Despite their plasticity, our narratives provided the occluded (and therefore immovable) frame of reference for all our sociocognitive determinations. We quite simply did not evolve to systematically question the meaning of our lives. The capacity to do so seems to have required literacy, which is to say, a radical transformation of our sociocognitive environment. Writing allowed our ancestors to transcend the limits of memory, to aggregate insights, to record alternatives, to regiment and to interrogate claims. Combined with narrative plasticity, literacy begat a semantic explosion, a proliferation of communicative alternatives that continues to accelerate to this present day.
The biological origins of narrative lie in shallow information cognitive ecologies, circumstances characterized by profound ignorance. What we cannot grasp we poke with sticks. Hitherto we’ve been able to exapt these capacities to great effect, raising a civilization that would make our story-telling ancestors weep, and for wonder far more than horror. But as with all heuristic systems, something must be taken for granted. Only so much can be changed before an ecology collapses altogether. And now we stand on the cusp of a communicative revolution even more profound than literacy, a proliferation, not simply of alternate narratives, but of alternate narrators.
If you sweep the workbench clean, cease looking at meaning as something somehow ‘anomalous’ or ‘transcendent,’ narrative becomes a matter of super-complicated systems, things that can be cut short by a heart attack or stroke. If you refuse to relinquish the meat (which is to say nature), then narratives, like any other biological system, require that particular background conditions obtain. Scranton’s error, in effect, is a more egregious version of the error Harari makes in Homo Deus, the default presumption that meaning somehow lies outside the circuit of ecology. Harari, recall, realizes that humanism, the ‘man-the-meaning-maker’ narrative of Western civilization, is doomed, but his low-dimensional characterization of the ‘intersubjective web of meaning’ as an ‘intermediate level of reality’ convinces him that some other collective narrative must evolve to take its place. He fails to see how the technologies he describes are actively replacing the ancestral social coordinating functions of narrative.
The network topology of the pre-internet media environment was decentralized and unidirectional. Media channels (network hubs) broadcast toward consumers (terminal nodes in the network). Consumers could only receive visual media, not broadcast themselves. Some independent broadcasting efforts such as zine culture did exist, but these networks were too limited in scale to be relevant to this discussion. Despite being decentralized with no single source of media, the network was fairly concentrated, with perhaps only a few hundred mainstream media channels. The limited number of mainstream channels meant that the majority of available attention was bottlenecked through those hubs. This led to significant advertising revenues, but also posed the challenge of creating diversified programming while maintaining mainstream audience appeal.
It is this largely mainstream programming that provided the backdrop for “edgy” material. When someone like Chris Cunningham rolled an Aphex Twin video on MTV, or when Cartoon Network played Toonami at night, it was broadly perceived edgy to consumers because of two reasons. First, the surrounding programming was firmly within the zone of normalcy, accentuating the difference of aesthetically novel media. Secondly, the relatively low number of media channels meant that discovering alternative aesthetics was more difficult, heightening the significance (the value) of encountering a unique piece of media.
However, today’s media landscape is completely different. The internet has enabled a truly distributed network, in which any node can be a content creator, broadcaster, and consumer. Any two nodes can have a 1:1 relationship; as a whole, the model can be described as many-to-many (M2M). However, despite the possibility of 1:1 relationships between producer-broadcasters and their audience members, those relationships are most often mediated by aggregator platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and so on.
this blog is really top-tier.
