“Another Green World”

Graham Johnson is a guest contributor who joins us from Suspended Reason.

ONE

A world transfigured, or a world anew? A world anew, or a new world? And if a new world, in addition, or as alternative?

I.

In September, Elon Musk announced plans to begin the colonization of Mars by 2024. SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System will transport up 100 tons of cargo and human passengers per ship; eventually, Musk expects the planet to reach a critical population mass of a few million, at which point the planet will become a self-sufficient colony. What was most striking, to many who watched the announcement’s promotional video, was its closing frames – unaccompanied by explanatory text, and raising only the tantalizing possibility – of a terraformed Mars.

Terraforming is an obvious long-shot (or what Alphabet Inc.’s subsidiary X appropriately refers to in-house as a “moon-shot”) project. But Musk sees it as an essential existential safeguard: should something threaten humanity’s immediate survival, there will be another planet, and eventually other solar systems, available to escape to. Human civilizations elsewhere can continue their expansion of synthesis and sentience across the universe.

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Sulking Through a Subprime Presidency

I’d like to pretend that the long silence since my last proper post — that was November last year — has been due to the long queue of contributions we’ve been briskly working through, but truth be told, I’ve been sulking.

Sulking. Not depressed, fearful, angsty, or anxious. Sulking is really the only word for the tenor of my thoughts after the election of Trump and its aftermath. Not schoolyard sulking directed at jeering victors, but a deeper sort of philosophical sulking directed at the universe. For forcing me to think once more about things I thought I was done thinking about in my twenties. Things that I didn’t particularly enjoy thinking through the first time around, but believe I got roughly right and, more importantly, out of my system. Things that are fundamentally uninteresting to me, despite their importance to others who are less fortunate or more masochistic.

While I am not particularly coy about my political sympathies (or rather, antipathies) elsewhere, I like my politics to be illegible on this blog. When I write about matters societal, I like to tack between conceptual models and narratives a couple of levels of abstraction below politics and ideology.

Unfortunately, we may be headed into a future — a subprime presidency — where maintaining such a healthy creative distance from politics becomes impossible even in the best case. Fortunately, I’m beginning to find that philosophical sulking is not an entirely infertile state of mind.

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The Limits of Epistemic Hygiene

Perhaps the most impressive (and measurable) achievement of technological modernity has been the drastic reduction in infectious disease mortality. It is difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of this victory. It is one thing to say that half, or a third, or a quarter of children used to die before their fifth birthday from infectious disease, and more adults besides. It is another thing (and quite difficult) to imagine what it was like to live under this alien (to us) regime of death. Cholera, diphtheria, smallpox, typhoid, polio, influenza, tuberculosis, pertussis, dysentery, measles, plague, yellow fever, and more besides, claimed the lives of human beings, leaving behind disfigurement, suffering, grief, and fear. There was almost nothing to be done:

The little child of Newton and Etta Riggs Loomis was removed to the home of its grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Loomis, after diphtheria was pronounced to be in the home of Mrs. Ann Riggs, in the hopes that it might escape the dread disease. But the monster followed it and the child died Monday, aged 2 years.

Badger State Banner, January 15, 1891, collected in Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy, 1973.

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A Brief History of Existential Terror

“[M]ental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.”

–Viktor Frankl

The healthy state of humans is mild existential terror. In Frankl’s words, “a certain degree of tension.”

For 99% of human history, this was true not in the Frankl-meaning-of-life sense, but in the my-environment-is-hostile-and-trying-to-kill-me-holy-shit-is-that-a-lion?-RUN! sense.

Humans lived in a constant state of mild existential terror because death could be on the other side of the rock at any moment.

We evolved in a world with high levels of day-to-day uncertainty and illegibility. Whether or not a hunter was able to kill an antelope wasn’t a sporting concern, but an existential one.

Given this reality, humans worked incredibly hard to reduce uncertainty and volatility. The brain of homo sapiens developed to fulfill a primary role much like a lawyer’s primary role in a corporation: always looking for the worst possible outcome and trying to avoid it. (The analogy holds for its secondary role as well: trying to sleep with everything that walks .)

For the majority of human history, this was adaptive. In the last century, it has become maladaptive.

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The Strategy of No Strategy

Strategy is everywhere in our society. But strategy in practice seems to be a cruel and even silly joke. I learned that the hard way when I went to college long before I ever studied strategy formally. My own “strategy” about how to get through college collapsed virtually the moment I set foot on campus. I was living on my own for the first time and had never been outside of California’s perennial summer weather environment before. I was a poor fit for an East Coast school and didn’t last a full year, getting ill from the cold temperature and transferring out to a California school. At the time, I felt like a failure.

Ensō (c. 2000) by Kanjuro Shibata XX. CC BY-SA 3.0

Like many people of my generation and my socio-economic bracket, my teenage years were eventually consumed by the looming issue of where to go to college. I tried to get the best grades, study hard for the SAT, and make whatever connections I could with alumni to get into colleges I wanted. I applied to many of them, recycling and modifying personal statement letters like the individual payloads and sub-payloads of a MIRV’d nuclear missile. Once I got to college, the clarity and structure that routine provided evaporated. I had to make my own. It was certainly very difficult.

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Prescientific Organizational Theory

Organizational Theory isn’t a science, though it would like to be. Unfortunately, building a scientific approach requires understanding from a number of fields that themselves are still only aspiring to be sciences. Because psychology, economics, and sociology are a mish-mash of rules of thumb and vague, non-predictive, and generally unfalsifiable “theories”, organizations are reduced to ad-hoc rules and guesswork: critical, but prescientific.

