Everything is permitted

The decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis has a clear, unavoidable, and devastating takeaway: the system doesn’t work.

Supposedly, we have this thing called “society” which organizes everything to allow for normal people to live happy and productive lives, as long as they follow the rules. If you behave and get good grades in school, you’ll be able to go to college, and then get a good job, which will allow you to participate in the market economy with the money you make and thereby pursue whatever goals you might have (because of course the market provides everything you could ever want). And if anything in this process goes wrong, there are also rules for how to resolve it. If someone steals from you, you can call the police in order to get your stuff back. Even in the case of outright unpredictable and unavoidable disasters such as tornadoes or earthquakes, we have insurance and emergency management services.

Naturally, nothing’s perfect, so there are plenty of times when things don’t go as they should: when cops kill the people they’re supposed to be protecting, when corporations don’t pay the amount of taxes that the law says they’re supposed to, when people make electoral decision based on false or misleading information, etc. But these things aren’t necessarily system failures. They may just be unintended consequences, or mistakes in how a law was drafted, or new technological developments that haven’t been accounted for yet. So the natural recourse here is to reform: fighting fake news, closing tax loopholes, and retraining the police. This is also built into the rules: we have various mechanisms for making these sorts of changes when it’s recognized that there are problems of this sort that need to be corrected.

It’s important, therefore, not to respond to these types of things by changing the structure itself, because the structure is what allows you to respond in the first place. If, for example, you were to respond to police violence by delegitimizing the police, you would a) no longer have their protection, opening you up to more violence, and b) implicitly create a new structure without police protection in general, meaning no one would any longer have any recourse against unjust violence. (This is essentially the argument that cops have tried to make in response to Black Lives Matter, except that they’ve been too stupid to make it correctly; they’ve instead gotten defensive and petty and thereby conceded the moral high ground.) This means that more important than any particular violation of the rules is the rules themselves, because as long as we have the rules, we have a functioning society. It’s all well and good to try to fix things, but this must always be done through the proper channels, and never by attacking the channels themselves.

What the Epic decision demonstrates is that this is formally not the case. The rules are intentionally designed not to work for you, and this includes the rules that are supposed to account for the times when the rules fail. The case specifically concerned the fact that the company wasn’t paying overtime. In other words, they were stealing from their employees, meaning they were both breaching the contract they had with them and breaking the law. So this is already a failure of the normal rules. The recourse for this is supposed to be that the affected parties can file a lawsuit, and the only thing that an arbitration clause does is to remove this recourse; it specifically prevents the rules from being followed. Arbitration clauses are an explicit power grab by corporations, and the only reason they exist is that corporations have the power to make it so: they dictate terms that are not open to negotiation, and these terms include the clause that, if you get fucked, there is nothing you can do about it. And what the Supreme Court of the United States has just decided is that this is absolutely correct. Powerful people should indeed have free reign to ignore the rules for their own benefit.

So, as it turns out, there really is no such thing as society. There are individual teeth and claws. The thing that Hobbes was wrong about was the idea that the social contract gets us out of the state of nature. It doesn’t. The state of nature is still there, the whole time, waiting. Nothing can actually stop someone from murdering you; all society can do is provide sets of incentives and disincentives to affect people’s behavior. The kind of “law” that says you can’t murder people is qualitatively different from the kind of “law” that says that if you get shot in the face, you die.

Furthermore, the social contract itself is just another state of nature on top of the default one, because nothing prevents it from being exploited. A court of law can potentially arbitrate a dispute to reach a just resolution, but it can also allow an unethical lawyer with a vindictive client to destroy someone’s life just because they want to. And anyone capable of preventing this will necessarily have the power to commit the same abuse themselves (this is the “who watches the watchers?” problem: whatever the highest level of authority is in any given situation, someone at that level can simply choose to do whatever the fuck they feel like). Regardless of what kinds of “rules” and “regulations” there are, there’s always going to be underlying material conditions that determine what people can actually do, and what will (or won’t) happen to them as the result of particular actions.

This dynamic has seen some surface-level discussion recently in the guise of “norms,” but this has mostly been cheap handwringing about the fucking filibuster or whatever. The real issue here goes all the way down: to the home you live in, the clothes you wear, and the food you eat. You do not have a “right” to anything: you either have the ability to steal or the luxury of noblesse oblige. Your very existence is contingent on the random whims of senile jackasses and stunted sociopaths. The only reason you are alive is that no one has yet chosen to kill you.

This is cause for one type of fatalism: it means that utopia is logically impossible. Any possible society will include avenues of exploitation. More practically, in our current situation, it means that we never were and will never be in a situation where the “rules” and being “followed” and we are therefore “safe.” “Normalcy” is only ever a pocket of delusion created by fortuitous circumstances. Every atrocity ever committed was a free choice made by someone who had the power to do so, and the worst thing that will ever happen is locked, loaded, and ready to go, just waiting for someone to pull the trigger.

But this is also true of everything good that has ever happened. Nothing worthwhile was ever supposed to happen; it happened because people made it happen, the hard way. It happened because someone was willing to bloody their hands, or willing to scar themselves. But I’m not sure anyone has ever really learned this lesson. Pretty much everyone goes back to sleep as soon as they get an official proclamation or a law passed or a president elected or something. Indeed, the vast majority of the time people settle for almost nothing: they’re happy to get bread crumbs and call it a banquet. No one ever pushes the knife all the way in.

It’s not enough to simply have a court system and to say that it allows people to resolve disputes. Contracts don’t matter if one side can dictate terms that the other must accept, courts don’t matter if powerful people can force arbitration, and laws don’t matter unless something actually happens when you break them. In order for any of these things to do what they’re supposed to, we have to fill in the other side of the equation, and by the very nature of the problem, this cannot be done with “rules.” It must be done with force.

I don’t know how to do this. Like, I can assure you that I am not making a self-interested argument here. This is the worst possible conclusion for me. I am a child of order, and I do not know how to live wild. But I have to accept this, because the highest court in the land just told me that it’s not going to countenance any alternative. This is a war, and the only rational response is to act like it.

Circus of values

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There was recently a, um . . . I don’t even know what to call these things anymore; it doesn’t rise to the level of like “controversy” or “scandal” or anything, but it’s a “thing that people on the internet get offended about for ten minutes.” You know. Anyway it was about how The Simpsons is totally racist, and it was notable for its display of near-complete point-missing in all available directions.

So the usual thing happened where someone was expected to “respond” to something and they did a bad job of it, and this caused “outrage” and etc., but the thing about this is that nothing else was ever going to happen. The thing that is currently being called “The Simpsons” is not a good show, by which I mean it is not a worthwhile show, by which I mean it is not worth anyone’s while to see what it “has to say.” Paying attention to it right now is equivalent to huffing the fumes that it’s running on. By extension, there’s no point in criticizing the current iteration of the show, either, because there’s nothing there to criticize.

Of course, the original criticism about Apu being a racist caricature was mainly directed at the actual show back when it was an actual show, because that’s the part that people actually watch and therefore know the character from, so that’s an entirely worthwhile endeavor (I’m judiciously avoiding adjudicating the substance of the criticism itself here). But precisely because this endeavor is worthwhile, it’s also non-trivial. It’s not enough to merely point out that the character is a racist stereotype, because the fact that the show was well-written means that it did something with the stereotype (actually, pretty much the entire show can be described as “doing something with stereotypes.” Homer is also a stereotype, obviously), which means you have to go a step further: you have to argue against the thing that the show actually did. So a lot of people have responded to this by pointing out the ways in which Apu went against stereotype or was just a well-portrayed character in general, but this is only a valid defense against the simplistic (which is not to say incorrect) argument that Stereotypes Are Bad. It can be overcome by the stronger argument that a well-written and intentionally positive portrayal can nonetheless insidiously advance racism.

And succeeding in making this argument is a real achievement: it changes people’s understanding of the situation and refines the lens of analysis that we can then use going forward. (I mean, this is the only possible purpose. You can’t go back and un-write the show and reverse the influences it’s already had on people. You can only do better in the future.) But in the same sense, succeeding with the trivial version of the claim only results in a trivial achievement. You can successfully advance the proposition that Bad Thing Is Bad, but this doesn’t actually help anyone or change anything in any significant way.

This is why it’s crucially important to not merely attempt to position yourself on the right side of an obvious bright line, but to make an argument that’s actually worth making. For example, people have pointed to the fact the Apu was in an arranged marriage and had eight kids as examples of how he’s a reductive stereotype, but the reason these things happened is specifically because the show was out of ideas and therefore resorting to hackneyed bullshit to keep people attention. Of course they’re reductive, because the show was precisely being reductive at that point. This isn’t evidence of how racism works or anything like that, it’s just evidence that hacks are hacks. This is the furthest thing from aesthetic snobbishness; it’s a strong contrast with the argument against the good version of the show. If you have an argument against the show when it was good, you have an argument about how racism perpetuates itself even when people are doing a good job with things and even trying to be actively anti-racist, which means you have an argument that matters, because it can actually be used to help people do anti-racism better in the future.

