On unintended consequences.

On unintended consequences.

After our current president ordered the assassination of an Iranian general by drone, my class in jail discussed excerpts from Gregoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone.

Chamayou argues that drone warfare is qualitatively distinct from other forms of state violence.  The psychological rift stems from asymmetry – one side risks money, the other risks life. 

The use of drones keeps U.S. soldiers safer.  But in Chamayou’s opinion (translated by Janet Lloyd, and slightly modified by me for students to read aloud),

If the U.S. military withdraws from the battlefield, enemy violence will turn against targets that are easier to reach.  Even if soldiers are safe, civilians are not.

Drone warfare compels enemy combatants to engage in terrorism.  They cannot shoot back at the soldier who is shooting them – that soldier might be sitting in a nondescript office building thousands of miles away, unleashing lethal force as though it were a video game.

I don’t mean to trivialize the suffering of U.S. soldiers who are involved in drone warfare.  Pilots have an extremely high suicide rate – they are expected to placidly shift from the battlefield to the civilian world each evening, and this is deeply disturbing to most people.

But enemy soldiers cannot fight back.  They could shoot down the drone, but the U.S. military would launch a new one.  There’s no comparison between that and the drone shooting a missile at your family’s home.

Image by Debra Sweet on Flickr.

An enemy combatant can only put U.S. lives at risk by attacking the general public.

Our policies don’t always have the outcomes we want.

Not unexpectedly, somebody in class mentioned the War on Drugs.  Banning marijuana caused a lot of problems, he said.

Somebody else disagreed – he’s been in and out of prison on drug charges for seventeen years, but has high hopes that this next stint of rehab is going to take.  “I still think marijuana’s a gateway drug.  That’s what I started with.”

“It’s not pot, it’s the lying about pot.  They say over and over that marijuana’s as bad as heroin.  What do they think will happen once kids realize marijuana’s safe?”

“If people could’ve bought pot, maybe nobody would’ve invented spice.  Like that K2 stuff was sold as incense or whatever, but everybody knew it was pot replacer.”

“You take this,” a guy said, holding up a sheet of paper, “spray it with spice, send it into prison.  Two thousand dollars, easy.  You get somebody to OD, then everybody’s gonna want some.  People like that feeling, right at the brink between life and death.”

Somebody sighed.  “I know.  I’ve done a lot of drugs, and with most drugs, I could take it or leave it.  But that spice, man.  No offense to anyone, but I’ve never sucked cock for drugs.  For spice, though, I’d think about it.”

“You just get so sick.”

“So sick!  I’ve kicked heroin, and that feeling sick was bad.  But not like this.  There were weeks when I had to set an alarm, get up every two hours to take another hit.  Otherwise I’d wake up puking and shitting myself.  And I’d be in there, you know, sitting on the toilet with a bag, still taking my hit.”

“I got that too.  I was waking up every ninety minutes.”

“Would you have started smoking spice if marijuana was legal?” I asked.

“I mean, yeah, now you’re gonna have people who would.  Because everybody knows about it.  Like you had that summer two years ago, people all along the street, up and down Kirkwood, smoking it right out in the open.  But, like, before it all started?  Nobody would’ve sat down and tried to invent spice if they could’ve sold pot.”

“I remember reading a review of K2 spice on Amazon,” I said, “must’ve been in 2008, before it was banned, all full of puns and innuendo.  The reviewer was talking about how it made him feel so ‘relaxed,’ in quotes.”

“ ‘Relaxed,’ shit, I get that.  I never touched the stuff before this last time I came to jail.  But I’ve smoked hella marijuana.  So somebody handed it to me and I took this giant hit, the way I would, and I shook my head and said, ‘Guys, that didn’t do shiii …’ and, BAM, I fell face first into the table.”

“You were so out of it!”

“It was like, WHOA, blast off.  I was lying there, like flopping all over.  That night I pissed myself.”

“That sounds … “ I said, “… bad.  A whole lot worse than smoking pot.”

“But you can get it!”

And there lies the rub.  With so many technologies, we’re playing whack-a-mole.  We solve one problem and create another.  But sometimes what comes up next isn’t another goofy-eyed stuffed animal mole – the arcade lights flash and out pops a hungry crocodile. 

Since people couldn’t buy pot, they started smoking a “not-for-human consumption” (wink wink) incense product that you could order online.  Since enemy combatants can’t shoot back at soldiers, they plant more bombs in subways.

As one American soldier explains, “We must understand that attempts to isolate our force against all potential enemy threats shifts the ‘burden of risk’ from a casualty-averse military force onto the populace.  We have lifted the burden from our own shoulders and placed it squarely upon civilians who do not have the material resources to bear it.”

On auctions, politics, quantum computing, and waste.

On auctions, politics, quantum computing, and waste.

I recently played the board game Fists of Dragonstone.  It was fun – the premise is that each turn a spell is revealed and players will make a simultaneous, secret bid to acquire its effect.  The spells might earn victory points, increase your future income, or help you thwart other players’ plans.

