"Das Chaos sei willkommen, denn die Ordnung hat versagt."
- Karl Kraus
August 6. Today, some thoughts on game-changing technologies of the 21st century, starting with the most overrated.
I think we've got virtual reality all wrong. We imagine, if we can just throw enough pixels at an eyescreen, enough gigabytes at a sensory interface, we won't even care if the world is real. I think there are video games from the 1990's that are more immersive than any virtual worlds that will be made in this century -- unless we get another creative environment like the 1990's. Making a world that people want to stay in is hard. It's an art, and art can only be done well by individuals or small teams that are obsessed with their vision, and indifferent to money.
Also overrated: biotech. I think we're missing something, and Rupert Sheldrake is on the right track. DNA will turn out to not be the foundation of biology, but more like a tuner for some level that we haven't discovered yet. So we can't just make any creature we want by hacking DNA, any more than you can make a new TV show by hacking your set.
Where I see promise in biotech, is in vat-grown meat, and other ways to make food that's more affordable and less ecologically harmful.
Artificial intelligence could be big, but not in the way we think. This is already a common idea on the cutting edge of AI: we're obsessed with making machines indistinguishable from humans, when the real action is in making machines that are intelligent in ways that are alien to humans.
The holy grail of AI is understanding causality. As long as AI's do not understand causality, the more power we give them, the more we put ourselves at risk. And if they ever do understand causality, all bets are off.
Also big but not in the way we think: space exploration. I've written that colonizing Mars is a religion. But now, after watching this new video, Mars in 4K, while listening to Hildegard Von Bingen, on weed, I understand that colonizing Mars is a really good religion. It's all about humanity reaching for transcendence, and this time it's physically possible. Those rocks are real.
I still think it's a trick. Mars seems to be training us for interstellar travel, when really it's training us in ecology. Because if we get there, we'll want to terraform it, and terraforming Mars is so much harder than re-terraforming Earth, that by the time we're growing lichens on Daedalia Planum, we'll be planting food forests in the Sahara.
Finally, the big one. We already have psychedelic drugs so good, that if they become legal, they'll change religion so much that we might stop using that word. There will be no more telling people about unseen worlds. If we're all tripping, we'll all be seeing them, and the role of spiritual leaders will be to help us make sense of what we're seeing.
What if LSD and DMT are teases, for far more sophisticated tools for real-time brain-hacking? We might all get sockets in our skulls, but they won't be for feeding us some world designed by programmers. It will turn out to be both easier, and more interesting, to just unlock the worlds that are already there, that our brains were filtering.
August 3. Unrelated stuff, starting with more Coronavirus. Here's a chart that shows the United States cases per day, and this chart shows the deaths per day. Notice that the April deaths per day were double the July deaths per day, and yet the July cases per day were double the April cases per day. It's strange that nobody's talking about this.
I see three possibilities. 1) Testing is revealing more cases, and the actual infection rate in April was up to four times higher. 2) Deaths are not being counted, and the death rate right now is up to four times higher. 3) The virus is up to four times less deadly, either through a) better medical care, b) younger people getting it, or c) mutation.
New subject, from the psychonaut subreddit, a trip report where a guy talked to his own subconscious. He noticed that his hands were doing stuff without his head, so he started asking his hands questions, and they would respond with thumbs up or thumbs down. My first thought is, if we could develop a cheap technology that could do this reliably, it would be the biggest thing ever. My next thought is, the real mystery is not the subconscious, but the modern human mode of consciousness. How did we end up with this thing that controls everything we do, yet it understands so little?
New subject, from the Ask Old People subreddit, What are some things that actually sucked about the 1950s? This makes me optimistic, because if the world got that much better in 50 years, how much better can it get in the next 50? Also, as much as we like to bash the boomers, it was mostly them who drove those changes. I'm hopeful that Gen Z, whatever they end up calling themselves, will finally sort out the economy so that money stops ruining everything.
For example, The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free. What the essay is mainly about, is that we have the technology, right now, to have an information utopia, but economics is getting in the way, specifically intellectual property, and that poverty prevents creative people from giving their stuff away free.
