Three Pound Brain

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Month: November, 2016

Dennett’s Black Boxes (Or, Meaning Naturalized)

by rsbakker

“Dennett’s basic insight is that there are under-explored possibilities implicit in contemporary scientific ideas about human nature that are, for various well understood reasons, difficult for brains like ours to grasp. However, there is a familiar remedy for this situation: as our species has done throughout its history when restrained by the cognitive limitations of the human brain, the solution is to engineer new cognitive tools that enable us to transcend these limitations. ”

—T. W. Zadwidzki, “As close to the definitive Dennett as we’re going to get.”

So the challenge confronting cognitive science, as I see it, is to find some kind of theoretical lingua franca, a way to understand different research paradigms relative to one another. This is the function that Darwin’s theory of evolution plays in the biological sciences, that of a common star chart, a way for myriad disciplines to chart their courses vis a vis one another.

Taking a cognitive version of ‘modern synthesis’ as the challenge, you can read Dennett’s “Two Black Boxes: a Fable” as an argument against the need for such a synthesis. What I would like to show is the way his fable can be carved along different joints to reach a far different conclusion. Beguiled by his own simplifications, Dennett trips into the same cognitive ‘crash space’ that has trapped traditional speculation on the nature of cognition more generally, fooling him into asserting explanatory limits that are apparent only.

Dennett’s fable tells the story (originally found in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 412-27) of a group of researchers stranded with two black boxes, each containing a supercomputer with a database of ‘true facts’ about the world, one in English, the other in Swedish. One box has two buttons labeled alpha and beta, while the second box has three lights coloured yellow, red, and green. Unbeknownst to the researchers, the button box simply transmits a true statement from the one supercomputer when the alpha button is pushed, which the other supercomputer acknowledges by lighting the red bulb for agreement, and a false statement when the beta button is pushed, which the bulb box acknowledges by lighting the green bulb for disagreement. The yellow bulb illuminates only when the bulb box can make no sense of the transmission, which is always the case when the researcher disconnect the boxes and, being entirely ignorant of any of these details, substitute signals of their own.

The intuitive power of the fable turns on the ignorance of the researchers, who begin by noting the manifest relations above, how pushing alpha illuminates red, pushing beta illuminates green, and how interfering with the signal between the boxes invariably illuminates yellow. Until the two hackers who built the supercomputers arrive, they have no way of explaining why the three actions—alpha pushing, beta pushing, and signal interfering—illuminate the lights they do. Even when they crack open the boxes and begin reverse engineering the supercomputers within, they find themselves no closer to solving the problem. This is what makes their ignorance so striking: not even the sustained, systematic application of mechanical cognition paradigmatic of science can solve the problem. Certainly a mechanical account of all the downstream consequences of pushing alpha or beta or interfering with the signal is possible, but this inevitably cumbersome account nevertheless fails to explain the significance of what is going on.

Dennett’s black boxes, in other words, are actually made of glass. They can be cracked open and mechanically understood. It’s their communication that remains inscrutable, the fact that no matter what resources the researchers throw at the problem, they have no way of knowing what is being communicated. The only way to do this, Dennett wants to argue, is to adopt the ‘intentional stance.’ This is exactly what Al and Bo, the two hackers responsible for designing and building the black boxes, provide when they finally let the researchers in on their game.

Now Dennett argues that the explanatory problem is the same whether or not the hackers simply hide themselves in the black boxes, Al in one and Bo in the other, but you don’t have to buy into the mythical distinction between derived and original intentionality to see this simply cannot be the case. The fact that the hackers are required to resolve the research conundrum pretty clearly suggests they cannot simply be swapped out with their machines. As soon as the researchers crack open the boxes and find two human beings are behind the communication the whole nature of the research enterprise is radically transformed, much as it is when they show up to explain their ‘philosophical toy.’

This underscores a crucial point: Only the fact that Al and Bo share a vast background of contingencies with the researchers allows for the ‘semantic demystification’ of the signals passing between the boxes. If anything, cognitive ecology is the real black box at work in this fable. If Al and Bo had been aliens, their appearance would have simply constituted an extension of the problem. As it is, they deliver a powerful, but ultimately heuristic, understanding of what the two boxes are doing. They provide, in other words, a black box understanding of the signals passing between our two glass boxes.

The key feature of heuristic cognition is evinced in the now widely cited gaze heuristic, the way fielders fix the ball in their visual field while running to keep the ball in place. The most economical way to catch pop flies isn’t to calculate angles and velocities but to simply ‘lock onto’ the target, orient locomotion to maintain its visual position, and let the ball guide you in. Heuristic cognition solves problems not via modelling systems, but via correlation, by comporting us to cues, features systematically correlated to the systems requiring solution. IIR heat-seeking missiles, for instance, need understand nothing of the targets they track and destroy. Heuristic cognition allows us to solve environmental systems (including ourselves) without the need to model those systems. It enables, in other words, the solution of environmental black boxes, systems possessing unknown causal structures, via known environmental regularities correlated to those structures.

This is why Al and Bo’s revelation has the effect of mooting most all of the work the researchers had done thus far. The boxes might as well be black, given the heuristic nature of their explanation. The arrival of the hackers provides a black box (homuncular) ‘glassing’ of the communication between the two boxes, a way to understand what they are doing that cannot be mechanically decomposed. How? By identifying the relevant cues for the researchers, thereby plugging them into the wider cognitive ecology of which they and the machines are a part.

The communication between the boxes is opaque to the researchers, even when the boxes are transparent, because it is keyed to the hackers, who belong to the same cognitive ecology as to the researchers—only unbeknownst to the researchers. As soon as they let the researchers in on their secret—clue (or ‘cue’) them in—the communication becomes entirely transparent. What the boxes are communicating becomes crystal clear because it turns out they were playing the same game with the same equipment in the same arena all along.

Now what Dennett would have you believe is that ‘understanding the communication’ is exhausted by taking the intentional stance, that the problem of what the machines are communicating is solved as far as it needs to be solved. Sure, there is a vast, microcausal story to be told (the glass box one), but it proves otiose. The artificiality of the fable facilitates this sense: the machines, after all, were designed to compare true or false claims. This generates the sense of some insuperable gulf segregating the two forms of cognition. One second the communication was utterly inscrutable, and the next, Presto! it’s transparent.

