"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
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February 13. One more email comment from last week, from Daniel (condensed):
I think a big part of our problem is the lack of stable lifescripts. Instead of having a clearly delineated set of rights and obligations, [young people] experiment with different identities, mostly concerned with how other people perceive and react to these identities. Traditional societies tell people what their role in society should be; our society leaves people to "wing it".
I agree. We have no stable lifescripts because industrial age scripts were terrible, and we finally threw them off in the late 20th century, but we still haven't found any good ones to replace them. So Trump is like, let's return to the terrible ones (factory jobs, Victorian morality, race/religion wars) because it's better than having none. I don't think we've had good lifescripts since we were nomadic forager-hunters, and going back to that is not realistic, so it looks like we're going to keep muddling through bad scripts and winging it, until we find some good scripts that fit our technology -- which right now is a fast-moving target.
My latest understanding of social change comes from my latest obsession, Picbreeder. Liberals see history as steady progress toward some future Utopia, while conservatives see a golden age in the past -- but these simple ideas are only good as directional pointers, not as visions of how things are. I think history is like biological evolution. There is progress everywhere, but there are also mistakes and dead ends, and there is no destiny, no place we have to end up, only a constantly unfolding variety of options.
When I'm breeding a picture, sometimes I'll notice that it has slipped from something good into something ugly, and I'll go back ten or twenty steps and try a different path. In the real world you can't do that, but in both Picbreeder and politics you can evolve the picture toward chaos, and sometimes good stuff from the past will re-emerge -- or more often you'll end up somewhere unimagined.
I disagree with almost every particular thing Trump is doing, but I agree with his instinct: the picture needs chaos. Last month I predicted that 2017 would be more catastrophic than 2016, but what I'm seeing instead is that it's weirder. Check this out: Burger King Offers an Adults-Only Valentine's Day Meal with an adult romantic toy. That's even weirder than Donald Trump being president.
Back to my obsession, my process on Picbreeder has been moving away from realism toward abstraction. I'm thinking less "does this look like something I recognize?" and more "would this make a good album cover?" My two latest are titled Space Trooper and Moon River.
February 10. Wednesday's post brought some good emails. Adrian writes about games as a form of self-knowledge: that you can look at your favorite games for clues about your personality and maybe even find a job that fits it. When I think about Lords of the Realm II, I love how the mid-game is a long steady reliable process of improvement: taking over counties that the AI is managing badly, with unhappy people and dead fields, and building them up into thriving counties that can support taking over the next county. So it's a growing sense of reward from taking elements that are badly arranged and arranging them better.
Even on this page, my writing process is mostly about arranging words and ideas in the right order. And even though I don't get paid for it, I think of this blog as my job.
Jeff points out that compulsive gamblers are attracted to rewards that are irregular and unpredictable. That must be why I don't gamble, because I like my rewards to be 100% certain, with some irregularity in what I have to do to get them. My other favorite game, Freecell, is 99.999% solvable, but the difficulty varies massively and randomly.
(Now that I understand this, I'm going to try to keep to a new rule about sports -- that I only watch if I don't care who wins. Tom Brady should have said "I'm so bored with winning championships, but the other teams all suck so bad that we can't help it.")
Another thing that can draw us to a game is what I call vibe. The test is: ignoring mechanics, is this a game world I feel the desire to step into? The big winner here is the Legend of Zelda franchise, but Lords of the Realm II is also very good -- it might be the only strategy game where you see the seasons change.
So attraction to a vibe is another clue about your nature. Matt writes that some influences are artificially uplifting or dead ends, while others are evolving or truly uplifting, and some are both. This reminds me of the Buddhist line, "The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon." Great entertainment is the finger, and to look at the the moon is to try to create that vibe in your real life.
February 8. Along with my short break from cannabis, I've decided to take a long break from video games. I was playing two strategy games from the 90's, Lords of the Realm II and Windows Freecell, and I suspect they're the main thing damping my motivation in the "real" world. I put that in quotes because the 21st century is pretty unreal, and it's not clear if what I want to feel motivated to do is actually valuable.
