Note: This was written simultaneously to Travels in Hyporeality, and serves to some degree as an inferior companion.
A while back I had the following exchange on Facebook with an acquaintance from the Bay who's the sort of artistic type who's on the periphery of the tech world, but not directly involved with it at an infrastructural level:
I stand by my comment. At the moment, the profession of the UX Designer is one that demands sadism. If I made money off of attention and consistent use to vacuum up data collection, and I was willing to follow orders, that's the system I would design. The current context of our information and communication technologies is such that they're designed to directly inflict pain on us while providing shareholder value and simultaneously, supposedly, bringing us closer together. Maciej Cegłowski made most of the better points of the nature of the current ecosystem better than I will, but it seemed worth bringing up that this kind of ecosystem is transitioning from simply wasting your time and surveilling you into light psychological torture to convert your emotional problems into ad revenue. It's the best way to fulfill the organizational utility function, as defined by the system's architecture rather than its marketing.
The current thing that people usually feel good about realizing about the industry is basically just a reiteration of Goodheart's Law, which states that a given metric ceases to be a good metric the moment it becomes a target. In this case, the metric is engagement and the target is usually a combination of agency for the organization that creates the infrastructure and agency for the users of the infrastructure. The incentives get perverse, and we realize that it doesn't matter if news is real for it to be viral, and somehow we've woken up in a giant deception machine.
We know this though. At least anyone with a functioning mind and voice in the Valley does. The level of intellectual acumen that this takes is low enough actually that I'm usually annoyed at the people who are most visibly angry about all of it, because I'm biased to think it can't be that big of a deal if the rank and file sophomores care about it in predictable ways. In fact, the tendency of reasonably intelligent and informed people to get paranoid and assume that things absolutely have to be more complicated than they could understand to function is more than a bit absurd. I think this concatenation of architecture astronauts has the gall to make John Gall turn in his grave. Whatever informational viruses that take hold in badly designed infrastructural niches have to at least be simple enough to run as subsets of the minds that instantiate them. This means that most of the comforts of paranoid intuition are entirely out of place, and this is actually just a case of foolishness as the level of coordination necessary for most paranoid fantasies to exist is an impossible level of complexity to be contained.
The first point I'd seen the cruel and predatory nature of modern interfaces phrased well at all was on SSC a couple of years back, with Nicky Case recently displaying much of the same phenomenon in a visual format more recently, while also decrying the fact that these systems do in fact increase traffic and user engagement. I'm hoping Tristan Harris takes some more ground, now that people are actually admitting that this whole scenario is a mess, rather than admitting that while it was the logical conclusion of attention-economics but somehow also not a reprehensible conclusion to our designs of communication technology. All of this is right and true, but there seems to be a lot more going on. The rise of detrimental, zero-sum strategies is never an isolated phenomenon.
Let's look at the publicly available rot in the social media sphere, which exists at the moment mostly to collect data for attention-economies to play out. It's taken out most online discourse while leaving behind a pseudo-satisfying shell of conversation that feel like cheaply made emotional pornography, and what's left with actual signal is increasingly vibes like Quora or StackExchange that feel kind of like fast food drivethroughs, anonymized and productized—not so much as a virtual place in the manner of the BBSs that I caught the tail end of and simulated in Christine Love's Digital, but a space lacking space, identity, or action. The only media that I can think of that fits the vibe is David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, which at least one future historian will claim literally killed its author from being too psychologically damaging to produce, as it is torturously dull. At my estimate, Wallace was attempting to intellectually fetishize content-free systems through sheer force of will. Such inhabited space seems impossible to narratize, and thus are toxic to the literary mind. The attempt to find enjoyment in it was an attempt to find enjoyment in indifference, in absence, so that even the chief of diligent masochists cannot find a clear path forward.
To bring these narrative-free spaces to life, the best you could do is some kind anti-narrative Borgesian derivative, like the Library of Babel but instead of the wonder of a finite system's capacity to produce greatly variable configurations with the intuition that it might be worth exploring and understanding them, the computable information is used for base impulses of domination. Even in potentially anonymized spaces like 4Chan, Tumblr or Reddit, the will to enforce a pecking order remains. This is typically accomplished by invoking a vague sense of degeneracy. In 4Chan's case this is biological and racialized, whereas in Tumblr's case it is social and moralized. This mindset is fascinatingly carnivorous but toothless, like carrion-eaters after a plague even if they envision themselves as lions. At the end of the day, though, the only narrative they can conceptualize is something like Warhammer 40,000's Only War, which is matched by their invocations of God Emperors calling for crusades to stamp out the heretic and mutant. There is a clear isomorphism in Tumblr, though oriented around different shibboleths of fan culture, what with Steven Universe being an entirely different and similarly deeply ambivalent simultaneous indictment and apology for authoritarianism similar to 40K.
