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This article on goal-oriented and process-oriented objectives is interesting and well articulated. The distinction is important, and worth picking apart if you want to gain some useful insight into human motivation generally.

I’m still not convinced it makes a conclusive argument against wireheading.

This is where I get the impression that I’m somewhat out of step with much of the rationalist community. I think the potential of wireheading deserves much more time and serious attention than is generally fashionable.

At least, if the term can be interpreted widely enough. One understanding of it specifically refers to stimulating the “pleasure centres” of the brain; whether or not “pleasure centres” is itself rigorously defined, this presumably relates only to the more immediate or straightforward physical pleasures available to humans. A shortcut to the experience of delight usually available only through sex or food would be interesting, but probably not something we’d all want to embrace to the exclusion of all other avenues we could be exploring. (At least, most of us probably don’t want that now. If we actually had access to such a device, studies suggest we’d end up wanting to do exactly that – another reason it doesn’t appeal from our putatively rational position of indifference, made possible by not currently experiencing overwhelming pleasure.)

But this doesn’t apply much imagination to wireheading’s potential. Our capabilities are clearly limited at the moment, but taking a longer-term view of the science of neuro-hacking, superior technology could in principle get around any objection to wireheading that isn’t purely ideological. It’s understandable to suppose that constant physical pleasure might get “boring” after a while, because in our natural lives we do get bored. We never go very long without craving some variety in the stimuli we’re experiencing, even those stimuli we rank among our favourites and return to again and again. It seems like any attempt at wireheading would fall prey to our same fickle tendencies.

But come on, we’re already talking about using futuristic technology to hack the human brain. Think bigger! Boredom is just as much a result of physical processes in your grey matter as pleasure is, so hack that too! Why not have a brain implant which stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain and simultaneously puts a hold on whatever accompanying brain processes would normally make you get bored? You’re right that nobody enjoying a game would want to just skip to the end, because the challenge of playing it is what they’re enjoying – but then why shouldn’t wireheading include porting that feeling right there directly to your brain? Why not have a more complex implant which directly interacts with multiple areas of the brain, and provides some “higher-level” desirable mental states, such as the satisfaction of completing a tough physical job, or the sense of comforting rightness that comes from a deep and heart-felt conversation with another person with whom you share a complete mutual love and understanding? Why not have it regularly switch to something else joyous, blissful, fulfilling, or otherwise desirable, in whatever manner currently provides the most positive adjustment to that particular brain-state?

Of course, if any device claims to be able to offer a short-cut to all these good feelings without the need to slog through reality like usual, you should be very suspicious of just how much it’s actually going to fulfil all your current desires. And you should definitely be wary of the effect on other people of your withdrawing from the world – maybe a futuristic implant really can artificially provide you with all the flow you get from your real-world work, but if you used to work as a heart surgeon, there are other considerations than whether you’re missing out on job satisfaction. There are good reasons to want our experiences to be generally rooted in the real world. But I’m not convinced it’s important for its own sake.

A follow-up post discusses this to an extent, but I don’t think the “simulated reality” distinction saves the argument. Pull-quote:

Of course I think a complete retreat to isolation would be sad, because other human minds are the most complex things that exist, and to cut that out of one’s life entirely would be an impoverishment. But a community of people interacting in a cyberworld, with access to physical reality? Shit, that sounds amazing!

I totally agree with the latter point, and it’s worth bearing in mind how much more likely something like that is than any of the sci-fi hypotheticals I’m talking about above. But cutting other human minds out of one’s life would only be an impoverishment if they couldn’t be replaced with some equivalent experience, to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

Obviously anything like that is a way off. But I’m intrigued as to the direction things are going, and I wonder if this kind of direct brain-stimulation won’t be a significant part of the post-trans-humanist techno-utopia we’re all supposed to be pontificating about.

