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Reality Patchwork and Neo-Feudal Techno-Communism (Podcast)

Audio of my talk given at the first Diffractions/Sdbs workshop on Patchwork. My thesis is that rigorous (voluntary) enforcement of honesty using blockchain + IoT (Internet of Things) presents an opportunity for leftists to solve the game-theoretic problems of communism in a potentially scalable way. I got flak for this being "fascist," which led me to write a short extension and clarification entitled, Fascism Over Yourself Is Called Autonomy

You can read the transcript of this podcast here.

Diffractions Collective: https://www.diffractionscollective.org

SDBS: https://sdbs.cz

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This conversation was first recorded on September 22, 2018 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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Communism Is Pay-What-You-Want Pricing and Nothing Else

Money is a trap, but how? For many years I believed that radical intellectuals and political revolutionaries (interchangeable terms, I thought) should simply eschew instrumental calculations altogether. As my understanding of intelligence developed, I eventually realized that — though there is a crucial intuition there — this position makes no sense. For starters, I realized I was really tapping into a self-mystified kind of virtue signaling. Anti-conscientious non-instrumentalism is merely a 'fast life strategy,' with a variety of instrumental payoffs, if done correctly. Second, my encounter with Nick Land changed my reading of Deleuze, and that changed a bunch of other things. When I first saw Land's contention that, essentially, commerce is the liberatory vector in Deleuze and Guattari, I honestly thought it was outlandish. Surely these are anti-capitalists, who see money as an apparatus for capturing and oppressing human vitality — at least that's how I remembered it, after reading their books over the course of a few years, a few years back. But the more I revisited their texts, and read their joint biography Intersecting Lives, the more I had to admit that it made sense.

I realized that if I bit this bullet, it would solve a whole slew of other puzzles elsewhere in my personal Bayesian network. It would require the updating of many, many other nodes — something humans have good reason to avoid, given the significant computational and sociological costs — but my estimate of the long-term truth gains of such an update seemed increasingly worthwhile. The tricky confounder here is that what also increased over this period was my own personal need for money, as I knew that some kind of break with academia was increasingly likely. Was I updating because of increasing evidence that monied operations could be consistent with a revolutionary life, or was I "selling out" of the true path precisely because of the factors that make people sell out (getting older, wanting kids, needing more money, etc.)? I was on the fence about this for a while.

Incidentally, one realization that pushed me off the fence was how my communist comrades at the time thought about money. The more I told comrades about my belief that money is evil, the more I realized that almost all of them disagreed. Almost all of my comrades dreamed of big projects requiring money, which would also make money to sustain themselves. They weren't avoiding such projects for fear of money's capture, they just didn't know how to get or make the money required. Once it became clear to me that I could hardly find any other communists who shared my cultivated disdain for money — it really clicked that this principled disdain could never contribute to building communism.

It then dawned on me that this hyper-allergy to monied success I had cultivated since college must have been some kind of weird self-mutilating virtue signal, where I refused myself money-making activity to win friends and status with my pure distance from anything exploitative. I say "self-mutilating" because when I would listen to comrades talk about big monied projects they'd like to undertake, all I could think to myself is, I'm pretty sure we could do that if we put our minds to it — I mean, I am pretty sure I could do it if I put my mind to it, therefore we certainly could — so why are we not just doing this? The answer I ultimately got — implicitly, as far as I could tell, anyway — was that if some people can't do it, then nobody should, even if its one of our own and even if the results are communized. (Or if someone wants to make money then sure, they can, but if their ability to do this alone exceeds the average ability of the individuals in the group then it would have to remain a totally individual side-project; it could have nothing to do with a larger group project. Presumably because the able individual's superior abilities would be too visible, it would just be unbearably awkward.)

If communist activists oppose money out of principle, then I might very well continue to refuse monied projects in solidarity, in the construction of genuine anti-instrumental relations and a revolutionary counter-community. I am still partially convinced that something like this is necessary and desirable, and if I can find the right people then I would still lean toward this. But if activists oppose monied success because they lack the ability, and I believe I have the ability, then constraining my own money-making capacities would not be solidarity but useless self-mutilation at an altar of resentment. Obviously, I am not saying this of every single communist — there is a lot of variation and many solid people with real integrity in communist circles — I am only saying that, over time, this was the underlying reality that generally seemed to demonstrate itself in those circles.

