The Two Utopias

Scott Alexander of the Slate Star Codex blog wrote an insightful piece on liberalism’s big problem.

Basically, liberalism is letting people do whatever they want, so long as they don’t infringe on each other. What is infringement, though? Not every kind of trespass or annoyance can conceivably be banned, in any sense of the word. However, a lot of things that aren’t bannable do infringe on someone — in the sense that they are somewhat important (by tradition, common sense, rational arguments) for some people and yet somewhat unpleasant (against their tradition, common sense, rational arguments) for others. What can we do about it?

Please read Scott’s take on this; while longish, it’s well worth your time, as is almost everything he writes.

Of course the simplest answer is that we needn’t really do anything. Can’t we all simply promote tolerance and learn to be happy, regardless of how annoying others might be? To an extent, sure, this is the right way, even the only way. But only to an extent. At some level of annoyance — still below what can reasonably be regulated by law — it’s just too much, for some, to be tolerant about.

As everyone would attest, this is very much a problem in the present. But unlike many other problems of the present, this one is not going anywhere even in the most benign versions of the future. Because liberalism, in the long term, tends to make individuals and groups more diverse: more freedom means less uniformity, and less uniformity means more conflict — and less happiness.

I

Scott calls his answer to this problem Archipelago.

Admittedly it’s not a very realistic solution. More like a general approach that can, at times, be taken into account. But not very much — at least not at this time.

Archipelago is the ultimate liberalism plus unlimited space and unlimited mobility. The recipe is simple: if you don’t like your neighbors, move out.

Imagine there’s an unlimited supply of islands (they need not be literal islands — can be planets, virtual spaces, etc.) so that any group or individual can claim any free island for themselves to live on. And imagine that everyone can, for whatever reason, easily pack up and relocate wherever they wish. Won’t this be enough for everyone to live their lives in perfect contentedness — annoying no one and being annoyed by no one?

Kind of like Ray Bradbury’s reaction to American racism in Martian Chronicles (written in 1950):

“Did you hear about it?”
“About what?”
“The niggers, the niggers!”
“What about ’em?”
“Them leaving, pulling out, going away; did you hear?”
“What you mean, pulling out? How can they do that?”
“They can, they will, they are.”
“Just a couple?”
“Every single one here in the South!”
“No.”
“Yes!”
“I got to see that. I don’t believe it. Where they going — Africa?”
A silence.
“Mars.”

II

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. Obviously, in the current day and age we don’t have unlimited islands or lands to colonize. Also, for all the recent progress in mobility, people are rooted, relocating is hard, and most can’t and won’t move to some faraway land simply because they dislike their neighbors.

Then, even if a peaceful agreement to separate two communities is achieved, there’s that deep-seated conviction that whoever leaves, loses. Why exactly should we go and not them? Only because we’re less numerous? But hey, let’s call in our friends from other islands to settle here and tip the population scales — so we get to inherit this nice land and drive the icky ones away.

And even if inhabitants of each island are happy with each other, islands may be very not happy with other islands. This means hostility and, potentially, violence.

Scott’s answer to that is simple. He imagines some kind of World Government with an authority over all the islands; whenever necessary, the government’s agents descend upon the trespassers, block any violence, and generally arbitrate. The government is assumedly elected by some kind of democratic process: not perfect but (according to Churchill) better than the alternatives.

III

Another problem is more insidious. Liberalism is worth little if it only provides freedom to groups and not to individuals. Even in the ideal Archipelago, moving away is much easier for a group than for a single person. It’s not just that an individual will have harder time settling on an inhabited island. More importantly, an individual or a small group are much easier to lock in — not necessarily by force but by propaganda, brainwashing, manipulation, social pressure. Few can fight their own group when they’re alone; but even fleeing, instead of fighting, takes courage that not everyone has.

It gets real bad when you think about the children. There’s nothing liberal about a society where children are assumed to always live like their parents. But for a child, emigrating to another island — which might better suit her — is much more difficult than for an adult. Children are physically weaker and psychologically dependent; worse, they may not even know that there are other islands and other communities — because almost everything a child knows, she knows from the adults around her.

