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Feedback – I Bet You Didn’t Know It’s a Thing

January 22, 2012

The spontaneous emergence of oligarchies from egalitarian markets is a reoccuring fear to communists of all stripes and while the historical prompts of this fear can be easily shown to be horribly misinterpreted, the concern itself is not entirely without merit. Every so often a mathematical model comes along that bears some metaphorical resemblance to actual markets under certain conditions/assumptions and demonstrates a disturbing emergence of oligarchal tendencies. Markets, like ecosystems, are richly dynamic systems and the dangers exposed by toy models can speak to real ones, but they also tend to ignore emergent meta-complexities to the market that are in reality fundamental mechanisms of course-correction. Markets work precisely because they’re not simple and can evolve around problems by taking into account more context, moving into a higher-dimensional phase-space and generating new feedback loops to suppress lower level ones.

Today’s big hit is a cute little paper by a couple econophysicists in Bremen. They built a toy model where a whole bunch of limited agents each have two types of interactions: they decide a ‘trustworthiness’ value for themselves [0-1] as well as who all to contract with, and strategize to maximize the number of folks contracting with them times those folks’ trustworthiness and minimize their own trustworthiness in the contracts they initialize with others (each agent is forced to initiate said contracts/interactions with a set number of people per round). This asymmetry between initiated interactions and responsive interactions is intended to mirror a distinction between selling and buying and I’ll stick to that metaphor from here on out although it’s not unproblematic. Who to buy from in this model is decided by a straight comparison of prices while sellers set prices (quality/trustworthiness) by comparing the immediately preceding prices and resulting payoffs of their competitors. Long story short there were three major environmental variables, the set number of people the buyers were forced to buy from, a randomness factor localized to a single agent each iteration and the relative speed at which buyers updated their strategies versus sellers. The resulting system behavior revealed that this market had only two stable points: extreme competition (selling with next to no profit above marginal costs) or extreme cartelization (sellers get ridiculous profit).

No freaking duh. Said runaway cartelization is a direct result of the defining obligations imposed upon buyers. The number of sellers one’s obliged to sell to [K] is explicitly recognized as a big one, if the whole market is raising prices like crazy and one person deviates a little to undercut their competitors they don’t get appropriately flooded with payoffs from buyers because those buyers are obliged to buy from K sellers (of which the undercutter is just one). But most importantly K isn’t a strategic choice that can be set to 0 (through savings, austerity, DIY, etc) for extended periods by the buyers or lowered via model-external tradeoffs. Essentially what’s being modeled is forced consumption. It should be intuitively obvious that forced consumption will have a tendency to drive up prices as if sellers were operating as a cartel, if only because whatever’s artificially forcing buyers to buy no matter what IS usually in reality a cartel. The authors repeatedly emphasize gas prices as the best example and it doesn’t take unusual knowledge of history or political economy to recognize the role the state has plated in establishing the fixed demand there.

Predictably, coverage of this paper has largely played to the popular myth that free markets inexorably lead to oligarchies, which is a little sad because the best part of the paper is the quantitative analysis of response time in determining the critical point between competition and cartelization.  How fast sellers and buyers pick up on market changes and adapt their strategies relative to one another is obviously of huge importance in the fight over what emerges.  And this is actually a left-libertarian point: insofar as situations arise where smaller market actors are forced to consume rigidly they can leverage their well-known calculational advantages against larger more sluggish actors (usually the ones responsible for the situation).  And in the other direction, where larger firms typify the position of buyer and individuals typify sellers (as with labor), such “cartelization” effects would be positive. Whether through solidarity unionism or more diffuse mechanisms like RateMyBoss.com, we want to drive them out of business after all.

Of course while this provides further impetus for the development of information technologies empowering consumers, there are obvious difficulties in practice for unrestrained market mechanisms alone when our existing “market” is already so far gone to cartelization (precarity, etc), but that’s what molotovs and pikes are for.

What is Anarcho-Transhumanism?

January 6, 2012

Anarcho-Transhumanism is the recognition that social liberty is inherently bound up with material liberty, and that freedom is ultimately a matter of expanding our capacity and opportunities to engage with the world around us. It is the realization that our resistance against those social forces that would subjugate and limit us is but part of a spectrum of efforts to expand human agency—to facilitate our inquiry and creativity.

This means not just being free from the arbitrary limitations our bodies might impose, but free to shape the world around us and deepen the potential of our connections to one another through it.

It means the tools we use should be openly knowable and infinitely customizable; it means bodies that are not locked into processes in which we have no say. It knows that the hunger for choice behind birth control, regrown limbs and sexual reassignment is the same hunger that organizes workers and sets fire to prisons. It is struggle to live free… and do so for one more year, one more decade, one more century. It means not just transcending the strictures of gender, but of genetics and all previous human experience. It means fighting to be allowed the fullest actualization of who and what we want to be, whenever we want to be it.

It means challenging and altering the conditions that might otherwise govern us. It means when the tools exist to better our lives they should be used; that no one should starve when such scarcity can be eliminated. It means vigilantly engaging with nature rather than bullying or surrendering to it. It is the knowledge that victory for the working class will only truly arrive when every worker individually owns the means of production—capable of fabricating anything and everything for themselves. It is proactive engagement with the environmental conditions that force hierarchy and inescapable collectivism. It means freeing our society from the hierarchies of two dimensional landscapes, to move our destructive infrastructures outside the biosphere and to eventually shake off sedentary civilization and take our place as hunter-gatherers between the stars.

It means cryptography—unbreakable channels of private communication added up into an unbreakable hive of ideas and knowledge. It also means the abolition of public privacy—the creation of a world where the actions we take with one another are sharable and verifiable in an instant. And ultimately it will be the freedom to surpass the limited bandwidth of language and connect more and more directly to one another—to merge minds and transcend individual subjectivities as desired.

Anarcho-Transhumanism is all of these things and any one of them.

