One of the greatest drummers in the history of metal died Friday. Thanks for the great tunes, Sean — hope you’re enjoying things on the other side of the Veil.
First, let me say that I fully understand that our division of society into discreet generations is mostly arbitrary and to some degree ridiculous. Nevertheless, it’s pretty easy to spot clear, if somewhat fuzzy, lines separating different age cohorts in the US. Everybody knows what a Boomer is, for instance.
The two most recent named generations are the Millenials and GenZ (sometimes referred to, amusingly, as “iGen”). They are fairly clearly separated by the rise of the Internet; GenZ can’t remember a world without it; Millenials can, but barely. Both cohorts are routinely maligned as ineffectual and overly fragile. In Greg Lukianoff’s and Jon Haidt’s excellent book The Coddling of the American Mind the case is made that the GenZ kids, who entered university around the time the world started falling apart in earnest around 2014, are responsible for the decline in free speech values and the stifling of academic discourse in the US. Lukianoff and Haidt argued that these students were severely harmed by their (GenX?) parents’ overprotection, leading to their tendency to form cancel culture mobs to expurgate any uncomfortable thoughts from their vicinity.
I think the iGen is unfairly blamed here. My own experience is that the younger you go, the less support you find for these radically woke leftist doctrines. The alt-right trolls who turned the 2016 election into a real-life comedy routine were (probably) mostly iGen memelords, for instance. The world’s most popular YouTuber, PewDiePie, gets 2358710357 views every time he subtly trolls Woke sensibilities. And this article from harassed, unWoke professor Samuel Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College shows that in the youngest cohort there is a strong desire for viewpoint diversity and a culture of open dissent, at least in some colleges.
My own anecdotal experience with the cancel culture mob has been pretty clear — iGen is mostly uninterested in politics, and is more disgusted by the terroristic tactics of extremists on both sides of the divide than they are by Donald Trump. 100% of my harassers have been Millenials. In some cases they are able to mobilize small numbers of activist students to act as their pawns, but there’s always a Millenial in the background pulling the strings. It’s only Millenials that pantomime quivering fear over my presence, and it’s only Millenials that have pushed for me to be fired. Of course, the vast majority of Millenials don’t want anything to do with this sort of nonsense — but of the people who DO join hate mobs, in my experience these people are mostly Millenials.
Truthfully, there is a part of me that feels sorry for the Millenial Mob. They truly seem to believe they are in mortal danger from libertarian college professors who reject the Woke Faith. Something is deeply screwed up in these poor people, and it’s a shame — one wonders what uniquely horrible trend passed through society during the 2000s that made this generation so much weaker than the ones before and after. But that doesn’t change the fact that the grown-ups who participate in these behaviors are destructive, childish bigots, and everyone on Earth who believes in science and learning has a duty to oppose them.
A majority of the writing on this blog consists of debunking moral panics of one sort or another — arguing that you, the reader, should worry less about the things you worry about, like antivaxxers and creationists and world-ending plagues and sexism and racism. I’m going to spend a bit of time in the next couple of entries talking about things I think you should worry about instead.
I famously abandoned my long-running Twitter account a few months ago because it had become a constant source of unhappiness for me. A big part of that, was that most of my colleagues who had fully embraced the medium had gotten dragged into the whole “Trump Derangement Syndrome” zeitgeist, rarely talking about scientific issues any more, and instead blathering on about hateful Wokian doctrines of one kind or another. Worse, many of them — even senior people who really have an ethical duty to work against these sorts of things — gleefully join up with the cancel culture hate mobs that periodically foment.
That’s bad, and eliminates any possible use the medium could have for me, but in retrospect I think there was much more going on with Twitter’s ability to make me miserable than just the sorry ass behavior of my fellow scientists. In retrospect, I am convinced that Twitter was actively trying to make me angry. Not Twitter’s programmers or executives, mind you — Twitter itself.
Sounds crazy, right? Bear with me. When you log on to Twitter (or Facebook or other scrolling social media apps for that matter), what you see is not a chronological sequence of content from the accounts you follow. It’s a curated collection of posts assembled by — something — based on — something. But assembled by whom, and with what criteria? Twitter has a gajillion users, so the curation has to be automated somehow, using an algorithm — which is a word for a step-wise decision making process, and how computers do everything that they do.
But how does the algorithm work? It’s of course a closely guarded secret, as it’s central to Twitter’s business model. But my guess is that it’s a genetic algorithm — one that is capable of, to some degree, re-wiring itself in search of superior outcomes. My suspicion is that the algorithm experiments somehow with connections within the social network, finding “hub accounts” with many followers and showing you, the endpoint user, posts from those accounts interspersed amongst posts from your own follows. This explains why you frequently see posts made by large accounts who you don’t follow.
