The Brazilian Whitman

Attempts to explain poet and composer Caetano Veloso to non-Brazilians typically refer to him as a Brazilian  John Lennon orBob Dylan … Jessica Callaway, however, argues that if comparisons must be made, in spirit and sensibility, Veloso is more aptly described as a close comrade of Walt Whitman.

— The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics, ed. Levine and Crocitti

After the ritual “clearcut”, bloom

All rituals look to have been “clearcut” in the modern world, because few rituals are well-adapted to the new technological human reality. But this new reality may also be seen as an island: a pristine space, unoccupied by past rituals and very leisurely by historical standards, where sensory exploitation selection may flourish: rituals may serve the emotional and aesthetic needs of humans more than ever before, because they are under fewer constraints. Only a tiny percentage of the population is now needed for the production of food, fuel, and other necessities; selection for collective action in unpleasant areas has been dramatically relaxed. There is more room for arbitrary beauty.

— Sarah Perry, “An Ecology of Beauty and Strong Drink

Social cognition and “no-self”

To put it in more sociological terms: Reasons are social constructs. They are constructed by distorting and simplifying our understanding of mental states and of their causal role and by injecting into it a strong dose of normativity. Invocations and evaluations of reasons are contributions to a negotiated record of individuals’ ideas, actions, responsibilities, and commitments. This partly consensual, partly contested social record of who thinks what and who did what for which reasons plays a central role in guiding cooperative or antagonistic interactions, in influencing reputations, and in stabilizing social norms. Reasons are primarily for social consumption.

– Mercier and Sperber, The Enigma of Reason

It seems to me (but what do I know) that the things I cling to most tightly are the things I perceive as most inseparable from my unique self—memories (and the sense of having a sharp memory), quirks, moral traits, and as Mercier and Sperber remind me, reasons. Reasons on all tiers, for all objects: reasons for supporting decentralized governance, reasons for abstaining from pork, reasons for trusting A and not trusting B. Turns out, all of these things are inaccurate by design, hazy at best.

The good news is that even a momentary release from identification with them—whether experienced or merely conceived—feels very freeing. I want more of where that came from.

This is not to distort Mercier and Sperber (or any descriptive attempts at cognitive psychology) toward the end of an idealized post-self that overcomes its “deceptive” programming, and casts off the shackles of narrative once and for all. We are built to deal with our environment exactly as we need to, given the constraints of our evolutionary history. There is nothing sinister about this.

And even if there were, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought there was a way out. That said, our self-awareness shouldn’t be limited to the psych lab and the page. An honest appraisal of why we tell the stories we tell about ourselves reveals a bundle of fictions. What does that mean for that grand frame story, identity?

1. That it’s functionally important, and largely for social reasons.
2. That it’s not so important that we should let it hurt us.

The work of taking our attachments (and the I they add up to) less seriously is what we might call a “mental health hack”, with roots as far back as the Gangetic Plain, 2,500 years ago. Studying cognitive psychology, and chewing on its ideas, wherever we find ourselves, can be part of this work.

America in decline: nothing personal

When I arrived in the United States, curiously enough, it was precisely at the end of the long positive structural-demographic (SD) trend, which saw historically unprecedented rise in broadly based measures of well-being, including its economic and biological aspects. The trend reversal from the integrative to disintegrative SD trend can be dated fairly precisely to 1977-1978…

In other words, just as the US was triumphantly winning the Cold War and becoming the world’s sole superpower, deep down in the American society’s foundations, a disintegrative trend was gathering steam, the significance of which is becoming glaringly obvious only today.

— Peter Turchin, “1977-2017: A Retrospective

Our moment is the first in any living person’s lifetime (or in America’s lifetime, most probably) of convergence between structural-demographic “disintegration” and imperial decline. How does this manifest in today’s politics? “Make America Great Again” as an all-purpose banner for fear of emasculation and obsolescence.

Not being the sole (or even primary) geopolitical superpower isn’t a tragedy. Just ask the happy, prosperous folks in Denmark, or the happy, piss-poor folks in Bhutan. But for people who lived the unipolar moment of the fabled 90s, disorientation is to be expected.