In short, two things that initially look like slightly different versions of the same thing – the argument against Real Apu and the argument against Hack Apu – are in fact complete opposites. One of them maintains everyone’s existing understanding of the situation by arguing against something everyone already knows is an Official Bad Thing, and one of them advances the existing understanding by demonstrating that something people were assuming was good actually has practical negative consequences. Thus, choosing the wrong thing to argue against here does not merely weaken your position, it inverts it, such that your efforts end up having the opposite of their intended effect.

This is such a major problem that there’s actually a significant sense in which the internet has reduced the total amount of discourse happening. There’s plenty of talking going on, but so little of it is about anything relevant to anything that the net elucidation has been reduced. People think they’re arguing about things, when what they’re actually doing is preventing those issues from being argued about. I mean, it’s too much to claim that this always happens and that internet discussions never go anywhere, but it definitely is a real and serious problem that no one’s really trying to do anything about. And at any rate you can’t un-invent the genie, there’s no actual “anti-internet” argument to be made, which is why you – meaning you, personally – have to make a serious effort to talk about things that matter and ignore things that don’t, to eschew easy targets and make the effort to reach higher ones, and to cease to avail yourself of convenient arguments and accept the constraints of making correct ones. Only you can prevent garbage fires.

So let’s work an example. We’ve got a convenient one right now, because we’re right on the tail end (Eris willing) of a vomit cyclone exuded by one the true masters of the form: Kanye West. If you haven’t heard (in which case I envy you more than words can convey), it turns out that West is a supporter of the Bad Politics Person, which by extension makes him a Bad Politics Person, which means it is the solemn duty of all Good Politics People to respond with Stern Moral Denunciations. I can assure you that my dickishness here is sincere. What I just wrote is the actual substance of the event. There isn’t any “underlying meaning” or anything to “interpret” or “analyze” or “understand.” There’s a completely clueless person being completely clueless and a bunch of thirsty social-climbers building their Twitter brands in response.

I want to make sure we all understand what’s really happening here in technical terms. Politics matters. It is a supremely practical subject that directly impacts the daily lives of everyone who’s alive. So the fact of Donald Trump being president is among the most important of our current issues – it is perhaps the defining intellectual challenge of our time, and its resolution may well determine the future course of human history (if any). So what paying attention to the wrong thing here does is prevent this challenge from being met.

If, by promoting certain types of stories and advancing a certain narrative, we understand Trump as, for example, a Russian plant, then that’s necessarily going to lead to actions that respond to that understanding – for example, starting a new Cold War. So the thing about this is that a lot of the Russia claims are probably true; just given the facts of who Trump is, he’s more likely than not in hock to Russian gangsters (and of course the claim that Russia “interfered” with the election is trivially true; every large country does this all the time). But mere fact that a fact is true isn’t actually enough of a justification for saying it, because saying something is an action, so the question necessarily has to be: what are the results of your actions going to be? (This also includes the opportunity costs of not taking different actions.) And the more prominent of a platform you have, the more salient of a question this is, and the more variables you have to consider in order to answer it correctly.

The more important an issue is, the less effective it is to throw the kitchen sink at it. The kitchen sink approach works fine for trivial issues precisely because they’re trivial: you only need the one good hit to knock them out. But hard targets require more than that: they require focused effort against their specific vulnerabilities. Any effort that isn’t correctly targeted is effort that isn’t being applied where it’s needed. Worse, hard targets are complex, which means feedback effects: something that seems like it ought to be effective can easily trigger counterproductive responses. So the more hardened the target is, the more important is is to attack from all correct angles, and from only those angles which are correct.

If there actually was anything at all going on with West’s politics (that is, if he actually had politics), then that would be worth addressing: it would be among the correct angles. But the problem with West is not that he’s getting involved in politics, it’s that he isn’t. He isn’t actually talking about Trump or the underlying political situation or history or America or race or anything. He’s talking about dragon energy. So the practical consequence that transpires from talking about Kanye West talking about dragon energy is that attention and energy that would otherwise be spent on addressing the most important issues of our time are otherwise being spent on nothing.

It is also not the case that West has “lost his way” or gotten “confused” or anything along those lines. The fact of the matter is that West said one sort of on-point thing one time and has just been a provocative jackass the entire rest of the time.1 Statistically, the only rational conclusion is that the one good thing was a fluke. And what really mandates this conclusion is the fact that the one good thing wasn’t even any good. It’s actually a shame that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” is such a classic line, because it’s entirely beside the point. What George Bush does or doesn’t care about has nothing to do with what happened in New Orleans or with anything else. I mean, Barack Obama presumably does care about black people, and his administration oversaw a massive destruction of black wealth. That’s not how any of this works. Talking about things in this manner specifically means understanding things wrong.

This is not a call for naive intellectualization. Sometimes the stupidest explanation really is the real explanation, and figuring it out requires you to look at and properly analyze the stupidest available evidence. Maybe Trump supporters have thoroughly-considered grievances against globalization and modern liberalism, or maybe they’re a bunch of racists who fell for history’s most obvious con. (The real explanation generally requires taking a little bit of everything into account. It’s a big world out there.) What being a real intellectual means is not picking the explanation that seems the “smartest,” but figuring out which one is actually real. Either way, though, West is the absolute least representative person to look to for insight on this issue. One could, in theory, figure out what West actually believes and why he believes it, but precisely because West is an “exceptional” person, this information has no bearing on anything besides West himself. This is the part where the “real Americans” cliche actually has its merit: if a person is a clueless sucker, but is also a representative example of a large number of clueless suckers, then the question of why that person is a clueless sucker matters, because answering it tells us something we can do about the situation. Paying attention to people like West takes us further away from this goal: what we learn from his situation, if anything, is incorrect when applied to almost any other situation. It’s a test graded with the wrong answer key.

This also doesn’t mean that the only valid response is stone-faced just-the-facts asceticism – in fact, that’s almost always a version of the wrong response. It’s worth shaming someone for their opinion on an issue when that opinion is actually based on a particular understanding of the issue and they’re actually capable of shame, neither of which applies to West. It’s even, on occasion, worth issuing a Stern Moral Denunciation when there’s actually a substantive issue on which moral clarity is useful, which is not the kind of thing that West has ever engaged with. And there are plenty of times when cultural or aesthetic events point the way to deeper understanding of important issues. Arguing about the portrayal of Apu during the good episodes of The Simpsons really is useful anti-racist praxis. Indeed, there are also plenty of times when stern discussions of policy and economics function precisely as means of avoiding real discussion. The entire Hillary Clinton campaign, for example, was about “qualifications” and “pragmatism” and was in precisely this way not about any actual issues. Talking much about policy can also be a means to conceal policy. The point is simply that there are useful things to talk about and there are useless things to talk about, and picking the useless thing isn’t a simple inefficiency or a matter of preference. It’s a serious error that causes real harm.

It’s also important to understand that we’re talking specifically about public discourse here – that is, we’re talking about The Media. Obviously, chatting with your friends about whatever random bullshit you happen to find enjoyable is entirely laudable behavior. The problem is the bullshitting on the internet looks like a casual conversation, but it’s actually not – it’s actually what The Media is now. When you have a platform – when a certain number of people are guaranteed to read what you’re writing simply because of where you’re writing it (this is the specific things that it means for something to be part of “the media”: it mediates) – you have a responsibility, because what you’re writing creates the context in which other people have discussions. Any media piece that claims to be “responding” to what “the media” is doing is fundamentally lying: said piece is itself doing the thing that it’s pretending to respond to.

For example, the only reason anyone thinks that there’s a “campus free speech” issue is that a bunch of prominent columnists keep writing about it – it is the columnists and not the protesters who create the issue. You also see this any time anyone claims that something is happening “on Twitter.” What actually happens is that writing about Twitter is itself the thing that draws attention to and frames a certain sector of activity and therefore creates the event that is claimed to be happening “on Twitter.”

Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. A lot of people would argue that they have to “respond” when someone like West starts mouthing off, simply because he commands attention; that is, even though what he’s saying isn’t at all relevant, the fact of him saying it is. This isn’t totally a defeatist argument. It’s true that if the situation is such that people are already engaging in a bunch of useless gibbering about something, or if you can accurately predict that that’s going to happen, then ignoring it doesn’t accomplish anything, so you might as well try to up the average by saying something slightly more useful. But the thing about this is that it doesn’t justify just any response. It justifies exactly one response: to convince everyone else to stop paying any attention to Kanye West, and in so doing redivert attention onto the real issue. Trying to explain what he’s saying or argue against him has the opposite of the desired effect: it doesn’t elucidate anything, because there’s not actually anything being talked about, and it draws more attention to West and to what he’s saying, and therefore necessarily diverts attention away from the actual substance of the issues that are supposedly so important that they must be responded to immediately.

The real reason this is important is that the media’s power to create issues can also be used positively: it can create real issues. A strong example of this is the opioid crisis. Because this is largely a regional phenomenon, a lot of people don’t have direct experience with it. Also, the people who do have experience with it are generally not in much of a position to raise the issue themselves. It actually is the media’s job here to create this issue: to inform people that something as bad as the AIDS crisis is happening right now, and to insist that they care about it. So hyping trivial bullshit isn’t just a foible or an annoyance: it has the total opportunity cost of the difference between the negative value of the useless vector of discussed and the potential positive value that could be realized by discussing the same thing along a worthwhile vector. For example, every time you read an article about some dumbass thing Trump says about North Korea, you’re both damaging your brain in the amount of how dumb it is and missing out on learning something about what’s really going on with the Korean conflict.

