On Avatar 2, Virtue, and Pretentious Posing

Liberals doing what liberals do best (image by ddrockstar)

It’s hard to see your heroes die.

So James Cameron’s new Avatar movie is out, and the Internet is in a tizzy. This isn’t actually about the movie, or James Cameron, much as I love Aliens (I’ve seen it 167 times and it keeps getting more inspiring every single time I see it; I spent two years designing a sex toy based on the xenomorph facehugger…yeah, it’s like that).

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.

Raccoon watching Avatar

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.)

Tim Minchin put this superbly:

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…

You.

Are.

Part.

Of.

The.

Problem.

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.

Even if real virtue is harder.

The Evolutionary Root of the Internet Hate Machine

Your Rage is a Commodity

Faces in the Crowd: Tampa, Florida, late 1990s (photo by author)

You do not love all humankind.

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:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Image: Adam Nemeroff

Some Thoughts on Ethics in Computer Science

As I type this, Elon Musk says the release of true full self-driving cars is perhaps months away. Leaving aside his…notable overoptimism, this would arguably be among the crowning achievement of computer science so far.

Yes, even more than going to the moon. Going to the moon required remarkably little in the way of computer science—orbital mechanics are complicated, sure, but not that complicated, and there are few unexpected pedestrians twixt hither and yon.

We are moving into a world utterly dominated by computers. And yet…there’s far too little attention, I think, paid to the ethical implications of that.

Probably the biggest ethical issue I see in computer science right now concerns training sets for machine learning.

I don’t mean machine learning like self-driving cars, though that’s a monstrous problem of its own—the thing about ML systems is they’re basically black boxes that most definitively do NOT see the world the way we do, so they can become confused by adversarial inputs, like this strange sticker that makes a Tesla see a stop sign as a Speed Limit 45 sign:

Insert picture description

And of course ownership of these enormous ML systems opens whole cans, plural, of worms just by itself. If you use terabytes of public domain data to train a proprietary ML system, what responsibility do you have to make it available to the people who produced your training data, and what liability do you have when your system goes wrong?

And of course deepfake software can produce photos and video of you in a place you’ve never been hanging out with people you don’t know saying things you’ve never said, and make it all totally believable. Look for that to cause trouble soon.

But those are just fringe problems, minor ethical quibbles compared to the elephant in the room: bias in data sets.

Legal societies are putting more and more reliance on ML systems. Police use machine learning for facial recognition (and now, gait recognition, recognizing people by the way they walk instead of their facial features—yes that’s a thing).

Militaries use facial recognition in weapons platforms. Right now they don’t rely in it, but use it as an adjunct to more traditional intelligence, but the day is coming when foreign military targets will be designated entirely by things like facial recognition systems.

Problem is, those ML systems tend to be racist AF.

I’m not kidding.

ML systems rely on training with positively gargantuan training data sets. You train a machine to recognize faces by feeding it millions—or, if you can, tens or hundreds of millions—of pictures of people’s faces.

The researchers who define and build these systems tend to turn to the Internet for their training data, trolling Internet social media sites with bot software that hoovers up all the photos it can find for training data.

https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/internet/facial-recognition-s-dirty-little-secret-millions-online-photos-scraped-n981921

Let’s ignore for a moment the copyright implications. Let’s ignore the ethical issues of treating people’s property as fodder for surveillance systems. Let’s just quietly ignore all those ethical problems so we can talk about racism.

People who post lost of photos on the Internet that get scooped up to train ML systems aren’t an even demographic slice of humanity. They tend to have more money than average, be Western Europeans or North Americans, and tend to be white.

That means ML systems to do things like facial recognition are trained on data sets that are overwhelmingly…white faces.

And that means these systems—even commercial systems now deployed and used by police—suck at identifying black or Asian faces.

Like sometimes really suck.

Insert picture description

Like, as of 2018, commercial facial recognition systems had a recognition failure rate on white male faces of 0.2%, and a failure rate on black female faces of more than 22%.

If that isn’t ringing alarm bells in your head, you’re not fully comprehending the magnitude of the problem.

Here’s a rather frightening quote:

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that Amazon’s Rekognition software wrongly identified 28 members of Congress as people who had previously been arrested. It disproportionately misidentified African-Americans and Latinos.

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jul/29/what-is-facial-recognition-and-how-sinister-is-it

We train AI and ML systems with data from the real world…and we get deeply racist, profoundly flawed AI and ML systems as a result.

Then we use these AI and ML systems to identify people for arrest or to send autonomous suicide drones.

Insert picture description

https://reason.com/2021/06/01/autonomous-slaughterbot-drones-reportedly-attack-libyans-using-facial-recognition-tech/

Any machine learning system is only as good as the training data it’s developed with. And when that training data is a snapshot of the Internet, well…

This blog post was adapted from an answer I wrote on Quora. Want more like this? Follow me on Quora!

