June 9, 2019

Remarkabilities: Venkatesh Rao on Freedom (Ribbonfarm.com 2013-2015)

I. Freedom

Freedom is a leaky, subsuming process. An inner process of compounding and increasing dimensionality that manifests externally must eventually “take over your life” externally as well. No part of your life, internal or external, can be walled off from the workings of a freedom transformation. The driver of this subsuming leakage is the fourth feature of the freedom process, the feeding-on-noise.

We all like freedom where we are able to handle it, but prefer captivity where we are not yet ready to handle it (or where we think we might never be ready).  So we compartmentalize both internally and externally — create barriers that separate regimes of being with different “noise” levels. (Work vs. Hobbies. Balance.)

Left and Right collectivists apply too much wishful thinking about collective freedom magically “emerging” out of isolated individual freedoms.

Only freedom can spot freedom. Humans are much better at detecting similarities between patterns than identifying patterns in isolation.  The main reference pattern humans use in spotting freedom is themselves. So to spot freedom, you must maintain your own freedom.  Your own must be grounded in isolation, not circularity.

The second rule of thumb implies that recognition of freedom is usually a mutual matter involving a notion of polarity. Two free individuals recognize each other as fundamentally more aligned than opposed (kindred spirits) or fundamentally more opposed than aligned (evil twins). In extremely polarized cases, you get soul-mate and nemesis effects.

By contrast, the free react to the non-free by experiencing a stab of loneliness: the recognition of the fact that the other is not likely to ever recognize you.

II. the View

It is no accident that in the best stories, yearning is triggered by poignant encounters with strangers.

To be seen is to be made sense of from a perspective other than one’s own. A perspective that rings unfamiliar but true. A perspective that makes your own estimate of your life seem, for a moment, alien and somewhat repulsive. It is a moment of unexpected and unsettling vulnerability. The more complete and settled your sense of your own life, the more vulnerable you are during such moments, and the more deeply the seed of restlessness is planted.

Even in the safest-seeming encounters, there is a stab of fear mingled with relief: fear at being exposed for who you are, relief at finding connection. Whether the sense of connectedness prevails or the fear, the moment is fleeting. Defenses return, but not before restlessness — and fear, uncertainty and doubt along with it — sneaks in. Yearning is a case of the world sneaking inside the tempo of your life.

The first time this happens is the first time you realize that home is about perspective rather than situation.

And you can find game-breaks online, but only if you make a real home there, so you can be seen. To seek only to see through the Internet is to experience only half of it, as a tourist.

Offline, we understand the arrival fallacy as unironic belief in a scripted path of progress towards the a good life. To be a sophisticate today is to laugh at the notion that life begins when one settles down by progressively checking off a set of boxes: graduation, car, marriage, mortgage, kids, making partner at the law firm. To arrive is to complete the checklist.

The urge to create a new tradition, and arrive with one’s tribe at a new promised land, is as much a case of the arrival fallacy as the urge to reaffirm an existing tradition with one’s life. New traditionalists are still traditionalists.

The Internet is the opposite of Hotel California. You can leave anytime you like, but you can never arrive. All you can do is allow yourself to be swept along by a stream of shifting perspectives, watching the world evolve in a kaleidoscopic blur, and experiencing yourself as part of that evolving blur.

Nobody said the life with the most truest view had to be coherent as well.

III. Escaping the Rut(s)

I never thought I’d be making a living writing. During my sleepless years, I was never on guard against writing. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late. I was already halfway decent at it.

It comes as news to most people that they can get very skilled at playing games without being aware of it. A skill is something we normally think of as requiring a great deal of careful, deliberate practice. Those kinds of games are in fact the minority. The most common kind of finite game is the kind you fall into without noticing.

This is also why philosopher’s insomnia does not work. There is no general way to be incompetent at every finite game, just like there is no general vaccine for all infectious diseases. Some  incompetencies you are born with. Other things you have to learn to suck at.

