tis.so is ceasing regular updates for the foreseeable future. Our investigations are pulling in disparate directions these days. TIS was driven by synergistic excitement that produced plentiful posts. A major focus that unites most of our writing is the drive to call things what they really are, and so it’s important for us to say that the music has stopped.
We have a twitter list including the authors, guest posters, and a few other friends. tis.so will remain online; we don’t like link rot. Authors are still welcome to add new posts if this feels like the best place to host a thought. We’re just releasing ourselves from the obligation to release anything regularly, as well as emphasizing that any posts that come will be more individualistic instead of arising from internal discussions.
Some of us are bound to cross paths again, and this site might bloom with the result. Otherwise, short in time but rich with experience — here we were. Thanks for thinking with us.
by Rip Dcb
When we’ve written about degenerate play in the past, the focus has been on the condemnable strategies deployed by players that violate the spirits of games while staying within their legal limits. Thus far, degenerate play has been treated as a nasty, if ubiquitous, social wart: an outgrowth born from the tension between spirit and letter, from the impossible problem of properly aligning the incentive structures of games with the all-too-human desire to win (or to lose on your own terms).
Degenerate plays have been treated, for the most part, as dishonorable. The kind of plays that elicit sighs of ‘C’mon man’, that set bad examples for other players, that make the game just plainly less fun to play. Players who deploy these strategies will often, and should, incur some level of reputational damage, if not from game designers or referees, than from the community of players and, if present, an audience.
This perspective on degenerate strategies assumes that what’s in the best interest of all parties involved—both game designers and players—is deploying strategies that celebrate the spirit of games. Which is a good assumption to have! Part of the collective conceit of game playing is that we all let go a little bit of that will to power so we can enjoy playing together, agreeing to let the ‘best’ (whether that be the most skilled or, in some cases, luckiest) player win. Degenerate plays will always crop up, but the hope is that either a top-down disincentivization by rule-keepers & designers, or a collective enforcement of the game’s spirit by the community of players, will be enough to keep them at bay.
It’s also a fact that some game states are higher stakes than others. Whether due to a large public profile or potential payouts, no-holds-barred, down-right-dirty winning can supersede any collective faith in the game’s spirit if becoming a champion is really worth it. In such high stakes environments, competitive advantages tend to shrink, and degenerate plays can, at least sometimes, become edges worth exploiting.
Professional sports are a fine example of this kind of situation, none more obvious than the exploitation of certain fouls. Fouls in theory exist to punish players for breaking the rules of the game, but they can also be exploitatively utilized by players who know how to draw fouls in certain high leverage situations. Suspended Reason has written about fouls and flopping in professional basketball before, specifically with respect to the optikratic nature of how these fouls are administered—i.e. fouls are, by necessity, doled out based on appearances (the referees determine whether it ‘looks like’ he’s been interfered with, pushed, blocked out, etc.). Because of the optikratic nature of (most) fouls, there exists an incentive for players to appear as if they have been interfered with in order to draw a foul in a given context, specifically in close-game situations when an extra shot attempt (in basketball) or a few extra yards (in football) might be the difference between win and a loss.
These attempts at hacking the game might go unpunished within the game state itself (some sports have developed penalties for flopping, but they are, at best, unevenly enforced), but they don’t go unpunished in the grander scheme of the sport. Certain players who use these degenerative strategies gain less-than-ideal reputations for exploiting the system, specifically among the viewers of the sport. And as they should: encouraging degenerate strategies regardless of the game is–most likely at least–bad for game playing in general.
But from a team’s perspective, specifically the team for which our degenerate player plays, this degenerate player might be something of a hero. He is incurring, on behalf of the team, a reputational hit by putting his integrity on the line to draw fouls in high leverage situations, which, if successful, can give a very valuable edge to a team right when they might need one. And if his attempt fails, then the optics are just awful: ‘Look at X-player, flopping in crunch time to get a foul? He’s a cheat!’
