Sunday, August 07, 2016

Talking to Trumpers

So I tried to engage with a bunch of Trump supporters at one of the wingnut websites I occasionally frequent [sorry no link]. Kind of thought of it as a civic duty. Unfortunately all I have to report back is basically what I knew going in. These people are:
  • stupid: the kind of stupid people who think they are smart, bringing to mind this classic scene.
  • racist: not the virulent kind, more the whiny kind who think blacks are getting special advantages and the decks are stacked against white men
  • assholes: in all manner of ways, but most striking to me was when I pointed out that Trump had a habit of stiffing the contractors who did work for him, they replied that “the work must have been substandard”. In other words, in a fight between a rich and powerful guy and a lesser power, automatically back the rich guy. This may be due to something basic in the core of the authoritarian psyche, but it is incomprehensible to me.
  • convinced that there is something called “the left” that includes everybody from Hillary to Stalin, that is deliberately evil and devoted to “destroying our liberties”, and basically is in league with Satan.
This last point of course means that whatever Trump՚s flaws, he appears to be the better alternative to them. So pointing out Trump՚s near-total ignorance, his vile personality, his fraudulent background, and his absurd and destructive proposals means nothing. They claim to be conservatives but are willing to take the risk of vast destruction of our existing system of governance, simply out of hatred for someone who exemplifies the existing system.

These people are lost to sanity, and all we can do is hope that they aren՚t a very big or influential group come November.

[addendum: I don't think I did a very good job of doing what needs to be done -- that is, getting some kind of sense of what these people are really about. That is (a) hard to do on the internet as opposed to f2f and (b) probably better accomplished by people with more empathic skills than me. Here's George Saunders, who normally writes fiction about the broken people of the modern world, giving it a go.]

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Stealing the future

“these companies really are designing the future and they may get away with it.”
Here՚s an article that caused a minor shitstorm among the self-appointed defenders of nerd-dom. It՚s not a very good article and the reaction it got is also pretty stupid, but it touches on themes of interest so I can՚t resist wading in.

The article claims:

  • “Relatively young white males overwhelmingly run Silicon Valley firms and they are stealing the future from everyone else.”
  • The algorithms of these young white males are biased.
  • Since these algorithms are an increasingly important part of the public sphere, they should be regulated by the public.
  • SV has an “almost complete absence” of females, non-whites, and people from demographics like the aged or the low-income.
  • Many of the men who run the techno-corporate behemoth are autistic or have minds tinged with autistic thinking.
  • In that regard, they “know little and care less” about other people.
  • Autistic traits are useful technically, but “can become a hindrance if a general naiveté about human beings is translated directly into the design of the products and services used by billions of other people around the world”.
  • “We” (society, or maybe neurotypicals?) ought to take more control of the technology rather than letting the autistics impose their warped vision on “us”.
Some of these statements are just false – for instance, SV has a very large number of Asians in both engineering and money roles, and while females are underrepresented, they are hardly completely absent. Others are phrased in a ridiculously contentious fashion: “stealing the future” is a brilliantly nasty phrase.

Nonetheless, I think underneath all that stuff are a couple of worthwhile points: (1) that tech companies have too much social power (2) there՚s something vaguely autistic about their methods. The first of these points seems obviously true to me. Companies or whole industries rise on tweaks to Google՚s ranking algorithm, and Facebook has assumed the power to tell us how we are allowed to present ourselves in public life. This just can՚t be good. It՚s not that Mark Zuckerberg or Sergey Brin are bad people, it՚s just that it՚s obviously asking for trouble to cede the fundamental architecture of collective human society to individuals and for-profit organizations. I suppose it՚s controversial to suggest that big tech companies should be regulated or reined in somehow by the rest of society, but surely we can agree that they have immense power and there՚s no particular reason to think that they, of all human organizations, shnould be immune to the corruptions that accompany power.

But that particular line of attack isn՚t what triggered the remarkably strong reaction of the critics, who went so far as to compare the article to Nazi writings on Jews. At first, that seemed ridiculously overblown to me, almost offensively so. But maybe not -- scapegoating is an inherently ugly business, and the “stealing the future” line evokes that chilling song from Cabaret, In this reading, the autistic take the place of Jews in a story of illegitimate power wielded by a somewhat inhuman and alien race of people, a race that has expropriated the legitimate heirs to the future, whoever they are. If that wasn՚t bad enough, the article also blurs autism and whiteness and privilege in general. Sure sounds like like incitement to hatred.

