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Hard Forking Reality (Part 1)

On complexity, inequality, and ontological exits

I would like to explore how the multiple versions of reality that circulate in any society can become locked and irreconcilably divergent. Deliberation, negotation, socialization, and most other forces that have historically caused diverse agents to revolve around some minimally shared picture of reality — these social forces now appear to be approaching zero traction, except within very narrow, local bounds. We do not yet have a good general theory of this phenomenon, which is amenable to testing against empirical data from the past few decades. A good theory of reality divergence should not only explain the proliferation of alternative and irreconcilable realities, it should also be able to explain why the remaining local clusters of shared reality do persist; it should not just predict reality fragmentation, it should predict the lines along which reality fragmentation takes, and fails to take, place.

In what follows, I will try to sketch a few specific hypotheses to this effect. I have lately been stimulated by RS Bakker’s theory of Semantic Apocalypse. Bakker emphasises the role of increasing environmental complexity in short-circuiting human cognition, which is based on heuristics evolved under very different environmental conditions. I am interested in the possibility of a more fine-grained, empirical etiology of what appears to be today’s semantic apocalypse. What are the relevant mechanisms that make particular individuals and groups set sail into divergent realities, but to different degrees in different times and places? And why exactly does perceptual fragmentation — not historically unprecedented — seem uniquely supercharged today? What exactly happened to make the centrifugal forces cross some threshold of runaway divergence, traceable in the recorded empirical timeline of postwar Western culture?

I will borrow from Bakker the notion of increasing environmental complexity as a major explanatory factor, but I will generate some more specific and testable hypotheses by also stressing two additional variables. First, the timing and degree of information-technology advances. Second, I would like to zoom in on how the effect of increasing environmental complexity is crucially conditional on cognitive abilities. Given that the ability to process and maneuver environmental complexity is unequally distributed and substantially heritable, I think we can make some predictions about how semantic apocalypse will play out over time and space.

The intuition that alternative realities appear to be diverging among different groups — say, the left-wing and the right-wing — is simple enough. But judging the gravity of such an observation requires us to trace its more formal logic. Is this a superficial short-term trend, or a longer and deeper historical track? To answer such questions, we need a more precise model; and to build a more precise model, we need to borrow from a more formal discipline.

A garden of forking paths

When software developers copy the source code of some software application, their new copy of the source code is called a fork. Developers create forks in order to make some new program on the basis of an existing program, or to make improvements to be resubmitted to the original developer (these are called “pull requests”).

The picture of society inside the mind of individual human beings is like a fork of the application that governs society. As ultrasocial animals, when we move through the world, we do so on the basis of mental models that we have largely downloaded from what we believe other humans believe. But with each idiosyncratic experience, our “forked” model of reality goes slightly out of sync with the source repository. In a thriving community composed of healthy, thriving individuals, every individual fork gets resubmitted to the source repository on a regular basis (over the proverbial campfire, for instance). Everyone then votes on which individual revisions should be merged into the source repository, and which should be rejected, through a highly evolved ballot mechanism: smiles, frowns, admiration, opprobrium, and many other signals interface with our emotions to force the community of “developers” toward convergence on a consensus over time.

This process is implicit and dynamic; it only rarely registers official consensus and only rarely hits the exact bullseye of the true underlying distribution of preferences. At its most functional, however, a community of social reality developers is surprisingly good at silently and constantly updating the source code in a direction convergent toward the most important shared goals and away from the most dire of shared horrors.

These idealized individual reality forks are typically soft forks. The defining characteristic of a soft fork is, for our purposes, backward-compatibility. Backward-compatibility means that while “new rules” might be created in the fork, the “old rules” are also followed, so that when the innovations on the fork are merged with the source code, all the users operating on the old source code can easily receive the new update. An example would be a someone who experiments with a simple innovation in hunting method; if it’s a minor change that’s appreciably better, it will easily merge with all the previously existing source code, because it doesn’t conflict with anything fundamental in that original source code.

soft fork diagram

Every now and then, one individual or subgroup in the community might propose more fundamental innovations to the community’s source code, by developing some radically novel program on a fork. This change, if accepted, would require all others to alter or delete portions of their legacy code. An example might be an individual who starts worshipping a new god, or a subordinate who wishes to become ruler against the wishes of the reigning ruler; each case represents someone submitting to the source code new rules that would require everyone else to alter their old rules deep in the source code; these forks are not backward-compatible. These are hard forks. Everyone in the community has to choose if they want to preserve their source code and carry on without the new fork’s innovations, or if they want to accept the new fork.

