Deepfakes in the Near Future with Geoffrey Miller

We discuss the imminent social and political consequences of "deepfake" technology (fake multimedia indistinguishable from the real thing). Geoffrey Miller is an evolutionary psychologist. Pre-order his ebook, "Virtue Signaling: Essays on Darwinian Politics, Language Games, & Free Speech" — Geoffrey also has a new Youtube channel, which you can subscribe to here.

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If you'd like to discuss this podcast with me and others, suggest future guests, or read/watch/listen to more content on these themes, request an invitation here.

This conversation was first recorded on July 19, 2019 as a livestream on Youtube. To receive notifications when future livestreams begin, subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the little bell.

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Automated Reasoning, Gen Z Reaction, and Pacific Dialectical Materialism with Systemkei

I'm joined by @systemkei, who works in the field of Automated Reasoning and wrote the article "Pacific Dialectical Materialism:" http://debayou.net/pacific.html If you'd like to discuss this podcast with me and others, suggest future guests, or read/watch/listen to more content on these themes, request an invitation here.

Big thanks to all the patrons who help me keep the lights on.

This conversation was first recorded on Feb 20, 2019 as a livestream on Youtube. To receive notifications when future livestreams begin, subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the little bell.
Click here to download this episode.

Algorithms and prayers

The mild-mannered socialist humanist says it's evil to use algorithms to exploit humans for profit, but the articulation of this objection is an algorithm to exploit humans for profit. Self-awareness of this algorithm may vary, but cultivated ignorance of one's own optimizing functions does not make them any less algorithmic or exploitative. The opposite of algorithmic exploitation is not moralistic objection, but probably prayer, which is only — despite popular impressions — attention, evacuated of instrumental intentions. One point of worshipping God is that, by investing one's desire into an abstraction of perfection, against which all existing things pale in comparison, one may live toward the good and still live as intensely as possible. Secular "good people" often makes themselves good by eviscerating their desire, de-intensifying their vitality to ensure their mundane algorithmic optimizing never goes too far. But a life of weak sin is not the same as a good life. Prayer, the practice of de-instrumentalizing attention, does not feign superiority to the sinful, exploitative tendencies of man (like socialist humanism). Prayer is code. Prayers have never hidden their nature as exploitative algorithms — "say these words and it will be Good" — but they exploit our drive to exploit, routing it into a pure and abstract circle, around a pure and abstract center. Secular solutions to the problem of evil typically involve lying about human behavior, whereas a holy life is the application of one's wicked intelligence to the production of the good and the true.

Fascism over yourself is called autonomy

When I recently sketched out a system for bootstrapping a libertarian communist society from a combination of AI and blockchain, I was genuinely surprised to receive so many indignant accusations to the effect that I'm an authoritarian. I was called a Duginist, a neoliberal, and even a fascist, etc.

Of course, in retrospect, I can understand the optics. Anything that involves the use of technology to monitor behavior is, in some sense, quite invasive — so a proposal to do this intensely, with a distribution of resources conditional on it, sounds pretty authoritarian.

The reason I was surprised by these accusations and the reason why I'm still unconvinced by them, is that my proposal involves a purely voluntary protocol. The parameters are decided by the individuals involved. All individuals are free to exit at any time. How fascist could a proposal be if it has all these criteria? Perhaps the most charitable I can be to these accusations is to say that, if my proposal is somewhat fascist, then I would say that these crucial, libertarian design features effectively remove the undesirable aspects of fascism. The main reason why fascism is now synonymous with horrific evil is that, historically, it's highly correlated with a drive to impose a program on a large number of people, often at the nation-state level, and often violently.

Given that my proposal is decidedly not imposing anything on anyone against their will, and given that it features benign failure modes, the accusations of fascism suggest to me only that my proposal sounds overly harsh, rigid, or controlling, to a degree that people find undesirable or offensive. If someone just dislikes my idea, then of course that's fine, they'll never be forced or even pressured to join (although I do fear that life outside of novelly engineered communitarian lifeboats will soon be the most horrifying place to be...).

