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Tag: human nature

Up and Down the Levels

I have a messy hypothesis to unwind.

There are several different levels on which The Discourse™ takes place. Communication has multiple functions for humans, the dominant two being establishing social relationships and relaying information. Often a communicative act serves both purposes at once.

I don’t know who coined this term, but “stroking” is a good mnemonic for the base level of communication. Apes pick nits out of each other’s fur; humans ask, “How are you?” despite indifference to the answer. These are ritualistic gestures that ease everyday social interaction and establish bonds of civility.

The next level up is factional or tribal. We align with particular cultural entities, often based on family background or the local consensus, and signal this loudly. Sharing political memes on Facebook falls into this category. In fact, it’s the secret behind the “fake news” phenomenon. Partisan clickbait peddlers have a ready audience because many people are concerned with tribal signaling rather than evaluating facts.

Then we get to the object level. Here people are concerned with evaluating facts, and assessing the relationship that abstract ideas have to reality. If you read this newsletter you probably spend much of your time in this realm.

Above the object level is the meta level, and perhaps this is less of an entirely separate layer of discourse and more of a self-aware version of the object level. I don’t think anyone can stay in meta territory all the time, but I might be universalizing my own failings.

Examples of The Discourse™ at each level:

  • stroking level — “good morning”
  • tribal level — “the outgroup is bad”
  • object level — “I disagree with the outgroup’s policies”
  • meta level — “the most effective way to go about disagreeing with the outgroup’s policies is XYZ”

People are able to be nice to each other at the stroking level and the meta level. The object level is kind of a tossup, and the tribal level is usually toxic. Often these two middle levels bleed together, or oppose each. People engaging at the object level tend to be rebuffed by people engaging at the tribal level, and everyone ends up frustrated.

Like I said, this is a messy idea, and I haven’t figured out how to articular it properly. Also, I’m not sure 1) if there is any solution, or if a solution is even needed, or 2) how the internet messes with this beyond context collapse. If you have thoughts on this, I’m very curious to hear them.

(Much of this dispatch is a rephrasing and reframing of David Chapman’s stages idea. His version is more deeply considered.)


Reader Greg Juhn responded:

Quick comment — “signaling” one’s affiliation to a tribe sounds kind of benign, like birds chirping to each other or staking out territory, whereas most fake news has an aggressive “lock her up” or “burn him at the stake” vibe that indicates tribes have entered an attack [or] combat phase. Fake news is essentially a rallying cry. [¶]

Tribe members can huddle and pat each other on the back (a benign echo chamber) or they can turn with bared teeth and actively attack the other group. I don’t know when a conversation on social media moves from the benign phase to the attack phase, but it seems like that is what happens. Something triggers benign commentary to become meme warfare which leads to physical warfare.

John Ohno, AKA @enkiv2, also shared a mind-expanding comment.

Tiny Subculture Wars, Part 29348927

Last week Jeremy Southard offered up this prompt in the chat group:

what about gatherings/collectives? The cyberfuture is now! Online or otherwise, more and more groups of diverse people are coming together and sharing their interests in tech, the future, and their own projects. This slack is one of many. There’s local makerspaces (I can submit pics from the one I’m a member of if you’d like), thingiverse, osh park, adafriut, hackaday.io, sparkfun, etc… Then deeper from “just tech” to body mods like the NFC implants and 3d printing limbs like openhandproject.org.

See also: biohack.me and eight zillion subreddits.

In fact, this gathering-of-semi-obscure-enthusiasts phenomenon is the effect of the internet that I am personally most stoked about. I get to fraternize with people who share my niche obsessions, and I don’t even have to leave my house?! Paradise.

It sounds cheesy to say “I just want to make friends!” — and truth be told, I also want to be widely read. However, making friends is a big part of why I go around shouting into the void all the time. It turns out the void has other shouting people in it, and if we’re shouting things that mesh well, we can cluster and shout together.

