The Axiological Treadmill

The obvious reason that Moloch is the enemy is that it destroys everything we value in the name of competition and survival. But this is missing the bigger picture. We value what we value because, in our ancestral environment, those tended to be the things that helped us with competition and survival. If the things that help us compete and survive end up changing, then evolution will ensure that the things we value change as well.

To borrow a metaphor: Elua cheats. The hedonic treadmill has nothing on the axiological treadmill.

Consider a thought experiment. In Meditations on Moloch, Scott Alexander dreams up a dictatorless dystopia:

Imagine a country with two rules: first, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.

Even if this system came into being ex nihilo it probably wouldn’t be stable in reality; a population that spends eight hours a day receiving strong shocks isn’t going to be able to feed itself, or reproduce. But assume for a moment that this system starts out economically and biologically stable (that is, people can still eat, and reproduce at the rate of replacement, despite the electric shocks, and that there are no outside countries ready to invade). What do we expect to happen over the long run?

Well, obviously there’s a strong evolutionary pressure to be tolerant to electric shocks. People who can tolerate those shocks better will do better on average than those who can’t. However, there’s another more subtle pressure at play: the pressure to ensure you shock yourself. After all, if you forget to shock yourself, or choose not to, then you are immediately killed. So the people in this country will slowly evolve reward and motivational systems such that, from the inside, it feels like they want to shock themselves, in the same way (though maybe not to the same degree) that they want to eat. Shocking themselves every day becomes an intrinsic value to them. Eventually, it’s no longer a dystopia at all.

They would be aghast at a society like ours, where Moloch has destroyed the value of receiving electrical shocks, all in the name of more perfect competition.

The Great Project

The great project of humanity, and in fact the great project of any group of self-aware creatures which value their own existence, is in three parts:

While survival is a fragile thing, and we invent new existential risks every day (e.g. global nuclear war), humanity is now the dominant living species in our sphere of existence. We are surviving.

Now, we must tackle Moloch.

A Brief Chat on World Government

[This is the transcript of a chat conversation I had with another member of my local rationalist meet-up, on the topics of Moloch, world government, and colonization. Lightly edited for clarity, spelling, etc. and shared with their permission.]

Me: Here are some thoughts on Moloch. Moloch basically guarantees that anybody who can figure out how to successfully convert other values into economic value will out-compete the rest. So in the end, we are the paperclip maximizers, except our paperclips are dollar bills.

Scott proposes that to defeat Moloch we install a gardener, specifically a super-intelligent AI. But if you don’t think that’s going to happen, a world government seems like the next best thing. However if we escape earth before that happens, speed of light limitations will forever fragment us into competing factions impossible to garden. Therefore we should forbid any attempts to colonize Mars or other planets until we have world government and the technology to effectively manage such colonies under that government.

Them: The superorganisms in his parable only function because of… external competitive pressures. If cells didn’t need to band together to survive, they wouldn’t. If governments don’t have to fend off foreign governments they will accumulate corruption and dysfunctions.

Sort of related, I’m not persuaded by the conclusion to his parable. Won’t superintelligent AIs be subject to the same natural selective pressures as any other entity? What happens when our benevolent gardener encounters the expanding sphere of computronium from five galaxies over?

Me: Cells were surviving just fine without banding together. It was just that cells which banded together reproduced and consumed resources more effectively than those which didn’t. Similarly, I think a well constructed world government could survive just fine without competitive pressure. We haven’t necessarily found the form of that government yet, but liberal democracy seems like a decent first step.

Regarding competitive pressure on AI, he deals with that off hand by assuming that accelerating self-improvement gives an unbreakable first mover advantage. I don’t think that’s actually true, but then I’m much less bullish on super-intelligent AI in general.

Them: It would “survive,” but we don’t want a surviving government, we want a competent, benevolent one. My read on large organizations in general is that they naturally tend towards dysfunction, and it’s only competitive pressures that keep them functional.

