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Category: Newsletter (page 1 of 27)

Archives of the Exolymph email newsletter.

Yup, Everything Will Definitely Be Fine Since No One Will Lose Their Job Ever

Here is a succinct and insightful comment, from Hacker News user AlisdairO, on the trend toward technology handling every kind of labor that can possibly be delegated to it:

The sad reality is that there’s a nontrivial chunk of the populace that isn’t able to pick up highly skilled roles. It also ignores the role of unskilled jobs in providing space for people whose job class has been destroyed and need to retrain (or mark time until retirement).

I’m not advocating slowing innovation to prevent job loss. I am advocating avoiding magic thinking (‘there’s always new jobs to go to’): we need to start a serious conversation about what we do with our society when we have the levels of unemployment we can expect in an AI-shifted world. Right now we’re trending much more towards dystopia than utopia.

I’m going to get around to the dystopian futurism part, but first, a long digression about intelligence! It’s a divisive topic but an important one.

Sometimes I get flack for saying this, but here goes: The average person is not very smart. Your intellect and my intellect probably exceed the average, simply by virtue of being interested in abstract ideas. We’re able to understand those ideas reasonably well. Most people aren’t. Remember what high school was like?

There’s that old George Carlin quip: “Think of how stupid the average person is, then realize that half of them are stupider than that.” This is not a very PC thing to talk about, especially because so many racists justify their hateful worldview with psychometrics. But it’s cruel to insist that everyone has the same level of ability, when that is clearly not true in any domain.

You and I may not be geniuses — I’m certainly not — but we have the capacity to be competent knowledge workers. Joe Schmo doesn’t. He may be able to do the kind of paper-pushing that is rapidly being automated, but he can’t think about things on a high level. He doesn’t read for fun. He can’t synthesize information and then analyze it.

That doesn’t mean that Joe Schmo is a bad person — if he were a bad person, we wouldn’t care so much that the economy is accelerating beyond his abilities. The cruel truth is that Joe Schmo is dumb. He just is. AFAIK there is no way to change this.

I hate that I have to make this disclaimer, and yet it’s necessary: I’m not in favor of eugenics. In theory selective breeding is a good idea, but I can’t think of a centrally planned way for it to be implemented among humans that wouldn’t be catastrophically unjust.

Also, while raw intellect may correlate with good decision-making, it doesn’t ensure it. Peter Thiel’s IQ is likely higher than mine, but I don’t want him to run the world. (Tough luck for me, I guess.) As Harvard professor and economist George Borjas told Slate:

Economic outcomes and IQ are only weakly related, and IQ only measures one kind of ability. I’ve been lucky to have met many high-IQ people in academia who are total losers, and many smart, but not super-smart people, who are incredibly successful because of persistence, motivation, etc. So I just think that, on the whole, the focus on IQ is a bit misguided.

It’s also notable that similarly high-IQ people disagree with each other often.

And now back to the topic of technological unemployment!

The two main responses to concerns along the lines of “all the jobs will disappear” are:

  1. Universal basic income, yay!
  2. No they won’t, look what happened after the Industrial Revolution!

The counterargument to universal basic income is, as Josh Barro put it:

UBI does nothing to replace the sense of reward or purpose that comes from a job. It gives you money, but it doesn’t give you the sense that you got the money because you did something useful. […] The robots have not taken our jobs yet. It is not time to surrender to a social change that is likely to further destabilize a world that is already troubled.

The counterargument to the Industrial Revolution parallel is that AI — alternately called machine learning, or automation, if you prefer those terms — is different. Andrew Ng is the chief scientist at Baidu, and this is what he told the Wall Street Journal:

Things may change in the future, but one rule of thumb today is that almost anything that a typical person can do with less than one second of mental thought we can either now or in the very near future automate with AI.

This is a far cry from all work. But there are a lot of jobs that can be accomplished by stringing together many one-second tasks.

And then there are concerns about general AI, which I don’t want to get into here.

If you’re curious about my opinion, it’s this: We’re in for a difficult couple of decades. Most hard problems can’t be solved quickly.


Tachikoma artwork by Abisaid Fernandez de Lara.

The Fleet Can Withdraw

For work I had to read Lyft co-founder John Zimmer’s manifesto about the future of cities. A quote that jumped out at me:

Technology has redefined entire industries around a simple reality: you no longer need to own a product to enjoy its benefits. With Netflix and streaming services, DVD ownership became obsolete. Spotify has made it unnecessary to own CDs and MP3s. Eventually, we’ll look at owning a car in much the same way.

