Computer metaphor thought

The new Idea Channel, which is about the kinds of horror that face swap apps evoke, made me think: do computers think metaphorically, in any meaningful way?

Because virtually all of human thought is metaphorical. We think about things pretty much in no other way than by mapping the variables of our current subject onto the structural format of some prior subject. Is there any sense in which computers do that? Or is computer thought intrinsically literal, in a way that humans are incapable of sharing? 

I don't have anywhere to go with this, except to point out once again that computer superintelligence is not going to be human-like.

What I'd do with a grow & shrink ray

I was asked earlier today what I'd do with a grow/shrink ray. I thought about it a bit, and wanted to share my answer:

First, I'd use a scale to check whether increasing the size of an object increases its mass.

If no, I'd plan to devote the ray's use to the development of otherwise physically difficult or impossible material construction.

If yes, I'd get an object of virtually pure elemental composition, and do some basic tests to attempt to determine whether increasing size proportionally increases the quantity of the same element.

If no, I'd have to do a lot more experimenting to determine the precise nature and utility of whatever new material this device creates.

If es, I'd get a little bit of gold and turn it into tons of gold, which I'd use to bankroll hired security, bodyguards and lawyers. With their help to protect my possession of the device, I'd go to a university with a good lab and get scientists' help doing much more detailed property research about the device's effects.

Next, I'd use it to create vast stores of rare earth metals -- the kind that form much of the environmental costs and material bottlenecks for new technologies. I'd ensure that necessary materials were set aside, earmarked for a 100 percent transition to global noncarbon energy.

After I ensured the massive surplus of rare earth metals, I'd head back to the scientists to attempt to duplicate the device. The reason I delayed this step is because I don't want to risk breaking it before getting the most I can out of it in terms of non-perishible materials.

If it's duplicable the plan is to use it to end food and water scarcity worldwide. I'd start an organization whose priority is to allocate the use of the devices, to end scarcity and prevent hostile uses. (Like using it to turn a non-critical amount of fissionable material to a critical amount.)

If it isn't duplicable, I'd start a similar organization in this case optimizing for the most creative productive uses for diminishing scarcity given the constraints of the single device.

Then I'd retire on the meager revenues of a virtual monopoly on rare earth metals handled with blatantly anticapitalist priorities.

LGBTQIAAP+ Health insurance

I spent about an hour tonight talking to one of my modmates about insurance -- specifically, about the hypothetical priorities of a hypothetical insurance company that primarily focused on the healthcare needs of LGBTQIAAP+ people, as well as mentally ill and neurodivergent people. 

Our first priority -- the first thought that led into the conversation -- was that the people who pick up the phone should be trained to be conscious of, and sensitive to, the needs of mentally ill, neurodivergent, and LGBTQIAAP+ callers. That means getting pronouns right, having the skills to help depressed or anxious people through difficult conversations, and just generally knowing what they're talking about.

It's always kind of infuriated me that the people who answer the phones at health insurance companies aren't equipped to handle people calling when they have mental illnesses. Like, these are the people whose job is to facilitate my getting treatment, and they are some of the most triggering people to call in terms of anxiety spirals.

We spread out into a ton of different topics, and have arrived at the point where we honestly want to do a little research and see how possible this idea is. (So we can write up a proposal and shove it into the hands of someone who has the time and expertise to do it.)

A postmodern listicle

After watching the latest Idea Channel, about the positive sides of listicles, I started thinking: Listicles are a pretty rigid format, based on a predetermined claim to authority. Would it be possible to write something that's still recognizably a listicle, but also unambiguously a postmodern use of the form? Not just a listicle about postmodernism, but one that is a postmodern work itself?

I mean, like, yes, probably, but I'm not sure if it can be done well. A listicle seeks to communicate the answer to the question asked or implied by its title, so a postmodern listicle would have to, like, not do that? But that would be boring. So it would have to answer it, but in an unexpected way? Or ask a question that, by answering it in list form, dismantles the legitimacy of the question itself?

My first thought when I had this idea was "That'd probably be easy," then I thought about it for about five minutes and came to the conclusion that it would actually be super hard. Everybody: Let me know if you find any good examples of people trying this and pulling it off.

some brief thoughts on homework

The idea of homework (for K-12 students) bothers me on a sort of fundamental level. One of the popular cases made for education is that it prepares people to grow up and join the work force -- if that's the case, homework is the opposite of the way workplaces are supposed to work. You don't take your work home with you and keep doing it in  your spare time, you leave it at work, or you clock in (plus overtime) for the extra time you spend doing it. Homework seems almost-proactively designed to blur the lines between labor and leisure in favor of capitalists at the expense of the well-being of the laborers. That's all -- I'm going back to sleep now.

Infinite subdivision of money

I've been putting off this post for just, like, way too long. I wanted to make a mock-up of a hypothetical website before writing it, but I've been having some trouble with InDesign on my laptop and haven't had the emotional energy to call Adobe and ask what's up yet. There are some technologies that are obviously inadequate, compared to what is possible with the tech, but they remain the way they are because they've been that way since before anyone could have begun to imagine what resources would be available. Things like how the electoral college works, or the degraded audio quality of phone calls, or -- y'know, cars.