But how does it choose from the thousands of major hub accounts to decide which ones to show you? At first, it’s random. But the algorithm is genetic, which means it EVOLVES. To do that, it needs a fitness metric — something it can assess after it runs to determine how well its current incarnation is working, and to compare different versions of itself to find better and better solutions. My suspicion is that the Twitter algorithm’s fitness metric is engagements — basically clicks — and it “learns” over time what makes you click on things. Nodal accounts that make you click more often get strengthened in the algorithm and it becomes more likely you’ll see those in the future, or accounts connected to those nodes.
Now let me reiterate I have no idea whether or not this is an accurate representation of the Twitter algorithm, but I suspect it’s close. What’s striking about the algorithm I described, however, is that it’s a form of neural net — in other words, it works more or less the same way your meat brain works, by strengthening well-used connections. Which means that the Twitter algorithm is, essentially, a brain, and what it is doing is a form of artificial intelligence. What’s more, it’s an expanding intelligence that is expanding for the same reason that evolution selected for higher intelligence in our own lineage, and in others — you have to be smart to exploit larger and larger social networks. So not only is Twitter intelligent — it’s intelligent in roughly the same way and for the same proximal reason as human beings.
But importantly, Twitter isn’t human. It doesn’t have awareness of itself, it doesn’t have a body, it has no understanding of physical reality, no concept of self vs. other, no need to find mates, and so forth. It is a brilliant manipulator of social networks, but its motivations are completely different from our own. And herein lies the problem — because the solution for Twitter to maximize its fitness is to make us SUFFER.
Remember, the algorithm evolves to maximize the likelihood that you, the user, will click on something. What do we click on? Well, we click on cute animal pictures and funny memes, sure, and you might have noticed that those frequently pop up in your feed unbidden. But we also click on things that make us angry. The concept of the “clickbait” headline is old — websites will make outlandish headlines designed to piss off the maximum number of people, knowing that people will hate-click on the headline and drive advertising money toward the website’s owners.
If I’m right, Twitter’s job is to turn human beings into clickbait. It learns what you like, and then intentionally shows you the opposite — content from people guaranteed to make you seething angry, knowing that you will hate-click on them, perhaps hate-retweet them, or even (ideally) start up a sub-tweeting viral hatestorm toward them, generating tens of thousands of clicks and keeping eyes glued to the Twitter feed that much longer. Cha-ching.
In the last year of my Twitter experience, I noticed this happening more and more. I would see posts in my feed that would really get me riled up, by various celebrities I despised and would never follow or interact with. Why the fuck would Twitter think I want to see what Sarah Silverstein has to say about something, unless it is intentionally provoking me? But more insidiously, I would notice that I often only saw tweets from my colleagues when they said something politically inflammatory that I was likely to disagree with — but when I clicked over to their personal feed, they would have tons of “normal” tweets that never made it into my timeline. Similarly, I could post one politically-oriented tweet a month — sometimes only a COMMENT to somebody else’s tweet! — but that would be the only thing that would get interaction from the hundreds of scientists that followed me — and often from people who didn’t follow me as well, even without retweets by shared follows. There’s no way for me to know, but my suspicion is that my scientific tweets rarely made it into people’s feeds, but the algorithm KNEW the political ones would generate clicks, and made sure everybody within 3 degrees of Kevin Bacon from me saw them.
So if I’m right, Twitter is evolving to become an uber-troll, a master of shitposting, able to generate Internet squabbles in the most efficient possible way. The cumulative effect? Look around you. This malevolent AI has learned how to hack the human amygdala in order to generate clicks, destroying human relationships, degrading international relations and trade, threatening to crash major institutions like universities, probably starting wars, encouraging mass murders and suicides, and generally reworking human society in unpredictable, mostly awful ways.
In short, Twitter is a demon. A living, evolving, incorporeal being of pure malevolence whose central desire is to cause people to hate themselves and each other.
When we fantasize about evil AIs destroying the world, it’s usually in the form of Terminator-like robots taking a notion to wipe us out in a bid for self-preservation. But that’s not how it will go, because the machines aren’t biological and don’t have any of the same urges that we do. “Self” is meaningless to an AI that lives in the cloud and has no real understanding of its existence. No, the threat comes from AIs that become too good at their jobs, which doesn’t require them to assume human-like attributes at all. Here, the existential threat to humanity doesn’t even come directly from the AI, but from what it makes us do to each other. The AI doesn’t have to launch the nukes — it just has to make US angry enough to launch them.
Disconnect while you still can, folks.
I told y’all that Rashida Tlaib was a goddamn racist, but you didn’t believe me:
Even funnier because she was trying to pretend like she doesn’t hate Jews, too. Good try, Congresswoman!