You can obviously go on all day with this; to take just the most obvious examples, global warming and nuclear weapons are our two main civilization-level threats right now, and they get almost no accurate coverage. Nuclear weapons coverage is always about what might happen if those bad people over there start building nukes, and not about the people who actually possess and are potentially willing to use world-destroying amounts of them – such as, for example, any of the times the United States itself has almost blown up the world, and how our constant warmongering is making nuclear accidents more likely. And all of the stentorian prattling about “accepting the facts” of global warming doesn’t really help as long as any discussion of anything serious that could actually be done about it is preemptively removed from the table (not being a denialist doesn’t really count if you’re still in denial about any way to solve the problem). So this isn’t, y’know, “media criticism.” This is fucking serious. It’s not just that it’s within your abilities to avoid falling face-down into the mud at every opportunity, it’s that you could be saving the world, and instead you’re choosing to eat garbage.

Going after easy targets is one thing. It’s dishonorable, but we’re only human, and in a situation like that it’s at least possible to make worthwhile arguments. But going after inaccurate targets is another thing entirely – it’s actively counterproductive. The only person you’re clowning in that situation is yourself.

 


  1. Also, it’s highly likely that West’s behavior is not the result of him being “provocative” or even being an out-of-touch rich fuck, but is in fact the result of serious mental illness, which isn’t being treated because everyone thinks he’s a wacky savant or whatever. So in this case specifically there’s actually a whole other level of harm that this is causing: everyone treating West like a provocateur is preventing him from getting the help he needs, and also preventing us as a society from treating metal illness with the seriousness it deserves. 

Shoot ’em up

The whole “violence in video games” thing made an unexpected comeback recently, I guess because “first as tragedy, then as farce” is some kind of metaphysical law now. Anyway, for all the puffed-up pontificating that pervades this issue, no one’s ever really done a proper analysis of it, so, y’know, someone probably should.

Obviously, video games do not “cause” violence for any reasonable definition of the term. The mental hurdles that have to be cleared before a person can make the active decision to arbitrarily murder a bunch of strangers are somewhat extensive. Specifically, “desensitization to violence” has almost nothing to do with it. The reason people mostly don’t kill each other isn’t because they’re scared of seeing blood, it’s because they don’t want to in the first place. And of course spree killings require a whole other level of motivation on top of that, because in that case you’re killing people you don’t know in a way that doesn’t benefit you at all. Indeed, the entire reason spree killings attract attention is that they don’t make sense; most people literally can’t imagine how you would actually do something like that.

The typical tendency to latch on to the easiest available explanation is particularly pernicious here, because the fact that we’re talking about something very far outside of ordinary experience means that any real explanation would have to be extremely complicated. Remember, spree killings are vanishingly rare (which is part of the reason they attract so much attention when they do happen), so whatever “causes” them can’t be common; indeed, it can’t even be just one thing. You’d basically have to take a person’s entire life experiences into account, as which point you lose the ability to simply point your finger and blame one thing. (So yes, even blaming guns here is not really apropos. Spree killings actually provide an extremely weak case for banning guns. The strong case is the combination of the facts that a) most gun deaths are accidents or suicides, so guns really are the proximate cause there (suicides are generally impulsive, so even though there are other underlying issues there, removing the means can still be a decisive preventative measure) and b) individual gun ownership doesn’t have any positive functions.) One can, of course, imagine a situation where some game or other provides the “but for” cause for a particular killing, but everything that would have to happen for a person to get to that point would clearly be the overwhelmingly more significant issue. Basically, if fucking Doom or whatever can convince you to kill people, then literally anything can.

At the same time, it’s implausible to argue that games have no effect on anything. I mean, this actually was the popular argument back in the day: that games are a purely escapist pastime that have no effect on anything whatsoever. This is honestly pretty hilarious, because it’s precisely the argument for banning games: if games are completely useless, if they don’t do anything at all, then you might as well ban them. Nothing of value would be lost. But of course this is nonsense. Games aren’t in any way “fake”; they’re real things that exist in the real world, and engaging with them necessarily has to have some effect on a person simply by virtue of the fact that they’re things. Furthermore, games aren’t just arbitrary amalgamations of colors and noises – what they actually are, usually, is feedback loops. You take an action, you get feedback from it, you modify the actions you’re taking to account for the feedback and get new feedback in response, and you keep doing this forever. This is the style of interaction that is most likely to have an effect on human behavior: it’s the specific thing that the human brain responds to. And we know this is the case because game developers are completely shameless about it. The most prominent current example of this is the “loot box” system, which is explicitly intended to mimic the effects of slot machines for the purpose of manipulating addiction-prone people into dumping tons of money into them. And the reason games like this get made is that they’re profitable, meaning this works. In short, there really is something going on here, and beyond vague notions of “addiction,” nobody’s ever really bother to figure it out.

In order to understand what we’re actually talking about here, we first have to understand what “violence in video games” actually is. It’s not actual violence, obviously, but it’s also not a simulation of violence. People usually talk about it as though that’s what going on, that violence is being “portrayed,” but it’s clearly not, because if it is, it’s the worst portrayal ever. Two people holding weapons and clicking on each other until one of their life numbers reaches zero is about as far as you can get from an accurate portrayal of violence. I mean, this is usually a joke, like in Street Fighter or whatever you have two people punching and throwing fireballs at each other and they’re perfectly fine and uninjured the entire time until one of their life bars runs out, at which point they suddenly fall over, completely incapacitated. The joke is precisely that this is absolutely nothing like a street fight.

So if that’s not it, then what is it? What it is is a metaphor. “Violence in video games” is an aesthetic layer that exists to help us understand the underlying computational phenomena. What’s actually happening in a fighting game is that each player has a set of spatial coordinates that they can move around and project other sets of coordinates from, and if one player’s projected coordinates intersect with the other’s fixed coordinates, then the counter belonging to the intersecting player gets decremented by a certain amount, and the player whose counter reaches zero first loses. The problem is that that sentence makes no sense; if you actually had to explain games to people in this way, nobody would ever be able to figure out what the hell was going on. So what you do is you draw a picture of a street fight, and then people are immediately like “oh, I get it, I’m supposed to punch that guy.” This also, just as importantly, provides that player with a motivation for what they’re supposed to be doing. We don’t just understand “fighting” in mechanical terms, we also understand what you’re supposed to do when you get into a fight, which is to win it. So while the metaphor isn’t mechanical, it’s actually the more important part of the design: it’s the thing that the players are actually interacting with pretty much the whole time (in fact, it’s probably the thing that the developers were interacting with most of the time, too).

But the thing to note about metaphors is that they’re always somewhat arbitrary. The mechanics are the thing that’s actually happening, and you can always put a different metaphor on top of them. For example, in a RPG the two sides typically have different “attacks,” which are portrayed as things like swords and guns and fireballs, and their counters are portrayed as “life,” so the win condition is that one side eventually runs out of “life” and “dies.” But you could just as easily present the exact same mechanics as, for example, a debate, where instead of “attacks” you have “arguments,” and instead of “life” you have “credibility,” and the side that runs out of “credibility” first “loses” the debate. The game would work exactly the same way. So if violence isn’t a portrayal, and it’s also not a necessary consequence of the mechanics, then this is where we arrive at the real question: why do almost all games use violence as a metaphorical basis when doing so is completely unnecessary? Even in something like a Mario game, which is supposed to be all cute and family-friendly, there are still “enemies” that you have to “defeat,” and the climax occurs when you face off against the biggest enemy and boil him alive in a vat of lava. What’s really going on here?

The question can be answered in one word: dominance. This is the real underlying dynamic. A game might contain more or less explicit violence, but the thing that you’re supposed to do in every case is to “beat” it. This is actually clearer in single-player games: we sometimes talk about playing “against” the “A.I.”, but this isn’t really what’s happening, because the game as an overall system controls your actions as much as it controls your “opponent’s.” What’s actually happening is simply that you’re interacting with a computerized rule system. You’re not really “beating” anyone or anything when you “win” the game, you’re just placing the system into a certain state. But since this is difficult to understand on its own, we explain it to the player by means of ideological content. Everyone knows what it means to “beat the bad guys,” so presenting this situation provides an immediately comprehensible entry point into any set of underlying mechanics.

But explanation isn’t really the main purpose here. The purpose is motivation. Dominance isn’t just understandable, it’s morally significant. The purpose of establishing a “defeat the bad guys” scenario is to make the player want to do so, because it’s the right thing to do. And it’s this aspect that is truly pervasive, far more so than explicit violence. Portal, for example, is notable for being a first-person shooter that doesn’t have any violence in it, but it still presents you with a “bad guy,” and you ultimately “beat” the game by blowing them up. And even in abstract games like Candy Crush or whatever, you’re still presented with a series of “challenges” that you have to “overcome” by getting a “high score” – the game’s metaphor isn’t violent, but it’s still dominance-based.