“The debate went on for years,” Dennett concludes, “but the mystery with which it began was solved” (84). This seems obvious, until one asks whether plugging the communication into our own intentional ecology answers our original question. If the question is, ‘What do the three lights mean?’ then of course the question is answered, as well it should be, given the question amounts to, ‘How do the three lights plug into the cognitive ecology of human meaning?’ If the question is, ‘What are the mechanics of the three lights, such that they mean?’ then the utility of intentional cognition simply provides more data. The mystery of the meaning of the communication is dissolved, sure, but the problem of relating this meaning to the machinery remains.

What Dennett is attempting to provide with this analogy is a version of ‘radical interpretation,’ an instance that strips away our preconceptions, and forces us to consider the problem of meaning from ‘conceptual scratch,’ you might say. To see the way his fable is loaded, you need only divorce the machines from the human cognitive ecology framing them. Make them alien black-cum-glass boxes and suddenly mechanical cognition is all our researchers have—all they can hope to have. If Dennett’s conclusions vis a vis our human black-cum-glass boxes are warranted, then our researchers might as well give up before they begin, “because there really is no substitute for semantic or intentional predicates when it comes to specifying the property in a compact, generative, explanatory way” (84). Since we don’t share the same cognitive ecology as the aliens, their cues will make no implicit or homuncular sense to us at all. Even if we could pick those cues out, we would have no way of plugging them into the requisite system of correlations, the cognitive ecology of human meaning. Absent homuncular purchase, what the alien machines are communicating would remain inscrutable—if Dennett is to be believed.

Dennett sees this thought experiment as a decisive rebuttal to those critics who think his position entails semantic epiphenomenalism, the notion that intentional posits are causally inert. Not only does he think the intentional stance answers the researchers’ primary question, he thinks it does so in a manner compatible (if not consilient) with causal explanation. Truthhood can cause things to happen:

“the main point of the example of the Two Black Boxes is to demonstrate the need for a concept of causation that is (1) cordial to higher-level causal understanding distinct from an understanding of the microcausal story, and (2) ordinary enough in any case, especially in scientific contexts.” “With a Little Help From my Friends,” Dennett’s Philosophy: A Comprehensive Assessment, 357

The moral of the fable, in other words, isn’t so much intentional as it is causal, to show how meaning-talk is indispensible to a certain crucial ‘high level’ kind of causal explanation. He continues:

“With regard to (1), let me reemphasize the key feature of the example: The scientists can explain each and every instance with no residual mystery at all; but there is a generalization of obviously causal import that they are utterly baffled by until they hit upon the right higher-level perspective.” 357

Everything, of course, depends on what ‘hitting upon the right higher level perspective’ means. The fact is, after all, causal cognition funds explanation across all ‘levels,’ and not simply those involving microstates. The issue, then, isn’t simply one of ‘levels.’ We shall return to this point below.

With regard to (2), the need for an ‘ordinary enough’ concept of cause, he points out the sciences are replete with examples of intentional posits figuring in otherwise causal explanations:

“it is only via … rationality considerations that one can identify or single out beliefs and desires, and this forces the theorist to adopt a higher level than the physical level of explanation on its own. This level crossing is not peculiar to the intentional stance. It is the life-blood of science. If a blush can be used as an embarrassment-detector, other effects can be monitored in a lie detector.” 358

Not only does the intentional stance provide a causally relevant result, it does so, he is convinced, in a way that science utilizes all the time. In fact, he thinks this hybrid intentional/causal level is forced on the theorist, something which need cause no concern because this is simply the cost of doing scientific business.

Again, the question comes down to what ‘higher level of causal understanding’ amounts to. Dennett has no way of tackling this question because he has no genuinely naturalistic theory of intentional cognition. His solution is homuncular—and self-consciously so. The problem is that homuncular solvers can only take us so far in certain circumstances. Once we take them on as explanatory primitives—the way he does with the intentional stance—we’re articulating a theory that can only take us so far in certain circumstances. If we confuse that theory for something more than a homuncular solver, the perennial temptation (given neglect) will be to confuse heuristic limits for general ones—to run afoul the ‘only-game-in-town-effect.’ In fact, I think Dennett is tripping over one of his own pet peeves here, confusing what amounts to a failure of imagination with necessity (Consciousness Explained, 401).

Heuristic cognition, as Dennett claims, is the ‘life-blood of science.’ But this radically understates the matter. Given the difficulties involved in the isolation of causes, we often settle for correlations, cues reliably linked to the systems requiring solution. In fact, correlations are the only source of information humans have, evolved and learned sensitivities to effects systematically correlated to those environmental systems (including ourselves) relevant to reproduction. Human beings, like all other living organisms, are shallow information consumers, sensory cherry pickers, bent on deriving as much behaviour from as little information as possible (and we are presently hellbent on creating tools that can do the same).

Humans are encircled, engulfed, by the inverse problem, the problem of isolating causes from effects. We only have access to so much, and we only have so much capacity to derive behaviour from that access (behaviour which in turn leverages capacity). Since the kinds of problems we face outrun access, and since those problems are wildly disparate, not all access is equal. ‘Isolating causes,’ it turns out, means different things for different kinds of problem solving.

Information access, in fact, divides cognition into two distinct families. On the one hand we have what might be called source sensitive cognition, where physical (high-dimensional) constraints can be identified, and on the other we have source insensitive cognition, where they cannot.

Since every cause is an effect, and every effect is a cause, explaining natural phenomena as effects always raises the question of further causes. Source sensitive cognition turns on access to the causal world, and to this extent, remains perpetually open to that world, and thus, to the prospect of more information. This is why it possesses such wide environmental applicability: there are always more sources to be investigated. These may not be immediately obvious to us—think of visible versus invisible light—but they exist nonetheless, which is why once the application of source sensitivity became scientifically institutionalized, hunting sources became a matter of overcoming our ancestral sensory bottlenecks.

