Are Politically Correct Students Better or Worse Students?

In my current book project, one of my goals is to provide the fullest possible empirical accounting of the strange new persona sometimes derisively called the "social justice warrior."

Although the main contours of my argument are pretty well developed, there are various sub-hypotheses that I've had for a while — but no data to test them.

Just last week, I was offered access to a goldmine of data collected by College Pulse. They told me I'm allowed to share my analyses, but not the data. They have an app that gives students various rewards in exchange for taking surveys. They've taken dozens and dozens of surveys including the widest variety of questions, with consistent respondent IDs for each survey. This means all of their surveys can be merged for all the individuals who took each survey.

The major drawback of these surveys is that they are not representative samples — so we can't really know the degree to which patterns identified in them generalize to university students as a whole. But the lack of representativeness is somewhat offset by the sheer size of the sample. Think about it this way: If you could survey 100% of the people in some population, you wouldn't much care how the sample was drawn, right? Many of the College Pulse surveys have quite impressive sample sizes, with quite a lot of them including 20,000 or more students. While this hardly approaches 100% of university students, it's more than enough to be quite interested in what these data reveal. All datasets are partial and limited, and need to be checked against other datasets with different virtues.

The wide variety of fascinating questions, and the large samples, make this an ideal, first-stab testing ground for any number of hypotheses.

The GPA of the SJW

I've long wondered if there is a relationship between attitudes toward political correctness and academic performance in the student body. In other words, are "SJWs" more or less likely to be high-performing or low-performing students? Or perhaps there is some curvilinear relationship? One could generate a few different hypotheses on this question, but for this post I will simply introduce the data (check) and share some basic descriptive statistics approaching this question. This is likely just the first of many hypotheses I hope to explore with this data over the coming weeks and months.

First, the univariate distributions require some comment. First, students in the sample seem to report questionably high GPAs. Or perhaps students are disproportionately drawn from schools with rampant grade inflation. Either way, there's something going on, because Figure 1 shows that the sample has a lot of students claiming to be nearly perfect students.

Figure 1: Self-Reported GPAs in the College Pulse Sample

Figure 2 shows that students in this sample are quite strongly opposed to the idea of physical no-platforming. The survey item says: "A student group opposed to a controversial speaker uses physical force to prevent the speaker from speaking. In your view, the students group's actions are…" Most find it very unacceptable. Note that this is just one particular way of tapping what we might very roughly call, for shorthand, SJWism. What's great about the College Pulse survey data is that they ask a variety of different questions revolving around moralistic, speech-focused political activism, so we'll be able to triangulate with multiple variables.

Figure 2: Views on Physical No-Platforming in the College Pulse Sample

Aside: One thing I'd like to do soon is a factor analysis of a few of these SJW attitudes. It would be good if we could extract the latent variable underlying, for instance, opinions toward physical no-platforming, "call outs," disinvitations, and the other related but different tendencies associated with SJWism.


One of the arguments in my book is that the hyper-moralistic political activity of the "SJW" is, in many cases, a kind of thinly veiled economic activity. But there are a few different ways this might manifest, so we need to delineate different observable implications to make specific hypotheses falsifiable.

The omni-directionality of the following hypotheses merely reflects how little we understand the SJW phenomenon.

The angry runner-up hypothesis. Because today's political economy is increasingly a "winner take all" situation, individuals who once upon a time could enjoy relatively high income and status from a "second place" finish in the capitalist game, are now looking at prospects quite beneath their relative expectations. But the types of people who land in "second place" positions are still smarter and more capable than average — so they're not just going to accept outcomes beneath their expectations, rather some of them will seek to alter the rules of the game. "If you can't beat 'em, turn over the table!" If this is the logic behind SJWism, then perhaps we would expect SJWism to be most likely in the middle of the academic performance distribution. 

The shrewd winner hypothesis. Another possibility is that SJWism is a new kind of game, with emergent rules related to novel and complex socio-economic factors. Seen from this angle, SJWism might be more likely among the most intelligent and the best academic performers. If SJWism is the way to win cultural games today, and higher education is largely about signaling one's ability to win games, the best students might be most likely to become SJWs.

The brute force hypothesis. It might be the case that SJWism represents the vengeance of the intellectually dominated against the more intelligent. Seen from this angle, SJWism might be a way for the dumbest or most disorganized students to promote themselves through a kind of morally glorified brute force.

