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.

In private communication, quoted with permission, Jessica Taylor wrote:

In a world where half the employees with bad jobs get good titles, aren't their titles predictively important in that they predict how likely they are to be hired by outside companies? Their likelihood of getting hired is, under these assumptions, going to be the same as that of as people with good jobs and good titles, and higher than that of people with bad jobs and bad titles. So, in terms of things like ability to exit (and therefore negotiating ability), there are natural clusters of "people with good titles" and "people with bad titles". (Title is going to have less effect on likelihood of getting a job than it did before the bullshit titles, but it still has a significant effect)

The Bobs of the world, having observed that employees and Job-seekers prefer Jobs with high-prestige titles, thought they were being benevolent by making more Jobs have the desired titles.

Somewhat related to the previous point, bullshit titles actually might end up being in the interest of the people with bad jobs, in the sense that they might want others not to know their job is bad, and destroying the language here makes actual job quality harder to infer from title. People do often have a sense that covering up embarrassing information about people is benevolent to them. It doesn't seem like the argument you have presented directly challenges this sense.

Related, we have words for "rich" vs "poor", which simply name someone's position in the social system of money (similar to title), and we don't have concise ways of talking about the extent to which their wealth reflects material value that they have created, which money is at least partially about tracking (but, is also about cronyism, class interests, and theft at the same time). But, "rich" and "poor" are undeniably predictively useful, even though tracking value creation is also important.

There's some danger that uncritically using the language corresponding to the Schelling points chosen by an unjust equilibrium contributes to maintaining that equilibrium, by making these Schelling points more narratively salient; I think that's more clear in the jobs example than the money example, but it applies to both.

The bullshit title example quite reminds me of Simulacra and Simulation, which I haven't read yet. From Wikipedia:

Simulacra and Simulation delineates the sign-order into four stages:

  1. The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a "reflection of a profound reality" (pg 6), this is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called "the sacramental order".
  2. The second stage is perversion of reality, this is where we come to believe the sign to be an unfaithful copy, which "masks and denatures" reality as an "evil appearance—it is of the order of maleficence". Here, signs and images do not faithfully reveal reality to us, but can hint at the existence of an obscure reality which the sign itself is incapable of encapsulating.
  3. The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the sign pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original. Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things which they have no relationship to. Baudrillard calls this the "order of sorcery", a regime of semantic algebra where all human meaning is conjured artificially to appear as a reference to the (increasingly) hermetic truth.
  4. The fourth stage is pure simulacrum, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers' lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, "hyperreal" terms. Any naïve pretension to reality as such is perceived as bereft of critical self-awareness, and thus as oversentimental.

A possible interpretation here is that signifiers originally achieve meaning in social systems by corresponding with reality (stage 1), but once they're used in a social system, if the system doesn't protect itself, lies will outcompete truth (stage 2); since social systems involve Schelling games, the lies can be important pieces on the playing field even when no one expects them to correspond with reality (stage 3), and eventually people just start treating the statements as pieces on the gameboard, not even as lies (stage 4). Thus, language is destroyed.

Stage 1 is honesty, stage 2 is lies, stage 3 is bullshit, stage 4 is pure power games.

I replied:

Let's apply this to the specific example.

In world 1, companies need supervisors to coordinate projects, promote people who seem generally good at things to those roles because it's important for profitability to have smart conscientious people in charge, and have different titles for supervisory and managerial roles vs direct labor roles in order to keep track of who's doing what. As a side effect, companies hoping to hire someone for a higher-paying supervisory role will favor applicants whose title reflects that they've already (a) been selected for such a role by someone with skin in the game, and (b) done some learning on the job so they already know how to manage. As another side effect, job title is used for external social sorting, since people on similar life trajectories have more in common, people who want to extract money will want to pay more attention to people with higher wages and expected lifetime income, etc.

In world 2, companies have started offering managerial titles to employees as a perk so that they can benefit from the desirable side effects, lessening the title's usefulness for tracking who's doing what work, but possibly increasing its correlation with some of the side effects, since the good (i.e., effective at producing the desired side effects) titles go to the people who are most skilled at playing the game. It's common advice that one of the things you should negotiate if you're an earlyish hire at a startup is job title, since a sufficiently impressive title will create path-dependency making it awkward not to make you a major executive if and when the startup successfully grows.