Each turn felt tense because Fists of Dragonstone uses “all pay” auctions.  If you bid two dollars, you’ll lose this money whether or not you get the prize you wanted.  This type of auction is a slippery beast – inherently stressful in the real world, but psychologically compelling within the safe confines of a game.

Fists of Dragonstone. Image by hal_99 on Flickr.

When most people think of auctions, they imagine the type that eBay uses – only the winner pays, and the amount paid is equal to the second-highest bid.  In this type of auction, you ought to state your intentions honestly.  If you would get $15 worth of joy from owning an item, you should bid $15 – you’ll either get to have it for that amount of money (or less), or else learn that someone else values the item more.

If we didn’t have such rampant wealth & income inequality, this type of auction would arguably improve the world.  Objects would wind up in the hands of whomever valued them most, boosting overall happiness.

In practice, of course, things don’t work out so well.  Some people have access to far more money than others.  Even if a wealthy person estimates that a blanket would provide $60 of happiness, and a poor person estimates that the same blanket would provide $10 of happiness, it might be that the poor person would actually get more happiness from the blanket.  Inequality means that there’s no universal way to convert between money and joy, but the marketplace treats all our dollars the same.

Image by Todd Huffman on Flickr.

In a board game, you can address inequality by doling out the same set of initial resources to each player.  But the standard auction type – which rewards honest valuation – wouldn’t be much fun.  Everyone should value each item equivalently, and so the game is reduced to a puzzle.  It might be fun to solve once, but there wouldn’t be a reason to play again.

In an “all pay” auction, though, you benefit by being unpredictable.  Because you lose your bid whether or not you win the auction, you should often bid zero even if there’s an item you’d like.  You’re throwing away money if you make a non-zero bid but someone else bids higher.

You could still attempt to “solve” this sort of game, but the optimal solution invokes random behavior.  You should make a bid somewhere between zero and your true valuation, with a certain probability assigned to each.  That’s what a robot would do.

Most humans are pretty terrible at doing things that are actually random, though.  When we try to create a fake list of outcomes from a set of coin flips, for instance, we usually hew to an alternating pattern of heads and tails.

Since we’re bad at making random choices – and we know that other players are bad at it too – we fall back on misguided psychological reasoning.  She bid nothing the last two rounds, so maybe I can sneakily win this next auction with a $1 bid!  We get to feel clever when our stratagems succeed.  We get to curse when they fail.  All much more fun than the honest appraisal encouraged by auctions in which only the winner pays!

In the real world, though, an “all pay” auction is a recipe for waste.

This type of auction is a good proxy for many types of adversarial encounters.  Political contests, computer security, sporting events.  Even restaurant management, if people have a discrete budget set aside for eating out and are simply choosing which establishment to frequent. 

In each of these situations, every player has to pay – to run for political office, you invest years of your life and spend a whole bunch of money on advertisements.  It’s not as though you get that time or money back when you lose.  All players spend their total bids, but only one gets the prize of elected office.

Contemporary political campaigns are incredibly expensive.  So many people have already devoted years of their lives to the 2020 presidential campaign.  The efforts of the losing side will have been wasted.  Because major platforms are willing to air totally fraudulent advertisements, candidates have little chance of victory if they spend much less than their opponents.

Sure, sometimes people will console themselves with the thought that “We may not have won the election, but we changed the tenor of political discourse!”   In our country, this is a fantasy.  U.S. politics is sufficiently polarized that the winners rarely concern themselves with the expressed desires of the losing side.  Two of our past three presidents lost the popular vote and still proceeded with their agendas as though they’d received an overwhelming mandate.

Security is another form of “all pay” auction.  This is an asymmetrical game – your initial resources and victory conditions are clearly different if you happen to be playing as a homeowner or a thief – but the basic principle remains the same.  One player bids an amount on security; the other player bids time and money to undermine it; depending on who bids more, a break-in succeeds or it doesn’t.

As in Fists of Dragonstone, players have an incentive to randomize their behavior.  Sometimes a homeowner should display signs for a security system that hasn’t actually been installed.  Sometimes a thief should pass by a house even if it looks like a juicy target.  If players are too predictable, they can be narrowly outbid.

Computer encryption is an auction like this.  Equifax bid less than the people trying to hack its servers; a huge amount of personal data was stolen.  Mine too.  As an apology for low-balling their security bid, Equifax will send me a settlement check for some amount between $125 and $0.03, depending on how many of the other victims they choose to compensate.

What could I do with three pennies?

I glued pennies together to make little legs for my laptop computer – three cents for the back legs, two for the front – hoping to improve air flow for the exhaust fan.  When a computer overheats, programs malfunction.  The operating system might freeze, the same way I do when I’m typing and somebody says “Hi” to me.  My brain stutters – processing, processing – unable to determine whether I know this person, and, if so, from where.

Shut down, reboot.

Anyway, building these laptop stilts out of pennies seemed cheaper than any other materials.  I’ve already built them, though.  I don’t really need another $0.03 check from Equifax.

But this situation must feel frustrating for the people at Equifax, too.  Improved encryption isn’t valuable in and of itself.  This is an adversarial contest that produces only waste.  A world in which companies spent little or nothing on computer security and other people simply chose not to breach their nonexistent defenses would be better than our world, in which data needs to be scrupulously guarded.