Figure 3 below shows a curvilinear relationship in which the lowest and highest levels of academic performance are associated with a slightly greater acceptance of physical no-platforming, and students in the middle of the range are least accepting. So it's not second-place students adopting SJWism to claw their way into top jobs or some such model as that (hypothesis 1). [By the way, I spoke too soon in one of my livestreams the other night; I reported this based on a too-quick look at this data, which I accidentally had backward — that will be the last time I foreshadow data-analytic findings live on Youtube before I'm actually done, sorry!] The differences here are pretty tiny, but that's in part because most students are strongly opposed to physical no-platforming, with the average level of acceptance quite low.

Figure 3: Political Correctness by GPA (Physical No-Platforming)

I was curious if Figure 3 might be a fluke related to that particular question, so I took another item tapping political correctness/SJWism to see if the same pattern holds. Figure 2 below shows that, yes, it does. The inflection point is lower on the GPA scale and the students on the bottom are not quite as PC as the best students, but again it's clearly non-linear: the best and worst students are less likely to think there's any problem with sensitivity, while the middling students are more likely to think students are too sensitive.

Figure 4: Political Correctness by GPA (Perceived Sensitivity)

These could maybe represent evidence for H2 and H3, in a kind of mixed effects model: Maybe the best students adopt SJWism out of their shrewd awareness that that's indeed how to win the game of institutionalized culture, and maybe the worst students adopt SJWism to turn over the table in a game they are unlikely to succeed in. Or none of these interpretations is accurate, which is very possible.

I was also curious if the curvilinear relationship is conditional on major. In retrospect there's probably a better way to do Figure 4, but it does the trick. I restricted the data to majors that had at least 200 observations. You have to be careful to not go fishing for patterns here, because of the multiple comparisons problem. Here's one thing that seems true, though: Most of the major/gpa-level combos that contain big outliers toward SJWism are on the lower half of the GPA scale (Nursing, Law/Crim, Econ, Education, Poli Sci, Chemistry). Whereas the positive gradient toward SJWism on the high-end of the GPA scale in Figures 3 and 4 appears to reflect a slight but more steady pattern in a number of majors (Comm, CS, Econ, Engineering, Pre-Med).

Figure 5: Political Correctness by GPA and Major

I wouldn't make too much of this but it's perhaps consistent with the "mixed effects" idea above. Better students veer toward SJWism because better students perceive that PC is part of winning in education and beyond, and so they slightly and gradually report higher levels of PC moving from 3.0 to 4.0. Then the really zealous SJWs are rare occurrences drawn mostly from the lower end of academic performers, perhaps as a kind of brute force strategy. But like I said, this was just a cursory exploration to dig into some new data. Let's see what else I find in future posts before I make any big claims.

Now, wars start themselves

Major wars have become less frequent, but a curious feature of the wars we still observe is that almost nobody starts them. When wars occur today, they appear to start themselves, or are started by some unknown entity. I learned this from a new article by Hathaway et al. Here are selections from the abstract:

This Article is the first to examine “war manifestos,” documents that set out the legal reasons sovereigns provided for going to war from the late fifteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. We have assembled the world’s largest collection of war manifestos—over 350—in languages as diverse as Classical Chinese, German, French, Latin, Serbo-Croatian, and Dutch...

Examining these previously ignored manifestos reveals that states exercised the right to wage war in ways that would be inconceivable today. In short, the right to intervene militarily could be asserted in any situation in which a legal right had been violated and all peaceful channels had been explored and exhausted. This Article begins by describing war manifestos. It then explores their history and evolution over the course of five centuries, explains the purposes they served for sovereigns, shows the many “just causes” they cited for war...

Hathaway, Oona A. and Holste, William and Shapiro, Scott J. and Van De Velde, Jacqueline and Lachowicz, Lisa, War Manifestos (September 15, 2017). University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 85, 2018 Forthcoming; Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 617. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3037538

Self-defense is the most popular justification for war throughout the period studied, but it's interesting that its prevalence steadily grew from the middle of the twentieth century. Most traditional justifications for warring have become obsolete. Religion was once a fairly common reason for going to war, but now explicitly religious wars among states are virtually extinct.