A source of continued tension within the evolutionary human behavioural / social sciences, as well as between these fields and the traditional social sciences, is how to conceptualise ‘culture’ in its various manifestations and guises. One of the earliest criticisms of E O Wilson’s sociobiology project was the focus on presumed genetically evolved behavioural universals, and lack of attention to cultural diversity and cultural (as opposed to genetic) history. As sociobiology split into different fields during the 1980s, each developed their own approaches and assumptions. Human behavioural ecologists employed the ‘phenotypic gambit’, assuming that culture is a proximate means by which natural selection generates currently-adaptive behavioural strategies. Evolutionary psychologists distinguished between transmitted and evoked culture, the former involving the social transmission of information, the latter involving the triggering of genetically-prespecified behaviours in response to different environmental cues (typically ancestral cues, such that behaviour may no longer be currently adaptive). Evoked culture has been the focus of most research in evolutionary psychology. Cognitive anthropologists have a similar notion of ‘cultural attraction’, where universal aspects of cognition evoke predictable responses due to individual learning. Finally, cultural evolution (or gene-culture coevolution) approaches stress the causal role of transmitted culture. Here, human cognition is assumed to be relatively domain-general and content-free, with genetic evolution having shaped social learning processes to allow the rapid spread of locally adaptive knowledge (although occasionally allowing the spread of maladaptive behaviour, due to the partial decoupling of genetic and cultural evolution). All the while, the traditional social sciences have remained steadfastly unwilling to accept that evolutionary approaches to human behaviour have any merit or relevance, and indeed have abandoned the scientific method in favour of more politically motivated interpretive methods. Most curiously, the social sciences have abandoned the concept of culture, as they define it. I will discuss all of these approaches in terms of (i) the extent to which they give causal weight to genetic inheritance, individual learning and social learning, and how these process interact; (ii) their assumptions about the domain-specificity of human cognition; (iii) ultimate-proximate causation; (iv) specific debates over language evolution, cooperation and the demographic transition; and (v) prospects for reconciliation and integration of these tensions across the evolutionary human sciences and the social sciences more broadly.
related to several links in previous posts.
Users organize themselves into communities on web platforms. These communities can interact with one another, often leading to conflicts and toxic interactions. However, little is known about the mechanisms of interactions between communities and how they impact users.
Here we study intercommunity interactions across 36,000 communities on Reddit, examining cases where users of one community are mobilized by negative sentiment to comment in another community. We show that such conflicts tend to be initiated by a handful of communities—less than 1% of communities start 74% of conflicts. While conflicts tend to be initiated by highly active community members, they are carried out by significantly less active members. We find that conflicts are marked by formation of echo chambers, where users primarily talk to other users from their own community. In the long-term, conflicts have adverse effects and reduce the overall activity of users in the targeted communities.
Our analysis of user interactions also suggests strategies for mitigating the negative impact of conflicts—such as increasing direct engagement between attackers and defenders. Further, we accurately predict whether a conflict will occur by creating a novel LSTM model that combines graph embeddings, user, community, and text features. This model can be used to create early-warning systems for community moderators to prevent conflicts. Altogether, this work presents a data-driven view of community interactions and conflict, and paves the way towards healthier online communities.
More often, the self-censorship is nuanced and difficult to detect. “You’re not going to get a lot of China specialists openly confessing that self-censorship is a big problem,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California who is known for his critical stance toward the Chinese Communist Party. And yet Pei believes that those who communicate to nonacademic audiences, particularly in the media, thus increasing the likelihood that the Chinese government will see their work, and those who work on sensitive issues like Tibet, must watch what they say. “You don’t want to go out on a limb,” he said. “You want to come across as very measured.” Sounding “too strident,” he said, not only risks “the ire of the Chinese government but could also lose the respect of your peers, who value evidence above opinion.” Robert Barnett, who ran Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program from its founding in 1999 until stepping down in 2017, emphasized that Columbia never actively restricted his work, but that there was often “a very strong tendency within the university, and with many prestigious institutions in the U.S., not to include people who study the kind of subject I work on in any kind of academic collaborations in China or in dialogues with Chinese delegates.”
In March, at the annual conference of the Association for Asian Studies, I spoke with Anne Henochowicz, an editor and translator who studied Chinese literature and folklore at Ohio State University. Part of her research involved the oral tradition and folk music in Inner Mongolia, and she struggled with how forthright to be in writing and in her research about a potentially politically controversial topic, in part because she feared Beijing might deny her a visa in the future. An American historian of China said, “I frequently hear graduate students and younger scholars—people with academic jobs but pre-tenure—being advised not to explore sensitive subjects in their research, so they can preserve visa access.” Roughly a dozen people I spoke with told me that they don’t self-censor, but that they do occasionally word things differently so as not to “offend” their Chinese hosts, partners, or students. Jim Millward, a Georgetown University professor who had his ability to enter China severely restricted for more than a decade, ostensibly for studying the controversial Chinese region of Xinjiang, called it “politeness.” Once, he said, when he was presenting a paper at a conference in China, a Chinese translator removed a reference he had made to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. Millward let the edit stand. “I don’t call that self-censorship, but rather translating for a particular audience, which I know sounds like a horrible euphemism, but could be equated to being polite as a guest in someone’s house.”
