In plain sight

“Conceal your intentions” advises Robert Greene. Why? He goes on to say:

“Keep people off-balance and in the dark by never revealing the purpose behind your actions. If they have no clue what you are up to, they cannot prepare a defense. Guide them far enough down the wrong path, envelope them in enough smoke, and by the time they realise your intentions, it will be too late.”

It is with such pronouncements that my foray into the domain of “strategy” began. And, as expected, it is has been hard to rewire the seemingly revolutionary concepts that marked the early years of my explorations. Fortunately, I have made some progress and my understanding has evolved past such axiomatic realpolitik notions. For example, “concealment” has transformed from an all-pervasive necessity into something applied only to the highest ambitions. Further, I split the domain into grand strategy, strategy, and tactics, came up with different priorities for each one, and placed them into a pyramid:

strategy pyramid

Concealment was still necessary for grand strategy, but I decided that it wasn’t necessary—it was harmful, in fact—for strategy and tactics. After more time immersed in military texts and theory, in macro- and micro- histories, in some conventional business books, and in a good dose of philosophy, I realised there were other, better things to do when it came to strategies and tactics. Briefly stated, strategic ambitions should be shared with the appropriate figures and the tactics required for their attainment should be left to individual or unit initiative. Conceal; share; trust.

But now I’m beginning to question something deeper—the nature of concealment itself, especially in relationship to ambition and audacity.

A NOTE ON ALTRUISM

“Ambition” is a dirty word. In the era of global connectivity, altruistic notions are championed more than ever. Everyone wants to change the world. Everyone wants to make an impact. Every person has to be in it for others. We all want to do our bit and nobody wants to be caught sacrificing someone else for the sake of their personal ambition.

Of course, all this posturing is bullshit. As noted in The Dictator’s Handbook, politics is about the attainment, maintenance, and growth of personal power, no matter how beneficent the person making a claim for it appears to be. Similarly, altruism is simply the most deceptive of gowns for ambition. It’s not so much that we want to change the world; more that we want to be seen changing the world. A thought experiment illustrates this. Consider yourself in the following scenario:

A priest in mottled brown robes appears in front of me. He asks, “What is it that you desire?”
I reply, “The extermination of poverty; the equal distribution of wealth. The indefinite end of pain and suffering.”
He raises a brow for a moment, and then nods. “It shall be done.”
My jaw drops, but before I can proclaim my astonishment and indicate my disbelief, the priest raises a finger. “However,” he says, “there must be a sacrifice.” I nod, wary, and he continues. “This will happen if you consent to be damned for eternity. You will never know rest. You will never again know peace. Your body will be destroyed again and again and your mind will be preserved so that you experience this unyielding torture with unerring clarity—no escape via insanity. Your existence will be an endless succession of unimaginable pain and incomprehensible suffering. I—pardon me—my Lord can take pain and suffering from this world, but someone must still bear it in its full magnitude and duration. Will you?”

How many people do you think would take that trade?

QUANTIFYING AMBITION

As indicated above, ambition—supposedly—requires concealment. And it would follow that the grander the ambition, the more concealment is necessary. Which raises a question: how do we even quantify ambition? The simplest way is with the concept of collective impact. The larger the impact on a collective—either positive or negative—the more ambitious something is. Another way to quantify it is by measuring an ambition’s divergence from societal norms. So, something that positively impacts five people and is relatively run-of-the-mill—like planning a surprise holiday—is less ambitious than trying to undermine the incumbents of the oil industry by developing technology that could make reliance on oil a thing of the past. Both require concealment, but the former less so than the latter.

But there is another question. Now that we have a measure for ambition we can ask, “Who in history has had gigantic ambitions and gone on to see them fulfilled?” I’m sure that you can think of a few people. But the first name that comes into my mind is Mr Adolf Hitler.

THE PAINTER OF A TERRIBLE REALITY

In the 1920s Hitler released Mein Kampf. In that book he laid out his foundational ambitions: the annihilation of his universal scapegoat—the Jew—and the relentless expansion of the German Reich into the lands of the East. Hitler’s most recent biographer Volker Ullrich quoted him as saying, “No one else has ever explained and written down what he intends to do more often than I have.” Another one of his biographers, Alan Bullock, said: “Hitler’s originality lay not in his ideas, but in the terrifying literal way in which he set to work to translate these ideas into reality, and his unequalled grasp of the means by which to do this.”

As we all know, in the years that followed Hitler’s ascension to Chancellor of the Reich these ambitions were mostly—if only temporarily, in the case of the land grabs—accomplished. Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, and vast portions of the Soviet Union fell. And millions of Jews were slaughtered. Hitler said what he was going to do, many times, and did it.