One of the most familiar and relatable clichés in recent Western society is that of the tedious office job, which sucks away your life over forty years or so of drudgery, regularly taking up countless hours you could be using to enjoy the only life you’re ever going to get, turning our conscious experience into an ongoing stream of unreasonable bosses and unlikeable co-workers and thwarted opportunities as we live for the weekend.

Obviously it’s not that bad for everyone involved – I quite like my office job and the people I spend time with there. But there’s a reason why the trope is so easily recognised, and why Mike Judge’s Office Space is so quotable and resonates with so many people. Although it’s a matter of scale, just about every white-collar worker will face this to some degree, and it’s become such a prominent part of our culture that in some quarters it’s started to be seen as simply part of the human condition.

It’s not always easy to remember how specific the whole notion of a dreary office job is to us, right now, and how in the long-view it’s a profoundly avoidable thing.

And I’m not just talking about the other trope of “escaping the rat race” by becoming independently wealthy or retiring early after fewer decades than usual of hard work and good luck and smart investments and whatnot. I mean, if you do manage that, then more power to you, go enjoy yourself. But there’s a broader, species-level point which feels frustratingly far away from most of the public discourse.

Think of how many times over society has restructured itself, globally and historically. Think of how many other ways this planet’s billions of occupants have found to work together to get stuff done. And yes, a lot of them have sucked, but is this really a system worth settling on? Have we really already mastered it, so that we should put a stop on all our creative and collaborative urges to improve and organise and rebuild and find more efficient ways to thrive?

It really shouldn’t be unthinkable that substantially better ways may exist to allocate our resources and provide for people’s needs, such that way more of us could spend way more time feeling fulfilled and satisfied than we do currently.

There’s so much mindless toil, dominating the lives of so many, and yet the possibility for carefree and joyful and fulfilled lives is already on display all around. We’re capable of feeling awe and wonder and love and delight and bliss, but we don’t get nearly as much of any of them as we could because of our bullshit jobs. I can’t understand not wanting there to be a radically better way.

Billions of person hours are being spent on undesirable tasks; countless thousands of lifetimes are being squandered on inefficiency.

Imagine knowing all that was going on, and knowing that we weren’t even trying to fix it, or to save future generations from an identical fate.

Can you imagine anything more tragic?

I mean, hopefully you can, because at least people in offices in the developed world tend not to get smallpox or TB anymore.

But still.

Monomaniacal Linkstorm

One thing I’ve been doing, in all that not-blogging time you may have noticed recently, is becoming something of a Scott Alexander fan-boy. So here’s a bunch of things he’s written which I’ve enjoyed and would recommend reading, which I made brief notes on at the time but which in practice I’m unlikely to write about myself at much length.

1. I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup

Putting this one up front because it’s possibly the most important and worth reading. It’s long. Read it all.

2. Social Justice And Words, Words, Words

3. Beware Isolated Demands For Rigor

4. Fifty Swifties

If you’re not familiar with the format, Tom Swifties are pretty straight-forward, and can be fantastically pleasing when well crafted. I’d particularly like to draw your attention to: “Satan is the original source of evil,” Tom said urbanely.

My own contribution: “I used to go out with that girl with a balloon stuck to her hair,” Tom said ecstatically.

5. Radicalizing The Romanceless

Pull-quote: “As usual with gender issues, this can be best explained through a story from ancient Chinese military history.”

This one’s really interesting, and the sort of thing I could burble for a few thousand words about myself, covering most of the same ground but with different emphases and disclaimers added, in part to make sure I’m also not inadvertently signalling allegiance with the manosphere, or whatever.

One thing to note is that I don’t think I do envy Henry what he has, in terms of emotional relationships. He might “get women” for a certain meaning of the phrase, but not in any way I’m interested in replicating. When I was single, I wouldn’t have envied him in the way that someone who works hard for low pay would envy the financial security of the richly rewarded.

