My latest take on Donald Trump is that he's a time traveller from the past. In the movie Idiocracy, a completely average guy from our time goes hundreds of years into the future, and humans have become so stupid that he's a super-genius and the most important man in the world.
In our world, instead of becoming stupid, we became nice.
Trump comes from a time where if you meet a weaker man on the road, you take all his stuff and leave him in the ditch to be ignored by passers-by. A lot of ancient history was actually like that. Someone from that world, in ours, would marvel at the charity of his adversaries, and the gullibility of his allies.
His downfall was that he never understood us. Deep down, he really believed that if he insulted John McCain enough, Arizonans would recognize him as the stronger leader. That's why he thinks the election was stolen, because he cannot understand how any strategy could win other than absolute ruthlessness.
I do appreciate Trump for being so transparently who he is, and it's the strangest thing that his followers don't see it. People are worried about deep fakes, but one thing I learned in 2020 is that no technology can distort reality better than the human mind.
I think Trump started out cynically exploiting his followers, and together they fell into madness. That madness is an epistemological practice: building your mental model, of the world beyond your senses, as whatever you want it to be, or whatever makes your life feel meaningful.
Philosophically, I'm a pan-first-personist. I believe that reality is fully created by experiencing perspectives, because that's all reality is. But that doesn't mean you can just do anything. We have to share the universe with other reality-creating perspectives, and one thing you can't do, is make other people not real.
When Trumpers say Biden won through voter fraud, what they mean is, they don't think Biden voters are real. And reality creation goes way deeper than other humans. Somewhere I read that shamanic healers say the one thing they have no power over, is a pandemic. So... South Dakota ER nurse recalls how dying patients spend last minutes insisting virus isn't real.
December 4. The other day I had a visitor, and we walked around and talked about stuff. I told him my latest insight about meditation: Being is the ground of doing, and meditation is practicing being without doing. The better you are at being, the less it matters what you're doing. Charles replied that the deeper root of being is non-being, like an empty cup. So now when I focus on my breathing, I frame it as creating an emptiness inside me to pull the air in.
Modern people often complain about feeling empty inside, or needing to "fill the void". So now I'm thinking, that could be a symptom of having too many ways to fill the void, so that we're never empty enough, for long enough, to learn to feel comfortable with emptiness. Related: an old Reddit thread on an important and rarely asked question: Why is boredom painful?
December 7. AI is an Ideology, Not a Technology. The key paragraph:
"AI" is best understood as a political and social ideology rather than as a basket of algorithms. The core of the ideology is that a suite of technologies, designed by a small technical elite, can and should become autonomous from and eventually replace, rather than complement, not just individual humans but much of humanity. Given that any such replacement is a mirage, this ideology has strong resonances with other historical ideologies, such as technocracy and central-planning-based forms of socialism, which viewed as desirable or inevitable the replacement of most human judgement/agency with systems created by a small technical elite. It is thus not all that surprising that the Chinese Communist Party would find AI to be a welcome technological formulation of its own ideology.
December 14. A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear. It's an interview of the author of a book with that title, about a bunch of libertarians who took over a town in New Hampshire, and tested their utopian vision of minimal government. It did not go well.
I often wonder why there still is a Libertarian Party. Together, democrats and republicans have been pushing the libertarian agenda for decades, moving steadily leftward on social issues and rightward on economic issues. Now weed is legal, and there are homeless people everywhere because all the money has been sucked to the top.
Hey right wingers, if you hate billionaires so much, why not propose a tax of 100% of assets over 999 million dollars. Presto, no more billionaires. Seriously I think the rich are mostly good people who haven't done anything immoral except follow their own luck, and bad laws, into having more money than good laws would permit anyone to have.
Libertarians love money and hate government, which doesn't make sense, because money is completely created by government, and inequalities in money are protected by government force. And not just money. From this Ribbonfarm comment:
The private is always an invention. And it can only exist to the degree there is a power structure, typically a state in the modern world, to legally and violently enforce its private status. Private property is always a socially-constructed and state-sanctioned entity that disappears or loses its valence when the state no longer functions.
I would respect an ideology that opposed both government and property (beyond personal items). The precedent is almost all the non-state peoples of history and prehistory. But I'm not ready to give up yet on government. I think we have a lot of room to make it better, while money is irredeemable.