The Fine Art of Flinging Poo

The contradictions and inconsistencies are a feature, not a bug

Image by Colin Lloyd

I’m writing over on Medium now, and I’ve just put up a piece you can read (free) there. Here’s the teaser:

I’ve been thinking about the Capitol riots lately. I don’t mean “how could this happen?” (anyone who’s read even a little bit of history already knows the answer) or “what role did the former President play? (that answer is self-evident, and getting more so every day).

No, that’s tedious, dreary, and altogether too predictable. What I’ve been thinking about is the fascinating narratives that have sprung up around the failed coup, how contradictory they are, and how those contradictions don’t seem to matter.

I’ve come to an unexpected conclusion: The fact that the narratives are inherently self-contradictory is part of what makes them compelling. The mutual impossibilities in the narrative threads are precisely why they work.

Okay, so hear me out.

In the aftermath of the January coup attempt, a bunch of different, competing stories started to coalesce on the political right about what happened. There were no riots; the Capitol attackers were just tourists. It wasn’t insurrection; it was completely peaceful. The attack wasn’t peaceful, but it also wasn’t Trump supporters, it was Antifa. Or no, not Antifa; it was an FBI false-flag operation. But the rioters were martyrs. If Trump is re-elected, he will give them all pardons.

Clearly these can’t all be true. The attack was orchestrated by peaceful tourists who were really FBI Antifa in disguise, yet they’re all martyrs who deserve pardons? Nobody can believe all of this.

And that’s exactly the point.

I’ve started calling this strange, scattershot approach to propaganda the “MSTF technique:” Make Something That Fits.

Propaganda 101

When I was growing up, my mother always used to say, “information by itself almost never changes attitudes.”

Check out the rest here!

Some (more) thoughts on cancel culture

Okay, so. Let’s talk about cancel culture.

Cancel culture isn’t what a lot of folks think it is.

You can’t reasonably address the notion of what “cancel culture” is until you first address what it isn’t. Cancel culture is not saying “I don’t like the way that company does business, so I’m not going to shop there.” Cancel culture isn’t “I don’t like what that person did, so I’m not going to watch her movies.” Cancel culture isn’t even “I don’t like what that company or that person did, so I’m going to tell others how I feel about them.”

All those things are simply you making your own choices. No company is entitled to your money; you’re not taking something away from a corporation that rightfully deserves it by not shopping there. No movie star is entitled to you seeing their movies. No TV comedian is entitled to have you watch their shows. No author is entitled to have you read their books.

Cancel culture, if we are to be intellectually honest, is something else. Cancel culture is the idea that someone or some company did (or you think they did) something wrong, so you aren’t going to patronize them, and you are going to try to force other people not to patronize them either.

Probably the classic example of cancel culture in United States history was McCarthyism, where the government used political witch hunts to force people out of their livelihoods because someone said their brother overheard their hairdresser telling someone else they might be Communist.

Anyone who stood by someone accused of Communism was also branded a Communist. Anyone who defended someone accused of Communism was also driven out of their jobs. Anyone who stood up and said “hey, wait a minute…” was branded a traitor and publicly hounded.

The most dramatic recent example of cancel culture was probably what happened to the Dixie Chicks, who incited the wrath of right-wingers by criticizing the Iraq war.

Many people stopped buying their albums. That’s not cancel culture.

However, they also demanded radio stations stop playing their music. They stalked and harassed managers of radio stations that played their music. They sent death threats to radio DJs who played their music. They phoned firebomb threats to venues that hosted their concerts.

That’s cancel culture.

Cancel culture is not “I will not patronize this person.” Cancel culture is “I will make sure nobody else patronizes this person.”

There are a lot of moving parts to cancel culture; while it predates the Internet (and possibly human civilization), the Internet has made it a flash phenomenon, able to incite enormous fury at the slightest breath.

And while in the past it has frequently been dominated by the political right—I laugh every time an American conservative accuses liberals of “cancel culture,” given the Dixie Chicks thing and the Starbucks thing, cancel culture is neither a left thing nor a right thing. Folks of all political persuasions do it.

Some of the key elements of cancel culture include:

Mass outrage. “Look what they have done! They have criticized our President/sold us out to Commies/said a bad thing/whatever! Outrage!!!” Often, the outrage comes with scanty supporting evidence, and frequently it’s presented with the most emotionally laden spin possible.

Appeal to popular narratives. Narratives are powerful. Human beings are a storytelling species; we understand the world through stories. The stories we tell ourselves—”the government is bad and trying to harm me,” “men are abusers; women are victims,” “nothing an opposing politician says is ever true,” “gay men are pedophiles”—shape our understanding and perception of the world. Stories we hear that fit our narratives tend to be believed without question. Stories that contradict our narratives tend to be rejected without consideration.