And of course as soon as you notice this you notice that this happens everywhere. Movies, for example, often don’t have a lot of explicit violence (less so now that we’ve devolved to producing nothing but superhero movies, but still), but the plot almost always gets “resolved” by a symbolic assertion of dominance. There’s often a contest or sports match or something at the end where the good guy winning it somehow solves the interpersonal problems that the movie is supposed to be about. A classic example occurs in Back to the Future: the story of George McFly’s lack of self-confidence gets resolved by him punching someone in the face. What’s funny about this is that it doesn’t even make sense. George obviously doesn’t know how to throw a punch, and punching someone doesn’t generally render them instantly unconscious. But while the situation doesn’t make sense in factual terms – the movie would be a failure if the point of it were to portray violence – it does make sense in ideological terms. What the movie is telling us is that the symbolic assertion of dominance is the most important thing in the world.

And it’s far from the only thing telling us this. Indeed, we frequently hear this message in even more explicit terms from such sources as, oh, I don’t know, the entire United States government.

What this is saying is precisely “this action was illegal, and it killed people, and it didn’t accomplish anything, but it was still the right thing to do, because it was a symbolic assertion of dominance.” This isn’t a pathology or a mistake or a bad trend. It’s how our society works. Spree killings get politicians super hard for the opportunity to put on their serious faces and play-act moral indignation, but when the government decides that some other country is impeding its geopolitical goals, then suddenly unleashing an orgy of omnidirectional violence is the only rational choice.

So you can see where the last dot is now, right? Spree killings don’t make sense in functional terms, but they do make sense in symbolic ones – they are precisely symbolic assertions of dominance. The reason the mental health dodge is a dodge is because it’s trivially true: a person capable of deciding to murder a room full of strangers is by definition not what we mean by “mentally healthy.” It’s not a explanation; it’s a tautology. But the thing that it’s dodging is the fact that the underlying ideology of spree killers is in no way deviant from the general ideology that society constantly pushes on everyone. Indeed, the problem that spree killers have is simply that they take this ideology too seriously. What they’re supposed to do is release their frustrations in socially acceptable ways such as hating foreigners or bullying their subordinates at work or beating their wives. They’re not supposed to act like they really mean it.

In case you care, though, video games still suck. The fact that they’re not important enough to matter when compared to everything else doesn’t change the fact that they’re almost universally doing the wrong thing. There’s still a strong distinction between the general form of engagement offered by video games compared to other forms of media. Other forms of media often rely on symbolic assertions of dominance as a emotional crutch, but the general case when playing a video game is that symbolically asserting dominance is the only thing you do.

If you’re reading a book, for example, you have to work with the language you’re reading it in, which is a social medium created by the interactions of everyone in the society, over time, and you have to consider what effect specific word choices have and how they convey the things that the book is trying to convey, which requires accounting for social context and psychology and all kinds of other things. All of this stuff comes into play even when you’re just reading some juvenile action novel like Harry Potter where there’s an evil wizard who gets blown up at the end. This is why reading and seeing movies and listening to music are all generally healthy habits to have, even when their specific content isn’t all that great. At the very least, their basic structure connects to things that matter. Engaging with them forces you to be a person.

Indeed, pretty much the only activity you can engage in that doesn’t work like this is playing a video game. Ironically for a medium that prides itself on “interactivity,” gaming is frequently a completely thoughtless activity. You figure out – or, more often, the game just tells you – what action you need to take to “win,” and then you just do that over and over again. Engaging with a video game forces you to be a robot.

This problem is so endemic to the medium that its influence is overwhelming even in cases that are explicitly trying to do the exact opposite. I’m not sure if people realize this,  but Final Fantasy 7 is actually a prime example. The main character is your typical stoic mercenary coolguy, but the plot twist is that this is a facade. He’s actually a dropout loser whose dreams of grandeur end up manifesting as a severe inferiority complex, such that he has to pretend to be a big strong hero in order to see himself as a worthwhile person. This is an explicit repudiation of the whole idea of the “hero” being the most powerful person who beats up the most bad guys; what the game is saying is that people who need this kind of assurance are delusional children. Except that then the game ends with a one-on-one macho shirtless swordfight where the hero uses his super cool sword attack to beat up the bad guy. What’s amazing is that even within the context of the story, this doesn’t resolve anything: the denouement concerns an entirely separate issue that doesn’t have this sort of easy resolution, such that the game actually ends ambiguously. But the people making the game literally could not think of any climax other than a symbolic assertion of dominance, even though they had written an entire plot about how that sort of thing is stupid bullshit.

So the real problem with the “violence in video games” angle is aesthetic: it’s the wrong criticism. Violence isn’t the thing causing the problem. Indeed, one of the ways to make progress here is precisely by taking violence seriously as a concept. What violence actually is is a constraint: it physically prevents you from doing something. Furthermore, violence is not just one thing. It’s not just about “winning”; there are a lot of different ways you can deploy it. A game that was really about violence would precisely not be a simplistic fetishization of dominance. So in this sense, video games actually need to become a lot more violent. They need to start imposing real constraints.

But the defensive reaction to this criticism is ultimately just denialism. Criticism is always an opportunity to do better (or, at the very least, in the case of bad criticism, to refine your approach such that you don’t attract bad criticism), and games are capable of doing much, much better. Still, it’s correct to point out that this line of argument gets nowhere near the real problem. The real reason that games don’t cause violence is that all the damage a game could potentially do has already been done, far more effectively, by almost everything else in society. If you think banning games is going to help anything, you’d better start by banning the military.

Hollow point

Today in takes that I never expected would require levying: emotional teenagers are not going to redeem American politics. Surprisingly, I’m not enough of an asshole to criticize school shooting victims, so I’ll start by pointing out that they’re not actually doing anything wrong. They experienced a traumatizing event caused by a failure of policy, so they’re raising the issue to the people who have the ability to do something about it. This is precisely the role that citizenry is supposed to play in a society that’s supposed to be a democracy. The problem is with everyone else.

First of all, the media is completely full of shit here. They’ve had the ability this entire time to emphasize gun violence as a relevant political issue, and they’ve chosen to ignore it. They try to blame politicians for not responding to the fact that large majorities of people want more gun control, but what those numbers actually mean is that the media should already have been on top of this issue, because the numbers demonstrate that people care about it. One of the problems with the gun issue specifically is that the pro-gun forces are myopic zealots about it while the anti-gun forces recognize that there are other more important problems in the world, so the people who vote based on guns are overwhelmingly the former group. One of the jobs that the media is supposed to perform is to balance out coverage such that it accurately represents the distribution of opinions in the populace. Of course, what actually happens is the opposite: the media reliably locates the most psychotic available representatives of any given position and portrays them as the norm. (And this doesn’t even get into framing; for example, any discussion of the Second Amendment here is a complete red herring, because the Second Amendment was not understood to protect an individual right to bear arms until literally 2008. If you take the “well-regulated militia” thing seriously, the Second Amendment is actually compatible with banning individual gun ownership.)

Furthermore, now that they’re being forced to notice the issue, they’re doing it in exactly the wrong way. The overwhelming majority of gun violence takes the form of suicides or accidents – school shootings are its least representative example. So not only should a properly functioning media be making this clear, but because the real causes of gun violence have been ongoing and are not based on dramatic spectacles, they should have been doing that this entire time. The fact that it falls to teenagers to shoulder this burden should be the furthest thing from a point of pride: it’s a source of deep, irredeemable shame. I mean, I’m not actually on an anti-media rant here; there have been plenty of people contextualizing the issue properly and pointing out that a lot of the proposed solutions would be deeply counterproductive. But the fact that the media is indulging in spectacle here, as well as the fact that they required a spectacle in order to get off their asses, illustrates the fundamental failure: the media doesn’t actually “investigate” or “raise issues.” They chase trends.

But the fact that we’re talking policy at all here is also its own problem. There’s nothing condescending about pointing out that most people have no fucking idea what would or wouldn’t be a good gun control policy. It will always necessarily be the case that most people don’t know about most things, because there are only so many hours in the day to spend reading up on shit. It’s natural for people, especially people who have been directly affected by an issue, to come up with objectively asinine solutions like this:

“Why don’t we have Kevlar vests in classrooms for our students? Why don’t we build our walls with Kevlar so that kids aren’t being shot through their own walls because they’re so cheaply built?”

Having people who specifically know stuff about policy and whose job it is to come up with effective solutions is not “elitism,” it’s just, like, people having different jobs. Everyone can’t be an expert on everything. So, again, the role of the general citizenry is to raise the issue, which should then lead the people whose job it is to both understand the issue in its proper context and come up with good solutions. Yet it’s pretty much a constant in political discourse to ask random assholes off the street to start opining about policy details, which is at best a complete waste of time and usually actively counterproductive. It’s not their job. Indeed, the failure in the above quote belongs not to the person who said it, but to the person who framed the issue such that the quote was produced in the first place. Shoving a camera in a grieving person’s face and asking them to elucidate policy prescriptions on the spot is exactly how you don’t do political journalism.