Me: That produces a dismal view of the universe. We are given a Sophie’s Choice of either tiling the universe in economicium in order to compete and survive, or instantiating a global gardener which inherently tends towards dystopic dysfunction.

My read on large organizations in general is that they naturally tend towards dysfunction, and it’s only competitive pressures that keep them functional.

This is certainly mostly true, but I’m not yet convinced it’s necessarily true.

competitive pressures

I think this in particular is too narrow. Hunter-gatherer bands were organizations that stayed relatively “functional”, often not due to competitive pressures with other bands, but due to pure environmental survival pressures. We probably don’t want a government that stays functional due to environmental survival pressures either, but I’m generalizing to an intuition that there are other kinds of pressure.

Them: There are other kinds of pressure, but you better be damn sure you’ve got them figured out before you quash all rivals.

Me: 💯

Them: And to be precise, yeah, there’s a second thing keeping organizations intact, and that’s the floor imposed by “so incompetent they self-destruct.” But I think they degrade to the level of the floor, at which point they are no longer robust enough to survive two crises taking place at once, so they collapse anyway.

Me: Hmm, so it becomes impossible to instantiate a long-term stable gardener of any kind, and we’re stuck tiling the universe in economicium regardless.

Them: Well I think it might be possible (in the short term at least), but you have to be cognizant of the risks before you assume removing competition will make things better. So when I imagine a one-world-government, it’s more like a coordinating body above a collection of smaller states locked in fierce competition (hopefully just economic, cultural & athletic).

Me: At the risk of clarifying something which is already clear: I was never arguing that we are ready for world government now, or should work towards that soon; I was just saying there are some things we shouldn’t do until we have a good world government. We should make sure we can garden what we have before we go buying more land.

Them: Hmm, okay, I think that’s some important nuance I was overlooking.

Me: Though perhaps that is an inherently useless suggestion, since the coordination required to not buy more land is… a global gardener. Otherwise there’s competitive advantage in getting to more land first.

Them: So its a fair point. I assume that any pan-global body will not be well-designed, since it won’t be subject to competitive pressures. But its true that you might want to solve that problem before you start propagating your social structures through the universe.

Me: I’m now imagining the parallel argument playing out in Europe just post-Columbus. “We shouldn’t colonize North America until we have a well-gardened Europe”. That highlights the absurdity of it rather well.

Changes in Reality

[Some short thoughts I just wanted to get out of my brain; bullet-points instead of well-structured prose. This is entirely random speculation.]

  • Social systems (laws, customs, memes) are subject to evolutionary pressure from the dynamics of reality; when reality changes, existing social systems are typically no longer in equilibrium and have to evolve, or collapse and be rebuilt. Consider for example the invention of the birth control pill and the resulting impact on family structure, gender relations, etc. Pre-pill social customs around marriage and family were no longer in equilibrium in a world with reliable female birth control, and so society shifted to a new set of customs.
  • “Change in reality” largely means economic and technological change. New wealth and new capabilities.
  • “Change in reality” has been accelerating for a long time as new technologies and discoveries unlock new economic prosperity which enables more discoveries, in an explosive feedback loop. Some argue that technology/science have slowed down a lot recently, but I think that’s mostly because our best and brightest are too busy extracting economic value from our recent innovations (computers and, separately, the internet). Once that bounty has been consumed, more general technological progress will resume its previous course.
  • There is a natural limit on how fast social systems can evolve. Humans can adapt to living under radically different memeplexes, but not instantly, and somebody has to invent those memes first. When reality changes slowly this is fine, as it leaves plenty of time for a multiplicity of experimental memetic shifts in different groups, letting the best adaption dominate with high probability.
  • At some point in the future (possibly soon?) reality will start changing faster than our social systems can adapt. Our existing laws, customs, memes, and government will be out of equilibrium, but we will not have enough time to converge on a new social system before reality changes again. Society will fragment and human culture will undergo an intense period of adaptive radiation.
  • The countervailing force is technology’s ability to connect us (the “global village”) and equivalently the law of cultural proximity.