To what degree is international status anxiety contributing to America’s internal “disintegrative” trend by making people feel like dispensable losers? It’d be hard to gauge. To be sure, it’s not the main driver of our spike in partisan rancor, mass shootings, fatal overdoses, and endemic complacency.

But the degree to which Americans cling to exceptionalism can’t be psychologically healthy (Hell, I voted for Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders, and the thought of America not being #1 even stings me a bit!). And when this clinging plays out at the ballot box, tectonic plates shift—and never in our favor.

How can we convince people that changes in the global order needn’t be experienced as personal tragedy?

Metaphysical musings from the Playa

Suffice to say that under qualia formalism both the feelings of oneness and separateness come from the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of one’s experience. In particular, the topology of such an object (and its orientability) may determine the degree to which one feels a self-other barrier. This is highly speculative, of course.

Analogous to the planetary habitable zone (neither too close to a star and thus burning nor too far and thus freezing), there might be a psychologically tolerable range for how much you believe in universal oneness. That is, it’s best to feel neither completely merged nor completely separate. Close enough that one can relate to others and not feel separate, but not so close that one’s existence feels redundant and cosmic loneliness sets in. Incidentally, this seems to be roughly the place at which Burners see themselves relative to other humans.

This from Qualia Computing, a true powerhouse of Whitmanic dynamism.

Why technology needs speed limits: confessions of an ex-libertarian

Used to think of myself as a techno-libertarian. Because when you’re 17 or 18, and a few years closer to the flat part of the exponential curve, it’s hard to imagine what could go wrong, or to care about collateral damage—and to this day, hard to have faith in government handling it constructively.

I’m still excited about the superintelligent, super-networked future, and I still believe that barring systemic crisis (this is a non-trivial caveat), it’s inevitable in one form or another. I’m not bitter about that.

But as I’ve grown out of ca. 1991-2008 “end of history” liberal triumphalism, I’ve come to realize that there’s *no guaranteeing* the valence that information super-technologies will have, and *no predicting* what values, if any, a strong AI will tend to express.

Even back in my Ray Kurzweil-boosting days, I could tell that the pure optimists were giving short shrift to questions of ethics and ideology. Nick Bostrom does a good job of mapping out the range of possibilities on this front in “Superintelligence”, all the while admitting that there’s only so much we can know.

I left Superintelligence a few years back convinced that the best we could hope for, as far as endowing the technologies of the future with benign values, was to have a frank, culture-wide conversation.

How is information technology already changing us today, and how will it more and more steeply change us in the decades to come? Note: the key question, over which we might be able to exert some control, is not If—it’s How.

Fast-forward a few years. The conversation has clearly broken out of Silicon Valley, but it remains an elite concern.

And even if it weren’t for the Trump circus, it would’ve continued (for natural, unsurprising reasons) to lurk in the background, churning along, while idiot lawyers and preachers stoked primal identity-based resentments and caricatured 18th-19th century economics.

Meanwhile, the largest handful of corporations in the world—mostly brand new money, unencumbered by the push-and-pull of regulatory politics—are leapfrogging ahead (as is natural), making the decisions for all of us, without our consent.

They are deploying the best engineering minds and the best algorithms in existence to build the most addictive, insidious products possible—taking advantage of the same neurochemical pathways as drugs, junk food, and sexual compulsion.

They are precipitating a mental health crisis at worst, and radically reshaping society, without the coordination of any of its other stakeholders, at best.

Like many people, I’ve struggled to figure out a healthy information technology regimen. One of my major personal goals right now is to develop a practice of mindfulness around my use of the internet, social media, and smartphones—but it’s a bitch.

As an instinctive libertarian, I think that developing our own personal ways of coping is all we can really count on, at the end of the day. But I’m not optimistic. Today’s information technology is just too well-engineered, attention spans have been shot to shit, and designing systems and regimens is something not many people are good at.