These two things often work in synergy. Something that contradicts or violates a narrative we accept will often generate a disproportionate emotional response…not only because it introduces cognitive dissonance, but also because these narratives are:

Tribal markers. The narratives we accept become the way we tell in-groups from out-groups. They are, in a literal sense, virtue signaling and identity politics; the people who believe the same narratives are ‘us,’ while those who reject our narratives are ‘them.’

A clearly defined Good Guy, clearly defined Bad Guy, and clearly defined crime—often, a crime against whatever values once made the Bad Guy a Good Guy. In the political right, this tends to be defiance of authority figures the Right accepts (President Bush, Donald Trump); in the political left, this tends to be perception of or accusation of sexual or social impropriety.

This is why the US left and US right accuse one another of “cancel culture” but don’t see what they themselves do as “cancel culture.” We didn’t cancel the Dixie Chicks; we responded to their unacceptable disrespect of our President! We didn’t cancel that comedian; we responded to defend disadvantaged groups from his attack!

Targeting not only of the person being canceled, but anyone nearby. Cancel culture is, by its nature, an attempt to coerce everyone into shunning the person or entity being canceled. The best way to do this? Target anyone who stands by that person or entity. Doing this sends a clear and unmistakeable message: Defend the person we are canceling and we will ruin you, too. People like to think of themselves as upstanding moral entities who will do the right thing under pressure. Threaten someone’s livelihood or reputation and I guarantee, guarantee, the overwhelming majority of those who think of themselves as good, stand-up people will fold like wet cardboard. There’s no percentage in having your own reputation ruined and your own livelihood destroyed for the sake of someone else. 

Intolerance of dissent. This same targeting happens to people who say “hold up a second, are you really sure this is what you say it is? Are you certain this person did what you think they did? Should we hear from this person?” Reminding someone in the throes of a full-fledged righteous wrath that stories have more than one side invites you to be cast out, set on fire, and nuked from orbit.

Rejection of nuance. Cancel culture thrives on self-righteousness. The people who engage in canceling truly, absolutely, 100% believe they are truly, absolutely 100% right. They truly believe they are on the side of the angels, casting out unutterable darkness itself. The idea that there might be anything other than a purely good side and a purely evil side lets the air out of that self-righteousness, and that invites in feelings of shame and guilt.

The trouble with all of this is it allows for no self-reflection and once started, cannot be recalled. The people who phoned bomb threats to Dixie Chicks venues continue, to this very day, to believe that what they did was right…because once you’ve taken that step, how can you sleep at night if you tell yourself ‘no, actually, I was over the top, I shouldn’t have done that’? Once you’ve accused something of some wrongdoing, even if on some level you know it isn’t true, you can’t take it back without the risk of that same outrage machine turning on you; you have to keep going. 

In 1937, Winston Churchill wrote:

Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount.

He was talking about populism, but where populism is the politics of human tribalism writ large, cancel culture is the politics of human tribalism writ small, and the same idea applies. When you’ve saddled up that tiger, you don’t dare dismount lest it stop eating your enemies and eat you instead.

So what does this have to do with political correctness?

“Politically correct” is a fudge phrase. It’s like “respect” that way.

In 2015, a Tumblr user on a now-deleted blog wrote

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”

and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”

So when you hear the word “respect” in a political conversation, that should raise the small hairs on the back of your neck. Odds are good someone’s about to pull a lingusitic switcheroo on you, and if you don’t pay attention, you’re gonna get snookered.

Sometimes people use “politically correct” to mean “treating other people with decency and compassion” and sometimes people use “politically correct” to mean “adhering to a rigid dogmatic orthodoxy.”

And sometimes people will go into a conversation using it the first way, and when you agree you think that’s a fine idea, they’ll point at you and say “See! You’re just trotting out your identity-politics dogmatism!”

And then whatever idea you’d been advocating gets dismissed as empty virtue signaling.

It’s easy, oh so very easy, to pick up the torch and the pitchfork when you hear something that presses your emotional buttons. And yes, you do have buttons, and so do I, and so does everyone.

Outrage is the enemy of reason. It’s easy to get swept up in the righteous fury of outrage. I’ve done it. I struggle to name anyone who hasn’t. That outrage makes you a tool, a weapon in someone else’s hands…and sickeningly often, if you scratch the surface of justifiable moral outrage over some clear and obvious moral wrongdoing, you’ll find something cheap and tawdry beneath.

Something like money. Or influence. Or political power.

The irony is that political correctness of the first sort—compassion, empathy, a sincere desire to see things from many perspectives, a rejection of the easy and convenient narrative—is actually the antidote to cancel culture, which rests on a foundation of political correctness of the second sort.