All of these insights converged: I must submit to my fate of becoming filthy rich (should it please God). I would open myself to making money, but I promised myself that I would still need to make sense of and integrate my long-running anti-instrumental intuitions. If the path was not in militant univariate maximization of disinterestedness per se, then what was the best ethical principle for proceeding?

I am not sure, given I've only recently come around to making money on an open market, but I have been struck to find so quickly a candidate for a seemingly ideal principle. Somehow there is already in common parlance a commercial principle that seems to meet the highest ethical bar of a militantly communist or anti-capitalist commitment, namely that nobody should be denied anything, no matter what. The same principle can be uniquely effective in nonetheless extracting the most money from those who have the most money (as in "progressive taxation"). This principle can even be more profitable than naïvely capitalistic practice, at least under certain conditions. This ethically dense but simple principle is known as the pay what you want (PWYW) pricing model: one offers a good or service and allows anyone to take it, asking them to pay any amount of their choosing. For instance, I have used this model in my little experimental Book Assistant micro-service.

It is particularly fascinating and exciting to learn that the conditions under which PWYW is most profitable just happen to be the conditions that characterize the business model of the 21st century intellectual. Chao, Fernandez, and Nahata (2015) find that PWYW is most likely to be profitable when marginal cost is low, markets are small, and behavioral considerations loom large. By the pressure of increasingly unlivable bureaucratization, the radical intellectual (who naturally and sinfully prefers insulation from markets, if available) is forced to discover communist entrepreneurship as praxis — and destiny.

Technocommunist Vectors: Radar Edition

When I first laid out my idea for a neo-feudal technocommunist patch, I only waved my hand at the coming technological pathways to my proposed polity. In that first talk, I just hypothesized that Rousseau's concept of the General Will could be engineered by Internet of Things + Smart Contracts.

But "Internet of Things" is really just a popular shorthand for the deepening integration of our physical and digital worlds. So it's easy to point at such a general class of coming technologies and say "something here is certainly going to solve [insert hitherto unsolvable problem]." One could very well have questioned my original talk on the grounds that what I was describing is not really feasible, or will not be feasible anytime soon.

The technology necessary to make communism game-theoretically stable seems closer than I thought.

One pathway on the sensor front is radar. Google has produced a new sensing device called Soli, which uses miniature radar to measure "touchless gestures." It's basically a tiny chip that holds a sensor as well as an antenna array, in one 8mm x 10mm rectangle:

Though Google's intended applications revolve around hand gestures, some people are already finding more general applications. (A flashy new prototype from a megacorp is one thing; but when some other entity starts tinkering with interesting results, that makes me pay more attention.)

A team of academics at the University of St. Andrews recently used Soli to explore the...

counting, ordering, identification of objects and tracking the orientation, movement and distance of these objects. We detail the design space and practical use-cases for such interaction which allows us to identify a series of design patterns, beyond static interaction, which are continuous and dynamic. With a focus on planar objects, we report on a series of studies which demonstrate the suitability of this approach. This exploration is grounded in both a characterization of the radar sensing and our rigorous experiments which show that such sensing is accurate with minimal training.

Exploring tangible interactions with radar sensing

Take a minute to watch it in action, before we embark on a little thought experiment.

It's easy to imagine — without much extrapolation — how one could use this technology to enforce collective honesty and ethical performance optimization. Consider a large multi-family compound. One individual in one of the families is, by far, the most productive chopper of firewood. But he's a little dumb, and earns little money on the market. Then some other individual is by far the most productive software developer; he makes a lot of money on the market but he sucks at chopping firewood. Of course, rich software developers can already pay dumb manual laborers to produce their firewood, but currently no smart and rich person can enjoy the much more valuable and scarce luxury good of living in genuine harmony with a manual laborer.

