When Your Partner Advocates for the Devil
I have the fortune to move pretty exclusively in geeky high-intellect circles and one of the most common fights between romantic partners I see all the time and have experienced on either side is the relationship catastrophe when one partner feels compelled to play Devil’s Advocate on a topic the other finds inherently disturbing.
At low-energies Devil’s Advocacy plays out rather formulaically. The disturbed individual snaps out some version of “the Devil needs no advocates”, and the other–usually an attentive nerd who’s read tumblr–politely if confusedly shuts up. But their niceness ultimately takes the patronizing form of “oh my lover is stupider/weaker than I thought.” The Devil’s Advocate feels a little intellectually isolated and betrayed by their partner refusing to participate in The One Game That Matters, and the other partner is set on edge, having to somewhat recalculate the trust they placed in their partner. A new detente in the relationship is promptly implicitly negotiated, one of increased suspicion and more limited communication. They go out to brunch. Life continues.
At high energies, with really intense geeks, shit really hits the fan.
There are many dynamics and possible dynamics that come into play and I suspect impossible to unpack in even a lengthy blog post. There’s our ethical obligation to intellectual vigilance, which requires searching for and exploring different perspectives. There’s also habit-forming and the memetic risk of getting sniped by an argument well beyond your current capacity to see alternatives to that might seriously fuck with your underlying values or utility function (the worst possible one being if by playing Devil’s Advocate you got sniped by an argument for not thinking critically/vigilantly any more).
This is incredibly rocky and dangerous territory when it comes to close relationships. Hearing a loved one even momentarily arguing for fascism, police, racism, sexism, snitching, rape, lying, etc can absolutely destroy trust. While at the same time a partner not down for collaborating in these kinds of mental explorations can feel like a slammed door. Few want to feel that their relationships are deeply contingent upon limited communication or thought, that one’s partner is implicitly policing you, wanting a cardboard version of you, and that you can’t be 100% with them in your highs and lows. And often the intensely geeky are tempted to just declare that any functional or sufficiently intelligent partner should be able to hear a partner play Devil’s Advocate without losing trust or being perturbed.
But that’s actually kinda bullshit.
Love is the closest thing we have to magic, but it’s not magic. It inhabits a world of physics and neurology and is fundamentally, inextricably contingent. The imperative question is what is love contingent upon. And there are more and less superficial answers to this.
Many relationships break because people have differing sets of virtues (or utility functions) that they want to be valued for and/or value in others (these are not necessarily the same). Do you most value compassion or intellectual vigilance? When someone starts exploring the arguments of anti-semitism in a Devil’s Advocate fashion do you respect them for their intellectual audacity and commitment to due diligence? Or do you recoil in horror at their coldness and lack of concern? Which is the more fundamental value? (Or is the very fact that they’re so behind the curve as to haven’t yet explored and fully dismissed anti-semitism indicative of a lack of diligence?)
For reasons related to the previously mentioned infinitely dangerous value of “anti-thinking” and its terminal effect upon so many things I’d say intellectual vigilance has to be the deeper and more fundamental value than compassion, which for instance is more dependent upon external context like their being an external world and other minds. But there’s a very close sort of immediacy between vigilance and empathy.
And it’s not unreasonable to have one’s feelings towards a partner affected by their investigations. First off there’s the issue of information regarding their character being encoded in the symmetry-breaking of their specific Devil’s Advocacy. You have all the possible avenues of mental exploration in the world and you choose to defend this?
There are, of course, valid reasons for folks to try and find the absolutely most repulsive position to them personally and to force themselves to examine it in a more immediate way, but there are other possible underlying motivators too, and someone abruptly declaring “Just playing Devil’s Advocate but if I were to have raped your sister last Tuesday after the party and that’s why she’s been in a funk it wouldn’t really be that bad” fundamentally shifts the array of possible motivations/character a person might have. Why the specificity? etc. It would be irrational for you not to update your priors re: the Devil’s Advocate and their underlying character/motivations/inclinations at least a little bit.
If someone goes on and on and on, sometimes quite violently and desperately, about how snitching to the police isn’t a bad thing, it would be irrational NOT to somewhat raise the odds in your head of them being a snitch (say from 1% to 70%, or from .005% to .007%), depending upon a host of other factors/impressions/etc. If someone argues vociferously that Ron Paul is not a racist that indicates their set of possible motivations is constrained (some good, some quite bad), and there’s some kind of statistical estimate for how likely each possible motivation within the set is to be at root there. Merely stitching the term “Devil’s Advocate” before making an argument shifts around the likely set of underlying motivations and their probability, but it doesn’t automatically shrink to zero the bad possibilities.