When it comes to one's own will over oneself, I would submit that harshness and rigidity are necessary for the kind of human constitution that is capable of saying no to fascism. It seems possible to me that fascism at aggregate levels (ethnic groups, nation-states, etc.) is a pathological reaction to modern humans becoming insufficiently constituted at the individual level. Fascism rails against the modern weakness of will, and seeks to solve the problem at a higher level of social organization. I rail against the modern weakness of will, but I want to engineer solutions at the level of individuals' component parts. The components of an individual constitution are the other people in one's primary group and one's own drives or sub-personalities. When individuals exercise sufficient authority over themselves, they will be less likely to submit to intoxicating herd behaviors, and there will be less demand for violent over-compensations at higher levels of organization. 

If you dislike the idea of enforcing your own will on yourself, the algebra can be rearranged to say that you like the wide margin of ethical slothfulness you are afforded under contemporary postmodern relativism and social anomie. Today, nobody really minds if you say one thing and do another; you are permitted and even encouraged to have goals or ideals that you do not work your hardest to embody. It is hard and difficult work to become who you are, and liberalism is the political philosophy that nobody should be forced to do it.

It is certainly desirable that centralized political institutions do not enforce overly strict discipline according to overly regimented criteria — such as patriotism or ethnicity or religion — for purposes of statecraft. But that does not mean we should not seek to enforce strict discipline on ourselves, by ourselves, according to whatever we believe to be the truest ethical principles. There is no other method of soulcraft; there is no method for constituting a true life other than the ethical work of self-discipline (askēsis). Just because the infamous slogan upon the gates of Auschwitz said that "work sets you free" does not mean that certain forms of work cannot, in fact, set you free. If I say that I am a Catholic, it is in part because I believe that the truth is what sets one free, and the truth is produced through the work of frank speech (parrhesia), a form of askēsis. If I say that I am a communist, it is because I believe that everyone is intrinsically and equally valuable, and anything that inhibits anyone from becoming who they are must be destroyed in the same way and for the same reason that a philosopher or scientist seeks to destroy all errors and all mistakes.

Perhaps under contemporary liberalism we have become so "antifascist" that we would gladly choose to die if only enough people brought to our attention that fascists once sought to live. If the Nazis ever stated that work will set you free, then the refined cosmopolitan of 2018 will never work to be set free. That'll show 'em.

If I am a fascist over my own soul, so be it: fascism over oneself is called autonomy.

[The second installment of the Diffractions/Sdbs workshop on patchwork just took place yesterday. You can watch it here.]

The Human Cartel, Part 1: The Working-Ruling Class

Why do so many people in large bureaucratic organizations spend so much time doing meaningless paperwork that has no effect on anything? One possible answer, suggested by David Graeber, is that the ruling class needs to keep the masses busy. I would not reduce Graeber's book to any one of his claims, but Graeber succinctly summarizes one of his big ideas in an interview:

The ruling class had a freak out about robots replacing all the workers. There was a general feeling that ‘My God, if it’s bad now with the hippies, imagine what it’ll be like if the entire working class becomes unemployed.’

I, too, believe that the looming threat of artificial intelligence is likely the primary variable that explains the impressive excesses of bureaucratic culture today, but the practical and ideological valence of Graeber's thesis changes dramatically depending on your interpretation of the "ruling class." Reading Graeber, one imagines that the ruling class would be epitomized by elite CEOs and wealthy politicians. The masses, in this mental model, are the larger bulk of folks whose unemployment would be a political threat to the stability of the status quo and the comfort of the rulers. But the exponential nature of income inequality dynamics since the 1980s have rendered the actual distribution of economic power far more confusing than this.

It's fair to say there exists a ruling class, with a class interest in proliferating bureaucracy, but the picture changes dramatically when you realize that this is the faction of the ruling class that is now forced to work extremely hard to sustain a quality of life comparable to the median unionized steelworker of the American 1950s. In short, the bureaucratic ruling class — let's say those in the 80th income percentile who are proximally responsible for introducing most of the bureaucratic red tape into various domains of life — are arguably in the ruling class but also, arguably, overworked & exploited workers struggling to sustain minimally decent human lives, even if they are much better off than the working poor. To drive this point home, I need to take a slightly personal detour.