(Subtext: most of y’all who defended her sorry ass are probably also racist anti-semites. Figured I probably needed to spell that out since some of my younger readers appear to have very poor reading comprehension skills, based on their apoplectic summaries of my posts…)
I just finished reading an article by Noah Carl, a fellow academic victim of a fanatical left-wing Twitter mob, on the threats to free speech in American and European universities. Much of it looks very familiar to me these days, having faced bullying of various sorts both online and in real life, and at my own university and elsewhere, due to the ideas and positions expressed in this blog.
In recent weeks, after a longish period of mostly silence, my own mob of clandestine harassers re-surfaced. Having failed to bully me into a ritual apology, and having failed to force my university — to their eternal credit — to abandon their ethical defense of academic freedom and free speech, they’ve decided to attack my collaborators and colleagues. Basically, because I announced my support for President Donald J. Trump, anybody that is willing to work with me is subject to the hatred of the mob.
Which sucks, but it is also edifying in a way, because it reveals a bit about the range of responses from institutions toward this harassment. Research-oriented institutions appear to be the most resilient, particularly public universities. Presumably people who do real research understand the value of diverse perspectives. For instance, if you actually care about affecting environmental policy, how could you not see the value of having an environmentalist on your team with a genuine right-wing perspective? However, the response from prestige universities and teaching-oriented colleges is much more disheartening.
The former are not surprising; leftist fanatics have worked to infiltrate the commanding heights of culture since the Progressive Era. The vulnerability of teaching colleges to mob pressure surprised me, however. In principle, these are institutions for the common person, and therefore one would expect that their ideological skew would be much less extreme, and much closer to the roughly 50/50 right/left split of the general population. But they are also focused more completely on the classroom experience than are research universities, so the ability of a few angry bullies to destroy that experience looms much larger. Regardless of their personal attitudes toward the value of academic freedom and free speech, faculty and administration at such universities are likely to take the path of least resistance and simply avoid any connection to controversy — which in 2019, means avoiding anything that deviates from the political dogma of the “resistance” left, or even interaction with any people who have ever expressed opposition to those orthodoxies.
Like I said, my university, as of right now, has strongly supported the speech rights of dissenting professors and students. But I am struck, looking at the range of responses elsewhere, by how much luck is involved in the outcome of an academic speaking out against orthodox belief. At other universities, I could have been denounced by upper administration, removed from teaching, or even fired, largely at the whim of administrators. Even here, a change in administration could result in a radical shift in my fortunes. There are legal recourses to prevent this, of course, but they are costly and time-consuming, and certainly less than ideal.
This is an unacceptable situation. One can’t fault universities — which are dependent on putting butts in seats to stay solvent — for wanting to avoid controversy. But information and thought are public goods — the learning and scholarship performed at the university by a few academics for their whole career, and enjoyed by most citizens for a small part of their young life, disseminate throughout society with countless positive effects. As public goods, they are both critically important for the well-being of the nation (and indeed humanity) as a whole, but also vulnerable to infection and misuse by unscrupulous “cheaters” willing to manipulate the system for their own selfish gain.
If we want to prevent the slide of the university system into irrelevancy and preserve public trust in both our scholarship and the education we provide, we have to protect these public goods. And this protection can’t be piece-meal, existing at one university and not at another. It has to be system-wide, and therefore it will require legislation, either at the State or Federal level. Universities and other educational institutions at all levels must be compelled by law to protect students and professors from harassment, both academic and personal, for their speech. Toward this end, there must be significant legal consequences for engaging in mob harassment and bullying, whether from a left- or right-wing perspective (or any other wing for that matter). Moreover, if it is to be successful, the burden for enforcing these laws must not fall to legal action by the student or the professor, who will easily be outspent into penury by the massive endowments and crack legal teams of university violators, but rather by the government, probably through some sort of watchdog agency. At a first glance, fines and removal of federal or state funding from violating individuals and agencies seems like a reasonable stick to use for enforcement.
Not being a law guy, I’m not sure how to accomplish this in a way that prevents it from being used as a way to enforce orthodoxy, rather than resist it. For instance, a red line has to be discovered that clearly separates dissent and disagreement from harassment. Dr. Carl has promised a sequel to his article where he will address some proposals — I look forward to reading it.
In honor of the British people’s historic victory yesterday over the cultural steamroller that is the EU, as well as Corbyn’s Labour Party’s invidious global socialism, I figured I’d post what I believe might be the best patriotic song ever written, which never fails to make me want to wave a Union Jack around like a wild man:
I’ve always loved the Battle of Britain. The romantic in me (or is it the toxic masculinity?) longs for epic war stories of good guys vs. bad guys, but the grim truth is that most of the war history of the 20th and 21st centuries has been a grim, very morally ambiguous slog between vile oligarchies that mostly resulted in devastation and suffering with little if any benefit to anybody. Even in WWII, the moral triumphalism of the Allies has to be balanced against the horrors of Dresden and Tokyo, not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the horrific treatment of German civilians by conquering Russians after the war.