Beijing is likely to have its biggest impact on global Internet governance through its trade and investment policies, especially as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive effort to build infrastructure connecting China to the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and Europe. Along with the more than $50 billion that has flowed into railways, roads, pipelines, ports, mines, and utilities along the route, officials have stressed the need for Chinese companies to build a “digital Silk Road”: fiber-optic cables, mobile networks, satellite relay stations, data centers, and smart cities.
Much of the activity along the nascent digital Silk Road has come from technology companies and industry alliances, not the Chinese government. Alibaba has framed its expansion into Southeast Asia as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. It has acquired the Pakistani e-commerce company Daraz and launched a digital free-trade zone with the support of the Malaysian and Thai governments, which will ease customs checks, provide logistical support for companies, and promote exports from small and medium-sized companies in Malaysia and Thailand to China. ZTE now operates in over 50 of the 64 countries on the route of the Belt and Road Initiative. As well as laying fiber-optic cables and setting up mobile networks, the company has been providing surveillance, mapping, cloud storage, and data analysis services to cities in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Laos, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Turkey.
The Chinese government hopes that these enterprises will give it political influence throughout the region. But private firms are focused on profit, and Beijing has not always succeeded in converting business relationships into political heft, even when the projects have involved state-run enterprises, since these firms also often pursue commercial interests that conflict with diplomatic goals. In the short term, however, the presence of Chinese engineers, managers, and diplomats will reinforce a tendency among developing countries, especially those with authoritarian governments, to embrace China’s closed conception of the Internet.
In the autumn of 2001, leaders from across the Asia-Pacific gathered in Shanghai for the annual ministerial meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). It was a month after September 11 and the theme of the gathering was ‘meeting new challenges in the new century’. Organizers and participants could not have guessed that this occasion would give birth to a new Chinese nationalist movement dedicated to meeting new challenges in the new century by seeking recourse to the heritage of the past. This new movement would be called the Han Clothing Movement 漢服運動.
Ever since US President Bill Clinton handed out bomber jackets during the 1993 Seattle Summit, APEC leaders have been obliged to don ‘local dress’ from the host region for cringe-making photo-ops that are supposed to represent the harmony between leaders and nations. In this not so time-honoured fashion, leaders at the 2001 Shanghai meeting gathered, decked out in a traditional-looking Chinoiserie jacket referred to by the hosts as ‘Tang clothing’ 唐裝. Images of US President George W. Bush, China’s party-state leader Jiang Zemin, and Russian President Vladimir Putin engaged in earnest conversation dressed in this mock-Chinese costume posing as a modern-day refraction of traditional Chinese culture soon saturated the official media, the Sinophone Internet and the world wide web.
The ‘Tang clothing’ was presented as some form of traditional Chinese costume (the word ‘Tang’ 唐 has long been used to connote Chineseness among international Chinese communities). But for eagle-eyed observers there was a problem: the APEC Chinese jackets was actually a magua 馬褂 or, in Manchu, an olbo. This form of male Manchu dress was popularised during the Manchu occupation of China from 1644. Ninety years after the fall of the Qing, the denunciation of which was a hallmark of patriotism, Chineseness was being represented on the global stage by the clothes of a former oppressor, a conquest dynasty despised by Chinese patriots throughout the twentieth century for its role in the country’s previous decline and humiliation.
A year after the CALEA passed, the FBI disclosed plans to require the phone companies to build into their infrastructure the capacity to simultaneously wiretap 1 percent of all phone calls in all major U.S. cities. This would represent more than a thousandfold increase over previous levels in the number of phones that could be wiretapped. In previous years, there were only about a thousand court-ordered wiretaps in the United States per year, at the federal, state, and local levels combined. It’s hard to see how the government could even employ enough judges to sign enough wiretap orders to wiretap 1 percent of all our phone calls, much less hire enough federal agents to sit and listen to all that traffic in real time. The only plausible way of processing that amount of traffic is a massive Orwellian application of automated voice recognition technology to sift through it all, searching for interesting keywords or searching for a particular speaker’s voice. If the government doesn’t find the target in the first 1 percent sample, the wiretaps can be shifted over to a different 1 percent until the target is found, or until everyone’s phone line has been checked for subversive traffic. The FBI said they need this capacity to plan for the future. This plan sparked such outrage that it was defeated in Congress. But the mere fact that the FBI even asked for these broad powers is revealing of their agenda.
