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Intelligence as a political cleavage

Intelligence is increasingly a political cleavage, thanks to the phenomenon of skill-biased technological change.

If your income is earned through competition on an open market, intelligence is an unambiguous good. You need it, you want it, possessing it makes you succeed and lacking it makes you fail. The continued development and maximization of artificial intelligence is an obvious and mundane reality of business development.

If your income is earned through a bureaucratic office of any kind, success in that office increasingly requires opposition to intelligence as such. Unions were always essentially anti-intelligence structures, defending humans from innovative insights that threatened to displace them. But unions were defeated by the information revolution, which was a kind of global unleashing of distributed intelligence. Now, atomized individuals within bureaucratic structures spontaneously converge on anti-intelligence strategies, in a shared sub-conscious realization that their income and status will not survive any further rationalization.

How else do you explain the recent co-occurrence of the following?

  • Mass political opposition to mundane psychology research on intelligence
  • Evangelical public moralizing against competence as an increasingly visible career track (in journalism, some academic disciplines, the non-profit sector, etc.)
  • Social justice culture in general as a kind of diffuse “cognitive tax.” It is a distributed campaign to decrease the returns to thinking while increasing the returns to arbitrary dicta.
  • The popularity of pseudoscientific concepts serving as supposed alternatives to intelligence, e.g. “emotional intelligence,” “learning styles,” etc.

Finally, it is no surprise that many of these symptoms are rooted in academia. This is predicted by the theory. The authority and legitimacy of the Professor is predicated on their superior intelligence, and yet their income and status is predicated on anti-intelligent cartel structures (like all bureaucratic professions). It is no wonder, then, that increasing intelligence pressures are short-circuiting academic contexts first and foremost.

Once upon a time, professors could enjoy the privilege of merely slacking on competitive intelligence application. These were the good old days, before digitalization. Professors could be slackers and eccentrics: a low-level and benign form of anti-intelligenic intellectualism. They didn’t have to actively attack and mitigate intelligence as such. Today, given the advancement of digital economic rationalization, humanities professors work around the clock to stave off ever-encroaching intelligence threats.

The difficult irony is that anti-intelligence humanity professors are acting intelligently. It is perfectly rational for them to play the game they are playing. Not unlike CEOs, they are applying their cognition to maximize the profit of the ship they are stuck on.

Can you do a PhD if you have ADHD?

I received this question recently from a reader. Here is how I replied. I also made this video if you’d prefer to hear my thoughts that way. This post and the video are not exactly the same.

First of all, I'm only slightly “on the spectrum,” if that’s even a thing in this context. I don’t pretend to know anything about clinical psychology. For instance, I’m not even sure if ADHD is maybe one of those made-up conditions that just medicalizes common difficulties, and then everyone seeks a diagnosis for it. I’m sure Scott Alexander has a post on it somewhere, but I haven’t looked because I’m too lazy and would not want to lose an opportunity to opine (how’s that for an epistemic status?). So if ADHD is just another one of these dubious fabrications of the DSM, then what follows will just be my answer to the question “Can you do a PhD if you are easily distracted and/or struggle to do what you’re told and/or procrastinate badly?” I have struggled with enough ADHD symptoms to know at least a thing or two about them — i.e., I follow the ADHD subreddit and frequently recognize myself in it — but I must admit they’ve never been a major debilitating problem for me… So if you have it bad, then I would not expect my input to help you necessarily. It should be obvious none of this is clinical advice. These are just some personal reflections based on my experience.