One of the ones that's been annoying me lately is bank accounts.

At one point, it was pretty sensible that the division of money into separate accounts should be restricted, because any increase in the complexity of tracking finances would substantially increase the bank's overhead. After all, they are by far the institution facing the greatest pressure not to misplace any of those numbers.

Now, though, it would be trivially easy to set up bank accounts like folders on a computer. It should be trivially easy, for example, to break up your checking account into separate folders for bills, food budget, entertainment budget, discretionary spending, etc.

It should even be easy to set up elements on those folders that indicate how much ought to be in them at any given time. "Car Payment: $ 45/110, next charge May 15," for example. You should be able to set up your debit card to deduct cash from the Groceries account when charged at your grocery store, and from the general budget the rest of the time. Services should decline your card if you try and spend money that's not in the folder your card draws from, rather than automatically dipping into your car payment money when you aren't going to notice.

Savings, too, should be divisible. New laptop fund: $ 225/1100. You should be able to define finance goals as variables. Emergency savings: $ 5500/5250. (Emergency savings = sum(bills)*6 months)

This is the kind of stuff that would be obvious -- it would be immediate features out of the gate -- if banks were just starting up now. It's the kind of stuff tech start-ups would race to outdo each other in. Banks would be leaping over themselves to make your account as budgeting-friendly as possible.

But banks have been around for hundreds of years, and it'll take a long, long time to shake them from the idea that each account is worth charging you for, and that they shouldn't be helping you stop yourself from spending money you can't afford to spend.

(They'd probably speed up a hell of a lot if a new-tech startup got in the game, though.)

I'd argue that in a sense, this almost elevates to the level of a human rights issue -- certainly it's a human well-being issue. Banks should do everything they can to make it easy for us, the users, to create barriers against accidentally misusing our money, and smooth the path toward intentional, careful budgeting. It should all be wrapped up in a neat little bow on the website. It should be trivially easy to make it almost impossible to spend your mortgage payment on CDs. Your bank account should practically drag you toward responsible budgeting and effective money handling.

To be honest, the more I think about how obvious, how easy, it should be, the more sickening it is to be aware how completely banks are set up to help you overdraw and mismanage your accounts.

Thoughts on Tumblr's brokenness

Tumblr just updated again, and the new features are pretty terrible. The text editing controls have been hidden behind a weird popup, they changed the title font to what I'm pretty sure is Buzzfeed's native title font? It certainly looks like it. And they swapped the "cancel" and "post" buttons' positions on the post editor. Among other things, I'm sure. Tumblr has a history of really terrible updates and being bad at building a functional website -- and I have some conspiracy theory ish thoughts on why that is.

I think the non-functionality of Tumblr is actually, at least partly, a secret feature.

One of the things I've often been annoyed about with Tumblr is how difficult it is to search for old posts. The native search feature only returns original posts, so you can't look for a particular response to a thread you're interested in. The notes on any given post only display a couple dozen at a time, so you can't easily use ctrl+f to find a particular response in a post with thousands of likes and reblogs. A google search for a post on a specific Tumblr blog returns links not to a specific post, but generally to a page on the blog -- like www.txwatson.tumblr.com/page/9 -- which almost certainly is no longer the page the post you're looking for is on by the time you do the search, because Tumblr's reblog functionality means the pile of content at the top of any given active blog rapidly buries everything beneath it.

But.

That means Tumblr functions in a way that is basically the opposite of what everyone seems to agree is the major drawback of Facebook -- it's not there forever.

A potential employer, even if they find your Tumblr, is unlikely to find a cross-section of the most embarrassing things you've ever done. If they're really,  obsessively committed, they're going to see a cross-section of the last few months of you. That means an embarrassing thing you did or said in 2011 just isn't there to be publicized the way it is on Facebook.

URL changing helps accomplish this, too. And it's pretty easy to re-make your blog if you want to trash the whole timeline. Tumblr gives users the ability to be themselves in an online space in a way that generally tends toward ephemerality -- a user can go out of their way to preserve aspects of their presence that they're particularly proud of, and it's possible for aspects to hit some level of permanency even when the user doesn't want them to, but generally, things go away on Tumblr in a way that they just don't on Facebook.

This logic applies to the shitty messaging system, the shitty tagging system, and probably to their apparent persistent efforts to break every third-party effort to make Tumblr work the way users expect it to.

Now, I'm not sure that all this is okay.

If it's true that this is what Tumblr is doing, maybe they should be more transparent about it.  Granted, it's possible they feel like it would lose some of that functionality if it were public -- people might be more zealous about creating records of content if they knew it was meant to disappear on them -- but I feel like we're pretty well acclimating to a cultural understanding that not every aspect of life ought to be fully recorded and documented for future public reference.

I mean, look at Snapchat.

I think maybe the nuclear family is going away

alright I'm tired and I'm having trouble thinking things through, so this is just going to be an incoherent blast of stuff I've been thinking about: The nuclear family as a social unit emerged in response to industrialization; after farming stopped being 80 percent of the jobs, and employment started becoming specialized, it became normal for people to move in order to take a job in some new destination. Obviously people don't want to leave their families behind, and also-obviously people can't take their whole extended families with them to their new job in Cleveland.

