Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Time Binding, or why the past isn't what it used to be

Today's XKCD reminded me of a fairly interesting effect called time binding. The term was coined by Alfred Korzybski. This is how Wikipedia defines it:
Time binding: The human ability to pass information and knowledge between generations at an accelerating rate. Korzybski claimed this to be a unique capacity, separating us from other animals. Animals pass knowledge, but not at an exponential rate, that is to say, each generation of animals does things pretty much in the same way as the previous generation. For example, at one time most human societies were hunter-gatherers, but now more advanced means of food production (growing, raising, or buying) predominate. Excepting some insects (for example, ants), all other animals are still hunter-gatherer species, even though many have existed longer than the human species.Source

Among the people to work with the concept of time binding are Marshal McLuhan and Robert Anton Wilson.

One of the fundamental results of time binding (and the source of the term) is that when you record information in this way, you lower the amount of distortion done to it by natural processes over a given span of time. By doing this, you make that particular piece of information more available to people in the future (or available to people further in the future). Because of the availability bias, information that is more familiar seems to some extent more current, in the sense of seeming more (currently) true. So, time binding, though it does not slow down time, slows down time perception of the past, creating a mental 'now' that extends further into the past. This makes rear view mirror thinking not only easier to do but easier to get away with.

Among the many things the widespread adoption of the internet has done for us is made a significantly greater quantity of significantly more trivial information significantly more available to a significantly greater quantity of people significantly less familiar with the subject matter. The widespread adoption of the internet has also made it easier for people like the archive team to save information that would have otherwise been lost. So, in other words, someone living in a bubble on Mars in 2525 can read the tweet you sent yesterday about what you were having for breakfast. Because of time binding, that tweet will seem significantly less old to that Martian bubble-boy than anything written in 1476 will seem to you.

Nearly everyone born in the industrialized west in the twentieth century, aside from the very poor and those living in anomalously technically retrogressive communities, is not only intimately familiar with but is involved with the franchise of some media created shortly before their own birth. There are many Star Wars fans who weren't born until after the last episode of the original trilogy was released, and probably some who weren't born until all of the current canon films were released. There are even more fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy who were not alive when they appeared in paperback, let alone when they were written. Some classic rock fans who lived through the latter end of the era (and were actively consuming the release of, say, Pink Floyd's The Final Cut) were not alive for the early releases (such as Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother). Does The Final Cut sound old? Does The Empire Strikes Back feel like an old film? Neuromancer was written six years before I was born, but it still feels fresh. A piece of media feeling old has never had to do with its actual age; it has always been the gradual decay of information about it. With the increase in storage space, communications speed, and fidelity, we slowly extend our 'now' behind us in time, like a comet's tail.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

More unpatched exploits in the human biocomputer

Fallacies underlying morality in hierarchical systems

One of the big arguments against pure voluntarism as a stable political system is that people tend to form hierarchies. Indeed, people do tend to form hierarchies. One of the reasons for this is Dunbar's number. This post will not cover that topic. I want to instead focus on what I consider the other major reason that human groups tend to fall into hierarchy.

There are two meta-moral systems (which is to say, categories of moral systems) involved with dominance and submission. One is that described by Nietzsche, who called it the 'slave morality'. The other I will call the 'slavemaster morality'.

In the slave morality, there is one major heuristic: the victim (or the person in the submissive position) is always morally in the right. He or she has been put upon unduly by the dominant party, and bears no responsibility for the problems. In a system of pure 'slave morality', the old 'just following orders' excuse always flies.

In the slavemaster morality, there is one major heuristic: the person who has taken charge is morally in the right, because something must be done. Those who have abdicated responsibility may be taken advantage of freely, because they have surrendered their choice. It is rarely put into these terms.

Mosbunall of those with the slave morality see mosbunall those with the slavemaster morality as evil greedy fascists. Mosbunall of those with the slavemaster morality see mosbunall of those with the slave morality as evil greedy parasites.

The funny thing is, slave morality and slavemaster morality are strangely entwined. Slave morality, with its abdication of responsibility in exchange for shielding from being morally in the wrong, requires those with the slavemaster morality to take charge of them. Slavemaster morality cannot survive in the absence of willing slaves. The symbiosis is fairly clear.

Not only are these two metamoral systems symbiotically linked, but they are based on the same pair of fallacies. They both take as absolutely true that:
  1. it is undesirable or unpleasant to be submissive,
  2. and
  3. it is desirable or pleasant to be dominant

These heuristics are rarely accurate. Dominance bears the burden of responsibility, not only for the self but also for others. Submission removes this burden. While there are positives to dominance (it helps one get one's way, for instance) and negatives to submission (abdicating control has many psychological impacts in addition to making it problematic to have one's needs reliably met), in general one state of affairs is not on the whole significantly better than the other. So, anyone who takes the above heuristics as absolutely true will subscribe to slave or slavemaster morality depending on whether they want to abdicate responsibility or gain power, respectively.