But political correctness of the second sort feels better. Picking up the torch and the pitchfork feels good. You feel like you’re in the right. You feel like a superhero. You feel like you’re riding into battle against evil itself. And best of all, you can do it easily, from home, without risking anything!

Funny thing about that. If what you’re doing makes you feel heroic without risking anything…maybe it’s not as heroic as you think it is.

How Facebook convinced me democracy is in trouble

Today, in The Street Finds its Own Uses for Things:

I noticed something funny when I logged into Facebook last week. My feed, which is normally filled with ads for video games, photography gear, and complicated kits for Stirling engines you can build at home, was absolutely jam-packed with ads for far-right pro-Trump merchandise, antigovernment T-shirts and posters, gun holsters, and “conservative news” sites.

And I mean jam-packed. I’ve never seen this quantity of advertising on Facebook before; literally an ad following every single friend post.

The whole secret of advertising on Facebook is you can target your ads. You can specify exactly who you want to see your ads; for example, when we ran ads for the first porn novel we co-authored, Eunice and I targeted people with an interest in reading who were 35 or younger and lived close to a university, figuring this would likely be the sort of person interested in far-future, post-scarcity science fiction smut.

So why would Facebook, that giant creepy Hydra in the cloud, show me alt-right ads when it knows I’m a lefty Portlander?

Because the advertisers know I won’t buy their products. They don’t care. That isn’t why they’re spending tens of millions of dollars on Facebook advertising.


So first, the ads.

I’ve gotten in the habit of aggressively blocking these ads when they appear, and blocking the companies that place them. Doesn’t matter. There are a zillion other companies placing near-ident0cal ads for near-identical products, and sometimes (this is a telling bit) even with the same stock photos.

The ads look lik e this:

If you ask Facebook “why did I see this ad?”, Facebook will show you the demographic the ad was targeting. And these ads are completely ignoring the laser-focused demographics Facebook likes to brag about. They’re shotguns, not sniper rifles.

So why? What’s the point? Why target so broadly, when it increases your spend without generating sales?

So here’s the thing:

I don’t believe they’re trying to generate sales.

That’s not the point. They aren’t interested in selling you gun holsters or T-shirts. I mean, if you buy some, that’s a bonus, but I believe these ads are a propaganda effort. The purpose is to put right-wing slogans and ideas in front of as many eyeballs as possible. They’re advertising ideas, not T-shirts.


The American political right is very, very good at propaganda. Liberals sneer at “Let’s Go Brandon,” the right-wing oh-so-clever “fuck Joe Biden,” but the thing is, it works. The people who use it don’t care that it’s juvenile. It makes them feel part of something. It’s a tribal identity marker.

And human beings like feeling like part of a tribe.

The hoodie up there that says “Proud member of the LGBFJB” community? It means “Let’s Go Brandon Fuck Joe Biden.” VClever? Not really. A great identity brand for a certain kind of person? Oh yeah.

And this brand is everywhere.

Branding and marketing and propaganda matter in political discourse. Arguably they matter more than policies and proposals and all that other wonk stuff.

They want this branding everywhere, and they’re willing to pay to make that happen.

People don’t make rational decisions. People make emotional decisions and then rationalize them. Often, those emotional decisions are predicated on feelings of belonging and inclusion. The right gets that, in its creepy way. The left? Not so much.


The thing is, the political left is doing nothing to counter any of this.

Do I think this Facebook propaganda is working?

Yes. Yes, I do.

It creates the illusion that right-wing ideas are more popular than they really are. It paints a false picture of what Americal looks like and what Americans want. It lets the right dominate the discourse in ways that the left won’t even try to counter.

The modern American right is intellectually and morally bankrupt, a seething cesspool of reactionary hate. But they get propaganda. They get it on an instinctive level, in ways that confuse lefties.

And that makes them far more effective than their numbers and policies alone would suggest.

“Support Our Police,” the Thin Blue Line, and the hypocrisy of the right

The American Republican party portrays itself as the party of law and order, the party that supports the police, the party that understands the thin blue line that stands between anarchy and chaos. “Vote for us! We stand against the anarchy of the liberals!”

Yet when we look at right-wing media these last few weeks, we see the forces of American conservatism, the “law and order” party, blasting the Capitol police who stood against the rioters and insurrectionists on January 6. Night after night, millions of Americans tune in to watch right-wing talking heads vilifying the police for hours at a stretch.

What gives? How can this be? Isn’t this the rankest, vilest sort of hypocrisy, so blatant that even the strongest partisan must be appalled to see it?

No. I don’t think so. What we’re seeing is something else, and within the context of the alt-right, their behavior makes a warped sort of sense.

