Sunday, January 31, 2016

Firing up the Emotion Machine

Marvin Minsky has passed on, to use a phrasing I feel pretty confident that he՚d dislike. He was a thoroughgoing materialist, so according to him there is nothing to pass on, no spirit to live on beyond the body. Let՚s just say his meat machine gradually broke down, as they all do, and eventually ceased to function. He՚s rumored to have signed up for cryogenic preservation, for what that՚s worth, so there is the possibility of the machinery coming back into operating condition at some time in the future.

But whatever spirit animated him does live on, in the hacker culture that grew up around MIT and has since kind of taken over the world. Many people built that culture, but Marvin was at the core of the restless inquisitiveness, pragmatism, skepticism, and general disrespect of established institutions that characterizes it.

Everyone else who embodied this spirit gave their own twist to it, and perhaps Marvin՚s own special version is now lost until the digital resurrection. It almost doesn՚t matter. Marvin I think was somewhat disappointed, even bitter, in his later years, because the field he founded wasn՚t taking his ideas as seriously as he felt they deserved, and was going in directions he viewed as unpromising. If I could have had a last conversation with him, and felt presumptuous, I would tell him not to worry about any of that. The important part of who he was made it out into the world, embodied in the vast number of people he influenced.

And Marvin՚s own words and works live on. There՚s a collection of 150 or so video clips of him holding forth on the history of AI, his personal story, and the intellectual milieu he lived in and generated. His daughter Margaret assembled a beautiful web presentation of his paper Music, Mind, and Meaning. There is plenty of Marvin left in the world.

Marvin was brilliant in numerous ways, an accomplished inventor, mathematician, and musician aside from the work on artificial intelligence he is best known for. But his big trick was to face squarely the mechanical nature of the human mind and not be alarmed by it. Indeed, he found it rather delightful and intriguing. This put him at odds with standard-issue humanists, which suited him just fine. But Marvin himself was not in any way inhuman, far from it. He was an extremely warm and welcoming individual, and always willing to engage with anyone՚s open mind.

He was I suppose a reductionist, but to label him that is to reduce his own complicated way of thought to a single-word slogan. And that was one kind of reduction he did not practice. His other big trick was to know that there is no one big trick to the mind, that single-idea solutions like logic or bayesianism are insufficient, and that building a mind requires the complex orchestration of multiple mechanisms. Society of Mind was itself structured as as cooperating network of very specific ideas for mechanisms, making the form match its content. He was an extreme fox on the Isaiah Berlinfox/hedgehog scale (while John McCarthy, a co-founder of AI who was more fond of logical formalism, might be his counterpart hedgehog). So he tried to take intractable concepts like selves and consciousness and “reduce” them to a complex interaction between mechanisms:

“The idea that there is a central I that has experience is a typical case of taking a common sense concept and not realizing that it has no good technical counterpart, but it has 20 or 30 different meanings and you keep switching from one to the other without even knowing it, so it all seems like one thing…Consciousness seems very mysterious and unphysical if you don՚t know how it works, like when Houdini or Penn and Teller make an elephant disappear, then you say “this is not physical, it՚s impossible”. When you know how the magic trick works, the sense of wonder goes away, although you still might remember how it puzzled you once.”
His life could be seen as a battle against the idea that understanding how something worked in any way diminished it.

It was truly a privilege and a gift to learn from him. I was far from an ideal student, and went off in directions he didn՚t really approve of. I was consumed by the specifics of the notion of “agent” that he developed – a subpart of the mind with its own machinery, goals, and ability to act – and tried to understand exactly what agency consisted of, what it meant, how it was deployed as a metaphor in technical talk in general. When Marvin wrote a a follow-up book, the The Emotion Machine, he decided to drop the agent language in favor of the more neutral “resources”. I guess he was unhappy at how people inferred from the agent metaphor that these components were full-fledged minds with sophisticated reasoning and representations of their own, in which case the theory didn՚t really explain anything.