Money is a way to make other people do things that they would not do if it weren't for money. Capitalism is the ideology that money magically makes selfishness beneficial, when really it's the opposite: because it insulates us from the effects of our use of power, money makes it possible for completely nice people to feed a harmful system.
December 16. I want to back off from my statement that money is irredeemable. There are several reforms, all of which I've written about before, that would make money more useful than harmful. Maybe we wouldn't even need all of them.
First, make all necessities free at point of use. If it's realistic to live your whole life without money, then the money universe has no power over you.
Second, some kind of depreciating currency. I wrote about this a lot in 2008, at the top of this archive and this archive. Basically, right now we need the government to redistribute wealth because concentration of wealth is baked into the system. But if both assets and debt lost their value at a few percent per year, wealth distribution would tend toward equality.
Third, full liability for businesses. If a business commits a crime, every co-owner is prosecuted as if they did it themselves. This would eliminate the stock market, because nobody would buy stocks with that risk. It would force every business to be only a few people who all know each other. This would be a radically different world, but I think a better one.
Fourth, redefine property to be based on physical possession of an item or occupation of a place. I wrote about this in 2009 in this post.
All four of these are impossible right now, especially the last two, which if done suddenly would cause total collapse. But we could go a long way toward the first two, just with a UBI paid for by steadily increasing the money supply. COVID stimulus is already leaning in that direction.
The other problem, with any reform that eliminates the possibility of getting rich, is that in the modern world, getting rich is the meaning of life.
December 17. I want to take a different angle from Monday's post, one more favorable to libertarians. Their experiment failed because all the unregulated living attracted bears. But maybe bear attacks are not such a bad thing. Bear with me....
It's anecdotally obvious, although I haven't seen a study, that American blue tribe culture is correlated with food allergies. At a group dinner in Seattle, you always have to work around what all the different people can't eat. But when I visit my cousins in rural Michigan, or Leigh Ann's family in central Florida, everyone can eat everything.
Somewhere I read, if you're having an allergic reaction, and suddenly you're being chased by a bear, the allergic reaction stops. I even read about a treatment for allergies, where first you activate the allergy, and then you activate the fight-or-flight response. So I'm thinking hyperarousal is good for us, and we need to do more of it.
I think this is part of what's fueling the right wing. They see mainstream left culture as too bland and safe, and they want to take risks and feel danger. I still think not wearing a mask in a pandemic is a dumb risk. One risk I like is restoring the right to roam for kids.
December 28. My song of the year, like the coronavirus, is actually from 2019: Automatic - Humanoid. The complete lyrics: "I see you, turn into, turn into, humanoid." The obvious interpretation is that we're overly domesticated, and we can draw some energy from our primal roots. But I also like the idea that all this time we've been not yet human, and now we're finally getting close.
January 1, 2021. Alienation and Doublethink is a smart blog post that starts with a Twitter thread "in which Allison Pearson claimed that she knew 'hardly anyone' who knew somebody who'd had Covid only to immediately say that her whole family had had it." The point is, a lot of people have two minds, one for practical stuff, and one for ideology.
The author mentions Soviet doublethink, and corporate doublethink, but I'm thinking, in those cases, you can get sent to the gulag, or lose your job, for allowing practical understanding to inform your ideology. Where's the penalty for accepting the medical consensus about COVID? For that matter, what's behind the recent surge in flat-earthism?
I think ideology exists for its own sake, and can thrive in the total absence of extrinsic penalty and reward. There's something about humans that compels us to tell stories about the world beyond our senses, and we get in trouble when we depend on those stories to feel good about ourselves.
January 4. Out of all the board games I've played, my favorite for theme is Spirit Island, because you play nature spirits trying to stop colonizers. And my favorite for gameplay is also Spirit Island. It's a super-brain-burner where you're trying to optimize a bunch of moves by different spirits working together.
Nobody I know likes to play it, but that's okay because it's perfect for solo play. A month ago I got the Jagged Earth expansion, and since then I've been playing three-spirit solo games whenever I have the time. And when you play any game a lot, you tend to see it as a metaphor for other things. In Spirit Island, there's a trade-off between gaining energy, drawing and playing cards, and placing presence on the board. So I'm thinking, in modern society, there's too much energy and card-playing, and not enough placing of presence.
