Strange Loops - Blog Archive: February 2006
Strange Loops Journal Archive: February 2006

Blog || Politics || Philosophy || Science || Fiction || Quotes

February 24, 2006
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After much deliberation, I've decided to hire a writer. Or, rather, a team of writers.

I was watching a movie tonight and it struck me just how absurdly articulate people in movies tend to be. They pull just the right phrase out of their ass every time. They are sharp and quick-witted. Their timing is impeccable. They always know when to say something, when to be silent, when to let a gaze linger, when to move in for a kiss.

Compare that to real life: even the most well-spoken person trips up fairly often in conversation, things are mis-heard, timing is missed until you realize five minutes later how perfect it would have been to do something slightly different if only you'd thought of it then.

Movie interactions give the impression we're always able to think on our feet, unflappable in any situation, ready for any turn of events. And then we make asses of ourselves in real life. Which, I'll admit, can be half of the fun, for the reality and honesty of it all.

But for god's sake, it'd be great to have all the perfect timing and wit of a movie for just one night, from beginning to end.

So I've decided to hire a team of writers.

They'll follow me around and feed me lines, tell me exactly when the moment is right. And maybe while I'm at it I'll get a one-man band to follow me around and play theme music in the background of all my interactions. Because life as a movie would be a hoot.

Introduction to My Anarchy: Emergent Order
February 16, 2006
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Okay, political theory time, since someone asked me about it earlier.

I've said before the label "anarchist" could probably be fairly applied to me, but I dislike it since it usually evokes the wrong kind of associations (punk making a bomb down in the basement, or teenage rebelious phase, or intellectual 'non-conformist' or whatever). Hopefully this will better explain my position.

Top-Down Order

Human society is hierarchical. Down at its core, it's been hierarchical since almost the beginning of what we call civilization. Whether it was a chief ruling a tribe, a shaman leading a village, a feudal system, an empire, a democracy or bureaucracy or whatever -- underneath it resides hierarchy. And it tends to be a hierarchy based on authority of some sort. Sometimes the authority is consensually granted (a club unanimously voting in a ruling officer), sometimes it is implicitly granted (it is assumed that by staying in America or wherever after you grow up, you are agreeing to abide by the local laws), sometimes it is systematically granted (by voting in an election, you are imlicitly agreeing to abide by the result of the vote, even if it disagrees with your choice), and sometimes it is coerced (forceably or by manipulation/propaganda).

But however it comes about, we're stuck knee-deep in hierarchical authority. And it's because of this that we live in a fairly orderly society. We have police and paychecks and all that stuff that keeps the wheels turning. But of course, we also have all the kinks in the system, from corruption to the 'tyranny of the majority' to curtailed freedoms to, well, insert your own personal complaint about the government.

I suspect that an underlying problem here is the attempt to impose order from the top down. That is the basis civilization has stood on since the days we settled down from hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyles and started dividing up labor and listening to a village council. It kind of works, but it's far from perfect.

Now, I'm not saying I have a perfect solution (ha!). But I do have a sneaking suspicion that things could be fundamentally different, and it might be better in the long run for humanity.

Bottom-Up Order

My suspicion is that a much better form of order -- of societal stability that respects personal freedom -- could potentially arise from the bottom up. I deliberately use the term 'arise' rather than 'be created' because it would by nature have to be an emergent phenomenon, an organic solution that comes from changing the rules at the lowest level.

An anthill has no ruler. The 'queen' is no such entity -- she gives no orders and never even has contact with most of the ants that work up top on the surface of the colony. Yet ants are such simplistic creatures (far from capable of abstract thought, more like a walking neuron), so how does an anthill manage to get things done? How does it plan food stores for a coming winter, make war on a termite mound, coordinate groups of individuals in efficient ways to collect food and do other tasks (that require them shifting tasks dynamically through time)?

It does it because the rules at the lowest level of ant behavior (their innate, programmed in responses to chemical cues and other environmental stimuli including each other) have over time, through evolution, developed to where 'intelligent' behavior emerges at a high-up level (the anthill) despite the non-intelligence of the units at the bottom-most level.

The lesson on this little sidetrack is subtle but amazing. Emergent phenomena are being recognized more and more today in nature (from the way neural nets can give rise to 'intelligent' patterns not programmed in, to the ways cities develop, to the ability of unthinking slime mold to adapt to its environment), and what it shows us is the powerful change that can come at a high-up macro-scale level from changes at lower, micro-scale levels.