July 30. Some thoughts on Coronavirus. It's strange that it's taken it this long to kill someone whose name I already knew. That person is Herman Cain. Given that the virus is disproportionately affecting minorities and Trumpers, it's fitting that he's the most famous person who's both.
If you get sick, the COVID-19 Positive subreddit is a good resource.
And I don't have an agenda about whether COVID-19 is man-made, but there seems to be a taboo against that idea among supposedly neutral scientists. The fight for a controversial article is about two virologists who "believe it has certain properties which would not evolve naturally" but are struggling to get published. And here's a pdf of their article.
I'm in no position to say if they're right -- I just think the sociology of the controversy is interesting. Part of the problem is that most people don't have the cognitive tools to navigate the middle ground of conspiracy theory. So it's either, whatever happens was a meaningless accident, or whatever happens was planned to happen exactly that way.
More generally, consensus defaults to safety, and there is safety in meaninglessness. As soon as you let agency in the door, people get crazy.
July 28. Yesterday's post came out of my own mental state. Lately life is feeling like an uphill climb through a disenchanted world. So I've doubled down on pain, cutting out some bad habits, working harder to improve my posture, and meditating more.
None of this has paid off yet, but in my time away from the computer, I'm reading a rare classic of philosophy, The Psychic Grid by Beatrice Bruteau. I can't even remember where I got my copy, but it fits well with Donald Hoffman's The Case Against Reality.
July 27. I'm still on semi-vacation from blogging. I keep my laptop on a stand-up desk in the corner of my bedroom, and this corner increasingly feels like a place of compulsion and dread. Twenty years ago the internet was miraculous. Now it's a Kafka nightmare of passwords and updates, a land of hungry bots seeking ad revenue. Even at the most personal level, I sense an undercurrent of loneliness, people desperate for a social connection that you're just not going to get through a screen.
If you strip it down to fundamentals, the internet is an engine for generating low-quality demands on human attention, and if the whole thing disappeared tomorrow, it would be so relieving.
July 23. And some optimistic links. More precisely, the category is how much room humans have to do things better.
Olalekan Jeyifous Is Imagining an Afrofuturist Brooklyn. These images are awesome. I would call it ecofuturism, but it's interesting that Africa seems to be on the cutting edge of making the human-made world more like the non-human-made world.
Giant flywheel project in Scotland could prevent UK blackouts, by stabilizing the unstable energy that comes from windfarms.
Spreading rock dust on fields could remove vast amounts of CO2 from air. It's also good for the soil, and cheaper than other carbon sink strategies.
Reinventing the brick (thanks Stephen). These new bricks are made out of construction waste, with a much smaller ecological footprint than regular bricks.
And an article about Eugene, Oregon replacing some cops with medics and mental health workers, more than 30 years ago.
July 20. Still feeling dumb this week. It's probably the heat. Here are all the negative links I've been saving up.
Jamie Loftus, the Comedian Who Infiltrated Mensa:
Loftus attributes Firehouse's far-right politics to Mensa's toxic belief in a fixed intellectual hierarchy. "There is no overstating what community can do for someone who, as many members described to me, feel like misfits in their everyday lives and want to belong somewhere. A society with murky goals whose selling point is superiority is not a healthy place to find it."
Related: Beware of Being Right:
Certainty itself is an emotional state, not an intellectual one. To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes, which, of course, greatly increases its already high error rate during emotional arousal. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong in some respect.
Reddit thread, What is something that's considered normal today but is actually a successful propaganda made by corporations? And a comment on why targeted advertising is bad.
A critique of efficiency, which in practice is making our lives worse so that money can concentrate itself better.
The abstract of a paper, The Relationship between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration. You guessed it, the more expensive the wedding, the shorter the marriage.
Finally, a dark reddit thread, What the fastest way you've seen someone ruin their life?
July 17. I've been dull-headed and busy this week, but I have more thoughts on the subconscious. Thanks Matt for inspiring this dystopian thought experiment: what if lie detectors got really good, and we used them all the time?