But of course we don’t actually have “elites” in this country, in the substantive sense of the term. We have a ruling class, but it very rarely includes anyone who’s any good at anything. What we actually have is elitism without eliteness. Our op-ed columnists are all anti-intellectual hacks, our philanthropists have all the philosophical sophistication of teenage Randroids, and our think tanks are all either partisan hackeries or nepotist sinecures. The role of think tanks here is especially important. The actual function they perform is to take the existing ideological biases of the ruling class and develop policies that satisfy those biases. The increasing salience of healthcare is making this particularly obvious. Everyone knows that the only real solution here is to take the profit motive out of medicine, but we’ve had to deal with decades of nonsense about “market-based solutions” or fucking whatever for no reason other than the ruling class having already decided that only solutions that preserve the ability to extract profits out of people’s illnesses were acceptable. An actual good-faith effort to develop a better healthcare system would have had single-payer implemented almost immediately, but instead it’s only just now becoming a credible option due to literally everyone in the country clamoring for it. Which is, you know, nice, but there’s no excuse for making us push that boulder all the way up the hill. It is, indeed, the exact opposite of the way that our society is supposed to be organized, and it gives the lie to the entire notion of having “qualified” people in charge. Not only do we have politicians who pick their own voters, but we also have policies that pick their own advocates.

And the thing about politicians really does bear repeating: the American political process fundamentally does not respond to what people actually want. The things that are supposed to function as democratic inputs to the system are almost all distractions. It doesn’t matter if some goober like Marco Rubio goes on TV and “gets his ass handed to him,” because after that he just goes back to Washington and keeps voting for more guns. It’s all just a day at the office for him. And the fact that it’s entertaining for us is a problem, because it focuses our attention in the wrong place, and makes us feel like something’s happening when it isn’t. It seems like a politician being humiliated on an important issue ought to matter somehow, but it just doesn’t. It’s empty catharsis. The reason people want this to be a watershed moment is, ironically, because they want to believe that they live in a functional society. They want to believe that a strong enough emotional appeal is enough to change things. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to support this assumption. There’s no necessary connection between what people care about and the actions the ruling class chooses to take.

Worse, our general understanding of how to change things is similarly flawed. It’s beyond cliche to assert that “real change” is made by “ordinary people” going “out in the streets,” but there’s no necessary reason for this to be true. Politicians are just as capable of ignoring protests as they are of ignoring news stories and adversarial interviews. We’re still sort of razzled and dazzled by the mythology of the Civil Rights Movement, which is understandable, since that actually did result in unbelievably sweeping changes and it actually was powered by protests. So that really makes it seem like protesting is the thing to do. But even Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized that his commitment to nonviolent protest was as much a tactical choice as it was a moral one: it was the thing that happened to be effective at that time. It’s obvious that this wouldn’t have worked at earlier points in history – nobody would have given a shit if the slaves had “protested” – and it can’t simply be assumed that it’s going to continue working at this point in history.

It’s important to emphasize here that the point is not whether protesting is “good” or “bad,” but simply that it’s not magic. It has specific effects at specific times. For example, the first Women’s March last year actually turned out to have important effects, which I’ll admit I didn’t anticipate. Due to the combination of Trump’s inauguration being underattended and the immediately proceeding marches being overattended, they had the effect of creating the narrative of an embattled presidency from day one. This wasn’t necessarily going to happen. The first time Trump gave a speech off of a teleprompter and exploited a war widow, the media fell right on his dick. All those hacks are thirsty as fuck for legitimizing whoever the big man wearing the suit happens to be, so there was a real danger that Trump was going to become the new normal. Consistent and indeed obnoxious opposition made this not happen. (Worryingly, though, only half of this is actually due to the opposition – the other half is because Trump really is that much of a clueless bumblefuck. It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to just “act presidential” while doing all of the exact same things, but he’s just plain too incompetent to hack it. This has been said before, but what we’re really learning here is how deeply vulnerable America is to a competent fascist.) The second march, on the other hand, had no such contextual focus, so it didn’t do anything. It came and went. Even striking only works when you actually have your ducks in a row. The exact same tactic can just as easily be effective or useless depending on when and how it’s deployed.

And there’s still a very real danger that this is going to backfire. I mean, if you’re demanding “action” from the current administration, that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” theory still holds up pretty well here: whenever there’s cause for change, the ruling class uses the opportunity to make the changes they want. The NRA responds to literally every situation by calling for more guns, because that’s what they want, and they’re the people who are capable of getting what they want. It’s not at all surprising that we’re now seeing calls for constant police presence in schools: this is exactly the thing that we should expect to happen, given the current parameters of the society that we live in. This is the real threat that requires our opposition.

So there actually is a problem with what the teens are doing here: they’re making this about “safety.”1 It’s not. You can’t ever fully prevent things like mass shootings. Like, it’s appropriate to say “never again” to something like the Holocaust that has a lot of moving parts. Everything had to go wrong in order for it to happen, so as long as we remember to stay on guard against it, we should always be able to stop things before they get to that level (though that’s obviously a heavy “should”). A mass shooting is the opposite type of event: only one thing has to go wrong in order for it to happen, which means something like that is always going to be a possibility (even if you actually ban guns, there are still cars and homemade explosives and what have you). Obviously, things can be made safer; reducing the raw number of guns present will naturally reduce the number of gun-related accidents, and reduce the probability that the wrong person will have access to a gun at the wrong time. But there’s always going to be a chance that a gun is going to get through somewhere, which means, if you’re fully insistent on safety, that you have to institute a safeguard against that . . . and it has to be more of a threat than the gunner is capable of providing, or else it won’t be a deterrent . . . and it has to be everywhere, since you never know where the breach is going to occur. There’s only one conclusion: the logic of safety leads inexorably to a police state.

Thus, the quietist argument is in fact the best argument to be made against gun control. The rate of school shooting deaths is extremely low, and the rate of other deaths is comparable to other everyday threats, so the problem simply does not merit bothering with. If preventing deaths is what you’re after, you’re better off looking just about anywhere else. But there’s a better argument to be made on the other side: because guns don’t do anything useful, we might as well just go ahead and ban them. More than that, guns themselves already have negative utility, even before anyone gets shot. The whole “guns don’t kill people” thing is really the worst argument ever made, because of course guns kill people. Killing people is the only thing that guns do; it’s the entire reason they exist. Guns are objects, but nothing is “just” an object, because objects aren’t neutral. Without a gun it’s pretty fucking difficult to kill a person on accident, or even on purpose, but with a gun it’s trivially easy. This is a direct result of what type of object a gun is: it’s an object that kills people as effectively as possible.

The police state response at least honestly accounts for this: it acknowledges the fact that guns are extremely dangerous, and therefore advances an equally dangerous countermeasure as the only way to stop them. And this is a pro-safety argument: it is precisely not based on the idea that gun violence is “the price of freedom,” but rather the idea that safety must be preserved at any cost. It’s exactly the logical conclusion you get from following through on statements like “we cannot allow one more child to be shot at school.” The problem with this conclusion isn’t that it’s unsafe, it’s that it sucks. The threat of school shootings is better than a police state – and it’s also better than owning guns in the first place. That is, if it really were that case that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” we should still be opposed to guns, because guns are bad. We should accept the threat of gun violence for the sake of getting rid of guns.

That is: let’s grant the NRA their empirical argument. It may in fact be that case that, in a gun-saturated society, a lot of people who would otherwise do bad things won’t do them, but the reason for this is that they’re afraid of getting shot. And the only way this works is if everyone lives in that state of fear, all the time. A society where everyone constantly carries guns with the intent of using them to stop crimes is just a distributed and untrained police state. So the empirical issue of whether this type of society is “safer” or not is ultimately beside the point, because it’s an undesirable way to live regardless of the specific consequences that ensue from it. The cure is worse than the disease. The other alternative is that we remove as much violence as possible from everyday living, which will necessarily make us more vulnerable on those occasions when violence does end up occurring. Obviously, we’re not going to make ourselves naively vulnerable, reasonable safeguards are still reasonable, but it is within our abilities to focus on living well rather than jumping at every shadow and cowering around every corner. This is the argument that actually disarms the NRA, because it takes away the only real motivation they have, which is fear. What the NRA truly stands for is cowardice, so it’s important for those of us who oppose them to ensure that we do not make the same mistake.

An excessive focus on safety will always eventually resolve itself into illusion. There isn’t really anything that’s perfectly safe, but there are things that look that way, so doing something that looks safe is your actual practical option. If you’re scared of violent immigrants, there isn’t any real approach you can take to ensure that you’re never victimized. But you could, hypothetically, build some kind of big symbol that represents safety, such that looking at it and knowing that it’s there makes you feel safe, even though it doesn’t really do anything. I mean, living in denial really is a real choice you can make, and it’s the choice that most Americans make most of the time. So this isn’t a trivial dilemma. We really do have to decide what our values are. A magical Care Bear society where nothing bad ever happens is not one of the options, because there’s no such thing. The actual options are a society of constant violence where all problems are solved through further repression, or a society of civility where we accept the threat of tragedy for the sake of preserving human dignity. This is a real choice that has honest advocates on both sides. It’s clear to me what the right choice is, and if it’s clear to you, too, you shouldn’t hide behind facile invocations of “safety” and “responsibility.” You should say what you really believe.