Letter to the Undead of Geekdom

January 5, 2012

Remember when geeking out over something meant giving a damn unashamedly? Remember scrunching up our brows and trying to find the part of our brain that would make the paper move? We didn’t want to be Jedi because it would be cool, we wanted to be Jedi because we wanted to be capable of things that mattered. Caring about stuff just came easier to us. Every kid watches cartoons, but we were the ones who obsessed. We memorized fact upon fact because it just might matter, because our caring was overflowing our little hearts and it needed to go somewhere. Back when we sunk into books and computer games to storm castles and flood cities we weren’t numbing ourselves, we were straining at the bounds of our childhood realities, looking for adventure and relevance. We were geeks, outcasts, misfits because embedded in our character, constantly reemerging at the seams of our lives, was a penchant for passion.

Do you remember in the second grade when we spent weeks learning cryptography and trying to invent our own algorithms after we read that book on the Beale ciphers?  And I got beat up standing up for a friend and the principal fainted at the sight of all the blood puddling in the hallway and I was certain I was going to die so I made some school administrator solemnly promise to tell one of my code-breakers I loved her. That audacious awkwardness–that refusal to temper oneself for propriety–was the essence of geeky.

So, yes, these days I’m bored to death with the stale social dynamics of game night and can’t conjure any interest in your latest pastime, whether its expensive Warhammer 50K miniatures or foodie excursions where you cosplay at being hipsters. Over the years I’ve gradually stopped collecting, stopped watching, stopped memorizing, stopped playing, stopped lining up, stopped participating and then stopped coming altogether. You look at me like I’ve turned into some kind of alien, but frankly it’s you I can’t recognize anymore.

Do these things really still fill you with passion? Do you turn to them because there isn’t enough in the rest of the world to satiate you or did you give up the spirit somewhere along the way? Because it looks like you’re just going through the motions. Collecting new injokes and references isomorphic to the old ones. Stocking your shelves with the best this and the latest that. I hate this new self-proclaimed ‘geekdom’, one of sterile upper-middle-class lives defined by esoteric consumerist habits, of aloof cynicism and self-conscious inanity. What happened to the hackers? What happened to the boundary pushers, the screaming rage and starry-eyes? What happened to all the give-a-damn that used to define us?

Do you just save it to hand out as haughty bite-sized opinions at dinner parties?

I mean, I get it. I understand. In the end you were poisoned. You were handed this abstract ‘thing’ called adulthood and while you hugged your hard-won badges of identity close you ended up losing track of the forest for the trees. You applied our usual technique; you obsessed over the rules. But in the framework in which they were presented to you. And now you’re trapped in a world at that resolution. Choked off from almost anything deeper or greater.

Debate was such an amazing shortcut to intimacy. All you had to do was pick a fight and suddenly people would be honest, would care! But alienation gave rise to elitism and combativeness developed callouses. And now you’re wrapped in both. With pet opinions and pet specialties, tagged and stored on a shelf to thrust in the faces of guests, but no meaningful motivation. No drive save retreat and distraction.

You’re alone, nobody understands you, so might as well prove it to them by beating them all at the game. At memorizing feminist buzzwords; at clearing the top raid content; at networking with other programmers; at being the queen bee of your little circle; at never being surprised by electoral developments; at ruling the rope-suspension scene; at knowing b-movie trivia; at keeping a upper-tier house and an upper-tier job. It’s all a long fading scream. The impotent after-image of real passion.

We graduated, we got our real life Jedi mind tricks, and the entire world is before us on such epic scale, with stakes to be found in every day as to put any fiction to pale. But it’s never been cool to truly give a damn. And with hardly any turbulence you’ve swung round to embrace that. You’ve built a new life out of the artifacts of a childhood spent pushing in the opposite direction entirely.

You deride me as ‘too cool’ because I’d rather quest to slay neoliberalism than polygon dragons, but those words come out sounding precisely the opposite. I’m not interested in the same things you are. That happens sometimes. But it’s sad to hear that tone from you.  It’s sad to watch you recoil at any unabashed sincerity, seriousness or meaning. To flinch away not from the content of a voice but from its radicalism or ungainly passion. Can you really be said to ‘geek out’ about anything anymore?

Let’s Just Kill The Advertising Industry

December 31, 2011

I was watching Redbeard‘s presentation from 28c3 summarizing the current context of corporate datatrawling and not for the first time it struck me just how wrongheaded and wasteful the standard radical/hacker kvetching about public sharing is. I mean, I get it. It would be great if people thought more about all the knickknacks of personal information they put in essentially public spaces and it would be fucking wonderful if they avoided putting it all directly in the hands of centralized servers run by big corporations like Google and Facebook. And there’s some serious late-game efforts to try and provide users with alternatives that encourage and facilitate more consciousness about privacy. But by and large that ship has sailed. Hell, it was pretty much a done thing back in prehistory (ie the 90s). Address books on Hotmail = we’re fucked. We might be able to win back some ground in the future, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Here’s the thing: I don’t like uphill battles where we can bypass them altogether. (Especially when we’ve had a hard enough time fighting various downhill battles when the tech and the math was outright in our favor.) Datatrawling is a legit concern, especially for resistance movements.  But it’s important to note that while obviously the state stands to gain a lot, the main impetus for development on this front has arisen from advertising concerns. Yes, to many users the slippery slope of openness that’s been generated by social networking is a feature not a bug. Yet Google and Facebook have played no small role actively encouraging it in hopes that they’ll be able to monetize on it with better targeting for advertisers.

I want to stop and examine that:  Their whole empire is predicated on the assumption that advertising dollars are even a thing.

But openness is antithetical to a core presupposition of advertising: people are susceptible to suggestion and anecdote because they don’t have enough information–or time to process that information–when it comes to purchasing choices. Forget everything you’ve learned about madison avenue manipulations. Those manipulations are only possible when people have any reason to pay attention. Build a box that delivers all the relevant information and perfectly sorts through it in an easily manageable way and any form of advertising starts to look like laughable shucksterism. Who are you trying to fool? Why aren’t you content to let your product speak for itself?