The techno-optimist first thought is, all the truth would be brought to the surface. But the machines that we now call "lie detectors" don't detect truth. They don't even detect lies. They're tools of intimidation that detect the fear of getting caught.
The way to beat lie detectors, which we're already really good at, is self-deception: to completely believe whatever you're saying.
Then where does the truth go? It gets buried in the subconscious. So the effect of widespread and strong "lie detection" would be the shrinking of the conscious mind. Any part of your identity that you would get in trouble for, would have to be hidden, leaving your surface mind sincere and clueless, walled off from the truth.
But this has already happened. The mechanism is inside us: that if there's something too socially unacceptable, we find it easier to just never look at it, than to look at it and keep it in balance with our public self.
I think the subconscious is totally conscious. That's why nobody says, "and then I became gay." They say, "and then I found out I was gay all along." It's right there, it's you, but "you" don't notice it.
In Freudian terms, you are the id, and "you" are the superego, a personality module for getting along socially, which has taken over the whole self. Expanding the self is hard. You can't tame the id, but you can train your moment-to-moment attention to ride it. And it's good to assume there's always more.
July 14. A short comment thread on Tulpas and the illusion of conscious unity, including a cool story where MakeTotalDestr0i was alone for six months and had complex people appear in his head.
And from this thread, a quote from Carl Jung, who was way ahead of us in figuring this stuff out:
The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor's consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.
July 13. I want to go back to Tulpas. I've always seen the word used for an occult entity, something like a poltergeist or a minor genie, that does stuff out in the world to serve its human creator, but has a mind of its own. The newer meaning is for something that remains completely inside your head. So it's in the same territory as imaginary friends or multiple personalities, but it's done with full intention by sane adults.
My crazy thought is, what if this becomes a long-term trend? What if it's the next stage of human cultural evolution? By 2100, most people will have two or three Tulpas, and you'll introduce them whenever you meet someone. There will be classes on how to make them, and bestsellers on how to switch your mind from one to another to do different tasks.
Looking back at history, they'll say that Tulpas were there all along. They'll bring in Julian Jaynes and say that in ancient times we took them for gods. Then we buried them in the subconscious, where they often became evil and drove wars and genocides. In the 20th century, when they started to come out in the open, they appeared as mental illness, but now that we know how to work with them, they're mostly benign and helpful.
I love the niceness of the Tulpa community, but I think they're underestimating the dangers. Here's a good comment, from the Psychonaut subreddit, on the spirit world. You can take it all as metaphorical if you want, but the idea is that letting entities inside you is serious, and should be done with great care.
July 10. Ennio Morricone died this week. Despite his long career, he is rightly best known for his early soundtracks to Sergio Leone westerns. The scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, where Tuco runs through the cemetery to Ecstasy of Gold, is my favorite scene in all of film, but the music is more epic in the final shootout, The Trio. Both scenes are music videos, because Leone had Morricone compose the music first, and then shot the scenes to fit.
Demystifying Science is a great blog that I've just discovered. This post is a solid critique of the Big Bang, and this post on the Endocannabinoid System has valuable advice for stoners: that CBD, while it has no mental effects by itself, "appears to provide overt medical benefits and balances the negative effects of THC."
This reddit thread may help your mental health. If you had a friend who spoke to you in the same way that you sometimes speak to yourself, how long would you allow this person to be your friend? Related, the subreddit just linked to the subreddit on Tulpas: "A tulpa is believed to be an autonomous consciousness coinhabiting a brain with their creator, often with a form of their creator's initial choice and design."
My favorite sport, women's soccer, has started up with a tournament instead of a full season, and the best goal so far is this magnificent header by Shea Groom.
July 8. Continuing from Monday, this subreddit post reports a mushroom-induced mental state "very similar" to states encountered in meditation. I must be bad at meditation, because I've put in hundreds of hours, and tried a lot of techniques, and I have yet to experience anything remotely trippy. Meditation is like flossing my teeth, a painful duty that's good for me. The one way it feels good, is that by focusing on my body, I've developed what I call a full-body glow, typically in the morning before getting up.