Since every natural phenomena has natural constraints, explaining natural phenomena in terms of something other than natural constraints entails neglect of natural constraints. Source insensitive cognition is always a form of heuristic cognition, a system adapted to the solution of systems absent access to what actually makes them tick. Source insensitive cognition exploits cues, accessible information invisibly yet sufficiently correlated to the systems requiring solution to reliably solve those systems. As the distillation of specific, high-impact ancestral problems, source insensitive cognition is domain-specific, a way to cope with systems that cannot be effectively cognized any other way.

(AI approaches turning on recurrent neural networks provide an excellent ex situ example of the indispensability, the efficacy, and the limitations of source insensitive (cue correlative) cognition (see, “On the Interpretation of Artificial Souls“). Andrei Cimpian, Klaus Fiedler, and the work of the Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition Research Group more generally are providing, I think, an evolving empirical picture of source insensitive cognition in humans, albeit, absent the global theoretical framework provided here.)

Now then, what Dennett is claiming is first, that instances of source insensitive cognition can serve source sensitive cognition, and second, that such instances fulfill our explanatory needs as far as they need to be fulfilled. What triggers the red light? The communication of a true claim from the other machine.

Can instances of source insensitive cognition serve source sensitive cognition (or vice versa)? Can there be such a thing as source insensitive/source sensitive hybrid cognition? Certainly seems that way, given how we cobble to two modes together both in science and everyday life. Narrative cognition, the human ability to cognize (and communicate) human action in context, is pretty clearly predicated on this hybridization. Dennett is clearly right to insist that certain forms of source insensitive cognition can serve certain forms of source sensitive cognition.

The devil is in the details. We know homuncular forms of source insensitive cognition, for instance, don’t serve the ‘hard’ sciences all that well. The reason for this is clear: source insensitive cognition is the mode we resort to when information regarding actual physical constraints isn’t available. Source insensitive idioms are components of wide correlative systems, cue-based cognition. The posits they employ cut no physical joints.

This means that physically speaking, truth causes nothing, because physically speaking, ‘truth’ does not so much refer to ‘real patterns’ in the natural world as participate in them. Truth is at best a metaphorical causer of things, a kind of fetish when thematized, a mere component of our communicative gear otherwise. This, of course, made no difference whatsoever to our ancestors, who scarce had any way of distinguishing source sensitive from source insensitive cognition. For them, a cause was a cause was a cause: the kinds of problems they faced required no distinction to be economically resolved. The cobble was at once manifest and mandatory. Metaphorical causes suited their needs no less than physical causes did. Since shallow information neglect entails ignorance of shallow information neglect—since insensitivity begets insensitivity to insensitivity—what we see becomes all there is. The lack of distinctions cues apparent identity (see, “On Alien Philosophy,” The Journal of Consciousness Studies (forthcoming)).

The crucial thing to keep in mind is that our ancestors, as shallow information consumers, required nothing more. The source sensitive/source insensitive cobble they possessed was the source sensitive/source insensitive cobble their ancestors required. Things only become problematic as more and more ancestrally unprecedented—or ‘deep’— information finds its way into our shallow information ambit. Novel information begets novel distinctions, and absolutely nothing guarantees the compatibility of those distinctions with intuitions adapted to shallow information ecologies.

In fact, we should expect any number of problems will arise once we cognize the distinction between source sensitive causes and source insensitive causes. Why should some causes so effortlessly double as effects, while other causes absolutely refuse? Since all our metacognitive capacities are (as a matter of computational necessity) source insensitive capacities, a suite of heuristic devices adapted to practical problem ecologies, it should come as no surprise that our ancestors found themselves baffled. How is source insensitive reflection on the distinction between source sensitive and source insensitive cognition supposed to uncover the source of the distinction? Obviously, it cannot, yet precisely because these tools are shallow information tools, our ancestors had no way of cognizing them as such. Given the power of source insensitive cognition and our unparalleled capacity for cognitive improvisation, it should come as no surprise that they eventually found ways to experimentally regiment that power, apparently guaranteeing the reality of various source insensitive posits. They found themselves in a classic cognitive crash space, duped into misapplying the same tools out of school over and over again simply because they had no way (short exhaustion, perhaps) of cognizing the limits of those tools.

And here we stand with one foot in and one foot out of our ancestral shallow information ecologies. In countless ways both everyday and scientific we still rely upon the homuncular cobble, we still tell narratives. In numerous other ways, mostly scientific, we assiduously guard against inadvertently tripping back into the cobble, applying source insensitive cognition to a question of sources.

Dennett, ever the master of artful emphasis, focuses on the cobble, pumping the ancestral intuition of identity. He thinks the answer here is to simply shrug our shoulders. Because he takes stances as his explanatory primitives, his understanding of source sensitive and source insensitive modes of cognition remains an intentional (or source insensitive) one. And to this extent, he remains caught upon the bourne of traditional philosophical crash space, famously calling out homuncularism on the one side and ‘greedy reductionism’ on the other.

But as much as I applaud the former charge, I think the latter is clearly an artifact of confusing the limits of his theoretical approach with the way things are. The problem is that for Dennett, the difference between using meaning-talk and using cause-talk isn’t the difference between using a stance (the intentional stance) and using something other than a stance. Sometimes the intentional stance suites our needs, and sometimes the physical stance delivers. Given his reliance on source insensitive primitives—stances—to theorize source sensitive and source insensitive cognition, the question of their relation to each other also devolves upon source insensitive cognition. Confronted with a choice between two distinct homuncular modes of cognition, shrugging our shoulders is pretty much all that we can do, outside, that is, extolling their relative pragmatic virtues.

Source sensitive cognition, on Dennett’s account, is best understood via source insensitive cognition (the intentional stance) as a form of source insensitive cognition (the ‘physical stance’). As should be clear, this not only sets the explanatory bar too low, it confounds the attempt to understand the kinds of cognitive systems involved outright. We evolved intentional cognition as a means of solving systems absent information regarding their nature. The idea then—the idea that has animated philosophical discourse on the soul since the beginning—that we can use intentional cognition to solve the nature of cognition generally is plainly mistaken. In this sense, Intentional Systems Theory is an artifact of the very confusion that has plagued humanity’s attempt to understand itself all along: the undying assumption that source insensitive cognition can solve the nature of cognition.