This is an especially hard problem if you believe that reality is meaningless, which seems to follow from materialist metaphysics. If we're just random particles and waves, why shouldn't we spend all day taking recreational drugs and playing games if we can get away with it? Why shouldn't we seek a society where everyone can get away with it forever?
If normal life is not objectively a better use of time than a game, then it's basically a shitty meta-game, with weak and inconsistent rewards, bad aesthetics, broken multiplayer balance, lots of pain that serves no purpose, and almost no opportunity to be part of a good story. This world has more value as a platform for creating, consuming, and participating in sub-worlds that are much better designed.
But I don't believe in materialist metaphysics. One reason is that when I look at what "chance" creates, both in world-building and life events, there seems to be an intelligence behind it. Also, like a lot of people, I feel like there's something I'm supposed to be doing here other than just having a good time, even though I don't know what it is.
How much of this problem is created by society? And is it because society has failed, or succeeded? I wish I could talk to my remote ancestors to get a sense of whether the freedom of modern life is worth the loss of anchoring. I like to think we're passing through a dead zone between good built-in stories and good self-made ones.
Anyway, my latest thought is that the "real" world is better designed than it seems, and this is because of the weak reward system. If rewards are too strong and reliable, they lead to compulsive behavior, where whatever people happen to do, they just keep doing it. This works against the drive for novelty, learning, adaptation, and general expansion of consciousness, and this expansion is more deeply rewarding than just getting stuff done.
February 6. Stray links. There was a reference to this research on the subreddit the other day: Stanford historian uncovers a grim correlation between violence and inequality. The author of a new book, The Great Leveler, says "It is almost universally true that violence has been necessary to ensure the redistribution of wealth at any point in time."
I see three directions to go with this. The first is cynical resignation: humans are doomed to cycle through inequality and violence forever. The second is utopian defiance: we will figure out a nonviolent system to keep wealth widely distributed, like demurrage currency. The third, which has some overlap with the first and the second, is to make inequality tolerable. Personally I don't care if some people have billions of dollars and fly around in private jets, as long as I can have a good life on a low budget without being forced to serve them.
And another book review, Pause! We Can Go Back! This is the kind of thing I would have posted enthusiastically ten years ago, an argument that higher tech can be a fad that gives way to lower tech. Now it seems so obvious that I didn't even read the whole article.
New research shows that moderate drinking is not good for you after controlling for wealth. Or, moderate drinking is only correlated with better health because it's part of the culture of people who are healthier in the first place.
And I really like this one: Is the Default Mode of the Brain to Suffer? According to Buddhism (or a simple interpretation of Buddhism) the wandering mind is always bad, and the value of meditation is to have a still mind all the time. But according to newer science:
Whether your default activity is helpful or harmful depends on where your mind automatically tends to go... daydreaming itself has at least three different flavors: positive constructive daydreaming, which has lots of playful, wishful imagery and plan-making thoughts; guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, which has lots of anguish and obsessive fantasies; and poor attentional control, where it's hard to concentrate on anything.
So the value of meditation is not to kill "the chattering monkey" but to work with it so that its chattering becomes increasingly helpful. Related: thanks Orin for recommending a great book on meditation, With Each and Every Breath, available free online. My other favorite meditation book is Mind Science by Charles Tart.
February 3. For the weekend, druuuugs. I'm taking a break from cannabis, partly inspired by this dark Reddit thread from earlier this week: What's it like to be on a hard drug like meth, heroin, pcp, etc? Of course weed is much more benign -- you can't overdose, it doesn't permanently harm adults, it's not physically addictive -- but mentally it's the same sort of thing: divine grace that carries a price.
They call it "being high" and "coming down" but for me it feels like the opposite. Being sober is like skimming across a still ocean on a catamaran -- everything is fast, sharp, clean, even a bit bleak. Then a good dose of THC is like putting on scuba gear and diving to the bottom. (My favorite song down there happens to be called A Watery Down.) It reminds me of the Shakespeare verse:
Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange
There are treasures in the deep that you'll never find on the surface. Like a fractal, everything unfolds with more beauty the closer you look. On marijuana I'm a better person -- happier, more playful, more perceptive, with enough social intelligence to understand a subtext-heavy show like Mad Men. In a few sessions last spring I gained more self-knowledge than in the whole rest of my life. I see connections, and I feel connected.