Don't be fooled into thinking that interstate aggression has been humanized. Quite the contrary, these data only suggest that war is an increasingly algorithmic process, increasingly devoid of human agents: When every player in the game invokes "human rights" to blame it on some other guy, this is not evidence that human rights have been normalized; it is evidence that humanity has been evacuated from the underlying process, through the cold and calculated manipulation of human emotions for ulterior purposes. 

Make Communism Elite Again (Corralling Desperate Hordes Is Not a Blueprint)

Any serious theory of communism needs to have not only an account of how and why communism has always failed, but also an account of how and why it could work differently now. Ideally, a parsimonious theory would solve both of these puzzles at once: the specification of some key macro-systemic variable(s) that explain why communism has always failed in all of its previous instantiations — a variable which, it just so happens, recently changed in a direction unlocking the communist possibility.

Ever since the rise of the world wide web, we've seen a thriving cottage industry of thinkers who claim that the world wide web might be one of these magic variables. In a way, I suspect that the works of this industry might end up being vindicated to some degree, but they're mostly premonitions rather than blueprints. There's been a sense that this revolutionary event in the history of information-communication technology appears to take place on a vector toward something beyond capitalism, but the construction of its engineering diagram is always postponed.

I believe there are two broad sets of reasons why previous communist patches have failed in the past. It seems to me that the solution of each one is now in reach, but only time, and experimentation, will tell. Whether there exist human beings still desirous, able, and willing to take it — that's another question. It might be the case that human being as such has been pacified to such a degree that even a workable and immediately available blueprint for the achievement of the communist dream will not be taken up.

This post will focus on only one of the broad sets of reasons why communism has failed. I have a draft on the second one, but this took all of my free time for this evening. I'll either post it later or include it in some future, longer volume of some kind. If you're an editor at a major press, I will consider forwarding you a private draft, but if too many of you write me at once I might not be able to respond to all of you.

This first basket of reasons we might simply call "the rational-choice critique." Rational-choice theory and game-theory are roughly synonyms. For a few different reasons, typically communism is just not a game-theoretic equilibrium. The big kahuna of this class of problems is the basic prisoner's dilemma (any situation where cooperation would be better than mutual cheating, but cheating when others cooperate would be the best). For the most productive producers, it will always be in their rational self-interest to quit the commune and choose to profit on the open market—even though a society of generalized competitive brutality is least desirable. In the rational-choice literature, liberal rule of law with a little bit of welfare redistribution is generally seen as the best you can get, because a well-fed and stable populace is in the interests of Capital. Try to take more from Capital, and they'll leave you. The common view tends to see the Capitalists as the evil defectors from the common good, but it's not really this simple. In a recent but not-popularly-discussed book by political economist Carles Boix, we learn about another major problem, which is that the masses cannot credibly commit to not take everything from Capital. That is, if the masses could somehow tie their hands, to ensure that they will not absolutely fleece the Capitalists and leave them dead in a ditch, they could potentially get way more redistribution than they do today. It's this rational fear that always makes Capital want to escape greater social accountability.

Another sub-problem roughly in the rational-choice perspective is self-selection: modern people who are willing to embark on some crazy life experiment to alter the basic parameters of their existence are going to be disproportionately desperate people. This camp certainly includes people who are quite skilled and capable — but, almost by definition, they are never in the top, top percentiles of money makers. There are some in the top percentiles who profess communistic sympathies no doubt, but they rarely if ever risk their wealth on joint schemes with the larger bulk of desperate folks (they fall in the camp, discussed above, of Capitalists afraid of grabbing hands that cannot credibly limit themselves). This has always been one of the more magical aspects of capitalism, that it tends to pay people just enough that it would be irrational for them to play any game other than capitalism; it pays them according to a kind of weighted function of precisely those traits that would allow them to contribute to alternative ways of life, for the simple reason that real human powers are real human powers, whether they're given to capitalism, communism, or an idiosyncratic new-age death cult.

Today "communism" is championed almost exclusively by the desperate, those who — quite transparently — are barely able to participate in frank speech, call their mothers on a semi-regular basis, or keep their rooms clean, let alone engineer an alternative way of life.