This reminds me of times where I have sparred with certain people during Brazilian jiu-jitsu sessions. I’m under fire and I know they’re trying to choke me into submission, so I do my best to prevent it. They know that I know what they’re trying to do, but still they proceed to do it anyway. My knowledge of their intent is not enough for me to prevent it from becoming reality.

It is this which has me questioning the utility of concealment. Hitler was terrifyingly ambitious and he made no secret of the intentions that he later went on to convert to reality. Was that a blunder, or sound strategy?

THE UTILITY OF CONCEALMENT

The latter, I think. Further, if we plot “scale of ambition” on a graph alongside “utility of concealment” I believe we end up with a bell curve.

Bell curve ambition concealment

Concealment is still useful for moderate ambitions, for the visions commonplace to readers of The 48 Laws of Power and The 36 Stratagems for Business. For example, the takedown of Gawker was undertaken with the aid of concealment. For a long time people were wondering, “Who’s backing Hulk Hogan?” Spoiler alert. It was Peter Thiel.

Indeed, a billionaire pursuing a personal vendetta against a media organisation is a pretty hefty scheme. It’s more ambitious than, say, me wanting to be able to do twenty pull-ups in a row, but it’s way less ambitious than trying to eradicate worldwide poverty or destroy a race of people I have an issue with. It is definitely an ambition of moderate scale. (Aside: the publishing date of the book about the saga—Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday—was concealed. Holiday’s publisher said it would be out earlier than it was. This was to deter others from writing about the same events—they manufactured the perception of a fait accompli.)

In fact, concealment probably has negative utility for minor and massive ambitions. In both cases, concealing the desired ends impairs the means available to achieve them. For example, if I were to keep my Pull-Up Quest under wraps and speak of it only in hushed whispers I’d likely miss out on a lot of useful stories, sources and solutions that others doing the same thing have come across. Similarly, if I keep to myself that I am trying to solve the riddle of cancer then I bar myself from co-ordinating with a lot of people who have, one, deep expertise in different but important domains, and two, from those with the will to pour resources into various exploratory ventures.

Network effects are tremendous for both minor and massive ambitions.

BIMODAL AMBITION

What to do about this? Simple. Go bimodal.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb identifies the “barbell” as an excellent risk management strategy. He uses the example of finance and says that someone with investments in many virtually zero-risk assets and a few incredibly high-risk assets is in a better position than someone with all their eggs in a moderate-risk basket. The former faces a small chance of absolute ruin and a small chance of practically unbounded upside. The latter, however, faces a moderate chance of absolute ruin and has access to only a bounded upside.

Similarly, I believe that, when it comes to ambition, it’s best to have many minor ambitions and a few stonkers, all of which require no concealment, as opposed to a slew of moderate ambitions that all require secrecy. Why? Because concealment is costly. Especially in our connected world, where everyone could talk to anyone, where many are reputation-dependent, where outrage mobs and shaming gangs roam, and where private and personal information is both a commodity and a valuable gem—depending on the context. Better to be open and channel all your energy into your various undertakings—both little and large—than to waste some of that precious resource on concealment.

When it comes to ambitions the best place to put them is in plain sight. If, like Arya in the most recent series of Game of Thrones, you plan to kill the Queen, say so. No-one will believe you anyway. They might even laugh and offer you some homemade wine and a seat by their campfire. And if your ambition is local and severely constrained, of consequence to only a few people? There’s no point hiding it. People won’t care as it likely won’t upset their own personal equilibrium. And besides, they probably have their own secrets to conceal.

Energy sliders

Blockchain tech is a big thing. But it’s not the Next Big Thing. No. That title belongs to energy. You thought that the plane or the car remade the world? You thought systems of mass production and globalisation impacted the planet? Do you think that the internet started a worldwide revolution? Oh boy. None of these things will compare to the impact a solution to the problem of energy will have.

Imagine a future where energy is clean and its supply is inexhaustible. What would travel look like in such a world? What about the world of work? How about recreation? What about education, healthcare, and other societal welfare systems? What about finance? If energy is abundant the very definition of wealth changes, as do our aspirations, ambitions and values.

Of course, we’re a long way off such a state of affairs—in fact, we can’t even be sure that there is a way to extract the energy we demand without doing untold harm to ourselves and the planet. A casual glance over the most prominent energy sources right now illustrates this.

Oil is a fossil fuel, and thus its supply is limited and its extraction is costly—economically and socially. Natural gas is similarly difficult. But what about “clean” energy? Hydroelectric power—which transforms the kinetic energy of bodies of water—has limitations. Such projects involve relocating thousands of people and the projects themselves are perfect opportunities for political corruption. Windpower via turbines is struggling to put a dent in our global energy demands, and besides, the turbines themselves have a short lifespan. And the tech that allows us to convert the energy of the sun directly—like photovoltaic panels—only functions in certain climates, and even then it isn’t dramatically efficient. Nuclear energy is yet another option but there are extreme tail risks associated with it and an incredibly negative cultural perception of such concepts.