It is worth noting that both sides of the internet seem to be awaiting the end, living in a sort of twilight of the idols where even the branding techniques common of late 20th century Anglo-Japanese high consumer culture are supplanted by a great number of individuated hedgehogs. (Just for fun, try googling "[INSERT YOUR NAME/ANY OTHER NAME] + The Hedgehog.") It is known to their residents that these are only pseudo-narrative spaces; most of their residents probably work extremely linearized and regularized jobs or schooling environments if they are not among the NEET class with the internet as their primary interaction. They simply engage in a collective hallucination of cultural memory of historical conflict, said hallucination democratically adjusted to a war re-enactment of the mob's taste. The 4Chan variant of the hallucination is rather intriguingly capable of moving people to more sophisticated action than any of its analogues on the left, with the possible exception of whatever bizarre system of acculturation that made the adventurist PissPigGrandDad, unique among modern American communists in that he does things. One cannot consider the actions of street protestors as anything more than hoping their image and signal will reproduce, even if they cannot be sure of stable acres to raise a future upon.
I'm rather sure that the Tumblristas and Channer's are losing against the overall cultural move towards anti-narrativism. The increasing consensus among the people of the internet is that being a person isn't worth it any more. The optimization cult that drinks the sacrament of Soylent has started to fall out of sight, but the general conception of it being worth it to be human, but not worth it to be a person stays. I use these words basically to mean that living life as a biological entity piloting Homo Sapiens is still reasonable to these people, but they have an aversion to anything that might resemble mythic, literary, or filmic narrative in their lives. Even the video games are trending away from it, into MOBAs and current gen MMOs. We can probably consider this population the Industrially Farmed version of humanity. One of the few growth industries left consists of the role of their Temple Grandin: a force automating away the friction in their lives by replacing the things that their mothers used to do for them. This increases their economic output in the few remaining objectively oriented engineering sectors where skill—metis or techne—is more important than raw authoritarian power. It's no accident that their places of work are systemized like colleges, which themselves ended up resembling rich high schools. At least from my semi-feral perspective, this feels like the infertile neoteny of pugs. At least centuries ago the upper classes might become overly refined in the decadence of their late-imperial periods. In this case brutishness and predictability have become the more common signifiers of high economic standing, often coupled with solidifications of wealth in manufactured goods—chiefly the iphone—used as though they were simple commodities. There is of course the argument that there's other things going on, in a wide variety of technological spaces, and that I'm focusing on a set of social pathologies too much when the world is bigger, but this is still the system of lifestyles that are being generated and paid attention to, and regardless of whether or not there is other research being done, the worlds that are being constructed to live in follow these patterns.
The economically dominant strategy is a combination of both self-denial and consumptive excess, yet only as a method to contort the individual into something more akin to an industrial appliance than a self. This recent article in Lapham's describing de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom as an ancestor to the office drama points at most of the complexities of this system. The described operational model that's come to prominence in the tech-giants and their eventually-acquired contenders is to keep their remaining personal alive as the barest of a specialist while automating the rest of their life out of their circle of concern. Simultaneously, the given company's personal is either automating or disintermediating the economy, the latter under the false flag of automation in the case of systems like Uber. The process of disintermediation, as an economic strategy, seems to generally be based on the assumption that owning and monopolizing an industry through the creation of antimarket (in the sense of Braudel and De Landa) or pseudomarket institutions is the only way to turn a real profit in this day and age. Those pseudo/anti-markets are themselves typically cloaked as institutions under market pressure and engage in regulatory capture or implicit monopolistic capture. If there was ever an intention to stack decks against devotees of Schumpeterian creative destruction strategies, this is it. It seems as though the modern disruptors hope to be the last of their kind by freezing the market in a position of stasis for as long as they can, once their massive deferred gratification strategy is successful. At my best estimate, this strategy will fail, introducing costs that cannot be recouped in the ensuing monopoly.
