Tendrils of Mess in our Brains

Messes are intimate, secret, somewhat shameful. Mess is supposed to be kept backstage. Posting this picture of my messy workspace is almost as embarrassing and inappropriate as posting nudes, but it’s necessary aesthetic background:

Author's mess

Author’s mess

All the new thinking about mess is apologetics: what if mess is good? Perhaps mess makes us more creative. Messiness is a sign of intelligence. All that. As a pathologically messy person, I cannot concur with this glorification of mess. Being in a messy environment is stressful and discouraging. There is an unease that remains even when you block out the conscious awareness of mess.

This is not say that mess is a pure bad. Mess is not even necessarily ugly. The famous photograph of Albert Einstein’s desk, taken on the day he died, is a particularly picturesque mess. This is recognizably a mess, but it is calming to look at, and deeply touches our personal feelings. It has mono no aware.

Einstein's desk, a picturesque mess

Einstein’s desk, a picturesque mess

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Complete 2016 Roundup

Here’s the complete roundup for 2016. I’ve changed the format this year and have grouped the roundup by author and medium, to help you discover some of our new contributors and experimental content more easily. We had 8 new contributors, 3 returning contributors, and 2 regulars (Sarah and me) all together contributing 57 posts, of which 42 were longform, and 15 were  other media: audio (1), video (4), cartoons (6) and slide decks (4). It was a satisfying growth year, topping half a million visitors for the first time, and growing by between 25-33% depending on which metric you like.


Other highlights this year: a new high-watermark viral hit post that beat the Gervais Principle in single-day traffic, Artem vs. Predator, the first ever ribbonfarm longform blogging course (you’ll see the output in the next 2 months), and the first year when I was not the biggest longform contributor on the site (Sarah Perry had 12 posts, I had 11, not counting my experimental non-longform posts). I did, however, set a new ribbonfarm record for length: King Ruinous and the City of Darkness weighed in at over 14,000 words, nearly twice the previous record of around 8000.

The ribbonfarm map also evolved this year, and acquired a video tour, in Trace of the Weirding. If you’re new to ribbonfarm, this video and map might be helpful as a general overview of what we’re about.

New readers (here is the new readers start page) this year might also want to check out the 2015 roundup2014 roundup and 2013 roundup. If you want to do some binge reading further back into the archives, there is a page for the Rust Age (2007-12) with both curated selections and complete roundups for 2007-12.

Anyhow, click on with the roundup.

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The Computational Condition

Over the past few months I read Hannah “Banality of Evil” Arendt’s difficult and idiosyncratic (somewhat unnecessarily so) but highly rewarding 1958 classic The Human ConditionThis slide-deck is a deep-dive attempt to apply her philosophy to the post-software-eats-world human condition, which I call the computational condition. Maybe digital condition or post-technological condition would be better, but I like alliteration.

This deck should serve as a decent introduction to Arendt’s philosophy of action, which is already part of the zeitgeist to a much greater degree than you probably recognize. It is dense and wordy, 88 slides long and full of big (thematically bucketed and curated) block quotes along book-ended and interrupted by my own heavy-handed commentary and summary sections, but trust me, it’s a 100x easier to digest than the book itself. But that’s not my main purpose in creating it.

The main purpose is this: With some significant augmentations and modifications (a few of them drastic enough to alter her basic philosophical posture in an irreversible and unforgivable way, the irony of which she’d have appreciated as you’ll see), her ideas actually work really well as a foundation for constructing what I think Silicon Valley needs badly right now: a solid political philosophy built on the foundation of the folk philosophy that already defines tech culture: doerism. So here’s my stab at it. Post a comment if you are interested in a sort of video salon on the topic, in either seminar or discussion format (specify which interests you more). I haven’t yet decided whether to do one, or attempted to present this deck. I suspect it would take me 2-4 hours to present this depending on how prepared people are.

