What I’ve been thinking about

Sorry for the absence. I’ve been busy for the past year and I expect to be busy until 2019. When I finally have free time, here is some of what I hope to write about:

  • The main theme of these ideas is stagnation: bad things are catching up with good things, but good things aren’t getting any better. In some cases they’re even getting worse. Is aesthetic stagnation real? If so, is it caused by a cultural shift away from exploration and risk-taking, or are we simply running out of things to explore and risks to take?
  • While impressive, progress in media synthesis AI seems focused on creating ersatz versions of things that already exist. The optimistic view is that AI will democratize access to visual effects, leading to a creative renaissance. But is the limiting factor for a renaissance really a lack of access to expensive rendering tools, or a dearth of original ideas? Have cheaper tools always led to great works by unknown artists, or merely a handful of great works in a vast sea of banal hobbyism? Is the ratio getting worse over time?
  • South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have cleverly pointed out the “rule of replacing ands with either buts or therefores, a maxim of attention manipulation that as recently as the last decade would have seemed like artistic common sense. Lately, however, there seems to be a trend away from such contours and toward a kind of miasmic, ambient vibeyness. In general, works have fewer “buts per minute”. They’re less likely to subvert themselves or utilize overt surprise. I’ve noticed it in music as well as storytelling — contemporary pop feels more like riding a train than a rollercoaster. Is the vibe trend real? Is it a deliberate rebellion against the tyranny of narrative? A backlash against previous generations’ irreverence and distrust of religious ecstasy? Mere risk aversion? Or is viable innovation so scarce, artists have been reduced to doing things wrong on purpose to stand out, like an engineer responding to technological stagnation by making machines less efficient on purpose.
  • What defines the boundary of an idea? To be clear, I’m not talking about intellectual property (though IP law may be instructive). Idea units in narrative are something more like macro-arcs and micro-arcs. Think “premise, but twist” but at multiple levels. What makes these fractal twists weaker or stronger? Can artist/audience symbiosis develop to the point that all pretend to not notice when a twist is weak?
  • In theory, noticing cliches should act to move production away from those cliches. But in practice, the cliches are “kosherized” by noticing them and nothing changes. Why?
  • I’m a fan of the explorable explanations scene. I’m excited because they have the potential to deliberately optimize art’s ability to make you think. In this sense, they seem to reside on a continuum with network narratives like The Wire — a continuum I hope will be filled in with new tools of varying intellectual “expense” as it undergoes market segmentation. Since one of their primary features is the opportunity to expose oneself to complexity, and people react to complexity in different ways, how will the artists and technologists who create these tools handle user reactions to it? With regard to political complexity, what if they just spread apathy? What if spreading apathy is actually good?
  • I’m fascinated by the border between what can and can’t be measured. Are more things becoming measurable over time? What kind of power does measurement give us, and what kind does abstaining from measurement give us? Are measurable things seen as less “sacred” than unmeasurable things? The Two Cultures seem to be made of quantitative thinkers and qualitative thinkers. Each are sensitive to a different kind of nuance and rigor, but the qualitative thinkers are the de facto guardians of the (temporarily) unmeasurable. Will they perform the necessary sacrifice of nuance that measurability requires, even if it means jeopardizing their jobs as gatekeepers?
  • Fandom, fetishism, and nerdism are all essentially the same belief: that the local optimum is the global optimum. They may value noticing that one is in a system, but they don’t value jumping out of it. How does the prevalence of cultural patterns such as these interfere with aesthetic innovation?
  • I’ve noticed two fundamentally different attitudes toward aesthetic experiences. One is primarily focused on recording, collecting, and “respecting” one’s own experiences, as well as the experiences of others. The other is primarily focused on the design and optimization of experiences for widespread consumption. The two have an odd symbiosis. Without designer/optimizers, collector/respecters would have nothing to collect and respect. Conversely, it’s hard to optimize without some form of customer feedback. When and how does “respect” interfere with optimization?
  • Every day, millions of people have the same deliberately designed experiences for almost exactly the same reasons. Despite this, many still believe subjectivity is sacred, unknowable, and infinitely diverse. Why? What might become possible if they didn’t?
  • When people use the word “representation”, they’re usually referring to one of two things: an abstraction technique or an individual who serves the interests of a larger group. Nowadays, concerns about the latter seem to be outcompeting concerns about the former. Has the technological progress of portrayal itself slowed so much that the only progress left is in who gets to be portrayed?
  • Civilization advances according to what it makes optional. This process has two major trade-offs: it depletes the meaning generated by having no choice, and it forces people to be responsible for their own connoisseurship. Are recommendation engines and algorithmic content really the best way to cope? If machines only give us what we’re capable of articulating precisely, will we get better at identifying and expressing our desires?