Team sports are nothing if not about the team, meaning that selflessness, especially when the game’s on the line, is one of the most valuable traits to have. A player electing to push the rules to their limits by playing them like a fiddle is, in an ironic sense, acting selflessly in the greater context of the situation. With the eyes of the audience on him, he embraces the social mark of a flopper or a foul-drawer in order to force an opportunity for his team to tie or take a lead. While we as viewers might not appreciate the ethical totality of his actions, I would be willing to reckon that his teammates do.
My point here is that it takes all kinds to win. While incentivizing degenerate strategies is a net negative for both individual games and game playing on a whole, players who are willing to take on a reputational scar for the good of the team represent a kind of selflessness that is, in its own way, aspirational. For as long as degenerate strategies exist as viable strategies within a given game state, they will be exploited until they are corrected for, at which point new strategies will arise to take their place. It’s no surprise that the most consistently competitive teams in sports tend to find edges in the untraveled footnotes of the rule book, forcing referees and competition committees alike to reevaluate the state of the game as such.
In high stakes games, to see the bounds of what’s acceptable as limits worth bending, not bending to, is, on an ontological level, an advantage with no counter, as long as you have players willing to fall on the sword when your acting falls short.
When we ethically browbeat all deployments of degenerate strategies, we conflate the ethical differences between those that are unilaterally selfish and those that, in benefitting a team, are something in the realm of selfless. In other words, in focusing on the individual actor in both situations, we risk severing the player from the team, who might very well be the actor who should be held accountable for coaching or scheming up degenerate strategies as competitive advantages.
As a follow on to my post about glass, it’s worth noting that a recent Nature paper has reported improved understanding of nano-scale water — specifically water trapped in a one-molecule thick layer, as might occur between membranes.
For anyone who read my post on glass, it will be no surprise to see sentences such as “the water acts as neither a solid nor a liquid, but something in between” in a press release about this work.
As with glass, part of the emphasis is on the idea that some materials defy classification into common categories like solid and liquid, even though we are often trained to think of those as fundamental. I think the more interesting part, however, is how this example blurs several categories at once.
First, there is the question of dimensionality. Clearly all types of water are three-dimensional in some sense (or four-dimensional or ten-dimensional, depending on which conceptualization / theory you want to utilize), and yet here is a case where the authors can usefully describe this as a “two-dimensional material” (in that the substance, more or less by definition, is constrained to a two-dimensional manifold, which nevertheless will twist and turn in three-dimensional space).
Even more interesting, work on nano-materials inevitably raises questions about the nature of “materials” in general. If we’re working with a single molecule of H2O, that feels like a fairly well-defined object (even though such a thing might rarely if ever exist in isolation without the intervention of intelligent life, and even though the molecule is of course made up of atoms, which are themselves made up of quarks, etc, etc.). Once we get a sufficiently large collection of molecules, it makes sense to speak in terms of “water”, in liquid, solid, or gaseous form. At point in between, however, it becomes less clear.
At one point does a collection of H2O molecules become water? Two? Three? Is a two-dimensional manifold of H2O atoms correctly called water, or is it just a special system of molecules? Does it matter if such a material is likely an idealization (possibly modeled using infinite boundaries, etc.), which might almost never exist in such a pure two-dimensional state, except perhaps in experimental conditions?
Finally, although I can’t claim to fully understand it, it’s worth noting that this research is based on computational models (specifically Quantum Monte Carlo methods paired with a Machine Learning Potential approach), not empirical work. This seems to be a case where better models (with a more sophisticated inference engine) are able to come up with an explanation that resolves paradoxes or seeming inconsistencies in previous empirical work. Still, it doesn’t hurt to throw in the conceptual blurring of what exactly counts as knowledge, as opposed to just data. We know something of water, but what precisely do we truly know?
https://twitter.com/interpretantion had a tweet recently that got me thinking:
My guess is IQ is actually a test of how many layers of recursion a person can handle in their raw working memory. Pretty key component of abstract thinking, engineering, and even management, but definitely not going to tell you everything.
