via my mediocre stroke-of-genius invention, the blogchain (an indefinitely extended, unplanned, improvised, series format). The pivot came with a new tagline: constructions in magical thinking, and a peppy new masthead. With this, we embark on the as-yet-unnamed 3rd era of Ribbonfarm (the first era, 2007-12, was the Rust Age, and the second era, 2013-18, was the Snowflake Age; new readers may want to get oriented on this page).

On to the roundup, 2019 highlights commentary, and 2020 outlook.

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Predictable Identities: 23 – The Self

This entry is part 23 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

In reality there are only atoms and the void, but in our mind exists the self. This thing here is part of me, this thing there isn’t. The concept of self serves the same purpose as all others: it makes good predictions. Or perhaps it made good predictions at some point, and got stuck.

Self-identification gets off to a good start. A baby notices that when it wants the toy to move by itself the toy doesn’t budge, but when it wants its hand to move the hand immediately obliges. It begins to identify the body: that which is immediately moveable in the intended way by thought alone.

As a child grows, more and more things are reinforced by the world as part of its identity. This toy is yours, the other one isn’t: one can be grabbed with predictable good consequences, while grabbing the other one will trigger unpredictable retaliation. This essay was written by you and this is your grade for it, go back to your seat. The process is extended to one’s mind: the thoughts and feelings you recognize in your mind are yours, and other people have their own.

It is at the level of thought that the model of the unified self starts to buckle under the strain of contradictions. Careful introspection reveals that your mind comprises a multitude of independent subagents influencing your behavior and emotions in ways that your conscious self can’t access, let alone control. Careful study of societies reveals that our thoughts are shaped by memes, myths, and egregores, cognitive processes that run in vast groups, not individuals. This post was written by my conscious model of the self, a mild anxiety in my stomach, Alberto Albero, and Buddhism. In what sense is it mine?

Once we notice the breakdown of the rigid self as it relates to thought, we can see it in other contexts as well. Roles, blame and praise, personalities — these are merely conventions, as is private property. This even extends to the body: partnered dancers have as much control of their partner’s limbs as their own, while the most control you can exert over your appendix is chopping it off.

None of this means that drawing a circle around some things and calling them “myself” is always wrong. Just that there’s no clear “self” that matches reality in all contexts. This is good news, it means that the self is a thing to be played with.

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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Domestic Cozy: 10

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series Domestic Cozy

There is an interesting emerging relationship, I think, between domestic cozy and the slightly older “trad” turn in contemporary youth culture (which I think began at the height of the recession with burned-out Millennials), complete with tendencies towards religion, social conservatism, and traditional gender roles. The term tradwife, in particular, which I first encountered a few years ago, appears to be slowly trending, after a bit of a peak in 2018. On Twitter, it’s now turned into a term of art, used ironically or unironically, generically or with fully loaded memetic potency, and with or without connotations of vaguely alt-right sympathies.

In 2019, I suspect, the trad turn broke out of the subcultural wilderness, lost its original edge-political connotations, and went mainstream.

As Gen-Z starts to establish households, I suspect trad patterns are going to spread via some sort of Fifth Wave feminism following the #MeToo era, which appears to have consolidated its claim to being the Fourth Wave (I’m going to lazily risk linking a Vox explainer for those not familiar with the wave-theoretic history of feminism; if you have alternative links, please post in the comments).

I suspect Fifth Wave feminism is going to be based on some sort of post-#MeToo reconstructed notion of domesticity that attempts to reclaim the domestic arena as a feminine-centric space, but without giving up the political and economic agency gains of the four waves of public-arena feminism. There are very strong economic tailwinds favoring such a development.

To a degree, domestic cozy is Zoomers and younger Millennials playing “house” in ways that are indicative of the patterns of adult domesticity they will be adopting soon. This New Domesticity in the US is shaping up to be 80% Fifth-Wave Feminist households, 10% non-traditional (LGBTQ+) households, and 10% HouseBro households (a category that doesn’t seem to exist yet, but is bound to emerge based on the Dirac equation of anti-archetypes). I’m still puzzling over what to make of this development. I think it will get underway in earnest in a couple of years.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt noted that the domestic sphere, historically, was a fully constrained zone of non-stop labor, where nobody, not even the master of the house, enjoyed any freedom. It was only by venturing out in public that even the master could enjoy a measure of freedom and agency. At home, there was a defined role with duties for everyone. And if you never really left the domestic sphere, you were basically never really free.

Starting in the late 19th century, as Arendt observed, increasing availability of technological conveniences made the domestic arena primarily a zone of intimacy and leisure rather than non-stop labor. Consumer products and domestic automation slowly began replacing housewifery, slavery, and servant-work. Childcare increasingly became the business of schools and television. Entertainment media — board games, the phonograph, the radio, television, effective contraception, video games — injected increasing amounts of leisure activity where there was once only labor. Shopping began to replace cooking as the prototypical housewife responsibility.

The story of feminism along the way has been one of pendulum swings (so the wave theory makes sense). In the West (and to a lesser extent outside the West), early feminists tried to cash out the technological convenience dividend, by breaking out of domesticity between the world wars. They enjoyed a peak of public life participation leading up to World War 2, but then ran into the feminine mystique era in the post-WW2 decades, which was an earlier trad turn between the first two waves of feminism. I personally attribute it to a sort of Parkinson’s Law kicking in for newly leisure-rich home economies, with domestic “work” expanding to occupy the leisure available.