This may have been sound tactics but I think it was a strategic mistake. The question of what agency is and what machinery could underlie it is important, and lack of good ways to think about it is responsible for some of the confusion in current discourse around the idea of superempowered artificial intelligences.

Marvin was a mathematician (albeit a very nonstandard one) and mathematicians have the job of pulling eternal truths into the temporal processes of life, cognition, and scholarship. Computation itself – an idea that he helped define – is also a way of connecting the timeless and the temporal. His time to be active has come to an end, and you can look back on his life and see how he was a creature of his time, how he learned from the great minds of an earlier time, and how he passed on his knowledge to the generations that followed. All of whom had their own visions, colored by their own times, yet retaining and transmitting some fragments of what was learned from their teacher.

Time marches on and cuts us all down eventually, but some part of us is timeless. Not godlike or soullike, Marvin wouldn՚t have any of that, but perhaps there is some quasimathematical pattern that our mechanisms embody and that precedes us, outlives us, and connects us.

[More people remember Marvin. My own mentions of him over the years, here and on Ribbonfarm.]

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Resolution of Resolution

The New Year is a time for the making (and the inevitable breaking) of resolutions, that is, attempts to commit yourself to some worthwhile goal that you would not normally have, or would not normally be able to achieve. The weakness of our ability to actually fulfill such promises has become a fairly tired cliche and material for reflexive jokes:

Comedy often involves puncturing pretension, so the resolutions are a fertile topic. But comedy aside, the whole exercise is pretty strange – a promise, in effect, that future versions of yourself will be bound by a goal of your present self. That might not seem so strange on the surface -- after all, we can, in normal circumstances, make ourselves do things that we don՚t naturally want to do, like washing the dishes or going to the dentist. We are always forming intentions and then making ourselves execute them, if usually on a smaller scale. If was can do that, why is it so difficult to make ourselves exercise or learn to play the piano? Somehow whatever tricks we've learned to do the minimum necessary unpleasant tasks to get through life won't extend to these more ambitious goals.

New Year's resolutions are generally intentions that we know we will have trouble executing, so we hope that the specialness of the holiday period will magically enhance our ability to enforce current preferences on our future selves. Why a random holiday should enhance our normal level of (perceived) willpower is not completely clear. Maybe because everybody else is doing it too? Maybe the special time of year is a sort of Schelling point where we all converge on trying to improve ourselves, agreeing to act as each other's consciences.

For me it՚s just another excuse to delve into my favorite topic – the disunity of mind, how the different parts interoperate and cooperate and/or conflict with each other. For some reason I like to try to demonstrate that I don՚t exist, at least, not as a unified coherent single point of control, and neither does anybody else, and that our precious selves are largely fictional constructs. Of course, everybody sort of knows this already, but living as if it were true is not easy, maybe impossible. The illusion of solidity is very strong and it sometimes seems as if the entire quotidian world is structured so as to perpetuate it.

George Ainslie probably has the most useful view of the nature of will in a seething non-unified mind. In his theory, the self is not an organ but a coalition, a point of convergence for the different appetites and the different situations they find themselves in. Self-construction is a process of creating, maintaining, and refining this tenuous balance of interests. That's the most challenging part of Ainslie: it's not that hard to believe that different parts of ourselves have goals of their own, since everybody experiences that, but it's a lot harder to understand that somehow these parts also have bargaining and political skills.

My resolution for the new year – or rather, the tentative constitution that my divergent interests temporarily agree to work under – is to understand goals better. in the abstract, and in my personal life as well.

I've never really had a great relationship to explicit goals. I՚m amazed at all these people I meet who have well-defined goals and plans, who have sketched out the routes they want their life to follow in advance. I've never really been able to do that, and occasionally it troubles me, although I seem to have managed to accomplish a few things and raise a family just by blundering around without much of a plan. No doubt I would have achieved a lot more with one, but on the other hand, how could the callow younger version of myself presume to tell the old and experienced person I am now what they should be doing? It՚s almost exactly the same problem as that of New Year's resolutions.