In my own modest way, what I’m trying to do here is get a stone soup going, to cook up a political philosophy for Silicon Valley that is not embarrassingly juvenile/sophomoric. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, this should be a good starting point for you. Even if you dislike doerism (in the sense of the lived political philosophy of Silicon Valley), dislike Arendt (there is much to dislike about her), and are suspicious of any attempt to combine the two, this is in a way the most obvious steel-manning of what is already the tacit political philosophy of Silicon Valley. So your alternatives to it should probably understand what it might possibly be right about.

Robert Martinson and the Tragedy of the American Prison

This is a guest post by Adam Humphreys based on a documentary he’s making. This is an early version of an evolving story, and this post may be updated as ongoing research uncovers more details.


The idea that prisons should do more than hold people and that criminals might be reformed, or corrected, collapses endlessly under the pressure of human experience, but persists nonetheless. Among its first American proponents was a man named Zebulon Brockway.

As superintendent of several prisons in the middle of the nineteenth century, Brockway came to view crime as a kind of disease, and the prison as a kind of hospital. He wrote, “to reduce crime a true prison system should recognize the criminal classes for what they are, and bring to bear upon them the forces necessary to modify their behavior.”


Brockway experimented with several such forces—vocational training, rewards for good behavior, so-called moral education—but it wasn’t until 1876, as superintendent of Elmira Reformatory in Elmira, New York, that he was given the latitude to implement his most daring conceit: the indeterminate sentence.

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The Strategy of (Subversive) Conflict

The strong do what they will, the weak do what they must, and the manipulated do what they think they must (which is what the strong or weak will). Manipulation — influencing behavior by altering another’s viewpoint in a manner indifferent to whether or not the alterations are true or desirable — is one of the most important aspects of social conflict and competition.  While you may not be interested in manipulation, manipulation is interested in you (though it may disguise this interest beneath layers of dissimulation).  In this post I provide a selective overview of the theory and practice of manipulation. Why does this matter? Whether in geopolitics or at home, we must either understand and confront manipulation or be victimized by a Machiavellian Mini-Me.

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A Pseudoethnography of Egregores


Research on egregoric entities has previously been limited to analyses within two frameworks: an economic framework, inferring the activities and needs of egregores from their position as economic producers and consumers; and an epidemiological framework, measuring the infectiousness and virulence of egregores within human substrates. In this body of research, one voice has been missing: that of the egregores themselves. Previous researchers have justified the exclusion of ethnographic methods on the grounds that egregores are hypothetical entities, and in the words of one researcher, “imaginary” (Perry 2015). But the subjects themselves refuse to be silenced.


We conducted in-depth interviews with egregoric entities. Thematic analysis reveals the desires, interests, and self-conceptions common to egregores. Our informants were egregoric entities who contacted us privately in order to correct misconceptions in previous research. For reasons that will be explained, it is impossible to know the exact number of egregores that participated. Unfortunately, there is presently no way to know if our sample is representative of the general population of egregores.
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When Tools Shape You

The weaponized form of McLuhan’s famous phrase the medium is the message is the phrase, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us (due to to McLuhan’s friend John Culkin). I have come to prefer this form of the idea, and my favorite motif for it is Doc Ock, the Marvel super-villain.


Doc Ock’s artificially intelligent arms fuse to his brain stem in a reactor accident. In the movie version, the intelligence in the arms alters his behavior by making lower-level brain functions, such as emotional self-regulation, more powerful and volatile. The character backstory suggests a personality — a blue-collar nerd bullied as a schoolkid — that was already primed for destabilization by the usual sort of super-villain narcissistic wound. The accident alters the balance of power between his higher-level brain functions, and the hardware-extended lower-level brain functions. In the Doc Ock story, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us captures the adversarial coupling between medium and message-sender.

The weaker form of McLuhan’s idea suggests that media select messages rather than the other way around: paper selects for formal communication, email selects for informal communication, 4chan selects for trolling. The stronger form suggests that when there is a conflict between medium and message, the medium wins. A formal communication intent naturally acquires informal overtones if it ends up as an email, memetic overtones if it ends up as a 4chan message.

