December 8. When I was in high school and college, back in the 1980's, I don't think I even once heard the words "social anxiety". I mean it existed, but it wasn't enough of a problem that ordinary people gave it a name. Now it's everywhere, and I don't think it's limited to the millennial generation, because I've got it too, and worse than when I was younger. So where does it come from?
Yesterday, on weed, I wrote this: "Does the internet cause anxiety by normalizing a socially easier simworld?" In more words: The internet is an unprecedented global artificial world, in which social behavior has looser rules and less serious consequences than the world of modern society. If you're at a job interview, or at a party, or even just going to the store, the rules are tighter and the stakes are higher than when you're goofing off anonymously in some comment thread.
So what happens to someone who spends more time on the internet than out in society? The easier world becomes the new baseline, and what used to be the normal world now feels difficult and frightening. As the social internet grows, this happens to more and more people.
December 11. When you burn out looking for beauty in beautiful things, look for beauty in ugly things.
January 1, 2018. Instead of new year's resolutions, I call them "points of emphasis" because that way no amount of failure is discouraging. Last night I decided on three: 1) to notice unnecessary muscle tension and relax it; 2) to put more attention on my gut; 3) to make a mental note of where I put something down that I'll need to find later.
These are all about metacognition, about building an internal perspective that can manage where my attention is and what it's doing. Last night, walking around, I was thinking: with enough metacognitive stamina, I could do fun experiments, like walk for ten minutes with attention on footsoles and peripheral vision, or sit by the stream and focus on that sound and the moon. Meditation books are all about focusing on the breath, but that's like a safety net, or a ladder, to get to focusing on things that are more interesting.
January 5. I just read this in Alasdair Gray's novel Lanark:
God, you see, is a word. It is the word for everything not speaking when someone says 'I think.' And by Propper's Law of Inverse Exclusion (which enables a flea in a matchbox to declare itself jailor of the universe) every single 'I think' has intimate knowledge of the surface of what it is not. But as every thinker reflects a different surface of what he isn't, and as God is our word for the whole, it follows that all agreement about God is based on misunderstanding.
January 8. Losing Faith in the State, Some Mexican Towns Quietly Break Away. You might guess this is a good thing, but if you read the article, these independent city-states are mostly terrible places to live, and they're all unstable.
The Hacker News comment thread links to this smart article, The Twin Insurgency, which argues that states are threatened from below by crime gangs, and from above by the global elite. The most interesting idea is that hardly anyone is trying to change the world by taking over the government. Instead, everyone is trying to carve out zones where they get the benefits of the state without the costs.
January 18. A computer program is writing great, original works of classical music. This makes me wonder about quality. What is it? The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about a guy who gets so deep into that question that he goes insane and independently derives Taoism. My latest idea is that quality is a message.
This is easy to see with music. Suppose you record a song that sounds great to you, with no thought of whether it sounds good to anyone else. The message is more than "this is what I like" -- the message is the pleasure that you get from listening, and if someone else gets that pleasure, then it's like you've encrypted that feeling in sound, and the listener has decrypted it.
At the other extreme, if you record a song that sounds boring to you, but you know other people will love it, it's like you've hacked their musical quality receptors. It's still a message, but it's less like having a conversation, and more like plugging in a code that makes an ATM spit out cash.
Quality-as-message also works with seemingly objective stuff. A reliable car is higher quality than one that breaks down a lot -- unless you're so rich that repair costs are nothing, and you want to look good and go fast. The makers of those cars, and the buyers, are communicating a value system.
Another example: The Cult of the Costco Surfboard, where a cheap surfboard spawned a subculture based on fun stuff that is not being done with expensive surfboards.
That music-composing computer is working within the value system of respectable classical music. Over the last few years, I've been getting into "hard listening" -- music that sounds bad at first, but eventually it sounds really good. I'm not saying computers can never do that, but I'd like to see them try.
January 22. New academic article, Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time (pdf). The conclusion argues that rising perfectionism is related to "higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation" and other mental illness.