What is placing of presence, in the real world? I can think of three ways to approach it. First, this definition of love, by Thaddeus Golas: "Love is the action of being in the same space with other beings." Second, this line from Keanu Reeves: "It's easy to stay grounded. The ground is very close. And we walk on it every day." Third, the ancient practice of being fully present in each moment.
I've mentioned this drug-inspired metaphysical framework, in which heaven and hell are in this world. So a good trick for being fully present is to let go of any notion of an afterlife, or greater success in this world, and just say, what if this, right here, is heaven. Of course, if you're having a bad day, or a bad life, it's more realistic to say this is hell. But you can start with a good moment on a good day: smoke some weed, go on a walk, watch a sunset, and imagine that you're already in heaven, this is it.
From the Tao Te Ching: "Without desire, to observe the mystery." And if you can do that, then you can practice the same move in increasingly difficult times and places.
January 7. In the wake of the Capitol riot, a nice writeup about Fascism:
In essence, it is swaying people to your political side not by argument or reason but giving them the intensive, almost lustful, experience of being part of something greater, a movement that will solve whatever ails them, of history, so to speak. And this is achieved through ritual, staging, and performance... By displays of violence, Fascism seeks to transform politics from the - admittedly often skewed - exchange of ideas into an aesthetic experience itself: Aesthetic violence is the end point of fascist politics, not just its tool.
January 11. A Game Designer's Analysis Of QAnon is the best thing I've read on the dangerous intersection of information technology and human cognitive weakness.
The author argues that QAnon is a massive alternate reality game. In a normal ARG, "there are actual solutions to actual puzzles and a real plot created by the designers." But players can lose the plot in apophenia, "the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things."
In a stroke of genius, QAnon uses apophenia as its engine. A fictional whistleblower named Q leaves clues that are actually meaningless. The players create meaning, and then Q integrates that meaning into the next clues. "It's like a darwinian fiction lab, where the best stories and the most engaging and satisfying misinterpretations rise to the top and are then elaborated upon for the next version." Players have the feeling that they're getting to the bottom of mysteries, when really they're veering off into madness.
(By the way, I think this is what happened to Elisa Lam. On a solo apophenia trip, she read clues all the way up to a roof and into a water tank.)
The author believes that QAnon is a coordinated propaganda campaign, and says its ideology is authoritarianism. I would call it manichean tribalism, where manichaeism is a cognitive filter that divides the world into good and evil. Under that filter, when Q says "Follow the Owl and Y," the players look for owl and Y symbols as evidence that people are bad. You could just as easily look for the symbols as evidence that people are good, but for whatever reason, the game is not in that emotional space.
Take the game far enough, and everyone is evil except the players. If this kind of movement gains power, you get piles of dead bodies. In Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, people were killed just for wearing glasses, supposedly a symbol of being a bad kind of person. Really glasses are correlated with education, which is correlated with an antidote to insanity: metacognition.
There's a cryptic line in the Gospel of Thomas: "Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man." I think it's about metacognition, or you could say it's about sub-personalities, or ego. The wrong move is to let a belief or identity consume you, and become you, so that changing your mind feels like dying. The right move is to be a larger you, who can make use of beliefs and identities without getting lost in them.
January 13. Matt comments: "I like the term 'manichean tribalism' because it acknowledges there might be inclusive types of tribalism." I'll spell it out:
It is possible to divide the world into us and them, without dividing the world into good and bad. The best example I can think of, is fanbases of different metal bands.
When us-and-them stacks with good-and-bad, attacking the baddies makes you feel alive. To prevent the spread of this emotional pandemic, I suggest two rules of moral distancing:
1) There are no bad persons, only bad actions.
2) Morality is not transitive. Associating with a doer of bad actions, does not make one a doer of bad actions, let alone a bad person.
January 13. I'm ready to comment on the storming of the Capitol. It's important to keep in mind that the rioters are not monolithic. That mob, and the bigger mobs to come, contain all kinds of motivations and mindsets. Some of them want to exterminate Jews and some of them just want to fight the police.
I distinctly remember a mythic image, a blurry pic of a scruffy guy with a trickster smile, raising a stick or something, leaning over a podium. Now I can't find it anywhere, and I wonder if my brain constructed the memory, or if I glimpsed fairyland.
