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Tag: politics (page 1 of 4)

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.

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_.

Nothing Clever, I’m Just Scared

Warning: I’m only equipped to gradually wind my way around to the point.

I’ve been trying to write down my feelings all day. I reread Cat Marnell’s Amphetamine Logic columns and pondered oblivion. Did you know that I’ve basically never done drugs? It’s silly to be a teetotaling transhumanist, no matter how passive. Maybe shooting up would Show Me the Way. Perhaps I’d be a better advocate for total bodily autonomy (AKA trans rights).

My partner gave me the corner of an edible once and I just felt like I had a fever. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to “doing drugs”. Alcohol, on the other hand. Well! I do have an appropriately addictive personality, and my therapist is so concerned when I admit that I drink as much as any other formerly depressed twenty-something.

On the subject of depression, I felt more anguished today than I have in a long time. The SFO protest helped in the moment, but comedowns are always painful. Venlafaxine fixed my brain chemistry. But as far as I know, neurotic personalities can’t be fixed. BEING YOURSELF IS PERMANENT.

I reread Marnell’s essays, and I reread my post-election blog post. Then I second-guessed myself. Back in November I wrote, “I don’t believe we’re on the edge of a national apocalypse,” but what the fuck did I know? What the fuck do I know now? How can I pull away far enough to judge my own capabilities?

You could call this liberal tears. Please, feel free. Here in the United States, we’re close enough to my pre-committed “total resistance” threshold — the Muslim registry — that I’m pondering the best strategy of, uh, total resistance. Tips welcome. If you live in an authoritarian country you might be laughing at me, and that’s fine.

At the protest last night, I cried once, and wished the crowd would sing “This Land Is Your Land” even if most of us are colonizers because I need some kind of harmonious resistance in the present. I need an identity politics that is able to unite people instead of sectioning them off into boxes and imposing baroque rulesets.

Last year on Tumblr I coined the term “femmencholy” and that’s how I feel. I’m never more ladylike than when I’m sobbing. Not that I’m literally sobbing — it’s more of a symbol. A concept.

Image by @greatartbot.

Image by @greatartbot.

What does this have to do with techno-dystopia?! You may be wondering. It does and it doesn’t. You see, this is where we are:

As a result of many related factors — difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism — there has emerged a crisis of confidence in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project.

They don’t mean the lefty type of liberal, they mean the “believes in representative democracy” type of liberal.

The “new era of communications” is what enables me to contact you and also what enables everything that scares me.

We’ve found ourselves here as well:

The Internet was supposed to liberate us from gatekeepers; and, indeed, information now comes at us from all possible sources, all with equal credibility. […] The belief in the corruptibility of all institutions leads to a dead end of universal distrust.

How very Russian of us, comrades!!!

Liberal tears, I know. I know, okay? I suspect many of you have an anarcho-libertarian bent, which is my preferred brand of radical. I hope you will forgive me for being partisan.

Header artwork by Magochama.

No Escape from the Dreaded Content

When I started Exolymph, I thought about making it a links newsletter instead of a random-reflections newsletter. I decided not to do that for two reasons:

  1. There are also already tons of links newsletters, and far fewer newsletters that offer a five- or ten-minute shot of ideas. (Glitchet is an excellent links newsletter that also features weird net art.)
  2. As a person who subscribes to many links newsletters, I know that they can be stressful. There are more interesting articles than I have time to read.

However. I’ve come across so many incredible stories over the past forty-eight hours that I can’t narrow it down. (I did limit the Trump content.) Not all of these articles were published recently, but they’re all indicative of The State of the World, Cyber Edition.

Don’t click on anything that doesn’t truly grab you, just let the deluge of headlines keep flowing…

“Who is Anna-Senpai, the Mirai Worm Author?”

Brian Krebs, a respected cybersecurity journalist, investigated the botnet that knocked his site down with a massive DDoS attack last September. The result is a bizarre real-life whodunnit that takes place almost entirely online, replete with braggadocious shitposting on blackhat forums and the tumbling of shaky Minecraft empires. SO GOOD. (Also, buy his book!)

