February 6. Can social technologists solve the atomization problem? The author does a great job framing the problem. Condensed:
The structure of the problem is not man vs machine. It is actually a market-driven process that concentrates society's top cognitive talent on the engineering problem of how to best undermine an individual's agency. It's not a fair fight. We've all been taught that we're sovereign individuals gifted with full agency and capable of choosing what's best for ourselves at any given moment. But this doesn't describe the world as it actually exists.
I think his solutions and predictions are off base. They're all about communities finding ways to limit the use of technology. But it's not clear that technology is making us unhappy. I mean, that's what's happening, but it's hard to prove it, and it doesn't feel that way. We love our devices, and hate the world.
Here's how I see it playing out. First, suicide acceptance. I was watching that Cheer documentary, and there's a bit where someone says, "If you don't like it, there's the door." It occurred to me, nobody says that about life. There's a door, but we don't talk about it, and trying to go through it is illegal. So I expect the dominant culture to have stronger anti-suicide messages, while underground movements become bolder in supporting suicide for even healthy young people.
By the way, my argument against suicide is that the people who want to kill themselves are the same people who intuitively sense how much better life could be, and they're the ones we need the most.
Second, the continuing growth of tribalism, which I define as identification with a group, where the group identity is based on conflict with some other group. It's like a correction against systems that do a bad job of providing meaning, because ingroup-outgroup violence is a source of meaning that's strong and simple and always waiting under the surface.
Third, even deeper immersion in technology, and I'm not necessarily against it. I frame it like this: Nature, good; human-made physical world, bad; human-made imaginary worlds, good. The problem is, who's going to do the grunt work if we're all gaming? In the best-case scenario, we learn things from imaginary worlds that show us how to make the physical world better.
What's probably really going to happen, is that today's radical threat becomes tomorrow's new normal. We'll just get used to the burden that pocket computers put on mental health, and in another 20 years, we'll all be talking about the threat of biotech.
February 10. Important NY Times piece, The Age of Decadence. In popular use, the word "decadence" mostly means chocolate, so we need a good definition, and the author has one, based on the writings of Jacques Barzun:
Decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.
Yep, that sounds like us. The interesting thing is, he's not arguing that decadence will lead to collapse, but that it might go on for a very long time: "The Chinese and Ottoman empires persisted for centuries under decadent conditions, and it was more than 400 years from Caligula to the actual fall of Rome."
I'm thinking of this subject in terms of video games. In almost every game where you're exploring a world and getting stronger, from Civilization to Fallout, the early game is more fun than the late game. In the early game, you're living on the edge, everything is new, every upgrade is vital. By the end, you're just managing a bunch of shit.
How do we make a society where the late game is as good as the early game, when we struggle to even make a game where the late game is as good as the early game? I think the best strategy is to keep knocking ourselves back to the early game, and we can learn a lot from nomadic cultures.
It's funny because, at the moment, it's the right wing that's more likely to say that life is too soft and easy. But the reforms that enable being knocked back to the early game, are left wing reforms, that make it easy for the rich to lose their money, and make it fun to be destitute.
February 12. That decadence article is condensed from a new book, The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat, and Peter Thiel has a review. It includes the disappointing news of Douthat's conclusions. Of course it's easier to point out what's wrong with the world than to know what to do about it, but he recommends religion and space travel.
As much as I love fiction and games and music and art about space travel, it's just not realistic that we'll develop a bunch of really difficult technologies so we can spend hundreds of years traveling to planets that are nowhere near as good as the one we're already on.
If humans don't go extinct from boredom, but do something crazy and new, I have two reasonable predictions, and a wild speculation.
First, an unconditional basic income. It would be better to just make necessities free, but that's politically impossible, while the UBI is politically likely, because it would allow the state to prop up late-stage capitalism. It's not a long-term solution, because ordinary people need external structure in their lives -- but I don't, and people like me, who thrive in unstructured time, will plant the seeds of the world to come.
Second, normalization of psychedelics. The next frontier is not space but mind, and this is why we're not going back to old-time religion, because it's based on authority figures telling stories about the liminal experiences of legendary people. When we're all having our own liminal experiences, there will be teachers and communities to help us make sense of them, but it will be so different from religion as we know it, that we'll need a different word.