What do Dennett’s two black boxes ultimately illuminate? When two machines functionally embedded within the wide correlative system anchoring human source insensitive cognition exhibit no cues to this effect, human source sensitive cognition has a devil of a time understanding even the simplest behaviours. It finds itself confronted by the very intractability that necessitated the evolution of source insensitive systems in the first place. As soon as those cues are provided, what was intractable for source sensitive cognition suddenly becomes effortless for source insensitive cognition. That shallow environmental understanding is ‘all we need’ if explaining the behaviour for shallow environmental purposes happens to be all we want. Typically, however, scientists want the ‘deepest’ or highest dimensional answers they can find, in which case, such a solution does nothing more than provide data.

Once again, consider how much the researchers would learn were they to glass the black boxes and find the two hackers inside of them. Finding them would immediately plug the communication into the wide correlative system underwriting human source insensitive cognition. The researchers would suddenly find themselves, their own source insensitive cognitive systems, potential components of the system under examination. Solving the signal would become an anthropological matter involving the identification of communicative cues. The signal’s morphology, which had baffled before, would now possess any number of suggestive features. The amber light, for instance, could be quickly identified as signalling a miscommunication. The reason their interference invariably illuminated it would be instantly plain: they were impinging on signals belonging to some wide correlative system. Given the binary nature of the two lights and given the binary nature of truth and falsehood, the researchers, it seems safe to suppose, would have a fair chance of advancing the correct hypothesis, at least.

This is significant because source sensitive idioms do generalize to the intentional explanatory scale—the issue of free will wouldn’t be such a conceptual crash space otherwise! ‘Dispositions’ are the typical alternative offered in philosophy, but in fact, any medicalization of human behaviour examples the effectiveness of biomechanical idioms at the intentional level of description (something Dennett recognizes at various points in his oeuvre (as in “Mechanism and Responsibility”) yet seems to ignore when making arguments like these). In fact, the very idiom deployed here demonstrates the degree to which these issues can be removed from the intentional domain.

The degree to which meaning can be genuinely naturalized.

We are bathed in consequences. Cognizing causes is more expensive than cognizing correlations, so we evolved the ability to cognize the causes that count, and to leave the rest to correlations. Outside the physics of our immediate surroundings, we dwell in a correlative fog, one that thins or deepens, sometimes radically, depending on the physical complexity of the systems engaged. Thus, what Gerd Gigerenzer calls the ‘adaptive toolbox,’ the wide array of heuristic devices solving via correlations alone. Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ is far better understood as a collection of these tools, particularly those involving social cognition, our ability to solve for others or for ourselves. Rather than settling for any homuncular ‘attitude taking’ (or ‘rule following’), we can get to the business of isolating devices and identifying heuristics and their ‘application conditions,’ understanding both how they work, where they work, and the ways they go wrong.

Some New Reviews of The Great Ordeal

by rsbakker


In The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, the late Clifford Nass presents research using ‘computer confederates’ to study, among many other things, the way introverts and extroverts respond to self-promotion: it turns out introverts prefer self-deprecation, whereas extroverts prefer self-glorification. Since the last post was a shameless exercise in the latter, I was hoping to throw a blanket of self-deprecation over it with the following post. But alas, nothing fitting that description has come to fruition, so I thought I might as well be truly shameless and post links to the latest batch of reviews from a wide variety of venues around the web… The first one is truly special, I think.

Welcome to the Night Vale


The Otherlander’s Blog

Frigid Reads

A Sky of Books and Movies

Donald Trump and the Failure of 20th Century Progressive Culture

by rsbakker


In the middle of an economic expansion, America has elected a bigot and a misogynist as their president. Why pretend otherwise? Unity? Tell me, how does one unify behind a bigot and a misogynist? Millions of white Americans have poured the world’s future into a cracked bowl, and now we all hold our breath and wonder what comes next, while the wonks scramble looking for excuses for what went wrong. Everyone is certain to blame the economics of deindustrialization, but the polling data suggests that Trump supporters are actually more affluent than Clinton supporters. This suggests the issue is actually more cultural than economic—which is a sobering thought. Even if economics had been the primary driving factor, Donald Trump would represent an almost unimaginable failure of progressive culture.

Since this is a failure I have been ranting about for a long time, I’m going to be really pious, and play the part of pompous Canadian observer (as if there were any other kind). We have our own Donald up here, you know, our own Mr. Tell-it-how-it-is, both beloved and despised. His name is Donald Cherry and he’s famous in these parts for saying, You heard it here first!

I told you so.

It’s been surreal watching the past few days unfold. I mean, my whole artistic project turns on working against the very processes we have witnessed these past 18 mos. Christ, I even waged blog war against the alt-right, convinced that they lay at the root of the very cultural transformation we’ve witnessed now. How is it possible to feel at once smug and horrified?

Because I do.

For years now I’ve been shouting from the fringe, shouting, warning about the political and social consequences of academic ingroup excesses. I’ve been telling humanities academics that what they called ‘critical thinking’ was primarily an ingroup conceit, a way to be both morally and intellectually self-righteous at once, and that this, inevitably, was contributing to a vast process of counter-identification, actually stoking the very racism and sexism they claimed to be combating. Trump is what happens when you claim to be whipping yourself while leaving only welts on those (apparently) lacking the ability to defend themselves in academic contexts. For more than a decade now I’ve been telling literary writers that ‘literature’ that challenges no one real is quite simply not literature, but genre. For years now I’ve been warning about the way the accelerating pace of change increases the appeal of atavism, how the web allows these atavisms to incubate, to immunize themselves from rational appeal, how only a creative class that despises ingroup insularity could have any hope of spanning these growing divides. The need for real literary creation, narratives (in all media) that both challenge and reach out.

Ingroup artistic creation needs to be identified as part of the social short circuit operating here. Ingroup producers either must set their empty emancipatory rhetoric aside, embrace their ingroup function, or fundamentally reinvent themselves and their art… the way I’ve been trying to do.