In his blog post, Scott acknowledges these problems. He’s got some solutions, too. Suppose Archipelago has freedom of movement enshrined as Article 1 of its Constitution, and the world government enforces this freedom just as it enforces non-violence — coming to the rescue of anyone who is locked in against their wishes. As for children, Scott proposes that at certain age, every child on every island attends a “class taught by a UniGov representative” that would enlighten her about the existence of other communities and other ways of life — even if the adults she lives with won’t own up to it.

Don’t get me wrong. With freedom of relocation and universal knowledge of the alternatives, Archipelago may be not just livable — it’s arguably better (less oppressive, more diverse, more happy overall) than any society that has existed so far. I’m just not sure about Scott’s methods of upholding these rights and freedoms. I think they will be much too easy to subvert and abuse.

For example, what if a community gives birth in secret and hides its kids from the government? What if they teach their kids, years before the government lesson, some purposefully distorted dialect of their language in which the words to be used by the UniGov person will have different meanings? What if they just refuse to teach their kids any universal language at all, and keep their own language secret? You can’t fix that with a single lesson — or even a dozen.

IV

I don’t know, to be honest, if these problems are solvable. But I can, without too much effort, imagine them solved.

I started writing my book in 2008, long before I found Scott’s blog. But there’s uncanny similarity between my Everday and his Archipelago. Though distinct in tone and style, they are both visions of a centerless, amorphous, sparsened world — the two utopias of the ultimate freedom of association and freedom of movement.

And yet Everday is different. It is, should I say, less legalistic. It goes much farther in its utopianness: it is a society without any central government, armed police, or universal laws.

Everday takes a different approach to Archipelago’s vulnerabilities. Let’s take a closer look.

  • Preventing violence: Here, I have a rather conventional utopian answer. War breeds war; violence is dependent on culture — which, for all its diversity, has been suppressing violence for millenia. A history of peace and having most violence-breeding mental diseases fixed at the genetic level (Change) make war in Everday unthinkable. There are no governmental peacekeepers: if violence flares anywhere for any reason, it is put out by whoever happens to be near.
  • Ease of relocation: The great majority of people and social groupings in Everday are habitually nomadic. The humankind is demographically smaller than it is now; more importantly, its resource footprint on Earth is orders of magnitude lower. With mobile homes and eatfree lifestyles, you don’t need land to settle upon or live off: you are free to roam wherever you like, visiting your favorite spots and seasons but, always, leaving. You don’t need roads: you fly; and you don’t need to be alone to be a wanderer: in Everday, your whole collective (project, fandom) may occupy a castle which never ever lands.
  • Enough islands for everyone: For the same reasons, Earth, which seems so small to us with our jet travel, appears much bigger to the people of Everday. The planet is, by and large, a wilderness, used only sparingly for settlement and never for anything ugly and big; if you want to do something of large scale or large energy, just do it up in space (or down in Innerwald). Everday cares for Earth, is always working on making its landscapes more complex and diverse — so that there’s enough room (psychological even when not physical) for everyone to be in.
  • The leave/stay arguments: Everday has a whole culture of joyfully leaving, of not staying in the same place for too long, of cultivated nostalgia for the places you’ve been to in the past. Also, not being attached to land, the only material substance that a splitting community needs to divide — Arf — is itself perfectly movable. Uncharitably, one could say that Everday has degraded its foundational freedom into fleedom.
  • Preventing lock-in of children: Everday upholds a tradition of open childhood which “exerts a consensus force of a written law” and which treats a community’s children as pretty much public figures — that anyone can, reasonably, get access to. “The point is simply not choosing for those as yet unable to choose for themselves: open childhood affirms it a parental responsibility to go with your child even where you wouldn’t go yourself, experience together as many as different environments, lores, lives as may be practical, play not-your games and tell not-your stories — not unjudgingly but without prejudgement.” There are no government-mandated diversity lessons but anyone can be, and most would want to be, a teacher of the world to a curious child — for a minute or for a lifetime.

V

It’s not only about kids.

Let’s be real. No matter where the overall society stands, diversity means that some communities will rot — slide into isolationism, cult-like messianism, aggressive delusions. They will try to lure people in and block them from leaving with all kinds of distortion and indoctrination.

The world of Everday has no designated police to deal with those outliers. You know what? It takes liberalism seriously.