Two types of maps

Different types of maps have different uses. What they make legible is what they make possible. A map that emphasizes bike paths is useful to a cyclist, but its lack of topographic information makes it useless to a civil engineer, even though both refer to the same territory.

Similarly, maps as I define them have multiple uses, two of which I’d like to name. Both “describe what exists” by prioritizing the faithful abstraction of particular patches of reality, and both emphasize patches of reality that consist of hard, seemingly unsolvable problems. Yet these two maps differ significantly in their treatment of such problems.

Sympathy-oriented maps:

  • Show things are they are. Improvement usually looks like an increase in the fidelity of an existing map. The more ambitious tackle territory that is relatively unmapped. Buffy the Vampire Slayer articulates the experiences of adolescence and early adulthood with notorious precision, but it’s in season six’s portrayal of post-high-school aimlessness that the show really ventures into Parts Unknown.
  • Focus on the internal. This is usually accomplished via metaphor: “internal transformation writ large” is a common narrative technique. On Buffy, battles with adolescent “demons” like conformity, sexuality, and authority become battles with literal demons. The audience enjoys recognizing the structural similarity of the conflict in the story to their own remembered internal conflict.
  • Provide validation. Sympathy is what you do when you can’t solve somebody else’s problem, or shouldn’t try to. Instead, you confirm the reality of their problem. Weirdly, this makes them feel better even though nothing else has changed. We probably enjoy sympathy because for most of human history, nearly all problems were unsolvable. In the ancestral environment, cooperative anesthesia was likely a helpful adaptation. Since so many of the problems of growing up seem unsolvable, it makes sense that Buffy’s accuracy provides much-needed succor.
  • Are diverse and abundant. Anybody can make a sympathy map because we all have more or less the same spectrum of emotions. But only novelists and playwrights can make good ones, right? Wrong. The internet has become a planet-sized, crowdsourced map factory, generating memes, gifs, and TFWs for nearly every conceivable aspect of the human experience, no matter how subtle. That’s quite a market for validations.
  • Are implicitly pessimistic. Sympathy maps take human nature for granted. This is admittedly a bit like saying music takes the human range of hearing for granted, but the assumption that no aspect of human nature might be a problem to solve amounts to a window of legitimate complaint. Which is sad. You don’t have to be a diehard transhumanist to enjoy speculating about what would happen if “growing up” were solved. What other problems would arise instead? (There’d be no Buffy, for one.)
  • Are NOT: Cliches. Someone who sees your reality in a fresh way will be  more skilled at confirming it. Cliches are stale abstractions, so they are only weakly effective as validations.

Solution-oriented maps:

