It started with a simple request. My publisher wanted me to solve a math problem. I thought, one, that’s a weird thing for a publisher to do, and two, math isn’t my strong suit, but hey, what the hell, right?
Turns out they used the solution to establish a connection between our time and 2054, or a potential 2054, or some 2054 that might be our future or might not be…I dunno. Anyway, they communicated with a person from that future, who sent back a manuscript of what life is like in her time, as a novel (and maybe a warning of things to come) in ours.
The novel is called immechanica, and it’s by Eden “E. F.” Coleman. It publishes in our timeline on March 14, but you can get it before then, and for less than cover price.
The early reviews are already coming in, and they’re wonderful:
Reedsy reviewers have this to say:
“This novel is an absolute page-turner, creating and maintaining heart-racing tension that makes the reader feel like they’re on the run too.”
“Like all the best dystopian narratives (Blade Runner, 1984, The Hunger Games trilogy), it seems this book seeks to sound the alarm but also asks the reader to question what the legacy of humanity will be…It sticks with you, tackling big ideas like transhumanism, environmentalism, and the evolution of a species. This high adrenaline read is perfect for those who love big philosophical ideas.”
Anyway, I think it’s a good book. If you’re interested in a completely new take on cyberpunk that’s less “neon and shiny chrome and augmented street samurai” and more “autonomous drones with AI facial recognition and DNA-tuned assassination weapons and deepfakes and widespread political corruption,” this book’s for you. I believe it has some of the first genuinely new ideas in cyberpunk in years.
So check it out! You can get it at less than cover price before pub date, and if you act quickly, you can even get a Boston Dynamics robot dog chassis as a backer reward.*
* Note: Robot dog chassis delivery requires acceptance of a third-party End User Licensing Agreement that includes a no-weaponization clause. Offer not valid in some ITAR-restricted countries, including Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Shipping not included.
I tried to read it when it came out and couldn’t get past the second or third chapter at all. Eunice was blisfully ignorant of the horrors that lurked within. So we made an entire episode of the two of us reacting in horror, specifically to the scene where Christian and Ana negotiate the terms of their relationship (and Christian violates Ana’s consent multiple times during the consent negotiation, which was…special).
Anyway, in the process of re-acquainting herself with the contents of that book, Joreth took a literal red pen to its pages, which you can see here.
And also, check out the podcast. We think it’s rather fun!
But I didn’t come here to talk about the movie, or James Cameron. I came here to talk about virtue signaling, and white saviors crusading against white saviors, and offer some hot takes that will almost certainly lead to angry emails in my inbox.
Before we dive in to the rage, let me say that when I talk about “virtue signaling,” I don’t mean Virtue Signaling™, the brand that the American right uses to tarnish any display of empathy or compassion that suggests one is anything other than a complete sociopath. (I expand a little on the distinction between virtue signaling and Virtue Signaling™ over here.)
Okay, let’s do this.
James Cameron and the Synthetic Rage Machine
Back in 2009, James Cameron, of Aliens and Terminator 2 fame, made a movie called Avatar. I watched it, thought it was really good, watched it again, and then forgot about it. It’s showy but, like cotton candy, it melts quickly, leaving nothing behind.
Avatar was fluff. Fluff that was a bit problematic, with its overtones of “white hero saves the noble savages” tropes, but fluff.
However, it made more money than a televangelist with a coke habit, so it was perhaps inevitable there would be a second.
Now the second movie is here, and the liberal internetverse is aflame with acrimony, because if there’s one thing the modern-day liberal is absolutely certain of, it’s that the path to a kinder, more just, more empathic and inclusive society starts with screaming hate.
The issue, which I will confess I haven’t done hours of research about as I don’t actually have much interest in the second Avatar movie, appears to be the issue of cultural appropriation, leavened with a heaping teaspoon of white-saviorism. If you want a dive down the rabbit hole, you can find out more here and here and here and here, and good luck to you.
Predictably, the outrage spread like wildfire on Twitter, where people eager to show other people how much they supported the indigenous without, you know, actually doing anything inconvenient or costly to support the indigenous took to their keyboards:
Oh, no, wait, sorry, wrong Twitter outrage.
Ahem. The outrage spread on Twitter, where one particular Tweet was copy-pasted (not retweeted, not shared, but posted word for word) about 6,000 times, according to Google, not including posts on locked accounts. I won’t bother to link to any of them—you can find them if you want—but I will say they were even copy-pasted by people I once had genuine respect for. People I used to look up to. It’s hard to watch your heroes die.
Now, here’s the thing:
I’m not saying that Avatar isn’t problematic. I’m not telling you to see it…I’ve enjoyed not watching it, and I look forward to not watch it again. This isn’t really about Avatar at all, it’s about public masturbation.
All those thousands of copy-pasted tweets, all those people publicly proclaiming their support for indigenous people in the same way by repeating other people’s words—they’re wanking. “Look at me! Loot at me! Am I a good person now? I’m saying the right things. That makes me a good person, right? Right? Look at me!”
Virtue vs Virtue Signaling
How do you tell the difference between virtue and virtue signaling?
Virtue makes the world a better place. Virtue signaling makes you feel better about yourself.
When I look at Tweets about supporting underprivileged indigenous people by not watching a movie, I can’t help but think, “Point to the person who has a better life because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to a tangible improvement in someone’s quality of life because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the hungry person who was fed because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the village that had no water but now has a new well because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the sick child that now has medical care because you didn’t watch this movie.”
What? What’s that you say? Speak up. A little louder, please, I can’t hear you.
Oh, really? You didn’t actually improve anyone’s life? You just…didn’t watch a movie? That’s…that’s it?
Then shut the fuck up. You’re not supporting anyone. You’re showing off for the other people in your social set.
See, I could understand respecting someone who said “You know what, this movie has problematic aspects. An average theater ticket costs $15. Instead of watching it, why don’t you take that $15 and donate it to this particular fund that serves this particular underprivileged community in this particular way.”
If you do that, at least you’re actually benefitting someone besides yourself, even if it’s only in a small way. You’re actually, you know, making a tiny change in the world.
But if you’re not willing to do that? You’re showing off. Your “virtue” is empty, pretentious posing, benefitting nobody but you, a way for you to brag to people in your peer group without actually expending anything more than the barest minimum effort. You copy-pasted a sentence into Twitter! Ooh, you’re so courageous, posturing to win praise from your friends. Looking at you, making a difference in the world.
Paving the Way to a Better World
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The thing I like about my fellow progressives is that we—well, most of us, anyway—do sincerely want the world to be better tomorrow than it is today. We do genuinely want to live in a world that is more egalitarian, more open, more honest, more compassionate, more fair.
No matter how many “this is the world the Liberals want” memes the alt-right makes.
But too many progressives want something else more than we want a better world: We want to know where the lines are between Us and Them. Why? Because we want—indeed, need—to feel superior to someone. The most right-wing, hardcore Evangelical Baptist has nothing on an average urban progressive when it comes to sanctimony.
(Side note here: the irony of white men riding in to save the day against white saviors by copy-pasting Tweets, rather than, you know, actually saving anyone…well, if there were a Nobel Prize for Irony, I’m not saying it would win, but it would definitely be a contender.)
It cannot, it cannot be okay if the intention of progressives—which I assume it is—is progress forward into a future of more empathy and understanding for more people, it cannot be that the primary mechanism by which we’re going to make that progress is the suppression of empathy and understanding for anyone who doesn’t align with our beliefs. It cannot be that unmitigated expression of furious outrage will somehow alchemize into a future of peace and love.