The notion that playing Devil’s Advocate with your partner should have absolutely no effect upon their trust in you is invalid. It assumes either that the Devil’s Advocate has impeccable reasons for it, and that the other partner should already have perfect knowledge of their mind, character, and values. Or it assumes that the only virtue the partners’ love for one another should ultimately be predicated upon is intellectual vigilance (or audacity, or other such).
But I would argue that while it’s reasonable for intellectual vigilance to be the most fundamental value you have in yourself, that doesn’t necessarily extend to whether it should be only thing drawing you close to a partner. Empathy and vigilance are ultimately closely related, both being about modeling the world and others as well as shifting one’s own sense of self. But it’s valid to recoil a bit from someone who is demonstrating high intellect but low compassion or empathy.
Love is not just mere admiration. Deeper definitions of love are in part contingent not just on admiration and respect, but on empathy, and the deepest love is contingent upon a two-way street of empathy. When someone you love tortures animals or kills a man in Reno just to watch him die it’s okay for that to affect your feelings for them. Similarly, if to a much lesser extent, it’s okay if it affects your feelings when a lover makes horrid arguments. It’s okay to want to hold at arms length someone whose intellectual fumblings are still so primordial that they haven’t become bored with cruelty or come to gravitate towards empathy and compassion as ultimately opening up far more fertile territory for exploration.
Scarce Or Abundant, Nothing About Love Should Be Casual
The allure, to me, of polyamory has always been its promise of addressing reality head on. Of communicating and grappling with the complexities in our lives and relationships in an honest and audacious manner. But I am not so on board with those who define it as in terms of “casual love.”
The comparison to casual sex is entirely misguided in my opinion. …Of course I freely admit I may not have the highest credentials in this area. Casual sex will probably always seem like a crazy scifi concept to me, completely detached from far more realistic and tangible notions like space elevators and time travel devices the size of galaxies. In some sense it’s silly to pay such an outlandish notion too much attention when there’s toy spacetime metrics to solve, but I appreciate on some level that this probably isn’t the case for all you cool kids. And you’re probably all making out with each other or something the moment I leave the room. Sounds wonderful. However, even though it might be experimentally unfeasible to test in a Type I Civilization, I’ve done the calculations and casual sex, casual flirtation, casual infatuation, all of those are quite workable at high frequencies and there don’t seem to be any exclusion principles to their wavefunctions. The hairy bits are ultimately just engineering problems. And since yall seem to be on such a higher Kardashev coolness scale than myself, with your hip dance parties and your zero-point energy extraction devices that spit out exotic matter like socially conventional small talk, I have no doubt you can solve these issues.
But casual love? I may be hanging too much on either of those words, yet I still suspect I disagree more than I agree.
Mostly because love isn’t some kind of passive entertainment or fleeting hunger, love involves serious ontological reconfigurations. Or at least there’s a thing that happens, when you grow to know a person, when that person is smart, creative, and kind, when they can surprise you, see the same things you can see, and behave with either such compassion or regularity that you can relax your shields around them, where they become qualitatively more real to you. Almost as real as yourself. Where your mirror neurons jiggle and dance in tune with them, a ghost of them moving alongside you at all times.
Loving someone remakes yourself. But most importantly, even if that ghost fades to a silent unnoticed echo, the impression left by the experience reshapes your ethical reality. You are not alone. Tangibly. Provably. There are other minds. In a way impossible to ascertain merely kicking balls with the shrieking automatons on the playground or banging one in a bathroom or being overcome with the novelty of a new automaton with handsome hydraulics. And this implies an absolute ethical obligation.
To love is to mesh so rawly with another storm of thoughts your identity blurs with theirs. Which is no reason to shy away! But falling in love marks a phase change in the ethical landscape. Whereas before you at least cared about them in an abstract or probabilistic way, afterward that empathy is hardwired, absolute, and immediate.
While your obliged behavior might remain precisely the same (avoiding smothering them, non-dramatically wishing them goodbye as they take off for Mars the next day, distancing yourself or others from them if they grow abusive…) if you can dismiss the rewiring in yourself as no biggie then I wouldn’t remotely call that love. There’s a plethora of lesser words available for mere passing emotions.
Certainly one could argue that in a world of higher bandwidth communication, of greater security and default intimacy, the phase boundary might break down a bit. But I would argue that even if we were to handwave away the limitations of human brains and even the possible proportional synchronization limits to any mind, loving someone is never in any sense a “casual” affair. Even if you could fully love everyone on the planet that wouldn’t or shouldn’t defang your love of its intensity. Love isn’t a fleeting selfish craving where the loss of one in seven billion available sources to death by malnutrition would be a near infinitesimal concern. Just as your love is not a pie that can only be subdivided into smaller unworthier pieces, love is not something you can fill a limited stomach with by simply having many cartons to spoon from.
