The Chieftain of Seir's essay The Crisis of Authority provides a helpful historical link between models I've laid out elsewhere. I wrote a long comment that I want to reproduce here.Continue reading
Category Archives: Cooperation
Simulacra and Subjectivity
In Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra, following Baudrillard, Jessica Taylor and I laid out a model of simulacrum levels with something of a fall-from grace feel to the story:
- First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.
- The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity - people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there's a lion over somewhere where I know there's food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.
- When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren't even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. "There's food over there" is perhaps construed as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as though it were that call to action. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or "aboutness." For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.
- Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you're trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.
There is some merit to this linear treatment, but it obscures an important structural feature: the resemblance of levels 1 and 3, and 2 and 4. Continue reading
Approval Extraction Advertised as Production
Paul Graham has a new essay out, The Lesson to Unlearn, on the desire to pass tests. It covers the basic points made in Hotel Concierge's The Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment. But something must be missing from the theory, because what Paul Graham did with his life was start Y Combinator, the apex predator of the real-life Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment. Or it's just false advertising. Continue reading
Judgment, Punishment, and the Information-Suppression Field
There are a lot of senses in which I or the people around me can be considered unsafe. Many-tonned hunks of metal whiz by us on the same streets we have to navigate on foot to buy our groceries. The social infrastructure by which we have access to clean drinking water is gradually being adulterated. Our country is run by increasingly nasty white nationalists. And, of course, The Bomb. But when I hear people talk about feeling unsafe, they are almost never describing a concrete threat to their physical well-being. (As usual, life may be different for the less privileged classes, who have reason to fear the authorities, and behave accordingly.) "Safety" does not come up as a motive for actions taken or avoided in order to mitigate such threats. Instead, it seems that "safety" nearly always means a nonjudgmental context (the exact opposite of what I would naively expect to be able to ensure clean drinking water or keep the cars from colliding with us), and "feeling unsafe" is generally used to explain only why they're trying to withhold information (mainly "vulnerable," i.e. relevant-to-their-interests, information) in a way that seems out of proportion to actually existing risks and opportunities. Continue reading
Towards optimal play as Villager in a mixed game
On Twitter, Freyja wrote:
Things capitalism is trash at:
- Valuing preferences of anything other than adults who earn money (i.e. future people, non-humans)
- Pricing non-standardisable goods (i.e. information)
- Playing nicely with non-quantifiable values + objectives (i.e. love, ritual)
Things capitalism is good at:
- Incentivising the production of novel goods and services
- Coordinating large groups of people to produce complex bundles of goods
- The obvious: making value fungible
Anyone know of work on -
a) integrating the former into existing economic systems, or
b) developing new systems to provide those things while including capitalism's existing benefits?
This intersected well enough with my current interests and those of the people I've been discoursing with most closely that I figured I'd try my hand at a quick explanation of what we're doing, which I've lightly edited into blog post form below. This is only a loose sketch, I think it does reasonably precisely outline the argument, but many readers may find that there are substantial inferential leaps. Questions in the comments are strongly encouraged.
Any serious attempt at (b) will first have to unwind the disinformation that claims that the thing we have now is capitalism, or remotely efficient.
The short version of the project: learning to talk honestly within a small group about how power works, both systemically and as it applies to us, without trying to hold onto information asymmetries. (There's pervasive temptation to withhold political information as part of a zero-sum privilege game, like Plato's philosopher-kings.) Continue reading
In Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra, I worked through a well-known schema for distinguishing different relationships towards semantic reference, that are a natural result of interactions between shared-production games and expropriation games. Here, I analyze the coalition politics of such games. Continue reading
Should Effective Altruism be at war with North Korea?
Summary: Political constraints cause supposedly objective technocratic deliberations to adopt frames that any reasonable third party would interpret as picking a side. I explore the case of North Korea in the context of nuclear disarmament rhetoric as an illustrative example of the general trend, and claim that people and institutions can make better choices and generate better options by modeling this dynamic explicitly. In particular, Effective Altruism and academic Utilitarianism can plausibly claim to be the British Empire's central decisionmaking mechanism, and as such, has more options than its current story can consider.
I wrote to my friend Georgia in response to this Tumblr post.
Asymmetric disarmament rhetoric
Ben: It feels increasingly sketchy to me to call tiny countries surrounded by hostile regimes "threatening" for developing nuclear capacity, when US official policy for decades has been to threaten the world with nuclear genocide.
Strong recommendation to read Daniel Ellsberg's The Doomsday Machine.
Georgia: Book review: The Doomsday Machine
So I get that the US' nuclear policy was and probably is a nightmare that's repeatedly skirted apocalypse. That doesn't make North Korea's program better.
Ben [feeling pretty sheepish, having just strongly recommended a book my friend just reviewed on her blog]: "Threatening" just seems like a really weird word for it. This isn't about whether things cause local harm in expectation - it's about the frame in which agents trying to organize to defend themselves are the aggressors, rather than the agent insisting on global domination. Continue reading
Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra
I've been discoursing more privately about the corruption of discourse lately, for reasons that I hope are obvious at least in the abstract, but there's one thing I did think was shareable. The context is another friend's forthcoming blog post about the politicization of category boundaries.
Blackmailers are privateers in the war on hypocrisy
Allowing blackmail seems prima facie good to me, since it's a tax on covert illicit behavior. Zvi seems to think, to the contrary, that it's prima facie bad.
Robin Hanson argued: If there exists some information about someone that, if revealed, would cause people to coordinate to punish them, then it's good for this information to be revealed because on average it's good for such people to be punished. Blackmail rewards people for investigating covert illicit behavior that would otherwise remain undetected, and correspondingly punishes the people engaging in that behavior.
Zvi offered two interesting arguments against this, which I'll address one at a time. Continue reading
MeToo is good
In Locker room talk, I suggested that apparent coordination to shield sexual assaulters, harassers, or abusers might be much more local than it seemed. Since then, Donald Trump won the presidential election with a narrow majority, and the MeToo movement took off. The way the two phenomena have played out seem like strong evidence for the hypothesis that there were multiple strong coalitions with very different priorities, hidden from each other.
Half the country was at least willing to hold their noses for Trump, which I felt was a somewhat surprising display of tolerance for unambiguously awful behavior, but the apparently entrenched Harvey Weinstein was quickly dethroned, and a sitting Senator was removed, suggesting that in some places the coalition against sexual abuses has great power.
What's amazing to me, though, is how discriminating the MeToo phenomenon has been, and how resistant it's been to spurious scapegoating dynamics.