If you want the world to be better when you wake tomorrow than it was when you woke today, but you want to bask in the warm glow of your own righteousness while you make empty gestures of great vengeance and furious anger those who dare tread too close to the line between Us and Them even more…
The next time you sit down at your computer to blast evil from the comfort and safety of your keyboard, you brave and noble cultural warrior, you, but you cannot point to a single person whose cause you champion who actually ends up tangibly better off for it…mmmaybe don’t, okay?
Merry Christmas. May 2023 bring you less virtue signaling and more virtue.
…and all through the house, the hiphuggers were scurrying, searching for a victim to parasitize, a host they could control, forcing the host to violate all around, spreading their eggs in a gush of slime…
My wife decided that, given the alien from the Aliens movie has been the shape of my nightmares for years, I should make an alien xenomorph hiphugger strapon sex toy. And given that she loves cosplay, she’s also decided to do a Borg Queen costume, to go with it.
Because what’s worse than being parasitized by an alien hiphugger? The Borg Queen parasitized by an alien hiphugger, of course!
I’m helping her design those bits of the costume that require a 3D printer, so she’s made a life-sized dressmaker’s dummy casting of herself to better help me make sure the various bits and bobs I print are the right size.
I have the dummy sitting on my couch right now, and, well…
It’s a bit disconcerting when I wake up in the middle of the night to pee.
In 1170, King Henry II of England, fed up with his former BFF Thomas Becket (who started criticizing the Crown after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury), declared “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” And, of course, since he was the king, four knights (Reginald Fitz-Urse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton) heard that as a call to action, whereupon they rode to Canterbury and murdered Becket in what is likely the first recorded example of stochastic terrorism.
the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted
It’s about inciting people to acts of harassment, bullying, or violence without directly telling them what to do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about stochastic terrorism lately, not just in terms of American politics, but in a more immediate, more personal context.
Stochastic terrorism uses inflammatory language likely to get someone somewhere to commit violence, without quite going so far as to say anything that might be directly construed as incitement to violence. You know, like “I only lost the election because the Democrats cheated and they‘ll go on cheating until we all use our Second Amendment rights to take back our country.”
This isn’t a direct command to a specific person to take a direct action, but it has predictable effects.
But I didn’t come here to talk about Donald Trump.
Stochastic violence is a broad idea, and I think it plays out in a thousand tiny ways we might not think about at first. Thing is, we are all susceptible, to some degree, to indirect incitement; it’s just that different people have different levels of susceptibility and different lines past which they won’t go.
All of us are, in the right circumstances, willing to heed the non-specific but righteous call to take up arms, figuratively or literally speaking, for a noble but non-specific cause. Yes, including you.
Stochastic terrorism is, I think, the extreme end of a continuum, a gradual incline from low-level bullying to premeditative violence. Stochastic bullying is the gateway to stochastic terrorism. And we currently live in a world where this has become normalized, a background of our lives.
Let me let you in on a dirty little secret of the human condition:
People like to bully.
People like to bully. People enjoy it. Take your average random person off the street, no matter his political affiliation, and give them a reason to bully someone—a reason that their peers, the people they care about, would find acceptable and justifiable. Let him loose and odds are good he will bully. You can make a bully of anyone; you need only find some value they care about and convince them that someone has violated that value and Bob’s your uncle.
Add the anonymity of the Internet and the deal is, for way too many people, sealed. People like to bully. Give someone a justification, a rationalization that lets them sleep at night, and give them the anonymity of the Internet, and boom, you can make a bully of almost anyone.
People bully for a lot of reasons, but there is no bully as zealous as the self-righteous bully, the bully who bullies with the pious fervor of one who is defending Truth and Justice. The stochastic bully is the keyboard warrior version of King Henry’s knights: a person who rides into battle harassing and doxxing others because someone he (or she) looks up to has declared a righteous cause.
Let me offer an example. I know this essay is getting long, but bear with me.
Some time ago, I knew a person who, after a bad breakup, was accused of abuse by their partner. These accusations were long on the pushbutton language in sex positive communities, but short on details.
All communities have rules and norms, signifiers that separate in-group from out-group. In sex-positive spaces, for instance, you’ll see people say things like:
All accusations are always 100% truthful 100% of the time, unless they are made by someone who has been accused of abuse first, in which case they are always, without fail, an attempt to dodge accountability.
Nobody ever lies about abuse. Nobody ever distorts, mis-states, or exaggerates…again, unless they’ve previously been accused of abuse themselves, in which case it is 100% certain that anything they say is a lie, 100% of the time.
The only moral action when confronted by an accusation of abuse is to believe the accusation wholeheartedly. Asking for more details is enabling abuse. Asking followup questions is enabling abuse. Any attempt at fact-finding is enabling abuse, if it doesn’t support the accusations anyway.
It’s easy to see where these ideas come from. For decades—centuries, perhaps—we’ve lived in societies that tolerate and condone abuse, particularly along social power lines. Many people, in a genuine desire to create a more just and equitable society, are beginning to push back against that.
Somewhere along the way, though, these things became virtue signals: designators of who is good and who is bad, who belongs and who doesn’t. And, like all virtue signals, they became markers of who it is and is not okay to bully. Someone accused of abuse: OK to bully.
So, predictably, the person I knew became a target of harassment and bullying…and, of course, being stripped of her social circle made it far easier for bullies to harry and hound her.
Funny, that. Throughout history, it has always, always been true that depriving someone of their social support is the #1 tool of abusers. And so it is in many sex-positive communities, which say “Beware anyone who tries to separate people from their social support, that’s what abusers do…oh, so-and-so has been accused of something by someone? SHUN! SHUN”
You abused me by refusing to give me what I wanted
This person’s accuser was shy on details, and when I and someone else asked for those details, we eventually got something that was…distinctly not abuse, and in fact was reasonable and healthy boundary-setting. But the thing is, those details were never part of the accusation, and somewhere along the way, in many sex-positive circles, it became evil to ask for followup information when someone says “I was abused.”
I naively believed once the details of the accusation were known, the harassment and bullying would stop. I was wrong.
I was surprised at the time. I’m not any more. In fact, nowadays, it’s exactly what I would expect. It turns out that people who are logical and rational, who make reasoned decisions, who see themselves as genuinely good people, regularly—routinely, even—support and enable bullies and abusers.
And guess what? That’s a completely rational response.
The Bank Robber’s Gun
Picture the scene: It’s the middle of the afternoon. A bank robber bursts into a crowded lobby waving a pistol. He says “This is a stickup! Everybody down!” Chaos, panic, confusion. Maybe the security guard jumps at him and gets shot or something.
Now, there are 20 or 30 people in the bank. The robber is holding a revolver. It’s got six shots, or maybe five; and if he’s just taken a shot at the security guard, that leaves him with five, maybe four. If all the customers rush him, he cannot win. He can’t reload fast enough.
No rational person would rush him. Each of the 20-30 people in the bank will make the same calculation and come to the same conclusion: The first person to rush him is getting shot. I’m not going to let that be me. And so, nobody rushes him.
So he takes everyone hostage, and ties them all up, and now if things go sideways he can kill them all at his leisure. What was a situation where he could not possibly hope to win becomes a situation where he is certain to win, all because rational people made a reasonable decision in their own self-interest…a decision made by everyone else, that dooms everyone.
Classic example from history: the McCarthy Communist hunts. Anyone who is accused is assumed guilty. People on the sidelines who know a particular target of the McCarthyists is innocent sure as hell aren’t going to say so, because anyone who does, becomes the next target too. Silence becomes self-preservation.
So imagine some person in a subcommunity facing a situation like the one my acquaintance was in:
He knows they’ve been accused of something bad.