That was reinforced by the federally subsidized process of installing suburbs around the country -- housing units specifically optimized for the nuclear family.

And it's supposed to work like cells -- the family grows, then it gets big enough that it splits, and the new second family-cell goes away and starts growing somewhere else. That worked because there were other jobs out there, and because the government was subsidizing everyone's[1. Read: white people's.] house-getting.

The government doesn't subsidize the suburban class anymore. When the housing bubble burst, they didn't bail out the homeowners, they bailed out the banks. So that's half the arrangement gone.

And the jobs are going away. Human employability is on the decline, and anyways we've been in a post-industrial economy for a while now. Most of the particularly skilled labor is internet-based, which means employees could telecommute. A company certainly doesn't need to consolidate all its vital staff in one city anymore. Plus, there's less motive to move across the country for a job in an economic climate where you expect to swap not just jobs but whole careers at least a few times in your adulthood.

This decline in the availability of housing, and in the availability of jobs, for the latest generation of nuclear family spawn has coincided with a trend of twenty-somethings living at home a lot longer than they did ten, twenty, thirty or forty years ago.

And we're generally given to understand this as a recent and unique downward trend in the functionality of the youth.

When really it looks to me like it's a return to the way families worked pre-industrially,

and is a byproduct of the disintegration of an artificial version of 'family' that's no longer sustainable now that the corporations don't need it.

Anti-technology Roman emperors

I wrote part of a rant today about social justice, and it started to turn into an essay about equality as a necessary precondition for certain kinds of technological development. I'm not going to post it here, because it's long and unfinished and I want to do some more research, but I remembered a story --

Vespasian, a roman emperor during the first century C.E., was managing the construction of the Colosseum. An engineer suggested labor-saving machinery that would substantially cut down on the amount of labor necessary for the project, but Vespasian refused to use them -- the Colosseum project was designed to hire impoverished Romans to keep them busy.

-- I checked with my Western Civ professor, and he remembers the story (and also gave me the emperor's name) and said it sounds plausible, but I haven't confirmed yet that it's actually a true story, or if there's any record of it happening.

I've heard a lot of people argue about whether the industrial revolution could have happened during the Roman Empire, and if so why it didn't. I wonder if the Labor Movement might be part of it.

An optimistic Google conspiracy theory

I've been watching Agents of SHIELD -- I'm nearly at the end of the first season -- and the events of the season, plus a few conversations I've had about Google lately, have got me thinking. Note: this post will contain spoilers for Agents of SHIELD and Captain America: Winter Soldier. But only the really big one that you've probably already heard.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, SHIELD -- a massive, NSA-like spy organization -- had been infiltrated pretty much from the very beginning by HYDRA, the secret Nazi organization founded by Red Skull. This was an effective strategy for HYDRA because, though SHIELD stands against everything they stand for and vice versa, SHIELD has all the institutional equipment necessary to serve HYDRA's needs.

SHIELD is a secretive and highly compartmentalized organization, in which members are expected to routinely follow orders they don't understand. It deals in the acquisition and study of advanced weapons technology. Its members are basically trained in values dissonance. SHIELD has a morally solid, or at least defensible, purpose, but its structure is extremely vulnerable to exploitation by a targeted effort to undermine it from the ground up and turn it against its declared purpose.

Which brings me to Google.

To be clear, I'm not saying that I hope Google is secretly full of Nazis. That would be terrible. This is actually the opposite kind of conspiracy theory -- I hope that, from the ground up, Google has been building towards an eventual betrayal of certain aspects of their public identity: the corporate parts.

I hope there's a secret conspiracy in Google, into which important and powerful figures have been indoctrinated, that is ready to, all at once, at potentially great risk and personal cost, turn against the profit model for corporate structure and exercise their massive influence on the world in a radical deconstruction of short-term profiteering, income inequality, and government and business corruption.

I don't think it's likely, but it makes for a good daydream, anyway. Plus, somebody's got to be the good tech company, because Facebook probably is secretly HYDRA.

A picture is worth...

Last night was a production night for my school newspaper. Near the end of the night, we were talking about how we planned on filling the last issue, next week -- we're not going to have any stories from journalism students, and we normally print once every two weeks, so we won't have as long to pull content together. Our adviser reminded us that photos are good for filling space, and I wondered aloud if that might be the original meaning of "A picture is worth a thousand words" -- not that the picture tells the story better, but that it takes up space on a page that then doesn't have to be filled.

I have done some googling, and have so far not been able to determine whether that's true. The phrase does, apparently, come from a newspaper editor -- Arthur Brisbane -- in a talk he gave to other people who work in newspapers. Most of the sources I found didn't give any additional context, and none of them linked to the original work.

I don't intend to give up -- at least, in general. Right now, I have to go do other things. But if anyone knows where I can find a transcription of the talk Arthur Brisbane gave on the topic, or at least a scan of page 18 of the March 28, 1911 issue of the Syracuse Post Standard, I'd really appreciate it.