My guess is that perfectionism is not some kind of deep cause, but just one more symptom of some process that we don't understand yet. This week-old reddit thread is a massive compilation of symptoms: What's something that's bothering you that you need to get off your chest, but are afraid to talk to someone about?
I want to call this process "psychosocial collapse", so I googled that phrase, and the top results are all from books. One of them is fascinating! It's a 1978 sci-fi story by Barrington J. Bayley, "The Problem of Morley's Emission". There's actually a four-part audio version on YouTube, and this is my condensation from the middle of part 3:
The Theory of the Social Black Hole: if continued additions are made to force fields, they become so powerful as to create weird and abnormal states of matter, such as the neutron star and the black hole. Social scientists have speculated on the results of endlesssly adding to human populations, since the Social Energy Field also contains a gravitating principle: population tends toward centers.
There being no theoretical limit to the size a population may ultimately assume, it has already been proposed to build a vast artificial sphere several hundred million miles in diameter, to trap all solar energy so as to power and accomodate a truly titanic civilization. Leaving aside considerations of physical mass and gravity, the question that arises is what would happen to the SEF inside such a sphere, if it were to fill up entirely with human population.
It is believed that a condition of 'psychosocial collapse' would occur toward the center. Individual and collective mentalities would assume unimaginable relationships. Reality would bear no resemblance to our perception of it. The whole of mankind within the sphere would ultimately be drawn into a 'social black hole', and would be totally unable to perceive or conceive of an external physical universe.
January 24. A few different readers have recommended this to me: A bridge to meta-rationality vs civilizational collapse. The basic idea is one that you can also find in Ken Wilber books: old-timey humans had an inadequate way of seeing the world (pre-rational), which was largely overturned by modern rational thinking -- which has its own serious flaws and limits, so now we need to go to some next stage of thinking that we can't quite imagine yet.
I like this idea, but what if it's wrong? It's suspicious that people who believe in the "meta-rational" or "trans-rational" are all extremely rational and not at all pre-rational. Can you imagine Ken Wilber painting his naked chest and cheering at a football game? Maybe the answer is as simple as that -- not to find some new way of being, but to integrate ways of being that we've had all along.
January 25. The good guy/bad guy myth is about the strangeness and newness of popular fiction in which one side is good and the other side is evil. There are so many angles to this subject. One is to point out that good vs evil is a really old idea in theology, going back to Zoroastrianism. That flips the question: Why did it take so long for this seductive way of thinking to take over fiction?
I think it's because fiction used to be made by weird outsiders, and it reflected their complex and adaptable thinking. When fiction went mass-market, it was inevitable that it would turn into whatever candy the audience demanded. There are some good comments about this article in the Hacker News thread.
January 29. Three links on depression. With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there's a likely culprit. Yep, it's smartphones.
But wait! The real causes of depression have been discovered, and they're not what you think. Of course, it's childhood trauma and a society that keeps us powerless.
Does depression have an evolutionary purpose?
Andrews had noted that the physical and mental symptoms of depression appeared to form an organized system. There is anhedonia, the lack of pleasure or interest in most activities. There's an increase in rumination, the obsessing over the source of one's pain. There's an increase in certain types of analytical ability. And there's an uptick in REM sleep, a time when the brain consolidates memories.
Andrews sees these symptoms as a nonrandom assortment betraying evolutionary design. And that design's function, he argues, is to pull us away from the normal pursuits of life and focus us on understanding or solving the underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode.
What if the underlying problem is our whole society, which has been made incomprehensible by technology, so that no amount of personal rumination can solve it? Then depression is actually a political move, a mass revolt.
February 12. This new article predicts an information apocalypse: "Technologies that can be used to enhance and distort what is real are evolving faster than our ability to understand and control or mitigate it." So fake news is still in its infancy.
My first thought is that people will just stop caring what's real, and the article covers this and has a term for it: reality apathy. It also reminds me of the saying, coined in the novel Alamut and popularized by the Assassin's Creed video game: "Nothing is true; everything is permitted."
