Culture, interpretive labor, and tidying one's room

While tidying my room, I felt the onset of the usual cognitive fatigue. But this time, I didn't just want to bounce off the task - I was curious. When I inspected the fatigue, to see what it was made of, it felt similar to when I'm trying to thread a rhetorical needle - for instance, between striking too neutral a tone for anyone to understand the relevance of what I'm saying, and too bold of a tone for my arguments to be taken literally. In short, I was shouldering a heavy burden of interpretive labor.

Why would tidying my room involve interpretive labor? 

It turns out, every item in my room is a sort of crystallized intention, generally past-me. (We've all heard the stories of researchers with messy rooms who somehow knew where everything was, and lost track of everything when someone else committed the violent act of reorganizing the room, thus deindexing it from its owner's mind.) As I decided what to do with an item, I wanted to make sure I didn't lose that information. So, I tried to Aumann with my past self - the true way, the way that filters back into deep models, so that I could pass my past self's ideological turing test. And that's cognitively expensive.

It's generally too aggressive to tidy someone's room without their permission, unless they're in physical danger because of it. But to be unwilling to tidy my own room without getting very clear explicit permission from my past self for every action - or at least checking in - is pathologically nonaggressive.

Once I realized this, it became easier to tidy my room, but the problem is not limited to that. Part of the reason why my cabin retreat was so helpful to me was that it limited my ability to accept social invitations or other bids for my attention. In those cases as well, I don't feel compelled to agree, but I do feel compelled to do enough interpretive labor to understand why this other person thinks I should do a thing.

I know of a few approaches to this problem, none of which seem fully adequate.

One approach is to blithely bulldoze the accumulated intentions of their environment. When people do this with respect to their own prior intentions, they end up too impulsive and disorganized to deal with the complexity of the modern world, and often severely indebted to extractive schemes like credit cards. When they do this with respect to others' intentions, they're inconsiderate and socially oblivious.

Others favor designing general policies for themselves, and then sticking to those policies, perhaps periodically updating them when they see a strong reason to. The downside of this approach is that it's slow to change, and prone to paralysis whenever something comes up that's outside existing policies. The advantage is that on-the-fly interpretive labor is replaced with batch processing, potentially capturing economies of scale and allowing much more efficient coordination with oneself and others over longer timescales.

A third approach is to accept some preexisting traditional way of life that's passed the test of time. This approach means that you have policies covering things you haven't encountered yet, vastly reducing the incidence of analysis paralysis. In addition, you know that a bunch of other people are following the same protocol, lateral coordination is much easier. Policies will also have been tested for working well in conjunction, and not just individually. A downside is that you're limited to the existing menu of options, all of which may be knowably quite suboptimal, and which are quite slow to change. This also doesn't help when you encounter genuinely novel-to-your-culture situations, or problems on scales larger than the one your culture's been tested over.

These three solution classes - impulsivity, policy-generation, and tradition-adherence, are all ones I'm actively exploring. The middle one fits my character the best. But overall this feels like a substantially unsolved problem. One thing I've been exploring in posts like Sabbath hard and go home, and Why I am not a Quaker, is looking at existing traditions for policies I might want to try out, to better explore the space, and so I don't have to wait for a crisis like the need to tidy my room to work out a better policy.

21 thoughts on “Culture, interpretive labor, and tidying one's room

  1. J

    > But to be unwilling to tidy my own room without getting very clear explicit permission from my past self for every action - or at least checking in - is pathologically nonaggressive.

    I totally don't get it. Why is it bad? Like, is not not having permission from your past self to do a thing bad because that's socially condemnable to do, or is it non-useful, or is this a transgression according to deontological ethics or virtue ethics?

    > too impulsive and disorganized to deal with the complexity of the modern world, and often severely indebted to extractive schemes like credit cards

    Ok, that sort of answers it, my method for dealing with this is to totally socially seclude myself so that I have energy to just not do things other than acting as I best see fit. Though this is a chicken and egg problem between "seclude yourself" and "get energy to do things", and financial resources/connections play a role too. Hells, I see you did a Goenka retreat, maybe you have some thoughts on this.