On the other hand, subcultures breed drama. They’re sort of like small towns. This isn’t unique to the internet at all — join a local punk or anarchist scene and you’ll be awed by the amount of interpersonal conflict — but it’s particularly easy to observe on the internet. Everything is documented in comment sections or Twitter threads or what-have-you. Usually the detritus is messy and hard to follow, but you can piece things together. I enjoy watching drama from the outside, but having it happen to your own community is horrible.

What happens more quickly on the internet than IRL is subculture dilution. Anyone can access any information effectively instantaneously, so cultural distribution speeds up. There’s an iconic Meaningness article called “Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution” that outlines some of the problems that inevitably arise. (“Mops” are casual fans.) Anyway:

Fanatics want to share their obsession, and mops initially validate it for them too. However, as mop numbers grow, they become a headache. Fanatics do all the organizational work, initially just on behalf of geeks: out of generosity, and to enjoy a geeky subsociety. They put on events, build websites, tape up publicity fliers, and deal with accountants. Mops just passively soak up the good stuff. You may even have to push them around the floor; they have to be led to the drink. At best you can charge them admission or a subscription fee, but they’ll inevitably argue that this is wrong because capitalism is evil, and also because they forgot their wallet.

Mops also dilute the culture. The New Thing, although attractive, is more intense and weird and complicated than mops would prefer. Their favorite songs are the ones that are least the New Thing, and more like other, popular things. Some creators oblige with less radical, friendlier, simpler creations.

The dilution process is really disappointing to the hardcore fanatics, and the creators have mixed feelings about it. This reminds me of another excellent analysis of subcultures, “Social Gentrification” by Simon Penner:

[T]here’s a class conflict between the people already there and the people coming in. The people coming in are mostly middle- and upper-middle class folks with safe, stable lives, money enough not to be living precariously, etc. (Analogy: the people participating in nerd culture, now that it’s mainstream, always had other communities and social outlets that worked for them.) The people who are already there, on the other hand, have poor, hard lives because life screwed them over (analogy: the existing “real” nerds, for the most part, have suffered serious physical and social bullying that has severely impacted their life for the worse). More importantly, the people who are already there have nowhere else to go; they can’t afford the rising rental prices around here (analogy: the “real” nerds, being social outcasts, don’t have any other social communities they’re welcome in). […]

The end result is that every time I find a community or activity I like and enjoy, and try to get involved in it, it inevitably gets yanked away from me once people figure out that it’s cool.

Penner goes on to say, “I know two people who would have killed themselves if they didn’t have 4chan as a social support network (which sounds insane to everyone who hasn’t been a /b/tard, and obvious to all who have).”

I don’t think there’s any obvious solution to this problem of “social gentrification” — there might not be any solution as all, since people getting more empathetic in aggregate is a development I have doubts about. I dunno, what do you think? (Just reply to this email.)


The header image is a screenshot by ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓.

Wanted: Efficacious Heuristics

A system is an arrangement of interlocking elements or moving parts that all affect each other, sometimes recursively. The world is full of them (and in fact each of those systems is itself an element of the larger system that comprises the whole universe).

Mathias Lafeldt wrote about how the human mind copes with this:

“Systems are invisible to our eyes. We try to understand them indirectly through mental models and then perform actions based on these models. […] Our built-in pattern detector is able to simplify complexity into manageable decision rules.”

Lafeldt’s explanation reminds me of the saying that the map is not the territory. Reality (which is a system) is the territory. Our mental models are maps that help us navigate that territory.

Artwork by Kyung-Min Chung.

Artwork by Kyung-Min Chung.

But no map is a 1:1 representation of reality — that would be a duplicate, or a simulation. Rather, our maps give us heuristics for interpreting the lay of the land, so to speak, and rules for how to react to what we encounter. Maps are produced by fallible humans, so they contain inaccuracies. Often they don’t handle edge cases well (or at all).