On the more workaday level, I really have come to loathe the way explicit goals are treated in in the process of software development, whether through old-fashioned formal planning or the trendier agile methodologies. It may be completely necessary in order for people to coordinate their work, but it still somehow manages to miss everything that is interesting and important about software design, which is never spoken of, possibly because we just don't have a good vocabulary for it yet or possibly because it is inherently un-articulable, like the Christopher Alexander's quality without a name.

Of course I have plenty of goals in my work on various scales. It's not the goals I mind, it's the process by which they are arrived at, both in setting them and fulfilling them. I'm not sure whether the process is broken or I am just too weird, intransigent, or immature to adapt to it. It seems to work, sort of, for most people and companies, although it is always the topic of endless dissatisfaction.

But it's the people with explicit long-term goals who seem to achieve things in this society, and perhaps in any society. I am impressed yet also somewhat repelled these types. Even when the goals themselves are laudable, they seem to be somehow enslaved to themselves. That may be a really negative way of seeing what is usually considered one of the primary virtues, the quality of having mastered yourself. But there can՚t be a master without a slave, even if they are the same person. A man with a plan sees other people, and himself, as means to an end, not as ends in themselves.

[ This post kicks off what I hope (nay, resolve!) will be a series of posts on different aspects of goals. Actually the recent post on play could be considered a part of the series. Tackling a topic of that size risks pomposity, and there is the additional risk of tiresome reflexiveness (yes I am being meta in having a goal about goals in general, but no I don't think it earns me any cleverness points).  ]

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Blogyear 2015 in review

My posting rate continued its steep decline, only 17 posts this year compared to 24 last year. There are many reasons for that I suppose: I have been writing a lot on private social media groups, and so-called real life has been making some demands on my time. Here՚s a review of all posts except those that were obviously trivial or transitory:

Nerds vs Feminists riffs on some of the tension between feminism and nerd culture, which I took as an excuse to go into The Kids These Days, They Have It So Easy, Why In My Day mode.

Martyrs and the Coordination of Sentiment was written in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings and relates loosely to early writings on the sacred and politics.

This May Day post briefly examines my mixed attitudes towards both the left and capitalism and identifies something I labeled “fake solidarity”, which may be worth a longer examination. And a companion piece issued on Fake Labor Day toyed with my very uninformed notions about the Marxist concept of labor, another thing that might get worth knowing more about.

Three Forms of Antipolitics is also a product of the interaction of various nerdish ideas and politics, or more precisely the efforts of the former to deny or escape from the latter. It led into a followup about the specific incident when Mencius Moldbug got banned from the Strange Loop conference.

Another massacre, another post about the political sacred. I՚m starting to be slightly embarrassed by using such events as excuses to exercise my intellectual obsessions. If I was actually profiting from it, I՚d feel guilty of exploiting tragedy.

Burning Man Politics is about just that. And now I՚m embarrassed in a different way, by the fact that I՚m focusing on the least festive aspects of a festival. Why am I so obsessed with the political dimension of things? It՚s not like I՚m some grand macho radical, or even that I feel qualified to tell other people how they should behave. I don՚t even really like most political discourse these days, which tends to be split between the virulently idiotic and the appallingly self-righteous. But somehow I feel compelled to focus on the topic, as if some obscure duty was calling me.

Then finally I emitted a long piece about play and David Graeber, which is too fresh to be reviewed. It՚s a small chunk cut from a tangled web of thoughts about big ideas like goals, activity, representation, how minds actually work, and the meaning of life. I haven՚t really had much success in squeezing those ideas into blog form.

If I could bring myself to make a conscious effort to build an audience then I՚d probably start from my all-time most popular post on human-hostile systems and try to wire myself into the current excitement about AI risk. I am pretty sure all those people are wrong, but I am not sure why I believe that, and since “all those people” includes some very smart individuals it might be interesting and worthwhile to try to figure it out in more detail.