So applying this lesson to human interaction, I suggest that anarchy (literally 'without ruler') -- that is to say, society not based on authority and hierarchy -- may in fact be possible, if it comes about emergently from the bottom up. The reason anarchy is such a joke as a political 'system' is because most anarchists think it is something that can be established, something that can be set up from the top down. That is why I hesitate to ever call myself an anarchist, though I think of it as an ideal.

What I want to see is a society that maintains order, but does so not through top-down imposition or threat of force but by people changing the rules of their interaction on a personal level, and letting the consequences emerge up from there. It is not by establishing a different political 'system' that we fix things, but by changing the way we live our lives. So I think of anarchy as a way of life, a personal way of living not based on authoritative hierarchy, but based on personal choice, freedom and responsibility.

"What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice." --Ursula K. LeGuin

So what this really boils down to, if you take anarchy to be an ideal (no one being ruled by another), is that we need to change how humans behave. Maybe in some sense it's a call to change human nature: a tall order -- until gene therapy and biotech start to shift us toward transhumanity -- and so doomed like any other attempt to 'fix humanity'.

But honestly I concentrate less on the emergent effects at the top level of society/civilization, and look more to the local, micro-level effects. It is about changing how I live my own life, and maybe making the local space-time around me a little better if I can.

I may not have much luck in changing the world (it'd be arrogant to think that a few musings like this give me the authority to know how to fix the world -- that would still be top-down thinking!), but I suppose if nothing else I can recognize a sort of chaos effect spreads the change in my own life to the world at large and hold out hope that that change is positive.

So when people ask about my politics and I hesitantly mention the word 'anarchist' (or better yet, 'anarch', following Bob Black's distinction), that is what I mean. Not some half-assed call to topple government and establish communes. Just a call to change one's own life to one of personal responsibility and freedom, and the hope that maybe someday that could lead to a better world even with no one planning it from the top down.

Google v. Everyone
February 01, 2006
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Google has been in the news recently. Here's the short version of what's up.

Google keeps a huge database logging every search term entered and who entered it. Via BoingBoing, we find out straight from Google PR that:

(1) Given a list of search terms, Google can produce a list of people who searched for that term, identified by IP address and/or Google cookie value.

(2) Given an IP address or Google cookie value, Google can produce a list of the terms searched by the user of that IP address or cookie value.

So everything you have ever searched on Google for can be brought up with a click; and if you have ever searched for anything unusual, you will be in the list of people who have searched for that particular term.

It is a rather short step to get from an IP address to a person's name, yet that one extra step means this sort of database does not deal with "personally identifiable information". That designation has important legal connotations.

The U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is in a court battle with Google right now. Gonzales wanted Google to hand over its records so that the U.S. government could analyze the data. It would, in effect, let the government know everything you ever searched for. If you researched Islamic political theory and maybe entered in a few search terms associated with potentially questionable actions, the feds could track you down and get in contact. If you researched the effects of child pornography for a sociology paper, you will come up in the list with everyone else searching for child porn. If you were ever curious what a pipe bomb was made out of, or the design of the local hydroelectric dam, someone in the government could potentially take note of that and in turn get curious about you.

Now, hopefully this issue will be settled reasonably, telling Gonzales to keep his grimy hands off of our privacy, but I think the deeper issue here is the danger to privacy that comes from private companies. They are not subject to the same restrictions the U.S. government at least attempts to hold itself to. The rules for corporations are rather lax when it comes to consumer privacy.

And this is going to be a major issue in the coming decade. It's already starting and most people haven't noticed it yet because it crept in slowly. Supermarkets make you enter your phone number to get the sales prices so that they can track your purchases to more efficiently market to you. RFID chips are starting to go into products on the shelf, and they have the potential to allow global tracking of every item you buy, not to mention the huge potential for abuse by crooks (who could scan you from 20 feet away and know what brand of underwear you have on). All of our moves online are tracked by cookies, and online ads target us based on that cookie information (a website you've never visited might advertise a bunch of things in [your city], and you are left to wonder how it knew you live there). Surely it won't be long before ads on TV, or maybe even interactive billboards and posters, begin to target us by name for their advertising. E.g. think of the scene in Minority Report; or for a more humorous take, in the cartoon Futurama corporations subliminally beam advertisements into peoples' dreams.

Yes, it seems outlandish when we see it in science fiction, but the fact is we are on the cusp of this very thing happening right here and now. Somewhat surprisingly, the biggest danger to our privacy might not be the government (despite the NSA, Echelon, domestic spying and all the rest) but corporations. And we are going to let it happen because they give us what we want: the newest, cheapest products, and hell with the consequences we don't think of until it is too late.