Conversations Going Critical

A while ago I took part a bit in discussions at Slate Star Codex. Considering what I wrote here, it made sense. Expressing myself must mean interacting with what I would hope to have as an audience. Once blogging-as-a-solipsistic-thought-dump loses its appeal – which it does – a readership, however small, may be just the necessary oomph one needs to keep going.

In retrospect, posting wasn’t a great idea. Not that it’s bad and that I shouldn’t do it, but interacting online is fraught with dangers. At least it is to me. I want to keep it to a minimum, or at least stay out of anything remotely controversial, complicated or subtle.

Why is that? I love discussing things and the more abstract and controversial the greater potential as a topic. But that love isn’t always benign. Sometimes it resembles the love between an alcoholic and their bottle. Joy inspired by those first few drinks can turn into anxiety and compulsion as things spiral out of control.

How does online interaction spiral out of control?

I’m not talking about flame wars. That’s one result but not the only possible one — and it’s relatively harmless since it has a way of terminating itself by way of catastrophic destruction. You may get angry, but it’s over rather quickly and rarely complicated. It’s as if you threw up the very moment you had too much to drink, making it clear that the good part is now over.

Conversations where people are polite, charitable and knowledgeable (like on SSC), don’t end in flame wars. Best case, they involve a couple of rounds back and forth where interesting insights are exchanged. A couple of rounds. Not more. The good cases terminate, with minimal loose ends.

I think back on old classes on control theory and feedback systems. There are two kinds of feedback: negative and positive (these are math terms, not like getting positive or negative feedback on your work).

Negative feedback means that a change in something causes an opposite force that counteracts that very change. Like, the faster you fall, the more air resistance increases until it completely balances out the accelerating force of gravity. Positive feedback is the opposite, where a change induces an effect that reinforces the change that started it, resulting in explosive growth.

Systems characterized by negative feedback are stable, they return to equilibrium if disturbed (“disturbed” just means “something happens”). Positive feedback systems do not. They are unbalanced and if set off, accelerate until something breaks. The cell division rate in your body is at an equilibrium, if that changes through some unfortunate local mutation, cancer.

What does control theory or tumours have to do with online discussion? It’s math, and math offers useful metaphors for everything. A good discussion that you walk away from satisfied after a few drinks must work by negative feedback (in its mathematical sense; words like “positive” and “negative” have a habit of causing confusion when mathematical use is mistaken for normal).

Discussion is a back-and-forth and it can be seen as a system where the speakers take turns to attempt to express whatever message they want to communicate, based on what the other person just said. Negative feedback then means that every post written (on average) reduces the size and complexity of the answer the receiver want to give, compared to whatever they wrote before.

What I mean is: If I write “A” and you respond “B”, whatever I want to communicate in return must be simpler than “A” was in order not to increase the scope and complexity of the conversation.

Positive feedback quickly makes a conversation spiral out of control as more complex thoughts leads to longer texts. Longer texts are in turn more likely to contain something that sparks even more and bigger thoughts in the other person. They are also more likely to contain something that gets misunderstood, creating a need for further explanation.

If this happens quickly, mere trace elements of hostility will take over the conversation and blow it up. Growth rate multiplied by hostility (call it GH) determines the course of the conversation. If the growth is relatively slow and hostility is kept in check, it can keep going. If GH is negative we get a clean end (hostile or amiable), while if it is positive we get anything from a quick explosion of rage (high positive GH) or a sprawling epic (low positive GH).

I like to really get to the bottom of things. My girlfriend once said to me: “the sun is yellow” just to see if I would go off on a philosophical micro-bender about what the statement really meant, what it would mean for it to be true and to what extent it was. The bait was halfway through my small intestine when she stopped me to claim her point.

If two people like this start talking to each other, the topic may rapidly inflate in multiple directions.

Like this:

Alice says the sun is yellow.

Bob responds by arguing that when we say that something has a certain color, we mean that it has a surface structure that reflects some frequencies of light and not others. Shining things are non-central examples because their perceived color is not a reflection (pun totally intended) of the reflective properties of its surface. If we want to see color as a property of the object itself, we won’t get a neat definition.

Alice comes back with several concerns. She accuses Bob of being a pedant, bringing up pointless distinctions; she argues that the definition of color is not a physical property but whatever it is that makes you experience the color and that the need for a definition in terms of physics amounts to a naïvely positivist view of the world.

Bob wants to explain himself. Some distinctions are important, others are not, but it depends on the context and the person, nothing is pedantic in itself. What someone would call pedantry is often fruitful, and progress in society is the result of advancements in science and technology, which are made possible by being pedantic and wanting to get everything exactly right.

