Illusory Communion

Sometimes you hear stories about people who mistake actors for the characters they play. If you play a hero, people like you, but if you play a villain, you might get scolded or attacked by some poor confused person (the phenomenon is well known, warning,  tvtropes link). Well, those people are just nuts. Every sane person can separate fact from fiction. Right? Well we can if we care to actually think about it, but our subconsious isn’t so self-aware.

But that’s just the tangible, dramatic tip of the iceberg. Even if we don’t make this kind of mistake we do make a lot of more subtle ones, constantly. We don’t even think of them as mistakes.

Take television. Things like tv didn’t exist in the environment in which humans evolved, and people you saw and heard were people you knew. Our rational mind (“System 2” in Kahneman-lingo) knows tv isn’t real, but our gut, our feelings, our “System 1”, is still fooled by it and we react nonetheless.

That’s the reason it works, the reason we care about and get emotionally stimulated by the pattern of lights on a screen. Our System 1 never developed instinctive ways of distinguishing between real people and people on a screen, because there weren’t any. We rely on general intelligence (System 2) for that, and general intelligence is energy-thirsty and hard. It’s that expensive-as-hell consultant you call when the regular staff can’t tackle something.

In the last few years a new kind of tv show has become popular in Sweden. “Hang with celebrities”-tv isn’t reality tv in the sense that there is a competition or much of a plot. Nor is there staged confrontation and over-the-top characters. Instead, the main content of these shows is just celebrities hanging out, having dinner and talking.

This seems pointless, why watch other people have dinner?

When we watch celebrities on tv, or read gossip about them, we feel on an instinctive level as if they’re our friends. I suppose watching them talk and eat is vicarious socializing, much in demand in a society were people really wish they could spend more time just hanging out with their friends instead of sitting alone on their couches watching a rectangular array of 1080×720 tiny lamps emitting light with a frequency that changes over time.

It certainly fools me. If I’m alone, especially in the evening, I want the tv on, otherwise I become so intensely aware of how alone I am. It’s so quiet. If the tv is on, I don’t feel that. Pretty much anything on tv makes me feel less obviously alone, but these shows put that make-me-feel-like-I’m-with-people function front and center.

I guess watching them socialize is some kind of high-grade synthetic substitute that mimics us hanging out with our friends. It’s socializing-porn.

This reddit poster apparently watches videos of other people watching tv (and talking about it). I didn’t realize this was a thing, but I’m not surprised. Neither was I surprised when a friend told me his 2-year-old son likes to watch youtube videos of people playing with toys in front of a camera.

Imagine sitting quietly at a table among people having a conversation. Even though you’re not saying anything, it still feels like you’re part of the group. You could just step in and add something at any point and everyone would know that you’ve been there all the time, you’re part of the conversation and you know what the topic is.

Active engagement in a conversation isn’t required for having a stake in it. Mere presence will do.

I think that, at least to me, lurking on forums is the digital version of sitting quietly at a table listening to people talk. If you lurk in a place long enough you begin to recognize individual posters. And since the monkey brain doesn’t seem to understand that it’s possible in the modern world to “know” somebody without them knowing you, you get a subconscious feeling that they know you back.

If you do this for a decent length of time, you can learn to feel at home somewhere without anyone there having any idea you exist. Like being fooled by tv, this is a bug in humans that only became apparent when we were put in an environment very different from the testing conditions.

As a rule, there are many more lurkers than there are posters in a discussion thread. It’s a group of people in a room talking, and a much larger number of invisible spectators who all imagine themselves being the sole quiet person joining them at the table. Through this strange mechanic, thousands of people can all feel part of the same small community.

This was my way to overdramatically explain (I gladly split infinitives) my (non)relationship to what’s called the rationalist community (or sometimes the rationalist diaspora, due to its origin being a bit of a ghost town nowadays).

I’ve spent the last year-and-some-more reading a lot of Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex plus various satellites, and I certainly identify with this community and its ideals and perspective. But I have have yet to make a peep anywhere there. With a single tiny exception, I haven’t posted anything, or taken part in any conversation. This is because of time constraints, kids, job, house, etc., but also because engaging in discussions online is far too intense for me – when I have done so in the past it has taken up too much of my headspace.

I should change that. The point of writing is communication, and being here talking to myself may have some therapeutic value, but isn’t likely to be very rewarding in the long run.

But at this time this is a completely one-sided relationship. That makes things weird now when I write. I’m ready to build upon the vast amount of material members of this community might be expected to have read. I feel like an insider writing to my community, but I’m not. I’m a stranger and I’d be talking to strangers as if I knew them.

So, how much to incorporate ideas and jargon from the rationality-sphere in what I write is a big question. Considering how deeply these things have been integrated into my thought processes, it would be pretty much impossible to write completely outside this frame. If I were to write independently of the rationalist memeplex I’d be partly crowded out from topics I want to write about, and partly forced to reconstruct the parts of it that I’d need. Sounds terrible. Considering the breadth and depth of the ideas it seems like an either-or question and it’s hard to write in a way that’s decipherable and interesting both for those with this memeplex installed and those without it.

I guess what I’m looking for is a way to deal with unknown inferential distance. You want to make sure a reader will understand you correctly, and that will involve making assumptions about what the reader will understand without a lengthy explanation and what they will accept without a lengthy argument.

The writer can do all the work, carefully untangling their ideas into a sequential installation program that puts what they thought into another head. Textbooks do this, the Less Wrong sequences are like this, and the typical popular science book is like this.

The downsides are: 1) this is a lot of work, 2) you have to cover a lot of grund that’s already been covered elsewhere, 3) it’ll be boring to people who already know it, 4) it’ll be difficult to say something new since all your energy go into explaining the “basics”, and 5) the insight-density of the text will be low, as it is in the combination of different abstract ideas that the true magic happens.

You could force the reader to do the bridging work, and the text could be just a stream-of-consciousness memory dump. If the first method is handing someone a cake recipe, this would be like handing them a cake with a note saying “figure out how to make it”. This might be appealing, but unless you’re a professor at a prestigious university (and therefore officially certified, however tenuously, as “not a ranting nut”) everyone will just ignore you because students won’t be forced to slog through your work.

You need to go somewhere in between, and most people do. I guess, since I think so much about erisology I’ve become hyperaware of the risks of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. If you’re being anything less than excruciatingly detailed and unpack every word and defend every assumption people will read you wrong. I may have to get over this fear.

I guess on the internet we have new ways of dealing with this. You can link directly to required information and this might make it possible to be both dense and thorough. The future looks bright?

tl;dr I don’t know who I’m talking to. Also, I want to say abstract things but I don’t want it to sound like I’m just talking out of my ass.

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2 thoughts on “Illusory Communion

  1. I deleted this comment several times trying to rationalize why I’m responding, since your essay needs no further comment. But I think the entire reason for responding is because of this:

    “I haven’t posted anything, or taken part in any conversation…I should change that.”

    Take that, trepidation to responding!

    Liked by 1 person

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