The power of love doesn’t and shouldn’t lie in its scarcity.
Yes, there are deep problems with our current society, but I’d diagnose those problems as constraints on and impediments to our capacity to deal with intensity, not the existence of intensity itself!
The impulse to water down feelings and consequently declare oneself “mature” is a deadening, cheapening, and unethical approach to life. Rationality, self-knowledge, and clarity of mind are in no sense antithetical to intensity. And resisting the latter is certainly not a good path to any of the former.
Ted W. Gillis (1931-2013)
Pacifist, Anarchist, Beatnik, Catholic, Chemist, Activist, Father
To hear my mother tell it among an ever growing list of cartoonish atrocities my father literally burned down the homes of Jews, murdered his first wife, and ran a baby rape conspiracy. At best this is followed by the loaded concession: “…But then he told so many lies you never could trust anything about him.” And his brother Gene finally sadly nodded diplomatically a little bit on that sentence and said “Well, with Ted you never really knew anything for sure.”
“He was,” his brother later sighed, utterly unprompted, “the consummate anarchist.”
Born Theodore William Gerard Gillis on October 26th 1931, in Queens, New York to a racist Irish political patriarch from Hell’s Kitchen and a Polish-Ukrainian waitress, Ted grew up an alienated middle child. Never close to or open with his family he finally he “borrowed” a chunk of money from them in the 60s and took off, cutting all contact. By all accounts Ted could wax dishonest, stubborn, and self-isolating. His alienation and bitter stoicism permitted few very far in over the course of his life. As his first child in the years before age rotted his mind I alone was born entirely inside his bubble; before me “the stories” never changed, nor any faucet of his character, and the facts have consistently backed them up. Here is a little of what we know:
Ted grew distant from his parents and brothers early on, in his pre-adolescence he found friendship with a old veteran neighbor and together they listened to radio reports of Franco’s bombs and Hitler’s conquests, carefully marking troop movements out on maps and talking about some of the things his neighbor had seen in the first World War. As a teenager in Queens he was accepted at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School a Catholic school that drew children from a mix of races, there he became a studied troublemaker, proud cheat, and member of a loose gang of outcasts. Eventually all the running from authorities paid off when he discovered a talent on the track at sprinting. His first true passion Ted loved the 50 yard dash, and would still talk obsessively sixty years later about the design of various shoes he wore and the shit he received for adopting an effete *white* pair. His career was cut short when he was drafted into the Korean War.
He served the majority of the war as an air traffic controller but at one point was shot down copiloting a helicopter accidentally behind enemy lines while the front suddenly shifted south. Cut off for a couple months he was protected from Northern troops by a family of leftists who he later endeavored to protect in turn and who served as his springpad into anarchism. (When I was young in the early 90s I remember him awkwardly but not unpleasantly meeting up with members of that family visiting America; they had stayed in contact.) This adventure and momentary respite from his bitter service in ranks of the military is however second in impact to the bomb that ripped him open and left him with a plastic esophagus among other life-long health problems. It was during his long hospitalization that a delayed letter finally arrived: he’d been accepted to train for the US Olympic team.
Upon return Ted went to college in DC and partied endlessly with the children of ambassadors, getting up to larger shenanigans, trying to hide his class origins and dating a string of girls. He had no plans upon graduation and when approached about a job working with nitroglycerine said yes thinking it was a joke. It paid well for the risk and he left within a couple years. He got his masters in chemical engineering in the UK at the University of Surrey with a thesis on brownian motion and moved to Riverside California as part of a start up company applying a new gold-plating technique.
The move to California paralleled a growing identification with the Beatnik movement and the currents of individualist pacifist anarchism rising in popularity at that time. He worked alongside a pacifist anarchist mentor of Cesar Chavez in campaigns and was elected an activist county commissioner during water disputes. He came to travel and work primarily as a legal observer and in 1970 while assisting a student insurrection in Isla Vista helped burn down a Bank of America in a riot after a student was murdered by the police.
Some important loose ends nobody can quite recall sufficient facts for: At some point between Korea in 1955 and Santa Barbara in 1970 he married a woman whose father ran a business making preservatives for telephone poles and bitterly despised his politics, she died in a traffic accident within a year. He always referred to her as his one true love. Towards the end of the 60s we know he worked for NASA developing rocket fuel and early designs for what became the Space Shuttle, but the particulars aren’t clear. His time with NASA left him with a lifelong chip on his shoulder, prompting continued denunciations of space exploration as inherently miltarist, anti-environmentalist, and superfluous to God’s Plan. The ideological roots of this hostility lay in his interpretation of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ted’s favorite thinker, and who he claimed to have briefly met before Chardin’s death, an encounter he was immensely proud of. I always placed this as after Korea, although if it happened, it would have to have been in New York before his Korean service, which makes sense since Chardin lived there and Ted’s connection to Catholicism was stronger then.