2016 promises to be an interesting year as the US political system goes through a slow-motion implosion, climate change becomes harder to ignore, and software continues to eat large chunks of the world.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Graeber v. Gradgrind

At the last Refactor Camp I presented a theory of play, which was quarter-baked at best, and I never got around to fully baking it. The underlying impetus was one of my periodic attempts to come up with a theory of mental representation that isn՚t completely broken – which seems like a ridiculously ambitious project, but I don՚t see anyone more qualified tackling it, so every so often I nibble at it. Anyway, that՚s how I came to be thinking about play back then, and haven՚t much since. However, my attention was recently directed to this article by David Graeber on the subject, which rekindled my interest a bit. Graeber also has ambitious goals for his theory of play. He is an anarchist and closely identified with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and he sees play as a weapon in an ideological battle against certain versions of biology and economics, but one that ultimately requires an alternative metaphysics.

I had very mixed reactions to this essay, which seems to have its heart in the right place, but like much of Graeber՚s writing he can be intellectually sloppy, especially about the political implications of whatever he՚s talking about. So this is mostly an attempt to winnow some genuine insights from the chaff of error.

Play is a subject both deep and slippery (in that it is difficult to even define or pin down as a phenomenon) Let՚s define play roughly as when humans or non-human animals engage in behavior patterns that seem to be modifications of more obviously functional ones (like fighting) but in are somehow modified to be less serious, decoupled from their usual triggers and consequences. It՚s tedious to think about play without some actual playfulness at hand, so here՚s a clip of my dog (the white one) playing with her friend:

From this and many other examples, we should have no problems believing that animals play (whether or not play is confined to mammals or is found in other clades is a matter of contention). This suggests, at the very least that play is not a late, spurious artifact of culture but something that is rooted deeply in the foundations of cognition and behavior.

The No-fun Universe

Because play has this definitionally quality of being decoupled from ordinary purpose, it may seem to have no purpose at all. Graeber seizes on this to use play as a tool to attack an ideological enemy that that seems to be a kind of coalition between science, capitalism, and rationality. The apparent uselessness of play becomes an argument against the linked ideas of neodarwinian evolutionary theory and economic rationalism, which in his view are anti-fun, anti-play, and thus anti-human. Under their oppressive sway, reality is a relentless battle for survival and dominance. Both are aggressively intellectually hegemonic as they aim to be totalizing theories that supervene on every single phenomenon of biological or social life. Such theories, according to Graeber, have no room for something definitionally purposeless like play. On observing a worm engaging in some behavior that seemed play-like:
How do we know the worm was playing? Perhaps the invisible circles it traced in the air were really just a search for some unknown sort of prey. Or a mating ritual…Even if the worm was playing, how do we know this form of play did not serve some ultimately practical purpose: exercise, or self-training for some possible future inchworm emergency?…Generally speaking, an analysis of animal behavior is not considered scientific unless the animal is assumed, at least tacitly, to be operating according to the same means/end calculations that one would apply to economic transactions. Under this assumption, an expenditure of energy must be directed toward some goal, whether it be obtaining food, securing territory, achieving dominance, or maximizing reproductive success…
According to Graeber, the very nature of science limits the sort of theories that behavioral scientists are allowed to entertain:
I’m not saying that ethologists actually believe that animals are simply rational calculating machines. I’m simply saying that ethologists have boxed themselves into a world where to be scientific means to offer an explanation of behavior in rational terms—which in turn means describing an animal as if it were a calculating economic actor trying to maximize some sort of self-interest—whatever their theory of animal psychology, or motivation, might be. 
… the neo-Darwinists were practically driven to their conclusions by their initial assumption: that science demands a rational explanation, that this means attributing rational motives to all behavior, and that a truly rational motivation can only be one that, if observed in humans, would normally be described as selfishness or greed. As a result, the neo-Darwinists went even further than the Victorian variety.
Let՚s call Graeber՚s ideological enemy Gradgrindism, after the character in Dickens՚ Hard Times who exemplifies a sort of cartoon version of utilitarian rationality:
Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over…. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. 
“You are to be in all things regulated and governed … by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery.
Gradgrindism holds that if humans play, that is, engage in behavior without a clear purpose, it՚s a mistake to be corrected. And while most scientists would strongly disagree, Graeber sees the scientific worldview as basically Gradgrind՚s.