He knows they’ve being bullied and harassed.
Beyond that, he knows them only as a vague blur, a face in the crowd. He has no connection with her other than that.
Of course he’s going to shun them. Of course it doesn’t matter if the accusations have merit. Of course it doesn’t matter if he even believes them or not. It would be stupid to expect anything else.
He would, in a purely rational sense, be a complete moron to do anything but shun them. Anyone who doesn’t go along with the shunning ends up on the wrong side of the in-group/out-group signaling, and becomes the target of the same people who are bullying her. If he lets her back in, he puts himself .
What rational person would stick up for someone, put himself in the line of fire for someone who is essentially a stranger?
That’s how stochastic bullying works.
And so, entire communities become held hostage by small numbers of bullies.
Virtue Signaling: Believing the Unbelievable
There’s an absolutely fascinating essay over on Slate Star Codex called The Toxoplasma of Rage. In it, the author makes an interesting observation:
But in the more general case, people can use moral decisions to signal how moral they are. In this case, they choose a disastrous decision based on some moral principle. The more suffering and destruction they support, and the more obscure a principle it is, the more obviously it shows their commitment to following their moral principles absolutely. For example, Immanuel Kant claims that if an axe murderer asks you where your best friend is, obviously intending to murder her when he finds her, you should tell the axe murderer the full truth, because lying is wrong. This is effective at showing how moral a person you are – no one would ever doubt your commitment to honesty after that – but it’s sure not a very good result for your friend.
The larger lesson here is this:
Virtue signaling is most effective when you signal some virtue that other people don’t necessarily agree with. You can’t make a useful virtue signal from something everyone always agrees with, like “serial killers are bad” or you shouldn’t eat babies.” The more dramatic, controversial, and absolute a virtual signal is, the more power it has.
And this causes values and moral principles—even generally sound moral principles, like “honesty is generally good”—to become completely decoupled from real-world consequences.
But of course, holding a nuanced view of the world—considering every situation on its own merits, thinking about edge cases, looking at your moral values with an eye toward seeing how well they fit in each individual circumstance…that takes work. Who has that kind of time?
Especially when it might put you in the crosshairs of someone who enjoys bullying people, and does so with the fire of zeal to purge the heretic and the unbeliever?
So a reasonable, completely supportable moral virtue, like “honesty is generally good,“ becomes an absolutist value.
What? You lied to the killer who asked where your girlfriend was??! You despicable person! I thought you agreed that honesty is good! And now to find out you’e nothing but a disgusting liar, someone who will throw away honesty whenever you find it convenient…what is wrong with you? How can anyone ever trust anything you say? Why should we believe a single word from you, you liar?
This plays out in sex-positive circles with the “believe survivors” trope.
Bumper Sticker Morality
“Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is a fair, decent moral value. We live in societies that have spent far too long not believing when people talk about abuse they’ve suffered, harm they’ve experienced, particularly from people and institutions in power. I mean, great example: Catholic Church. Hell, even law enforcement institutions have a long and revolting history of refusing to take, for example, rape reports seriously.
But somewhere along the way, all moral values must confront the fact that no moral situation is absolute.
“Honesty is good” does not, therefore, mean “do not lie tell your friend’s murderous ex where she’s hiding, even though you know he wants to kill her, because dishonesty is wrong.”
When you reach the point where some moral value becomes more important as a bumper-sticker-sized signal of your virtue than as a guideline for treating others well—Honesty is always good, regardless of circumstance! Dishonesty is bad!—it ceases to be a moral value, instead serving as a justification to bully others (“You lying sack of shit, how dare you show your face among decent, honest folks when you’re such a mewling, festering liar you told a lie to an enraged murderer about where he could find the person he was looking to bury his hatchet in!”).
Any reasonable person will, at least in private, say there’s no such thing as a class of people who should always be believed under all circumstances. “Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is an excellent general moral guideline—as long as you’re alert to the fact that no moral value is ever 100% true in 100% of circumstances. Human beings are messy, and when you create entire classes of people who are never to be doubted, you open the door to someone somewhere exploiting that for gain. “Always believe survivors” is exactly the same as “never believe survivors”—a way to avoid having to do the hard, messy work of evaluating individual people and individual situations. (Who has that kind of time, amirite?)
Stochastic Bullying, Stochastic Terrorism: Power Without Responsibility
As a tool for, you know, living a life that’s respectful of others, zealously defending bumper-sticker morality that brooks no exception, no nuance, no edge cases is a bit rubbish. But where stochastic bullying really shines is as a way of enforcing conformity and obedience to in-group/out-group borders.
Not long ago, I wrote about a bizarre, Twilight-Zone situation where some Internet personalities somehow decided I was running, or profiting from, or organizing, or something, a conference in London. I still have no clue where this notion came from, but someone got it in their head, and wrote about it online, in a This Will Not Stand kind of way, and the next thing you know, the conference organizers were receiving hate mail and threats. It got so bad, the organizers suspended the conference.
Now, this is serious “Jewish space lasers” territory. We’re so far past rationality here, we’ve looped all the way around Bizarro World and ended up in “Democrats secretly run a sex trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t have a basement” land. It shouldn’t really be too hard for someone who hears this story to say ‘hang on, a dude in Portland secretly runs a conference in London that’s been going on for years and how does that work exactly?’
But that’s the thing: Virtue signaling becomes more powerful as it becomes more outlandish. Sure, anyone can say they believe in QAnon, but believing that a secret trafficking ring works from the basement of a building that doesn’t even have a basement shows true commitment to the cause.
And the thing is, the person who started spreading rumors that I secretly run this conference in London never actually said ‘and therefore, you, specifically, should send death threats to the conference organizers.’ That’s how it works.
Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?
Will no one do something about this conference?
It is power without responsibility. It’s a way to accumulate control in a community, enforce boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, and let people know: Don’t be the hero. Charge me and you’ll get shot. Keep your head down and do as I say.
Nobody can take power this way in a subcommunity without everyone else being complicit. It’s hackneyed to say this, but all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for people of principle to do nothing.
But when you feel you have to keep your head down, because stepping out of line targets you for bullying and attack from quarters you cannot anticipate, it becomes a rational choice.
Orchids are cool, in a “nature is horrifying” way. There are species of orchid that have evolved structures that look like insects, which they use to lure in insects searching for mates.
Some orchids use these insect visitors to pollinate themselves. The insect does its thing and then flies off, horny and frustrated and covered with sticky pollen, but otherwise none the worse for wear.
But some orchids are carnivorous. They lure insects to their doom, slowly digesting their prey alive as the ill-fated insect struggles helplessly.
And some orchids mimic insect pheromones, sweeting the honeytrap with the same signals that female insects use.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about sexual parasitism of humans lately, in no small measure because I’ve finished the first version of the Xenomorph Hiphugger Strapon, a Giger-esque nightmare sex toy first conceived by my wife Joreth. Imagine an alien facehugger that wraps around the subject’s hips, then incites the subject to seek out victims, violating them in a parasitic frenzy. As creepy as this image is, it’s table stakes in the game of real-world sexual parasitism, which is horrifying.
Anyway, that’s got me thinking: what if an alien species created mimics of human females to lure in the male of the species? (An idea for a horror novel with this theme is bubbling in my brain; stay tuned!)
What I’ve come up with so far is…well, pretty horrifying.
I’ve started work on a small, AI-illustrated graphic novella (is a graphic novella a thing?), though with all the projects in the pipe right now—including a version of the hiphugger strapon optimized for oral violation—it may be a while before it’s finished.