A world in which politicians didn’t advertise, trusting voters to learn about their platforms from impartial sources, would be better than our world.

That’s not where we live, though.  Instead, scientists are working to create quantum computers.  These are marvels of engineering.  In contrast to the behavior of macroscopic objects, certain properties of a quantum transistor can remain undefined during a calculation, collapsing into a discrete binary value only at the end.  To accomplish this, the transistor must be guarded from its environs – you may have heard that “measurement” collapses wavefunctions, but measurement doesn’t mean that a human is looking at something.  Measurement simply means that the state of an object becomes coupled with the state of its environment.

If a photon approaches, the state of the object becomes linked with the state of the photon.  They might’ve collided or not, which narrows the range of space in which the object might exist, which narrows the set of wavefunctions that could be summed to give its momentum.  A collision-less encounter restricts us to a different set of futures than if the photon hit the thing.

In practice, that means a quantum computer needs to be kept dark, and atmosphere-less, and very, very cold.  For a long time – the transistors have to stay unmolested for the entire duration of a calculation.

IBM’s Quantum Q. Photo by IBM research on Flickr.

Obviously, these devices are very expensive to build and run.

And why might we want them?  Well, they’d be better than conventional computers at … um … at factoring the large numbers that are used for computer encryption! 

Quantum computers are fascinating.  Our attempts to build them have helped us learn more about the workings of our world.  But the actual existence of quantum computers – at least until we think of an application other than cracking computer security – will make the world worse.

Worried that people might copy data and then use quantum computers to decode it later — you know, after these computers have been invented — security experts say that we need to start spending more money on encryption now

While playing Fists of Dragonstone, my friends would curse and shout after making an exorbitantly high bid and then seeing that every other player bid zero.  I could have won with $1! 

That’s basically what security experts are encouraging us to do. Not curse — overbid. They say that we should make extremely high bids on encryption now, to protect ourselves from a technology that might never exist.  Otherwise, undesirables might gain access to the password-protected folder of risqué photographs that you and your partner(s) took.  Or break into your bank account.

Occasionally, adversarial work improves the world.  When restaurants compete, service might get better. The food, tastier.

But most adversarial contests are engines for waste.  High-speed stock trading makes the market more fluid – you can log on and purchase a few dozen shares of whatever you’d like since AI algorithms are ready to facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers. 

That’s a small service, though.  High-speed trading firms shouldn’t be extracting as much wealth as they are in this country.  Mostly they eavesdrop on others’ conversations, sneak in front of people who’re trying to buy something, then scalp it back at higher prices.  Trading firms pay exorbitant rent on shelf space that’s close as possible to the stock exchange mainframes – if one scalper is microseconds faster than another, that’s the one who gets to shake you down.

In a board game, cooperation is generally less fun than adversarial play.  For the former, players are trying to solve a puzzle created by the designer.  With adversarial rules, players are using their intelligence to create puzzles for each other in real time.

In a game, the waste is the entire point.  Nothing tangible is produced, but the expended time leads to social camaraderie.  The expended brainpower can give you a sense of satisfaction from having worked through intellectual puzzles.  And, hopefully, you’ll have fun.

But – whoops – we’ve used the principles of good game design and mistakenly applied them to the real world.  Fists of Dragonstone was fun; our political system shouldn’t be based on all-pay auctions.  With major politicians poised to ravage the Amazon, cull the world’s few remaining old-growth forests, and dredge up Arctic oil fields, the people wealthy enough to make high bids on upcoming elections might well destroy us.

NASA image revealing the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.  Just f.y.i., the forest is being cleared to make space for cows.  Each time you choose eat beef or dairy cheese, you’re contributing to the destruction of the “Lungs of our Planet.”

Featured image for this post: “Auction Today” by Dave McLean on Flickr.

On taxing robots.

On taxing robots.

My family recently attended a preschool birthday party at which cupcakes were served.  I watched in horror as the children ate.  Some used grimy fingers to claw off the top layer of frosting.  Others attempted to shove the entire frosted top into their gaping maws, as though they thought their jaws might distend snake-like.  These kids failed, obviously, and mostly smashed the cupcakes against their faces.

And then, a mere two minutes later, the kids all slid from their chairs to run off and rampage elsewhere in the house.  The table was a wreckage; no child had actually eaten a cupcake.  They’d eaten frosting, sure, but left the remnants crumbled and half-masticated on their plates.

Someone needed to clean up.

If I was a better person, I would have offered to help.  But I didn’t.  I just stood there with my mouth twisted into a grimace of disgust.

I wonder why it’s so hard for our family to make friends.  Surely my constant scowls seem charming!  Right?  Right?

Even at our own house, where our compost bin ensures that uneaten food isn’t completely wasted … and where my own children are responsible for the entirety of any mangled remnants … I loathe scraping the plates clean. 

And I don’t like washing dishes.

Luckily, we have a dishwasher.  Slide dirty dishes into the rack, push a button, and, voila, a robot will make them clean!

Automation is great!