I’ve picked most of this up from a cursory reading about the past, present and future of energy. And whilst I’ve been reading about it, I’ve been struggling to find a frame to help me see the future in terms of energy. Statistics about efficiency of conversion and the universal units used to measure energy output don’t resonate. I need a better way of looking into the fog of the future. And after writing “The power of sliders” I found it.

In a newsletter entitled Jonathan Livingston Corporation, Venkatesh Rao describes two approaches to business. You can solve for money or solve for aliveness. He goes on to say:

“23/ Three better-than-money motivators for solving business problems are: technology, people, and scale. When you focus on one of these, it’s not that you don’t want to make gobs of money, but that it’s a secondary consideration. You’d rather go bust than make it the primary consideration.

24/ Technology: when technology is the driving motivation for solving a business problem, the renewable payoff loop comes from the satisfaction of borderline absurd curiosities. Will it waffle? mindset driven by hunches and raw curiosity about whether something can work. The thrill of watching a new kind of machine come alive.

25/ People: Can people (both as employees and customers) be made to come alive/thrive instead of slouching through life like dispirited zombies? There is something addictive about figuring out problems in ways where you solve for “people aliveness”. Beneath anodyne buzzwords like “customer delight” or “employee engagement” there is this real thing you can solve for.

26/ Finally, scale in a general sense. Can something be made bigger, smaller, cheaper, more centralised, more decentralised, more/less automated? The payoff here is activating/deactivating a constraint, and rewriting patterns of abundance/scarcity by turning a knob to some extreme limit.”

Applied to energy and converted to sliders, the above looks something like this:

energy Future 2

The “scale” slider moves from local solutions on the left to global solutions on the right. The “people” scale has a positive and negative aspect. It either harms a few or harms many, and it either benefits a few or benefits many. The “tech” scale indicates something simple—like a wheelbarrow—or something terribly complex—like a spaceship. Now, the question is, “Where does our current buffet of energy tech fall on these sliders?”

A dynamo found on touring bicycles generates electricity with every turn of the bicycle’s wheels. The generated electricity is typically used to power the bicycle’s lights or to charge devices like phones when the rider is in remote locations. If we were to plot it on the scales it would be classed as local-scale, as benefiting the rider alone at the expense of his own effort, and as a relatively simple technology.

The use of oil-derived energy, on the other hand, is very different. It’s a global-scale operation. It benefits many people, some extraordinarily, but it also has exorbitant costs—there is a finite amount of oil in the ground after all. And it requires remarkably complex technology, all the way from search to refinement to end use.

Between the extremes of a bicycle dynamo and crude oil production there’s more traditional energy generation schemes. Waterwheels are an example. Their use benefited only the immediate area—a town or village, for instance. They helped the townspeople without imposing any serious cost, and compared to modern technology they were simple things.

But what about energy production in the future? Even if I were technically involved in energy production, I wouldn’t be able to make detailed predictions. Someone like Vaclav Smil—considered a worldwide authority on energy—abstains from the game of forecasting. So, in lieu of specific forecasts, allow me to propose something vague.

The future of energy has two possible directions (which may actually both end up occurring simultaneously) The first is an exaggeration of the current energy solutions we rely on now. Energy’s future will be a truly global affair, requiring international co-ordination and worldwide pooling of tangible and intangible resources. It will benefit many but also be costly to many. And it will be dependent upon the most bleeding edge technologies from many different domains. Or, the future of energy will swing the other way. It will be small scale, local, ubiquitous, benefit a tiny amount, impose costs on a small few, and rely on simple and robust technology.

I suppose the two options are really about centralisation and decentralisation. Either energy production will be centralised to benefit the globe, or it’ll be decentralised and small units and communities will be given the tools to generate and utilise their own energy.

The future of energy will either be an increasingly global interdependency, a local self-reliance, or a curious mixture of both.

We are all windups

Emiko is a “Windup”, one of the New People who are engineered and bred to be slaves, soldiers and toys. In Japan, where Emiko was born, raised and trained, Windups are accepted. They serve the rich and the powerful, acting as personal assistants, translators, domestic servants and escorts. But Emiko isn’t in Japan anymore. Her former master took her into the Kingdom of Thailand but balked at the cost of getting her back out again. Cheaper and easier to get another Windup. So she remains in a nation where Windups are outlawed and perceived as a thing less than an animal. She survives only because her new master, Raleigh, can pimp her out as a novelty and use the surplus from the income she provides to grease the right palms. Emiko can’t go out during the day. She does not even contemplate escape—her telltale jerky motion and her perfect but pore-less skin would betray her, revealing her to any crowd she tries to move through and causing her internal temperature to skyrocket. And besides, she has no money to smooth her passage.