This is a fact. It’s written into your biology. There is a limit, coded into the size and structure of your brain, on the number of people you can form close, personal connections to, or even remember as individuals before they start to blur into faces in a crowd. That is, I think, is one of the things that makes the online world so toxic, though perhaps not in the way you might think.
Before I get into why social media is so toxic, let’s talk about that limit. It’s called Dunbar‘s Number, named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The basic idea is there’s a specific, quantifiable number on the close interpersonal connections—not passing acquaintances, not faces in a crowd, but meaningful social interconnections—you can make. People debate exactly what this number is (and some anthropologists have questioned the validity of research that extrapolates from other primates to humans), but the most commonly accepted figure is in the neighborhood of 150 people or so—which tracks nicely with the size of early hunter/gatherer tribes.
That means we all have emotional space for somewhere around 150 people in our inner orbits. Again, these aren’t acquaintances—they’re your family, your friends, your lovers, your confidantes, the people you have a genuinely close connection to. Above this number, people tend to become faces in a crowd. You don’t fundamentally connect with people outside your inner orbit the way you do with people inside your inner orbit. You can’t. Regardless of whether your own personal limit is, 150 people or 200 people or 147 people or whatever, at some point you lose the ability to form independent, differentiable emotional connections. With eight billion humans on the planet, you can’t even remember everyone’s name!
That worked fine when we all lived in small tribes of a couple hundred people at most. Things started getting a little weird when human social groups got bigger than that. We had to invent surrogates for those close personal connections: governments, religions, structures that could impose boundaries on our behavior…because make no mistake, we hold very different standards for how it’s acceptable to treat people inside our personal spheres and outside them.
And that sorta worked for a long time, though at a cost. When you replace individual connections to people you know with abstract bonds with members of your religion or your city-state or your nation—in other words, with a group of people you’ve mostly never met—it becomes easy for people to hijack that apparatus and tell you who to love and who to hate. Instead of your tribe being defined by personal connections, it becomes directed for you from the top down: your in-group and out-group are defined not by people you personally know and trust, but by the hierarchy that directs these abstract groups.
Remember how you’re hard-wired to behave differently toward people within your personal sphere and outside it? Yeah, that. If someone convinces you that all members of your religion or your city-state are inside your sphere and everyone else is outside it, then getting you to trust people you shouldn’t trust, or commit acts of atrocity against people who’ve done you no harm, gets a whole lot easier.
It doesn’t help, too, that when you start dealing with people outside your inner circle, you have to make hasty group generalizations, which means you start judging entire groups of people based on superficial characteristics. So there’s that.
Being Human in an Age of Social Media
If our evolutionary heritage didn’t prepare us for living in groups bigger than a couple hundred people or so, it definitely didn’t prepare us for social media.
There are eight billion of us sharing space on this planet. Eight billion. That’s a number of people literally, not figuratively, impossible to grasp emotionally. We cannot really even imagine eight billion people.
Most of us live in enormous societies several orders of magnitude larger than the hundred and fifty to two hundred our brains evolved to cope with, so we create our own little subcommunities, social circles, networks of family and friends.
Social media gives us an easy, low-friction way to interact with other people. Problem is, interactions on social media feel like in-person interactions, but they aren’t. You’re presenting, and interacting with, carefully curated personas. Social media makes it much easier to curate these personas than it is in person—we choose what we show and what we share. And, importantly, it’s easy for us to hide things.
So we end up feeling like we have genuine connections with people we don’t actually know. We know only a carefully constructed facade, but to our emotional selves, to the parts of us that define our family, our tribe, these connections seem genuine.
Psychologists have a name for this: parasocial relationships. We become invested in people on social media, people who might not actually share a connection with us, who might not even know us at all except as a name on a follower list.
The thing about parasocial relationships is they occupy a slot in our inner sphere, even though they are not, in fact, genuine close relationships.
And that, I think, is a huge part of why the Internet is such a hate machine.
Mass-Produced Synthetic Rage
The Internet is a hate machine, fine-tuned to manufacture outrage in industrial quantities. Part of that is deliberate engineering, of course. Engagement drives revenue. Waving pitchforks and screaming for the heads of the heathens is “engagement.” Outrage sells, so Adam Smith’s ruthless invisible hand has shaped social media into high-efficiency outrage generation machines.
Early pioneers wanted to use the power of this globe-spanning, always-on communications network to bring people together. Looking back, that seems charmingly naïve, though in fairness it wasn’t obvious back then that anger would be more profitable. Who knew?
What happens when you fill up slots in your inner sphere with parasocial relationships—with people you genuinely feel a sincere connection to, but you don’t actually know?
You become easy to manipulate.
You feel a bond to a person you don’t know, whose motives you can never be certain of, who has an entire life lived away from social media. This person is part of your inner circle, and part of that evolutionary heritage I was talking about is that you are predisposed to believe things people in your inner circle tell you. You are descended from a long line of ancestors who were part of a tribe. For our early ancestors, losing their tribe meant death. We are descended from people who survived—the ones who did not get expelled from their tribes. Accepting the values, beliefs, and worldview of the people in your inner circle is wired into your genes.
So when someone who is part of your social media inner circle tells you someone else is a bad person, you’re disposed to believe it without question. When your social media tribe tells you who to hate, you do it. Yes, I mean you. You think you’re far more rational and less tribalistic than all those other people. You’re wrong.
Now consider that in the age of COVID over the past few years, more people are getting more of those social needs met online, and consider the digital generation growing up in a world where parasocial interaction is the norm, and, well, things get weird. How could social media become anything but a hate machine?
And, ironically, spaces that consider themselves “loving” and “welcoming” and “safe” are especially prone to this, because a great deal of in-group/out-group policing is done on the basis of feelings of comfort and safety; if someone tells you that someone else says that so-and-so is a bad person, you want to keep your space loving and safe, right? And it can’t be loving and safe if it has bad people in it, right? There’s only one thing for it: we must lovingly band together to drive out the evil among us.
On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a manipulator
The thing about parasocial interactions is your brain really wasn’t meant for them. You tend, when you interact with someone one or two steps removed, to see only a curated version of them—but at the same time, emotionally, the ancient parts of your brain will respond as if this was a person who’s a member of your family, who you can trust implicitly.
Believe me, that creates some really messed-up opportunities for things to go wrong.
The people you see on social media may have an agenda you’re completely unaware of. As a particularly vivid case, I know of one person who attempted to take over a conference that had been running for many years. She simply tried to walk up and start hosting a new conference using the same name, same trademark, everything. (This sort of thing is more common than you think. There comes a point in the normal development of any subculture or subcommunity when a tipping point is reached; once the community grows to a certain size, it’s easier to make a name for yourself by stealing someone else’s work than by doing the work yourself.)
When her attempted hijacking didn’t succeed, and the conference organizers informed her they would defend their trademark legally if necessary, well…Internet hate machine. She started so many rumors and accusations about the existing conference (each one laughably simple to debunk by itself, but quantity has a quality all its own…where there’s smoke, there must be fire, not someone running around with a smoke pot yelling “Fire! Fire!”, right?), the Internet hate machine did what it does best. The internetverse whipped itself into such a frothing frenzy, people unconnected with anyone remotely related to the conference started sending threats of violence to people scheduled to speak at the conference. It got so bad, the organizers had to cancel.
I might say here that if one person you’ve never met in person but know on the Internet tells you that another person you’ve never met but know on the Internet is a bad person and therefore you should send threats of violence to a whole set of other people you’ve never met but know on the Internet, you’ve completely lost the plot…yet here we are. The thing is, the nature of the Internet and your legacy evolutionary heritage makes this kind of thing feel right. It feels natural. It feels righteous and just.