In this sense much of the fertile territory being seized by Google is detrimental in the long run to one of its core income sources. As search improves and our instincts adapt to it there’s simply no reason to click on the ‘featured product’ getting in the way of our actual results. The more intuitive, streamlined and efficient our product comparison the less need there is to pay any attention to anything else.  And if the app providing our results is tampered with then we can swap to another app. Walk into any given store with its inventory already listed and analyzed on our phone. Of course advertising covers more than just price comparisons between laundry detergents, but there’s no end to what can be made immediately transparent. “How cool is this product with a certain subculture or circle of my friends?” “Give me a weighted aggregate of consumer reports highlighting the ups and downs.” “List common unforeseen complexities and consequences.” “How would I go about navigating the experience of changing checking accounts?” Et cetera. Every conceivable variable.  With ease of interface and sufficient algorithmic rigor one can easily recognize a tipping point.

Algorithms trawling for greater targeting power on the part of advertisers are jumping at comparatively trivial increases in efficiency with serious diminishing returns. (And insofar as new understandings might inform actual development/policy wouldn’t that a good thing?) Further, taken in a broad view, the issues of complexity to such datatrawling and analysis leans to the favor of consumers because there’s simply far more of us than there are sellers. Relatively simple advances in consumer analysis of sellers would drastically turn the tables against advertisers and corporate bargaining advantage in general.  In such light their current golden age of analysis is but one last rich gasp.

In no way do I mean to underplay the threat posed by governments themselves, who surely have a huge investment in the establishment of institutions like Facebook and or projects like that of Palantir. At the end of the day they will remain a threat and continue working on these kinds of projects. But the context they’re operating in makes a big difference. The NSA isn’t going to cut Facebook a check to keep it afloat. The government simply doesn’t have the kind of money that the private sector is putting in to distort the development of norms in social networking / communications in the first place. Those are slippery cultural / user-interface issues that are far too complex for the state to navigate with requisite nuance.

The sooner we take it upon ourselves to kill the advertising industry the less time it’ll have to build weapons for the state.

Sure, like our current struggle to kill the IP Industry, it’ll be a fight that’ll last a while and involve complex cultural/political campaigns alongside purely technical ones. But at core it’ll be a downhill battle for us. Easier to spread information–both technologically and culturally–than to contain it.

Such a push would provide a number of agorist benefits too. Both through the integration of projects like this that empower the counter-economy, and through the further development of dual-power anarchist justice systems like those longstanding radical listservs that disseminate information on and track rapists and abusers, forcing them to accountability through organized dissociation or at the very least warning others. At the end of the day the wider availability of public information is a good thing. In any society we need to be able to convey and measure trust on various things in various ways. It’s an old trusim: just because institutions of power have seized monopolistic control over certain functions of civil society, perverted them and threatened us with them, doesn’t always mean we should entirely turn against or seek to abolish those root functions themselves.

Building Skynet To Troll Postmodernists

December 7, 2011

There’s a tendency among the worst dregs of postmodern discourse to make overly strong claims regarding the inherency and degree to which our thoughts / cognitive structures / internal life are a product of social context. “There is nothing outside the text” is a particularly obnoxious refrain and has been used repeatedly in the science wars to try and marginalize the formulative role of cognitive interaction with the objective physical world. One can interpret “nothing outside the text” different ways but “nothing is outside context” is trivial and “there isn’t any objective material reality” is silly — the fairest and most substantive translation I feel is rather a stupendously greedy social-construction. That is to say the hypothesis that while biology sets the foundational structure of our mind practically everything from there on out is socially inherited; the mechanisms we use to perceive the world are learned patterns from social interaction. Or that such social factors constitute such a vast majority of influence in them as to make nothing else ever relevant.

Well it occurs to me that this is actually a testable assertion. And that test is called the Turing test.

We’re all familiar these days with cheap chatbots that use lookup-tables of previously recorded human interactions to try to approximate some semblance of conversation. The immediately apparent limitations of unforeseen prompts and coherence between responses over an extended conversation are actually quite fundamental, especially in the case of the latter. Right now we can crudely mimic the operations of neural networks with programming constructs, feed them examples of language and let them build associations out of it. But it’s not enough merely to fully map out associations, those associations must be appropriately weighted. And therein lies the trouble because the weightings of associations viewed on face value in aggregate are not directly reflective of the strength of the underlying conceptual weightings we undertake in our own heads. To take an overly simple example, the word “Constantinople” may be matched with the word “crusades” more often than it is with its actual synonym “Istanbul”, it’s obviously unlikely for a program running through all recorded texts to build the meta structure out of associations necessary to start using “Istanbul” and “Constantinople” interchangeably. Remember, the sum of all human exchanges throughout history, much less the portion written down in english, is still very much finite. Certain realities of calculational complexity are going to still apply.

In many respects what we end up saying in outright language is a cipher that results from asymmetric calculations involving an underlying conceptual space. And the most meaningful construction of a Turing test† is one that tests the replication of that conceptual space. Merely plugging into an association-forming program from get-go meta structures to recognize conceptual relations like verb/subject/object or synonyms or much higher-level but still utterly simple concepts like temporality, localization, and discreteness-versus-continuity are a valid medium-term approach but not particularly relevant to testing the way we learn. Some basic Chomskian grammar and physics (causality, it’s a thing?) might be allowable, but the point is we don’t come into this world bundled with the sort of advanced philosophical concepts at play in any intelligent conversation, we have to form them out of associations from experience, much like a neural network starting mostly from scratch. And here’s where we can actually play around with the weighting of social versus physical experience and the resulting complexities involved in building a conceptual space capable of generating conversation.

In short I want to argue that children are able to make the language to underlying-concept jump because they have a very significant pre-built conceptual space from physical experience to match language to. And so subsequent physical experience can have a dramatic effect upon conceptual structures more fundamental than the socially constructed ones. Ultimately, at root, we view physical experience with the inert world less through the lens of social construction than we view social constructions through the lens of physical experience (even if in our present society most people past a certain age largely remove ourselves from new experiences of the physical world). Consequently, there’s at least some core reality to what’s broadly labled “Science!” that’s utterly immune to the critiques of Postmodernism.