Typically I'll do only one vape bowl per day, maybe two bowls several hours apart, or one dose of homemade edibles. The second day is often better than the first, and the third day can be almost as good. Around the fourth day I mostly just feel numb, I'm not finding anything of real value, and my body is protesting the constant thirst and deepening tiredness. So I come up to the surface, and then it's like having the bends. I can get stuff done (including posting here) but I'm irritable and unmotivated, and the only thing I look forward to is sleep.
For the last few weeks, as soon as I feel normal again, I've been going back down for more sunken treasures, and lately I've been doing creative work that's better than anything I could do sober. Last weekend as a daily warmup I did a trilogy on Picbreeder: Wizard, Shaman, and Demon. It's like having a really good job, but I'm feeling worn out from spending all my time either under the ocean or in the compression tank, and I need a "vacation".
This is the four week schedule I'll be trying next, or something close to it: 3 days on, 4 days off, 3 days on, 4 days off, 3 days on, 11 days off, and maybe it will be like traveling around the ocean to dive in different places.
February 1. It's strange that Donald Trump was not anti-immigrant until he ran for president. Did he keep it secret all those years because he doesn't like to say controversial stuff that will get him in trouble? Was he cynically pandering to his base, and after he no longer needed their votes, he burned a lot of political capital to give them what they wanted that he didn't really care about? The only thing that makes sense is that Trump has been possessed by his followers -- or by the worst impulses of some of them.
Yesterday a reader sent me this John Robb post, Trump's Rollback of the Neoliberal Market State. Robb frames Trump's cultural agenda, closing borders and locking down human identity into fixed groups that are at war with each other, as the end of "cultural neoliberalism". That makes it sound like tolerance, inclusion, free movement, and mutable personal identity are just a blip in history, when really that's how the nice cultures have always been. It had nothing to do with global corporate rule until Bill Clinton and Tony Blair combined the two things in the 90's -- the biggest blunder the left has made since revolutionary communism.
The culture that has possessed Trump is also very old -- it's the compulsion of enraged monkey tribes to fling shit at their enemies. This release of primal energy might feel exciting, but this is seriously ugly, and I have no idea how big the fire will get before it burns itself out.
What we have to do is simple but not easy: protect and grow a culture of peace and openness and friendly curiosity, through the collapse of growth-based economics, and into whatever economic system comes next. Here's a song about it: the future's in your lap, so Keep It Warm.
January 30. I'd still rather avoid politics, but this is such an interesting time. I'm not sure if Trump will be dictator for life or if he'll be out of office by summer. Anyway, four links:
From the subreddit, a thoughtful post on the psychology of Trump supporters, arguing that his popularity "is the product of a deep existential anguish" in which people "feel miserable for reasons they struggle to understand."
Trump's Lies vs. Your Brain explains how skilled propagandists first weaken our defenses with a barrage of too much stuff to fact-check, and then they colonize our brains with heavy repetition of core ideas. The most important bit is that they can only make us believe what we want to believe in the first place. And the most depressing bit is that this political climate could plunge America into a cynical dog-eat-dog culture like they have in Russia. I don't know, I feel like we've had that for a while, under the surface.
10 Preliminary Theses on Trump. The first five are insightful thoughts about where we are now, and the last five are predictions, highly speculative and gloomy. My favorite is #2:
Defending truths against Trump is to mistake the present battlefield entirely. [His opponents] approach him as something singular and consistent, whereas he acts multiply and chaotically. They aim to pull down something which already is, whereas Trump has already departed from the here and now towards any number of things that could possibly be instead. While everyone keeps busy defending fragile shelters of truth, Trump has moved into his golden palace built on a foundation of a glistening "what if?"
