Thursday, August 10, 2017

What Did You Do In The Gender Wars, Moppa?

The tech world is buzzing over the latest political/cultural/gender workplace skirmish, this time when a Google engineer published a long internal memo on his painfully obtuse theories of gender. The memo was leaked to the public, causing a category-5 shitstorm. The guy was fired after a few days later, which only added energy to the vortex of moral posturing, a vortex that sucked in everybody՚s attention, from all sides of the political spectrum, everybody who works in an office and has to deal with gender issues. Whatever is going on here, it seems very important, although compared to the likelihood of, say, the consequences of climate change or Donald Trump starting a war in North Korea, it seems like a kind of silly thing to spend so much energy on.

Nonetheless I՚m just as vulnerable as anyone else to the forces that pull people՚s attentions into these intellectual black holes, and that obligate me to form an opinion. In my case I couldn՚t manage to gravitate to one side or another, for reasons I՚ve talked about here before. On the one hand, I think the guy is a dolt, and talking like he did in a workplace was either stupid or deliberately provocative, and Google not only was right but had a possible legal obligation to fire him. On the other hand, I think that people ought to be able to have some freedom to express even stupid opinions, and that intellectual is as important as gender/culture diversity, and I dislike enforced conformity of opinion.

One person who does not suffer this tornness is Scott Alexander of (SlateStarCodex), who is firmly on the side of the memo guy. This is completely unsurprising, although someone who makes a point of trying to see the merits of views he disagrees with seems oddly unsympathetic to the people at Google and elsewhere who were upset by the memo.

I am not very interested in the main point of his post, which is about the reality or not of gender-based differences in particular cognitive abilities. This issue may seem central to the controversy but is in fact entirely irrelevant. [Why? Well, that probably deserves a separate post, but briefly: The process of creating software or other technology is not like, say, weightlifting or running a marathon, where one՚s ability can be quantified by a single metric. It՚s a complex human creative activity and needs all kinds of different sets of cognitive skills, and badly needs a diversity for that very reason.]

Instead I wanted to focus on a passage at the end which jumped out at me, because it relates to the theme of antipolitics that I keep harping on. In the course of bemoaning the fact that some people are rather too vigorous in their hatred of Nazis and fascism, he says:
Silicon Valley was supposed to be better than this. It was supposed to be the life of the mind, where people who were interested in the mysteries of computation and cognition could get together and make the world better for everybody.
This is, um, a slightly idealized version of what Silicon Valley is. It՚s not even what it pretends to be (Stanford, the institutional parent of Google and much else, might plausibly pretend to be devoted to the life of the mind on its better days, but in fact it՚s chasing dollars like everybody else). Silicon Valley is a bunch of businesses, not a debating society. That՚s kind of a side issue, although it՚s very relevant to why Google may not be as dedicated to free speech as one might like.
Now it’s degenerated into this giant hatefest of everybody writing long screeds calling everyone else Nazis and demanding violence against them. Where if someone disagrees with the consensus, it’s just taken as a matter of course that we need to hunt them down, deny them of the cloak of anonymity, fire them, and blacklist them so they can never get a job again. Where the idea that we shouldn’t be a surveillance society where we carefully watch our coworkers for signs of sexism so we can report them to the authorities is exactly the sort of thing you get reported to the authorities if people see you saying.

…It doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody has any real policy disagreements. Everyone can just agree that men and women are equal, that they both have the same rights, that nobody should face harassment or discrimination. We can relax the Permanent State Of Emergency around too few women in tech, and admit that women have the right to go into whatever field they want, and that if they want to go off and be 80% of veterinarians and 74% of forensic scientists, those careers seem good too. We can appreciate the contributions of existing women in tech, make sure the door is open for any new ones who want to join, and start treating each other as human beings again.
I don՚t even know where to begin with this, since it՚s such a raw and unvarnished specimen of what I have been hunting – the denial of politics. “Nobody has any real policy disagreements” – in what universe is this true? Does he think that all this conflict is over nothing, that it՚s just an excuse for egomania or something? If women and racial minorities do have equal rights today that they did not enjoy in the past, does he think those happened without conflict, that one day people just woke up and decided to start doing the right thing? Or does he think that those conflicts might have occurred in the past but now we are all comfortably settled on Correct Thought?