Hard fork diagram

Recall that when the innovator on a fork resubmits to the source repository, in the ancestral human environment, the decisions to accept or reject are facilitated through the proverbial campfire. This process is subject to costs, which are highly sensitive to contextual factors such as the complexity of the social environment (increasing the number of things to worry about), social capital (decreasing the number of things to worry about), and information communication technology (decreasing transaction costs facilitating convergence, but also decreasing exit costs facilitating divergence). Finally, individual heterogeneity in cognitive ability is likely a major moderator of the influence of environmental complexity, social capital, and information technology on social forking dynamics. A consideration of these variables, I think, will provide a compelling and parsimonious interpretation of ideological conflict in liberal societies since World War II, on a more formal footing than is typically leveraged by commentators on these phenomena.

On French Philosophy with Taylor Adkins

Taylor Adkins is a translator of French philosophy. He has translated influential books by Félix Guattari, such as Machinic Unconscious (Semiotext(e) 2010), and lesser known works by Jean-François Lyotard and François Laruelle. He’s a philosophy/theory blogger at Speculative Heresy and Fractal Ontology, and co-hosts the podcast Theory Talk with Joe Weissman. You can support them and enjoy extra theory talk at .

Just a few of the books mentioned:

Glas by Derrida

Fashionable Nonsense by Sokal and Bricmont

The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque by Gilles Deleuze

Deleuze and the History of Mathematics by Simon Duffy

A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari

The Cut of the Real by Kolozova

The Political Science of Genetic Explanations with Elizabeth Suhay

Elizabeth Suhay is a political scientist who specializes in the study of public opinion and political psychology, especially regarding beliefs about the causes of inequality. In particular, her work has made some intriguing discoveries about how and why different individuals do or do not believe genetics are an important causal explanation for various phenomena. Dr. Suhay is Assistant Professor at American University, where she is also contributing to a large project on Evidence-Based Science Communication with Policymakers.

Given that debates about genetics and inequality are back in the spotlight today, instead of joining that debate I am more interested in exploring social-scientific angles that might help us decode why these debates are so controversial, confusing, and endless. So I reached out to Elizabeth for an apolitical, scientific angle on the psychology of how and why genetic explanations tend to be adopted or rejected. Elizabeth explains how and why individuals on the left and right favor or reject genetic explanations for different human characteristics. We talk about motivated reasoning, who really believes what and to what degree, and the role of media in activating motivated reasoning about genetic attributions.

Dr. Suhay's research mentioned in the podcast:

  1. "Discord Over DNA: Ideological Responses to Scientific Communication about Genes and Race." Alexandre Morin-Chasse, Elizabeth Suhay, and Toby Jayaratne. Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics 2(2): 260-299. Published version & abstract / Author PDF.

2016. "Lay Belief in Biopolitics and Political Prejudice." Elizabeth Suhay, Mark Brandt, and Travis Proulx. Social Psychological and Personality Science 8(2): 173-182. Published version & abstract / Author PDF.

2013. "Does Biology Justify Ideology? The Politics of Genetic Attribution." Elizabeth Suhay and Toby Jayaratne. Public Opinion Quarterly 77(2): 497-521. Published version & abstract / Author PDF.

Socialism and Campus Politics with Sean Trainor

Sean Trainor (@ess_trainor) is an historian, educator, writer, and podcaster. Sean has written for The Atlantic, TIME, Salon, and many other venues popular and academic. He is a professor at the University of Florida, where he is currently writing a book about beards in the nineteenth century. Sean co-hosts his own podcast, Impolitic. You can find more about Sean's work at his website, seantrainor.org.

Sean is a socialist activist so we had some interesting debates about the prospects for activism today, and we covered just about all of the hot-button, culture-war topics of the moment: campus politics, trigger warnings, free speech, etc., including many observations from our personal experiences moving through left-wing circles and academia. We also talked about some more obscure topics such as Catholic anti-capitalism, the pleasures and pains of our respective podcasts, and why beards became so fashionable among men in the nineteenth century.

The interaction of education and race on Trump approval

The correlation between education and support for Trump is very different across the black-white divide. The graphs below I have taken from Civiqs.

For white people with no college degree, a small majority approves of Trump:

white Trump support education

For white postgraduates, a small majority disapproves of Trump. Interestingly, this is more Trump support from white postgrads than I would have thought:

white postgraduates Trump approval

For black people with no college degree, a huge majority disapprove of Trump:

Approval of Trump for black people with no college degree

And for black postgraduates, the distribution of Trump approval is… about the same as it is for black people with no college degree.

