A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars

I am basically a pacifist, inclined to what in India is sometimes derisively referred to as Gandhigiri (loosely “LARPing Gandhi”). If I don’t check the tendency, I naturally retreat from, and go into denial about, unpleasant and violent realities. But it’s time to admit it: the United States is in the middle of the worst culture wars I’ve seen in my life, either in my 20 years in the US, or in the previous 20 years in India (which in the 90s saw equally ferocious, but less digitally mediated, culture wars). And for once, you can’t blame Trump. He’s more consequence than cause.

To endure through a war without either retreating from the fray, or developing crippling PTSD from losing too many poorly picked battles, you need a good map of the battlefield, a sense of the movements of various combatant groups, their objectives, tactics and strategies, awareness of recent battles and their outcomes, current live battles, and emerging flashpoints. Here’s my first draft attempt.

I’ve used the popular politics 2×2 meme (left versus right, authoritarian versus libertarian) as a basic canvas for this map. Let’s start with the numbered key to the conflicts before launching into some commentary.

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Luxuriating in Privacy


In my writing over the past few years (Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture, What is Ritual? The Essence of Peopling, A Bad Carver), I have been somewhat of a cheerleader for group ritual and small group agency, lamenting the capacities and mental states lost in the transition away from a communal, close-knit society, toward an atomized, market-driven society.

In reality, the thought of living in a communal, close-knit society, surrounded daily with family and friends, perhaps living in close quarters with many siblings or children, fills me with horror. Here I will allow my own heart its expression, and be a cheerleader for privacy. For something precious has been gained as well as lost in the transition to social modernity.

Consider obesity. A stylized explanation for rising levels of overweight and obesity since the 1980s is this: people enjoy eating, and more people can afford to eat as much as they want to. In other words, wealth and plenty cause obesity. Analogized to privacy, perhaps the explanation of atomization is simply that people enjoy privacy, and can finally afford to have as much as they want. Privacy is an economic good, and people show a great willingness to trade other goods for more privacy. [Read more…]

2018 Annual Letter

I’ve been increasingly lazy about doing some sort of annual letter (I think I last did one in 2014). So I am overdue for a roundup of a bunch of housekeeping items and updates. My excuse is that it’s getting increasingly hard to do a State of the Rhizome, especially in the middle of a global culture war. We’re in that weird awkward growth phase between an overgrown pimply personal blog and a professionally run media operation with, you know, an actual editorial process, business model, graphic arts department, and rude receptionist.

This isn’t really a true annual letter, more of a grab-bag of ribbonfarm update stuff mixed in with personal stuff. Anyway, here we go.

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Make Your Own Rules

We seem to be in the middle of a renaissance of rules for life. Not since Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten (1987) and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits (1989) has there been such a peak of interest in such rules. Then, as now, we were going through a period of deep global changes, and everybody was very anxious because nobody knew what the new rules for the new normal were.

The proximal trigger of this current wave is I think, Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules, as well as the late John Perry Barlow’s 25 principles, which have both been doing the rounds. But the root cause is growing market demand for anomie-busting.

Well of course if there’s a gold rush of this sort on, I have to sell pickaxes. And my pickaxe is a DIY template for making your own set of life rules. Here’s an in-progress snapshot of the pickaxe in action in my own notebook (cleaned-up version with readable annotations key further down, but I wanted to share the working version, which includes several technical mistakes). My model may be a bit hard to grok if you haven’t been reading me for a few years, but the good news is, it’s color-by-numbers easy to use. And all it takes is pen and paper.

I only have one actual imitable rule to offer in the marketplace of life rules: Make Your Own Rules. But I do think I have a good theory of life rules, and a meaningfully systematic procedure for generating them that I’m hoping to sell to the Deep Mind team for making well-behaved AIs.

In the short term, other people’s rules can get you through a rough patch. In the medium term, you have to at least adapt them to your own life. But in the long term, only making your own rules works.

Because, to snowclone what Eisenhower said about plans, rules are nothing, but rule-making is everything.

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Justice Fantasies

Justice is seen mostly clearly in its absence. It is easier to notice injustice than justice, and when people talk about experiencing justice in positive terms, they usually mean that a previous injustice has been remedied.

The experience of injustice spans behaviors ranging in severity from rudeness and negligence to violent crime. But it can also include the distribution of property, as when it is alleged to be unjust that some are very wealthy while others are very poor. If justice is what is revealed by negotiations of injustice, then it is a very broad category, including not only all behaviors, but also the distribution of income, wealth, roads, transportation, housing, food, clothing, fresh water, pollution, education, art, fun, and much more. Bad actions may be judged to be unjust, but even good actions are targets for justice talk when they are considered suboptimal; consider how many people berated Elon Musk for frivolity in sending a car into space, implying that he had a duty to use his resources to solve certain social problems instead (such as buying houses for poor people). Injustice is simply the state of a misfit between the fairness expectations of a group of people and reality.
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(Don’t) Be the Gray man

The is a guest post by Patrick Steadman

A few days after Trump was elected, one of my friends tweeted that he was going to buy a gun. Six months later, another friend quoted the tweet, gently dragging him for not actually buying the gun.