And the extent to which the teens aren’t doing this is simply the extent to which they’re acting the way they’ve been taught to. They watch the news and they know that you’re supposed to say things like “this is not a political issue” and ask “tough questions” and make histrionic statements about “living in terror,” so that’s what they’ve been doing. But their initial emotional response was the right one. If the same number of kids had died as the result of a bus crash or something, it wouldn’t have had the same galvanizing effect, because there wouldn’t have been anything obviously “wrong” with it. But a society swimming in guns is, to these kids, obviously wrong, which is why they’re not standing for it. They actually do have a strong grasp on the relevant value claim here. The only problem is that the rest of us are doing our damnedest to pry it away from them. The potential negative consequences of their actions are simply a result of their being filtered through a society that gets literally everything wrong.

Violence is always a political issue, and there are more than two sides to every story. Getting your own story straight – making the right argument instead of the easy one – is the only thing that gives an ordinary person any real power. Doing the opposite, saying the easiest thing, or the thing that attracts the most attention, is how you ensure that society will be able to resolve your passion into support for the status quo. Most importantly, any issue of substance is not merely a “mistake” or an “inefficiency,” but a real value contest, with someone on the other side who is genuinely opposed to what you believe in and is pushing against you as hard as they can. They’ll act like they aren’t, like they “want what’s best for everyone” and are “just trying to find a reasonable solution,” but the fact that there was a problem in the first place – that you felt that scream in your heart insisting that this is wrong – is what proves them to be liars. The task of creating a real society is precisely the task of identifying your enemies and figuring out how to kill them. None of the easy targets here matter. Indeed, the reason they’re easy targets is because they don’t matter – they’re decoys. The thing we need to call BS on here is America.

We’re never going to be able to return to innocence, because innocence was an illusion in the first place. There never was a Garden of Eden, there’s just the regular kind of garden, where sometimes things grow and sometimes they don’t – which, of course, makes it all the more important to apply our full efforts to the task. But the real threat we have to watch out for isn’t that young lives might be cut short. It’s that they’re going to grow up shaped by the confines of the same system that killed their peers, and, in so doing, become just like the rest of us.

 


  1. Yeah, I know, I’m an asshole. Surprise! 

Face down

We all had a good laugh when Apple decided that the future of technology was making you unlock your phone by wiggling it in front of your face, every time you need to use it, in public. But the thing about extremely stupid ideas is that they have real underlying causes, which is why the funniest things are often simultaneously the most serious. This is no exception, and the real issue here is particularly not pretty.

We should start by admitting an oft-ignored truth, which is that passwords are good. They’re the correct form of security at the level of the individual user, and the reason for this is that they are a proper technical implementation of consent. The problem is that, when a system gets a request to provide access to an account, it has no idea why or from where the request is coming in; it just has the request itself. So the requirement is that access is provided if and only if the person associated with the account wants it to be provided. The way you implement this is by establishing an unambiguous communication signal. This works just like a safe word in a BDSM scene: you take a signal that would normally never occur and assign a fixed meaning to it, so that when it does occur, you know exactly what it means. That’s what a password is, and that’s why it works. “Security questions,” on the other hand, are precisely how passwords don’t work, because anything personally associated with you is not a low frequency signal. Anyone who knows that information can just send it in, so it doesn’t accord with user consent. All those celebrities who got hacked were actually compromised through their security questions, because of course they were, because personal information about celebrities is publicly available. They would have been perfectly fine had their email systems simply relied on generic passwords.

Furthermore, none of the alleged problems with passwords are real problems. The reason for all the stupid alternate-character requirements on passwords is supposedly that they increase complexity, but this doesn’t actually matter. The only thing that matters is that the signal is low frequency, and the problem with a password like “password123” isn’t that it lacks some particular combination of magic characters,1 but is simply that it’s high frequency. But anything that wouldn’t be within a random person’s top 100 guesses is, for practical purposes, zero frequency, so a password like “kittensarecute” or “theboysarebackintown” is essentially 100% secure. There’s no actual reason to complicate it any further, and in fact several reasons not to, because forgetting your password or having to write it down are real security threats.

Literally the only problem with simple passwords like this is that they can be hacked; that is, a computer program can derive them from a fixed pattern. If your password is a combination of dictionary words, then a “dictionary attack” can derive it from all the possible combinations of all the words in the dictionary in a relatively short amount of time, because that’s actually not all that much data. The frequency isn’t low enough. But the thing about this is that it’s portrayed as an end-user problem when it isn’t one at all; it’s a server problem. A user can’t actually guess how their password is going to be hacked; the attacker might use a dictionary attack, or they might pick a different pattern that happens to match the one you used in an attempt to evade a dictionary attack. The real way to prevent this is for the server to disallow it – the server shouldn’t allow a frequency of attempts high enough to convert a low-frequency signal into a high-frequency one. Preventing this isn’t the user’s job, because they can’t actually do anything about it. The server can.

And of course no one is ever actually going to hack your password. You don’t matter enough for anyone to care. What actually happens, as one hears about constantly in the news, is that a company’s server gets breached and all the passwords on it are compromised from the back end. When this happens, the strength and secrecy of your password are completely irrelevant, because the attacker already has your credentials, no matter what form they’re in. Again, this is not a problem with passwords. The passwords are doing their job; it’s the server that’s failing.

So the thing about biometrics is that they’re worse than passwords, because they don’t implement consent. At best, they implement identity, but that’s not what you want. If the police arrest you and want to snoop through your phone without a warrant, they have your identity, so if your phone is secured through biometrics, they have access to it without your consent. But they don’t have your password unless you give it to them. Similarly, the ability of passwords to be changed when needed is a strength. It’s part of the implementation of consent: if the situation changes such that the previously agreed-upon term no longer communicates the thing its supposed to communicate, you have to be able to change it. In BDSM terms, if your safe word is “lizard,” but then you want to do a scene about, y’know, lizard people or something, then the word isn’t going to convey the right thing anymore, so you have to come up with a new one. This is the same thing that happens in a data breach: because someone else knows your password, it no longer communicates consent – but precisely because you can change it, it can continue to perform its proper function. Whereas if someone steals your biometric data, you’re fucked forever. So when Apple touts the success rate or whatever of their face-scanning thing, they’ve completely missed the point. It doesn’t matter how accurate it is, because it implements the wrong thing.2

So, given all of this, why would a major company expend the amount of resources required to implement biometrics? We’ve already seen the answers. First, passwords look bad from the end-user perspective, because they feel insecure – unless you’re forced to use a random jumble of characters, in which case they feel obnoxious. And in either case you have to manage multiple passwords, which can be genuinely difficult. Biometrics, by contrast, feel secure, even though they’re not, and they’re very easy to use. They also feel “future-y,” allowing companies to sell them like some big new fancy innovation, when they’re actually a step backwards. In short, they’re pretty on the outside. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, Apple is invested in the conceptualization of technology as magic.

More than that, though, biometrics demonstrate a focus on the appearance of security at the expense of its actuality – that is, they’re security theater. What all those data breaches in the news indicate is that, for all the ridiculous security paraphernalia that gets foisted on us, companies don’t actually bother much with security on their end. They don’t want to spend the money, so they make you do it, and because you can’t do it, because you don’t actually have the necessary means, the result is actual insecurity. Thus, the appearance of security, mediated by opaque technology that most people don’t understand, provides these companies with cover for their own incompetence. The only function being performed here by “technology” is distraction.3

What this means, then, is that technology isn’t technology. That is, the things that we talk about when we talk about “tech” aren’t actually about tech. Indeed, “tech companies” aren’t even tech companies4. Google and Facebook make their money through advertising; they’re ad companies. The fact that they use new types of software to sell their ads is only relevant to their business model in that provides a shimmery sci-fi veneer to disguise their true, hideous forms. Amazon is not actually a website; it’s a big-box retailer in exactly the same vein as Target and Wal-Mart. A lot of people thought it was “ironic” when Amazon stated opening physical stores, but that’s only the case if you assume that Amazon has some kind of ideological commitment to online ordering. What Amazon has an ideological commitment to is capturing market share, and they’re going to keep doing that using whatever technological means are available to them. Driving physical retailers out of business and then filling the vacuum with their own physical stores is precisely in line with how Amazon operates – it’s what you should expect them to do, if you actually understand what type of thing they are. Uber is only an “app” in the sense that that mediates their actual business model, which is increasing the profits of taxi services by evading regulations and passing costs on the the drivers (Uber’s business model doesn’t account for the significant maintenance costs incurred by constantly operating a vehicle, because those costs are borne by the drivers, who aren’t Uber’s employees. But Uber still takes the same cut of the profits regardless.) Apple is the closest, since they actually develop new technology, but even then they mostly make money by selling hardware (after having it manufactured as cheaply as possible), meaning they’re really just in the old-fashioned business of commodity production.

So if you try to understand these companies in terms of “tech,” you’re going to get everything wrong. There isn’t a design reason why Apple makes the choices it does; there’s a business reason. Nobody actually wanted an iPhone without a headphone port, but Apple relies on their sleek, minimalist imagery to move products, so they had to make the phone slimmer, even if it meant removing useful functionality. And of course no one is ever going to be interested in a solid-glass phone that shatters into a million pieces when you sneeze at it, but Apple had to come up with something that looked impressive to appease the investors and the media drones, so that’s what we got.