So Emiko remains, a Windup in a place where Windups are banned. A New Person who is engineered to serve and please, working in a shady “establishment” as a sex slave.

This is the set up of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.

Now, with some context in mind, I’d like you to consider the following excerpt. Emiko is at the club and some particularly powerful guests are coming for a show, a show in which Emiko stars. Kannika, a worker at the club and one of Emiko’s chief tormentors, is the host for the night. Warning. What follows is graphic and disturbing.

“Kannika points to the table. ‘Up.’
Emiko climbs awkwardly onto the gleaming black surface. Kannika snaps at her, making her walk, making her bow. Makes her totter back and forth in her strange windup way while liquor flows and more girls come in and sit with the men and laugh and make jokes and all the while Emiko is shown off, and then, as it must be, Kannika takes her.
She forces Emiko down on the table. The men gather round as Kannika begins her abuse. Slowly, it builds, first playing at her nipples, then sliding the jadeite cock between her legs, encouraging the reactions that have been designed into her and which she cannot control, no matter how much her soul fights against it.
The men cheer at Emiko’s degradations, encouraging escalation, and Kannika, flushed with excitement, begins to devise new tortures. She squats over Emiko. Parts the cheeks of her ass and encourages Emiko to plumb her depths. The men laugh as Emiko obeys and Kannika narrates.
‘Ah yes. I feel her tongue now.’
Then: ‘Do you like it with your tongue there, dirty windup?’
To the men: ‘She likes it. All these dirty windups like it.’
More laughter.
‘More, nasty girl. More.’ “

It gets worse, but I’ll refrain from including those passages. But there are more scenes in the novel during which Emiko is sexually abused. In each case the point is made that Emiko, because of her genetically engineered nature, can’t help obeying and experiencing pleasure during her degradation.

I don’t know whether this was a deliberate allusion by Bacigalupi or something I myself have noticed, but the nature of Emiko is remarkably similar to our own nature. For example, in some of the less disturbing sex scenes, I noticed contradictory impulses within my own mind. On one hand, the scenes contained sexual abuse and they were uncomfortable to read. On the other hand, the scenes were about sex. They stirred some shards of desire within me. Like a windup, I was conflicted. On a base level, arousal. On a humane level, a mixture of disgust, discomfort and sorrow. What can I say? “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

This says something about me, and something about humanity in general—we are all windups. We all have in-built and unavoidable impulses that we fight all day long to override. It also provides anecdotal support for the Buddhist idea that “You are not your thoughts.” I can feel anger, or sorrow, or sadness, or sexual arousal. But it doesn’t make me any of those things. What I think and feel is not who I am. What we do with our impulses, not the impulses themselves, define a person.

So, the concept of a windup tells me about humanity. But it also tells me about artificial intelligence. Specifically, about the challenges we will have to overcome if we are to truly create it.

In The Land of Invented Languages details humanity’s quest to create a perfect language. It is an endeavour that inevitably fails. Why? Because “perfect” languages are created with logic. They are designed to be logical, consistent, straightforward, unambiguous, simple. All the things that the human mind and most natural languages aren’t. As Orika Okrent says:

“We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural languages and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery.

There are types of communication, such as the “language” of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, “I left my purse in the car.” There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.
Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its “flaws” in order to do the enormous amount of things we use it for.”

Right now, with my layman’s perspective, it seems that we are constructing artificial intelligences in the same way as we have attempted to construct perfect languages: we’re relying on logic and explicit commands. I know we have no other choice right now. But once we complete a sufficient part of the race to the ability to create sentient machines, the emphasis will change. We’ll have to use logic to enable our creations to choose and act un-logically.

Why? Because a true intelligence doesn’t experience a single impulse and act on it. No, it feels multiple impulses, evaluates them, and doesn’t always choose the most rational or sensible one.

As Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl progresses, Emiko learns to override her genetic imperatives. She learns to overcome the need to serve, to please and to be subservient. She learns to feel a strong impulse and decide to disregard it. That is what the sentient machines we wish to create will have to do, too. Which raises a familiar question: what happens when something we create gains the ability to think independently about its creator?

Humanity, in its earliest years, attributed its existence to a higher power. Then we got more intelligent and more audacious, and turned on our Gods. We slew them, proclaiming ourselves the product of evolution and chance, and the agents of our own fate. Will sentient machines turn on us like we turned on our Gods?