  • Show things as they might be. If sympathy maps traffic in recognition, solution maps traffic in implications. For now, human nature is stable, so sympathy maps can always refer to it. Unfortunately, this means sympathy mapmakers are less likely to investigate the effects of technology and institutions on human nature, and all the weird, unexpected stuff (good and bad) that happens when a major technological or institutional shift occurs. Solution maps create intuition pumps for the consequences of such a change, especially the unintended consequences. The Wire is an unusually solution-oriented take on the drug war. Notably, the third season’s Hamsterdam subplot features a fed-up police major who creates a free zone for drugs and prostitution, to mixed results.
  • Focus on the external. A good street map doesn’t lavish detail on individual trees. Similarly, solution maps trade nuanced depictions of internal experiences for nuanced depictions of the interlocking systems that cause them. The Wire juggles dozens of characters at every level of policing and the drug trade, but we seldom learn more than a first or last name and minor identifying detail about each. More would only be a distraction.
  • Improve discourse. A good map reduces the time you spend being lost. By moving conversations away from misleading framings, solution maps make it harder to get stuck in motivated reasoning, which ideally also improves large-scale coordination. The Wire is no fan of the drug war, but nor does it argue legalization would be without costs. Major Colvin’s free zone sharply reduces violent crime, but unrestricted access to drugs causes some addicts to go into freefall. The Wire helps push the conversation toward cushioning that freefall.
  • Are rare and ghettoized. Most current solution maps are hard science fiction. I’d like to see more dramas with hard sci-fi’s rigor, but I understand why I haven’t. To make a solution map, it’s not enough to know the human heart. You need some domain knowledge too. David Simon and Ed Burns, the creators of The Wire, have a combined 33 years of experience in journalism and law enforcement, all in Baltimore. That’s a high bar.
  • Are implicitly optimistic. Good solution maps reveal interesting new problems. Bad ones punish hubris. The Greeks were wrong, there are no gods to punish us for flying. This doesn’t mean flying won’t create new problems, it’s just better to not run from the challenges they present. Like Stewart Brand said, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” By replacing intractable gods with maybe-tractable institutions made of people, The Wire turns Greek tragedy into one of the best solution maps ever.
  • Are NOT: Covert sympathy maps, specifically those that hide behind metaphor and allegory. If a work is criticized because it’s supposedly realistic but doesn’t handle consequences well, one can claim it’s just metaphor/allegory, and therefore exempt from rigor. But if no one criticizes it on that basis, it’s a deeply thought-provoking meditation on reality. Ultimately it’s only taken seriously to the extent that no one probes. Beware increases in the complexity of pointing devices without any proportional increase in the complexity of the things they point at.

The burden of connoisseurship

Take a look at David Chapman’s gigantic chart that explains absolutely everything. We’re in the atomized mode, which is characterized by “senseless kaleidoscopic, hypnotic reconfigurations, with no context or coherence”. Old structures all blown to bits, the components floating around, able to be combined however you want.

The trend away from choicelessness has its pros and cons. It’s good that many possible combinations of meaning exist, but it’s bad, or at least burdensome, that responsibility for putting them together falls on the individual. After all, individuals vary in their ability to notice, articulate, and ultimately deliberately implement a way of interacting with the world that truly works for them.

Compare systems of meaning to clothing. In the past, one size had to fit all*. But it didn’t, not really. Many were secretly uncomfortable in too-tight or too-loose outfits. Now selection is almost infinitely varied, but you have to go shopping, which is a chore to some (not to mention expensive).

It can also be alarming when the satisfaction of coarse-grained needs consistently reveals finer ones. Though it’s pretty easy to not care about being a wine snob, it’s much harder to ignore the intangible-but-totally-necessary qualities lacking in a prospective mate. This is apparent to anyone who has ever tried online dating — it quickly becomes clear that, for any given social milieu, nearly everyone uses the same basic menu of uniqueness markers, creating a new baseline. Hitting every legible target exposes the illegible ones, and communicating the illegible is hard work.

What does the atomization of meaning have to do with aesthetics? Most obviously, thin meaning like connoisseurship (food, movies, TV, and so on) is palliative in the absence of thick meaning, such as social standing and relationships to family and friends. Less obviously, both thin and thick meanings are subject to obsolescence as coarse needs give way to fine, leaving it to the individual to isolate and describe the missing-but-essential elements.

People react to this challenge in different ways. I can think of at least two fairly common attitudes, often compartmentalized:

  1. Nuance is unknowable, sacred, and profaned by tradeoffs – Denies and/or works against atomization by sacralizing already-atomized structures that are too late to preserve; focuses on harms of global cultural exchange and discounts benefits; zero-sum — widespread use of particular element is believed to dilute its “magic” for the “original” users; reflexively opposed to mass produced items.
  2. Nuance doesn’t exist or is unimportant – Assumes connoisseurship is a treadmill, and that everyone more discerning is just being pretentious; reflexively opposed to artisanal/bespoke items.

Related: https://meaningness.com/purpose-schematic-overview


*Not actually true. Just a metaphor.

Belonging > innovation

For the past 3-5 years, I’ve been noticing a shift in the quality of culture. I wouldn’t say everything has gotten worse; rather, there seem to be fewer peaks and troughs. Movies, TV shows, and music are all trending toward a sort of stable, vaguely satisfying mediocrity. Probably books too, but I pay less attention to them.

I have a foggy, pre-verbal sense of why this is happening, but I can’t quite see the big picture. The primary drivers seem to be stagnating innovation — likely due to a dearth of aesthetic problems that require new, innovative solutions — combined with an explosion of new ways to belong.