But that, of course, can only ever work where everyone is, or at least is willing to be, volunteer “police.” Where, instead of written laws and constitutions, there are some simple universal notions that span all community lores. And where, alongside the close-knit island communities, there’s a substantial demography of free agents — the at-large Stream that washes all the community cells.

Ungrounded, curious, perceptive, the Stream is those who come and go but are always trying to engage you: not necessarily to start (or win) an argument but to probe you, to shake you up, to seed different perspectives in you — and to pick up yours to be seeded elsewhere. Constant bombardment by the Stream minds, their quick gatherings at the troubled spots, their discovery, publicizing, never-ending debating of real and potential aberrations: that’s how Everday cures itself.

It doesn’t work quickly but, given time, Stream erosion flattens the ugliest of Angbands that pop up.

There’s also the Message: a collaborative, slowly evolving, always-on broadcast of the most basic and hopeful truths about the world and its intelligent inhabitants. It’s an eternal and eternally changing song that permeates the world: a call which anyone can hear on multiple wavelengths and modalities — which anyone, no matter how remote or locked-in, can receive and decipher with minimal equipment.

There is no quick and easy solution. There’s certainly no guaranteed solution that can be legislated once and for all. If solvable at all, it is only solvable as a dynamic equilibrium between the disease and the immune reaction of society.

VI

No doubt, both the Archipelago and (especially) the Everday tend to seem extremely counterintuitive — almost absurd. We’re conditioned, by our entire social evolution, to see power in numbers, in uniformity, in solidarity: “divided we fall” and all that.

Geeks and roleplayers taking over the world? And tearing it to shreds? You wish!

Also, how is this not regress if what this kind of society looks most similar to is pre-state, pre-city hunter-gatherer tribes? (Well… minus violence/wars, if you’re willing to buy that claim. And, assumedly, plus some advanced culture and technology — but how long will those last if any tribal chief can easily turn them off?)

Again, I have no final and fool-proof answers to that.

I also see other dangers. Forking is freedom but it’s also death: a well-timed fork may revitalize a project — but more often, too much forking for petty reasons may kill it. If not counterbalanced, runaway splitting may grind society to a halt: when communities become too small, the motivation to actually do something evaporates. Death by atomization is real.

Then, if splitting off becomes really easy, people may be choosing their islands for all the wrong reasons. Human mind has exploitable vulnerabilities; I’m sure future humans will patch some of them, but more and worse ones may well be discovered — or even constructed. Would Jesus have had even that small bunch of apostles he attracted if not for the core of his message: that the time is near, that the Judgement is coming any day? If not for — to put it simply — blatant fear-mongering which, for most of his followers, obscured whatever he had to say about morals? Did he even have any moral teachings not reducible to “these being the last days, we must all double down on being good”?

VII

And yet — and yet! — I do consider some kind of Archipelago or Everday to be not just a future worth working towards: I think it’s also the most likely version of our future. It’s just the general direction we’re all heading already. It’s a future that is natural — unstrained: not a belabored utopia or dystopia but simply the most probable eventual outcome, given where we’re now. “Just let everyone do what they want already.”

It may be a stable attractor — that final shore in the shining West that every civilization, after all the pain and stupidity and apocalypse, is bound to reach.

What does this imply about our historical present? Do we already observe signs of archipelagization — “balcanization”? Does it do us any good? For example, we’ve just created a virtual space of the Internet where it’s already free and effortless to make any number of islands for virtual communities. Did that make us more diverse, more peaceful, more content? Opinions vary but I rather side with those who say that yes, it did, overall.

I also think that, outside the Internet, the world is on the cusp of becoming more accepting towards separatist movements. Because, you know, fighting those who want to peacefully divide a country has precious little rational or moral justification. A breakup may be an inconvenience, but we are probably rich enough and safe enough, by now, to afford it — if only it makes someone happier.

In the end, sure, no one has ever predicted distant future with any believability. The kind of utopia you prefer depends more on your personal predispositions than on anything else. Perhaps Scott and I are deluding ourselves by imagining just the kind of society we would love to be in.

Wisest men can’t foresee the future. But even the most deluded can change it.

