Year of cotton
Today marks the two-year anniversary of founding TIS with Crispy (soon joined by Snav, first hire par excellence). So I wrote some words for the occasion. We’re entering our terrible twos! We’re learning the language, learning how to play well with others!
Last year I wrote some stuff about all we’d accomplished—the new concepts and paradigms, the podcasts and blogposts—and maybe I’ll still write that. But mainly I wanted to do something different and get personal.
For most of my life, justification has been the leash around my neck, tethering my actions. I clung to a standard of reasonable personhood: my pruning algorithm, the watcher at the gates of the mind which allows some desires to live and smashes others from existence, held itself to a standard of preemptive defensibility to some imagined “reasonable” person. This watcher can still feel the weather in old wounds from past accusations.
I tended to prefer, and preferentially hang around, people with whom I could negotiate by telling the “truth,” rather than putting on a “show”—convincing them with flashy rhetoric, empty glitz, and non sequiturs. People to whom I could explain or defend any action, against any challenge, because they were the “reasonable” people held in mind when I’d acted. Their standards became my own. Those who could not be negotiated with this way were not worth dealing with. I detested the feeling of “playing” a person—thinking in terms of effects and outcomes accomplished, which creative flourishes would “get one past” them. I might mull over the best way to phrase something, but I thought of this as an interest in accuracy; there might be important nuance missing, or a mis-framing to side-step, but I could always tell a reasonable person the truth. This was my personal morality.
Nowadays, I feel more intuitively how much a standard of reasonableness depends on shared cultural backgrounds, shared systems of norms and expectations. I’m not sure I believe in a non-pragmatic truth or accuracy of utterances—what might it mean to “give someone the wrong impression” separate from feeling that the actions they take, in light of it, are inappropriate? I still avoid conscious performance, and still seem to hang around “reasonable people,” with whom I can be basically honest—of course witholding certain opinions, or private sources of shame, as we all do. I’ve also started to realize I’m leaving cash on the ground—not just cash that could go in my pocket, but in other people’s wallets—by limiting myself this way.
What was most surprising, over time, was that despite this reasonable personhood standard, the tactics and gameplay of social life didn’t go away. Not just because so-called unreasonable people seemed to be everywhere, and included people I cared about or depended on. But because even the “reasonable” people had “blind spots”—things they got (I thought) weirdly and “irrationally” touchy about. And as time went on, I started to get more comfortable with thinking and talking about the tactics. I was around people whose welfare I felt confident I cared about; I didn’t have to dissimulate to myself, because I was worried deep down I was out for #1. But when I went into situations naively, without preparation, they would frequently blow up in my face. People would get hurt, and I’d be dumbfounded (or play dumb, it’s sometimes hard to tell which). I’d put on spectacles that felt spontaneous and “authentic” but came off to others as disorienting, insulting, or provocative. I’d send a message, with my actions or body language, while repeatedly denying (to myself and others) that I was sending that message. I didn’t intend it, so how could I be?
Sometimes I felt a radical self-mistrust. I thought of the Jacob Clifton line, about how we never do anything by accident, how growing up is a process of getting yourself under control, so you don’t hurt people and fuck up your life. It’s a very psychoanalytic perspective, that your subconscious has these agendas that are constantly leaking out, and you have to own up to the subconscious strategies to get yourself under control. That your conscious is prone to generating propaganda to explain away these subconscious strategies in a more pro-social light. Which is one of the ways I’ve grown, actually, being on the server the past few years: taking compatibilism seriously, realizing not just abstractly but at an intuitive level, by regularly underestimating fields of knowledge and having the error bashed over my head, that there was an enormous amount to be learned from social construction theory, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, or old German philosophy.
The Clifton line still scares me, about how we never do anything by accident. Oh sure, we all make mistakes, no one is denying we slip on banana peels, but it’s a torque statement; it says: “You are understimating and wilfully blind to the deliberate decisions your subconscious is making on your behalf.” It says, you are motivated to disavow the consequences of your actions even as you go on repeating them. There’s a joke ready to be written here—the guy keeps pressuring the girl to come home with him, and every other sentence he says, “But no pressure!” She, of course, doesn’t believe him.