Here are some of the symptoms I’ve noticed:

Fake experimentation – Going through the motions of experimentation, but without a failure condition. The veneer of “being experimental” is itself more important than success — that is, whether or not a new, widely useful artistic invention is discovered — in part because it is harder than ever to invent anything truly new. Luckily, the aesthetic of experimentation enables membership in a similarly-minded group. This is easy to find at any basement show in America.

Recycling – If the need to use cultural objects for social differentiation exceeds the number of unclaimed cultural objects, and creating new things is too hard (because they lack built-in brand recognition or because there simply isn’t anything to invent), it becomes necessary to “purify” existing objects so they can be reused. One way this is done is by adding irony to cliches, a la Rick and Morty. It’s also a component of fake experimentation. By “fixing what ain’t broke,” resources are stretched by making them ugly so they’re undesirable to outsiders.

Unbundling –  Elements formerly only available as part of a unitary object are now sold separately, like nutritional supplements instead of food. Those who only want the competence porn aspect of science fiction (without, say, the romance or character development) can get it from The Martian. Unbundling is evidence of stagnation because “new” demand is for partial versions of already-existing works. It isn’t really new at all. Nonetheless, each unbundled interest equals a new form of belonging in the form of subcultures and fandoms.

Downsides of better sorting – Before the Internet, the luminaries of a geographically local “scene” might remain in that scene longer, strengthening it by inspiring peers. Now talent has no place to hide, and usually prefers not to anyway. Instead, it is snapped up early and put to use by larger entities, leaving the dregs behind to engage in…

Mutually reinforced hobbyism – Easier access to tools (via plummeting cost of gear and software) plus way less low-hanging fruit (no clear path to originality) means almost everybody wants to go through the motions of creativity just enough to be part of a community where they have a defined role. So most cultural abundance looks like “I won’t point out your weak shit if you don’t point out mine.” Socially stable but more ritualized than innovative, it’s the less hip version of fake experimentation.

Tight feedback loops – The Internet doesn’t just connect big fish to bigger ponds, it also connects everything to everything else. This means more community (and consequently closer competition around more specific targets) but less random tinkering in isolation. It also grants access to anything anybody ever made, including a much better version of that thing you’re working on. As it turns out, this is somewhat discouraging.

Voice > exit – There has been a cultural shift away from exit as a response to aesthetic dissatisfaction. It remains to be seen whether this change is due to a lack of aesthetic real estate to exit to, or a broader trend in conflict resolution, or both. Regardless, the trend is toward appealing to existing institutions for desired changes (“Thor should be a woman now”) rather than leaving to do one’s own thing.

Nuance and trade-offs

“You insist that there is something a machine cannot do. If you will tell me precisely what it is that a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do just that!”

— John Von Neumann

Many aesthetic complaints are about missing nuance. A show about crime scene investigation fails to capture what the job is really like. A fast food burger doesn’t taste like a burger from home.

But the elements that make a particular experience useful on a local scale don’t necessarily make it useful on a global scale. CSI might contain the same basic premise as the real thing — forensic analysis of trace evidence — but it trades veracity for coolness and compelling drama. The writers have to balance the audience’s suspension of disbelief against its attention span. The fast food burger might contain the same beef patty, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, and bun as the home-cooked version, but it trades complexity and freshness — not to mention the one of a kind context of one’s own kitchen and family — for consistency and affordability.

Kitchens make bad assembly lines. The territory doesn’t fit into a glove compartment. To mass produce a representation of reality or a complex sensory experience, some elements have to go. To make chords and maps widely useful, trade-offs are necessary.

One might assume elements that didn’t scale, can’t scale. But the given trade-off is not necessarily the best one possible. That an element is missing may only be an artifact of the technological moment. For example, the fast food of the 1960s was subject to a very different trade-off window than the fast food of now, both in terms of quality and variety. Furthermore, the tendency of television audiences to tolerate — or even prefer — psychological realism and technical details has steadily risen since the advent of police procedurals.

Knowledge of better trade-offs — ones that hold on to as many desired elements as possible — is not centrally or evenly distributed. When presented with a chord or map, I might notice it lacks what I believe to be an essential element. It feels wrong because I believe the trade-off was unnecessary. This assumes I know the conditions of the trade — the window the elements must fit through. Here is an opportunity for aesthetic vigilantism.