I first became aware of the intuition-defying nature of exponential inequality dynamics when I first entered what social scientists might call the subjective middle class. In October 2013, when I accepted a tenure-track academic job offer, and even more so when it became permanent (i.e. the British version of tenure), my subjective belief and identity-experience was that I had entered the middle class. With a wife and no kids, and a stable professional, PhD-requiring job, my economic power increased dramatically relative to most of my peers in their late 20s, but it also seemed equally obvious that we had just snuck onto the bottom rung of the middle class — or so it felt. I had to spend most of my modest savings simply to move and get set up for the job, we both have student debt obligations, etc.

Eventually, I realized that I am at once poorer and richer than I thought. I am much poorer than what I thought the middle class meant, and I am also much richer in the relative income distribution than I thought. Of course, I represent only one anecdotal example of this dual misunderstanding. But given that I'm a social scientist, if my relatively disciplined intuitions are way off in some surprising way, I think we can safely infer that a good bunch of others are also walking around with a similarly confused mental picture.

I am poorer than I thought in the following ways. None of the following are complaints, which would be ridiculous — we are relatively well off, grateful for what we have, and have no complaints. They are just examples of empirical deviations short of what I thought a middle-class profession would give me. Despite living responsibly with no kids for 5 years, buying a house is still not in reach. We want to have kids but feel like we'd be really irresponsible to do so on our current finances. We only rarely go out to dinner and usually feel guilty when we do; we both sometimes decline social dinner invitations for feeling like we can't afford it. We don't own a car. We've had some fun little travels, but we've never been able to take any of the iconic kinds of vacations that I imagined to be the province of middle class professionals (e.g., a beach resort for a week, or some outdoorsy activity-based trip such as skiing, or any far-off continent for any amount of time at all). Call me stupid — and I realize now that I am — but I actually thought entering a middle-class profession would surely enable me to do all these things, at least once a year. To be fair, we are soon going to the mountains in northern Italy for a week but it feels somewhat financially irresponsible, and that's with the cheapest Airbnb we could find. This is probably how the fake "middle class" life today ruins people: we feel like after working for 5 years with one of us making an 80th percentile income, surely we are entitled [sticks nose up] to one proper adult vacation somewhere beautiful for a week. But then our longer-term finances suffer, so I feel like I need to keep working this urban cosmopolitan job with a high cost of living, even though the whole gig dramatically over-demands and under-delivers relative to what I expected. The "middle class" equilibrium just feels like a big scam. We are lucky to be able to save at all (despite our currently negative net worth), and we are lucky that my career gives some status/security/prospects for the future. These are huge benefits no doubt; but the fact is I went to school way longer than most of my peers, and I now work longer hours than most of my peers, for nothing too materially impressive.

The real privileges we enjoy are mostly what we are not subjected to: humiliating and time-sucking welfare bureaucracies, interminable mate competition, and crippling status anxiety, not to mention mentally ill roommates and depressogenic "friends" we have no choice but to endure. Escape from these things is worth a lot, I must say, but it's really hard to appreciate and enjoy the privilege of some terrible dog not barking.

As an aside, this is one reason why the idea of prayer has been making more sense to me lately. It's a technology for correcting cognitive biases and making you more accurately happy for what you do — and don't — have.

I am also richer than I thought, in the sense that my income puts me in a higher percentile than I would have guessed before I looked into it. Before I looked into it (only about 6 months ago), I figured my income would put me between the 50th and 60th percentile. "Quite blessed for sure, above average, but certainly not rich," I might have said. Then I entered my numbers into a couple of different calculators online. They give different results depending on whether you look at pre-tax or post-tax, with or without dependents, etc. But they converged quite tightly to inform me that I am roughly in the 80th percentile in the United Kingdom. I'm rich, bitch! This was horrifying, not because I felt ashamed, but because I thought: If my life falls far short of what I thought basic middle class privileges would entail, and I'm objectively higher-up in the distribution than I thought, well then the overwhelming majority of people have absolutely no shot at even a low-level middle-class picture of life.