Mental scaffolding

I frequently refer to 'mental scaffolding' when I talk to people about learning -- I'm good at learning, but I don't think it's because I'm in some way inherently more intelligent or capable of absorbing material than other people. I think, rather, that my ability to absorb information is a matter, first, of values: it's easy to remember information that you think is important, and I genuinely believe that all information is meaningfully important and has worth, personally, to me.[1. That's not really true, but it's not true in a way that kind of makes my point: I have an unambiguously unfair, problematic bias against mechanical and engineering knowledge. On some deep, hard-to-untangle level, I think knowing about cars is not important. I think it has to do with traditional expressions of masculinity creeping me out. I believe that it's a consequence of that belief that I can't retain basically any information about how cars work. I could tell you the framerate that several youtube gamers record their videos at off the top of my head, but I couldn't tell you, despite having seen this information several times, either what amount of air pressure is appropriate for my car's tires, or what unit of measurement I would be using to express that pressure.] The second is, like I said, scaffolding. Pre-existing knowledge on which I can hang new facts, so they have a place in my network of understanding. I'm learning about the French revolution in Western Civilization II right now. I'm crap at dates, but I've got a pretty good idea of the order in which historical events took place. So, to remember approximately when the French Revolution happened (and to add context to the rest of my education), when I noticed that the philosophy of the Jacobins closely resembled Hegel's idea of Geist, I asked which came first. (It was the revolution. Apparently Hegel was influenced by it, not the other way around.)

I don't have much of a point to make, here. It's almost 10 at night, and I hadn't blogged yet. This is something I have been thinking about and I didn't want to just write a post about how busy I was today.

If anybody reading this post wants to chime in, with thoughts, questions, clarifications, or notes about what I'm getting wrong in the contemporary understanding of psychology, please feel free.

Spoilers and manufacturing shared experience

I'm fond of mentioning the study that showed that in many forms of fiction, having it spoiled ahead of time makes the experience better, not worse. Still, though, I avoid spoiling things, and I don't spoil things for people. It still feels like the wrong thing to do -- not just because I'd be violating their consent, though that's definitely a reason to not spoil, but, even though I know spoiling a story will make them like it more, I feel like I'd be screwing up their experience. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what that feeling is, and I've been kicking around this thought for a while:

Part of the function of fiction is the manufacture of uniform shared experiences between massive numbers of people.

I don't know if there's already a literary theory about this. Certainly, the ideas of cultural canons, that popular stories contribute to the collective consciousness, etc., address similar ideas.

But, like, take the thing that happened in the second-to-last episode of season 1 of Game of Thrones. Let's say you haven't been watching it. You missed it when it came out. You didn't pirate it or follow up with HBO Go. You totally missed that moment, in its place in the strict chronology of media events.

But you haven't been spoiled. You've managed to avoid all the commentary and discussion and reference that would have told you what happened. You could, if you wanted, go watch GoT season 1 all the way through, tonight, and you would get to experience (pretty much) the same moment of surprise that GoT fans everywhere (who hadn't read the books) experienced.

On the other hand -- if you were just one season behind, you decided to jump on the bandwagon right before s2 started, and you marathoned it then, but you read an article on Wired about the implications of that moment for TV as a medium or something -- then your experience of that moment isn't going to be surprise. It's going to be the culmination of a different experience -- the feeling of having seen, understood, and appreciated a whole network of worldbuilding, character development and theme.

That might be a much deeper aesthetic experience to have in your first pass through Game of Thrones. You might have enjoyed that a lot more than the hypothetical person from two paragraphs ago.

But you aren't part of that shared world that moment created for the GoT fans who went in un-spoiled.

So if you were watching the show because you're interested in groundbreaking television media, that's great. But if you started watching because your friends all watch it, and you wanted to join in the conversation at work, I suspect there's a good chance you'd have preferred that maybe-shallower experience that you get to share with your friends.

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So that's why I think people instinctively recoil from spoilers, even those of us who 'know better.' That's what some folks are trying to protect when they absolutely refuse to even be in the room when people talk about stuff they might, someday, maybe want to see. You know, the folks who don't even want to hear that there's a twist. They don't even want you to tell them if you thought the movie was good. Because it's spoiling that ideal experience that maximizes their presence in the moment the media is creating.

A lot of people defend that by saying it's closest to what the artists intended. I think that's just a rationalization -- I think they just can't put their finger on 'It's the closest I can get to sharing this with my friends who've already had this moment.'

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Interestingly (I assume you find this interesting if you've gotten this far) this argument can be used to defend spoilers, in certain cases. Spoilers follow for Harry Potter: The Half-Blood Prince. If being spoiled to a piece of media is so common that you can reasonably expect that was all your friends' experience of it, then you'd be missing out by going into it blind.

When Harry Potter: The Half-Blood Prince came out, a copy leaked in advance, and some horrible people on the internet organized a campaign to ruin it for everyone. They picked a key spoiler, late in the book with a lot of significance: Snape kills Dumbledore. And they spammed it. They made graphics, posters, there were people driving up and down the lines outside strip malls shouting it with megaphones. News stations actually reported on the fact that people were spoiling it.

But the thing is, that became the most common experience of the book. Everybody at the very least knew the big ominous thing was coming. Almost everybody knew what it was. The shared experience of the book became wondering if it was true, imagining how it could come to be, appreciating the complexity of the event and its place in the narrative, slowly forgetting just because of the size of the book, and being hit that much harder by it when it came.