I՚m starting to question my own obsession with SSC, which I justify because he՚s smart and the rationalism he exemplifies attracts the devotion of a lot of other smart people. But, as I said in a comment thread on my earlier post, it may be that the epistemological gulf between me and that world is just too wide. We seem to inhabit different universes.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Machinery of Destruction

Who are you more afraid of – psychopathic individuals, like Ted Bundy, or psychopathic systems, like communism or Nazism? Or capitalism, which while it may not be as inherently murderous as the others, seems to be far more efficiently destroying us? Which of these scare you most, and emotional reactions aside, which are actually the most likely to do harm? What if the entities in questions were endowed with superhuman intelligence, like the fictional but archetypal Hannibal Lecter, or capitalism with better technology?

This thought was prompted by another SSC post, which makes a case for putting more resources preventing possible catastrophic consequences of artificial intelligence. In the course of that, he dismissed some common counterarguments, including this:
For a hundred years, every scientist and science fiction writer who’s considered the problem has concluded that smarter-than-human AI could be dangerous for humans. And so we get these constant hot takes, “Oh, you’re afraid of superintelligent AI? What if the real superintelligent AI was capitalism?”
Well: my number one most popular post ever was exactly that hot take; I՚m dismayed to learn that it՚s a cliche. I posted that in 2013 so maybe I was ahead of the curve, but in any case I feel kind of deflated now.

But my deeper point was not that it՚s dumb to worry about the risks of AI since capitalism is much more dangerous – it՚s that AI and capitalism are not really all that different, that they are in fact one and the same, or at least descended from a common ancestor. And thus the dangers (both real and perceived) of one are going to be very similar to the dangers of the other, due to their shared conceptual heritage.

Why do I think that AI and capitalism are ideological cousins? Both are forms of systematized instrumental rationality. Both are human creations and thus imbued with human goals, but both seem to be capable of evolving autonomous system-level goals (and thus identities) that transcend their origin. Both promise to generate enormous wealth, while simultaneously threatening utter destruction. Both seem to induce strong but divergent emotional/intellectual reactions, both negative and positive. Both are in supposed to be rule-based (capitalism is bound by laws, AI is bound by the formal rules of computation) but constantly threaten to burst through their constraints. They both seem to inspire in some a kind of spiritual rapture, either of transcendence or eschaton.

And of course, today capitalism and AI are converged in way that was not really the case 40 years ago – not that there weren՚t people trying to make money out of AI back then, but it was very different AI and a very different order of magnitude of lucrativeness. Back then, almost every AI person was an academic or quasi-academic, and the working culture was grounded in war (Turing and Weiner՚s foundational work was done as part of the war effort) and the military-industrial-academic complex. The newer AI is conducted by immensely wealthy private companies like Google or Baidu. This is at least as huge a change for the field as the transition from symbolic to statistical techniques.

So AI and capitalism are merely two offshoots of something more basic, let՚s call it systematized instrumental rationality, and are now starting to reconverge. Maybe capitalism with AI is going to be far more powerful and dangerous than earlier forms – that՚s certainly a possibility. My only suggestion is that instead of viewing superempowered AIs as some new totally new thing that we can՚t possibly understand (which is what the term “AI singularity” implies), we view it as a next-level extension of processes that are already underway.

This may be getting too abstract and precious, so let me restate the point more bluntly: instead of worrying about hypothetical paperclip maximizers, we should worry about the all too real money and power maximizers that already exist and are going to be the main forces behind further development of AI technologies. That's where the real risks lie, and so any hope of containing the risks will require grappling with real human institutions.