So our wood-chopping expert hooks up some Soli chips to the pile of chopped wood he maintains for the community. Whenever a piece of wood is removed, he gets a ping on his phone, or maybe a digest at the end of each week. It tells him how many pieces of wood were taken, their weight, which person took them, and how many tokens were transferred to him by the associated Firewood Smart Subcontract (subcontracts are like clauses added to the original founding Smart Contract established at the founding of the polity; they can be constantly added and taken away by consensus, typically as new people enter or leave the group, or if/when individuals' skills/traits/needs change substantially). The richer the person taking firewood, the more they pay per piece of wood via the Smart Contract, according to a steeply progressive taxation rate agreed and programmed into law previously.

On the other hand, if Mr. Bunyan is not keeping the stock replenished, which leads to some individuals suffering very cold evenings, a certain number of tokens are transferred from him to whoever suffered a cold evening. This transfer can be automatically triggered whenever the data show the wood stock to be beneath some threshold, and the temperature data from a particular house to be beneath some threshold, on the same day. And again, these thresholds can be agreed consensually.

Aside: It might seem that this technocommunism sure does require a lot of group decisions — won't it fail like Occupy failed, because democracy is too much work?! Not quite. First, other than the basic preference thresholds defined in the contracts, there is no discussion or deliberation whatsoever. The code is sovereign, and removes the need for regular meetings and debates. My references to consensus only refer to periodic updates. Second, you know what requires a million decisions? The construction of a modern website. And yet it's easier than ever to make one, even with a group. Why? Because code evolves. With code, future people let the smartest and most successful past people make decisions for them. Over time, the larger global community of neo-feudal techno-communist polity hackers will converge on templates: kits containing a variety of sensor devices with a corresponding code repository, containing all the device+subcontract components found in almost all of the most successful previous patches to date. Groups will add new modules if they enjoy hacking, but many will just use the default settings. Or upon initiation, each person completes a short survey gauging basic traits and aptitudes, which plugs into the template optimal values for the various preference thresholds.

Depending on the use case, perhaps a video rig combined with image detection algorithms would work better than radar. Perhaps multiple, redundant methods leveraging different dimensions (video, radar, sound, etc.) might be used at once, in especially tricky and sensitive cases. Perhaps it turns out that 67% percent of the most destructive community offenses occur in kitchens, so the kitchen is loaded with every method and a heavyweight ensemble model. With some problems our tolerance for false positives might be greater/lesser than our tolerance for false negatives, so perhaps the statistical cutoff for inferring a violation would be set higher or lower accordingly.

Meanwhile, while the wood-chopper's system is managing itself, the rich computer programmer might leave a huge stock of old-fashioned USD greenbacks out in the open, available to all for immediate, interest-free, cash loans. Why? Because the risk approaches zero: Just as you can watch in the video above, all removals and returns are fully identified and recorded with radar, and if anyone fails to repay, the owner of the cash stock will be automatically credited from the taker's account after some agreed time (if the taker doesn't have it, a small portion will be taken from all of the others, all of whom have agreed to guarantee each other).

The only question right now is, what are currently the best technologies available for getting started? That and,

Ethereum Smart Contracts and Political Engineering with Dave Hoover

Dave Hoover (@davehoover) is a software engineer and expert developer of Ethereum smart contracts. He wrote the book Apprenticeship Patterns: Guidance for the Aspiring Software Craftsman and runs a distributed software development firm called Red Squirrel. He is currently writing a book on smart-contract development, called Hands-on Smart Contract Development with Solidity and Ethereum.

In this podcast, Dave gave me a better understanding of the potential — and the limits — of Ethereum smart contracts. I told Dave about my own ideas (see Reality Patchwork and Neo-Feudal Techno-Communism and Aristocracy and Communism) to see how my intuitions bounced off a technical expert. There's also some good stuff in here for anyone curious about learning to develop their own smart contracts.

Big thanks to all the patrons who help keep this podcast going.

Download this episode.

The rich are more communist than they're allowed to be

When I talk about aristocratic communism — the idea that a functional communism might be achieved by organizing and enforcing respect for the rich, on condition they distribute wealth — many people scoff and say "that's already the hell of neoliberal capitalism!"