Nassim Taleb has an article called “IQ is largely a psuedoscientific swindle” which is extremely chaotic and hard to cite as a whole, but has one point I find myself reaching for often. Suppose you have an X value of “score on some intelligence test” and a Y value of “general success in life”. Being deficient at this test indicates major troubles with life and perfectly correlates with your general success - if you can improve your score “one point” you’ll also improve your general success “one point”. But in the positive values, there’s absolutely no correlation whatsoever: improvement your score from zero to positive infinity doesn’t do anything to your general success in life.
This pattern of perfect correlation on the negative half and no correlation on the positive half leads to an 85% overall correlation between X and Y. (There’s a certain intuition that it might be 50%, which isn’t true.) But what’s really interesting is what happens when you add random noise to the test scores. The correlation drops, as you’d expect — but it also visually seems to migrate to “both sides”. By the end, you end up with a .46 correlation (still obviously too high to be pure chance) but visually just a loose cloud that doesn’t show the one-sided nature of the correlation:
IQ is an extremely noisy measure where peoples scores on multiple tests can often differ substantially. Asking whether it “correlates to life success” isn’t a very sensible question, since it might correlate very strongly on the low levels while being basically meaningless on the high ones. The idea of IQ-as-levels-of-recursion seems to fit nicely in to this. If you mostly need to see things literally spelled out, without the flexibility of parsing multiple levels of rules, there’s a lot of concepts that you flat out won’t be able to understand. But as the levels of recursion increase, it becomes more important to error-check all of the rules you think you’re following against the world than to be able to perfectly articulate the result of following the rules.
But the thing that really interests me is comparing this idea of depth of mental recursion in relation to environmental cognition. Very skilled practitioners of an intellectual field are often very particular about how they arrange their notes, or their desk, or whatever. They configuration the space around them in such a way to make it easier to store information and retrieve it later.This seems to be more evidence towards IQ being highly meaningful only on the low end. It matters a lot how much you can “load into” your working memory from the space around you, but you don’t gain a lot by trying to keep increasingly large edifices of thought straight, since you can just make your environment keep the score and focus on doing things correctly one local step at a time, like in a math problem or a grocery list.
I can’t say I’m very interested in measuring the efficacy of IQ in general — I think that people who fixated on the results of standardized tests tend to be dull and unimaginative. But I’ve got a suspicion that this mental model of humans as computers reading from the hard drive of the world around them has a lot of potential for explaining what we’re actually doing when we think.
Quoted from M. Ghorbani, Homo Opportunus: Strategic interactionism in the 21st century
She collected coordination equilibria like one might collect flowers or pin butterflies. She sought out increasingly esoteric arrangements from small villages and distant corners, discovered new synergies of action and behavior in ancient accounting scrolls and medieval battle descriptions. In diagrams and theory and plain description and concrete examples she attempted to record and characterize each stable fit between peoples, amassing a considerable collection, and when she had done that she went about tinkering with individual variables, experimenting by swapping out parts. She bred hybrids and cross-pollinated solutions; she ran simulations in a variety of contexts, tuning knobs and messing with parameters, narrowing the field until one arrangement was left standing.
For her labor, she was vested with a strong sense of personal satisfaction, and with the right to name her discoveries. Through these names, she would sometimes pay homage to those whose debt she herself felt in. There was the Butlerian equilibrium and the French standoff, the altocumulus arrangement and Artaudian algebra, the Rawlsian lottery and a Borgesian system of common-knowledge memory. Her work, not yet recognized as either a legitimate collecting practice, or as science proper, received little else in the way of compensation or support; it was at that time the opinion of the more philosophically minded that her efforts amounted to little more than amateur game theory, and of the game-theoretic that they amounted to (little more than) amateur philosophy.
And we see here exactly the emphasis on surprise and expectation—on not being surprised by one’s opponent, while trying to surprise one’s opponent—that we expect in adversarial games. As Schelling was (one of) the first to argue, cooperation is founded on a converge in mutual expectations of the kind recently theorized by Karl Friston in “Duet For One.” We should expect, then, for players in adversarial games to instead seek an advantageous divergence in priors: to have one’s enemy believe that the poisoned goblet is in front of him, when I believe it is in front of me.