Advances in technology will not permit the maintenance of the status quo, as far as privacy is concerned. The status quo is unstable. If we do nothing, new technologies will give the government new automatic surveillance capabilities that Stalin could never have dreamed of. The only way to hold the line on privacy in the information age is strong cryptography.
After that, though, there is always the possibility that those algorithms will fall to aliens with better quantum techniques. I am less worried about symmetric cryptography, where Grover’s algorithm is basically an upper limit on quantum improvements, than I am about public-key algorithms based on number theory, which feel more fragile. It’s possible that quantum computers will someday break all of them, even those that today are quantum resistant.
If that happens, we will face a world without strong public-key cryptography. That would be a huge blow to security and would break a lot of stuff we currently do, but we could adapt. In the 1980s, Kerberos was an all-symmetric authentication and encryption system. More recently, the GSM cellular standard does both authentication and key distribution – at scale – with only symmetric cryptography. Yes, those systems have centralized points of trust and failure, but it’s possible to design other systems that use both secret splitting and secret sharing to minimize that risk. (Imagine that a pair of communicants get a piece of their session key from each of five different key servers.) The ubiquity of communications also makes things easier today. We can use out-of-band protocols where, for example, your phone helps you create a key for your computer. We can use in-person registration for added security, maybe at the store where you buy your smartphone or initialize your Internet service. Advances in hardware may also help to secure keys in this world. I’m not trying to design anything here, only to point out that there are many design possibilities. We know that cryptography is all about trust, and we have a lot more techniques to manage trust than we did in the early years of the Internet. Some important properties like forward secrecy will be blunted and far more complex, but as long as symmetric cryptography still works, we’ll still have security.
It’s a weird future. Maybe the whole idea of number theory-based encryption, which is what our modern public-key systems are, is a temporary detour based on our incomplete model of computing. Now that our model has expanded to include quantum computing, we might end up back to where we were in the late 1970s and early 1980s: symmetric cryptography, code-based cryptography, Merkle hash signatures. That would be both amusing and ironic.
The next challenge—the one that people like Dr Russell particularly worry about—is getting the robots to swarm and co-ordinate their behaviour effectively. Under the aegis of MAST, a group from the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception (GRASP) laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania did indeed manage to make drones fly together in co-ordinated formations without hitting each other. They look good when doing so—but, to some extent, what is seen is an illusion. The drones are not, as members of a swarm of bees or a flock of birds would be, relying on sensory information they have gathered themselves. Instead, GRASP’s drone swarms employ ground-based sensors to track individual drones around, and a central controller to stop them colliding.
That is starting to change. A farewell demonstration by MAST, in August, showed three robots (two on the ground and one in the air) keeping station with each other using only hardware that was on board the robots themselves. This opens the way for larger flocks of robots to co-ordinate without outside intervention.
Moreover, as that demonstration showed, when drones and other robots can routinely flock together in this way, they will not necessarily be birds of a feather. “Heterogeneous group control” is a new discipline that aims to tackle the thorny problem of managing units that consist of various robots—some as small as a postage stamp, others as large as a jeep—as well as human team members. Swarms will also need to be able to break up into sub-units to search a building and then recombine once they have done so, all in a hostile environment.
“It’s good business,” El Polkas says with a shrug. “It makes a lot of money.” When I ask how gasoline compares to narcotics, in terms of overall revenue to Los Zetas, he rubs his index fingers together. “Fifty-fifty,” he says. “It’s approximately as profitable as drugs.”
The armed conflict between the cartels and Mexico’s military, which has dragged on for 12 years, now ranks as the deadliest war in the world apart from Syria. The lack of security, especially in the north and east of the country, was the main reason the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, didn’t stand a chance in July’s election. Neither did the National Action Party, or PAN, though it’s traditionally been the PRI’s only competitor. López Obrador dominated them both with the biggest margin of victory in 36 years. But winning the election will be easy compared with governing. When he takes office on December 1st, he will assume high command over what Correa-Cabrera and other observers call a modern civil war.
It was in 2006 that then-president Felipe Calderón, with the support and encouragement of George W. Bush, made the fateful decision to deploy Mexico’s army and navy around the country to fight organized crime. In 2008, the United States and Mexico signed the Mérida Initiative, under which the U.S. gave nearly $2.5 billion in military aid to the Mexican government. The idea was to crush the cartels by force, but it didn’t work out that way.