But in fact, today, it's increasingly difficult for the wealthy to enjoy  their nobless oblige, in part because it's so mediated by large sclerotic institutions. Wealthy nobles once upon a time redistributed their wealth as a kind of art form; they were like painters painting on the grandest canvas, and the enjoyment of this creative control, as well as the glory that came from being directly and visibly linked to it, were likely major incentives encouraging redistribution.

Today, the wealthy donate a lot of money through Big Philanthropy, but Big Philanthropy is better thought of as a huge bureaucratic blockage to the real social-psychological attractions of philanthropy.

Consider Tyler Cowen's recent column on Jeff Bezos, who just announced a $2 billion gift to help preschool education and homelessness.

…the gift is unlikely to take the form of Jeff Bezos dictating terms, even if he is the world’s richest man. Bezos and his team will have to work through many institutions — not just preschools and homeless shelters but other organizations that help them do their work. Even brand new preschools and homeless shelters, funded entirely by Bezos, will have their own charters, missions, staffs and fiduciary responsibilities.
Any wealthy person who wants to give away money will find that incentives and the nature of decentralization and bureaucracy impose their own set of checks and balances.

Tyler Cowen, Has private philanthropy become underrated?

This supports my contention that perhaps the only thing the rich cannot get their hands on today is the invaluable experience of genuine nobility — which comes from generously and creatively supporting others and receiving respect and admiration in return. If we could engineer a way for some rich people to enjoy such true, disintermediated nobility, I think they'd become quite open to supporting a community of common folk in a fashion that approximates the classical communist ideal.

And now that I think about it, who is blocking the rich from exercising their nobless oblige? Most of the bureaucrats and meddlers working in philanthropic and humanitarian agencies and organizations generally see themselves, and present themselves, as morally progressive agents. If Bezos wants to give $2 billion to solving some big social ill, there will be dozens if not hundreds of groups who already claim to be the nobles "working on it." But these people basically own the poor and working people they seek to represent and "help." If Jane wants to give me 20 bucks but John insists that she must give it to him first, and then John gives me 10 bucks — John is not my helper. He is my owner, and he is using me to make money for himself. In short, modern society is overrun with fake nobles, who do not have resources to distribute but quite the opposite: they push the moral buttons of the populace and pull government levers to extract money from the wealthy, primarily for their own careers and identity, and only secondarily to help others. This ordering of priorities is clearly legible in the balance sheets of these organizations, which generally show most of the money going to staff and overhead. They claim to be promoting redistribution, but they happily place themselves in the way of rich people who would like to be more communist, if only they were allowed.

The Catholic Coordination Game

[Disclosure: I don't actually know that much about European feudalism. Most of my posts contain a fair bit of speculative guesswork and imagination, but after finishing this I felt compelled to make clear it's almost all conjecture. Rather than make every sentence wishy-washy with too many qualifiers, I've kept many of the probably-too-firm sentences but am putting this here to qualify all of them.]

Under European feudalism, normative status hierarchies seem to have been relatively well aligned with objective character qualities and community contributions. For instance, the Lord organized, commanded, and actually fought with the army that protected the patch from external threats, thus earning the premium of admiration and respect (not to mention money) associated with his title. Social facts (the codified power distribution, titles and so on) and social values (what and who gets counted as good), seem to have been more tightly correlated than today, with both relatively well calibrated to their proper objective referents.

On the lower end of the status hierarchy, the most hard-working, responsible, patient, loyal, Serfs who cared about their family's future (all normatively positive descriptors) could save money and eventually become freemen — if they were blessed with the abilities necessary to do so. The epoch's techno-scientific inability to distinguish between inherited abilities and the above-listed character virtues was unfortunate and certainly caused much measurement error (giving too much or too little normative credit to individuals for inherited traits), but — discounting for their ignorance on these matters — the relationship between social facts and social values had to be better calibrated than it would be when mass-broadcast deceptiveness becomes possible.  Drunks and brawlers presumably did not transcend their bondage, and those who avoided drinking and fighting would be more likely to gain independence. In short, good adjectives were likely applied to those producing objectively pro-social and self-rewarding effects, and bad adjectives were likely applied to those producing objectively anti-social and self-destructive effects. At least, I would infer, more so than today, when objectively bad people sometimes earn positive admiration from millions, and objectively good people sometimes receive nothing but punishment. Obviously, I'm being highly simplistic; ye old manor was no rose garden. But while there was much natural suffering and tragedy, and many typical human pathologies, it seems true that the social calibration of normative worthiness with its objective empirical referents was far less vulnerable to the kind of systematic, impervious-to-error-correction divergence dynamics we appear to be living through today.