Though it’s a tempting hypothesis, I don’t think we’re at the threshold of Feminine Mystique 2.0, and Betty Friedan need not roll in her grave.

I suspect what’s actually happening is that a set of economic factors — inequality and high housing and childcare costs being the big ones — have made it financially advantageous for a certain segment of middle-class households to return to a pattern of domestic organization built around housewifery. Pamela Hobart has a thoughtful take on this surprising development. It’s a huge narrative violation that feminists are going to have to grapple with. Elizabeth Warren’s actually appears to have seen this coming with her 2004 book, the Two-Income Trap (that’s another Voxsplainer link, sorry), co-authored with her daughter, making it a two-generational view.

A big part of what’s happened, I think, is that the gains in domestic convenience have hit diminishing returns, while both the financial and cognitive costs of running a “normal” household have risen dramatically. It’s now turned into a sort of high-stakes budgeting rocket science.

On the labor-demand side, new gadgets add far less marginal convenience compared to refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, and vacuums (the Big Five from the early consumer revolution). And on the consumption side, shopping has gone from being a pleasant social routine at the local mall and grocery store to a very demanding budgeting and purchasing optimization activity that is approximately as complex as being COO of a small business. And it is done largely at home, online, with social aspects increasingly limited to online communities built around consumption, such as Yelp reviews.

A good household manager — and it is almost always a woman taking this role on, whether or not they adopt the tradwife identity — can effectively double the household income simply through canny shopping, deal-stalking, and maintaining strong awareness of consumption trends. And as housing becomes less affordable, all other areas of consumption require all the optimization they can get. Women who are good at this are probably responsible for holding major cities together, by figuring out ways for households to continue existing in increasingly unaffordable urban cores.

(I’m neither condoning, nor criticizing this emergent role, merely observing that it has emerged as a function of necessity, with mostly women filling it).

In a way, the trajectory observed by Arendt is reversing itself. Homes are once again becoming entirely constrained spaces, where leisure and intimacy have a diminishing role to play, and there’s a lot more work for everybody to do. It’s just that instead of making their own soap, tradwives now have to find the coupons and deals that buy the desired soap at the available income. It’s almost as much work.

These economic forces, of course, are affecting non-traditional households too, including groups of friends living together.

The Venmo public feed (Your Source for Domestic Cozy Voyeurism) is a striking window into the emerging patterns of New Domesticity. It’s no longer just people paying each other to split restaurant checks. They are paying each other for rent, household expenses, transportation, cleaning services, and all sorts of other things. Commercial transactions with service workers are mixed in with an endlessly varied stream of friend-to-friend transactions. An entire future is taking shape there. The Venmo economy of today is going to be the mainstream economy of 2024.

Disassembling the Empathy Machine

This entry is part 17 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, Bryan Lehrer talks about the idea of VR as an “empathy machine”.

Predictable Identities: 22 – The Entropic Brain

This entry is part 22 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

Brain researcher Robert Carhart-Harris and physicist Karl Friston suggest that psychedelics will save humanity. They are, of course, far from the first people to do so. But they’re the first to explain how psychedelics will save humanity using the theory of predictive processing, which was developed in large part by Friston himself. And so with my interest sufficiently piqued, allow me to condense a decade of research on the Entropic Brain Hypothesis into a few paragraphs.

Our brains evolved to model the environment and minimize surprise and uncertainty. Since our environment is complex and dynamic, so are more evolved brains. fMRI allows us to measure brain entropy, how unpredictable is one’s brain state in the future based on its current state. It’s a proxy for a brain’s flexibility and complexity. 

Human brains are more entropic than those of our animal relatives, which in turn have more entropic brains than phylogenetically distant species. But humans have also developed a brain structure that suppresses entropy: the default mode network (DMN). According to Friston, optimal prediction is achieved when the brain is finely poised between order and disorder, rigidity and entropy. The DMN is less developed in children, and is suppressed in REM sleep, the onset of psychosis, and by psychedelics — all the above states are characterized by wandering thoughts, creativity, and magical thinking (hello, Ribbonfarm!) that isn’t strongly constrained by reason and prior experiences.

The DMN is also overactive in people with depression. This manifests in two features of depression: “depressive realism” (a capacity to judge reality more accurately) and rigidity of thought (the mind is stuck in a negative bias that doesn’t respond to changes in the environment). In fact, many other mental disorders can be thought of as disorders of mental rigidity. For example: addiction (the brain is stuck in loops of craving and indulgence), autism, PTSD, and schizophrenia. Psychedelics increase brain entropy and “shake it out” of its rigid habits, allowing it to settle into more salubrious patterns (especially if guided by a good therapist).

There’s another effect that psychedelics cause by inhibiting the DMN — the dissolution of ego and the sense of self. Should we think of self-identity too as a disorder of mental rigidity? Stay tuned.

Making Meaning

This entry is part 16 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, Matt Maier talks about the new religion he’s trying to create, and the systematic approach to making meaning he’s developed (talk ends at about the 15:30 mark, and the rest of the video is pitches for the workshop sessions and Q&A)

The Ovaltine Moment

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk Jay Bushman talks about futuristic transmedia storytelling attempts and the moment they tend to fall apart, which he calls the ovaltine moment, when the bubble bursts and the excitement fades into disappointment.