The more complex, holistic enjoyment of the spoiled ending became the community-building shared experience of the pure text within the Harry Potter fandom. That moment in time and space both became a unifying event outside the text, and made the experience of HP fans within the text richer and deeper. So, basically, that trolling campaign backfired in the most profound and complete way possible.

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I'm not saying that we should start spoiling everything for everyone. For one thing, that study only said spoilers improve a lot of fiction -- not all. Mysteries and stories with big twists still seem to be better if you go in blind.

Plus, spoilers on that scale would be hard to replicate by any means other than tricking malicious internet groups into thinking they were causing damage, and that seems unhealthy. And -- again -- not spoiling stuff for people who don't want it spoiled is an issue of consent, too, and for reasons I hope are glaringly obvious it's a bad idea to advocate a cultural attitude that says 'I can violate your consent if in my opinion you'd enjoy the outcome.'

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Mainly I just wanted to try and unpick the thinking behind my not wanting to be spoiled on media even when I know spoilers should theoretically improve my experience of that media -- and, possibly, reassure other folks who've also had that worry.

I'd love to get comments on this one -- what do you think? Do you avoid spoilers because you want to be made to feel the same way your friends felt when they first experienced a text? Do you think that sufficiently widespread spoilers can change what state constitutes the normal experience of a text?

wildly optimistic daydreaming

 CGPGrey recently pointed out that employment as a mechanism for distributing resources is unsustainable -- we're, like, a couple years away from huge segments of employment being no longer things that people do. Watch the video. It's the second time I've linked it so you know it's important.

In the podcast he co-hosts, Hello Internet, he pointed out that this change is coming way, way faster than we tend to assume -- in many states, laws allowing for driverless cars to start taking over for people driving cars are not just in the works: they are passed, and kick in next year.

Not figuratively next year, like people say "Today things are X, but Tomorrow they will be Y." Literally next year. 2015.

I don't feel like being depressing in this post right now, though. So instead of talking about how horrible it's going to be in the space between: (a.) corporation owners getting virtually all of the money because they'll replace all of their wage earners with single-payment robots; and (b.) the government finally taking that money away from them and giving it to the unemployed, because if they don't it defeats the purpose of having currency in an economy[1. protip: money's for facilitating the exchange of goods and services, not a way for a small group of people to keep score.]; I want to talk about how great it's going to be after we solve the problem of how we could possibly manage, as a civilization, to distribute our abundant resources to the people in that civilization.

Advantages of systematic unemployment:

  • An end to sleep deprivation: everybody's lives are radically improved by no longer being constantly in a state of zombified mental strain
  • Better food: let's be honest, the only reason anyone ever goes to McDonald's is because they don't have the time for better food. People could cook for themselves, plan meals, make more adventurous choices with eating, host dinner parties, and cook for all their friends. Cooking is a fun hobby! When people have the time for it and can get ingredients it's likely to improve everybody's quality of life.
  • Free time: I got lost trying to calculate how much free time a person has now, but it's somewhere short of 8 hours per weekday, 16 hours per weekend-day. That's great, but if you're sleep deprived most of the time, and you only get that free time after spending a sleep-deprived day doing sub-optimal work, you're going to be very tired in that free time. Not only does free time just about double if you don't have a job, but the quality of that time is improved.
  • Decreased stress: Jobs cause a lot of stress. You know what else causes stress? Poverty. Poverty causes tons of stress. People in poverty functionally all have a debilitating chronic illness that is their financially induced stress. But if civilization is set up to provide for people who can't earn the living to provide for themselves, that source of stress goes away!
    • In case you skipped the video, (go back and watch it, but) this is important: soon, people are going to be unable to provide for themselves, not because they can't do a job, but because they can't do any job better than the robots that also do that job, and especially can't do it cheaper.
  • Education: If there's basically no job training you can enter that's going to be productive anyway, why not go to school for stuff that interests you? People could, if provided for, become way more informed about politics, sociology and science, the arts, basically anything -- huge areas of human endeavor could be opened up to people who would otherwise never have been able to devote that time and energy to those endeavors.

Now, granted, none of this is going to happen. Based on the trajectory of American politics as they exist today, we're at like 99% likelihood of just completely disintegrating as a country instead of taking any action that remotely resembles a child's fridge drawing of what they think they heard somebody say about communism, which rules out any political action that suggests things might be okay if less than 112% of the population has a full-time job.

But, in the hypothetical world where compassion and humanity enter into political discussions, robots taking over for all the jobs is going to be so cool.

Fears relating to a fully automated workforce

So CGPGrey posted a new video today, "Humans Need Not Apply." It's 15 min. long, and it's about the inevitable replacement of humans with machines in virtually all fields of employment. Here's the video. I strongly recommend it.

In the comments, this exchange happened:

NicholasRiviera: What's the problem with robots doing our jobs?

Discitus: Only that you would no longer have a job, and therefor no money.

NicholasRiviera:+Discitus But everything would be extremely cheap and you'd have some money from the state.