Yet, I don't even think that Uber's deepest problem is economic. The general intuition in the entire economy and culture that contains said economy is that enslavement and ownership, even when lacking any meaningful agentic capacity, is supposed to win out over agentic capacity itself in the public mind. Uber's recent troubles around sexism both inside of its workplace and out point to its leadership operating under a rather strange ontology that takes this strategy of domination as a given. To assume that the territorial complexity of releasing an application like Uber is inside of the technology—a highly linearizable and scalable geolocation and payment processing application—are absurd when the introduction of a fragile and nascent technology pits one at war with entrenched vested interests in an international, intercultural setting. The organization behaves as though this conflict was already resolved. It acts as though the only possible strategy was domination and everything not attempting it has already been removed from the arena and is just sulking on the wrong side of the ropes. Bizarrely, at this moment in time I'm not sure they were wrong. Provided that everything has been twisted into the bizarre mockeries of abstracted predation that I've discussed thusfar in this essay, it makes sense to want to be the apex cannibal. An assumption of those who think they might be in the contending to become an apex predator might assume that all other reasonable contenders have had a similar realization, and thus will be unconcerned with those unenlightened herbivores who have not gazed into the abyss and seen the dark truth of the universe. In saying this I do not mean to condone these actions, simply suggest that they are the product not of some kind of inscrutable malice, but rather a bounded and situational rationality that makes imperfect and dangerous decisions that are technically right given its incomplete and poorly weighted training data. We must assume that Uber, and all other currently active economic actors that are able to survive in the current economy are operating under some kind of finite-game mentality.
To be personally transparent, it is this agentic and willful conformity that keeps me up at night, afraid for the future. An economic rationale that is not even wrong and thus extremely hard to counter in good faith. Even the most bad-faith strategies must be countered in good faith if they are going to be fully laid to rest. I’ve written previously about the failing strategy of trying to counter antisemitism in bad faith on this blog, and at least that demon has a name and an absurdly well-developed language of icons to identify it. This strategy of abstracted cannibalistic predation lacks a name and organizational structure and is instead an emergence from a set of constructural behaviors in local economic strategy. Yet, at the same time, it is a wholly rational practice that emerged from an irrational strategic landscape. So, we must ask, what is the distortion in the strategic landscape that made this make sense? What made coordinated symbiosis look youthfully naive, even impossible? How do we believe this now, when we have access to more technologies of coordination than at any time previously?
The central trend that seems to have caused this is a remarkable abstraction of economic activity. There is a historical argument to be made concerning the advent of this trend in the modern world, but the exact specifics are very difficult to capture, and there are competing narratives that might trace its origin to Sumerian temple complexes, the French Revolution's propensity to believe in a Year One, the East India Companies' travel times, or elsewhere. Regardless of the supposed origin point, the core concept is the difference between business in the modern sense and trade in the historic sense.
To begin breaking this down, there is the difference between trade and artisanship. In the case of a profession like glassblowing or even the import-export of warehoused commodities, a given economic actor has a direct relationship to the physical world. In the case of the business of business, the decisionmaking process is abstracted from objective cause and effect as it concerns instruments of control—corporations, financial products, that lack physical structure. As they deal in laws, money, and media as instruments of control and representations of physicality, rather than literal things like food, weapons, or buildings, these spaces are artificially simplified environments where the social dynamics present are far more important than the given industry that individual instrumentalists attempt to profit by controlling. Business is almost exclusively about making deals with people who never actually touch the things that they trade in. This is, of course, efficient as long as you can still keep your head about it and somehow simulate the systems one is affecting which becomes increasingly impossible as they scale. It's not as though there's a downside to the invention of money, especially when it's non-abstracted like a Katanga Cross, just as there's not a downside to the advantage of the telegraph or the internet when your population is literate enough to understand the implicit and explicit context of writing and images.
The troublesome thing is that these fully abstracted, artificial environments are the highest class places to position oneself in society, and in a sort of holdout from the European Aristocracy's gentlemanly norms of passive income, but lacking the pseudo-feudal norms of honor in military or civil service. Engaging in physically-oriented labor is seen as low-status, except as a process of suffering before pulling oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps. Somehow this is all cloaked in a jeans wearing, pseudo-working class affect that conceals the fact that most of the supposed work being done is tokenized, symbolic, and in essence performative. What matters in these kinds of spaces is, amusingly, the immaterial abstractions of capital.
