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?

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

Predictable Identities: 5 – Outgroup Homogeneity

This entry is part 5 of 15 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.

Elderblog Sutra: 5

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Elderblog Sutra

One of the challenges of writing an elder blog is that by definition the archives are extensive, and of very mixed quality. At some point, all formally imposed structure — categories, tags, series, “best of year” or “most popular” lists — buckle under the sheer weight of content. Once you’re past a few hundred posts, with reasonably dense internal back-linking, your only hope for recovering some sort of structure from what is essentially a little walled-garden artisanal web is algorithms. Thanks to John Backus, I have an algorithmic lens on the unkempt wilderness of ribbonfarm for you today.

John mined the archives to compute the internal linking structure, which I then massaged further into an internal page rank for the archives. Here’s a little video of John playing with a graph visualization tool.


And here’s the spreadsheet with the mined data. Feel free to make a copy and play around with the data and my PageRank-esque formula, which generates this view of the archives:

The “Adjusted Page Rank” here is a function of three variables:

  1. The number of posts linking to a post. A good post should inspire the author, and hopefully other contributors, to cite it in future posts.
  2. The age of the post. If a post doesn’t accumulate backlinks, it sinks into obscurity. About half the posts in our archives have no backlinks.
  3. The “weight” of the author. Contributors who have written more are weighted less, so Sarah and I have the two lowest weights, at 1.0303 and 1.0037 respectively.

Note that external inbound links are specifically not included in this ranking. This is a purely internal measure. If you want the formulas:

Author_weight = 1+1/(num_posts)

Adjusted Page Rank =  Author_weight*num_links/age

Where num_posts is the number of posts with at least 1 backlink.

Obviously, there’s room for enhancements here, but it’s a start. Thanks John!

Domestic Cozy: 2

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Domestic Cozy

Phrases like domestic cozy and  premium mediocre are what you might call world hashes, fingerprints of worlds. They enable you to instantly classify whether a thing belongs in a world, or is an alien element within it, even before you have characterized the world at any significant level of detail.

Take this picture (a screenshot of the landing page of Offhours.co, an “inactivewear” company, ht Adam Humphreys) for instance: domestic cozy or not?

I’m going to say yes, that’s domestic cozy. It’s not an exact science. The associations with inactivity, indoor life, and comfort over presentability put it firmly in the domestic-cozy world.

There are certainly problems at the margins. The well-groomed look of the model, and the non-messiness of the background suggest there’s a residual element of Millennial premium mediocrity in the positioning. It’s more the fake “good-hair” domesticity of a staged Instagram performance than a representation of a genuinely domestic aesthetic. Maybe they’re trying to get some crossover appeal going.

If I had to fine-tune this graphic to strike exactly the right note, I’d pick a more ordinary looking model, perhaps with properly unkempt frizzy hair and freckles. Maybe  a pile of laundry and unwashed coffee mugs/plates in the background (not disgustingly messy, just TV-messy). Maybe softer, darker evening lighting. Maybe a less glossy, more scruffy visual texture. Maybe a board game next to the model. Maybe a note of anxiety.

Still, close enough. This passes the fingerprint matching test.

Domestic cozy is a world hash that picks out a grammar in a world. As with premium mediocre, domestic cozy is tempting to reductively see as just an aesthetic. But if you like where this going, I suggest you check that tendency, because it makes things so much less interesting. To confuse a world hash with an aesthetic is like saying Sherlock’s Holmes ability to read the clues in his clients’ appearances made him a fashion critic rather than a detective.

This grammar is easiest to pick out in visual elements, but it suffuses all aspects of the world. I’ll save more general theorizing about world hashes for the worlding blogchain, but what does the grammar of domestic cozy tell us about the underlying world? What parts of what it picks out are enduring traits of the generation (remember, Gen Z can expect to live into the next century), and what parts are simply a function of life stage and contemporary conditions?

One thing that strikes me about examples I’ve noticed so far is that they paradoxically combine passivity and sense of play. As Visakan noted in a comment last time, there is a dark note of palliative self-care. Instead of Bruce Sterling’s “acting dead“, what we have here is a kind of playing dead. Instead of favela chic, we have mortuary chic.

This is an aspect that, I predict, will not endure. It is an artifact of life stage and 2019 conditions, not the generational temperament.

But the playfulness will mature into a more alive version of itself.

Worlding Raga: 3 — Slouching with God

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Worlding Raga

Last week, my wife and I watched the new Captain Marvel movie. It strikes a slightly quieter note than the typical Marvel Cinematic Universe romp, and it occurred to me that that’s because the character is arguably the most powerful in the MCU, like Superman in the DC universe. She’s more like a god than even Thanos or Thor, so the usual wisecracking smart-assery would have struck a false note.

A line in Ian’s Worlding Raga episode last week, What is a World, leaped out at me in relation to this:

This voluntary desire to surf chaos, metabolize it into new order, and then do it all over again, is sometimes called “walking with god.” Maybe it’s more like slouching with god around here.