You are a tribal being. We all are. It’s a fact of our biology. Social media is engineered to produce rage, because rage gathers clicks, and emotions like fear and anger make you less rational. Add that to the fact you’re already inclined to accept people into your inner circle you’ve never met because interactions on social media feel convincingly authentic, and it’s a perfect storm. People can manipulate you and make you feel righteous about it.
None of these problems is unique to the internet, of course, but the parasociality inherent in the Internet makes the problem much worse. And, of course, knowing that the Twitter hordes with the torches and pitchforks might turn them on you if you fail to pick up a torch or a pitchfork and rally to the cause when you’re told to, really doesn’t help.
Don’t be a sucker
What’s the solution?
I don’t know. I wish I did. I’d like to say it’s as easy as fact-checking and being aware, but it’s not. Your fact-checking is emotionally biased by in-group/out-group dynamics. Being aware that you can be manipulated doesn’t help as much as you might think, because awareness is so intellectual and manipulation is so emotional. It’s hard to stop and say “hey, wait a minute” when what you’re being told feels right. That feeling is exactly the Achilles’ heel I’m talking about.
So yeah, don’t be a sucker, but that requires constant vigilance, and the ability to go against the grain of the pitchfork-wielding mob. A lot of folks just plain aren’t prepared to do that.
So I don’t necessarily have a solution, but I will leave you with this:
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 1: I made a homebrew diving bell when I was a kid. My parents moved to Florida when I was 14, and our house had a swimming pool. I hate being wet, and I don’t know how to swim, but I love making things, so when I found a big 12-volt air compressor at a surplus store, I was like “I know! I’ll make a diving bell!” I cut a slot in a 5-gallon pickle bucket, hot-glued a flexible bit of plastic over it, ran a hose from the compressor to the bucket, put a 12-volt car battery on the edge of the pool, and went diving. I didn’t think about the fact that the air always smelled of oil, meaning I was probably inhaling some nasty hydrocarbons, nor about the fact that if I somehow passed out or something I’d probably die.
Speaking of not liking to be wet, I have a condition called “congenital thermal allodynia,” inherited from my mother, which means I perceive changes in temperature as pain.
I also have a weird mutation inherited from my mother that mens I’m highly resistant to local anesthetics in the lidocaine family. My mother has it even worse—she’s essentially immune to most local anesthetics. This makes visiting the dentist about as fun as you might imagine.
I really love cats. Somehow, they know. It’s hard for me to go anywhere without any cat that sees me wanting to come over and be my friend. I was once at a client’s home office installing a new computer. My client’s cat kept watching me from the door. My client was like “She won’t come any closer, it took two years before she let my husband pet her.” By the time I was done with the install, the cat was curled up asleep in my lap. (Zaiah says it’s because I interact with cats as equals, not animals or pets.)
I lost my virginity in a threesome.
I’ve never been in a monogamous relationship—not once in my entire life.
I took two dates to my high school senior prom.
I’m straight, which I consider a bug, not a feature. I resent the fact that half of the human sexual experience is forever closed to me. If there were a magic pill that could make straight people bisexual, I’d take it in a heartbeat.
I started programming computers in 1977.
I saw Star Wars on opening night, also in 1977.
I’ve had a vasectomy. I got it in 2001. I had an appointment to go to the diagnostic lab to make sure I was shooting blanks on…September 11, 2001. Yes, seriously. The lab was tiny, with only a small waiting room that didn’t even have a television. A member of the staff had brought in a little battery powered TV and set it up on the reception counter, and a bunch of people—staff and patients—were crowded around watching news about the World Trade Center attacks. It made it really hard to produce the sample.
I design sex toys as a hobby. I make them in a 3D rendering program on my computer, print molds on a 3D printer, and pour silicone into the molds.
I own a patent—US 10265240—on a sensor-equipped strapon that stimulates the wearer so that the wearer can feel touch on the strapon.
For years I was into black and white photography, seriously enough that I had a darkroom in my house. I often asked random people I met if they’d let me photograph them. The answer, more often than not, was yes.
I have seven years of university but only have an undergraduate degree. That said, things I’ve written have been used as teaching materials in graduate-level courses, and I’ve been cited by academics. That’s…flattering and also frustrating.
I only have an undergraduate degree because I changed major five times in my first six years of university. Everything interests me. (Well, everything except sports. And knitting.)
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 2: I used to free-climb buildings as a hobby. I started in my first year at university and kept doing it through my mid-30s.
At one point in my life I was so heavily into aikido I did a six-week aikido intensive that involved a study session and two mat sessions a day, seven days a week. I belonged to a dojo in Sarasota for years.
I used to own two PDP-11s, an 11/03 and an 11/24. I set them up in my college dorm room, which was a bit…problematic because the power draw caused some weird problems with the dorm electrical supply. (We discovered the circuit breakers in our dorm were defective when we tripped the branch circuit that fed power to the entire dorm.) Later, I moved them into the first apartment I shared with my ex-wife. She called them “Washer” and “Dryer” because they lived in the utility room. We didn’t have a washer and dryer, but hey, we had two PDPs!
As a kid, before my family moved to Florida, I lived in a tiny town called Venango in Nebraska. When we lived there, the town had 242 people in it. The entire school, kindergarten through high school, had fewer than 50 students.
In Nebraska, I was super into model rocketry as a hobby. I designed and built my own rockets, including some exotics like boost gliders.
I was once heavily involved in the small-press ‘zine scene, in the early 90s. I helped publish a number of underground magazines, including Mythagoras, The Caffeine Quarterly, and Xero Magazine.
One of my websites, xeromag dot com, started out life as the site for Xero Magazine. The magazine hasn’t published an issue in twenty years or so, and the site has grown into a weird mix of photography, kink, philosophy, and other stuff.
I once set myself on fire during a bottle rocket fight with a bunch of friends. (Nobody ever said I was terribly smart about such things.) Burned my favorite T-shirt.
I have a pattern of running into famous people by accident…literally. I ran into Sam Walton at a Walmart. (I was buying a case of oil for my car, which had a leak. He was inspecting the store. I came around the end of the aisle and walked right into him. Bam, bottles of oil everywhere.) I ran into James “The Amazing” Randi at a hotel. (I was carrying a sewing machine. He was coming off the elevator. I ran right into him and almost dropped the sewing machine on his foot. He handled it with fantastic grace and humor.) I ran into William Shatner at a convention. (I was leaving the bathroom, he was coming in, neither of us was watching where we were going, wham. He’s shorter than I thought.)
Even though I’m not religious, I love old churches. I’ve attended Mass at Notre Dame and at St. Peter’s in Vatican City. I’ve been to the Church on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia; climbed the 409 steps to the roof of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Gdańsk, Poland; been atop the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland; sexted in Old North Church in Boston, the place where the Railroad headquarters is hidden in Fallout 4; and done a cosplay photo shoot in Lincoln Cathedral in Lincolnshire, England.
When I was in elementary school, I wrote a letter to the President, suggesting the idea of putting cameras on kites and flying them over cities to look for criminals. I reasoned, naively, that if people knew there were cameras all around, they wouldn’t commit crimes. I got back a polite letter on White House stationery thanking me for my idea.
Speaking of kites: When I was a kid, I was also into kite fighting. (You use dual-string kites with a sharp spar on the nose and powdered glass on the string to try to destroy, cripple, or cut the lines of your opponent’s kites.) Under most kite fighting rules, if you capture an opponent’s kite by tangling and then cutting its strings, you keep the captured kite. I decorated my bedroom wall with captured kites.