Deleuze & Guattari oppose striated to smooth space. The former is associated with statecraft and institutions, with sedentary lifestyles and cities, property lines and a street address. Space is counted in order to be accounted, carved up to be managed, made legible, discrete, metric, gridded, architectural, fixed, and crystalline. Smooth space, meanwhile, is the space of nomads, the desert and the steppe. It is continuous and flowing, Protean and adaptive, illegible and open-ended. They are “polymorphous and diffuse… characterized by their capacity for metamorphosis” (Weizman 2006).
The desire for illegibility is always symptomatic of an adversarial relationship or framework—crucially, insiders in such a nomadic space find nomad norms and spatial organization perfectly comprehensible. Rather, the resistance is to those from the outside who would seek to control or manage the tribe.
There are three origin points for the flux concept in Western tradition: (1) Heraclitus’s river (“one cannot step in twice”); (2) the Ship of Theseus (3) Homer’s Proteus, whom Menelaus wrestles into submission as he changes form.
Proteus is our best metaphor, not just b/c it gives us “protean” but b/c of his motivation for change: the river god changes shape precisely so that Menelaus cannot wrestle & pin him down. By morphing, he breaks the fitted grip of Menelaus, tailored as it is to the previous shape.
In other words—transformation is a way of being ungovernable, of staying one step ahead of the managerial and regulatory categories. This is why our notion of “authenticity” (and what authenticity “looks” like) is anti-inductive: it is an escape from typification.
Taxonomies under adversarial pressure: the schema helps manage via if-then clauses, a protocol for handling each type. Defy the schema, puzzle the manager. Slippery slippery James C. Scott: the preference for the illegible is the preference of those who wish to escape governance.
(This is why teenagers when rebelling go, “You don’t know me, Ma.” She answers: “So tell me about yourself!” but—kiddo doesn’t want to.) (Twitter)
Thus, the usual taken-for-granted ontology of streets, entrances, addresses, etcetera, which is always (and works by its being) shared among members of a society, must be dispensed with and overwritten by another. IDF Brigadier General Kokhavi, interview with Weizman:
A state military whose enemy is scattered like a network of loosely organized gangs must liberate itself from the old concept of straight lines, units in linear formation, regiments and battalions, and become itself much more diffuse and scattered, flexible and swarmlike…
United States Strategic Bombing Report, 1945:
In both the RAF and the United States Army Air Forces there were some who believed that air power could deliver the knockout blow against Germany, and force capitulation. This view, however, was not controlling in the overall Allied strategic plan. The dominant element in that plan was invasion of the Continent to occur in the spring of 1944. Plans called for establishing air superiority prior to the date of the invasion and the exploitation of such superiority in weakening the enemy’s will and capacity to resist.
[In Germany,] the night raids were feared far more than daylight raids. The people lost faith in the prospect of victory, in their leaders and in the promises and propaganda to which they were subjected. Most of all, they wanted the war to end. They resorted increasingly to “black radio” listening, to circulation of rumor and fact in opposition to the Regime; and there was some increase in active political dissidence in 1944 one German in every thousand was arrested for a political offense. If they had been at liberty to vote themselves out of the war, they would have done so well before the final surrender.
Morale effects are inseparable from physical effects of violence, and perhaps greater. This is mostly boring subject matter and little of it bears repeating, but it’s interesting to see that manipulating the behavior of the German public (and manipulating the beliefs of German high command?) was explicitly laid out as one of the doctrinal goals of the US military. Huge portions of war seem to be posturing and propaganda. Unsustainable shock attacks are mounted to try to persuade an opponent that some kind of dominance is inevitable instead of anecdotal.
Known-to-be-false histories are written in the moment and distributed widely. Air raid alerts cause more loss in production than the air raids themselves:
German steel producers were required by the government to keep records of production losses and their causes. These records show that air raid alerts in 1943 were a more serious cause of the lost production than the actual damage from the raids.
Loss in production from bombing is caused more by severed communication lines and utilities than damage to industrial equipment:
Examination of the steel plants showed that, although the attack damaged some blast furnaces, open hearths and rolling mills, it was primarily effective through damage to utilities (electricity, gas and water) and communications within the plants and to utilities and transport supplying the plants.