Donald Trump’s success is the failure of progressive culture is the vindication, I think, of the very kind of radical revaluation propounded here at Three Pound Brain. Your cultural insularity is only as laudable as its cultural consequences. It’s the arrogance I’ve personally encountered countless times pounding at the door, the idea that these parochial enclaves of likeminded tastes are the only places that matter, the only places where merit could find ‘serious’ adjudication. And remaining ‘serious,’ you thought, was the way to serve your culture best.

But this was just another flattering ingroup illusion. All along you were serving your subculture—yourselves—merely, no different than any other human institution, really, except you thought ‘critical thinking’ rendered you more or less exempt. All along, you’ve had no idea how pedestrian you look from the outside, a particularly egregious outgroup competitor, intoxicated by the self-evidence of your moral standing.

I tried to warn you, tried to tell you that the ecosystem of art has been irrevocably changed by technology. But hey, I’m just a fantasy author. Never mind the fact that my books actually provoke controversy, actually make their way into the hands of Trump supporters…

Now you have a preening, sneering authoritarian sociopath as your president. This is what happens when you find one another so interesting and agreeable that you forget the people who make you possible, the people who have always made you possible. You are delivered a true-blue demagogue in a time of economic expansion.

Now we’re about to see just how frail or robust the American democratic system proves to be in this, the opening stages of the internet age.

Here’s my guess at what will happen. Donald has a fantastic narrative in his head, a grandiose image of the heroic kind of President he will prove to be—bold, effective, bringing his business acumen to bear—and this will lead to a brief Republican honeymoon, and legislation virtually institutionalizing aristocracy in America will be passed. (His argument, remember, is that the easier it is for he and his buddies to get rich, the better things will be for you decent, hardworking folk). The White House will be a circus—I mourn those Americans who always prized the dignity of the institution. He will kill climate change progress. The first conflict of interest scandals will rock him. The white working poor will cheer as their infrastructure rots and their entitlements are stripped away. More tapes and sexual misconduct accusations will surface. He will stack the Supreme Court with Scalia clones. Obamacare will be set to be revoked, but the legislation will be perpetually hung by a Congress articulating competing corporate interests. Irresistibly drawn to what flatters, Trump will begin avoiding the media, reaching directly out to his base for feedback, growing more verbally extreme in efforts to chase the fading cheer. A young black man will be shot, and Trump will drop the hammer on protesters. He will accept no responsibility for anything. There will be marches on Washington and tense standoffs. Trade sabres will be rattled, but nothing will happen because Trump is a billionaire who is up to his eyeballs in other billionaires—and has left his children as hostages in their world. He will drive wedges between Americans, simply because he is racist and misogynistic. He will reward fools with positions of power. He will attempt to install his children in positions of power. The bullshit gaffes will continue piling on, the media conspiracy will become ‘disgusting and traitorous to America,’ and not a thing will be done about immigration, outside shutting the door. His approval ratings will tank and he will start a war somewhere… and lord knows what kinds of convenient exigencies he might derive from this.

Let’s hope that ‘provoke a constitutional crisis’ and ‘launch nuclear weapons’ doesn’t find its way into there. Let’s hope you’ve merely found your own Berlusconi and nothing more disastrous.

If that happens, I promise I will spare you the Donald Cherry routine. I genuinely love you America, Trump supporters and all. I want to help you build the kind of culture you will need to survive the even greater upheavals to come. The technological revolution is just beginning and already progressive culture is foundering.


The Death of Wilson: How the Academic Left Created Donald Trump

by rsbakker

Tim and Wilson 2

People need to understand that things aren’t going to snap back into magical shape once Trump becomes archive footage. The Economist had a recent piece on all the far-right demagoguery in the past, and though they stress the impact that politicians like Goldwater have had subsequent to their electoral losses, they imply that Trump is part of a cyclical process, essentially more of the same. Perhaps this might have been the case were this anything but the internet age. For all we know, things could skid madly out of control.

Society has been fundamentally rewired. This is a simple fact. Remember Home Improvement, how Tim would screw something up, then wander into the backyard to lay his notions and problems on his neighbour Wilson, who would only ever appear as a cap over the fence line? Tim was hands on, but interpersonally incompetent, while Wilson was bookish and wise to the ways of the human heart—as well as completely obscured save for his eyes and various caps by the fence between them.

This is a fantastic metaphor for the communication of ideas before the internet and its celebrated ability to ‘bring us together.’ Before, when you had chauvinist impulses, you had to fly them by whoever was available. Pre-internet, extreme views were far more likely to be vetted by more mainstream attitudes. Simple geography combined with the limitations of analogue technology had the effect of tamping the prevalence of such views down. But now Tim wouldn’t think of hassling Wilson over the fence, not when he could do a simple Google and find whatever he needed to confirm his asinine behaviour. Our chauvinistic impulses no longer need to run any geographically constrained social gauntlet to find articulation and rationalization. No matter how mad your beliefs, evidence of their sanity is only ever a few keystrokes away.

This has to have some kind of aggregate, long-term effect–perhaps a dramatic one. The Trump phenomenon isn’t the manifestation of an old horrific contagion following the same old linear social vectors; it’s the outbreak of an old horrific contagion following new nonlinear social vectors. Trump hasn’t changed anything, save identifying and exploiting an ecological niche that was already there. No one knows what happens next. Least of all him.

What’s worse, with the collapse of geography comes the collapse of fences. Phrases like “cretinization of the masses” is simply one Google search away as well. Before, Wilson would have been snickering behind that fence, hanging with his friends and talking about his moron neighbour, who really is a nice guy, you know, but needs help to think clearly all the same. Now the fence is gone, and Tim can finally see Wilson for the condescending, self-righteous bigot he has always been.

Did I just say ‘bigot’? Surely… But this is what Trump supporters genuinely think. They think ‘liberal cultural elites’ are bigoted against them. As implausible as his arguments are, Murray is definitely tracking a real social phenomenon in Coming Apart. A good chunk of white America feels roundly put upon, attacked economically and culturally. No bonus this Christmas. No Christmas tree at school. Why should a minimum wage retail worker think they somehow immorally benefit by dint of blue eyes and pale skin? Why should they listen to some bohemian asshole who’s both morally and intellectually self-righteous? Why shouldn’t they feel aggrieved on all sides, economically and culturally disenfranchised?