Nevertheless, I like mental models. They cut through all the epistemological bullshit. Instead of optimizing a mental model to be true, you optimize it to be useful. An effective mental model is one that helps you be, well, more effective.

This is why Occam’s Razor is so popular despite being incorrect much of the time. Some plans do go off without a hitch. But expecting the chaotic worst is a socioeconomically adaptive behavior, so we keep the idea around. [Edit: Hilariously, I mixed up Occam’s Razor and Murphy’s Law — thereby demonstrating Murphy’s Law.]

My personal favorite mental model is a simple one: “There are always tradeoffs.” One of the tradeoffs of using mental models at all is that you sacrifice understanding the full complexity of a situation. Mental models, like maps, hide the genuine texture of the ground. In return they give you efficiency.

Foozles + Whizgigs + Dopamine

“Humans are actually extremely good at certain types of data processing. Especially when there are only few data points available. Computers fail with proper decision making when they lack data. Humans often actually don’t.” — Martin Weigert on his blog Meshed Society

Weigert is referring to intuition. In a metaphorical way, human minds function like unsupervised machine learning algorithms. We absorb data — experiences and anecdotes — and we spit out predictions and decisions. We define the problem space based on the inputs we encounter and define the set of acceptable answers based on the reactions we get from the world.

There’s no guarantee of accuracy, or even of usefulness. It’s just a system of inputs and outputs that bounce against the given parameters. And it’s always in flux — we iterate toward a moving reward state, eager to feel sated in a way that a computer could never understand. In a way that we can never actually achieve. (What is this “contentment” you speak of?)

Computer memory space. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Kate Losse wrote in reference to the whole Facebook “Trending Topics” debacle:

“no choice a human or business makes when constructing an algorithm is in fact ‘neutral,’ it is simply what that human or business finds to be most valuable to them.”

That’s the reward state. Have you generated a result that is judged to be valuable? Have a dopamine hit. Have some money. Have all the accoutrements of capitalist success. Have a wife and a car and two-point-five kids and keep absorbing data and keep spitting back opinions and actions. If you deviate from the norms that we’ve collectively evolved to prize, then your dopamine machine will be disabled.

It’s only a matter of time until we make this relationship more explicit, right? Your job regulating the production of foozles and whizgigs will require brain stem and cortical access. You can be zapped with fear or drowned in pleasure whenever it suits the suits.

Identity Velocity

Today’s dispatch was contributed by Way Spurr-Chen, a developer who curates the Glitchet newsletter (“weekly futuristic news and glitch aesthetic webzine”), hangs out on Twitter, and has myriad other projects.


We’ve always changed ourselves with some form of magic or another. Incantations, self-hypnosis, drugs. A finely pressed suit and $400 handbag. The dire imaginations of children, actors, pretenders. We wear masks and we play games — we are changers. The cessation of an atom’s vibration is a deep freeze: to stay still is to die. That’s probably why you’re reading this. You can smell which way the wind blows, and “forward” is a funny smell worth paying attention to.

Still, that wind blows fast. I’ve been reading about people controlling robotic limbs with their minds, a surgeon who implanted himself to see if he could digitize his thoughts, companies injecting their employees with RFID chips, and people putting LEDs under their skin. And those are just the biohackers! The internet allows us to get lost in increasingly specific subcultures and ideas. Our connectivity splinters us like lightning as our lives course through endless information. Years don’t feel like years anymore; I feel like I’m being blended into months and I’m counting my days in weeks. I wonder when I’ll know that I’ve been left behind, but that’s the trick: I’m already behind. We all are. You can’t be “on it” anymore — you can only tune into the infinite noise and pick out a signal. Wherever you find people, you’ll find a community thriving and moving faster than you can keep up.

What does that do to our play? We’re learning the power of permanence online while realizing the importance of having anonymous options. As the amount of information we put online increases, encased in silicon boxes, so does our ability to modulate, flex, and bend that signal through the future. (May our audiences be as forgiving of our pasts as we are.) It becomes simultaneously easier to transform yourself and to be pinned to an old version of yourself. Yet we will always shove forward bravely to new identities; we can’t stop.