My wild speculation is based on the fact that photosynthesis is only 0.1-2% efficient. Here's a page about upgrading photosynthesis. It's a hard challenge, but still easier than interstellar travel, to engineer plants that are much better at turning sunlight into food, and that can spread unfarmed.
No empire ever rose in a place where you could live off the land. A bad society won't last long if people can just leave. So this is my utopian vision: after population decline, the world will be covered with cool ruins, with modquats climbing walls and groundapples cracking pavement, and caravans will travel the weedy highways through an endless variety of scrap cities and rustic villages.
February 20. You've all heard of the band They Might Be Giants. They named themselves after a 1971 movie that's been almost forgotten. George C. Scott plays a rich lawyer who had a mental breakdown, and believes he's Sherlock Holmes. His evil brother tries to get him committed so he can get his money. At the mental institution, Joanne Woodward plays a doctor who becomes obsessed with his case.
Of course her name is Dr. Watson. She follows him on his adventures, and soon they're less like Holmes and Watson, and more like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza -- hence the title -- as the story plunges into full-on magic realism. In dignified society, this guy is a nut, following "clues" that are just reading meaning into randomness. But among the low-lifes and wierdos, he is Sherlock Holmes, and the clues lead him to make wonderful discoveries and gather a tribe of outsiders.
By the end, the movie has lost all mooring in our world, and there are strange poetic lines, like "Cross your fingers. That makes nine. I love you." And it's got me thinking about newer films and shows about "magic", and how sterile they all are.
In Harry Potter, people can fly through the air and shoot bolts of energy, but it's all part of an unshaken third person perspective -- strange physics in a spotlessly objective metaphysics. In The Magicians, magic does the work of physics, like bending light. In His Dark Materials, there are different realities, but the doorways are clean portals, out there in the world.
In real magic, it's the mind that's bent, and the doorways between worlds are in our perspectives. Two people side by side can be in different worlds and not know it. Battles between worlds are not gunmen coming through portals, but people getting each other to look differently.
March 1. Yesterday, leap year day, I took my first serious dose of mushrooms, five dry grams on an empty stomach, in late morning, in quiet darkness. Even on smaller doses, I find that quiet darkness is necessary, because the mushroom launch is so challenging. An LSD launch is a tease, with everything gradually getting more interesting -- but mushrooms are a gut punch. You're nauseated and tiny stimuli are overwhelming.
The peak was underwhelming. I didn't encounter any entities, I got nowhere near ego death, and I didn't even hallucinate, beyond flashes of closed eye visuals. At the edge of sleep, I asked the mushrooms to heal my anxiety, a realistic request, and they told me I must carry my anxiety with me, as fish habitat.
Finally I got tired of lying in bed, vaped some weed, and went outside. That's when it got good. Mushrooms and LSD both enhance nature, but the aesthetics are completely different. On LSD, nature is heaven -- clouds of insects are angels, everything looks like Dr Seuss, I'm walking on the sun.
On mushrooms, I'm walking on the moon. Terence McKenna uses the word "peculiar", which is the best word, but still doesn't describe it. Shapes are crystalline and sophisticated. Nature is fairyland, and trees are literal fairies. I could sense their personalities: stodgy pines, surly willows, elegant aspens. Not only is every tree a person, but every branch of every tree is a person. Whatever you're looking at is completely important -- but also completely unimportant, because if a branch dies, that life just moves to somewhere equally good.
I wonder how subjective this is, or how suggestible. If I say, LSD is like this video, and mushrooms are like this video, other people might say, "Yes, I've noticed that too," or, "I didn't notice that until you said it," or, "No, for me it's completely different."
I read about a study, maybe in 90's, of groups of friends in high school. They found wide differences, within groups, of every variable except one: kids in the same group all used the same drugs. Now I'm wondering, in the future when psychedelics are normal, if humans will form tribes based on shared psychedelic experiences.