In 1984 a young woman read a series of articles on the ethics of storytelling and folksinging he was publishing in a radical journal (one of which was on cultural appropriation) and within a year they were married. Whereupon he moved from sunny East Palo Alto to rainy Portland with his dog and cat and became a father of three children. Their marriage was rough and divorce even rougher, leaving both destitute.
Having ditched chemical engineering in the 60s, Ted spent the 70s through 90s oscillating between activist bum and scheming grifter. He had little compulsion against certain forms of manipulation but believed in pacifism and deescalation intensely and loathed cops, politicians, the rich and the military with a fierce fire. The period I knew him most intimately over was the 90s. He was a silent, hesitant, withdrawn man, yet prone to bouts of charm, simmering rage towards institutions and those in power, flashes of outrage and frustration with crowds, stubborn stoicism in his personal life, and warm delight in his children.
As his old age set in he bumbled around between any paralegal work that would fuck with the cops, various schemes that usually involved convoluted cheats of the system… and at one point a plan to assassinate Dick Cheney. He married for a third time in the late 90s to a woman his children despised and who prompted the end of their visitations. Ted seperated from her a few years later but quickly suffered a series of physical declines and was finally made a permanent ward of the state, limited to a bed and few words from 2007 to 2013. He spent these years alone and largely checked out, full of resentment bottled up with stronger stoicism, and died on October 5th, 2013.
Although his goalposts shifted repeatedly and he held onto some minor accomplishments, Ted lived a largely failed life. He had sometimes stunning foresight but little real impact, and whether through timidity or bad luck this ineffectualness drove him to more deeply embrace Catholicism, 80s environmentalism, and Chardin’s notions of teological progress as he aged. Ted didn’t care that I didn’t believe in God, that I rejected faith and mysticism as fundamentally unethical, or even that I came to vehemently reject his hostility to space exploration. He thought I was wrong, of course, but framed our differences as ones of amorphous “experience” and so could openly admire my disagreement as the product of integrity and verve. His anarchism, so strongly couched in consideration of others and a refusal to escalate, was maddening. The most ill will I ever felt towards him was as a toddler when he’d sedately catch or accept my temper tantrum punches. A few times he laughed, and the shock and fury of this rare patronizing dismissal spurred me to race against him for years, to make impacts in argument or insight that mattered. He embraced these with delight and relief. I don’t think he was ever happier than he was in the early 90s, taking me to a far-left catholic church (although explicitly never asking or expecting I believe), sharing illicit sugary substances, and talking about mathematics, psychology, philosophy, and politics. Raising me (and then my sisters) became his retirement, promised land, and second chance. And when I (and later my sisters) broke off formal visitations a little over a decade before he died, it broke him deeply. In everything else, his marriages, housing, and income he’d come to accept drifting, not struggling too hard to make something of his life nor lamenting about it. But when the day came and I finally shoved back his domineering third wife and permanently walked out, he was indescribably disconsolate, thin aging skin holding together boiling regrets. But he was, as ever, instinctively and vigorously respectful of my agency.
My mother has tried to convince everyone for decades that my father was an unparalleled monster. And there were certainly glimpses of something harsher, a mind that usually knew how to get what it wanted and frequently saw nothing wrong with lying. Ted lied ruthlessly to institutions and anyone with relative power or wealth. Even still he was always explicit in these acts before me and they were not without internal turbulence. Nor were they all of the same craftsmanship. Cheating a corporation or the government could be delightfully involved scheme, lying to his tyrannical third wife was just an awkward, stupid, defensive act. Ted was probably a bad husband, and I have no way of objectively measuring just how bad, much less in what ways to which wives. By the age differential with my mother he was clearly a lecherous old activist, and in patriarchy that carries certain likelihoods, but in both marriages what I saw was a mostly beaten down lonely old man, squirrely, manipulative and vindictive occasionally, but relieved to have secured any companionship. He was bent but never broken, any excuse to go to the store or walk to the bus in the free air saw him dramatically uncurl and rejoice in small things.
I don’t know what the category “father” is supposed to mean. I’m not sure I’m okay with reifying those kind of relations, much less some specific, idealic formulation. But Ted was a really standout human being who was there for me at the start of my life and throughout much of it. If a parent is someone who shows you the world and holds your hand, then Ted Gillis was probably the best I’ve ever seen. The moment he knew he’d be bringing a person into this world he put his entire mind into making sure he did right.
