The Great Big Thing(tm): Reductio Ad Absurdum Editium

I did my best in a previous rant to point out the [possibly malicious] polarization of the national conversation. I tried to express my concern over the simplification of complex ideas into rhetorically convenient narratives. Unfortunately, my self-righteousness got the better of me and I don’t think I quite captured that the heart of the issue is a reduction of ideas. This essay really captures the issue for me without needing to watch 3 hours of Adam Curtis documentaries to achieve understanding. In essence, the essay likens the focus by Western Society on [predatory] exponential financial gain to the mutation of cells into a form of cancer:

Values and complexity are focused more and more on prioritizing exponential financial growth, led by for-profit corporate entities that have gained autonomy, rights, power, and nearly unregulated societal influence. The behavior of these entities are akin to cancers. Healthy cells regulate their growth and respond to their surroundings, even eliminating themselves if they wander into an organ where they don’t belong. Cancerous cells, on the other hand, optimize for unconstrained growth and spread with disregard to their function or context.

Reducing the American experiment down to unfettered corporate growth is a gross reduction of ideas. Reducing ideas essentially reduces people. Reducing humanity down to statistics is dangerous because it eliminates most, if not all, of the complexity that makes humanity so different from everything else. I did a fair amount of whining about the hypocrisy of our polarized media landscape without talking about how absurd it is to reduce people down to being cogs in a machine. I have touched on this idea in the past pondering the nature of freedom. This reduction is absurd because the idea of advancing one ideology (which is really just a subset of human struggle) at the expense of another ideology (which is itself another subset of human struggle) is basically pitting half of society against the other half, while deliberately ignoring everything that they have in common.

Rejecting absurdity means embracing irreconcilable ideas

Much like the geardo cargo cult that worships gun culture, there is another cargo cult that worships technology. Much like the cult of the gun that has no real concept of military doctrine, the cult of code has no real concept of software engineering. Just like guns are falsely ascribed the power to help realize white-male-power fantasies, math is also falsely ascribed the power to achieve techno-Utopian fantasies. I understand how seductive both kinds of fantasies can be. The cult of the gun seeks to take control over the violent chaos that threatens to destroy so much. The cult of code wants to cede control to powerful algorithms that promise logic and objectivity and free us from the responsibility of making hard choices. The gun can’t protect you from an uncaring universe, and algorithms just crystallize the biases of their creators.

The desire to take control from those we perceive to be tyrants and to give control over to systems we believe to be objective is a paradox. Like the idea of a benevolent dictator or a truly free market, the perfect system is a great idea that always fails when implemented. Any complex system, be it an economy or a social network, was engineered by people to be used by other people. Engineers are as flawed and fallible as anyone else ergo the systems they build will also be flawed. End users aren’t the sheep that engineers wish that they were. Any imperfect thing (i.e. all things) will eventually be misused by someone with an understanding of its flaws. This isn’t hacker self-righteousness, just look at all of the government programs that get defrauded or the tax increases that billionaires find ways of avoiding. These are flawed systems designed by people that other people have chosen to capitalize on. It doesn’t matter how much time, effort, and money you put into developing a system, someone will invest more in order to exploit it.

The problem with both cults is that neither the gun nor the algorithm is a substitute for humanity, nor is either a hedge against tyranny. In fact, with frightening frequency, both tools harm humanity and encourage tyranny. Guns empower tyrants and are mostly brought to bear against the innocent. Computers empower the reduction of ideas down to data sets, where they confine us to platforms run by big corporations, another form of tyranny. The AK-47 was supposed to be a Communist gift to liberate oppressed peoples, but they mostly got used by death squads. Facebook was supposed to help us to connect with each other, but it mostly pits us against each other while shady marketers peddle divisive media for money and political influence.

Like most of my pseudo-intellectual deep thoughts, the thought began with watching an Adam Curtis documentary but is became fully actualized by watching Rick and Morty. The Adam Curtis idea, that there is a “positive liberty” which is born out of violent struggle, and a “negative liberty” which is born out of apathy. In Rick and Morty, Rick is the epitome of both the gun and the code cults. He has all the weaponry and all the technology, yet most of what he uses it for is to allow himself to get drunk and watch TV. He literally sells a gun to an assassin so he has enough money to spend the day at an arcade. He gets involved with all manner of epic adventures, mostly so he can be an asshole to everyone close to him. He is forever ridiculing the beliefs of others, yet he believes in nothing.

This is probably where I should look to the Asian philosophies I studied as part of my martial arts training should come into play, but Confucianist parables and Taoist paradoxes just aren’t the right medicine for this species existential dread. I’m pretty fucking far from being an Uncarved Stone and trusting the process. If anything, I am an *over* carved stone, and the process is light years away from trustworthy.

Advertisements