In response to which, I kinda ranted. And since the rant ended up being over 500 words long, I'm reposting it here.

+NicholasRiviera Yeah, that's one of the potential solutions -- but, I don't know where you're writing from, but a lot of us in the USA aren't optimistic that our government is capable of the level of human empathy necessary to offer everyone a liveable income without demanding that they prove their worth somehow.

Grey's point is that soon it's not going to be possible for most people to prove their worth.

What we're worried about isn't the inevitable future where the remaining humans get stipends because, frankly, how else can we organize a post-employment society? We're worried about the X number of years or decades during which tens of thousands of us die or suffer catastrophically poor quality of life while the privileged elite keep telling themselves, each other, and us that if we just applied ourselves, buckled down, took some risks and worked harder, we'd be able to get a job and pay for ourselves.

It's happening already in the US. About 15 percent of the population is either unemployed or underemployed -- that is, can only get part time work when they want to be working full-time. The national minimum wage is 7.25, which is lower than the national average living wage of about 10 -- and that's if you can actually get 40 hours a week. I don't know what percent of Americans work full time at minimum wage, but we can safely add them to the percent of Americans who couldn't support themselves, living on their own, with no dependents, on the amount of money they're able to make.

If Grey's right -- and he is -- the segment of the American population who will find it impossible to achieve independent financial stability is only going to increase. And there's nothing in the American political dialogue that suggests our government is capable of addressing that fact. The most radical attempt to improve the financial prospects of Americans right now is President Obama's push to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 -- which is certainly necessary, but does little or no good to the 15 percent of Americans who are unemployed or underemployed. And the conservative pushback against that move has been immense.

Yes, inevitably, the developed world will achieve a break from the mentality that productive employment is a prerequisite for food and shelter. But the fact that we know some of us, in some parts of the world, are going to get there eventually, does not mean that it will happen soon enough to save lives that are already being lost. The best-case scenario that a lot of us in the US see coming is that there is only a lot of death and suffering before the government gets their [curse word] together. A plausible worse-case scenario is that America slips out of the sphere of developed countries, in whole or in part. We're sure as hell not optimistic that the US government is going to set up infrastructure to transition comfortably to a post-employment economy -- though popular videos like this might help. (Thanks, Grey.)

Sorry for ranting, but "everything would be extremely cheap and you'd have some money from the state" is only an achievable scenario, not an inevitable one, and dismissing +Discitus's fear suggests a failure to grasp the level of pain and suffering that Americans who are already in poverty have to look forward to when machines come to dominate our horrifyingly unprepared society.

What kind of public place I want

Last week I wrote a post called Disorganized thoughts on place. I was kinda freaking out at the time. Anyway, at the bottom I gave myself some prompts for future posts, and this one looked pretty good:

  • What do I actually want in a public space, apart from “They aren’t constantly trying to get you to spend money?”

So, here's my fantasy public building.

I want:

  • Someplace big and multi-functional, so the DMV and the library and the post office and maybe the courthouse are all in the same place. I want there to be real, specific reasons to go there, but I want there to be enough going on there that nobody should feel like they have to leave because they aren't there to accomplish any particular goal.
  • I want it open 24/7. It doesn't have to all be open, and it doesn't have to have, like, beds and stuff. Going there at 3 a.m. could be like going to a truck stop at 3 a.m., with tables in the middle and one shop still open, but I want to be able to go there in the middle of the night when I have no other place to go.
  • A cafeteria, with good, real options for food. It doesn't have to be a restaurant, or, like, a destination on its own. It could be a cafeteria of the sort you'd expect in any large building where a lot of people work. But I want food options beyond burgers, fries, candy bars, and I want them priced for covering-costs, not turning-a-large-enough-profit-to-build-a-franchise.
  • Variety of seating and surfaces. I want tall cafe tables, benches, comfy chairs, low tables with lots of seats, and sit-able ledges.
  • Large, comfortable neutral space. I want to be able to go there and sit down and not have to be in the courthouse or library or DMV or post office or cafeteria.
  • WiFi.
  • Power outlets.
  • A pony
  • I want the place to be taken care of. I want the town to treat it like it's a place that matters, and invest in its quality and maintenance not because they expect it to give them significant gains, but because that building is among the services that the city provides -- I want the building to be treated, by the local government and the community, like providing that space for the comfort of citizens is a worthwhile end unto itself.
  • Gender-neutral bathrooms.
  • I want security/cops/w.e to be present enough that a fight couldn't break out, but only that far and no farther. Except in places where they're more necessary, like within the courtroom wing, I want to feel like I'm not being watched in particular.
  • Several well-outfitted multi-purpose rooms.
  • A pool, and/or a gym.
  • Lockers.
  • Positive treatment of teenagers and young people in general.
  • Minimal or no advertising of organized interests. No military recruitment booth there every day. No stands advertising tickets to a nearby attraction.

Disorganized thoughts on place

Yesterday I had one of those moments where you notice something obvious and it feels like a mind-blowing revelation. I was hanging out in my friend's office, thinking about whether to leave and go to Barnes & Noble for a little bit, not really wanting to be there anymore, or be in my car, or go back to my house, which is 20 minutes away from there and is unpleasant to be at, when I realized all of a sudden that I literally always have to be in some particular physical place. Like, going from A to B? Gotta be in all the places that constitute the path between them. Going to sleep? My body literally stays there, just laying around, for like eight hours. Don't want to be where I am right now? Got to pick a whole nother place to go and be, instead.