“Security Economics”

Spammers and hackers are just in it to get rich, or whatever the Eastern European equivalent is. (That stereotype exists for a reason. Again, buy Krebs’ book!) This is a quick overview of the players’ financial motives from an industry participant.

“Scammers Say They Got Uber to Pay Them With Fake Rides and Drivers”

The headline sums it up pretty well. Bonus: identity-theft slang!

“Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich”

Both hilarious and depressing, my favorite combo. Silicon Valley billionaires and multimillionaires are buying up land in New Zealand, stockpiling weapons, and getting surgery to fix their eyesight. Their paranoia — or is it pragmatism? — is framed as a reaction to Trump’s election. Here’s a more explicitly political companion piece, if you want that.

“This Team Runs Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Page”

As the wise elders have counseled us, “He who leads Brand… must become Brand.” Zuck is taking that ancient adage seriously. The kicker: “There are more than a dozen Facebook employees writing Mark Zuckerberg’s posts or scouring the comments for spammers and trolls.” MORE THAN TWELVE HUMAN BEINGS.

“Advanced Samizdat Techniques: Scalping Millennials”

Warning: authored by a notorious neo-Nazi. Everything weev does is evil. But also brilliant. Here we have an example of both, which is funny if you’re able to momentarily suspend your sense of decency. (I didn’t cloak the link, because it leads to Storify rather than a Nazi-controlled website.)

“World’s main list of science ‘predators’ vanishes with no warning”

Either someone is suing the poor guy who compiled it, or… threatening his family? Let’s hope the situation isn’t that sinister.

“Dictators use the Media Differently than Narcissists and Bullies”

Guess which self-obsessed politician this is about? (Granted, all politicians are more self-obsessed than the average person. But the MAGNITUDE, my friends, the magnitude!)

“RAND’s Christopher Paul Discusses the Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood'”

A counterpoint to the previous link.

“How Casinos Enable Gambling Addicts”

Modern slot machines are expertly engineered to trick players and engender addiction. (The writer strongly implies a regulatory solution, which I don’t endorse, but the gambling industry is definitely diabolical.)

Lastly — most crucially — Ted Cruz totally clobbered Deadspin on Twitter. Aaand that’s it. Enjoy your Wednesday.

Header artwork by Emre Aktuna.

Seeking Digital Citizenry

For years, Estonia has experimented with expanding their territory via the internet. You can become an “e-resident” of this small, friendly European country. But that’s not enough for Estonia — no, Estonia continues to innovate! Now they’re planning to export their brand:

We have built one of the world’s most advanced digital societies and are offering our country as a service. Estonia also means a clean environment, Arvo Pärt, our president and startup hubs, largest gender pay gap in the EU, UNESCO heritage and sky-high CO2 emissions — all the good and the bad. No logo would do us justice. Instead we have a lot of interesting stories and a clear vision.

Estonia's visual branding

Estonian visual asset.

I find Estonia’s eagerness charming, but also cringeworthy. The self-deprecating faux-pride about their gender pay gap and CO2 emissions is off-putting. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by Estonia’s effort just like I’m intrigued by seasteading and Liberland. More people and institutions should be attempting to invent less arbitrary forms of nationalism.

Estonia’s oddball expansion feels like the flipside of John Perry Barlow’s infamous vision for the internet:

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions. […]

Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. […] Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

He was mostly wrong — but a little bit right. See “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” for my take on that.

Look Ye on the Downsides

Today I’m test-driving an idea that will probably find its home in an upcoming Ribbonfarm essay. It’s loosely inspired by recent episodes of EconTalk. As always, feedback is welcome!

I’ve identified a fallacy within my own thinking, and I suspect it’s a widespread one. I tend to assume that if all my preferred policies were implemented, the world would be perfect. All problems would be solved. No child would ever go hungry and tax incentives would be perfect.

This is sort of an internal motte and bailey. When I think about it consciously, my rational side says, “Obviously switching to your preferred policies wouldn’t fix everything, even in the unlikely event that all of your choices were good ones. You can never escape tradeoffs!” Then my dreamy emotional mind lapses back into fantasizing about my hypothetical regime causing utopia.

