Weirding Diary

I first used the term "the great weirding" in a 2016 Atlantic article, and have since been using the term to refer generally to the gradual unraveling of "normalcy" since around the time (the death of Harambe the gorilla being a commonly accepted marker of the advent of the weirding). In this series, I try to theorize the weirding as it unfolds.

Weirding Diary: 1

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Weirding Diary

I did a little poll asking people the extent to which they are treating the current zeitgeist as a temporary weirding (TW) versus a permanent new normal (NN).

The results got me thinking: what is the difference between the two? I think the answer is societal fun levels. A situation is a normal situation if inhabiting it is a matter of going on with your sustainable survival/existence habits, and expecting the situation to persist indefinitely. The mark of normalcy is the allocation of surplus energy to fun, after you’ve taken care of necessary present and future-oriented behaviors.

A situation is temporarily weird if you either can’t, or don’t want to, adapt to it using sustainable habits. In the former case, you cut back sharply on fun, minimize use of resources to survive, and save as much as you can for post-weirding normalcy. In the latter case, you try and exit the situation.

Wartime is the archetypal temporary weirding. Wartime civilian behaviors are sharply constrained survival behaviors. There is a limited ration of fun available to keep up morale, but in general, the wartime psyche does not incline to fun. You expect the war to end at some point, and a return to normalcy. Even if it is a new kind of normalcy that forces you to drop some old habits and form new ones.

When the situation is ambiguous, as it is around the world today, we cannot estimate the proportions of transient weirdness, new normal, and temporarily depressed old normal in the mix. In terms of an investing metaphor, we don’t know whether to go long on the zeitgeist by buying into new cultural stocks, hold on to old cultural stocks that we hope will regain their old value, or short the zeitgeist somehow.

I’m trying out a new format for exploring themes long-term. This is the first entry in my weirding diary.

Weirding Diary: 2

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Weirding Diary

It is easy to orient yourself in space and time. In the simplest (but not most accessible) case, you’re fully present in the here and now. In a more typical case, maybe you’re at work, and daydreaming about being on the beach. Or dealing with 2019 taxes, with your head partly in 2022 when you’ll be done with a big project. Or maybe you’ve retreated within your memory palace to 1995. But in all such cases, you remain spatiotemporally oriented.

It can get complicated though. Maybe, in 2019, you’re ironically re-watching a 2013 movie that recodes, in the idiom of early 2000s superhero movies, the world of a starship in the 23rd century, as originally imagined in the 1960s. You can roll with that. Atemporality is easy if you can keep track of a few moving parts and levels of indirection.

What is hard is orientation in thought regimes where space and time are not the primary variables. Social spaces are good examples. You can move around in them, but is hard to impose notions of order, direction, or distance, onto social spaces. Take, for example, a simple one-dimensional model of social space with an axis that goes from private to public. This used to be a simple axis. At the private end you were alone with your thoughts. At the public end you might have appeared on television. You would “let your hair down” in private and put on a “game face” for appearing in public. You had “home” and “work” personalities.

Now, it is all mangled up. You could say the private-to-public dimension of social life has become entangled with itself, and with other social dimensions like power, status, and class. An important feature of weirding is being disoriented in social space this way, caught up in a set of mutually entangled dimensions.

Weirding Diary: 3

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Weirding Diary

A sense of weirdness in the environment can be understood as unfactored reality. A blooming, buzzing confusion of sensory input that impinges on awareness without the mediating effects of conceptual thought. This is the same thing as the void, but we typically conceptualize the void as a featureless black hole. The reason is that our cognitive reaction to unfactored reality is to seal our minds off completely. Eyes wide shut. When the going gets weird, the mind shuts its eyes. If you keep your mind’s eyes open, translucent, legibilizing models descend to manage the cognitive response.  As the eyelids of the mind descend, some variety of magical thinking takes root. Normalcy is just the majority sect of magical thinking.

In my 2012 post, Welcome to the Future NauseousI defined the idea of a manufactured normalcy field (MNF). An MNF comprises both the models in your head, and elements in the built environment meant to encourage it to stabilize in your head. A stable MNF keeps the sense of weirdness at bay, and normal people functioning as adults. When the field destabilizes due to models crumbling in your head, reality acquires a surreal character. When it destabilizes due to the built environment crumbling, you have an anxiety response. When both crumble, you experience weirdness. In all three cases, functional behaviors required for survival get disrupted.

A filter bubble is a special case of a manufactured normalcy field comprising curated information flows. I dislike like the term because filtration is not the essence of what’s going on. The essence is the active construction of adaptive, magical-thinking, escaped realities. So I like my alternate term: reality escape pods. Normalcy is just the biggest such escape pod, illustrated by the track of the pink circle in the picture above.  The white ones are subcultures.

Weirding Diary: 4

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Weirding Diary

The Things Fall Apart series on Epsilon Theory is an excellent exploration of the Great Weirding, particularly the “As Above, So Below” principle:

“As Above, So Below” means that our social lives are organized as a fractal, that when there is disorder in the heavens or the seats of worldly power, so is there disorder in our communities, our families, and our personal lives.”

Case in point: Recently, a Starbucks I used to frequent closed. The story was obvious to regulars: it had become an urban deadzone, more attractive to the homeless than to laptop warriors.

Over several years, the store deteriorated. You would often find homeless men parked in armchairs for hours, nursing a single grimy cup. Once, one such man got out of his armchair, and there was a pool of what I could only hope was water under him. He flipped the cushion over and left. Going to the restroom increasingly meant finding a homeless person washing up. I observed the Schelling sorting effect play out to the end, as the clientele drifted to the sort better served by a McDonald’s.

The Starbucks menu has a digital soul. It is a combinatorial consumption feast at the end of a global supply chain weaving its way from plantations, through factory-scale roasteries that  tame natural variety to nail a consistently mediocre taste year after year, to the cups of us cloud mice.

Starbucks stores, however, are firmly situated in meatspace, canaries in the neourban cores of the Weirding at the “below” end.

Today, I’m working out of a Starbucks in laptop-warrior zone, because the other Starbucks I frequent is also closed, for President’s Day, a surreal holiday that makes no sense in the flexwork economy embodied by Starbucks. And Howard Schultz is running for President.

As above, so below.


Weirding Diary: 5

This entry is part 5 of 8 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.

Weirding Diary: 6

This entry is part 6 of 8 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.

Weirding Diary: 7

This entry is part 7 of 8 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.

Weirding Diary: 8

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Weirding Diary

Elections in India and EU, and the US-China trade war, have sparked a fresh round of prognostications in my feeds, on the expected length of the global reactionary swing. Here’s a thread of representative opining from Yascha Mounk.

Weirding is not the same thing as the global rightward swing, but I believe it is going to be co-extensive in time with a generation of extremist politics, with the initiative sparking back and forth between far right and far left across the horseshoe gap, with far right having the overall advantage. Centrist positions are underwater in terms of viability.

I’ve come up with an estimate of my own: the weirding will last another 21 years, or until 2040. Counting from 2015, that makes it a 25 year half-cycle, which triangulates well with the 25 year neoliberal half cycle that came just before, making for a 50-year full cycle. If I’m right, I’ll be 66 by the time we’re done with the weirding, so I might as well get comfortable.

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