I've been thinking about the sensation off and on all day. It reminds me of my depression, years ago, when I was unmedicated and in a more hostile environment. There were times where the feeling that I was feeling was "I don't want to be here," but there was no possible solution to it -- like, I couldn't imagine that there was any place in existence that I would want to just go and be.

Topics surrounding this theme have bothered me for a long time. Like, my home town doesn't have any places in it that are public property. There are some parks, sure, but they all close at sundown, and they're full of nature, and exposed to the elements. Every other public-ish space is owned by a company, and you're only allowed in it under the condition that you at least feign an active interest in giving the place money.

And I think about it when I'm reading a lot, too. I'm pretty sure the thing in a story that can make me feel the most awful without causing me to put down the book is when it opens with establishing that a disenfranchised character has some kind of safe, loving, protected home, and then at the end of chapter one it's destroyed, and they spend the rest of the book both homeless and mourning the loss of their home.

I don't have any kind of point I'm building to, here, and I'm almost out of time before I have to clock in at work. So, here are some other topics I'm just going to throw out in case I get the chance to pick up this thread again later:

  • How do spaces online differ from physical spaces? How can I discuss this difference without collapsing into digital dualism?
  • What do I actually want in a public space, apart from "They aren't constantly trying to get you to spend money?"
  • Vague prompt: the relationship between this concept of 'space' and the concept of 'property.' Maybe look into Georgism.

Tailors for everybody!

I spend a lot of time thinking about clothes. They're useful, they can be fun and expressive, but they also represent and perpetuate a lot of systematic injustice. Affordable clothes overwhelmingly favor certain body types to the exclusion of others -- thin, medium-tall, able-bodied people are going to have a much easier time finding a variety of appealing, comfortable and affordable clothes in their sizes than everyone else. Clothes are also a major tool for signaling income and class inequality, in a way that pretty much always presents that inequality as good and right. Clothes support the gender binary -- it's just about literally impossible to 'dress like a nonbinary person,' but it's not only easy but virtually mandatory to dress like a man or like a woman. This isn't a real solution, I'm not really trying to make the case for it, but I like to imagine a world in which custom tailoring is provided as a basic service in civilization, like the post office, or plumbing. This includes affordable quality material, too.

It makes a pretty significant difference in how you interact with the world, if you're comfortable in your clothes, stylistically, by their fit, their actual, physical comfort. And -- while obviously rich people would maintain and invent their systems of determining whether your clothes really signal your income and heritage, and, therefore, value -- everybody else could have a lot more freedom to express individual, social and cultural identity without being limited to the palette of mass-produced outfits.

Which, by the way, is another advantage -- economically, the mass hiring of tailors would create a lot of jobs, and diminish the waste and exploitation built into the mass-production of clothes.

I haven't thought this all through very well -- it's more a daydream than anything, and I can think of plenty of ways that this solution might barely help at all, or even make things worse for a lot of people -- Charles Stross's speculation about the 3D-printed fashion industry is a lot more interesting -- but I think it's fun to think about, and if anybody else wants to throw in their thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

Some thoughts on still having Flappy Bird

I played Flappy Bird a few minutes ago.  In three or four tries, my high score for the evening is 14.  Something about playing the game now feels really different than it did when I first got it. Flappy Bird was the first game I got for my phone that was at or around its peak popularity when I downloaded it.  I've never played Plants vs. Zombies.  I've never played Angry Birds -- originally out of contempt because when it came out a very annoying student kept writing articles about it for the school paper[1. Actually, more often than not, the articles had nothing to do with Angry Birds, but he devoted three or four lines to it anyway because LOL CULTURAL REFERENCE AREN'T I TOPICAL.], then just because I didn't much want to, then -- well, now -- just because I haven't, and there's not really anything to be gained from it other than the intrinsic value of playing the game, which isn't much.

And that's kind of what Flappy Bird is like now.  In the peak of its popularity, I had a feeling of genuine accomplishment every time I met a new benchmark -- earning each of the new medals, discovering to my satisfaction that the game doesn't even bother to keep rewarding you after 40 points, getting to nearly 100 -- then, it was pulled.  For a couple days, my phone was, theoretically, worth thousands of dollars.  It was fun to have an object with which I could let people in on the suddenly-elusive experience, now that Flappy Bird was big news and it really seemed to matter whether you'd played it or not.

Now, the sales on eBay seem to have died down -- a few people still have devices listed for thousands of dollars, but they have zero bids, most of the merchandise is fanmade shirts or drawings.  I haven't actually heard anyone mention the game in a few weeks.

But I still play it every other day or so, usually for less than a minute.  There's something mildly meditative about it.  Like Tetris, one of my favorite games, it's a good game for producing flow, which I think is a generally good and healthy thing.

