The Game is the Thing

A Ruck (source)
A Ruck (source)

For two years in college, I played rugby.

This was a little out of character. Loved ones wondered whether this was some sort of roundabout suicide attempt.

Nevertheless, with the encouragement of my good friend Alex, I went to the first practice of the GMU Rugby Club for the fall 2005 semester. This was the year before GMU’s basketball team went to the Final Four, so the administration was towards the end of a long period of neglecting GMU’s sports in general. Rugby being a less popular sport than most, the field the team had access to was more hard ground and mud than grass.

(Incidentally, the semester after the Final Four run, we returned to discover that our field had become a beautiful green jewel, tended to lovingly and invested in with fresh cash from an administration suddenly enthusiastic about sports)

When we arrived at that first practice, everyone was engaged in a drill called cross over running. You form four lines, facing each other diagonally. The lines that face each other directly run and pop the ball to the person at the head of the one across from them, who then runs and does the same, and so on.

To my unathletic, inexperienced, timid, and highly awkward self, it was a terrifying sight. You had to make sure that you caught the ball, didn’t crash into someone running from the perpendicular line, and then actually got the ball into the hands of the person across from you. And it all happened so fast! I was certain to make a complete fool of myself.

And in practice, as well as the field, I did make a fool of myself, many times. But it was a kind, forgiving group, who encouraged persistence in the face of continual failure, and went out of their way to call out whenever I did something right. In short, I stuck with it, for those last two years of undergrad.

Continue reading “The Game is the Thing”

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Build That Space Moat

Elon Musk says we need to colonize a second planet to ensure the long run survival of human civilization. Stephen Hawking agrees.

The smart people have thought it through: Earth puts all our eggs in one basket. While the world is fairly healthy now and incremental progress marches on, it just takes one major asteroid, one nuclear world war,  one mass extinction event, or one unfriendly AI to send us back to the stone age (or worse). And while the probability of most apocalyptic scenarios is tiny, they can be made infinitesimal by diversifying humanity across another astronomical object.

Earth 2 is about diversifying against risk. Colonizing Mars does nothing to diversify against the risk of a massive solar storm, since it shares the same star. But it does diversify against the risk of global contagion, climate catastrophe, and robot wars. If and when we colonize Mars, however, it would defeat the purpose to carry on extensive interplanetary trade. Deep linkages between Earth 1 and 2 might have short term benefits (the division of Martian labor is limited by the extent of the market), but it would also allow major shocks on one planet to propagate to the other—the very thing the costly endeavor of terraforming Mars is trying to avoid.

It’s worth reiterating how long term and counter-intuitive this thinking is. Musk and Hawking are not unmoved by the massive improvements that have been made in global health and well-being in their lifetimes. But they also aren’t autoregressive thinkers, expecting that the state at period T to always closely resemble the state at period T-1. Their mental model contains the possibility of making slow and steady progress that is totally reversed by a single, rare roll of the dice.

Now substitute linkages with Earth 2 with the linkages globalization has created with the rest of the world. And substitute the far fetched risk of an unfriendly AI with the very real risk of global financial crisis, collapsing political authority, and the reversion to predominately decadent and dysfunction political institutions like those of the pre-Enlightenment era.

This is the forecast in the subtext of neoreactionary and paleocon fears about modernity and globalization. While global trade networks have created supply chain redundancies, reduced inter-state conflict, and raised millions out of poverty, a common market also creates the possibility of systemic risks that affect everyone. Think Europe’s deflationary debt spiral. Add to that a dominant liberal-cosmopolitan ideology which denies hard truths about assimilation, and you get an out of control refugee crisis, authoritarian backlash and the terminal decline of Western civilization. Or something like that.

See, I don’t know if I buy any part of this story. But I believe in the principle of charity, which means framing my opponent’s view in the best possible light and avoiding attacks based on their motivation. And often the best way to do just that is to substitute your opponents argument with an analogous one which you’re already sympathetic to. In this case, my opponents are anti-globalists. They want an Earth 2 called the West, which limits its linkages with the rest of the world, forgoing short run benefits in favor of protection against radical, systemic changes with uncertain long run effects.