I think he’s right. No doubt rich car enthusiasts will keep their toys, like people still cherish their record players. Who knows whether it will be legal for a human to drive on regular streets at that point? I’m not the first person to ask that question, but it hasn’t stopped being worth asking.

Nor am I the first person to identify the inevitable next step. When you don’t own any of the equipment that you use, someone else controls your access. They can cut you off. (Pretty sure there are multiple Black Mirror episodes about this.) Consider that your ability to challenge an access provider may be limited. Lyft, for example, includes an arbitration clause in their terms of service:

YOU AND LYFT MUTUALLY AGREE TO WAIVE OUR RESPECTIVE RIGHTS TO RESOLUTION OF DISPUTES IN A COURT OF LAW BY A JUDGE OR JURY AND AGREE TO RESOLVE ANY DISPUTE BY ARBITRATION, as set forth below. This agreement to arbitrate (“Arbitration Agreement”) is governed by the Federal Arbitration Act and survives after the Agreement terminates or your relationship with Lyft ends. ANY ARBITRATION UNDER THIS AGREEMENT WILL TAKE PLACE ON AN INDIVIDUAL BASIS; CLASS ARBITRATIONS AND CLASS ACTIONS ARE NOT PERMITTED. Except as expressly provided below, this Arbitration Agreement applies to all Claims (defined below) between you and Lyft, including our affiliates, subsidiaries, parents, successors and assigns, and each of our respective officers, directors, employees, agents, or shareholders.

Caps not added. I will never understand the aesthetic conventions of contracts.

For reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on, this passage from a Nathan Jurgenson essay about the glut of modern media feels related:

From 24-hour television to the online posts being cycled through algorithms optimized for virality, the constant churn of news seems to make everything both too important and of no matter. Every event is explained around the clock and none of these explanations suffice. Everything can be simultaneously believable and unbelievable.

Maybe because we don’t own the information we consume. Of course, we never owned our everyday data, except in the banal sense that people had to buy newspapers.

More likely the correspondence is that we dip in and out of infostreams — open up social media for a minute, scroll, close the app to switch to email — the way we duck in and out of rideshares.

Rhythms of engagement. Cycling like a heartbeat. Blood in, blood out.


Header artwork by Leonardo de Moura.

Pointillism of Failure

One of the most interested things that happened this week was an AWS outage. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Amazon Web Services is a sophisticated cloud host for websites and apps. It is very widely used, especially among startups. When it goes down, as it did on Tuesday, many tech workers can’t do their jobs. At least Twitter was still available, providing a convenient location for complaints. (Additional discussion took place on Hacker News.)

I wrote about the incident for work, first summing up reactions from Twitter and then making the case that AWS is not a monopoly and shouldn’t be regulated as such. In response to that argument, my friend Adam Elkus pointed out that decentralized infrastructure was a founding ideal of the internet. The beautiful new world of http://www was supposed to empower individuals at the expense of institutions, be they governmental or private.

It has done that — but as usual, the reality is more of a complex onion than the idealists seemed to expect. In my first Ribbonfarm essay, I wrote:

The internet enables more individual opportunity than ever before — how would my words manage to reach you otherwise? And the internet is more meritocratic than the landscape it took over, because anyone can distribute their own work to a potential audience of millions, but of course age-old power dynamics can’t be erased in one fell swoop. It also enables winner-take-all businesses, like Amazon’s dominance in ecommerce and Facebook’s reign over news media.

Centralization wins because it’s efficient, given the constraints and affordances of the internet. And yet this centralization can be penetrated — not dismantled, but surface segments can be peeled back. That’s what hackers do when they leak a database or whatever.

One of cyberpunk’s central insights, as an ethos, was that the internet gives individuals more power at the same time that amoral, corporatized institutions build up their strongholds. It’s funny that some of the same people — the cypherpunks, say — explicitly bridged cynical cyberpunk and sunny techno-utopianism.

In John Perry Barlow’s “Independence of Cyberspace” manifesto, presented to “Governments of the Industrial World” at Davos, he said:

The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish. […] We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.

No one can arrest our thoughts, unless they’re hosted on AWS — a factory of the information economy if there ever was one — in which case someone fat-fingering a command kicks your thoughts into the inaccessible nowhere of a disconnected server farm. It’s impossible not to be at someone’s mercy.


Header artwork by Igor Kirdeika.

In Effigy

It’s been ages since I sent you fiction. This half-story has been kicking around in my Google Drive for months, and even though it doesn’t have a normal plot or resolution, I hope it will interest you. Suggestions of what might happen next are welcome. Either way, think of this dispatch as a foray into a world based on Exolymphian principles.


Phoenix illustration by Ricardo Orellana.