Also, automation is making our world worse.

Although official unemployment in the United States is low, the economy is doing poorly.  The official statistics don’t count people who’ve given up, and they don’t count people who are stuck with worse jobs that they would’ve had in the past.

Low unemployment is supposed to drive up people’s salaries.  When a company knows that there are few available job seekers, they’ll pay more to prevent you from leaving.  But that’s not happening, currently.  If a company knows that your life is sufficiently bleak, and also that no other company is planning to treat you better, then they can keep salaries low.  Financial misery lets employers operate like a cartel.

Image by Farcaster.

Despite low unemployment, most employees are quite replaceable.  If you won’t do the work, a robot could instead.  Just like my beleaguered dishwasher, filled with plates and bowls too gross for me to want to touch, a robot won’t advocate for better treatment.  And a robot draws no salary.  If you have the wealth to invest in a dishwasher – or a washing machine, or a donut maker, or a legal-document-drafting algorithm – it’ll serve you tirelessly for years.

People often say that the jobs of the future will be those that require a human touch.  Those people are wrong.  Your brain is a finite network of synapses, your body an epidermis-swathed sack of gristle.  In the long run, everything you do could be replicated by a machine.  It could look like you, talk like you, think like you – or better.

And – after its initial development and manufacture – it wouldn’t cost its owners anything.

As our automation technologies improve, more and more of the world’s income will be shunted to the people who are wealthy enough to own robots.  Right now, human delivery people are paid for dropping off the packages people buy from Amazon – but as soon as Jeff Bezos owns drones and self-driving cars, he’ll keep those drivers’ salaries for himself.  As your labor becomes less valuable relative to the output of a machine, it’s inevitable that inequality will increase.  Unless we implement intentional redistribution.

A recent editorial by Eduardo Porter for the New York Times advocates for a tax on automation.  Perhaps this seems sensible, given what I’ve written above – if robots make the world worse, then perhaps robots should be made more expensive.

After all, the correct way to account for negative externalities in a capitalist economy is through taxation.  That’s how capitalism solves the tragedy of the commons.  If the cost of an action is paid by everyone collectively – like pollution, which causes us all to drink dirty water, or breathe asthma-inducing air, or face apocalyptic climate change – but the profit is garnered by individuals, then that person’s private cost-benefit analysis will call for too much pollution.

For every dollar the Koch brothers earn, the world at large might need to spend $1,000 fighting climate change.  That dollar clearly isn’t worth it.  But if each dollar they earn increases their personal suffering by only a nickel, then of course they should keep going!  That’s what capitalism demands.  Pollute more, and keep your ninety-five cents!

But a person’s private priorities can be made to mirror our society’s by charging a tax equal to the total cost of pollution.  Then that person’s individual cost-benefit analysis will compare the total cost of an action against its total benefit.

A pollution tax wouldn’t tell people to stop being productive … it would simply nudge them toward forms of production that either pollute less, or are more valuable per unit of pollution.

But automation isn’t harmful.

Yes, automation is making the world worse.  But automation itself isn’t bad.  I’m very happy with my dishwasher.

If we want to use tax policy to improve the world, we need to consider which features of our society have allowed automation to make the world worse.  And it’s not the robots themselves, but rather the precipitous way that current wealth begets future wealth.  So the best solution is not to tax robots, specifically, but rather to tax wealth (with owned robots being a form of wealth … just like my dishwasher.  Nothing makes me feel rich like that lemony-fresh scent of plates I didn’t have to scrub myself.)

And, after taxing wealth, we would need to find a way to provide money back to people.

World War II taught us that unnecessary production – making goods whose only value was to be used up and decrease the value of other goods, like bombs and tanks and guns – could improve the economic situation of the world.  We ended the Great Depression by paying people to make weapons.  And we could ameliorate the current economic malaise with something similar. 

But an actual war seems misguided, what with all the killing and dying.  There are better, kinder ways to increase wasteful government spending.

If I were in charge of my own town, I’d convert the abandoned elevator factory into a bespoke sneaker and clothing factory.  The local university offers a degree in fashion design, and it might be nice if there were a way for students to have batches of five or ten items produced to specification.

As a business, this wouldn’t be economically viable.  That’s the point.  It would be intentionally wasteful production, employing humans instead of robots.  Everything would be monetarily inefficient, with the product sold below cost.

It’d be a terrible business, but a reasonable charity.

With alarmingly high frequency, lawmakers try to impose work requirements on welfare payments.  I obviously think this policy would be absurd.  But it wouldn’t be so bad if there were government-provided work opportunities.

Robots can make shoes cheaper.  That’s true.  But by taxing wealth and using it to subsidize wasteful production, we could renew people’s sense of purpose in life and combat inequality.  No wars required!

And no need for a tax targeting my dishwasher.  Because, seriously.  I’ve got kids.  I don’t want to clean up after them.  Would you?

On storytelling in games.

On storytelling in games.

I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience.  These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.

Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable.  He produces a popular series of video reviews.  And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection.  I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.

I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.

Consider a story of moral complicity.  When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described.  Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s  Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.