Given my priors, it’s easy for me to think of antiglobalists as simply xenophobic hatemongers, whose fear of modernity is nothing more than sublimated white identity politics. And many of them are. But I also know many who aren’t—many who are smarter than me, and more kind and humane, too.

So I’m torn. If the rallying cry for anti-globalists is “build that wall,” then the rallying cry for Musk and Hawking is “build that space moat”. And while I accept the latter I whole-heartedly reject the former, but can’t quite figure out why. Mood affiliation? Status seeking? Because the fantasy of colonizing Mars is far, while the implications of not responding to the refugee crisis are here and now, and will lead to real and tangible harms? Or because, in the case of globalization vs isolationism, the uncertainties cut both ways in roughly equal proportion?

It’s this last possibility that, Tyler Cowen argues, means we should focus on doing things we know produce good consequences in the short run:

Let us start with a simple example, namely a suicide bomber who seeks to detonate a nuclear device in midtown Manhattan. Obviously we would seek to stop the bomber, or at least try to reduce the probability of a detonation. We can think of this example as standing in more generally for choices, decisions, and policies that affect the long-term prospects of our civilization.

If we stop the bomber, we know that in the short run we will save millions of lives, avoid a massive tragedy, and protect the long-term strength, prosperity, and freedom of the United States. Reasonable moral people, regardless of the details of their meta-ethical stances, should not argue against stopping the bomber.

No matter how hard we try to stop the bomber, we are not, a priori, committed to a very definite view of how effective prevention will turn out in the long run. After all, stopping the bomber will reshuffle future genetic identities, and may imply the birth of a future Hitler. Even trying to stop the bomber, with no guarantee of success, will remix the future in similar fashion. Still, we can see a significant net welfare improvement in the short run, while facing radical generic uncertainty about the future in any case.

In the Kingdom of Pareto

By a series of unanticipated events and an unknown tie to royal blood, Pareto found himself suddenly King Pareto. So he assembled the wisest social scientists he could find to serve as his council of advisors, and prepared a campaign of progress for his new nation.

The first pillar of his reign would be the petition, for he needed to stay in touch with the common people. It also afforded him an opportunity to share his wisdom with them, to their obvious benefit.

The pair before him were a typical case. They were neighbors; one had let his lawn grow uncontrollably, hurting the value of adjacent properties.

“But my bones ache and it takes me a terribly long time to mow the lawn,” said the accused.

“The old King would levy a fine in these cases, your majesty,” said the accuser.

“The old King was a reactionary,” King Pareto said dismissively, “we must reach an arrangement which makes neither of you worse off than you already are. Does the accuser have a task that the accused could complete, in exchange for the accuser himself mowing the lawn?”

“Well I’m far behind on the paperwork for my business…”

“I would far prefer to do that to mowing the lawn, though I warn you, you could probably complete your paperwork more quickly on your own.”

“That’s OK. I hate paperwork, and I can mow lawns pretty fast. This arrangement works for me.”

“Well done, your majesty,” Advisor Ricardo praised him.

Many similar cases passed through, with the King guiding his subjects to mutually agreeable solutions. The last one for the day proved the most challenging. He had just sent off a pair of businessmen with nuisance claims against each other to have the appropriate property rights sorted out with Advisor Coase. No sooner were they gone than a man with the most bruised and beat up face the King had ever seen entered, followed by a normal, if angry looking man.

“Why have you come?” Asked the King.

“I…I’ve come…” the injured man began.

“He’s come to deny me my lawful right!” interrupted the other man.

“What right is that?”

“He…he beats me each day!” the injured man explained.

“Such is my right, under the law,” huffed the abuser.

“Is this true?” Pareto asked his council.

“Under the current…barbaric law, social superiors are allowed to physically abuse inferiors however they deem fit,” Advisor Mill said with evident disgust, “you can guess which legal group each of these men belongs to.”