The future of thought

In Filters Against Folly, Garrett Hardin suggests that are three modes of thought. Literacy, numeracy and ecology. Thinking in words, thinking in numbers, and thinking in relationships, scale and higher order effects.

Historically, the developments in abstract thought have come in the order listed above. First, we thought in and communicated with words. Initially, orally, and then with the written word. After that, numbers were invented, and between antiquity and modernity we’ve begun to quantify and model more and more of the world. More recently, as the complexities and interdependencies of the contemporary world have become apparent, ecological thinking has become the priority. Our current epistemological status suggests that if we don’t think in terms of ecology then we will cause irreversible harm to the ecosystems—both natural and artificial—that we rely on.

That’s the past and the present. What about the future?

thinking through time

I’m of the opinion that there’s a fourth mode of thought. It is not so much distinct from the first three than a combination of them with a little something extra blended in. Resources like Wikipedia—emphasis on language and ecology (via links)—and software like Mathematica—predictably, mostly numerical—hint at what’s possible, but I don’t believe they go far enough. No, the fourth mode of thought I’m imagining incorporates the abstract and the concrete. It folds in the physical. Two examples of this come from books that I read on the same day. From Hannu Rajaniemi’s short story, Topsight:

“Everything looked the same–except there was a faint green outline around her suitcases. She looked at them.
Suddenly, they become serpents of green light, flowing out of the door and beyond, highways of ghost suitcases that extended all the way to the horizon. She followed them with her gaze and was swept up, a bodiless viewpoint looking down a green line drawn across Britain and the North Sea, crisscrossed by a moving, shifting spiderweb of airplane routes. She blinked and was back in her body. Her legs trembled.”

Sounds a little bit like augmented reality, right? The story continues:

“London, a great blaze in the mouth of the river. Emotion maps made from halo data spread over the city. Little stars where people had sex, great blue swathes of sleep, a network of yellow stress and anxiety of the early morning commuters. Financial markets crashing over them with waves. With a thought, she could go back and forth in time, like in Threads, except it wasn’t just a timeline of people; it was a timeline of everything. It showed how everything fit together. But Threads were there too, social networks forming and dissolving. She saw how they fit with the locations and economics and the transportation and the great snakes of economy that swallowed all the little serpents of light that made the world work.

And then she saw Bibi.
She was there, in the weave of Topsight, a little thing that moved between big things, making connections, pushing, nudging. The app was not just for seeing, but for changing.”

Rajaniemi’s Topsight is a way of seeing and being in the world that emphasises ecology and is experienced viscerally by the user.

Another example—two actually—of the future of thought comes from Greg Egan’s Diaspora. First, an example that emphasises the physicality of abstract thought.

“Yatima experimented, deforming the sphere into a succession of different shapes. ‘I think you’re right. But how does that help?’
Radiya remained silent. Yatima made the object transparent, so ve could see all the triangles at once. They formed a kind of coarse mesh, a six-pointed net, a closed bag of string. Ve straightened all twelve lines, which certainly flattened the triangles — but it transformed the sphere into an octohedral diamonds, which was just as bad as a cube.”

It isn’t necessary to understand the context of that scene to see that Yatima is physically manipulating abstract objects in order to gain intellectual insight, similar to how we might silently tinker with a mechanical device to glean its inner workings.

A page later, Yatima is in the Truth Mines.

“..a cavernous space with walls of dark rock, aggregates of grey igneous minerals, drab brown clays, streaks of rust red. Embedded in the floor of the cavern was a strange, luminous object: dozens of floating sparks of light, enclosed in an elaborate set of ethereal membranes. The membranes formed nested, concentric families, Daliesque onion layers — each series culminating in a bubble around a single spark, or occasionally a group of two or three. As the sparks drifted, the membranes flowed to accommodate them, in such a way that no spark ever escaped a single level of enclosure.
In one sense, the Truth Mines were just another index-scape. Hundreds of thousands of specialised selections of the library’s contents were accessible in similar ways — and Yatima had climbed the Evolutionary Tree, hopscotched the Periodic Table, walked the avenue-like Timelines for the histories of fleshers, gleisners and citizens. Half a megatau before, ve’d swum through the Eukaryotic cell; every protein, every nucleotide, every carbohydrate drifting through the cytoplasm had broadcast gestalt tags with references to everything the library had to say about the molecules in question.
In the Truth Mines, though, the tags weren’t just references, they included complete statements of the particular definitions, axioms, or theorems the objects represented. The Mines were self-contained: every mathematical result that fleshers and their descendants had ever proven was on display in its entirety. The library’s exegesis was helpful — but the truths themselves were all here.
The luminous object buried in the cavern floor broadcast the definition of a topological space: a set of points (the sparks), grouped into ‘open subsets’ (the contents of one or more of the membranes) which specified how the points were connected to each other — without appealing to notions like ‘distance’ or ‘dimension’. Short of a raw set with no structure at all, this was about as basic as you could get: the common ancestor of virtually every entity worthy of the name ‘space’, however exotic. A single tunnel led into the cavern, providing a link to the necessary prior concepts, and half a dozen tunnels led out, slanting gently ‘down’ into the bedrock, pursuing various implications of the definition. Suppose T is a topological space . . . then what follows? These routes were paved with small gemstones, each one broadcasting an intermediate result on the way to a theorem.
Every tunnel in the Mines was built from the steps of a watertight proof; every theorem, however deeply buried, could be traced back to every one of its assumptions.”