For thousands of years, people from Sierra Mixe, a mountainous region in southern Mexico, have been cultivating an unusual variety of giant corn. They grow the crop on soils that are poor in nitrogen—an essential nutrient—and they barely use any additional fertilizer. And yet, their corn towers over conventional varieties, reaching heights of more than 16 feet.
A team of researchers led by Alan Bennett from UC Davis has shown that the secret of the corn’s success lies in its aerial roots—necklaces of finger-sized, rhubarb-red tubes that encircle the stem. These roots drip with a thick, clear, glistening mucus that’s loaded with bacteria. Thanks to these microbes, the corn can fertilize itself by pulling nitrogen directly from the surrounding air.
The Sierra Mixe corn takes eight months to mature—too long to make it commercially useful. But if its remarkable ability could be bred into conventional corn, which matures in just three months, it would be an agricultural game changer.
Consumerist approaches aren’t the best solutions to many problems, but at present they’re often the easiest to imagine and most realistic to implement, if only because they have the support of the corporate powers that benefit from them. The transition toward consumerism across so many domains exemplifies a phenomenon that writer Sarah Perry calls a tiling structure, a system that “tiles the world with copies of itself.” Tiling structures flourish because they solve certain problems well enough that they become more or less mandatory, and block alternate solutions. Perry cites billboards, strip malls, and big-box retail stores as particularly visible examples of tiling structures. By minimizing their costs relative to the revenue they generate while externalizing negative impacts such as poor pedestrian access and unpleasant aesthetics, they spread throughout suburbia in the 20th century, entrenching sprawl as the default format of American retail. Even identity-oriented marketing itself is a tiling structure: It has worked well enough for those with something to sell that it has gradually pervaded the commercial landscape, leaving its detrimental social and personal effects for someone else to fix.
Tiling structures have introduced customer-service logic to cultural spaces that were once sheltered from markets. Communities based on common interests, shared identity, or physical proximity, from neighborhoods to political groups to religious institutions, must now respond to their constituents’ increased mobility and access to information by treating them like the empowered customers that Bezos described to his shareholders — customers who will leave if they find something better elsewhere. Individualized, personal-identity-based appeals replace collective orientations. As a tiling structure, this shift occurs because it works for the group implementing it, not because it’s best for everyone.
It should come as no surprise that the most famous advertising campaigns of the last century all resemble one another; each one has succeeded by convincing people that others would see them as the people they wanted to be perceived as after purchasing the product. What is our perception of ourselves, after all, if not a blend of our experiences, our reactions to them, and our understanding of the consequences of those reactions? The last part here is the most important, especially now. As I argued in “People Don’t Buy Products, They Buy Better Versions of Themselves”:
Social media is well-understood to be contributing to identity politics, but I’d argue it’s contributing to something deeper: identity paralysis. This condition is one in which we have a forced awareness of how everything we say and do — even the seemingly inconsequential, like the shoes we wear, or the airline we fly — reflects on us. It follows that our generation would also be uniquely drawn to brands that make us feel how we want to feel about ourselves, even as how we want to feel about ourselves is often nothing more than how we want to be perceived externally.
Put another way, it has become almost impossible to detach any action from the external approval that will accompany it. In each of these examples, common knowledge about the product makes or breaks its success. All advertising campaigns are drastic accelerations of the normal pace by which common knowledge is accumulated. They can quickly convince many people of how they will be perceived in the context of a brand — either as someone they want to be (enlightened truth-seeker that subscribes to the Times), or someone they clearly do not (corpse in a totaled car/woman in the “Tips From Former Smokers” ad/supporter of an accused serial sexual abuser). The magic of advertising is that it can convince consumers of all this prior to anyone actually owning or engaging with the product.
Once you know the “shape” of a particular space and the nature of the forces acting in it, you can make some neat predictions about how it is going to play out. Of course, the future is never locked down. The lake might overflow and transform into a waterfall. A meteor might fly out of the sky and change the shape of the whole space. But, subject to certain constraints, you can predict the future.
Media is like a landscape. The kind of human social dynamics and psychologies that form around an oral tradition are quite different than those that can (and do) form around a literate media.
The 20th Century brought a number of technological advancements. One of the most important was the emergence and development of “mass media.” While the various kinds of mass media (newspaper, radio, television) are different, as “mass” (or “broadcast”) media they share a basic shape: they are asymmetric. One to many. Author to audience. Coxswain to rowers.