I love dancing. Goth/industrial and fusion blues, mostly. I’m not terribly good at it, but I love it.
I took a course in chess theory in university. It didn’t help. I’m still a rubbish player.
Perhaps surprisingly, I have a bit of a nudity taboo. I am deeply uncomfortable being naked around people who aren’t intimate partners—and sometimes even then. My partners know this about me and love pressing that button—for example, by ‘making’ me go nude in places like public dungeons or BDSM conventions.
One of my websites, the More Than Two site, is archived by the Library of Congress as a site of significant literary, cultural, or historical significance.
My favorite city in the world is Tallinn, in Estonia.
I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Adolph Hitler. My grandmother came to the US from Germany after the Nazis rose to power, and met my grandfather here.
I’ve been skydiving. I found it boring. A couple minutes of unpleasant wind in your face and then several minutes of “here I am, hanging under the canopy…look, that’s the ground down there…still hanging here…look, the ground is a little bit closer now, doot doot doo…”
There was a time in my life I could code in Z-80 Assembly about as fast as I could type.
I once carried a duffel bag full (as in completely full to the top) of dildos through TSA. No, they weren’t mine. I was carrying them for a friend. A duffel bag full of dildos weighs way more than you think it does. Silicone is heavy.
I was once involuntarily and non-consensually dosed with methamphetamine at a swinger convention. One of the worst nights of my life. Meth sucks. If I live to be two centuries old I will never understand why people take that shit voluntarily, knowing the ride they’re signing up for.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 3: Driving down Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa one day, I hit a small but heavy object that fell off the car in front of me. I still don’t know what it was, but it was maybe baseball-sized and heavy enough to destroy both driver-side tires and put a huge dent in the front rim. Amazingly, my car (a Honda del Sol) didn’t even swerve out of its lane.
Whilst I was in the shop getting the car fixed after that, I sat in the waiting room reading Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin. An elderly lesbian couple in their 70s sat down next to me and one of them started talking to me about how Anaïs Nin was her favorite writer. The whole thing was adorable.
I play chess (badly) and pool (badly). I used to be able to shoot darts reasonably well—-well enough that I had a rather nice set of tungsten soft tips I would bring with me to the local biker bar to shoot almost every weekend—but those days are gone.
I am a shy extrovert.
I started writing on the Web in 1997. Back then, the world was a quite different place; you had to pay quite a bit more for web hosting, and also pay for bandwidth.
I created one of the first polyamory sites on the web. Montel Williams did one of the first mass-media talk show episodes about polyamory, a fact I learned when I woke up to find my site flattened and a huge honking bill for bandwidth from my hosting provider.
I met my co-author at an orgy in a castle in France. I wrote the first paragraph of what became the first novel we wrote together on her naked back at a different orgy in Lincolnshire.
I love inventing wildly impractical things. For my girlfriend Maxine’s birthday party, I connected a single-chip EEG to a Ruben’s tube (a tube with a row of fire jets along it that change in response to sound), so that you could change the patterns of fire just by thinking about it. I did not, sadly, think to get video.
I used to have a darkroom in my house, back in the day when I was into film photography.
I wrote a video game for the TRS-80, Master Blaster, with a high school friend. It was a sort of vertical Space Invaders/Galaga-style shooting game, only you move up and down along the left hand edge of the screen rather than back and forth along the bottom. I released it free on TRS-80 BBS systems. It…wasn’t very popular.
I wrote a terminal emulator program for the TRS-80 that emulated a Televideo 920c terminal, which I used to log into the DECsystem-20 from my dorm room during my first year at university. I released it for free on TRS-80 BBS systems, and unexpectedly got a rather nice check in the mail one day from a guy who’d found it and installed it on systems where he worked. He included a letter that explained that he had a TRS-80 and a terminal for accessing the mainframe on every desk at his place of business, and the emulator program let him get rid of all the terminals.
I am completely heterosexual. I think that’s unfortunate, because I really like sex, and being stubbornly straight takes half the human sexual experience off the table. If someone invented a magic pill that would let you decide your sexual orientation, I’d choose to be bi.
My first car was a Volkswagen Bug, and I loved it so much my third car was also a Volkswagen Bug. At one point I could drop the engine out of a Bug by myself in under 15 minutes. I still remember the VIN of my second Bug (1122609696),
I once participated in a threesome in a van on a train under the English Channel.
When I was a kid, my parents knew I loved sci-fi (Star Trek was my favorite TV show, Star Wars my favorite movie), so when I was like 12 or so they took me to see Alien, thinking it was just another sci-fi movie like Star Wars. I had nightmares about the alien from Alien for the next 35 years. (That’s not an exaggeration.)
Despite that, Aliens is my second-favorite movie…
…after The Matrix…
…with The Princess Bride in third place.
I once helped the FBI build a case against a group of computer hackers responsible for a piece of malware called W32/Zlob, after I wrote a blog post about a large-scale hack of an Internet hosting company called iPower Web, as a result of which I received a rather nice reward.
For many years, when I lived in Tampa, I had a pet snake, a boa constrictor named Eris.
I drink a lot of tea. A LOT of tea. I buy it by the case. I don’t drink as much as my crush/co-author Eunice or my girlfriend Maxine, but I drink a lot of tea for a normal person who isn’t British, and even quite a lot by British standards.
I got into model rocketry as a kid when a friend of my father’s had his son go off to college. The son decided not to keep up with rocketry, so he gifted me all his equipment: launch pad, launch controllers, engines, parts, everything. I was totally blown away; I couldn’t believe someone would just give away all their gear like that. Years later, after my family moved to Florida and I got out of model rocketry, I gave all my stuff—launch pads, controllers, engines, materials, everything—to a neighborhood kid.
I spin fire. I took beanbag poi and fire poi on the European book tour. We went out one evening in Edinburgh and I thought about taking my poi, then said nah, what are the odds of randomly coming across people spinning poi? Walking through a park, we came across—you guessed it—a group of people spinning poi.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 4: Me, my best friend, and his girlfriend at the time were out in my Volkswagen Bug in the middle of nowhere, where my friend was trying to teach me the particularly tricky heel/toe/emergency brake maneuver required to do a fast turn using the emergency brake. I went into the turn way, way, way, way too fast, and so the Bug promptly went up on two wheels and slid sideways down the road about 60 feet. (We measured later by the two black skidmarks I left in the asphalt.) It ripped both tires on the passenger side right off the rim and trashed both rims. The only reason we didn’t roll over is my friend’s girlfriend, who was sitting in the back seat, shrieked “We’re all going to die!” and flung herself against the high side of the car, which caused us to tip over back onto all four wheels again.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 5: Okay, so a VW is an air and oil cooled engine with a large vertical fan shroud that sits on top of the engine and blows air downward. There are two hoses that come out of the fan shroud, go over theat exchangers, and blow into the passenger compartment, to give you heat when it’s cold. So, these hoses are exactly the same size as the business end of a Weber aftermarket carburetor…can you see where this is going? I thought, hey, if I attach one of those hoses to the air intake of the carburetor I’ll have a cheap, easy ram-air system, like a poor man’s turbocharger! Look how clever I am! If you know anything about cars, you’re probably cringing at the thought of what happened next…and you’re not wrong. Suffice it to say I destroyed the engine in dramatic fashion.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 6: Another of my early cars was a 1977 Honda Civic CVCC. It had a weird, compound-ignition engine that got about 40 miles to the gallon. I modified the hell out of it—put a Holley 4-barrel carb in place of the weird 3-barrel (yes, seriously) CVCC carb, put in a racing advance distributor, did some other stuff. My best friend—same one—and I were on Interstate 75 late one evening. The road was basically deserted, so I decided to see how fast we could go. It took a long time, but the speedometer kept creeping up and up until it hit the peg, and then the tachometer kept creeping up and up past that. The car started shaking so badly the door windows were rattling in their frames and the steering wheel was vibrating like it was trying to throw my hands clean off it. What followed was a conversation between Tim and I that I will never forget: “Hey Franklin!” “Yeah?” “Are we really going 140 miles an hour?” “Yeah.” “That’s pretty cool.” “Yeah!” “Hey Franklin!” “Yeah?” “Back off a little, will you?”