And since it's basically cut off from having a place in the larger cultural narrative, there's nothing competitive about it anymore.  If I were to try to brag about a high score in Flappy Bird it'd be more likely to be embarrassing than impressive.  Consequently, there's no reason to keep playing when there's anything else I ought to be doing.  I don't know if it's universal, but for me the decay and rapidly approaching death of Flappy Bird in the cultural consciousness has completely annihilated its addictive component.

So I play Flappy Bird when I need a very short break from whatever mentally engaging thing I'm doing.  When I get a new phone, I'll stop, and probably find some other game to fill up idle moments.  I hope when I do, I end up using it the way I'm using Flappy Bird now.

Voting with our dollars is a terrible premise

Lately I've been more and more frustrated when I hear people responding to their distaste for problematic organizations by refusing to spend their money there.  I mean -- it's fine if you don't want to shop at Walmart.  That choice in itself isn't, I think, particularly harmful.  But it bugs the hell out of me when people think that's an effective, or especially a sufficient, form of protest. There's a premise in Libertarian capitalism that, since people are basically smart, given a totally free market we'll gravitate towards the best choices for our future.  The premise is that we'll vote with our dollars to elect the best available collection of resource providers, for our own well-being, the well-being of the economy, and the well-being of the world.

There are a few reasons that this premise is horribly, horribly wrong.

Nobody's perfect

There's something hugely problematic about the idea that intelligent people necessarily make good decisions, or that making bad decisions necessarily implies that you're less than normally capable of evaluating situations.  It's very well established that there are situations in which people reliably make bad decisions -- because of the way the choice is presented to them, because of how we think of priorities, because we don't have all the information or don't have the time to invest in fully exploring the implications of every decision we make.

Successful institutions know that.  They at least are capable of looking on Wikipedia (same link as above), and often can afford to hire their own psychologists to construct experiences designed to lead consumers to make decisions that benefit the institution as often as possible.  Unless we live in a world in which literally everyone's interest in every context all the time are exactly the same, that means institutions actively work to get people to make choices against their interests.

So on the biggest possible scale, if everyone were doing "Vote with your dollars," it would fail miserably.

It's not really collective action

Dollar voting gets its appeal because it resembles some successful forms of collective action:  strikes, protests, and, most blatantly, democratic voting and boycotts.  But "Vote with your dollars" doesn't really ask people to join together and make a conscious, deliberate effort to affect a specific problem.  It suggests that, if everybody keeps in mind that they should probably sometimes not spend money at certain places or on certain things, collective action will just happen.

I've seen people pull together collective action campaigns, and it's damn hard.  Somewhere in every successful collective action campaign, there are a handful of people doing a huge amount of work to keep the effort focused, pointed, and coherent.  That's because collective action that seeks to change something is necessarily pushing for some specific change in normal behavior.  The kind of collective action that emerges naturally without any strong central organization -- like the harassment of women who create online content (trigger warning: depictions of physical violence) -- is collective action to resist change and enforce the status quo.

Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with choosing not to shop somewhere, or buy something, that you have a problem with.  But believing it serves as a meaningful form of protest -- and, especially, deciding it's enough protest -- means the idea of dollar voting is neutralizing the efforts of people who might otherwise contribute to change.

It derails/overrides discussion about real problem-solving mechanisms

Dollar voting, and its close relative "If people didn't want it, they wouldn't buy it," are incompatible with legislation as a form of problem solving.  The easiest way for a large body of people to make a change in the marketplace is to make use of democratic government, an institution that is literally designed to do that.  In America, writing a letter to your congressperson about a problem you see is significantly more effective than deciding not to buy a thing you might otherwise have bought.  It's even more effective to try and organize in your community to let your government know exactly what you expect of them.

Dollar voting creates a weird attitude, like "We don't have to get the authorities involved in this," which is not a good attitude for individuals to have in approaching problems with institutions.  Off the top of my head, I can think of a lot of good reasons not to call the cops if I'm having an argument with someone that involves something technically illegal.  There would be even more good reasons if I weren't white, didn't pass as male,[1. I'm nongender, but assigned male at birth.] etc.

But for three very important reasons, responding to corporations and other institutions by involving the government is not the same.

  1. If you call them, they don't show up at your house with guns.
  2. They know that their job, specifically theirs, depends on enough people like you thinking they should be allowed to keep it.
  3. You have no power to control the way corporations behave -- or, insofar as you have any such power, you have that power through the mechanism of the government.

This part is my biggest problem with dollar voting.  It encourages activist-minded people to bypass institutions in our society that are, theoretically, there for us to exercise control over the way things are done.

There are other big problems -- like the fact that most brands with a strong moral identity are owned by institutions that control brands of a huge variety of moral identities, which sets all of those institutions up to mitigate the shock caused by a sudden, brief period of strong disapproval.

And that's all voting with your dollars can really be -- a sudden, brief response to a powerful piece of news, that most people are going to forget about within a month or two.  And if that effort had been channeled into (a.) setting up a core activist group and (b.) pushing for change through the government, which, again, is for exactly that, the burst might have some meaningful effect.

But it's great news for a brand facing bad press if the main response is "Everybody stop buying it," because all that means is some people stop buying it, for maybe a month or two, and a bunch of other people feel a warm, fuzzy sense of activism when they continue to not buy the thing they already weren't buying.