To understand what is happening now, and why the American right doesn’t consider their vilification of the Capitol police hypocritical, I think we need to understand John McClane, the Hero’s Journey, Rugged Individualism, the American monomyth, and authoritarianism. Those are the ingredients that make up that particular toxic brew.

Many people, especially those who lean toward social hierarchy, want to see the police as the classic hero, waging epic battle against the forces of evil like John McClane in Die Hard. Free of the entangling bureaucracy of a stifling and incompetent bureaucracy, they can take the fight directly to the baddies.

Why is this necessary? Look at the Hero’s Journey. It’s a fundamental part of the Hero’s Journey that the hero is set apart from society during the great conflict. The police hero as an archetype transcends the normal rules of society. He works outside the rules because the criminal works outside the rules.

This whole concept of heroism is deeply, deeply steeped in rugged individualism. The hero engages in single combat with the forces of darkness. The hero stands or falls on his own. The hero depends on his own resources and wit. Think about all the classic hero tropes: the sheriff from out of town in spaghetti westerns who rides in to save the townspeople unable to save themselves, Arnold Schwarzenegger going toe to toe with the predator in some far off jungle, everything about Batman…in their role as hero, they transcend the normal rules to fight on their own, self-reliant and solely responsible for deciding the rules of engagement.

We (meaning Smericans and those influenced by American culture) are steeped in this idea of heroism and the Rugged Individual because it’s woven deep into the American monomyth, and has been since the days before the United States was the United States. John Galt is a clumsy, badly-written, lowbrow-posing-as-highbrow interpretation of the American monomyth, created by an American immigrant as an unironic (but still unintentionally funny) expression of all Ayn Rand believed was good and strong in the American character.

When American conservatives refer to police as “heroes,” they don’t mean “people who work for the community.” They mean something quite different: the archetype of the Campbell hero, the hero of a Hollywood big-budget action flick, Arnold going after the Predator. That kind of hero doesn’t obey the rules. They mean “hero” in a very specific and literal sense.

In fact, it’s insulting to think that kind of hero even should follow the rules. Rules are for the weak, for those who don’t have what it takes to be heroes. That kind of hero understands what needs to be done and is willing to do whatever it takes to git er done.

Why do we like that image?

Authoritarianism.

That mentality of police relies on the idea that police are the heroes keeping the forces of evil at bay. They protect our freedoms from the Other, and our sacred freedoms must be defended through strict order and harsh justice.

It’s why American conservatives can say they support our men in blue and fly thin blue line flags, then turn around and ridicule, attack, and condemn the Capitol police who fought against the insurrectionists. To reasonable people, that looks like hypocrisy. To the people who do it, it’s not. Those police weren’t heroes. Those polce stood against the heroes, against the people who went outside the system to right an “injustice” and git er done.

It’s also why they celebrate police who kill unarmed Black people. There’s a deep element of racism writ in this mindset. The police went outside the system to confront the Other, the enemy within us who is not of us, the people who don’t obey the rules, who don’t know their place.

Seen in this light, it’s the Capitol police, not the insurrectionists, who broke the social contract. They aren’t the heroes of this story. By acting against the heroes, they deserve condemnation.

As weird as this mindset might seem, it’s what a lot of conservatives truly to believe, and it’s why pointing out the apparent hypocrisy of flying a “thin blue line” flag whilst throwing the Capitol police under the bus won’t gain any traction among the American right.

Apple Silicon and losing our legacy

[Edit] This post sparked a conversation on Ycombinator!

I am concerned about Apple’s move to its own home-grown processors.

It’s not because I’m worried about the new silicon, or Apple’s ability to make high-performance CPUs, or even because I am worried about changing architectures. I survived the move from Motorola 68K processors to PowerPC, and PowerPC to Intel.

I’m still using High Sierra on my 2016 MacBook Pro. I still have legacy 32-bit software I use professionally, and I also boot this computer into Windows with Boot Camp to play games like Fallout 4 and Witcher 3 that won’t run in Parallels.

I am concerned about the switch to Apple Silicon because I’m worried about what it means to archivists and historians.

I understand why Apple is doing it. I get it, I do. But I’m really worried about what it means to the legacy of the late 20th century.

Desktop publishing revolutionized human communication. It’s hard to overstate what a Big Deal desktop publishing was. It arguably democratized communication more than any other invention since the printing press. It fueled an explosion of creativity and led to a boom in the underground ‘zine scene.

PageMaker, the first DTP software, revolutionized entire industries…plural. Overnight the entire publishing community moved to it.

And, of course, mergers and acquisitions happened as the disruption shook itself out. Aldus, the startup that created PageMaker, got swallowed by Adobe. Quark arose to compete, and a lot of the industry jumped ship, since QuarkXPress was objectively better. Then Adobe created a new program, InDesign, which was objectively better than QuarkXPress, and the industry moved on. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work, right?