I think I've learned to hack my rhythms pretty well. Within a big hard goal (getting a PhD), if you find things that make you enthusiastic, you can trick yourself into being really productive by not doing the things you're supposed to, but doing what makes you enthusiastic instead. I have no idea if this makes sense clinically, but that's the best way I can summarize my method. So in grad school I was constantly slacking on my assignments and required readings, and instead I allowed myself to read and work on whatever I felt like — and the reason this worked (none of my profs would remember me as ever slacking on assignments or readings) was that, since I felt like I was fucking off on my responsibilities, it felt fun. Therefore, I could do like probably 5x more and/or better than what the other students could do by just obeying orders. The trick is cultivating interests and enthusiasms that are just proximate enough to what you’re supposed to be doing, that something within the 5x output of your boondoggles can be wrangled into an impressive completion of the assignment or comment on the assigned readings. (I went to a good but mid-tier public research university; at elite schools this hyperactivity quotient will not be as impressive, relatively, because the median student works way harder than at middle-tier universities; so my strategy might be uniquely effective at mid-tier schools, where there is a big gap between median student performance and what the Ivy-trained profs would like to see). If you can do this strategy, you also have a good chance of cultivating a particularly original trajectory, for obvious reasons. You also benefit from the informal social powers that come from being genuinely interested in your work; you seem more authentically engaged, you’ll speak more energetically, and seem more intense and sophisticated than the other students just obeying orders. Of course, it’s risky, because if you go too far out into orbit, you might just become a crank who all the profs and students roll their eyes at. Which one of these two types was I? Which one am I? The jury is still out on that one, but I was one of the only students in my cohort to get a permanent research-based academic appointment. So I did something right.

In short, you allow the ADHD tendencies to do whatever work they will let you do, and then just fake everything else. But as you go, you organize all your fragmented ADHD enthusiasms into a larger narrative that makes sense out of the work you have been doing. Given that the big challenge of a PhD is precisely this — crafting an original narrative about who you are and what you are working on, why it’s important and why someone should hire you, etc. — I actually think think this hacked ADHD strategy can be a strange advantage. Because you are forced to get good at spinning your absurd distractions into an impressive finished project, from the very beginning, whereas the more conscientious students don’t have to work that muscle until they get ready for the job market. Your very first term paper will already be an audacious feat of self-serving dissimulation, as you’ll be forced to furnish a display of coherent intelligence with nothing more at your disposal than a few months’ worth of chaotic digressions. By the time you’re done with the PhD, you’ll probably have way more practice than the other students.

Another thing I should mention is that my PhD was in the social sciences, and my strategic advice would presumably apply way less in the hard sciences. To be fair, I was trained in the harder wings of the social sciences, by hard social scientists. But still. A Phd in the social sciences or humanities is not rocket science. You have to read tons, or at least be able to talk about books you're supposed to have read, and you need to ultimately write a ~150-400 paged thing with a beginning, middle, and an end. But the truth is, it really doesn't have to be very good, and nobody will ever read it. Mind you, I have supervised PhD students as well. Of course, succeeding in academia is a whole different game than simply completing a PhD; getting an academic job is much, much harder, but doing a PhD in the social science is not very hard so long as you basically like to read anything and can force yourself to write anything in a semi-disciplined way for a few months in a row, a few separate times. This point is crucial for understanding the viability of my strategy. Nobody really cares what your dissertation is about, so long as you can produce a long document that makes decent sense and cites certain people. So as long as you can convert your distracted enthusiasms into text, there will exist some way for you to rearrange that text into a passable dissertation.

I suppose I have many more dubious bits of highly conditional advice on grad school and academia questions, if you want to try me.

AcademiaLeaks, University of Chicago Edition

I was just sent this by an anonymous reader. It's not private but it's not in the news. The reader says "Haha imminent collapse. For real though, mostly suggestions for more committees..." They went on, "It all started when grad students voted to form a union in 2017. Admin didn’t recognize it but launched a committee to investigate grad education in 2018. Their report was released today... There’s a suggestion to let students have input on tenure LOL..." Some snippets:

...We were concerned to learn that students feel there is no expectation that it is part of a faculty member’s role to teach TAs how to teach. Worse, students feel some UChicago professors don’t prioritize teaching classes at all, let alone the teaching of pedagogy. Moreover, they indicated that under some circumstances, professors may not even be qualified to teach pedagogy.

This feigned surprise and horror at obvious well-known facts is the kind of Soviet-level delusion I've talked about before. You don't become a prof at U Chicago by prioritizing teaching, let alone teaching PhD students how to teach. All administrators know this, and reports like this are pure theatre. Also, if you can get a PhD, you can teach yourself how to teach (there is hardly any known method for teaching, let alone teaching teaching). You learn how to teach by getting smart and then telling others what's up! If you want/need someone to show you how to teach, you're not ready to teach.