February 28. One week ago, I had a really interesting dream. Compared to normal dreams, it was more vivid, my mental state was more clear, and when I woke up, it didn't fade, but stuck in my head like a memory. The first thing I remember is that I was in some building after a day of work. Instead of going down to the street, I went to the top floor, where I made an offering at a giant clock with stone hands, and put seeds and fertilizer in a raised garden bed.
Then I went down to the street, and realized I'd left my shoes up in the building. Instead of going back up to get them, I decided to take my socks off and walk home barefoot. I was at the south side of the city, and had to get to the north side, but as I walked, I kept running into dead ends. Normally in a dream, any path I take, I can find a way through, but this time I had to keep retracing my steps, working my way counter-clockwise around the city.
I noticed that my feet were numb, and started to wonder if I were dreaming. I saw my name on a street sign. It said "Prieur Death Banana". My first interpretation was, banana is a silly word, and my own death is not serious. But later it occurred to me, the banana is the only common food I can't eat. If I do, it's not life-threatening, just extremely painful.
Coming out of another dead end, I saw some people hiding from someone coming down the road. So I hid too, but he found me. It was a monk in long robes. He raised a long willow switch as if to strike me, but struck his own forehead, which trickled blood.
He said, if you get out of the box, what do you see? I said, you see the outside of the box, and in the other direction, you see the wider world, whatever that is.
He asked me if I wanted to get out of the box, I said yes, and he said, you have to kiss me. His mouth turned into something like a skull and also like a machine. I said, can't you turn yourself into a hot chick or something? He said no, so I leaned forward to kiss him.
Apparently he was just testing me, because he pulled back and said: if you put a chimp in any time or place, it's still a chimp. But a human, in different times and places, will be radically different. I can get you a job in 24th century Germany, or 12th century Germany, or 12th century Greece.
At that point, I noticed that the building where I had started the dream was not a place I'd ever actually been before, so I must be dreaming, and I woke up.
February 26. Can an Economy Feel Joy? It's a fascinating thought experiment: that individual humans in large systems could be like neurons in a brain. The author leaves the question open, of whether an economy has actual consciousness, and only argues that it might behave as if it does.
I have two extrapolations. First, when the group mind is having fun, that's when a society is strongest, and when it gets bored, society declines. Second, what about the subconscious? Not the subconscious of the group mind, but the subconscious minds of individual humans. When big events happen in history, it often seems that everyone has gone mad. People feel strong urges to do stuff that they cannot justify rationally. Maybe the "consciousness" of a society is made mostly out of the subconsciousness of individuals.
March 3. We've been watching the TV show Hunters. It's about Nazi hunters, but it's set in a comic book alternate universe where ex-Nazis, decades after the war, are still fanatical ideologues plotting to exterminate Jews. In Hollywood, everything that's wrong with the world is caused by Voldemorts.
In real life, there are no Voldemorts, and most of what's wrong with the world is caused by Ron Weasleys: large groups of nice people who veer off into terrible behaviors because they want to be liked, and feel good about themselves.
Going back to the post about individuals as neurons in group minds, I think the quality of individuals that makes a society healthy, is not empathy, or competence, but the ability to tolerate discomfort: to listen to things that make you uncomfortable, and say things that make others uncomfortable.
March 3. Coronavirus and the Blindness of Authoritarianism. Back in December, Chinese medical workers tried to warn the public, they were punished for "rumors", and the virus was allowed to spread unchecked for another three weeks.
I don't think the west is immune from this. It's what we call "politics", as in, "I hate all the politics at my workplace." Politics is like corruption, in that individuals are putting themselves ahead of the common good, but it's milder. Corruption is when individuals are cynical about the system, and break the rules to increase their wealth and power. Politics is when individuals believe in the system, and work within the rules to preserve their status.
You can't stop politics with surveillance. In some future pseudo-utopia, there may be no corruption at all, and politics brings the whole thing down.
March 12. This is a simplification: there are two kinds of intelligence. You could call them "people" intelligence and "thing" intelligence, but I want to call them in-human and out-human intelligence, where in-human is the human social world, and out-human is everything else -- including human biology.
I'm framing it this way because our culture tells us that social intelligence is good, and everything else is less good -- but the more power the human social world has over everything else, the more the human social world becomes a bubble, defined by its ignorance.