But here’s the thing:

A vast chunk of the history of desktop publishing, including countless underground ’zines of significant cultural and historical value, are still tied up in old files. Old files that can still be accessed, albeit with difficulty.

InDesign CS6 can open PageMaker and QuarkXPress documents. Later versions dropped the ability to open PageMaker files.

Old Mac emulators like SheepShaver can open even older files, by running ancient PowerPC apps directly. I recently rescued a bunch of old ‘zines I published in the early 90s this way.

But a window is closing.

It’s starting to close even without the move to Apple Silicon. When I set up a SheepShaver PowerPC Mac emulator to install the software to rescue these files, one of the pieces of software tried to contact activation servers that went offline in 1999. I had to do a bit of hacking to get the software to install.

I opened PageMaker 4 files in PageMaker 6, opened the PageMaker 6 files in InDesign CS6, and opened the InDesign CS6 files in InDesign 2020.

I opened Macromedia Freehand files in Freehand, saved them as EPS, opened the EPS files in Illustrator 6, saved them, and opened them in Illustrator 2020.

Now here it gets tricky.

InDesign CS6, the last modern app that can read a PageMaker file, won’t run on new versions of macOS because it’s 32-bit only.

It won’t run in emulators like SheepShaver because it’s OS X only.

SheepShaver and InDesign CS6 both won’t run on Apple Silicon.

We are on the cusp of losing the ability to open PageMaker files completely.

In a perfect world, someone would write a Mac emulator that lets you emulate a High Sierra Mac on Apple Silicon hardware, just like SheepShaver lets you emulate a PowerPC Mac on Intel hardware. If you can bring old software and old emulators with you, those people—historians, digital archivists, and the like—can, with enough faffing, still recover the rich legacy of information from the early days of desktop publishing.

But for various arcane technical reasons, writing an emulator for x86–64 on ARM is a huge undertaking, something beyond what an open source project is likely to do. I honestly don’t see the open source community writing a Mac emulator that will run High Sierra on Apple Silicon. Emulating x86 on ARM is an enormous project, one that requires a well-resources company to do.

A company like…Apple.

It turns out Apple has done this. It’s called Rosetta 2 and it’s built into Big Sur.

What I’d like to see is Apple donate code to emulate an Intel processor on ARM to the open source community, so they can build an emulator for Intel Macs. This would permit access to ancient files and legacy software—albeit with rather a lot of faffing—and permit access to apps and files all the way back to the PowerPC (and 68K, since the PowerPC system 9 has a 68K emulator). This would, I feel, show corporate responsibility on Apple’s part, without really costing them anything. The Intel emulation is already done.

But without that? I really do feel we as a society are, in the relentless march of late-stage capitalism, destroying part of our own history simply because there’s no profit in keeping it.

And that worries me.

WLAMF 2018 #2: On Being Alone in the Universe

I have written before on a couple of occasions about the Fermi paradox. To recap, the idea is: if life is plentiful throughout the universe and there are many sapient, industrial species, where is the evidence? The sky should be filled with radio waves and other telltale evidence.

Not necessarily because they’re trying to talk to us, but because a civilization that develops tools and high technology will eventually discover radio, and radio is massively useful. We are broadcasting our existence to the universe right now–not from an attempt to be chatty with any extraterrestrial neighbors, but simply by virtue of the fact that we broadcast all kinds of noise just by virtue of being a technological species.

There are three common answers to the Fermi Paradox, which can be summed up as:

1. We’re first.
2. We’re rare.
3. We’re fucked.

The “we’re first” and “we’re rare” answers suggest we don’t see the evidence of technological civilizations filling the skies because technological civilizations are very, very thin on the ground in the cosmos…err, that’s a jumbled metaphor, but you get what I mean.

Life may be common, but technological life might not. And there could be things–Great Filters, they’re called–that aren’t necessarily obvious to us, but that conspire to keep technological life rare.

Maybe it’s the distribution of planets in a solar system. People who believe life is common like to point to the fact that we are an unremarkable star in an unremarkable galaxy–one of quadrillions in the observable universe.

But it turns out that while our star is unremarkable, our solar system is very weird indeed, and we still don’t know why. The other solar systems we’ve discovered so far tend to have planets all of about the same size. Ours decidedly does not. Our planet is really very small indeed, it seems.

So whatever caused our solar system to be so weird might be a Great Filter. It may be that it’s hard to get sapient life that uses technology and builds cities on a huge planet or a gas giant.

So that might be a Great Filter.