In short, in world 2, the system is wireheading itself with respect to titles, but in a way that comes with real resource commitments, so people who can track the map and reality separately, and play on both gameboards simultaneously, can extract things through judicious acquisition of titles.

In world 3, the system starts using titles to wirehead its employees. Titles like "Vice President of Sorting" are useless and played out in the industry, interviewers know to ask what you actually did (and probably just look at your body language, and maybe call around to get your reputation, or just check what parties you've been to), but maybe there's some connotative impressiveness left in the term, and you feel better getting to play the improv game as a Vice President rather than a Laborer. You're given social permission to switch your inner class affiliation and feel like a member of the managerial class. Probably mom and dad are impressed.

In world 4, some of the practices from world 3 are left, and it's almost universally understood emotionally that they don't refer to anything, but there's nothing real to contrast them with, so if you tell a story about yourself well enough, people will go along with it even though they know that all the "evidence" is meaningless. E.g. Trump manages to play a great businessman on TV, and this is (plus a starting endowment of money and some basic primate cunning) enough to start off his presidential run in the genre "successful businessman coming to clean up Washington." Elizabeth Holmes was also playing in world 4.

Note that as we progress through these worlds, the title becomes less useful to people like [friend]. I think this needs to be made very explicit for the argument to register to LessWrongers. The sort of person who can hold a bullshit job maybe does better in world 2 than in world 1, but [friend] doesn't play that game, he wants to do work that matters on the object level and be justly rewarded for it. (Though he's currently, understandably too distracted by cultural forces threatening to destroy world 1 altogether to focus on his object-level work.)

If World 3 were to arrive uniformly it wouldn't be very useful to anyone, but it doesn't - it always arrives unevenly, so that in the early stages while cynical managers are still metabolizing world 2 into world 3, people who can most savvily leverage class privilege into bullshit jobs know which titles to stay away from, and in the late stages outright con artists bring about world 4 when enough of the power landscape has been metabolized into world 3.

This is notably similar to the stages of a financial speculative bubble, though I think there are some differences that would be worth modeling.

Jessica's reply:

This all seems right, thanks for the additional explanation. The naive version of the Baudrillard formulation (which is naive since I haven't read the book) unfortunately assumes that worlds are uniform, and which world everyone is in is mutual knowledge, when actually some people are much more savvy than others (in terms of both knowing what game is being played and skill at playing the game), exploiting the labor of people who think they are in world 1 when actual material/informational work is necessary, or when improv of such is called for.

Related: There is a war, The Scams are Winning, Anatomy of a Bubble, On the construction of beacons, Actors and Scribes, words and deeds,

15 thoughts on “Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra

  1. transientpetersen

    By my understanding of Baudrillard, you're not going quite far enough in your world 4. To be there, the titles cannot even point to the potential for a real world thing but must possess only symbolic meaning (e.g. "wizard wrangler" or "data gardener"). It's like meme culture in that respect.

    As a thing gets more analyzed (perhaps the pursuit of optimization), the symbols of analysis multiply and take on their own life. Job titles strike me as a very good example of such.

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  6. Senior president of galactic pope management (sales division), Esq.

    Some stray thoughts:

    At stage 4, titles are known to be indicative of nothing more than one's level of bullshit artistry, but this is still useful information, as bullshit artistry is increasingly the quality selected for? (At least this might explain Boris Johnson)

    Pure speculation, but the the long-term trend might not simply be towards higher levels of simularcra, but a cyclical one: as it becomes common knowledge that titles are little more than higher level simulacra, it would become a useful adaptation for high-value players to be able to broadcast, and recognise, a different, actually reliable signal (which, if it became common enough, would be useful for low-level players to fake, etc) - per my shallow understanding of game theory: players who can cooperate with each other do well in an environment saturated with defectors, once the fraction of cooperators go up enough, defectors will again have an edge.

    Possibly, there is also a niche for counter-signalling - "no, my title is just 'programmer'... *stage whispers* because that's how good a programmer I am", not sure if this is actually happening, but it doesn't sound too implausible...

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  8. Suspended Reason

    Crucially, the distortion happens not just with language but all signaling or communication. (I think your post agrees with this: the relevant category is less "words" and more "any proxy for reality," which includes words, signals, appearance.) There's a lot to do with Goodhart/Campbell and the general gaming of metrics, at least in my mind (since these are also proxies of performance).

    1. SR

      But this & the follow-up have been great little primers on Baudrillard, who I must confess I also haven't read, so thanks!

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