In reality, almost every decision has a negative effect on somebody. The average policy debate isn’t one-sided, however much it may appear be. (In fact, both sides are motivated to portray their view as the only sensible or acceptable one. Both sides are stubbornly blind to the tradeoffs they’re accepting. Even if those tradeoffs are slight or defensible! We like to moralize them into oblivion, until anyone who admits that the tradeoffs exist is reflexively ostracized.)

Scott Alexander put it this way:

Political debates are pre-selected for “if it were a stupider idea no one would support it, if it were a better idea everyone would unanimously agree to do it.” We never debate legalizing murder, and we never debate banning glasses. The things we debate are pre-selected to be in a certain range of policy quality.

That range of policy quality seems pretty damn wide, but it’s like the Overton window — however nutty the ideas at the edges seem, you should hear the ones outside of them! Going back and forth about universal basic income is different from going back and forth about whether adult men should be allowed to work at all. The latter idea is obviously stupid. Although the occasional extremist makes proposals along those lines, they’re mostly ignored.


What’s dangerous, in the sense that change is always dangerous, is when extremists get to push on the Overton window and shift it. When extremists introduce ideas that are just a hair outside the mainstream, and therefore not suicide for public figures to adopt. Cthulhu may swim left in the long run, but in the short run there’s a lot of turmoil and we get buffeted back and forth.

But hey, that’s how progress happens! For example, decades of abolitionist activism helped make the Emancipation Proclamation politically possible. Along with a war.

Controlling the Opposition to Some Extent

This quote is often attributed to Vladimir Lenin: “The best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.” He speaks of puppet movements and useful idiots. (The latter term is also Leninese, as it happens.) There is a less-popular companion statement, which seems to have bubbled up from the frustrated id of anonymous extremists:

"All opposition is controlled opposition." Made with Buffer's Pablo.

“All opposition is controlled opposition.” Made with Buffer’s Pablo.

The idea behind this maxim is that the state allows a certain amount of opposition to exist, and often infiltrates protest movements or steers them from afar. (Anarchist groups have developed what they call “security culture” as a way to guard against this.)

Dissidents are permitted to bleed off tension without actually endangering the regime. People with the savvy and energy to organize real trouble are swallowed up by doomed groups fighting for doomed causes.

For example, the “controlled opposition” interpretation of the #NoDAPL protests would be: The activists feel like they’ve won a victory, but the pipeline will just be slightly rerouted, built eventually, and imperil the groundwater in due time. The tribe’s supposed success serves to placate the public. Behind the scenes, the state and its capitalist cronies do whatever they want.

Some observers interpret mainstream political parties as controlled opposition en masse. Show contests orchestrated by the deep state in order to keep the voters occupied. Wars are engineered by corporate interests. According to this paradigm, we don’t just swoop in and crush ISIS because the military-industrial complex thrives on hot wars.

I think “all opposition is controlled opposition” is a bit like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Both sayings are nonsense when interpreted literally, but they’re catchy ways to encapsulate an emotionally compelling idea.

Yes, clearly controlled opposition does exist. But genuinely disruptive fringe groups also exist. The English government didn’t benefit from the IRA, and the French Revolution managed to behead a couple of monarchs (plus many unfortunate members of the aristocracy). Mao Zedong’s rise to power was not controlled opposition.

In general, I think people tend to see conspiracies where there are actually incentive structures. Of course the state has to strike a balance between crushing dissent entirely and allowing it to enter society’s memetic bloodstream. If the politicians and bureaucrats err too far in either direction, the state loses its power.

Header photo via the euskadi 11.

Bitcoin Over Bolivar

Some places are closer to the bleeding edge than others. Most of the United States, where I live, is quite tame. After all, something called “the bleeding edge” can’t be safe or stable. (Relatively speaking, folks, relatively speaking. Yes, the US could still use some work.)

So anyway, Jim Epstein wrote a great story about renegade bitcoin miners in Venezuela:

Faced with growing threats of violent crime and government extortion, members [of Venezuela’s rapidly growing digital currency mining community] interface through secret online groups and take extreme precautions to hide their activities.