I suspect that these heuristics predate the dawn of man as such. Hierarchical behavior in packs of nonhuman primates sometimes follows the same pattern. In a system with communication limited in speed and complexity, there are extreme benefits to having a single leader, and the above-mentioned heuristics encourage the selection of a more nearly optimal leader over time, as well as discouraging mutiny by those not predisposed to a dominant position. But, I hope we have progressed far enough that we can attempt to overcome these biases with reason and endeavor to live in a society not essentially based on the structure of gangs of roving gorillas.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ludibrium as weapon

Filed under the plans I approve of dept.:
In summary, several Chinese language, but overseas based, websites have been blogging on the creation of a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China. [...] The blogs and websites themselves are largely invisible to ordinary Chinese as the Great Firewall keeps them out, but they can be seen by the security agencies, who have been swift to react. The organizers, whoever and wherever they are, have repeatedly called on people to gather in a range of popular and public areas in the centre of major cities across China – shopping malls and university campuses – and go for a stroll every Sunday afternoon to call for minor political change. These public areas are, at that time of day, normally filled with young people and out-of-town domestic tourists, all now potential ‘protesters’. Now, because of the number of competing and overlapping security agencies, there is a lot of pressure on the local commanders to make some arrests and to show some success, but there are no genuine protesters, just some bemused local tourists and a lot of foreign journalists. [...] At the same time, the organisers have used a wide range of popular and politically ‘safe’ words to use as code words [...] These keywords get picked up by the censors, and all web and SMS traffic using them gets shut down or blocked – Jasmine itself is of course popular in Chinese culture and widely used in branding, but sites using ‘Jasmine’ in their copy, however innocuous, are blocked - with real-world social, political and economic consequences.

The use of a fake revolution to foment a real revolution reminds me of the Rosicrucians, who never existed. The original documents attributed to the Rosicrucians were later claimed, by their author, to be a hoax. By introducing a secret society so desirable, pretenders were attracted, who then claimed to be members and inducted new members who weren't in on the fact. These members inducted new members, and soon a set of completely different secret societies were formed with the same name and claiming the same lineage. But, unlike the rosicrucian ludibrium, this plan requires the paranoid chinese secret police to play their part -- which is to say it's only useful against a government that is extremely paranoid about the possibility of revolution.

While there are innocents getting hurt because of this, it's not comparable to a revolution or an invasion -- or even a real protest. Nobody's bringing in tanks.

That said, this still brings up the question of memetic warfare. This is not (as far as I can tell) a CIA operation, though the CIA does things like this fairly frequently. This appears to be a psyops project being performed by individuals, which is why it appeared on the globalguerillas blog. It remains to be seen whether or not this is effective, though as the comments thread indicated, the chinese economy is suffering, which may be related to the blocking of keywords associated with otherwise profitable things. But, it's the first example I've seen of a memetic warfare operation performed by individuals upon an entire government and its auxiliary support mechanisms without requiring budget with some level of success.

Edit: China is clearly no stranger to the infictive in politics. NB: Since I do not live in China, I cannot make arguments about quality of life issues there, so I do not have any confidently-held quality judgments about their methods in terms of the perspective of a citizen. I am sure that many chinese citizens think that the united states is a horrible totalitarian government and that US citizens are much less 'free' than they are. I don't know who discovered water, but it wasn't the fish.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Words that don't mean what you think they mean, part 1: outlaw

The word: Outlaw
What you think it means: criminal
What it really means: someone immune to prosecution

Wait, what?
In historical legal systems, an outlaw is a person declared as outside the protection of the law. In pre-modern societies, this takes the burden of active persecution of a criminal from the authorities. Instead, the criminal is withdrawn all legal protection, so that anyone is legally empowered to persecute or kill them. Outlawry was thus one of the harshest penalties in the legal system, since the outlaw had only himself to protect himself, but it also required no enforcement on the part of the justice system. In early Germanic law, the death penalty is conspicuously absent, and outlawing is the most extreme punishment, presumably amounting to a death sentence in practice.
Source: wikipedia
In other words, an outlaw is someone who has committed a crime so heinous that even the people who hunt down criminals for a living no longer want anything to do with him. They declare him an outlaw, and so not only do they no longer need to prosecute him for further crimes, but they don't have to defend him from other criminals. By reserving this treatment for only the most dangerous of criminals, it simultaneously almost guarantees that the outlaw will be killed (either by law-abiding vigilantes or by other criminals), and also reinforces the idea within the culture that a lawless society is dangerous (because everyone who is an outlaw is a particularly dangerous criminal).