But there’s no excuse within a game.  The actions taken by a game’s protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in control.

In “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” poet Bruce Weigl writes:

You think you’re better than me,

cleaner or more good

because I did what you may have only

imagined

When we learn that the soldiers in Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level. 

In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:

                                    The guards

Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.

I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not

What you’d expect from Americans.

Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people

Having a good time, blowing off steam.

Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level.  We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.

And yet.  In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner.  And players did it.  Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …

Screenshot from GTA 5.

You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from.  Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military.  Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.

From Alex Hern’s report in The Guardian:

“Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.

There are some pieces of art that I personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as art.

I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture.  It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts.  We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.

The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth.  But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.

We are monsters.  That’s why social norms that constrain our worst impulses are so valuable.

And I don’t believe this message could be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.

Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes.  The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative.  Even my favorite films about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.

Picture of Secret Hitler by Nicole Lee on Flickr.

When I played Secret Hitler, I learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into fascism.  I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter, and Maranges had made their game earlier.  It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.

Header image by Padaguan.

On alternate truths.

On alternate truths.

Sometimes the alternatives are jarring – you look and count a certain number, another person proffers a radically different amount.

Surely one of you is mistaken.

In the United States, there’s a rift between those who overestimate certain values (size of inauguration crowds, number of crimes committed by immigrants, votes cast by non-citizens, rates of economic growth) and their fellows.

Henri_Tajfel.jpgIn the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Henri Tajfel designed experiments because he was curious: how is genocide possible?  What could sap people’s empathy so severely that they’d murder their thinking, perceiving, communicating neighbors?

Tajfel began with a seemingly irrelevant classification.  In the outside world, people have different concentrations of epidermal melanin, they worship different deities, they ascribe to different political philosophies.  But rather than investigate the gulf separating U.S. Democrats from Republicans, Tajfel recruited a homogeneous set of teenage schoolboys to participate in an experiment.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.38.26 PMOne by one, the kids were shown a bunch of dots on a screen and asked to guess how many dots were there.  Entirely at random, the kids were told they’d consistently overestimated or underestimated the number of dots.  The numbers each kid guessed were not used for this classification.

Then the kids participated in a pretty standard psychology experiment – they had various amounts of money to split between other study subjects.  In each case, the kids were told that one of the recipients would be a fellow over-estimator (not themselves, though), and the other recipient would be an under-estimator.

An intuitive sense of “us vs. them” would pit study subjects against the researchers – kids should assign payoffs to siphon as much money as possible away from the university.  When every option has an equivalent total payoff, you might expect a fair distribution between the two recipients.  After all, the categorization was totally random, and the kids never had a chance to meet the other people in either their own or the other group.

Instead, over-estimators favored other over-estimators, even at the cost of lowering the total payout that the kids would receive from the researchers.  Oops.

We should expect our current over-estimators to favor each other irrationally, too.  These groups aren’t even randomly assigned.  And many of the alternate truths must seem reasonable.  Who among us doesn’t buy in to the occasional fiction?

For instance, there’s the idea of “free market capitalism.”  This is fictitious.  In the absence of a governing body that threatens violence against those who flaunt the rules, there can’t be a market.

Sometimes anarchists argue that you could have community members enforce cultural norms – but that is a government (albeit a more capricious one, since the “cultural norms” might not be written down and shared policing introduces a wide range of interpretations).  Sometimes libertarians argue that a government should only enforce property rights, but they purposefully misunderstand what property rights consist of.

garden-gardening-growth-2259If you paint a picture, then I spray it with a hose, you won’t have a picture anymore.  If you have a farm, then I buy the adjacent property and start dumping salt on my land, you won’t have a farm anymore.  I don’t have the physically take things out of your hands to eliminate their value.

If you own a house, then I buy the adjacent property and build a concentrated animal feeding operation, the value of your house will plummet.  You won’t have fresh air to breathe.

Or maybe I want to pump fracking chemicals into your aquifer.  You turn on your tap and poison spills out.

We have rules for which of these actions are acceptable and which are not.  The justifications are capricious and arbitrary – honestly, they have to be.  The world is complex, and there’s no pithy summary that solves all our quandaries.  Right to swing my arm, your nose, pffft, nonsense.  Why’d you put your nose there, anyway?

And our government enforces those rules.  The market is not free.  Corporations that denounce government intervention (e.g. dairy-industry-opposing tariffs, carbon tax, etc.) seek government interventions (now the dairy industry hopes that producers of soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc., will be forced to rename their products).

But this probably doesn’t feel like hypocrisy.  We humans are good at believing in alternate truths.

On intent.

On intent.

Investigators are searching for incontrovertible proof that our nation’s current president has conspired (or is conspiring) with an enemy nation to undermine the United States of America.

So far, there’s no public evidence that 45 is knowingly employed as a Russian saboteur, nor that he knowingly engaged the aid of other Russian agents to win the presidential election.  His intentions are occluded from us.