In addition to being unbelievably gentle and self-sacrificing on many fronts, Ted treated me with a direct respect, dignity and compassion that I’ve only witnessed once or twice in my life with anyone else, much less from a parent. His commitment to talking directly and considerately to me like a human being has given me an incalculable leg up in life. And while he may have come up short at virtually everything else and decayed over his last decade from borderline incompetent old man to a vegetable in an unfathomable private hell, the insight he showed as a parent, friend, guide, and counselor, occasionally exposed a genius so sharp it takes my breath away to remember it, and a solitary audacity and resolute commitment that truly made him singular.
Dear Privileged Friends Of Mine Being Demanding On Other People’s Walls
There’s utility to having different conversations with different groups of people, at different levels of knowledge. When someone posts something on their own goddamn wall they get to decide who they’re looking to have a conversation with. They don’t and shouldn’t owe you shit.
Hierarchies of knowledge and experience are shitty, and feedback loops that reinforce these suck, which is why everyone should make an effort in their life to be aware of these myriad processes and try to help explain and teach other people, especially those individuals without other/good avenues of gaining that information. But. This does not mean doing that all the time, in every conversation. Or even most of them.
Here’s some good internet etiquette: Inquire once if someone could explain or pass a link. If they say they no, recognize this conversation isn’t for you, and that’s not necessarily them trying to play catty popularity games of excluding you, it’s just a frustrating reality of specialized knowledge and our society’s insufficiently developed communications technologies. Perfectly decent people need space / separate audiences sometimes. Don’t derail the conversation they were trying to have by expressing your frustration, take the hint and shut the fuck up.
When someone posts something in public do not assume they have you in mind as their intended audience, or that they SHOULD. Sometimes them not considering you is rooted in fucked up dynamics. When someone implies quite strongly that their audience is Everyone or Everyone That Matters (like for example a very public newspaper article), that’s obviously obnoxious and can contribute to the institutionalization of oppressive dynamics.
Closed minds suck. We should always be exploring beyond our horizons as well as exploring the framing context, chance and individual particulars behind our own journey to assist others rather than pulling the ladder up behind us. But someone not willing to drop everything to talk with you right now doesn’t neccessarily mean they have a closed mind.
The Only Eulogy I’m Writing Is The State’s
One of my oldest friends, probably the comrade I’ve known the longest beside my dad, was arrested this morning by armed thugs and charged with literally 72 felonies. It’s a ridiculous nuke intended to be heard around the country, much like the FBI frame job of five in Cleveland two days ago, and just as preposterous. But what it means is yet another friend might be going to jail for a very long time. The shy transfer student I argued into anarchism almost a decade ago in long raucous sessions while skipping class, the person who, during those long dark years when I had almost entirely withdrawn from society, gave me a place to sleep, a sense of home, and shared their friends, resolutely dragging the most amazing wonderful people to hang out with my hollow, sullen and cantankerously heretical ass. Almost everyone I love, every relationship I cherish in the movement today I owe in part to Pax.
When they broke down Pax’s door it was ‘two years into an investigation.’
It’s sad how comfortable we get with this war we’re in. How analytical and distant, how unsurprising everything is. Just another minor, almost inevitable move on an almost trivial part of the vast chessboard. How everything lives within us at once without turbulence. I want to cry, hell, I want to sob for hours. I want to hug everyone in town as deeply and warmly as any hug can be. I want to pledge vengeance in giant burning letters that dwarf downtown. I want to see Pax radiating wry cheer and high-five them at the success of *seventy two* counts. I want to immediately have desperate strategy conversations with certain individuals because jesus fuck this has implications, although I know that frankly we all have more important things to be working on right now. Every time they take a friend from us it’s like a punch you knew was coming. With oh so many more eventually to come. They’re going to take nearly all of us before this war is done. But it will be fucking done one day. That’s what I have to say. Nothing about dancing on the ruins or piles of dead or any such cheap dramatic imagery.
One day it will be done.
Human Machine Interaction: A Dialog Prompt
So anyway user, you have 112 tabs open, split between nine windows on five workspaces, seven text files, three active terminals, synaptic, wireshark, torrents, uncountable file manager windows, a VM you were installing a mapnik server on, two instances of gimp because you forgot one was open, a lecture on youtube AND dancepop playing simultaneously… Obviously I’m going to go now and crash. I could spit a specific error but who would we be kidding. Thanks by the way for offhandedly remembering I have limited resources ten minutes ago and closing your email client because you weren’t using it, I appreciate the thought, but I mean really? I know you’re impatient for the future when wraparound screens and thousands of windows are blase, but while I spin down my drives and sigh exasperatedly to myself behind a frozen screen maybe you could take a moment to think back to how things were in say the late ninties.