An Exercise in Pessimism and Paranoia

When I consider the world at large, there are three interrelated futures which terrify me.

Fear #1 is the culture war. Per the law of cultural proximity and musical outgroups, I expect this conflict to get worse in the near future as battle lines are more firmly drawn, and neutrality becomes increasingly impossible (I gave a few possibilities at the end of Musical Outgroups, but I’m now leaning more firmly towards “the smaller tribes being squeezed out of existence between dominant Blue and Red cultural forces”). We can already see this happening in recent events like protesters threatening passersby they assume are neutral.

Fear #2 is The Second American Civil War. David Shor makes a compelling case that post-Biden, the Republican party will end up with a multi-term lock on the presidency and the senate. A government consistently elected by a violently-hated minority (see fear #1) seems like a recipe for disaster. We’ve only had one term of Trump so far, and already witness renewed talk of Californian secession, and protester-led self-governing zones springing up and then fading away.

Fear #3 is World War 3. (Huh; fear #2 is the second civil war and fear #3 is the third world war. That’s numerically convenient). With America in turmoil, and civil war as a possible future, the age of Pax Americana (general world peace through American military dominance) has started to draw to a close. China and Russia are already starting to flex their muscles by snipping off bits of territory. They’re currently relying more on American being distracted than on an actual power shift, but that could change very rapidly if America descends into a genuine constitutional crisis or civil war.

I sincerely hope this is just my imagination running away with me, and none of this comes true.

Postel’s Principle as Moral Aphorism

[All the usual disclaimers. Wanders dangerously close to moral relativism.]

I.

Postel’s Principle (also known as the Robustness Principle) is an obscure little guideline somewhat popular among computer programmers, in particularly those working on network protocols. The original goes like this:

Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

My parents were both computer programmers, as am I, and my first job as a programmer was working on network protocols, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I ran across this principle a long, long time ago. I suspect I heard it while still a teenager, before finishing high school, but I honestly don’t remember. Suffice to say that it’s been kicking around my brain for a long time.

As a rule of thumb in computer programming, Postel’s Principle has some basic advantages. You should be conservative in what you do because producing output that isn’t strictly compliant with the specification risks other programs being unable to read your data. Conversely, you should be liberal in what you accept because other programs might occasionally produce non-compliant data, and ideally your program should be robust and keep working in the face of data that isn’t quite 100% right.

While in recent years the long-term effects of Postel’s Principle on software ecosystems have led to some pushback, I’m more interested in the fact that Postel’s Principle seems to apply as well just as well as a moral aphorism as it does in programming. Context matters a lot when reading, so here’s a list of other aphorisms and popular moral phrases to get your brain in the right frame:

  • What would Jesus do?
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
  • Be conservative in what you do, and liberal in what you expect from others.

II.

I am, by nature, a fairly conservative person. I’m also, whether by nature or past experience, somewhat socially subordinate; I’m usually much happier in a secondary position than in any role of real authority, and my self-image tends to be fairly fragile. The manosphere would happily write me off as a “beta male”, and I’m sure Jordan Peterson would have something weird to say about lobsters and serotonin.

This combination of personality traits makes Postel’s Principle a natural fit for defining my own behaviour. Rather than trying to seriously enforce my own worldview or argue aggressively for my own preferences, I endeavour not to make waves. The more people who like me, the more secure my situation, and the surest way to get people to like me is to follow Postel’s Principle: be conservative in my own actions (or else I might do something they disapprove of or dislike), and be liberal in what I accept from others (being judgemental is a sure way to lose friends).

[People who know me IRL will point out that in fact I am pretty judgemental a lot of the time. But I try and restrict my judginess (judgmentality? judgementalism?) to matters of objective efficiency, where empirical reality will back me up, and avoid any kind of value-based judgement. E.g. I will judge you for being an ineffective, inconsistent feminist, but never for holding or not holding feminist values.]