Artwork by Ricardo Orellana.

“It is a strange wind that blows no ills.” This is what Attwell’s grandmother told him, in her warm, wry voice. They stood in front of a clear window, high up in the arcology. Attwell could see her scalp through the silver hair on her head. Earlier she had mentioned that a cousin offered to buy her a full-body resurfacing, but she planned to decline. “Why bother?” Nana had chuckled.

Now, glancing down at her, Attwell felt slightly embarrassed by the visible skin of her scalp. He ought to look away.

The wind that blew against the window was thick with dust. All they could see was the movement of the air. “It is a strange wind that blows no ills,” Nana repeated.

This conversation took place before she died, as all people must die. Before she was recycled, as all empty bodies must be. Attwell knew that her substances would nourish the arcology. Her generation was dropping one by one, two by three by four by five, and their deaths helped to sustain their children. Chickens and pigs had no sentimental qualms about an old woman’s flesh.

Attwell wished that personality-preservation had existed before the cancer ate up Nana’s brain. Even the stilted simulation of a first-generation model would be a comfort to him now. But perhaps she would have been content to disappear completely.

It was twelve years ago that Nana died. A few days after her body had been surrendered, the computer that coordinated the arcology offered usage stats to Attwell. This percentage went to mineral reclamation, that percentage went to agriculture, and so on. The computer instructed, “Please engage the Cycle of Life grief-management module. This is a complimentary offer, available until” — then Attwell blanked the screen with a harsh motion. He sat on the carpet and wept.

Even now, more than a decade later, Attwell longed to speak to Nana again. If her essence were available as a Dearly Departed® program, Attwell could upload pictures of his new suite, to show her his success. He could demonstrate the screen-morphs that disrupted the monotony of the arcology. Attwell felt sure that Nana would want to explore the reconstructed immersion vistas of rainforests and sunny beaches. And he would tell her about the scientists preparing for expeditions to reclaim the outside world, microbiome by microbiome. The news-beams warned that a manned mission was still decades away, but Attwell hoped it would happen sooner than that.

Attwell was estranged from the rest of his family. Grief had turned to bitterness after Grandpapa’s death, and every segment of the clan came to suspect the others of villainous perfidy. Inheritances are a hard thing. Six of them came to live in the arcology when it was established, but they still never spoke to each other. One cousin’s suite was on Attwell’s level, but the pair had affected indifference so well that it came true. Attwell felt as if he had never known this cousin at all.

Their respective parents had both refused to enter the arcology, calling it a project of Satan. Attwell suspected that they had perished in the howling dust storms many years ago. Nana was always more sensible than her children.

Attwell was not alone, and he didn’t spend all of his time pining for a lost grandmother. Not long after the twelfth anniversary of Nana’s death, incidentally, he held a dinner party for his friends. Two of them were lapsed members of the Sunsplit doomsday cult. (It had lost steam after the predicted doomsday actually came to pass. The arcology chugged along just fine. Mourning rites were still held quarterly, and a fanatic core remained, but general attendance kept slipping.)

At the table these two quarreled about a fine point of the law written by the Sunsplit founder, part of a document officially titled `revealed_arcana4j.txt`. Most people referred to it as the Revealed Arcana, for convenience. Sunsplit lore reported that the First Priest sat down to write a SCRUM report for his manager, found his fingers hijacked by a higher power, and spent seventy-four hours typing sacred secrets. Skeptics often attributed this episode to a layered cocktail of amphetamines and hallucinogens. They couldn’t dismiss the incident altogether, since the First Priest’s computer had been forensically examined.

Atwell’s friends were arguing about the prohibition against killing and consuming phoenixes. The mythical phoenix is a large bird with red and gold plumage, which never dies unless intentionally slain. When it perishes from old age, there is a burst of flame. A phoenix chick emerges from the ashes of its previous life cycle after the blaze subsides.

The rest of the party looked on, bemused, as the Sunsplit believers went back and forth.

“Why forbid the eating of a phoenix,” Timothy asked, “if there is no such an animal in nature?”

A noncombatant chimed in, “Maybe there used to be, before the dust” — but was quickly shushed.

“There must necessarily be such an animal!” replied Valeria, “There’s no sensible reason for the rule to exist, otherwise, and of course the First Priest was sensible.”

Attwell pointed out, “If there are no phoenixes, we cannot possibly slaughter them. Either way, all of us are following the Sunsplit doctrine, without even trying.”

The guest who attended by hologram said, “Did you know that the nanotech fellows at Companion Labs aren’t even trying to make a phoenix, because it would be such bad press?”

“What about an effigy?” Attwell asked. “What if I 3D-printed a phoenix out of cake and ate it?”