Note: the identification of AI with a narrow form of instrumental rationality is both recent and somewhat unfair – earlier generations of AI were more interested in cognitive modelling and were inspired by thinkers like Freud and Piaget, who were not primarily about goal-driven rationality. But it՚s the more constricted view of rationality that drives the AI-risk discussions.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Racist Lives Matter

Every time I read a Slate Star Codex post that touches on politics, I want to pick a fight with it. I՚m not sure why – Scott is such a bright and well-intentioned and witty guy that it makes me question my own motives. But I can՚t help it, something seems deeply wrong there, in a way that connects to various issues I tend to obsess about.

The recent post entitled Against Murderism attempts to make a case that we are too quick to be outraged at racism, or too quick to dismiss people for their racist tendencies. Racism, he says, denotes a large number of phenomena, some of them emergent from perfectly innocent behaviors and preferences. Very few people have a root motivation of pure racial hatred, and it՚s unfair and incorrect to tar people with more epiphenomenal discriminatory behaviors and attitudes with the sins of those few. We should be more forgiving of those we have labeled racists, or maybe not forgiving, but we should at least try to understand them rather then treating them as pure evil, to be shunned or exterminated rather than reasoned with.

And there՚s something to this – accusations of racism are flung around pretty freely these days, and they often serve to end an argument, or turn what should be an argument into an existential battle. Scott doesn՚t want an existential battle (a civil war, in his terms). Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil wars, and liberalism requires that we show maximum intellectual charity to all points of view, racism included.

All of the above is valid and well-reasoned and supported. Nevertheless, it has the glaringly obvious property that it is far more worried about people being mean to racists than it is about racism itself. This is like a textbook illustration of the concept of privilege. That՚s not an accusation I throw out very often, in fact I՚ve probably more often been on the receiving end of it.

I՚m sure it doesn՚t feel like an exercise of privilege to Scott, who views himself as bending over backwards to extend empathy to a despised subgroup (racists) and encouraging others to do the same. From his standpoint, the fact that liberals and polite society is hostile and discriminatory to racists is more important, more salient, more worth crusading about, than actual racial discrimination.

Racist Lives Matter would be the slogan for this movement, if it was a movement. And indeed they do! Maybe Scott is simply being more courageous, more intellectually advanced, than the mainstream of civilized discourse, where of course racism is already taboo. So he argues that we dehumanize racists by accusing them of racism, and dehumanization is bad:
Racism-as-murderism is the opposite. It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization. It’s not that other people have a different culture than you. It’s not that other people have different values than you. It’s not that other people have reasoned their way to different conclusions from you…It’s that people who disagree with you are motivated by pure hatred, by an irrational mind-virus that causes them to reject every normal human value in favor of just wanting to hurt people who look different from them.

This paragraph fascinates me in its rhetorical technique; specifically, in the way it attempts to enforce a conceptual separation between things that are in fact inseparable. On the one had we have “different cultures, different values, and different conclusions”; on the other, “an irrational mind-virus of hatred”. The former is to be respected and reasoned with, the latter can՚t be, so we better try hard to frame things in the former way.

But hatred, like every other human thought and emotion, is part of cultures and values. And tribal animosity specifically is a very common and ingrained part of many human cultures, not something external and alien to them. Fortunately, and here we agree, we have also developed a new kinds of culture that has liberal, cosmopolitan, and tolerant values. These values are irreducibly in conflict with the more traditional tribal cultural values. This conflict plays itself out in many forms, some peaceful, others less so, but it's never going away,

In the extreme case, these conflicting values produce war. Nazi Germany had different culture and values, and we fought them. The slaveholding south had different cultures and values, and we fought a war over those as well. The good guys won those wars, but the underlying bad values were not permanently defeated and at this particular historical moment seem to be gaining strength. That would seem to be the thing to worry about, for those who are truly on the side of liberalism. Liberalism, in its actually existing form, is not a form of pacifist rationalism that can solve all problems by talking them out, as much as it would like to, Eventually, it has to pick up a gun, because it has enemies.