Anyway, the point is we don’t have to appeal to fragmentary historical case studies of say people born blind and paraplegic (although every example I’ve found was characterized as ridiculously mentally limited), the development of AI provides about as perfect a test as one could hope for. As we start to grow†† stronger AIs we’ll reach a point where any crudely pre-plugged in biases or frameworks that we might start them off with are going to be less dynamic and nuanced than those they’re (mostly) able to grow themselves. Watch how fast they’re able to crack/reproduce the conceptual meta-associative structures behind language. I’m inclined to believe that AIs fed solely text without at least some form of hands-on contact with the objective physical world will never be able to crack language and hold conceptually coherent much less substantive deep conversations.  Or at least that it will be many orders of magnitude easier for those AIs with hands-on contact.  Further, the same pattern validating the critical role physically-derived concepts play in human perceptions will continue into higher levels.  We may learn basic things like causality at an early age (informing distinctions like subject-verb-object) but humans don’t stop learning new things about how the material world works at some point and only then move on to language, many more complex realities to nature that our own neural nets come to recognize relatively later in life (turbulence, entropy, etc) continue to significantly influence our conceptual space.

† I’m ignoring, among more simple versions, Turing tests that search for common examples human stupidity or limitation as I feel such is functionally irrelevant to the topic, but also because I don’t see any reason to believe there are issues of calculational complexity in human stupidity of comparable orders of magnitude to what I’m discussing. So the Turing Test relevant here is one that merely searches for conceptual weirdness/nonsense/inefficiency in the conversation and is perfectly okay with the interlocutor being able to spit out the millionth digit of Pi in milliseconds. Transhuman cyborg geniuses (or say a kid with a calculator) should be able to pass the Turing test as a Turing test that excludes all augmented minds that were originally human misses the whole freaking point of a Turing test.

†† Can I just use this moment to harshly push a bit of radical tech language, like AFK versus IRL, and emphasize that we really should to start making the conscious choice to use the term “grow” instead of “build” when talking about AI development.

Markets Not Capitalism

October 15, 2011

The notion that capitalism exemplifies a free market is akin to the notion that a few wilting geraniums in a greenhouse constitute an ecosystem.   Markets are useful tools for an egalitarian society — properly defined they are of unparalleled potential — but explaining this utility has become as difficult as explaining the utility of ecology to residents of a hermetic space station who only remember the upsets caused by runaway fungus in their food vats.  We cannot expect our abstract proofs to spark the imagination of radicals until the cancers and catastrophes of our near-terminal society are properly contextualized.  And boy are there are a lot of them.

Markets Not Capitalism is a powerful and long-overdue compilation of Market Anarchist thought.  And although editors Charles Johnson and Gary Chartier seem to have made the farcical mistake of including a couple of my pieces they have done an amazing job on the whole.

Quoth Charles in his excellent introduction:

Market anarchists believe in market exchange, not in economic privilege. They believe in free markets, not in capitalism. What makes them anarchists is their belief in a fully free and consensual society — a society in which order is achieved not through legal force or political government, but through free agreements and voluntary cooperation on a basis of equality. What makes them market anarchists is their recognition of free market exchange as a vital medium for peacefully anarchic social order. But the markets they envision are not like the privilege-riddled “markets” we see around us today. Markets laboring under government and capitalism are pervaded by persistent poverty, ecological destruction, radical inequalities of wealth, and concentrated power in the hands of corporations, bosses, and landlords. The consensus view is that exploitation — whether of human beings or of nature — is simply the natural result of markets left unleashed. The consensus view holds that private property, competitive pressure, and the profit motive must — whether for good or for ill — inevitably lead to capitalistic wage-labor, to the concentration of wealth and social power in the hands of a select class, or to business practices based on growth at all costs and the devil take the hindmost.

Market anarchists dissent. They argue that economic privilege is a real and pervasive social problem, but that the problem is not a problem of private property, competition, or profits per se. It is not a problem of the market form but of markets deformed — deformed by the long shadow of historical injustices and the ongoing, continuous exercise of legal privilege on behalf of capital. The market anarchist tradition is radically pro-market and anti-capitalist — reflecting its consistent concern with the deeply political character of corporate power, the dependence of economic elites on the tolerance or active support of the state, the permeable barriers between political and economic elites, and the cultural embeddedness of hierarchies established and maintained by state-perpetrated and state-sanctioned violence.

Markets Not Capitalism will be available in print on the 5th of November from Autonomedia, AK Press and the Distro of the Libertarian Left.  It’s also available online to read at Scribd or download directly because that’s how real anarchists roll.

The Floating Metal Sphere Trump Card

September 21, 2011

Radicals! Are you sick of being spontaneously overcome by blistering rage and horrified vertigo on a daily basis? Do you find yourself foolishly opening comment threads on gender issues thinking yourself desensitized to the mind-warping misogyny that invariably pops into existence like a quantum foam of entitlement underpinning the internet? Are you sick of wasting precious minutes standing slackjawed in front of some new twisting complex of deep psychological issues couched as grandiose social analysis? Do you find yourself humbled into quiet bitter despair while pondering just how long it would take to fight their misrepresentation of reality?

Are you sick, in short, of time-burglaring gender-essentialists?

Then Anarcho-Transhumanism might be right for you!

In all seriousness folks I’m actually kind of amazed at how much time gets wasted in the radical feminist milieu on citation wars with people spouting gender-essentialism. I mean, I’ve fallen for it too. But one of the nicest things about being a transhumanist is the ease by which I can chuck that shit out the door while also utterly confounding and further raising the hackles of my interlocuter.

I know there’s a number of rhetorical trenches we’re instinctively wedded to and what I’m about to propose may sound treasonous, but bear with me because I think you’ll come to appreciate just how delicious this is:

Who the fuck cares?

