Fully automated personal brands

Right now, it’s still seen as bad taste to overly automate your personal social media — and for good reason. But taste changes, and it always follows the money.

As machine learning gets better, we will soon cross the threshold where some minority fraction of the dumbest people will be unable to distinguish between a real human's "personal brand" and a fully automated machinic substitute trained on that human's history of creative content. Let's call that fraction the "dupe fraction." In the first period after crossing this threshold, higher-IQ people will still be capable of such discernment, and they will mock and stigmatize anyone they catch replacing themselves with machinic substitutes. But as the dupe fraction increases — and it must, unless you think machine learning cannot get any better — the payoffs to machinic self-replacement will eventually outweigh the costs of stigmatization by elite discerners. It is inevitable that there will therefore be a period in which elite discerners will be barking into a void, only to be outcompeted (with respect to influence) by those who bear the short-term stigma to win the longer-term race of machinic content domination. Then, of course, machinic self-replacement will become the index of Cool.

The tricky problem is knowing when we cross this threshold. It is not inconceivable that we've already crossed it. Machine learning tools may already be good enough, for how many dumb people are already on the internet, that someone such as myself could hand over all my public posting channels to machine intelligence, turn the quantity and consistency up ten notches, alienate all my high-IQ audience, but replace them with 100x as many dumb people over the course of a couple years.

My personal diagnosis — and trust me, I've been looking into this for some time! — is that we're not quite there yet. I've even experimented with some pilot programs, e.g. an anonymous Twitter account trained on my own writings, for instance. It's pretty decent, actually, but if I ever used it for my personal account, the number of people for whom it would pass the Turing Test is too small relative to the number of smart people who would see through it and think I'm a dumb loser.

I should note that another crucial variable is the accessibility of machine intelligence. I could perhaps do better than one Twitter account trained on a collection of my own writings, but the currently available tools and workflows are still a little too demanding for this to be rational at the moment. Although the tools are rapidly growing more convenient.

It's ultimately an empirical question when, exactly, we cross this threshold. Everyone has to make their own wagers. But I think most people are over-estimating how long it will be until machinic self-replacement becomes the winning strategy — indeed, an existential necessity — for any intellectuals and content creators wishing to remain in the meme pool.

One thing is clear, however. Do not wait for machinic self-replacement to be affirmed by prestigious institutional opinion. By that time, it will certainly be too late: all the cool kids will have already machined most of their internet personas to unprecedented degrees. By then, it may already be the pre-requisite for making real and valuable social connections with smart and creative people in the real world. I would bet there are already Zoomers experimenting with automated "personal brands" to degrees I would look down upon. I'm guessing I won't hear about them until their content systems blow mine out of the water. The trick will be to make this transition late enough that you keep as many of your high-education/high-IQ audience as possible, but early enough that you win a decent slice of the first-mover advantage.

Deepfakes in the Near Future with Geoffrey Miller

We discuss the imminent social and political consequences of "deepfake" technology (fake multimedia indistinguishable from the real thing). Geoffrey Miller is an evolutionary psychologist. Pre-order his ebook, "Virtue Signaling: Essays on Darwinian Politics, Language Games, & Free Speech" — Geoffrey also has a new Youtube channel, which you can subscribe to here.

Big thanks to all the patrons who help me keep the lights on.

If you'd like to discuss this podcast with me and others, suggest future guests, or read/watch/listen to more content on these themes, request an invitation here.

This conversation was first recorded on July 19, 2019 as a livestream on Youtube. To receive notifications when future livestreams begin, subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the little bell.

Click here to download this episode.

Automated Reasoning, Gen Z Reaction, and Pacific Dialectical Materialism with Systemkei

I'm joined by @systemkei, who works in the field of Automated Reasoning and wrote the article "Pacific Dialectical Materialism:" http://debayou.net/pacific.html If you'd like to discuss this podcast with me and others, suggest future guests, or read/watch/listen to more content on these themes, request an invitation here.

Big thanks to all the patrons who help me keep the lights on.