Everday unpacked: a metapost

Everday is a difficult book. Dense, convoluted, almost impenetrable. That’s to be expected if you consider how this text came to be and what it needed to overcome to reach your screen. It had to be tough to survive. It had to be poetic because of all types of text, poetry is the sturdiest.

But the ideas that Everday builds upon can be presented in other ways, too. Now that transcribing of the canonical text is almost finished, I plan to write a series of posts that unpack the key concepts of the book and explain them in modern terms and more mundane language, as well as spell out many assumptions that Everday considers self-evident and only mentions in passing if at all. This is going to be a Gentle Introduction into Everday – hopefully the first of many.

At the moment this series contains two posts:

All “unpacked” posts can be found by tag.

Suffering, evolution, nomogenesis


Can’t we just be friends?

The problem of humans inflicting suffering on animals is clearly solvable — it’s not like we intrinsically depend on wild nature in ways we can’t cut or replace with technology. But assuming this problem is solved, the other problem — that of wild animals inflicting suffering on each other — remains. (There’s of course still another problem of animals suffering from diseases or natural disasters, but let’s focus on the wolf-killing-sheep problem for now.)

Is this even a problem? Or is it just how biology works, so we can’t do anything about it? Can we even prove that animal suffering is real — and is such proof prerequisite for us to start fighting it?

Even if we agree that this is something to be addressed, wouldn’t it be a much worse crime if we just morph wild animals to conform to our (current) notions of decency?

I.

Imagine a world where humans have a near-exhaustive knowledge of how biology works — and aren’t shy to apply that knowledge. They’re long past farming and agriculture but they care about wild nature more than ever, and they do everything that can be done for it to thrive — balance species, maintain diversity, minimize surges, prevent natural calamities: all this is as natural for them as, for us, is trimming shrubbery in the backyard. Nearly everyone engages in part-time gardening (in a sense obviously wider and different, if akin, to ours), their collective work covering the entire planet.

Still, predators remain predators even in Everday.

Sure, you can institute a (more or less automated) “wild nature police” that would invisibly interfere to minimize suffering of the prey, selectively protect prey from the predators, push predators to become vegetarians, deliver contraception to those no longer preyed upon… all of which, to varying extent, has been tried. But such interventions are unsustainable and unnatural —essentially compromises that settle for a lesser evil.

As far as reducing animal suffering goes, Everday has already collected all low-hanging fruit. Now the choice it faces is between some drastic reengineering of life from scratch — or a much less showy approach called Nomogenesis.

II.

Even in the distant future of Everday, the concept of Nomogenesis is little more than a vague outline. No one knows if it is the solution although more and more clues seem to be pointing in the same general direction. The bad news is that it can only be an extremely long-term process — it’s not something we can do in one (human) generation: it is natural, and nature works via evolution, and evolution is typically slow. But the good news is that Rething may be the inevitable future of biology anyway, whether we do anything about it or not.

When you look at Earth’s life, it’s hard to imagine that — apart from humans — it can be really different. It’s evolving but at the same time seems to stay more or less the same, just as it’s always been: species fork, flourish, die out; everyone keeps eating and being eaten. Admittedly diversity and overall complexity of biomes trend slowly up, but that seems to be at best a quantitative change.

And yet this perception is — may be — wrong. It’s not always been like that (e.g. very early life could not produce specialized predators because the density of biomass was too low) and may not remain like that forever. Rething is an argument that, by extrapolating the processes that are already detectable, we can glimpse, in an extremely distant future, a biology where death and predation no longer play the role they currently play — and where symbiosis and inter-species cooperation become a lot more important than they are now. In that biology, complex structures tend to be reused and readapted (hence rething) instead of being torn down and rebuilt from scratch.

III.

That is a contentious but exciting idea. And Nomogenesis makes it still more exciting: it calls for the bearers of intelligence to go with (see adverbiality) and speed up (see panpraxis) nature’s flow towards Rething — to hijack, learn from, and amplify this sea change for our own ethical ends.

Fundamentally, Nomogenesis aims to evolve the evolution. There may be many specific mechanisms of morphing the “selectionary landscape”; two of these are establishing feedback links from an organism’s phenotype (appearance, behavior) back to its genotype and expanding sexual selection so that a wider slice of a biosystem may participate in an individual’s procreative choice.