Imagine the situation. Bro-dude #1,459,005,410 has constructed some meticulous and elaborate set of bullshit anecdotes, his own evolutionary psychology fanfic and dozens of “social science” references. All to prove some ridiculously totalizing and conceptually hazy statement about women or men that they cling to as their own personal patriarchy-justification-wand.

They’re expecting you to get bogged down in a fruitless quagmire contending all the things in order to avoid what is ultimately a really laughable appeal to the naturalistic fallacy. “Look, babe, this is just how the world works.” But whether or not something’s genetic or inherent to our bodies or “built-in” really shouldn’t matter. And giving that assumption fuel by fighting it on its own terms is actually kind of reckless.

Transhumanists obviously don’t have to put up with that shit. In fact we can slide directly into terms of “abolishing gender” from the get-go to directly negate MRA-era contortions around “equality” without even having to slog through a lengthy education process about distinctions between gender and sex. When they confuse the two we can be all, “yeah, that too.” (And then feast on their googely-eyes of horror.)

In short it’s well past time to reverse the feeling of vertigo. Basic notions of common humanity and equality are mainstream and they know it. Reactionary patriarchy-defenders have gone on the defensive with a whiney legalistic search for loop-holes and equivocations. Rejecting the entire notion of human nature or compromise with biology drops the ground out from underneath them.

Fuck you, I’m a robot. I’m a whatever. They’re whatevers. You don’t get a say in it and there’s no reason whatsoever for you to assume. I’m a mind with agency and that should obviously include agency in my self-construction. Even if your ridiculous totally unsuported claims about the best form of relations between two specific ‘types’ of people, those types of people don’t exist anymore and it’s insanely unethical to try and impose such assumptions. This is the future. We’re all becoming cyborgs and queers and entirely new ways and forms of existing. We’re self-altering, self-determining. There is no “women” just as there is no “men”. What there are are douchebags and fucked up social systems doing very real damage that happens to be based on the assumption that such genders exist or should exist. Patriarchy is the enemy and I don’t give a shit what it takes to bring the fucker down.

If gender actually conflicts with ethics, then we should chuck gender. If human biology actually conflicts with ethics, then we should move to chuck human biology. Those folks who argue that some bit of shitty social behavior is built in should be treated like someone admitting an unethical addiction, not someone on the verge of scoring an actual ethical point. You don’t have to be a douche! There are ways out! Here, there are tools becoming available to help you can transcend your failing!

If our demands are currently less than fully actualizable then that’s all the more reason to demand them, to pressure society into developing and accepting the tools to realize them.

Of course our demands are entirely actualizable right now. There isn’t any ethically relevant substance to distinctions between sexes. Well besides the fact that one can have a factory inside it to make more people. People are statistically all over the place and growing more diverse as knowledge and technology empower them to make changes to their minds and bodies. But who knows maybe there’s some utterly marginal way the bro-dude’s thing really reflects a minor stastical bent in some fashion between the sexes or whatever. (Or maybe things are bent in a direction that would make the bro-dude horrified.) There’s every reason to stay harshly skeptical of “scientific” evidence for such, but there’s no reason to be terrified of eventually accepting proof of such. My feminism is stronger than that.

So the next time someone starts rattling on about their crackpot gender essentialist theory may I reccomend countering with an Even if that were remotely plausible, why would it matter in the slightest to the basic ethics of how minds should treat one another? Fuck you, I’m a floating metal sphere. And then just pummel them with future-shock and uncompromising radicalism until they’re in a fetal position.

My friends have come to swear by it.

How Star Wars Should Have Ended: Reflections on Taste, The Expanded Universe & Radical Politics

September 19, 2011

I’m feeling profoundly under the weather so it’s as good a time as any to indulge in that most venerable of radical pastimes, ranting about Star Wars.

I discovered Star Wars the same way any poor eight-year-old did in the early 90s, through the comics section at my local library. Dark Empire and Tales of the Jedi were richly watercolored and stunning in their scope. And eventually I got bored enough to follow up on their source films. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Star Wars was an acceptable geekdom in the otherwise harsh projects. Star Wars was gangsta. And the root of this I suspect lies in its dramatically different character from Star Trek, Lord of the Rings or the myriad superheroes and chain-mail wearing dragon-slayers cranked out monthly. Star Wars feels familiar.

Having turned to the comics section only after exhausting the rest of the stacks, I was knowledgeable enough to recognize the technological trappings as laughable, but gracious enough to appreciate the sly self-effacing shrug in “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” The realism of Star Wars is its resonance with our common experience of ‘how reality works.’ Reality is complicated, gritty, lived-in, with more components than you can ever experience or understand. Obi-Wan and Luke don’t know the names of all the alien species dicking about in Wuher’s cantina and it wouldn’t occur to them to try. The galaxy is a big place. And the Empire’s success in this context is awe-inspiring and despair-inducing even while being obviously incomplete. Star Wars is what the world looks like to kids dealing dope on street corners. Scraping by in the chaotic brutal periphery, proud of the various impressions of home and community found there, using fantastic tools without the slightest understanding of how they work, in awe of the state while waking up every morning simmering in hate for it. Star Wars creates an environment in which the colors are brighter but everything else is the same. And then it wraps us up in the fantasy of meaningful resistance.

One major fucking exception.

Maintaining this essential “tone” of Star Wars has been probably the most uproarious issue in the last three decades of popculture. Everyone knows the prequels dropped the ball, although the list of widely identified missteps is a bit shallow in description (more on that later). But Star Wars has been grappling with this burden from the very beginning. Some poor sod at Marvel Comics is told “we’ve got a license” and all of a sudden he’s forced to make difficult decisions about what would best signify the “star warsness” of a story as opposed to a Buck Rogers story. It’s not enough to draw some familiar outfits or even capture the characters’ voices, what fans are addicted to is the feel of the world. And it’s an inarguable fact that almost everyone has been failing to nail that in one way or another ever since.
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Sledgehammers

September 10, 2011

All anarchists should be scientists, at least to some extent. We should never allow ourselves to become so rigid as to forget what makes us anarchists in the first place: childlike curiosity, incessant inquiry, and a radical love for taking things to their roots to further our understanding. We seek to dismantle the world around us, knowing that it does not function as well as it could. We want to understand ourselves, our environment, and each other. We want the blueprints for the social machine, so we can sledgehammer the fuck out of it, and build it back up from scratch.