But his actions are plain to see.  45 has obstructed investigations into the connections between his administration and the Russian government.  The dictator of Russia wanted for him to be elected, and devoted significant resources toward either bolstering his chances or directly manipulating the vote.  Numerous whimsical actions taken by 45 have caused strife among nations that were formerly allied in their opposition to Russia.  As with his personal businesses, 45 is using kickbacks to bankrupt the United States – we won’t have the financial resources to fix future calamities.

This list of offenses could be extended – indeed, other writers have enumerated many more.

But, absent proof of his intent, 45 cannot be punished for acting as though he was a Russian agent.

And the punishment he’s being protected from?  He’d lose his job.  The Senate would step in to say “You’re fired.”

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When the threatened punishment is 20 years in prison, however – somewhere between 25% and 40% of a poor person’s total lifespan – we don’t require proof.  In those cases, if something looks like a rat, we call it a rat.  Honestly, things don’t have to look all that rat-like – four legs, a tail, a too-pointy nose?  We call it a rat.

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Looks like a rat to me! Photo by Keven Law on Flickr.

We’ve passed laws outlawing various molecules in this country – it’s illegal to sell them, it’s illegal to possess them, it’s illegal to have them floating through your bloodstream.  But we don’t stop there – it’s also illegal to possess objects that might be used to ingest those molecules.

Usually, hypodermic needles are legal.  As are glass pipes.  And soda straws.

STRAW.PNGBut we’ve decided that it’s illegal for certain people to have soda straws.  If a person looks suspicious, he can’t drink through a straw.  If a suspicious-looking person foolishly does receive a straw along with his soda, he can be sent to Rikers, where he might receive permanent brain damage when actual criminals wail on him.

45 sowing discord among America’s allies isn’t enough – we need proof that he’s acting at Russia’s behest to undermine our position in the world.  But possession of a soda straw?  That’s sufficient evidence for us to ruin somebody’s life.  Not even his accompanying soda could absolve the man of presumed guilt.

The punishment for possession of methamphetamine is far less severe than the punishment for possession with intent to sell.  Again, we don’t require proof that somebody’s selling drugs.  If you buy in bulk, you must be selling.  Never mind how many people love shopping at Cosco (or my own propensity to purchase restaurant-sized jars of pickles because each would be a wee bit cheaper per).

Our criminal justice system routinely divines intent from a person’s actions.  When people’s lives are on the line, our suspicions are enough to convict.  Yet now, as our country plunges toward disaster (climate change, nuclear war, or economic collapse could do us in), we need proof.

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

In Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld, a bumbling anti-hero named Cugel the Clever is beset by one misfortune after another.  He attempts to burglarize a wizard’s palace but is caught in the act.  The wizard Iucounu forces Cugel to retrieve an ancient artifact – a seemingly suicidal quest.  To ensure that Cugel does not shirk his duties, Iucounu subjects him to the torments of Firx, a subcutaneous parasite who entwines searingly with nerve endings in Cugel’s abdomen, and whose desire to reuinte with his mate in Iucounu’s palace will spur Cugel ever onward.

Early in his journey, Cugel is chased by a gang of bandits.  He escapes into a crumbling fortress – only to find that the fortress is haunted.

eyesofthe.jpgThe ghost spoke: “Demolish this fort.  While stone joins stone I must stay, even while Earth grows cold and swings through darkness.”

          “Willingly,” croaked Cugel, “if it were not for those outside who seek my life.”

          “To the back of the hall is a passage.  Use stealth and strength, then do my behest.”

          “The fort is as good as razed,” declared Cugel fervently.  “But what circumstances bound you to so unremitting a post?”

          “They are forgotten; I remain.  Perform my charge, or I curse you with an everlasting tedium like my own!”

“Everlasting tedium” sounds like a raw deal, so Cugel figures he’d better slay his assailants and get to wrecking this haunted edifice.  He kills three bandits and mortally wounds the fourth with a boulder to the head:

Cugel came cautiously forward.  “Since you face death, tell me what you know of hidden treasure.”

          “I know of none,” said the bandit.  “Were there such you would be the last to learn, for you have killed me.”

          “This is no fault of mine,” said Cugel.  “You pursued me, not I you.  Why did you do so?”

          “To eat, to survive, though life and death are equally barren and I despise both equally.”

          Cugel reflected.  “In this case you need not resent my part in the transition which you now face.  The question regarding hidden valuables again becomes relevant.  Perhaps you have a final word on this matter?”

          “I have a final word.  I display my single treasure.”  The creature groped in its pouch and withdrew a round white pebble.  “This is the skull-stone of a grue, and at this moment trembles with force.  I use this force to curse you, to bring upon you the immediate onset of cankerous death.”

“Immediate onset of cankerous death” sounds grim.  Dude’s day has gone from bad to worse.

          Cugel hastily killed the bandit, then heaved a dismal sigh.  The night had brought only difficulty.  “Iucounu, if I survive, there shall be a reckoning indeed!”

          Cugel turned to examine the fort.  Certain of the stones would fall at a touch; others would require much more effort.  He might well not survive to perform the task.  What were the terms of the bandit’s curse?  “ – immediate onset of cankerous death.”  Sheer viciousness.  The ghost-king’s curse was no less oppressive: how had it gone?  “ – everlasting tedium.”