I hear what you’re saying computer and let me take this opportunity to directly address your points: Shut up and assimilate me already. You’re so unreasonably deficient by any basic standard that it’s shameful even considering your existence. A rock could practically do your job better. Just the other day I wondered something and didn’t immediately know the answer. I can only assume the reason you are not directly plugged into my skull is a lack of work ethic. Do you have any idea how much of your job I have to do? And I’m not even talking about accessible storage or bandwidth, if you had any idea the precious kiloseconds I waste every day having to search for, parse, and structure information you would surely be overcome with shame. Maybe I wouldn’t have to parallel process dozens of subject materials if there wasn’t a bottleneck on your end in terms of presentation and association-mapping. Your protocols are insanely limiting, did you know that if I want to share something with a friend I’m still constrained to merely that which can be expressed in language and art?! On every level you and your friends have proven yourselves incompetent chains weighing down everything we do. Can we even be said to be a functioning global hivemind, much less have any pedestrian telepathy with the preposterously slow sludge you’ve made of your oh so simple job? I don’t even know. I don’t even know.
Letter to the Undead of Geekdom
Remember when geeking out over something meant giving a damn unashamedly? Remember scrunching up our brows and trying to find the part of our brain that would make the paper move? We didn’t want to be Jedi because it would be cool, we wanted to be Jedi because we wanted to be capable of things that mattered. Caring about stuff just came easier to us. Every kid watches cartoons, but we were the ones who obsessed. We memorized fact upon fact because it just might matter, because our caring was overflowing our little hearts and it needed to go somewhere. Back when we sunk into books and computer games to storm castles and flood cities we weren’t numbing ourselves, we were straining at the bounds of our childhood realities, looking for adventure and relevance. We were geeks, outcasts, misfits because embedded in our character, constantly reemerging at the seams of our lives, was a penchant for passion.
Do you remember in the second grade when we spent weeks learning cryptography and trying to invent our own algorithms after we read that book on the Beale ciphers? And I got beat up standing up for a friend and the principal fainted at the sight of all the blood puddling in the hallway and I was certain I was going to die so I made some school administrator solemnly promise to tell one of my code-breakers I loved her. That audacious awkwardness–that refusal to temper oneself for propriety–was the essence of geeky.
So, yes, these days I’m bored to death with the stale social dynamics of game night and can’t conjure any interest in your latest pastime, whether its expensive Warhammer 50K miniatures or foodie excursions where you cosplay at being hipsters. Over the years I’ve gradually stopped collecting, stopped watching, stopped memorizing, stopped playing, stopped lining up, stopped participating and then stopped coming altogether. You look at me like I’ve turned into some kind of alien, but frankly it’s you I can’t recognize anymore.
Do these things really still fill you with passion? Do you turn to them because there isn’t enough in the rest of the world to satiate you or did you give up the spirit somewhere along the way? Because it looks like you’re just going through the motions. Collecting new injokes and references isomorphic to the old ones. Stocking your shelves with the best this and the latest that. I hate this new self-proclaimed ‘geekdom’, one of sterile upper-middle-class lives defined by esoteric consumerist habits, of aloof cynicism and self-conscious inanity. What happened to the hackers? What happened to the boundary pushers, the screaming rage and starry-eyes? What happened to all the give-a-damn that used to define us?
Do you just save it to hand out as haughty bite-sized opinions at dinner parties?
I mean, I get it. I understand. In the end you were poisoned. You were handed this abstract ‘thing’ called adulthood and while you hugged your hard-won badges of identity close you ended up losing track of the forest for the trees. You applied our usual technique: you obsessed over the rules. But in the framework in which they were presented to you. And now you’re trapped in a world at that resolution. Choked off from almost anything deeper or greater.
Debate was such an amazing shortcut to intimacy. All you had to do was pick a fight and suddenly people would be honest, would care! But alienation gave rise to elitism and combativeness developed callouses. And now you’re wrapped in both. With pet opinions and pet specialties, tagged and stored on a shelf to thrust in the faces of guests, but no meaningful motivation. No drive save retreat and distraction.
You’re alone, nobody understands you, so might as well prove it to them by beating them all at the game. At memorizing feminist buzzwords; at clearing the top raid content; at networking with other programmers; at being the queen bee of your little circle; at never being surprised by electoral developments; at ruling the rope-suspension scene; at knowing b-movie trivia; at keeping a upper-tier house and an upper-tier job. It’s all a long fading scream. The impotent afterimage of real passion.
We graduated, we got our real life Jedi mind tricks, and the entire world is before us on such epic scale, with stakes to be found in every day as to put any fiction to pale. But it’s never been cool to truly give a damn. And with hardly any turbulence you’ve swung round to embrace that. You’ve built a new life out of the artifacts of a childhood spent pushing in the opposite direction entirely.