I wonder how much room we have to do meditation better. Linked from above, this chapter on concentration states mentions that different techniques work better for different types of people, but "this sort of information is not in common use today." And Matt sends this helpful page, Six Ways to Meditate.
And of course I wonder how much room we have to do psychedelics better. It's possible that we're already past the point of diminishing returns, in finding more molecules and better ways to use them, or it's possible that we've barely begun. Certainly we've barely begun with other forms of physical brain-hacking. Maybe in a few years I can go in for amygdala stapling to cure my anxiety.
Some links from the Psychonaut subreddit. What I've figured out so far is a fascinating metaphysical framework inspired by DMT:
There is only one reality. Heaven, Hell, and mortal life are not three different things. They are one single thing.... This one single reality is connection to all things, if you are ready for it you experience this as Heaven. If you are not ready for it you experience this as Hell.
A short comment thread, Most of us have been told 1000 times that the stove is hot, but psychedelics let you touch the stove.
A long comment thread, When you're on acid, things happen that would otherwise never have happened. What are your examples of this phenomenon?
And an article, Mainstreaming Psychedelics: Secularizing spirituality with the aid of Eastern religion. The main idea is that we can put psychedelic experiences on a spectrum, where at one pole is the Eastern unitive-mystical state, being one with everything, and at the other pole is the Western interactive-relational state, where you can get specific practical insights.
July 6. Continuing on psychedelics, there's a common idea, even among psychonauts, that drugs are just a shortcut to get somewhere that you can get without them. I mean, if what you want is to be emotionally healthy and have a good life, then sure, you don't even need to drink coffee. But I think the idea of having a drug-like mental state without drugs is wishful thinking, even magical thinking, about the power of the unassisted brain.
I would love to see a step-by-step process, something on the same order of difficulty as playing a musical instrument, where even after a few hours you can see results, and at high skill levels you can meet machine elves or step outside of time. Instead I see a spiritual elite making vague and untested promises about the benefits of doing what they say for thousands of hours.
There's a famous story of Ram Dass giving LSD to a guru, who just sat there as if it wasn't affecting him. There are doubts about whether this really happened, but even if it did, it's not evidence that the drug didn't affect the guru, let alone that he already had LSD consciousness. It's only evidence that he had the mental discipline to not show the effects outwardly.
Meditation and drugs are not two ways up the same mountain -- they're two different mountains. Meditation is about training your awareness of where and how you focus your attention, and your agility in changing that focus, within the world that your brain is tuning in. Drugs are about changing your brain's filter to alter that world.
This model actually makes meditation more important. If meditation does basically the same thing as drugs, but with more work, than we lazy people have no reason to do it. But if they complement each other, if meditation makes drugs better and drugs make meditation better, then we should be doing both.
July 3. I've heard that John Michael Greer wants to start a religion. (Update: here's the thread.) I'd advise him to do a lot of psychedelics, because by the end of this century almost everyone will be doing them, and some metaphysical ideas can survive that, and some can't.
I've been asked why I'm so optimistic. My answer is that I've walked up a wild stream in midsummer on LSD. I don't want to use the word "nature" because there's always some jerk who says "everything is natural" -- a valid semantic choice, which erases a really valuable distinction, which I preserve by framing it as the human-made world vs the non-human-made world.
The non-human-made world is basically heaven. You don't need LSD to see it but it helps. And beside it, or often on top of it, the human-made world is like mean kids playing with blocks, all clunky and ugly.
And yet, humans are supposedly better than trees and grass and bugs and birds. Maybe that's an illusion, and we're intrinsic degenerates who need to go extinct. But if we really are better, then we have the potential, instead of poisoning and paving the non-human-made world, to take that riotous beauty and run with it.
For a tease of what we could do, look at the picture at the top of this 2015 article, Wonderful Widgets. With 3D printing and evolutionary design, a crude component has been turned into one that looks like art -- and is more functional.
In terms of culture, game theory predicts the eventual victory of cooperators over dominators. We've already done it many times at the tribal scale, and we've only been playing with large complex societies for a short time.