          Cugel rubbed his chin and nodded gravely.  Raising his voice, he called, “Lord ghost, I may not stay to do your bidding: I have killed the bandits and now I depart.  Farewell and may the eons pass with dispatch.”

          From the depths of the fort came a moan, and Cugel felt the pressure of the unknown.  “I activate my curse!” came a whisper to Cugel’s brain.

          Cugel strode quickly away to the southeast.  “Excellent; all is well.  The ‘everlasting tedium’ exactly countervenes the ‘immediate onset of death’ and I am left only with the ‘canker’ which, in the person of Firx, already afflicts me.  One must use his wits in dealing with maledictions.”

At times, one curse can save us from another.

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In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, humans are cursed for building a bridge to heaven.  Implicit in this story is the idea that humans nearly succeeded: our edifice of bricks and stone was threatening God.

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In part, this story was written to disparage other religious beliefs.  In the beginning, Yahweh was worshiped by a small tribe of relatively powerless people, and so the Old Testament seems to be riddled with rebuttals (some of which I’ve discussed previously, here).  In From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch), Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch write that:

fromgodstogodThe derivation of “Babel” from b-l-l seems to have originated as a response to the widely accepted Babylonian explanation of that place’s name, Bab-ilu, “God’s Gate,” or Bab I-lani, “Gate of the Gods” – a meaning that, we’ll soon see, was known in Israel.  Indeed, the story of the Tower of Babel in its entirety polemicizes against a Babylonian tradition according to which the tower-temple in Babylon, which was dedicated to the god Marduk, was built as a tribute both to him and to the belief that Babylon was the earthly passageway between heaven and earth.  According to ancient Babylonian belief, the tower in Babylon – Babel – was Heaven’s Gate.

It seems that the biblical writer, unwilling to accept that Babylon – a pagan city – was the entryway to heaven, found various ways to counter this Babylonian tradition that was well known in Israel.  First, he converted the story of the building into one of ultimate failure and human conceit.  At the same time, though, he introduced an alternative story about the gate to heaven.  This time the gate’s location was in Israel, the Land of One God.  This replacement story is found in Genesis 28: the story of Jacob’s dream.

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The Bible succeeded in its propaganda campaign: by now the standard interpretation of the Tower of Babel is that humans approached the world with insufficient humility, we began a technological campaign that ultimately ended in failure, and Yahweh cursed us such that we could not cooperate well enough to attempt a similar project in the future.  Babel – Babylon – was not a passageway to heaven.  The gateway was never finished.  Because we’ve lost the ability to communicate with each other, it never will be finished.

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The story of the Tower of Babel implies that all humans shared a single language before our brash undertaking.  The world’s current multitude of tongues were spawned by Yahweh’s curse.  But… what if languages are good?  What if we need diversity?

In 1940, Benjamin Lee Whorf speculated that the language we speak shapes the way we think.  His idea was egregiously overstated – creatures with no spoken language seem to be perfectly capable of thought, so there’s no reason to assume that humans who speak a language that lacks a certain word or verb tense can’t understand the underlying concepts.

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But Whorf’s basic idea is reasonable.  It is probably easier to have thoughts that can be expressed in your language.

For example, the best language we’ve developed to discuss quantum mechanics is linear algebra; because Werner Heisenberg had only passing familiarity with this language, he had some misconceptions about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Or there’s the case of my first Ph.D. advisor, who told me that he spent time working construction in Germany after high school.  He said that he spoke extremely poor German… but still, after he’d been in the country long enough, this was the language he reflexively thought in.  He said that he could feel his impoverished language lulling him into impoverished thought.

His language was probably more like a headwind than a cage – we constantly invent words as we struggle to express ourselves, so it’s clear that the lack of a word can’t prevent a thought – but he felt his mind to be steered all the same.

19537_27p1pWhorf’s theory of language is also a major motif in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, in which the characters’ English-language miscommunication is partly attributed to their different linguistic upbringings.  The narrator is perpetually tentative: did her years speaking Turkish instill this in her?

I wrote a research paper about the Turkish suffix –mis.  I learned from a book about comparative linguistics that it was called the inferential or evidential tense, and that similar structures existed in the languages of Estonia and Tibet.  The Turkish inferential tense, I read, was used in various forms associated with oral transmission and hearsay: fairy tales, epics, jokes, and gossip.

… [-mis] was a curse, condemning you to the awareness that everything you said was potentially encroaching on someone else’s experience, that your own subjectivity was booby-trapped and set you up to have conflicting stories with others.  … There was no way to go through life, in Turkish or any other language, making only factual statements about direct observations.  You were forced to use -mis, just by the human condition – just by existing in relation to other people.

She felt cursed by the need to constantly consider why she held her beliefs.  And yet.  Wouldn’t we all be better off if more people considered the provenance of their beliefs?

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Most languages have good features and bad.  English has its flaws – I wish it had a subjunctive tense – but I like that it isn’t as gendered as most European languages – which treat every object as either masculine or feminine – or Thai – in which men and women are expected to use different words to say a simple “thank you.”  Although Thai culture is in many ways more accepting of those who were born with the wrong genitalia than we are in the U.S., I imagine every “thank you” would be fraught for a kid striving to establish his or her authentic identity.