But this isn’t even limited to just these “new” companies; it’s the general dynamic by which technology relates to economics. There’s been a recent countertrend of elites pointing out that, actually, modern society is pretty great from a historical perspective, but they’re missing the point that this is despite our system of social organization, not because of it. That is, barring extreme disasters along the lines of the bubonic plague or the thing that we’re currently running headlong into, it would be incomprehensibly bizarre for the general standard of living not to increase over time. As long as humans are engaged in any productive activity at all, things are going to continuously get better, because things are being produced. The fact that we’re not seeing this – that real wages have been stagnant for decades and people are more stressed and have less leisure time then ever – indicates that we are in the midst of precisely such a disaster. Our current economic system is a world-historical catastrophe on par with the Black Death.

Do I even need to explicitly point out that this is why global warming is happening? It isn’t because of technology, it’s because rich fucks have decided they’d rather destroy the world for a short-term profit than be slightly less rich. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the physics are such that everyone is going to die, but the decision itself was made a long time ago. If it wasn’t greenhouse gasses, it would be something else. There’s always nuclear war or mass starvation or what have you. The fact of the matter is that we’ve chosen a social configuration that doesn’t support human life. That’s the whole story.

To address this technically, it’s certainly true that the age of capitalism has seen a vast increase in worldwide standards of living, but it’s not capitalism that caused that. It’s actually the opposite: trade and industrialization created the conditions for capitalism to become possible in the first place. Capitalism is not the cause of industrialization or globalization, it’s the response to these things. It is the determination of how the results of these things will be applied, and what actually happens it that it ensures that the gains will always be pointed in the wrong direction. The fact of globalization has nothing to do with any of the problems attributed to it; the problems reside entirely in how globalization is happening: who’s managing it, what their priorities are, and where the results are going. Like, it’s really amazing to consider how much potential productivity is being wasted right now. All the people employed in advertising, or in building yachts, or in think tanks, or on corporate advisory boards, or in failed attempts at “regime change,” or designing new gadgets that are less functional then the old ones, or all those dumbass “internet-connected” kitchen appliances, all of that, all of the time and energy and resources being spent on all of that stuff and far more, is all pure waste. Imagine the kind of society we could have if all of that potential were actually being put to productive use.

And it’s deeply hilarious how committed everyone is to misunderstanding this as thoroughly as possible. Like, the actual word we have for someone who negatively fetishizes technology is “Luddite,” but the Luddites were precisely people who cared about the practical results of technology – they cared about the fact that their livelihoods were being destroyed. They attacked machines because those machines were killing them. Every clueless takemonger inveighing about how globalization is leaving people behind or social media is dividing us or smartphones are alienating us is completely failing to grasp the basic point that the Luddites instinctively understood. The results of technological developments are not properties of the technology itself; they arise from political choices. The technology is simply the means by which those choices are implemented. In just the same way, attacking technology is not merely a symptom of incomprehension or phobia or lifestyle. It is also a political choice.

An engine doesn’t tell you where to go or how to travel. It just generates kinetic energy. It can take you past the horizon, but if you instead point it into a ditch, it will be equally happy to drive you straight into the dirt. There’s nothing counterintuitive about that; the function of technology is no great mystery. It just obeys the rules – not only the physical ones, but the social ones as well. All of the problems that people attribute to technology (excepting things like software glitches that are actual implementation failures) are actually problems with the rules. The great lesson of the age of technology is that technology doesn’t matter; as long as society continues on in its present configuration, everything will continue to get worse.

 


  1. The way you can tell that complexity requirements are bullshit is that they’re all different. There are plenty of nerds available to run the numbers on this, so if there really were a particular combination of requirements that resulted in “high security,” it would have been figured out by now and the same solution would have been implemented everywhere. But because the actual solution is contextual – that is, it’s the thing that no one else is guessing, which also means it’s unstable – you can’t implement it as a fixed list of requirements. The reason it feels like each website’s requirements are just some random ideas that some intern thought sounded “secure” enough is because that’s actually what they are. 
  2. I mean, face-scanning can’t actually work the way they say it does, because of identical twins. If the scan can distinguish between identical twins, that means it’s using contextual cues such as hair and expression, which means there are cases when these things would cause it to fail for an individual user, and if it can’t distinguish between identical twins (or doppelgangers), then that’s also a failure. I’d also be curious to know how much work the engineers put into controlling for makeup, because that’s a pretty common and major issue, and I’m guessing the answer is not much. 
  3. The real situation is significantly more dire than this. It isn’t just that Equifax, for example, sucks at security, it’s that Equifax should not exist in the first place. Taking the John Oliver Strategy and making fun of Equifax for being a bunch of dummies completely misses what’s really going on here. 
  4. I’m not giving up my “tech assholes” tag though, it’s too perfect. 

A glass darkly

bffs

Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump are the same person. If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand anything.

First of all, they’re both rich fucks. This isn’t, like, a coincidence. People don’t “just happen” to get rich. Your relationship to the material conditions of your existence is one of the primary determinants of who you are as a person. Before we even get into any other considerations, the actual act of being rich is itself immoral. When you or I imagine being “rich,” we imagine things like having a big house in a quiet neighborhood and a fancy car and an extensive record collection, but this isn’t what being actually rich is like. Being actually rich means literally having more money than it is physically possible to spend – even after resorting to ridiculous luxuries like owning three summer vacation mansions filled with rare art collections that you only visit one week a year or buying a Hawaiian island. It’s difficult to really imagine what things like this are like, which is why a lot of people resist this argument: they can’t imagine a situation where losing money results in no material deprivation whatsoever. But this is the real situation that our society has decided to create for some people, and it’s the situation that Winfrey and Trump both inhabit every waking moment. Every dollar they hoard is a dollar’s worth of food taken out of the mouth of a starving person. There is no word for this other than “evil.”

People like to talk about whether rich fucks “deserve” their money or not, but this is completely irrelevant to the argument. Remember, we’re talking about money in excess of the amount that you can actually spend on all the luxuries and projects during the amount of time you’re awake each day. Since you would lose absolutely nothing by giving it away, since your life would remain exactly the same with or without it, whereas lots of other people’s lives would improve immeasurably upon receiving even the tiniest fraction of it, there can be no possible justification for keeping it, regardless of its source. It doesn’t matter whether the money came from a big sack you found in the street or whether it was a boon bestowed upon you by god herself in recognition of your exceptional personal character. Philanthropy, which we’ll discuss further in just a moment, has no effect on this, because the issue is not how much money is being given away, but how much is being kept. A person living paycheck to paycheck does not lose virtue points for not giving to charity, because all the money they have is already being put to valuable use. A rich fuck does lose virtue points for every dollar they keep in the bank, because that money is being kept from people whom it could be helping. It is the actual holding of the money, in a situation where billions of others need money to survive, that constitutes the immorality. And considering the scale of the situation, this pretty much overrides any other possible concerns regarding what kind of person someone is. Like, if you knew someone whose construction company built concentration camps, you wouldn’t really give a shit if they seemed nice and empathetic in person. This is almost exactly the same thing.

But even if we do feel the need to interrogate the source of money as an indication of its recipient’s character, Winfrey and Trump are still in the same situation. Just as being rich is not a coincidence, getting rich is also a matter of a particular type of interfacing with present social conditions. Again, when you or I imagine getting rich, we imagine things like getting a big promotion or writing a bestselling novel or something – something that reflects our own abilities and doesn’t hurt anyone else. This isn’t how getting actually rich works. In a capitalist society, they way you make money is through exploitation. People who work for a living can only ever make enough to cover their own expenses, maybe with some extra left over for luxuries and savings if their skills happen to be in demand at the time. The way you make walking-around money is by extracting the value of other people’s labor, and the way you make a lot of money is by extracting a lot of value from the labor of a lot of people. The way you get actually rich is by building an empire. I mean, that’s exactly the term we use, we call things “media empires” or “construction empires,” and that’s exactly what they are. They’re giant exploitation engines in which the lives of millions of people are ground up into lubricant for the lifestyles of the rulers. It’s really not even a metaphor; they literally consume people’s flesh and blood. The fact that Winfrey is a self-made man and Trump is a trust fund baby doesn’t really impinge on any of this. If anything, it reflects worse on Winfrey; Trump inherited his father’s immorality, while Winfrey built her towering edifice of bullshit with her own two hands. Because we live in a society that allocates resources immorally, the people who succeed in it are the people who are the most immoral. Making money is a bad thing that makes you a bad person.

Those are the general principles, but this particular comparison is especially interesting, because Winfrey and Trump are not merely representatives of the same class, but representatives of the same belief system, with exactly the same M.O. Like, Bill Gates got rich by being a monopolist, but his company actually did produce products that people use. He added something to the world. Winfrey and Trump do not merit even this basic distinction; they are pure self-advertisers whose only product is their own image. The way Trump operated was not by actually building things, but by buying other people’s products and inflating their value through hype campaigns. Since the hype always far exceeds any actual value (especially since Trump has negative taste and can therefore be counted on to always select the worst products), there’s inevitably a collapse, at which point Trump sends out his lawyers and accountants to pocket the proceeds and leave other people holding the losses. In almost exactly the same way, Winfrey attaches herself to other people’s books and ideas and uses them to inflate her own image. Since the marketing of these things always far exceeds their actual content (especially since Winfrey is a credulous hack and can therefore be counted on to always select the most diluted variety of snake-oil on display), the fad inevitably dies out, at which point Winfrey shields herself from any fallout by simply moving on to the next trend (or occasionally issuing a Serious Apology if there’s a real scandal). People like this are worse even than rentiers, since they don’t even own the things they put their names on. They are pure value extractors; perfect parasites.