    But yeah, it sounds like we have a real difference in experiences and that's preventing me from understanding what you meant in the first passage I quoted, at a minimum.

    Anyways, "something is cognitively wrong help can I change myself or my environment to make it better" is an awesome topic and I'm glad to see you writing on it 🙂

    1. Benquo Post author

      I have correct inhibitions against assembling a complicated piece of flat-pack furniture before reviewing the instructions carefully. Things I placed in my room also represent information and affordances my past self gave me, and I don't have some additional index letting me know which pieces of information are critical - so I need to evaluate all of them to check. It's not that I can't override my past self, it's that I'm doing an explicit evaluation at each step.

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  3. Anonymous

    Ziz's stuff about mental caching seems applicable to this type of problem. I'm not sure how though, and it'd be nice to have a better theory of caching and how / whether it works for humans. (/how much design effort is needed to get it to work?)

    1. J

      Yeah, I suspect the problem Ben mentions here resolves itself when one stops caring about what people think. The question of how to do that is one I haven't totally resolved, but:

      -the extent to which I have control over my life has a big impact on how much I care about what people think
      -it's possible to realize "social things are arbitrary and you can be free from them" on an intellectual level and not realize it on the level of experiential knowledge.

      1. Benquo Post author

        There are lots of functional reasons for caring what people think, of course. Finding an otherwise tolerable situation where you can justifiably not care - and acquiring the discernment to be able to reliably notice when you are or aren't in that situation - seems pretty crucial here.

      2. Noah

        Huh, this comment surprised me. Does Ziz's stuff, or doing some sort of mental caching, entail or require not caring about what people think? I don't totally understand Ziz's approach, but one thing I got out of reading their blog re: other people was something more like "don't confuse reality with social reality, but think of social reality as a part of reality. do track and respond to evidence about what others think."

        PS: I claim (without verification) that I am the same anonymous as the one at the top of this thread.

        1. J

          She never explicitly says "don't care what others think"; though imo not caring is part of the fallout of what happens if you mentally develop in the ways mentioned on her blog.

          I've been meaning to get a couple people to read Ziz's stuff and then go do a few hundred hours of mindfulness, b/c that might be a better way to get them to implement the changes Ziz mentions than reading Ziz's stuff and trying to implement it directly, but am still far from finishing my own mental engineering work. Though it's impossible to find people who will bother with re-engineering their mind in interesting ways.

          1. Noah

            I'm not convinced that mental engineers are so hard to find. There's a whole subreddit for tulpamancy, right? What's your threshold for interestingness? Do you think people who want to re-engineer their mind in interesting ways are rare, or just hard to find because mind-hacking correlates with being harder to seek out?

          2. J

            My friends who say they're interested in mental engineering mostly aren't willing to put in time/effort to implement particular changes. (Admittedly many of them are depressed, but depression is a great target for mental engineering). Tulpas aren't useful whereas other types of mental engineering are. Good suggestion on the tulpas sub, any other ideas of where to find people with this sort of interest?

          3. Noah

            I have this sort of interest! Email me (ROT16 is dmqbjed125@wcqyb.sec) if you want to talk about it. At the risk of showing you routes you've already tried, I'll suggest a bunch of things in this comment.

            Also, Slate Star Codex (open threads, reddit, comments), things adjacent to Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, things adjacent to Vinay Gupta, and maybe Meaningness and the Buddhist Geeks would be good things to check out. (All but SSC are more speculative -- I don't know them or the community surrounding them very well).

            This blog (Compass Rose) also has lots of good stuff -- Reading, Writing, and Thinking with Your Brain and The Order of the Soul are a couple of highlights, but it's hard to go wrong (Automemorial might be a nice place to chain from).