I suspect you didn’t get as excited about the above passages as I did. Understandable. But to me those passages are the first manifestations of a possible future of thought that have really struck home. It is the above possibilities that cause me to get excited about the work that Bret Victor and co. are doing at Dynamicland. For example, take a look at this post from Omar Rizwan which details the “Geokit”, a “a ‘kit’ or ‘library’ for building and viewing maps.” After describing the kit in great detail, Rizwan concludes:

“Why maps? Personally, I’ve been interested in maps and cities and public transportation and infrastructure for a few years, and I haven’t gotten to do much original work around that interest, so Dynamicland seemed like a good place to explore it. I was excited to build an idiomatic-feeling ‘kit’ with parts, instead of a one-off program like my earliest work here.

I think maps highlight the advantages of breaking out of the screen. We insult an entire tradition of large, information-rich maps when we cram them onto tiny phone screens, then crowd around them and make finger gestures to squeeze answers out bit by bit.

I figured that in Dynamicland, we could have maps that actually looked like maps. We could have multiple people sitting around a map at a table, sharing a large view, but also applying computational filters and derivations to get at their individual interests. You could explore many places and ideas at once, and keep track of them on the table in front of you, instead of constantly sacrificing context on a limited screen.

Dynamicland is great at spatial interfaces, and maps are spatial. You get tools like dot tracking, page tracking, whiskers, and rotation, as well as whatever else you can tie in from the physical world.

And maps involve real information from the world, which makes them more relatable than a visualization of some mathematical model. I’ve seen plenty of people whip out lenses and turn zoom knobs and poke at layers in an attempt to learn about the place where they grew up. Maps are an early opportunity to use this technology to ask real questions about the world, the same way that I use my phone or laptop to ask questions.”

The history of thought was largely about words and numbers. Currently, the emphasis is on ecology. But in the future? I suspect words, numbers and ecology will still be central to how we understand, but how exactly we go about thinking with them will change. The thing that was key to our evolution—our hands—will regain their lost esteem and technology will develop that enables us to play with abstract information in a definitely physical way.

A final lense for looking at the future of thought: in James Ash’s The Interface Envelope a concept called “resolution” is described in the context of video games. Obviously, we all understand it in relation to vision, either hi-res or low-res. But he talks about it in relation to interaction. For example, first-person shooter games often have the player navigating an arena composed of indoor and outdoor areas. Those areas include typical everyday objects like tables, chairs, doors and walls. A low-resolution environment means that the player cannot do anything with these everyday objects. They represent constraints. Doors are implacable constructs; tables and chairs can’t be moved or used; doors are either open or closed. In a high-resolution environment, however, these things can be used by the player. They represent possibility. A player can knock down or build a wall, climb on top of or hide under a table, pick up a chair and hit another player with it.

Right now, most of the information we consume is low-resolution. We can’t interact with it. Sure I can read a paper book, deface its pages with ink and fold down corners, but I can’t manipulate the text itself or the ideas the text describes. Projects like Explorables are changing this, but they still require me to utilise a glowing rectangle. In the future, glowing rectangles will be obsolete and we’ll exist in a physical world that is augmented with digital technology and comes alive with the information we choose to layer atop it.

At least, that’s what I’m imagining. What do you see the future of thought being?

Going long: an announcement

For a while, writing and publishing daily has felt like an obligation. That’s not to say it hasn’t been enjoyable, just that it has felt like Something I Have to Do. My strategy for dealing with this feeling has been one of avoidance and delay—I acknowledged it and then refused to do anything about it. It’s like I’m on a boat in a beautiful lagoon. I want to swim in the clear blue water but the only way to get in is to jump off the boat’s edge and I don’t really wanna. I want writing to be fun and exciting and exhilarating again, but I also don’t want to make fundamental changes.

That was then. This is now.