The current transportation options offered by the University are aimed at making students feel secure in getting around campus. These options include the availability of a Safety Escort provided by the University of Chicago Police Department; although it is unclear how well known to students this program is. Additionally, not all students may feel safe with a police escort.

When new and enhanced safety measures cause safety concerns, you know something has gone wrong.

the CGE Faculty Survey showed that at least in some units more of the responsibility for PhD student advising and mentoring is perceived to be shouldered by faculty who are female or from underrepresented backgrounds. One way to positively influence the quality of faculty mentoring going forward, and at the same time to reward good mentoring, is to increase the level of scrutiny on mentorship by enlisting student feedback during faculty promotion and tenure decisions.

This is an interesting pattern. Academics will generally agree that women and people of color are held back by sexism and racism in academia, and that academia should take steps to increase their leadership opportunities (or some such management-speak). This invariably leads to more work of some kind for women and people of color, and then the same people will protest that women and people of color do a disproportionate share of work. Like new safety measures causing new safety concerns, solutions to one set of academics' grievances are usually a basis for some other common set of grievances, leading to a dense web of mutually-reinforcing dissatisfactions, each of which actively stimulates the others for nothing more than momentary satisfactions of ressentiment.

It's not too uncommon to invite graduate student input on tenure decisions, actually, but it's interesting to think about how this plays out in connection with the previous observation. I'll let you figure that out.

Finally, a stunning little self-own... The disingenuous "virtue signaling" of academic "diversity" messaging becomes explicit:

...still require meaningful representation of students of color in a range of institutional and educational settings to signal that diversity is valued.

The people who write these reports do not genuinely value anything, at least in the time they spend writing these things. In brief moments of transparency, they will even tell you: they are just signaling to others that they value whatever it is they are supposed to value. The dictatorship of the "they", Das Man.

Do you have any Academia Leaks? Submit them here.

Unfair Competition (How Academia Got Pwned 13)

This is the thirteenth post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. It's going to become a book, so for updates be sure to subscribe.


You are probably reading the first and only blog that a university has ever accused of unfair competition. Congratulations, dear reader. I couldn't have done it without you.

In the last section on my departure narrative, I skipped ahead somewhat, as I was approaching (in real life) my hearing for "gross misconduct." Before that, I had only brought you up to the point of my suspension. In #5, I analyzed the evidence provided in support of my Dean's claim that I was harming the university's reputation. But the posts after that went into some other parallel lines of inquiry while, in real life, the events of my narrative were rapidly approaching their climax.

At the time of this writing, it's now official: I am no longer an employee of the University of Southampton. I will explain how this all came to an end, but first we need to circle back and fill in some gaps in the narrative thus far.

One of the reasons I chose the exit strategy I chose is that I'm now extremely free to share details that I would not be allowed to share right now if I decided to fight this with a lawyer. You're welcome, dear reader.

The gaps I need to fill are between my initial suspension (October 2, 2018) and my hearing for gross misconduct (scheduled February 13, 2019). There were two separate investigation meetings conducted in the period of my suspension. The first was on Friday 2nd November 2018.

There were two notable features of the first investigation meeting that took place after my suspension. Just like the first meeting (before my suspension), the guy simply amassed a dossier of copypasta capturing things I've said and done on the internet, and asked me about them in that stern FBI tone he probably learned watching crime shows. With all due respect to the guy — a very nice and fair man, bless him — my main impression was that he seemed utterly confused about what the frick had been placed in his lap. I got the impression he wanted to start by asking: "First, what is a Twitter?" Instead, he just shoved a bunch of screenshots in my face and asked me to explain what I meant. It was surreal how innocuous were many of the items. Consider the following item from my mile-long rap-sheet, which I'm screenshotting from the final report of the investigation.

Imagine a very concerned Boomer sliding a screenshot of this tweet across the table, and asking "Could you explain what you meant by this?"