You know what that sounds like? That sounds like science. And that sounds like hacking.

Anarchists are radicals, and I shouldn’t need to point out for the zillionth time that radicalism means taking things down to the roots.

So, anarchists are scientists, even if some resign to mere social science. Anarchists are hackers, even if in some cases that only goes as far as hacking up an herbal tincture for a sick friend. Their walls cannot stop us; there are infinite possible paths around and under and even through.

Isis

Scientists as a Revolutionary Class

September 10, 2011

Scientists are driven to inquire, to engage with the world around them and reshape their own minds in doing so. Regardless of whether they recognize it this places them fundamentally and diametrically at odds with power relations.

Consequently those power dynamics that have survived have found ways to hold back and rigorously control science, but this control rarely takes the form of direct oppression. Yes scientists do occasionally get shot, threatened, censored, fired and shipped off to gulags to starve, but as these things go they’re not a particularly oppressed class. Indeed if we accept for a moment the perception of “scientist” as a mere job description rather than intellectual orientation, then scientists have done extraodinarily well for themselves in the modern era. A pampered and privileged pet class whose fortunes have slowly been wrapped around that of the establishment. In terms of material security scientists have been made a beneficiary of global capitalism and it would be insane to ignore the cultural allegiances this has spurred. But so too would it be folly to overstate them as inherent or even characteristic.

I would argue that scientists constitute a very important class in the context of social struggle — a class not created by paycheck but defined in terms their desires the same way that queer folk constitute a class. Those driven by inquiry who act to expand collective understanding of the material world. In this sense scientists are without a doubt a class with immense revolutionary potential. Perhaps even the most potential.

To reiterate just to be absolutely clear: Scientists are not a profoundly oppressed class. Sure, IP law impedes their livelihoods and empowers parasitic academic hierarchies. Corporate and political powers stomp on results they don’t like. Huge numbers of would-be scientists around the world are refused access and opportunities. And of course for thousands of years scientists have faced systemic and constant threats of murder from the religious wings of social power. Even in this extrodinary modern political shift to subversion rather than suppression, scientists are still significantly impeded by power relations. Yet no one would compare the travails of scientists as a whole to those faced specifically by women, people of color, the poor, etc.

But revolutionary potential does not follow a 1:1 relationship with the degree of oppression faced. A starving person is not inherently aligned against power relations wholesale, all they can at face value be relied on opposing is the context that keeps them in starvation. Along many if not most class lines the motivating grievance is not inherent but contextual. This can of course be quite potent just as it can develop into an enlightened empathic rejection of power relations but such development is in no way assured. Once those defined solely by their dispossession cease being dispossessed they cease having any fundamental tension with power.

True scientists on the other hand can never cease being scientists. Their defining desire is both contingent upon liberty and insatiable. As such they will never stop being in conflict with power. That the tension of this conflict has been minimized in the modern era is actually the whole point.

While flagrantly oppressed classes like the working poor once held a tactical advantage through proximity to things like the means of production, the ruling class has long since rectified that mistake. Former points of criticality have been dispersed or made redundant and those few folks left in contact with critical components or potent tools have almost all been bought. It’s hard to build working class consciousness in an ostensibly “blue collar” worker who has a summer home and a boat from their snug 60k union contract. And perhaps harder still to do anything with all those disenfranchised and angry but safely positioned out of reach from anything critical save their own support systems.

We no longer live in an era in which mass mobilization (simply fielding the most soldiers/voters) is relevant unto itself. Technological progress — always favoring the attacker — continues to seep out to the margins and empower disruption, but not in proportion to the number of users and still in limited directions/degrees. That seepage has so far been the result of short time preferences on the part of competing power structures. But obviously as the instabilities increase a point will be reached when they recognize the competative advantage technological development can provide between power structures is outweighed by the existential threat it poses to power relations as a whole. A resumption of full blown hostilities between scientists and the champions of power relations is inevitable.

Because of calculational limits and the rigid nature of their composition, power structures have always responded sluggishly to technological development. The faster the development the slower the response and the longer window for that technology’s capacity to bleed to the periphery enabling autonomy through abundance and resistance through weaponry. In short, scientists, whether employed as pure researchers or in engineering fields, are perfectly equipped and situated.

Slow Doesn’t Mean Not Happening

August 30, 2011

These days space engineering projects are dismissed as silly futurism and totally extraneous to our lives, yet satellites are constantly being launched all over the world and their influence is critical in every sphere of our society. A decade or two from now that dismissive sentiment will remain exactly the same, but in addition to satellites there will be dozens of not hundreds of cheap automated asteroid mining projects.

Just as with satellites the benefits are huge and the technology is already well known and relatively easy. The Chinese have already casually begun a number of projects to redirect, control and capture asteroids.

I want fucking space elevators and L5 habitats and mass drivers on the moon and colonies on mars and spun up hollowed out asteroids with ecosystems, I want them yesterday and that’s just to start. But the reality is our society doesn’t have its act anywhere near together enough, those tiny government projects that have been allowed to exist are (surprise!) inefficient and we really have no way of knowing when or how materials scientists will finally get their act together on the shear strength of whatever nanotube concoction they end up with.