It is unknown how successful or indeed feasible this may be. One thing is sure: an entirely new level of knowledge of biology is required — simply knowing all life as it currently exists is not enough. From a full 3D vision at all spatial scales you must go to 4D — include the dimension of time, learn to model and guide extremely long-term and wide-range biological transformations.

Everday-the-book was written, in part, to pretend that all the easy problems have been solved so I could focus on the hard ones that remain. Nomogenesis is perhaps the hardest of them all.

Infinite longevity may deprive us of childhood — and that’s a problem


The cycle of life.

Nobody likes to die. Nobody likes to get old and crippled.

(But especially, no one likes to die.) (No, actually, debilitating aging is worse than dying.) (Well, on reflection, I really can’t say which is worse.)

And so we’re fighting aging and death. That’s a noble pursuit. But there’s one danger here that I don’t see discussed often: in a society where everyone can live all they want, there’s likely to be a deficit of children.

I.

Some children will likely still be born even after death is fully conquered (especially, I think, if the human race expands into space). However, biologically speaking, having children is little more than an adaptation to dying. Adaptations that outlive their usefulness tend to wither and disappear. To an extent, this is already happening: in developed countries population is getting older, and the rate of births is below reproduction levels.

Why is this important? Because what makes us ourselves is not our bodies; it’s our culture — our languages, science, art, everything we do and enjoy. And culture has itself evolved as something that gets passed from generation to generation — something that is constantly relearned from scratch. It needs a constant inflow of innocence, of ignorance, of fresh eyes and fresh voices that come to learn and to doubt.

Without this, culture stops evolving and becomes an empty ritual. Old people are cultural fossils of the age when they were young and learning; some of them remain productive — but just compare how often someone’s first book becomes a sensation, as opposed to fifth or tenth.

II.

It may be even worse than that. On top of stopping to evolve, culture in a no-death world may simply stop, period. After all, what is it that entices us to keep creating new books, new music, new ideas, new blog posts? Isn’t it that we learn new stuff and are eager to show off what we’ve learned?

Older people slump in creativity not because they lack the energy of youth. What they miss is the newness of the world, the sense that you have something exciting to share that you have just understood or discovered.

(Someone asked about psychedelics. They can precipitate discoveries and motivate creativity, but your potential discoverables remain finite — which means artificial stimulants can only accelerate the process of getting psychologically older.  What we need, however, is to reverse it. We have plenty of things that open new experiences, but if we want to live forever, we must learn to become inexperienced again.)

A world with 100% of fully developed adults at the height of their bloom is good in theory, but  it may turn out a dangerous dead end. Can we get rid of aging and death without turning into a society of curmudgeons?

III.

Perhaps we can — if we focus not just on stopping aging but on reversing it: on rejuvenation. To remain sane and productive, we need those who must be taught everything we know, from smiling upwards, again and again; and if we’re not birthing them, we must become such blank slates ourselves. We must learn to rejuvenate ourselves (if only the brain) drastically enough to become — repeatedly, life after life — children again.

Call it a compromise with death, if you will. We will have to make it.

This is one of the central ideas in Everday, a futurological treatise in the form of an encyclopedia of a distant future world. (I welcome everyone to read it, comment, and eventually join for collaborative development. It’s on a wiki site for a reason.) In Everday, the process of rewinding yourself back into childhood is called deep sleep.

That is, of course, an intuition, and there’s little that we can base it upon at this time. But one might imagine that a person who “goes back” and voluntarily invelops into a child will lose much of her memories and of (what we perceive as) her individuality — though probably not all. In any case, such a person will be much closer to pre-rejuvenation herself than, say, a two-parent biological child of hers. It’s the same DNA but given another chance — hopefully a better chance, because it’s now known from experience what this specific DNA is especially good at and how to make it happy.

Or it may not be quite the same DNA because, conceivably, humans will know enough about themselves to constantly tweak and edit their own genomes. Just like applying major patches to an operating system requires a reboot, deep sleep may be used for making the especially big and intrusive genome edits.

In Everday, I look at these and many other aspects of deep sleep: how it affects family, early childhood, education, even language; how it may work for bodiless AIs; and even, how we may have to apply the same principle to entities much larger than a single sentient mind.

Outlandish, maybe. But the time to start thinking about all this is now.