And then it introduces the idea of “autistic corporations”, which is an interesting idea, but what does it really mean? A corporation run by or largely staffed by autistics? Seems to me a corporations, which is a legal person, might have plenty of these alleged evil autistic traits (such as lack of empathy) even if staffed entirely with the neurotypical.

These are all tantalizing questions for me: what does it mean to be human, how do we implement ethics and empathy, and how do the loosely-autistic people in the tech community diverge from the human norm? And how do collectives like corporations manage to embody partial humanity? However, this article does a piss-poor job of raising them. I guess that is due to the degraded state of public discourse, which largely consists of outrage contests.

So the worst thing about that article is not that it is going to cause pogroms against the autistic, but that it makes it that much harder to do the kind of informed and careful critiques of technology that we desperately need. It is quite right to say that the future should not be left in the hands of a few private tech corporations; and changing that will involve some kind of political struggle. It's quite wrong to paint this struggle in terms of race or neurotype.

[Addendum: right after posting I found out that today is "Autism Pride Day"

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Stray thoughts on neoreaction

It looks like Philip Sandifer is writing an exploration of the links between neoreaction and rationalism and the various quirky personalities around which they nucleate. This is sort of my territory, but it looks like he will do a far more thorough and entertaining job of it than I could hope to do. So good, maybe I can obsess about something else now. Don՚t know how closely his view matches mine, but his biases seem about right.

The Holocaust was in my thoughts recently, and naturally it colored my thinking on the deepest moral question of our time, whether Mencius Moldbug should get to speak at technical conferences. The controversy has turned into something of an ugly battle within nerddom. Both sides seem driven by a self-righteous outrage which I don՚t share. I find Moldbug՚s views reprehensible but don՚t see much point in shunning him socially or professionally – but neither am I ready to dismiss the feelings of those who want to. In short, on this question I find myself waffling. I՚m not sure why I feel obligated to apologize for not picking a side – as if this were Harlan County where there can be no neutrals. Both sides seem to see it as an absolute moral struggle with very clearly drawn sides, and both are very confident in their moral judgements. They can՚t both be right, but there՚s no reason they can՚t both be wrong.

The issue is framed by his defenders as a simply a matter of a weird, smart, original thinker getting unfairly punished because of his ideas. He՚s just talking, not actually committing any violent acts, and talk is harmless and should be protected. But his opponents do not believe that speech is harmless. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas can have murderous consequences, and thus bad ideas need to opposed not simply with words.

My indirect personal connection to the Holocaust animates my own feelings on this question; whether that give my opinions any greater weight is for others to decide. But I do feel a moral imperative to oppose such ideas. What the exact method of opposition should be, I don՚t know – banning people who hold them from conferences seems like a crude move to me, I՚d prefer to engage them, and in fact have done so. Freedom of speech is an important value, but not the only one, and I do not admire people who are reflexively defending Moldbug՚s free speech rights without also acknowledging the actual content they are defending.

If you dig deeper into antipolitics, one of the things that seem to underlie it is a fear of some kind of horrific apocalypse on the horizon – in the rationalists case, it՚s a superintelligent AI running roughshod over human values, with the neoreactionaries, it՚s political disorder or just chaos in general. They seem to think that this onslaught of antihuman forces is located somewhere in the future, something to either work desperately to avoid or grimly accept as inevitable.

But it՚s already happened. Civilization and rationality turned on those who thought it was on their side and remoreselessly dehumanized, tortured, and murdered them on an industrial scale. We՚ve already had experience with human-built systems that end up expressing antihuman goals.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – was today. It՚s sort of an anti-holiday. Holidays are centered around something holy and sacred (even the secular ones); this is around an event that is the opposite of that, the ultimate profanation. Something about the Nazi genocide sets it apart from mere mass murder. Not just the brutality itself, but the systematic, industrialized, and bureaucratic efficiency with which it was carried out. The moral abyss it opened up was blacker and deeper than anyone could have dreamed of, and it still exerts an inexorable gravitational pull on our moral thinking – or mine, anyway.