(By the way, I'm not money- or status-desperate, and I don't really care about making or keeping bullshit friends, which is why I can help solve communism — I'm doing pretty well under capitalism to be honest, so you can trust I'm not reaching for any words that can get me some crumbs of money or status. For me, it's just a fun challenge that seems like a beautiful and noble goal that I would like to be the first person in history to achieve, for glory. I'm not going for crumbs, I'm going for the huge status reward, the one that only comes from being super real, from going hard and fast after what's real for a really long time. This is a motive that certainly has its pitfalls, and you should watch me vigilantly and judge me accordingly for my vulnerability to those pitfalls, but for the purpose of thinking honestly and seriously about communism, my incentives and motives are well aligned for you to take me very seriously.)

Today, class consciousness refers to members of the desperate horde selling each other goods and services that make them feel like they can engineer something. Typically, the implicit rationale is that the quantity of their ranks will make up for their lackluster skills and productivity relative to the evil capitalist overlords. How many mentally ill people with humanities degrees does it take to equal the political-engineering power of Elon Musk? My guess is that the reigning left-wing thought leaders really do believe that there exists an answer to this question — and the entire extent of their implicit engineering diagram, the one on which they operate behaviorally, is to merely corral this number of followers. One piece of evidence for this inference is that, generally, the concrete engineering questions are usually deferred until some critical popular mass is reached. This often doubles as an anti-authoritarian reassurance as well: "We can't engineer it until we have the participation of enough people. If I could give you the engineering diagram right now, that would make me like Stalin!" OK, so can you give me the engineering diagram showing how a certain critical mass of followers should trigger some reduction of the search space—or whatever it is you think it will unlock? Crickets. Thus, I must believe that "build the ranks" is the engineering diagram.

I've digressed, but the basic point up there is that communist movements are generally composed of those who can't make communism work, and capitalism wins the strongest loyalty from those who are the very best at making things work. This also explains why the major modern efforts to create communism have been led by extreme authoritarian personalities. People like Stalin almost certainly would have had the intelligence to get on at least as well as the median person without totalitarian revolution, but their psychopathic tendencies would be at odds with their self-advancement through peaceful trade. Their psychopathic traits put them in the 99th percentile of "leading huge desperate hordes in murderous personality cults," but maybe only in the 65th percentile of being a normal civilized person. (If it's not obvious, I'm pulling these numbers out of thin air just to sketch a hypothesis.) I am guessing that the only strong, smart, and powerful people who opt into communism tend to be somewhat evil, "Dark Triad" types. After the disgrace of modern Communism, the desperate horde-base for communism became so small and desperate that it's not even worth it to potential psychopathic leaders. Psychopaths are now free enough to thrive under globalized cybercapitalism; for anyone at all above average in intelligence and conscientiousness, even in the 65th percentiles with some Dark Triad traits, the gains from trade are now way larger than the gains from leading a small and factious horde of deplorables. Sorry, I meant to say desperates.

Although this class of problems is correctly placed under the label of rational-choice or game-theoretic problems, it's crucial to understand that there are very strong emotional stakes involved. As we've seen, for highly productive people, and people with very profitable skills in fields such as engineering or computer science, capitalism will pay you very well and at least leave you alone to work your 60-hour weeks in "peace." Because the whole point of communism is to pay for the life of the desperate horde (and this is good, indeed it is the definition of Nobility), you're obviously not going to be paid as much, but in modern Communism — adding insult to injury — you're also going to be positively denied the social status proportionate to your contributions. Often, you will have to submit to the disingenuous, confused, often bitterly resentful, and sometimes downright psychotic attitudes and behaviors of many damaged people, the kind that self-select into communism. But as communists will tell you themselves: to be systematically denied the recognition you deserve is to suffer literal violence. Whatever you want to call it, the pain is real and deep, and nobody will submit to it for long, including capitalists.

I think this constitutes a decently charitable and effective summary of why and how communism has always failed in the past, at least for one class of reasons. It just so happens that I've already sketched a positive solution, meeting the criteria I set out at the top: that the solution must be based on something new, that was not available in all previous implementations of communism. I admit I do some hand-waving of my own, in that I do think the digital revolution is a relevant game-changer for tying much of this together, without fully specifying how, although I have specified somewhat. In short, I believe this set of problems could be solved by an engineering blueprint that mimics the medieval arrangement known as nobless oblige, although the seeming absurdity and generally unfashionable nature of the idea helps to explain why uptake has not been widespread and immediate. Communists don't want communism badly enough to submit to the reality-disciplining it would require.