Who celebrates them? Aside from Donald Trump.


You have been identified as an outgroup competitor.

Last week, Social Psychological and Personality Science published a large study conducted by William Chopik, a psychologist out of Michigan State University, showing the degree to which political views determine social affiliations: it turns out that conservatives generally don’t know Clinton supporters and liberals generally don’t know any Trump supporters. Americans seem to be spontaneously segregating along political lines.

Now I’m Canadian, which, although it certainly undermines the credibility of my observations on the Trump phenomenon in some respects, actually does have its advantages. The whole thing is curiously academic, for Canadians, watching our cousins to the south play hysterical tug-o-war with their children’s future. What’s more, even though I’m about as academically institutionalized as a human can be, I’m not an academic, and I have steadfastly resisted the tendency of the highly educated to surround themselves with people who are every bit as institutionalized—or at least smitten—by academic culture.

I belong to no tribe, at least not clearly. Because of this, I have Canadian friends who are, indeed, Trump supporters. And I’ve been whaling on them, asking questions, posing arguments, and they have been whaling back. Precisely because we are Canadian, the whole thing is theatre for us, allowing, I like to think, for a brand of honesty that rancour and defensiveness would muzzle otherwise.

When I get together with my academic friends, however, something very curious happens whenever I begin reporting these attitudes: I get interrupted. “But-but, that’s just idiotic/wrong/racist/sexist!” And that’s when I begin whaling on them, not because I don’t agree with their estimation, but because, unlike my academic confreres, I don’t hold Trump supporters responsible. I blame them, instead. Aren’t they the ‘critical thinkers’? What else did they think the ‘cretins’ would do? Magically seize upon their enlightened logic? Embrace the wisdom of those who openly call them fools?

Fact is, you’re the ones who jumped off the folk culture ship.

The Trump phenomenon falls into the wheelhouse of what has been an old concern of mine. For more than a decade now, I’ve been arguing that the social habitat of intellectual culture is collapsing, and that the persistence of the old institutional organisms is becoming more and more socially pernicious. Literature professors, visual artists, critical theorists, literary writers, cultural critics, intellectual historians and so on all continue acting and arguing as though this were the 20th century… as if they were actually solving something, instead of making matters worse.

See before, when a good slice of media flushed through bottlenecks that they mostly controlled, the academic left could afford to indulge in the same kind of ingroup delusions that afflict all humans. The reason I’m always interrupted in the course of reporting the attitudes of my Trump supporting friends is simply that, from an ingroup perspective, they do not matter.

More and more research is converging upon the notion that the origins of human cooperation lie in human enmity. Think Band of Brothers only in an evolutionary context. In the endless ‘wars before civilization’ one might expect those groups possessing members willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of their fellows would prevail in territorial conflicts against groups possessing members inclined to break and run. Morality has been cut from the hip of murder.

This thesis is supported by the radical differences in our ability to ‘think critically’ when interacting with ingroup confederates as opposed to outgroup competitors. We are all but incapable of listening, and therefore responding rationally, to those we perceive as threats. This is largely why I think literature, minimally understood as fiction that challenges assumptions, is all but dead. Ask yourself: Why is it so easy to predict that so very few Trump supporters have read Underworld? Because literary fiction caters to the likeminded, and now, thanks to the precision of the relationship between buyer and seller, it is only read by the likeminded.

But of course, whenever you make these kinds of arguments to academic liberals you are promptly identified as an outgroup competitor, and you are assumed to have some ideological or psychological defect preventing genuine critical self-appraisal. For all their rhetoric regarding ‘critical thinking,’ academic liberals are every bit as thin-skinned as Trump supporters. They too feel put upon, besieged. I gave up making this case because I realized that academic liberals would only be able to hear it coming from the lips of one of their own, and even then, only after something significant enough happened to rattle their faith in their flattering institutional assumptions. They know that institutions are self-regarding, they admit they are inevitably tarred by the same brush, but they think knowing this somehow makes them ‘self-critical’ and so less prone to ingroup dysrationalia. Like every other human on the planet, they agree with themselves in ways that flatter themselves. And they direct their communication accordingly.

I knew it was only a matter of time before something happened. Wilson was dead. My efforts to eke out a new model, to surmount cultural balkanization, motivated me to engage in ‘blog wars’ with two very different extremists on the web (both of whom would be kind enough to oblige my predictions). This experience vividly demonstrated to me how dramatically the academic left was losing the ‘culture wars.’ Conservative politicians, meanwhile, were becoming more aggressively regressive in their rhetoric, more willing to publicly espouse chauvinisms that I had assumed safely buried.

The academic left was losing the war for the hearts and minds of white America. But so long as enrollment remained steady and book sales remained strong, they remained convinced that nothing fundamental was wrong with their model of cultural engagement, even as technology assured a greater match between them and those largely approving of them. Only now, with Trump, are they beginning to realize the degree to which the technological transformation of their habitat has rendered them culturally ineffective. As George Saunders writes in “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” in The New Yorker:

Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two subcountries reason differently; they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems. You and I approach a castle. One of us has watched only “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the other only “Game of Thrones.” What is the meaning, to the collective “we,” of yon castle? We have no common basis from which to discuss it. You, the other knight, strike me as bafflingly ignorant, a little unmoored. In the old days, a liberal and a conservative (a “dove” and a “hawk,” say) got their data from one of three nightly news programs, a local paper, and a handful of national magazines, and were thus starting with the same basic facts (even if those facts were questionable, limited, or erroneous). Now each of us constructs a custom informational universe, wittingly (we choose to go to the sources that uphold our existing beliefs and thus flatter us) or unwittingly (our app algorithms do the driving for us). The data we get this way, pre-imprinted with spin and mythos, are intensely one-dimensional.

