Ambivalence on Technocracy

I really have a knack for clickbait titles, don’t I?

Hello hello! The weather is emphatically swinging into spring here in the SF Bay Area. Cheery sunshine = I feel cheery too. One of my friends delivered a lamb for the first time today, which is amazing 🐑

My last email to you was about livestreaming. In retrospect, that post was vapid and undershot my standards for Sonya Notes. Editorial quality will hopefully improve as I continue to iterate, and I appreciate your patience so far!

Granted, I originally pitched Sonya Notes as an experimental newsletter. Experiments often yield dumb results, so I don’t feel too guilty.

I’ve been sitting on the following post for a while, trying to get it where I want it.

“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.
“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.

Two of my favorite heuristics conflict with each other:

  1. Competitive markets solve most problems on their own. (The largest exceptions are externalities and physical monopolies.) Market participants should be free to express their preferences and create an emergent equilibrium, instead being subject to an authority that tries to engineer specific results.
  2. Any given member of the general public is a moron with no proper idea of what is good for them or anyone else. (See also: Cipolla’s laws of stupidity and Hanlon’s razor.)

#1 is a libertarian idea and #2 is a progressive idea (at least according to early American progressivism or perhaps High Modernism). #1 is bottom-up improvement of society and #2 is top-down improvement of society.

It’s worth noting that I phrased #1 as optimistic and #2 as cynical. (I used to go around defining myself as a “cynical optimist” like Bryan Caplan. Still pretty accurate: I’m cynical about human nature and optimistic about technology.)

The conflict between the heuristics is okay, as long as I’m aware of it. Heuristics need to be useful cognitive shortcuts more than they need to be completely accurate in all scenarios.

Despite my politics being laissez-faire overall, I have a soft spot for paternalistic technocracy. I think mixing the two yields a basically functional government. The current American system is too hands-off in some ways, but mostly far too interventionist (in the lives of its citizens, but also in the affairs of foreign countries).

I like how Redditor darwin2500 put it, with flipped rhetoric:

[P]ersonal responsibility is often a great idea for giving an individual one-on-one advice to improve their life, and is usually a terrible credo for public policy debates and political activism.

A society without both personal-level and systems-based vigilance and improvements will ultimately fail. You can’t only focus on one and not the other.

I tend to say that “anything gov’t touches is so routinely dysfunctional that we should only delegate issues that can’t be handled any other way” — in other words, minimum viable government. I would be a minarchist if minarchism accounted for social safety nets.

The soul of libertarianism is “everyone gets to do whatever they want unless they’re directly harming someone else,” for a pretty narrow definition of direct harm. (Yes, it has failure modes.) I find that very appealing, as a person who chafes under authority.

The soul of progressivism is “we need to take care of everyone and here’s how,” with a very strong desire for rules and behavior-shaping.

I don’t have a neat conclusion, so I’ll end with this quote about populism, which I recoil from, excerpted from an essay called “The Ignoble Lie”:

The uprising among the working classes across the developed West arises from a perception of illegitimacy — of a gap between claims of the ruling class and reality as experienced by those who are ruled. It is no coincidence that these rebellions come from the socialist left and authoritarian right, two positions that now share opposition to state capitalism, a managerial ruling class, the financialization of the economy, and globalization.

See also: “The Twin Insurgency” by Nils Gilman.

Originally posted on Substack.

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JJ’s Razor

My friend @Ctzn5, who goes by JJ, came up with a useful corollary to Hanlon’s razor. I’m posting it here so that I can easily link to it whenever, instead of needing to dig through Twitter search every time.

To refresh your memory, Hanlon’s razor goes like this: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

JJ’s addition (which dates to 2016, as far as I know) points out the futility of Hanlon’s: “The intentionality of an agent with behavior sufficiently indistinguishable from malice is irrelevant.”

I think JJ’s razor could use rephrasing for pithiness, but I’m not sure what would be ideal. Perhaps: “Malicious or stupid, it doesn’t matter, because your options are the same.”

Suggestions welcome!

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Perception, Possession

To have and to hold, cogito ergo sum.

The map is not the territory, as they say. A map (and there are various kinds) is an interpretative layer on top of some underlying substance. It would be hard to handle the world without maps, but they are necessarily reductive. As I wrote in 2016:

[N]o map is a 1:1 representation of reality — that would be a duplicate, or a simulation. Rather, our maps give us heuristics for interpreting the lay of the land, so to speak, and rules for how to react to what we encounter. Maps are produced by fallible humans, so they contain inaccuracies. Often they don’t handle edge cases well (or at all).