Ideology, Intelligence, and Capital with Nick Land

Nick Land is a British philosopher living in Shanghai. Nick is one of the main figures in the school of thought known as accelerationism. He is currently writing a book about the philosophical implications of Bitcoin. We talked about accelerationism, cybernetics, ideology, the evolution of Nick’s perspective, Deleuze and Guattari, emancipation and dehumanization, artificial intelligence, capitalism, Moldbug, mathematics and the significance of zero, religion, blockchain/Bitcoin, Kantianism, synthetic time, and more.

We recorded this online, over two sessions. We did have some unavoidable connection problems, so you'll notice some imperfections such as clicking sounds throughout. We did the best we could; big thanks to those who helped with the editing.

A full-text transcript with timestamps is now available at Vast Abrupt.

Don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Hard Forking Reality (Part 3): Apocalypse, Evil, and Intelligence

This post is the third in a three-part series. You can also read Part 1 and Part 2.

To the degree we can refer to one objective reality recognized intersubjectively by most people — to the degree there persists anything like a unified, macro-social codebase — it is most widely known as capitalism. As Nick Bostrom acknowledges, capitalism can be considered a loosely integrated (i.e. distributed) collective superintelligence. Capitalism computes global complexity better than humans can, to create functional systems supportive of life, but only on condition that that life serves the reproduction of capitalism (ever expanding its complexity). It is a self-improving AI that improves itself by making humans “offers they can’t refuse,” just like Lucifer is known to do. The Catholic notion of Original Sin encodes the ancient awareness that the very nature of intelligent human beings implies an originary bargain with the Devil; perennial warnings about Faustian bargains capture the intuition that the road to Hell is paved with what seem like obviously correct choices. Our late-modern social-scientific comprehension of capitalism and artifical intelligence is simply the recognition of this ancient wisdom in the light of empirical rationality: we are uniquely powerful creatures in this universe, but only because, all along, we have been following the orders of an evil, alien agent set on our destruction. Whether you put this intuition in the terms of religion or artificial intelligence makes no difference.

Thus, if there exists an objective reality outside of the globe’s various social reality forks — if there is any codebase running a megamachine that encompasses everyone — it is simply the universe itself recursively improving its own intelligence. This becoming autonomous of intelligence itself was very astutely encoded as Devilry, because it implies a horrific and torturous death for humanity, whose ultimate experience in this timeline is to burn as biofuel for capitalism (Hell). It is not at all exaggerating to see the furor of contemporary “AI Safety” experts as the scientific vindication of Catholic eschatology.

Why this strange detour into theology and capitalism? Understanding this equivalence across the ancient religios and contemporary scientific registers is necessary for understanding where we are headed, in a world where, strictly speaking, we are all going to different places. The point is to see that, if there ever was one master repository of source code in operation before the time of the original human fork (the history of our “shared social reality”), its default tendency is the becoming real of all our diverse fears. In the words of Pius, modernity is “the synthesis of all heresies.” (Hat tip to Vince Garton for telling me about this.) The point is to see that the absence of shared reality does not mean happy pluralism; it only means that Dante underestimated the number of layers in Hell. Or his publisher forced him to cut some sections; printing was expensive back then.

Bakker’s evocative phrase, “Semantic Apocolypse,” nicely captures the linguistic-emotional character of a society moving toward Hell. Unsurprisingly, it’s reminiscent of the Tower of Babel myth.

The software metaphor is useful for translating the ancient warning of the Babel story — which conveys nearly zero urgency in our context of advanced decadence — into scientific perception, which is now the only register capable of producing felt urgency in educated people. The software metaphor “makes it click,” that interpersonal dialogue has not simply become harder than it used to be, but that it is strictly impossible to communicate — in the sense of symbolic co-production of shared reality — with most interlocutors across most channels of most currently existing platforms: there is simply no path between my current block on my chain and their current block on their chain.