Eyal Weizman, “Lethal Theory”:
During the battle, soldiers moved within the city across hundred-meter-long “over-ground-tunnels” carved through a dense and contiguous urban fabric. Although several thousand soldiers and several hundred Palestinian guerilla fighters were maneuvering simultaneously in the city, they were so “saturated” within its fabric that very few would have been visible from an aerial perspective at any given moment. Furthermore, soldiers used none of the streets, roads, alleys, or courtyards that constitute the syntax of the city, and none of the external doors, internal stairwells, and windows that constitute the order of buildings, but rather moved horizontally through party walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as “infestation,” sough tto redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares.
Why avoid roads and alleys? Why move through walls?
Rather than submit to the authority of conventional spatial boundaries and logic, movement became constitutive of space. The three-dimensional progression through walls, ceilings, and floors across the urban balk reinterpreted, short-circuited, and recomposed both architectural and urban syntax.
Why invert the standard pragmatic ontology and navigational schema?
Because defensive attention by Palestinians has been placed on streets and doorways—a form of tactical commitment which in turn subsidizes other means of navigating. That is, Palestinian guerillas anticipated a set of moves by Israelis, tethered to and defined by the usual ontology of space. This anticipation itself inverted the usual strategic-pragmatic character of streets and doorways, from being the easiest and quickest (i.e. “cheapest”) means of navigating a city, to being the most expensive (in terms of lives and effort expended to make tactical progress):
Palestinian resistance composed of about 1,000 guerrilla fighters from all Palestinian armed organizations had barricaded all entries to the Kasbah (old city) of Nablus and the adjacent Balata refugee camp by filling oil barrels with cement, digging trenches, and piling up trash and rubble. Streets and alleys were mined along their length with improvised explosives and tanks of gasoline. Entrances to buildings facing these routes were also booby-trapped, as were the interiors of some prominent or strategically important structures. Several independent bands lightly armed with AK47s, RPGs, and explosives were organized deep within the camp and based along major routes or at prominent intersections.
To operate with a different ontology than one’s enemy is one thing—sometimes boon, sometimes bane. But to operate with a different ontology than one’s enemy while understanding, at a deep and intuitive level, the enemy’s ontology—that is always advantageous. One’s actions do not make sense to, do not cohere, for, the enemy, who becomes unable to anticipate and thereby preemptively counter such actions.
Often, as with streets—“the authority of conventional spatial logic”—a strategic ontology, a layout of intended object-use—is naturalized as the “only” or the “correct” (in some context-independent, project-independent way) ontology. To naturalize an ontology this way, in an adversarial game, is incredibly dangerous. Those capable of breaking from, and re-provisionalizing, the game’s ontology become capable of hacking it, breaking it, finding unnoticed, unexploited, previously “invisible” or inconceivable moves.
In other words, a self-conscious, pragmatic, reflexive approach to one’s perception and interpretation of the game state can—especially in non-routinized, highly disrupted (i.e. highly prone to context-drift)—lend a competitive advantage. Then-Brigadier General Aviv Kohkavi, recently promoted to Commander In Chief of all Israeli armed forces, tells Weizman:
This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion, after all, it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is, how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret the alley as a place, like every architect and every town planner does to walk through, or do you interpret the alley as a place forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. And this is what we tried to do.
And we see here exactly the emphasis on surprisal and expectation—on not being surprised by one’s opponent, while trying to surprise one’s opponent—that we expect in adversarial games. As Schelling was (one of) the first to argue, cooperation is founded on a converge in mutual expectations of the kind recently theorized by Karl Friston in “Duet For One.” We should expect, then, for players in adversarial games to instead seek an advantageous divergence in priors: to have one’s enemy believe that the poisoned goblet is in front of him, when I believe it is in front of me.
In this vein, it becomes advantageous to players to actively alter the environment of hosted play, such that the environment actively defies and fails to live out the regularities of an opponent’s ontology. To create exactly that contextual drift—and thereby, the fitness-decreasing problem-solution decoupling—which defangs a player’s tactical repertoire.