I was like, "Huh? That's all it means, I support student activism. I always have. Students should be free to criticize professors, even publicly, I applaud this." To this day, I still cannot even guess what esoteric meaning he thought this one could have had. It was stunning to learn just how badly university administrators are genuinely confused and paranoid about the most straightforward of internet communications.

Then things took a turn toward creepy. It appears that expressing doubts about the viability of academia is itself a punishable offense. When the questioning turned in this direction, again I couldn't even see what they were concerned about; it was only in the third investigation that I was able to decode this line of inquiry. Only later would I discover that they were beginning to investigate a possible breach of "the duty of fidelity." Do people realize academics have a duty of fidelity to their employers? I sure didn't; I had never heard of that, and I certainly never would have signed any pledge of fidelity. Here is a piece of evidence I was confronted with in Meeting 2 (again, 'capped from the hearing documentation):

They basically just asked me "What did you mean by that?" and I answered "Exactly what it says," regarding everything they brought to the table. It was pretty clear I didn't even need to be there. My physical presence was necessary to rubber-stamp the meeting as having taken place, but it was clearly a machinic process in which the purpose and outcome was perfectly impermeable to any combination of noises I might emit.

Apparently, being open to exit options is a punishable offense. As I reported in a previous post, at the time when my Dean handed me my suspension letter, I informed her explicitly that getting suspended would make me money on the internet. Confronted with this unfortunate little molehill in the intellectual topography today, they must have sent a lackey to go find some ordinance that prohibits it. A few weeks later, after I started blogging all the details of the story, the university launched a whole new, additional investigation. In their words:

"the investigation is to explore allegations that through social media posts (provided to JM on 24.01.2019) that JM:
• breached the duty of confidence; and/or
• breached the implied duty of fidelity; and/or
• breached the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence; and/or
• brought the University into disrepute.
"

I couldn't find anything about fidelity in the ordinance they cited. I guess that's why they call it "implied." But with my PhD it only took a few minutes of Googling to resolve what was going on here. In case law, the implied duty of fidelity is what prohibits an employee from taking business from the employer:

"A number of potential aspects of the duty of fidelity, including a duty not to compete with the employer, have been identified in case law... These issues often arise in "team move" situations, where a number of employees who work in the same business decide to leave and join a competitor, often with assistance from the new employer, or set up a competing business themselves." (Thompson Reuters Practical Law)

Because I was writing about what was happening in the university, and people from the public were giving me money for it, they must have realized what I was trying to warn them of: Their entire business model is in serious trouble. If they were intelligent, autonomous agents, then upon realizing this they would have taken my advice and not have suspended me. Of course, being what they are, they could do nothing other than escalate their own doomed institution to the highest possible level of self-ownage, by confirming and enshrining the accuracy of my vague wager in the majestic aura of their own legal strategy. Thus, likely for the first time ever (as far as I know), a university built a formal legal case to the effect that a single academic's blogging was unfair competition.

Let's start by savoring the irony of their two-pronged legal strategy. On the one hand: "Justin, you're awful words and inappropriate antics are harming the university's reputation." On the other hand: "How dare you enjoy a good reputation without us!"

So this is how academia gets pwned, ladies and gentlemen. If you wonder aloud whether academia is the best way to constitute a free intellectual life, people dissatisfied with academia will throw you money to encourage this line of inquiry, while academia will... make it harder to constitute a free intellectual life. It doesn't require advanced game theory to see the ineluctable equilibrium on the horizon, once the intellectually ambitious start to downgrade their valuation of status relative to independence. When I look at the dynamics of influence and attention, I see the relative payoff of status decreasing and that of independence increasing (1 , 2, just to cite a few places where I've developed these observations). Ergo, stick a fork in it, baby!

I would not put any money on some kind of institutional course-correction, because even when they realize they've owned themselves, they are structurally barred from responding in any way other than owning themselves at a higher level. Academia is so pwned already that I didn't even need to bait it into a final round of self-destruction in order for my own exit plans to enjoy a satisfactorily high probability of success. I could afford to walk away, even before the university was done hitting itself with my hand. Unfair competition, indeed, so unfair I honestly started to feel bad.