Unfortunately, of course, the world is a mind-boggling huge place with an annoyingly large number of people, each of whom has their own slightly different set of moral intuitions. There is clearly no set of behaviours I could perform that will satisfy all of them, so I focus on applying Postel’s Principle to the much smaller set of people who are in my “social bubble” (in the pre-COVID sense). If I’m not likely to interact with you soon, or on a regular basis, then I’m relatively free to ignore your opinion.

Talking about the “set” of people on whom to apply Postel’s Principle provides a nice segue into the formal definitions that are implicit in the English aphorism. For my own behaviour, it makes sense to think of it like the intersection operation in set theory, or the universal quantifier in predicate logic: something is only morally permissible for me if it is permissible for all of the people I am likely to interact with regularly. Conversely, of course, the values I must accept without judgment are the union of the values of the people I know; it is morally permissible if it is permissible for any of the people I am likely to interact with regularly.

III.

Since the set of actions that are considered morally permissible for me are defined effectively by my social circle, it becomes of some importance to intentionally manage my social circle. It would be untenable to make such different friends and colleagues that the intersection of their acceptable actions shrinks to nothing. In that situation I would be forced to make a choice (since inaction is of course its own kind of action) and jettison one group of friends in order to open up behavioural manoeuvring space again.

Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that people change their moral stances, especially when under pressure from other people who I may not be interacting with directly. Even if I have a stable social circle and behavioural manoeuvring space today, tomorrow one of my friends could decide they’re suddenly a radical Islamist and force me with a choice. While in some sense “difficult”, many of these choices end up being rather easy; I have no interest in radical Islam, and so ultimately how close I was to this friend relative to the rest of my social circle matters only in the very extreme case where they were literally my only acquaintance worth speaking of.

Again unfortunately, it sometimes happens that large groups of people change their moral stances all at once. Memes spread incredibly fast, and a small undercurrent of change can rapidly become a torrent when one person in a position of power or status chooses a side. This sort of situation also forces me with a choice, and often a much more difficult one. Apart from the necessity of weighing and balancing friend groups against each other, there’s also a predictive aspect. If I expect a given moral meme to become dominant over the next decade, it seems prudent to be “on the right side of history” regardless of the present impact on my social circle.

Being forced to choose between two social groups with incompatible moral stances is, unsurprisingly, stressful. Social alienation is a painful process, as can attest any Amish person who has been shunned. However what may be worse than any clean break is the moment just before, trying to walk the knife edge of barely-overlapping morals in the desperate hope that the centre can hold.

IV. (PostScript)

I wrote this focused mostly on myself. Having finished, I cannot help but wonder how much an approximation of Postel’s Principle guides the moral principles of most people, whether they would acknowledge it or not. Even people who claim to derive their morality from first principles often end up with something surprisingly close to their local social consensus.

The Manual Economy

[An attempt at fiction in the style of Scott Alexander. With bits of Lewis Carroll and Douglas Adams thrown in for good measure.]

The hallucination started out so normally, I completely forgot that I was tripping.

I was at the dentist, and I had just had my teeth cleaned. You know the drill, the hygienist goes through your teeth with this little spray nozzle that gets into all the cracks and cavities you pretend don’t exist when you’ve got a brush in there. Then they make you hold some disgusting not-quite-mint not-quite-water in your mouth, and swish, and spit. And spit. And spit. And after about the third blessed mouthful of real water, you can vaguely taste something other than not-quite-mint, until your salivary glands give up the ghost entirely and your mouth turns into the Sahara desert.

As I said, it was weirdly normal for a trip. I’d been expecting unicorns, or aliens, or a sky made up of funky colours and mystical cactus people who could factor large numbers. But I was at the dentist. If I’d wanted a trip to the dentist, I would have just gone to the dentist. It would have been cheaper, and probably better for my teeth.

The entire dental experience was so totally normal I completely forgot I was tripping until I went to pay, and I couldn’t find my credit card. Or any cash. My wallet had a driver’s license and various other identification cards, but no payment at all. The receptionist smiled at me politely.