We’ve kept up a continious chain of daily posts since our inception, a streak we’re very proud of. But enough of us took breaks over the summer that our queue has been depleted, and we need a bit of time to recharge. TIS will be on break until the fall equinox. Our next post will be September 23rd, 2022. You are still able (and even encouraged) to submit a guest post during the siesta; just be aware it won’t be published until some time after the 23rd.
In the meantime, you can read the recent piece from Luþemplær’s Scribbles, “Optikratic Oath”, where he writes (with far too much charity) about our nascent little group:
If I had to title their growing little corner, I’d perhaps call it Refractionary, as opposed to the Reactionary. By that I mean, whatever you shine at them you are sure to get a full spectrum of thought and, unlike mere deconstruction, they will rebuild the thought back to a working framework for your daily thinking.
In the course of an unrelated conversation, a friend responds to my earlier post here, “A number is not an explanation,” and in particular to my takedown of the concept of “status.” He says:
I see where you’re gesturing with the blogpost
But e.g. “women sexually prefer high status men” absolutely does mean something and if you don’t understand it, realizing it becomes hugely explanatory
Women prefer men who:
- make more money
- are more powerful
- are treated socially in ways that affirm their power
I feel like you’re being purposefully obtuse here ! You can’t actually think the meaning of “status” is little more than “being good at things.” What things?
Do you deny power exists in the world? […]
I see where he’s coming from. In the original piece, it kind of looks like I want to deny that men who are preeminent in some way usually find more romantic/sexual success. I don’t want to deny this.
So then what was I trying to say? Well, bear with me for a moment, but I want to draw on Wittgenstein. I think he encounters a very similar problem.
Right in the middle of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein is wading through the treacherous “private language argument.” He wants to argue that it is not useful to think of “pain,” or expressions of pain, as being references to some inner sensation of pain that “really exists.” The problem is, it kind of looks like he’s saying pain isn’t real. In the excerpt below, he carries on an argument with imaginary interlocutor, using the example of “remembering”:
- “But you surely cannot deny that, for example, in remembering, an inner process takes place.” — What gives the impression that we want to deny anything? When one says “Still, an inner process does take place here” — one wants to go on: “After all, you see it.” And it is this inner process that one means by the word “remembering”. — The impression that we wanted to deny something arises from our setting our faces against the picture of the ‘inner process’. What we deny is that the picture of the inner process gives us the correct idea of the use of the word “to remember”. We say that this picture with its ramifications stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word as it is.
- Why should I deny that there is a mental process? But “There has just taken place in me the mental process of remembering….” means nothing more than: “I have just remembered ….”. To deny the mental process would mean to deny the remembering; to deny that anyone ever remembers anything.
- “Are you not really a behaviorist in disguise? Aren’t you at bottom really saying that everything except human behavior is a fiction?” — If I do speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction.
So to tie this back — what I want to point out is that, specifically in the evopsych sense, the idea that “status” must “really” exist is a grammatical fiction that prevents us from seeing something more usefully. I’m not trying to take down status in areas (e.g. improv) where the concept of status is a useful handle that actually helps people get things done. By all means! But online, the most common usage of “status” I see is the evopsych usage, and in that case, I want to reject the picture that comes along with the usage.
An observation: many “redpilled” evopsych truths are things normal people accept with equanimity. When my friends have gone through nasty breakups, my (normal) friends will often suggest stuff like going to the gym. It’s not considered an outrage that you might want to make yourself more superficially appealing if you’re going to get back into dating. Nor is it particularly shocking that some groups of men might find it easier to date: tall men, rich men, ripped men, men who carry themselves with some swagger, men with really chiseled jaws. That’s just, like, the world.