Approval of Trump for postgraduate black people

This surprised me. At first I thought there was a glitch in the browser, I had to refresh it for the different subsets to make sure this wasn’t a mistake.

So what’s going on here? It’s genuinely unclear to me, but there are only a few plausible possibilities. One possibility is that this variation is just an artifact of other variables. But if education does have some effect on attitudes toward Trump, is there a reason why would it would be different for white and black folks? Who knows, but it’s interesting enough to hypothesize about. Scholarly literatures on the relationship between education and political attitudes sometimes debate whether education has an income effect (grads think differently because their market position is different), a learning effect (grads think differently because they have more information or knowledge), or a socialization effect (grads think differently because they enter into cosmopolitan social circles). Which one of these mechanisms could account for an educational effect on Trump support, conditional on race, where education shifts white people toward disapproval while shifting black people nowhere?

An income effect is conceivable, in which the better jobs and salaries won by white postgrads makes some of them change their mind toward disapproval of Trump. But other research suggests that income, apart from education, was not really an independent driver of Trump support.

A learning effect seems to me unlikely, in part because university education is probably not about learning, but also because I see no reason why black students would be less likely than white students to learn new reasons for disliking Trump. It’s possible that black people are so opposed to Trump that education doesn’t really have much room to exert a unique, additional effect; or that whatever university teaches, black people already know it from childhood, e.g. that White Supremacy is real. So education perhaps only affirms what black people already know; whereas many white children do not know that White Supremacy is real, but university teaches them the error of their youthful ways. But if this were the case, it would be unclear why black people bother to attend university; also, you’d have to believe that university teaching is, at least for white students, a hard change of course from 5th grade civics class, to have such an effect; but it seems to me that 5th grade and 15th grade teachers have a pretty unified message that racism is bad and that one should not grab women by their pussies, and that anyone who does or says such things should not be President. I don’t see what exactly university would teach white people that departs from what the education system already taught them. So I don’t see how an education effect could be a learning effect.

Personally, my priors are more in favor of the socialization mechanism. What university lecturers teach is not radically different from what 5th grade civics teachers teach, but the club is very different. If you got a 5th grade civics class, everyone you knew got a 5th grade civics class. There is no club. If you go to university, you leave behind the townies who do not go to university. It’s basic sociological knowledge that all clubs use symbols and rituals to distinguish members from outsiders, and members receive a premium of resources, care, and attention from other members. The culture of the university club is best defined by cosmopolitanism. Why cosmopolitanism is the culture of the university, and how the features of cosmopolitanism serve its members, are topics for a separate post. For now, suffice it to say that cosmopolitanism is the opposite of chauvinism, nationalism, aggression, etc. Cosmopolitanism is the sublimation of these drives into polite speech, which conquers inferiors through competitive subtlety rather than competitive… competition, which is brutish and too obvious. Anyway, it seems plausible that entry into the cosmopolitan social club would have a significant effect, in the direction consistent with the data: away from Trump. But why would the socialization effect be conditional on race, when above I argued there’s no reason a learning effect would be conditional on race? Well, I think there’s a good reason that university would socialize white students into Trump disapproval, while having no such socialization effect on black students. Cosmopolitanism includes compassion for the weaker ‘other.’ As black people in the United States suffer disproportionately from poverty and other ills, white students who enter the university club must become more compassionate toward America’s oppressed black population — as a ritual requirement of membership, mind you, not for any reason that has to do with information, knowledge, or learning. Black students who traverse the university system might become more compassionate for female garment workers in the Global South, but membership in the university club does not require them to increase their expressed compassion to black people in the United States. On the contrary, cosmopolitanism gives them an increased sense of their deserved seat at the table. In short, the cosmopolitan or extra-civilized gain symbolic power over the less civilized, by forfeiting their right to brute force, investing in the social club of advanced symbolic manipulators, and cultivating their symbolic facilities in lieu of their brute force facilities. The more ridiculous social justice fashions today — sometimes led by students of color and supported secondarily by white 'allies’ — are no better or worse than than social justice fashions popular among the educated white elite of any previous generation: cosmopolitanism always means telling refined fibs to secure resources away from the grabbing hands of those who are unable to tell refined fibs.

In summary, I hypothesize that education exerts a socialization effect on students, and that such an effect should alter Trump support only in the case of white students.

Early Christian Communism with Roman Montero

Roman Montero (@PantaKoina) is the author of "All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians." We had a long conversation about religion and communism (duh), Christianity, Protestantism, Catholicism, rationality, love, and marriage.

Roman's book can be found on Amazon here. Roman also wrote a short synopsis of the book available on Libcom.org. You can also find a video recording of our conversation here.

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