I already sort of believe this. I think objective and subjective are theoretical poles on a spectrum, and you can never quite get all the way to either. On the near-objective end, a few years back the metal cylinder that defines the kilogram changed its weight and nobody knows why. On the near-subjective end, even our dreams are anchored in a shared social reality.
In the New Age movement, you can find the idea that physical reality is 100% created by human belief. That's silly, but in this context it leads to a crazy thought experiment, where the information apocalypse is not about people being wrong about what's true, but about a fragmentation of truth itself. Flat-earthers might break away into an alternate world where you can actually fall off the edge.
I'm not joking, just exaggerating. I think reality is some kind of compromise between matter, human consciousness, and levels of mind we're not aware of, and it need not be universally consistent. In the coming decades I can see humanity diverging into internally consistent worlds that can no longer be reconciled. Eventually, through technological collapse or technological sophistication, these reality factions might not even be able to communicate.
February 14. Last week I was watching the Olympics opening ceremony, and the costumed dancers reminded me of wild animals in a nature documentary, like this Blue Planet excerpt, Predators Attack Fish Bait Ball. But the animals are much better dancers! The humans are well-drilled and mechanically synchronized, but the animals are making it up as they go, and moving with exciting beauty that reveals greater beauty the deeper you look.
Humans approach that in some of the events, especially relay speed skating. But what would it be like, if a hundred people put in a thousand hours practicing increasingly complex improvised movement? How much room do we have to get better?
February 26. Lately I've been thinking about psychology and culture in terms of layers. This is all so obvious that it can't be original, but I find this model helpful. The top layer is society, the rules that we have to publicly follow. The next layer down is persona, the way we present ourselves to fit society. Most of us are aware of a difference between how we present ourselves and how we really are. So the next layer down is the "self", what we think of as our true identity.
But the more you look at this level, the more shaky it becomes. What we call the self is not even a thing, more like an interference pattern, a standing wave of habits and strategies and stories that are determined partly from above, by culture, and partly from below, by a still deeper layer of subconscious psychology.
This deeper layer is not intrinsically subconscious -- you could look at it, but you usually don't. But now the language gets tricky, because who are "you"? I think we're talking about two different things. One "you" is the constructed self, that nest of habits and stories; and the other "you" is the ongoing choice of where to put your attention.
Normally, without being aware that we're making a choice, we direct our attention to maintain the constructed self: "There's something I like, there's something I don't like, this is who I am." To direct it differently requires a mental leap, to stop being the person with this set of tastes and values and goals, and start being the project of investigating a wider landscape in which we see that person from the outside.
This is difficult and painful, so why do we do it? Typically it's because the constructed self is dysfunctional, the layers are no longer working together, and this is more likely to happen in a society that changes fast and recklessly.
I'm wondering how many collapses happen because social rules get so far from our unchangeable deep nature that most people can't bridge the gap. I'm also wondering if it's possible to have a human world with only one layer, where society fits our deep nature so perfectly that self-reflection is not necessary.
March 9. Important new David Graeber essay, How to change the course of human history. The whole thing is worth reading, but I'll try to summarize it.
Graeber wants to overturn the "conventional narrative": that primitive life was good, agriculture changed everything, and now we're stuck in big systems that can only work with hierarchy. Recent archaeology refutes this. There were complex civilizations before agriculture. Then agriculture didn't suddenly capture us -- it was one of many food options, tried and sometimes abandoned over thousands of years. Hierarchy also didn't capture us -- there were cultures where politics were seasonal, authoritarian in summer and anarchist in winter, or vice versa. Prehistory wasn't a row of falling dominoes -- it was a time of massive experimentation.
In Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, "cities with sophisticated civic infrastructures flourished for over half a millennium with no trace of royal burials or monuments, no standing armies or other means of large-scale coercion, nor any hint of direct bureaucratic control over most citizen's lives." This leads Graeber to his most radical point, made explicitly in one of the comments: "there is no correlation between scale and hierarchy."
This gives us hope for a better world. But it also leaves a void, by taking away a beautiful answer to an important question: How did the world get so fucked up? If it wasn't agriculture or cities, what was it? If our ancestors experimented and found Utopia, how did they lose it? It's suspicious that we have no written record of a non-repressive large scale society. Is there a connection between authoritarian politics and written language?