Actually, hell, one of my favorite bands has a song called “Girls Like Status.” But if you listen to it, the singer’s not angry, he’s almost wistful:
Guys go for looks, girls go for status
There are so many nights where this is just how it happens
Guys go for looks, girls go for status
On the one hand, it would seem like “status is real” or “girls like status” is just a proposition, a statement about the world that might be true or false, like “all men are mortal.” But in the evopsych usage of “status,” it seems to me that these propositions carry something else with them. If evopsych propositions were taken as a simple fact, you might expect guys to say: “well, I’ve proven that all women are capricious and unfaithful. Guess I’ll get really into golf.” But they don’t seem to do that. As far as I can tell, the arc of the manosphere has bent away from pickup artistry — which was, if nothing else, a logically-consistent response to a set of beliefs about the world — and toward self-congratulatory doomsaying.
So do I think “status is real”? I think that some of the phenomena that are described using the word “status” are things that actually happen. But I think to accept the concept of “status” wholesale presents a misleading picture, which can break down in different ways. This is what I’m trying to illustrate when I poke at the “reality” of status, and point out contradictions and caveats. My intention is not to “deny that status exists” or “deny that power exists,” but to dislodge the picture that has come along for the ride.
- What is your aim in philosophy? — To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.
In David MacIver’s “What is it like to read LitRPG?” he brings up the idea of “clarity porn” as applied to games:
Slay the Spire is about making decisions, but those decisions are all of a very particular form. You’re making choices about what cards to add to your deck, what moves to make in a fight, which path to choose up the spire. On the basis of those choices, you will win or lose. These are hard, difficult, choices which benefit from significant care, but they are are all fundamentally clear cut in their ultimate goal.
Because what you’re not doing is making choices about whether you should really be slaying the spire in the first place or whether perhaps you’re just invading a city of people who would just rather be left alone to practice their religion in peace. You don’t ask how you can escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth trapping you in eternal suffering. All you ask is how you can most effectively achieve your goal of slaying the spire.
Steam tells me I’ve also sunk 322 hours into Slay the Spire (and another 69 in Downfall). And that’s not even my drug of choice — I’ve probably played more Spirit Island and Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup, and I’ve definitely played more Through the Ages, where I’m a top 100 player in the International League. I absolutely get where David is coming from (even if I personally can’t stand LitRPG). There’s something extremely satisfying about improving your decision-making capabilities under constraints, and I think my time playing these games has been spent well.
But I also agree with the framing of these games as “choice porn”. The interesting thing about the world is exactly how much you can change the frame to create a new distinction. In Slay the Spire, the wonderful UI makes it easy to have literally all of the information you need for your decision at your fingertips. But in the world, you can always go back to the well of detail, leaving you always with the outer-decision of “am I making every distinction I ought to be?”
TIS is a mongrel bunch not particularly motivated by any central principle, but I like to think a major theme is escaping frames and evaluating the affordances of your current ontology; the willingness to zoom out and contextualize. I’m often asked to explain what exactly our deal is, and David’s framing seems like a very useful way to help explain it. We accept that it’s vitally important to get good at hard, difficult choices that benefit from significant care, the central premise of modern rationality. But focusing on only that devolves into choice porn, so TIS is an attempt to build a shared understanding of observations and tricks that go beyond strictly defined, gamified frames.
Talking with David about this article led him to link another one he’d written about addiction, “The first hard choice.” Another aspect of choice porn is that it’s easy; much easier than looking for structural issues in your conceptions of the world around you. And it’s definitely not a complete waste of your time: DC:SS has improved my patience and comfort with failure, Spirit Island has increased my mental capacity for counterfactuals, and Through the Ages constantly checks my skills at prediction and optimization. But it’s extremely important that some of your intellectual growth and play happens outside of these strict frames with the rules and optimization criteria given to you. Choice porn corrodes agency by totally divorcing your skills of decision making from any maniuplation of the frames themselves. The well-defined objectives are the service you’re being sold when you buy a game, letting you focus solely on consumption; but, as I said in Desystemize #9, you should never mistake a setters kindness for the indifferent illegibility of real-world problems.