Scott seems to want us to stop fighting and instead deploy a lot of empathetic concern. And maybe that's not a bad idea in itself, certainly it behooves us to understand people better, even enemies. But his basic posture is that he wants to avoid civil war at all costs, and thus doesn't notice that the war is happening and has been for a very long time.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Opposite of Science

I՚m as happy as anyone to see thousands of people in the street marching in support of science, but something about it feels kind of strange – like, should science really be a political cause?

The first answer that comes to mind: of course is no, it shouldn՚t be, but the right wing crazies have forced it to be one. The onus is on them.

The second (and a bit more sophisticated) one: yes, of course, science and rationality (and the modern cosmopolitan civilizations that make them possible) are as historical, and hence political, as anything else. Science didn՚t just blossom innocently into existence in the modern era, it was advanced by specific agencies and interests, and opposed by others. It՚s a bit sad and a bit annoying that this battle hasn՚t been won decisively, but not exactly surprising. So this is just a new stage of a long battle.

There weren՚t any visible counterprotestors at the Science Day march, although plenty of mention of Donald Trump, now the leader of the rightist forces of unreason.

The first obvious enemy of science was religion. While the Catholic Church has long made its peace with science, religious fundamentalism quite rightly sees science as undermining its metaphysics and has opposed it fairly continuously in the US for the past century..

Big business and its libertarian ideological handmaids, who turn against science because it interferes with their profit making. This is the most powerful of the anti-science forces because it has money behind it, and it՚s main effects have been to ensure that we continue to doom ourselves via the climate.

Ethnonationalism – Science by its nature is universalist – it is a machine for producing truths that ideally independent of specific context. This is a tricky and sensitive point, because it doesn՚t mean that science necessarily proves human universalism – “human biodiversity” may be real, although it՚s a suspicious and fringy area. But the practice of science has a very strong universalist bias, in that research results and practises from the US or Peru or Peking are expected to be fully compatible with each other. Trump՚s hamhanded attempts to block immigrants have had a very tangible negative impact on scientific practice.

On the left (more or less), enemies of science are usually motivated by some form of conspiracism or health paranoia (eg anti-vaxxers). William Burroughs made this point with characteristic clarity and extremism. way back in 1961:
The whole point is, I feel the machine should be eliminated. Now that it has served its purpose of alerting us to the dangers of machine control. Elimination of all natural sciences. If anybody ought to go to the extermination chambers definitely scientists, yes I’m definitely anti-scientist because I feel that science represents a conspiracy to impose as, the real and only universe, the Universe of scientists themselves - they’re reality-addicts, they’ve got to have things so real so they can get their hands on it. We have a great elaborate machine which I feel has to be completely dismantled in order to do that we need people who understand how the machine works - the mass media - unparalleled opportunity.
Science has had a varied political career, as it makes its necessary alliances with political and worldly power. It՚s always been hand in glove with the military, for obvious reasons. And its served capitalism and corporations, perhaps too well. Doing science takes money, money comes from the powerful, so science has had to make all sorts of alliances with the powerful, including unfortunate relationships with both the Nazis and Stalin. And its enemies have also been scattered across the spectrum.

Who knows what the consequences of this mass politicizing of science will be? And while I am generally in favor of acknowledging political realities, I have to admit that tearing down the walls between science and politics is also scary, even if those walls are thin and built of mere social convention. Science is about truth, politics is about power, and those forces don՚t always work well with each other. But there is no alternative to figuring out how to make that happen.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Flashing for the refugees

My parents both entered the US as refugees from Nazi Europe, My mother and her family were from Nuremberg and got out via the UK. Here՚s the passenger manifest from their trip from Liverpool to the US in 1940.

And here՚s her passport from Nazi Germany:

Trump, because there's no level of cartoon villainy too farfetched for him to play to, chose International Holocaust Remembrance Day to announce a ban on admitting any refugees to the US.