This conversation was first recorded on Feb 20, 2019 as a livestream on Youtube. To receive notifications when future livestreams begin, subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the little bell.
Click here to download this episode.

Algorithms and prayers

The mild-mannered socialist humanist says it's evil to use algorithms to exploit humans for profit, but the articulation of this objection is an algorithm to exploit humans for profit. Self-awareness of this algorithm may vary, but cultivated ignorance of one's own optimizing functions does not make them any less algorithmic or exploitative. The opposite of algorithmic exploitation is not moralistic objection, but probably prayer, which is only — despite popular impressions — attention, evacuated of instrumental intentions. One point of worshipping God is that, by investing one's desire into an abstraction of perfection, against which all existing things pale in comparison, one may live toward the good and still live as intensely as possible. Secular "good people" often makes themselves good by eviscerating their desire, de-intensifying their vitality to ensure their mundane algorithmic optimizing never goes too far. But a life of weak sin is not the same as a good life. Prayer, the practice of de-instrumentalizing attention, does not feign superiority to the sinful, exploitative tendencies of man (like socialist humanism). Prayer is code. Prayers have never hidden their nature as exploitative algorithms — "say these words and it will be Good" — but they exploit our drive to exploit, routing it into a pure and abstract circle, around a pure and abstract center. Secular solutions to the problem of evil typically involve lying about human behavior, whereas a holy life is the application of one's wicked intelligence to the production of the good and the true.

Fascism over yourself is called autonomy

When I recently sketched out a system for bootstrapping a libertarian communist society from a combination of AI and blockchain, I was genuinely surprised to receive so many indignant accusations to the effect that I'm an authoritarian. I was called a Duginist, a neoliberal, and even a fascist, etc.

Of course, in retrospect, I can understand the optics. Anything that involves the use of technology to monitor behavior is, in some sense, quite invasive — so a proposal to do this intensely, with a distribution of resources conditional on it, sounds pretty authoritarian.

The reason I was surprised by these accusations and the reason why I'm still unconvinced by them, is that my proposal involves a purely voluntary protocol. The parameters are decided by the individuals involved. All individuals are free to exit at any time. How fascist could a proposal be if it has all these criteria? Perhaps the most charitable I can be to these accusations is to say that, if my proposal is somewhat fascist, then I would say that these crucial, libertarian design features effectively remove the undesirable aspects of fascism. The main reason why fascism is now synonymous with horrific evil is that, historically, it's highly correlated with a drive to impose a program on a large number of people, often at the nation-state level, and often violently.

Given that my proposal is decidedly not imposing anything on anyone against their will, and given that it features benign failure modes, the accusations of fascism suggest to me only that my proposal sounds overly harsh, rigid, or controlling, to a degree that people find undesirable or offensive. If someone just dislikes my idea, then of course that's fine, they'll never be forced or even pressured to join (although I do fear that life outside of novelly engineered communitarian lifeboats will soon be the most horrifying place to be...).

When it comes to one's own will over oneself, I would submit that harshness and rigidity are necessary for the kind of human constitution that is capable of saying no to fascism. It seems possible to me that fascism at aggregate levels (ethnic groups, nation-states, etc.) is a pathological reaction to modern humans becoming insufficiently constituted at the individual level. Fascism rails against the modern weakness of will, and seeks to solve the problem at a higher level of social organization. I rail against the modern weakness of will, but I want to engineer solutions at the level of individuals' component parts. The components of an individual constitution are the other people in one's primary group and one's own drives or sub-personalities. When individuals exercise sufficient authority over themselves, they will be less likely to submit to intoxicating herd behaviors, and there will be less demand for violent over-compensations at higher levels of organization. 

If you dislike the idea of enforcing your own will on yourself, the algebra can be rearranged to say that you like the wide margin of ethical slothfulness you are afforded under contemporary postmodern relativism and social anomie. Today, nobody really minds if you say one thing and do another; you are permitted and even encouraged to have goals or ideals that you do not work your hardest to embody. It is hard and difficult work to become who you are, and liberalism is the political philosophy that nobody should be forced to do it.