Against Gradgrindism Graeber describes the purported tendency of all animal life towards seemingly useless action, and not just in our near relatives the mammals but in ants and lobsters as well. Animals, Graeber asserts, do things just for fun, solely for their own amusement:
That’s why the existence of animal play is considered something of an intellectual scandal. It’s understudied, and those who do study it are seen as mildly eccentric…. even when it is acknowledged, the research more often than not cannibalizes its own insights by trying to demonstrate that play must have some long-term survival or reproductive function.
…Why do animals play? Well, why shouldn’t they? The real question is: Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious? What does it tell us about ourselves that we instinctively assume that it is?
So Graeber paints play as being inherently purposeless, or at least, with no purpose outside of itself. Although he doesn՚t quite say this explicitly, it՚s as if rational, calculating action has an inherently slavish quality to it, since it is always driven by external goals; while play is autotelic, existing and acting for its own sake. It՚s easy to see why an anarchist would be drawn to the latter. Play is autonomous and spontaneous, the opposite of the drab and calculated work of rationality.

Does fun have a function?

This is an extremely problematical stance in about a zillion ways:
  • If play truly has no evolutionary function, then why does it exist and persist ?
  • Since certainly some action is rational and calculated, do we need two completely separate systems for explaining action, one grounded in the utilitarian rationality, and another in just-because?
  • If so, how do they interact?
  • The view of play as purposeless carries within it an explicit refusal to be analytical.
Worse of all, “Just for pleasure” simply doesn՚t fly as an explanation in science or really in any kind of serious thought. Assuming that it՚s an accurate description of animal motivation, the question of why certain actions are pleasurable, why action x is fun and action y isn՚t, doesn՚t go away. To refuse to entertain explanations is anti-science and anti-intellectual.

If play is pleasurable there have to be reasons for it, and knowing those reasons doesn՚t have to subtract anything from the experience of play We assume that many pleasurable sensations (such as those generated by fatty foods or sex) have a grounding in natural selection, and acknowledging that doesn՚t ruin our enjoyment of them If play is by its nature apurposive in some narrow sense, that doesn՚t mean there aren՚t broader rational justifications for why people and animals play.

If I try to steelman Graeberism, the best version I can come up with (and I don՚t know if it՚s still properly Graeberian any more) is that it is not so much a theory of actual animal behavior, but a critique of certain impoverished modes of scientific explanation. It՚s not that even playful behavior doesn՚t have a purpose, it՚s that dumb and greedy theories of rationality fail to be rich enough to capture the actional logic that drives any kind of complicated behavior. Playful behavior doesn՚t have a simpleminded purpose, which puts it perhaps outside the grasp of current science but not of science in principle.


Natural selection can indeed seem like a brutal and merciless engine. But this doesn՚t mean that the products of evolution must reflect this brutality. Evolution, despite the relentless competition at its root, it somehow manages to generate beauty, community, compassion, and other things we prize and praise. If the function of play seems inexplicable under the logic of evolution, take the more easily explicable quality of maternal care. It clearly has a purpose, in the natural selection sense of enhancing reproductive fitness, but we don;՚t think of it as brutal or greedy, even if it was produced by a process with no mercy in it whatsoever. By analogy, lay, if it is really a widespread and important and coherent trait, is likely to be adaptive as well, even if the underlying universe is not particularly playful,

I think Graeber is tripping over a very common confusion, roughly, a failure to understand emergence and to acknowledge that phenomena at one level might have characteristics and qualities that are not the same as those of the underlying level that supports it. Tables are made of wood but can have qualities (such as seating capacity or esthetic style) that are not properties of wood, and organisms, even if they are made of mechanisms that evolved through ruthless competition do not have to be ruthless themselves. In the latter case, of course, the metaphors used to describe genes and the evolutionary basis of behavior adds to the confusion. The “ruthlessness” and “selfishness” of genes is a purely mechanical causal consequence of natural selection without any moral or cognitive content whatsoever.