That’s why I think the obvious answer, speaking as a naive non-lawyer, is strict regulation (or, I’ll emphasize, *protection*) for the public good. We’ve come to a consensus that when it comes to anything with sufficient power to harm—cars, cigarettes, alcohol, factory mechanisms, food production pipelines, toxic waste—market mechanisms alone are not enough to stave off abuse and disaster.

Neurochemically and emotionally, this algorithmic crack is on another level. Sadly, I see just as little evidence of us dealing with this challenge frankly and maturely on a collective scale as I do on the individual scale. And remember, smartphones and Snapchat are just the tip of the iceberg.

Even if you disagree with them on *everything else*, I think this is a strong case for supporting economic progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Because with anyone else—the alt-right, the corporate right, the Clinton-Zuckerberg technocrat-naifs—you can be sure that the conversation won’t happen. How we handle our exponential journey past computation’s inflection point is a decision we have to make democratically—lest we cede it to a few soon-to-be-trillion-dollar companies.

Nobody serious—not Warren, not Sanders, and certainly not me—is talking about smashing the market. That would bring unspeakable tragedy, and if you wish for it, you must feel very safe in your social standing.

But the market and culture (here’s where cultural conservatives, of the Rod Dreher variety, have a point too) are accelerating so fast, ripping apart communities and soldering together networks of capital so astonishingly, that taking a breath, having a democratic conversation, and doing what we can to slow things down until we can get a grip is the least we can do.

Because if a superintelligent computer with dubious motives were to manifest right now in front of all of us, it’d be all too obvious we don’t have our shit together.…/our-minds-have-been-hijacked-by-ou…/…/has-the-smartphone-de…/534198/

Hearing the self as sound, not meaning

Ego dissolution offers vivid experiential proof, not only that things can be different, but that the self that conditions experience is just a heuristic, not an unchangeable, persisting thing.

Philip Gerrans and Chris Letheby at Aeon on psychedelics as a spur to work more constructively with the bundle of cognitive mechanisms we call the self.

One of the more exceptional pieces in the flood of recent popular work on psychedelics and cognitive psychology.

For the love of Coimbra

I was originally planning on 2 nights here, but I instantly fell in love and extended to 5, moving from a mother’s house on a ridge on the north bank of the river, to a daughter’s on the south bank.

At first I thought it was a matter of Coimbra resembling Granada: the live music (substitute fado for flamenco, they say, and you’ll instantly grok the difference between Portuguese and Spanish temperaments) on hilly side-streets, the vague intimations of a Moorish past (much, much stronger in Granada, because there were 400+ more years of it), the spectacle of the gleaming monument quarter, an Iberian acropolis, looming over every point in the city.

But it was the early August weather, 90 and dry by day and 60 with a breeze at night, that clued me into the ghost’s actual identity: summers in Jerusalem. A friendly Brazilian goth who took care of my apartment in Porto warned me to choose Braga instead of Coimbra for my next stop, but that could not have been more wrong for me. Galicia and northern Portugal are humid and hewn of dark stone.

In Coimbra, the unsparing summer sun reflects off white stone squares and whitewashed façades—achieving a similar effect to the slightly golden limestone that by statute must cover everything in Jerusalem. Even the cathedrals here are bright, airy, and inspiring of contemplation; normally the aesthetics of medieval Western Christendom don’t do it for me at all.

Even the Coimbra fado, “Fado Dos Olhos Claros”, which hypnotized me as I heard it performed on the steps of San Tiago Church, rang with notes of the Jewish liturgy. Student and alumni troubadours ply their melodies on Coimbra’s streets wearing impossibly hot and heavy black cloaks, much like half of Jewish Jerusalem. And yesterday over mediocre falafel, the sight of a white trailer across the street announcing Aqui fazem-se milagres, no metal (“Here, make yourself miracles—in metal”) inspired me to write a strange poem about language and metallurgy in the Proto-Semitic community of the 4th millennium BCE:

In this trailer by the River Mondego,
miracles in metal
are blueprinted and set
in kludgy type—

in the beginning was
the three-letter root
which unfolded like protein
ripe for diverse expressions
and levels of analysis—

a formless aleph
innocent of glottal dreams
trailing black copper slag
into the Dead Sea.