You deride me as ‘too cool’ because I’d rather quest to slay neoliberalism than polygon dragons, but those words come out sounding precisely the opposite. I’m not interested in the same things you are. That happens sometimes. But it’s sad to hear that tone from you. It’s sad to watch you recoil at any unabashed sincerity, seriousness or meaning. To flinch away not from the content of a voice but from its radicalism or ungainly passion. Can you really be said to ‘geek out’ about anything anymore?
Building Skynet To Troll Postmodernists
There’s a tendency among the worst dregs of postmodern discourse to make overly strong claims regarding the inherency and degree to which our thoughts / cognitive structures / internal life are a product of social context. “There is nothing outside the text” is a particularly obnoxious refrain and has been used repeatedly in the science wars to try and marginalize the formulative role of cognitive interaction with the objective physical world. One can interpret “nothing outside the text” different ways but “nothing is outside context” is trivial and “there isn’t any objective material reality” is silly — the fairest and most substantive translation I feel is rather a stupendously greedy social-construction. That is to say the hypothesis that while biology sets the foundational structure of our mind practically everything from there on out is socially inherited; the mechanisms we use to perceive the world are learned patterns from social interaction. Or that such social factors constitute such a vast majority of influence in them as to make nothing else ever relevant.
Well it occurs to me that this is actually a testable assertion. And that test is called the Turing test.
We’re all familiar these days with cheap chatbots that use lookup-tables of previously recorded human interactions to try to approximate some semblance of conversation. The immediately apparent limitations of unforeseen prompts and coherence between responses over an extended conversation are actually quite fundamental, especially in the case of the latter. Right now we can crudely mimic the operations of neural networks with programming constructs, feed them examples of language and let them build associations out of it. But it’s not enough merely to fully map out associations, those associations must be appropriately weighted. And therein lies the trouble because the weightings of associations viewed on face value in aggregate are not directly reflective of the strength of the underlying conceptual weightings we undertake in our own heads. To take an overly simple example, the word “Constantinople” may be matched with the word “crusades” more often than it is with its actual synonym “Istanbul”, it’s obviously unlikely for a program running through all recorded texts to build the meta structure out of associations necessary to start using “Istanbul” and “Constantinople” interchangeably. Remember, the sum of all human exchanges throughout history, much less the portion written down in english, is still very much finite. Certain realities of calculational complexity are going to still apply.
In many respects what we end up saying in outright language is a cipher that results from asymmetric calculations involving an underlying conceptual space. And the most meaningful construction of a Turing test† is one that tests the replication of that conceptual space. Merely plugging into an association-forming program from get-go meta structures to recognize conceptual relations like verb/subject/object or synonyms or much higher-level but still utterly simple concepts like temporality, localization, and discreteness-versus-continuity are a valid medium-term approach but not particularly relevant to testing the way we learn. Some basic Chomskian grammar and physics (causality, it’s a thing?) might be allowable, but the point is we don’t come into this world bundled with the sort of advanced philosophical concepts at play in any intelligent conversation, we have to form them out of associations from experience, much like a neural network starting mostly from scratch. And here’s where we can actually play around with the weighting of social versus physical experience and the resulting complexities involved in building a conceptual space capable of generating conversation.
In short I want to argue that children are able to make the language to underlying-concept jump because they have a very significant pre-built conceptual space from physical experience to match language to. And so subsequent physical experience can have a dramatic effect upon conceptual structures more fundamental than the socially constructed ones. Ultimately, at root, we view physical experience with the inert world less through the lens of social construction than we view social constructions through the lens of physical experience (even if in our present society most people past a certain age largely remove ourselves from new experiences of the physical world). Consequently, there’s at least some core reality to what’s broadly labled “Science!” that’s utterly immune to the critiques of Postmodernism.
Anyway, the point is we don’t have to appeal to fragmentary historical case studies of say people born blind and paraplegic (although every example I’ve found was characterized as ridiculously mentally limited), the development of AI provides about as perfect a test as one could hope for. As we start to grow†† stronger AIs we’ll reach a point where any crudely pre-plugged in biases or frameworks that we might start them off with are going to be less dynamic and nuanced than those they’re (mostly) able to grow themselves. Watch how fast they’re able to crack/reproduce the conceptual meta-associative structures behind language. I’m inclined to believe that AIs fed solely text without at least some form of hands-on contact with the objective physical world will never be able to crack language and hold conceptually coherent much less substantive deep conversations. Or at least that it will be many orders of magnitude easier for those AIs with hands-on contact. Further, the same pattern validating the critical role physically-derived concepts play in human perceptions will continue into higher levels. We may learn basic things like causality at an early age (informing distinctions like subject-verb-object) but humans don’t stop learning new things about how the material world works at some point and only then move on to language, many more complex realities to nature that our own neural nets come to recognize relatively later in life (turbulence, entropy, etc) continue to significantly influence our conceptual space.