“I only give him one good wallop a day, no more,” said the superior, “it helps me cope with the burden of my duties.”

“But come now man, you must stop this, it is terrible!” Pareto cried.

“Is that your order? Will you put me in jail if I disobey?”

The King hesitated.

“This is our law. To take this right away is no different than levying a discriminatory tax against my people specifically. I thought you were just, and only made rulings that made people no worse off than they already are.”

“But surely you won’t be made worse off if you don’t wallop this man tomorrow.” Pareto said.

“Would you make the same argument about future income from current employment, Your Majesty?”

“Fine, fine. Could you be paid to stop, for good? Or could this man perform some task in exchange for which you would freely give up this right?”

“No.”

Pareto was dumbfounded. “Why on Earth not?”

“This is an important part of my people’s identity. It has been our right since time immemorial. I know you, an outsider, judge it inhumane, but preserving such essential heresies against vulgar decency is exactly what keeps us free.”

“Perhaps we should be a little more specific about the content of the agreements people are allowed to come to…” Advisor Arrow said nervously.

“No,” King Pareto said somberly, “no. The only possible justice is that which leaves no one worse off than they were before. To change the rules unilaterally would unfairly harm this man by taking what had been his. We cannot let superstitious notions about what a social order ought to look like blind us. That is just prejudice, it is theocracy. Either no one loses from a change, or there must be no change. I am truly sorry.”

“That’s OK,” sighed the abused man, “I suppose I’m used to it.”

Asking For Whom The Bell Tolls

Who doesn’t know you’re not supposed to ask for whom the bell tolls? Long ago, OG Existentialist John Donne answered the question for you: it tolls for thee.

I wonder about that.

He’s absolutely correct, in a sense, that we are all connected to each other, and that the ebbs and flows of humanity affect us all, the logical conclusion being that, inasmuch as when a single individual advances, we advance together (the tide lifting all boats); so also when a single individual is removed to Davy Jones’ Locker, we all shall surely find similar breaches in the hulls of our seaships. Experience teaches us that John Donne is essentially correct: the bell tolls for thee. In this way, blood is thicker than water.

“No man is an island unto himself,” he furthermore teaches. I beg to differ. Those of us who have the water have been cordoned off by water so that we are, indeed, islands unto ourselves, each separated out unto lonely spits of sand and coconut trees, being sustained by meager provisions, shouting with disunited voices to all the ships passing by that we can see the breaches in their hulls, but without unity, we are subject to futility. Alas, the bell is tolling for humanity: it is a gigantic ship struck by Kraken the great sea monster so that it is sinking even as it is rising, the shouts of the exulting in the aft decks drowning out the screams of the drowning in the fore decks.

Perhaps the laughter of those who have slipped away from the surface of the cruel sea is a mocking laughter, that the work done by Kraken is beneficial to those who by great strength of reason chose the aft decks (being incidentally born there to choose them), so that those who are now perishing were stupid, foolish, superstitious. But such is the connection of blood: it is indeed thicker than water, and denser. The sea will exult over the wise and the foolish together.

Not so those who have the water. The water separates us from the blood. As the bell tolls across the water, our faint voices, separated by a different connection that cannot be fathomed by any instrument which plumbs the seven seas, are largely ineffective. Lonely isolation makes a man crazy after a while, each in his own way, so that none of us can join our voices together in a single warning klaxon. A scattered few hear, however, and they jump ship, realizing in the joy of escape that the bell is indeed tolling a death knell for them, for to escape the connection of blood is indeed the death of blood, a death in the briny water apart from evil Kraken. After that, it is sweet fresh water, but drunk on an island unto himself, without the tolling of the bell for thee or for me.

Let the reader understand that I am raising my hand in an oath that cannot fail: I promise you I will never die.

kraken

Metternich Against the SJW

Klemens von Metternich had had quite enough.

“You there,” he said, pointing at me, “take notes.”

