Why can’t we skip all these tedious intermediate steps and just succeed already?

Suppose you had a discussion like this:

A: Choristers are terrible! They keep singing things all the time, and it gets on my nerves!
B: Have you tried earplugs?
A: Of course! They’re worthless! Uncomfortable, constantly in need of replacement, hardly block the awful singing but do somehow always make me miss important phone calls…
B: Okay, not that then. Have you tried asking them to stop?
A: Only every day for the last eternity. Why won’t they stop? Argh.
B: Maybe try asking them to sing something different, that you’ll like?
A: I don’t want them to sing something else, I want them to stop.
B: Or maybe you could offer to help them find a more soundproof room somewhere?
A: Why should I help them?! They’re torturing me! Why can’t they just stop doing it?
B: Perhaps some kind of rotating schedule, so you can be elsewhere when they sing…
A: Argh! No! They need to just not do it!

We could definitely accuse B of being unsympathetic. But A is also being unsympathetic, and so are the choristers, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. The point is that B is trying to be pragmatic – find a workable solution that makes A less unhappy. But A doesn’t seem all that interested in the workarounds – their only plan is to hope for the simpler solution of everyone abiding by A’s own preferences.

Let’s briefly consider some real-world examples:

And so on through a hundred other tedious culture-wars-by-proxy, “why can’t people just diet and stick to it,” “why can’t people just have more feminist sexual preferences,” “why can’t people just get jobs,”… All different in their exact causes but all containing a trace of the same error. Now that everyone is at least a little bit angry and considering leaving a comment about how their pet issue is totally different (hey! Just like mine!), we can move on.

Hopefully the idea is now clear. Someone has some extremely precious value like pro-choice, free speech, having guns, etc. That value gets questioned by other people who have different values. The person wishes other people would stop doing that. The problem is that, no matter how important it is (to the requester) that the value be respected, it’s not enough to make people actually do it. And emphasising that importance by repeated injunction does nothing.

Which is to say, there’s a tendency to try to object to a proposed solution by saying “but the real problem is that people are causing a problem. People just need to stop doing that.” Essentially, asking for people to change in an unlikely way as a substitute for discussing the proposed solution on a deeper level and gaining understanding of why it’s not satisfactory that can be used to refine the solution and so on.

I’ve made this mistake over and over again, on issues from environmentalism to electoral reform to foreign policy. It’s ludicrously hard to debate ideas without ever asking for the impossible. It could be seen as a kind of fallacy of perfectionism, but I prefer to think of it as its own thing, a kind of cognitive failure mode based around the fear that one’s values won’t be respected and the tendency to stop looking for a solution once someone else can be blamed.

The objection is obvious: but isn’t asking for less “asking for other people to change in unlikely ways” asking for people to change in an unlikely way? Yes, it kind of is. Therefore, here are some proposed practical workarounds:

  • Express the sentiment as “just to check, we agree that it would be best if … ?” – The aim here is to placate the part of the mind that is worried that the other participants won’t respect your highly regarded value.
  • Emphasize not wanting to be dragged off-topic when mentioning that it would be nice if whatever optimal path could be taken instead of compromising. This seems prone to failure. No amount of “let’s not get off topic, but…” has ever prevented discussions getting off-topic.
  • Resist the temptation to respond to “why can’t X just V?” with disagreement about whether it would be good if X just V. It is sometimes possible to find a way to express the idea that the principle is sound but an unhelpful way of looking at the original question; but if not, you’re usually allowed to just drop the line of discussion.
  • Ignore the discussions themselves. Then, write a long meta-level rant on your blog about it. This solves the problem forever.
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Why can’t we skip all these tedious intermediate steps and just succeed already?

Degeneracy Pressure

A while ago, the heretical false caliph wrote about The Constant Decline of Civilization.

Now, I don’t think it can be argued that any of Scott’s points are exactly wrong. But that said, I don’t think they’re strikingly right, either.

Foremost: I don’t think the “litany of historical complaints about degeneracy” are meant to be that kind of argument – that is, “everyone in history thought X, therefore not-X.” I think the intended message is largely “oh, and where is your plan to reverse it all going to stop at?” A mixture of asking how we can know that the complainer’s preferred historical era is the right one when the people in that era complained as well, with a suggestion that the complainer would never have been happy no matter when they’d been around.

Very few such complainers want to go all the way back to before history. Some do, but not many.

But okay, let’s take it head-on. Some things have been getting worse forever.

Have they? Well, I’m not really sure. Scott compares an office worker to a frontiersman to a crusader to a Spartan. Is that really fair? Why not a computer-based office worker to a paper-based office worker to a clerk to a scribe? Why not a fighter pilot to a cavalryman to a crusader to a Spartan? Well, because those would be harder to judge, wouldn’t they? It’s not really obvious that a fighter pilot is less of a Cool Warrior Archetype: sure he’s raining down metallic judgment from on high rather than getting up-close-and-personal, but his training is more extensive, his conditions more extreme. What Spartan warrior ever fought at 8G?

And if we do want the former aspect and the former aspect only, why is the crusader lacking it? Are we falling for the old “well our stories of Spartans have them as super-noble oiled near-naked men of pure courage, and our stories of crusaders have them as fully-armored rape-and-pillage God-botherers, so obviously Spartans are better” lark? Those are just stories. Perhaps based on facts at first, but given that time twists all such retellings more and more as they go on, aren’t they a terrible basis for comparison?