This long reddit comment tries to get a grip on Steve Bannon, probably Trump's biggest ideological influence. There's a lot of stuff he's clearly against but he's never gone into detail about what he's for, or why. I think it's because his deep foundation is subconscious, and that's not Steve Bannon but the human default.
January 26. Posting early and probably taking a three day weekend from blogging:
I'm always compelled to write about politics, but I usually regret it, because as ideas are corrected toward reality, they become less and less interesting until there's hardly any point. Correcting yesterday's post: in most of western Europe, life has been getting safer without people feeling like it's getting more dangerous. So we're not looking at a universal principle of doom, but something rotten in American mass psychology. I could speculate about what it is and where it came from, but I doubt we'll ever know for sure, so I would just be writing boring fiction.
On Monday's post, Carey writes, "I think I'd have to change your statement to reflect my own desires of, in addition to playing games, having the time to be creative and to nurture relationships into thriving community." My answer:
Yeah, I wasn't thinking of a thriving community because that's not something I've ever experienced, even though I traveled all over the country several times looking for it. Maybe my mistake was looking among "back to the land" people, who for some reason are always depressed, and I should have been looking for communities focused less on utopian ideology and more on right-now creativity.
There's a great Ask Reddit thread today, Autistic people of Reddit, what is autism really like? I don't think of myself as autistic, I don't need routines, crowds don't bother me, but I can totally relate to some of these comments. I would explain it like this:
Ordinary people are literal mind readers. They just intuitively sense the right things to say and do, and they don't even know they're doing it; it's like a superpower that they take for granted. Lacking that superpower, I have to grind through the process of figuring stuff out with my conscious mind.
For example, I didn't learn to throw with my wrist until I was 30 and someone gave me explicit coaching. Without that coaching I still wouldn't be doing it. Ordinary people have like a back door from their senses to their body, where they can pick stuff up without even being aware of it. I mean, I probably have some of that power too or I wouldn't be able to pass as neurotypical, but in general, my conscious mind has to get its hands dirty more than a normal person's conscious mind.
It makes me wonder if the recent surge in aspergers/autism is temporary, or if it's the leading edge of an evolutionary trend in which the conscious human mind is taking on more responsibility and power.
January 25. I've come up with a really depressing theory of collapse. It was inspired by my perception -- which might be wrong -- that entertainment has become more authoritarian. It seems like half the TV shows now are about cops or FBI agents, or at least they're about people on the good side of the ruling system. Even in sci-fi and fantasy the heroes are usually serving the dominant power in their universe, and fighting against threats to that power. I feel like, if Star Wars were made now, Luke Skywalker would be recruited by the benevolent Empire and Darth Vader would be a space terrorist.
Whether or not that's true, this is definitely true: Trump supporters believe that crime is a huge and growing problem, even though crime rates are lower now than at any time from 1980-2010.
This leads to my doom theory: that public safety, as a political goal, is unstable and self-defeating. As a society gets more safe and predictable, incidents of danger and chaos are more uncommon, which amplifies them in public perception -- and amplifies them more than they've been reduced in reality. So the safer it is, the more dangerous it feels. This leads to a feedback loop, where 1) the world gets safer, 2) it feels more dangerous, 3) people demand more "law and order", and 4) return to step 1.
Where does this end? Psychologically we're already there: a massive cognitive dissonance, where people feel subconsciously that they're locked in a padded cell, while they feel consciously that they're being attacked from all sides. Now I understand why Trump called for "law and order" and also promised to "turn Washington upside down" -- and it worked! With these two completely opposite statements he was campaigning to both sides of the American cognitive dissonance, while rational politicians, who said the world is safe and we need to keep it the same way, were campaigning to neither.
What comes next? How does a leader make the world more dangerous while pretending to make it safer? One way is with political reforms that feel like a cleansing but have the effect of turning society into a war of all against all.
January 23. You probably heard about the Nazi getting punched. Whatever you think of it morally, it was brilliant public theater: while the official anti-Trump protests are massive and peaceful, at the edge they have an ally who is ready for surprising and precisely targeted violence.