These events seem unimaginably distant from our present comfortable era, but it was not that long ago. I was born in 1958, 13 years after V-E day and 2 years before the Eichmann trial. Both my parents fled Europe as teenagers, my mother՚s family (from Germany) mostly got out, my father՚s (from Prague), well, nobody knows but it is pretty safe to assume they were murdered. They managed to build lives for themselves in America, but my mother, who loved high German culture (particularly opera, particularly Wagner) I think was messed up by the experience; it՚s not hard to understand why.

If you want to know why I get obsessed over the crypto- and not-so-crypto-fascism that infects our public life these days, this is why. I՚m very aware of the abyss and really feel an obligation to do whatever I can to stop people from being sucked into it. Political flaming on the Internet is almost surely a complete waste of time, but if there is any excuse for it, this is mine.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Politics-free Zones

I tried taking my anti-anti-politics line on the road at a SlateStarCodex thread about the Moldbug/LambdaConf controversy, with predictably unsatisfactory results. Nobody there likes politics, which they identify with undeserving authority, dreary conformity, and a general low level of intelligence. With some justification! Politics is a noisy, messy, and often uninspiring and unproductive affair.

So, why can՚t some places be politics-free zones? In particular, a technical conference, which is about programming languages and algorithms and such? Why can՚t we pursue our quasi-mathematical pastime in peace, isolated from the noisy conflicts of the regular world? Surely we don՚t want to corrupt our ethereal intellectual domain with such mundane gubbish. The technical world should be a politics-free zone, driven by more noble and intellectual motives than the crass social power that is the currency of politics.

Sounds good, doesn՚t it? In this light, the disinvitation and boycotts that have greeted Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldbug՚s) attempt to present his work on Urbit are awful, a scary intrusion of group hostility into what should be a peaceable world of pure thought.

Unfortunately such an argument collapses totally on contact with reality. The presentation in question is about a piece of technology explicitly crafted towards a political end. There՚s nothing wrong with that, and it actually sounds kind of interesting. If I were running a conference I՚d let the guy speak, all else being equal. However, to claim that politics wasn՚t involved in this matter until those mean SJWs started a harassment campaign is fucking nonsense.

More broadly, there՚s no such thing as a politics-free zone. We are political creatures and anytime a bunch of us get together there is politics involved, whether it is the local kind of who is in charge of what or the broader kinds of group interest. That՚s life. If somebody claims to eschew politics, what they really mean is that they accept the current structure of power and don՚t want to be overly troubled by how it got that way or any efforts to change it, which, sad to say, is itself a political position.

This is especially true of computer systems and the ideas and designs underlying them, at this stage of history. These are no longer amusing toys for nerds, they are the cognitive, social, and economic infrastructure of the entire world. Of course they are political! How could they not be? And of course politics shaped the history and development of computers from the very beginning. This is why I keep harping on this point, if nerds don՚t think adequately about the political dimensions of what they do they are abdicating their responsibilities.

One other important point about this affair that seems to get lost in the noise (and then maybe I can forget about it, it՚s starting to bore the pants off of me): nobody has threatened to censor Yarvin՚s ideas. They are all readily available on the net, nobody (as far as I know) has tried to pressure Google to take down his blog or Github to take down his code. People are not censoring him, they are refusing to associate with him, which may not be nice but is a pretty normal and accepted form of political speech.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

The A Word

Yesterday was Autisim Awareness Day and some people have suggested that “autistic” not be used as a derogatory term either for people or ideas. I՚m guilty of doing that, although not as often as I would have thought. They are probably right and I should stop.