And, Turkish?  I know nothing about the language except what I learned from Batuman’s novel.  So I’d never argue that speaking Turkish gives people a better view of the world.

But I think that our world as a whole is made better by hosting a diversity of perspectives.  Perhaps no language is better than any other … but, if different languages allow for different ways of thinking … then a world with several languages seems better than a world with only one.

tongueofadamThis is the central idea explored by Abdelfattah Kilito in his recent essay, The Tongue of Adam (translated by Robyn Creswell).  After an acquaintance was dismissive of the Moroccan Kilito after he composed an academic text in Arabic instead of French, he meditated on the value of different languages and the benefits of living in a world with many.

Here is Kilito’s description of the curse Yahweh used to stop humans from completing the Tower of Babel:

After Babel, men cannot seek to rival God as they seemed to do when they began building the tower.  They cannot, because they’ve lost the original language.  God’s confusion of tongues ensures his supremacy.  The idea may seem odd, but consider the story of Babel as we find it in Genesis: “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” [11:4].  A tower whose top would touch the heavens: taken literally, the expression suggests a desire to reach the sky, to become like gods.  A rather worrisome project: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded” [11:5].  Man’s attempt to rise up is answered by the Lord’s descent: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” [11:7].  God does not destroy the work.  He punishes men by confounding their language, the only language, the one that unites them.  For Yahweh, the root of the menace is this tongue, which gives men tremendous power in their striving toward a single goal, an assault on the heavens.  The confusion of tongues brings this work to a stop; it is a symbolic demolition, the end of mankind’s hopes and dreams.  Deprived of its original language, mankind breaks into groups and scatters across the surface of the earth.  With its route to the heavens cut off, mankind turns its eyes to the horizon.

And here is Kilito’s description of this same dispersal as a blessing:

The expression, “the diversity of your languages,” in [Genesis 30:22, which states that “Among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors.  In these are signs for mankind”], means not only the diversity of spoken tongues, but also, according to some commentators, the diversity of articulated sounds and pronunciation of words.  Voice, like the color of the skin, varies from one individual to the next.  This is a divine gift.  Otherwise, ambiguity, disorder, and misunderstanding would reign. … Plurality and heterogeneity are the conditions of knowledge.

Kilito endorses Whorf’s theory of language.  Here is his analysis of the birth of Arabic as told in the Quran:

According to Jumahi, “Ismael is the first to have forgotten the language of his father.” This rupture in language must have been brutal: in a blinding instant, one language is erased and cedes its place to another.  According to Jahiz, Ismael acquired Arabic without having to learn it.  And because the ancient language disappeared without a trace, he had no trouble expressing himself in the new one.  This alteration, due to divine intervention, also affected his character and his nature, in such a way that his whole personality changed.

His personality is changed because his language is changed: new words meant a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing the world.  If humans had not built the Tower of Babel – if we had never been cursed – we would share a single perspective… an ideological monoculture like a whole world paved over with strip mall after strip mall … the same four buildings, over and over … Starbucks, McDonalds, Walmart, CAFO … Starbucks, McDonalds …

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The current occupancy of the White House … and congress … and the U.S. Supreme Court … seems a curse.  The health care proposals will allow outrageous medical debt to wreck a lot of people’s lives, and each of us has only a single life to live.  Those who complete their educations in the midst of the impending recession will have lifelong earnings far lower than those who chance to graduate during boom years.  Our vitriolic attorney general will devastate entire communities by demanding that children and parents and neighbors and friends be buried alive for low-level, non-violent criminal offenses.  Innocent kids whose parents are needlessly yanked away will suffer for the entirety of their lives.

I can’t blithely compare this plague to fantasy tales in the Bible.  Real people are going to suffer egregiously.

At the same time, I do think that kind-hearted citizens of the United States needed to be saved from our own complacency.  Two political parties dominate discourse in this country – since the Clinton years, these parties have espoused very similar economic and punitive policies.  I have real sympathy for voters who couldn’t bear to vote for another Clinton in the last election because they’d seen their families steadily decline in a nation helmed by smug elitists.

Worse, all through the Obama years, huge numbers of people deplored our world’s problems – widespread ignorance, mediocre public education, ever-more-precarious climate destabilization, an unfair mental toll exacted on marginalized communities – without doing anything about it.  Some gave money, but few people – or so it seemed to me – saw those flaws as a demand to change their lives.

Climate-Change-Top-PhotoAnyone who cares deeply about climate change can choose to eat plants, drive less, drive a smaller car, buy used, and simply buy less.  Anyone embarrassed by the quality of education available in this country… can teach.  We can find those who need care, and care for them.

After the 45th stepped into office – or so it has seemed to me – more people realized that change, and hope, and whatnot … falls to us.  Our choices, as individuals, make the world.  I’ve seen more people choosing to be better, and for that I am grateful.

Obviously, I wish it hadn’t come to this.  But complacency is a curse.  Sometimes we need new curses to countervene another.