“Colors as experience” makes Bob write a small essay on the nature of qualia and its dubious philosophical status, followed by an argument that when we say that something has a certain color, we do mean it as a property of that object.

Bob also objects to Alice grouping scientific realism along with a century old unfashionable philosophy as inherently naïve, arguing that scientific concepts are the best metaphysics we have.

Alice argues in return that the current context isn’t appropriate for the particular kind of pedantry Bob is talking about and that Bob should learn to read the room. She also doesn’t agree that progress since the industrial revolution is an unalloyed good, and that the whole narrative of progress is a myth, constructed by self-satisfied Victorian industrialists. It also demystifies nature, and in the end destroys it.

She also points to the continued inability of materialism to explain qualia in a satisfactory way, and claims it as a point against the reductionism of vulgar versions of science. Regarding properties of objects such as color, taste and smell, Alice brings up the metaphysics of Locke, Berkeley and Kant, which she studied in university, showing that Bob may need to learn more about the complexities surrounding objects and properties. It also doesn’t matter what someone means when they say something, since the author is dead and interpretation is disconnected from intention.

Alice writes further about the roots of positivism in modern scientific realism and how the word positivism is used in hermeneutic fields of study. She gives a brief 1000 word outline of the standard postmodern critique of science and how facts are socially constructed.

I could go on. In fact, I’m positively aching to. The very purpose of this little debate parody is to show how trying to get to the bottom of complicated things leads to endless forking paths — yet I still have that voice in my head egging me on to write the next iteration of responses. “Just one more round!”

Alice and Bob are now discussing:

Distinctions and pedantry. Within reach: people’s varying temperaments, what distinctions are real and true, the nature of reality.

Whether Bob committed a faux pas. Within reach: the norms of whatever arena they are in, the norms of society, who should have the power over norms, what norms are legitimate and which aren’t.

Whether modernity and the industrial revolution was good or not. Within reach: alienation, modern capitalism, romantics’ views of the past, demystification and the whole history of magic vs. naturalism, environmental destruction, consumerism, greed, happiness, human nature, and hell — pretty much anything.

Progress as myth and history as ideology. Within reach: the meaning of “myth” and the difference between academic and popular uses of words, the existence of objectivity, the world of ideas as an arena for power struggles, the role of european civilisation in shaping the modern world, colonialism, oppression.

The existence of qualia and its impact on the ambitions of materialism. Within reach: the meaning of “materialism”, the confusion around the word “reductionism”, the personal characteristics of people who favor reductive or non-reductive philosophies.

The history of philosophy and Alice’s education in it. Within reach: the merits of philosophy as a discipline, how it’s taught, whether Alice’s expertise grants her any authority, dilettantism, credentialism, the nature of expertise.

The death of the author. Within reach: the purpose of communication, charitability, the possibility of meaning and truth, art as individual expression, texts and the memetic commons.

The status of scientific realism vs hermeneutic research. Within reach: cultural differences in different parts of academia, personal biases, ideology, the use of epithets for things you don’t like.

Whether facts are socially constructed. Within reach: what does “socially constructed” mean?, what role does pre-formed concepts play in scientific research?, what do we mean by “fact”?, is there a real structure to nature?

Soon it’s midnight and Alice and Bob have forgotten to eat. Somewhere along they stopped enjoying themselves and kept going by compulsion.

This happens. Well, this doesn’t happen, but it would if people had more patience, more knowledge, and less sanity. Milder versions of it do happen. Fun does turn to dread as the loose ends proliferate. The satisfaction from neat conversational closures gets drowned in anxiety as each attempt to bring a topic down to a safe landing risks spawning new ones.

Cleaning can be satisfying. Having to do it with surgical precision because one wrong move may create new mounds of dirt is unlikely to be. It also takes forever.

One result of positive-feedback discussions is a flame war (or just the kind of sustained one-dimensional hostility you see in typical political debates), which happens when the parties either aren’t aware of the increasing complexity of communication needed to get them to understand each other (and therefore write off each other as intentionally obtuse or plain evil), or simply lack the will to communicate in the first place.

If you manage to uphold charity in a positive-feedback discussion, you have to prioritize. Choose what threads to pick up and try to close, and leave less important ones behind.

For me, this is where it stops being enjoyable. It means going into damage-control mode by sharply reducing your ambition. You try to close the major topics as quickly as possible to keep them from creating more work. You won’t be able to bring anything to the kind of beautiful, clean close that you hope for when engaging in discussion, which sucks the fun right out. And the unclosed threads left behind leave you with a sense of dissatisfaction and incompleteness. They’ll remain there, generating misunderstandings in other readers forever. Toxic fuckers.

You keep writing after it stops being fun, which is what makes the whole thing like an addiction.

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