            Various stuff about general agents, like game theory and MIRI's stuff is great for thinking about mental engineering. Perhaps the best inroads for working on it with others are 1) just generally living life with other people and 2) discussing it on the meta-level, as in the above recommendations. One thing that has bogged me down a lot is just wanting to directly discuss goals or try to "accomplish stuff" with people, or try to just jump in to doing introspection together. I think I basically don't try to do that directly anymore, or at least have relegated it to S1 rather than S2, because trying to consciously do those things with others feels really awkward or doesn't work (for what I think are good social reasons, some of which have been discussed on this blog, e.g. The Engineer and the Diplomat).

  4. Jason Green-Lowe

    Thank you for identifying the instinct needed to override past selves as "aggression" and for reminding us that the penalty for excess aggression against past selves is being exploited by actors with longer-term preferences, like credit card companies. That's a useful way of summarizing some ideas that I'd been groping toward but hadn't been able to put into words yet.

    One way of describing the problem you're having with your room is that the only way you can access information about the objects in your room is by either (1) using their physical locations as a mnemonic cue, or (2) reconstructing your entire past state of mind from the time(s) that you last put each object down. (1) is unsatisfying because sometimes you want to clean your room, and (2) is unsatisfying because it takes too long to reconstruct detailed memories from a long time ago. Trying to stick to rigid policies or traditions is a way of speeding up (2), but I don't think you should be trying to reconstruct detailed memories about object placement at all; if your terminal goal is to be able to clean your room without bulldozing your past selves, then reconstructing detailed memories seems like the wrong instrumental goal.

    Instead, what you need is an explicit index of where things are in your room and why, and/or what you meant to do with those things. Like, write it down. You don't have to follow any rigid policies; just keep a Google Doc or a spiral notebook that contains all important information about where things are in your room and why. If you wish to change this information at any time for any reason, do so. If the change isn't important enough to your past self to write down five words in an easily accessible notebook, then it's OK for your future self to override the preference. Conversely, if your present self sees that "Tennis racket" and "Broom closet" do not appear in your Google Doc, then it's OK to put the tennis racket in the broom closet if you wish.

    This isn't "pathologically non-aggressive" because it's the same level of courtesy you might show to a spouse, sibling, or best friend: "Hey, love, I'm going to tidy the living room. Anything special you needed me to keep from the way things are laid out there now? No? Good." Or, alternatively, "Hey, I'm going to tidy the living room. Anything you want kept? / Yes, I'm still working on the jigsaw puzzle. / Great; I'll leave the jigsaw pieces in place."

  5. Eowyn Deant

    I have this problem with little notes I leave -- in Google Docs, in Evernote, unpublished blog entries, in exercise books or loose leaves of paper. And the same problem with tabs I leave open in 3 different browsers on my computer...and another three on my phone. Things used to be part of the same faulty process. They still are, but now I have only one bag of things and am traveling every two months because of my China visa, their impact is limited!

    As a child I was genuinely worried once when my stepfather mowed the neighbor's grass. What if they were growing it out on purpose? What if it was an experiment or necessary for *some* reason we had no way of knowing? It's the same impulse.

    The problem? I value information too much to disrupt it, but not enough to actively preserve it. I'm not sure why. Partly work is work, and recording the importance of so many bits of info, and the many inflections of meaning, and making it accessible in a way that will let it interact with me's overwhelming to consider such a system.

    This problem feels very similar to the one I just solved by getting Anki set up and running for remembering Hanzi. I felt like I should be able to hold all the connections in my brain, and was foolish/lazy/stubborn enough to keep trying this way for 2 months. Now Anki stimulates the conceptual connections that are on the verge of getting lost, and it feels very similar to the way an item in visual range (or a tab, etc.) can remind me of webs of things I would otherwise forget to keep linking into my perception of the world.

    This is a disorganized/unconcluded comment, but in the context I felt like it'd be silly to just leave a tab open to remind me to process. 😉 Wouldn't it be awesome if I could just stick this into an Anki-like system to pop back around serendipitously when my brain is in the right mode for something to click?


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  8. Tanya

    The problem with tidying, and to stuff in general, is that a lot of our memory actually relies on our physical context and the objects around us. Thus, reorganising objects is similar to manipulation of one’s own recall function- especially when it comes to things like radical cleanup and throwing stuff away as opposed to just moving a few things around. But even moving stuff out of sight will inevitably decrease the object’s priority in your own mind.