The third solution, “we’re fucked,” proposes that there is a great filter, but it’s ahead of us, not behind us. This solution suggests that the things a new sapient species needs to survive when it’s young–things like aggressiveness, tribalism, xenophobia, aggression, and violence–work against that species when it reaches the point of globe-spanning civilizations. The reason we don’t see the skies filled with traces of advanced sapient species is advanced sapient species tend to destroy themselves, simply by virtue of the fact that the traits they need to survive when they’re young inevitably act against survival when they’re mature.

Okay, so that’s the backstory.

Let’s talk about the James Webb Space Telescope.


The James Webb Space Telescope is due to launch next year. When it does, one of its primary missions is to examine the atmosphere of known exoplanets, looking for traces of oxygen.

Oxygen in the air is rather a big deal. Planets don’t have free oxygen without life. This planet started out with a reducing atmosphere, not an oxygenating one. It didn’t get oxygen in the air until the advent of cyanobacteria and oxygenic photosynthesis.

Oxygenic photosynthesis is a complex, fiddly process that may have evolved only once. When it did, everything changed. Oxygen is poison to anaerobic life. The coming of cyanobacteria started the Great Oxygen Catastrophe–that’s actually what it’s called–that wiped out almost every species on earth. And paved the way for us.

Oxygen might be necessary for sapience, simply because cellular metabolism in the absence of oxygen is necessarily limited and sluggish. Active metabolisms require oxygen, at least so far as we can tell.

And brains require highly active metabolisms indeed. Information processing is horrendously energy-intensive. Your brain consumes a substantial fraction of your body’s total energy capacity. No Oxygen Catastrophe probably means no animals with central nervous systems and almost certainly means no sapience.

Oxygen can’t stay put. It’s too reactive. If every photosynthetic organism died, our atmosphere would return to non-oxygenating, as the oxygen in the air reacted and combined with things.

So if you see oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere, that means something’s continually putting it there. Like photosynthesis or some similar process. And that probably means life.


When James Webb is online, it will either see oxygen on exoplanets or it won’t.

If it doesn’t, that points to oxygenic photosynthesis as a rare innovation. Which means we might owe our existence to cyanobacteria, and that means at least one Great Filter is behind us.

It also means complex life with energetic metabolisms–animals–is probably incredibly rare in the universe.

On the other hand, if we see oxygen everywhere, that probably means that oxygenic photosynthesis is a common innovation, which suggests a universe not only teeming with life but possibly complex life.

It also means that at least one potential Great Filter behind us isn’t a Great Filter, which raises the odds of a Great Filter ahead of us.

I’m not sure which result I’m hoping for: a lonely universe with greater odds of our survival, or a teeming universe with lower.


For 12 hours today, my partner Eve and I are writing one blog post for every contribution we get to the crowdfunding campaign for our novel, Black Iron. We call it Write Like a Motherfucker. Want to make us dance? Send people to the campaign page! You can follow along via the #WLAMF hashtag on Twitter, or in the Facebook event. For the origin of the #WLAMF hashtag, see my first WLAMF first post from 2014.

Everything I needed to know about game theory, I learned from Italian publishers

There is an Italian version of More Than Two. Or rather, there is, in an alternate universe in which the Italian publisher who published the Italian-language edition of More Than Two was honest and abided by its agreements, an Italian version of More Than Two. Alas, that universe is not this universe.

In the universe we live in, the publisher signed an agreement, but then never made the payment that would have activated the rights transfer. They also added a foreword without consulting with us first, something explicitly forbidden in the agreement.

Okay, so that’s shitty and all, but the place where things get especially weird is that so far, every Italian person we’ve talked to about this has nodded sagely and said, “Well, yes. That’s Italy.”

Since things have gone sideways with the Italian publisher, I’ve heard a number of stories of commiseration from Italians. This is, it seems, about par for the course when one sets out to do business in Italy.

Which is really weird, when you think about it.

But I didn’t come here to complain about the Italian publisher of More Than Two. I came here to talk about game theory.


Say you’re a businessperson who deals with a certain…unsavory element buying and selling products you legally oughtn’t. Say that, for your security and that of your clients, you always do business anonymously. You don’t know who your clients are, they don’t know who you are, and never the two of you shall meet. You do business indirectly: you leave a suitcase full of money under the tree stump at the old Dearborn farm, and your client leaves a sack with the shady goods under a trestle out by the abandoned railroad bridge.

This is a variant on the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem, which I’ve touched on before in the context of polyamory. This is a classic problem in game theory. You have a choice: leave your money or leave an empty suitcase. Your mystery client has a choice: leave the goods or leave an empty sack. If you both leave what you’re supposed to leave, you both benefit. If one of you leaves what you’re supposed to leave and the other leaves nothing, then whoever left nothing makes out double–he gets the money and the goods. And if you both leave nothing, neither of you loses but neither of you gains, either.