In a country where cash has lost much of its value, and food and other necessities are dangerously scarce, bitcoins are providing many Venezuelans with a lifeline. The same socialist economics that caused the country’s meltdown has made the energy-intensive process of bitcoin mining wildly profitable — but also dangerous.

Did you know that electricity is free in Venezuela? That makes mining bitcoin pretty cheap. On the other hand, power is only intermittently available. Venezuela’s government is incompetent, except that the word “incompetent” is much too kind.

Naturally that same government, which tanked the national currency and wrecked the economy, wants to shut down the bitcoin miners. They also have to contend with kidnappings and other extralegal threats.

This is why libertarians are a necessary part of the political ecosystem, however horrified I would be by a full-on libertarian regime. (Is “libertarian regime” an oxymoron?) We need them to supply tools of resistance. Like, y’know, bitcoin. God bless ancap programmers!

Related: Nathaniel Popper profiled an Argentinian bitcoin broker, and the cryptocurrency’s general popularity in that country, last spring.

Very loosely related: I recommend this 2014 profile of LiveLeak and interview with the public face of the website.

Header photo by Gabriela Camaton.

It Shouldn’t Be Easy to Understand

Mathias Lafeldt writes about complex technical systems. For example, on finding root causes when something goes wrong:

One reason we tend to look for a single, simple cause of an outcome is because the failure is too complex to keep it in our head. Thus we oversimplify without really understanding the failure’s nature and then blame particular, local forces or events for outcomes.

I think this is a fractal insight. It applies to software, it applies to individual human decisions, and it applies to collective human decisions. We look for neat stories. We want to pinpoint one factor that explains everything. But the world doesn’t work that way. Almost nothing works that way.

In another essay, Lafeldt wrote, “Our built-in pattern detector is able to simplify complexity into manageable decision rules.” Navigating life without heuristics is too hard, so we adapted. But using heuristics — or really any kind of abstraction — means losing some of the details. Or a lot of the details, depending on how far you abstract.

That said, here’s Alice Maz with an incisive explanation of why everything is imploding:

Automation is transforming bell curve to power law, hollowing out the middle class as only a minority can leverage their labor to an extreme degree. Cosmopolitan egalitarianism for the productive elite, nationalism and demagoguery for the masses. For what it’s worth, I consider this a Bad Outcome, but it is one of the least bad ones I have been able to come up with that is mid-term realistic.

Which corporation will be the first to issue passports?

Rushkoff argued that programming was the new literacy, and he was right, but the specifics of his argument get lost in the retelling. The way he saw it, this was the start of the third epoch, the preceding two ushered in by 1) the invention of writing, 2) the printing press.

Writing broke communal oral tradition and replaced it with record-keeping and authoritative narration by the literate minority to the masses. Only the few could produce texts, and the many depended on them to recite and interpret. This the frame (pre-V2 maybe) that Catholicism inhabits.

The printing press led to mass literacy. This is the frame of Protestantism: the idea is for each man to read and interpret for himself. But after a brief spate of widely-accessible press (remember Paine’s Common Sense? very dangerous!) access tightened up. Hence mass media as gatekeeper, arbiter of consensus reality.

The few report, and the many receive. Not that journalists were ever the elite, just as the Egyptian scribes. They were the priestly class, Weber’s “new middle”. (Also lawyers. Remember the backwoods lawyer? Used to be all you needed was the books and a good head. Before credentialism ate the field.)

The internet killed consensus reality. Now anyone can trivially disseminate arbitrary text. But the platforms on which those texts are seen are controlled by the new priests, line programmers, which determine how information flows. This is what critics of “the Facebook algorithm” et al are groping at. The many can create, but the few craft the landscape that hosts creation.

It’s still early. Remains to be seen if we can keep relatively open platforms (like Twitter circa 2010; open in the unimpeded sense). Or if the space narrows, new gatekeepers secure hold. But that will be determined by programmers. (Maybe lawmakers.) Rest along for the ride.

That’s all copy-pasted from Twitter and then lightly edited to be more readable in this format.

I included the opening quote about complex systems because although this neat narrative holds more truth than some others, it’s still a neat narrative. Don’t forget that. Reality is multi-textured.

Header photo by kev-shine.