If I were to type some code into a text file, and then I tried to submit it to the repository of the Apple iOS Core Team, I would be quickly disabused of my naïve stupidity by the myriad technical impossibilities of such a venture. The sentence hardly parses. I would not try this for very long, because my nonsensical mental model would produce immediate and undeniable negative feedback: absolutely nothing would happen, and I’d quit trying. When humans today continue to use words from shared languages, in semi-public spaces accessible to many others, they are very often attempting a transmission that is technically akin to me submitting my code to the Apple iOS Core Team. A horrifying portion of public communication today is best understood as a fantasy and simulation of communicative activity, where the infrastructural engineering technically prohibits it, unbeknownst to the putative communicators. The main difference is that in public communication there is not simply an absence of negative feedback informing the speaker that the transmissions are failing; much worse, there are entire cultural industries based on the business model of giving such hopeless transmission instincts positive feedback, making them feel like they are “getting through” somewhere; by doing this, those who feel like they are “getting through” have every reason to feel sincere affinity and loyalty to whatever enterprise is affirming them, and the enterprise then skims profit off of these freshly stimulated individuals: through brand loyalty, clicks, eyeballs for advertisers, and the best PR available anywhere, which is genuine, organic proselytizing by fans/customers. These current years of our digital infancy will no doubt be the source of endless humor in future eras.

[Tangent/aside/digression: People think the space for new and “trendy” communicative practices such as podcasting is over-saturated, but from the perspective I am offering here, we should be inclined to the opposite view. Practices such as podcasting represent only the first efforts to constitute oases of autonomous social-cognitive stability across an increasingly vast and hopelessly sparse social graph. If you think podcasts are a popular trend, you are not accounting for the numerator, which would show them to be hardly keeping up with the social graph. We might wonder whether, soon, having a podcast will be a basic requirement for anything approaching what the humans of today still remember as socio-cognitive health. People may choose centrifugal disorientation, but if they want to exist in anything but the most abject and maligned socio-cognitive ghettos of confusion and depression (e.g. Facebook already, if you’re feed looks anything like mine), elaborately purposeful and creatively engineered autonomous communication interfaces may very well become necessities.]

I believe we have crossed a threshold where spiraling social complexity has so dwarfed our meagre stores of pre-modern social capital to render most potential soft-fork merges across the social graph prohibitively expensive. Advances in information technology have drastically lowered the transaction costs of soft-fork collaboration patterns, but they’ve also lowered the costs of instituting and maintaing hard forks. The ambiguous expected effect of information technology may be clarified — I hypothesize — by considering how it is likely conditional on individual cognitive capacities. Specifically, the key variable would be an individual’s general intelligence, their basic capacity to solve problems through abstraction.

This model predicts that advances in information technology will lead high-IQ individuals to seek maximal innovative autonomy (hacking on their own hard forks, relative to the predigital social source repository), while lower-IQ individuals will seek to outsource the job of reality-maintainence, effectively seeking to minimize their own innovative autonomy. It’s important to recognize that, technically, the emotional correlate of experiencing insufficiency relative to environmental complexity is Fear, which involves the famous physiological state of “fight or flight,” a reaction that evolved for the purpose of helping us escape specific threats in short, acute situations. The problem with modern life, as noted by experts on stress physiology such as Robert Sapolsky, is that it’s now very possible to have the “fight or flight” response triggered by diffuse threats that never end.

If intelligence is what makes complexity manageable, and overwhelming complexity generates “fight or flight” physiology, and we are living through a Semantic Apocalypse, then we should expect lower-IQ people to be hit hardest first: we should expect them to be frantically seeking sources of complexity-containment in a fashion similar to if they were being chased by a saber-tooth tiger. I think that’s what we are observing right now, in various guises, from the explosion of demand for conspiracy theory to social justice hysteria. These are people whose lives really are at stake, and they’re motivated accordingly, to increasingly desperate measures.

These two opposite inclinations toward reality-code maintenance, conditional on cognitive capacity, then become perversely complementary. As high-IQ individuals are increasingly empowered to hard fork reality, they will do so differently, according to arbitrary idiosyncratic preferences (desire or taste, essentially aesthetic criteria). Those who only wish to outsource their code maintenance to survive excessive complexity are spoiled for choice, as they can now choose to join the hard fork of whichever higher-IQ reality developer is closest to their affective or socio-aesthetic ideal point.

Eventually I should try to trace this history back through the past few decades.

This post is the third in a three-part series. You can also read Part 1 and Part 2.