I can kind of see the point being outlined, though: as time has gone on, technology has replaced humans in many roles (doctors’ diagnoses vs machines, hand-to-hand combat vs drones, etc). The result of this is a constant loss of the requirement of being amazing at those roles. So people today are “worse people” because they can’t do what the people of old could, because the people of old had to.

But wait! This was supposed to be about virtue! Since when is it virtuous to be able to diagnose a disease by sight/smell/pure force of doctorliness alone, when that’s the only option you have? Virtue, if it means anything, means choosing a harder path out of personal commitment to being the best possible person. Having no better options does not make you more virtuous: it makes you unfortunate! It’s not like people have lost the capacity to be able to be superb diagnosticians or warriors or mnemnists, and if a day should come when such skills are required, then they will be restored. The fact that such days have been receding ever further into the past is a huge success.

And on the point of modern art… This argument annoys me! Firstly, great art of any type you care to name is still being produced, often in greater quantity, to a greater degree of skill, whatever metric you like. Secondly, it’s a pure example of “stop liking things I don’t like” – even if art you like weren’t being produced any more, art is made to satisfy more urges than merely yours. You cannot escape this by calling certain preferences wrong (e.g. “modern art is just edginess-signalling”): doing so is just asserting that your preferences are objectively correct, which is laughable. And lastly, modern art works as art. I’ve had countless conversations about modern art, usually starting with someone saying “urgh it’s not art,” and cannot remember even one conversation in my life about Renaissance art, probably because the latter is pretty boring to anyone who’s not part of the fanclub.

So no, take your Argmentum ad Entartetekunst and hang it on the wall in a modern art display. It’ll be appreciated there.

Degeneracy Pressure

Adblock Can (Not) Save Us

It is now generally agreed that “clickbait culture” is destroying any hope of productive discourse that does not immediately disintegrate into bickering, flame-wars and grandstanding. However, the incentive structure as it stands simply does not allow anyone to stop doing it: the first media outlet to take a stand for calmness and sanity will be the first to bleed to death from lacking advertising revenue as its viewers click more provocative lines in their feeds. Despite cautions regarding structures that enable vertical transit, everything just keeps tumbling down. It doesn’t stop from keep happening.

But what if we could stop letting that happen? Adblockers, which modify a browser to not display advertisements from websites the user visits but does not explicitly whitelist, could decouple “maximizing viewership” from “maximizing revenue,” and whatever digital economy follows might require producers to create content of genuinely high value.

I don’t think it will work out so pleasantly. Here are my reasons, laid out as straightforwardly as possible:

  • Adblockers are permeable: most adblockers serve the purpose of blocking obnoxious ads, not preventing civilizational collapse. They often have provisions to allow non-intrusive ads, and unethical adblockers effectively operate as a protection racket, accepting payment from advertisement agencies to not include their material in the default blacklists. Adblockers that are not complete do not remove the incentive to produce clickbait.
  • Adblockers are detectable: in order to save bandwidth, most adblockers work by modifying requests to the web server so that returned pages do not include known advertisement content. Increasing numbers of websites detect this happening and lock content unless the user whitelists their site. While it’s possible to instead download the ads and not display them, this uses significant bandwidth – and more importantly, if adblock-users are indistinguishable from non-users, there’s no loss of incentive to be clickbaity from a viewer changing category.
  • Anti-adblockism is already a thing: a lot of content creators are not happy with their ability to earn a living being destroyed in the hopes that something better will emerge from the rubble, and argue that using adblockers is morally wrong. A lot of people agree with them, and would be especially unhappy with the kind of adblockers that would be required to repair online discourse (see above).
  • Content creators doubling down: to keep revenue up as numbers of “paying” viewers falls, even more outrageous clickbait will have to be used. This may sound impossible, but I’m quite sure it’s not. “Things can’t possibly get worse” has never been correct, and arguably the rise of adblockers is what precipitated this race-to-the-bottom to begin with.
  • The replacement digital economy will also be awful: it doesn’t seem especially likely that non-ad-based revenue streams will necessarily protect against clickbait. Remember that the Daily Mail existed long before the modern internet did. If people are more willing to click on bait-links, they’ll probably be more willing to fork over a seamless microtransaction to see them; or to subscribe to their service; or whatever payment model is hoped will take the place of ads. Short of a centralized body funding content-creation on merit rather than populism, the incentive to acquire more viewers at the cost of calmness and sanity will always be there, and you can bet the libertarian brigade would be up in arms if we tried to nationalize the media – somewhat rightly so, I imagine, since it introduces different perverse incentives.
  • The replacement digital economy will be less equitable: yes, clickbait is destroying the world, but it’s fair – anyone can write what they want and get paid exactly what they deserve (i.e. proportionally to viewership).

Some of these issues can be circumvented, others mitigated. And on the whole, I’m hopeful that adblocking can at least slow the decline – after all, back when all media was pay-per-view, high quality content was mostly the norm.

Oh, and everyone needs to stop using Twitter immediately – that stuff is memetic poison and “but muh coordination problem” or “but muh best social media platform” is not a good enough reason to put it anywhere close to your mind. Do not drink the radioactive acid.

Adblock Can (Not) Save Us