When I started using America Online in 1992 or so, I used the name “TacitR.” (I still have that name.) It comes from “Tacit Rainbow,” a handle I used on old-school BBS systems. “Tacit Rainbow” was an old, top-secret military project, that was canceled before it produced anything, intended to make loitering munitions—semi-autonomous hybrid cruise-missile-like things that could be fired over an area, where they would remain, circling in the air, until they spotted and recognized a target, which they would then autonomously destroy. Didn’t go anywhere, but I liked the way those two words sound together, so I started going by Tacit Rainbow online. Several years after I started using that name on AOL, a guy messaged me out of the blue to say “I hate to intrude, but does the R in your name TacitR stand for Rainbow?” When I said yes, he was like “Oh, when did you work on the project?” I explained that I didn’t, and he said “Ah, that’s too bad. I was one of the engineers working on that at Northrop in the 80s.” We had a really interesting conversation after that.
Years ago, I flew out to London to visit my partner Maxine. She was living in a big house with an extended poly network—several of her other partners and their partners and so on. She came out on the tube to pick me up at the airport. The first thing she did when she saw me past customs was tied my wrists together, blindfolded me with a polka-dotted sash, and led me back to the subway bound and blindfolded. On the ride to her house on the subway, she kept whispering filthy things in my ear she wanted to do to me. (I still have a photo of me sitting on the subway blindfolded with my wrists bound together. As soon as we got to the house, she shoved me against the wall, yanked down my pants, and held me pinned against the wall while she went down on me. People use the expression “mind-blowing” far too often for sex, but man, it was mind-blowing.
I went to a public dungeon called the Egyptian Club many years ago with one of my partners, where we did a really fun flogging scene. When we were finished, a rather lovely young woman walked up to me and asked if I’d flog her. Before I could answer, her girlfriend started yelling at her. They had a huge argument right there in the club that ended with the girlfriend dragging the woman who had asked me out of the place.
I wrote a computer sex game called Onyx, which is still available, though I haven’t updated it in years. (It’s 32-bit, so it won’t work on modern Macs, but it still runs fine on Windows.)
in 1987, I got kicked out of a Radio Shack because I went in looking for a radio controlled toy car I could tear apart to make an RC vibrator. I asked the guy at the store to show me the RC cars. He asked what kind I was looking for. I said “I don’t care, I’m just going to take the radio out of it to use it for something else.” He refused to sell it to me and threw me out because he said “I think you’re going to make a bomb.”
When my ex-wife and I first moved in together, we got a land line that used to belong to someone named Grace Rodriguez. From the calls, we assume she was likely a drug dealer. For the first six months we had that number, we would get all kinds of bizarre calls at all hours of the day and night looking for Grace. Over time the calls tapered off, but we were still getting them occasionally three years later. About two years after we got the number, we got a phone call from a man looking for Grace Rodriguez. I answered the phone and did what I always did: “Grace Rodriguez has not had this number for years.” Most people said “okay, sorry,” and hung up. This guy started sobbing into the phone and yelling “I know she’s there, man, I know she’s there! You gotta let me talk to her! Please, I gotta talk to Grace, man! Why won’t you let me talk to her? I gotta talk to Grace, man!”
As a young kid, I used to plant “bombs” in my sister’s room. They were simple things: a 9-volt battery, an old-fashioned flashcube, and some sort of trigger, usually as simple as a clothespin with jaws wrapped in aluminum foil and a bit of paper between. I’d put them in her dresser, her jewelry box, wherever I could hide them, so she’d open the dresser or box or whatever and foom! The flashcube would flash in her face.
I never even tried any recreational drugs at all (apart from alcohol) until I was 46 years old.
Members of my extended family are part of the Quiverfull cult. I haven’t spoken to them in decades.
Timothy and I (yes, same Timothy) once hot-wired a grader. Turns out they have very simple ignition switches. We’d been out in the middle of the night driving my Bug around, as we were wont to do, screaming down a road that was under construction so had no traffic, when we went flying right off the part of the road that was finished and sank the car up to the axles in mud. We tried for hours to get it loose, but couldn’t free it, so Tim got this idea to try to hotwire one of the graders parked by the side of the road and use it to pull the car out. Getting the grader started was easy. We couldn’t figure out how to work the rather weird, cumbersome clutch/shift mechanism, though, so we were only able to move it about ten feet. We gave up and spent hours walking back to town. Came back out with friends the next night at midnight to find that the people working on the road had lifted the car up, packed the dirt around it, and set it back down, so it was sitting high and dry surrounded by a sea of mud. I still wonder if that wasn’t their vengeance for us moving the grader.
I’ve done a workshop at a conference on building siege weapons. I was at the conference wandering around with friends looking for something to do. We found a pile of scrap wood by a dumpster and used it to build a small trebuchet with an eight-foot throwing arm, which we played with for the rest of the convention, flinging glowsticks and a baseball and even someone’s little movie camera wrapped up in T-shirts and duct tape. The following year, the convention organizers invited me back to do a workshop on building a trebuchet.
The first date I ever went on with my ex-wife, we drove my car to the middle of nowhere in a place called Lehigh Acres in Florida. We were making out when a tiny, scrawny, and very dirty kitten jumped through the car window and landed in her lap. We ended up adopting him and named him Goblin He hated everyone on earth except us and my parents.
I used to have a close friend named Carey; we even lived together for a brief time. She drove a Fiat X1/9, a slick little 2-seat targa top sports car. We went out to a bar one night to shoot pool. The weather was beautiful, so we had the top off. As we were pulling into the parking lot, the local TV news anchor came staggering out of the bar, leaned over the car, and started making throwing-up noises. She turned her head at the last possible instant and puked all over the ground right next to the car, but fortunately not in the car.
Carey and I once drove from St. Louis to do laundry. We had a long weekend. We didn’t have a washer when we lived together, so we packed all our laundry in my car to go to the laundromat and just sort of…kept driving. We made it to St. Louis, did our laundry, turned around, and drove back.
My favorite command line operating system is TOPS-20 for the DECsystem-20.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive part 7: One of my VW Bugs left me stranded in a parking lot one night when the fuel pump failed. So, right there in the parking lot, with only the tools and materials I had on hand, I tried to rig up a gravity-feed fuel system that would at least get me home. You can probably guess where this is going. Yes, I set the engine on fire.
I once bought a secondhand Apple Lisa with a bad video display and an Apple Profile hard drive from a computer shop for $100. The shop owner gave them an estimate to troubleshoot the problem and they told him to just keep it, so he sold it to me. The problem turned out to be incredibly simple to fix, literally a 5-minute job: the connector had come off the end of the picture tube. That’s it. When I fired it up, I discovered it had been used by an IT company that did work for banks. There were a bunch of LisaDraw files with network diagrams for several bank offices, and the network diagrams for every one of that bank’s ATMs in Tampa.