“Is everything alright? Can I help you”?

I winced. “I’m sorry, I seem to have misplaced all my money, I’m not going to be able to pay my bill today”.

There was a confused pause. A giant hand walked past waving an umbrella and whistling show tunes. The receptionist winked at me with both eyes at once. I suddenly knew, somehow, that I didn’t need to pay, so I turned and walked out the door. Across the street was a bank, so I floated forward until I was inside.

The bank, like the dentist, seemed totally normal. There were no lines, but that was expected for mid-afternoon on a Tuesday. I rolled over to one of the tellers.

“Excuse me”, I said, “I seem to have lost my credit card, can you help me”?

There was another confused pause. The bank teller turned into a giant hand and flew away. The entire bank building sort of dissolved as the buildings on either side squeezed together to fill up the space. I ended up on the sidewalk outside a Starbucks.

I didn’t even like Starbucks.

Sitting outside the Starbucks was a homeless person whose baseball cap kept flickering as if it couldn’t make up its mind. First it was on their head, but then *pop*, it was on the sidewalk in front of them with a few coins in it, and then *pop*, it was gone entirely. And then it was suddenly on their head again. After a few seconds of this my own head started to hurt, so I stared at the sidewalk extra hard until the homeless person turned into a giant hand, and the baseball cap was arrested for multiplying entities beyond necessity.

The hand spoke to me. “Now look what you’ve done! It’s hard enough to coordinate this economy without some yokel trying to physically instantiate all of the mechanisms”!

There was a third confused pause, but this time the hand just sat there looking disgruntled until I finally echoed its statement back as a question. “You… coordinate the entire economy”?

“Yes of course I do”, the hand replied, “somebody has to do it or this whole place would fall apart. How else does food get to everyone who needs it, let alone all the other goods and services”!

I blinked. “So, you’re, literally, the invisible hand of the market”?

“Well I was“, the hand said waspishly. “But do I look invisible to you”?

“Oh, sorry about that”, I apologized. “So my money and credit card, and the bank and everything? They all disappeared because they’re… you? Or manifestations of you, or something”?

The hand glared at me. “I’m a hand”, it said, waving at itself sarcastically. “It seems awfully rude of you to talk to me about manifestations. Until you came along, I had no need of them at all”! It huffed. “Now here I am, trying to coordinate an economy the size of a planet, and instead of being a magical omniscient force I’m trapped in a giant disembodied appendage. What am even I supposed to do with all of these fingers”?

I giggled. “I dunno, you could say that the economy just went… digital“.

The hand rolled its eyes, but I had a lot more ready.

“Oh come on, you’ve got to hand me that one. No? You’re not going to clap back? Well come on then, let me give you a hand coming up with a response. I’m pretty handy with this sort of thing, in fact…”

Ten minutes later, I finally ran out of steam with a complicated pun about greased palms and coconut oil, that even I admitted was a stretch. At this point, the hand had finally had enough.

“Look”, it said, “maybe in your universe the economy is coordinated by these magical distributed pieces of paper and electronic numbers, and nobody has ultimate responsibility for the economy. But in this universe, none of that exists; the buck stops with me. I’ve been listening to you make hand puns for ten minutes, and in that time the entire economy has ground to a halt because I haven’t been there to ensure the right transactions occur at the right time. In some sense I don’t just coordinate the economy – I am the economy”.

I shook my head. “That can’t be right”, I said, “the economy isn’t made up of pieces of paper and numbers, the economy is all of the real things that get moved around because of that coordination. Just because you took a few minutes off to…”, I giggled again, “manifest, as a giant hand, farms are still growing food, factories are still producing goods, the economy is still going! Transport truck drivers didn’t all go on strike because you took a small break”!

“That’s exactly my point!” said the hand. “Truck drivers were on strike when you started your little game, but that strike required coordinated action which I provided. When I started slacking off all those truck drivers got bored and left the picket line to follow their individual inclinations, and now it’s chaos”!