In the short term, things look bad. The climate, the economy, and the internet are all going to get worse. The meaninglessness of modern life will continue to produce mass insanity. Right now we're passing through a bottleneck. The reason George Floyd's death was so powerful, and the reason mask-wearing has been so politicized, is that we all feel suffocated by this dreadful world that our recent ancestors have made for us, and it's getting tighter. But eventually there will be a reopening, and I think we're still at the beginning of history.
July 2. Continuing from yesterday, I just want to say a bit about systemic racism. I think it's a mistake to try to define it in terms of laws. There are some racist laws, like crack cocaine having worse penalties than regular cocaine, but there are also affirmative action laws that go the other way.
Where I see systemic racism, is in the largely subconscious habits of ordinary people, of treating different races differently. It shows up in a million snap decisions, often by people who think they see all races as equal. The funny thing is, it's easier to see it if you're an object of it, than if you're doing it.
July 1. A few days ago, some North Carolina cops were fired after being caught on video saying they can't wait for martial law because "We are just gonna go out and start slaughtering them fucking n-----s." And yet they say they're not racist. Do they actually believe that?
I think they do, and it's partly the fault of the mainstream left, for encouraging a concept of what racism is, that has almost no basis in reality. You can see it all the time in badly written TV shows, like the Rosa Parks episode of Doctor Who. As soon as a racist sees a person with the wrong skin color, they go full-on Voldemort.
Actual racism is a lot like a sports team rivalry. You understand intellectually that fans of your rival team are fully human, and it's not hard for you to treat them as fully human, one on one; but in aggregate, it's fun to think of them as the enemy, and it's frightening that they might have power over you.
June 29. Not feeling smart this week, so I'll just post some unrelated links. Why the US military usually punishes misconduct but police often close ranks. Because the military has developed a culture that puts organizational loyalty ahead of personal loyalty. That's really hard to do, and it might turn out that the only way to reform police departments is to do what Minneapolis is doing, and rebuild them from scratch.
Wireless is a trap, because it seems to make stuff easier, but a lot of the frustrating behavior of computers comes down to sketchy wireless tech. Conclusion: "If we took 10% of the effort we currently spend on removing wires from everything, and put it into ingenious cable routing solutions instead, I'd bet that a lot of wireless-dependent activities like video calls would be way more pleasant."
Lemmy is the name of a new alternative to Reddit. Personally I find the new reddit unusable, and if they ever remove the option to use old.reddit.com, I'll spend a lot less time on the internet.
Show Your Stripes is a nice user interface for looking at global warming.
And a repost from the blog archives, from July 2013:
Concise article, The Eye of Sauron Is the Modern Surveillance State, arguing that Tolkien understood surveillance better than Orwell. All three points are important: 1) A system that lacks empathy can see everything but fail to understand motivations. 2) Surveillance is reactive and clumsy. 3) The more raw data the system collects, the harder it is to pick out the important stuff.
June 26. Three links from readers. In the last week two different people have told me about Peter Turchin and his theories about cycles of history. I think it's easy to make a model that predicts that past, and almost impossible to make one that predicts the future. But it's interesting (and unsurprising) that Turchin has found and charted a strong inverse correlation between elite overproduction and popular well-being.
Inside the Social Media Cult That Convinces Young People to Give Up Everything. Reading this, it occurs to me that the actual beliefs of the cult are arbitrary. When you strip it down, a cult is an engine that takes people with unmet needs for meaning and belonging, and chews them up to generate power for the cult leaders. In between those two things, it's just whatever works.
And an interview about the Madness of Knowledge, a book that investigates how we feel about what we think. I would say it like this: First you have a thought, or find a thought. Then you have an emotional reaction, either feeling good about the thought or feeling bad about it. Then you have another thought, which says, "No emotions here! Only pure, clean thoughts, which I will now use to explain why the first thought is correct or incorrect" -- whichever one you felt it should be.
To not be a slave of this process, you need a particular skill: observing your feelings about your thoughts. This skill is a kind of intelligence. How much saner would the world be, if we taught it and tested for it?
March 6. I made a video: Ladytron - International Dateline (doom edit)