    Consequently, as any such reflective operation, organising physical objects is precarious and very hard to optimise in cases where the mind in question has too many values on the same level of hierarchy. (I am speaking in shorthand here, can unpack later if necessary). I would posit that what you perceive as the “past self” is not a past self per se (you can only access your current mind in the present moment, after all), but rather a parallel value hierarchy that is not fully resolved with the one you are currently using. This makes decisions like throwing stuff away involve wiping part of your own mind clean or completely sand boxing it off instead of integrating it in a continuous function. Of course, this is a dangerous and costly operation- exactly as it feels!

    Now, the question is- how do we then manage memory without incurring costs of this type? I can only think of various de-fragmentation policies as a solution. Specifics of those would be a whole separate conversation.

    1. Benquo Post author

      On defragmentation policies, would you be willing to comment with an infodump of what you do know, even if it's not fully crystallized?

      1. Tanya


        So, as far as I understand, the mind undergoes constant shifts roughly as strong as taking a potent hallucinogen, except in the domain of value hierarchies. Thus sudden shifts in attention allocation priorities, difficulty stabilising one’s effort on long-term projects, depression, addiction and so on. Reigning all of this in is also roughly as difficult as “waking up” from a delusional state. If you have ever gotten one of those dreams where your body all of a sudden gets sluggish and requires a ton of will effort to move- that’s roughly the phenomenology.

        The above describes another aspect of what I called fragmentation of the mind, just to be clear that I’m not just referring to the specific case of memory and organising one’s objects.

        On de-fragmentation policies, I don’t have a very clear model, but it seems like there are two main types of practice that help:
        -Courage/facing things. Searching for the fear-of-public-speaking-inducing stuff which is nonetheless aligned with your endorsed value system. For example, standing up for yourself or someone else against social pressure, disrupting an group dynamic when all or most of the members of the group support it due to discomfort avoidance, breaking addictions etc.
        -Structure. Deciding on adhering to a specific rule set which, again, is largely in agreement with your endorsed value system- and then not dropping a single rule until you don’t fully endorse the drop! Watch out for picking rules that are subtly self-abusive (it is much easier than one might think).
        -Avoiding further fragmentation, specifically through rote learning and comfort-seeking behaviors. Don't allow yourself to memorize or learn anything with self-abusive effort. Don't accept ethical compromises for the sake of sensory or short-term pleasure. Don't accept an unendorsed course of action under subtle social pressure. The pressure can be in the form of simply knowing that a given person or group is going to throw a massive tantrum if you pursue your endorsed course of action, usually because the said course of action is going to strip them of some type of delusional comfort (aka addiction).

        All of the above help one to observe the parts of your mind that are outside the logical syntax one normally uses. Courage practice is the "catch the opportunity while it's there" version, while structure practice is the "slowly dig out and integrate the forgotten incongruent mind-modules" version. Both should trigger a certain type of discomfort, which goes hand in hand with any effort to restore presence (a feature of an unfragmented mind is that it can perceive its surroundings with its entirety instead of switching between submodules and filters - and thus is present to the current moment). This discomfort is similar to the fear of death, or fear of a terrifying unknown - and usually vanishes once the integration of the mind-part in question has been completed.

        Why do this in the first place? Well, our mind only works with reality in real time. Any storing of data for later processing results in essentially delusional models. Thus, it really helps if all of the mind is accessible in real time - which, I think, is only possible if the entire mind is united by a single value hierarchy.

        It is also worth noting that the mind seems to do this value integration thing automatically - the job of what you perceive as you is simply to not avert the eyes, so to speak.

        Let me know if I should define any specific terms (which I do not guarantee to do well, but I can try). I would also encourage you to try and figure out which phenomenological markers I am referring to in the text above rather than trying to fit what I said into a logical paradigm (which is probably relatively easy to do, although I haven't tried). From my experience, fitting stuff into logical paradigms can only happen after the foundational concepts have been generated, which only happens by observation.

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