We can define what it means for someone to be differently free from you. They are people who are playing just a slightly different game than you are. That difference makes them a reliable sources of non sequiturs in your life.

The partial, imperfect overlapping of two finite game freedom-to-win fields of view can accidentally trigger a freedom-to-continue-playing moment for one party. This, I think, is the logic behind Wiio’s Law: communication always fails, except by accident. And that’s the reason it’s worth surrounding yourself with differently-free people: to use the law of large numbers to turn such accidents of communication into a certainty of awakening from any finite game you might be asleep in.

Once you can do that, it takes no courage at all to fall asleep.

IV. Leadering

Leadering is pervasive in nature, and since most people have no idea how evolution works, they tend to assume it must therefore serve some hidden useful function.

It mostly does not.

Most of the time, leadering is  neither adaptive nor maladaptive, but superfluous. It is part of the tolerable burden of non-functional behavior, subsidized by functional behavior, that we carry around as a species. In other words, leadering is the behavioral analog of junk DNA. Sound and fury signifying nothing, which only exists because it takes an order of magnitude more work to eliminate than to tolerate. This is a corollary to Alberto Brandolini’s bullshit asymmetry principle: it takes an order of magnitude more effort to refute bullshit than to create it.

During times of chaotic change, however, leadering goes from being tolerably irrelevant to being actively harmful and FUD-creating. This is because so much attention is focused on the showy leadering that everybody involved misses the opportunity to do the few minutes of actual leading that is necessary during such change.

To understand human leadering and its modern, somewhat less unuseless form, agile leadering, it is useful to understand it in a broader context, with reference to leadering in other species.

V. Schlep & Sex

Schlep Work and Sexy Work

Worker archetypes seem to fall into two categories in every era. The dull-dirty-dangerous category and the (potentially) sexy-lucrative-powerful category. Let’s simplify the labels into schlep work and sexy work.

Sexy work, such as being a bard, is work that: humans enjoy, catalyzes flow, can be valued as status, is good material for social identity formation

When you actually poke at what people think of as creative, they don’t really mean creative. They mean sexy. The “creative” attribute (whatever its subtle definition might be) is actually an optional extra. Push comes to shove, that’s an attribute people are pretty willing to give up, so long as the four key attributes are preserved (easy to enjoy, easy to learn, easy to value in a status economy, and easy to integrate into an “authentic” social identity).

Just because sexy work is the kind we want to save doesn’t mean it is the kind that is easier to save. In fact it is harder to automate schlep work, which we grievously misunderstand. We have to consider work from the point of view of machines.

Almost all our confusion about automation can be traced to a single sloppy conflation: between algorithmically scalable/unscalable and schleppy/sexy. Just because we don’t want to do certain kinds of work, doesn’t mean machines are better at it. They might be worse.

If you actually look at the work computers leave for us — supporting algorithmically unscalable information work — you will see that it is a far larger category than the “sexy that can be packaged as creative” subset that we are racing desperately to save. It may still not be enough to keep everybody productively employed, but there is certainly more to do than we think there is.

The easiest way to appreciate the emerging human condition to adopt a couple of new metaphors for machines: machines as children and humans as intestinal flora.

A. Converting freedom to output

B. Frills

A frill is neither an obviously non-functional aesthetic touch (that would be a flourish) nor a clearly unnecessary functional capability (that would be wasted functionality). Rather, it is a functional capability you want to signal as being a part of your life, but not actually use.

If your workspace has a proliferation of frills, you are either a hustler (not the good kind), or worse, you’re bullshitting yourself.

If your choices are aesthetically and financially consistent (premium of everything, budget everything, minimalist everything, showy everything, maximalist everything, blue everything, paisley everything), there’s a good chance you are creating a workspace full of frills. If you make choices based on anticipated real patterns of use and learning, there will be a good deal of variability in your choices. Solid, premium choices for frequent-use things, cheap and flimsy choices for things you want to have in hand just in case for non-critical emergencies, must-work-when-needed choices for option capabilities, beginner choices for learning projects, and so forth.