At this point I could feel the drugs starting to wear off, but the hand was still going.

“They’re not striking, or trucking, or anything useful at all! The entire economy is crumbling like the twin towers after that so-called plane crash!”

The bank reappeared beside the Starbucks, and the entire row of buildings shifted down to accommodate.

“It’s all the governments fault, them and their secret mind control beams out to steal your thoughts!”

The not-invisible giant hand shrank in size until it was a normal hand, attached to a normal homeless person, still talking about the implications of omniscient economic coordination and various other conspiracy theories. My teeth started to hurt.

I’ve written this trip report in an attempt to jog my own memory. Something that the hand said during our conversation really resonated with me, and I just know the next Nobel prize in economics is mine if I can only remember what it was…

I just can’t put my finger on it.

Roll for Sanity

[This is very much a personal-diary type post, but it ends up touching on predictive processing and other aspects of how our brains work. Feels related to Choosing the Zero Point.]

I. Looking for Trouble

In the card game Munchkin, there is a mechanic called “Looking for Trouble”, whereby if you haven’t yet fought a monster on your turn, you can play a monster from your hand and fight that. You don’t have to do this – it’s optional, and can carry stiff penalties if the monster ends up defeating you – but since killing monsters is one of the key ways to win at Munchkin, it’s an important mechanic.

Obviously you don’t want to fight a monster if you think that you’re going to lose. A brand new munchkin “Looking for Trouble” with a level 20 Plutonium Dragon is literally… looking for trouble1. And even if you think you might win, it’s often a good idea to wait a turn or two in order to try and collect more spells, stronger weapons, etc. It would be a pretty terrible Munchkin strategy to go looking for trouble on every possible turn, regardless of your equipment or which monsters you actually have in your hand.

And yet… this terrible strategy feels like a metaphor for my life recently.

Between work, personal relationships, and the chaos caused by the pandemic, I’ve been dealing with a pretty big set of stressors (monsters) already in my life. But like an incompetent Munchkin, every time I’m not dealing with an immediate personal problem, I find myself Looking for Trouble. And the internet makes this soooooo easy.

Instead of taking a break, relaxing, and recharging my mental and emotional batteries, I find myself checking the latest coronavirus stats, seeing which of my favourite pieces of media have been cancelled, reading hot takes on the death of democracy, or just plain “doomscrolling” on social media. Unsurprisingly, I have not been at my best the last little while.

As best I can tell, this unfortunate behavioural pattern is a classic instance of predictive-processing gone awry. In other words, so much has gone wrong recently that my brain has decided the world must always be on fire, and that’s just the way things are. My subconscious is predicting disaster so strongly that when there’s no evidence of a new disaster, my brain assumes that I’m just not looking hard enough, and I end up on the internet finding new horrors in order to prove myself right. And all the recent stories about doomscrolling make me suspect I’m not alone.

II. Moral Implications

Now obviously predictive-processing gone awry is not the only explanation for everyone’s bad-news obsession. Even if it’s a plausible explanation for me personally (which I think it is), it might not be the cause of the general doom-scrolling trend. Things actually are unusually bad in many parts of the world, and people always tend to pay more attention to bad news than to good. Maybe feeling kind of terrible is just a natural response to things being unusually terrible.

If feeling terrible is in some sense a “reasonable” response to the state of the world, then I worry that my attempts to feel less terrible are morally wrong, since they try to avoid the problem instead of solve it. Am I just doing the global equivalent of pretending not to see the homeless person on the corner? Is the moral thing instead to face the world’s troubles head-on, acknowledge its pain, and try to help?