The philosophical and behavioral backbone of the post-Roman patchwork was Catholicism. It stands to reason that this was the unique condition that allowed a high degree of fragmentation and decentralization, but nonetheless a high degree of shared identity, meaning, purpose (relative to anything we know today, anyway).

The feudal community codifies objectively existing differences in human temperament and ability, which may be natural and hardwired or arbitrary and unjust, but — with the surplus of social goodwill produced by this factual and spiritual attunement — the powerful are genuinely invested in lifting the floor of their most downtrodden subjects. The weak also are genuinely invested in — sincerely praying for, or "rooting for" (to use the contemporary term for "prayer") — the success of their Lord and his army. European feudalism therefore provides some historical evidence for the consistency of what I have previously theorized as noble communism, and it suggests that the Catholic faith may be uniquely effective in solving the coordination problems of the ideal communist model. It was the Catholic faith alone that sustained cohesion, meaning, and collective economic productivity (though admittedly not optimality) in a context that was fundamentally libertarian. It was also unique to this Catholic patchwork that only from here would we observe the intelligence explosion that we now think of as modern capitalism.

One should not ask why the feudal commune failed: it was a genuinely free communism that succeeded in generating growth behavior (to be called capitalism). It was probably only in this fragmented but high-trust context that capitalism could emerge.

In its first few hundred years, it's been like an angry tiger just released from an all-too-small cage, but on the world-historical timeline a few hundred years is nothing.

The pro-growth, libertarian Catholic communism of European feudalism was so successful that for a short period of time, several proud and arrogant generations thought they could do away with God. They tried, life eventually became unbearably empty, at the same time that scientific rationality now affirms the likelihood of a creator God at the beginning of our time, and a second coming of God in the near future. All of this is now being realized, and a return to Catholic communism may be the only path forward, on rationalist grounds, aesthetic grounds, and ethical grounds.

Another virtue of Catholic communism was that it sustained itself for hundreds of years without any race consciousness, which had not yet been invented in its modern sense. Thus the Catholic communist model offers a viable and much better alternative to ethnic identity as a principle of cohesion in the West.

So the question is not "How could we make feudalism work today, if it couldn't work in the past?" It did work in the past, all too well! The question is rather whether secular capitalism can last, for more than a few hundred years. Feudal communism worked for hundreds of years and is generative of capitalism; secular rational capitalism has worked for a few hundred years, but its rapidly being looted by rent-seekers within and anti-western, anti-secular enemies on the outside. The human biomass that is now merely a plaything of the rational secular capitalist super-system has no will to fight for anything other than its own resentments. Any sufficiently aggressive and repressive force on the inside or outside of secular capitalism may very well destroy everything before artificial superintelligence takeoff locks in.

It is not for nothing that the threat of militant Islam again rears its head today, right when the decline of Catholic communist Europe is approaching completion. The reason why there was not much innovative art and culture in the Dark Ages is because most of the human effort went towards the military defense of the Catholic patches against pagan pirates from the north and Islam from the south. It stands to reason that Catholic communism was adaptive for keeping out regressive militant Islam, and the threat of progressive militant Islam incentivized the Catholic communism. We are only being reminded of this today after a long hiatus of lazy arrogance; that if a dignified and meaningful life is not provided to all by the noble, then the children of Europe will sooner join the Islamic holy war than resist it. And most of them will be indifferent at best.

We are well aware of the ways in which secular communism is typically not a stable game-theoretic equilibrium. We have learned this through many data points. But we are less aware of whether secular capitalism is a stable equilibrium, because it’s a unique world-system experiment with an n = 1. So far though, it's not looking good if you ask me.

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