Having said all that, I need to call myself out a bit. Yes, studying representational issues is the antidote to getting stuck in static frames, and I feel a genuine moral clarity in championing this sort of thing. But just endlessly rehashing cases where ontological thinking is important is itself a little porny, isn’t it? Reading case studies about frames gone bad can be an enormous help to escape these traps of naively believing any problem formulation you come across, but I am integrating this knowledge to do better thinking myself? Or am I just using it for a sense of smug satisfaction, exactly like others use LitRPG for a sense of a well-defined world? I think TIS is better than most in studying things that can actually be used, but at the end of the day, the proof is in the using.
There is a tension between linguistic notions of identity and communication1 that I think extends beyond language per se. Identity 2 has to do with expressing one’s internal state, one’s thoughts and feelings, as precisely as possible, and in that it is speaker-centric. Most people can come closest to this ideal in their native language. Yet when we speak, we usually have recipients in mind that we’re addressing, and if our respective native languages differ, we resort to a vehicular language, one that we both have a command of, at least to some extent. This choice is audience-centric, and is referred to in this context as communication. All our utterances are found on an identity-communication continuum where we try to express ourselves as accurately as possible while making an effort to be understood correctly, and this dynamic can also exist within a single language. Gordin considers it in the context of scientific communication:
Where communities fall on the spectrum between identity and communication is historically contingent; different tensions are tolerated differently at different times, but they have not gone away, even if scientific communication happens in a single language. It is, in fact, an omnipresent feature of all interchange, strongly dramatized in the case of science by its prominent intellectual creativity (identity) and its social organization (communication), and that allows us to see how creativity and social organization interact within the spheres of language and language choice.
I want to analyze this dynamic with regard to interpersonal communication that involves people of (vastly) different cultural backgrounds. It may be yet another story of immigrant experience, yet another account of East vs West encounters, with their frustrations and epiphanies and moments of cherished closeness in the background of unyielding distance. But what prompted me to write this essay is the undeniable realization that parts of me, broadly a person of the East, often don’t have space to blossom or else have to be curbed/suppressed/attenuated lest I cross the default fine lines of social acceptability in a Western country that is the US of A. These fine lines often have to do with the expression of care toward others, and I want to specifically focus on it in the context of friendships.
There seem to be different cultural baselines with regard to how much care you’re allowed to express toward another without it being perceived by the recipient as “too much”, at any arbitrary level of closeness. The amount and quality of care that in one culture is considered something that could only exist in the context of a romantic relationship is a normal part of friendship in another. And when there’s an encounter between those cultures in the context of friendship, it often results in defaulting to the lowest common denominator/safest option, which is more distant and gingerly than what one of the parties may want to express. One could say that the person from a more care-intense culture thus exercises meta-care: caring for others in a way that is acceptable/desirable to them and not to the person him/herself. Of course, one can muster up one’s courage and take the leap towards “more”, and I’ve done plenty of that, usually with positive outcomes. But the default mode of communication often remains at a more distant level.
The only work of English-language literature I know of that describes a model of friendship that is closest to my heart is Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Reading it, after living in the US for a couple of years, was like taking a hot shower after being rained on on a chilly November day (ok I’m dramatizing, but it’s pretty close to how I felt). That recurring phrase, “for you, a thousand times over”, is what I wanted to tell some of my US friends but didn’t feel like I was allowed to. I wonder if for people of the West the devotion of Hassan to Amir seems like subservience, and if my hesitation in saying those words and doing more for my friends was because I didn’t want to be perceived as subservient to them. I think this is one of the main conflicts in intercultural friendships.
Another one is a framing problem: seeing acts of care as something one “owes” to another vs as a part of a natural way of things, that which one can’t help but keenly do for another. The “owing” frame is deeply alienating to me, it’s a part of the all too self-aware analytical disposition towards interpersonal relationships. I also object to self-interest as the “main driver of human behavior”. I see a lot of value in losing oneself in caring for another, and it therefore saddens me that this part of me atrophies with time, rarely finding an outlet. Not just that, it’s nearly pathologized in Western societies.
With all that said, I do think that over time I’ve become more comfortable with expressing care in ways that resonate with my identity and am happy to adjust its intensity depending on circumstances. As Gordin notes in the context of languages,
The richness of metaphor and quickness of thought in one’s native language enable creative work; identity should not be sacrificed without a fight.