I had never met the man before, but my peasant ancestors would be ashamed if I was insubordinate to a noble. So I opened up Evernote and started a new note.

“We are faced today by an onslaught of frivolity which puts the most arrogant dandy of my day to shame in utter unlearnedness,” Metternich began.

“Should I write down this part?” I asked. He glared at me. “Should I write down this part…Prince Metternich, uh, sir?”

“Just get the spirit of the thing, the useful points,” he said with a dismissive wave of the hand, “we’re making a plan, not a speech, but I’m working up to it.”

“Yes, Prince Metternich.” I typed “frivolity”.

“The spirit of the age,” he said, attempting to return smoothly to his little meandering speech, “is frivolity. Thirty years ago or so, there was a system in place. A system of public discourse. It was not a great system. It was not a good system. But it was a system, and for the most part it did what it was supposed to.”

“But by that time, the decade of the 1980s, the cracks in the system had already begun to multiply and the fate of the thing was, in many ways, unavoidable. Alternative media became too economical, and too widespread, for their betters to effectively police.”

“Still, we might have soldiered on with something like the old way for another generation or two. But no one saw the Internet coming. We were scared enough of the desktop publishing trend, and still we were blindsided by this vast apparatus of mass discursivity.”

“Now the old way is effectively dead. The gates are not just open, they are broken. The gatekeepers sit atop the rubble of their great castles, but the siege has already happened, and they have already lost. The public conversation has escaped anyone’s control, and the resulting anarchy was entirely predictable to anyone who bothered to pay attention.”

“The old system cannot be salvaged. Even I have to admit this. This makes Napoleon and the virus of revolution that spread during my day seem tame and containable. We need a new system, though of course we must take what wisdom we can from what has come before. Nevertheless, we face fresh challenges which demand fresh responses.”

“This is the important part,” he said to me, and I started a bulleted list.

“The nation lacks a political will to solve this problem by political means, at least for now. So we must take it upon ourselves as the best of the citizenry to seize control of the situation ourselves.”

“The first great lever available to those operating outside of government is money. Currently, the biggest fomenters of disorder, those who do it professionally, are highly dependent upon automated ad networks for a substantial part of their income.”

“There is an increasing push for categorizing content by appropriateness, with several firms offering their services to do so. If this categorization could be centralized—and I suspect it ultimately will be—it could be a very useful tool for maintaining order. Those sites that are most militant in their tactics…those who produce clickbait intended to cultivate the very worst of our uncultivated selves….will be downgraded as inappropriate content, effectively barring them from the biggest spenders in advertising. There’s still direct buying, of course. But it will still be a means of applying substantial financial pressure. And the number of direct buyers are so small in number, in terms of holding agencies, that there may be a solution there as well, if we can seize control of the big industry standards groups from within.”

“The problem is the sheer openness of the web. We can cut off the professionals at the knees, but these…these…social justice warriors…largely emerge from the panoptic cults adored by the masses. Even if every great Internet company colluded with us, anyone can set up a website from anywhere, and say anything they please, no matter how reckless or irresponsible. Moreover, I suspect that the crowdfunding sites will be harder to get to see our way. If we successfully formed a political cartel with them to block the worst of these people, the SJW could very well launch their own. It might make funding harder, but these people are cockroaches; they don’t need much to survive on, and it only takes the survival of a handful to result in a full scale infestation.”

“What we need is a group dedicated to discrediting these people as soon as they crop up, if possible even sooner than that. They are invariably the young, the frivolous who think that they know everything as soon as they learn the smallest thing in a highly incomplete manner. They take to the Internet at the first opportunity to spout off their point of view. It should be predictable who is likely to be a threat long before anything they do goes viral; if we could actively discredit such people ahead of time we might just stand a chance at establishing a new order in this era of perpetual disorder, and a new set of legitimate masters in an era of illegitimacy.”

“I think that companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit will be of service, to some extent.”

“Are you sure about that?” I piped in, “Uh, are you sure about that Prince Metternich? They seem highly sympathetic to the very people you’re trying to persecute.”