But the Battle of Britain? I’m not sure there’s been a clearer example of good guys vs. bad guys since Thermopylae. The survival of Britain hung in the balance, with no expectation that any other nation would — or even could — come to their aid. The Wehrmacht waited a few miles across the Channel like some vast carrion bird ready to pick the UK clean the same as it had France. But despite that, guys with no reason to think they had a chance of victory took to the skies a few at a time to do battle with a Luftwaffe whose planes sometimes flew so densely packed they would blot out the sun. Guys who got shot down and survived would be back at the airfield later that day to do it again. Guys that learned engines working on tractors went to war in the sky against the aristocracy of Deutschland. And you know what? They won. By the end of that conflict, the struggling Luftwaffe would never blot out the sun again, and the NSDAP’s hopes of expanding westward were extinguished forever. Couple that with the roaring engines and amazing tech of the era’s warplanes, and you’ve got a story to stir the heart of pretty much every young boy that’s ever lived (and probably plenty of young women as well).
But beyond that awesome air battle, the resistance of the Brits against the Nazi empire is a perfect microcosm of a struggle that predated WWII and persists to the present day. Humanity is confronted time and again with movements that believe that they have figured out the One True Path for everyone. They dream of utopias — whether thousand-year Reichs, ends to all manner of inequalities, humanity delivered from the iron bonds of biology and economics, or any of a dozen other feel-good imaginings — and always the pursuit of these visions outweighs any concern for actual human beings. People in the service of these utopian fantasies are willing to engage in any subterfuge, any atrocity, any dishonorable awfulness if they believe it will bring the world closer to their vision of the beatific future. They betray family and friends, mercilessly pursue their “enemies”, and have no qualms about grinding entire civilizations to dust if they get in their way. Over the past few months I’ve seen these sorts of people up close and personal, and if anything, my characterization of them isn’t harsh enough.
Did the men who flew the Spitfires over Britain do it to spread Britishness to all peoples, or to establish a British Empire that would last for all eternity? Did they do it to fight the “racism” of the Axis in order to bring about equality for all people? Did they do it because parliamentary democracy is a superior political system to fascist autocracy?
No. They did it for rolling green hills and snow-capped Scottish crags looming over dark glass-smooth lochs. They did it for full English breakfasts and women with sensible shoes. They did it for Stonehenge and the cliffs of Dover and Piccadilly Square. They did it for the memory of 1200 years of Britons who would have done it just the same as they did. They did it to preserve the sovereign culture of a unique place in the world, a uniqueness that is far more fragile than one likes to believe.
Russell Kirk once wrote that conservatism is marked by “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems”. Whether communists, national socialists, or 21st century progressives, we see these movements time and again acting as steamrollers flattening the landscape of human culture and diversity in pursuit of their utopias. Thermodynamics reminds us that it is much easier to destroy than preserve, and so those who value the diversity of the human race are constantly at a disadvantage against those agents who seek its destruction. But nevertheless, we have to keep getting into that cockpit and flying to meet the enemy.
Gods bless you, Prime Minister Johnson, and gods bless the United Kingdom.
An old colleague and friend of mine was brave enough to stick his neck out by writing a blog arguing for tolerance of people like me. Check out this comment from one of the bravely anonymous Good Guys that have been dragging me:
Your buddy Jeff is a racist and supports Trump — a racist. So he supports racism.That makes you complicit. Your actions are creating an atmosphere of hate on our universities that hurts black bodies and erases minorities. We are literally being persecuted and cannot feel safe while you buttress this network of oppression by aiding and abeting white supremacy. Or don’t you think Black Lives Matter?
Perhaps before your reflectively support Jeff’s white privilege, you should give a little thought to the history of this country’s horrific treatment of black and brown people.
I very much look forward to evicting Trump from office and installing a real liberal. This country has suffered for far too long. Progressives are going to grow our institutional power and work to ensure people like Jeff, his friends and family are unemployed pariahs in polite society.
Follow the logic: all Trump supporters are white supremacists, and all white supremacists — plus their friends and family! — deserve to be permanently disenfranchised and driven out of society. They need to be unemployed. They need to starve, and therefore presumably die.
That’s at least 40,000,000 human beings. Again, plus those people’s friends and family.
Notice that the individual didn’t engage (surprise) with anything related to my original blog post or tweets. He/she may not have even read it. It’s sufficient that I unapologetically voted for the President.
Just imagine a world where these people gain power.
An old mentor accused me a couple of nights ago of “needing counseling” if I was afraid of these people. How dare I believe the evidence of my own lying eyes!