But this doesn’t seem quite fair; while I might plausibly be able to help a single homeless person, I am largely helpless in the face of the vast issues facing America and the world (at least, in the short term). I’m a private citizen in a relatively small, stable, country; most of the time nobody pays us any attention, for good reason. Feeling stress and anxiety truly proportional to the level of suffering in the world seems in some sense correct; scope insensitivity is still an irrational bias. But like an airline passenger who refuses to put on their own mask first, it would be a mistake in practice. Being insensitive to the scope of suffering beyond a certain point is an adaptive coping mechanism to keep us sane in the face of a vast and uncaring world. As long as we use our sanity to do good in the long run, ignoring pain in the short run seems ok.

III. Reducing the Area of Concern

Given that ignoring global problems in order to conserve our own sanity seems ok, at least in the short term, then how do we do that? By embracing scope insensitivity, and reducing our area of concern.

The human nervous system, grossly simplified, contains a slider switch that runs from “fight and flight” on one end (the sympathetic nervous system) to “rest and digest” on the other (the parasympathetic nervous system). A happy, productive life requires both components; you obviously need to spend some time resting and digesting, but equally you need your sympathetic nervous system to deal with challenges and to accomplish difficult tasks. In other words, it’s almost certainly unhealthy to be stuck at either extreme for any length of time.

Unfortunately, “fight or flight” isn’t just something that your brain does when facing an immediate, concrete threat. Stress, anxiety, and fear all show up whenever there’s a possible threat within some ill-defined “area of concern”. Another war on the other side of the planet? Not a big deal. But heaven forbid there’s been a string of burglaries in your neighbourhood recently. Even if you never see a burglar yourself, just hearing about it on the news is enough to cause some sleepless nights.

Given that mere bad news can cause a fight or flight response if your brain judges it “in scope”, and the fact that the world is absolutely full of bad news on a regular basis… if you start to think of the entire world as “in scope” then you’re going to have a bad time of it. The internet, news, politics… they’re all global arenas now, and it’s incredibly difficult to engage with them in a way that doesn’t increase your area of concern. Engage too much, and you end up permanently stuck in “fight or flight”, killing yourself with stress.

In recognition of where my slider switch has been sitting recently, and in order to metaphorically “put my own mask on first”, I’ve been trying to reduce my scope of concern. I’ve blocked a bunch of sites from my work laptop. I’ve uninstalled a few apps from my phone. I’ve tried to spend less time reading the news, and more time reading things that I find valuable and relaxing. If I’m helpless in the face of things anyways, then it doesn’t serve me to know about them at all, does it?

Early results are promising, but early. I suspect the hardest part will be sticking to it, and finding other sources of stimulus since much of my local life is still in pandemic-induced lockdown. If my immediate scope of concern is utterly static, and the global scope of concern is a panic-inducing nightmare, is there an intermediate scope? With the internet at our fingertips, I’m not sure that there is.


  1. Yes, technically a Plutonium Dragon won’t pursue anyone below level 5, so you’d be able to run away… but still.

Frankenstein Delenda Est

I.

I am terrified by the idea that one day, I will look back on my life, and realize that I helped create a monster. That my actions and my decisions pushed humanity a little further along the path to suffering and ruin. I step back sometimes from the gears of the technology I am creating, from the web of ideas I am promoting, and from the vision of the future that I am chasing, and I wonder if any of it is good.

Of course I play only the tiniest of roles in the world, and there will be no great reckoning for me. I am a drop in the ocean of the many, many others who are also trying to build the future. But still, I am here. I push, and the levers of the world move, however fractionally. Gears turn. Webs are spun. If I push in a different direction, then the future will be different. I must believe that my actions have meaning, because otherwise they have nothing at all.

No, I do not doubt my ability to shape the future; I doubt my ability to choose it well. The world is dense with opportunity, and we sit at the controls of a society with immense potential and awful power. We have at our disposal a library full of blueprints, each one claiming to be better than the last. I would scream, but in this library I simply whisper, to the blueprints: how do you know? How do you know that the future you propose has been authored by The Goddess of Everything Else, and is not another tendril of Moloch sneaking into our world?

Many people claim to know, to have ascended the mountain and to be pronouncing upon their return the commandments of the one true future: There is a way. Where we are going today, that is not the way. But there is a way. Believe in the way.