But it’s an interesting exploration of the core idea: expressing frustration at your basic human animal needs not being met is totally okay when it comes to earning enough money to look after yourself, but completely unacceptable when it comes to engaging in human social interaction and sexual congress. Hard work is good and noble, but we’ll understand and be sympathetic if you’re just in it for the paycheck – whereas yearning for more of a human connection, or simply being horny and wanting to get laid, is treated as shameful, and not granted much serious consideration as to how much of a basic human need our sexuality can be.

There are sensible reasons why these two scenarios might garner differing reactions, of course – the historical societal relationships between men and women and between capitalist employers and workers are in many ways divergent – but not necessarily enough to justify such a split in how we treat people who are lacking in one area of life or the other.

In particular, feeling entitled to this thing from someone else is intolerable in one instance in particular. Which may be related to how things have historically tended to work out when men’s sense of “entitlement” to women hasn’t been stifled and tabooed.

This follow-up from Jai is also especially worth reading.

6. Book Review: Red Plenty, a “semi-fictionalized account of the history of socialist economic planning”.

It turns out that the concentration of centralised political authority was the not-that-hard-to-identify main problem with Stalinism (or one of them, anyway). I’m still optimistic about eventually orchestrating some way of maximising the benefits of both communist and capitalist systems while minimising the downsides that have tended to come with either in practice, so far.

But it also strikes me that whatever political system ought to work for us – whether it’s some variant on communism, capitalism, or something else – we shouldn’t expect that its fundamental philosophy can be summed up in any single pithy phrase. The history of communism-in-practice might seem like an object lesson in the value of letting people enjoy the direct profits of the work they do, but even that’s not a simple concept, and there’s no reason to suppose anything like this can be summed up simply, in a way that’s unambiguous to everyone. If you start insisting it can, you’re in danger of convincing yourself that your ideological slogan is more important than the real-world practical results of our efforts to organise ourselves efficiently and fairly.

7. The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories

8. The Toxoplasma Of Rage

9. Untitled

This is not the first ten-thousand word rant about feminism by Scott Alexander that I’ve read, and so far they’ve all been worth it.

10. Book Review: The Machinery Of Freedom

The thing about advocating libertarian/anarchist principles, though, is that it tends to be more about living by those principles in your personal life and allowing their beneficial influence to infuse the culture around you and spread that way, than about setting up a small nation-state somewhere to test them out immediately on a huge scale working from scratch.

It’s clear we need some sort of system of working collectively to achieve the things we want to achieve as a society, but whether that system involves a “government” in the sense that anarchists would have no truck with isn’t the most interesting or important point. It’s allowed to be blurry around the edges and not easily summed up. Like I was saying earlier, it’s unlikely that adopting a single unifying idea like the non-aggression principle will make things all fall into place, or that a statement of political philosophy brief enough for an elevator pitch will provide us with any clue how to actually do stuff in the real world. But so long as we’re keeping track of the ideas and not getting too hung up on how to label things, we can always be aiming for utopia, and creating something with more associated benefits and fewer costs than whatever we have now.

11. Extremism In Thought Experiment Is No Vice

I mean, I’d suggest that the “spirit in which it’s conceived” is not anything as noble as intellectually curious moral philosophical investigation in the Duck Dynasty guy’s case, but this is still interesting.

12. Against Tulip Subsidies

There’s so much more where all that came from, but those are some of the highlights.

Here are some things Peter Hitchens has talked about:

TSA-style security theatre.

The stupidity of Western military policy. In particular, our government’s more recent tendency for military intervention overseas.

Nebulous laws against extremism which stifle free speech.

The purpose and attitude of the police.

The fucking Tories, as well as the ludicrous state of contemporary UK party politics.

Trident.

He’s basically right about all of these things, as you might have guessed was my point. Certainly more so than many commentators who are still taken seriously by people with politics close to my own.