Anyway, in a more topically symbolic moment, someone tore down an American flag and replaced it with a Trump flag.
Donald Trump has no creativity, and no awareness of truth and falsehood. I'm defending him. CNN is like, he's making up all these lies to lead his followers astray. No, he's a salesman filling a market. He's practically a bot, testing the feedback from his audience until he's giving them exactly what they want.
Trump is a mean rich kid who figured out that if he does a good Archie Bunker impression, every lost soul with an authoritarian father will think he's the messiah. We're lucky that he cares only about himself, instead of having some crazy utopian agenda. But the power, and the agency, is with the disaffected citizens of a declining empire, tasting barbarism.
This is all about people wanting to be part of a group that's part of a story. Lately, some of the big group-stories have been dying: sky father religion, American supremacy, the conquest of nature, the virtue of wealth-seeking. In their place, young and clumsy group-stories struggle and rise.
January 20. On this day of symbolic new beginnings, I want to lay out my own vision for the future.
In the short term, an unconditional basic income. It's not going to bring utopia, but it's the next thing we have to try, and then we'll see where it goes. It's important to not frame the UBI as a way to make mechanization tolerable, but as a way to give workers leverage to improve work environments. Imagine, instead of us having to compete for jobs, if jobs had to compete for us.
Also in the short term, the legalization of psychedelics. Some people will fry their brains, but overall, psychedelics will loosen our minds, raise ecological consciousness, and drive the biggest reinvention of religion in thousands of years.
In the medium term, the UBI could feed new tribes, people with similar interests who pool their incomes for efficiency of scale. Ideally, thousands of local workshops will build a new foundation for technology and the economy, as the old one falls apart.
The best thing we can do with biotech is to make food production cheaper and less harmful, like replacing factory farmed meat with vat-grown protein. Social unrest is strongly correlated with food costs, and what we've seen so far in this decade is nothing compared to what we'll see if people are going hungry.
In the long term, never mind Mars, let's re-terraform Earth. There has never been a repressive society where people could easily live off the land. Let's take the carbon out of the air, and build the blackest topsoil and the thickest biomass that this planet has ever seen. Make every stream drinkable and every forest edible, so that nobody ever has to do anything useful, and we can just lie in the grass and eat fruit until the sun burns out.
The reason that's unlikely to happen, is that ordinary humans would get bored. But maybe that's something we can overcome. I like to think that this world is a prison for busy people, and if I can be sufficiently chill, they'll let me out.
January 25. The People the Suburbs Were Built for Are Gone. The article is not about those people, but about retrofitting the suburbs, so instead of a sprawl of giant houses, there are dense walkable neighborhoods, with lots of one and two person dwellings, and old box stores turned into community centers.
This is an easy prediction: suburbs that make these changes will attract people who want to live there. Suburbs that don't will be abandoned, if they haven't been already. As birth rates fall, animals prowl in abandoned 'ghost villages'.
January 28. I've been thinking more about elite overproduction, which I last wrote about on November 2. This has probably happened in every declining society in history: there are more people raised to feel entitled to something, than the number of people who can actually have it.
I want to break these things up into three categories. First is luxuries, like having a big house and a nice car. Second is livelihood, spending your time doing stuff you like, while depending on other people doing stuff they don't like. Third is status.
My definition of status is narrow and negative. Status is a mental illness, in which human value is framed in a zero-sum context; so you can't be a better person unless one or more other people are less good. A person afflicted with status is happier if they have a Lexus and everyone else has a Ford, than if everyone else also has a Lexus. This is part of human nature, but that's no excuse for not overcoming it.
The cure for status is to practice valuing yourself and your life in absolute terms, instead of relative to other people. This is a good time to practice that. The cure for loss of luxuries is similar: valuing what you have in absolute terms, or relative to your basic needs, instead of relative to what you thought you'd have.
Livelihood is the one that worries me, because so many of the tasks necessary to keep this society going, are so unenjoyable, that it's not realistic to value them, except as a means to luxury and status that you're not going to get. This is especially true if you don't value keeping this society going. That's why I continue to think that the main factor in the present collapse is scarcity of human motivation -- or the transfer of human motivation, away from acts of creation and preservation, and toward acts of destruction.