Play in the foundations of the cosmos

For whatever reason Graeber is not interested in any explanatory theories of play, whether reductionist or emergentist. Instead he urges us to think of play and freedom as foundational qualities, to be found in some form not only in living organisms but perfused through all things down to the subatomic:
Unlike a DNA molecule, which we can at least pretend is pursuing some gangster-like project of ruthless self-aggrandizement, an electron simply does not have a material interest to pursue, not even survival. It is in no sense competing with other electrons. If an electron is acting freely—if it, as Richard Feynman is supposed to have said, “does anything it likes”—it can only be acting freely as an end in itself. Which would mean that at the very foundations of physical reality, we encounter freedom for its own sake—which also means we encounter the most rudimentary form of play.
I՚ll give Graeber credit for fairly clearly stating the political/metaphysical principles that are at stake in his argument:
I don’t deny that what I’ve presented so far is a savage simplification of very complicated issues. I’m not even saying that the position I’m suggesting here—that there is a play principle at the basis of all physical reality—is necessarily true. I would just insist that such a perspective is at least as plausible as the weirdly inconsistent speculations that currently pass for orthodoxy, in which a mindless, robotic universe suddenly produces poets and philosophers out of nowhere.
It is a real enough question: how can various high-level phenomena, from consciousness to kindness, be supported on a mechanical infrastructure that doesn՚t seem to have any of those things baked into it? There are people trying to answer that, and others who believe that the very effort is misguided and there must be Something Else Going On. So the real issue doesn՚t have much to do with play, it՚s more to do with the supposed limits of materialism as a foundation for human existence. Graeber is adding his voice to the large and diverse set of thinkers who can՚t accept the purely mechanical reductionism of science, especially of human behavior. God or √©lan vital or something is needed, something that can՚t be reduced to crude machinery. Otherwise the universe belongs to Thomas Gradgrind and his ilk.

And if you need to enliven the cold machinery of reality with an animating spirit, why not play? I՚d rather have that be foundational than god or consciousness or any of the other dreary abstractions that are usually proposed for that role.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Fake Labor Day Post

I missed my traditional Fake Labor Day post last year thanks to Burning Man, which seems somehow appropriate. Burning Man is many things, and one of those things is is a deliberate celebration of unalienated labor. The amount of effort that goes into the production of all the spectacle is truly astonishing, and it՚s all done for some reason other than the normal economic ones. Yet it certainly is a kind of work. If your work is your own you don't need a day off from it to celebrate yourself.

So what is labor? Making art is labor, so is mining coal or working as a cashier at Arby՚s, and maybe even writing these blog posts. It՚s a very expansive term, almost to the point that it is hard to say what human activity isn՚t labor. Lying on the couch watching TV? But even that involves some level of engagement, there is no such thing as purely passive ingestion of content.

Here՚s the best definition I can come up with off the top of my head: Labor is the focused application of intelligent action to a goal-directed task that engages with the world.

It՚s vaguely Marxist concept, I guess. I՚m not a scholar of such things and am not about to become one, I՚m just trying to tease out this sense I have that there is something about this conception of labor that is powerful and valuable. It՚s too bad that the philosophical ideas are so thorougly contaminated with the manifest failures that ensued when they have been put into political practice.