His concerns about new legislation enacted by the “thought police” may not precisely parallel mine, but the quashing of alternative ideas is a dangerous one, even if those ideas are icky and homophobic etc. And on our continued involvement in global warfare, he seems to be far more reliable than his late brother was.

Just don’t get him started on atheists or cannabis, and the guy actually has a lot to say.

Crazy trading

So high-frequency trading is pretty clearly insane and has fuck all to do with useful economic activity. There are billions of dollars to be “made” out there, but they only reward whoever has the shiniest computers, fastest microwave connections to the stock exchange, and smartest algorithms; and they all come at the expense of those who think they can keep up but fall behind due to inferior ability to play the market.

Huge amounts of human endeavour are being poured into this system by those who hope to get personally rich from it. Not to blame them exclusively for that; they exist in a culture which tells them every day that making money is the most patriotic and noble thing you can do and so long as you stop somewhere short of literally drowning puppies in the process you should feel great about it.

And yet nobody’s producing anything useful while all this is going on. Nothing’s being built or designed; the creative or communal aspect of the human spirit is not being enriched. Just billions of dollars being thrown around, won and lost, inflicting massive rewards or punishments on the participants so chaotically that I’m not sure we’d notice the difference if it were truly random.

Obviously this is all crazy. But the mistake people make is in thinking it’s crazy like, say, quantum mechanics is crazy. Quantum mechanics is crazy, in the sense that it’s a bizarre and inexplicable and counter-intuitive system, which nobody would have designed anything like that, but it also has an unavoidable connection to the real world. It models our best current understanding of how the world just is, at a fundamental level. Whether you believe it or not, whether you want to rearrange things in a way that strikes you as more sensible or not, quantum mechanics is going to carry on, because that’s just how things are.

Whereas high-frequency trading is crazy like stoning gay people to death is crazy. It’s something our species invented, and which we’re quite capable of subsequently identifying as complete bollocks and rejecting as unworthy.

Here’s one of many, many available stories of someone the US government really, really wanted to murder. He was 17, and ended up on death row.

He was pretty clearly innocent, and it’s hard to imagine the gross extent of the incompetence and misconduct responsible for letting the case go as far as it did. Which is a great place to hang the argument against capital punishment: the system is completely unreliable, as evidenced by the fact that the government were preparing to execute a teenager, despite flimsy details like prosecutors knowingly lying about the evidence and airtight alibis being bizarrely ignored and the clear unreliability of witnesses being suppressed.

So we really can’t be sure innocent people won’t be killed unless we just stop killing everyone. The Innocence Project has counted 330 exonerations of convicted criminals in the last 25 years, through DNA testing, including some who were days away from being put to death. How many others weren’t caught in time?

All that’s still a good argument to make. But this is a reminder, to me as much as to anyone else, that I’d oppose the death penalty even if somehow those objections were utterly resolved.

The problems in any one particular case, with dishonest prosecutors and unreliable witnesses and so forth, are all basically moot. The end result was, you killed someone, or you were going to. I’m not okay with that, and it doesn’t really matter how you got there. No human system of establishing guilt will ever be reliable enough that it deserves to be granted that much trust – but even if it somehow were, let’s still not murder each other over it.

It goes like this: In 1893, a couple of lines of music were published in a book. The piece of music is eight bars long, and consists of a single-note melody which can be hummed in its entirety in about six seconds.

In 1927, this song was published in a separate compilation of similar musical pieces, with different lyrics which are known to have been informally attached to it for some time.

And now, as a result, if you want to reproduce the song Happy Birthday in any kind of media, you need to pay the Warner/Chappell Music Group for the right to do so, or risk being sued.

They collect millions of dollars every year this way. By claiming some bizarre kind of “ownership” of a universally familiar melody composed well over a century ago by some person or persons entirely unconnected with the people now profiting from it.

I’m trying to imagine a basically worse person than someone who’d demand money from someone else for the right to sing Happy Birthday. If you can think of anything more viscerally contemptible, let me know.

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