March 14. This Neural Net Hallucinates Sheep. It's about how artificial intelligence works more by correlation than understanding. So given the kind of landscape that often contains sheep, an AI will identify anything white as a sheep -- yet actual sheep, colored orange, it will mistake for flowers, and it's terribly confused by goats in a tree. The practical upshot: "Want to sneak something past a neural network? In a delightfully cyberpunk twist, surrealism might be the answer. Maybe future secret agents will dress in chicken costumes, or drive cow-spotted cars."
March 21-23. The other day I wondered why white people are worse at dancing, and after some feedback, I realize that being "good at dancing" has a range of meanings, which could be framed as two competing definitions with no overlap: one is when the head trains the body to make a set of precise moves; the other is when the body moves on its own. Both kinds of movements become smoother and more complex with practice. I think it's obvious that some cultures are much better than others at loose and spontaneous movement, and that it has something to do with social class and authoritarian politics.
I believe that there is some overlap. Consciously training your body and senses to be receptive and responsive to your partner, then giving your partner movement, stimulus that has been smoothed, reduced, refined so that there is a clear 2-way conversation in (unconscious) body language. Dancing like this is not an intellectual activity, in fact feels opposite of intellectual, but only the greatest dance geniuses can do it without making the conscious effort to build the necessary skills.
Of course I should have known that. I'm not a good dancer, but as a writer, I have exactly that partnership inside myself. There's that voice that spits out words from who knows where, and if I were to put that stuff on the page unfiltered, it would be terrible. But I also couldn't ignore that voice and write anything good. Good art, and good living, are about skillfully walking the line between conscious and subconscious, or rational and sub-rational.
But if art and living are similar skills, then why are highly creative people so often bad at life? I think it's because their subconscious energy, which can illuminate invented worlds, is too wild to be integrated in a world shared with other people.
March 26. Fascinating interview from 2016: The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality. This is a guy at the cutting edge of science, who has concluded that "there are no public physical objects," that reality is made of "points of view," and the math says you can "take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It's conscious agents all the way down."
This reminds me of an idea I call pan-solipsism -- somehow, through some hidden dimension of causality, the universe behaves for every person as if they're at the very center. Of course this is the popular new age "you create your own reality" thing, but new agers rarely face the hard philosophical problem: to reconcile the idea that the universe is all in your head, with the idea that we're all in the same universe.
My speculative solution is that the sharing of reality is mostly an illusion. It's like that thing where maybe we see colors differently, and what you see as red I see as blue. But expand that to everything: what you see as "house" or "book" or "money", I see as the incomprehensible components of my own bizarre alien world. And in the slack created by these hidden differences, we each live in an outer world that's largely a projection of our inner world. Even "the brain" is a projection, a symbolic user interface for hacking our own streams of experience.
March 28. It all made sense when we found out we were autistic. Six women in the UK tell their stories, including some stuff about how autism diagnosis is skewed toward male traits, and women are often misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
I've never been to a professional for a diagnosis, but I can relate to a lot of this. It's always seemed like everyone but me is a mind reader, like they're tuning into some broadcast that tells them the right way to do things, and they take it for granted. Not just social things. I remember the roller skating fad in the 70's, and it took me the longest time to figure it out. People said, "You just go. You just move." Really, you angle your toes slightly outward and then alternate pushing your legs to the side and picking your feet up. It's not complicated, but their minds didn't even notice what their bodies were doing for them.
What we call the "self" is just the part you happen to notice, of some larger and deeper set of habits and adaptations. You can choose to bring subconscious behaviors into the realm of the conscious, and most people can get by without doing that, but some people have to take conscious charge of subconscious behaviors to do them with any competence.
So here's my wild speculation: that "autism" is part of an ongoing evolution of humanity, in which the conscious mind is being challenged to expand its scope. A different angle: society has become so strange, that more and more bodies are failing to do the right thing automatically, and the head has to get in there to make everything work.