Marx viewed labor as one of the essential defining qualities of humanity, that which distinguishes humans from animals:
For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. … 
The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity.
The word “labor” points to a certain view of the relationship between mind and world. Vaguely similar concepts from philosophy of mind like “embodiment” have a bit of a Marxist tinge to them, whether or not this is made explicit. All these ideas seem to be working against what might be called the Cartesian/computational default model of the mind, a symbol procesor in a box that only incidentally interacts with the outside world through narrow channels of perception and action.

Marxism has rather famously failed, and as far as I know all the efforts to reform AI and philosophy of mind through embodiied or situated approaches also failed. Perhaps they are all just completely wrong, but I actually don՚t think so. Their critiques were incisive, but their solutions were naive, half-baked, or perhaps just premature. It still seems to me that the way into the future requires both less alienating ways to organize human labor and better ways for computational systems to take on some of the real qualities that make human labor possible.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Burning Man Politics

What are the politics of Burning Man? This article claims the event is perniciously libertarian, despite a veneer of communal rhetoric and practices. As you can imagine, that caught my attention, since it arose conflicting passions. I՚m as persistently anti-libertarian as anybody, yet I kind of dug Burning Man, and didn՚t detect any of the things I hate about libertarianism there. There was a capitalist camp, but despite its name it didn՚t seem very paradigmatic of Burning Man as a whole, and in fact they spend a lot of energy apologizing about how they conflict with BM principles. The Black Rock Census says there are about 3 times as many Democrats as Republicans and Libertarians combined, as one might expect.

Burning Man՚s rhetoric of sharing, inclusion, and decommodification makes it sound like a socialist utopia, a radical critique of capitalism, an effort to establish a set of values that are wholly at odds with the accumulationist materialism of the mainstream. They are pretty serious about obliterating the market economy: no monetary transactions are allowed (with two exceptions: ice and coffee are for sale) and you are even expected to tape over corporate logos on clothing or equipment. Gifting is the norm, and participation rather than passive consumption is expected. It might sound like bullshit, but I was pleasantly surprised by how thoroughly and successfully these values are realized in practice.

This attitude coexists uneasily with the huge influx of Silicon Valley money and other rich individuals. Not only hip young tech leaders like Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg, but the VCs and even Republican moneymen like Grover Norquist have thrown in. The participatory nature of the event appears threatened by so-called “turnkey camps” where rich people pay for fancy RVs and “sherpas” to do the hard work of providing life support and comfort in the harsh desert environment. All of a sudden the elitism of the default world threatens to reproduce itself into this alternative universe that was supposed to be an escape from things like that.

Burning Man has always ben elitist, in a sort of self-selecting way – not an elite of the moneyed, although going isn՚t cheap. While you have to have a certain level of well-offness to participate, it really requires more in the way of freedom than money. Doing it right requires months of preparation, so the real filter is whether you are enough of an independent artist/hipster/whatever to devote your life to something crazy. This very high level of required commitment (of time, money, risk, and discomfort) is a big reason it works at all. Sharing is a lot easier when you know that everyone else is committed to the same craziness you are. Subcultures in general have a problem of getting diluted by hangers-on who aren՚t fully committed as they should be; making you camp out in a remote alkalai desert serves a similar function to a fraternity initiation or gang tattoo – it creates a barrier to entry and forces people to pay for the privilege of belonging. Being there is itself a costly signal of shared values which enable the participants to trust each other more than they would some random on the street.

That՚s the real reason people are upset at turnkey camps, not because rich people are douchebags but because the commitment barrier is threatened. If you can buy your way in, the cultural value of being there is diminished. I don՚t mean to imply that this is mere snobbery: boundaries are important if you are trying to establish a space that is explicitly different from the everyday world. Money eats away at social boundaries, both traditional ones and subcultural ones.

If the issue was just that a great annual desert party and subculture was getting its soul diluted, then nobody but the participants should really care. The article advances the much stronger and more interesting thesis that Burning Man՚s politics mirrors and feeds larger trends in the Silicon Valley culture – libertarian ones basically, the idea that government and democracy is fundamentally broken, that we should rely on the largess of the enlightened rich to provide public goods.