Valeria snorted, half amused and half contemptuous. Timothy opened his mouth but someone else cut in before he could speak.

“Haven’t any of you played the phoenix game?” This was the first time Lydia had spoken since the appetizers.

“No, what’s that?” the hologram guest inquired.

Lydia shrugged her thin shoulders. Atwell thought she seemed uncomfortable with the table’s full attention. “Just something I heard about. You harvest phoenixes.”

“I don’t know if it breaks the First Priest’s law,” Valeria declared, “but it’s certainly obscene.”

Not wanting Lydia to be steamrolled, Atwell hurried the conversation in another direction. But after the guests straggled out of his suite that night, he sent her a message.

> what’s the name of that game you mentioned? i searched and nothing came up

She responded almost instantly.

> i shouldnt have said anything =/

> why not? it sounded interesting. i like obscure games. You know how i am

Lydia didn’t respond, but a few minutes later, he received a message from the username vezik77. It was just a hyperlink. No preview popped up. Was this just spam, or did it have something to do with the conversation? Attwell copied the link, opened a sandbox browser, and pasted it into the address bar.


That’s it!

Very loosely inspired by “The Envious Man” from Voltaire’s Zadig the Babylonian, via Project Gutenberg.

Speculative Revolutions

"this is how every revolution goes in one image" — @corpsemap

“this is how every revolution goes in one image” — @corpsemap

The revolution will be televised! Mainly on surveillance cameras, with footage piped live to police sitrooms. The official streams will be shoddily tapped by the guerrilla IT unit. Police HQ won’t especially mind, because keeping the riot scenes exclusive isn’t necessary.

As we’ve discussed previously, every camera is a surveillance camera when you’re a cop. People reflexively post their footage online, sometimes even helpfully geotagging it. At some point, captions will be run through sentiment analysis automatically, pegging possible insurgents.

So that’ll be fun. (Will be? Or is already being?)

Here’s a semi-related thought from Nils Gilman (who wrote “The Twin Insurgency”):

That the existing system is patently illegitimate alas does not mean that there must exist some self-evidently better alternative Order

He’s talking about US politics — who isn’t, these days — but the point applies in other contexts. Just because things are bad in a given situation doesn’t mean that there is actually a better option. Sometimes things are just bad.

It especially doesn’t mean that your speculative scheme would definitely work better. We’ve already implemented all the ideas with obviously minimal tradeoffs; the rest of the arguments aren’t one-sided (or at least they shouldn’t be).

It’s sort of grimly funny that so many utopian revolutions devolve into police states. Oh, the irony.

Very Virtuous Circumvention

Remember Erik Prince, the ex-Blackwater mercenary who seemed to be building a private army? He’s up to his usual hijinks, this time expanding in China:

Former associates of the 47-year-old Prince told BuzzFeed News that the controversial businessman envisions using the bases to train and deploy an army of Chinese retired soldiers who can protect Chinese corporate and government strategic interests around the world, without having to involve the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. […]

In an email to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for Frontier Services Group [which is Prince’s current company] provided a statement and strongly disputed that the company was going to become a new Blackwater, insisting that all of its security services were unarmed and therefore not regulated. “FSG’s services do not involve armed personnel or training armed personnel.” The training at the Chinese bases would “help non-military personnel provide close protection security, without the use of arms.”

And to that I say ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ because who knows what the hell is actually happening.

My previous impression was that Prince is a bumbling idiot. The BuzzFeed article doesn’t disabuse me of that notion. But! Apparently being a bumbling idiot is not much of an obstacle to paramilitary success. More likely, I’m underestimating his abilities.

Still, one of the parts of the ~dystopian future~ that I never would have anticipated is the way that people can hack their way to the top. This has probably always been true to varying degrees — think of the old pop-culture meme about women sleeping with their bosses to get promoted. It probably didn’t (and doesn’t) actually happen often, but to the extent that it did, those women were doing an end-run around the established decision-making structures.

Maybe I’m more of a Silicon Valley idealist than I realized, imagining a system based on meritocratic principles. But hey, you can even make the argument that people who figure out how to circumvent procedural checks and balances (not just the legal kind) are displaying a certain kind of merit. A certain kind of competency.

Is it the good kind?


Artwork by Icarus Hall.

Crowdsourced Common Sense

My friend Beau Gunderson showed me KmikeyM, a project in which “shareholders” get to vote on what Mike Merrill does with his life. Merrill describes his endeavor like this:

By “buying shares” in Mike Merrill you are in effect giving me money. In exchange, I am valuing your input on my choices based on how many of those shares you buy. As this mini-economy grows, my stock price will become a benchmark for my success; the higher the stock price, the more optimistic my shareholders are.