The calamity that is his presidency is starting to impact real, specific people, in addition to irreparably damaging the world standing of the US. Sorry refugees, in addition to having your home destroyed, you now have your fate dangling at the whim of an ignorant and narcissistic sociopath, which the US – occasionally advertising itself as a beacon of freedom and hope for the world – decided to elect as its leader.

Oh well I never much believed in countries and governments anyway. The values of freedom and humanity are real enough, but I don՚t really expect states to embody them consistently. Now that we've decided to turn ours into complete shit, they will have to manifest themselves through other means. I support the International Rescue Committee, please consider doing the same.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Punching Nazis

I am always fascinated by controversies around the border between speech and action – like the fracas about banning Moldbug from a conference, and the more recent punching of alt.right leader Richard Spencer that has been both celebrated and deplored across the internet. It made the front page of the freaking New York Times.

As with the earlier controversy, there are scads of people on both sides who are firmly convinced of their correctness. But to me, it՚s interesting precisely because I can՚t make up my mind about how to feel.

Basically I have two conflicting reactions. The immediate and primal one is: these people are simply fucking evil, they advocate violence to others, most definitely including me and mine, and thus they deserve whatever shit rains down on them. Punch away. It helps that Spencer is practically the Platonic ideal of backpfeifengesicht.

The second is: violence is bad, having a robust definition of free speech is good, and political speech should be defended even when it is vile. The paradigm case here is when the ACLU defended the rights of neonazis to march through Skokie (next door to where I grew up as it happens). The organization՚s devotion to its principles impressed me a lot at the time, especially since it cost them a lot of members and funding.

There՚s a lot to be said for the second reaction. It seems more principled, and based on a more abstract idea of human behavior and thus influenced by what David Chapman calls the systemic mode, whereas the first reaction is pretty visceral and tribal. In the more developed systemic way of thinking, we can recognize that the principle of free speech are more important than the particular uses, good or bad, to which it is put.

But I find myself unable to give myself wholeheartedly to this systemic stance. I can՚t bring myself to tell someone who wants to punch a Nazi that it՚s wrong, because of some abstraction. I wish I could, because the liberal model of political order and political discourse is very appealing. I wish I could be a free speech absolutist like the recently deceased Nat Hentoff, exemplar of the old-school liberal tradition.

Something about that stance strikes me as an obsolete fiction, one that maybe used to work fairly well but is crumbling at the edges these days. It՚s fundamental flaw is that it is based on a the idea that speech can be rigorously separable from action. While a useful fiction, it was never actually the truth, and in our postmodern condition it seems even less true than before.

The systemic rationalism that grounds out the idea of freedom speech is being eaten from the left by Foucauldian critical theory and anticolonialism, which reveals that discourse is never really a neutral player in power dynamics. It՚s being eaten from the right by the rise of ethno-nationalism (Trump, Brexit, etc) and their skillful manipulations of social media. And it՚s being eaten from the inside by the failure of global neoliberalism to control and channel the enormous energies of capitalism in a way that preserves the planet and human livelihood, and by ongoing failure of our institutions of discourse, such as congress and the press.

All of these factors combine to make the old model, of a separate sphere of discourse where ideas are rationally considered and debated, simply irrelevant. It was a nice idea, but the world has moved on. Speech isn՚t about rational discourse, it՚s about whoever can craft the best memes and capture people՚s attention long enough to sell them something.

Both the Nazis and the Nazi-punchers live in this new world. As kind of an old-fashioned liberal myself, I don՚t much like it but I have to acknowledge it. Politics is everywhere, and politics is a contest of strength, and the rules of combat are weak or nonexistent. Violent ideologies generate violent responses -- to wring hands about this fact, to attempt to sit on the sidelines, is a moral cop-out.

And to assume that your own life is somehow outside of and immune to the violence of political struggle is to be unforgivably naive; the worst form of privilege,