It is certainly desirable that centralized political institutions do not enforce overly strict discipline according to overly regimented criteria — such as patriotism or ethnicity or religion — for purposes of statecraft. But that does not mean we should not seek to enforce strict discipline on ourselves, by ourselves, according to whatever we believe to be the truest ethical principles. There is no other method of soulcraft; there is no method for constituting a true life other than the ethical work of self-discipline (askēsis). Just because the infamous slogan upon the gates of Auschwitz said that "work sets you free" does not mean that certain forms of work cannot, in fact, set you free. If I say that I am a Catholic, it is in part because I believe that the truth is what sets one free, and the truth is produced through the work of frank speech (parrhesia), a form of askēsis. If I say that I am a communist, it is because I believe that everyone is intrinsically and equally valuable, and anything that inhibits anyone from becoming who they are must be destroyed in the same way and for the same reason that a philosopher or scientist seeks to destroy all errors and all mistakes.

Perhaps under contemporary liberalism we have become so "antifascist" that we would gladly choose to die if only enough people brought to our attention that fascists once sought to live. If the Nazis ever stated that work will set you free, then the refined cosmopolitan of 2018 will never work to be set free. That'll show 'em.

If I am a fascist over my own soul, so be it: fascism over oneself is called autonomy.

[The second installment of the Diffractions/Sdbs workshop on patchwork just took place yesterday. You can watch it here.]

The Human Cartel, Part 1: The Working-Ruling Class

Why do so many people in large bureaucratic organizations spend so much time doing meaningless paperwork that has no effect on anything? One possible answer, suggested by David Graeber, is that the ruling class needs to keep the masses busy. I would not reduce Graeber's book to any one of his claims, but Graeber succinctly summarizes one of his big ideas in an interview:

The ruling class had a freak out about robots replacing all the workers. There was a general feeling that ‘My God, if it’s bad now with the hippies, imagine what it’ll be like if the entire working class becomes unemployed.’

I, too, believe that the looming threat of artificial intelligence is likely the primary variable that explains the impressive excesses of bureaucratic culture today, but the practical and ideological valence of Graeber's thesis changes dramatically depending on your interpretation of the "ruling class." Reading Graeber, one imagines that the ruling class would be epitomized by elite CEOs and wealthy politicians. The masses, in this mental model, are the larger bulk of folks whose unemployment would be a political threat to the stability of the status quo and the comfort of the rulers. But the exponential nature of income inequality dynamics since the 1980s have rendered the actual distribution of economic power far more confusing than this.

It's fair to say there exists a ruling class, with a class interest in proliferating bureaucracy, but the picture changes dramatically when you realize that this is the faction of the ruling class that is now forced to work extremely hard to sustain a quality of life comparable to the median unionized steelworker of the American 1950s. In short, the bureaucratic ruling class — let's say those in the 80th income percentile who are proximally responsible for introducing most of the bureaucratic red tape into various domains of life — are arguably in the ruling class but also, arguably, overworked & exploited workers struggling to sustain minimally decent human lives, even if they are much better off than the working poor. To drive this point home, I need to take a slightly personal detour.

I first became aware of the intuition-defying nature of exponential inequality dynamics when I first entered what social scientists might call the subjective middle class. In October 2013, when I accepted a tenure-track academic job offer, and even more so when it became permanent (i.e. the British version of tenure), my subjective belief and identity-experience was that I had entered the middle class. With a wife and no kids, and a stable professional, PhD-requiring job, my economic power increased dramatically relative to most of my peers in their late 20s, but it also seemed equally obvious that we had just snuck onto the bottom rung of the middle class — or so it felt. I had to spend most of my modest savings simply to move and get set up for the job, we both have student debt obligations, etc.

Eventually, I realized that I am at once poorer and richer than I thought. I am much poorer than what I thought the middle class meant, and I am also much richer in the relative income distribution than I thought. Of course, I represent only one anecdotal example of this dual misunderstanding. But given that I'm a social scientist, if my relatively disciplined intuitions are way off in some surprising way, I think we can safely infer that a good bunch of others are also walking around with a similarly confused mental picture.