Also it's fascinating that he got punched immediately after mentioning Pepe the Frog, so that Pepe is now associated with the punch more than with the Nazi. The message is that Pepe is not a static alt-right icon but a living apolitical trickster deity.
Sort of a new subject: earlier this month I wrote this about Trump's revolution: "If these are the anti-60's, then maybe I can look forward to the anti-80's." I didn't explain that at all, so here it is in more detail:
Original 60's: exciting bottom-up social revolution that overturned old values and encouraged people to drop out as individuals and form utopian ecological communities.
Trump anti-60's: exciting bottom-up social revolution that brought back old values and encouraged people to re-identify with the old warring mega-tribes. Anti-ecological and anti-utopian. (We're too soft and life should be hard.)
Original 70's: the decaying flower of the 60's, colorful and indulgent but it became clear that the underlying values were not working out.
Original 80's: full-scale backlash against some aspects of the 60's, in which people could stand up and say "I just want to make a lot of money and that's good."
So what I'm looking forward to, 10-20 years down the line, is an aggressive reversal of the least workable parts of Trumpism. We don't know what those are yet, but I'm hoping that nationalism becomes uncool, that people get tired of declaring war on exernal enemies (both of those happened in Germany), and that we stop trying to bring back jobs that sucked in the first place, get an unconditional basic income, and we can stand up and say "I just want to take recreational drugs and play games all day and that's good." (That's not a final destination for humanity, just the place I'd like us to go next.)
January 20. At the bottom of my rarely updated misc. page I have a Readings section with a few book excerpts and stuff that has vanished off the internet. Last month I added Richard Sorenson's classic anthropology paper, Preconquest Consciousness. I'm not going to try to summarize the inspiring collective consciousness he describes, but I disagree with two implications of the title: that this state was once nearly universal, and that once it's gone it can never come back.
I think it was never common, because prehistory was full of things that could disrupt it. And I think rebuilding something like it is not only possible but inevitable, given one difficult condition: enough time and space with no systemic coercion. The tribes that have it are not only free of violence from outside, they're also in regions where it's easy to live off the land, so there's no internal repression because anyone can just leave. I think we can do this on a global scale in a high tech society, if we keep trying, maybe in another ten thousand years.
Some personal stuff for the weekend. I'm working on a project that will probably reduce my blogging. And after learning that marijuana edibles give you more 11-OH-THC, which is stronger and more psychoactive than regular THC, I'm trying to use only edibles for a while. I have a jar of homemade cannabutter from a recipe based on this thread, and I just mix a quarter teaspoon in with some food in the early evening. After three or four nights I still get burned out and have to take a break, but the effects last longer and the withdrawal seems smoother.
Finally, some music. Even if you don't know the title, you've all heard Dick Dale's Misirlou. It's a cover of a traditional song, and I was listening to some other versions and found this primal Misirlu by an uncredited band (Rebetiko is the name of the style). I can't think of any other song with two versions that are so different and so good.
If Trumpism is apocalyptic, we should be careful. The charming idea that Trump's more outlandish proclamations have been cynical maneuvers to profit from the rage and unplugging of his movement can be rejected out of hand. Whatever else they may be, the charismatic leaders of millenarian movements are always the truest of true believers; typically they perish in the final bloodbath seemingly amazed that their vision has not, even in its ultimate crisis, manifested in their favor.
Taking a different angle, this article about Trump and reality TV argues that Celebrity Apprentice has stagnated while its founder took his next-generation understanding of entertainment into politics:
Trump, in his ability to get attention for himself, seems to understand something NBC does not: that as much as the audience may want to see real, authentically flawed people, it demands above all to be kept in suspense, to be tantalized with the promise (or threat) of things veering off script.
Trump sees politics as the highest form of entertainment, and he wants to take the story in crazy directions, but the difference is that political decisions affect real lives. Watching a shocking twist in a movie doesn't make you lose your house (that's more 23rd century). So there are two ways Trump can be a good president. One is to keep the spectacle to stuff that doesn't matter while making smart policy decisions, and I think he's already gone off that path. The other path is much more ambitious: to turn America upside down but in a fun way, so that most people like it better even as their lives are falling apart.