For now, to abuse the parable of the blind men and the elephant, organizational theorists are still groping at their respective elephants, unable to figure out that the trunk is next to the tusks, or even that they are part of the same animal. It’s not a science: if anything, it’s a field of engineering, albeit one without a grounding in physics or Asimovian psychohistory to draw from. Precisely because the field isn’t scientific, understanding the engineering rules of thumb that were developed over time is fantastically useful for a practitioner.

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Unbuilding the Wall

This is a guest post by Toby Shorin.

Although symbols are intangible, that doesn’t mean they are inaccessible. On the contrary, we routinely understand and interact with the world by interpreting and intuiting their meanings. Symbols can be created, altered, proliferated, and overthrown.

This essay will discuss one symbol and its meanings: Donald Trump’s Wall. During the ‘15-‘16 election cycle, the Wall became as much of an aspirational motif for the right as it was a corrupt one for the left. In some ways, the Wall usurped Trump himself as the central image of the election. Compared to Trump, whose innumerable controversies make him an ethically difficult figure even for many of his supporters, the Wall makes a simple proposition: in or out. This legerdemain condenses a whole lineup of wicked problems and convoluted realities into a highly condensed ideological meme, representing the entire package of Trump’s policies. Ease of compliance is visible in the rally chants of Trump followers (“build the Wall, build the Wall!”), which acknowledge and perpetuate its myth.

Of course, the Wall is not just a symbol; it is a very real political project with significant implications. But symbols are not just ideas; they are very real concentrations of meaning with political agendas and the potential for momentous adoption. For example, the key symbol of the now-dead Occupy movement, “the 99%,” has been instrumental in spreading awareness of income inequality, and nearly 10 years later remains a crucial tool of global leftist discourse. In the apparently straightforward gesture of the Wall is hidden a similarly nuanced conceptual model. The Wall defines America by drawing its boundaries, producing an exclusionary, misleading, and compelling model nation. As a symbol, it functions on three levels: the geopolitical, the psychological, and the semiotic—it fucks with meaning itself.

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Caring and Reality

This is a guest post by Kyle Eschenroeder.

From Tolkien’s palantír to Thiel’s Palantir, from early religions to superintelligence, the dream of omniscience is an old one.

CaringAndReality

Imagine having a real palantír from The Lord of the Rings, a crystal ball which gives its user a perfect view into any and every event, past and present. Such extensive knowledge tends to heighten one’s sense of power and control–which in turn lead to arrogance and over-confidence.

This over-confidence creates blind spots. The White Wizard Saruman’s discovery of the palantír precipitated his downfall. The arrogance that came with his newfound power created an opening for Sauron to take advantage of him. Our own palantírs gave Hillary a  71.4%98% chance of beating Trump. At one point, they gave the Patriots a 0.3% chance of winning Superbowl 51.

The confidence created by our palantír-ish technologies is a confidence in our measurements, not in ourselves. The more minutiae we measure, the less respect we have for taste or experience. Designers are being split-tested into insanity as mob rule decides which color they should use for the buy button. Decision makers are being confused by confident measurements of the wrong metrics.

This is an ongoing larger struggle in the world today between taste and data. Between what’s measurable and what matters. The promise is: here are numbers, let them make decisions for you. Algorithms we don’t understand interacting with, and reporting on, something we hope is reality.

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One Sacred Trick for Moral Regeneration

This is a guest post by Harry Pottash.

Post-enlightenment culture has almost completely conquered Western cities, leaving them swimming in a rich and diverse memetic soup. From within this soup a new society is emerging, its members pejoratively called “Social Justice Warriors”. To avoid falling into the trap of pre-existing connotations we can refer to this emerging society as the “Identity-affirming society.” Identity-affirming society shows a striking resemblance to more traditional religions and societies, with specific adaptations, particularly around the concept of cultural appropriation, that make it more resilient to the dissolving forces of post enlightenment culture from which it is emerging. How do unique cultures — the Amish, for instance — protect themselves from being subsumed by the surrounding culture? A clearer view of how the ideas of cultural appropriation are used can be reached by comparing it with the more rigorously mapped views regarding intellectual property, as both cover similar territory.

Societies are finite games, games that introduce goals, rules, constraints on behavior and provide a scoring system. They are among the games we engage in so completely that we forget participation is optional, and the rules arbitrary. Most fully formed societies attach their rules to six instinctively used pillars of ethical behavior, each a thematic set of constraints that participants in the society must follow (or flaunt). Durable societies use these constraints to reinforce boundaries between societal insiders and outsiders.

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Shift Register Code Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

This is a ghost post by Nolan Gray

“Fuck You I won’t post what you tell me” – Rage Against Deus Ex Machina

Be aware that when accessing the internet, the panopticon of the online world sees you slogging your Smartless™ baggage through the Terminal. Your online personality is like a suitcase without wheels dragging behind you, scraping and scratching through the veil of security. We all sit at the bar watching your avatar self wander by with your assumptions bag over packed for a two day trip that turns into a lifetime. Taunted by the gatekeepers of the ungrounded world their signs designate that you are only allowed to bring the approved personality items in specified sizes. 3oz of snark, No liquid optimism, a single liter of judging disapproval and nothing that looks like humility through the machine. It’s for your own safety and those of others sharing the flight from AAS* to ACD*. These traits are tightly regulated. In the security line we see the humiliating items hidden in your baggage on our monitors. You too, while waiting for coffee or bored in the yoga lounge can see our embarrassing items on your personal screen every time we log on to the social media wing of the Terminal.

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