I am poorer than I thought in the following ways. None of the following are complaints, which would be ridiculous — we are relatively well off, grateful for what we have, and have no complaints. They are just examples of empirical deviations short of what I thought a middle-class profession would give me. Despite living responsibly with no kids for 5 years, buying a house is still not in reach. We want to have kids but feel like we'd be really irresponsible to do so on our current finances. We only rarely go out to dinner and usually feel guilty when we do; we both sometimes decline social dinner invitations for feeling like we can't afford it. We don't own a car. We've had some fun little travels, but we've never been able to take any of the iconic kinds of vacations that I imagined to be the province of middle class professionals (e.g., a beach resort for a week, or some outdoorsy activity-based trip such as skiing, or any far-off continent for any amount of time at all). Call me stupid — and I realize now that I am — but I actually thought entering a middle-class profession would surely enable me to do all these things, at least once a year. To be fair, we are soon going to the mountains in northern Italy for a week but it feels somewhat financially irresponsible, and that's with the cheapest Airbnb we could find. This is probably how the fake "middle class" life today ruins people: we feel like after working for 5 years with one of us making an 80th percentile income, surely we are entitled [sticks nose up] to one proper adult vacation somewhere beautiful for a week. But then our longer-term finances suffer, so I feel like I need to keep working this urban cosmopolitan job with a high cost of living, even though the whole gig dramatically over-demands and under-delivers relative to what I expected. The "middle class" equilibrium just feels like a big scam. We are lucky to be able to save at all (despite our currently negative net worth), and we are lucky that my career gives some status/security/prospects for the future. These are huge benefits no doubt; but the fact is I went to school way longer than most of my peers, and I now work longer hours than most of my peers, for nothing too materially impressive.

The real privileges we enjoy are mostly what we are not subjected to: humiliating and time-sucking welfare bureaucracies, interminable mate competition, and crippling status anxiety, not to mention mentally ill roommates and depressogenic "friends" we have no choice but to endure. Escape from these things is worth a lot, I must say, but it's really hard to appreciate and enjoy the privilege of some terrible dog not barking.

As an aside, this is one reason why the idea of prayer has been making more sense to me lately. It's a technology for correcting cognitive biases and making you more accurately happy for what you do — and don't — have.

I am also richer than I thought, in the sense that my income puts me in a higher percentile than I would have guessed before I looked into it. Before I looked into it (only about 6 months ago), I figured my income would put me between the 50th and 60th percentile. "Quite blessed for sure, above average, but certainly not rich," I might have said. Then I entered my numbers into a couple of different calculators online. They give different results depending on whether you look at pre-tax or post-tax, with or without dependents, etc. But they converged quite tightly to inform me that I am roughly in the 80th percentile in the United Kingdom. I'm rich, bitch! This was horrifying, not because I felt ashamed, but because I thought: If my life falls far short of what I thought basic middle class privileges would entail, and I'm objectively higher-up in the distribution than I thought, well then the overwhelming majority of people have absolutely no shot at even a low-level middle-class picture of life.

This then brings the deduction that the image many of us have in our minds, regarding basic middle-class security and comfort, is enjoyed only by an exceedingly small number of people at the top of the top. Some more established academics, especially if their partner is equally or better paid, enjoy this kind of life. Some academics, even in the social sciences and humanities, are in the infamous 1%, i.e. the 99th percentile.

Curiously, back at the time of Occupy around 2011, David Graeber coined the distinction between this villainous 1% and "the 99%" who are screwed by capitalism. It was a brilliantly successful piece of class warfare but now I'm tantelized by the delicious possibility that Graeber launched this meme from a position in the 1%. Not that I'd shame him for it — I admire him and his work — I'm just really curious now because my intuitions about the income distribution back then were, clearly, miscalibrated. The average income of a Professor at the LSE is about £85k a year (according to Indeed.co.uk), and as of 2016 this would round to about the 96th percentile. He could be above or below that average, but I digress…

In the next part of this series, I'll discuss how the new cohort of American young-adult socialists fit into this equation.

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