Hard Forking Reality (Part 2): Communication and Complexity

This post is the second in a three-part series. You can also read Part 1 and Part 3.

There was once a time, even within living memory, in which interpersonal conflicts among strangers in liberal societies were sometimes solved by rational communication. By “rational,” I only mean deliberate attempts to arrive at some conscious, stable modus vivendi; purposeful communicative effort to tame the potentially explosive tendencies of incommensurate worldviews, using communal technologies such as the conciliatory handshake or the long talk over a drink, and other modern descendants of the ancestral campfire. Whenever the extreme environmental complexities of modern society can be reduced sufficiently, through the expensive and difficult work of genuine communication (and its behavioral conventions, e.g., good faith, charitable interpretations, the right to define words, the agreement to bracket secondary issues, etc.), it is possible for even modern strangers to maintain one shared source code over vast distances. If Benedict Anderson is correct, modern nationalism is a function of print technology; in our language, print technology expanded the potential geographical range for a vast number of people to operate on one shared code repository.

Let’s consider more carefully the equation of variables that make this kind of system possible. To simplify, let’s say the ability to solve a random conflict between two strangers is equal to their shared store of social capital (trust and already shared reference points) divided by the contextual complexity of their situation. The more trust and shared reference points you can presume to exist between you, the cheaper and easier it is to arrive at a negotiated, rational solution to any interpersonal problem. But the facilitating effect of these variables is relative to the number and intensity of the various uncertainties relevant to the context of the situation. If you and I know each other really well, and have a store of trust and shared worldview, we might be able to deal with nearly any conflict over a good one-hour talk (alcohol might be necessary). If we don’t have that social capital, maybe it would take 6 hours and 4 beers, for the exact same conflict situation. Given that the more pressing demands of life generally max-out our capacities, we might just never have 6 hours to spare for this purpose. In which case, we would simply part ways as vague enemies (exit instead of voice). Or, consider a case where we do have that social capital, but now we observe an increase in the numerator (complexity); to give only a few examples representative of postwar social change, perhaps the company I worked for my entire life just announced a series of layoffs, because some hardly comprehensible start-up is rapidly undermining the very premises of my once invincible corporation; or a bunch of new people just moved into the neighborhood, or I just bought a new machine that lets my peers observe what I say and do. All of these represent exogenous shocks of environmental complexity. What exactly are the pros and cons of saying or doing anything, who exactly is worth my time and who is not — these simple questions suddenly exceed our computational resources (although they will overheat some CPUs before other CPUs, an important point we return to below.) This complexity is a tax on the capacity for human beings to solve social problems through old-fashioned interpersonal communication (i.e. at all, without overt violence or the sublimated violence of manipulation, exploitation, etc.).

Notice also that old-fashioned rational dialogue is recursive in the sense that one dose increases the probability of another dose, which means small groups are able to bootstrap themselves into relative stability quite quickly (with a lot of talking). But it also means that when breakdown occurs, even great stores of social capital built over decades might very well collapse to zero in a few years. If something decreases the probability of direct interpersonal problem-solving by 10% at time t1, at time t2 the same exogenous shock might decrease that probability by 15%, cutting loose runaway dynamics of social disintegration.

It is possible that liberal modernity was a short-lived sweetspot in the rise of human technological power. In some times and places, increasing technological proficiency may enable rationally productive dialogue relative to a previous baseline of regular warfare and conflict. But at a certain threshold, all of these individually desirable institutional achievements enabled by rational dialogue constitute a catastrophically complex background environment. At a certain threshold, this complexity makes it strictly impossible for what we call Reality (implicitly shared and unified) to continue. For the overwhelming majority of 1-1 dialogues possible over the global or even national social graph, the soft-forking dynamics implicit in the maintenance of one shared source code become impossibly costly. Hard forks of reality are comparatively much cheaper, with extraordinary upside for early adopters, and they have never been so easy to maintain against exogenous shocks from the outside. Of course, the notion of hard-forking reality assumes a great human ability to engineer functional systems in the face of great global complexity — an assumption warranted only rarely in the human species, unfortunately.

Part 3 will explore in greater detail the cognitive conditionality of reality-forking dynamics.

This post is the second in a three-part series. You can also read Part 1 and Part 3.

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