“Persecute!” He spat, but then decided to move on, “In my day I would rather send the petty merchants who run such businesses to the gallows than collaborate with them, but a general must go to war with the soldiers he has. These companies may superficially appear to share a common politics with our enemies, but in the end they do not want disorder or disruption. Order is much better for business. When their platforms are used as vehicles for attacking private individuals, exposing their personal information publicly, and vilifying them, it makes life more difficult for them than when such platforms are just used for gazing mindlessly at cat photos. Moreover, increasingly it is their own employees and their own management who are under attack. They will help us out of self-defense, if nothing else.”

“But if I may, Prince Metternich, they are just software companies, not political entities,” I replied.

“Oh my dear boy,” Metternich said with a humorless laugh, “where have you been? Never mind the escalating lobbying presence in Washington these companies are underwriting, they have embraced their political nature ever since the SOPA fight at the latest. Having always seen their users as leads from which to milk ad dollars, they now also see them as leads for taking specific political action, such as writing a congressman. Why, just recently a car service had a bill attempting to regulate it killed simply by inserting a message about it into their app. Wake up, child, these companies have been political entities for a very long time.”

“Well, that’s depressing.”

“Indeed. But it may be our only hope, in the end.”

“This all seems very…how shall I put it…evil,” I remarked.

“Only because you are stuck in the intellectual childishness of your era, in which it is assumed that freedom means the ability to do anything one wishes whenever one wishes to. My generation knew better. Before you can have freedom, you must have order. A disorderly freedom destroys itself, and worse, it threatens civilization itself. Freedom must be contained, kept within certain boundaries. It must play nice with authority or it must be made to.”

“It still seems pretty evil. Also quite unlikely.”

“I don’t recall asking for your opinion,” he sniffed, “if you’ll please email me your notes, your betters will take it from here.”

And so I did, and he went on his way to establish nouveau regime médiatiques.

The Sacrificial Rites of the Panopticon

At the lowest point of my ruin, I sought the council of the wisdom of the ages.

There were many ages, and so many wisdoms, and many voices which pronounced them.

When I arrived at their agora at the appointed time, they invited me to tell my tale.

“Like many of my generation,” I began, “I saw plainly that injustice was everywhere. We were sold a bag of lies as children, the Lie that the old prejudices had been put to bed. Oh there had been progress, to be sure. But mostly we had just driven the prejudices underground. No, not even underground—just out from view. The same prejudiced white patriarchs ran everything, they just called themselves feminists and colorblind now.

“Like my peers, I saw that the task of all right thinking people was to publicly unmask these frauds for what they are.

“Our community, our conspiracy of progress, rewarded the successful unmaskers with glory and—and this is where the trouble began—visibility.

“It was one thing when it was people I had no association with. My group talked frequently about those luminaries who had made their names by dragging bigots out of the shadows and into the light of the panopticon, that great leveler.

“But one day a girl, who I had known for about as long as I had taken an interest in politics and political groups online, had a photo of hers go viral. It was a picture of a man at a local Starbucks who had talked down to her the way all patriarchs do—invoking all of the little soft coercions that women have to put up with on a daily basis. She captioned the photo in a way that obscured, but did not completely hide, the man’s face. The caption explained how he had treated her as less than his equal; it was very succinct and got the message across.

“The photo spread widely, and the man’s identity was uncovered by overzealous people who wanted desperately to contribute to the cause. He lost his job, and had to get an unlisted number so that the phone calls from people sick of putting up with men like him would not reach him. He was sacrificed at the altar of the panopticon, and it launched my friend’s career in activist media.

“She had less and less time for our relatively obscure little corner of the web, and I came to envy her. I wanted to catch up with her, to go to the place she had managed to arrive at.

“I am ashamed to admit it, but in retrospect it is obvious to me that the desire for attention and popularity among right thinking people was more important to me than advancing the cause.