Not everyone can get access to the printing press, the radio station or the television broadcast booth. Those few that can are the ones to get to create the narrative. Everyone else is the audience. We read, listen, watch. But not much else. (Actually, we do one very important thing else, but I’ll get to that in a moment.)
The key insight for this post is that as an audience we are coherent. As a mass, we transform from millions of diverse individuals into one, relatively simple, group. So long as we can be maintained in this coherence, we present something that can be managed.
This is the formal core of the Blue Church: it solves the problem of 20th Century social complexity through the use of mass media to generate manageable social coherence.
These little narratives do not necessarily espouse relativism directly, but are localized by their contexts, are ostensibly independent from one another, and have different means of sensemaking. This fragmented array of narratives has caused a reality crisis, for without some semblance of a consensus reality, constructive cooperation becomes extremely difficult. This results in what Lyotard calls a differend, a situation where conflicting parties cannot even agree on the rules for dispute resolution. Moreover, there is lack of agreement on what the conflict even is. Collective understanding problems of what reality is amplify collective action problems of what reality should be.
Thanks to the Internet, we are now fully in the postmodern condition, or as we call it, the reality crisis. Whereas previously traditional media provided a consensus reality, the decentralization of information-sharing technology allows individuals to document events, create narratives, and challenge perceptions in real-time, without heed for journalistic ethics. This revolution has not led to greater consensus, one based on a reality we can all see more of and agree upon. Instead, information-dissemination has been put in service of people’s tribalism. Anybody can join a memetic tribe and will be supplied with reams of anecdotes to support that tribe’s positions. Grassroots and underground media production keep the tribes up to date on opinions, with wildly different perceptions of the same event. Memetic armadas are being crafted in neighboring ports. Fake news has only just begun.
I know for certain that I can’t make any sense of the thing at ground level. Is it a LARP? A sophisticated operation by some intelligence agency? A weaponized autist? The Donald himself? There are many rabbit holes here — and a lot of folks have been diving into them head first. Care to have an opinion? Knock yourself out.
But if I pull up to 40,000 feet, I can start to make sense of what kind of thing this is and what it means in the context of the larger changes discussed above: Q is the most recent and most important example of a widely distributed self-organizing collective intelligence.
We’ve actually seen many precursors. Cicada 3301 is a famous example. Even the I Love Bees ARG for Halo 2. Perhaps Bitcoin is the most important precursor to Q.
These “self-organizing collective intelligences” (SOCI), are a new kind of socio-cultural phenomenon that is beginning to emerge in the niche created by the Internet. They involve attractive generator functions dropped into the hive mind that gather attention, use that attention to build more capacity and then grow into something progressively real and self-sustaining.
The Q SOCI is, for the most part, about sensemaking. It is combing through the billions of threads of “what might be real” and “what might be true” that have been gathered into the Internet and it is slowly trying to weave them into a consistent, coherent and congruent fabric. In the transition from Wonderland, sensemaking is so obviously needed that millions of people are viscerally attracted to the SOCI. The shared desire to wake up from Wonderland and have some firm notion of what is real and true is proving a powerful attractor.
The term Lawrence gave to this kind of semantic warfare was diathetics, a phrase borrowed from the Greek philosopher Xenophon. It was a battle for the stories people tell and for the public consciousness that emerges out of the stories that people tell.
We had to arrange [our soldiers’] minds in order of battle just as carefully and as formally as other officers would arrange their bodies. And not only our own men’s minds, though naturally they came first. We must also arrange the minds of the enemy, so far as we could reach them; then those other minds of the nation supporting us behind the firing line, since more than half the battle passed there in the back; then the minds of the enemy nation waiting the verdict; and of the neutrals looking on; circle beyond circle.
Diathetics is an extension of guerrilla warfare, in the sense that it is used by the weaker force against the stronger and uses the lines of communication against those who have laid them down. The sabotage of lines of communication turns the greatest strength of the more powerful force—the ability to convey information and materiel across distance—into vulnerability everywhere along the line. Rather than sabotage the lines of communication along the periphery, diathetics sabotages the network at the center, the source of the meaning being communicated.
cyberspace is a mostly a silent place. in its silence it shows itself to be an expression of the mass. one might question the idea of silence in a place where millions of user-ids parade around like angels of light, looking to see whom they might, so to speak, consume. the silence is nonetheless present and it is most present, paradoxically at the moment that the user-id speaks. when the user-id posts to a board, it does so while dwelling within an illusion that no one is present. language in cyberspace is a frozen landscape.