So rather than an egalitarian community of roughly equal sharers, the author sees an aristocracy of the rich providing bread and circuses (literally at Burning Man, figuratively elsewhere) for the masses, mirroring the weakening of democratic institutions and their replacement by the whims of corporate largesse. Mark Zuckerberg՚s intervention in the Newark public schools being an exemplar of this in the default world. Charity is lovely but not a replacement for robust governance, and Burning Man՚s promotion of a gift economy, rather than a harmless image of a better world, actually becomes propaganda for rule by aristocracy and against democracy.

While there may be some truth to this, I don՚t really buy it as a critique of Burning Man, which is simply too huge and overwhelming a phenomenon to be reduced to ideology. The event doesn՚t pretend to be a democracy, it՚s a community with alternative rules and alternative status hierarchies – and being a rich turnkey camper is pretty low status. As far as I can tell, the event still is about insane levels of commitment to art, individualism, and other weirdness, and none of that essential nature is threatened by the presence of some rich people. If they are spectators rather than participants, it՚s their loss, nobody else՚s. That՚s the thing about radical participation, those who participate get to say what something means, those who stand outside watching or critiquing have missed the point.

The attempt to graft a political agenda onto an ecstatic festival reminds me of the rupture in the sixties between the hippie/psychedelic/dropout wing of the counterculture vs. the more politically-minded parts like the anti-Vietnam war movement (I am not quite old enough to have personal experience of this). These two factions never quite got each other, despite their shared opposition to the mainstream. They expressed different values in different ways, although of course many individuals had connections to both camps. The politicos were impassioned humanistc idealists who wanted to change the world by seizing power, the hippies were more like romantic artists, whose strategy for change was self-transformation and personal empowerment. My own favorite sixties heroes were the Yippies like Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner, who were explicitly trying to bridge this gap.

Burning Man is way above and beyond politics. It՚s some combination of wild party, transcendent art experience, and temporary autonomous zone, and as such should be taken as an effort to break out of the tedious parameters of default world politics. Not left or right, but orthogonal to that axis, pointing in a direction beyond. Nobody should confuse it with a political movement for social change, despite the idealistic communal values. Like the drugs that are a key component of the experience, it should be considered a temporary alternative state of being, that at best has some tantalizing suggestions for how the regular world could be different.

[ I am missing out on Burning Man this year, instead wistfully and lamely listening to the online radio station and watching the video feed to recapture a bit of the mood. Some part of me is there; some part of it is here with me, trying to express itself. ]

Fred Turner՚s excellent paper on the relationship Burning Man and the tech community explores these issues in more depth. Basically he agrees with Jacobin that Burning Man culture and Silicon Valley culture mirror reinforce each other, although he is less focused on the pernicious aspects. ]

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Swinging Dicks

All politics is sexual politics; the president is supposed to be the Big Swinging Dick of the nation. This is usually a bit below the surface, but the topsoil of reason is eroding leaving the bedrock of the id exposed:

In a similar vein, there was an idiot on Press the Meat this morning (Alex Castellanos) repeating the line about how Obama was "the first female president" and how we need a "manly" president for gladiatorial combat:

Politics is always something of a dick-measuring contest, and Trump's power (and the reason he is a threat to the system) is that he brings it into the open, he's far too obvious about the fact that he's running for the post of alpha baboon.

His current surge of popularity was kicked off by his remarks about alleged Mexican rapists, an issue with approximately zero actual impact on society but exactly the sort of thing to rouse primal fears. That the Democratic candidate is likely to be a woman is also inflaming the lizard brains of threatened masculinity.

All this is crushingly obvious and an old story; I don't have any new insights to offer. Since I've been giving rationalists a hard time for being repulsed by politics, let me acknowledge that it can be pretty repulsive.