While such virtue signaling is a bit cringeworthy, I think it’s a type of behavior we should expect and encourage in a functioning democracy in which people have healthy feelings of belonging and connection.

It would’ve been much worse if my friend had bought the gun, learned how to use it, and told no one, blending in with his creative professional peers among whom gun ownership is uncommon.

That would have made him a gray man, which is like normcore for preppers, except in the ways that it isn’t.

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The Elephant in the Brain

Long-time contributor and editor-at-large Kevin Simler has a great new book out, The Elephant in the Brainco-authored with Robin Hanson. A bunch of us over here in the refactoring lair have been reading it of course, so you can expect to see the ideas in the book seeping into future posts. There’s a couple of excellent reviews out already if you want to get oriented in the snowballing conversation around the book (the book website has a running compilation) .

The book tackles our blindspots regarding our own motives:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains are therefore designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means.

But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better. And thus we don’t like to talk — or even think — about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain,” an introspective blind spot that makes it hard to think clearly about ourselves and the explanations for our behavior.

Kevin of course needs no introduction for long-time readers, but for those who came in late, he’s the author of past hits like Minimum Viable Superorganisms and Anthropology of Mid-Size Startups. His home blog, Melting Asphalt, has been one of our oldest blogosphere neighbors (some of my favorite posts there include Neurons Gone Wild and Personhood).

So go grab the book. It’ll be required reading around these parts. And while you’re at it, go poke around in Kevin’s other writing. You’ll thank me later.

Glitches, uh, find a way

Core scientific theories often sound tautological, yet we keep them around because they lead to useful ideas. The prime theorem of biology is that life comes from life. Life coming from life doesn’t mean that spontaneous generation is impossible. It had to have happened at least once. But it’s so much less efficient than reproduction that it no longer has a chance. Before two amino acids can start rubbing together in just the right way on the road to making Life 2.0, some version 1.0 bastard comes along and eats it. That leads you to the idea of natural selection, evolution, dimorphic sex, and the rest of it.

The prime theorem of computing is that any computer can simulate any other. But for all of the talk about “artificial life”, the two mechanisms are subtly different. Lifeforms compete by turning each other into food. Computerforms compete by turning each other into memes. [Read more…]

The Unapologetic Case For Bullshit

In 1986 Harry Frankfurt published the first edition of On Bullshit, the essay that, in the years that followed, was to become the authoritative take on the topic. In it, he lamented the amount of bullshit plaguing every aspect of public life, arguing that production of bullshit was tightly correlated with the increase in opportunities and (perceived) obligations for people to speak their mind, even in the absence of a strong “apprehension of reality”.

Thirty years later, this trend is anything but receding. The web in general, and social media in particular, have multiplied the number of channels where we can exercise our fundamental need to be consulted. At the same time, ‘reality’ is an increasingly opaque concept, challenged by fake news on one side and the genuine unintelligibility of a world in the midst of a technological, social and political revolution on the other.

How do we navigate in this situation? Frankfurt, as we will see later, argues for self-restraint in lack of certainty. In a previous post, I have also put forward what I defined a ‘precautionary principle’: when faced with common talk (a sub-category of bullshit) it is better take the safe option and trust our common sense. But the more I think about methods and tools to resist bullshit, the more I become  forgiving of it.

It is easy to dismiss bullshit as pure noise. To treat it as the inevitable, and yet insufferable, exhaust of a world in decline. In doing so, however, we risk falling in an excellence trap: the belief that progress is a smooth climb towards the highest peak.

Maybe, a perfect world would not be a world without bullshit, but rather one where there is just the right amount of it. Maybe, to reach higher peaks of truth we sometimes need to descend into bullshit valleys. Traverse a knowledge fitness landscape, in other words, where bullshit can be adaptive.

Can we make an unapologetic case for bullshit, without descending into post-truth relativism?

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Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences

When I first started writing about religion for Ribbonfarm, I argued that humans have the capacity for interesting mental states that have become harder to access during the transition to modernity. Here, I focus on the core mental state at the heart of religion, the sacred experience.

When I first read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I was disappointed by his focus on “personal religion” (the subjective experience of conversion or of the divine), rather than on ritual, tradition, and organized religion. After many years, I now think his focus on subjective experience is exactly correct. Rituals vary and evolve because the sacred experience is itself the success criterion for the ritual, and as the context changes, the form of rituals must change to continue to produce sacred experience.

I define the sacred experience as follows:

Sacred experience: a subjective experience of unusual emotional arousal, especially in a social ritual context, potentially including negative emotions such as terror, guilt, or hopelessness, followed by unusual calm or euphoria, in the presence of a sensed metaphysically problematic entity or principle.

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