At the end of August I passed my three-year anniversary for daily blogging. With a few added days, I’m now sitting at over one thousand, one hundred posts. I wasn’t really sure how to feel about this and I said so on RefactorCamp.org, the Ribbonfarm-run Mastodon instance. Venkatesh Rao replied, advising me to slow down and write longer posts less often. The logic being that some ideas I posted were worth pursuing in more depth (and some weren’t).

Now, I don’t know Venkatesh personally but I have a certain respect for his thinking and perception, so I entertained the idea. My body and mind responded with excitement. My fingers trembled and my heart rate soared. The thought of writing longer posts weekly and having more time to explore ideas—whilst retaining a definite sense of urgency—was enthralling. I realised that I hadn’t felt like this about my writing for a long time.

At that point, I was maybe ninety-percent committed to going long. I still needed another ten percent. So I thought about the pros and cons of blogging daily versus blogging less frequently. First, I must say that writing and publishing daily is one of the best things I have ever done. Seriously. I cannot begin to list, or even comprehensively understand, how it has benefited me. It’s taught me to think more deeply, communicate more clearly, evaluate and remake my beliefs about myself, others and the world, and to be comfortable creating and shipping at a high tempo. And more. However, such a frequent output does confine me to more shallow subject matter, forces me to look for novelty as opposed to depth, limits the amount of time I can spend editing and iterating a piece, and means that what I write is determined as much by time pressure as affinity with the material I’m working on and with.

Writing longer posts offers other benefits, and now that I’m used to producing and publishing, I feel that I’m ready to accrue them. For example, perhaps the main benefit is that writing good longform posts is hard. Go to any freelancing marketplace and you’ll see thousands of people looking for freelancers to write “content” that is between a few hundred and fifteen hundred words. You won’t find many ads looking for someone to consistently write four thousand word posts. Short-form writing is, at this point, a commodity. Longform isn’t. That’s because it’s difficult to pull off and requires either deep expertise with the subject matter, an above average level of curiosity and humility, or the help of a “daemon”.

When I took the Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course the idea of a daemon was a big feature. The idea being that interesting longform pieces can’t really be planned. Instead, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Your ass has to be chained to the chair and your fingers poised above a keyboard (or gripping a fountain pen above an artisanal notebook) when your daemon comes a-knocking. A remix of Gall’s Law was offered to illustrate this.

“A 4000+ word article that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple generator that found fuel. A 4000+ word piece “designed” from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a different simple generator and some fuel.”

Don’t worry. I’m not going to be writing many 4k behemoths. But I will be moving away from daily posts of a few hundred words to twice-weekly posts of a few thousand words—delivered on Wednesdays and Sundays, beginning this Sunday. I’ll be abandoning the firehose of posts about diverse ideas to focus more on the ideas that stick themselves into my brain and soul—and hopefully, as a consequence, into yours too.

Writing daily has been fun but it no longer feels like a challenge. I don’t want that. I want to do difficult things because difficult things are exciting to me. I know there are risks associated with the switch. For instance, writing is a proxy for thinking and I’m aware that writing long will inevitably expose some kinks—and outright deformities—in my thought. I also know that some of you reading this are here for the brevity, and that you will nope out almost immediately from the longer posts. Of course, I implore you to try out the longer posts, but if you are set on leaving I understand. It doesn’t change the fact that I will forever remain thankful to you for coming this far with me.

And from those who remain? I ask for the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while. I would love for this to be a glorious undertaking, for gorgeous prose and provocative ideas to flow immediately and without impedance from thine mighty fingers. But that probably won’t happen. It’s practically a certainty that I will say too much whilst thinking too little. I can’t see a way over, under or around that so I’ll have to go through it, and you’re welcome to follow me through the breach. Yes, expect growing pains, but also expect me to do everything within my power to confine those growing pains to my self and my own immediate environment.

After all, we love to see writers bleed, but none of us want to get covered in their bodily fluid.

Here’s to going long.

The power of sliders

Ryan Holiday has this to say about genre conventions and industry innovation in his book, Perennial Seller:

“…these groundbreaking innovations were unconventional in just a few particular, targeted ways, and that was enough.
The point is that you cannot violate every single convention simultaneously, nor should you do it simply for its own sake. In fact, to be properly controversial—as opposed to incomprehensible—you must have obsessively studied your genre or industry to a degree that you know which boundaries to push and which to respect.”

Holiday is advocating a practice similar to that suggested in Blue Ocean Strategy: figure out the popular features of your industry or genre, map their presence or absence in your competitor’s offerings, and then come up with something different. A mundane example: most business cards are of a similar size, shape and material, and contain similar information. To stand out you could alter one or two of those characteristics—instead of a rectangle of card, opt for an engraved coin.