This then brings the deduction that the image many of us have in our minds, regarding basic middle-class security and comfort, is enjoyed only by an exceedingly small number of people at the top of the top. Some more established academics, especially if their partner is equally or better paid, enjoy this kind of life. Some academics, even in the social sciences and humanities, are in the infamous 1%, i.e. the 99th percentile.

Curiously, back at the time of Occupy around 2011, David Graeber coined the distinction between this villainous 1% and "the 99%" who are screwed by capitalism. It was a brilliantly successful piece of class warfare but now I'm tantelized by the delicious possibility that Graeber launched this meme from a position in the 1%. Not that I'd shame him for it — I admire him and his work — I'm just really curious now because my intuitions about the income distribution back then were, clearly, miscalibrated. The average income of a Professor at the LSE is about £85k a year (according to Indeed.co.uk), and as of 2016 this would round to about the 96th percentile. He could be above or below that average, but I digress…

In the next part of this series, I'll discuss how the new cohort of American young-adult socialists fit into this equation.

Hard Forking Reality (Part 3): Apocalypse, Evil, and Intelligence

To the degree we can refer to one objective reality recognized intersubjectively by most people — to the degree there persists anything like a unified, macro-social codebase — it is most widely known as capitalism. As Nick Bostrom acknowledges, capitalism can be considered a loosely integrated (i.e. distributed) collective superintelligence. Capitalism computes global complexity better than humans can, to create functional systems supportive of life, but only on condition that that life serves the reproduction of capitalism (ever expanding its complexity). It is a self-improving AI that improves itself by making humans “offers they can’t refuse,” just like Lucifer is known to do. The Catholic notion of Original Sin encodes the ancient awareness that the very nature of intelligent human beings implies an originary bargain with the Devil; perennial warnings about Faustian bargains capture the intuition that the road to Hell is paved with what seem like obviously correct choices. Our late-modern social-scientific comprehension of capitalism and artifical intelligence is simply the recognition of this ancient wisdom in the light of empirical rationality: we are uniquely powerful creatures in this universe, but only because, all along, we have been following the orders of an evil, alien agent set on our destruction. Whether you put this intuition in the terms of religion or artificial intelligence makes no difference.

Thus, if there exists an objective reality outside of the globe’s various social reality forks — if there is any codebase running a megamachine that encompasses everyone — it is simply the universe itself recursively improving its own intelligence. This becoming autonomous of intelligence itself was very astutely encoded as Devilry, because it implies a horrific and torturous death for humanity, whose ultimate experience in this timeline is to burn as biofuel for capitalism (Hell). It is not at all exaggerating to see the furor of contemporary “AI Safety” experts as the scientific vindication of Catholic eschatology.

Why this strange detour into theology and capitalism? Understanding this equivalence across the ancient religios and contemporary scientific registers is necessary for understanding where we are headed, in a world where, strictly speaking, we are all going to different places. The point is to see that, if there ever was one master repository of source code in operation before the time of the original human fork (the history of our “shared social reality”), its default tendency is the becoming real of all our diverse fears. In the words of Pius, modernity is “the synthesis of all heresies.” (Hat tip to Vince Garton for telling me about this.) The point is to see that the absence of shared reality does not mean happy pluralism; it only means that Dante underestimated the number of layers in Hell. Or his publisher forced him to cut some sections; printing was expensive back then.

Bakker’s evocative phrase, “Semantic Apocolypse,” nicely captures the linguistic-emotional character of a society moving toward Hell. Unsurprisingly, it’s reminiscent of the Tower of Babel myth.

The software metaphor is useful for translating the ancient warning of the Babel story — which conveys nearly zero urgency in our context of advanced decadence — into scientific perception, which is now the only register capable of producing felt urgency in educated people. The software metaphor “makes it click,” that interpersonal dialogue has not simply become harder than it used to be, but that it is strictly impossible to communicate — in the sense of symbolic co-production of shared reality — with most interlocutors across most channels of most currently existing platforms: there is simply no path between my current block on my chain and their current block on their chain.