“It is obvious because of what I did. I took several pictures of someone who simply looked like you would imagine a bigot would. In his 50s, a bit overweight but not extremely so, a smug look on his face. I captioned the pictures with quotes attributed to him, but I made them up. He never said them.

“You have to understand, men wouldn’t treat me the way they did women. I didn’t have the same opportunities to unmask that they did. I had to make my own unmasking. How else could I contribute? How else could I advance the cause?

“Of course with the help of my friend, it got a lot of attention. And of course, it ruined this man’s life. But it got me my start, it turned me into a person of some influence. I brought this man to the panopticon, and it did not reject my offering. Doesn’t that make it OK? So many saw my pictures and had their commitment to the cause validated. Doesn’t that excuse what I did? And what of the real bigots that I used my influence against from then on—doesn’t that count for something?”

One of the youngest voices spoke up. “If you came here to find excuses, you came to the wrong place. By the mere asking of the question, it’s already obvious what the answer is.”

I was crestfallen.

An older voice chimed in, “What is worse is that it’s clear you didn’t come here to make excuses. You didn’t come here because you saw the error of your ways or began to doubt the justice of your injustice. You came here because of your own misfortune.”

They were both right.

“At the peak of my popularity, I had it down to a system. Less visible people would bring me the materials and the information, and I would use my position to expose the bigots they encountered in their lives. Surely this matters—whatever my beginnings, I helped people unmask real bigots in the end. And I helped many of them to achieve their own rise to prominence!”

“Please cease wasting our time with such feeble self-justifications,” the young voice replied with contempt. I lowered my head and continued.

“From the beginning, our enemies worked to tarnish my name and bury me. They attempted to preserve the good name of the original man I had sacrificed, and use it as proof of the cynicism in our movement. As if theirs was not the most cynical of all! Pretending that prejudice had truly been abolished, pretending that we, the unmaskers, were the prejudiced ones!

“But the movement doesn’t put stock in those people. No right thinking person would.

“My undoing was one of my own. I made a remark—an innocent one, if understood in its proper context. But an upstart within our own movement took it out of context and made it the basis of a long, vitriolic post about me. The post went viral, and was also aggressively spread by our enemies, who were too eager to see me fall. I tried to point out this fact, tried to argue that it was them who was behind it. But it wasn’t. I know it. Everyone knew it—the blogger had been active in our circles for far too long, if not very visible. The archive, their public social media history, were all there for people to see; the hoax would be far too elaborate even for those people.

“Soon, my very name became synonymous with prejudice and hypocrisy.

“Once it was clear that the damage was done, I began to withdraw from the panopticon. I deleted my social media accounts. My blog remains but an abandoned archive, with one last letter to the movement at the top, apologizing for my perceived wrongs.

“I fell into complete isolation, and in time, I found my way here.”

“And why did you come to us? What is it you want to ask us?” a much older voice asked, though his tone implied he knew the answer.

“I want to know what I should do next, but…”

“But?”

“…but I also want to know if what I did had any meaning. Was I right to serve the cause by any means necessary? Was it just frivolous fame-seeking? If my heart was often in the right place, and I did a lot of good, does that mean anything?”

They were silent for a long time.

And then the oldest among them spoke.

“Those who live by the river know that it can become a rapids as quickly as it can become a gentle stream,” the wise elder intoned, “yet in time we forget, and imagine we progress only by our own paddling. In the end it is the river that carries us, one way or another.”

“You worry too much about the river,” said a younger, but still quite ancient voice, “when you should worry more about the life you have made, the state of your soul. When you imagine you can divert the river any way you please, you lose sight of yourself and you are just as likely to be swept away when the current becomes unfavorable.”

“Must you always come out and say it?” the eldest snapped.

“I don’t understand. Do you mean that I shouldn’t have lied? That the whole enterprise is invalid? And what should I do next?”

“We’ve said all we will say,” another voice said firmly but not unkindly, “we won’t hold your hand. If you have to have it spelled out for you, you couldn’t hope to understand it.”

And so I left, to ponder the fate of a vessel that was smashed upon the rocks.