I was introduced to the band Disturbed while watching porn on a friend’s laptop while we sat in the porn room of a public dungeon. We were ignoring all the porn on dozens of screens around us because she wanted to watch something on her laptop, and I don’t remember anything about the porn except it used the Disturbed album The Sickness as the background music, and I was like “holy shit, what is this music, it’s awesome!” I bought the album on CD the next day.
Speaking of porn: I write literary porn, I’ve been on set when porn is being filmed, I have friends who are porn performers, and yet…I don’t have much of a taste for porn, and rarely watch it.
I haven’t even watched the porn one of my partners has performed in. I kinda sometimes feel like a bad boyfriend for that.
I’ve attempted to learn to play flute and clarinet, and failed dismally at it.
I’ve attempted to learn Latin, French, and German, and failed at that, too.
I don’t understand integration by partial fractions. I’ve had multiple professors try to teach me in multiple calculus classes at multiple universities and it’s just never clicked. I see someone using partial fractions and I feel like a dog staring at a stock market report—nothing about it makes sense to me.
I have a favorite virus (of the biological variety, not the computer variety): polydnavirus.
I have such poor attention to detail, in the first version of this list, number 92 was a repeat.
I worked for many years doing prepress professionally. I started using Photoshop at version 1.0.2 and Illustrator with Illustrator 88.
I invented one of the world’s first Internet controlled sex toys, Symphony. This was before USB was a thing, so the Symphony plugged into your computer’s headphone jack and was controlled by pulses of sound. I designed the hardware and wrote the software. It…wasn’t a success.
I am allergic to bee stings.
If I were a spacecraft from the Culture novels, I’d be the Limited Systems Vehicle Let’s See What Happens.
I am not a leader. I have incredibly, almost impossibly poor leadership skills. I am so bad at telling other people what to do, and not only disinterested in but actively repulsed by controlling anyone else (in any sense except consensual, limited, and mutually negotiated kink), that I can’t even do it in video games. My raiding guild in World of Warcraft tried to put me in charge of a mythic+ 5-man dungeon run and it was a disaster. Whatever it is that lets people take control, I don’t have it.
I am fascinated by creodonts, the early, less sophisticated, and now completely extinct forerunners to modern carnivores (in the literal sense of order Carnivora, not “meat-eating animals” generally).
I love rum, especially light spiced rum. Lamb’s Black Sheep is one of life’s sublime pleasures, though it is, alas, almost impossible to find anywhere near where I live.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive part 8: I was once out exploring rural Florida with my friend Timothy (of course) when we found an abandoned quarry of some sort with a significant drop to water. I drove along the edge of the quarry for a bit, looking down into it wondering how deep the water went, when Tim was all like “Franklin, drive straight, don’t speed up, don’t slow down, don’t turn the wheel.” So I did. I was all like “what’s up?” He said “look behind us.” The edge of the quarry had crumbled and there was only one tire track behind us.
I tried to do a different thing, but I couldn’t do the thing I wanted to do that was different from the thing I did, so I did the thing instead. Then I did the other thing, too, so…things got done.
It started yesterday morning, when I woke intending to post a new episode of the Skeptical Pervert podcast, this one looking at sex work in different cultures. But what to my wondering eye should show up, but a database server error at my webhosting provider. As I waited for them to fix the problem, I…amused. Yes, that’s the word we’ll use. I amused myself by writing a quick and crude web page that generates random horror poetry and pairs it with a random tentacle image generated by a Stable Diffusion AI generator.
It’s still quite primitive, but it looks like this:
You can, if this strikes your fancy, check it out here:
Every month, almost three billion people use Facebook.
Those people upload photos and video and it all gets saved—about 4 petabytes, four billion gigabytes, of data every day.
Those are abstract numbers. What does it mean? How Does Facebook not run out of space?
Exactly how you think. They buy more than 1,000 hard drives every day. (As of the time I write this, the information I can find suggests they prefer to use 4TB hard drives rather than larger drives for cost and reliability reasons.)
This is a pallet of 180 hard drives:
Facebook adds the equivalent of about 6 of these pallets of hard drives to its storage hive every day. They’re placed in server computers in Facebook’s Hive data store that have 12 hard drives per server, so they’re adding data equivalent to at least 83 servers per day. (That’s only for storing user generated data like photos, and does not include extra drives for RAID redundancy or data duplication, which I imagine likely doubles that amount.)
Here’s the inside of one of Facebook’s data centers.
Imagine building after building, row after row of these. Now imagine 6 pallets of hard drives coming in on trucks and 83 servers’ worth of storage being added today.
And again tomorrow.
And again the day after tomorrow.
And again after that.
And yes, they really do order hard drives by the truckload.
This is why any time some conservative tells you “BuT fAcEbOk iS vIoLaTiNg My FrEeDuMb Of SpEeCh SoCiAl MeDiA sItEs ArE pUbLiC sPaCeS DuRr DuRr,” you can laugh in their face and walk away.
See all those servers? See all those buildings? See all those pallets of hard drives being trucked in? See all those people installing them?
Are you paying for them? No. Is the government paying for them? No. Is public money paying for them? No. They are private property. Billions of dollars of private property.
Facebook spends, as a first order approximation, about $30,000,000,000 a year on server infrastructure, not including buildings, land, facilities maintenance, installation, or salaries.
Anyone who thinks that social media sites are “public spaces” is welcome to propose that Congress gives Facebook $30,000,000,000 a year to keep up that infrastructure. Otherwise, no, it’s not. That’s $30,000,000,000 a year in private money being used to buy private property.
You can’t have a service where almost three billion people communicate without having tremendous political clout. Facebook can, and arguably has, influenced elections and changed the course of nations.
And that’s (rightly, I think) got a lot of people worried. When you have a private company with no public accountability that has that much influence, that’s a bad thing, right?
But here’s the thing: This isn’t new.
People forget this isn’t new. It’s always been this way. In the 1700s and 1800s, elections were decided by newspaper barons.
Remember William Randolph Hearst? Remember the Spanish American War? That was a war basically started by one man, a newspaper mogul, who totally dominated public political discourse and established a whole new world of journalistic propaganda.
This is probably the most effective fake news in history.
So what’s different?
Ah, now that’s a question.
Modern social media is different from the media empires of old in one important way: they are participatory, many-to-many, not one-to-many. In the past, “media” meant the owner disseminated information to content consumers. Today, we are all content creators and content consumers.
And this has led to a great deal of confusion betwixt “public” and “private.”
The Internet allows anyone to use it, but few people actually know how it works, or what scale it operates on. Hundreds of companies spend billions per year on the infrastructure to give everyone a way to communicate with everyone else, so what feels like a public square is actually a private space. And that leads to confusion: “Facebook banned me! My CoNsTiTuTiOnAl RiGhTs!“…when in fact you have no right to use other people’s stuff for free at all.
And make no mistake, that’s what Facebook and Twitter and all those other sites are: other people’s stuff. Billions and billions of dollars of other people’s stuff, that you’re using for free.
In the past, this confusion didn’t exist. In the past, nobody felt they had the right to someone else’s newspaper. You could write a letter to the editor, which they might or might not print, but nobody (well, nobody serious, anyway) had the notion that they had the Constitutional right to use someone else’s newspaper to say whatever they want.
We understand when something belongs to someone else, right up until the moment we’re allowed to use it ourselves…at which point we tend to assume an entitlement to it.
Owners of of media distribution companies have always had an outsized impact on social media. This isn’t new.
What’s new is that people are more aware of it, and want more of a voice. What’s unfortunate is that so many people aren’t going about it the right way. You don’t have a right to use Facebook, and if you’re kicked off you aren’t being “censored.”
What we need is entirely different conversation, and that’s one we can’t have whilst everyone is looking at the wrong thing.