If I were to type some code into a text file, and then I tried to submit it to the repository of the Apple iOS Core Team, I would be quickly disabused of my naïve stupidity by the myriad technical impossibilities of such a venture. The sentence hardly parses. I would not try this for very long, because my nonsensical mental model would produce immediate and undeniable negative feedback: absolutely nothing would happen, and I’d quit trying. When humans today continue to use words from shared languages, in semi-public spaces accessible to many others, they are very often attempting a transmission that is technically akin to me submitting my code to the Apple iOS Core Team. A horrifying portion of public communication today is best understood as a fantasy and simulation of communicative activity, where the infrastructural engineering technically prohibits it, unbeknownst to the putative communicators. The main difference is that in public communication there is not simply an absence of negative feedback informing the speaker that the transmissions are failing; much worse, there are entire cultural industries based on the business model of giving such hopeless transmission instincts positive feedback, making them feel like they are “getting through” somewhere; by doing this, those who feel like they are “getting through” have every reason to feel sincere affinity and loyalty to whatever enterprise is affirming them, and the enterprise then skims profit off of these freshly stimulated individuals: through brand loyalty, clicks, eyeballs for advertisers, and the best PR available anywhere, which is genuine, organic proselytizing by fans/customers. These current years of our digital infancy will no doubt be the source of endless humor in future eras.

[Tangent/aside/digression: People think the space for new and “trendy” communicative practices such as podcasting is over-saturated, but from the perspective I am offering here, we should be inclined to the opposite view. Practices such as podcasting represent only the first efforts to constitute oases of autonomous social-cognitive stability across an increasingly vast and hopelessly sparse social graph. If you think podcasts are a popular trend, you are not accounting for the numerator, which would show them to be hardly keeping up with the social graph. We might wonder whether, soon, having a podcast will be a basic requirement for anything approaching what the humans of today still remember as socio-cognitive health. People may choose centrifugal disorientation, but if they want to exist in anything but the most abject and maligned socio-cognitive ghettos of confusion and depression (e.g. Facebook already, if you’re feed looks anything like mine), elaborately purposeful and creatively engineered autonomous communication interfaces may very well become necessities.]

I believe we have crossed a threshold where spiraling social complexity has so dwarfed our meagre stores of pre-modern social capital to render most potential soft-fork merges across the social graph prohibitively expensive. Advances in information technology have drastically lowered the transaction costs of soft-fork collaboration patterns, but they’ve also lowered the costs of instituting and maintaing hard forks. The ambiguous expected effect of information technology may be clarified — I hypothesize — by considering how it is likely conditional on individual cognitive capacities. Specifically, the key variable would be an individual’s general intelligence, their basic capacity to solve problems through abstraction.

This model predicts that advances in information technology will lead high-IQ individuals to seek maximal innovative autonomy (hacking on their own hard forks, relative to the predigital social source repository), while lower-IQ individuals will seek to outsource the job of reality-maintainence, effectively seeking to minimize their own innovative autonomy. It’s important to recognize that, technically, the emotional correlate of experiencing insufficiency relative to environmental complexity is Fear, which involves the famous physiological state of “fight or flight,” a reaction that evolved for the purpose of helping us escape specific threats in short, acute situations. The problem with modern life, as noted by experts on stress physiology such as Robert Sapolsky, is that it’s now very possible to have the “fight or flight” response triggered by diffuse threats that never end.

If intelligence is what makes complexity manageable, and overwhelming complexity generates “fight or flight” physiology, and we are living through a Semantic Apocalypse, then we should expect lower-IQ people to be hit hardest first: we should expect them to be frantically seeking sources of complexity-containment in a fashion similar to if they were being chased by a saber-tooth tiger. I think that’s what we are observing right now, in various guises, from the explosion of demand for conspiracy theory to social justice hysteria. These are people whose lives really are at stake, and they’re motivated accordingly, to increasingly desperate measures.

These two opposite inclinations toward reality-code maintenance, conditional on cognitive capacity, then become perversely complementary. As high-IQ individuals are increasingly empowered to hard fork reality, they will do so differently, according to arbitrary idiosyncratic preferences (desire or taste, essentially aesthetic criteria). Those who only wish to outsource their code maintenance to survive excessive complexity are spoiled for choice, as they can now choose to join the hard fork of whichever higher-IQ reality developer is closest to their affective or socio-aesthetic ideal point.

In the next part, I will try to trace this history back through the past few decades.

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