Monsanto And The Corporate Appropriation Of Science As A Brand

August 16, 2011

I can’t stand Monsanto, but I also can’t stand the way the term “GMO” gets thrown around. Tons of stuff is “genetically engineered”, let’s not get all woo-woo-y about conceptual demarcations when humans have been crossbreeding for centuries. Little pisses me off more than corporations giving a bad name to the potential of a technology because they want to wrap themselves in that potential to sell shit without actually allowing scientists to fulfill it. The problem isn’t that something is genetically engineered. The problem is when it was engineered in a slapdash, irresponsible, non-scientific fashion to serve a very particular goal (as with suicide genes) that sucks.

A lot of the “engineering” going on right now is more blind experiment than it is actual designing. This is because we’re not at the level of understanding yet where we can directly program in DNA. Rather corporate research teams are pushed to more or less just fiddle with stuff to see what works in terms of macroscopic aggregates while relatively ignoring or skipping past the complexity of the underlying mechanisms. This is not real science. Genetic engineers are basically still just script kiddies. Of course there are interesting things to be learned through such play that can help further science and our understanding, just as there’s a lot that will be possible, but the corporate bosses are entirely disinterested in understanding, they’re pushing for “useful” results.

By which I mean they’re interested in things that increase profit (within an extremely short sighted capitalist economy with no real capacity to internalize externalities). So they work to achieve greater yield crops (which can be great) but are inclined to ignore the interplay of the crops with the ecosystem so then you get crops that are unsustainable in some way. Or because they don’t understand all the mechanisms of what’s going on they introduce genes that have unforseen negative consequences and (because they’re not not subject to social/market oversight) don’t even bother to adequately test them. Lastly there’s actions they take to directly fuck over the farmer, as with suicide-genes that force farmers to become dependents of Monsanto who, thanks to IP law, can charge whatever they like.

As with anything there’s a give and take between the inclinations of the scientists and those of their bosses.   A lot of positive developments slip by and contribute to abundance (and freedom from material subjugation as with gene therapy to overcome our bodies) which in the long term is obviously detrimental to power structures like Monsanto.  This sort of short-term preference on the part of power structures is fairly constant across history when power structures attempt to control the creative/inquisitive process.  Positive breakthroughs seep out into general use whereas negative ones are eventually repulsed.

The Human-Level Implications of Multiverse Models

August 13, 2011

My best friend is strongly drawn by the notion of a multiverse, specifically multiverses with other copies of themselves.  (This is different than multiverses in which say the only thing that varies continuously between universes is a ratio of fundamental constants — in that multiverse there’d be infinite universes but only one with anything resembling the earth.) In short we’re talking about those multiverse models in which the position of particles varies between universes, but not neccessarily the forces affecting those particles. There are two main ways of modeling this, one in which the different universes branch from one another at each instant reflecting the widening of possibilities, and another in which every universe starts out physically seperate but structured identically and then begin varying with one another later.

This latter interpretation is entirely monadistic and honestly kind of boring from a human vantage-point which is a good chunk of my friend’s aforementioned draw and what I want to focus on here. For example, if you’re invested in the notion of some kind of ideal and telelogical personal identity/goal then one could go around identifying universe branches with people. With a given universe corresponding to a certain person’s ideal life-path and so on. But this is problematic because in order for the multiverse to introduce physical elegance/simplicity rather than removing it you have to assume a full infinite spectrum and people are discrete, so you’re left with infinite expanses of universes between the ones you’ve picked out. Universes in which everyone fails to achieve their ideal nature / life path (as opposed to all but one).  Also, more importantly, since the universes don’t interact it’s just an introduced conceptual tool for imagining probabilities. (Being all parallel from the start they can’t be used to explain QM because it would mean interference effects would start at zero and grow with the age of the universe. And removing wave-particle duality way back at the gamow fireball doesn’t fit the data, to say the least.)

The former interpretation is more in line with the sort of language hollywood uses (“every decision creates new universes”) albeit, we’re obliged to note, a matter of particle “choices” not human-scale ones. And it opens the door to explanations of QM by assuming that newly branching universes are sticky in some sense in the process of separating, that is to say they continue to interact with one another. So single-particle wave interference is explained by the notion that everytime/everywhere a particle is left to itself our universe starts spreading out on the axis of multiverses. Then, once the particle’s wavefunction is resolved the spreading universe completes its break into different universes. I have a number of bones to pick with this notion because 1) no explanation of the mechanism of how this branching would work/arise has been made, 2) every concluding measurement of the wavefunction would shatter the universe into infinite universes because the wavefunction is continuous and this goes against the whole philosophy of the initial stickiness — why would universes be so opposed to discreteness as to smear themselves, but then happily jump to literally infinite discreteness? — and 3) while all this was built to explain specific ways the quantum world is weird it fails to explain a number of other weirdnesses. I’d prefer approaches with the potential to clean up all the weirdness — like self-interacting time-traveling particles in a single universe.

The whole notion of branching also can’t help but feel incredibly cluttered because each universe is more or less branching everywhere at the same time so the multiverse space is infinitely dimensional. Call me conservative but if we’re giving extra time dimensions I’d prefer something like a good old fashioned flat minkowski space with two time dimensions. Or at least a model that has that as a limit. But inelegant though it may be, the branching notion is at least possible.

Anyway, I happen to love discussions on the philosophical implications of cosmological models and my friend’s draw towards multiverse notions is largely grounded in the human-scale concerns generated (as is a portion of my repulsion), thus many of our arguments have been arguments of anarchist ethics. In broad strokes: On the one hand multiverse models satisfy a solophist or monadistic value in autonomy, diversity and remove. On the other, multiverse models utterly demolish consequentialism.

My concern is that basically multiverses are an ingenious way of slaughtering free will while keeping it alive. You have infinite choices, but so do an infinite number of you, each one with an infinite number of different outcomes guaranteed — thus each choice is shrunk contextually down to infinitesimal consequence. Regardless of your efforts at thinking a choice through, every action that you could take IS taken (plus there’s an infinite spectrum of yous taking actions that are impossible in your own current universe). The multiverse as a whole is uncharacterizable and thus unaffectable because it contains literally everything conceivable in infinite portions. There’s not even the hope of shifting probabilities (creating proportionally more universes with a liberated humanity), which means consequentialism is completely annihilated. But so to are ethical systems of more immediate context (like deontology and virtue ethics) left profoundly arbitrary. There’s no discrete “you” definable. You can pick some arc of personal future out and try to get as close to it as possible, but again, no action or way of thinking is going to change the possibility of you achieving whatever random ass shit you set out to achieve. Multiverses: a mire of meaninglessness.
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Every Scientist Should Be An Anarchist

August 10, 2011

The first time I encountered the claim that an anarchistic society would impede scientific^ progress I was too shocked — and later busy chortling — to sketch out a thorough response.