In game theory terms, you each have a choice: cooperate (C) or defect (D). Each of you chooses C or D. If you both choose C, you both benefit a little; if you both choose D, neither of you benefits but you also don’t lose; if one chooses C and once chooses D, the person who chooses C loses and the person who chooses D gains.

The temptation, then, is very strong to defect.

Ah, but what if you don’t have just a single exchange? What if you have a standing arrangement where you do the transaction every Friday night at midnight? If your mystery partner defects, you will naturally lose trust, and you’ll have no reason to cooperate. But if both of you defect all the time, neither of you is getting what you want! Presumably you want the goods more than you want the money, and presumably they want the money more than they want the goods, or else you’d never agree to the exchange. So what benefit is there in both of you practicing an all-defect strategy?

So the calculation is a bit different in one-off exchanges (where there’s strong incentive to defect) vs. an ongoing relationship (where there’s incentive to cooperate).


These situations play out all the time in real life. Every day, we have choices to cooperate or defect, where defecting might give us short-term gain, but at the cost of long-term success. Some of those choices are made in situations where there won’t be an ongoing relationship, and some in situations where there will.

Most of the time, we know the other player in these games; it’s rare the other side is totally anonymous. It’s also rare each side is powerless to seek redress if one party defects. In fact, you could make a case for the notion that’s what civilization is: a system designed to prevent people from practicing an all-defect strategy without consequence.

We are a social species. Social entities have to work together. If everyone defects all the time, social structures break down. This is, in fact, hypothesized as the root of altruism: for social species, altruism has positive survival value. Working together, we can accomplish more, and survive challenges we can’t survive apart. (There’s a book about this, in fact; it’s called The Evolution of Cooperation.)

But there’s no getting around the fact that defecting does offer a short-term payoff, especially if you do it and your partner doesn’t. And there’s a huge penalty for cooperating if your partner defects. Them’s the facts.

In most human societies, most people cooperate most of the time. In some societies, however, it seems people are more prone to defect.

The Italian publisher applied and all-defect strategy with us. They defected when they didn’t pay us, and defected again when they added a foreword. When we complained, they said they’d stop selling the book until we resolved our differences; and while we were in the process of negotiating with them to do so, they defected yet again, continuing to sell and advertise the book when they’d said they’d stop. And then, when we complained again, they said, “Ok, sue us, Italian courts are so slow it’ll never go to trial–and even if it does, we don’t have any money anyway.”

So finally, we stopped trying to negotiate, issued a statement, and started filing takedown requests. From the publisher’s perspective, this probably felt like a defection. And neither we nor the publisher got what we wanted. And everyone shrugged and said, “Yeah, that’s Italy for you.”

Worse, the fact that we pulled the plug probably validated the publisher’s idea. “See,” they might say, “this is why we behave the way we do–because, look, people are always screwing us!” When you practice an all-D strategy, your partners are going to defect too. Which means you should defect, because they’re going to defect, so why should you be the only chump cooperating?


But here’s the thing: Since we are, arguably, evolved to be cooperative; since most of the encounters we have are not one-off exchanges (and even if they are, word gets around–if you screwed your last ten customers, the eleventh might not want to deal with you); and since societies need some minimum level of cooperating in order to function…why do we occasionally see places where people appear to play an all-D strategy?

One person Eve and I have spoken to has suggested that Italy has such a long history of corrupt, dysfunctional politics and essentially broken legal systems that people have developed a habit of breaking rules, simply because in a corrupt society, you must break rules simply to get anything done. This pattern has played out in Russia as well, another place where, it seems, all-D strategies are common. If that’s true, it would seem to create a perfect storm of positive feedback: people begin to defect routinely, as a matter of course, because the social systems have become dysfunctional. This causes the social systems to become more dysfunctional, because societies in which many people tend to defect are intrinsically dysfunctional. That increased dysfunction causes more people to defect more often in their exchanges with others, which leads to greater dysfunction, and so it goes.

Which, if that’s true, bodes ill.

There is, right now, in the US White House, a person who has made a career of defecting. The Cheeto-in-Chief is notorious for screwing his contractors, his vendors, and his financial backers; that’s why he ended up in bed with Russian banks–American banks refuse to do business with him. His Orangeness has surrounded himself with people who also tend to practice all-D strategies; indeed, one could argue that the Tea Party was virtually built on a foundation of all-D behavior.

I fear that, if this idea becomes entrenched enough in US society, it will become normalized to defect as a matter of course, in all kinds of business and social interactions. Once that positive feedback loop sets in, I’m not sure how, or if, it can be reversed.

And people will sigh, and nod, and say, “You got screwed by an American company? Yeah, that’s the Americans for you.”

A society that works this way will never remain a world power. (Russia, I’m looking at you here.)