True, nuances are hard to articulate — but that’s the challenge. In doing so, the shape of the trade-off window must be respected. Specifying it might cause me to retract my complaint, once I see how it isn’t actionable. Or, if it still seems like an oversight, I can use whatever platform available to me to identify what is missing.

Unfortunately, nuance can feel sacred to some people, effectively blocking better trade-offs. The complainant may want others to have the better experience they envision while simultaneously resisting the sacrifices necessary to mass produce it.

Sometimes nuance provides only very marginal value. Consuming it anyway can act as a costly (and entirely symbolic) display of respect. In these cases, trying to efficiently “get the gist” is a sacredness violation. This tendency is evident in the belief that there are essential subtleties in fictional stories (and other types of art, such as poetry) that cannot be summarized or compressed. Thus the tendency to frown on reading the Cliff’s Notes versions. But, somewhat ironically, knowledge of facts and concepts can be obtained from summaries without shame.

What is the ideal result of absorbing every single nicety? One possibility is magical thinking: if the nuances in question are a particularly good illustration of an underrepresented aspect of the human experience (or of an ignored or oppressed group), then submitting to them fully may be considered a form of tribute — regardless of whether anyone who has had that experience or is from that group ever learns that the full submission took place.

Seeing stagnation, part 2: chords

This post is more unfinished than usual. Here’s what I’m wrestling with:

  • Pizza is a good example of a chord. Pizza is comprised of elements that combine appealingly but don’t describe reality, an excellent conveyance for superstimuli like fat and salt, and clearly bounded by its crust.
  • Pizza is an excellent solution to “many simultaneous complex problems.” Pizza facilitates social bonding by being a communal, handheld food, as well as an uncontroversial preference that nearly everyone can converge on. Pizza is also cheap to produce and, unlike many other forms of fast food (McDonald’s, Chinese) is good hot or cold.
  • Yet this and this seem like evidence that nobody knows how to vertically innovate on pizza. In other words, pizza is stagnant. Yet nobody seems bothered.
  • What would it take for pizza to become obsolete? Obsolescence doesn’t mean low quality — most pizza is already pretty bad. Nor does it mean substitutions that only partially cut into pizza’s territory, such as burritos. Obsolescence means a change in available options that causes everybody to collectively realize pizza is something they’ve been settling for, and don’t have to anymore. So they stop consuming it altogether. Obsolescence is automatic elevators instead of elevator operators, or electric light instead of oil lamps.
  • But how does that apply to pizza? The only unambiguous vertical leap I can imagine for pizza is if humans transcend biological form and food-based sustenance becomes optional.
  • Why should anyone care? The use of gimmicks to distract from disappointing quality (such as the pizza box made of pizza) is a phenomenon that occurs in all aesthetic domains. Does it make sense to call it stagnation? I’m not sure.

Seeing stagnation, part 1

In The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen argues that certain types of progress have slowed because the low-hanging fruit is gone. For example, the flush toilet led to substantial improvements in quality of life for the first generation to use it, but subsequent generations have gained comparatively less. Toilets that flush faster and use less water don’t measure up to the original leap from the outhouse.

What should we call innovation that feels substantial? According to Peter Thiel:

Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things — going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. If you have a typewriter and build a word processor, you have made vertical progress.

Vertical progress is what happens when a problem is transcended rather than solved — that is, when an entire solution context is made irrelevant by a form of “superfit.” Stagnation is what happens when this stops happening. In Cowen’s words:

It would make my life a lot better to have a teleportation machine. It makes my life only slightly better to have a larger refrigerator that makes ice in cubed or crushed form.

If it existed, teleportation would revolutionize transportation by unbundling time and distance from travel. Suddenly, concerns about fuel, roads, and collision safety would be optional, freeing millions of man-hours for more important tasks. In comparison, ice choices seem pretty weak.

Admittedly, this shift in perspective feels inappropriate. Whether cubed or crushed, ice that is conveniently dispensed is preferable to ice that must be pried out of trays (which must then be refilled). Comparing dispensed ice to teleportation may seem unrealistically demanding or even ungrateful. Nevertheless, such comparisons are sometimes the best way to express what feels wrong.

If we choose to see it, the same comparative unambitiousness is easy to find in aesthetic experience. Over the next two posts, I will attempt to make it apparent.