This practice, whilst simple, is quite powerful when it comes to creative and entrepreneurial work. But this practice is more interesting when it is mapped to people.

I’m working on a novel and this involves the process of character creation. I want to create characters that feel like real humans, as opposed to cardboard cut-outs, so I’ve deployed as many lenses as possible. As well as the usual basic information about a character—height, weight, facial features, nuclear family—I also ask myself what Myers-Brigg type they might be, what they carry in their pockets, what they’d take away with them for a weekend, what their Dungeons and Dragons alignment is, and I’ve imagined how they go about an assortment of common tasks and navigate the scenarios of everyday existence. I’ve also toyed with the idea of worldview sliders.

Imagine for a second that we could buttress the human psyche down into a finite number of features. The range of these feature sliders is from totally positive to totally negative. Say, -1 to +1. Now, a normie’s sliders would all hover on one side or the other of zero. But normies make for boring characters in a work of fiction. So. A character’s sliders would mostly hover on one side or the other of zero, with a few narrative-significant exceptions that pushed towards the boundaries. And if we were to make someone “incomprehensible”, as Ryan Holiday says, we would push all the sliders to either minus or plus one. Such a person is neither a normie nor a character; they’d be a societal pariah. Visualised:

character sliders

Another way to think of this is using systems from roleplaying videogames like the Elder Scrolls series. These sorts of games typically offer robust character creation mechanics, and often they involve the ability to make aesthetic, as well as gameplay relevant, alterations to a character.

faces sliders

Here you can change such minute things as mouth shape, mouth height and chin width. Keeping all the sliders vanilla yields a forgettable player-character. Intensifying a few select attributes yields a recognisable and personally meaningful player-character. Intensifying (or randomising) all the feature sliders creates abominations.

The same trichotomy is present in civil society too. Those who are accepted and functioning parts of society are different from one another, but not too different. Those who are either admired or reviled by a large number of people differ from the norm in more extreme ways—via unusual appearance, mannerisms, interests, political outlook et cetera. Those who differ in every respect can’t get a job, don’t have many friends, and are generally hit with labels like “outcast”, “fringe” and “insane”.

So, sliders can be utilised in creative and entrepreneurial pursuits, to build characters and to interpret the components of a community or civilisation. But they can also be used as tools to mine insight. For example, sliders can be used to explore complex issues like immigration.

A nation’s concerns with immigration policy is mostly about determining how many people to let in. With that single slider there’s a rich vein of questions to ask and insight to extract. “What happens if we let everyone in?” “What happens if we let no-one in?” If we add in another feature, like the benefits granted to immigrants, more possibilities are uncovered. “What if we let everyone in but only grant them status as inferior citizens with limited rights?” “What if we let a select few in but grant them full citizenship and all the rights that accompany it?”

Sliders can also be used to deliberately distort perception. For example, if I move my slider for “Belief that freedom of speech is a fundamental human right” from positive to negative, what happens? How does my perception of the media change? What if I deliberately distort my values concerning the importance of nuclear family, or of the utility of certain technologies, or of the morality of marriage, childbirth or monogamy?

The answer is that I end up in interesting places, seeing things I otherwise wouldn’t. So while the best set of sliders for fitting into the world around me is a set with mostly neutral values, the best set for seeing and thinking about the world is a set where the values are extremely distorted. This is where I think the push for safe spaces and politically correct curriculums in schools is flawed. How we see the world is not the same as how we inhabit it—or, it doesn’t have to be. If we can have the courage to teach our children to see the world from extreme, unusual and ignorant perspectives, then we can end up with future generations that will be able to untangle perception from action. We’ll end up with a society of individuals who can make good decisions that benefit the collective race of humanity. If we don’t, and in the name of safety we continue to censor people’s ability to see from diverse and extreme perspective then we will end up with an extremely unsafe and unpleasant world.

Original questions

In Sourcery, the fourth Discworld novel, the wizard Ipslore has a conversation with Death. Death says, “YOU’RE ONLY PUTTING OFF THE INEVITABLE.” Ipslore replies, “That’s what being alive is all about.” A little earlier in their exchange Death says to Ipslore, “THERE IS NO HOPE FOR THE FUTURE.” Ipslore asks what the future contains and Death answers, “ME.”

Death knows that life is fatal. It always ends. Which simplifies matters somewhat.

If we combine the two states—life and death—with another dichotomy—means and ends—it appears that we have only two questions to answer. Every other question we ask is just a derivative of these two Original Questions. Death is an inevitable end, as is the state of life. There’s no room for manoeuvre there. So, we simply have to choose our means of life and death.

The most important questions we can ask ourselves, and the ones that influence the answers to every other, are, “How am I going to live?” and “How am I going to die?”