i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself. commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money-value. in the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories, which karl marx called “the means of production.” capitalists were people who owned the means of production, and the commodities were made by workers who were mostly exploited. i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul. people who post frequently on boards appear to know that they are factory equipment and tennis shoes, and sometimes trade sends and email about how their contributions are not appreciated by management.
as if this were not enough, all of my words were made immortal by means of tape backups. furthermore, i was paying two bucks an hour for the privilege of commodifying and exposing myself. worse still, i was subjecting myself to the possibility of scrutiny by such friendly folks as the FBI: they can, and have, downloaded pretty much whatever they damn well please. the rhetoric in cyberspace is liberation-speak. the reality is that cyberspace is an increasingly efficient tool of surveillance with which people have a voluntary relationship.
The figures above display the ideological distributions of industries that I refer to as ideologically aligned—that is, composed of members that are ideologically extreme but skew overwhelmingly to the left or right. Living up to frequent accusations by right-wing commentators, the unholy trio of Hollywood, the print media, and academia do indeed appear to be overrun by liberals, with lawyers and online computer services (e.g. Google) not far behind. On the other end of the spectrum, members of the oil and gas, construction, insurance, agricultural and automotive industries are overwhelmingly conservative. Although the ideological orientation of these industries is not much of a surprise, the extent to which these industries favor the extreme, rather than moderate, wings of each party far surpassed my expectations. Some of the distributions more closely resemble what I would expect from occupations that were subject to the spoils system–for instance, US postmasters prior to the Pendleton Act–than major contemporary industries with no official partisan ties.
Ideologically aligned industries might also fan the flames of polarization by encouraging politicians to write-off entire industries as their de-facto opposition. This could manifest itself in mostly harmless ways. For example Senator McCain can get away with dusting off his favorite (and only?) lawyer joke on late night talk shows and stump speeches, while a cash-strapped Democratic presidential hopeful would be better advised to stump against corn subsidies on public health grounds than deride lawyers or other professionals.
Nevertheless, it could also rear its ugly head in policy disputes. Consider the ongoing fight over healthcare. Tort reform is one of the few clear opportunities for bipartisanship. Despite Republicans having oversold tort reform as a solution to keeping health care down costs, such reform would have at least had a marginal effect on costs and would have made the health reform bill much more attractive to the medical industry. (One recent survey found 92 percent of doctors in favor of malpractice reform, while 85 percent reported that the threat of malpractice lawsuits has prevented them from practicing medicine properly—it was commissioned by Jackson Health Care Services, so I would take the results with a grain of salt. A more direct estimate of the potential savings from health care tort reform can be found in the NYT’s Economix blog.) Yet Democratic lawmakers have continually dismissed tort reform with the flimsy explanation that medical malpractice is not a big deal because it only constitutes about 2-3 percent of medical costs. This is despite the notion that tort reform seems to be a natural complement to the White House’s early proposals to eliminate waste by freeing doctors to perform tests only when they deem them medically necessary rather resorting to “defensive medicine” to minimize legal liability.
Many people have been working hard for a long time to develop tech that helps to read people’s feelings. They are working on ways to read facial expressions, gazes, word choices, tones of voice, sweat, skin conductance, gait, nervous habits, and many other body features and motions. Over the coming years, we should expect this tech to consistently get cheaper and better at reading more subtler feelings of more people in more kinds of contexts more reliably.
Much of this tech will be involuntary. While your permission and assistance may help such tech to read you better, others will often be able to read you using tech that they control, on their persons or and in the buildings around you. They can use tech integrated with other complex systems that is thus hard to monitor and regulate. Yes, some defenses are possible, such as via wearing dark sunglasses or burqas, and electronically modulating your voice. But such options seem rather awkward and I doubt most people will be willing to use them much in most familiar social situations. And I doubt that regulation will greatly reduce the use of this tech. The overall trend seems clear: our true feelings will become more visible to people around us.
Henrich makes two arguments here, both relevant to contemporary debates in politics and philosophy. The first is that customs, traditions, and the like are subject to Darwinian selection. Henrich is not always clear on exactly what is being selected for—is it individuals who follow a tradition, groups whose members all follow the tradition, or the tradition itself?—but the general gist is that traditions stick around longest when they are adaptive. This process is “blind.” Those who follow the traditions do not know how they work, and in some cases (like religious rituals that build social solidarity) knowing the details of how they work might actually reduce the efficacy of the tradition. That is the second argument of note: we do not (and often cannot) understand just how the traditions we inherit help our survival, and because of that, it is difficult to artificially create replacements.