And once you get comfortable with bringing these dynamics and tensions of the social out into the light, and examining them openly—maybe you see it modeled by gossipy aunts whose noseyness saves the family from a devastating rift; maybe you get it from Austen—it becomes a major part of your conscious life, too. There are communication problems that pop up when you start caring about people, and taking seriously your role in how their life shakes out, like, “How should I bring this delicate subject up, and when?” or “How to get along when someone can’t take a hint?” and “How do you hint in the first place?” where we are not necessarily in the optimal social equilibria. We’ve inherited some ad hoc strategies that we saw modeled in family or friends, and they worked better than not having them at all, but they’re not reliable, and now there are ick zones around whole categories of social interaction. I think there is real coordination technology to be built, that is, tactics of communication and interaction which let us not only be more efficient—a cold, economic term—but to be more free: to not chain ourselves needlessly to expensive communication strategies; to not chain others. Because “painstakingly explaining for the twelfth time the rules of Hold’em” is not expensive communication. So long as you are in the realm of talk, your communication is cheap. So long as it takes you hours or days communication is cheap. Expensive communication lasts a lifetime.
I think there are things that can be figured out, that matter and impact quality of life in both hardline economic and hippy-dippy spiritual ways. Even though the language of strategy and equilibria, bargaining and costly signaling, can feel Spock-esque, there are deep loves that fall apart because people fail to model each other or fail to express themselves, or just because someone asks the wrong question at the wrong time. There are potential loves that never get off the ground because the surrogates were wrong, because of misreads and misunderstandings. Wars are started, friendships end, political conflicts drag for decades, because we cannot understand each other, because we are driven to fight over miscommunications and misrecognitions, because rhetorical tools go unidentified as such.
There is a vast wilderness around social ritual, and we understand in a vague, applied way which of its zones are dangerous or off-limits, which are well-trafficked or lightly populated, which are central and which are on the periphery. But this territory has never been mapped except, perhaps, in Victorian fiction. Notes are rarely exchanged, folks shy around from “meta” talk, gossip is taboo across swathes of male life. You’ve been preparing a pitch for months, a schpiel to give your younger, alcoholic brother. To get him to clean up his act before he loses his job, possibly his family. We have this edginess around “manipulation,” around not wanting to “manipulate” others, but how do we approach this talk? Do we give it our best shot? Do we pick our moment wisely? There are endless wrinkles to the dynamics in play, concerning the morality and social acceptability of persuasion and consent. Pitching someone when they are in certain states of mind might be taboo play—when they are grieving, or suicidal, or intoxicated. But perhaps because your brother is always drunk and suicidal, it’s OK her. Or maybe the time that he is grieving the end of his marriage, maybe that’s the time to present him with the fork in the road that’s facing him, to give your best argument for why he should choose the uphill path towards light. Or maybe it’s the worst time, and he will cut you out of his life and refuse to answer your calls for years.
Sometimes these conversations never happen because the person doesn’t know how to pull it off. There’s something you could say to a friend, which would help them immensely, but you don’t know how to say it without coming off wrong, and it never gets said. Maybe you don’t know how to make them trust your intentions, or let their guard down. Sometimes these conversations happen but get botched and both parties walk away angry and unchanged. Maybe most conversations go this way.
A Lorenz waterwheel is a classic example of sensitivity to initial conditions, the multiplicity of different stable equilibria that are available, the effect of starting conditions on the local minimum we end up at. Cultural evolution drives us into certain stabilities. Intelligence gives us the ability to scope out the levels of the different buckets, rotate the wheel in order to redistribute, get better outcomes. Or to use a hill-climbing metaphor, it gives us some limited but powerful ability (aren’t all powers limited) to see through the fog, across valleys, and locate higher peaks.
“Strategy” is not always—or even often—Machiavellian. “Being strategic” to me has always meant “Not being stupid,” taking seriously the stakes of the game, which is other people’s lives; not hurting people you don’t want to hurt. We’re all so connected now, exchanging information, able to record and remember interactions, and I want to leverage that opportunity to notice trends and develop social technology—build out a vocabulary, help people build intuitions—that gets us to better outcomes. Helps people talk to each other and be understood. I think that just having the concept “logistics” in their heads gives generals an advantage. You don’t need lab studies with impressive p-values, you just need a voice in someone’s head that says “Mind the low-hanging rafters.” Maybe at some point, this stuff becomes enough of a science someone can run studies or advise governments, but for now, vocabularies and intuitions and frameworks for which dynamics to keep in mind—this is enough, and this is everything.
Every once in a while nature shakes the waterwheel into a new equilibrium all on its own. The treadmill of military strategy never slows. But historians of war can map the progression in technologies, goals, considerations, player tactics, how they changed the game and transformed the solutions employed, the common mistakes. There’s no reason we can’t have a similar understanding and relationship to social life. Especially as (for better or for worse) globalization and media homogenize culture such that local diversity fades, and everyone begins to play within the same equilibria, norms, and strategic landscape.
Science is great, but the social—that’s everything. And where it starts is communication.