When Shareholder Questions come up, stock owners will be able to vote on significant choices in my life. The more shares you have, the more weight your vote has. You could be the only person voting to send me to night school, but with enough shares behind you, I’m going to enroll. Ostensibly, if we make the right choices, we both win.

Here are some recent decisions that Merrill crowdsourced: Should he accept any and all Facebook friend requests? (No.) Should he subscribe to Spotify? (Yes.) Should he un-register as a Republican? (Yes.) There are many, many more proposals and results.

Is this performance art? Is it business? A sensible way to run your life? Markets are very good at aggregating and weighing preferences, but there’s no guarantee that Merrill’s shareholders will optimize for his values or goals. I suppose he protects himself by only offering up fairly trivial questions.

KmikeyM reminds me of Sarah Meyohas’ stock-trading paintings and Justin.tv, the precursor to Twitch. I deeply wish that I’d come up with the idea first! Of course, there’s no reason why I couldn’t copy him… Would you buy Sonya Shares?


Correction: Mike Merrill allowed the shareholders to dictate whether he would propose to his girlfriend. (They voted yes, but an inside source told me that he hasn’t done it yet.) That’s not a trivial question at all!

Taking Charge, Corporeally

A friend mentioned today that transgender people who take hormones or seek surgery are the vanguard of transhumanism. (She also noted that she didn’t originate the phrasing. It may be an extrapolation from a Zinnia Jones interview? I’m not sure.)

I think this is true, not in the sense that trans people “go beyond being human” or whatever, but that they dictate terms to their bodies rather than the other way around. Someone else said — I can’t remember the quote exactly enough to dig it up via Google — that transitioning is a radical act of prioritizing personal happiness. Your body doesn’t satisfy you, or it actively causes pain, so you change it. (Harder in practice than it is to sum up in a sentence.)

Sometimes I ponder the semantic boundaries of what counts as transhumanism. Cosmetic plastic surgery? Prosthetics? Tattoos? Wristwatches? How physically integrated does a given technology — or the change rendered by it — have to be?

The answer is probably mundane: if it hasn’t shown up in a sci-fi movie, it won’t be regarded as transhumanism. Even in the case of a Hollywood-sanctioned device or technique, the novelty will wear off. Of course, the number of people who know the word “transhumanism” and think about the phenomenon in the first place is pretty small.

We haven’t yet reacted to an astounding extension of our capabilities by proclaiming, “Homo sapiens is free from the limitations of flesh!” So I don’t expect that attitude to swarm the zeitgeist anytime soon. I mean, consider pacemakers. No one gets excited about pacemakers, regardless of it being amazing that a tiny implanted device can help control an essential organ.

Bread and Circuses; Grain and Egregoric Revenge

Hanlon’s Razor advises us, “Do not attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.” Or incompetence, which serves as a fine substitute for stupidity. There are several ways to phrase Hanlon’s Razor, but the basic idea is that a given snafu is more likely to be explained by idiocy than by evil intent. It’s a corollary of Occam’s Razor. Wikipedia speculates on the saying’s origin.

The point is not that malice is never ever the explanation. The point is that malice is so infrequently the explanation that a heuristic ruling it out will be more accurate. Based on anecdotal evidence, I think this is true. The average person is a moron who means well, and even above-average people can easily fuck things up. Especially when it comes to complex systems, and almost everything the government does involves complex system.

Designing incentives is a process fraught with hard-to-foresee errors. But hey, maybe the artificial intelligence that’s able to trounce poker champions will also be able to easily evaluate all the perverse responses humans might have to a given regulatory scheme. Ha — I know. That’ll be the day!

(Allow me a political moment: Trump and his administration’s actions so far are probably better explained by stupidity than malice. They think they’re in the right, and they expect to do well. But actualizing that hope is quite difficult. Yes, Steve Bannon may throw a wrench in this theory — he has shown signs of being biased toward chaos.)

So. Allow me to propose another corollary to Occam and Hanlon’s Razors:

Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by incentives.

People do what benefits them. Gentiles sell out Jews when it benefits them. Reduced competition boosts wages. Native sons — of all sorts — sell out immigrants — of all sorts — because it benefits them. For the same reasons! Economics runs in the blood of every one of us, but it expresses itself via competing egregores. My ideology trumps yours due to reason, not because I want your crops and your blood! That has nothing to do with anything.

Right? Yes, of course. The ones who are right will devour what’s left.

Tweet by @ClarkHat.

Tweet by @ClarkHat.


Header photo by dad1_.