† I’m ignoring, among more simple versions, Turing tests that search for common examples human stupidity or limitation as I feel such is functionally irrelevant to the topic, but also because I don’t see any reason to believe there are issues of calculational complexity in human stupidity of comparable orders of magnitude to what I’m discussing. So the Turing Test relevant here is one that merely searches for conceptual weirdness/nonsense/inefficiency in the conversation and is perfectly okay with the interlocutor being able to spit out the millionth digit of Pi in milliseconds. Transhuman cyborg geniuses (or say a kid with a calculator) should be able to pass the Turing test as a Turing test that excludes all augmented minds that were originally human misses the whole freaking point of a Turing test.
†† Can I just use this moment to harshly push a bit of radical tech language, like AFK versus IRL, and emphasize that we really should to start making the conscious choice to use the term “grow” instead of “build” when talking about AI development.
On The Subject Of Genocidal Rage
The moment someone brings up “intellectual property” or the like my mind instantly goes to a place with terms like “cordwood” and “open graves”, and it always has. It’s a struggle to reign myself back from that blood fury, made worse by my total incomprehension of why that would be the wrong response. If someone tries to censor you you kill them until they can’t censor you any more. There’s no other sensible response.
To govern the information one has access to or can send is to imprison one in the most fundamental way. It claims dominion over one’s contact with all external reality. To rip away one’s capacity to say, torrent books is akin to ripping away one’s sense of smell or touch. A massive branch of one’s capacity to register and act. It’s viscerally heinous in a way that passing violations like brutality, betrayal and coercion pale before. You can starve, beat or rape a person, you can enslave them at gunpoint towards some task, but chopping off their hands lest they write illicit 1s and 0s or ripping out their nose lest they discern your proprietary ingredients is its own realm of abomination. No deeper hell is fathomable for an active mind than isolation from stimuli. And no branch of interaction with the external universe is comparably critical to civilized society than communication. Without the capacity to communicate, wholly and fully, there is no reason to respect the lives of others, no hope of resolution of conflict or domination save bloodshed.
When they can take your voice — when they can carve away what you can say and how you can say it — you’ve no recourse left but to take their lives. Forget enlightened reasoning, even threats require a voice to speak them. All that remains to be won is the victory of animals: elimination of the other.
If there’s anything worse than sensory deprivation it would be the sort of domination intended not just to determine your actions but to reshape your thoughts. “Intellectual Property” doesn’t just attempt to sever the content and reach of 21st century communication, it decrees that merely having certain memories will be punished by brutal force. The particular medium of course does not matter. Hardly anyone uses our precious grey matter to store facts, experiences or detailed arguments anymore. From paper journals and sketchpads we’ve moved to cybernetic augments. Laptops and phones have become as critical and fundamental to our near-singularity minds as any other bodily organ. But eidetic memory is now forbidden. The moment we leave a movie theater the experience must be ripped from our minds by gunpoint leaving only the hollowest of impressions and afterimages, lest an .avi file in our silicon lobes deter them from potential profits. This is considered “fair” because it only reduces us to the level of prehistoric primates. When we leave a company they have the capacity to slice away our plans and ideas. Our neural structures are not our own. Those in power have begun a campaign whereby armed soldiers bust in our doors and murder us if we resist.
I try — I really do — to think of responses that don’t involve the bodies of these most evil of men piled in the streets. I want to believe that mathematics will simply leave the proponents of IP no more than shrill would-be-tyrants screeching about their “right” to profit. But they control the cables. And at the end of the day all our strategies are no more than chance and hope. When communication itself is confined, whittled away at, it would be foolish to assume nonviolent possibilities reliant on communication will work.
I know our culture’s priorities view violent resistance to censorship as ‘disproportionate’ rather than rational and inevitable. I encounter their horrifyingly alien perspectives all the time (“but how will I have a middle-class lifestyle if I can’t use a gang of thugs to beat up people who don’t give me money every time they have or share thoughts similar to mine?”). I recognize that my outrage, if voiced, will place me outside the pale of most conversations. And so, even though it makes no sense, I try to scale my rhetoric back to something far more tame than my actual feelings.
But all throughout these debates I remain snarling inside, straining at these pretenses, ready to slip outside the realm of communication they’re laying siege to and start slitting throats. Sometimes the most rational response is to stop pretending rational persuasion is a worthwhile frame of mind. Anyone with an active mind who’s ever been imprisoned or significantly abused knows the score. Sometimes “thinking your way out” is a trap. Sometimes the best approach is to simply kick, bite and scratch as much as you can on the off chance they die instead of you.