But this is less about what happens and more about how we personally react to it. I'm just going to assume that the coming chaos is not a passing storm but a return to normal.
January 16. A couple weeks ago this reddit comment explained how the term "fake news", which used to have a particular narrow definition, has grown into a confusing buzzword that blurs together a bunch of different things.
This exceptional comment takes it farther, explaining that modern propaganda works by getting you to believe nothing:
If they can get you to believe that all the news is propaganda, then all of a sudden propaganda from foreign-controlled state media or sourceless loony toon rants from domestic kooks, are all on an equal playing field with real investigative journalism. If everything is fake, your news consumption is just a dietary choice.
Okay, but who are "they"? Who is behind this phenomenon? Who benefits? Why is it happening now and not some other time?
I think it's a bottom-up movement. Humans aren't the only animal that makes mental maps, but we might be the only animal that sometimes makes our maps backward from what we want to believe instead of forward from evidence. If squirrels remember their nuts being buried in more convenient locations, they starve and die. And in the long term, humans and human cultures that veer off from reality are corrected or eliminated.
Where we've gone wrong is not having enough short-term correction. Look at all the lies that people continue to believe, and what they have in common is that wrong beliefs have no clear consequences. This is partly because the modern world is so complex that causes and effects are hard to trace. And it's partly because ordinary people have no fine-scale political power, so believing lies doesn't lead to bad stuff happening, until the public capacity for believing lies gets so big that it can be exploited by cynical leaders, and then a bunch of bad stuff happens at once.
January 13. How Video Games Satisfy Basic Human Needs. It's a great short article, but it limits itself to games and barely touches a bigger subject: that ordinary life is failing to satisfy basic human needs.
A 1996 article identified four personalities in multiplayer RPG's: Killers, Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers. I'm not much of a Socializer so I'll get that out of the way: information technology has remade the social landscape so that we have an abundance of brief, shallow, and distant connections, when human nature still craves deep and enduring local connections. That's why the most satisfying relationships in multiplayer games are with small, close, long-term groups.
I'm definitely an Explorer, and sometimes I think we need an information apocalypse, where all maps and records are destroyed and we start over, because it's much more fun to discover something first-hand than to read about it in a book. This could actually happen if everything is put in the cloud and the cloud crashes.
I also want to add a fifth type that's more common in single-player games: the Strategizer or Optimizer. It's where you have all the parts but the challenge is to put them together in the right way. Lately I've been satisfying this need through Windows Freecell and music playlists, and when I'm writing these posts I think a lot about how to put the ideas in the best order.
The tragedies of history have been done by Killers and Achievers. In the ancient world there were only a few Achievers leading armies of Killers. Then in the modern world, with the rise of the commercial class, achievement moved into economics and opened to more and more people. This trend peaked in the late 20th century, when accumulation of wealth and status became such a dominant cultural value that people with other values were marginalized as freaks and losers. Even science has been ruined by achievement, with the joy of exploration snuffed by the demand to publish more articles.
Now, with the end of growth, the exhaustion of resources, and the watering-down of status tokens, real achievement is once again limited to the lucky few. The rest of us face a void: achievement is unrealistic, exploring is down to the fiddly details, socializing is not what it used to be, and killing is increasingly forbidden.
What will fill that void? The big thing is the re-emergence of killing, from isolated mass shooters to political/religious armies to wars between nation-states. The too-small thing is more and better psychoactive drugs to turn exploration inward. And I don't know what's going to happen with video games. At one extreme they'll be destroyed by a tech crash, and at the other extreme they'll become the sole provider of psychological needs, with everyone in artificial worlds all the time.
My solution, which might become realistic in a few hundred years, is for society to be designed the way games are designed, for the moment-to-moment subjective joy of every player, even if that undermines the economic elite, even if it looks terrible to well-meaning bureaucrats. I wouldn't go all the way to the Kowloon Walled City but I think we need to go in that direction.