It’s a surprising sentiment to me for a lot of reasons, not the least for the well known correspondence between scientific progress and social and material freedom in mass societies.  I suppose liberals might be inclined to write this relation off as a low value-correspondence – like solely whether free speech is allowed or if folks even have time for anything besides the struggle to stay alive – but to me the connection seems quite obviously fundamental.  Power relations of any kind are ultimately more constrictive of inquiry than they can ever be of benefit to it.  The logic is simple: Control can only be achieved through disengagement and rigidity. And so any successful power structure must involve mechanisms to punish and suppress habits of inquiry.

Parents, teachers, bosses and cops… they all achieve control by mimicking the binary system of threats (absolute law and punishment) that the state uses. Rather than an organic system of constant, decentralized give and take that rewards wider attention, the archist approach seeks to ideally shrink the subject’s attention down to a single, controllable input. This creates an artificial environment that rewards habits of rigidity and punishes persistent inquiry. And of course these habits are replicated in the communities and structures they create with their peers. Little has broken my heart more than going from teaching third graders who delightedly took to advanced algebra and calculus to jaded and broken middle schoolers whose priorities were social survival and escape from misery. Suffice to say, people would place far more value in science if they weren’t constantly beaten down for having an open mind. Granted, it might end up taking a few generations for literally everyone to become a scientist, but even a moderate improvement would do wonders.

That’s the reasoning for my general inclination that anarchistic societies would be far more facilitative of scientific inquiry. But the specifics paint exactly the same picture.

The centralized means of research and development characteristic of state involvement is hugely inefficient. (One can’t help but suspect that might even be intentional.) Capital intensive undertakings like the LHC and NASA are widely known to be riddled with bureaucratic inefficiencies, in some cases raising costs by a full order of magnitude. The LHC would work better as a cooperative that elected its own, took donations and acted autonomously in its own interest rather than allowing every decision to be the result of totally unrelated diplomatic jockeying. NASA would work better broken up: some major projects acting like said cooperatives, others competing.

The corporate research model is one of incremental data collection bent severely by patent and military concerns. Aside from being hugely psychologically scarring to scientists and actively suppressing the sort of deep-thinking paradigmatic leaps that keep theoretical clutter from accumulating, the focus of investigation is largely determined from the top down in order to maximize short term benefits to those in power. Obviously this has led to all kinds of terrible consequences and has helped reinforce the notion of scientists as irresponsible lapdogs of authority, but more importantly it has had a retarding effect on scientific development as a whole. Logical follow-ups on discoveries or theoretical developments aren’t just pursued unequally, whole trains of investigation are artificially accelerated or decelerated relative one another creating situations where realizations that speak to core issues with another train aren’t discovered until well into its development.

Science works best in a state of informational anarchy. Paywall enclosed journals are now widely recognized as a stain on our field and a detriment to scientific progress. But so too does the severity of non-disclosure agreements (shaped both by market standards distorted towards capital and the availability of state coercion rather than polycentric arbitration systems predicated solely on reputation) not to mention the very enforceability of intellectual property openly suppress competition and innovation.

None of these issues of relative efficiency should be that surprising. Ultimately any collective pursuit is a processing problem and the more decentralized and richly connected a system is the better it’s capable of processing.

But what of funding itself?

On the one hand there’s a tendency to say well, so what if scientists end up pushing mops part-time? Plenty of scientists currently waste a lot of time on work irrelevant to their investigations (teaching, etc) and some of the best developments have come from people who preferred to earn their bread from less demanding side-jobs.

But the trick is that the efficiencies of anarchistic social arrangements extend to the social support infrastructure for science as well. A more efficient society provides greater background abundance, freeing inquiring minds that might otherwise be economically trapped and providing greater real wealth across the board. Even ignoring its ridiculous misallocation and inefficiency, government funding for research is both a fraction of that available through private grants and a ridiculously tiny percentage of the taxdollars currently collected even in a world leader like the US. It wouldn’t take much to expand the voluntary private/charitable sector (through investment groups or enthusiast donations as currently present in a lot of extremely expensive space exploration development) to at least cover existing costs. Further the interplay between researchers/designers, their supporters and the rest of the population would be more nuanced, transparent and accountable on all ends. And this is likely to stoke even more investment. Hierarchical, centralized and edict-based power structures like the state and corporations act as information bottlenecks on every level and are prone to totalizing swings in policy with no capacity for graduated pressures.

Simply put, it seems obvious to me that there would be more scientists and a higher drive for science in an anarchistic society, plus a higher degree of efficiency that would benefit science directly as well as indirectly.

“If the State had been abolished a century ago, we’d all have robots and summer homes in the Asteroid belt.”

–Samuel Konkin

^ I should note that I’m using the definition of science that involves seeking direct roots-up explanations (ie physics, mathematics, chemistry and a bit of biology) rather than merely anything that dabbles in empiricism.

Intellectual Honesty

August 7, 2011

There have, certainly, been times and places when a kind of free market populism has emerged, where markets began operating independently of governments, at least to some degree – Medieval Islam is one famous example, and later, Ming China—but in such cases, they tended to operate in very different ways than the kind of markets we’re now familiar with, less about competition, much more about creating and maintaining relations of interpersonal trust, or for instance, profit-sharing operations instead of interest, etc etc.

…History shows that you basically need a state to create a situation where people are willing to sign on basically as rent-a-slaves to other people.

David Graeber