The first, most significant thing to realize about this passage is that it’s written by George Saunders for The New Yorker, a premier ingroup cultural authority on a premier ingroup cultural podium. On the view given here, Saunders pretty much epitomizes the dysfunction of literary culture, an academic at Syracuse University, the winner of countless literary awards (which is to say, better at impressing the likeminded than most), and, I think, clearly a genius of some description.

To provide some rudimentary context, Saunders attends a number of Trump rallies, making observations and engaging Trump supporters and protesters alike (but mostly the former) asking gentle questions, and receiving, for the most part, gentle answers. What he describes observation-wise are instances of ingroup psychology at work, individuals, complete strangers in many cases, making forceful demonstrations of ingroup solidarity and resolve. He chronicles something countless humans have witnessed over countless years, and he fears for the same reasons all those generations have feared. If he is puzzled, he is unnerved more.

He isolates two culprits in the above passage, the ‘intellectual and emotional weakening brought about by degraded public discourse,’ and more significantly, the way the contemporary media landscape has allowed Americans to ideologically insulate themselves against the possibility of doubt and negotiation. He blames, essentially, the death of Wilson.

As a paradigmatic ‘critical thinker,’ he’s careful to throw his own ‘subject position’ into mix, to frame the problem in a manner that distributes responsibility equally. It’s almost painful to read, at times, watching him walk the tightrope of hypocrisy, buffeted by gust after gust of ingroup outrage and piety, trying to exemplify the openness he mistakes for his creed, but sounding only lyrically paternalistic in the end–at least to ears not so likeminded. One can imagine the ideal New Yorker reader, pursing their lips in empathic concern, shaking their heads with wise sorrow, thinking…

But this is the question, isn’t it? What do all these aspirational gestures to openness and admissions of vague complicity mean when the thought is, inevitably, fools? Is this not the soul of bad faith? To offer up portraits of tender humanity in extremis as proof of insight and impartiality, then to end, as Saunders ends his account, suggesting that Trump has been “exploiting our recent dullness and aversion to calling stupidity stupidity, lest we seem too precious.”

Academics… averse to calling stupidity stupid? Trump taking advantage of this aversion? Lordy.

This article, as beautiful as it is, is nothing if not a small monument to being precious, to making faux self-critical gestures in the name of securing very real ingroup imperatives. We are the sensitive ones, Saunders is claiming. We are the light that lets others see. And these people are the night of American democracy.

He blames the death of Wilson and the excessive openness of his ingroup, the error of being too open, too critically minded…

Why not just say they’re jealous because he and his friends are better looking?

If Saunders were at all self-critical, anything but precious, he would be asking questions that hurt, that cut to the bone of his aggrandizing assumptions, questions that become obvious upon asking them. Why not, for instance, ask Trump supporters what they thought of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline? Well, because the chances of any of them reading any of his work aside from “CommComm” (and only then because it won the World Fantasy Award in 2010) were virtually nil.

So then why not ask why none of these people has read anything written by him or any of his friends or their friends? Well, he’s already given us a reason for that: the death of Wilson.

Okay, so Wilson is dead, effectively rendering your attempts to reach and challenge those who most need to be challenged with your fiction toothless. And so you… what? Shrug your shoulders? Continue merely entertaining those whom you find the least abrasive?

If I’m right, then what we’re witnessing is so much bigger than Trump. We are tender. We are beautiful. We are vicious. And we are capable of believing anything to secure what we perceive as our claim. What matters here is that we’ve just plugged billions of stone-age brains chiselled by hundreds of millions of years of geography into a world without any. We have tripped across our technology and now we find ourselves in crash space, a domain where the transformation of our problems has rendered our traditional solutions obsolete.

It doesn’t matter if you actually are on their side or not, whatever that might mean. What matters is that you have been identified as an outgroup competitor, and that none of the authority you think your expertise warrants will be conceded to you. All the bottlenecks that once secured your universal claims are melting away, and you need to find some other way to discharge your progressive, prosocial aspirations. Think of all the sensitive young talent sifting through your pedagogical fingers. What do you teach them? How to be wise? How to contribute to their community? Or how to play the game? How to secure the approval of those just like you—and so, how to systematically alienate them from their greater culture?

So. Much. Waste. So much beauty, wisdom, all of it aimed at nowhere… tossed, among other places, into the heap of crumpled Kleenexes called The New Yorker.

Who would have thunk it? The best way to pluck the wise from the heart of our culture was to simply afford them the means to associate almost exclusively with one another, then trust to human nature, our penchant for evolving dialects and values in isolation. The edumacated no longer have the luxury of speaking among themselves for the edification of those servile enough to listen of their own accord. The ancient imperative to actively engage, to have the courage to reach out to the unlikeminded, to write for someone else, has been thrust back upon the artist. In the days of Wilson, we could trust to argument, simply because extreme thoughts had to run a gamut of moderate souls. Not so anymore.

If not art, then argument. If not argument, then art. Invade folk culture. Glory in delighting those who make your life possible–and take pride in making them think.

Sometimes they’re the idiot and sometimes we’re the idiot–that seems to be the way this thing works. To witness so many people so tangled in instinctive chauvinisms and cartoon narratives is to witness a catastrophic failure of culture and education. This is what Trump is exploiting, not some insipid reluctance to call stupid stupid.

I was fairly bowled over a few weeks back when my neighbour told me he was getting his cousin in Florida to send him a Trump hat. I immediately asked him if he was crazy.

“Name one Donald Trump who has done right by history!” I demanded, attempting to play Wilson, albeit minus the decorum and the fence.

Shrug. Wild eyes and a genuine smile. “Then I hope he burns it down.”

“How could you mean that?”

“I dunno, brother. Can’t be any worse than this fucking shit.”

Nothing I could say could make him feel any different. He’s got the internet.

The Zuckerberg Illusion

by rsbakker


So the special issue of Wired Magazine edited by Barack Obama has just come out, and I wanted to draw attention to Mark Zuckerberg’s response to the President’s challenge to “ensure that artificial intelligence helps rather than hurts us.” Somehow, someway, this issue has to move away from the ‘superintelligence’ debate and toward a collective conversation on the impact of AI on human cognitive ecology. Zuckerberg’s response betrays a tragic lack of understanding from the man who, arguably, has already transformed our social cognitive ecologies more radically than any other individual in the history of the human race. Anyone knowing some way of delivering this message from steerage up to the bridge, forward the bloody thing, because the combination of this naivete with the growing ubiquity of AI is becoming, ahem, a little scary. The more baked-in the existing trends become, the harder the hard decisions will become.