Magical glitch artwork by Mário João.

Artwork by Mário João.

That’s just the internet. Old news already. Our ability to change ourselves, though, our bodies — that’s fast. When I saw those armless kids with modular LEGO prosthetics they could build on, I wanted one. I bet there will be a point where it’s a reasonable exchange to swap a flesh arm for a robot arm, even if your robot arm’s USB 3.0 extensions will probably be obsolete by 2020. (I hope you got the universal RFC shoulder socket adapter. Sometimes you gotta lose a little more flesh, but that’s just the tradeoff for longevity. Make sure you do your research: you wouldn’t want to buy from a startup that’s hoping to get acquired by Microsoft. Google might be OK.)

Of course, those are just functional, almost decorative. The thing I wonder most is how I would feel, knowing that I’m part machine, or part internet, or different, enhanced. Even if I can control the rate of my own transformation, would I feel pressured by the options available? What about aesthetics? When we can change ourselves so quickly, and we see the degree at which others might change, would we be compelled to enter an arms race (no pun intended) to become the most stylish, the most hip, the most specific? How fast can self-perception change? Does it lead or does it follow the things that we find ourselves becoming?

Certainly, perspective and identity are constantly in flux and the self rarely sees its reflection. But I hope the things I can hold onto are my habits. These give me stability. These define me. Even if I did get a robot arm, or an RFID chip, or a vibrating penis (I wouldn’t — I mean, maybe — no — let me think about it), I would still like whiskey and ginger beers, lasagna, dark clothes, the smell of a bonfire on the beach. I have these things to hold onto, regardless of what else about myself I change. I can take solace in the idea that I still haven’t changed. Not really. I can hold onto the rest of my humanity that is slow and almost static.

But the future always brings us new questions: what happens when you augment that? Your mind? Would you erase your memories? Would you program yourself to like something that the love of your life likes? Does it matter? Identity may not need to seem discrete, concrete. After all, can you step into the same river twice? Maybe you just have to tune into the signal in the noise wherever you find it. Mask-wearers, pretenders, changers that we are — maybe that’s already what we do. We’ll just get faster.


If you like Exolymph, you will definitely like Glitchet, so I recommend that you go sign up!

Open-Source Squabbling

Nadia Eghbal wrote an interesting overview of the history of software development — the nuts and bolts of how the future is being iterated — with a focus on open-source programming. In the 1980s:

“Sequoia Capital funded Oracle to make database software. IBM hired Microsoft to write MS-DOS, an operating system for their PC.

Suddenly, the idea of free software seemed insane. Software was a commodity; if you could make millions of dollars charging for it, why wouldn’t you?

Writing free software became a political act of defiance, and a strong counterculture rose around it. If you wrote open source, you weren’t like Oracle or Microsoft. People who wrote free software believed in its potential as a platform, not a product.”

Now open-source software is a significant part of the status quo — every single computer-based company uses it, and the startup ecosystem would flounder without it — but the idealistic pull of OSS remains strong. People join because they want a communal project as much as they simply want to build something. However, trying to generate consensus is incredibly frustrating and the effort is often fruitless. Eventually, project maintainers must make and enforce decisions.

Currently there’s a big hubbub among contributors to the programming language Ruby about whether to adopt a code of conduct. It seems silly to me — the human race invented rules for a reason — but people are very distressed. The worry is that controversial developers will be attacked unfairly, that they’ll fall prey to petty “SJW” vendettas. On the other hand, proponents of codes of conduct point out that articulating anti-abuse norms is powerful.

Ideologically, I tend to side with codes of conduct, but I also believe in self-determination. If the majority of the Ruby community doesn’t want one, and open-source initiatives are specifically meant to be defined by participants… what’s the fair solution? Should a project maintainer decide one way or the other, as I indicated above?

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