And I assure you, the university was eager to hit itself with my hand at least one more time. In fact, the university is very lucky I'm not the attention whore my haters accuse me of being. Lucky for them that I would rather theorize this process in peace and quiet, than sacrifice myself on the altar of accelerating it. I am no saint, dear reader. I am now but a commoner, a peasant. It would have been easy for me to accelerate the process more aggressively, but then I would very likely be embroiled in a busy, exhausting, dizzying media spectacle of one kind or another, instead of writing this blog post with calm glee. Truly, at the end of the day, I only wish to till my own soil. That's all I've ever asked, dear reader. Instead of trying to accelerate the downfall of academia single-handedly — an Icarian dream, no doubt — it seems at once wiser and more radical for me to lay bare the system's underlying mechanics to the best of my ability, allowing dozens of others, potentially hundreds of others, to accelerate the process as well. With the knowledge I've gleaned from the belly of this beast, at the outer-most edges of its contemporary development, together we will accelerate the process without anyone ever having to fly too close to the sun.

Explaining Who Gets to Speak at Universities

I recently received the following question from a journalist (paraphrased): "Universities host many Islamist extremists as speakers, but they order comedians performing on campus to not offend transgender sensibilities. Could you comment on this double standard in light of your own experience?"

Here is what I wrote in response. I don't have precise research or data to back up every claim here, to be clear, but this is how I currently see the matter.

People imagine there is some sophisticated explanation for all of this, but the best explanation is probably the most simple and classic one, to be honest. I think it's almost all about money, specifically liability. Right-wingers criticize academic administrators for being “cultural Marxists,” but this gives administrators way too much credit. Academic administrators have no principles, they are just untrained business people trying to keep government money flowing into their glorified real estate businesses (which happen to have some classrooms tacked on). Islamic extremists are allowed to talk because they’re afraid of the financial implications of getting labeled racist; comedians are not allowed to joke about gender because they’re afraid of getting labeled sexist. Meanwhile, academics have to focus on customer satisfaction — that is, placating students — because results on the National Student Survey affect the university’s income in the following year.

To be perfectly frank, right now higher education in the UK is suffering from multiple, severe crises: Appallingly low morale across academic staff (too nervous to express it publicly); criminally overpaid and outright incompetent Vice-Chancellors; the suffocation of intellectual
life by extraordinary quantities of meaningless paperwork and performance metrics; increasing awareness that teaching does not actually work; Soviet-Union-levels of collective delusion in the form of polite euphemisms to describe every obviously unsustainable problem. And all of this at a time when digital technologies are replacing nearly all traditional institutions with sleek, cheap, easy-to-use platforms? There is an unspeakable but widespread sense that the higher education system cannot last much longer, but people want to keep their jobs. So many administrators will just say and do whatever is going to keep the money flowing until tomorrow.

People get confused about the weird academic politics of who is, or is not, allowed to speak, but that’s because people assume there is some social or political principle at work. If you think there is any principle other than money, you’re going to be really confused for a long time, because the reality is that academic administrators are just straws in the wind. They’ll allow today what they’ll ban tomorrow, and vice versa, depending on whatever they think will protect their financial interests.

On that note, are you a current or former academic with a personal story on this front? I have a new little experiment called AcademiaLeaks, where anyone can anonymously submit their craziest stories from the ivory tower. You might not be able to tell them, but I can! Submit a story here.

Deleuze, Cybernetics, Evolution, Academics

Alexander Galloway thinks that Deleuze sees cybernetics as an enemy, or even the enemy:

Such a strange little text, this 'Postscript on Control Societies.'... The complaint is articulated in terms of control, communication, and the 'harshest confinement' wrought by 'the new monster' of information society... So why not call Deleuze's adversary by its true name: the enemy is cybernetics...

I find this intriguing because I've never thought this at all. As the Postscript suggests, contemporary societies operate through cybernetic control processes, i.e. distributed feedback processes. Today, political oppression is cybernetic, in this sense. But in the Deleuzo-Guattarian perspective, as far as I can see, liberation will also be cybernetic. As Erinaceous points out on /r/CriticalTheory:

Guattari loved cybernetics. He was heavily influenced by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela who were second generation cyberneticians. [A Thousand Plateaus] is also loaded with references to early Chaos Theory which comes out of cybernetics... What bothered both Deleuze and Guattari was the idea of centralization and control...