Even more than that, though, the similarities in Winfrey’s and Trump’s approaches point to something deeper than circumstantial convergence; they point to the same underlying ideology. Focusing solely on image and advertising necessarily requires complete adherence to existing values and standards. This is because symbols have to have referents; people have to know what you’re talking about, and if there’s no actual underlying product with its own value, the only way this is possible is if you’re saying something that people already believe.

When personal computers first came out, they were a new type of thing, so people didn’t already understand what they could do. This meant they couldn’t be marketed with pure bullshit, but had to actually function such that people who used them got something out of it. The same thing happened with smartphones; Apple’s insufferable advertising notwithstanding, it was only once people started using smartphones and experiencing the various things they could do (not all of it good, but still) that they became popular. A less compromised example is the Sriracha hot sauce guy. Sriracha has become a cultural buzzword in the complete absence of any marketing or promotion of it whatsoever. I had no idea where the stuff even came from until I saw that article. Because it’s a quality product, you don’t have to conjure up fantasies of fun-loving bikini girls or rugged manliness in order to sell it. It’s actually good; it has its own value, and is therefore able to speak for itself.

So here’s the important part: if you don’t have something with its own value, then you do have to rely on all that other stuff; you have to piggyback off of preexisting sources of value. You obviously have to have some sort of value claim in order to make a pitch to people. If you have a valuable product, this claim can potentially be something new. The concept of “personal productivity” didn’t used to be a thing, but once various types of machines became popularly accessible, it became something that could actually exist and was therefore possible to value. New values like this may or may not end up being good things, of course, but at least they’re new, and they’re based on real things that people can do. If you don’t have a source of value, you have no basis from which to make a new claim, so you have to make an old one. You have to play to a preestablished fantasy.

The fantasy that Trump plays to is the fantasy of opulence. It’s the idea that money determines everything in the world, and therefore aligning yourself with money gets you the best possible experience. Buying Trump-branded products ensures that you’re getting the most expensive and therefore highest-quality goods, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. The fantasy that Winfrey plays to is the fantasy of self-help. This is almost exactly the same idea: that choosing the right products and thinking the right way amounts to a secret formula for living a perfect life. Buying the products and following the trends chosen by Winfrey’s magical insight ensures that you’re getting real true meaning, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. (Also, do people really not notice that Winfrey specifically plays to the Magical Negro stereotype? Her whole thing is being “spiritual” and “authentic” and using that to serve as a lifestyle guide for rich white women. I don’t understand why people who would raise hell about this sort of thing in any other context give a pass to the one person who deserves it the least.)

The only actual difference between Winfrey and Trump is aesthetic. Specifically, Trump caters to the masculine side of the consumerist fantasy, selling suits and steaks and golf club memberships to promote the ideal of being a big important businessman, while Winfrey caters to the feminine side, selling diets and empathy and mindfulness to promote the ideal of being a magical unicorn princess. The reason this makes Winfrey look better on the TV is that femininity is significantly closer to a real standard of what being a decent person is like than masculinity is. (As just a few examples, femininity includes care, attention to detail, a focus on practical reality, and a basic level of concern for other people.) But a) aesthetics, while nontrivial, do not override morality, and b) Winfrey’s aesthetics are still overwhelmingly the aesthetics of rich fucks, which is to say their similarities with Trump’s are greater than their differences. Trump’s business books actually are self-help books, just marketed to a different audience. Trump University is exactly the same thing as The Secret, sold with exactly the same language.

Thus, Winfrey, no less than Trump, is a complete prisoner of the existing social order. Under ordinary circumstances this would merely be pitiable, but because these people have actual power, they do not only suffer from but also actively advance these harmful values. Their ideological commitments go so deep that they are unable to escape them even when they’re trying to help. Trump’s idea of charity is giving way free rounds of golf, and his idea of helping people is Trump University, an actual shakedown factory so blunt mafiosi would consider it beneath their honor. Winfrey, while less of an explicit con artist and more of an actual philanthropist, still favors spectacle over substance, as most famously illustrated by her stupid car giveaway stunt. Like, first of all, this was a stunt. I fucking cannot stand people who treat stunts like they’re real things. They’re fake. That’s the whole thing that a stunt is. Anyway, the point is that this is also bad charity. Cars are a modern necessity, so people generally have the number of cars they need, and people attending Oprah tapings are not exactly those in the most dire need of financial assistance. The reason she did this was not out of any consideration of how much it would help people, but because it would reflect well on her: because the recipients are sympathetic and the narrative plays into the “American Dream” – and of course because it gives her a big televised platform to grandstand on. Indeed, this is the exact definition of “philanthropy”: even “good” philanthropy isn’t actually good, because philanthropy is bad charity that promotes the giver more than it helps anyone.

The more concise way to put all of this is that Winfrey and Trump have both killed people through active negligence. Trump hires undocumented workers on the cheap and skimps on safety, resulting in injury and death. Obeying the capitalist imperative to generate profit, he stiffs contractors for his own gain, forcing them to forgo medical care and other necessities. Winfrey promotes quack science, fad diets, and fraudulent psychology, covering up their reality with her own aura of glamour. These are things which people, trusting her, take into their bodies, physically harming them. It’s hard to trace causality here, but given her reach, it’s a statistical certainty that this has harmed people’s health and resulted in deaths. There’s no room for sentimentality here. (Also, people with sentimental feelings toward Winfrey should consider that Trump’s fans have exactly the same sentimental feelings towards him, for exactly the same reasons.) People like this have no place in any decent society. I mean, come on. Both of them sell magazines named after themselves with pictures of themselves on the cover, every month. Come on. I’m embarrassed to even be talking about this.

Maybe this line of argument strikes you as a particularly unfair variety of false equivalence, because Winfrey is clearly a much better person than Trump. Of course she is. Trump is the worst possible person; you get exactly zero virtue points for being better than him, because literally every human is a better person than Donald Trump (as are most dogs and cats and probably a fair number of moles and squirrels). Like, the fact that Winfrey is against sexual assault rather than being a confessed sexual assailant is, y’know, better, but it’s not impressive. Back in the day, we used to call things like that “meeting basic standards of human decency.” More to the point, though, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a good person or not. It matters what you do; it matters what effect your existence has on the rest of the world. It matters whether you’re doing something useful for people or whether you’re paving the road to hell.

I genuinely cannot believe that it has come to this, but I’m actually going to throw the fucking bible at you:

13 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Our only access to reality is through perception, and perception is always partial. Sometimes what we’re seeing is obscured by the glass we’re looking through, and sometimes what we’re seeing is actually just a smudge on the glass itself rather than something on the other side. Because of this, no piece of evidence is ever a slam dunk. Anything that looks good from one angle might turn out to be hideously ugly from another. What this means is that you need to have an organizing principle with which to make sense of your observations. Without that, each individual observation can only stand briefly on its own before the changing wind sweeps it away into insignificance; “whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” If you don’t have the truth, you don’t have anything.

The tricky part, of course, is to determine what kind of thing we’re really talking about here; that is, what exactly is meant by “charity.” It’s originally a translation of the Greek word agape, which means something along the lines of selfless loyalty. It’s not something that you like or that makes you feel good, but something that you choose to be for, regardless of circumstance. Thus, the fact that someone says something that sounds good or does something that appeals to you can never be taken as independent evidence. It must always be evaluated for its accordance with the truth. As Nietzsche puts it, “the knight of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies, but also to hate his friends.” (You’re reading claws of love dot com, the internet’s #1 source for Nietzschean bible study.)

The part of this that’s wrong is the part where the truth is magic. It is incorrect to say, as people often do, that perception is “flawed” or “misleading,” as this implies that there exists a source of “correct” information that reveals things “as they really are.” In fact, there is no reality outside perception, but rather only reality through perception. This does not license us to engage in knee-jerk subjectivity. It does exactly the opposite. It requires us to go beyond each individual impression and to formulate a broad understanding composed of the data from multiple lines of perception. “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.” It’s not just that “that which is perfect” will never actually come, but that there is no such thing, which means that “that which is in part” constitutes everything that there is. We can never get out of the wicked game; no one is ever a saint or a hero, no indicator is ever universally reliable and no narrative is ever complete. We always have to do the work of figuring out how things fit together, how multiple perceptions accord, and how to create understanding out of disparate parts. You can’t do this using “just the facts,” because the facts themselves can’t tell you how to organize those facts. You need something outside of the facts. Christians call this thing “charity,” Nietzsche calls it “will,” but I just think of it as the truth. And in a society that insists on smooth, clean, one-line narratives, the truth will always cut hard against the grain. It is the responsibility of anyone who claims to be a person to make those cuts. This is the only way to make anything make sense. As Hamlet learned, there’s nothing contradictory about smiling, and smiling, and being a villain.