To get power in the human social world, in-human intelligence is necessary, and the more power humans have over non-humans, the less necessary it is to have any other kind of intelligence.
Power corrupts on the level of attention: we use power to not have to give attention to what makes us uncomfortable.
Trump's first reaction to coronavirus was to call it a hoax: he was interpreting an uncomfortable threat, from outside the human world, as a comfortable threat from within it. The first reaction of Chinese power-holders was exactly the same. When medical workers tried to warn the public, they were punished for "rumors", and the virus spread unchecked for three weeks. You live by the bubble, you die by the bubble.
The good news is that coronavirus, and at a slower pace, climate change, are revealing the limitations of in-human thinking, and giving leverage to out-human thinkers, to bring human cognition into balance.
March 13. I've been thinking about cults. A cult is a social organism that looks primarily inward, at its own value system and its own model of reality. A cult looks outward through a heavy filter, designed and tested to maintain internal coherence.
Postapocalypse fiction is full of cults. I think they've got it backwards. Cults are a pre-apocalypse phenomenon. They thrive in societies that 1) are prosperous enough that people can afford to distort reality, and 2) fail to make people feel like they belong.
If we ever get a hard crash, the social groups that survive will be pragmatic. They might be violent gangs, but they'll be violent gangs with a realistic understanding of the world they live in.
March 18. Just five days ago I was thinking this was the "raise awareness" virus, which would "immunize" society against something worse in the future. Now I think this is it, the big one.
To measure how dangerous a contagious disease is, there are three important numbers. First is how easily it moves from person to person, which is at least as high as normal flu, probably higher. Second is the death rate in the absence of hospitalization -- because after the hospitals fill up, that's the number you're looking at. For Coronavirus, that's much higher than normal flu, maybe as high as 10%.
Third is the percentage of the infected who get such mild symptoms that they go about their lives normally. That's also unusually high, at least 40%. I can't think of any disease in history that's as high as Coronavirus in the mild symptoms rate and the death-without-hospitalization rate.
March 19. Coronavirus optimism, starting with a removed thread on the psychonaut subreddit, The corona-pandemic is like a psychedelic experience for globalized society. History might look back at this as the time when humanity turned inward and reconsidered its values.
Coronavirus has caused a bicycling boom in New York City. On the trails where I walk, I'm seeing more people mid-week in March than I usually see on summer weekends.
As toilet paper flies off shelves, bidet sales go boom-boom. I've been using a $30 bidet for several years now. Think of it this way: if your hands were covered in poop, would they be cleaner after spraying them with a jet of water, or wiping them with toilet paper?
And As Italy quarantines, swans and dolphins appear in Venice canals.
March 21. Eventually, there will be a good article on the social effects of long-term quarantine, titled "Covid's Metamorphoses". From a reddit thread on quarantine upsides:
I have two teenagers and life pre-March 2020 was feeling a little out of control, like we were speeding to the end of parenthood at a million miles an hour. Most of my life lately has been driving everyone everywhere and the lack of quality time was starting to feel like a real loss. So having this pause has been really nice, to spend time playing card games, watching old favorite movies, etc. Watching them trying to find the positive when they're facing significant teenage losses of prom, grad ceremonies, AP exams, etc. As they've moved from their own self-absorbed losses to concern for their community, friends and family - it's like watching them grow up in a significant and profound way.
March 23. When the quarantines came down, I was thinking, when the infection rate drops, life will go back to normal, and the virus will rise again. Where I was wrong was thinking of this as a failure. This article on New Zealand's strategy explains how it's actually a good way to manage the pandemic, by breaking it into smaller waves. As long as hospitals are not overwhelmed, we should call it a win.
March 26. Coronavirus might be the most serious threat the modern world has yet faced, that's not human. It doesn't care what we think about it, and no amount of social intelligence, no inspiring story, can change the nature of the threat. That's why politicians have to listen to scientists to know what to do.
March 30. I'm already doubting my statement that cults are a pre-apocalypse phenomenon. If we define a cult as a community united by a motivational belief, which only survives by heavily filtering the outside world, then cults could increase in uncertain times, because people who can't stay on top of reality need stories to cling to, like rafts as their ship goes down.