Domestic Cozy: 3

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Domestic Cozy

I increasingly like a thesis I initially resisted: many unusual and toxic culture-war phenomena in nominally public spaces can be understood as an outward projection of a cozy ethos prevailing in domestic spaces. Applying Jungian magical thinking, we should expect this projection to be anything but cozy. The shadow of domestic cozy ought to be a particular pattern of public strife. We should expect this strife to have a recognizably domestic heat signature — the ugly family scene rather than the barroom brawl, soccer riot, or gang war.

When I first tweeted about domestic cozy, Ben Mathes suggested that phenomena like safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses, and associated high incidences of depression and anxiety in Gen Z adolescents, ought to be considered an expression of the Zoomer personality. It does seem like the spike in those phenomena coincided with Zoomers starting to enter college. An epimemetic product of a stressful coming-of-age decade, and overprotective (but not necessarily overindulgent) parenting. I resisted the suggestion initially, since it seemed inconsistent with the peaceful domestic expression of the archetype, but I am now on board, via the Jungian argument.

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Weirding Diary: 7

This entry is part 7 of 7 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.

Escaping Reality: Refactor Camp 2019, Los Angeles, June 15-16

Refactor Camp is back! The 2019 edition will be held in Los Angeles, the weekend of June 15-16, at the lovely design studio of Philosophie in Santa Monica. The theme for this year is “Escaping Reality.”

Theme details, registration link and session proposal submission link can be found at the swanky new event website

(it’s the first time in the 7-year history of the event that we’ve had a proper website, thanks to long-time reader Megan).

As you know if you’ve attended before, we’ve always run the event on a no-profit/no-loss basis. The cost this year works out to $95. Registration will remain open until tickets run out. The venue capacity is limited to 120, and as I write this, 63 regular tickets remain (an auspicious 42 tickets were taken during the closed pre-registration period for returning attendees, and we’re holding 15 in our cronyism reserve). The event tends to sell out early, so if you plan on attending, you should register early.

Session proposals are due by April 30, and you can find the proposal submission link on the event site. Earlier is better, and if we get enough proposals early enough, the program may get locked down early, so if you’d like to do a talk or session, get your proposal in as early as you can.

We’re still working out the program details, but as usual there will be a mix of lightning talks, longer talks, interactive sessions, and hopefully a beach outing (outdoor walkabout sessions have always been a feature of Refactor Camp, though we couldn’t do one last year due to it being in the Texas desert with buzzards and rattlesnakes around).

Look for the final program sometime in early May. As with previous years, we’ll be trying to pull together a good mix of returning and new people among both attendees and speakers/session leaders. For now, the theme blurb should give you an idea of what to expect.

This year’s efforts are being led by Darren Kong (who was also a lead organizer last year in Austin), with support from Megan Lubaszka, Patrick Atwater, Nolan Gray, Ryan Tanaka, and myself.

So hope to see a bunch of both new and familiar faces in June. Register and/or submit session proposals here.

Predictable Identities: 6 – Creeps

This entry is part 6 of 9 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.

Worlding Raga: 4 – Who Worlds?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Worlding Raga

So far we’ve been discussing Worlding as an art. One that an individual creator can engage in on their own. As Venkat suggested, we are already living in an emerging Worlding culture replete with examples, from superhero franchises, to blogamatic universes, to people as channels of their own lives. It made me think it’s worth zooming out for a post to consider: what possesses a person to want to make a World? What reward does Worlding offer over all the other drives competing in an artist’s mind? Who Worlds in there?In the midst of the creative process, the artist experiences a jumble of voices and competing directives. To an untrained ear, this seems like the undifferentiated expression of an inner monologue that can’t make up its mind. But if you listen carefully, you can begin to hear distinct voices fighting to be heard. It took me a long time to realize that an artist is not one unified person, but something like a crew of sub-personalities or mental demons. Each with their own motivations, sense of opportunity and threat, and unique filter for relevancy. What if we could learn to identify each of these demons? What if we could become more aware of who is speaking, understand what each cares about, and begin to strategize how and when to use them?

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Weirding Diary: 6

This entry is part 6 of 7 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?

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Infinite Machines: 2 – Plasticized Erotica

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Infinite Machine

Today, the sexbot industry gives men the inverse of what Barbie gives girls: a sense of control over the opposite sex.

Upgrade her to suit your needs. Mostly docile. Never late. She’s yours to keep.

This industry isn’t particularly anti-woman, but does reveal an enthusiasm for male freedom through decreased interdependence from the emotional needs of women.

This begs the question: how does the value of synthetic life influence social norms toward natural life? Turns out, it’s complicated.

  • Sexbots aren’t sentient, therefore have no dignity to uphold.
  • They give power, but can’t be genuinely influenced.
  • Pornographic pleasures, but no intimacy.
  • Control, but no consent.

I could continue, but when examining what’s lost in this emergent future, it seems male users will be inevitably forced to reconcile their desires with real women, legal systems, and the broader public. Individuals are escalating concerns and regulation, and rightfully so. The female body has been objectified and stripped of sexual freedom across nearly every aspect of humanity. In an era where ‘consent’ is still ambiguous from the streets to the sheets, should we further empower men who choose not to practice it?

Whether sexbots could be used for radical autonomy is an interesting question. VR is being used to treat PTSD, anxiety, and facilitate sex therapy. Consider for a moment if sexbots took a similar path.

  • Less rape in prisons.
  • Interactive consent lessons in classrooms.
  • Men on campuses knowing how to ask for what they want at the end of the night.
  • In homes, sexbots might reduce sexual tension that’s often tangled with the economic aspects of marriages.

In the near future, women will continually be expected, unfortunately, to owe their bodies to men. But perhaps with the right intervention, sexbots can absorb ignorant and toxic mistakes; helping re-distribute power to design a world of social equality between sexes.

Constructions in Magical Thinking

If you’re one of those sharp-eyed readers who notices such things, you may have noticed that earlier this week, we adopted a new tagline: constructions in magical thinking. We also got a cheery set of new mastheads to go with it (thanks Grace Witherell), which you’ll see in rotation at the top of the site from now on.

In the best traditions of magical thinking, I will now respond to the most Frequently Asked Questions that have never actually been asked about our new tagline, in the hopes that doing so will somehow make them always-already never unasked.

Are you sick of our new schtick yet? No? Well, give it time. We’re sticking with this for the next decade.

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Predictable Identities: 5 – Outgroup Homogeneity

This entry is part 5 of 9 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.