In my defense:
  • I use it from within, since I՚m almost certainly somewhere on the spectrum myself, although not officially diagnosed. Like blacks have a license to deploy the n-word and queers have taken back the word “queer”, people like me ought to have a license to deploy the a-word. Of course, the cases are not completely parallalel in all sorts of ways.
  • I use it not to insult individuals, but to critique certain sets of ideas that seem like attempts of some aspects of the autistic personality to convert itself into political ideology or other large-scale systems.
There are obvious problems with labeling ideas or worldviews as autistic. For one, autism as a syndrome has an extremely wide variety of expression. Very few people with autism start political ideologies or movements around their thinking. But it՚s a problem, because I do believe that my non-medical usage of the word denotes something real and important, and I can՚t think of a better way to describe it. Roughly, what I mean is “disdain of or distrust of or incompetance at normal human social interaction, coupled with a fondness and competence for abstractions and artificial formal systems”. This is a common feature of autism but is not identical with it and deserves its own designation. I՚ll call it a* for now (not to be confused with the graph search algorithm of the same name).

Why is it so important to have a designator for a* thinking? It has informed computation since its origins (Turing had classic signs) and is obviously endemic in the present-day technology industry, and that industry is in the process of “eating the world”. We are all living more and more of our lives inside systems designed with a bias towards a*. So unless you are a digital luddite you owe a lot to a*, all the wonderful information and interactions you have on the internet can be traced to these weird obsessives plying their talents towards abstraction.

On the other hand, let՚s take two example of where a* thinking may have some negative consequences.

Facebook is now in control of a large fraction of our social lives, and Facebook is a* in spades. There՚s nothing inevitable that says that the complexities of social interaction have to be reduced to a formal graph of “likes”, but that՚s what we have now. It՚s not so much that Facebook is bad, but that we are allowing the very fundamental structures of society to be redesigned by people who may not be the best suited to it.

On a lesser scale, Moldbug՚s thinking is an exemplary illusstration of a* thinking and its pitfalls. If you study his work in-depth (not recommended) it is clear his primary motive isn՚t racism or ethnoationalism, but a horror of conflict and uncertainty. Ordinary society and politics involves both vague boundaries of groups, imperfect mechanisms of control, and internal and external conflict between different centers of power. Moldbug՚s dream is to replace this mess with something well-engineered and clear, so that for any resource x, there is always one agent a who controls it absolutely. This is not the place to examine this idea on its merits, just to notice that it՚s exactly the sort of thing that would be dreamed up by someone who sucks at navigating actual social structures but is great at constructing abstract systems.

To summarize: I would argue that a* thinking is a real phenomenon and an important one. That it has deep consequences for society which need to be understood better. Finally, it is not necessarily a bad thing if social life is changing in an a* direction, given how fucked up the default world is, but we ought to have better awareness of what is going on.

[ and here is one of my better guest posts at Ribbonfarm where I dive a little deeper into the a* mindset and what it means. ]

Friday, April 01, 2016

Horrified Fascination

Here is a very common visual cliche that oddly doesn՚t seem to have an actual name (the title is best I could come up with):

There are hundreds of stock photos and movie stills in which someone simultanously covers their eyes and peeks through the fingers. What kind of sights can provke such a strange reaction, and what could be its function or meaning? Some prospects simultaneously draw one՚s attention and repel it, giving rise to an internal conflict. You shield yourself from the thing (but not in any truly effective way) and then undermine your own act. Who is supposed to be fooled by this looking-while-not-looking? If it was just a matter of modulating a disturbing incoming visual signal, surely the eyelids would do as good a job as the fingers?

It seems to be a clear outward form of an inner conflct, and inner conflicts are always interesting because they reveal something of the structure of the mind (a jumping off point for Freud, Tinbergen, Minsky, and Ainslie, to name only the most influential).

The conflict between fascination and horror comes up in my thinking a lot these days. I detect it in my attitude to onrushing catastrophes like climate change, or the Trump ascendency, or the aftermath of various natural or manmade calamities. And in my otherwise inexplicable fascination with neoreaction and other wingnutty emanations on the internet, which is sort of like a slow-motion trainwreck of the intellect. Or doom in general, which was a founding theme of this blog. My mind is drawn irresistably to such topics, then forced to draw back.

There՚s something almost shameful and twisted about it, although I can՚t quite say why. At least I՚m not alone in having this perverted attraction towards the repulsive. The entire US media apparatus seems to be in this kind of relationship with Trump, both horrified and addicted to the spectacle.

In my defense, I don՚t think the alternative of pretending these looming horrors don՚t exist is any better. It seems almost impossible to face them squarely, so this kind of half-assed playful attitude is probably the best I can do.