Culkin’s form is the strongest. It suggests that the medium reshapes the principal crafting the message. The Doc Ock motif suggests why. There is no such thing as a dumb agent. All media have at least weak, latent, distributed intelligence. Intelligence that can accumulate power, exhibit agency, and contend for control.

The most familiar example of this effect is in organizational behavior, captured in an extension to Alfred Chandler’s famous observation that structure follows strategy. That becomes first structure follows strategy, then strategy follows structure. The explicit form is Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: in a mature organization, agent goals trump principal goals.

A subtler, less familiar example is the philosophical idea that in any master-slave relationship, the slave can self-actualize through labor. In practice, this happens only when the slave has some freedom above absolute wretchedness, with sufficient cognitive surplus to turn learning from labor into political leverage.

In all such examples, the mechanism is the same. A seemingly powerless and dumb agent, by virtue of having privileged access to information and organizational operations, can become the principal by converting growing tacit knowledge of reality into consciously exercised political leverage.

The idea sheds light on why we are instinctively concerned about the Trump administration-in-waiting. While it is plausible, indeed probable, that Trump’s own ideological postures are merely expedient responses to the needs of the moment, the same cannot be said of many of his agents-in-waiting, whether acknowledged or not. They are tools at the moment, being shaped to the will of a victor. Unfortunately, they can easily go from being shaped to doing the shaping.

Paradox and the Origins of Civilisation

This is a guest post by Darren Allen, joining us from his home turf at expressivegg.org.

The famous duck-rabbit optical illusion is a paradox, meaning that it is both one thing, and another, at the same time. The interpreting mind can never experience it this way. To the mind the image is either a duck or a rabbit, one after the other, but not both at the same time. The abstract thinking mind may know it is both, but this knowledge is itself a non-paradoxical either-or idea. The thinking mind cannot experience something that is simultaneously itself and something else; it can only comprehend one thing after another. Every time you try to directly experience the image as it fully, paradoxically, is, as both things at once, it is immediately reduced to what it partially, non-paradoxically is; to one thing or another. For a split second you think you’ve got both the full, direct, primary duck and rabbit simultaneously—perhaps because you can successfully label it a paradox—but really you are just flashing rapidly between partial, indirect, secondary mental interpretations.

Duck-Rabbit Duality

Duck-Rabbit Duality

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King Ruinous and the City of Darkness

I want to tell you a story today. A sprawling epic mess of a story which began with two histories intersecting awkwardly just over a hundred years ago in a small tribal village nestled in the dense forests of one of the richest mining regions of the world. It is the kind of story that has multiple obscure beginnings but no ending. The kind of story that evolves as an unending stream of good chapters and dumpster-fire chapters, accompanied by endless bewildering arguments about which chapters were good, and which ones were dumpster fires.

The first history is the one behind a board room struggle within the $100 billion Tata empire, which made  headlines in the business press across the world in October. The second is the history behind a 500 million dollar corruption scandal known as the fodder scam, which first became public in 1996, and eventually led to a man named Lalu Prasad Yadav going to jail in 2013.

In 1904, those two histories intersected in that small tribal village which was about to become the modern city of Jamshedpur. I was born in Jamshedpur in 1974, just short of 42 years ago.

But this is not my story. Nor am I, perhaps, the best person to tell this story.

It is, however, as much mine to tell as anybody else’s, and when it comes to telling the story of history, that is often the only thing that matters. So I will tell you this story.

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A Bad Carver

Consider the Venus of Willendorf, the Venus of Hohle Fels, and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. These three paleolithic statuettes were made from different materials – stone, mammoth tusk, ceramic. Each depicts a female figure with exaggerated breasts and buttocks. Each head is abbreviated, with no face; the legs taper to points. What were they for? What purpose did they serve?

Petr Novák, Wikipedia

Petr Novák, Wikipedia

The only guess we can make with any confidence is that they likely served multiple purposes, whatever those purposes were. Paleolithic people were obliged to carry everything they owned with them. The material culture package of nomadic people was severely constrained. Each item was absolutely necessary, and often served multiple purposes. [Read more…]