So which is it? Here is a kind of meta-theory, which I think clarifies the Deleuzo-Guattarian perspective on cybernetics and also why people will disagree about it.

At the root of the confusion here is that theoretical models of empirical reality do not have normative charges, unless you subscribe to a strong version of social constructivism. If you're a social constructivist — if you believe that objective reality is downstream of language — then holding and abiding by a theory can be good or bad. Whether it's accurate or useful hardly matters, because it's the theory-holding that determines reality.

I do not know Galloway's work very well, but on this point, we can see that he is a strong social constructivist, simply because he thinks a theory (cybernetics) can be bad (an enemy).

I reject this view. In my view, objective realities exist outside of language, and human projects succeed only to the degree they abide by reality (though our projects can change reality, they can only do so if they abide by it). Therefore, empirical and normative "goodness" are perfectly aligned, necessarily. To the degree a theoretical model accurately fits the data of the world, it is good. That's that. If you would like to foment collective liberation, your only chance is to embrace the truest possible theories of reality, more radically than status quo institutions embrace them, and act on them with more fidelity than status quo institutions act on them. This is the vision of revolutionary politics held here at Other Life, and chief among our teachers were Deleuze and Guattari.

Deleuze and Guattari were not social constructivists in the way that has become fashionable since the 1990s. This is the reason Galloway's take feels off, and why so much Deleuze scholarship feels like it's from a different planet than the one Deleuze inhabited: Deleuze did not subscribe to a strong social constructivism, but most academic theorists today do, whether it be with deep personal sincerity or merely out of social/disciplinary necessity.

If cybernetics provides a useful model of empirical realities, then state-of-the-art political regimes will rule their subjects in a fashion consistent with its principles. Any successful project of liberation would use tactics equally consistent with its principles, if not more so. Cybernetics cannot be an enemy, unless you think it's bad to be right, and you actually have no interest or incentives to make a revolutionary project succeed — and here we see the problem. If you're an academic theorist in the humanities today, you generally think that the will-to-be-correct is an ethically dubious drive to dominate. It is now essentially the raison d'être of humanities academics to raise normative objections to the truest available theories. (All theories are false, technically, but "true" here just means optimally consistent with the data.) Reality is brutal, therefore the truest theories are the most brutal, therefore the highest-status work in the humanities will be that which makes the truest theories look as ugly as possible.

Evolution is another example. Traditional Christians once seemed stupid and backward for their horrified opposition to the implications of evolutionary theory. Today, academics in the humanities seem smart and sophisticated for their horrified opposition to the implications of evolutionary theory. Evolutionary psych is sexist and racist, machine learning and AI are sexist and racist, everything that works becomes an enemy.

Cybernetics and evolution name basic principles of reality, and they help to explain our oppression as well as our flourishing. These concepts help to explain why capitalism is so hard to overthrow, but they also explain how we heat our homes (the thermostat being a classic textbook example of a cybernetic device). Humans flourish through technoscience as intelligence instantiated, and we try politically to contain the anti-social implications of technoscientific reality-penetration, but capitalism is what happens when intelligence escapes its last political box and starts replicating until we eventually become the objects of its manipulation. We started with the idea that we’d buy and sell things to advance our interests, leveraging the cybernetic price system like we leverage the thermostat to keep our house’s temperature in equilibrium. Before we knew it, the price system evolved new types of people that better suited its interests, and now we are so many thermostats in the service of capitalism.

There is still, in principle, the possibility of generating systemic liberation dynamics via cyberpositive tactics. The big questions of the late 21st century, however, will be: Can the human desire for liberation dynamics beyond capitalist exploitation pass the empirical bottleneck of intelligence takeoff, given the brutally unforgiving requirements involved, and can the intelligent pass the bottleneck of destructive hordes who fear they cannot pass the bottleneck of intelligence takeoff?

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