Nevertheless, I like mental models [which are one of the types of maps]. They cut through all the epistemological bullshit. Instead of optimizing a mental model to be true, you optimize it to be useful. An effective mental model is one that helps you be, well, more effective.

Although the map is not the territory, and we recognize this, a map can still dictate how the territory is perceived. How it is navigated. Which features of the terrain are considered salient. Maps are powerful and people vie for control of the ones that they consider influential. (Consider the recent kerfuffle over a certain New York newspaper’s op-ed section.)

Artwork by Ganesha Balunsat.
Artwork by Ganesha Balunsat.

Of course, you can diverge from a given map, or improve it, or substitute a new one. But even switching between existing maps is difficult and can take time, although in my experience it’s possible to develop multi-map skills.

The LessWrong wiki points out that because the map is not the territory, manipulating the map only affects the map. “If you change what you believe about an object, that is a change in the pattern of neurons in your brain. The real object will not change because of this edit.”

However: “The map is a separate object from the territory and the map exists as an object inside the territory.” For example, your thoughts and ideas about yourself are created within — are even created by! — the entity that they attempt to understand. It gets recursive very quickly.

There is no requirement that you perceive the world as it is. I’d go as far as saying that accurate world-perception is 1) a nightmare to judge one way or the other, since any judgment would be subjective, and 2) not intrinsically noble.

You can post-process your raw intake into whatever form is most useful to you. In fact, your brain already does post-processing automatically, from the sensory level on upward. When its output is particularly debilitating, we turn to medication or suggest cognitive behavioral therapy. Thus the “meme yourself into X” concept.

Seeking and synthesizing meaning from whatever chaotic milieu you occupy is a way to own the world. (I find it immensely satisfying.) There’s a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s masterful Blood Meridian:

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

In the context of Blood Meridian the idea is dark, because that’s the nature of the novel. But in the context of our lives, I think knowledge-based dominion is an empowering concept.

You cannot rule the world. Or even if you can, it won’t stop you from becoming Ozymandias. We all meet his fate, on varying levels of grandeur. But you can bring the world into yourself and command its tulpa to do your bidding.

Originally posted on Substack.

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Tips for Having Positive Interactions Online

I enjoy conversing with random netizens about the topics that interest me — power dynamics, ethics, etc. Unfortunately, seeking out productive discourse is an activity fraught with peril, since every second person online is MAD about whatever issue preoccupies them. (I don’t object to the anger, but I often object to how it’s expressed.)

I’m not an expert at avoiding pointless arguments full of hostility, but I’ve developed some useful heuristics. They started as coping mechanisms inspired by political flamewars on Facebook. I’ll give you the tl;dr first:

Above all else, be kind.

I love these dorky yellow humanoids. Image by Kate Ter Haar.
I love these dorky yellow humanoids. Image by Kate Ter Haar.
  1. Assume that people are speaking in good faith until they demonstrate otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt.
    • Train yourself to choose the friendliest interpretation of someone’s statement. I’ve found that expecting the best from people has a much better failure state than the alternative.
    • Ask lots of questions about what people mean. It’s easy for someone’s comment to be confusing or misleading by accident.
    • Reign in your snark; amp up your earnestness.
  2. Different people have different communication modes.
    • On the internet you will bump into many people who don’t share your cultural assumptions — and remember, culture is not just an ethnic thing — or who naturally have different defaults. Keep an eye out for this.
    • When someone’s interjection seems socially insensitive or rude, remember that their version of normal may be very different from yours.
  3. It’s fine to disengage if the conversation is distressing.
    • Remember the golden rule of self-care! Like they tell you on the airplane, secure your own oxygen mask before assisting anyone else. Prioritize your mental health and wellbeing — burnout helps no one.
    • Being upset is okay. It’s one of the many natural reactions to conflict that humans can experience. Anyone who says “it’s just the internet” or something along those lines is trying to minimize your feelings.

Obviously I am not 100% perfect at any of this — I’m a jerk online way too often — but I’m striving to communicate with people respectfully. Keeping these heuristics in mind helps me do that.

I may or may not update this list if more tips occur to me. Let me know in the comments or on social media (Twitter + Facebook) if you have feedback! Suggested additions are also welcome.

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