Zuckerberg begins his response to Obama’s challenge sounding very much like a typical American industrialist: only the peculiarity of his product makes his claim remarkable.

“People have always used technology as a lever to improve lives and increase productivity. But at the beginning of every cycle of invention, there’s a temptation to focus on the risks that come with a new technology instead of the benefits it will bring.

Today we are seeing that happen with artificial intelligence.”

What he wants to do in this short piece is allay the fears that have arisen regarding AI. His strategy for doing so is to show how our anxieties are the same overblown anxieties that always occasion the introduction of some new technology. These too, he assures us, will pass in time. Ultimately, he writes:

“When people come up with doomsday scenarios about AI, it’s important to remember that these are hypothetical. There’s little basis outside science fiction to believe they will come true.”

Of course, one need only swap out ‘AI’ with ‘industrialization’ to appreciate that not all ‘doomsday scenarios’ are equal. By any comparison, the Anthropocene already counts as one of the great extinction events to befall the planet, an accomplished ‘doomsday’ for numerous different species, and an ongoing one for many others. The reason for this ongoing extinction has to do with the supercomplicated systems of interdependency comprising our environments. Everything is adapted to everything else. Like pouring sand into a gas tank, introducing unprecedented substances and behaviours (such as farming) into existing ecologies progressively perturbs these systems, until eventually they collapse, often taking down other systems depending on them.

Malthus is the first on record predicting the possibility of natural environmental collapse in the 18th century, but the environmental movement only really got underway as the consequences of industrialization became evident in the 19th century. The term pollution, which during the Middle-ages meant defilement, took on its present meaning as “unnatural substance in natural systems” at the turn of the 20th century.

Which begs the question: Why were our ancestors so long in seeing the peril presented by industrialization? Well, for one, the systems comprising ecologies are all, in some way or another, survivors of prior ecological collapses. Ecologies are themselves adaptive systems, exhibiting remarkable resilience in many cases—until they don’t. The supercomplicated networks of interdependence constituting environments only became obvious to our forebears when they began really breaking down. Once one understands the ecological dimension of natural environments, the potentially deleterious impact of ecologically unprecedented behaviours and materials becomes obvious. If the environmental accumulation of industrial by-products constitutes an accelerating trend, then far from a science fiction premise, the prospect of accelerating ecological degradation of environments becomes a near certainty, and the management of ecological consequences an absolute necessity.

Which begs a different, less obvious question: Why would these networks of ecological interdependence only become visible to our ancestors after they began breaking down? Why should humans initially atomize their environments, and only develop complex, relational schemes after long, hard experience? The answer lies in the ecological nature of human cognition, the fact that we evolved to take as much ‘for granted’ as possible. The sheer complexity of the deep connectivity underwriting our surrounding environments renders them computationally intractable, and thus utterly invisible to us. (This is why the ecology question probably seemed like such an odd thing to ask: it quite literally goes without saying that we had to discover natural ecology). So cognition exploits the systematic correlations between what information is available and the systems requiring solution to derive ecologically effective behaviours. The human penchant for atomizing and essentializing their environments enables them to cognize ecology despite remaining blind to it.

What does any of this have to do with Zuckerberg’s optimistic argument for plowing more resources into the development of AI? Well, because I think it’s pretty clear he’s labouring under the very same illusion as the early industrialists, the illusion of acting in a grand, vacant arena, a place where unintended consequences magically dissipate instead of radiate.

The question, recall, is whether doomsday scenarios about AI warrant widespread alarm. It seems pretty clear, and I’m sure Zuckerberg would agree, that doomsday scenarios about industrialization do warrant widespread alarm. So what if what Zuckerberg and everyone else is calling ‘AI’ actually constitutes a form of cognitive industrialization? What will be the cognitive ecological impact of such an event?

We know that human cognition is thoroughly heuristic, so we know that human cognition is thoroughly ecological. The reason Sherry Turkle and Deidre Barrett and others worry about the ease with which human social cognition can be hacked turns on the fact that human social cognition is ecological through and through, dependent on the stable networks of interdependence. The fact is human sociocognition evolved to cope with other human intelligences, to solve on the basis of cues systematically correlated to other human brains, not to supercomputers mining vast data sets.  Take our love of flattery. We evolved in ecologies where our love for flattery is balanced against the inevitability of criticism. Ancestrally, pursuing flattery amounts to overcoming—i.e., answering—criticism. We generally hate criticism, but given our cognitive ecology, we had no choice but ‘to take our medicine.’

And this is but one of countless examples.

The irony is that Zuckerberg is deeply invested in researching human cognitive ecology: computer scientists (like Hector Levesque) can rail against ‘bag of tricks’ approaches to cognition, but they will continue to be pursued because behaviour cuing behaviour is all that’s required (for humans or machines, I think). Now Zuckerberg, I’m sure, sees himself exclusively in the business of providing value for consumers, but he needs to understand how his dedication to enable and delight automatically doubles as a ruthless quest to demolish human cognitive ecology. Rewriting environments ‘to make the user experience more enjoyable’ is the foundation all industrial enterprise, all ecological destruction, and the AI onslaught is nothing if not industrial.

Deploying systems designed to cue human social cognition in the absence of humans is pretty clearly a form of deception. Soon, every corporate website will be a friend… soulful, sympathetic,  utterly devoted to our satisfaction, as well as inhuman, designed to exploit, and knowing us better than any human could hope to, including ourselves. And as these inhuman friends become cheaper and cheaper, we will be deluged by them, ‘junk intelligences,’ each of them so much wittier, so much wiser, than any mundane human can hope to appear.

“At a very basic level, I think AI is good and not something we should be afraid of,” Zuckerberg concludes. “We’re already seeing examples of how AI can unlock value and improve the world. If we can choose hope over fear—and if we advance the fundamental science behind AI—then this is only the beginning.”