I hear these people speak and I am overcome with doubt. I think of butterflies, who flap their wings and create Brownian motion, as unfathomable as any hurricane. I think of fungi, whose simple mushrooms can hide a thousand acres of interwoven root. I think of the human brain, a few pounds of soggy meat whose spark eludes us. The weight of complexity is crushing, and any claim to understanding must be counterbalanced by the collected humility of a thousand generations of ignorance.

And on this complexity, we build our civilization. Synthesizing bold new chemicals, organizing the world’s information, and shaping the future through a patchwork mess of incentives, choices, and paths of least resistance. Visions of the future coalesce around politics of the moment, but there is no vision of the future that can account for our own radical invention. Do not doubt that Russell Marker and Bob Taylor did as much to shape today as any president or dictator. The levers we pull are slow, and their lengths are hidden, but some of them will certainly move the world.

And on these levers, we build our civilization. Invisible hands pull the levers that turn the gears that spin the webs that hold us fast, and those invisible hands belong to us. We pronounce our visions of a gleamingly efficient future, accumulating power in our bid to challenge Moloch, never asking whether Moloch is, simply, us. The institutions of the American experiment were shaped by the wisdom of centuries of political philosophy. That they have so readily crumbled is not an indictment of their authors, but of the radical societal changes none of those authors could foresee. Our new society is being thrown together slapdash by a bare handful of engineers more interested in optimizing behaviour than in guiding it, and the resulting institutions are as sociologically destructive as they are economically productive.

And on these institutions, we build our civilization.

II.

Sometimes, I believe that with a little work and a lot of care, humanity might be able to engineer its way out of its current rough patch and forward, into a stable equilibrium of happy society. Sometimes, if we just run a little faster and work a little harder, we might reach utopia.

There is a pleasant circularity to this dream. Sure, technology has forced disparate parts of our society together in a way that creates polarized echo chambers and threatens to tear society apart. But if we just dream a little bigger we can create new technology to solve that problem. And honestly, we probably can do just that. But a butterfly flaps its wings, and the gears turn, and whatever new technical solution we create will generate a hurricane in some other part of society. Any claims that it won’t must be counterbalanced by the collected humility of a thousand generations of mistakes.

Sometimes, I believe that the future is lying in plain sight, waiting to swallow us when we finally fall. If we just let things take their natural course, then the Amish and the Mennonites and (to a lesser extent) the Mormons will be there with their moral capital and their technological ludditism and their ultimately functional societies to pick up the pieces left by our self-destruction. Natural selection can be awful if you’re on the wrong end of it, but it still ultimately works.

Or maybe, sometimes, it’s all a wash and we’ll stumble along to weirder and weirder futures with their own fractal echoes of our current problems, as in Greg Daniels’s Upload. But I think of the complexity of this path, and I am overcome with doubt.

III.

I am terrified by the idea that one day, I will look back on my life, and realize that I helped create a monster. Not a grand, societal-collapse kind of monster or an elder-god-sucking-the-good-out-of-everything kind of monster. Just a prosaic, every-day, run-of-the-mill, Frankenstinian monster. I step back sometimes from the gears of the technology I am creating, from the web of ideas I am promoting, and from the vision of the future that I am chasing, and I wonder if it’s the right one.

From the grand library of societal blueprints, I have chosen a set. I have spent my life building the gears to make it go, and spinning the webs that hold it together. But I look up from my labour and I see other people building on other blueprints entirely. I see protests, and essays, and argument, and conflict. I am confident in my epistemology, but epistemology brings me only a method of transportation, not a destination.

I am terrified that it is hubris to claim one blueprint as my own. That I am no better than anyone else, coming down from the mountaintop, proclaiming the way. That society will destroy my monster of a future with pitchforks, or that worse, my monster will grow to devour what would have otherwise been a beautiful idyll.

Frankenstein was not the monster; Frankenstein created the monster.