In the MCU, Nick Fury walks with many gods, and Captain Marvel appears to be the most powerful of the lot, which is why Fury sends a prayer-pager call out to her as his last act in Infinity War. Presumably she’ll play a key role in defeating Thanos in Endgame.

Since I’ve been jokingly referring to Ribbonfarm and its surrounding web zone as the “Ribbonfarm Blogamatic Universe” (RBU), Ian’s characterization immediately provokes the question: am I Captain Marvel or Nick Fury in the RBU? I hope I’m not Hawkeye.

[Read more…]

Predictable Identities: 4 – Stereotypes

This entry is part 4 of 15 in the series Predictable Identities

How do we predict strangers?

Humans evolved in an environment where they rarely had to do this. Practically everyone a prehistoric human met was familiar and could be modeled individually based on their past interactions. But today, we deal with ever-stranger strangers on big city streets, in global markets, online…

We need to make quick predictions about people we’ve never met. We do it using stereotypes.

Early research on stereotypes focused on their affective aspect: we dislike strangers, but less so as we get to know them. But new studies have looked at the content of stereotypes, finding that groups are judged independently on the dimensions of warmth/competitiveness and status/competence. For example, Germans see Italians as high-warmth low-competence, i.e. lovable buffoons; Italians see Germans as the exact opposite, i.e. mercenary experts.

These dimensions are primarily about predicting someone’s behavior and capability. In game theory terms: Will that person cooperate? And can I safely defect on them or do I have to play nice?

Contrary to the well-meaning wishes of most stereotype researchers, there is robust empirical evidence on stereotype accuracy. The short of it is that people’s stereotypes are, in fact, quite accurate, especially stereotypes of gender and ethnicity. Whether stereotyping is good or bad, it cannot simply be wished “educated” away. It is universal because it’s very useful for prediction.

A smart person noted that problems arise from having too few stereotypes, not too many. If you have a single stereotype for “Jews” you’re doing a bad job of modeling Jewish people, and are likelier to mistreat them due to prejudice. If you have separate stereotypes for Hasidic Jews, Brooklyn conservative Zionists, liberal Jewish atheists, secular Israelis etc. you’re one step closer to treating (and modeling) unfamiliar Jews as individuals. Studying cultures is about acquiring many useful stereotypes.

Refactorings Roundup: 1/28/19 – 3/10/19

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Refactorings Roundups

It’s been nearly 6 weeks since the last time I did this roundup from our mastodon. It’s now a series, so you can navigate backwards to find good stuff.  Even with some automation (thanks Zach), generating a reasonable curated selection from the hive-mind of a community is not an easy task. Still, I find it’s worth doing for the sheer oddity of the things that get into the dragnet.

In other news, I’ve gotten really good at making omeletes with the Just Egg plant-based egg substitute, which is really good.

Unlike auteur-curated link roundups, which tend to have an impoverished sameness even with the best curators, a reasonable sized community that is sufficiently open tends to have weird shit on its mind if you periodically fMRI it. I’ve been trying to follow a bonsai-style curation approach, trying to reveal the natural tendencies of this firehose rather than filter by my own interests. We have a total of 16 posts from friends of ribbonfarm, and 27 links from around the web.

Among the new posts, I want to call out Chenoe Hart’s post Free Shipping (#1 on the New Posts list), Sarah Constantin’s posts on general intelligence (#7) and Ilia Gimelfarb’s post (#14).

Alright here we go.

[Read more…]

Weirding Diary: 5

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series Weirding Diary

In the South Lake Union part of Seattle, where Amazon has its campus, there is a “community banana stand” where anyone can grab a banana for free. Each time I walk by, I read the sign as a philosophical suggestion for the Weirding. When the going gets weird, the weird go pro, but normies go bananas.

But there’s a deeper lesson in the banana stand.

Most people (including me) who grab a banana are not exactly needy, so to the extent “community” suggests a representative sample of Seattle, including the poor and homeless, the banana stand is in the wrong place. It’s a perk for tech-workers, and the service class surrounding it, with a bit of communitarian lipstick.

As elite hypocrisies go, this one is pretty benign, and I’m happy to participate in it. But why do we even need it? Why narrativize free bananas as a “community” perk.

I think the answer lies in the is-ought fallacy operating among elites to counter-program a self-awareness of their own mediocrity: “These free bananas, which we share out of noblesse oblige, demonstrate our exceptional nature!”

This is an elite rationalization, but the urge to deny rather than embrace a sense of mediocrity is a human universal. In fact, I would define normie as “somebody with an urge to deny their mediocrity.”

Mediocrity denial is using exceptional environments to “prove” your exceptional nature to yourself. It leads to bad theories of weird worlds.

The mediocrity-embracing solution, which is a necessary condition to go pro weird, is to resist the urge to ideologically narrativize bananas. Grab a free banana when you can, pay for your banana when you must.

Weirding and mediocrity are entangled in my head. I haven’t entirely sorted out how, but one dimension is certainly the is-ought fallacy in identity formation.