This tendency towards delayed gratification to obtain future capital though abstract, symbolic labor dominated by people talented in microeconomic negotiation is a present Schelling Point for almost anyone with ambition, regardless of altruism or selfishness. Intellectuals who desire autonomy become careerists even if they would prefer to be scientists, artists, or other informationally and physically productive professions because control is not free, and coordination is expensive. Brutes mask their violence in professionalism. In the lives of these careerists that I have met in finance, politics, or any other abstract domain where control is bought and sold and seen as its own reward, I see a curious masochism. They chose their careers for instrumental value; things to do with money and offices are as far from the metal as you can be. Their whole life is a status symbol, a product, but one totally removed from anything but cosmetic experiential validity.
So what happens to a society when the Schelling Point is abstraction itself? What happens when the subjective social reality is more important to maintaining status and security than any connection to cause and effect in reality? Well, first the numbers lose their value. It's not as though they need to be representational anymore, as the critical variable for the functioning of any given agent is their position in the social graph and reputation, rather than their ability to actually keep track of the given abstractions used by their position in a control system. Robin Hanson's The Age of Em seems to accidentally be a good counterfactual model of just how absurd the world we live in is. It shows just how much less sense things make if the paper-pushers are actually doing their stated jobs instead of the medium of paper-pushing being the message, instead of anything that's actually written on the paper. By Occam's Razor, we must begin to assume that law, finance, and most all other bureaucracies are a sort of magic trick, even if many of the individuals creating this magic trick aren't even all that conscious of it. The majority of the writing and record-keeping is an act of misdirection to remove attention from the verbal agreements and internal speculation that actually are driving the movement of control. The illegibility of these writing systems leads individuals with the intelligence to discern the fact that there is no content to assume that there must be content, making up fake complexity in the name of not denying the existence of unknown unknowns despite being able to see at least the borders of the totality of the messaging system, unless components of it are obviously classified or redacted. There is no strategic asymmetry derivable from actually doing the work, only from having the appearance of doing it. The utility bottoms out at that which can persuade, rather than that which can be accurate, leading to a general decay in the abstracted symbolic system's accuracy as everyone's competing to halfass their descriptions of things to the maximal level without getting caught. There is no other way to keep up with the rat-race, no time to actually do the work when the appearance of the work is priced higher than the labor itself.
In this scenario, in-group status becomes paramount above all else. One must learn to fit in. Oddly, sadomasochism might be considered a training system by which one practices the kind of dark power that eventually is used to get the promotion. One must know when to submit and to dominate, to play the tempo-games of the pecking order. The absurd thing, though, is that this assumption that somehow in-group status might confer you long term thriving stability. Why would anyone assume that flocking to someone who was good at winning zero-sum games and pledging labor would lead to eventually gaining enough resources for personal autonomy? The clustering around an in-group in an intense, dominating zero-sum mindset is usually based on the idea that the person at the center has secret knowledge about how to win zero-sum games. However, in the zero-sum ontology, all autonomy is taken or given, not grown from nothing, thus it will never make sense for the local singleton in the in group to allow his lackeys enough autonomy locally to be autonomous, as both the evidence of his authority—followers, employees, etc—will be gone, and simultaneously there will be a rival to deal with while in a damaged state. This is, of course, absurd to look at from a positive-sum ontology, but those are rare, especially in abstracted and symbolic business environments. Even though its absurd, the integration of these ideas into much of the socioeconomic system means that spending time in a great deal of wage-proffering territory is an act of reckless self-endangerment. It is not a fast kind of reckless self-endangerment, but a slow-one based on the attrition of will and freedom by positioning oneself in a scenario where one is vassalized and must obtain further vassals to maintain a position in a larger economic structure. This cannibalistic economy cannot be productive, and more than its lack of production, it cannot be just or kind. We must conclude that all illuminati are pyramid schemes, and to be avoided. We must conclude that the trapper strategies that we see present in companies like Facebook at the moment are elements of this great Pyramid Scheme, something that the Guardian enlightened us on aspects of today. Though this rant of diagnosis is obviously long enough already, I hope to determine an alternative to sociopathology of economic vassalization and cannibalism.