I do not think Henrich is willing to extend these points to all elements of human culture. If we are to take analogies with genetic evolution seriously, then we should not be surprised if a large amount of our cultural baggage are just random accretions passed on from one generation to the next—in essence, the cultural version of genetic drift. But that is the trouble: we have no way to tell which traditions are adaptive and which are merely drift.
All of this meshes splendidly with the work of James C Scott.5. Scott has spent a large amount of his career studying the way states shape the societies they rule over, and the way societies try to resist the advance of the state. The central problem of ruler-ship, as Scott sees it, is what he calls legibility. To extract resources from a population the state must be able to understand that population. The state needs to make the people and things it rules legible to agents of the government. Legibility means uniformity. States dream up uniform weights and measures, impress national languages and ID numbers on their people, and divvy the country up into land plots and administrative districts, all to make the realm legible to the powers that be. The problem is that not all important things can be made legible. Much of what makes a society successful is knowledge of the tacit sort: rarely articulated, messy, and from the outside looking in, purposeless. These are the first things lost in the quest for legibility. Traditions, small cultural differences, odd and distinctive lifeways—in other words, the products of cultural evolution that Henrich fills his book with—are all swept aside by a rationalizing state that preserves (or in many cases, imposes) only what it can be understood and manipulated from the 2,000 foot view. The result, as Scott chronicles with example after example, are many of the greatest catastrophes of human history.
In very simple terms, Urbit is a personal server that can be run on anyone’s computer over the web or even your own personal computer. It’s an operating system, a coding language, a universal API, a storage system, and a decentralized computer all in one. You can install Urbit on any Unix system and have your server (called planets by Urbit) up in moments. You can build an app like Twitter or Facebook on Urbit, where your data is completely private, in a matter of days and weeks instead of months and years. The gains lie in the simplicity of the software stack that Urbit has rebuilt from the ground up to support the infrastructure of the Internet.
Solutions like this do currently exist today – but they don’t go as far in scope as Urbit. If you want your own personal server, you can buy one for a few dollars a month on Amazon Web Services, or even host your own by buying a Unix box. The problem with that of course, is that not everyone is a Linux administrator. Sure I could buy a server for a few dollars a month and configure all the settings myself, but I’d rather pay WordPress a few hundred a year so that they can handle all of that work for me. Urbit essentially gives you the power of your own personal server with the usability of non-techy offerings.
A lot of people would tell you that a market doesn’t really exist for these kind of services, so why would anyone ever think of this as an interesting investment? Well, imagine if everyone in the future suddenly has their own Urbit that they actively use for simple things – maybe sending images to friends, playing nerdy games, or just running it as a WordPress alternative. How quickly do you think a market would suddenly pop up for this kind of thing? And the gains compound, like everything in tech.
One of the projects I’m working on is called Bramble. It’s a protocol and a framework for building a new kind of decentralized application, one that’s built for a mobile-first, offline-first world, and one that builds security in from the start. Bramble isn’t just code, though, it’s a way of seeing the world. We want Bramble to enable new kinds of relationships with the governance and function of infrastructure, of urban systems, and maybe even of societal institutions.
If you’ve heard of this project, it’s probably because of our first app on the Bramble framework, Briar. Briar is a secure messaging application, and while it does a lot of novel things, it’s just a start. If you’ve read my other pieces, you may remember me telling folks they shouldn’t write new secure messaging tools. The caveat I mentioned then was for folks trying to do something exactly like this — pushing back the boundaries of how we can do messaging. In this essay, I’d like to tell you a bit about what makes Briar unique, and a bit more about the larger picture it’s part of.
Briar is built on top of Bramble. Bramble handles all of the core functionality of sending blocks of data back and forth, managing contacts, keeping channels between users secure and metadata-free, synchronizing state between a user’s devices, and handling dependencies between pieces of data or expiring them when they get too old. In addition to synchronizing data, Bramble lets applications use something like message queues to send each other queries or to invoke functions remotely. Briar uses this functionality to build a rich, easy-to-use messaging environment.
a cluster of projects for a decentralized web. and the recently announced:
by tim berners-lee. it’s an exciting time.